December 13, 2004

Colombia: Juan Valdez is still king in Colombia

While the mosquitoes delighted themselves on our sweaty salted ankles, we savoured a tray of rice, refried beans, chorizo, chicharron de chancho (fried pig skin), fried plantains, arepas (bland white corn cakes), ground beef, a fried egg and a slice of avocado(to round out the proteins), otherwise known as "Bandejas Paisa" with Alvaro Pael, an entrepreneur from the capital of Bogota.

We had stopped for a breather after inaugurating Armel Castellan, Gwendal's brother, to our bicycle adventure with a 10km, 500m climb overlooking the active Galera Volcano out of San Juan de Pasto when we met Alvaro. He invited us to have lunch with him 10km (downhill) along the road.
Alvaro was making his way from Pasto, where he was tending to the final construction of his newest cafe, "Volcafe" that serves coffee brewed with "Oma" coffee beans and was just taking a drive through the Nariño province and enjoying the intense green peaks and valleys that take over the landscape of this region. Our equally intense lunch, had us beached for the afternoon discussing coffee and politics with Alvaro for the afternoon.

On politics, Alvaro mimicked the sentiment that many other Southern Colombians have expressed, that the country progressing under the current President, Alvaro Uribe's, leadership. Since his presidency, the roads throughout the country are now supposedly safe to travel. There is a strong and very noticeable military presence where we travelled. The guerrilla groups that have troubled this country for over 40 years are at the negotiation table with the government hashing out peace treaties. Currently many AUC para-military groups have disarmed in exchange for amnesties (Some drug dealers are currently trying to re-invent themselves as para-military commanders to take advantage of this situation. But they are fooling no one). For the first time in Colombia's history, the constitution regarding the re-electon of a president for a second term, (another 4 years), has changed, this is clearly to give Uribe the opportunity to continue what he has been doing, which according to the southerners we have talked to, is making progress and advances in the security of the country.

On coffee, Alvaro explains that coffee is a national sweetheart. "Tinto" they call it here, black with sugar. Alvaro does however reveal to us that Juan Valdez coffee beans are, without a doubt, the best coffee beans in Colombia. We are told not to miss visiting Armenia, in the heart coffee growing region of the country.

To be honest, we only had vague ideas of what to expect of Colombia. We had heard that Colombia was in a state of civil turmoil and very dangerous to travel through (Canadians have frequently been kidnapped in the past) and on the other hand we had also heard that Colombia and it's people were one of the most beautiful and friendly countries in the world to visit. We were not surprisingly very anxious, aprehensive and curious in the same breath to cycle through this mysterious nation.

After 3 hours of digesting we broke lunch and headed to Alvaro's sister-in-law's home to see if she wouldn't mind a few canadian cyclists camped out in her yard. As we were ready to go, a swiss cycletourist stopped at the restaurant. Reto, who had cycled from Cartegena joined us for our evening adventure. It turns out that Alvaro's sister-in-law was not home so, after about 6 rounds of beer, at the insistence of Alvaro, the four of us spent the night at one of the many small weekend resort/motel listening to an Christian Rock Retreat until well past midnight.

We swapped the ever important cycletouring information with Reto and were told that he had not encountered any problems on the road from Cartegena and that we had a few very steep hills ahead of us. The women of Cali are indeed very beautiful and the food was pretty much more of the same.

For the next four days we climbed up and down 4 very steep hills snapping over 500 pictures on our digital camera (a record) and finally made our way to Popayan, "The White City". We spent a few days resting up at the Capital Hotel, a historical complex that is said to have housed black slaves during the era that Simon de Bolivar liberated the country. Senora Maria del Carmen adopted a few Canadian nephews and showed us around town lighting fireworks at the central plaza. She told us that Christmas here is a celebration throughout all of December. All school children, who are not is high-end-private-schools, have the whole month off to spend with their families. Somehow, in a place where there is no snow, fake snow covered garlands and knick-knacks are inescapable.

With two days of rest we were back on the road when just 1km out of Popayan our back hub gave out and were forced to take a heartbreaking bus (almost all downhill) to Cali (a bigger city) to try and fix our ailing wheel. So, now we're in Cali crossing our fingers waiting for a machinist to work his magic and hoping we can leave for Armenia on our bikes and not the bus.

All we want for Christmas is to be back on our bike and maybe some Juan Valdez.

Posted by tania at 12:54 PM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2004

Ecuador: Ciclopaseo

Just a quick note: I did not have much time to write about Equador because of all the visitors. But as a result I have now changed things a little and given, those that make the effort to join the expedition, a voice on the website. (I should have done this with Damien and Ryan in Argentina)
Anyway all I wanted to add about Equador is that on the last sunday of every month Quito shuts down its entire core to automobiles and turns all the streets pedestrian. Major axies are still open for transit so that people can get to the centre and walk. What really caught my eye though was that a cyclist route is designed and patrolled by police through the city. It seemed like everyone comes out to ride and enjoy the peaceful streets. We saw everything from large families to very flashy racing cyclists quietly cycling through this designed "ciclopaseo".

Posted by gwendal at 11:43 AM | Comments (0)

December 05, 2004

Ecuador: 10 days of Cycle and Ceviche

On November 19th I was lucky enough to have a chance to escape a hockeyless, rainy, pre-ski-season Vancouver to join Gwendal and Tania on their traverse of the north and south hemispheres.

First flight: Vancouver – Houston. Picked up my brother Greg works in Houston but had the week off due to Yanksgiving (American Thanksgiving). Houston – Quito: how amazing to be able to step off the plan and experience an entirely new landscape and culture after 5 short hours in flight.

After a short sleep at Casona de Mario in Quito Greg and I headed back to the airport to catch a flight to Guayaquil where we were scheduled to meet Gwendal and Tania. After telling a surprised local man at the airport that we had paid USD100 to take our bikes on the plane he told us “For $100 you could pay an Ecuadorian to pull you like a horse!”

Upon our arrival Gwendal and Tania promptly threw us on a bus headed to a small hotel in Ballanita. Finally, we caught on the beach up over a couple of cervezas and got our bikes in order for the next day’s ride. Having not had a chance to connect through any means other than cyberspace it was great to finally chat with the two of them and see how the trip was really going.

There was some expectation that nearly 8000km of life the road would have manifested itself into some kind of change in their character but what I found when I got there was basically the same Gwendal and Tania, only with better Spanish and tougher legs. They seemed quite content with their traveling roadshow. I was particularly impressed that Tania had the patience to ride in the back seat all the time: giving the steering and braking power to Gwendal – especially since the result was that they were erratically swerving on what looked to me like straight roads……

We biked north along the coast over the next 5 days staying in Montanita, Machalilla, San Lorenzo and finally ending in Manta. The coast, or Costa Del Sol (Sunshine Coast) as it’s known in brochures, was spectacular. The highway wound along the shore alternating between extremely arid and dense jungle regions. It seemed that a change of only a hundred meters in elevation was sufficient to significantly alter the landscape around us. Small towns and villages dotted the coastline, providing plenty of places to stay and eat.

The food was definitely one of highlights of the trip. Everywhere we went there was fresh seafood – and the cost for a North American is next to nothing. One dish in particular routinely kept our stomachs happy: Ceviche. Ceviche is basically any seafood, ranging from fish to oysters, served in lemon juice with tomatoes, chillies and onions. So simple, yet so tasty. Here is a basic recipe that can be made in about 10 minutes and will give you a taste of the Peruvian and Ecuadorian coasts:

1 lb. shrimp, peeled and cleaned
1 large tomato, roasted peeled and seeded
2 jalapeno peppers, roasted peeled and seeded
2 red peppers, roasted peeled and seeded
1/2 medium onion, roasted
3/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 tomato juice (optional)
1 small tbs. sugar salt
Place cleaned shrimp into a pot of boiling water for approx. 2 minutes (no longer) then remove to an ice bath. Place all other ingredients in the blender and liquefy. Pour the shrimp over mix and chill.

Upon reaching Manta, we took a long and arduous 10.5 bus ride to the gorgeous Ecuadorian capital Quito where we stayed at the Casona de Mario once again. Quito sits at approximately 2800m in elevation in a valley surrounded by stunning mountain peaks. Armel was the fist among us to discover that altitude sickness is not uncommon for visitors.

Quito is an extremely cosmopolitan city with every type of restaurant available, all at incredibly low prices (albeit higher than on the coast). The historical centre of Quito is made up of elegant Spanish Colonial buildings and plazas, giving the city a very European flair. We were also extremely pleased to find out that on the last Sunday of every month the downtown core is closed off to all vehicles except busses and bicycles. If only Vancouver had such a policy!

We spent the better part of two days touring around Quito taking in many of its sights including the monument to the equator (El Centro del Mundo) and a bull fight at the Plaza del Toros. Greg took off back to Houston early Sunday morning and the rest of us spent the day biking around Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest volcanoes at 5,897 m (19,347 ft). Come Monday it was unfortunately my turn to head back to my reality in Vancouver.

After our experiences as armchair participants in the Expedition via the Antipodes web site, it was great to actually share some of the adventures with our magnificent cycling hosts: Gwendal and Tania. Thanks for letting us tag along and we hope to see you guys somewhere in Central and North America for a few more kilometers!

Greg and Adrian McCardle

Posted by adrian at 09:16 PM | Comments (0)