0064: 52 Shades of Grey

0064: 52 Shades of Grey

Leaving the Salinas peninsula, the weather was cloudy as has become the norm in Ecuador. During my time here there haven't been too many bright sunny days.
Mostly grey, patchy sun and occasional light rain in the tropical west.
I returned along the same road initially before heading east towards Guayaquil.
I make a habit of always having a good breakfast but try to leave the town or city I'm in first.
Today was no exception, as I pulled into what appeared to be the last restaurant before the long open road.

The menu was a little vague but I eventually ordered a Prawn omelette, two toasted sandwiches and some fresh orange juice.
The food arrived, looked good and tasted great.
I ate quickly as there was a cool breeze blowing giving me a strong tailwind.
I handed over my money at the counter and in typical Ecuadorean fashion the lady did not have any change, so began looking through her bags.
As she did so I noticed how dirty the kitchen was.
Flies on an open bin, burned food and oil splashes on a rusty cooker. Pieces of chopped chicken on a plywood chopping board immediately next to a small omelette sized frying pan which was being used to cook the next meal. And adjacent to the drying rack with clean dishes.
As she handed me my change, I noticed chicken blood and pieces stuck to her hands. She had not washed or wiped them.

I could never expect UK or European standards of food hygiene and I am certainly no expert, but I know enough that I felt uncomfortable with what I was seeing.
Despite having suffered with Colitis for over 20 years, I generally have a strong stomach and these days rarely get bugs or ill from something 'extra' in the food or water. Moreso on this journey.
But I am usually very careful about what and where I eat too.
Quality food has been and will continue to be one of my biggest expenses on this journey.
It doesn't need to be the most expensive, but I prefer fresh over frozen, processed or precooked.
Of course, I like the occasional junk meal too, but generally I like to eat and to try local specialities, flavours and recipes.
I guess I am fortunate that I have not had issues in the past given I have had to eat several times a day for the past 16 months.

My journey continued, aided by the strong tailwind and I soon forgot about the breakfast.
A lunch break at a roadside restaurant and I was served very hot food in a very well presented but still typically Ecuadorean roadside restaurant.
I could not see the kitchen this time, but the Chef was dressed in whites and wearing a hat, looking somewhat professional and the steady stream of customers indicated a popular location. So no huge concerns here.

About an hour after the meal, I had a painful urge to use the toilet.
A little open air wilderness relief and I continued. But stopped again just a few kilometres down the road.
I now had painful stomach cramps and stopped in 2-3 further places to use the toilet.

By this point I had done about 70 kilometres since the morning and was hoping to find a place to stay. The city was a further 80 or so kilometres and I did not want to arrive in Guayaquil in the dark.
But this road is quite isolated and as I got closer to the city, initially there were less houses, and no good locations to wild camp. And as it became built up, less places with bathrooms, or discreetly hide off the road.
I felt light headed, and dizzy and could not even find a place to replaced my now almost empty water bottles. I passed a volunteer fire station hoping they might help but it was locked down and the village half asleep.
Though I did manage to buy a single small bottle of water.
I carry water filters so even a tap or flowing stream would have been good but nothing appeared.

I even spotted some Ostriches in a field on the roadside.

I kept going and despite a sore stomach and now 120 kms along the road I reached the outskirts of the city.
I had arranged a host but I had already decided I needed to get into the first hostel I saw and sort myself out.
It was getting dark as I arrived in the city. Something I really dislike.

The lights of the hotel flashed like a beacon on the roadside.
But short lived, as I saw its brightly painted colours, discreetly blackened glass and heart logos.
A Love hotel.
I didn't care, I just need a bed, shower and toilet!
The owner told me it was too early to get a room and as would have to leave at 4 am so suggested coming back at 8pm. But also pointed me to another hotel.
Another love hotel.
And a third, and fourth!
The fifth was a real hotel but derelict.
How lucky am I?!
Dark now, I hate wandering anywhere with all my gear and nowhere to go in an unfamiliar place. My host was on the opposite side of this massive city and I was lacking in energy and enthusiasm to travel to his home.
I needed somewhere now!
Google maps highlighted all the hotels in one area and I guessed this was the tourist centre.
I headed there and saw a hotel! A proper hotel! Finally!
Then I realised it was on the opposite side of a main road and bus lane with a huge dividing concrete barrier in the middle and only a foot bridge to cross.
And no ramp for bicycles, wheelchairs or prams!
Someone is trying to punish me I think?!

I walked further looking for a way to cross but in the meantime actually came across another hotel.
I paid too much for a room but need must!
145 kilometres later, I was fully relieved of my discomfort. But felt weak and extremely tired.

The final nail was finding the suicide showers as they are affectionately known, that are so common here was broken and icy cold water was my only option.
No way.

I climbed into bed sweaty, filthy and exhausted.
I drank filtered water, but ate nothing and then sent a message to my host explaining. I got a reply later but as I slept almost instantly I didn't pick it up till the morning.
Tough day.....

Arriving in Guayaquil was a relief in more ways than one.
Although I had a host, I made a beeline for the first hotel I saw and sent a message to my host explaining what happened.

The following morning I walked to a nearby park to wait for Cristian.
He was attending a job interview and was not sure what time he would be finished.
No matter, just sitting in the park watching the people Guayaquil go by, feeling a little ill and weak, no appetite, and not much enthusiasm was a good way to be introduced to the city.
This particular park was famous for its resident Iguanas. And there were plenty of large specimens looking much like I felt as they languished in the sun.

Cristian arrived and guided me to his home.
I met his family and the new family of Persian kittens.

I was exhausted as I organised myself in the spare room. I had not eaten or drunk much for over 24 hours but decided to go to get some food and explore the city Centre.
Cristian had some more jobs to apply for, so gave me directions to the city centre and I jumped on the bus.
The food I ate stayed down, just.
But confirmed I was still ill and so I bought a course of antibiotics on the way home.
The following morning I felt a little better and Cristian took me on a short guided tour of the city Centre.
We visited a couple of galleries and he gave me a very professional tour of some of the highlights of his home town.
He has a very entrepreneurial spirit and had actually previously worked as a guide in the city.

The Sun had decided to come out for the first time in days and seemed to have a lot of catching up to do.
High mid day temperatures, poor stomach despite excellent food and too much cycling meant we cut the afternoon short.

I took my next dose of antibiotics and slept for a couple of hours.

The evening came quickly and I managed to hold down some Chinese food I was invited to share.
I soon slept again, but was kept awake by a drunken woman singing her Karaoke favourites in the bar down the street.

Cristian had organised a bike tour of some of the other sites in the city.
He also had some issues to sort out in his small fruit juicing business in the university district.
We cycled there first and waited for the manager to explain the issues before he promptly sacked a female employee.
I don't know the exact reason for the dismissal but think it involved preferential treatment for some customers.
She didn't seem too upset.

We continued cycling along the river and to a Beer museum and also a museum dedicated to the two national football teams. BSC Barcelona and EMELEC (I think?!)
Both of which were lost on me not being a fan of either beer or football. But still interesting nevertheless.
The football museums had touchscreen displays, categorised memorabilia, little information tags on barcodes linked to Wifi information and video clips that activated automatically as you passed.
Clearly a lot of money had been spent modernising the museums.
All very clever, but I could not help wonder why they could not invest in the science or history museums that were probably more practical and relevant to most people.

We continued our ride to a new park on the northern side of the city.
Mostly complete, this was a huge space already being enthusiastically used by the residents of the city. The heat of the sun was affecting me as was my returning appetite.
Cristian pushed on through the streets of Guayaquil.
We stopped for a fresh juice break and I mentioned I would like to stop to eat somewhere.

We continued along a major road then crossed the river bridge to Durán, the neighbouring town.
The road here was incredibly busy and dangerous and as we crossed the 1.5 km bridge with traffic continually buzzing us, I could not help wonder why we were not using the clearly marked cycle path on the opposite side?
Heat and dehydration were now getting to me and we stopped for a Coca Cola break.
I casually looked at my cycle computer.
Suddenly shocked, I told Cristian we had ridden 55 km’s by this point!
He had not realised it was that far and I estimated the total to be over 80 km’s by the time we got home.
I was tired and hungry.

Don't get me wrong, I did appreciate the tour.
It was very interesting to see the city, but 10-20 kms would have been a perfect maximum, even if it meant missing out some of the more beautiful or historic locations.
He did save the best till last however.
We took a ride on a pedestrian/cycle path across to the Isla Santay.
A wildlife preserve with a walking/cycling causeway over 6 km’s long built 1-2 metres above the muddy mangrove floor.
While I didn't see much wildlife this time, I saw plenty of evidence that the area was rich in birds, insects and mammals of some sort from the many different types of footprints in the soft mud.

Better than that though was the fact this was the perfect exit to the city.
I thought I might have to cross the suicide bridge again, but this was a far more peaceful and relaxing way to begin my travels again.

(I also though this would be a perfect way to bridge the Darian Gap between Panama and Colombia, when the various governments finally get round to sorting out the issues.)

Leaving the following morning, I missed the turn and had to double back to find the island bridge.
The over officious security guards almost didn't let me over, wondering why I was carrying so much gear on my bike and where I was going. Still they took my passport number and I heard other guards along the way calling in as I passed by.

What did they think I was going to do?
Camp in a swamp?
Or do some damage?

Perhaps they were protecting me from something?
I have no idea.

The next 50 road kilometres were fast with a supporting tailwind.
I was headed to Cusco and needed to climb from sea level over the mountains again.
I climbed to about 1500 metres into the cloud forest and ran out of water. A perfect waterfall appeared shortly after and I filtered the cool sweet water into my bottles.

I had not seen a village for about 20 kilometres and there was nothing appearing on my maps. I had some thought I might have to camp in the jungle.
In 2 hours it would be dark.
As I was debating what to do a van pulled up.
Angel was a cocoa and coffee farmer.
“ I saw you on the way down” he told me.
We loaded my bike on to his truck, half full of Bananas and Plantains and drove up the mountain.
“I used to live in New York” he said.
Explaining that he had studied and worked abroad for around 10 years, but had never learned to speak English.
We chatted about my travelling, the world in general, English and Spanish grammar and making chocolate as the sunset over the clouds looked impressive and I regretted leaving my camera with my bags in the rear.
The cocoa he produced was all for export. As was the coffee.
I commented I had not seen much on sale in Ecuador.
But the local chocolate brand, Pacari was excellent.

Angel dropped me off at a transport police compound near Molleturo and a young officer, full of cold and looking miserable, first allowed me to pitch my tent outside in the car park.
“The goats out there won’t bother you” he told me as I had visions of the loose animals chewing on my tent and gear in the night.
He quickly retreated inside as I looked for a location that was not rocky, or covered in either Goat poop or rusty car parts, half concealed in the grass.
I sat on a ledge watching the last of the fiery red sun descend below the horizon and the light fade from red to purple to black.

“Do you have a tent, by the way” the officer poked his head out of the door again.
“Yes, I was going to pitch on this ledge to catch the morning light.
He objected saying it was someone else's land and it was not permitted.
“You have to camp in the car park”. Too far back from the ledge to get the best views.

His cold was putting him in a bad mood and I began to move my gear back from the edge.
“It will be cold outside tonight” He commented, walking back in.
I didn't mind and the clear sky was already illuminated by countless million bright stars.

I began to unpack my gear and the officer came out again. He had changed his mind and allowed me to use a spare bunk in the main building.
I actually wanted to sleep outside, but I was so tired by this point I just didn't care.
The stars will be there tomorrow.

I dragged my bike inside. Walked to the local restaurant where the shy young waitress giggled every time she served me, then returned to the bunkhouse and slept more or less immediately.

After a few days on the tropical coast, the mountain morning felt icy cold.
I started climbing again after a “Continental breakfast”
2 soft boiled eggs and a small glass of fruit juice and…….. well that was it actually.
I waited at the restaurant table expecting more for my $6.00 but the shy, still giggling waitress came and asked me if I wanted the bill?
I bought some overpriced snacks and drinks to fill the gap and began pedalling up the hill.

It was a long day. My GPS has started to play up and told me the peak of the mountain was 4064 metres.
A new record. But by the time I hit that marker, it was clear I was no where near the top.
I kept pushing on and up for a few more kilometres and was now feeling very weak having only eaten eggs, biscuits and several sugary drink on this isolated mountain road.
Still feeling less than 100% from the stomach bug I picked up, I was relieved to see a restaurant appear at what seemed to be the peak of the mountain.

Exhausted, I rolled into the car park and was immediately greeted by a departing family who insisted on photos and reeled off the standard questions?
Where from?!
How far?!
With my heart thumping in my ears. I tried to look smiley and happy as they took far too many photos before wishing me well and jumping into their car and speeding off up the hill. I listened to the engine note and determined I was nowhere near the top.

The restaurant owner fed me the best fried trout I have had.
No batter, no flavours. Just fresh fish, a little salt and VERY hot oil.
With Motes, giant corns which had been lightly flavoured with spices and a lot of rice, it was a filling meal.

Some American tourists who had been hiking and now taking a coffee break, advised me to avoid the dirt road into the city below. As they were repaving the roads and it was traffic chaos. “ You’ll see the junction. You can’t miss it”

“4 more kilometres to the top then it is downhill all the way to Cuenca.”
Said the restaurant owner.
He was almost right too! It was 3 kms to the top followed by a 2 km downhill then a further 2 km uphill before being a long 35 km downhill all the way to Cuenca.

My new record now 4264 metres.

It was getting dark now but I had to stop twice to allow my brakes to cool.
As I approached the city my mobile phone picked up 2 days worth of messages including the directions to my hosts house.
Pedro’s home was conveniently on my side of the city.
I plotted the route on my GPS and set it to guide me.
Straight onto the dirt road I was specifically told to avoid. They were repaving it and it was a mess of loose dirt, rocks and potholes.
It was actually not that bad to ride on.
The locals had more or less ignored the road closed signs and though a little bumpy in places, was fairly smooth and flat from the car tyres.
I arrived a Pedros house and was introduced to his family and fellow couchsurfer.
Pierre from France, who was quite amazed that I not only knew where his home, Strasbourg was, but that I had lived across the Rhein river on the German side as a child.
We had a brief chat and I soon had to make my excuses and sleep. I was exhausted.

I spent a few nights in total with Pedro and his family and exploring the city of Cusco.
Including being involved in a bus crash!

The driver rather cleverly tried to UNDER take a parked bus - at a stop, in stationary traffic! And guess what the police did?!


Max and Devora were due to arrive and Tom, who I met in Baños and travelled with back on the coast was also arriving.
We were planning on riding together through Peru for the first section at least, as there had been reports of cyclists being mugged and robbed on certain coastal roads and on a fairly regular basis.
So the theory of safety in numbers seems like a good idea?
Our original plan was to enter the country at Macará.
The central of the 3 official border crossings.
Huaquillas was the western coast border and this had the highest number of reported incidents as well as allegedly corrupt police and fire officers.

The third crossing, Las Balsas is a part time mountain crossing and there seemed to be little information about cyclists crossing.

While I will always take security seriously, I do also like to find verifiable information on the reports through the long distance cycling forums or first hand information.
And while I did do fairly extensive research, I could not find original, relevant and up to date reports of cyclist attacks. But another “new” report was floating round the internet as I looked for information.
The problem with the internet is that one same report can easily be blown up and spread around so what may be a “ fresh” story could actually be several weeks, months or even years old and keeps getting resurrected.
Without a link to backtrack the information to its source, I cannot accept its validity.
Having said that, the reports all appear to focus on the road between Chiclayo and Trujillo on the coast so there is something definitely happening there and it is probably best avoided if possible.

Max and Dev arrived by bus with bike problems. And looking completely exhausted.
Devora is really suffering with her Lupus but stubbornly wants to continue riding.
In my non professional opinion, she really needs to rest for a week or two in good quality surroundings as well as get proper medical treatment, but Max’s extremely tight budget and his stubbornness forces them to camp as often as possible and I cannot imagine this is good for her health.
They were lucky this time though, and managed to spend a few nights in the home of some Fire officers who had quite a nice home with a huge spare room apparently.
Tom had also been unlucky. While in Montañitas he picked up a similar stomach bug and was laid out for a few days.

I had recovered from my bout and offered to cook for Pedro and his family.
I made a traditional Shepherds pie and it was so much enjoyed I was asked to cook a Lasagne the following evening to celebrate Pedro’s sisters and cousins joint Birthdays.

Big brownie points all round.

'The team' eventually managed to meet up though and spent an extra day in the city as we were invited to play bubble football!

Departing, Tom and I headed south and arrived after a long 116 km day in Oña.

We asked at the fire station who, as usual, allowed us to sleep at the back of their storage room.

Max and Dev were waiting on some test results and doing a few extra chores.
We wanted to cross the border together, so I encouraged them to take the bus ahead to Loja as I knew it would take them too long to arrive otherwise.
The following day we met Bruno. An Ecuadorean born cyclist, rediscovering his own country having lived most of his life in Brazil.

We met on the roadside after a 15 km downhill and it was a good opportunity to let my brakes cool again.
Setting off again, my left brake failed. The Master cylinder seized.
Hardly surprising as it had seen far more excessive heat than it was probably designed for.
Since I fitted them in Toronto I have probably done maybe 1500kms of extreme downhills as well as normal braking.

I tried to fix it in the next town, Saraguro, but without tools I had no hope.
The locals pointed me in 5 different directions to the bike shop but after walking down the same street 3 times I gave up and was forced to hitch a lift ahead to Loja.
One night in a hotel and we all convened in the Loja Bomberos station.
I walked into the city centre and found a bike shop. After attempting a repair unsuccessfully I was forced to buy a new brake lever. And returned to the fire station to refit the new parts.

David, a cyclist from California also riding to Tierra del Fuego suddenly appeared and joined us the next day.
He confirmed that the La Balsa border crossing would take cyclists and so we headed south. This one is said to be the hardest to access, and known to be safer.
So now we were five!

The climate changed dramatically from the cool dry high mountain airs to thick cloud forest and heavy almost icy rain and thick fog.
The road too varied from smooth solid concrete to literally liquid mud.

Combined with the heavy rains I did wonder if we would witness any land slides?
It was difficult to avoid the ones that had happened before.
The Andes are a living, active mountain range.

Our final day was supposed to be a short flat descent to La Balsa, from Zumba. According to my GPS map, it was a downhill all the way to the river crossing.

But once again the elevation charts were completely inaccurate and it turned into another hot, muddy slog through the jungle over several high passes to the frontier with Peru.

Country number 13.
I hope it is lucky!

It was a quiet exit to Ecuador, but in the 52 days I was in the country, I managed to experience a little of all the landscapes and cultures this compact but diverse country has to offer.

It has been another success on my road of little miracles.