The City of Salsa

When last you read, the Troll Boys were just leaving Popayan, headed to Cali, the third-largest city in Colombia. The first day out of Popayan was short, as Ryson was struggling to eat and still recovering from illness. Instead of biking far, we stopped early to rest and watch Disney movies, the best remedy. The next day, we biked over 100 km on flat roads into Cali.

Cali is known around the world as the capital of salsa-dancing because of the many opportunities to take salsa lessons, and the variety of clubs in which to test newly acquired skills. We landed in the San Antonio neighborhood of Cali, known for the artisanal food and quaint parks, where we quickly lined up salsa lessons for the evening. Before we headed to lessons, we climbed to a nearby park for a fantastic view over Cali.

Jon and Ryson were in a ballroom-dance club together at Luther College, but for Cody, it was the first night of dance lessons. However, with his impeccable sense of rhythm, he was able to excel, and all three of the boys successfully learned a variety of moves by the end of an hour-long lesson. With bolstered confidence, we decided to go to a salsa club to end the night, where we were blown away by the fluid movements of Cali dancers and were content to stand in a corner, trying to remember the moves we had learned mere hours before.

Although we had originally intended to spend a single rest-day in Cali, we decided that the city was too vibrant and lively to leave, and spent the next few days exploring and climbing trees (with sick climbing moves).

One of our favorite places in Cali was a small restaurant just up the street from our hostel El Patio. The name of the restaurant was Itaca, where the owner was wonderful, the walls were covered in bike decorations, and the smoothies were very tasty.

The deals we got included 2-for-1 personal pizzas and reduced prices on hamburgers, our two favorite rest-day foods. For one lunch, we got several smoothies while trying out the handmade wraps.

Another activity that we got a lot of enjoyment out of was going to the Cali zoo. The zoo was pretty large and well-designed, with interesting features and decorations added to each exhibit. We seemed to get very lucky with all the animals, as they all seemed to stir and move around when we got near. In reality, they were probably curious about the funky smells emanating from us, and didn’t recognize us as human.

The strangest thing may have been the iguanas that seemed to be draped over the top of every enclosure. Everywhere we went, they stared down at us as we walked through their territory, and they seemed to be the kings of the zoo even more so than the lion, from whom we received several roars.

On our last night in Cali there was a festival to promote theater across the city with cheap tickets, so we tried to find a play to go to. Unfortunately, everything was sold out, but we ended up having a great time throwing an impromptu birthday party for our new friend Chris at the hostel along with the hostel owners and our other friend Stefania.

The way out of town was fun, as we took the dedicated bike lane along the river, admiring the peace and quiet of the city.

Bike touring tip #12: Always use the bike lanes in cities if you can find them!

The outskirts of town brought steep uphills, and we were soon back to our favorite activities: biking and climbing and biking. Enjoying the brightly colored homes and the statue of Christ the Redeemer on the hillside, we got many wonderful views of one of our favorite cities, Cali, as we headed out of the valley and to our next adventure on the Pacific coast: Buenaventura.

It Got Hot

The Troll Boys left the delightful generosity of their friends in Pasto, and headed toward the next checkpoint of their journey through Colombia, the white city of Popayan.

Thus far on our trip through Ecuador and Colombia, we have biked exclusively through the mountains. While this has hampered our progress significantly, it has been wonderful strength-training while having the additional benefit of a cool climate without insects. However, our stretch of biking from Pasto to Popayan in the south of Colombia included our initial days of lower altitude, and the curse of heat and bugs! Our earliest day of biking out of Pasto saw us passing by gigantic mountains as we flew downhill.

We even hit our first tunnels of the trip, which are always an interesting experience. Lit tunnels are always fun, but more often it seems that it is completely dark except for the light at the end of the tunnel (not in the metaphorical sense thankfully).

Bike touring tip #9: Take off your sunglasses while traveling through a dark tunnel.

The heat became unbearable in the afternoon, and we decided to stop to refill our empty water bottles as well as a wallow break in a stream under a bridge. We laid around in the cool water to bring our body temperatures back down, and then continued for another hour and a half before making camp. The campsite was so hot that we took off most of our clothes to cool down, and admired our terrible tan-lines.

We rose early to bike on the next day to avoid as much of the heat as we could, but by the afternoon, the inevitable sweltering sun hit us hard. Luckily, we discovered a poolside paradise that offered camping for very cheap, and we lounged around the rest of the day, swimming, and enjoying cold beer.

On our final day to Popayan, we appreciated a cool morning, which quickly turned into rain as we climbed once more to over 5,000 ft on extremely steep gradients.

The city of Popayan is well-known for the colonial architecture around the city center, all of which is painted the exact same shade of white. Upon our arrival, we were surprised by the beautiful downtown area, and sat for a while in the park to enjoy some people-watching.

The next day, our planned rest day, included a bit of sight-seeing and copious amounts of surfing the Internet while lying in bed.

Unfortunately, it was about at this time that our group experienced some of the first tensions of our trip. Bike touring is an activity designed to strain the bonds of friendship. Excessive exercise, a constant craving for food and sleep, and being forced to be around the same two people for over 14 hours every day can lead to exacerbation over the smallest of things. The Troll Boys ended up sitting around and diffusing all tensions through extensive discussion and affirmations of each other. Thus, a new rule was born: We would not leave a town where we were resting until we were having fun with each other all the time again. And so, we stayed another day for further rest and recovery, which included a lot of reading.

Bike touring tip #10: Strenghtening your relationships is more important than anything.

The third day, the Troll Boys were planning on leaving for Cali, but Ryson fell ill, and so one more day of rest was added to schedule. Cody was blowing through book after book, and had to shop for new ones amongst the few English-book sellers that he could find (bonus points for identifying which good-looking man is Cody).

Bike touring tip #11: Be willing to change the schedule for the occasional sickness that will rampage through your touring group.

Luckily, no one else got sick, and after a few last pictures of Popayan, the boys headed north once more for the large city of Cali.

10 Points to Colombia!

Soon after the Troll Boy’s rest from conquering the volcano of Cayambe, the beginning of the trip in Colombia began. Although Colombia was a country of ill repute, it has turned into a jewel for bike touring, with friendly people, wonderful gradients, and fewer aggressive dogs. We crossed the border from Ecuador into the town of Ipiales, and were immediately presented with a fantastic day-trip to one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world.

Las Lajas is a small church built into the side of a hill, with a waterfall behind it, and a small river flowing through the spans of its arched bridge. We enjoyed exploring the chapel and crypts under the church, as well as taking time to walk to the waterfall to view it from afar. We had heard good things about Colombia from many people, and were happy to be treated to one of the highlights of our trip upon entering it.

From Ipiales, we continued to ride north toward the town of Pasto. Along the several-day ride, the birds seemed to sing more sweetly, there were more flowers lining the road, and it truly felt like paradise. In one of the towns we camped in, the police department insisted that we set up our tents in an area where their cameras could view us at the same time that the local town watch checked in every few hours. The panorama of the mountains from the town was glorious as we sat and chatted as the sun fell behind the horizon.

The next day, Sunday, saw us biking the last bit of distance to Pasto amidst hundreds of other bikers. What at first started as a trickle of bikers soon turned into a flood as racer after racer passed us and shouted encouragement during the uphill on their much faster road-bikes (see if you can find Cody and Jon in the picture).

When we reached the finish-line at the top of the mountain, many of the bikers cheered, and we stopped to chat for a little bit before rolling the last stretch into town.

Bike touring tip #8: Bike in Colombia!

In Pasto, we were able to meet up with Don Sergio and Dona Marta, an enormously generous and friendly couple that graciously allowed us to stay in their house for the duration of our time resting in Pasto.

In addition to meeting their family and learning about the Pasto region, we spent time recovering our strength while playing Catan and enjoying the vistas from their balcony.

On one of the days in Pasto, we headed to Lago de Cocha, recommended to us by friends in Iowa City, Antonio, Laura, and Gabriel, who were also extremely helpful in giving us key information about our route through Colombia, and set us up with many contacts along the way.

The lake covers what was once a Colombian town, but the area was flooded in order to make use of hydroelectric power, and now houses a beautiful town that offers boat rides around the lake and to the island in the middle, which is a natural reserve.

Amazed with the immediate beauty of Colombia and the bountiful gifts that we received from both people and country, the Troll Boys turned their sights to the city of Popayan.

Everything in Ecuador is Extremely Steep

When last you heard from us, the Troll Boys were in Baños enjoying the marvelous hot springs. The next stage of the journey aimed to bring us into Quito, the capital and second-largest city in Ecuador. Baños, while still high in the mountains, is a thousand meters lower in altitude than Quito, but for some reason, we decided the several day climb was not enough and that we needed to bike up Cotopaxi, an active volcano, as well. Our first day out of Baños took us along a beautiful hedge-lined road with very little traffic.

This route was every biker’s dream, and we ended up in a lovely, flat camping spot on a soccer field next to a private swimming pool. We had so much energy and excitement from the day that we ended up playing catch with a frisbee for nearly an hour before starting to cook dinner.

Bike touring tip #6: Always remember to have fun when you have the energy to do so!

However, our easier day of biking simply meant that there was more elevation to climb all at once in the coming days. Despite the constant uphill at a slow pace, we still found plenty of things to enjoy on the way to Quito. On the second day, we went through a town where the children ran alongside our bikes in an attempt to race us to the top of the hill since they could sprint nearly as fast as we were going.

We had a less pleasant second half of the day when we hit a very dusty road through a quarry in a valley, where dogs constantly came out onto the road to chase us. Although we had to take a break to calm our tempers and steady our nerves, we were soon able to enjoy the beautiful path ahead of us on our way into Latacunga, a city where we stayed the night in a hostel while Cody taught Jon and I how to strategize while playing Black-Jack.

Our next day brought us to Cotopaxi, one of Ecuador’s tallest peaks, and a currently active volcano. We had done some research about entering the Cotopaxi national park ahead of time, and read that it was impossible to stay overnight in the park itself due to the volcano. However, we found out that there was a free camping spot within the park with bathrooms and cooking facilities, and we biked hard up the road to reach the campsite before dark. We enjoyed occasional glimpses of the Cotopaxi peak through the clouds while Jon cooked up a pizza.

We were finally a short distance from Quito, and we planned to bike all the way from Cotopaxi into the capital. However, we had not foreseen that the road would be so difficult to bike down on our way towards Quito. We learned that it is not gravel or dirt roads that are the hardest to bike on, but cobblestones that win the title of most difficult road. Cobblestones rattle your body and your bike and prevent you from going at even a halfway decent pace. True, the path was beautiful with nice views and endless pastures along the way, yet our bodies were being jolted so badly that it was hard to even think.

After spending several hours on the cobblestones, we reached a nicer pavement road, which we enjoyed even though it quickly became steep enough that we had to walk our bikes up. We hit a much quicker pace through a soft rain for the last few kilometers to Quito, hoping to arrive with plenty of time in the evening to enjoy the city.

We reached the outskirts of Quito, and it was at that moment that we realized we had a large problem. Nightfall was fast approaching, and biking to downtown Quito included large amounts of climbing uphill through stressful traffic.

Biking touring tip #7: Do everything within your power to avoid biking at night.

We ended up biking nearly two hours longer than we had anticipated, each of us with flashing bike lights pointed ahead and behind to warn cars that we were in the street. We stopped at the first hostel that we could find, which had neither hot water nor wifi, and smelled slightly of bathroom.

The next morning, we explored Quito, which was one of the first two declared UNESCO World Heritage sites for the beautiful, well-preserved colonial center. There was also some sort of bike race going on throughout the downtown section.

We were most excited to visit the Basilica del Voto Nacional (Basilica of the National Vow), which commanded a fantastic view over the whole city from its lofty hill. We were dismayed to find out that although we were now feeling strong on the bikes, walking up steep hills was quite a struggle.

The Basilica was beautiful, and we spent a lot of time climbing up and down the stairs of the towers and enjoying vistas of the city.

We relocated to a new hostel, Hump Day Hostel, where we socialized with other travelers for the remainder of our time in Quito. Instead of heading out of town by bike, the Troll Boys decided to tackle a gigantic challenge, climbing Cayambe, another large peak and active volcano in Ecuador.