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.

What I Would Do For A Hot Bath

Cuenca is the third-largest city in Ecuador, and it’s historic downtown area is listed as a UNESCO world heritage trust site, due to the many beautiful colonial-style buildings.

The Troll Boys enjoyed the beauties of the city, especially the New Cathedral, an opulent church filled with expensive marbles imported directly from Italy. However, we soon succumbed to the exhaustion that comes from climbing several thousand feet of elevation every day, and we retired to our room to eat two large pizzas and watch The Fellowship of the Ring.

Bike touring tip #4: Rest days are a necessity. When you push your body to the limit for several days in a row, it is essential that recovery time is scheduled where you can recuperate from the vigors of the road.

Once we had taken sufficient rest in Cuenca, we hit the road again, excited to get back on the bikes and head directly towards our next watering hole, the hot-spring baths of Baños, Ecuador. We calculated that it would take a full six days of riding to accomplish our goal, so we added an extra day of rest in the middle to remain true to tip #4.

On a trip as long and as intense as this in a foreign land, it is important to share the burden of leadership equally. Jon helpfully suggested that we could take turns shouldering the responsibility of tasks such as navigating, cooking, and communicating with locals using a method from his work with NOLS called “leader of the day.” Each day, it would be the turn of one of the members of the team to step forward and take charge, allowing the other two to assume a follower role for the duration of the shift. This method is designed to streamline all decision-making processes, as the general day-to-day affairs are easily handled by the one person who has planned ahead for their specific day (such as this picture of Cody navigating through mountain dirt roads).

Over our next three days to our rest-stop in the city of San Pedro de Alausi, each of us struggled in different ways with the weight of leadership, working out seemingly simple things like how much food to buy, when to find a campsite, and how long to bike before taking short snack breaks. Luckily, each mistake informed our future choices, and we even ended up benefitting on occasion from our errors, like the night that a friendly stranger offered us a beautiful campsite long after we had accepted the fact that we would be sleeping in a cold and windy abandoned building.

Finally after several days of biking through gorgeous mountains, we rolled into the town of San Pedro de Alausi on the morning of September 21st, the main station for the Nariz del Diablo (Nose of the Devil), a train that traverses one of the most dangerous railways in the world due to intense and sudden changes in elevation made necessary by the sheer walls of the mountain through which it passes. Unfortunately, Jon was feeling a bit ill, and so we decided another day of Lord of the Rings and lying in bed with chocolate milk was in order.

After a day of regenerating stamina for the mountain roads ahead, we continued on through beautiful ridges and small towns where we stopped for lunch breaks and chatted with curious schoolchildren.

And then came the infamous “Splat and Splurge Saturday,” so named by yours truly for an adventure that unfortunately tested the generosity of the Ecuadorian healthcare system. First, a little backstory. In Ecuador, many of the natives own dogs, and far too many of these rascals are unused to bikers, and so chase you across the property. This makes a rider a bit nervous in the best of circumstances, as a dog tangled between the wheels could make for a quick disaster, but when a larger, more aggressive dog comes out and snarls while nipping at your ankles, it is time to take steps to defend yourself. The first line of defense is typically a threatening yell, but sometimes throwing rocks to scare off the dogs is a necessity. On “Splat and Splurge Saturday,” the Troll Boys were practicing their defensive bombardment on cow-crossing signs we were passing, and in an ironic twist of fate (literally), I ended up wrenching the handlebars just enough as I threw, to land on my chin with my bike flipping over me. In case you were wondering, Cody had perfect aim and hit the sign dead-on.

The casualty count: One broken molar, one profusely bleeding chin, and one very bruised jaw.

Luckily, Jon was able to patch me up as Cody flagged down a passing vehicle to take us to a hospital in the nearby city of Riobamba. The Ecuadorian healthcare was amazing, getting me in and out of the hospital and a dentist for FREE in about three hours total, while Jon and Cody secured a meal to eat and a place to stay. Hence the Splurge part of the day, where in their infinite wisdom, they decided that spending more money on a comfortable room was in our best interest as a group. The Troll Boys streamed an exciting game of Hawkeye football against Penn State and ate pizza, and the next morning, were ready to roll the last few miles to Baños.

The next day was grueling as we traversed canyon gorges over rickety bridges and biked up sandy roads where the wind blew debris into our eyes.

And that, dear readers, is what I would do to reach a hot bath in Baños with my wonderful friends Cody and Jon.

Over the next few days, we enjoyed the famous Swing at the End of the World and went from wallowing hole to wallowing hole across the town, keeping our chins up in the face of adversity (in my case literally because those hot-springs probably had bacteria) and gathering our strength for the next bit of adventure.

Before I sign off, I want to leave you with one more piece of advice:

Bike touring tip #5: Don’t get hurt. But if you must, do so in a country with free health-care!

To Conquer the Earth Itself

It seems you are often told in life that the most important part of accomplishing your goals is the journey it takes to get there. I can now definitively assure you that it is indeed character-building to bike from sea-level to nearly 14,000 ft in three days. Yes, you read that correctly! Three straight days of grueling, uphill movement at a snail’s pace to reach Cajas National Park near Cuenca, Ecuador.

For now, though, let us start at the beginning. The Troll Boys rode out of Guayaquil early on the morning of September 11th, skirting the busy highways out of the city by passing through the nature reserve on nearby Isla Santay, accessible on both sides via large bridges suitable for pedestrians or bikers.

Passing through many towns in the flat-lands on their journey to the mountains, the Troll Boys made sure to stock up well on food and water, and found their first opportunities to wallow a little before beginning their arduous climb the next day.

Perhaps there are those among you who are familiar with the agony of trudging up a steep mountain in exhausting 25-minute increments while carrying nearly 85 lbs of weight, all the while knowing that tomorrow will be exactly the same. Jon tried to warn Cody and I, as he had experience biking in the mountains on his previous trip from Mexico to Argentina with our good friends Kai Ashland and Ben Harney. But nothing really prepares you like experience itself.

Bike touring tip #2: Never be ashamed to walk your bike if necessary.

It was simply impossible for our leg muscles to pedal endlessly up the mountain, and it soon became clear that any forward movement was important. For the most part, we split our exercise into segments of 25 minutes that we called God’s own ratio for it’s ability to test the limits of our mental and physical endurance. These segments consisted of 13 minutes of biking, then 5 minutes of walking, followed by a final 7 minutes of biking before a well-earned break.

Our first night of camping brought us to a small village centered around a newly-built school, where the locals generously shared their freshly ground coffee and beautiful views over our early climb and the lights of Guayaquil far in the distance.

Our second day of climbing at nearly 4 miles an hour brought us to a beautiful panaroma at lunchtime, where we got an important energy boost with Gatorades and seco de pollo (chicken and rice). In the evening, we chatted to a curious farmer who allowed us to camp on his land, not far away from his equally inquisitive cows.

On the third and final day of the upward slog, we finally reached Cajas National Park, a frigid park with breathtaking lakes, free of the ubiquitous trash found lower on the mountain. This was a night of celebration as we ate delicious trout and played hide-and-seek with two delightful four-year-old girls at the cabin next to our campsite. Our spirits were high at 4002 meters of altitude, a little over 13,000 feet.

In the morning, we accomplished the few hundred feet in half an hour, and we went whizzing downhill to Cuenca in an hour and a half. We surely felt like we earned that downhill, but it was strange that each day of climbing up a mountain only translated to 30 minutes of flying back down.

Bike touring tip #3: Test your brakes before heading downhill. Also, expect to be cold while traveling quickly down a mountain.

The Troll Boys rolled safely into Cuenca and celebrated their heroic feats with a hot shower and a cold beer, looking forward to the rest days in warm and comfortable beds to come!

 

Before signing off, I want to leave you a poem I wrote about our experience thus far.

 

To Conquer the Earth Itself

By Ryson Stuart

Where the cool mountain wind gently rustles the wild grasses and soothes my struggling spirit,

I sit for an eternal moment and behold the wise and craggy visages of the rocky giants who gaze back unflinchingly,

Unmoved by either my plea for mercy or the stirrings of civilization that adorn their slopes like a pearly necklace.

Above, I see a distant bird floating high on thermal winds, and I set my determination to conquer myself and the earth itself,

That my spirit, too, may soar.

Guayaquil

Hola, familia y amigos! Welcome to the beginning of a three-month bike adventure through Ecuador and Colombia with Cody, Jon, and Ryson, often called the Troll Boys (both for the inevitable pungent odor we will produce, and for the bikes we are riding, Surly Trolls).

 

Our journey starts in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the largest city in Ecuador with a population of 3.5 million, and the primary trading port along the Pacific Ocean. After arriving at the airport at midnight, we stayed up through the night to build our bikes in an obscure corner so as to avoid the inconvenience and potential danger of finding a hostel late at night.

Bike touring tip #1: Safety comes first! Never make dangerous or rash decisions for the excitement of adventure, as nothing will end your adventure more quickly.

The next morning saw a desperate search for a place to nap, and after resting up, our first ventures into town for food and sight-seeing. Our research into places to go brought us to the Malecón 2000, a new boardwalk overlooking the bay area as well as offering views of the lighthouse on Santa Ana hill, which legend says is the site of Guayaquil’s founding.

In the evening, we finished recuperating and planned the first stretch of our journey, a grueling climb from sea-level through the mountains to reach Cajas National Park and Cuenca. Anxious to begin the following morning, the Troll Boys ride!

Following the Wallow

Three young men set out on a journey across Ecuador and Colombia, always in search of the next paradise where they can wallow in adventure (and hot springs) to their heart’s content.

 

Meet Cody Wagner, 24, graduate of the University of Iowa and esteemed industrial engineer. Cody is the brains of the group, solving mechanical problems on a daily basis, and utilizing his lifetime of experience with camping to smooth the rigors of biking through wild terrain.

Next is Jonathan Williams, 25, graduate of Luther College, and instructor at NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School). Jon has extensive training in outdoor recreation, bringing invaluable experience and knowledge from both his career and his previous six-month bike trip. Jon is also trained in emergency response care, rounding out his responsibilites as medic and bike technician.

Last is Ryson Stuart, 24, also a graduate of Luther College, and aspiring writer. As media specialist for the trip, Ryson hopes to keep family and friends informed (and hopefully entertained) as Jon and Cody carry all his stuff across South America. Ryson also brings his meager knowledge of how to string sentences together in Spanish to serve as primary translator for the group.

These three young adventurers set out on September 9th for their flight from Chicago to the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. After checking and double-checking their gear and packing their bikes in large cardboard boxes, the boys are off and ready to go!