Weeks 38 – 53 | E c u a d o r

Why 3 months in such a small country like Ecuador?

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Ecuador is the most diverse country I had ever been in my life. From West to East we have: the Galapagos islands (wildlife refuge with incredible biodiversity), the Pacific Coast (beautiful beaches, famous for surfing), the Andes mountain range that consists of some of the most magnificent volcanoes (and the highest place on Earth), and finally, the Amazon region (with Tropical rain forests, rivers, national parks – jungle, basically)!!

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My time in Ecuador in a Legendary Map. Mountains – Coast – Mountains – Jungle.

 Casa de Ciclistas – TUMBACO

While being at the Casa de Ciclistas (house of cyclists) in Tumbaco I had the opportunity to meet approximately 20 cyclists that had already been cycling in the country or had specific plans about it. I listened carefully their routes and kept the best of every suggestion to create an epic journey. Unfortunately, Galapagos was very expensive, but I thought that maybe hiking to the highest place on earth (which was much cheaper to do) will compensate. In order to do what I had in mind, though, I had to leave from this awesome place that touring cyclists are hosted at…! I couldn’t do so because of an issue with one tooth that needed 1 month to be properly addressed. . .

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Dr. Carlos Finol from Venezuela took care of it (and made me a generous 60% discount!)

During this month, I had wonderful time with the Lara family, who is hosting touring cyclists for the last 24 years… More than 1000 persons have been hosted. Can you imagine? Sharing your kitchen, for example, with so many others that may not even speak your language..That may come for 1-2 days or 1-2 months..

While being there:

– I had to go to the borders again because I didn’t get an entry stamp when entering the country (the road was wide open and I didn’t know I have to look for that stamp) (pretty stupid, I know). Things got awkward because I was deported from Colombia for overstaying and not paying the fine. Not fine, you see, if the absolute condition for getting the entry stamp was COLOMBIA EXIT DATE = ECUADOR ENTRY DATE (that was in reality 10 days ago). The Colombian side was telling me “we can’t do anything, you are deported” and the Ecuatorian side was insisting on the above condition. I was in-between 2 countries and I couldn’t go to none of them. I slept at the borders and next day I went back begging, almost crying. Colombia updated my date and… all good.

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The first one is on the 13th, actually

– In the Casa de Ciclistas I had the following thoughts:

First and foremost. We say “touring cyclist” and by and large we have a common concept of what this means. If you had no idea whatsoever before your friend Angelos started this trip (I hadn’t) you now know more or less what it is like. Well…no! Apart from using 2 wheels and moving your feet in a circular way, pretty much all of the rest can be so very different. I was shocked to meet cycling tourists who were introvert, shy, isolated. Or people who ride every single day or people that are regular smokers. Or people who carry… (hold your breath, please) 80 kgs with them! Honestly…. yes! People that think like “well, I spend everyday on the bicycle, I want a tent of 4 people in order to rest properly”. Or, “I need to carry all of my kitchen/wardrobe with me, because travelling with a bicycle doesn’t mean I need to be deprived of my stuff..” (I left Athens with 20 kgs load). Or people who the total cost of their bike and stuff is no more than 200 euros! I saw Germans and North Americans with equipment of thousands of euros and, I am not putting any blame, but let’s be clear: you can cycle around the world only by having the will and the wheel(s). I literally felt stupid for spending  a great part of my initial budget on things I could really avoid.

Second. There are lots of people that send me messages of love. Support is very welcome and truly necessary. But, honestly, it’s not me to be admired but some of the people I met… People who work on their way to make money to continue. People, who as I said before, left their homes with a pretty cheap bicycle and equipment. Or people who have a serious goal. Meet some of them.

Lucy from Brazil makes and sells stuff or cooks wherever she has a proper kitchen and sells in the streets.

Andres from Argentina, too. (Travelling without bank card!)

Sebastian  and Mauge from Uruguay selling photos of their trip

Simon from Slovenia had been working 6 or 8 (not sure)  years in McDonalds to save for his trip (Alaska to Ushuaia)

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Armando from Venezuela who rides with this Chapulin costume in order to inspire people. (Chapulin was a very famous latinoamerican TV persona – he was an “everyday hero”). With Dario, from Colombia – a true cycling-on-a-low-budget man!

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This guy who I met a bit later. From Switzerland, riding against animaltreatment (hehe)

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Vivi from Brazil… Carrying 80 kilograms!!! Tough lady, that´s for sure!

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Respect to the real heroes!

In the Casa de Ciclistas, also:

–  For the first time after 9 months of travelling I finished answering my facebook messages and responded to all of my e-mails.
– I started writing posts in Greek, and had the idea to create a section in Greek
– I undertook these projects: creating a portable solar oven and taking some nice photos

…with the bike hanging from that tree…

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Left tree’s leaves left, just right the one at right, right?

Cooking and cycling for 251 km 🙂

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After being for so much time on the mountains of Colombia I really wanted to go to the beach. I wanted to see how the Pacific Ocean looks like and visit Montañita (the hottest beach tourist destination of Ecuador). I checked the altitude difference from Tumbaco to Montañita and saw that in order to go to the coast you have 135 km of pure downhill! At that point one crazy idea was born: I wanted to see how many kilometers I can do in just one ride. (I know it sounds childish, but I wanted to see).

Honestly what a crazy day… and when I say “day”, I mean it.. that ride lasted, in total, 19 hours! I left at 06:45 from Tumbaco and I started pitching my tent at 02:30 at night – 250,2 km and 14:30 hours of pure riding later. Apart from this ride being the longest of my life it was also the first time since I left home that I had a flat tire that I had to change it en route. I realised I had my patches, but I didn’t have glue, and also I didn´t have a new tube! The only thing I had was… liquid electrical tape!!! Α viscous liquid that when it dries it’s relatively hard. Thank God it worked!

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With my solar oven in operation and add-e  in action

The fun part was that the reason why I stopped cycling was not because I was tired. Muscularly speaking I was ok, I could ride for more. The problem was I was extremely sleepy!! I didn’t know that it can happen. But it’s true. 22:00 approximately my body was shutting down…and unfortunately I had no coffee with me! The thing was that the road conditions were not very good. The recent earthquake had caused damages on the street and something very awkward happened! I was riding my bicycle in the dark and at some point, in a glimpse, literally in less than half of a second, I found myself walking!!!! yes! my bike stuck on the ground but I didn’t fall, I just hopped off and walked my way for 1-2 meters more!

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So I said ok, I should stop on the first village or at the first place that I could pitch my tent. And so I did. 3 o ‘clock I am at bed and at 7 am sun beams say good morning. I get up and at 8 o’ clock , I am riding again…. The sun was so strong that day that was unbearable….. At some point I decided that on the next village I will just look for a room – a proper bed after 50 days…

Some time later and before the next village, I am approached by a motorbike. The man who is riding it I had greeted some miles ago.. He starts chatting and I am asking him how far and what is the next village because I am not gonna ride more today…. He says that his village is the next village and he welcomes me at his friend’s house… So here I am, invited and being cared by Edwin and hosted by Yadrin, for four days in the super tropical village of Zapallo! Who could tell??

Zapallo

…and this is a truly unique experience! I had  never in my life been in such a tropical place. Green and wild beauty that you cannot imagine and I am living in a house of 11 people, in a pretty poor family that however has a “private” river at its backyard (where I am taking my shower)!

Traditional family in the village,
on a wooden house of 80 years,
with Edwin taking me here and there with the motorbike everyday!
Priceless.

I am setting my tent on their yard finally, as I noticed that the arrangement is pretty awkward because of the recent earthquake and I don’t find it necessary to get into a room. The dueña de la casa (lady of the house), the mother of Yadrin approaches me and says “I am the owner of the house, we like travelers here” and the phrase I will not forget: “El pan de cada dia de esta casa es para ti tambien porque Dios permite y nunca nos falta”  or somethng like this. The meaning, though (which I am sure of), was that the everyday bread that we have in this house will be for you too, as God allows and we never have a lack of it!

I could write a small book for these 4 days but my goal was to write a very concentrating blog post, so I need to focus now. The life in the countryside, or better, the life of the people that live in the villages, is hard. The thing is that you work, you make money and you live. There are no bank accounts, there are no cars, there are no luxuries. At least for the majority. Of course there are exceptions. But I am talking about the norm. The family had animals. 4 pigs, at least 30 chickens, a parrot, a dog, some cats… Yadrin was doing something related to chickens – selling? cooking and selling? growing them for chicken-fighting?  I never really understood completely. Needless to say that the language there is not exactly Spanish, it’s “panieS”, and by this I mean that not only every word misses some letters, but what’s missing has no pattern. hahaha . It’s not that they don’t say the end or the beginning of the words. Every conversation was a trivia!

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Washing the star from Puerto Rico  – Preparation for battle

Yadrin was also working in the Casa Comunal of the community (Community Center). And he was also “coaching” some chickens to fight in the chicken fighting competitions! Yes yes! Betting of course and advanced stuff, he had one chicken from Puerto Rico that was his star! He had also to take care of the house’s garden… All kinds of fruits you could find there. 3 types of bananas and mangos and sugar canes and avocados and… many more! We went one day to cut some branches with the machete… Hard work! Yadrin had 3 kids from a previous wedding.. He was 35 or something like this.. His wife… hold tight.. 17.. Yes yes. Edwin’s wife, 18? this is absolutely normal here.. 14, 15 they get married.. I saw many young girls dressed with the school uniform, holding babies …. At Yardin’s house, there were also his sister with with husband and kids, his parents, his cousin, the family of his cousin…etc

Edwin was working in the Municipality at the small city close to Zapallo, but he was also in the process of getting a driving license for 22-wheel trucks… I am truly very grateful because Edwin show me the places around and also he took me to a celebration the village had that weekend for the new bridge that was built.. Music and food and… sports! That was the amasing part… No matter their physical condition or age it was impressive to see how many people of all ages were gathering every evening to play football and mostly volleyball!  I was shocked at how good they were playing. Of course not professionally or even close but it was obvious these people play everyday!

I also enjoyed a lot how people interact.. Lots of fun and jokes and physical contact and what was very interesting was that everyone could whistle! Hahaha! I noticed that Edwin (or as people were calling him, “Colorado” – κολοράδο) could whistle in more than 5 ways… without hands on his mouth.. Different whistle in every occasion? person? I didn’t understand, but it was very funny. I was surprised how much life and vibrancy was hidden just in one road. Vertical on the main street (the Panamericana highway). One road – 50-60 houses, one village, one casa communal and… one school of course! Lots of children!

I left Zapallo after 4 days of staying there despite having in mind to stay there just for one night. Everything was so new that I didn’t want to leave and when I was ready to leave and I literally prepared everything in order to leave, I went to Yadrin to say goodbye and thanks and he told me in such an honest and straightforward face “stay one more day” and I said yes, instantly. He was working hard during the weekend and we didn’t have time together. He asked me “what do you want to do today?” I told him “I wanna accompany you on your normal day. What do you have to do today?” We fed the animals, cut the grass, went to the city with the bus to do some stuff, cleaned the casa communal. He is a real trabajador (worker)… working all day, doing little things, knowing lots of things.. He was formerly working on a company, cutting wood with heavy machinery… Having spent some time in Quito, the capital. Respect.

Manta, Montañita, Guayaquil

I left Zapallo and did 130 km to reach Manta, a coastal city that I’d have my first “eye contact” with the Pacific Ocean -hehe. As I was approaching it, I could see lots of factories related to the fish industry, mostly tuna. As I reached the city center I started looking for a cheap hostel, and I found a “rooms to let” place, where I had my own room for 5 dollars per night… Finally a bed, a proper service of the bike, and a proper re-allocation of my stuff.

Spent 2 nights there to do all the necessary and I left for the hottest touring attraction of Ecuador. A little beach town, ironically called… Montañita (little mountain). I didn’t party at all.. I camped for 2 nights in an organised camping trying to make my computer charge, but without a result.. I was in a hurry as I wanted to reach Guayaquil on Saturday, because on Sunday I wanted to go to the Orthodox Church of Guayaquil as it was the celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos. In Greece we celebrate it on the 15th of August, but in some orthodox christian traditions they celebrate it 15 days later.

Indeed, on Saturday I left Montañita and reached Guayaquil in a very pleasant and quick ride. I left my solar oven in Montañita as there was no more sun and I was tired of carrying it.

In Guayaquil I had mixed feelings. For a good part of my time there I was extremely pissed off because:

– My laptop wouldn’t charge and I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. I had the error message “plugged in, not charging”. I couldn’t tell if it was a hardware or a software issue.
– My phone’s power on button was stuck inside and the phone kept rebooting on its own…

So I had no electronics to communicate and to make some progress with the blog.

However, I was very lucky to find an amasing Christian Orthodox Community there that was literally impressive and deserves a dedicated and exclusive blog post. I am very grateful to Jacobo and Leonardo, because they took care of me like brothers. We had our walks, I met their friends, they invited me out, but what was the most helpful, was the feeling I got that there is someone in the city  that cares about me… Their company, their effort with the parish, and the whole Christian community there was a spiritual boost for me, and I am blessed that I met them.

Mount Chimborazo

Next stop: Riobamba. The closest city to the Chimborazo mountain. Really tough to get there (especially after one month of inactivity)! From 0 m altitude in Guayaquil, I had to climb up until the 4.000m. I had decided not to use my electric assistance in order to practice and get ready for hiking the mountain to the top. I paid 280 dollars in order to rent equipment and a guide for hiking and I didn’t want to fail. The normal price is around 450 $ and guides are obligatory. However, I got a better price because I didn’t stay into the refuge, but instead, I camped close to it. I could pay even less if I could find another person and share the guide, but I didn’t do that because if one of the two cannot continue, both should return. I said to myself: prepare yourself and reach the top of the world

– But, wait a second, Everest is the top of the world!
– Well, no. It’s mount Chimborazo. It has to do with
the shape of the Earth and the very geographical position
of the mountain. More here (English) and here (Greek)

Preparation, I thought, means training: “I´ll stay up in the refuge for 1 week or more and then I will hike. In this way I will be used to the high altitude and the breathing problems” However, when I got to the refuge (4800m – with my bike!) I was told that staying for so long is not a good idea, since, because of the lack of Oxygen, after 3-4 days the whole body deteriorates. I was suggested to spend 3 days in the mountain, 3 days in the city. So I did… 3 days in Riobamba, 3 days at the Refuge, 2 days in Riobamba, 3 days at the Refuge. I was ready to hike but there was heavy snowfall which makes hiking really difficult and reaching the top (at 6300 m) even more difficult. I was angry. I went for 2 days in Ambato, the city where I would be passing from after hiking, and then I got to the mountain, once more! I was dedicated this time, no matter what, I am hiking.

The whole experience of the hike was A M A S I N G ! Just incredible, there are no words. I was challenged, needless to say. The mountain was very inclined at parts, I had never used hiking equipment before (it wasn’t just another walk on the mountains… It was proper mountaineering), the snow was soft and a lot – every step was… a decision! But, I was liking it – I was ready. I had my proper hydration (powerade), I had super-food gels (another traveler gave them to me), I had aspirins (for increasing blood circulation, anti-nausea treatment), I had thermal patch for my back (because I have pains when hiking). And most of all, I was properly acclimatised (I had spent time and energy). I was ready for the top!

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At 6.384.387 m from the center of the Earth. (6.384.687 m is the maximum that it gets)

Apart from one thing. I had a very unprofessional (to say the least) guide. Oh my God, he was a pure disaster. He was bored, to put it simply. He was very tired, he wanted to go home. He was falling asleep during the breaks (when returning). Despite knowing about the heavy snow, and the fact that I had never done something similar before, we left pretty late. The whole hike is taking place during the night, and this is because during the day,  the sun is very strong and it affects the glaciers (permanent ice) and there is a high risk of avalanche. So, when the sun was rising we were pretty high, but not high enough. The worst thing he did, though, was to violate our contract. He put another hiker in our rope-chain, because the other guy’s partner could not continue. So they had (both of them) to go back. But my guide invited him with me… I was very upset, but I didn’t say anything because at 5500 m it’s no time for arguing.

He was also… insulting me! That I can’t make it, that I am going very slow (oh my God, how much he pissed me off!) I was telling him “man, it’s the first time I am doing it, show me how to walk, how to put the crampons, how to hold the ax!” He was just advancing and pulling me… On our way back to the refuge, I told him that at the refuge I would like to express my complaints. “I have 6 points to make”, I said. He insisted on me telling him right now. I told him. We were shouting.. and he… left! He left me alone for more than half an hour and I found him sleeping while seated later on the route..

I was so happy because of the whole challenge but this guy pushed me to my limits… I had invested so much.. He told me that we should stop advancing because of the high avalanche risk, but I am convinced this wasn’t the case.. The thing was that the only team that was still on the quest of conquering the top of the mountain  was me and the other guy that he had added. If later on, the other guy wanted to go back, I should go back too. The guide would be very “exposed” as that was the very reason why I paid to go alone. Of course I was already very angry, but I couldn’t argue at 6000 m with a “professional” guide… on the possibility of avalanche! I just had to accept it… What a pity really, I was disappointed. I wanted to take the picture with the Greek flag, at the very top of the world. (Shit happens though… and safety first!)

When we got back, after 7 hours of very difficult hiking, I was FURIOUS! On our way back to the refuge the guide was telling me that “tu no tienes piernas” – “you have not legs”… To a cyclist… that a month ago was cycling for 14 hours and did 251 km… Τhat I have no legs…? I was ready to explode! We reached the refuge, I am shouting at him,  I am explaining all his mistakes, and I am telling him I will continue hiking all day in order for him to see for how much long I could hike and be very careful with his words next time. “I am your client”, I kept repeating. So I did for the next 1 and a half hour. I was hiking from the base refuge to the top refuge and back (with the boots and the bag)… Just to showcase him.. I had to leave, though, because the other climbers were waiting for me to get to the city. At last, he apologised for everything and admitted he was wrong.
I took half of my money back, but still I was not satisfied.

Overall, though, I have to mention that the experience was… tremendous. The view, the sense of achievement, the lack of oxygen, the moon-like ice-filled landscape… Marvelous!

Something else I enjoyed a lot too, was sleeping in my tent. Some meters above the refuge. For some days I was the highest sleeping human on Earth. And that is, the man (on Earth) closest to the stars, to the outer space. Apart from the breathtaking view, something else I will keep in mind forever is the absolute silence. 19:30 at my tent. darkness. SILENCE. no air, no animals, no trees, no humans, no technology…. What a feeling?! Absolute mute… Can you imagine?  It was stunningly awkward.

Oh! One more thing that I almost forgot!
As I said I went to the refuge three times. Because I was camping and neither I wanted to take all of my stuff down to the city nor leave them inside my tent, I brought my bags into the refuge and kind of hide them under the stairs. I asked of course, before, and I thought they will be fine.. Not… Someone stole one of my bags! The one I had all of my clothes and also my motor (!!!) that I had it removed from the bicycle in order to practice better! What a disaster..! I told to the personnel and they said “oh yes, here there are a lot of thieves”, and I am like “but I asked you!!”, and they are like “ohhh, que penaaaa” (what a pity)……. I got so frustrated but I made a new bag and bought used clothes for less than 20 dolars!

Jungle

Yes my friends, Jungle. The idea was to go from Ecuador to Peru by boat and pass through the tropical rain forest. I was dying to see wildlife but I couldn’t really afford an organised tour into the deep jungle and I am also kind of against them (they usually have captivated animals). However, I wanted so bad to see an anaconda.. I wanted to see that snake and this desire, I know it sounds funny, but has its roots in a school-time joke that we were making. If you wanted to introduce a lie or a lair you would go like “…and when I was fighting with the anaconda…” ahaha.. and then lots of videos on youtube with anacondas fighting other animals, and the  movie… You know, it was a legend!

The story begins in Coca (Francisco de Orellana). The plan was to take the boat and go till Iquitos, in Peru. At some point, before crossing the borders we had to sleep at a village, and next day we should find a very small private boat to cross the borders. From Coca to that point our boat had 30-40 persons. Among them, myself and 3 more gringos (foreigners). When we disembarked, we started talking a little bit and then, each one according to his needs, was looking for a place to stay. I was just looking for a place to camp, but also dying for internet access. I had to upload something, I don’t remember, send an e-mail. After walking for a bit, heading to the local open stadium, someone approached us and offered a hammock at his house. And also we could cook… And also, internet access. All for 5 $! Success, I am thinking. We go there and the guy was a Jungle guide. He brings the “ipad” and shows us an anaconda that he had found 2-3 days ago randomly into the National Park Yasuni..!!! He says “it will stay there for 40 more days to digest his food, wanna go see it?” – I was dying to see it. The guide was also wanted to go there again because he was a huge fan of anacondas. He offered to take us there and then to take us to the border crossing point. 2 in 1.

We gave 130 $ the 4 of us, we went into the jungle with a small canoe, we fish piranha in the rain, we swung from a tree and *bloom* into the river, we found the anaconda, I pulled it out just to see it (I wasn’t mocking it, I felt bad later).. It was just magnificent… How big it was, and how strong and heavy… Oh…

Thoughts in Greek, related to this experience, εδώ.

Those days, in the jungle, and afterwards for a bit, in Iquitos, I was with Evi from Austria, Sandra from Germany and Stoyan from Bulgaria. I was feeling nice with them.

And some random pictures 🙂

(If you made it that far, I doubt, but, well, you are reading this, so, yes. If you made it that far, I ‘d like to put here something more. These months were like a movie for me… Crazy Hollywood movie… I am so grateful to the ones that hosted me and also very happy because I met people that they touched my heart. People I admire. However, I’d like to mention, and I am putting it down here for a reason, I ‘d like to mention a subtle feeling I had, a general feeling of exploitation. In Ecuador, I felt, they wanted something more from me. Not from the people that hosted me. In the streets, in the mini markets.. The people were not as friendly as in Colombia, nor as in Peru. Just an example… I was told different prices for the same products throughout these 3 months (double, triple… crazy prices.. not 10%). I understand that I am a tourist for them. But, all the time! 3 months! And they could see me struggling with the bike. BUT, yes, subtle)

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