El Silencio

If the mind is full to the top with "I" and "mine," truth-discerning awareness cannot enter; if there is truth-discerning awareness, the "I" and "mine" disappears...

Ajahn Buddhadasa

So, after an excellent month and a half noodling around parts of the desert southwest with compadre Cass, I hopped a train to San Francisco, briefly reconnected with some of the SF bunch, dropped off El Gordo, and then caught a flight to Thailand barely a week later for the final chapter in a journey starting nearly two years ago. The first few days in Bangkok I immersed myself in the mash-up of its heat soaked urban intensity and its quieter Buddhist presence.  The chaos of Bangkok's china town provided a refuge of invisibility relative to the tranquillity found throughout the various Wats dotting the historic center.  After three says, it was time to head a bit further south and get after the main purpose of my sudden arrival in Southeast Asia - El Silencio - a ten day silent meditation retreat at Wat Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage just outside of Surat Thani, Thailand.

Developing an on-again / off-again meditation practice during this entire trip with the help of Headspace, I felt a deep dive into a silent meditation retreat would be a fitting way of celebrating and honoring the final transition from Out For A While's wanderings towards a life a bit less on the road. 

In Colombia, I mentioned wanting to do a retreat to Barb and as she related her experience at Suan Mokkh the hook was set - 4am wake up, two vegetarian meals a day, a wooden pillow and a 8'x6' concrete dorm room, no electronics, no reading, no journaling -  just the right amount of asceticism.

Typical Daily Schedule:

04.00  ***  Wake up                 *** = Monastery bell

04.30  Morning Reading

04.45  Sitting meditation

05.15  Yoga / Exercise - Mindfulness in motion

07.00  ***  Dhamma talk & Sitting meditation

08.00  Breakfast & Chores

10.00  ***  Dhamma talk

11.00  Walking or standing meditation

11.45  ***  Sitting meditation

12.30  Lunch & chores

14.30  ***  Dhamma talk & Sitting meditation

15.30  Walking or standing meditation

16.15  ***  Sitting meditation

17.00  ***  Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation

18.00  Tea & hot springs

19.30  ***  Sitting meditation

20.00  Group walking meditation

20.30  ***  Sitting meditation

21.00  *** Bedtime

21.30  *** LIGHTS OUT

I slipped out of my monastic cell shortly after the first few gongs cut through the early morning darkness, walked the tree lined path towards the main hall and set my intention for the next ten days to simply appreciate the positive moments, the negative moments, and as many moments within the moments as I could.  Not too tight. Not too loose.  

Interestingly, the first three days were the easiest because the stiffness and soreness from sitting cross-legged gave my mind something on which to focus.  Once that eased up, my restless mind was free to ping-pong around: What am I doing with my life - thinking -  I don't like that tai chi shirt one bit - thinking - I like that bird call - thinking - relax mr. sentient being -thinking - I feel fat - thinking - good to see that double handed wave - thinking - I need to do more push-ups - thinking - and on and on and on at breakneck speed....  

Day nine was by far the toughest because the schedule removed all the Dhamma talks and replaced them with more meditation - replicating a day in the life of a Thai monk.  I was a bit aggressive and sat for two hours straight in the morning, so by the end of the day my ability to concentrate and calm the Monkey Mind was zero.

Overall, each day brought some amazing meditation sessions and some where I could barely concentrate on my breath for more than a few seconds. And it was quite memorable to spend two weeks with a group of people from all walks of life silently sharing the same space and positive energy.  

Intellectually it's easy to comprehend the law of impermanence and know everything changes, nothing lasts, or stays the same. But when a monk gets you to spend multiple days mindfully considering it not as a passing thought but as a way of living it takes on a profoundly more significant character.

Don't let the mind create attachments to the good stuff. Don't let it get attached to the bad stuff. Walk it straight down the middle one moment at a time. Breath in now. Breath out impermanence. 

Or, in the words of the mind blower himself, Alan Watts, it is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.

And we spent days mentally noodling around with "I" and "mine."   While I don't think I'll be able to eradicate the ego during the handful of laps around the sun I may have left, replacing "I" with "us" and "mine" with "ours" is one gigantic step and perspectival shift in the right direction.  

I especially liked one of the monk's stories he told during chanting meditation: "The fish don't see the water, the birds don't see the air, people don't see... people don't see the world and humanity." 

My least favorite part of the retreat - the morning of day eleven when everyone got their cell phone back and could talk.

On an afternoon ferry ride out to Ko Samui after we finished, I drew a life line of intention in my mind - After Wat Suan Mokkh | Before Wat Suan Mokkh. And that night in my hotel room, there was a copy of Without and Within – Questions and Answers on the Teachings of Theravada Buddhism with the following quote:

It is intention that propels us into relationships with things and determines the nature of those relationships.  Whether we take anything from situations, how we react to them, how we impose ourselves upon them lies within the power of intention. Whether we act upon unskillful mental states or skillful ones depends upon intention.

Phra Brahmagunabhorn (P.A. Payutto)

NOTES:

It's time to take it slow and shut 'er down.  Yup, sadly, this is the final Out For A While blog post. El Gordo's not seen his last stand but I'm going to step away from the blogosphere. I'll keep the site active, as the blogs I followed leading up to and during my trip were incredibly inspirational and extremely informative.  I hope the pictures, thoughts, and info spread throughout all of the various posts will help someone down the line get after their own journey.

Hold on tightly. Let go lightly!

New Mexico Off-Road Runner - Santa Fe to Las Cruces

After a bit of noodling around Santa Fe, it's time to get El Gordo back on the road for one last tour de New Mexico.  The New Mexico Off-Road Runner is a route combining a series of collaborative inputs from Cass and Gary Blakely's initial work on the Conquistadores Loop, Georges Mally of Santa Fe Mountain Adventures, whose faint singletrack we followed out of Santa Fe, and Matt Mason whose work on the Monumental Loop provide some scratchy Ocotillo miles into Las Cruces.

Cass, buddy Jeremy, and I roll out of town on the bike path through Lamy and quickly trace some squiggles up onto the mesa.

Georges Mally's seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of singletrack outside of Santa Fe made for some twisty fun as we ride his tire tracks in reverse for a while.

The following day after a surprisingly chilly night we head south under bright blue skies through more of the sublime vastness I have come to absolutely love about New Mexico.

A break in the fence line at the end of the day offers up a picture perfect campsite.

We roll into Moriarty the following morning to rendezvous with Gary Blakley. Unfortunately, Jeremy has to return to SF for that thing called a job.

First things first - bike line-up in Manzano - to christen Gary's shiny new rig.

New rig or not, 61 year old Gary can slay. Ex-ultra runner, thru-hiker, and long time mountain biker and bikepacker, I can only hope to ride half as well as he does when I'm his age.

We nudge up along the side of Gallo and Manzano peaks on quiet forest roads before dropping back down to the flat lands.

The other side of Abo Pass deposits us at the foot of this bolt straight stretch of pavement through one of Central New Mexico's desert grasslands, reminding me of northern Argentina's like minded straight shots.

I don't think I'll ever tire of these moments of horizontality and vastness.

Tough souls out here.

The RV park at the other end of the road is definitely big on packing heat.

Watered up for the night, we duck out onto the deserted stretch of old Highway 60 that swings us out toward the base of Pico Ladrón.  Late afternoon skies start to do their thing 

and set up a picture perfect sunset as we settle into a wash for the night.

Morning brings a near circumnavigation of Pico Ladrón, the high point in the larger Sierra Ladrones range. Sierra Ladrones or "Mountain of Thieves" was the preferred spot for Apache raiding parties and later for cattle rustlers who hid amongst its deeply folded contours.

On the other side of the Ladrones lies the ghost town of Riley, a late 1800's/early 1900's mining town.

Surprisingly, there is still an active church and fascinating cemetery reflecting the town's history and hardship.

Riley merges with the distant speckled hills as the afternoon swirling closes in.

A brief hailstorm catches us as the perfect lunch spot appears.  After my Bolivian "tuna" lunch grimness on the Tres Cordilleras Route, my pack is now always stuffed with tomatoes and other produce.   Gary on the other hand is flat-out hard core, especially, when it comes to food.  What wouldn't even be a snack for most mortals, sustains Gary all day long.  If you look closely, Gary can be seen digging into his 1/4 cup of quinoa with a piece of string cheese for a spoon.   

"Gary you want to borrow my spoon?"

"No, I'm good. Mine's somewhere on my bike. I'll find it later."

"Gary, you want a tomato?"

"Naw, I'm good."

From this moment forward, Gary will forever be remembered in my mind as String Cheese Gary, or simply SCG.

Just as quickly as the dark skies roll in they part and give us a ripping tailwind down along the eastern edge of the Cibola National Forest into Magdalena.

The rail line in Magdalena made it a critical point along the "Magdelena Livestock Driveway," a historic 125 mile cattle and sheep corridor that extended west to the town of Datil before splitting off to the north and south. Five to ten miles wide, the "driveway" hit its peak numbers in 1919 with 150,000 sheep and 21,600 cattle.  

Today Magdalena is a mix of wonderful old brick buildings, vintage signs, a library, a few burgeoning art studios, and a saloon serving up surprisingly good pizza.

Another chilly night deposits a dusting on the peaks as we cut across the eastern edge of the Plains of San Agustin in the morning.  The Plains are home to the radio astronomy observatory known as the Very Large Array and prominently featured in the movie Contact.  Unfortunately the VLA is on the western edge so we don't ride amongst them - something on the table for the next trip.

Long time compadres. 

A beat up Ford dump truck in the middle of the Plains is simply too good to pass up.

The desert floor slowly thaws as we continue up towards the snowy base of Mt. Withington.

Suns out, Guns out kind of day.

We top out as Gary enjoys fresh tracks.

The backside dries out as we descend through Bear Trap Canyon's flowy tracks before they deposit us

into a spectacular valley readying itself for an impending hailstorm, while awe inspiring New Mexican light pours down from above. 

Cass heads out to convene with a lone Pinon Pine at the end of the day while golden hour erupts.

The following day we head into the Black Range in the Gila National Forest, a stone's throw east from where the GDMBR passes.  Buttery smooth forest roads give way to a fun little singletrack connector along the CDT.

The Gila is hard to beat. 

A rocky, fun descent drops us into the heart of little traveled Chloride Canyon amongst towering rock walls.

A wall of Petroglyphs marks time gone by.  

Multiple shallow stream crossings keep the feet cool and mark the end of my second Gates Carbon Belt Drive (La Paz, Bolivia - Chloride Canyon, New Mexico), as a bit too much torque shears off about 3" of tired teeth.

While Chloride still has a few residents, it is mostly a ghost town showcasing its silver mining glory days.

We roll into the hard luck town of Winston towards the end of the day. The local's table gets awfully quiet in the General Store when I inquire whether that assault rifle for sale is considered cheap or expensive.

Not far out of town we tuck in for the evening amongst yet another stellar sunset and the longest shooting star flameout I have ever seen. We're taking a few full seconds here.  Cass and I have enough time to look at each other wide-eyed, half expecting a Roswellian tractor beam to lock-in on Gary.

We muscle through a stiff morning headwind into Truth or Consequences where Cass is mistaken as a movie star by a young child inquisitively wondering why he has one leg in the sink, as we "bird bath" off a few days of dirt in the Visitor's Center.

Later afternoon powerline riding and long shadows. Magic.

Morning brings more mellow squiggles

amongst flowering Yucca

and mini-super bloom swaths of yellow at the base of the Caballo Mountain Range.

Hitting the rail track, the prospect of a savory meal at the end of the fence in Hatch takes over.

No line length will deter three hungry bikepackers.  Sparky's is Hatch, New Mexico's must stop for mouth watering BBQ and epic shakes. As we enter the door, it becomes apparent that SCG's meager quinoa intake has been a calculated appetite saving strategy all along.

Hatch is also perhaps more importantly the "Green Chile Capital of the World." No small moniker. They shouldn't even ask you if you want green or red.

Properly stuffed, we head back out along mellow levee roads bounded by Pecan trees on either side. Tucked amongst the desert greens and browns, we stumble upon a stash of claretcup cacti in full bloom.

That half pound plate of brisket and oreo shake combo takes its toll as we hit an end of day push along the eastern section of the Monumental Loop. Requisite route hike-a-bike. Check.

 

Morning light makes the Doña Anas and the distant Organ Mountains look like a grade school theater set.

The last handful of miles have us squiggling along a faint scratching of trail on the outskirts of Las Cruces.  Gary and Cass clean every lose rocky climb while El Gordo and I bobble along behind.  

Prickly Ocotillo gives way to one last washy climb before we follow the power line road in into Las Cruces.

NOTES:

Here's the link to the  New Mexico Off Road Runner on Bikepacking.com.  

I can only hope I can ride as strong as Gary in the not too distant future; a true inspiration. 

And, Cass, well, no words are sufficient.  It has been a fantastic journey tracing your tracks and riding with you has been a true highlight of my life. Thanks compadre

Thanks Matt for all your help. Here's to more bobcat's wondering through your front yard.

The Southern Cal Rambler - San Diego to Los Angeles

Back on U.S. soil, Didier meets me at the San Diego airport clean cut and scrubbed of the Peruvian dirt we shared together several months back. A few email exchanges and kombuchas later, Compadre Cass meets us and the three of us head out to explore some of SoCal’s finest desert riding.  We spend the night in Campo, the southern terminus of the PCT, waiting out a storm.  Morning brings clear skies and a deadpan warning from a local to be careful about the "1700 canabalistic ISIS Kurds pouring across the border who were in a real bad way having survived a nuke strike in Mexico." Ok, then. We should probably get moving...   

Just a bit northeast of Campo lies Carrizo Canyon and the start of a lovely stretch of abandoned railway.  Originally laid down in the early 1900’s to connect San Diego to eastern cities, this section earned the moniker “The Impossible Railroad” as numerous trestles and tunnels were needed to thread track through twelve miles of remote and uncompromising terrain. 

First stop - abandoned cars tagged inside and out.

Trading stories, photographing each other, feeding off different perspectives on the surrounding landscape, or simply listening to some one else crunch along up ahead - it's good to be riding with partners again after a long stretch of solo riding.    

Sadly, MJ, the Bolivian Yungas slayer, didn't stick around for the reunion tour. Cinco it is.

Single track and some long dark tunnels wind us out deeper into the canyon. 

The highlight of the section is without a doubt this engineering gem wrapping across Goat Canyon. A 1932 earthquake collapsed the main tunnel and washed out the track, necessitating an alternate solution.  The resulting 600 foot long and 180 ft high trestle spanning the canyon is the longest and tallest curved wooden trestle in the States.

The latticework of dark timbers set against the surrounding desert grey is stunning.

Deep shadows and crisp light mark days end as we set up camp along the southern edge of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  

Unfortunately, Didier has to peel off and heads back to San Diego the following day as Cass and I push on and enjoy some washy, plus sized riding through Canyon Sin Nombre.

Scraggily Ocotillo's up on the plateau dot the landscape in all directions.

One of the things I like most about the Desert Southwest is the expansive scale and those moments where you can truly appreciate the immensity of this this pale blue dot we call home. 

Chasing the setting sun, we arrive in Borrego Springs in time to take in a few of local artist Richard Breceda's roadside pieces.  Spread out around the valley floor, the steel works include prehistoric mammals, elephants, scorpions and a 350-foot-long dragon headed serpent. 

 

Apart from sculptures, Borrego Springs is a hotbed of tourist activity when the wildflower bloom occurs. We're a few days early for the full bloom, but there are a number of early birds popping up just outside of town in Coyote Canyon. 

The flowering tips of the Ocotillo.

The Fishhook, which rings the top of barrel cacti. This one getting ready to bloom.

The Desert Chicory.

And the Desert Lily.

With our wildflower checklist complete, we push on towards Salton City picking up some sandy miles along Truckhaven Trail to break up a bit of paved riding.

Under afternoon skies, we duck down into one of the many washes littered throughout the area and come upon a spectacular series of lunar mud formations just outside of Salton City.

We spend the night amongst tricked out "jeeper's" pouring into Salton City for the Tierra Del Sol Desert Safari.

One of the things about being Stateside is I can more easily understand side conversations taking place around me.  "You fishing out them Muslims?" asks one jeep banger to a Border Patrol Agent while I order a breakfast burrito. Welcome to Trumplandia. We should deport your dumb ass, dude.  

From Salton City we head south and pick up the soon to be minted Stagecoach 500 (an alternate additional leg to the Stagecoach 400). A quick detour for the infamous Westmorland Date Shake is an automatic.  Medjool dates, vanilla ice cream and almond milk blended deliciousness. I plow through two shakes with little hesitation. 

A series of levee roads run us through gridded farm land out along the southern edge of the Salton Sea.  Long a place I've wanted to visit, the Salton Sea has a continually unfolding history.  

Over millions of years, the Colorado River naturally flowed in and out of the valley every 400-500 years. With no outlet, the valley would alternate between a fresh water lake, an increasingly saline lake, and a bone-dry basin. In the early 1900’s, water from the Colorado was redirected into the valley through a series of engineered canals to establish a farming economy. Like all things that result from humankind's attempt to control nature, the mighty Colorado breached the engineered canals in a 1905 runoff and inundated the basin for two years creating the Salton Sink, before the "leak" could be plugged.  In the late 50’s a rebranding effort changed the name to Salton Sea and established the area as a resort getaway for Los Angeles. A series of resorts were built on both sides of the lake that saw the likes of Frank Sinatra roaming the shores in its heyday. 

Since the 60's, high salinity levels and agricultural runoff has turned the Sea into an ever- increasing toxic soup bringing about the demise of the resort culture.  With the potential of toxic dust affecting neighboring cities should the lake be allowed to dry up naturally, there has been an ongoing campaign since the 90's to “Save Salton Sea.”  With water rights at the forefront of the battle, let’s just say it’s complicated and one more poignant reminder that Nature Bats Last.

Mad Maxian roads.

An abandoned hotspring marks one of many leftovers from the glory years.  

One can never get enough of that desert sign typography.

Rounding the bottom of the Sea, we head for Slab City's Salvation Mountain as the golden hour settles in.  

First rays of light the following morning award us from our perch on the bluff.

Slab City is where Christopher Mccandless kicked off his nomadic adventures in the movie Into the Wild.  Set in the Sonoran Desert, its name is taken from the concrete slabs remaining from the abandoned WWII Marine Corp Barracks of Camp Dunlap. Some come to escape the “Man” while others come for a free place to live before the summer heat cranks up.  When the “snowbirds” (those who stay only for the winter) leave the number of year round “slabbers” drops to around 100 hearty residents.  Without running water, an electrical or a sewage system, The Slabs is about as close to an anarchist community as I’ve seen with two governing rules: (1) be nice and (2) don’t get in anyone else’s business. 

As we cruise around the following morning, we spy a Slabber taking in the morning view from a lounge chair on top of this beautifully muraled water tank that he's claimed for his home. I imagine a Thunderdome set up beneath with Tina barking out "Two men enter, one man leave!"

Repent!

It's hard to get anywhere in Slab City with camera in hand.

After a brief visit at the library and the outdoor performance stage, the Range, we head towards the art installation East Jesus on the far side of town. 

Never passing up an opportunity, we chat it up with one of the "Slabbers"  along the way who says he’s preparing himself mentally for the months of 120+ degree temps to come. Puerto Rican by descent and ex-military, all I can focus on are the size of his gigantic hands gripping the top of the fence and his dreads as he educates us about some flag conspiracy theory.

Cass deftly diverts the theoretical musings towards things more concrete like water and temperature, allowing a less abrupt escape.

East Jesus is the commercial brother of Salvation Mountain.

I think they should re-do this for Señor shithead's reign.

One of my favorites. 

Worried I might just stay, we make a break for it along the canal road out of town and wind our way up along the eastern edge of the Salton Sea.

From certain vantage points, the water looks beautiful, belying its slow death.

Night-ops bring us to the other side of Coachella and sets us up perfectly for a morning climb up through Berdoo Canyon into the far edge of Joshua Tree National Park. 

It's hard not to want to jump off the bike and wander amongst all of the fantastic rock formations.

I swear Cass' ULTAMID 2 zipper is programmed to open up at 5:45 am.  There are obvious benefits though...

After a gusty and freezing night at Jumbo Rocks campground, it's an all layers on and frozen finger tips kind of morning as we noodle out amongst Suessian trees under crystal clear skies.

El Gordo feeling the love.

Ahh those rocks.

Out of the park we head up through Pioneertown with an obligatory beer stop at Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace; a classic spot that has hosted the likes of Mr. Russell for generations.

The following day we head up Burns Canyon Road towards Big Bear amongst gnarled and more grandfatherly like Joshua trees.

Cinco stopping to pay respects to this fallen old-timer. 

After a few days of relaxing in Big Bear, we leave the desert wanderings behind and head back out.

Paralleling the PCT, we cut through an old burn area outside of Fawnskin on head swiveling deserted jeep track.

A definite perk of being back in the States is the Kimchi burrito.

Reminding me of the Tahoe Rim Trail, we enjoy some afternoon flowy stuff amongst the peppered granite and earthy smells of pine trees and sage.

Cinco picking his way down Devils Slide just outside of Lake Arrowhead.

The following day we head up and over Cleghorn Mountain.  From the top, the southern edge of Angeles National Forest reveals itself with the San Gabriel Mountain's rugged folds and Mount Baldy's snow capped peak beyond .  Standing in stark contrast, the crisp lines of train tracks and freeways snake along below.

Hesitant to leave, each descending kilometer heightens the drone of the freeway. After a quick resupply we head for quieter roads and make our way up to Lytle Creek.

Morning brings a steady climb up towards the snowy backside of Mount Baldy.

Cinco threading the thining line of dirt.

And to think I thought I'd left behind the hike-a-bikes in Ecuador...

After a few miles of slushy off-camber slogging, we duck under the ski inbounds sign and emerge amongst a throng of weekenders enjoying the waning days of a stout snow season.

With our Mount Baldy efforts a quick thing of the past after a few hairpin turns, the following day has us strap on the climbing legs once again for close to 2000 m of grinding.

California's unprecedented story season ensures it's not easy.

Topping out, we descend along the old Lowe Railway a bit before calling it a day at one of my now favorite campsites. Listening to the drone of LA breathing below as the city lights came alive is a memory that will be forever etched in my memory. Goodnight LA.

ROUTE:

In short, this route is a fantastic early spring or late fall ride. Each day saw spectacular cultural and natural highlights stitched together along quiet dirt roads with just a few stretches of pavement.  

Look for a Cass route summary at Bikepacking.com in the near future for GPS files, pertinent route info, and a sure to be much better stack of photos.  

Don Jones

I found out recently from a friend in SF that Don Jones passed away this past January.  

Don clawed his way out of homelessness and dark times in the Tenderloin and was a staple along Polk Street in Russian Hill, selling the homeless newspaper Street Sheet.  He always brought a smile to the faces of those who passed within his orbit. And for those fortunate enough to get to know him more, he perpetually offered a profound sense of positivity and genuine kindness.  Our conversations reminded me on numerous occasions of the stupidity of the gripes looping around in my head and of the preciousness of life.

Before I left for this trip, I made a deep clean of my apartment.  One of my treasured objects was that SF Giants hat Don is wearing above. I bought my mom that hat to wear as her chemotherapy kicked in and passed it on to Don so she could look out for him while I was gone. She took care of a lot of people and he looked after a lot of people in his own way.  They are kindred spirits and spiritual reminders to appreciate the moment and the space between the moments every day.  

RIP amigo. You live on in all of us who were incredibly fortunate to know you.

 

Chao South America

Medellin is a bit overwhelming at first, but pretty quickly I settle into enjoying the wonderful parks, museums, and fantastic weather.  Having nine days to kick about before meeting Barb up in Cartagena, there's a nice non-rushed pace that gives me time to re-visit places or spend an entire day in the botanical garden. 

Impossible to capture the subtlety of this art piece at the Museo de Arte Moderno, it is one of the most beautiful pieces I've come across on this trip.  A series of Rothko-esque paintings on scrim, stacked one after another, create an ethereal piece simultaneously solid and translucent.

The streets of Medellin are ripe with murals.

A trip to Parque Arvi and Parque Ecological park seems like a good days activity but leaves me scratching my head a bit as both parks seems largely inaccessible without much in the way of the hiking trails I was expecting when I got off the metro cable. But, the views out over the city from the metro cable are fantastic and definitely worth the trip just for that.

I originally met Dieter and Marcela back in Ecuador's highlands as they rumbled past in their Oregon plated Toyota.  Reconnecting while they await final touches on a rebuilt engine, we share some great laughs and views for the afternoon. Suerte Amigos.

After a lengthy stay in Medellin, I hop a flight north to the beautifully picturesque colonial city of Cartagena to rendezvous with Barb.

The Caribbean cultural shift is immediately apparent.

We duck into a few museums to escape the mid day heat and take in the culture.  Palacio de la Inquisicion is by far the favorite. Set in a beautiful courtyard building and chock full of information, the museum showcases the Catholic Church's grisly years spent trying to purge the surrounding territories of heresy and witchcraft.

One of many gnarly torture devices.

Next it's the impenetrable fortress of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas that sits just outside the walled section of the city.  A massive military complex, it stands in stark contrast to the modern high-rise towers scattered throughout Bocagrande.

Beneath the complex is a warren of tunnels that provided escape routes and supply locations. 

After a few days taking in Cartagena's sites and mingling with the Tommy Bahamas' of the world, we head north for the mellower thatched hut shores of Palomino.  Morning yoga on the beach, great veggie meals, beach walks, and a lazy tubing trip - not bad. Not bad at all.

Backtracking towards Cartagena a bit, we spend the last few days at Villa Maria - a swanky lodge a stones throw from a nearly deserted stretch of Caribbean white sands.

It feels like a nice closed circle to have wound down my time in South America with Barb.  Integral to nudging me out the door, I feel extremely grateful that I listened to her "do it" from way back when. Thanks B!

One of the things I will miss most about South America is the simple word buenos; a shortened greeting with an implied morning/afternoon/evening depending on the time of day.

I have no idea how many times it has rolled off my tongue during my time down here and how many times it has been said to me.  It is so utterly positive and welcoming, minimally capturing the pure warmth of South America culture. 

Buenos noches South America y gracias para todo.

San Gil to Medellin

I haven't seen a 3D map like this in ages. This one of Colombia in Hostel San Gil brings back fond memories of the one my family had of the U.S.  As a kid, I remember tracing my fingers along the contours of the Continental Divide for hours and hours.

The spine of the Colombian Andes fans out a bit as it extends north from the border town of Ipiales, creating two main valleys. I've zig-zagged across the central spine a few times now.  The time has come for one remaining traverse and one last climb, which will deposit me in Medellin and bring the South American cycling portion of this journey, sadly, to a close.

In San Gil I skip the "adventure" capital of Colombia's bungee jumping and caving trip offerings and instead opt to stroll through the mercado enjoying the ever-changing sights, sounds, and smells.  A far cry from our homogenized grocery stores with perfectly polished apples, the mercados throughout South America are as much social mixing pots as they are places to buy goods. 

Fresh fruits are sourced from stalls an arms length away and quickly blended into healthy juices.  Here, the end of a long line of happy customers.

An easy morning ride outside of San Gil brings me to the white washed and cobbled Spanish colonial town of Barichara - weekend playground for wealthy Colombians and often location for Spanish-language films and telenovelas.  Smaller than Villa de Leyva, the touristy vibe is a bit more bohemian and not quiet as overwhelming. 

Parque Jorge Delgado Sierra is a small park at the top of town and home to 22 stone sculptures, showcasing the town's long history of carvers.  

It's also a good spot to take in sweeping sunset views over the surrounding valley.

A wonderful stretch of dirt swings me east through Zapatoca and San Vicente de Chucuri as I slowly descend down towards the valley floor.

Try as I might, there appears to be no way around an 80 km stretch of Ruta del Sol paralleling the mighty Rio Magdelana, short of riding the railroad tracks. The two-lane highway is a major trucking route and the constant line of eighteen wheelers streaming past make me grateful for every ounce of the crunchy stuff I've be able to ride.

Fast flat riding between Puerto Berrio and Puero Nare bring me past a handful of huge finca's stretching out across the steamy lowlands.  I spend the night just outside of Puerto Nare, where the road spits towards Guatape, trying as best as I can to understand fast-talking Ronaldo tell me about the changes he's seen and experienced throughout his country. His pride runs deep - a consistent thread running through all the wonderful Colombians I've meet.

I emerge out of the quiet back roads to the Sunday sounds of music, clomping horse hoofs, and motorcycles filling the streets of Puerto Garza.

In Guatape I ease past throngs of weekend peeps from Medellin and stake out a nice spot at Hostel Casa Encuentro outside of town overlooking the water and Piedra del Penol beyond. 

The town is full of these moto chivas modeled after the giants usually lumbering around the back roads.

Complete with mini murals.

Late afternoon light.

Heading into the outskirts of Marnilla, local Alirio rides up behind me, invites me to lunch, gives me a tour of town and then invites me up the hill to meet his mom and sister.  Colombian hospitality has never ceased to amaze me on a daily basis. 

After nearly fifteen months on the road, I drop into Medellin weaving in amongst the stream of late afternoon and roll to a stop at the Black Sheep Hostel. Sadly, this time the stop is the last one El Gordo and I will be making together in South America.  It is surreal to say the least and will take some time to settle in.  

I've been asked many times how far it has been. To be honest, I have no idea. For me, the most important thing was simply making the decision to step away from the norm and experience the stunning environments, vibrant cultures, and the people's warmth, kindness and generosity.  Over the last few days, my mind has been replaying one highlight clip after another. Gracias, South America and gracias to all you peeps I shared some rode time with along the way!

Route:

San Gil - Barichara - Galan - Zapatoca - San Vicente de Chucuri - El Cruce - Puerto Berrio - San Rafael - Guatape - Medellin

My GPS route

Notes:

(1) Color de Homiga Hostel in Barichara is resonable priced (22,000 COP) and a wonderfully chill place just off the main square. In hindsight I would have spent a few days off the bike here rather than in San Gil.

(2) The 80 km stretch of Ruta 45 (Ruta del Sol) I did in order to connect San Vicente to Puerto Berrio via El Cruce is pretty dangerous. I've never ridden with as many trucks.  I tried to find an alternate, but nothing seemed to connect other than potentially riding the rail line off to the east.  If I were to do this again I might have gone south from Barichara to Velez and then cut across on Ruta 62 to Cimitarra to what appears to be a series of dirt roads bringing one out well south of El Cruce.     

(3) Hostel Casa Encuentro in Guatape is a splurge (40,000 COP with breakfast and free coffee) but it's a wonderfully chill place away from the crowds while still being a quick walk to town.

Boyaca Wanderings

Colombia has taken a bit of recalibration on my part after being turned into, admittedly, an incredibly spoiled brat by Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.  In a way, large parts of Colombia are sometimes more about getting to the next place.  I try to rationalize that it's part of long distance touring, and it definitely is.  But once you get used to endless miles of dirt, man it sure is tough to go back to consecutive days of white line tire humming. That said, the department of Boyaca delivers the near consistent dirt road wanderings I've been craving since crossing the border. For me, it offers the best riding in Colombia.

With one of the largest, if not the largest, cobbled squares in South America, Villa Leyva definitely has it figured out urbanistically; public use fronts just about every inch of the plaza instead of lifeless government buildings and blank walls. From dawn until night, the main square is full of activity.  And with cobbles throughout the entire urban core, cars and people move along at roughly the same pace. 

After a few relaxing days of relatively sunny dry weather, too much coffee and gelato it's time to pick up Dean and Dang's newly minted Oh Boyaca route up towards San Gil.  

Outside of Gambita it feels almost like rural Vermont with dairy farms stacked up out on either side of the valley. Sadly, I miss the bullfight in Gambita by a day as their festival winds down and the town begins to work off its hangover.

I camp halfway between Gambit and Belen as rain sheets down throughout the night. Morning brings the remains of an inversion as I finish off the last few hundred meters of the day's first roller. 

Some local recon and a couple of stream crossings deposit me onto a nearly deserted jeep track, which cuts across the valley saving me 1.000m of climbing. One thing that will remain etched in my mind after this trip is over is the look of locals who turn the corner on their horse and find a sweaty gringo coming at them on a... what the hell is that thing...

I watch the sky morph towards its afternoon activity before creeping over the second pass and descend into Belen in freezing cold rain. 

After a night drying out, I swing past Paz de Rio.  It's oro negro country out here and this is a hardworking mining town.  A chairlift like system transports cars of iron and coal overhead between the adjacent valleys into the processing plant, while pro-mining murals line the descent into town.

Trying to kick a low grade cold, I spend two nights in Socha lounging about.  The following day, a brief stop in Socota to get water turns into an extended round of que es eso as my buddy gives El Gordo the once over squeeze.  Once he breaks the ice, all the timid adults swarm in for the typical questions and send me off with hearty handshakes.

The roadside shrines never get old and are always quirkily different.

I roll into Jericho, the highest town in Colombia, sitting at the not so high altitude of 3.100 m.  Apparently they rolled out the red carpet for Dean and Dang.  The only thing getting rolled out today seems to be an "eye problem" (i.e. the gringo stare down) So, I jam some food down in the park and let the banged up 11:30 am Poker swilling crowd do their thing.

A squiggly descent outside of town brings me into some spectacular foldy stuff to head-swivel away the afternoon climb.

Around the corner, I limp up a series of steep switchbacks into Chita and shut it down for the night.

A wonderful climb the next day brings me back up into the Paramo and slightly thinner air.

There are even some flowers on my favorite frailejones.

Surveying the mornings work from the top of the pass.

Arriving In Cocuy, I've heard threads along the way that Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy is fully closed and some that it is only partially closed.  It's definitely closed at the moment. The road leading into the park is open, which allows access to a few lakes, but all the good glaciated stuff is closed.  And I'm not up for sneaking in out of respect for the U'wa's conflict with the Colombian government that has forced the closure.  The short of the issue is that the park is in U'aw indigenous territory and they have shut it down in response to the park agencies and government's apparent disrespect of their sacred land.  A more thorough right-up can be found at Amazon Watch.

From A Letter to the Colombian Minister of the Environment:

"Now is the opportune moment to leave a historic legacy for our future generations, in conservation, care for our mother earth. Because for all the money that man might have, he can't eat money if we don't have water for humanity's survival."
– U'wa letter to the white man

That the park is closed is selfishly sad because it seems like one of the best parts of Colombia.  But after having seen how the Chilean government has handled Torres del Paine, I'm actually all for it's closure until they get a clear strategy and respectful infrastructure for tourism in place. This is definitely a place to come back to once the conflict is resolved as the treking seems on par with the Huayhaush.

So after a day of noodling around Cocuy's uniformly painted mint green environs, I sadly leave PN Cocuy on the table for another visit.

The small pueblo of Panqueba directly below Cocuy is home to a whole series of murals. Top pick goes to the grim reaper.

I stop to chat with local mural painter Jose and his buddy Juan Carlos just before leaving town and they point me in the direction of El Espino where I can trace my way down along the edge of Rio Nevado Canyon.  Without a soul down there except the canyon dwellers, it's a spectacular section.

Morning rush hour traffic outside of Soata.

With passes running out for me in Colombia this one is particularly lovely as it winds its way down towards Onzaga on seldom used jeep track.

A fun little winder outside of San Joaquin takes me up and over to Mogotes. 

Spoting some squiggly lines loosely paralleling the road from Mohotes to San Gil, I opt for some pushing and a fantastic ruta viejo.  Other than a woman walking up the hill with a sack of potatoes on her back, it's deserted and a great backdoor entry into San Gil.

Route:

Dean and Dang's original route info can be found on Bikepacking.com.

I followed most of their route but my wanderings with alternates can be found on ridewithgps.

Notes:

Heading towards Belen from Gambita you go over two 3.800m passes.  In the Bikepacking.com gpx file, you descend down to roughly 2200 m after the first pass before beginning the climb back up to the second pass.  There is a shortcut on your way down from the first pass that will bring you across the valley and link back up with the main route at around 3200 m.  The only caveat to a 1.000m less climbing is there are two smallish stream crossings.  The second stream crossing has a tiny swinging bridge upstream, which i didn't see until I was already across. So maybe only one legitimate crossing... 

Bring your climbing legs for the alternates from Mogotes to San Gil. Both small stretches are winchers and probably a bit easier going towards San Gil, but they keep the road riding to a minimum.

Salento to Villa de Leyva

Plastic cups with a splash of wine make an odd clinking sound, but nonetheless it's a cool sound ringing in Xmas Eve in Salento.  This time a year ago, I was in El Chalten enjoying a snowy hike with "faith girl." Now a year and one stolen dog later it seems only fitting to do another hike to usher in Christmas; this time in Valle Cocora.

Located just outside of Salento, Cocora features a wonderful stand of towering Quindio wax palms - the national tree and symbol of Colombia.  At upwards of fifty meters, they hold Dr. Seussian court over bright green grassy fields below.   

Salento marks the southern edge of El Eje Cafetero otherwise known as coffee country.  I take a side trip to El Ocaso to bone up on my coffee production knowledge. One of the better coffee finca's in this area, I luck into a private tour.  Their sustainable growing practices are pretty well dialed. My tour guide is at a loss for words as I mention entire states in the US are covered only in corn. 

This ingenious invention removes the bean from its skin and is still a critical piece of the harvest without much having changed these days other than being motorized.

Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia produce roughly 70% of the beans on the world market with Colombia providing a significant percentage of that amount.  True to Open Veins of Latin America it's almost all exported, so outside of tourist hotspots like Salento you're hard pressed to find anything much better than a cup of Nescafe. 

A pour over to top off the tour.  The only thing missing was a $5 piece of toast...

It's been roughly two years since I've laid out consistent yogic mellow J's.  El Viajero hostel offers a free yoga class, which is more like Yin yoga and just what my creaky back needs.  Limbered up, it's time to get moving again.

I follow a wonderful squiggly line slicing through dense growth out past La Florida and into Santa Rosa.

Outside of Villa Maria, brings my kind of climbing - just up.  2.000 m later I leave the jungle like stuff behind and nudge up into the paramo ringing the northern slopes of Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados.

The park has multiple volcanoes with Nevado del Ruiz at 5.300m being the most prominent.  A surprisingly near clear morning gives me a glimpse of Ruiz from my tent door.  Sadly, its glaciated crown is nearly completely gone.  

I can always tell how a day is going by my number of photos/stops.  In the space of a handful of miles, I pause multiple times to look down through the surrounding paramo and glaciated waterways cut generations ago. Beautiful.

A good spot for some Headspace as clouds begin to fill in.

A small laguna mirroring the always changing Colombian skies.

I run into Diego from Libano/Bogota running his Motobecane through the paces on a small tour from Bogota.  An adventure athlete, ultrarunner, and avid cyclist, we chat roadside for a while about his cool socks.

The following afternoon, I meet up with Diego again as he and his family welcomes me into their NYE activities, which includes watching the traditional "flour bombing" of everything that moves through the main square.  

Diego and his family are another reminder of how wonderfully generous and thoughtful the Colombian's are.

Just down from Libano, at the bottom of the valley, lies the remains of Armero; a sobering reminder of nature's raw power.  Nevada Ruiz erupted on November 13th, 1985.  The eruption melted summit glaciers and snow sending a series of three massive lahars down through the valley, completely wiping out the entire village. 20,000 of it's 29,000 inhabitants were killed almost instantly.

Other than a few buildings all that is left of the town are empty paths where vibrant streets once stood and markers indicating where houses and families once lived. 

Typically, we have a tendency to re-build in disaster zones, seemingly proving our resiliency.  In this moment, it seems, those who managed to survive wanted nothing more to do with their town and the memories buried in the mud.

The Colombian wring out:  sweat like a pig - wring out shirt - repeat.

After a long road stretch, I make my way through Zipaquira and over to Nemocon to check out the subterranean salt mine.

In one of the tunnels there is a narrow pool of perfectly still salt water reflecting the cavern roof and a series of lights. 

Who doesn't like a little Franz Kline inspiration.

From Nemocon I follow a short but fun section of single track meandering along the side of an old rail line.

The line runs up along the edge of one of many ridges in this area with views out over fertile plains below. 

Shortly before Laguna de Suesca the rail gets swapped out for a series of little traveled jeep roads. After days of slogging out road miles with bits of dirt interspersed, it feels good to link together a full day on the good stuff.

Guacheta - "Gotta live, gotta live, gotta live..."

Outside of Raquira a step morning climb brings me through mini Tatacoa before dropping into the white washed tourist mecca of Villa de Leyva.

 

ROUTE:

Salento - Chinchina - Villa Maria - Los Nevados - Linbano - Armero - Viani - San Francisco - Pacho - Zipaquira - Nemocon - Laguna de Suesca - El Crucero - Lenguazaqeu - Guacheta - Raquira - Villa de Leyva

Salento to Armero GPS file here

Armero to Villa de Leyva GPS file here

ROUTE NOTES:

To get from Salento over to Villa de Leyva entails some long road stretches.  I followed much of Dean and Dang's route, but managed to sniff out a bit more dirt here and there. The following route notes are written in the direction from south to north:

(01) There is a pretty beat up pueblo just before you enter Santa Rosa with nasty dogs.  Best to load up on a few rocks.

(02) If you head up into Los Nevados from Villa Maria through Gallinazo and past Hotel Thermals del Ruiz, the connection from this side of the park to Laguna Otun is closed without either a guide or the night time gate jump.  Cass gives a good write-up in his blog but they definitely weren't letting me through the gate, maybe I just happened to run into the wrong person. And, everyone I asked said the entry into the park was only from the Manizales side and not possible through Santa Rosa, but I don't think that's right.  The park is unfortunately supremely understaffed and lacking in clear information. Frustrating.

That said, the ride from Villa Maria to Libano is wonderful with good weather.

(03) If you stop in Libano, make sure you get a coffee in Cafe Aguila on the main square where they still brew up cups from the original espresso machine circa the early 1900's and ask to see the mini church just off the pool parlor.

(04) I missed the section Dean and Dang followed past Villeta up through Nocaima and on over to Supata. Don't miss this as riding east all the way to San Francisco (as I did) on that road is brutal. The file I uploaded has this correction included.

(05) Before Pacho, there's a way to cut across to just outside of Zipaquira on a dirt road.  I missed this but it looks like a good alternate.

(06) The old rail line I picked up has a tiny bit of pushing where it's too overgrown to ride, but it's a super fun section overall and you'll probably have reached your fill of pavement over the previous days.  You could probably ride this all the way from Zipaquira.

(07)  On the final km's into Villa de Leyva, I squirreled my way past some ladies house, under two fences (only about a hundred yards worth) and through the Granja de Avenstruces where you pick up rideable stuff again. You can stay on the road to avoid this if you want.

Colombia - San Agustin to Salento

From San Agustin, I swing wide across the Colombian Massif in search of a bit more dirt towards Popayan.  Just on the other side of the valley a few km's from San Agustin in San Jose de Los Isnos lays Alto de Los Idolos - another impressive archaeological site of burial chambers and stone funerary sculptures.

Afternoon skies do their thing as I leave Isnos and wind my way up to the truck stop village of El Marmol.

Roberto, digs the cockpit while fellow northbounders Tom and Ben from Australia and I catch-up over coffee before camping together for the night.

Back up at 3.000m, we skirt the southern edge of El Parque Nacional Natural Puracé the following day through fields of Frailejones.

Protective goddess mural. Check.

The white-walled, small colonial city of Popayan serves up a few lazy days of coffee and wanderings while I give a small infection some time to mend. 

I pick up a backroad out of Popayan transitioning from paved to dirt to single track before depositing me in some guys backyard. I can only imagine what he's thinking as a sweaty gringo with a weird bike leans against his fence asking for directions. 

Re-routed I pick my way through a few tiny villages high above the valley floor as locals kindly nudge me along.

A twisty descent and climb back up the other side of the valley brings me to the hard luck town of Purace for the night.

The following morning I head up into Parque Nacional Natural Purace.  A bit off the beaten tourist path, the park is wonderfully quite with a moss banked dirt road cutting through Frailejones and winding past a few of the four major Colombian rivers that originate here.  The weather is not great, so views of the countries most active volcano are not happening and I decide to skip hiking out to the laguna and the thermal pools.

From a highpoint of roughly 3.400m, I stand on the pedals for the rest of the afternoon and drop down to the sweaty lowlands and pick up some fast, tree lined riding outside of La Plata.

Bright greens and those Colombian skies.

After a night in gritty Neiva, I head out towards Baraya and pick up the quiet back door entrance to La Desierto Tatacoa.

Surrounded by humid heat and deafening insect sounds on either side of the park, the silence and dryness of Tatacoa seems like a geographic anomaly.  Encompassing roughly 350 square kilometers, the park is the second largest arid zone in Colombia behind the Guajira Peninsula up north. I hop off my bike and scamper around Los Hoyos enjoying the rich veins of greys and subtle yellows.

Not far from Los Hoyos is el Cuzco with its iron rich coloration reminding me of the Desert Southwest. Unfortunately, night skies are not clear enough to enjoy the observatory, but I team up with a great group of Germans and a Colombian for the night at Noches de Saturno. 

The following day I shake off a few too many Pokers as the desert transitions slowly back towards greener hues.

The day ends with a soulless 30k stretch of dangerous traffic, depositing me in the truck stop town of Saldana for the night.  The following morning, I follow a patchwork of tiny dirt roads.  As I close in on Rovira, a friendly local motions me over to the side of his truck with a fatherly look of concern on his face. He rattles of a few names of pueblo's I can't comprehend and but I clearly understand "it's a bit delicate."  After a few back and forth as I try to clarify, I show him my route on my GPS and he gives me a thumbs up.  Gracias Amigo

Pounding late afternoon rain has me put in a few more km's to seek a dry night in Ibague.  The following morning, I pick up a near silent route tortuously snaking its way in and out of the valley folds up towards Salento while the gear jamming of trucks echoes across the other side of the valley.

The simultaneous existence of more traditional ways of living barely a stones throw from the "progress" of a Dunkin' Donuts in Ibague is an aspect of South America that continues to amaze me.

Toche "wellcomes" me with open arms as an instant fat bike hour group materializes from nowhere. 

The one street town has an amazing array of casita colors in less than a hundred yards.

A wincher shortly out of Toche brings me back up above 3.000 m to ride amongst a few of the tall guys - Quindío wax palms.

Deep greens and one final in and out before topping out at 3.400m and standing on the pedals down into the tourist mecca of Salento to chill for a few days and ring in Xmas.

Route:

San Agustin - Isnos - Popayan - Purace - La Plata - Yaguara - Neiva - Baraya - Desierto Tatacoa - Saldana - San Luis - Rovira - Ibague - Toche - Salento

Original GPX Track

GPX Track for Popayan to Purace connector

Note:  The second "connector GPX track" between Popayan and Purace starts once you cross a bridge and take a hard right and then hard left up a hill.  The original file goes straight after the hard right to nowhere.  Also you'll see a bit of a "tail" in this file.  Skip this as this is where I ended up in a farmer's front yard. 

Colombia - Ipiales to San Agustin

Rain pounds down in the Ecuadorian border town of Tulcan, and other than a visit to the cemetery to marvel at the cool topiaries, there’s not much to do.  With errands run and a couple of cups of instant coffee downed, I settle in to figuring out my route through Colombia.

Everyone I've met heading south has their own tale of Colombian hospitality and warmth as the locals yearn to put some dark years behind them and show off a country with a lot more to offer than powdery noses for the western world.

With a fresh stamp in the passport, I make my way through gritty Ipiales for Cumbal and head up through old FARC territory to the Laguna.

Laguna Cumbal has, well, seen better days...

After a brief bit winding north along quiet dirt roads, it's on with the helmet to Tuquerres and up to Laguna Verde where clouds part momentarily to reveal the lake in all its glory.

I lost count of the blue laguna verdes in Chile.  Ripe with sulfuric content, this one is as green as they come. Stunning.

Not long out of Tuquerres, I sniff out a bit of lesser traveled road and dirt over towards Ancuya.

Recycling or drinking problem? Either or the favorite here is Poker - one of Colombia's "finest." 

A wincher up the other side of the valley from Ancuya deposits me into Sandora where I weave in amongst the afternoon mix of pedestrians, cars, and motorcycles mushing together and doing laps around the main square.

My luck riding between rain showers runs out the following day and it's a wet one to Pasto.

A day in Pasto brings requisite graffiti wanderings.

Navidad is in the air.  A few of the parks are covered in white foam with ten-meter high angels. The locals smile at my smile, sensing I probably know what the real stuff is all about.

Old school brass type.  Solid.

A cloudy morning breaks over Laguna de la Cocha as I head into the Sibundoy Valley.

The thin ribbon of dirt twisting its way over the sub tropical range separating San Francisco from Mocoa is known as EL Trampolin de la Muerte, which translates loosely as "a pretty nice dirt road with some yellow caution tape here and there."

The site of multiple yearly accidents, rank definitely has its privilege along El Trampolin. 

Thumbs-ups were not in short supply from those who make the daily grind. Gracias, Amigos.

The Temple of Brave Face.

Even when I pass military checkpoints on my way to San Agustin, the guys decked out with semi-automatics always flash a thumbs-up and big Colombian smile.

San Agustin and nearby Isnos are home to three separate parks (San Agustin Archaeological Park, Alto de los Idolos and Alto de Las Piedras) housing the largest collection of pre-Columbian megalithic funerary monuments, statuary, an burial mounds in South America. A short walk out of town, San Agustin's Archaeological Park is beautiful with beautiful stone carvings scattered amongst three main burial sites.

The grounds themselves are spectacular with Zen like paths connecting the three main mesitas and offering moments to simple listen to the sub tropical hum of the surrounding jungle.

ROUTE:

Tulcan – Cumbal – Tuquerres - Guaitarilla – Ancuya – Sandora - Pasto - Sibundoy - Mocoa - San Juan - San Agustin  GPX TRACK HERE  

Eco Reserves, Lagunas, and Frailejones - Adios Ecuador

Quito offers up warm sunny days, the standard over consumption of city food and coffee, and time to wander through the historic center's nooks and crannies.

A trip to Basilica del Voto Nacional – the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas – includes a shaky-knee climb to the tower over the nave.  Technically unfinished, though hard to discern what exactly is incomplete, local legend has it that completion equates to the end of the world. 

I wander the city enjoying a "white walls of modernism" tour.   

With the pervasive increase in more "modern" western conveniences in Ecuador, it's always refreshing to see smaller, traditional ways of commerce still holding on.

I backtrack out of Quito on the ciclovia towards Pifo and pick up the mellower Trans Ecuador north.  Sadly, a grumbly stomach the day before thwarts the opportunity to swing by the Dammer Farm and say thanks to Michael in person for his help with routes and random questions along the way.

An on again off again wincher brings me up through a sliver of Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve. With nearly a million acres set aside, the Reserve offers a sublime setting of thick grasslands and crystal clear waters. Not on the typical tourist route, it is a study in silence.

I awake to views of Nevado Cayambe; the third highest mountain in Ecuador. And, somewhere out here I cross the Equator. 

From Cayambe, I cut across to Tabacundo and pick up a stout climb up to Laguna Mojanda and its smaller sibling Huarmichocha.

Otavalo mural.  Shame I put my bike in front of it...

A mellow, nearly out an back to Reserva Ecologica Cotachachi-Cayapas to see Laguna Cuicocha deposits me a stones thrown up the road in Cotachachi.

A day long climb up towards Pinan serves up a fantastic midway flat section along a water canal,

including two of these crossings.

The other side deposits me into tomate de arbol heaven.  A staple Ecuadorian fruit and my favorite in SA, these guys send me on my way with a few for the remaining climb.

Since it's Thanksgiving, I follow American tradition and stuff my face with an open-face avocado, cheese, onion, and la Sazon sandwich chased with an apple and a scoop of knock-off Nutella.

And this is what all the days efforts are about - pristine paramo Andino views and a thin squiggle of dirt meandering along. Magic.

Morning brings a decent into the isolated indigenous village of Pinan. 

Rodrigo and his Lee Chan whip escorts me around town with a stern eye.

I drop my bike at the tienda in town and hike out to Laguna Pinan.

Exiting Pinan turns into an ordeal. The whole town is encircled by five foot high dirt walls and drainage ditches equally as deep.  In the span of about a hundred yards, I  cut through someone's yard and piss off the dogs, heft my bike over two walls, cross a pig pen and a waist deep stream.  Then it's deep into the middle of the waist high grassy paramo.  Three hundred meters shy of the highpoint and about four miles before anything rideable, I turn around and make my way back to the edge of the village.  As I try to pry open a gate, a super nice local comes out to assist in hoisting my bike up and over another two walls, before I can escape.  The short of it is currently I can't get my bike on my back, which makes this type of hike-a-bike draining, to say the least.

I exit the village the way I entered, reconnecting with the road and the approaching late afternoon soup.

The following morning brings a long decent down to sweltering, greener lowlands.

I bottom out in Guadual at a roadside restaurant, where the nicest Colombian owners chat with me while I polish of a few Arepas con queso and jugo de guayaba. They send me off with an arepa for the road and hearty waves.

Crossing Rio Mira, I pick up a deserted old train track paralleling the main highway.

Tracks disappear and the slow creep upwards towards the border begins with a stop in La Concepcion for the night.

Outside of El Angel, I enter El Angel Ecological Reserve home to the frailejón. Standing between half a meter and seven meters high, they grow a scant 2.5 cm per year and cover the hills as far as the eye can see. Other than the park ranger, I have the meditative landscape to myself.  I stare in awe at the shear scale of their coverage while they resonate at different frequencies in the morning wind.

February and March are the main flowering months; one can only imagine the spectacular yellows spreading out in all directions.

El Angel Ecological Reserve marks a majestic end to my tour of Ecuador. It's easy to think the bulk of the Ecuadorian highlights exist between Cuenca and Quito, but there's so much more to the country and its biodiversity. Scratching the surface a bit deeper is worth every effort.

Route:

Quito - Pifo - Papallacta - Cayambe - Laguna Mojanda - Otavalo - Cotachachi - Pinan - Guadual - La Concepcion - El Angel - Tulcan

Notes:

For any of you following along on this blog with kids in the high school range who might be looking for a semester alternative to the classroom, please checkout either the Dammer's blog at eltraumara.blogspot.com or their Facebook page Nahual Aventura y Sustentabilidad.  I know Michael Dammer through following the routes he and Cass Gilbert put together and from his help with questions along my journey.  And while I don’t know all of the in’s and out’s of their program, it strikes me as an excellent opportunity to advance beyond traditional classroom settings and gain early leadership skills. I wish I had done something similar when I was getting ready to transition from high school to college.

Los Tres Volcanes: Salinas de Guaranda to Quito

After a mellow day kicking around Salinas de Guaranda enjoying the beginning of the festival, I head out onto Los Tres Volcanes with a few luxurious extra squiggles I add in for good measure.  Another of Cass Gilbert’s growing list of routes, Los Tres Volcanes links together three of Ecuador’s volcanic highlights: the perfectly conical Volcan Cotopaxi, the volcanica caldera of Laguna Quilotoa, and the glaciated mass of Volcan Chimborazo.  It feels good to be riding again at altitude as I follow anything but a direct path to Quito.

Leaving the chocolate and pizza behind, a quite dirt road brings me back up into rarified air, front and center with Volcan Chimborazo. An extinct volcano, Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador topping out at 6310 m.  Due to the earth’s equatorial bulge, it is the farthest point from the center of the earth, or, the closest point to the sun.

Approaching from the northwest, the bottom flank of the volcano is lunar like with occasional packs of vicuna roaming the arid expanse.

Days before, Chimborazo is out in all its glory without a cloud in sight. Today, not so.

Low on water and wearied by a painfully slow grassy paramo hike-a-bike, I drop down a bit and pick up some deserted jeep tracks ringing the backside.

Morning brings out the glaciated top of Chimborazo in full splendor, but only for a few precious minutes before clouds sweep in for the rest of the day. Its fleeting appearance makes the moments before all the more special.

Lush volcanic dirt roads bring me over to Urbina where I reconnect with the proper route. At one intersection, Jose, a local horse guide, flags me down with a bellowing amigo from the field and runs over for a chat.

Progress is slow but vistas beautiful as I cross the boggy valley floor and make my way up the equally soggy trail to a 4300 m pass on the northeast side.