First week in Ecuador

I blogged less about Colombia than Mexico, though I spent the same amount of time in each (six months) and loved them for similar reasons: stunning scenery, self-confident cities, incredible value-for-money and zero hassle. Which would I most recommend? Both, of course! In Colombia I particularly loved Medellín and Antioquia and would happily live there again.‌‌

Since arriving in Ecuador its urban areas feel fairly similar, while rural areas feel a bit poorer than Colombia so far (though to be fair rural Colombia varies enormously so this may be a meaningless comparison). Ecuadorians seem slightly more reserved than the out-going Colombians. I've noticed more people wearing glasses here and speculate this may be due to Ecuador's public healthcare or/and Colombian vanity! There are also far more bookshops in Ecuador than in Colombia!‌‌

So far the roads* and driving are similar as expected, though the prevalence of aggressive free-running dogs is higher in Ecuador (and will be worserer still in Peru and Bolivia). *with one unexpected difference: masses of f-ing cobbles in Ecuador in both urban and rural areas!‌‌

Ecuador is more expensive than Colombia, due to dollarisation. A standard set-lunch costs about the same (£2-2.5) - though Ecuador seems to specialise in much poorer cuts of meat for the price - while hostels cost twice as much. Fortunately I think both free- and campsite- camping are going to be easier to do in Ecuador; there wasn't much in the way of accessible no-man's-land in Colombia. My new tent, mat and sleeping bag are serving me well.‌‌

After a night in the border town of Tulcan I told close friends I was feeling unusually excited about the next bit of my journey (I'm not excitable).

In this part of the world if one has a choice of roads it's typically between a highway and something unpaved. I love the relative quiet of unpaved routes but amid Andean gradients these can be phenomenally hard work. From Tulcan I knowingly set out up over some páramo planning to spend the night at a free refuge in a national park. While the scenery and total silence were ultimately worth it, the mud-and-stone track up followed by stone-then-cobble track down were seriously brain-shaking and hard on the hands/arms. Not a 'road' by any stretch of the imagination! I arrived at the refuge well after dark and decided not to attempt to rouse anybody that might be there, cooking my supper and setting up my tent under a shelter amidst obvious renovation work. In the morning four workmen didn't seem particularly surprised to see me. I'd never seen anything like the vegetation before!‌‌

The following day I descended from almost 3,000m to below 1,500m, then - after a flattish stretch through a dry valley - I ascended again to Ibarra, Ecuador's northern city. For the second night in a row I arrived after dark, which is something I aim never to do. I guess I'm still learning what's possible in a day in the Andes! I camped at my first fire station since Costa Rica - I was refused in Panama and got a bit too used to £5/night lodgings in Colombia! Good to know that the bomberos' hospitality extends beyond Central America!‌‌

My day in Ibarra was enjoyable, including bad coffee and good cake at a Frida Kahlo-themed feminist café and a circuit of the busy indoor market looking for a new bungee and some decent coffee (I found neither). For the evening I planned a few beers while making use of the hostel WiFi. Unfortunately a gringo made a dramatically revolting entrance by vomiting all over the place before checking into my four-bed dorm, spending the night crashing in and out and soiling both communal bathrooms. I feel strongly he should have paid an extra $3 for a private bath/room or that the hostel should have insisted on this.‌‌

The old (paved) road across the foothills of Imbabura volcano was quite pleasant, as was Otavalo, as was a night at a low-key family-run campsite right on the Equator. (The last time I crossed the Equator on this bike was with Zoe in Sumatra in 2008.)‌‌

I'm pleased with the way I approached dauntingly huge Quito. I spent a night at my first Casa del Ciclista in an outlying town (a private home with a large garden generously given over to passing cyclists). I imagine for extroverts who enjoy being non-consensually slathered on by dogs such places feel like paradise. Not my cup of tea to be honest. Nevertheless it meant I could make an early start and enter Quito via a railway converted into a terrific suburban walking and cycling facility complete with water fountains and public loos, then an extremely steep and narrow rat-run up to Quito's new town. Only one bus driver nearly took me out. The cobbled section at the top was so steep I had to push a bit. Stopping for coffee at a bicycle-themed cafe I was told it was on the house. Welcome to Quito, my home for five weeks!‌‌

My AirBnB lodging situation is surreal. I'm the only guest at what could be a terrific four-bedroom B&B with the most amazing panoramic view of the colonial city and surrounding mountains. Unusually the owner, who lives in Chicago, is here, as the caretaker is in hospital. A nice chap, he says he hoped to make a success of the business but it hasn't taken off. It's not clear to me why this is, except perhaps for the reputedly insalubrious neighbourhood. He also let slip that my discounted rate was an error; that he (rightly) thinks I've got an outrageous bargain. I can't really disagree especially now I've actually been given a key to the gate (albeit not one for my room!) and the more vicious of the two guard dogs has decided I'm allowed. (The owner, Cesar, says he and the hospitalised caretaker are amazed how Max has accepted me. My dog-loving friend Sandy once said my feigned indifference to dogs makes them think I'm Alpha! I do talk to these two in a gentle way but obvs I don't touch them or fuss. They bark a lot at night but are pretty obedient in the scheme of things. Tonight I came back after dark for the first time and was relieved to be welcomed home by them both.)‌‌

On my first day I walked about 20km through the old and new towns and various parks and squares getting a sense of the place and sampling various tasty things. The old city is infinitely more attractive than the new, though it was interesting to compare the two. It was a relief to finally find a proper coffee roastery. Deciding to save the botanical gardens til Ben's visit I went to one of the city's microbreweries to stock up on beer and then to a good supermarket - I'll cook my own suppers though I'll tend to eat lunch out as I normally do - before catching a $1.50 cab back up the hill (it's more expensive at night).‌‌

On day three I signed up for an excellent 'free' walking-tour of the old town (covering lots of national history) before heading to the equivalent of the British Film Theatre to watch two free films by an Ecuadorian woman director. One was a short highlighting the number of child workers in Ecuador, the second a gently witty documentary about past and present indigenous construction workers in Quito's now UNESCO-recognised colonial centre. The audience was curiously diverse: more smartly dressed well-to-do types than I'd have expected, fewer young feminists, and lots of men of all ages.‌‌While I'm in Quito I need to do my tax return, get yellow fever and rabies vaccinations, research my route south, catch up with friends, stare at the view and perhaps have a few Spanish lessons to top up my lazy grammar. I'm greatly looking forward to Ben's visit next month.