To the west of the Ecuadorian Andes, in the flat strip of land between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, you can’t see the forest for the bananas. For hundreds of kilometres, huge banana plantations sprawl out as far as the eye can see. Bananeros with their yellow gumboots and machetes emerge from the trees, crop dusters fly low overhead, dropping their chemicals on bananas, houses, children and cycle tourists alike.
The plantations consume all available land so that homes, schools and whole towns are surrounded by banana farms. Every meal comes with fried banana, the potato in your soup is actually banana, bags of chips are called chifles (deep fried banana).
2013 Ecuadorian government data indicates that 8.6% of Ecuadorian children aged 5 – 17 are engaged in child labour. A 2015 US Department of labour study indicates that over 70% of Ecuadorian child labour is in agriculture. In 2016 in the US, a kilo of bananas cost $1.25USD. In Australia, where bananas are produced locally without child labour, the price is about $2.15USD.
Throughout South America, it seems difficult to find a region unaffected by the grip of US and international interests. The history of fruit growing by US companies in Latin America is pretty hideous, but even today issues of pesticide poisoning, child labour and low pay/poor working conditions persist. For a look at the history of US companies, banana production and current issues, check out Banana Land.
We departed the Pacific coast and ventured up once again into the Andes, climbing the steep roads that seem to rise directly up the sides of mountains here. Quickly the towns become smaller, poorer and shabbier than the heavily franchised streets of Guayaquil, while the people seem to become even friendlier.
We continued across the Andes and descended down into the Amazon basin, where the landscape somehow became greener and the climate ranged between 100% humidity and rain.
Looking for a free camp, we found a sandy beach by a river where locals were cooling off in the hot afternoon. Setting up our tents after cooling off ourselves, the last people leaving came down to our camp and said that it probably wasn’t a good idea to locate our tents so close to the river as the rivers can rise quickly here. We decided to heed his advice and moved all our gear further up onto a dirt trail.
The rain came down in torrents during the night and the fly of my tent was lit up by the lightning cracking overhead. Even on the higher ground, my tent ended up being half submerged in a puddle.
When I went for a walk down to the beach in the morning, I found the sand totally smooth and free of debris. The river had risen during the night and washed it all away.
We enjoyed the road side restaurants with dark coffee and jungle views before climbing once again back into the mountains, towards Quito. The grades were typically awful and we spent many kilometres walking our bikes upwards through the mist.
Ben decided to continue the descent into Quito after his brake pads ran out, and as a result carved some nice grooves into his rims. We were fortunate to be able to stay in the Casa de Ciclistas for three weeks, hanging out with other cycle travellers while we waited for my passport and Ben’s new wheels.
We departed Quito and had our last day of cycling in the Southern Hemisphere, reaching the equator by the end of the day. While negotiating the price for sleeping on the floor of an unfinished room, the owner’s dog began to defecate in the room. The Dueña didn’t see this as motivation to lower the price for us.
As we drew closer to the Colombian border, we passed through Valle de Libertad and unexpectedly arrived in a series of Afro-Ecuadorian towns. It was almost a carbon copy experience to when I was riding in the South Yungas and came across Afro-Bolivian communities tucked into a valley.
It was a carbon copy experience in the sense that here again were nearly homogenous towns of people of African descent, fairly well separated from cities, fairly well separated from their countrymen of Indian or European heritage.
I have little knowledge of how common racial segregation of this extent is (other than Mennonites keeping to themselves in Paraguay), but having heard more than my fill of “monkey” jokes here, I dare say racism is a large part of it.
We camped in one of the towns and had a throng of kids following us around as we looked for dinner. Given the amount of interest they showed in Ben’s blond hair, I imagine that these towns don’t get to many tourists.
The lines were long at Ecuadorian and Colombian migration, but thankfully we had an American chap in line near us to tell us his problems with the customer service at Burger King in the United States. He was very obliging and passed on all this information without us even asking.
We lapped up the kilometres towards Pasto, but realised in the afternoon that it would not be possible to arrive there in one day. This wouldn’t have meant anything except that the following day was Ben’s birthday, something that he tried to keep secret but that I had managed to discover.
Without ever acknowledging between us the reason for hitching, we managed to get a truck to take us the final kilometres to Pasto.
We headed East from Pasto towards Colombia’s own (less touristy) “death road”, El Trampolin de la Muerte. To get there, we passed through Valle Sibundoy in Putumayo; a huge bowl in the mountains, brimming with fruits, squash, beans and many crops.
I had the phone number of Cabunga, a “Warmshowers” host, but hadn’t bothered contacting him. I gave him a call anyway and he gave us directions to his family house, even though he was in a different city.
When we arrived, his brother was in the workshop carving wood and we were directed to put our sleeping mats in a room full of hand crafted items and animal skins (including Anaconda).
We were originally going to stay one night, but the next day we began helping them to change tyres on their truck and then went to the family farm to see a calf that had just been born. It had been a difficult birth and when we arrived, the calf was unable to stand. The men built a shelter over the animals and tried to feed the calf a sweet mixture of sugar cane water and herbs.
When they were satisfied, we began to pass around a mug of chicha, scooped from a large pot in the field with us. They told us that there are many types and strengths of chicha, but after two cups of this one, I was already light headed.
Back at the farmhouse, the women had prepared meals and we all wolfed them down while Cabunga sang songs on a nearby guitar.
We all piled into the truck and began hurtling around farm roads, yelling and whooping while hunting for more chicha. Someone eventually sold us a jerry can of the stuff and we headed for their second farm.
They started a fire but we were already pretty toasted from the chicha. They boiled farm fresh eggs and then decided to hunt around to see if we could find any duck eggs. Cabunga led the way to the duck burrow, but inside we only found a kitten that had eaten all the eggs.
Back at the campfire, they told us about some of the Indian history of the area and asked whether we had tried Yage/Ayahuasca. We told them no and they were glad to hear it. They were no fans of the drug tourist culture in South America that has separated the plant from the ceremonial and cultural experience and turned it into another gringo business.
We were totally broken from the chicha the next day, but all the men had carried on as if they hadn’t drunk a drop. We were told to have more chicha to make us feel better and then again that we should have some more when we departed the next day. That whole family are better drinkers than us!
Then we got started on El trampoline de la muerte, a winding, dirt and rock road that meanders through green mountains with huge drop offs. We definitely would have benefited from wider tyres and less weight, but the views were spectacular despite the hard riding (and rain!).
The riding continued through lush green valleys, the occasional landslide across the road. In San Augustin we saw the pre-Colombian stone carvings, and continued North to pass through Purace National Park.
Although it has felt extremely safe and quiet, there are still many military checkpoints along these roads. Young soldiers with huge machine guns stand among armoured vehicles and look up from their mobile phones to smile as you cycle by.
North of Popayan, we spent a couple of days on Colombia’s portion of the Pan-American Highway before climbing into the mountains again to visit Colombia’s Eje Cafetero, or coffee axis.
Meandering through the small towns that lie South-West of Parque Nacional de los Nevados, we passed the lean-framed coffee workers cycling by with their decorated machete cases. Huge villas lined the road, estates tucked into lush green coffee plantations.
We visited the Parque Nacional del Café; possibly the world’s only coffee-themed theme park. Apart from a coffee museum, dancing show and many cups of coffee, there were typical amusement park rides and Ben managed to execute a go-kart PIT manoeuvre on a small girl.
We took small dirt roads towards the town of Salento, and had a coffee tour at a farm that was perhaps a little more authentic than the coffee theme park.
Salento sits right at the SW corner of the Nevado National Park but, the possibility of a South to North route through the Park remains elusive. I could find no records of anyone who had made the trip by bike, only by foot and donkey. When someone does work it out, this will be an incredible bikepacking/touring route.
Instead, we headed down to Valle de Cocora and walked among Colombia’s famed tall palm trees.
I spent my second Christmas of the trip in a hostel and shared a big dinner with Ben and the other travelers. Every plate was left clean except for that of an English backpacker, who pushed his food around a bit before abandoning it to get some slices of white bread which he squeezed into lumps before eating. Sometimes I wonder why these people ever bother leaving home.
From Salento, we decided to head towards Medellin for New Year’s Eve. We departed on Boxing Day and the traffic was heavy on the main road, but at least the views were nice.
We had crossed the last high point for the day and had started our descent to Chinchina when it happened.
I was in front of Ben for once and I stopped a few hundred metres after an exit road to make sure than he went the right way. As I stood over my bike, looking back over my shoulder towards the fork in the road, I saw Ben start to cross the exit lane before being smashed out of sight by a speeding vehicle.
My gut dropped to the floor and I immediately started pedaling as hard as I could back up the hill to where I last saw him.
I arrived to find Ben’s bike lying broken on the road but he himself walking and talking with the motorcycle rider, whose bike was further down the road. The motorcyclist had a few grazes where his clothes had been torn and seemed to be a bit dazed, but Ben had little more than a cut on his elbow.
The force of the crash had damaged both Ben’s wheels and destroyed his front rack, but it is some kind of miracle that the moto hit the bicycle and not Ben’s leg. I didn’t have enough view to see who was at fault (although I think the motorcyclist was speeding and not watching the road) so rather than getting the police involved, we gave about $37AUD to the motorcyclist for his scratched bike and he slowly rode away.
I put two of Ben’s panniers on my bike and rolled to a nearby petrol station while he carried the unrideable bike down.
We loaded Ben’s bike onto a truck and he hopped in the available seat for a lift down to town. I rode the last ten or so kilometres to Chinchina, where we stayed with a Warmshowers host that night and ate big chicken parmigianas.
Since his bike was unrideable, Ben took a bus for the last 200 or so kilometres to Medellin while I tackled the big descent and climb over two days.
The Casa de Ciclistas just outside Medellin is basically a big tree house in the jungle, totally dedicated to cyclists. We stayed for two nights and Ben left his bike with the owner of the Casa, who also happens to run a bicycle shop.
So now we are in Medellin; Ben taking Spanish classes and repairing Fancy Boy, while I try to decide on a route North to Cartagena.
For a city that saw so much violence in decades past, it seems like a much more tranquil place today. The Zona Poblado is incredibly gentrified and the bars, cafes and restaurants could easily be dropped into one of the trendier suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne. Police and council inspectors constantly roam the streets and our hostel even had a health inspection by the local council.
Outside of this bubble, there is still a huge amount of poverty and people living on the street, but even the non-gringo areas feel much safer than they must have even a few years ago. Still, five foreign tourists were murdered in Medellin in 2016.
Felix: new cassette, chain rings, chain, bottom bracket, brake disk, brake pads, cables. Lights and charger not functioning after bike shop broke generator.
Fancy Boy: new rims and hub. Repairs from crash still not fully known.