Tuesday, July 31, 2012

2012, 23rd – 28th July: Puerto López, Ecuador

The coast of Ecuador is very different to the places that one finds along the spine of the country (the Andes). Puerto López on the Pacific coast is in Parque Nacional Machalilla and a place to enjoy some marine wildlife and sandy beaches.

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following link to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

A Country of Contrasts

The vast spine of the Andes that runs north to south through Ecuador has many valleys and plateaus easily large enough to allow cities such as Quito, Riobamba and Cuenca to sit comfortably at altitudes of 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) or more. At such elevations, the countryside is green and the heat is never debilitating.

In a matter of hours one can descend to the lowlands on the way to the coast where things are immediately very different. There is arid countryside with scrub-like plants, heat, dust, motorbikes and mopeds everywhere, slap-dash architecture and a laid back attitude that one associates with hot Latin America. On the subject of architecture, in the lowlands the building standards are frequently terrible. The houses look like the builder had had a heavy session at the pub beforehand and had a budget of $10. There is a heavy sense of ´that´s good enough´ about it.

Around Puerto López

The town of Puerto López sits in the sweep of a bay. It is a dusty town with much of the activity centred on fishing (many boats in the bay) and the tourist trade (trips for diving and to Isla de la Plata).

Bars on Beach at Puerto López

North of Puerto López is Playa Los Frailes, a great sandy beach for swimming, with two smaller but more rocky beaches just around some headlands to the north. I enjoyed my first ever swims in the Pacific Ocean!

Beach Just North of Playa Los Frailes

A little inland to the north of Puerto López is the site of a previous indigenous community at Agua Blanca. The artefacts are not particularly impressive, but set in the woods nearby is a thermal bath. I enjoyed some relaxing dips in the sulphurous water as well as covering myself in the silt-like mud which did make my skin feel pretty good.

Tim Enjoying Some Skin Treatment at the Thermal Pool at Agua Blanca

Isla de la Plata

One day I took an excursion to Isla de la Plata, an island that lies around 40 km to the north west of the town. The island is a wildlife reserve and is awash with bird life. A walking tour of the island gave the opportunity to see birds such as Piqueros de Patas Azules, Frigata, Pajala Tropical and Piquero Enmascarado close up. In fact, the Piqueros de Patas Azules (with their blue feet) are so docile they almost seem happy to pose for photographs.

Piqueros de Patas Azules on Isla de la Plata

Frigata on Isla de la Plata

While lunching on the boat in a bay of Isla de la Plata I saw turtles and colourful fish. During the return to Puerto López the boat cruised around looking for Humpback Whales that pass this coastal region at this time of year. Spotting them was made a little difficult by the high swell but we did see one long enough to get glimpses of its tail, fin and back as they broke the surface. After a while the whale spotting was abandoned as the height of the swell was increasing and many people were starting to get sick. The journey back was a rough affair with many people (myself included) projecting their lunch off the back of the boat.

Turtle in Bay of Isla de la Plata

Back to Higher Planes

I left Puerto López, the coast and the lowlands to head to the city of Cuenca which is back up in the Andes (at 2,500 metres / 8,200 feet). After changing buses in Guayaquil, the route shortly started climbing up into the mountains. The rate of change in environment and temperature was incredible. Closer to Cuenca the road passed Parque Nacional Cajas whose misty and cool valleys reminded me of Europe – very different to the environment in the coastal lowlands not far away.

2012, 9th – 22nd July: Riobamba for Volcán Chimborazo & Quito Again - Ecuador

Chimborazo is a great hunk of a mountain (well an extinct volcano to be exact) that forms an imposing sight for many miles. The Andean plateau rises from its typical 2500 metres up to around 3800 metres closer to the mountain, with the mighty volcán rising a further 2.5 km (1.6 miles) up from there. It is therefore not surprising that the mountain has legendary status in the region – in fact, the nearest city of Riobamba is the capital of the Ecuadorian province name after the volcán. Even though Riobamba is 40 km or so from the mountain, it is clearly visible from the city and is a majestic part of the landscape.

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following link to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

The height of the principal summit is 6310 metres (20,702 feet / 3.92 miles), and it was these statistics that got me dreaming some time back of a Chimborazo ascent - primarily because it would allow me to surpass two numerical thresholds; 6000 metres and 20,000 feet. It was with a degree of trepidation that I set out on this mission because I know that my body is not one of the best when at high altitude. Challenges are all relative, so while Chimborazo is neither super high or very technical, to make a climb to a summit where the air pressure is 450 mbar (my estimate) was a personal challenge (it is 1013 mbar at sea level).

Chimborazo is not a particularly technical mountain, requiring only crampon and ice axe use and being roped together. However, what made it a challenge for me was the altitude on top of these technical aspects. The physical and mental weakness one can feel at altitude make the technical aspects somewhat more difficult, in the sense that when you are feeling ´out of it´ in the rarefied air it is much more difficult to concentrate on the dangers present and avoid making a mess of your crampon and ice axe techniques. So the challenge was really the combination of factors present. All this is the likely reason why only 20 to 25% of those that Julio guides make it to the summit successfully (Julio is an excellent guide, it is the mountain that is tough).

The Imposing Volcán Chimborazo Beneath a Vast Sky

Volcán Chimborazo in Evening Light - Viewed from Casa Condor

Finding a Mountain Guide

I thought that I would be able to find a mountain guide in Salinas de Bolivar which is a small town located to the south west of Chimborazo. The latter part of the coach journey to there from Quito was spectacular as it traverses a high plateau to the west of the mountain. The plateau reaches a height of 4000 metres and passes close to Chimborazo – what an imposing sight! From the green plateau it rises in greys and reds – capped with the permanent glacier on its summit. It´s puncture of the rich blue sky met with the protests of some clouds that often hug it´s upper reaches.

In typical South American bus journey style, I got off at a junction and waited for collectivo jeep transport from the main road up a misty valley to Salinas de Bolivar. This pleasant small town is set amidst beautiful and green valleys. Some of the older residents show the signs of a lifetime at 3500 metres – the skin of their faces hardened and reddened by the strong sun and dry air at altitude. Their dress is more traditional, with woollen garments to ward off the cold - heavy shawls, skirts and trousers as well as the Trilby style hat at times.

I found only one guide in Salinas, but he was busy. However, he gave the number of a good guide in Riobamba. So after a phone call, off to Riobamba to meet with my guide, Julio. The journey across the plateau to the south of the mountain gave me more vistas of the spectacular Chimborazo.

Julio presented me with two alternatives for the ascent:

1) Start from the lower refuge (at 4800 metres) and ascend during the day via the Castillo ridge to summit at sunset and return during the night. This route is longer (by around 1.5 hours) and has slightly more height gain.

2) Start from the upper refuge (at 5000 metres) and ascend during the night via the more common direct route to summit at sunrise.

First Summit Attempt

To assist with my acclimatisation I spent some time the day before making an easy walk from the first refuge, past the second and up to the Agujas de Wymper rock feature at a height of around 5300 metres. I then spend a night in some accommodation (Casa Condor) which is at 3600 metres (around 1100 metres higher than Riobamba). Julio, correctly, said that it is difficult to sleep at around 5000 metres and a night at 3600 metres gives the body the chance to produce more red blood cells while still getting a reasonable rest before the climb – a compromise of acclimatisation and resting properly.

For my first summit attempt, I elected to climb via the Castillo ridge.  In the early stages of the climb I felt fine, but this soon changed. There was one section along the ridge that was a little tricky. We traversed an extended section of rock and ice a little below the top of the ridge. During this period of the climb, even though the height was only around 5400 metres, I started to feel the altitude, with the symptoms of weakness, dizziness and nausea. Like much of the climbing on Chimborazo, I had to think clearly during this section because navigating the rock and ice in crampons necessitated definite placing of feet. The problem was that with the weakness and dizziness from the altitude I was not thinking entirely clearly about how carefully I was placing my crampons and I fell on more than one occasion – cutting my nose, arm and knee.

Traverse of Rock & Ice Section on Castillo Ridge

My pace started to slow more significantly, but I could not help to alleviate this by eating and drinking to gain energy because the nausea meant that I could barely swallow anything. Julio and I continued and started the ascent of the glacier, however, by this time I started to worry about my condition and I had an ominous feeling at the back of my mind that this was not a good day as my condition was poor. I felt that if I continued too much further something bad was going to happen. We reached a height of around 5700 metres where my dizzy state made me fall again. This was enough for me, I think that the mountain had given me a sufficient number of warnings and I decided that I should turn back. On reflection, the mountains I have ascended in my life before the Andes were not so difficult (not technical and without high altitude). As such, I had previously not experienced failed summit attempts. This occasion made two (along with Ritacumba Blanca in El Coycuy National Park in Colombia). Indeed, perhaps one can say that if you have not experienced a failed summit attempt, perhaps you have never tried to climb a difficult mountain.

Tim During Descent from Failed Summit Attempt (Exhausted & Ill with Altitude Sickness)

In South America there exists the philosophy of ´Pachamamá´ (Mother Earth) which describes the deep connection (spiritual) one can feel with the life-giving earth on which we stand. In this philosophy, one has respect for the earth and takes time on occasion to pause and give thanks. During my various Andean climbs to-date I have felt the calm that comes from this way of thinking and feeling. When I am in the midst of such huge mountains and vast landscapes I often feel that I am a visitor to a land governed by entities much older, wiser and larger than me, feeling that in a way I am in that land ´with their permission´. This reverence brings the beauty of the landscape within me, but also mentally ´keeps my feet on the ground´ and helps me to know when it is safe to continue and when things are not right and to turn back. So while I was disappointed to have not made the summit, I was not angry.

Even if one does not subscribe to the Pachamama philosophy, there is value in being, at times, in a reflective state of mind when in the mountains as it is this that helps you to know when to turn back – at those times when pushing on regardless might mean that you never make it back. On the approach to the refuge I had stars in my vision on occasion – a sign that I was not in a good way and had I still been high up the mountain on that glacier – who knows what could have happened.

Second Summit Attempt

After my failed first summit I was clearly disappointed. The next day, at first I put it down to experience, but during the course of the day I reflected that I do not know if or when I will get the opportunity to spend so much time in the Andes again, and that these high altitude climbs do necessitate an extended period of time for acclimatisation (and possible failed summit attempts). By the end of the day I had convinced myself to make another go of it.

For further acclimatisation I spent some time at the lower refuge. From there I walked solo up the Castillo ridge, along its highest section as far as the large square Castillo rock feature. During this climb I did not feel the effects of the altitude which was reassuring. Much of the walking was made in snow clouds which did clear briefly for some beautiful partial views of some sections of the mountain. Because of the poor visibility I took compass bearings during the route up to ensure that I could retrace my steps to the refuge safely.

The Castillo Ridge During a Brief Break in the Snow Clouds
(During Acclimatisation Walking)

This time at altitude I was able to eat and drink normally. I spent a night at the lower refuge (4800 metres). The altitude did affect my sleep to a degree, with little breathing events occurring where one´s breath seems to interrupt for a moment, causing one to take a deep breath – interrupting sleep somewhat. The fact that my body was busy adapting to the altitude during the night was evident the next day because I was very tired. In the morning I made a brief bit of exercise at altitude to the upper refuge and back, before returning to Riobamba to sleep a night at more ´normal´ air pressures and give my body a chance to rest properly before another summit attempt.

The second climb was made at night, so Julio and I arrived at the upper refuge mid afternoon to relax and give our bodies some time at 5000 metres. After a few hours during which I could not sleep we got up at 10pm and prepared our gear, setting off just before 11pm. We made fairly good progress up the rock and ice sections to the ridge just below the start of the glacier, reaching there around 2am. Strangely, once again I started to feel the ´altitude wall´ being present for me at around 5500 metres with my pace slowing but fortunately I was not as ill as during the first summit attempt.

The glacier is just one long hard slog up the ice, side-stepping (to maximise the crampon contact with the ice) in pigeon steps (to conserve energy in the thin air). A low point was at around 4am, when in my exhaustion I was again not thinking clearly and was making a poor effort with my crampons - not making definitive steps. Julio rightly gave me a warning that if I did not up my game and tread more safely we would have to return. I downed some chocolate and some sugary drink (though it was half frozen) – I could not eat the peanuts as they were frozen solid (I estimate the temperature was around -10 Celsius or less)! I got my brain in gear and pushed on – this time with much more carefully placed crampons. After my first failed summit attempt I felt that it could be touch and go whether I would make it successfully the second time.  I spent the sleepless hours before the climb repeating positive thoughts and calling upon the greater powers to help me. After the low point at 4am I once again called upon these positive forces to help me.

The visual spectacles throughout the climb were beautiful. The night on the mountain was clear throughout and we walked under a tapestry of bright stars. Once on the glacier, the snow-free valleys far below were much darker than the glacier. There was enough light from the stars to define the white of the glacier, making it feel like we were walking on a white cloud high above the dark valleys.

When we were at around 100 metres in altitude below the first summit, the sun started to rise and lit the vast plane of uninterrupted clouds that sat below us to the east.  Just ten minutes later, the sun was high enough to cast a shadow of the mountain across the clouds that sat to the west- some truly spectacular views.

Sunrise Seen Near the End of the Glacier Climb

The Low Sun Just After Dawn Casting a Shadow of Chimborazo

View from the Glacier Just After Dawn

There are two summits of Chimborazo; the first to be reached is slightly lower than the main Wymper summit (6310 metres) which is another 20 minutes walk. I made it from the secondary to the principal summit – albeit in a slightly unsteady fashion as I was absolutely exhausted. In my almost delirious state I gave a heart-felt thanks to the mountain (and to Pachamama).

Tim on the Main Summit of Volcán Chimborazo

The top of the mountain is covered in powdery crystalline snow sitting atop the ice of the glacier. As one looks across the gentle summit topographies to the huge planes of clouds sitting below and to the horizon, one is mesmerised by the vast palette of white in all directions, scored by streaks of blue in the sky between the clouds below and those in the upper atmosphere. I am glad to have the photos to help me remember it, because it was difficult to fully absorb the awe-inspiring beauty when I was in such an exhausted state. I noticed when I reviewed by photos afterwards that in all of them my mouth is wide open, which for a moment I thought was strange until I realised that at the time I was permanently panting in the rarefied air.

View from the Summit
(The Dark Streak on the Horizon is a Minor Volcanic Eruption)

Chimborazo Summit View:
6310 metres (20,702 feet / 3.92 miles) in the Sky
Beautiful Crystalline Snow & Ice Between
the Clouds Below & Those in the Upper Atmosphere

Before we started the climb, Julio said that the absolutely latest time to leave the main summit was 8am. This is because later in the morning when the sun is higher, the glacier becomes more treacherous as the surface of the ice softens. Furthermore, in the ice and rock sections lower down, when the ice softens it lets go of rocks it was holding. These rock falls are dangerous – in fact earlier this year a climber from Spain was killed on Chimborazo by one such rock fall. Fortunately I just made it to the main summit in time – leaving just ten minutes or so to soak up the views before having to start the descent.

It took a lot of mental energy to summon the strength to comprehend the thought of the four to five hour descent to the refuge when my body felt like it could not walk another step. During the descent of the glacier and the rock-ice sections in the valley below I struggled at times as my energy by this time was really low and Julio had to verbally push me to keep the pace reasonable so that we may get through the dangerous sections as soon as possible. By the time we reached the refuge I was almost too tired to be able to celebrate and enjoy my achievement. Due to my reduced pace during the ascent and descent of the glacier (my pace was slowed by my low energy in the thin air), the total climb took 13 hours (apparently 10 to 11 hours is a good pace). Nevertheless, I made it to a summit that is challenging (altitude wise).

After a week of up and down at high altitude and two goes at the summit by body was truly knackered, but my mind was happy!

2012, 19th – 22nd July
A Second Visit to Quito

After my time in Riobamba, I returned to Quito for a second time to spend a long weekend with someone special who flew in from Medellín.

2012, 2nd – 8th July: Quito, Ecuador

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following link to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

Upon crossing the border from Colombia to Ecuador near Ipiales (Colombia) and Tulcán (Ecuador), the sudden change in scenery was dramatic. On heading south towards Quito, the steep, thin and deep valleys of the mountains on the Colombia side immediately changed to far broader and flatter valleys in Ecuador, with some plateaus flanked by more gently sloping mountains. This more forgiving landscape may be one explanation for the sudden improvement in road quality compared to Colombia. On the Ecuadorian Pan American Highway (the main road running north-south through the country), I enjoyed a journey where I felt like I was getting somewhere (unlike many of the routes in Colombia which can be painfully slow).

Quito – The City

Like so many Andean cities along the west of the continent, Quito is linear with its shape a function of the mountains that line each side. At an elevation of 2850 metres (9,350 feet) it has a pleasant temperature, though one often switches between jumper on, jumper off as it is only warm in the radiated heat of direct sunlight. The mountains which are always visible create a very picturesque backdrop to the city scenes.

The highlight of the city is the historic centre with its nicest plazas being Plaza Grande and Plaza San Francisco. The inside of the cathedral on Plaza Grande is very ornate, with an impressive amount of golden adornments. The nearby small street (pedestrian only) of La Ronda with its many restaurants and bars comes alive at night (particularly weekends). Climbing the high towers of the Basílica del Voto Nacional gave me great views of the historic district.

Quito´s Historic District as Viewed from the Top of Basílica del Voto Nacional

Plaza Grande in the Historic Centre

Monasterio de San Franciso in the Historic Centre

North of the old town is the modern La Mariscal district. It has been dubbed ´Gringoland´ because of the number of hostels, US style bars and restaurants as well as countless tour agencies. I did not particularly like it.

On the hill north west of La Mariscal are buildings housing the works of the late Ecuadorian artist Guayasamín. In the modern Capilla del Hombre are his works expressing the suffering of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador as well as those elsewhere in the world. The works are very impressive and, to me, have influences from Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon. The setting for Capilla del Hombre is very pleasant with commanding views of the city below and the mountains beyond.

I took a ride on the teleférico (cable car) that rises to the Cruz Loma viewing point above the city just after dusk for great night time views of the city. A very sedate way to get to 4100 metres (13,450 feet)!

Quito at Night from Cruz Loma (at Top of Teleférico)

On an excursion with my language school we visited a town north of Quito to lunch on cuy (guinea pig). The type of cuy on offer was large and half an animal is enough for one lunch. The taste was rich (a little like game meat); however, there was a lot of skin and grease. I would not rush to eat it again. Further south in Peru and Bolivia I may find the smaller variety which are meant to be less greasy. If I eat one of those I could truly say that I have eaten a pet (I recall my sisters and I having guinea pigs as pets when we were children)!

A Cuy (Guinea Pig) That Has Nodded Off on a Potato Pillow

The Equatorial Line

One day I travelled two hours north of the city centre to visit the equatorial line. If any readers visit the same place, avoid the ´theme park´ style complex which is not good and which is located on an incorrectly calculated equator line. The ´true´ (more accurate) equator line lies just to the side and was plotted much later using military GPS. This is the true line as ´the plug hole does not lie´. At this location, part of the tour includes the famous experiment with the basin full of water – it is this experiment that proves that they have got the equatorial line correctly plotted.

The basin of water is one of those experiments you have to see with your own eyes. I can appreciate that the resultant vector of rotational and gravitational forces causes the water in a plug hole to rotate one way in the northern hemisphere (anti-clockwise) and the other in the southern hemisphere (clockwise). However, I would have expected that one would have to travel hundreds of miles away from the equator (either side) to see the different effects. However, the effect was there on the equator line, in fact it ´did my head in´ to see the effects over distances of mere metres, so I jumped from one tour group to the next to see it done four or five times to convince myself that I was not seeing things or being duped.

A simple, unadulterated, sink is placed in the northern hemisphere (just four or five metres north of the equatorial line) and as the water drains it clearly rotates anti-clockwise. When the experiment is repeated with the sink directly above the equatorial line the water drains straight down with no rotation! When the sink is then moved south of the line the water clearly rotates clockwise as it drains. No tricks, no gadgets - very cool!

Exactly on the Equatorial Line - Water Draining Without Rotation Down a Plug Hole
(The Floating Green Leaf is to Help Indicate Direction of Water Movement)

More Spanish

During my time in Quito I stayed with a great family (arranged through the language school) and took five mornings of one-to-one Spanish conversational practice and lessons, which were very economical. Staying with a friendly family was so much better than being in a hostel.

2012, 26th June – 1st July Popayán, Pasto & Ipiales - Colombia

My final days were in Colombia were spent in the south before heading for the border with Ecuador, taking in the Colombian cities of Popayán, Pasto and Ipiales.

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following link to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

Popayán: 26th – 28th June

The bus journey from San Andrés de Pisimbalá (near Tierradentro) to Popayán included yet more Colombian mountain road experiences. An extended section was under repair (or was it ever tarmac)? I was surprised the bus could make it through the mud and puddles, though the resilient driver seemed undeterred.

Popayán is a pleasant enough city, with an attractive historic centre. In a similar fashion to many colonial towns in this part of the world it follows the grid system centred on a main central plaza. Having seen quite a few such places that adopted this system I can picture some high-ranking Spaniard turning up long ago and saying something to the effect “Right lads, you know the drill by now. Stick a plaza here, wack a catherdral at one end of it to convince these locals that our religion is the best one. Throw down streets in a grid from there – calles one way and carreras the other. In case anyone forgets how our religion works, bash out a few more churches every now and then on street corners. By the way, the wife arrives from Spain next month so you´ve got four weeks – look lively”.

The streets in the historic centre have a nice symmetry, with all buildings rendered and whitewashed. In terms of classic tourist sites, Popayán does not deliver in spades, but it was nevertheless a pleasant place to pass a few days.

Street Lights & Car Lights in Popayán

Pasto & Languna Verde: 29th – 30th June

Supposedly it is possible to make the journey from Popayán to Quito (Ecuador) in one day. But what with South American bus journey times generally being longer than published and not being that fussed about making border crossings at night (frontiers always have a few shady characters lurking about), I decided to stop over in Pasto.

Pasto is not particularly attractive, but there is some wonderful countryside nearby, with numerous deep mountain valleys. I originally planned to spend a day visiting Laguna de la Cocha. However, while checking into the hotel in Pasto, I eyed a poster of Laguna Verde which looked stunning and I thought “that looks nice, I want to go there, I shall go there”. The hotelier gave me some tips on how to get there (which proved correct in some respects and questionable in others).

The laguna is best viewed in the morning since it is more likely to rain in the afternoon, so I got up very early to get a collectivo from Pasto to the nearest town to the lake – Túquerres, about 70 km (1.5 hours drive) to the south west of Pasto. In Pasto I was advised that I could walk from Túquerres to the lake, but the Túquerres townsfolk said otherwise as it turned out to be around 10km to the start of the trail (all uphill), with further 6 km walking from the trail head to the lake.

To avoid losing too much in the event of being robbed, like many days out during my travels I had only brought enough cash for the day with me and no bank cards. However, I had not banked on having to pay transport to and from the trail head. Some nice women in a cafe took it upon themselves to help me out and called upon the local men. A mother´s meeting ensued and in the end I negotiated a price for a ride to the trail head on the back of a motorbike.

From the trail head (and Park Ranger´s station), it was about an hour´s walk to Laguna Verde. The lake is in the crater of the extinct Volcán Azufral which is at an altitude of 4070 metres (13,353 feet). The sight of the lake exceeds expectation by a long way. One might expect a lake called ´Green Lake´ to have a green hue in certain lights, and be happy with that. However, the lake is very green indeed – without any blue hues that you might expect for a lake.

The Very Green Laguna Verde

No doubt the colour of the water comes from all the concoctions of elements and minerals that rise to the surface and mix with the water. Evidences of this deposition of unusual substances are the large sections of white and pale yellow rock that spread out up the sides of the crater at one end of the lake as well as the bubbles of gas that rise to the surface of the lake at various points.

Gas Bubbling to the Surface of Laguna Verde

Element & Mineral Laden Rock by Laguna Verde
(Note the Yellow Sulphurous Deposits)

Element & Mineral Deposits Scar the Landscape of Laguna Verde

After enjoying the lake from many vantage points, my early start paid dividends as the clouds rolled in at lunchtime and it started to rain heavily. I then had to turn my attention to how to get back to the town. I left the town knowing that I did not have enough cash on me to pay for a ride back to Túquerres and had set out from the town with the philosophy, oh well something will turn up (ha, a more adventurous spirit). Well something did turn up.

At the start of the trail back to the ranger station I encountered a young man and his girlfriend. The guy had thought it would be cool to venture off the trail on his off-road motorbike – bad move as it was stuck. By the time I got there the poor lad was exhausted after an hour or so of trying to get the bike back up the slope to the path. I helped him out, and after much heaving and straining with the 300 kg bike, we got it back up the slope and onto the trail. I figured after getting him out of a bad situation, a ride back to town would be in order and he kindly obliged.

Being a trail bike, there was no proper seat for a pillion passenger, so with two passengers (his girlfriend and me) this made things a little tricky. With no bars to hold onto at the back of the bike I had no choice but to grip onto her thighs with mine (I hope she didn´t mind too much). After 40 minutes like this, we arrived back in Túquerres. I was so stiff in legs and back, for ten minutes I walked like someone who had laid cable in my underpants – but a lot better than having to walk the total of 16 km back to the town.

Ipiales & El Santuario de las Lajas: 1st July

Ipiales (around two hours south of Pasto) is the last town before the border with Ecuador. I am afraid to say it is pretty unattractive. But it does have one site of note about 10 minutes away by collectivo, namely El Santuario de las Lajas – a church that spans a gorge (picture a tall arched bridge across a gorge with a church sitting on top of the bridge at one end). Its architecture is neo-gothic and its rising spires sit nicely within the vertical natural setting.

El Santuario de las Lajas

I then set off for the border with Ecuador, saying goodbye to Colombia after four months (wow, my longest period in a country outside of the UK).