July 15th 2015
Ipiales – Tulcan – El Angel
Start 7am and finish 5pm
Time – 5.02hrs
Distance – 49.5kms
Average – 9.8kms/hr
Max – 61.6kms/hr
The ride out of Ipiales was relatively easy and straight forward. Since our hotel was slightly out of town we decided to go the long way around rather than through it but I don’t think it really matters which way you go. The last 2 km’s to the border are a great downhill but it was freezing cold and we just had blue fingers and faces at the bottom. While stopped waiting for everyone a fellow cycle tourist called Chris White pulled up alongside and chatted for awhile. He hadn’t spoken any English in 40 days and had been on the road for 10 months after starting in Calgary. After swapping stories for awhile we decided to start the immigration process by moving off the road and into Columbian immigration.
There was a cambio guy trying to swap currency who directed us to the right place but it was pretty simple with the big brown building directly in front of you (or on your left as you follow the road around) being where you needed it to be. Thankfully a security guard opened a gate for us and we were able to park our bikes right next to where we needed to get stamped or else it would have required one of us to remain with the bikes to protect them. After a short wait in the line we presented passports, got them returned with an exit stamp and jumped back on the bikes to head across the bridge (if you can’t figure out which building to go to, go to the bridge and turn around – it will be very obvious from there.)
Then over the bridge, which was about 20-30 meters long. So why people say ‘no man’s land’ is dangerous at this border crossing I have no idea. There were plenty of people walking over it and plenty of other people around on both sides so there isn’t much opportunity for things to go wrong. By following the cycle path over the bridge it kind of dead ended at a security gate and we jumped off our bikes and headed to the main building in front of us. Again a cambio guy started waving at us and kindly showed us where to park our bikes and where we needed to go though it was fairly obvious.
Once inside there was a small queue of people and I had to ask at one of the counters for an immigration form. Once completed we joined the line and waited for our turn and no sooner had we joined the line than a pulse of people came in so it was good timing on our part. Given the influx of people one of the immigration guys stood at the door handing out forms which was nice of him and would have made things simple if he had done that for us.
After a while we were all stamped into Ecuador and we could get on with the trip. It took us about an hour from arriving at the Colombian border to riding away from the Ecuadorian border so not too bad for a land based border crossing. From the border the road, of course, goes up but there was a nice clean shoulder to ride and after ignoring the first few entrances into Tulcan we took the second exit. Once in Centro we spent awhile buying groceries which was an experience as what we though was a supermarket was actually just a farmers market where you buy what you want from each stall. It made for some light entertainment trying to understand the new accent and different vocabulary and figuring out the ‘new’ currency of American Dollars again.
We also wasted time getting Haley and Noel a SIM card which doesn’t work, finding a place to eat that Noel could relax enough about the bikes to actually go inside and checking out the main tourist attraction in town which is the cemetery. We needed a map of Ecuador and while trying to ask, one guy said we could get one at the cemetery which seemed odd to us but after breakfast and riding out of town a guy stopped his car on the road and told us to go to the cemetery so after finding a map ( though not a very good one) we turned around and found the cemetery which was only a few blocks from the main square.
It was a pleasant surprise actually and was very interesting. There weren’t graves as such but plenty of mausoleums to look at and headstones towards the back. The real attraction though was the design and effort of the hedges – the gardeners had shaped them into animals or ancient beings and a variety of other things which made wandering the place rather interesting. Towards the back the hedges thinned out and the real cemetery continued but since we knew nothing about the place we are glad people mentioned it or we would have had a low opinion of the town.
Once crossing into Ecuador we immediately noticed the people are friendlier and actually approach us to ask questions and are generally curious about us. We haven’t felt the hostility or tension or danger so it’s a big relief after the last few weeks. After completing all our errands and seeing the cemetery it was finally time to leave and at noon we finally started to roll out of town. Chris the cyclist we met this morning had given us some directions to where we wanted to go which as El Angel. He reckoned there was a refuge about 44kms from the border and if we followed the road out of town, turned at the weird statue of a midget holding a gun then followed the road we would get there.
We followed the road out of town but saw no statue but luckily Noel was paying attention to his GPS and we found the turn anyway – after a couple of round abouts with statues keep going straight until the road forks. If you go straight it will be on a main highway with a large sign saying Ibarra and Quito. Ignore this and turn right onto an unmarked road and follow it for awhile. It deteriorated into a dirt road almost immediately and after not very long forked again. Take the right hand option which is again unmarked and follow it uphill until it forks again. This time take the left hand fork and keep following it.
It’s not a bad dirt road for a few kilometres then turns into this weird road that was obviously an experiment gone wrong. It was like someone had the idea of dumping soil all over a dirt road then tried to grade it but it didn’t work so now there are large clumps of soil and the tracks all through it which just made it feel like riding through a ploughed field.
After a few more kilometers of that the road forks again and we stopped to go right only as far as the ridge to take pictures of the view before returning and taking the left hand option to stay on our intended route.
The road changes again here to just a bumpy dirt road and then continues to deteriorate until it’s just a really bumpy dirt road.
The grade is achievable and while we were in low gears we were not in our lowest and we stayed on the bike the whole time. I would describe it as a gentle grade so anyone with a moderate fitness level should be fine though it does get up to 3800meters so elevation might be an issue. As you got higher it became wetter and there were several puddles to ride through and muddy sections to walk your bike through. The track also became so bouncy in places it hurt to ride the bike but there was nothing for it but to keep going. The environment changed from agricultural to something out of Dr Zeus with weird plants and plenty of them dominating the landscape. We had seen these plants at altitude before when crossing from Encino into Duitama but this was on a whole other level.
Eventually 44kms came and went and there was no sign of a refuge that Chris had mentioned. It had rained on and off all afternoon since leaving Tulcan to the point we were all in rain gear but it was that annoying rain that while sometimes so strong you needed rain pants for the most part was just a drizzle or light rain. It meant if you didn’t put your rain gear on you were wet but if you did you were still wet from sweating in it riding uphill – can’t win sometimes.
By now it was getting late and we needed to decide if we push on to the mythical refuge or call it at a suitable camping spot. Haley and I called it close to 5pm because she hates cooking in the dark and I hate setting up camp in the dark and we had no idea how much further we really had to go. So with Haley and I changing out of wet clothes and getting dinner ready the guys headed on up the road in hoping to prove that by going just a bit further we would reach the refuge. Half an hour later Noel comes back having still not found the refuge and he finally agrees to set up camp even though Haley and I had already made the decision.
With the guys on board now and realizing this was as good as it got tonight, camp was set up and we were kicking back waiting for the lentils to cook in no time. A hot drink to warm up as its freezing cold up here and then into tents and sleeping bags trying to stay warm. Hopefully the rain clears in the morning and it won’t be so cold.
It feels good to be in a new country and back on the back roads and camping again away from the highway and away from civilization. It makes things clean and fresh again and washes away the bad taste from the last few weeks. I for one feel better about things and even the rain today didn’t affect the groups mood. Noel was excited to be on a dirt road not knowing where we were going without a map, Haley was loving the dirt as she reckons her tyres feel better for it, I was loving being in the back country seeing the ‘real’ Ecuador and Dave was Dave.
He had another issue with his bike but this time it was his rack that fell completely off the frame. I came around the corner to find his bike on the road standing on its own with his bags on the ground beside it. Very funny. After a patch job involving a zip tie, a strap and some medical tape we managed to get the rack reattached and strong enough to hold the weight of his bags again. Lucky for him it’s the end of his trip as I don’t think his bike or gear can take much more.