The final stretch: Popayan to Cartagena

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As many of you know (or suspect) we have made it to Cartagena, our final destination. In a later post we’ll cover the ‘oh wow, look what we’ve accomplished over the past 16 months’ (and some best-of lists), but in this post we will describe the road from Salento to Cartagena. We conquered a few final mountain climbs, spent two eventful days in Medellin, then said goodbye to the Andes and descended into the hot, humid lowlands of Northern Colombia.

Coffee trees!

Coffee farms!

After we left Salento we were still in the magical coffee-land for most of two days. The coffee plantations hug the hills and are very well-cared for. It is a special experience for me to see where these plants are grown, since I am reasonably sure that without coffee I wouldn’t have made it through my time as an undergraduate, not to mention my PhD!

A big city in coffee central

A big city in coffee central

Aug22_010We also rode on a busy highway that literally corkscrewed up the mountain in a big circle. There was a tunnel and a long, round bridge that curled the traffic up. I guess it’s hard to explain, so you should look at the picture. The little hill towns in this area are supremely hectic. There are dozens of motorcycles zipping past at any given moment, and many men drinking beer at informal ‘bars’ (guys with coolers full of beer ) set up in the main plaza. At least the hotels are cheap – usually about $5 for the both of us.

Animal crossing signs have gotten a lot more interesting.

Animal crossing signs have gotten a lot more interesting.

Big, wide rivers in the valleys

Big, wide rivers in the valleys

Local transportation usually has lots of people just hanging on the outisde

Local transportation usually has lots of people just hanging on the outisde

Local riders 'truck surf' up the hills. It looks terrifying to us.

Local riders ‘truck surf’ up the hills. It looks terrifying to us.

Typical small town main street chaos.

Typical small town main street chaos.

Just before entering Medellin we decided to visit a motorcycle repair shop to get our tires pumped up to full pressure, since our little $5 pump can’t quite do the job. At first the guy kept trying to use the air hose, but the pressure in the tire was just going lower each time. Then he remembered to turn the air compressor on! Ha.
Entering the big city of Medellin was a little stressful. Medellin is the second largest city in Colombia, so as you can imagine there was a lot of traffic! We decided to stay on the main highway to avoid riding through more dangerous parts of town, and as luck would have it there were many lanes. This means we took an entire lane for ourselves and safely reached the downtown core.

Big city entry

Big city entry

We spent two days exploring Medellin, and we really enjoyed our time there. This city has a long, rough history, but it is currently vibrant, well-organized, and full of life. We took a walking tour on our first day there, and we learned so much of what this city has been through. Just 15 years ago the outlying neighborhoods were under curfew every night, there were bombings and killings in the streets, and rampant homelessness and drug addiction. In the past decade, however, things have dramatically changed for the better.

On the left, a sculpture ruined by a bomb during a concert. On the right, the same sculpture.

On the left, a sculpture ruined by a bomb during a concert. On the right, the same sculpture.

Through programs called ‘Democratic Architecture’ and ‘ Education with Dignity’ the city has reclaimed crime-ridden areas and made them symbols of positive change for the city.. The poor, outlying neighborhoods of the city have been linked to the center with cable cars and metro lines. Huge, beautiful libraries have also been built in these neighborhoods. They are places where people can go to take free classes, use the internet, and of course – read books!

The forest of light - an outdoor interactive sculpture that lights up at night to create a safe space. This was a center of crime and drugs just 20 years ago.

The forest of light – an outdoor interactive sculpture that lights up at night to create a safe space. This was a center of crime and drugs just 20 years ago.

Something else we loved about Medellin is how folks from all different walks of life coexist in very close proximity. Businessmen share the streets with vendors pushing carts of avocados, old men sipping beers, and the down and out. The ladies of the night do business (in broad daylight) right against the front of the church! Other amazing contradictions exist too – there is a street that is technically open to traffic, but a few years back the vendors on either side slowly moved into the street. They inched just a bit further every day until one day they just set up smack in the middle. The police just gave up and let them have it.

Typical bustle and mix of folks.

Typical bustle and mix of folks.

That man has office chairs on his bicycle!

That man has office chairs on his bicycle!

There was also coffee.

There was also coffee.

Exotic fruit taste test

Exotic fruit taste test

The old justice building is now a shopping mall, and ground zero for counterfeit goods. Can you see why we liked this city?! We tried to go see an art museum, but it turned out that Tom Cruise and crew taken over the entire place to film Mission Impossible 6. It seemed that most of the city had also come out to try and get a glimpse of the star.

After Medellin we had two beautiful days in the mountains. At the top of the Andes here we were reminded on the hills of Pennsylvania – lots of rolling green and cows. We truly enjoyed these last days of cool riding. At the end of the second day we descended a steep, foggy, 8,000′ to end in the steamy lowlands. It was suddenly so hot that we were dripping sweat constantly.

Local buses line up in a hill town

Local buses line up in a hill town

These little towns way off the tourist trail are truly wonderful.

These little towns way off the tourist trail are truly wonderful.

Kind of like Pennsylvania, right? Or maybe we've been gone so long that we forget what PA actually looks like.

Kind of like Pennsylvania, right? Or maybe we’ve been gone so long that we forget what PA actually looks like.

At the bottom in the heat!

At the bottom in the heat!

It was from here on that we started to pay more for hotels, since we were adamant about getting air conditioning just to sleep comfortably. Knowing that the riding was going to be hot and sweatly until Cartagena, we started to wake up every day at 4:30 am. That way, we could be on the bikes and riding before 6 am, and off the bikes around noon. Each day we made excellent time in the gentle hills of the lowlands during the early morning, then our progress would inevitably slow as the day heated up and the sun came out. It was usually in the 90s before 10 am. We would spend all afternoon lazing about under the air conditioning unit in our hotel room.

Dawn along the river

Dawn along the river

At 6 am we found this fishermen on the road with their (still wiggling) catch.

At 6 am we found this fisherman on the road with his (still wiggling) catch.

A little bit of jungle

A little bit of jungle

Jungle ants!

Jungle ants!

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8 am arm sweat.

The people in this part of the world are incredibly friendly, happy, and enthusiastic. We greeted everyone we passed, and they were almost always enthusiastic in their response. It become completely normal for us to see someone enthusiastically waving a machete at us in greeting! Pepole here get up early too – school classes start at 6 am and everyone is going about their chores as soon as the sky begins to lighten.

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The cargo is a new metro car for Medellin. There were at least 3 guys not in the cab as the truck was moving.

The cargo is a new metro car for Medellin. There were at least 3 guys not in the cab as the truck was moving.

This lady made her own fruit cart. It took her 2 months to decorate it with bottle caps.

This lady made her own fruit cart. It took her 2 months to decorate it with bottle caps.

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We went really fast in the low lands – doing 70, 80, or even 90 miles days. For this reason, our final approach into Cartagena happened a day earlier than we expected. Our entry into this last major Latin American city was just as hectic and crowded as any other. There were local buses that constantly stopped in the middle of the road, moto drivers that wove through the traffic like maniacs, kamikaze cab drivers, and even the occasional horse and buggy. It was chaos for about 7 miles! As we neared our final destination in Old Town we stopped for a quick lunch of the most delicious calamari we’d ever tasted, then we rode the final mile into the walled city.

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Cartagena is beautiful. The old part of town is very well preserved and picturesque. There are little cafes and restaurants tucked away, along with lines of street vendors selling fresh fruit and juices. Of course, it’s also very hot and humid all day every day, so keep that in mind before you plan a trip here! We are at the end of our third day in this lovely city, and definitely feel like we are ready to get on that plane and head back to the US. Keep on the look out for a few big summary posts in the coming weeks. Thanks for following our journey with us!

Now, a few more bonus photos that didn’t make it into the narrative:

Cartagena traffic

Cartagena traffic

Little kids next to the road

Little kids next to the road

This is one of the best animal crossing signs of the whole trip!

This is one of the best animal crossing signs of the whole trip!

A common way to transport bicycles here

A common way to transport bicycles here

A first glimpse of the Caribbean

A first glimpse of the Caribbean

Local transportation

Local transportation

Riding along palm plantations. This is a big area for palm oil production

Riding along palm plantations. This is a big area for palm oil production.

An area of the road with lots of geyser-like hoses squirting water all the time.

An area of the road with lots of geyser-like hoses squirting water all the time – used for truck washing.

We found the coffee! Popayan to Salento.

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This post only covers four days of adventuring, but they were so packed with fun and pictures that we decided to post about them.  Last time we updated, we were taking an extra day in Popayan while our bicycles’ wheels got rebuilt with new rims.  I am happy to report that the repair job was both top notch and incredibly cheap.  The mechanic only charged us $2 in labor for each wheel, if you can believe it.  We insisted on paying him more, which I think truly surprised him!

The mechanic who rebuilt our wheels on very short notice.

The mechanic who rebuilt our wheels on very short notice.

Three guys on one moto, and crazy passing truck.

Three guys on one moto, and crazy passing truck.

It was mostly downhill after Popayan, and we descended into the steaming heart of sugar cane country.  The fields went on and on as far as we could see.  To move the harvested sugar cane, absolutely massive trucks called ‘sugar cane trains’ drove along the straight highway.  These trucks were towing up to 5 massive trailers, and some had 54 or even 58 wheels!  It was very hot in the valley, over 90 degrees, but it was so flat that we made excellent time.  The town we stayed in was a lively, tropical town full of juice stalls and motorcycles.

Riding through the sugar cane.

Riding through the sugar cane.

Sugar cane train!

Sugar cane train!

Thank goodness for the fan in this room - it is hot down here in the lowlands!

Thank goodness for the fan in this room – it is hot down here in the lowlands!

Our second day out was almost completely flat.  As you can guess, it was also hot, and pretty dang boring.  Oh, and I got two flat tires before 10 am.  Enough said.

Cane trains and motorcycles

Cane trains and motorcycles

The flats went on and on...

The flats went on and on…

Small town church.

Small town church.

The hills begin again.

The hills begin again.

We finally left the valley on our third day and headed into the hills straight away.  It was lovely, with all sorts of tropical plants and fruit stands.  We navigated a couple of hectic, dense cities and finally emerged into the coffee zone.  That’s right – the coffee zone!  They actually call it the ‘coffee axis’, but I think that sounds a bit strange in English.

Pineapple farm in the hills.

Pineapple farm in the hills.

Fruit stands all along the road.

Fruit stands all along the road.

Jason happy in a central plaza

Jason happy in a central plaza

The cities are very dense with many high-rise apartment buildings

The cities are very dense with many high-rise apartment buildings

A very friendly day rider

A very friendly day rider

We found a sweet dog!

We found a sweet dog!

This coffee farm dog looked more like a polar bear than a dog.

This coffee farm dog looked more like a polar bear than a dog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We arrived in the tourist town of Salento at 2:30, and quickly found a room and jumped on a coffee tour at a nearby farm.  It was a fantastic tour!  We got to learn about coffee plants, berries, harvest, and preparation. This coffee production thing is a lot more complicated than I ever thought.

Seedlings in sand.

Seedlings in sand.

The coffee plants are sprouted in sand for four months, then they are transplanted to little bags of compost.  After about a year they are about 16 inches tall, when they are planted in the field. After five years they start to produce berries, and will continue to do so for about 60 years.  That is a long time!  Coffee berries then have to be de-pulped, soaked for 24 hours, rinsed, dried, peeled, and finally roasted.  We got to go through the whole process with our guide, including grinding, roasting, and drinking.

Seedling in compost (we planted this one!)

Seedling in compost (we planted this one!)

One year old seedlings

One year old seedlings

Coffee flower and berries

Coffee flower and berries

Taking the berry pulp off the coffee beans.

Taking the berry pulp off the coffee beans.

Drying the coffee

Drying the coffee

Roasting the coffee

Roasting the coffee

 

Even though the coffee part was great, Jason and I both agreed that our favorite part of the tour was seeing the other plants on the farm: pineapple, bamboo, banana, and other crazy fruits that don’t have names in English.

Pineapple starting to grow.

Pineapple starting to grow.

Bamboo.

Bamboo.

Crazy tangy fruit we'd never tried.

Crazy tangy fruit we’d never tried.

The next day we got up early to take a tourist jeep to a nearby valley for a hike.  We got there so early, in fact, that no one else was there and we had to wait for the first jeep. Our hike up the well-known Valley of Cocora was absolutely lovely.  We walked through fields, then cloud forest, and across many bridges.  There was a hummingbird house at the end of the trail where we sipped hot chocolates and dozens of them buzz around the feeders.

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Our Jeep was full with 7 passengers in the main section, plus another 5 that had the pleasure of standing on the rear bumper and holding on!

A local dog walked along with us

A local dog walked along with us

This massive horse had quite a load of milk!

This massive horse had quite a load of milk!

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Entering the cloud forest

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There were several bridges of questionable stability

There were several bridges of questionable stability

Hummingbirds!

Hummingbirds!

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On our way back down (via a different route) we got to walk through a grove of wax palms.  These are super tall palm trees that only grow in very specific, high-altitude conditions.

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We made it back to our room in Salento around 2 pm, and immediately fell asleep.  Going straight from cycle-tourist to regular tourist is exhausting!

Salento's streets are very colorful. The town was another case of "Gringolandia."

Salento’s streets are very colorful. The town was another case of “Gringolandia.”

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Welcome to Colombia!

We crossed the equator - 0.0 degrees!

We crossed the equator – 0.0 degrees!

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We actually found a flat spot! — And there are more to come.

What?!  Another new country already!?  It’s true, we are already out of Ecuador and into Colombia.  So far it has been HOT, almost savannah-esque, and full of motorcycles.  We have both had nearly catastrophic mechanical failures (more on that later), and we are currently taking a second, unexpected rest day while our bikes get patched up.  Now, a little bit about our exit from Ecuador, and then more on our first days in Colombia. We’ve got more details on our end of trip plans queued up at the end of the post too.

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No traffic on the PanAmerican Highway

First, leaving Quito.  We had been dreading our exit from the big city, but we were hit with an incredible stroke of luck: a national holiday.  There was almost zero traffic as we made our way out of this metropolis!  It was fantastic.  That day we conquered still more Andean climbs and reached the market town of Otavalo.

Our cyclist friend Jorge (who we met first in La Paz and later in Cusco) has been in Otavalo for two weeks recovering from an injury, so we were excited to meet up with him again.  We also decided to take a rest day here, and to spend it doing absolutely nothing.  It was glorious!  We only left the hostel to visit the market and buy stamps.  It was an exercise in supreme rest.

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Rawrrr!

Rawrrr!

 

The first almost catastrophic mechanical occurred after leaving Otavalo.  Everything was going great – we got out of town (and met Godzilla en route), and had a huge descent into a hot valley.  About 30 miles into the day’s ride I felt that my rear brake was catching on something.  I couldn’t find anything stuck on my wheel, so we rode to the next gas station and stopped for lunch.  After lunch I could feel that something was wrong with my wheel.  As I rode a little irregularity was noticeable all the way up through my seat.  We stopped again, and saw the source: a crack in the rim of the wheel.

 

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The cracked rim

This was really bad news.  A cracked rim can very quickly become a broken rim, causing the tire to fly off the wheel and the rider (me) to crash.  We were very far from the nearest bicycle shop, and completely unable to fix the rim on our own.  I suppose we should have seen this coming (rims get worn out from braking, and we’ve been braking a LOT on these mountains), but we really wanted everything to just hold out until the trip was over.  We had to make the hard decision to get a ride.  It was our first ride since Patagonia, more than 6,000 miles ago.

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Daisy is sad we had to get a ride

Luckily, we were about 100 meters from a toll booth where all the speeding traffic has to slow down and stop to pay.  We got permission from the workers there to approach each pickup truck as it passed, and soon we were crammed into the back seat with two other folks, en route to the Ecuador-Colombian border 60 miles distant.  Colombians are much more avid cyclists than Ecuadorians, so we expected to find better (and cheaper!) shops on their side of the border.

Our border crossing was straight-forward, except we felt a bit rushed by the visibly expanding crack in my rim.  The border agent required that we leave the bikes outside with the sketchy money changers.  I explained to one of them about my cracked rim and he explained  (mansplained, if you know that term) that it happened because I needed to change my brake pads.  Thanks buddy – only done that about 5 times in the last year!

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Our last country of the trip: Colombia

We rode the few miles to downtown Ipiales in Colombia and quickly found a row of bicycle shops.  The fourth one we entered had the parts and the mechanic to make the repair, and it was with a great sigh of relief that we left the bike in their care for the afternoon.  We got a nice hotel, went out for a massive pizza dinner, and celebrated our arrival to Colombia.

View of Ipiales from our hotel roof

View of Ipiales from our hotel roof

From Ipiales to Popayan we had planned for four days of riding.  We ended up doing it in only three, since the small towns we passed through were somewhat unappealing and shockingly hot.  That’s not to say the riding was bad, as it was actually very beautiful as we descended out of the mountains and all the way down to 2,000′ (600 meters) elevation.  Once at the bottom, though, it was hot and humid all day and all night.  The heat forced us to be on the road at dawn to avoid the worst of it.

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The last palm at the hotel we stayed at: "Dos Palmas"

The last palm at the hotel we stayed at: “Dos Palmas”

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We were also surprised to find that almost everyone living in this area is of African descent.  Folks were friendly when we talked to them, but seemed very hesitant to engage.  They also looked at us like we were absolutely crazy.  We later learned that almost no tourists come through here because the US state department has some pretty strong travel warnings out about this area.  We were fine though, and even got lots of smiles and waves after we shouted out ‘Buenos dias!’ to everyone we passed.

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This truck was loaded

This truck was loaded

Some guy named Jesus is running for office around here.  Lots of publicity!

Some guy named Jesus is running for office around here. Lots of publicity!

Many buggies as we left Popayan.

Many buggies as we left Popayan.

We reached the city of Popayan a day ahead of schedule and had a lovely rest day eating food and resting (again).  This morning we left town excited to be heading to the coffee zone of Colombia, but we were thwarted about 6 miles down the road.  Jason started to feel that same catching sensation from his rear wheel.  Yup – another rim cracked!  We knew what to do this time.  We turned right back around, returned to town, and found a bike shop.  This time we are leaving the bikes there overnight to get ALL the rims replaced.  We don’t want this to happen again!  It is a bit of a treat though, to take an extra rest day.

Jason's cracked rim.

Jason’s cracked rim.

We are in the fancy room at a nice hostel, and have a whole sitting area on the third floor to ourselves.  What luxury!

View from our sitting area.

View from our sitting area.

So finally, more on our somewhat big news (that many of you may already know): Colombia will be our last country.  It is with great excitement and sadness that we near the end of this adventure that seems (to us) to have lasted most of forever.  We both will be starting work in State College in October, and we have decided to skip over Central America.  Instead, we will fly to Spain to spend a couple weeks with my Spanish family.  All the cyclists we’ve met on the road have said that they didn’t much enjoy their time in Central America, at least not compared to South America.  It was also very expensive and difficult to get from Colombia to Panama, and much cheaper to go back to the US.  We found that to be unbelievable. Going to Spain before starting work will be a great transition, and a good chance for us to really wrap our heads around staying in one place for more than a couple nights.

We have already secured housing in State College (visitor’s welcome!), and of course there are also some pretty cute little service dog puppies that need puppy raisers!

Ecuadorian highlands: Cuenca to Quito

16,000 miles in the shadow of Volcan Chimborazo

16,000 miles in the shadow of Volcan Chimborazo

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I am happy to report that our days of torrential rain in Ecuador are behind us. Since we last updated, we spent a mostly restful day in Cuenca, five challenging days of riding on the PanAmerican highway, and two fun (but not very restful) days in Quito. We have been able to do longer days without the rain and mudslides, but our constant companions, wind and mountains, are still with us. First, some pictures from our lovely day in Cuenca. Everything was closed because it was a Sunday (yet again!!), but we still did a good deal of wandering.

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Leaving Cuenca was surprisingly easy. We flew downhill on a huge highway, taking up a whole lane. Other cyclists had told us that the PanAmerican in this stretch was pretty rough trafficwise, but we found it to be just fine. All the vehicles gave us plenty of space. The best part of the day was lunch – pizza! Our last night in Cuenca we bought two large pizzas, and we carried one of them down the highway and ate it for lunch. Deelish!

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That day we made it even farther than we expected, and we ended up in the tiny crossroads town of Zhud. It turns out that there is nothing in Zhud except a long line of stalls selling fried pork with corn and potato dumplings. There are no hotels, nothing. We ended up camping at the local covered football field after watching the local kids play until sunset. It seemed like a great place… then the wind picked up.

All night long the wind blew and blew. The tin roof over the field was breaking. It banged against the rafters continuously, and chunks of it ocassionally were fell off and were blown across the concrete field below. In short – there was very little rest for us!

The supposedly very busy Panamerican highway became a barely trafficked two lane road that wove up and down along the Ecuadorian Andes. We had two days of fantastic riding under blue skies. We spent a night in a town that runs on train tourism.

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Downtown Alausi

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We also decided to take a dirt road shortcut to avoid a major city (and a major climb!). This shortcut was actually very pleasant, and even included some bonus pavement. That night we slept in the only hotel in the city of San Andres. It was a very fancy place! Strangely, there was not a single restaurant in the entire city (we asked multiple people), so we ended up making soup on the roof with our camp stove.

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Our last night before Quito we spent in the city of Latacunga with a host family. This was our first time using Warmshowers in all of South America! We spent a nice evening with them chatting about how Ecuador has changed in the last decade. They told us that in the past year the polic installed many traffic cameras along the highways to enforce speed limits. Apparently one city to the south has made $2.6 million in tickets over the last 6 months alone!

The last day of riding into Quito was all along a busy two or three lane highway, but we rode safely and made it without any close calls. It was a surprisingly simple entrance to a massive city. Our friend Tarik, who we first met before we were even a couple, is living in Quito right now and offered to host us for a couple of nights. We found his place and were welcomed by his girlfriend, Zora.

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There were several great volcanoes along the route

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Ridiculous $5 (each) breakfast

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We’re wearing normal-people clothes, ah! (Laundry time)

We spent three nights and two days with them, and had a blast chatting, eating, and seeing Quito. We went to old town, climbed up a church tower, saw an outdoor concert, rode in a cable car, and hiked up a volcano. We also made granola, ate their delicious cooking, and used their fast internet to find an apartment in State College for when we return. In all, it was an action-packed weekend for us! Thank you, Tarik and Zora, for being excellent hosts. You really tired us out though!

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A delicious ‘tortilla’. Those are some Washington State apples the background, by the way.

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Looking down to Quito

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In our next update (sorry we got a bit behind): visiting an Ecuadorian market town, a dire mechanical problem, and entering our final country.