11,800km from Ushuaia
'Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice: It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.' William Jennings Bryan.
Well here it is; our penultimate blog. It seems like an age ago that we set off from Ushuaia full of hope and empty of any clear idea of what we were letting ourselves in for. 11800 kilometres down the road we have finally reached Medellin and will be emerging out of the northern end of the Andes in the next day of two.
The only thing that made leaving the incredibly kind hospitality of Willy White in Machala was the thought of having just over 2500kms of cycling until the chequered flag. As we rolled out of the marsh-lands and headed deeper into endless banana plantations we had naively managed to persuade ourselves that the worst of the Andes was behind us, with just a few small climbs to go...how wrong we were...
As blue skies gave way to a stubborn foggy haze, the shadows of huge mountains began to form, shattering our hopes of an easier ride to the end. It dawned on us as quickly as the cloud was settling in around us that we were going to have to go up and over these ghostly geological structures to reach our next check point at Quito. The skies opened and the humidy rocketed up as we started our ascent into thick jungle, soaked and miserable, the unpredictability of the Andes - the cruelest of mistresses - re-established itself on our consciousness.
Feeling a little jaded, we stopped for the night. A very kind family welcomed us into their sheltered garage, and pushing away bunches of bananas being offered from all sides, we 'feasted' on some meagre cheesy breads on the side of the road, erected our tents on the concrete floor and slept as best we could. As preparations go, it was a poor substitute what turned out to be our biggest day of climbing of the entire challenge rather belittling the Cristo Redentor pass between Santiago and Mendoza. We woke to a wet and misty morning but the legs did what they knew best and started crunching up the steep road with gradients reaching 9-10% at points. Slowly but surely we wound our way up high into the clouds where the rain only got worse and tempures began to drop dramatically. This was not the Ecuador we had envisioned. 3000 metres of vertical gain over 75 gruelling kilometres, wet from muddy road spray, sooty from the exhausts of lorries, and physically spent, we reached Abrapampa. Setting camp wearly next to a mountain-side football pitch, we were intently watched by what must have been the entire village, grandparents and grandchildren alike. Even as we retreated to the inner sanctum of our tents to change and baby-wipe our more private parts, we looked up to find at least five or six faces actually peering round the door of our tents!
The next morning dawned bitterly cold. Emerging from our tents, seeing the road dissappearing upwards into the mist was almost too much, but gritting our teeth and fortifying ourselves with dry mountain pastry, we pressed on. The wind picked up as we reached the summit and visibility decreased to a matter of metres making cycling rather less than fun - or safe, but finally, pushing our tired legs up the final slope, we summited! Without wanting to sound vapid and fatuous, it really is days like these that make a challenge like this worthwhile. When every fibre of your body and soul are screaming at you to just stop and sit down, digging deep to find that extra level of character and grit is really what it is all about.
The penchant of Ecuadorian road-builders to fashion absurdly steep roads continued as we made our way through central Ecuador. Unfortunately, our passage through 'Volcano Alley' passing chimborazo, Cotopaxi, and countless others, was tempered by low-lying cloud blocking out all view of these wondrous edifices. So with the bad weather folowing us we approached Quito, arriving in Machachi, a grim town on the outskirts of Quito, offering nothing but fried chicken and open-late pharmacies. If we thought Quito would be similar, we were quicky proved wrong. After negotiating the impossibly steep way into Quito through brightly coloured favelas, we reached the historical centre. There has been dramatic change in Quito over the last ten years. In the not too distant past, central Quito was a hotbed of pickpockets and prostitutes, but the introduction of the US dollar, extensive renovation of historic buildings, the cleanup of dangerous areas and the emergence of the trendy Mariscal New Town, has made Quito into an awesome mix of history, culture, and a buzzing social scene.
Muhammad Ali once said, 'It isnt the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out: it's the pebble in your shoe.' Leaving Quito, the task ahead still seemed massive, and after months of hard graft, the constant fatigue was beginning to show, and little 'pebbles' were, understandably beginning to become larger stones in the group. However, crossing the equator and the Colombian border in quick succession gave our morale a massive boost and pushed petty squables back to the periphery of what has been an amazingly happy team one way and another - testament to how we have all got to grips with this epic challenge. Indeed, it shows how far we have come and how our perceptions have changed that we did our second biggest climbing day into Popayan, the quiet colonial gem, without even realising until much later.
Pushing on into the Valle de Cauca, we found the roads very heavily policed. This region has seen so much unrest in recent decades and is a reminder of the continuing problems in Colombia. We have never felt threatened however, and its lingering reputation is unwarranted. It turns out Colombia is a safe and breathtakingly beautiful country and we would recommend anyone to travel here! We've all agreed that it is our favourite country of the trip, and not even because of the mythical Colombian girls. However, we were in no mood to salsa wanting to hit coffee country and our next checkpoint of Armenia in good time. In Armenia we were treated by the lovely Gonzalez's. We had our first proper rest in a long while, getting stuck into the local delicacies of fried yuca, sweet roasted peppers, chicharron, rabbit, and of course coffee! Our amazing host Natalia even organised an interview with the local paper. Indeed, perhaps the most pleasant surprise of Colombia has been the friendliness of Colombians and respect and interest in cyclists. From 'Oscar' who bought us drinks in Andalucia, to Wilmott the one legged cyclist, everyone has been interested and incredibly patient at our continuing lack of Spanish!
While the scenery has been generally spectacular, the Andes are not letting us out easily. Three further hard days tackling the ups and downs of the Colombian 'hills' has finally brought us to Medellin, the final bastion of the Andes. We have now climbed over 100,000 vertical metres since we left sea level at 'Fin del Mundo' - that's the equivalent of cycling up and down Everest over eleven times. If we had been climbing continuously, we would now be in space - which is pretty nuts... Everyone who joked to us that going South to North up the continent was all uphill, at times we've felt they were telling gospel truth...
We have become incredibly experienced tourers. A broken pannier rack has become a routine fix, our bodies require less fuel, and we're confident of averaging 140 kms per day between now and the end - we are cycling machines. What is more, the weariness that has crept up on us over the last four and a half months has now been pushed aside by exitement. We can practically taste the salt of the Carribean sea. We have given ourselves only nine days to do the 1250kms to Faro Punta Gallinas. So all that stands in our way is one last incredibly tough stint but we go with the excitement of conquering the Andes and the thought of victory.
We'd like to thank everyone who has donated to our wonderful causes for their incredible generosity. Our total amount raised now stands at over 62,000 pounds, but we still have a way to go to reach our target of 80,000 pounds so any donations will be massively appreciated and will really spur us on for the final ten days of our mammoth challenge! We will be regularly updating our website and social media as the Upping the Andes enters its final stages, so thanks again for all the support and we incredibly excited to see you all soon!
You can donate here at uk.virginmoneygiving.com/uppingtheandes
And you can see all our latest pictures on the Gallery page of the website
Supported by Jackson Stops & Staff, Ayla Furniture and Ruta 40.