We need to come clean. At the end of the last blog we said that we had just arrived at the Casa de Ciclista in Quito and were about to enjoy some rest days here before continuing to Colombia, but that wasn’t quite the truth. We’d actually been staying at the Casa for a week and had no intention of cycling north, not for another month at least, because we secretly had booked flights home to surprise the family for Christmas. We booked the flights back in La Paz (Bolivia) in September after hearing how Filbo, the German cyclist we rode with into the city, had done this the year before and this shaped our decisions ever since, particularly with choosing to leave the difficult, wet mountains of Peru and get to Ecuador quicker than planned. We felt that we would rather ride the TEMBR through most of Ecuador and not have to rush, rather than struggling on in the Peruvian mountains and then having to bus through most of Ecuador, thus missing most of the country. We also can’t believe that we had managed to keep it a secret for so long and the thought of arriving home and surprising the family for the holidays was so exciting! We’ll get on to more of that in a minute, but first we’ll fill you in on our time in Quito.
Quito, the capital of Ecuador and the country’s second largest city, was a huge shock after the remoteness of the previous days riding around Cotopaxi. Quito is a pleasant city though with a simple and efficient bus system (though we did find ourselves on different buses for half an hour, at least we knew where we were going and both had a phone with a map!), much quieter than any city in Peru and a Spanish colonial centre with some quaint streets to wander. We explored the old centre, visiting San Francisco Church, an unassuming building from the outside but decorated in exquisite detail inside and Basilica Del Sagrado Voto Nacional, an equally impressive building from the outside. The main reason we ventured into the city though was to buy souvenirs from the Mariscal Artesan Market, something we haven’t previously had the opportunity to do in South America and we spend a few hours trying on ponchos, choosing presents for the family and haggling before leaving with fewer dollars and more alpaca!
However, staying at the Casa de Ciclista in Tumbaco was a space of tranquility within the chaos. In one hour you can be wandering around the old centre or perusing the markets or having a cheap almuerzo (3 course lunch menu, $2-2.50) but hop on a green bus and you can escape back to the suburbs. We prefer it this way. Santiago hosts cyclists from all over the world, for free, and has done for over 20 years. The touring cyclist can pitch their tent, wash, relax and play with his 3 beautiful dogs (Luna, Atti and Tiger) for as long as they want and the only thing expected in return is to share your story. Santi liked Ben though because as a bike mechanic himself, Ben was a useful guest to have and could help with some of the more technical jobs such as suspension servicing. (Steph was quickly told that she’d probably be continuing the ride north on her own as Ben has quite a lot of work to do. Steph said she’d just take one of the dogs for a while!)
Most people end up staying there for longer than first anticipated. Take Martín and Santiago from Colombia, for instance. They arrived two weeks before we did and didn’t know when they would leave. We had great fun with these guys, plus Alex and Florence from France, for the first two days, playing UNO and joking around, before they left and we were joined by Leo from Venezuela and Luis from Mexico. Another two awesome guys who were super friendly, always had a smile on their face and shared some incredible food with us (Tortillas de Avena – yum!). It was great spanish practice too. Another French couple, Florent and Clement and then finally a British couple, Matt and Zoe, kept the total of cyclists at 8 the entire time we were there. It’s been a while since we’ve been so sociable and it was nice to have new people to share stories with about this amazing way in which we travel.
Santiago is the kindest, most generous man you will ever meet and from the moment you arrive at the Casa de Ciclista you become part of the family. We were lucky enough to be invited for a family lunch and our afternoon coffee (Ben had tea) became so much part of the routine, it felt as if we had been there forever. Santiago also loves a joke, often heard saying “mira, mira” (look), inviting everyone within earshot to come and watch a video he has found online and if not online, playing practical jokes on both Ben and I. Staying there was home for a week and the perfect place to come back to after what was going to be a busy month ahead.
After cheekily Skyping Ben’s dad, at 6:30pm on Sunday 16th December we started what would be an epic 48 hours of travelling by getting a bus to the airport. The bus cost only $1.25 and took half an hour, bargain! It was much easier without the bikes (as we’re coming back a month later there was no need to fly with them) but we did have the two large duffel bags of kit and bike parts we want to wash/upgrade/retire when we’re back in the UK. We tried our best to sleep on the awkward curved benches and hard plastic seats in Quito airport to no avail and at 6am the next morning the bags were checked in and we were through security, feeling absolutely exhausted.
Only another day and a half with 2 more planes, 2 trains, a bus and a car to go!
To get the cheapest airfare we had to change multiple times. Our first leg was a turboprop to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, a short 50 minute flight away followed by a 4 hour layover in the airport. Next was our main flight – to Madrid! 10 hours on an old Airbus A330-200 with only one functioning headphone socket between us was a bit of a drag as Steph was looking forward to the inflight movies after over a year without watching any new releases. We made do by sharing Ben’s headphones and synchronising the screens to show the same film, but the majority of the flight was spent trying to sleep. Lucky it was over night and we were already sleep deprived! More sleep in Madrid’s departure lounge then the final flight with Ryanair was probably the best of the bunch – there were only 30 people on the plane in total. Being Ryanair though they did make us sit on different rows because we hadn’t paid to choose a seat (even with barely any passengers onboard) and so Steph had a row to herself whereas Ben had to sit next to one of the few other random passengers!
It was a really cloudy flight and it wasn’t until we started to descend into London Stansted that we got our first glimpse of the UK after 15 months. It felt so strange to be seeing the patchwork fields of Southern England and the reality of being back didn’t sink in until we were on the train into London. The underground was just something else entirely! It was quite fun knowing that we were here without anyone else knowing where we were apart from Sam, Ben’s brother, who collected us from the bus station.
After a bacon sandwich and a few proper beers on Tuesday night (Thanks Cassi) we had a few hours much needed sleep before the busiest day of all. Surprise visit day!
Surprise number one was Ben’s mum, who Ben called on the phone and was speaking to when he walked into her office. It’s really funny, we both felt nervous and excited at the same time because we didn’t know how people would react to our surprise visit but the common response was very much a big hug followed by, “What are you doing here?!” (asked in a good way!) and everyone was happy to see us. It made all of the tiredness and travelling worth it.
We then drove to Steph’s parents who happened to be in Marks and Spencer’s in Hereford at the time, so rather than tell them we were on their drive we said we’d phone again later to speak to Steph’s mum for her birthday and went to Ben’s dad’s place instead. Another surprise, as Ben’s dad said he would have been even less surprised had the Pope or the Queen themselves been walking down the lane! He didn’t quite believe his eyes, which meant we’d been very good at keeping our visit a secret, and when Lisa got back from work she was just as shocked at how we’d got there.
We did finally get to surprise Steph’s mum on her birthday, who she was also speaking to (on the phone) from outside the front door and who went very high pitched when Steph asked to be let in! Another “What are you doing here?!” and hugs from the rest of Steph’s family rounded off the day of surprise visits nicely.
The following days leading up to and including Christmas have flown by with lots of family visits, board games and British food. We’ve slowly eaten our way through all of the different foods that we’ve missed and eaten more chocolate than in the last 15 months combined (it really is so much better in the UK). The thirteen days that we’ve had back in England have been awesome. Whilst it has been busy and we’re pretty tired all the time, we wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s exactly what we’d hoped it would be and it has been amazing spending time with our families for the holidays.
Tomorrow is New Year’s Day and marks the halfway point of our short visit. We need to replace some of our kit with lighter options (the weighing scales are getting a lot of use right now!) and change the cold weather gear for things more appropriate for warm weather, so that’s the plan for the next two weeks, as well as spending time with family and friends before we head back.
For now though, we hope everyone reading this has a wonderful 2019 filled with adventure and happiness. 2018 was a great year for us but there’s still more adventure to be had so here’s to an action packed 2019 for us all!
See you next year,
Steph and Ben