A Testing Introduction to The Andes
I arrived in Ecuador less than a week ago and for a few days happily pedalled through mile upon mile of relatively flat banana plantations. The ship I arrived on from Panama was here to pick up 4000 tonnes of the fruit to be shipped to the banana loving Europeans!
In fact, bananas are Ecuador's biggest export - but by no means the only one. Yesterday (Thursday 12th) I was filming at a coffee plantation and giving the local brew a thorough quality taste test! Ecuadorian 'Cafe Altura' (coffee grown at high altitude) is some of the best in the world despite everyone being more familiar with neighbouring Colombia's famous cuppa. However, to get to the coffee plantation has been one of my toughest challenges yet.
As soon as I headed inland, the road reared up and for three days I have been crawling upwards. Many sections of the road to Loja are gravel and dirt, which reduced me to little more than a walking pace. Cycling from dawn to dusk I could only cover about 40 miles and was left shattered. An added challenge is that I haven't found enough food in the last week. Aboard the ship, meals were very small, and even when I asked for seconds this meant a meal a fraction of what I normally need - so after a few days rest I got back on the bike with very low energy. This was not the fault of the ships crew who were very kind to me, it's just that they don't need enough food to cycle all day every day! In Ecuador I still need to discover the best food, which is frustrating as everyone who has been here tells me how amazing it is!
When I did reach the highlands I was rewarded with some of the most incredible views - making all the frustration and effort well worth it. I was welcomed to stay over in the village of Olmedo, at 4500ft, with a coffee growers family. This was welcome company and really put my Spanish to the test! In the morning we visited the crops before making fresh coffee. First we took the grains and crushed them with a big bat before fanning them to take the husks off. Next we made an open fire and dry roasted them for about 20 minutes - the smell was wonderful. Then the grains were cooled and put through a hand mill before straining boiling water through to give the freshest cup of coffee I have ever tasted. I loved filming all this but am slightly embarrassed that everyone will soon have to watch and hear my appalling Spanish conversation!
Today I will cross into Peru and hopefully find some better roads and speed up, or else I will be hard pushed to reach Aconcagua in time...