Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cycling in Quito, Ecuador: riding the ciclopaseo

I've been in Quito, Ecuador for a few days. I've spent a lot of time walking around, which I really I like to do. But there's no better way to see a city than by bike, and so I was thrilled to partipate in the Ciclopaseo ("Cycle Sunday") today.

My rental bike near Inglesia La Magdelena
The Ciclopaseo is a 30 km route in Quito that is closed to traffic each Sunday. Upwards of 40,000 cyclists are said to participate each week, along with some runners, walkers and rollerbladers.  Quito is a long, skinny city (never more than 5-10 km wide), and the route winds from north to south.  Here's the route map.

Riding through Quito's Old Town towards the small hill called El Panecillo

I rented a bike from the Cyclopolis organization, the organizers of the event.  It was kind of clunky, but very economical at just $8 for the day.  I headed south, planning to ride to the southern terminus of the route (said to be more scenic), then loop back and ride north until I tired.

Big view from the base of El Panecillo, Quito

View opened up as the route curved around the base of El Panecillo

The ride headed through a few parks, then climbed gradually into the Old Town (Centro Historico), which is highly scenic! After some turns and ups and downs, we were on a curving road running around the perimeter of El Panecillo, a prominent hill to the south of old town. The hills were neither long or particularly steep, but I was definitely feeling the altitude on the climbs- Quito is at 9000 feet.

View of Basilico con Voto Nacionale church towers,  Quito Old Town

Riding in Quito Old Town
 I was really happy to be riding!  Walking is nice, but it's so much fun to ride around new places. Plus, you can cover more ground.

Riding up one of the short hills towards La Alameda park

Cyclists relax in La Alameda

The course was well marked and there were mechanics, water and information booths every couple of miles.  I reached what I thought was the southern terminus, turned around and headed back north.

Cobbles on Avenue Amazonas, in the Mariscal Sucre district

I rode and rode. My legs started to feel a bit tired, so I refueled at a bakery along the route.  After a bit, I was surprised to see the route turn up a freeway on-ramp-  we were on the Pan American highway! 

Slightly less scenic portion to the north, where the route goes onto the Pan American highway, pasing right by the (old) Quito airport

Some longer, but gradual hills started at this point.  I continued along, and eventually reached the northern end of the route.  After a snack, I retraced my path to my starting point, then rode back through some parks that I wanted to check out again.

Plantain chips from a vendor along the course. Yum
What a total blast! I ended up riding about 54k. When I checked the route map after the event, I figured out that I'd turned around early when I was riding south. bummer. Note for next time: the ends of the course are marked with signs.

What a great way to see the city (can you tell that I had a great time?).  My pictures don't reflect this, but there were a ton of people out there, mostly on bikes, but plenty of walkers and runners as well. Lots of kids and families riding together and a surprising number of people riding with their dogs in baskets or child seats. Folks were mostly on mountain bikes but there were some road bikes mixed in as well. The roads were in pretty good condition with limited glass. And of course, completely free of auto traffic. Quito's streets are dominated by cars, taxis and buses during the day and it was a pleasure to be able to explore them in the absence of vehicles!

Some info on the event:
Rentals: are available along the route. I rented from Ciclopolis (organizers) at Ave Amazonas at Jorge Washington Sts (they required that I leave an "identity document", such as passport or other official ID- I left my drivers license rather than the passport).  Ciclopolis had at least two other rental stations set up at different points along the course (one of which had some newer-looking bikes), plus there were several shops along the route in La Mariscal and further north. I'm sure there are other places to rent; these were the ones I noticed today.

When: every Sunday, 9-2 (some websites said every other Sunday but I confirmed with the organizers that it is weekly now). The roads close earlier- I started at 8:15 and there were a lot of folks riding already at that point. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A short visit to Costa Rica: a (mostly) animal photo post

(Capuchin monkey)

After a short stop back in San Francisco, where I caught my breath and hung out with Dan and the kittens, I headed off to Costa Rica for a short visit.
(View of Manuel Antonio National Park from hotel balcony)

I'm here just for a week. I started in the Arenal region (may post on this later), and arrived in Manuel Antonio a few days ago.  Manuel Antionio is the home of the eponymous national park, which is known for its beautiful beaches and wildlife.

(passion flower)

Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica's second smallest national park. It is indeed pretty petite: I walked almost all of the trails yesterday.
(More capuchin monkeys. I saw a ton of them, including at very close proximity, which was a bit scary since these monkeys are known for being somewhat foul tempered with humans)

I started with a guided nature walk, with a licensed national park guide.  This was ok- the guide seemed knowledgable and he spotted animals and insects that I would not have noticed on my own. But the pace was rather slow. Our group had seven people and there was much dallying so everyone could take a photo, etc.

(squirrels monkeys! These are less common in Manuel Antonio.  They are tiny- for reference, the berries they are eating are about the size of coffee berries. We saw two groups of the little guys!)

I was eager to explore on my own, and I got my chance after the guided walk wrapped up at around 11.  With great foresight, I'd brought a pack lunch scavenged from my hotel's breakfast buffet (you can't take the graduate student out of me, ever...). Due to a recent policy change, you may not go in and out of the park (a new entrance fee of US$10 is required to come back in). There is water available at the park, but no food, so I prepared in advance.  I had lunch at the quietest beach (more on beaches below), then started walking the high trail.
(A sloth and her baby crosses the road!! It was a super slow exercise.  Super cool!!)

The hike was a great success. The trails were less crowded and I started walking with a nice Bulgarian couple, who not only spotted lots of wildlife for me, but also offered tips on good camera angles! It was nice to hike with some company and hear about someone else's trip.
(mama sloth and baby climbing back into the trees after crossing the road)

On our short, 1.6 k walk to a view point, we saw two groups of squirrel monkeys, three groups of Capuchan monkeys, iguanas, and a howler monkey (photo did not turn out!). We also saw some birds, the names of which I've forgotten.  Plus, we hiked to a nice viewpoint and a secluded beach.  The trails were fairly quiet- most of the tourist traffic appears to be in the morning.


We walked out up the entry road- most folks exit at a different point so there was almost no one else on the road- and came apon a three-toed sloth climbing in some trees.  On closer inspection, you could see a little baby sloth clinging to her moma's back!  We watched the sloth climbing down some vines, a dramatic, very slow speed exercise that involved much dramatic reaching while suspended on impossibly thin branches.  Then, mama fell to the ground in a great crash, and started crawling across the road.  It was super cool, and very very slow.  They then climbed up the tree on the other side. It was really, really neat to see!
(north American raccoon tried to get my lunch. She was with her two babies? These are native, according to our guide, but not nocturnal like the ones at home,)

So, Manuel Antonio has a couple of beaches, and I hung out at the more secluded third beach for a while, eating lunch. Some people were swimming, but I didn't feel like it (I brought my suit, and there are changing rooms available). I watched brown pelicans fishing in the surf for a while, then got moving again.

Here is the park map.  I did all of the trails once or twice except for trail 7 which I missed. The curvy areas are white sand beaches.  This was a great day!
(Me at second beach. This was more crowded with lots of swimmer. I was very hot and sweaty!)

(Brown pelicans at third beach)
(rocky secluded beach reachable from the high road hike)
(view from the high point of the high hike. Not super high, but we got a view down the coast)
(third beach, from my lunch spot)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

New Zealand travel, cycling and campervan information and tips

Here is a list of information that was useful for the trip, including info on camping and cycling in New Zealand. I also include a few tips for campervan travel at the bottom.

New Zealand Travel information and guides:
-The Department of Conservation (DOC, pronounced "dock") website is fantastic. They have campsite brochures that can be downloaded or picked up at national park information sites (possibly also available at I-sites). They also have fantastic information on hikes, Great Walks, national parks, you name it.
-DOC information sites (found at the national parks, but also in cities of a certain size). Great for tramping and other outdoor info, but we also got great recommendations for campgrounds and cycling shops and that kind of thing.  Prior to the trip, I emailed a few such sites - email addresses are on doc websites- with questions and was pleasantly surprised to get rapid, informative responses.
- I-sites: tourism information sites, found in airports and any town of a certain size. A great resource for maps, accommodation information, attraction information, location of area bike shops and health food stores, etc
- Guides: we had my 12 year old Lonely Planet New Zealand, plus a more recent Fodors. These are good for different purposes, but in general I preferred LP because it is geared for more active people and has more Detailed information  (Fodors is very car travel tourist focused, ie, go somewhere, look at one thing quickly,  move on). The old LP still worked really well, though prices had about doubled since 2000 when I last visited New Zealand.
- Talk to people when you arrive: Dozens of New Zealanders volunteered travel recommendations and answered our questions. Folks were so friendly and helpful, and we ended up taking quite a lot of advice gleaned along the way from nice people who shared local knowledge. Thanks!

New Zealand Campground and holiday park guides:
-DOC South Island campground guide: very useful, see above for description. This is all on the website, but it was handy to have the paper version in the van.
-Jason's holiday park guide (South Island)- picked up the brochure at an I-site. They have a website as well, but I found this cumbersome to use. has information on where you can camp, freedom camping, etc.

Maps & driving: the AA road atlas was useful for urban areas and short-cutting major highways on farm roads, but otherwise we used the AA map from the I-site and the highway map provided by our rental company. The highway system is pretty straightforward and it was easy to get around. Two little things to be aware of: streets change name a lot, so this is something to look out for as a street can have one name on one side of an intersection and a different name on the other side. Also, major streets/roads are often not signposted at intersections, with only the (minor) cross street being posted.
-travel times: the highways are narrow, twisty and sometimes steep. Highways were mostly undivided, two-lane roads and there were sometimes limited opportunities to pass slow vehicles. Travel times were much slower than one might think from the distances. This site has travel times & distances.

New Zealand Cycling information:
Guides: "Classic New Zealand Road Rides" by Kennett and Turner (2010) was the best guide. Not sure if you can buy this outside of NZ - we found it in a bike shop in Wanaka. It lacks an index but is chock full of local knowledge including popular area training rides and routes of epic rides (including those of local cycling events, eg, an ultrapopular century ride and the like). We also used the Lonely Planet "Cycling in New Zealand" guide, which was a pretty crummy guide, to be honest.  The profiles are appallingly bad and the descriptions are quite minimal (some of it seems to have been copied straight from the motor vehicle guide). This might be a starting point for a touring cyclist though, and that's what the book is really geared for.
Websites: we found some group ride info on this site.  There was also local ride info/intelligence (eg, closed roads in Christchurch area) on this site.
Talking to people: this was the most useful way to find out about routes and rides. We chatted with cyclists in various spots, including bike shops, forums (Dan got a lot of info, and even did a group ("bunch") ride with a kiwi guy from the weight weenies forum, and I got a lot of local info from the teamestrogen new zealand forum)), coffee shops and while doing other activities. I'd particularly like to thank one very talkative cyclist who we chatted with while we were on the Te Anau glowworm  cave tour (he'd just done the epic race from Milford Sound to Te Anau. Wow!).
Dan's blog: Dan generated detailed profiles and descriptions of the epic climbs that he did on the trip (search the new zealand tag for the posts). He also linked to his strava tracks, which show maps in addition to route profiles.
Most useful advance bike tips: New Zealand highways are chip-sealed. We brought our 28mm tires and were fine (locals will no doubt find this humorous, as they seemed to also find any comment we made about the wind.  what wind??). If you are bringing a mountain bike, we were told that you can expect close scrutiny at the agricultural control part of customs (our road bikes did not get inspected). Finally, if you plan to rent a bike, be aware that the brakes are set up differently than in the US, in terms of which levers control the front and rear brakes. We rented downhill bikes and did just fine with the reversed brakes, though. I'll bet that most shops would reverse the brakes for you upon request.

Finding a campervan: Rankers website in New Zealand has consumer reviews of a bunch of companies.  Trip @dvisor NZ forum has some useful postings on this topic, plus useful information on how insurance and rental schemes work and the like.

Helpful Campervan tips:
1. Pack your stuff in soft duffel-type bags. Hard suitcases take up a lot of room and limit your options for stowing stuff in the van where storage space is quite limited. Soft bags permit you to stuff the bag in myriad places, a soft bag flattens when unpacked and thus takes up less room.
2. Leave unneeded luggage with the rental company. We left our bike cases with the rental company when we picked up the van. They were happy to store them during the trip.
3.  Check contents of the van before departing the rental company. We did not have enough hangers, which distressed Dan who likes to hang stuff up.
4. Our rental company was OK with us carrying bikes on the trip. Other companies that I contacted were not so positive about having bikes in the van (some said it was against their policy). Some companies will rent racks or little trailers to carry bikes or other outdoor gear. We put the bikes inside the van during travel and it worked really well: it was easy, convenient, and we didn't damage bikes or van.
5. Diesel fuel is much cheaper than gas. Fuel is expensive in NZ, so we saved a lot by getting a diesel van.
6. Did I mention how much I loved our compact VW vanagon-type van?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Traveling in New Zealand by campervan

Camping in Mt. Cook National Park
When I started planning the New Zealand trip, we considered our transportation and lodging options.  I wanted to rent a vehicle, and we both prefer camping to staying in hotels.  But car camping was looking like a bit of a pain, as we'd need to bring camping gear from the states or buy stuff when we arrived.  Since we planned to bring our road bikes (and attendant cycling clothes, shoes, helmets, etc), it was looking like a lot of luggage to bring and drive around once we arrived.

Oceanside camping in Punakaiki, kind of- the beach was few steps through the path to the left of the van
Someone at work suggested that we rent a camper, and that idea really clicked.

In the Southern Alps near Arthur's Pass
I got right down to the research.  Campervan travel is extremely popular in New Zealand and there was no shortage of options.  I prioritized finding a smaller van (both length and height wise) for easier handling and better fuel economy.  I also wanted to be able to put the bikes inside the van while in transit, and we did not need a toilet and shower in the van.  I was pleased to find a VW van that was kind of a souped-up VW vanagon complete with a pop-up roof!
Harbor view from our Akaroa campgroup
We picked up the van in Christchurch and headed out for 19 days of adventure.  I must say at this point that I was not completely sure how much I would enjoy traveling by campervan.  I'd never even rented a car for an extended trip before, let alone a fussy van full of comfort items like a bed, power, water, a stove and fridge. It seemed sort of decadent, and also possibly a bit middle-aged :)

Morning rainbow over Lake Te Anau, from our campsite
I adapted to driving on the left fairly well and the van was pretty easy to handle once I got used to the wider turning radius required for the van.  And we settled in pretty well to life in the van. After about a day, we had everything mostly organized inside the van and had sorted out how to deal with the bikes (answer: inside the van upright without front wheels, lashed in, while traveling; outside the van locked to a wheel or nearby tree or fence while camping). 

Dan data-geeking in the van. The table was removable and stowed in the rear of the van. Pop-up roof created more headroom, which was nice when cooking and moving around in the van
After about two nights, we confided in each other how much we loved traveling this way.

Things Dan particularly liked: having a movable home, not having to deal with the hassle of checking in and out of lodging, unpacking cars and the like, super easy to find camping with no pre-defined itinerary, the speed and ease of setting up/breaking up "camp" (about 7-10 minutes, max). Things I particularly liked: the comfortable chairs (guess I am officially aged), having our stuff organized in a compact mobile space, no hassles carrying the bikes, easy in and out, being able to sit and chill in an insect-free space in beautiful places, minimal hassle in finding places to stay.  We both liked the power (charging up things, the electric tea kettle).

Interior of the van with table removed. The seat folded down to make a bed, but we used the other bed in the pop-up
We mostly stayed in holiday parks, which typically included powered sites for RVs and vans, tent camping and communal cooking facilities and laundry. Oh, and wireless for an additional fee. Decadent. The layout of the sites tended to be a bit utilitarian: lawns and slots for vans or tents, though we stayed at one site which had more vegetation separating the sites and thus was a bit more like a US state park campground in that respect.  We sometimes cooked at the communal facilities and sometimes in the van.

Rainforest vegetation in our Franz Josef campsite
Many of these campgrounds were in spectacular locations and while they were often moderately crowded, they were generally pretty quiet at night (with the exception of Queenstown, where we had a noisy drunk at 2am ). We had no trouble getting into campgrounds, even when arriving late in the afternoon. 

Storage space in rear of the van. I mostly lived out of my duffel bag, but Dan partly unpacked into a small closet space
We also stayed at department of conservation (DOC) sites, which were relatively undeveloped (no power, pit toilet and cold water) but really cheap and in great locations.  Both types of camping had their advantages, though I think we both would have liked to spend more nights in DOC sites.  There was a tranquility to the less developed sites and we really enjoyed the lower key atmosphere.

Bed in the pop-up top. We slept up here, which was very cosy and had the added advantages of being able to leave the bed made-up the entire time and letting me sleep in while Dan did stuff in the early morning
We ended up driving about 1300 miles, getting about 23-24 mpg (diesel).  We started the trip with three days of a few hours of driving in the am and activities in the afternoon and evening, but switched to a pattern of driving then staying in one place for two to four days.  In retrospect, we both thought the trip had a lot of driving, perhaps too much, though I would be hard pressed to think of what I would have eliminated from our trip.  We went to so many beautiful places!

Van with roof folded down for travel, in DOC campground on Lake Wanaka. Lower height while traveling = better fuel efficiency
All in all, a fantastic trip! Here is my blog post with lots of New Zealand travel, cycling and campervan information.