“Colombia is fantastic. Peru is amazing. I pretty much rushed through Ecuador.”
Many travelers I’ve met, whether heading North or South through the Andes, state this same basic perspective. This being my first time in the area, I would have to see for myself. No matter what the populace said, I was excited about my route through the country: The Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route. Created out of a collaboration between Cass Gilbert and the Dammer brothers, it would be about 1500km of varied dirt terrain stretching the vertical length of Ecuador along the Andes. I’d be riding large sections of the route with a few adaptations created by Nick Gault and myself to get around some of the most prolonged hike-a-bike sections…. or so I thought…
(NOTE: Continued from the last 2-3 posts, my second digital camera of this journey has bit the dust. I’m using my old iPhone camera to capture what I can of the amazing landscapes and working on finding a replacement. No luck so far.)
I rolled out of a cheap but plush Ipiales hotel room shared with cyclist friend Raimon. Parting ways was a little sad. We had formed a strong connection between love of bicis, solo travel, and similar mentalities when it came to adventure. He showed me, very impressively, how much hard riding could be done with a basic road bike and a BOB trailer with a lot of weight. He also reminded me the value of remaining positive when it came to talking with strangers on the street, as he seemed to have a limitless amount of patience to tell the same stories and explain his journey to each new curious citizen. However, Raimon was planning to cover Ecuador quickly on more paved roads and needed a couple more days in Ipiales to do some repairs, a logical time to diverge. I’ll hope to cross paths with him again a bit further South.
Having been told that it’s generally pretty rainy in the Ecuadorean Andes, I was mentally prepared to get wet while still hopeful that I’d somehow escape the trend. Not so. The moment I left Ipiales for the border just 3km down the road, The grey clouds began shedding their misty frozen tears. Border crossings have always been significant moments during my journey. It’s like an international passing of the baton (that baton being me): feeling the loss of all the people and places I’m leaving behind me, not sure when, if ever I’ll see them again. But that loss is contrasted with a nervous excitement, hope, and curiosity about what this next chapter will bring.
The border with Ecuador is formed by the Rumichaca (rumi: stone; chaca: bridge), built by the Incas hundreds of years ago, and renovated as a primary commerce route between the two nations. With my 10th entry stamp received since Alaska I left the border patrol station, open to whatever Ecuador had to offer me. Shortly after the painless border crossing I passed through the industrial and sadly run-down city of Tulcán. It’s commerce has been devastated by cheaper commodities available just across the border in Colombia. So most Ecuadorians who can access the Southern cities across the border skip Tulcán. Evidently import taxes for many products are so impossibly high that electrodomestic products, for example can cost up to 3 times as much in Ecuador as they do in Colombia. Bad luck, Tulcán.
This seen on the road immediately South of the border. Wait, is Ecuador a socialist country? And how is Che Guevara representative of the socialism here? And what does the number 17 signify? I didn’t actually know anything about the country’ politics. A little internet research clarifies. From Wikipedia:
“Socialism of the 21st century (Spanish: Socialismo del siglo XXI) is a political term used to describe the interpretation of socialist principles advocated first by Heinz Dieterich in 1996 and later by Latin American leaders like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil. Socialism of the 21st century argues that both free-market industrial capitalism and twentieth-century socialism have failed to solve urgent problems of humanity, like poverty, hunger, exploitation, economic oppression, sexism, racism, the destruction of natural resources, and the absence of a truly participative democracy. Therefore, because of the local unique historical conditions, socialism of the 21st century is often contrasted with previous applications of socialism in other countries and aims for a more decentralized and participatory planning process. Socialism of the 21st century has democratic socialist elements, but primarily resembles Marxist revisionism.“
Interesting. New country, new politics. All I knew was that Ecuador was running on U.S. dollars and was supposedly more developed in its infrastructure than it’s bordering Andean nations. Much to learn.
Shortly after Tulcan, my route immediately led me up a long, windy dirt road toward Reserva Ecologica El Angel. Gentle uphill grade and smooth dirt were a lovely introduction to the country as I wound past farms and locals — until I reached the paramo (high Andean tundra). The ground immediately became soft and muddy, the road very rough and rocky. My pace was reduced from swift and steady to bouncy and sludgy. When I wasn’t ricocheting off of the barrage of slippery stones, I was spinning my tires out on the wet, uneven mud. Then rain would sweep though in gentle misty waves, often down pouring for a bit before easing back down.
My view after only 4 hours riding in Ecuador piqued a stark contrast with Colombia. While up North had been gorgeous and inspiring and full of so many rich experiences, one thing that was still somewhat lacking was the experience of real, open, undeveloped wilderness. I’d gotten some tastes of it here and there, but they were not as common as I’d hoped, more often a view like this would be speckled with farms, houses and cattle. No matter how challenging the conditions were, here I was surrounded by gorgeous old frailejon plants, towering puya hamata stalks, and massive massifs. Not only did I see NOONE for hours, there were also no signs of human life other than the rocky road. No farms, no fences, no buildings. It was wild, open and free. I loved every second of it. Perhaps Ecuador was just starting out with a bang, but so far… so great!
Throughout the afternoon, the freezing rain ebbed and flowed. By early evening, I rolled up on a ranger station for the reserve, soaking wet and shivvvvvvering. I’d been told by other cyclists that I could camp there, possibly even inside the station. Luckily Edwin (the ranger on duty) was a warm, kind and generous man. Without hesitation he opened the door and showed me to a private room with a bunk bed where I could sleep!
Once warm and dry, I was offered to join him for a walk along station’s trail system as he made his last rounds for the night. He kindly identified plants and birds, describing the park’s history as we strolled into the páramo.
The clouds raised just enough to reveal the setting sun during our walk. He hoped that we might see the local “wolf” that hangs around the park grounds praying on tourist’s scraps, but to no avail. Surprised that there was a species of wolf in Ecuador I prodded him for more info. It’s actually a fox, they just like to call it a wolf.
Back at the station, the Edwin and I combined our food caches to make a fantastic pasta dinner with fresh tomato sauce and chicken breast. We talked for hours about his personal and family history, about the political system in Ecuador, about corruption in the park service and about music. I was pretty wasted from the day’s wet muddy travel and excused myself to collapse into slumber. The next morning we shared a simple breakfast and coffee and I was on my way. Deeply appreciative for his kindness. I hope our paths cross again someday Edwin!
Rolling out of Reserva El Angel, the cobblestones began, with a vengeance. Little did I know that Northern Ecuador is the cobblestone road capital of South America, at least so far. It’s funny because they’re actually quite smooth to ride if you just go fast enough to hover on top of them. But climbing UP endless cobbled climbs is a bit torturous.
The other challenge with cobblestones is during rain. Rocks get wet and slippery. Not a problem on a straight away, but on tight switchbacks down steep hills, there’s a lot of slipping going on.
After a long climb and bouncy descent, the rough cobbled road bled out onto a major highway for a stretch. I came upon what looked like the remnants of a small landslide from afar…
Closer inspection however proved that it was a huge pile of bean plants placed in the middle of the highway to dry in the hot afternoon sun! I’d seen this drying technique for coffee beans back in Colombia but always on the sides of the paved roads, Never right in the middle, until now.
Just down the road I had a lesson in patience: I had just descended down 10,000′ of cobblestone and torn up dirt/mud road. Near the bottom I noticed my rear tire was quite low. I put some more tire sealant in and pumped it up thinking that was that. While doing so I became extremely aware of a new species of insect which also had become extremely aware of me. Kind of like a sand fly but bigger and way more fucking aggressive. Within moments of stopping they were all over me, swarming my legs and arms, the familiar stinging of their bite would certainly leave an itchy spot. Once I got rolling again I realized that these little fuckers, unlike all the other biting/stinging things I’ve encountered so far, can actually stay attached to my skin despite the breeze of riding my bike pretty fast downhill. Normally getting up above 15kph will get rid of them but no luck! I managed to sweep them off of me while riding and thought I had gotten off me-free, but only minutes later to realize the tire was flat again. Feverishly trying to find the leak, I kept pumping it up, only to have it go flat again before I could find the hole, all the while getting feasted upon. Finally I had to pull the tire off, put in a tube (I’m running tubeless). Fuck: the tube had a leak and also went flat. That’s when I lost it a bit. There were at least 50 of these things dive bombing and chomping on me. I tried running out and away from the bike to lose them but they would not be so easily deterred. Taking a full, deep breath, I stopped. I just felt the sensations on my body for a few moments. The buzzing/ticking feeling as they’d land somewhere on me. The sting of the bite, the sear of the intense itch. None of these sensations were truly contending with my fundamental survival. They were just really really annoying. But somehow just letting myself feel them for a moment took away most of their power over me. My frustration settled, and somewhat calmly I managed to change the tube for my second spare (which luckily did hold air). I sped off and let out a few more sighs to settle myself down. Of course the insane itching has been occupying me since then, but at least the deep breath got me through the hardest part!
The road rolled up and down along a river canyon by farms and homes toward my next dirt turnoff. There weren’t many viable places to camp along the roadside, nor were there any side roads to pull off onto. Luckily I found a tiny hospedaje right at the turnoff I’d be taking. At $6/night, I graciously accepted. I’d need all my energy for the following day in which I’d climb over 10,000’ back up to the high country.
With a bit of wifi access, I studied up on some supposed peculiar scientific experiments that can only be done exactly on the equator. I’ll be there in a few days and was so curious to test the veracity of certain oddities: Supposedly our balance is much worse on the equator but our strength is greater, and water flushes neither clockwise nor counterclockwise. I’m also reading about the history of head-shrinking in certain indigenous tribes here. Quite an interesting process! I’d need some sort of water drain in the form of a cut bottle to test the Coriolis Effect….
Random sleeping man on the dirt roadside amidst a long slow climb.
With every passing hour the distant mountains didn’t seem any closer, just taller…
I was surprised to see a few scattered groves of Andean palm trees this far South.
It was evening. I’d climbed about 9800’. There was very little flat ground to be found. Where to camp…? Hm…. I kept pushing on through the shifting golden light hoping a viable campsite would present itself. Low and behold a farm field appeared, just as the temperature began to plummet. Things do have a way of working out if you let them. I watched the final magenta rays cast upon some distant peaks as I crawled into my tent for the night.
The road got a little rocky the next day, but the beautiful unfolding of gorgeous mountains around me made it worth the work.
Oops. Wrong turn. I cut through a huge mountain valley to avoid backtracking, only to realize how much time that choice would actually lose. Between the thick tufts of dense grass and the 1-3’ high bumpy marsh clumps, the crossing was a bit taxing.
Deer! The only deer I’ve seen in South America so far despite hearing they were quite common. Oh, and Volcan Cotacacchi. You know, whatever. I began a long dirt descent toward Otovalo in the valley below, first enjoying smooth dirt. Then the odd few rocks, then ONLY rocks. 5000’ of descending on rock after endless rock certainly challenged my tooth enamel, especially as it transitioned into rough, deep cobblestones.
This woman could not have been much more than 4’ tall. In some form of traditional indigenous garb, I knew I’d arrived in a new place with new people and new customs.
The cobblestone issue did not only exist in the high mountain roads. Even the “highway” in to Otovalo was hand-laid stone. I began considering the immense amount of work it must take to build a road like this: making sure each stone fits against the last, for immeasurable distances. This is not a little rocky section of road between paved ones. this is the NORMAL.
Passing though a couple of small towns into Otovalo, I noticed many offering a variety of “Zamarros”. Evidently wearing furry chaps for horseback riding in the highlands is pretty common. I imagined picking up a pair and touring through ecuador with chaps, but just too heavy!!
Soccer game on the Western flank of Volcan Imbabura.
Shortly after, I rolled into the urban streets of Otovalo. There were countless signs for hotels, tours, and markets. Clearly a touristy town, famous for its enormous Saturday crafts market, I’d hope to see what the fuss was all about.
By great luck Dro, my BFAM (Brother From Another.. you know) whom I’d connected with back in Colombia had bussed ahead and was exploring Otovalo for a while. He showed me the cheap hotel he’d found and we hit the town exploring. The markets were indeed fantastic. Lots of short, friendly indigenous women selling all sorts of new foods and beautiful crafts.
Chicken feet. They’re everywhere. Like on every street corner, there are women sitting next to a huge pile of them grilling them over open coals, selling them to passers by. So many in fact that I wondered if people actually liked eating the rest of the chickens here or just tossed them aside as scraps in order to focus on their collection of feet. It was… noteworthy.
Aside from chicken feet, the markets boasted rows of women selling a strange dish: pork meat and solidified cow’s blood over a bed of pasta and rice. Having tried it, Dro said it was surprisingly tasty. I agreed. But definitely a bit daunting to sit and eat next to an enormous broiled pig head.
Wandering into the main craft market, one has to be on his toes. Everyone wants you to stop by and visit their booth and purchase something. But the challenge is a little more complex. They’re not pestering in ways I’ve seen up North. They beckon their please in a kind of melodic, whining tone, “why won’t you just come and buy some of my things, I’ll give you a great deal.” Almost saying, “why would you hurt my feelings so as to just walk by when I’m here with great things for you?”. We were eventually pulled in to the beautiful and roastingly warm handmade hats this woman was selling of $4. Cheesy as it was, we purchased a matching set.
After a couple days exploring Otovalo, I hopped back on the horse to cobble my way toward Quito. Next stop: up up up to Lagunas Mojanda.
Gorgeous lakes surrounded by looming peaks. It was getting cold and late so I picked up the pace in search of a campsite. Unfortunately that led me to be a bit careless crossing a large mud puddle, I slid out my front wheel and took a face-first dive into a 1 foot deep puddle of mud. Great way to prepare for a cold night at high elevation.
I found a rough 2 track climbing up the valley from the main Mojanda road, eventually discovering a perfect flat camp site overlooking a gorgeous mountain lake. Not a bad place to dry off and watch a sunset.
… Not warm though. My thermometer read 15F when I woke up the following morning at 13,000’.
Fun rutted road down from Mojanda toward the central valley, I’d hope to reach the town of Tumbaco just outside of Quito that night in order to stay at the Casa de Ciclistas there.
On the way down to the valley, I luckily remembered a key location where I’d have to make a pit stop. No big deal. Just…
See that latitude measurement on my GPS? 00°00’00.0”
About 500m after dropping onto a paved highway from the rough dirt road, I realized I had reached Middle Earth. I walked the bike up and down the highway staring at my Garmin device until the numbers reached zero. Looking down, I saw a small red mark on the side of the curb. Not particularly glorious. Not particularly momentous. But pretty cool nonetheless! I’m in the Southern Hemisphere!!!! Unfortunately I had forgotten to fill up water back at the lakes and managed to also forget a disposable bottle I could cut up to test to Coriolis effect. So alas, I’d just have to cherish the moment in non-scientific ways. Good thing too as further research shows that all those equator tests you can find on youtube are actually fake. Coriolis doesn’t effect such small bodies of water as a water tub or a sink, for example. Sigh.
Fun little single track section up a quiet canyon, always welcome.
The final 40km into Tumbaco would be on an abandoned railway system. Started out a little sketchy as the rail trail wound through the outskirts of small towns, covered in trash and debris, passing through the occasional tunnel.
As the trail led closer to Tumbaco and the Quito suburbs it however got much cleaner and passed through some lovely river canyons.
Eventually it became clear that this trail system had been managed and improved by the city of Quito as a route for locals to ride bikes, run and such, called the Chaquiñan in Ecuadorean Quichua.
The Chaquiñan actually led directly into Tumbaco. I followed directions from a website to the front door of an nondescript home a few blocks away and knocked on the door. A middle-aged man opened the door and without any prior introduction welcomed me in. Santiago has operated this Casa de Ciclistas for almost 30 years at various locations around Quito, unequivocally inviting any and all touring cyclists to stay and camp on his property so long as they wish. It would be my first time staying in such a place (there are quite a few scattered around South America), and I was excited to connect with other cyclists as well as explore Quito for a few days.
To be continued…