You wake up with sore throat and stuffy nose. Your cough seems better for those initial moments laying in your sleeping bag with the “bunker” in Quito’s casa de ciclistas, but that all changes when you stand up. As the phlegm follows gravity’s incontrovertible force your lungs gurgle and the coughing begins. The perfect way to set out for 8 straight days of challenging, high altitude biking.
A quick trip to the store for eggs, bread and coffee then you head into Santiago’s kitchen to cook, attempting to keep your germs to yourself so much as possible. Having already signed into his enormous book of traveling visitors and left a contribution to keep his electricity running, you fill up some water bottles and give him one last hug. Bidding good fortune to his family, your final hug goes to his sweet pup who barely lifts her head up. She’s seen too many travelers leave to get attached.
Rolling down the street from Santi’s house, your sense of resolve is far greater than when you tried to leave 4 days ago. Knowing your newly-born nephew is healthy and in good hands, filled with inspiring new ideas from the TEDx conference you attended, it is clearly time to move on. One last glance at the lovely murals by Santi’s house and it’s on to some dirt road headed South toward Volcan Cotopaxi.
Just outside Tumbaco you’re coughing your way up a deteriorating cobblestone road. The rocks are just large and sharp enough to cause a particularly uncomfortable form of deeply jarring bounce that seems to perfectly effectively release maximal phlegm from your bronchial walls. Was it the 10 days off the bike that’s causing this feeling of such weakness, such challenge? Or perhaps just the sickness? Either way, this is not fun. At least not yet.
While taking yet another break from the quivering cobbles, you see some commotion ahead of you. Some people pausing to pee while in route down the hill. As you approach they gleefully greet you. A motley crew of drunken peasant farmers, they’re heading back from some sort of big event/party as one is proudly grasping and displaying a large trophy in hand. The others are consistently filling small plastic cups with “agua”. Translation — Cane liquor. They claim it will help you with the altitude, with the cold, with your energy. After the 3rd round gets passed, you cannot refuse their offer yet again. Two shots of this magical panacea and you are feeling some of their glee, joyfulling sharing the story of your journey and inquiring into theirs. Eventually you part ways with a laugh and safe travel wishes.
As you pass further up the mountainside, the cobbles luckily get smoother.. and the abandoned houses more common. You consider sleeping in one as it would protect you from any potential wind gusts over the night, but eventually find a large open field an hour later. Exhausted from your first full day riding in 10 days, you boil some pasta and barely make it to the bottom of your pot before you fall into slumber.
The following day your climb up to Volcan Cotopaxi continues relentlessly. The steep and eroded dirt road escorts you past endless cattle farms with their associated osseous excretions.
At some point you pause to catch your breath and notice the foot of Volcan Cotopaxi in the distance, a rainbow across her base.
Hours later you’re suddenly in an entirely different climate zone, no longer any trees in sight, just tiny ground plants impervious to the harsh high altitude weather of Cotopaxi.
You reach a fork in the trail. Sigh, decision time. On the one hand you could follow your original route: the challenging Southeastern trail around Cotopaxi. There would be much more climbing, and a significant section of hike-a-bike through a marshy grass upslope. On the other hand you could continue the more established trail around the Northwest side of the volcano, still leading you to a downhill trail system. Looking up at Cotopaxi completely still shrouded in cloud cover, the intermittent rain threatening to become impending, the choice was quite clear. Recognizing the ego within that is still trying to prove something by always choosing the most hardcore route, yet you know you’ll complain during said tough route as there won’t be a view of the peak. Softly conveying to the ego that it won’t be getting its way just now, you turn to the North.
Between regular rain showers and sloppy mud, you slush your way down the mountain slope on an abandoned two track through the forest. Despite the already rustic road, the GPX track you are following cuts off onto an even lesser maintained logging road for a while, riding through the overgrown wet grass as it maintains your shorts and shirt soaked with freezing rainwater. After dropping down a small canyon, the road steeply climbs up the other side and promptly forces a pause — a tall locked gate.
It’s least 7 feet tall. To it’s left a steep embankment, impossible to get your bike through. To the right the gate stops mere inches before a 50 foot cliff. In order to get around the cliffy side of the gate you’d need to hold your 80lb bike in one hand as you swing your body out over the edge, hoping to have the leverage to toss the bike around the other side. This option is NOT appealing. Back tracking might involve at least 10km of climbing back up the hillside to find a viable way onward. You then notice a narrow section of the fencing is blocked by a few small strands of barbed wire.
You’ve hopped plenty of barbed wire fences over the journey, getting cut quite deeply on more than one of those occasions. You look down at the bike’s dimensions. Then back up at the narrow barbed passage. Then back down at the bike… ad nauseum. REALLY don’t want to swing out over that cliff. Shamefully, you pull out your Leatherman tool, open the wire cutters, and make a choice you never thought you would. You take pride in respecting the property of those people’s land you cross. But the conditions just don’t provide a better option. Squeezing the bike through the narrow opening, you catch your backpack on a stray piece of wire, tearing a 5” hole in its pocket. “Serves you right,” you hear an inner voice mutter. Retying the wire as best you can to minimize the impact, the guilt is still strong. “NEVER AGAIN.” The last utterance your hear before pedaling away.
Crossing through the gritty industrial area in Cotopaxi’s basin, you climb back up another mountainside past the town of Toacazo, planning to find cheap lodging there. Upon further inquiry you’re directed to the only option in town, a rustic hospedaje, and knock on the door. No answer. Sigh. You continue past town looking for a stealth campsite along the busy paved road, always nervous to camp so close to civilization. Luckily around a bend you discover a perfect grassy knoll, atop which there is no visibility from the road. Marveling at a gorgeous sunset cast upon Cotopaxi’s visible lower slopes, then collapsing into your sleeping bag yet again.
After a short paved climb, you divert to dirt once again, climbing high above the populated farmlands to open mountainsides.
As you ascend, you glance around to appreciate the freedom in which you are indulging in this very moment. To be completely alone in this gorgeous landscape, yet able to travel on a well-established road while you do it. Alone, yet reveling in the fruit of countless hours’ labor it took to build this passage.
Summiting yet another high mountain pass, you whiz down the smooth dirt road, glancing down the canyon at the altitude you will undoubtedly have to regain. It’s a peculiar moment to appreciate the extreme beauty of these mountains while appreciating the extreme effort required to traverse them.
The bottom of the canyon is hot. Any rest you take for more than a moment carries with it an onslaught of tiny biting flies that swarm around your arms and legs in search of sustenance. As you begin the long, steep, sandy climb out, you struggle with maintaining your speed to evade their aggressive attacks.
Sandstone? You reach out during a rest to touch the beautifully windswept walls, noticing how easily the material crumbles at your fingertips.
Atop the canyon you again reach lush green farmlands. Stopping to enjoy the purple flowers you notice they are actually bean plants. You pocket a small handful to compliment the night’s pasta dinner.
A rare sight in Ecuador: signage for a mountain bike route. You know the Trans Ecuador route has not yet been publicized enough to be marked, yet there stands a sign with a bike clearly marked. Interesting.
Always fun to play chicken with a flock of sheep. Inevitably you hit the breaks as they either don’t have the vision or the sense to evade an impending collision. At the same time you appreciate the great warmth and friendliness of almost all indigenous people you’ve met over these last few days. The men smile. The boys wave. The little girls on the other hand seem a bit afraid. They want to stare at you, but don’t want you to see them doing it. So they hide around corners of buildings and hillsides, sneaking peaks as you ride by them. You make a game of catching their glances, smiling and joking with them to build safety. Occasionally you get a smile back.
The time has come to find your night’s roost. You recall the invitation from a man in the last little hamlet to come stay on his organic farm. All you remember of his directions is the phrase “Cañon Golondrina,’ noticing a sign with that same word on it some time later marking a trailhead. You stow the bike just off the dusty dirt road to investigate, and find a trail which seems to lead continuously down a very steep and beautiful canyon.
About 100m down the trail you notice a small covered platform overlooking the canyon and its waterfall. Looks about the size of your tent… Dragging the bike down the slippery sandy trail, you come to find your measurements estimate is perfectly correct. You never do follow the trail all the way down the canyon to find that man’s organic farm, but you’re not too sad about it. This site is pretty perfect.
Impossibly windy narrow roads carry you to the crater’s rim to view Laguna Quilotoa the next morning. It is like a slightly smaller Crater Lake back in Oregon. While the infrastructure and tourism is far less than its US counterpart, this lake still has a bit more tourism than you feel comfortable with after spending the last few days in general solitude. You make some lunch while the wind whips past you, taking in the view with every deep breath.
Dropping down the far side of Quilotoa you scream downhill past some gorgeous canyons to the small town of Zumbahua.
Though only mid-day, your persistent cough and headcold plead a slightly shorter day for the sake of a warm room and a bed.
Well rested and fed with a fresh, home-cooked meal, you push back up the next rocky climb the following morning.
Llamas!!! If there is any sign that you have truly reached the Andes, it’s this one!
Lots of recent road grading makes for what appears to be a very smooth route. Unfortunately lots of recent rain turns dirt into sludgy wet mud quite quickly. Luckily the gorgeous geology overcomes the challenge for the most part.
Cloud/fog cover rolls in, with it a curiosity about impending rain and further mud.
Just as the clouds begin to part, you reach the apex of your ascent. Doing a full 360 with a deep breath, you appreciate the glory of this gorgeous spot.
Up a small side road, the fog is still clearing, highlighting the silhouette of a small indigenous woman emerging from the darkness.
Behind you is an odd and captivating church. Its vibrant red door in stark contrast with its eroding cement base. Both happy and eerie, you curiously peer inside through a window…
This place has seen brighter days, but somehow the green mossy floor matched the creepy inside with the eerie red door facade.
Descending the pass, the fog returned. With limited visibility you realize it has certainly rained recently here as the deep muddy tracks in the road got progressively harder to navigate. Those big fat tires are challenging to carry up the long climbs, but moments like these make them worth every calorie. Fat tires rule.
With legs and chest covered with mud flicked onto you from your long wet descent, you roll into the tiny hamlet of Angamarca. Everyone is staring at you. Clearly it’s not a primary route for touring cyclists as you feel like an pink flamingo in a chicken coop. The large open plaza has about 50-60 small numbered rectangles drawn onto the cement, each the size of car, placed in front of the municipal market building. Clearly this is a big market town for the outlying rural residences. You wander into the market and find a woman who happily prepares your a fantastic meal for $2. Once complete, you ask her if there are any hospedajes in town. She points you to a “pensión” across the plaza. $8 would get you a dirty looking bed on a dirty looking floor. Not particularly inspired, you decide to seek camping options. A few random passers by suggest you can camp on the covered front entrance to the municipal building as a few other travelers have done in the past. As you begin to set up a man opens a door in front of you and begins watching you unpack. He says he and a few other men are working on the roads in the area for a few weeks and are given access to a room inside the building to sleep. They invite you to join them… a moment’s hesitation is overcome by his kind smile. You roll your bike into the room and throw your gear on the floor, striking up a lovely conversation with the two road workers until you can’t keep your eyes open any longer.
6AM the following morning: the two workers are up and heading to work. They show you where the padlock is to the room and how to lock it on your way out. You gather your stuff, roll the bike out of the room and lock the door, appreciating how kind these men were to trust you with the room of their belongings.
Looking behind you for your backpack, you don’t see it.
Stupidly you left it in the room, next to the door. The door that you JUST locked with their padlock. A padlock for which the only key is with a worker that will be gone all day. Not a whole lot of options here. Either you wait around this tiny town all day, or… You pull out your Leatherman’s file and start sawing, hoping it has the strength to cut through the padlock. Looking out into the square behind you the numbered spaces are quickly filling up with people’s stalls selling fruits, vegetables and other wears. You loudly keep sawing at this lock while various people stand behind you staring. Very awkward. 15 uncomfortable minutes later, you pop the broken lock open to get your bag. You luckily happen to have a small padlock in your gear for hostel stays. You re-lock the door with it and give the key to the kind woman who made your dinner last night in the market, asking her to convey a deep apology to the men for your silly mistake. Sheepishly you roll out of town, hoping not to have left a dirty taste in the mouths of those two men who so kindly helped you.
A small descent out of Angamarca is followed by a LONG, extremely steep ascent. Not to steep to be unrideable but too steep for you to ride more than 20 pedal strokes before hyperventilating, you walk much of it. The rest of the day is a lovely tour through small hamlets on a narrow rural road through the mountains.
As you glance at your clock it is 5:30pm. You’ve got about 30 minutes of light left. It’s gotten pretty foggy and you don’t see any available flat ground camping options that are away from the road. As the light begins to fade, you see a large field off of the road and ride in. You take the first flat spot you can find, setting up the tent and crawling in for the night.
You are violently knocked out of slumber to find the roof of your tent slapped against your face. It appears that the tent has been flattened against you due to a particularly strong gust of wind. Popping the tent back up from the inside you open the door to see what’s happening outside. Now that the clouds have cleared it appears you’ve set up camp in the middle of a huge valley between to big mountains — the perfect wind tunnel. It’s too late to pack up and find another campsite. The wind is screaming. Another THWAP and the tent flattens to the ground. Concerned about breaking tent poles, you crawl inside it to bolster the walls from the inside with your body. You sit against the upwind side of the tent, hoping to wait out the gusts, but an hour later there is no change. Dead tired, you lay back down and try holding up the tent with your feet in the air, hoping to fall asleep somehow in this position. No luck. You wake up a moment later not only to the familiar “thwap”, but with a new additional popping sound.
Damnit, broken tent pole.
You make the only elective decision you can to protect what’s left of your tent given the circumstances. You pull all the poles out of the tent and roll yourself up in the material, creating a makeshift bivouac sac. The wind continues to whip throughout the night, waking you every few minutes as the material slaps against your body. Somehow you manage to fall asleep.
Crawling out of your bivy tent the following morning you marvel at your “ingenuity”.
The following morning you descend another long mountain slope to get your first view of Volcan Chimborazo, the tallest in Ecuador!
Following the Trans-Ecuador route up Chimborazo’s Northeast slope, you ascend an eroded dirt road to a mountaineering refuge used to stage guided climbs up the volcano. Good place to have some lunch and enjoy the view!
Vicuñas! A small, wild, little brother to the alpaca and llama, the vicuñas wander the high mountain slopes of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Adorable looking but their appearance pales in comparison the cuteness of their warning call when dangerous gringo mountain bikers are approaching. You can’t find a better way to describe the sound than that of a small squeaky toy that your pet dog might obsessively gnaw at. You are so surprised to hear such a delicate tiny sound come out of such a large animal!
Following your GPX track of the route, you continue onto a dirt trail around Chimborazo’s Northeast slope. Glancing at your altimeter, you realize this is officially the highest point you’ve ever ridden a bike, just under 15,000’.
The trail deteriorates. Still rideable, but getting pretty rough.
The trail further deteriorates. From dry to marshy to downright wet, with endless sections of unavoidable 10-12” deep mud. You try to keep your feet dry for a few minutes then give up.
You eventually cross a huge marshy valley, wade across a narrow but rapid river, and drag your bike up and over a steep slope of large bushy grass plumes before finding your way back onto a dirt 2 track as the sky begins radiating its evening colors. Time to find a roost for the night.
Whipping around a tight corner, you happen to glance over your shoulder to see a small straw structure set back from the road. You’ve seen a number of these before, most of them are abodes for indigenous people living in the high mountain paramo. But upon closer investigation this one was completely empty. SWEET! You roll your bike in, set up your tent for warmth and even start a small campfire. It’s cosy, warm, and silent. You marvel at your amazing campsite finding karma, a lovely contrast from your pole-breaking experience the previous night.
After another screaming dirt descent down Chimborazo’s Eastern side, you climb out of the small town of San Juan, up to a trail along a water canal traversing a steep slope. You’re impressed and curious how Cass Gilbert and the Dammer brothers managed to find some of these tiny trails to create this route.
Until… the trail abruptly stops at the edge of a small canyon. The water canal continues across, supported by a couple of old cement poles. To your left: a steep unclimbable slope. To your right, an unknown length of descent in order to get around the canyon. Ahead: of course… the water canal. You glance at your GPX track: It continues straight.
So these guys balanced their bikes over their heads as they balanced themselves on the 4” wide ledge of the canal, suspended 20’ in the air?? No fucking way. Plus who knows how strong that suspended canal bridge is. Can it even hold your weight?? Well, it’s a lot of water going through there and water is pretty heavy. Probably quite strong. Still, how to balance on such a precarious ledge??? But wait… You wonder how deep that water actually is. Stepping in you find it’s only ankle deep. Hmmm…
With a deep breath, you step into the canal with both feet, balancing the bike wheels on the 4” ledge (Inside the water canal is about 12″ wide). Baby steps forward, you keep all your focus on maintaining those bike wheels on that ledge and inch your way across. Even though it’s only about 15’ long, you’re afraid of heights and it was quite a push out of your comfort zone. Oddly, the bridges are strategically places in ascending size almost as if each is place to train you for the next…
… Until you get to the BIG one. 40’ across, at least 30-35’ off the ground. Similarly no visible way around it. Stepping back into the canal, you can’t believe you’re doing this. Inching your way out into the open air, you marvel about the power of negative thinking. Your legs start to quiver with every step further out as the ground disappears from your peripheral vision. Shuffling your feet slowly forward, you coach yourself, “just keep going, just keep going, just keep going.” In the middle, the fear in your whole body is causing so much tightness in your legs, you catch one foot against the other and begin to waiver in balance…
“NO!” You say to yourself out loud as you regain your balance and composure.
Repeating your original mantra, you continue, even slower than before. The moment the front wheel touches a bit of grass on the far side, you almost throw the bike up onto it in relief.
A moment’s triumph and you hop back onto the saddle, wondering what the day will bring next…
Rolling into the municipality of Cajabamba, you notice for the first time streets signs that are bilingual in Spanish and Quichua (In Ecuador it’s pronounced Quí-chua, in Peru, Què-chua)
A match set.
Riding up the steep climb past this couple, you smile widely at the man pushing his bike. He smiles back in that certain way that just plainly states, “Yep. Bikes are cool.”
Descending along a wide valley toward the night’s goal of Guamote, you marvel at the colorful crops.
Guamote, turns out to be a railway town. You don’t know why, but you like the vibe here.
Having been over a week since your last hot shower, you decide to throw down for the big $10 hotel room. Newly opened by the welcoming Angelica, you are welcomed into a modern room with flannel sheets and soft beds. What a treat!
Smelling of soap and shampoo, you let out a big sigh as you jump onto your soft bed and watch some random Ecuadorean television. Of course your exhaustion prevents you getting interested in much other than your eyelids. You let yourself sleep in as much as you want until you naturally awaken. Glancing at your map and route, it’s been a hard week of challenging terrain, but it’s about to get even harder. You close your eyes and return to sleep knowing tomorrow will be there for you when you’re ready.