Crossing the smaller amazonian boarder into Ecuador meant two things, firstly we were almost back at sea level meaning more heat and more bugs. Secondly in order to get to Quito, which in itself is situated at an altitude of about 2800m we had to navigate a 4000m pass, our first proper test at altitude. The pros were that this part of Ecuador was pretty quiet as most traffic and tourists take the PanAm boarder only venturing into the east to go on Amazon jungle tours, the result was that we had the roads pretty much to ourselves. It was stunning riding and we were able to give the tent a good go as stealth camping is a hell of a lot easier when you have a continent which is much more sparsly populated. We camped next to waterfalls, swimming pools and rock climbing walls as we spent our first few days undulating towards the capital. On our final day into Quito we awoke at 2400m to mizzle. It was kind of raining but not raining and really foggy, actually who am I kidding we needed our waterproofs on which means it was definitely raining. We packed up a wet tent which in my mind definitely meant the tent was at least 1kg heavier than usual and I would be dragging that extra 1kg up a vertical mile in order to crest above 4000m for the first time on bicycle. bleurgh.
Up we cycled through the valley, all the time thinking what an excellent view this might be if only I could see more than 50m ahead of me. As we got higher the cloud thickened even more to the point where visability was barely a couple of meters, when out of nowhere a bike lane appeared. As soon as the bike lane appeared Herbie was off ahead of me, no longer needing safety in numbers we were both now protected by a kerb separating our lane from the rest of the road. I am sure he was also going stir crazy after having climbed the first 1000m so slowly behind me and wanted to stretch his legs a little. Now on my own for the last 600m with only my thoughts I did go slightly mad. I couldn’t decide if the air was getting thinner or I was just getting more tired but it was pretty miserable just the same. At one point about 200m below the top I was being a proper grumpus, I was way behind Herbie (as always), struggling with the altitude, freezing my ass off and was about the shed a little tear when out of nowhere this huge gorgeous red dog appeared by my side. He was like a fox, not a skanky London fox but a beautiful thick coated elegant creature who seemed to peer into my soul and understand just how hard I was finding this stupid climb. He trotted right alongside me, completely undisturbed by the bike for about 200m while I managed to pull myself together and then just as quickly as he appeared, disappeared again into the fog. Now i’m sure there could be many explanations for this, hallucination or the most plausible one being that he was a stray and coming to check me out to see if I would give him any food. But I love dogs, I am one of those weird people that borrows other peoples dogs just to take them walking for free (borrowmydoggy.com if you are interested) and this handsome chap managed to turn up just at the right time, in the absolute middle of nowhere and make me feel 100 times better. In my non logical mind where I have read far to many fantasy novels I like to think that this dog was my daemon / spirit animal / guardian angel / patronus, who knows? But I did make it to the top of the pass.
We sailed down the other side (wearing all our clothes because it was baltic) and enjoyed over an hour of freewheeling where we topped speeds of 80kph+. While descending I checked the garmin every now and again to see the speed and elevation. Now, please just take a moment to imagine my absolute horror at realising we were still descending as we approached 2800m. Quito is at 2800m and it was still nowhere in sight. NO. STOP. WHERE IS THE ROAD GOING?! Down, down, more down. SH*T!!!
Our descent finally ended at about 2300m, the most heartbreaking descent ever (apart from Herbie made my cycle down a ski jump..) for the first time I seriously considered hanging onto the back of a lorry to get up the next mountain Quito was hiding behind. Dad, you’ll be pleased to know I didn’t, I just spent the rest of the day with a face like a pitbull chewing a wasp. After a longer than anticipated day of climbing, a total of 2321m ascent to be exact we did make it to Quito and I ate a greasy hamburger bigger than my head, with a side of chips.
Eating our way through Quito for a few days we decided Ecuador would not be complete without a visit to Cotopaxi National Park. After a little research into how we get there and the likelihood of actually seeing the volcano in its full glory we realised that:
1. The cycle would be horrendous
2. Some people camp out and wait five or six days to see Volcan Cotopaxi without clouds
Keeping these two points in mind and the fact that the food coma we had eaten ourselves into had completely distorted previous versions of events we were now under the impression that cycle touring was again ‘fun’ and a 760m ascent over 15km on cobbles ‘will be fine’. 15km on pave with a grade of 5% is absolutely fine when you’re sat in a brewery with a beer in one hand and deep fried camembert in the other.
The reality isn’t quite as pleasant, in order to spare you the most horrendous details it involves 3 and half hours, 8x falling on my arse, a lot of hauling and a few tears. The best part was when we finally made it to the top we weren’t allowed to even enter the national park, gates close at 3pm apparently, we had read this somewhere but assumed it had only meant cars. Nope, gates are closed for cyclists but open for guys on motorbikes herding horses…. We were a little short on wild horses so had to settle for camping at the gate with a view to entering first thing the next morning. Being at around 3800m altitude it was our first night of freezing our butts off, actually it wasn’t that bad at all as we have the worlds warmest sleeping bags but it was the first night of frost on the inside of our tent. The one absolute plus of camping where we did was that when I got up for the obligatory midnight wee there was not a cloud in the sky, the moon was exceptionally bright among millions of stars and there was Cotopaxi looking spectacular. Unfortunately you’ll just have to take my word for it as iPhone 6 in this type of scenario is rubbish.
The next day we spent cycling about in Cotopaxi national park, learning the lyrics to ‘despacito’ and we DID see the volcano looking glorious.
After all the volcano hunting it was off to try and make it to Cuenca in time for the 37th anniversary of Herbie entering the world. Only a few mountains stood in our way, how hard could that be? It was to be our first proper test of real mountains since we dabbled in the Alps last summer. Only the Andes are a little bit higher. Doing a day of 1500m ascent isn’t too bad, it’s when you start linking them together and every day is a 1500m+ kind of day that the legs really start to complain. Apart from all the winging about climbing mountains it does mean being treated to endless spectacular views, the kind that make you proud to have cycled to the top, rather than just press an accelerator. In between one of these endless days of climbing came our biggest day to date. Not in terms of time or distance, I think we only covered a ‘measly’ 95km but at an ascent of 2370m it stands as the toughest day etched into my brain so far.
It all started with a rather pleasant 6km, 400m climb to one of the most spectacular views of mountains I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. The next three hours were equally as pleasant, it was hot, sunny and the Andes were playing an absolute blinder. We even managed to bump into a couple of other cycle tourers heading in the opposite direction and were able to share horror stories of what lay ahead. Then after an early lunch stop at the bottom of the days ‘big climb’ it started to rain. The waterproofs were donned and we started heading upwards, visibility dropped and the only excitement came from an occasional landslide where we had to very carefully navigate what was left of the road. We passed through town after town with nowhere to stay (we had decided camping was only going to be a last resort because of the monsoon and limited visibility, we had no idea if we were next to a cliff or somebody’s house) After about 6.5 hours we came across what looked like a ‘big’ town, alas there was still nowhere to stay. It was here we had an argument over whether to keep on trucking to the next town which definitely had accommodation, or try to see if the local police / fire station would let us camp with them. In the end Herbie won, we had been soaked and freezing cold for hours, what difference did another hour or so make if there was a promise of a hot shower at the end. We saddled up again for more misery and ended up cycling 2370m ascent over 8 hours, 5 of those hours being in rain. In hindsight it was probably a good thing the visibility was so low, I had no idea where the road was going, just up. We did finally get a hot shower and when we went in search of food were even served soup a la chicken feet – yum yum!
After the world hardest day anything afterwards was sheer cycling bliss, the Ecuadorians proving to be just as friendly as Colombians as we were both stopped en route into Cuenca by a couple of cyclists (who were driving at the time) to be handed ice cold water and sent on our way with big smiles on our faces. We rolled into town with promise of a couple of days off, more hot showers and maybe a beer or two for Herbie’s birthday.
Cuenca is a very European looking city both in the building and the people. It’s also home to all the panama hats, I am open to being corrected if wrong however I believe that it was mainly the Ecuadorians who dug the Panama canal and they used to wear these style of hats as sun protection, hence where the name came from. Whatever the history I believe it is nearly impossible to leave Cuenca without such a hat. Bike tourer or not, Herbie’s birthday or not, travelling with a hat box definitely adds to ones style.
From Cuenca we decided to head coastwards which meant a few more mountains to traverse but ultimately net downhill towards sea level. As mentioned before nothing was as bad as the ‘World’s worst day cycling’ we only had one eventful day where for the first time we did a substantial amount of night riding. It had been a stunner of a day, mainly descending through a spectacular gorge in the mountains. We pulled up to a field not long before sunset to find that the idyllic hostel we had been aiming for (located on both google and booking.com) didn’t actually exist. Or maybe it did exist but definitely wasn’t anywhere near the field where it claimed to be. I can’t quite remember why but camping was out of the question, oh yes I remember, we had run out of water, schoolboy. So, the next piece of civilisation was 35km away, luckily mostly downhill. We run dynamo lights on our bikes which are constantly on but we also added a few extra twinkley lights for safety and off we went into the dark. Reaching the next small village there was a little hotel, yippee! We went to inspect and were told $35 for a rather minging looking small room. There was no room for negotiation even though there was clearly nobody else staying there and I don’t think the owner even cared if he did business or not?! The next town was another 15km away, we’d been cycling in the dark for quite a while now, what’s a little extra? Hell, Peru is only 70km away, we might as well go for the boarder! Off to the next town it was and there was and thats how the 100km day ended up being 150km. It’s not a habit we’d like to continue, cycling in the dark, but actually on this particular stretch of road, people didn’t seem to like driving in the dark either. We were lit up like a couple of extras from Blackpool illuminations, felt 100% safe and in the end it ended up being quite a therapeutic experience.
So comes our last day in Ecuador, because of the night ride the day before we were pretty close to the boarder and it was just a short stint through banana farms to end our Ecuadorian adventure. However, as if Ecuador had decided that we hadn’t had quite as much fun as physically possible before we left, the local TV station decided to interview Herbie, in Spanish, with Loz sniggering behind the camera and trying to avoid eye contact.