While preparing for this new adventure in South America, everyone I talked to had mentioned that Quito is the most interesting capital they had visited in the “New World”. This being the starting point of my bikepacking trip to Santiago de Chile, I was obviously not going to be in a position to compare, but none the less, my four days in Ecuador’s second largest city were very enjoyable.
The second highest capital in the world at 2820 m above sea level (after La Paz), Quito is squeezed in the narrow Guayllabamba valley and stretches well over 50 km from north to south.
I spend most of the first day exploring the quaint and wonderfully well-preserved historical centre, from the Plaza Grande to Plaza San Francisco and then head north towards Mariscal Sucre, stopping on the way at the high-perched Basilica del Voto Nacional and enjoying the great views of the city from the top of the clock tower.
The Señora running my hotel warns me in the morning that the country, and particularly Quito, is in the middle of widely followed protests by the country’s indigenous population against the rising costs of fuel and agricultural goods. This is clearly felt in the centre, with a heavy police presence and many guarded barricades across key streets. On more than one occasion, a member of the police force approaches me to warn me about the situation and to make sure I look after my personal belongings. But it seems that the protests take place mainly in the evenings, because I don’t really notice anything during my days wandering the streets. However, I hear loud bangs and police sirens once back at my hotel later in the day.
On day two, I decide to speed up my altitude acclimatization process by hiking to the lowest of the two summits of Volcán Pichincha, Rucu Pichincha. I grab an Uber to the TelefériQo, and let South America’s highest cable car take me to the start of the hike at 3950 m. At the famous wooden swing, Geoffrey, a fellow Frenchman, hands me his phone so that I can take some photos of him floating high above the city. Deciding to attempt the hike together, we chat away happily until we reach the last steep part of the hike. At this point, we very much feel the effects of the high altitude, both short of breath and our hearts pounding and racing in our chests. Eventually, we reach the summit at 4690 m, but by that time, the clouds have moved in and are completely blocking the view. At the top, we meet Maëva, Simon, and Theo, three more French travelers who Geoffrey has come across before in Colombia. Deciding that we don’t hate each other, we all meet again the next day for a walk around the Mariscal Sucre and La Floresta neighborhoods and finish the day with a drink at Café Mosaico with incredible views of the city.
I plan to start my journey the next day, but as I have breakfast this morning, the Señora of the hotel tells me that the protests are gathering momentum and that it is not safe for me to leave. If her aim is to unsettle me, she has succeeded. Not quite sure what to do, I decide to stay an extra day. I have some administrative tasks I still need to sort out, among other things, my German taxes!
But the following day my mind is set. No matter what horror stories I am told or what alarming images I see on TV, I will leave. In the end, the journey out of Quito goes smoothly without one single roadblock, and before I know it, I am riding on a narrow and steep cobblestone road towards the Cotopaxi National Park. The going is painfully slow, my legs feel weak. It starts drizzling. After only 35 km of riding, the relentless climb on the slippery cobblestones has taken the better of me, so I start looking for a place to spend the night. As I stop near a restaurant to catch my breath, the owner José pokes his head over the cement wall, and we start chatting. After some bartering, he lets me camp in his garden for 5$. I set up my tent under a gazebo and treat myself to a delicious trout for dinner. José is very friendly and very curious about my trip. He has lived and worked in Milan for 10 years and has traveled quite a bit around Europe. But eventually, he misses his homeland too much and chooses to come back to Ecuador to open a restaurant.
As I near the end of that dreadful cobblestone road the next day, a group of three young Ecuadorian mountain bikers stops me to ask if I have a 6 mm Allen key they can borrow. One of the muchachos sets about tightening his saddle, until suddenly I hear a loud sharp noise and notice a silvery piece of metal flying in the air. Apologetically, the boy hands me back my multitool, the 6 mm hex wrench snaps at the base. He’s tightened the screw too hard. The other boys wave this off as if it doesn’t matter, which angers me slightly. This is the only wrench of this size I have to adjust the height of my saddle. I will have to buy another one in the next big city I will be crossing.
The slopes gradually become gentler and around a bend it suddenly appears in front of me: The majestic Cotopaxi Volcano, 5897 m high, its summit covered in glaciers’ white, looking like a perfect cone. It’s hard to believe that this big mountain, the second highest in Ecuador, is an active volcano that last erupted in January 2016! The top of it disappears behind clouds again by the time I reach the entrance of the park. A sign hanging from the gate reads “Cerrado.” I enter the little house next to the entrance and a ranger greets me. He tells me the park is closed indefinitely due to the protests happening in the country. My heart sinks. We talk a little longer, me imploring him to let me through, explaining that I will be out on the other side the next morning and that I have my tent and 2 days’ worth of food in my panniers. The fake tears do the trick, he finally gives in and decides to let me pass. Victory! The little wooden hut feels quite cosy, sheltering me from the day’s cold winds and light rain, so I decide not to go straight through but keep the ranger company for a little longer. We talk about the protests, about his jobs, about tourists he’s encountered while working the gate. All the while, cars and trucks appear at the gate. The ranger sends back the vehicles trying to enter the park but lets through the ones trying to exit it. Most people are trying to bypass the roadblocks on the Panamericana to get to Quito’s airport. One hour later, I bid him farewell and follow the track to the north-west side of the mountain, stopping many times along the way to admire the landscape and to take photos. After a quick detour via the Limpiopungo lagoon, I finally reach the campsite where I have planned to spend the night: La Rinconada. It’s all downhill from there, so I’m actually toying with the idea of cycling all the way down towards the valley to find a guesthouse and have a warm shower when I notice a bicycle amongst the trees of the camping. Another cyclist! Sebastian, from Ecuador, is also bikepacking around the north of the country. Unfortunately, because of the protests and the difficulties he has to buy food, he has decided to alter his plans and is now about to start looping the volcano clockwise. Abandoning my idea of carrying on cycling that afternoon, I set up my tent next to his. We spend a nice evening together, exchanging travel stories whilst cooking dinner. As dawn sets in, the thick clouds hiding Cotopaxi suddenly evaporate, rewarding us with stunning views of the white summit. A perfect end to the day.
I wake up at 3 AM to the sound of rain falling hard on my tent. Blast! The rain keeps me awake until dawn. I pack my equipment under a light drizzle, and by the time I hit the road again, after saying my goodbyes to Sebastian, the rain has stopped. It remains very cold, however, and my legs feel like jelly. I quickly abandon my plans to cycle all the way to Isinliví and instead check in at Hostel Cuscungo before 10 AM, right next to the Panamerican Highway (which is completely car-free when I cross it). Assuming that no one else is going to show up that day, due to the protests, the muchacho at the counter gives me a double room for the price of a dorm bed. Two hours later, a group of 7 tourists arrives. They started hiking the Quilotoa Loop together before the protests began and got stuck in the mountains when they finished, for lack of transport back to Latacunga. They managed to get back to Isinliví and spent five days there, before transport was organized back to this guesthouse, one step closer to Quito. As always, it is nice to talk to other like-minded travelers; we exchange stories around the fireplace and finish the evening playing some card games.
The next day turns out to be one of the hardest I have ever experienced on the saddle. I don’t sleep well that night and seem to have caught my first stomach ache of this trip… I know I have more than 1000 m to climb when I leave the guesthouse in the morning, to reach Isinliví. It doesn’t seem that much; I’ve had harder days before… But as soon as I hit the first climb, I know it’s going to be a tough one. My legs still feel like they are made out of soft rubber. At least the morning ride is on nice paved roads, which I can manage (more or less). Things get more complicated the moment I leave the tarmac for narrow dirt roads dug into the mountainside. I find myself needing brakes every five minutes, my energy levels are rapidly falling, my stomach is hurting, and I am not one bit interested in the scenery around me. The last 200 m to reach the 3970 m pass are hell. My legs don’t respond anymore, I have almost no power left to press the pedals, something I have never experienced before. I reach the top of the pass in autopilot mode and rush down the other side of the mountain in thick fog. I must have been a sorry sight when I step through the door of the Llullu Llama guesthouse, judging by the look on the receptionist’s face. But it turns out she is just surprised to see a tourist at her doorstep!
I take the next day off to regain some strength and give my stomach time to improve. Llullu Llama is probably one of the nicest guesthouses I’ve ever stayed in. One can tell attention has been paid to details here; the wooden furniture is well crafted, the decorations tasteful, the big windows let lots of light through and allow guests to enjoy the wonderful scenery from pretty much anywhere. Plus, the food is delicious, and the portions are huge. I can only imagine how buzzing with life and excitement it must be during normal times when hikers stop by for the day while doing the Quilotoa Loop. But during my two nights sleeping here, I am completely alone. I spend the day processing photos, catching up on series, reading, and even fitting in a stretching session in the bright yoga room. I also spend quite some time pondering why I am at this point more excited about the days resting than the days cycling. It should be the other way around, shouldn’t it? Maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can chew by undertaking the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route on a bike more heavily loaded than during my most bikepacking trips… And why do I have the feeling that I am getting nowhere? 166 km in 6 days feels like I have barely moved… I know I am focusing on the wrong things entirely, but I cannot chase those negative thoughts out of my head.
The next stage of the ride takes me to the Quilotoa water-filled crater. Today I feel much better, and my legs finally feel stronger. I am still knackered at the end of long climbs, but I don’t feel powerless and hopeless anymore. After a never-ending 5 km-long climb, I reach the small village of Quilotoa. The place looks like a ghost-town. There isn’t a soul in sight, all shops and restaurants are closed, and the thin mist that hangs in the air gives me the impression I’ve just landed in the middle of a bad horror movie. I check in at Hostel Chukirawa and choose once again to take the following day off, this time to do a little hike along the rim of the caldera (“at this rate I will arrive in Santiago de Chile in 2 years!”, I think to myself). Reaching the edge of the old volcano and seeing the green lake far below for the first time is a moment that I will never forget!
The final push to the town of Salinas de Guaranda requires three days of cycling over 135 km and 3600 m of altitude difference. The initial day really feels like the beginning of the adventure. My fitness level is finally up to the task; I don’t have to worry so much about what terrain awaits me and can finally simply enjoy the journey. It is also the first time that I really feel immersed in the Andes, riding remote mountain tracks that take me low through deep lush valleys and high over cloudy mountain passes. I cross a number of tiny comunidades, whose indigenous inhabitants always smile at my loud “buenos dias” and wave back at me. On many occasions, people stop me with a “a dónde va?”, always asking if I am “solito” and finally wishing me a “buen viaje”, before getting on with their daily business. It is also the first moment that I encounter my first wild llamas, having already crossed paths with many cows, horses, sheep, and pigs. The last pass of the day, at 3950 m, offers incredible views of the Angamarca village deep in the valley of the same name, but also of the steep climbs that await me the next day. Half-way through the long descent into the village, I bump into Jon and his motorbike. We chat for a couple of minutes before he kindly offers me to camp on his property, high pastures overlooking the valley. Having found the highest and flattest spot, I set up camp and finally sink deep into my folding camping chair to enjoy the first-class panoramic views surrounding me.
As expected, the first part of the second day takes me on very steep tracks, far too steep for me to ride. I end up pushing my bike up for the most part of the morning, until around lunchtime the gradients ease up a little, and I am able to get back on the saddle. Realising that I am not going to reach Simiátug that night, I start hunting for a place to camp around 4 PM. With a freezing wind blowing in my face, I search and search, but the steep terrain doesn’t offer any suitable spots. Around 5 PM, I pass a tiny comunidad consisting of 5 houses and a small school situated on a wide flat piece of land. I knock on the door of the house closest to the school and ask a young lady if I can camp in front of the building. She makes me understand that she isn’t the right person to ask, but tells me that it should be fine. It isn’t the nicest and cleanest camping spot, but it is the best I can find, and it has the advantage of protecting me from the strong gusts of wind. It also has a dirty little baño where I can get some water and wash my dishes. And best of all, I am treated to an amazing sunset over Ecuador’s western flatlands, covered with a soft layer of white clouds.
The wind blows hard all night, shaking my tent in all directions. It is still very strong in the morning, forcing me off the bike to push on more than one occasion. After getting some supplies in Simiátug, I tackle the long and steep climb heading south out of town, eventually reaching a flatter road along the western side of the mountain chain. Finally the road dips back into Salinas de Guaranda, my goal for the day. Arriving in there feels like reaching a first milestone, having so often, before the beginning of the trip, looked at a map of Ecuador and wondered how long it would take and how hard it would be to get there (the answers being: much longer than expected and damn right exhausting!). I feel elated and suddenly very relaxed, the quaint little village giving out a very tranquil vibe. This is going to be a good place to rest for a couple of days!
To be continued…
More photos of Ecuador can be found here!