A ride through Ecuador’s volcanic corridor
It’s 5pm on a Sunday evening and an icy gust is shaking the tent like it’s a flimsy piece of washing on the line.
The gusts ripple over thick grasslands that in turn roll into jagged peaks while a shaggy llama grazes nonchalantly nearby.
As I shiver into my thick down jacket my eyes move up to the sole reason we’re here in this wild and windswept pocket of the Ecuadorian Andes. They land on the impossibly conical and snow-capped mountain Cotopaxi and a grin spreads across my face. Rising like a proud sovereign over her domain, the 5897m active volcano looks like the picture of a snowy peak drawn in a children’s book and we’ve got a front row view to her majesty.
Just one glimpse of what is Ecuador’s second biggest mountain makes every cobblestone and every ridiculous gravel gradient worth it and all of a sudden the pain of the past one and half days is forgotten.
The congested road out of Tumbaco (near Quito), the narrow and winding dirt track that followed soon after and the spine-shaking cobblestones that topped off the goat track to Cotopaxi’s northern entrance, faded from memory.
Since leaving the nation’s capital (after a bloody long respite at the Casa de Ciclistas) we’d veered doggedly south for the visually stunning but physically gruelling volcano corridor and after just a few hours of cycling the dividends of our struggles had been paid in full.
From our five star campsite it was an easy two hour cycle to Cotopaxi National Park and despite a furious headwind we made it onto the sandy plateau in time for lunch before setting up camp under a shelter on the rim of a nearby laguna. Cotopaxi only emerged from the clouds a few more times before our descent early the next morning but the entire national park, with its wild horses, tundra-esque paramo and moody atmosphere had been a treat.
After flying down the other side of Cotopaxi the next day we planned to stop off in the puebla of Lasso before beelining to the next big Ecuadorian volcano – Quilatoa. But before we could soldier on two things happened. A lingering cold that had plagued me for almost three weeks developed into a painful throat and ear infection and my former boss in Australia sent me a nice batch of freelance work to fill our coffers.
So instead we forked out to stay at a guest house and set up a remote office while I chugged down antibiotics. Four days later the work was done and so at noon amid cloudy drizzle we set off with the optimistic plan of conquering 1,000m on dirt tracks to reach the hamlet of Isinlivi via the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route.
From Lasso a solid asphalt road meandered steadily uphill for about 15km but as gravel replaced asphalt and sand replaced gravel our ride became a crawl and our crawl became a push.
There was no doubt we were feeling the effects of our Quito and Lasso vacay but despite this the ride was tough. At times the road swung violently uphill into a gradient that would have been hard enough to turn a pedal on without the centimetres of soft sand and by 4pm we still had 10km and about 400m of climbing to go.
As we rounded a particularly tight switch back one of the few cars to pass us pulled over and an indigenous family leaned out with big smiles.
The cheery driver asked a series of questions that left us stumped and I wondered if my Spanish had deteriorated even more when Scott clicked.
“He’s speaking Quechuan… Perdon señor, no hablamos Quechuan”. (We don’t speak Quechuan).
The family burst into laughter before wishing us luck and trundling off. From tiny Lasso we’d dived headfirst into the Ecuadorian Quechuan heartland and while the first key signs of an indigenous demographic was the increased poverty, the second was the colourful outfits of particularly the women. Dark bowler hats, skirts, stockings and often a vibrant shawl (of which the colour would change from region to region) seemed to be the dress standard, even for the wizened old ladies herding sheep along the viciously steep hills.
By 6.15pm we’d finally reached the top of the 4,000m pass and as we pulled on extra layers we considered the road ahead. Just 12km (including a death defying drop of 1,000m) lay between us and our destination and while we normally would have set up camp and left the descent for tomorrow, we’d been warned several times from friends and locals that thieves plagued the area. Two cyclists had had their bikes stolen a stone’s throw from the summit and while we realised there was every chance we’d be fine, we didn’t want to take the risk. There was nothing for it but to descend on a gravelly, sandy road in darkness (except for the light of our fast-failing headlamps) and we mentally kicked ourselves up the arse for being so stupid and leaving from Lasso so late.
The 12 downhill kilometres took almost two hours and while the first 15 minutes revealed a breathtaking sea of clouds, the following hour and a half revealed little more than near misses with sandy sections, an indecent amount of swearing and several tantrums. We rolled into the town’s Hostal Taita Cristobal and camping green just before 8pm feeling absolutely shattered and used our last remaining crumb of energy to throw up the tent and cook a noodle dinner.
Two friends of ours, German couple Linda and Felix, had conquered this road just a few days earlier and messaged us to warn that while the first day out of Lasso was a little tough, the second day was “more strenuous than we expected”. We didn’t manage to pry ourselves from the campsite until 11am and two hours of pushing up what felt like a sheer cliff later Scott burst out: “a bit strenuous!”
“This is the stuff cyclist nightmares are made of”.
It wasn’t merely that we were in a different league to our lovely German friends, I wasn’t convinced we were even playing the same sport. What took them five hours of one “somewhat strenuous day” would take us seven over two with (I’m sure) considerably more swearing and “what the fu$k are we doing here” screams.
That afternoon amid consistent rain we cut the day early (still 22km from Quilatoa) in a pint-sized Quechuan village which, like all the others, was incredibly poor but featured a fancy undercover basketball court. We tracked down a local to ask if we could camp there and he immediately gave us an expansive yes, saying it was community property and we could do as we pleased.
While brewing cups of tea we met just about the entire town, who were friendly, curious and with the exception of one boy on horseback, were getting everywhere they needed to go by foot. At 5pm, a little old Quechuan lady meandered up and introduced herself as Maria. We chatted for a few minutes before she said she needed to get back to work – which was retrieving her 12 cows by foot who’d wandered off to a distant mountain.
To say our travels have been eye opening is an understatement, but it was while camped in that little village that we would again (for not the first time and I’ve no doubt not the last) feel the true extent of our immense privilege. As we were preparing to go to bed two young girls popped up to watch us and after asking some questions of them they told us they’d come to kick their tattered football around. The littlest of the girls was 10 and she had a shy but endearing smile while the elder was her 15-year-old protective sister. We invited them to play and then asked if we could join in. While belting the ball around the court and giggling at each other the elder sister (Maria) told us her parents lived in Quito as they were incredibly poor and needed to work in construction there to make money. They could only afford to see their children on rare occasions. Tiny but proud Maria cared for her younger sister, feeding her and clothing her, and the pair walked an hour up a steep dirt track to school every day.
“We can’t afford to take a bus – it’s just too expensive,” Maria said.
That night sleep was hard to come by. I couldn’t stop thinking about Maria and her sweet little sister and how unfair life was that I could lose everything and still have it all while these two young girls lived alone in a remote village with the dream that one day they could escape and afford to take buses.
I’d heard a lot of nationalistic rhetoric in Australia recently (to my disgust) about how we should take care of our own problems before we help others in poorer countries but in the face of these two girls (and there are far worse off kids) how could you honestly say Australians had problems?
Ironically, the most disadvantaged of all Australians are our indigenous peoples but somehow, I didn’t think the nationalists meant helping them…
The next day we continued the climb to Quilotoa, pushing for two hours out of one incredibly steep valley before tackling the rollercoaster (but largely uphill) ride to a campsite located just 150m from the mountain’s famed crater lake at 3900m.
It took four tough cycling (read pushing) hours to get there and it was up one particularly steep section that Scott stopped and bellowed like an angry bull.
“F#ck off sand! F#ck off you bastard!” He screamed.
I started giggling hysterically to which he screeched “stop bloody laughing”! But it was too late. I was so tired and battered that all I could do was laugh, in great heaving gasps, while trying not to pee my pants.
Later that day – having made the climb sans more tantrums or peed pants – we arrived at Shalala Lodge and paid the hefty $5 per person to camp (which did not include a hot shower or wifi). We fell asleep after eating the very last remnants of our pasta with a pitiful stock cube for flavour.
In the morning the wind was howling and we scoffed down the last of our porridge before realising we’d made a new friend. A stray dog had apparently slept by our tent all night and barked if anyone came too close to us in the morning. Clearly, he was trying to protect any food he was angling to get but the wiry little golden-eyed pooch was like a needy lover. He followed us all the way to Quilotoa’s drop dead gorgeous crater walk and stayed loyally by my side as I panted along the track and took endless snaps of the mineral-rich blue water that reaches a depth of 350m inside the dormant volcano.
When it came time to go the pooch (whom we’d called Quilotoa, or Kili for short) looked as though he was gearing up for a long term relationship and he trotted by our side as we pedalled out of the campsite and began the descent back to the main road of the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route. Almost 10km later Kili was still trotting along and we were beginning to worry. We’d heard stories of cyclists accidently adopting South American street dogs and as much as we loved our cute new friend our duo was not ready to become a trio.
Luckily the dirt connected back to an asphalt road with a long descent between us and the next main hamlet of Zumbahua, where we were aiming to stay for the night. We took off downhill and Kili became a distant dot before disappearing altogether. I’ve no doubt he would have stayed with us if we’d let him but it was better this way.
Zumbahua was a small little Quechuan village nestled among impressive green peaks and after scoffing down a “menu del dia” of soup, rice, pasta, chicken and juice we staggered over to a cheap hostel and took blissfully hot showers before sinking into a firm bed piled with thick, heavy blankets.
The road to Quilotoa had drained our batteries but with some enormous climbs ahead between us and our final Ecuadorian volcano (Chimborazo) we knew we had to recharge them bloody fast.