Before Jules and I managed to leave Quito, after a week or so off the bikes, we had to deal with our first bad major bad luck of the journey – Jules' ipod had been stolen on the Galapagos trip, a real bummer, not least because we had all our maps on it! We had to look into buying either another ipod (which ended up being way to expensive) or maps (which we couldn't find anywhere in the city). Frustrating. However, luckily our dilemma was solved, and we were saved the problem of wandering lost around South America for the next few months, by the lovely Jean-Christophe and Catherine (who were heading north) who lent us their fantastic maps they had bought in Europe. You are our saviours and we will be forever grateful!! Jules is still now without music, but I have promised to sing for her whenever she desires.
In Quito we also had to invest in new sleeping bags and a new jacket for Jules as well, as our original travel plans had not included the Andes of South America, and our little Australian sleeping bags were not quite up to scratch to the altitude and the cold. So we had a few days of shopping in Quito. Luckily we could stay with the wonderful Santiago and family, in Tumbaco, while we were sorting out all our annoying jobs. On our last night at Santiago's there was a sudden influx of cyclists at the Casa de Ciclistas and we had a good sharing session with riders going various directions. But finally the next day, weighed down with our new purchases, and seen off by no less than 7 cycling enthusiasts we headed off – on the backroads to Cotopaxi National Park.
We spent four days cycling on the backroads leading to the national park and in the park itself. We had beautiful days of blue sky and great views of the “Avenues of Volcanoes”. We also did a fair bit of swearing as this route involved a lot of cobblestones- my least favourite of all road surfaces. This combined with a lot of climbing meant that one day we achieved less than 20kms – probably one of our all time (non-intentional) low mileages of the trip. But it was a beautiful route, and we found lots of great camp sites on the way. It was fantastic to get back into some more remote areas and wake up to pristine mountain scenes. We spend one day poodling around in the national park, checking out the Volcano Cotopaxi from all angles and we then set up camp in a small hut as the mist rolled in.
We headed down from the heights of Cotopaxi National Park to the Panam Highway and stopped on the main highway just long enough to get my bike rack fixed – my racks appear to be as allergic to cobblestones as I am. This was our fourth repair job on my racks, always following some backroad escapade. The 5km or so that we spent back on the main road, battling with the traffic made us eager to turn off as soon as possible. So we headed out to the Quilotoa Loop. This turned out to be a fantastic backroads cycle... to start with much of the loop has now been paved so the roads were a breeze to cycle on (and my racks remained happy and intact), and there was still not too much traffic (often the roads appeared to be used primarily for herding sheep along!).
Gorgeous views of mountains, valley landscapes, friendly indigenous people waving from where they were tending their crops, or herding their livestock, small villages, great downhill runs... it was a lovely few days riding. One highlight was the day we stayed up at the Laguna Quilotoa, a beautiful high mountain lake in the deep crater of an extinct volcano. We spent the night at an indigenous family's home/guesthouse, with us and the famly sitting around the fire to warm-up. The kids, and their gorgeous ruddy red cheeks, were also master salespeople and Jules and I ended up leaving the laguna completely decked out in Alpaca wool accessories.
We met back up with the Panam Highway at Latacunga, where we started to head south, and up and down, on the mountainous Panam through Ambato, Riobamba and down to Cuenca. The first couple of days were a bit of a shock, lots of traffic, bad weather and little views, but after Riobamba the traffic thined right out, the mountain scenery was beautiful and we had clear skies. Not that the riding was easy – all we seemed to do all day was climb up and down the sides of valleys, but it was made up for in the beautiful views looking down through the valleys, and then off to the edge of the Andes where the mountains dropped straight into a sea of clouds. You know you are up high then!
We had a couple of rest days in Cuenca, enjoying the colonial town but we were soon itching for the quieter areas to the south and headed towards Loja and Vilcabamba. The theme returned back to the continuous up and down – climbing up a mountain pass and then dropping way down to a valley only to climb up again. At times, and in only an hour or so of riding we dropped from cold misty conifers, all the way to a hot, dusty, arid cactus-filled landscape in the bottom of a valley.
The central and southern parts of Ecuador were also great for some inspired camping spots. We spent a couple of nights with the Bomberos (Firies), who are known throughout the South American cycling world as being sympathetic to grubby cyclists and sometimes providing a place to stay. Our first night with some very friendly Bomberos, was luxury indeed – coffee, a hot shower, a choice of movies, great company and even a warm bed. We were very lucky! That was probably the highlight of this section's campsites, the other places we stayed were far less salubrious – a garage at a sex hotel, the field next to a farmer's goose pond and the floor of a small town's government offices being amongst some of our nights' accommodations.
However, we did have one other favourite, and memorable night's camping when we asked at a small village school whether we could camp in the grounds. We got a great, safe campsite – but even better – the caretaker's whole family was around having a Sunday night fiesta and cookup. So we got to meet the whole family, were entertained by the cute kids (and we entertained them with our hilarious activities: setting up tent, cooking on the campstove, and eating rice and beans for dinner – hours of endless fun!) and we were fed all the baked goods that they were making. Yummo Ecuadorian treats. A really friendly and generous family and an awesome night with new friends!
Just after Loja we climbed up once more and then descended down – dropping out of the higher Andes and into a totally different landscape. We were now in the low hills on the edge of the Amazon. In just an hour of coasting down from the pass we were in a valley that was warm, smelt of tropical fruits and was filled with birdsong. After a couple of months in the mountains it was nice to be in the warmer, lower areas. However, the first town we arrived in, Vilcabamba, was a bit of a shock -Gringolandia of the south, tourists aplenty! But here we finally caught up with Jurgen (who we had ridden with in Alaska) and together we prepared to set off on the road south. Today we leave for a few days hard gravel road riding on steep slopes to the border where we will leave Ecuador and head into Peru... where more mountains await.
Notes for cyclists:
We went the backroad from Tumbaco through to Cotopaxi National Park, which while tough, was very beautiful and we enjoyed being off the main roads. From Tumbaco we went on the “Intervalles” - we mainly found our way by asking people to the following villages: Tingo – San Rafael – Sangoloqui-Selva Alegre.
After Selva Alegre the road becomes cobblestones and climbs quite a bit, until you reach the high Paramo before Cotopaxi National Park. You enter the park at the north entrance ($2). Lots of good camping along the way – a few kms before the park's north entrance there is a lovely creek valley with great campspots beneath pines and then in the park itself there are a few campsites – one with a hut which you can camp in. We took 4 days to travel from Tumbaco to the Panam at Lasso, but you could certainly do it a lot shorter – one whole day we spent just tootling around the park.
We would also recommend the Quilotoa Loop as a nice chance to get off the main highways- most of it is now paved (only about 50kms of dirt roads, and they aren't in too bad condition) so it is not too tough, but lots of climbing. We did it in three days. Lasso-Sigchos-Quilotoa Laguna-Latacunga. Really friendly folk along the road, and the laguna is beautiful.
We took the Panam south from Latacunga – which once past Riobamba, and away from the cities that you pass, was pretty quiet – we enjoyed the landscapes we passed through and the small villages. It gets wilder the further south you go, less people and less towns.