Argentina and Chile were two countries which I had a bit of an idea about before I arrived there. It’s hard not to build a mental picture of places like this when their cities spout reputations as “the Paris of South America.” Blue lakes and snow capped peaks, my internal image for Patagonia was more or less as I expected.
Riding through the two countries I had been forewarned by every Southbound cyclist about the difficulties and poverty to come in Bolivia. Sandy roads to break your spirits and broad smiles from locals to rebuild them.
And Peru fulfilled every fantasy I’d had since I was 10, drifting lazily in a sweat down rivers in the jungle en route to snow capped peaks and adventure, occasionally thinking through sweat about the potentials for malaria and wondering if there were any meat eating fish in the brown murk below me.
Ecuador on the other hand was the first place I’ve been where I didn’t know what to expect, leading to all sorts of wonderful surprises and challenging riding along the way.
Travelled: ~1,250 km
The Southern Jungle and Cuenca
One thing I had been told about Ecuador was that the climbs weren’t as sympathetic to cyclists as the long and curvy ascents of Peru. ‘Ecuador is about business, getting you over quickly’, I’d heard. It didn’t take long to prove this one correct.
I knocked on every door at the sleepy border crossing and eventually found the immigration guard drinking beers and playing pool with his friends in the one dusty pub in town. After getting the new stamp I made it barely 200m before running into a dusty wall instead of a road. Turning 180 degrees the road banked sharply up and the sun beat down even harder. That day I pushed my bike most of the 15 or so kilometres to the small jungle village of El Chorro where I drank coca cola, watched the nightly volleyball game (Ecuatorianos seemed to love the sport). I slept in front of the village church and inspired every dog in the area to keep everyone else awake all night by barking at me.
The area is hot, too. Not nearly as bad as the humid lowlands in Peru but enough to have me dripping sweat off the end of my nose and onto my boats between hearty pushes up hill at angles enough to make you cry.
Along the route I passed through the sleepy hippy town of Vilcabamba and then later Loja. Loja is by every definition a big city, and I didn’t stick around long enough to take it all in.
Vilcabamba was perhaps my least favourite place in Ecuador. On face value it has the same sort of feeling as many other hippy outposts throughout the world, but Vilca is completely swamped by old Americans who have retired there because of the reputation of the area for producing incredibly long living locals (over 100 years). It’s widely attributed to the fresh water in the valley as well as the clean air and traditionally simple and healthy diet. Of course then the expats have brought along a splendid variety of Mexican taco joints and felafel establishments, you can also have your aura read and be crystal cleansed right off the main square which feels a bit exploitative. I stuck around for a few days but it ran off my back pretty quickly as I climbed out of town en route to Cuenca, which turned out to have a lot more authentic character.
I spent a week or so in Cuenca waiting for a package in the mail, and mainly spent my days indulging in coffee and exploring the old colonial city. You could mistake Cuenca for any large city in Spain, and the colonial architecture and cobbled streets have you lost and staring at everything in sight – it’s the first city I’ve been to since Buenos Aires that I think genuinely felt like it had a heartbeat, with music in the streets and smiling locals drinking beer and coffee alike on cobbled footpaths. Laughter seemed to follow me wherever I went and I’m glad I arrived a week before my mail because it’s probably a place I would have blown through otherwise.
Shortly after leaving Cuenca I stopped for a few nights in a hostel because I was feeling sick and developing a fever. It left enough time for my friend Jonas from Germany to catch up to me and a few days shy of Baños we crossed over and rode for the rest of Ecuador together.
We had a good run without paying for places to sleep for the first few days, relying on the hospitality of the local firefighters and finding a few nice camping spots along the way as well. The run of luck ran dry in Baños where the locals Bomberos turned us away and we were sent out searching for other places to rest. Almost immediately we found the town’s futbol coliseum and the caretaker was kind enough to let us roll our tents out on the incredibly soft manicured greens. Just as we were walking through the main gates we heard a holler from behind and found out that Darren Alff, of the bicycletouringpro.com website was behind us and took a quick interest in what we were up to. Darren is somewhat of a blogging celebrity in the bicycle touring sphere and most people at least know what he looks like. The next morning the three of us set out to climb Volcán Tungurahua and spend the night in the refugio on it’s flanks.
The climb up was via steep, walled track and banked up sharply as far as the refugio. A frosty night was spent sleeping in the roof loft and we descended the next day and spent a few more nights sleeping on the futbol pitch before leaving the touristic wonderland behind.
The inactive volcano at Quilotoa gave up for good a long time ago, and now the crater is instead a big mineral rich laguna instead. Jonas and I spent 2 nights camping high on it’s rim talking with hiking tourists and locals and trying to avoid the sun.
Parque Nacional Cotopaxi
The national Parks in Ecuador are all free, which is music to my ears. Since Jonas and I had crossed over again we were yet to pay for accommodation, so of course spending a lazy few days waiting for Cotopaxi to quit hiding behind the clouds was welcome. We rode into the park and made it as far as a little shelter with a fireplace before we hung all our wet clothes out to dry, Jonas became sick and we stretched a small amount of food out for 3 nights before heading downhill all the way to Quito and spending 10 nights in the Casa de Ciclistas there over Christmas.
North of Quito (Reserva Ecologico El Angel)
Shortly after Christmas Jonas and I pushed off one more time together to ride slowly to the border together. We spent a lazy week seeking out Bombero hospitality and climbing up into El Angel Ecological Reserve where we slept in the guides hut. After a little bit of riding on the panamerican highway in Ecuador, and painful cobblestoned roads in other parts of the country, it was a real pleasure to find a regular muddy road to take us peacefully all the way to the border. At the border I continued North and Jonas turned around to bus back to Quito and await a package in the mail.
Awarded to the Ecuadorian Bomberos, hands-down, who let me sleep in the dormitories or camp nearby on 9 separate occasions.
It’s a hard one to award for Ecuador because there was so much urban and creative camping as opposed to the beautiful wild camping in Peru. Some nights were spent sleeping on futbol fields, and others camping in quiet spots near bombero stations. In Cotopaxi National Park we never even set up our tents and just slept by the fire in the refuge shelter we found.