On Monday Tumbaco was awash with yellow shirts. I decided it best to forego wearing one of mine to watch the Ecuador v Colombia game at the bar – the Ecuador shirt would’ve been a betrayal of my dear Colombia and the Colombia shirt would’ve just been asking for trouble. Colombia ended up winning 2-0 but none of the Ecuadorians seemed too surprised. The collective reaction was more the wet fart of a deflating balloon than an explosion of indignation.
Having signed Santiago’s guestbook (guest #762) I said my goodbyes and started south for Cotapaxi, leaving the city via a pleasant mountainside road. What followed was a fairly uneventful day traipsing down the Panamericana.
After almost 8 hours on the bike I arrived at the entrance to the Cotopaxi national park where the guard let my put up my tent next to the visitors centre. Just as I was getting dinner started 2 Argentinian guys came over and invited me to their bus for some tea.
Franco and his friend Sebastian were planning on cycling up to Cotopaxi the following morning and without a second thought I agreed to join them. Now, all I’d planned to do was take a leisurely cycle up to the plateau and pray for 5 minutes of clear sky to bask in the incredible view of the volcano (it really is incredible – see below). The Argentinians had bigger plans – a 30km ride all the way up to the 5000m refugio where the earth meets snow. Having done no research, I just heard the words ’30km’ and ‘refugio’ and pictured a lazy cycle around the circumference of the volcano to a nice lodge. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
As soon as the park opened at 8 off we headed on the tree-lined road towards the volcano. The first 7km were smooth asphalt but this gave way to ripio (unpaved road) which steadily degraded the higher we got. It was really steep and even without the weight from my panniers it was tough going.
All 3 of us pushed our bikes up the last 5km by which time the visibility was practically nil and when we reached the 4600m car park the rain was really lashing down. If I could’ve gone back in time I would’ve:
a) worn appropriate clothing
b) brought a lot more food
c) politely declined the offer and had a lie in instead
Thank God Franco had an extra pair of gloves and some spare sandwiches – my bare hands and 3 bananas just weren’t cutting it at that altitude. I almost forgot to even bring a coat.
We tied up our bikes and set off on foot up the final kilometre and then, out of nowhere, the rain stopped and the clouds parted. Looking back we were presented with jaw-dropping views of the valley below and in that moment it was all worth it. Pink rock formations set off against the pale green of the plateau; little lakes shining like new coins beneath the monolithic shadow of the volcanic horizon; crimson earth juxtaposed against the blinding white-blue of the ice and the sky. Our spirits heightened, we were at the refugio in no time, where we took a ton of photos, drank tea, ate egg sandwiches and were generally very happy men.
Just as we got back to our bikes to start the descent the rain came roaring back with a vengeance. What fresh hell was this? Cycling downhill can be the best part of cycling but also the absolute worst. Downhill in high altitude + torrential rain + bumpy dirt road = the shittiest cycling sandwich imaginable. Within a minute my clothes were soaked through and my hands were almost completely numb. I could barely see through the rain and had to constantly brake to avoid losing control or sliding into giant divots. Then I crashed.
I’ve ridden bikes all my life but I’d never gone over the handlebars until then. I’m not sure exactly what happened but I think, being accustomed to a heavy bike, I got a bit too trigger happy with the front brake and paid the price. It was like being sucker punched in the face. One second you’re fine then in a flash you’re totally out of it lying in the dirt. And it hurts. Luckily I did no serious damage to either myself or the bike, just a grazed hip and a small cut on my hand. Most importantly the banana in my pocket (ooh, matron) was completely unscathed.
In the freezing cold rain I had no time to feel sorry for myself and clambered right back on the bike. The rain gradually eased off and my fingers thawed with the lowering altitude. Finally, 8 hours after departing for a casual bike ride I was back at the Hostel Movil bus feeling both physically and emotionally drained.
In dire need of a bed and a shower I wished Franco good luck on his quest to reach Alaska and set off in search of a different type of refugio. Back in January when I was staying at a hostel in Bogota I met Nobu, a Japanese cyclist who had just finished a 2 year tour of South America. We got to talking and among other things, he mentioned staying at a really nice place at the foot of Cotopaxi. When I passed Rondador Cotopaxi the name rang a bell. I stopped to chat and the girl at the reception not only remembered my Japanese friend but had a couple of photos of him on her phone. The hostal was just as nice as he’d said: great staff, a homely reception with an open fireplace, pipe flutes and other traditional instruments all over the walls and what on a clear day would be tremendous views of Cotopaxi. I ended up staying for 2 nights.
The Austrian couple I met at Santiago’s bunker forewarned me about the Quilotoa loop. During their 3 days cycling the popular route to the Quilotoa crater lake they had been completely rained out and were so miserable they’d jumped on a bus to escape the downpour. Given my recent luck with the weather I headed off from Rondador filled with trepidation. Thankfully the Rain Gods were kind and I ended up having 2 glorious days of cycling – my best so far in Ecuador.
Not for the first time on this trip I found the journey so much more gratifying than the destination. Having being spoiled by the remarkable countryside for the previous day and a half, the laguna, while beautiful, felt a bit anticlimactic. After 10 minutes I’d had my fill and was back on the bike to get my next fix. And, rather fittingly, the next 6 hours proved to be some of the most intense yet.
TO BE CONTINUED
Tunes: Angel Olsen – My Woman, Nick Cave – The Skeleton Tree, Blink-182 – California, Modern Baseball – Sports
Reads: To Kill a Mocking Bird – Harper Lee, Junky – William Burroughs
Route: Tumbaco – Cotopaxi – Sigchos – Chugchilian – Quilotoa