Zumbahua: a fork in the roads. To continue south through the mountains or cut west to the coast? My mind was already made up. Due to El Nino it’s been an unseasonably wet rainy season and April is supposedly the worst month. The idea of day after day of camping in the wet wasn’t too appealing. On top of that I knew this would be my last opportunity to get some beach time for like 9 months and I simply couldn’t resist the prospect of checking out the ruta del sol and having a few beers on the way.
Going west also meant making one hell of a descent: almost 4 vertical kilometres of uninterrupted downhill in the space of 65km. 4 KILOMETRES! That’s about as extreme a descent as you’ll find anywhere in South America and I was intrigued to try it. Upon leaving Zumbahua at around 2pm I assumed, having already risen to 3800m at nearby Quilotoa I was mere minutes from this monster downhill, but it ended up taking over an hour of climbing to reach the pass. By the time I peered over from the tiny town of Apagua to see the carpet of clouds below I was chomping at the bit. I put The Boss on my mp3 player and off I went.
Over the course of 3 Springsteen albums I had the most intense 2 hours of cycling I’ve ever had (and probably ever will have). Each album conveniently matched the three different stages of the descent:
Stage #1 – Darkness on the Edge of Town (aka. Silent Hill)
The first couple of tracks were amazing. I soared down quiet, tortuous mountain roads singing ‘Badlands’ like an idiot. The sky was fairly clear, it wasn’t too cold, and guys on motorbikes kept yelling words of support and giving me the thumbs up. In short, I felt fucking fantastic. Then I entered the clouds.
Ooooh, eerie. The clouds were thick and visibility dropped to about 20 metres. It seriously reminded me of Silent Hill 2 – unending fog for miles upon miles upon miles. At first it was an exciting novelty but by the time the final track on the album came around I was more than sick of the chilly mist. I could sense that the vegetation around me was changing and felt an ever so slight increase in temperature, but I couldn’t see anything. It was just a long, cold slog through a tunnel of mist – not quite the glorious downhill I’d been hoping for.
Stage #2 – Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (aka. Lost In The Flood)
Just past the town of Pilalo (which really was like cycling through Silent Hill) the visibility improved but the mist was replaced by a torrent of rain. My surroundings were markedly different by this point – the muted shades of the mountains replaced by tropical green fronds, concrete constructs replaced by wooden houses on stilts. The changes were so stark that I felt as if I were in a completely different country. Utterly drenched, I powered on down alongside gushing rivers listening to ‘Lost In The Flood’.
Stage #3 – Tunnel of Love (aka. Holy Shit This Is Really Amazing)
Just around the time I switched to Tunnel of Love the rain eased off and I entered a truly spectacular part of the Los Iliznas Ecological Reserve – ginormous monoliths arching off from either side of the road as I fizzed at high speed down the cleft of an epic valley. In the distance hues of blue and pink promised an impressive sunrise and eventually I was spat out from the reserve onto the long, straight, river country road. As Bruce crooned the final lines of ‘Valentines Day’ to the sun’s slow creep below the horizon I was barely 5km from La Mana, my destination for the night.
Since starting in Sigchos at 7am I’d ridden more than 130km, including climbing from 2800m up to 4000m then down to 200m. During that entire 2 hours+ of downhill I only needed to pedal for a combined total of about 1 minute. Madness.
As I was emerging into what seemed like a completely different country, Ecuador itself was in the process of change. The results of the election were just coming in as I rolled into my shitty La Mana hotel and the owner confidently declared Lasso, the tax cutting, Assage deporting conservative, the winner. I was a little surprised as, despite having met a few Lasso supporters, I felt Lenin was the marginal favourite. As I had dinner and gorged myself on snacks (a double scoop ice cream cone, a piece of cake, a filled donut and 3 chocolate croissants – a cyclist has gotta eat!) Lenin was on all the TV screens around town. I’d never seen a loser give such a long concession speech and wondered what was going on. When I got back to the hotel I was told that Lenin was the real winner and that someone had prematurely reported a Lasso victory, leading his supporters to celebrate his victory for a full two hours before the truth came out. I drifted off to sleep to the sound of cheers and honking horns in the street.
Unlike in the mountains where it’s often the nature that leaves its indelible imprint, the next 2 days racing to the coast were defined far more by the people I met than by my surroundings. As I’d traversed the Quilotoa loop I’d noticed a certain frostiness. Many people still returned my smiles and calls of “Buenas!” but, unlike in Colombia or Northern Ecuador, I was occasionally met with blank stares or even frowns. I also got the feeling that some of the market vendors were trying to rip me off – I had to ask for my change and prices were steeper than normal. In the lowlands it was a very different story. In the tropical heat the people were open, bubbly and invited themselves over to my table for a chat over lunch or dinner. I met a fair few characters on the long road from La Mana to San Jacinto.
I also ended up having dinner with a woman who told me her great aunt’s surname was Ross and had English heritage. In spite of that she didn’t really seem to know what or where England actually was and the mention of Scotland and kilts had her confused as all hell.
And so, after 3 very long days of cycling I arrived at The Cottages By The Sea in San Jacinto where I’ll be volunteering for the next 2 weeks. Kimberly, the owner, gave me a big hug when I arrived and showed me to my own personal little apartment which has Direct TV, a kitchenette, a walk in shower and a fridge full of booze. There’s a beautiful pool and the place is right on the sea front.
I think I’m gonna be alright here.
Tunes: Bruce Springsteen Medley, The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet, The Pet Shop Boys – Greatest Hits, The Menzingers – After The Party, S-Town – This American Life
Reads: Junky – William Burroughs
Route: Quilotoa – Zumbahua – La Mana – Quevedo – Pichincha – Rocafuerte – San Jacinto