The muddy road to Peru

3 hours south of Loja we came to the hippy, backpacker town of Vilcabamba. It was said that locals enjoyed a longer life then average due to the rich water, pleasant climate and happy lifestyle. This had attracted a host of hippies from all corners of the world. The place was now full of veggy restaurants, juice bars, organic stores, yoga studios, meditation centres, Jewellery shops. But it was prettier then most of the other towns in Ecuador and we liked it immediately.

In the street we met a chatty old American guy called Merrel. He was travelling about for at least a year. He jokingly said, “this is it for me now, I’m over that career hump that you are probably trying to avoid!” He recommended the vegetable crepe at the cafe around the corner – it was heaven to eat something different. He also told us to stay at a place called Rumi Wilco, just out of town. This was a youth hostel, campsite and nature reserve with a network of trails through beautiful untouched jungle. It was run by two Galapagos nature guides from Argentina. The campsite was in a secluded spot, hidden between the trees, with a bamboo kitchen and a jungle toilet.

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We decided to stay another night in Vilcabamba, to take advantage of the good food and explore the nature reserve. The following day we climbed the ridge trail for a view over the valley and in the afternoon we lazed around in the cool cafes on the main square.

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And then we bumped into someone we knew! Robert, one of the German volunteers from Simiatug, where we had been two weeks before. He had escaped village life for a while to do some travelling.

We left the next day and on the first hill out of town we bumped into more people we knew! Ecuador was turning out to be a small country. It was the Austrian couple from the Casa de ciclista near Quito. Three weeks later our paths had crossed again.

We spent the rest of the day cycling with them, exchanging stories of our adventures, over a misty pass at 2700m and down towards the village of Valladolid. On the descent a wild dog ran after us and Toni, the Austrian man, went running after it with his machete that he kept tied to his cross bar, just for that purpose.

On the edge of town some bored policemen asked me for my passport and then got very confused over the stamps inside. And you are cycling just for pleasure? They asked in even more confusion? Yep, I replied. I couldn’t think of a better reason.

In town Stefan had to spend some time convincing the woman in the restaurant to change channel on her TV for the Germany world cup game instead of her Telenovela. He ordered some rice and chicken to convince her. We got to watch the game but he suffered for it later as he got terrible food poisoning.

The road to Zumba had a reputation amongst cyclists for being a very rough and muddy ride. We went ahead of our Austrian friends and hit the mess just before the village of Palanda. We slowly rolled over the thick crunchy mud, past many work sites. I was starting to question whether Ecuadorians actually knew how to build roads, they seemed to making a big muddy mess, pulling down half the hill side. One cheeky construction worker said to me, but don’t you want an Ecuadorian companion in your travels? No, I said laughing along with him, I already have one from Germany!

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The muddy roads went on and on, through the never ending thick scenes of Jungle. We took a break in a tiny village shop to watch the world cup with the owner and her family. We were supporting Switzerland while they were all supporting Argentina. When our team lost, the mother of the family came over to shake stefans hand and between laughs said sorry.

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It was a giant relief to arrive in the last town before the border, Zumba. Due to Stefans illness of the night before we checked into a little hostal to relax, hoping for a peaceful night but the Ecuadorian family in the room next to us started playing music at 5am. I got up and told them to shut up! We were both ready to get out of Ecuador!!

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I went to the shop to buy some supplies and met a man buying alcohol at 9am. He took one look at me and said, core…! What a beauty. They don’t make ’em like that in Ecuador!! When he realised that I could understand him, he warned me that there were many thieves in Peru, “Its not like here, its very tranquilo here!”

On the way to the border at La Balsa, I dropped my purple fleece, the one I had bought in Otavalo. I went back to look for it but it was gone. When you have so few possessions each one becomes precious so it was quiet a blow to loose it.

The ride to the border was so steep and rocky. I couldn’t believe that this was the way to Peru! On the final uphill I stopped for a drink and a truck full of soldiers pulled up beside me. They had a good long stare at me and then drove off without saying a word.

After all that wiggling through the jungle we finally arrived at La Balsa. It was a very tranquil place to say the least! We found the Ecuadorian immigration officer having a beer in a nearby cafe, while it took us half an hour to track down his Peruvian counterpart on the other side of the river. We finally found her in a locked yellow house on the corner, 100m from the bridge. We met one German backpacker, and the three of us must have been the only ones to cross the border that whole day.

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We cycled off into Peru, in a golden afternoon, on beautifully smooth and empty asphalt. The road was so quiet the local villagers dried their coffee beans on it, spread out over large plastic sheets. The gradient of the road was also much kinder to cyclists. We climbed so smoothly until sunset, when we found a flat space on the roadside.

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I asked a passing man on a donkey if it was alright for us to camp there. He said, of course! Aqui no pasa nada! – no trouble around here – I stayed to chat with him while Stefan put up the tent. I love talking to people in the countryside, I always ask them about the weather, how many animals they have and what crops grow in the valley. Then their accent is usually so strong I just smile and nod along. We then shake hands and say Adios Buenas Noches.

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On the edge of the Amazon

From Cuenca we decided to take the long and hard way yet again. Instead of zooming down the highway to Loja we chose to cross the green hills to the east of Cuenca and then dive down into the jungle for a while. At the end, this would leave us with a mammoth climb up to Loja. I was a little hesitate. This would be a longer and tougher route. Why couldn’t we take the easy option just once? But these doubts soon vanished. Yet again the harder route was totally worth it. We were soon riding through unimaginable scenery and views, a million miles away from what we knew back home in Europe. There were isolated villages with friendly locals, vast jungle views dripping with green and empty muddy roads.

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From Cuenca we passed the town of Sigsig and camped on the porch of a shepherds hut. The following day we reach the final pass before the jungle and descended 1000m on a muddy, bumpy trail through mist and green leaves. At the bottom we still had 60 km or so to go before we would hit the main road. We had no food left and moral was low when we began to climb again on mud. But then we were suddenly saved as over the next hill a village appeared with every thing we could possibly want. We ate scrambled eggs and bread at a cafe. The lady working there sat with us while we ate to ask us a million questions. She then told us that she had 2 children living near New York. Every year she went to visit them. She was scared of flying and told us she prayed the whole way. She didn’t like being in an airplane that long so she would always choose flights that stopped off in Bogota or Costa Rica. She would wander around Manhattan by herself despite speaking not a word of English. She had warned of thieves in Ecuadorian cities like Cuenca but said that New York? There was no trouble there!

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We continued on the long muddy road to the village of El Ideal where we met Sollar. She owned a bar by the river and let us camp there for free. I asked her about other parts of Ecuador and she said, the coast is too hot, the mountains are too cold, she liked it best in her bar, by the river. She said her family never had money to travel. She had got a loan to build her business, it wouldn’t have been possible any other way. She was exceptionally kind and humble, helping us out in anyway she could. She asked me to write our names and nationalities in her diary so she wouldn’t forget. And she said I hope you come back one day. Only when I hugged her goodbye did I realise that she was about half my height.

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We joined the main road and zoomed south towards Zamora, through low hills and  jungle, flowing the muddy river. In the village of Pangui we bumped into someone we knew! Leah, the American cyclist we had met on a hill near Quito. And over two weeks later our paths crossed again. This time she was cycling with a guy called Alvaro from Bogota. We chatted for over an hour outside the fire station where she had camped the night before. She told us how she is never going back. She plans to cycle to Argentina and find a job there teaching English.

We left Alvaro and Leah to continue along our jungle road. We had lunch in Yantzaza in a cafe run by a friendly family. They misunderstood our order and we ended up eating 6 empanadas, 2 hamburgers, 2 milkshakes, coke, coffee and french fries. But hungry cyclists need it! We talked about the world cup and the father said they had all cried the day before because Ecuador had been knocked out.

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We took a break in a roadside cafe where I rested in a hammock…watching the warm rain and waiting for it to stop. A man handed us some bananas saying this is natural…no chemicals. People were always proud of the local produce.

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That night we stayed in a half finished hotel in a tiny village that had no name on our map. Mosquitos soon covered the bathroom while the only water we had was boiling hot coming from the shower. We cooked pasta on the stove and then went out for a second dinner of bread, cheese, yoghurt, crackers.

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In Zamora the next day, I filled my rucksack with snacks for the climb and ate a massive breakfast of fried potatoes and eggs. I needed the fuel. There was 2200m to climb, out of the jungle and back into the mountains, to the city of Loja. I have never climbed so much on a bike in a single day and the idea filled me with dread but I was cycling across the Andes. Soon a 2000m climb would be a daily activity. I had to get used to it.

It takes a special type of determination to keep on going when faced with a climb like that. Every car that passed must have been thinking,…she is crazy. The road wiggled on up, seemingly endless, through the vast jungle clad mountains of the Podocarpus national park. The road clung to the steep green slopes dotted with waterfalls and landslides. As I passed through one of the few villages along the way, 2 dogs started chasing me. Fatigue had sent me crazy, I threw my bike to the ground, grabbed a rock, and started chasing them down the street. All to the amusement of onlookers and the indifference of the owners.

I was so fed up and exhausted by the time I got to the top. I had had enough! My legs could not go on. So we set up the tent on the roadside right at the top of the climb, in the rain, in the cloud, in the wind. I got in my sleeping bag at 6.30pm and didn’t move for the next 12 hours. Soon the weather calmed down and we had a cozy, peaceful night.

We rolled down hill to Loja the following morning and arrived in the main square at 7.30am. Everything was closed. That breakfast I had been dreaming of would be a little harder to find. And soon the road would continue on south, towards Peru!! Only 3 days away…

Off the Map

We were camping in a field somewhere south of Riobamba when we got some visitors. Two locals came and sat outside our tent in the darkness and chatted with us for at least an hour. They told us about the fruits and other crops that grow in the valley. They described how traditional dress in Ecuador changes between regions and finally they spoke of all the funny things tourists do, like taking photos of everything and buying fruit smoothies made from ice from the peak of Chimborazo. We could hardly see their faces in the darkness but it was clear that they were much more curious and confident around strangers then the indigenous people we had previously met. They shook our hands and left. The following morning we continued on the main road to the jungle town of Macas through the usual cloud and cold. While resting on the road side a local Indian stormed over to us and asked a rapid stream of questions. She pointed to Stefans phone and she asked, loudly and bluntly, what is this for? She was waiting for the bus to Riobamba. We reached a tiny shop on the roadside, between vast mountains and wet clouds, where we stuffed ourselves with  chocolate, crisps and biscuits. This was the last food shop we would see for a while. I confirmed with the shop keeper that there was a dirt road, unmarked on the map, that would allow us to continue south in the mountains, avoiding the highway. It was going to be a bit of an adventure. At the top of the first climb a man stopped us for a chat. We stood in his muddy front yard while his shy childern clutched at his legs. We were there for at least half an hour while he asked us every question imaginable. What is your surname? What money do they use in England? How much does a car cost in England? Is there work in England? Are there any Ecuadorians living in England? How much would it cost to travel to England? Is England close to the USA? Some of his questions showed a distincct lack of education. My favourite question was…. “What is life like over there?” How to answer that? I hesitated for a moment while I thought about the life some lead in London, expensive clothes, posh restaurants, flashy cars, high salaries, and then I looked at his muddy garden, his crumbling house, his stinking pigs, his cheap functional clothing, on the side of an empty mountain in remote Ecuador. I knew there was no way to really answer his question. He warned us that the road ahead would get worse and he certainly wasnt lying. Thick mud up to our ankles covered the road, churned up with horse footprints, this certainly was not a road for cars. image

On this mystery, unknown road we saw a few kids, a horseman, a thatched hut and nothing else. The few people we saw stared like mad, as usual, and I cant blame them as there was absolutely nothing all around. We could well have been the first foreigners ever on that road, and certainly the first on bikes. We camped on the roadside, near two men on horseback having a good old gossip. The next day, within ten minutes of leaving camp, I stepped in a deep bog and mud filled both my boots. By this time there were a few more houses and people around. I couldnt help thinking, who wants to live their life surrounded by a constant layer of mud. But maybe they were too poor or too limited to go anywhere else. Then the mud stopped and I saw a bus! A relief. We now knew that our road was going somewhere. We passed dismal communities, crumbling schools and ruined houses. Women led cows or sheep along the roadside. None of these villages were on our map. I wondered if anyone even knew these places existed. It was light years from life in Quito. What was the government even doing to help these people? The gap between the rich and the poor in Ecuador was proving to be bluntly profound. image

We met aspalt again and a group of locals asked that same common question, “Where are you going?!” “Achupallas” I replied and they looked very confused. “But thats on the other side of the mountain!” If they knew the full story of our trip they would surely have a heart attack. We found our way down to the river, ready to tackle the last climb of the day, 600metres upto Achupallas. We were planning to do the Ecuadorian Inca Trail from Achupallas to the inca ruins at Ingapirca. We had read about the trail in the Lonely Planet and in a trekking guide to the Andes. But tourism had quite clearly not hit this place at all. In this sleepy little village, sheep roamed the empty main square and the lady in the local shop had to go down the road to get change for a dollar. We found only one restaurant. I first had to check with the girl outside that this was in fact a restaurant and that it was in fact open. We entered this dusty, dark wooden cavern and ofcourse there was only one thing on the menu, chicken and fried potatoes.

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At the only hotel in town, the owner was not there and no one else had the key. A little boy led me down the street to where her sister lived but she didnt have the key either. But she offered some encouragement, “Come back in an hour, she will be back, she is furniture shopping in Riobamba”. So we sat in the cold plaza longer, my feet were freezing still as a result of the mornings mud accident. A bike blog had describe this place as charming but so far we were struggling to see it. However, that changed when we finally checked into our cosy cheap hostal and we learnt that there were fiestas on in town that night. We ate delicious dougnuts in the street while we watched the local school kids dance about in pink ponchos and white hats, to loud and lively latin tunes. Maybe it was a charming place after all, in a kinda roughing it way. image Then next day we set off on the two day inca trek to Ingapirca. The route was 40km over wet and empty mountains, climbing over a pass of 4400 metres, near the jagged mountain top of Tres Cruces. The weather at the top was alright. There was the regular rain showers and high winds that Ecuador always delivers but it wasnt that unpleasant! Maybe we were finally toughening up. We descended on the other side into a spectacular valley, just visible from up high through the soggy mist. We camped inside some ruins in a vain attempt to hide from the high winds. It was our highest camp yet at 4000metres and it was bitterly cold. I got in my sleeping bag at 6.30pm and didnt move for the next 12 hours. image image The following day, unbelievably, we finally had some sunshine for the 900metre descent down towards Ingapirca. But other challenges would soon present themselves. The trail had been difficult to follow for the entire route and now it had completely disappeared. Small trails meandered off in all directions and in my confusion, I ended up crossing fields and rivers, fighting through herds of cows, to try and find a way down the mountain. When I asked a lady looking after a big cow in the roadside, she just exclaimed, Ingapirca? Ooh but that is so far!! A man told me I was miles away and a bunch of kids laughed at me. I thought, this certainly would not happen on the trail to Macchu Picchu!! Finally I found the dirt road that would lead me to Ingapirca. The Inca ruins turned out to be rather underwhelming. I just looked at them from the road while Stefan sneaked in via the back door. We gorged ourselves on chocolate and fried potatoes, then headed to our cold, bare, empty hostal to rest a while. image Back on the bikes it was a short ride to Cuenca. We were both very excited to enjoy a bit of luxury in the big city and eat some good food. Cuenca was a pleasant surprise and the prettiest town we had seen for a while. We went a bit crazy at the sweet market and then went to gobble down two massive pizzas. The pizzeria was smart, professional, clean, tidy, attractive, so very different from the little dusty shack of a restaurant back in Achupallas. We spent our first evening in the city relaxing on the terrace of a cool and colorful backpackers hostal, with stylish decoration and European food on offer. I couldnt help thinking how this was just another world. So different to the bleak mountain tops at 4000metres, the empty shops in isolated villages, the muddy roads and the locals who had never seen a foreigner. Where was the real Ecuador? But on a trip like this, I was certainly happy to experience a bit of both these worlds.

Backroads of Ecuador

From Zumbahua we climbed to 4000m on the main road. This was the last mountain before the coast. We looked down on a fluffy layer of clouds that stretched towards the horizon. Here we turned onto a dirt road leading south, into a remote mountainous area.

We met a shepherd with a flock of sheep. He wore a red poncho and a grey hoody. He had about 4 crooked teeth. After asking about the trip he ended up saying to me, soy pobre (I’m poor) over and over again…he asked if I could give him some trousers because he was very cold. There was an icy cold wind up there at 4000m. I didn’t know what to say to him. “I don’t have anything for you, I’m sorry.” And we cycled on. There were other shepherds, women who still wore their traditional dress, red cardigans, black skirts and bowler hats. Ocassionally a lone figure would appear on the horizon, wrapped up in many layers of ponchos, walking along the road to who knows where.

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We descended into a green valley surrounded by squares of fields, deep river gorges, thatched brick houses and newer concrete blocks. I passed one pink concrete house perched on the road side, the 3 girls sat in the doorway giggled as I went past, on my shiny mountain bike wrapped up in gortex, I must have appeared an alien to them. School kids dressed in dirty grey uniforms chased me laughing and screaming.

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From the top of the second pass we looked down on the village of Angamarca, 1000m below, tucked inside a massive bowl of vivid green fields, farms and tracks.

When we arrived in the village I asked if there was a restaurant. I was directed to a blue building with no sign on the corner of the square. Inside there was a dark dusty bar. An Indian woman appeared and told us there was food, fried chicken and rice. She told us this as if it would be a surprise or a special treat but in reality rice and chicken was the only thing on offer in Zumbahua for breakfast, lunch and dinner. She led us into her dark and dirty kitchen, painted pale blue, 3 giant bubbling pots sat on the stove. We sat at a plastic table in the corner. I asked for a fried egg instead of the mangled chicken leg, like I always did. Stefan had a bowl of maize soup with a giant pig foot floating in it. In these parts it seemed that there was no choice, you had to eat what the land could give you. Later we found a local woman with a portable stove in the market square, cooking mashed potato and some  unidentified hunks of meat. We took two plates of the mash. It was welcome relief.

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We soon began the climb out off the Angamarca valley. We turned left onto a tiny road heading directly south towards the town of Simiatug. The condition of the road was terrible and very steep. Sometimes the road was just grass with a few grazing cows.

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We found a perfect camping stop. Flat grass on the roadside, looking out towards the pacific. The wind died down and it was a beautifully calm evening. We thought we were alone but suddenly lots of traffic appeared. 2 women, 3 donkeys, 4 dogs and a man swinging a machete all walked past, heading down the mountain. Then there was a mother, a girl and a donkey carrying a pile of grass. Finally a man leading 2 bulls. He tried to push them down a nearby trail but one resisted. He grabbed it by the tail and yanked it in the right direction. We enjoyed a spectacular sunset and slept very well.

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The next morning we continued on this tiny trail that would lead us through this remote and indigenous area of Ecuador. On the way up to the first pass we crossed paths with a lot more traffic, 6 or 7 groups of Indians riding horses all passed us as they headed down the mountain. 2 old, toothless men stopped to ask me where we were going.

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At the top of the pass, miles of empty mountains lay ahead. We were miles off the beaten track here. On one side of our road there was a chain of mountains with peaks over 4000m and on the other side, deep river valleys leading to the ocean. The road was sometimes rideable (only just and with a lot of effort) but sometimes it was rough, tortuous with steep climbs and descents, big rocks and many bumps. Sometimes I thought, we are so lucky to see such a beautiful and remote part of Ecuador that no other tourists will see, but other times I thought, we are crazy for choosing such a tough route. Everyone we passed politely greeted us, accepting the fact that these crazy foreigners were on their land. They all looked very healthy with rosy cheeks but they must have been very poor. A few mud houses lined the road and we saw more women looking after a handful of sheep or cows. A man, a woman and a little girl with a purple poncho were walking along the road with ten sheep and a llama, to where? Who knows? The gradient, the constant rise and fall of the road was tough. We passed a large group of Indians working to improve the road, nearly all wearing red ponchos. They laughed in surprise as I passed and shouted out, where are you going? We cycled towards some houses looking for a shop but instead we found a school full of curious kids. A sea of little children swarmed around us, all wrapped up in mini ponchos and hats. They huddled around my bike and stared, not saying a word. It was a remarkable experience. To them we were so weird, so interesting. Only the teachers spoke to us. They directed us to the shop and sent two girls along to serve us. The shop was a concrete block with a muddy floor inside. We found biscuits and juice on a dusty shelf. One of the girls reached into a barrel full of water to grab a ball of fresh cheese for us. They all giggled as they tried to work out the price. A crowd of kids had gathered outside and were squashed up against the window to try and get a closer look. We escaped to have lunch around the corner.

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When we arrived in Simiatug we met 2 German volunteers who were working in a local cafe and teaching English, Robert and Rachel. They had no idea where we had come from and had never heard of Angamarca. We talked about the economic struggles of the local indian community and their shy and insular nature. That night there was a fiesta in town, so all the hotels were full. Robert arranged for us to camp in the garden of the hostal where he was staying, but in the end we were offered the use of the garden shed! For the fiesta there would be music and dancing all night, and the towns new Queen would be announced! I was expecting a local indigenous girl in a pretty poncho and smart hat but the new queen was mestizo (mixed blood) wearing lots of make up and a frilly white ball gown, with a big sparkly crown. It all seemed a bit out of place in such a poor, run down village. The old queen gave a speech about how much she had enjoyed being queen of the town and started crying. A local official read a poem about how her beauty was like the stars, the sun and the moon. It was all a bit weird so we went to bed early, in our cozy shed.

The next day we had about 1000m of climbing to get up to the main road, which was only 25km away as the crow flies but on a wiggly dirt road through empty mountains, it was much much further. Stefan wanted to stay in Simiatug for a few hours, to do some mountain biking. So I would be facing this challenging road alone, and he would catch up later.

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At 4000m I turned a corner to find high, remote, bare and bleak mountains ahead. To my surprise there was a village, which looked like a handful of stones thrown over the mountain side. When I arrived there, I found it to be a lifeless place, empty, soaked, poor with no sign of human life.

Further down the road Pachancho was even more bleak and desolate. A mess of stone houses, all in bad condition, in a field. I hid in some disused toilets to put on my waterproof trousers. But then a man emerged from one of the cubicles and politely said hello. He ran off into the rain and I saw a girl watching me from a nearby corner. I can hardly blame her for staring. She lives in the middle of absolutely nowhere at 4000m. I must have been the weirdest thing she has seen in a long time. But at the same time I wanted to shout at her, Im a human being, just like you! I continued on quickly, determined to get this over with, turning the corner I saw the last pass of 4300m above me. The sheer emptiness and solitude of those mountains left me with an unsettling feeling.

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At the top I caught a glimpse of Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador at 6300m. And then I got a puncture. In the rain, at 4100m, only a few hundred metres from my destination. I wanted to cry, but instead I had to move fast to change the inner tube before I froze to death. This is the moment when Stefan caught me up, and helped me finish up the job.

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When we finally arrived at the main road, there was nothing, no burger bar, no warm restaurant (like I had been imagining). There was nothing but an abandoned bus shelter full of rubbish. We hid from the rain and decided to carry on south, climbing the west slopes of Chimborazo and then descending towards Riobamba.

We went to have a look at the Chimborazo national park visitors centre and were given permission to sleep in their unfinished museum, providing extra warmth and shelter at 4300m. We seemed to be getting used to sleeping in weird places. The following morning we escaped in the rain and wind to descend nearly 2000m down to Riobamba on the panamerican highway. I was excited about getting back to civilisation and but those tough days in the mountains had undoubtedly been our most memorable and rewarding days yet in Ecuador.

Cotopaxi to Quilotoa

From the Casa de Ciclista we cycled south along cobbled roads, climbing to 3000 metres. We camped on some grass by a health centre in a tiny village. After having bought gas in Quito it was great to finally have the stove working, so we could cook ourselves a hot meal. The next day we continued to climb, until the landscape flattened out and pointed volcanos appeared on the horizon. But the most famous, Cotopaxi, was hidden by a swirl of cloud. We stopped at the only cafe for miles around to have a lunch of corn, beans, potatoes and cheese. A family from Quito at the next table quizzed us about our trip.

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The landscape was bare but beautiful, with sweeping grassy plains and the ocassional spikey peak. We entered the Cotopaxi national park via the north entrance and cycled a few km down the road to Tambopaxi restaurant. We had a coffee and spent the afternoon gazing up at the icy peak of Cotopaxi that gradually revealed itself to us between the windy clouds, 2000m above us.

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We camped outside the restaurant that night, and took advantage of their wifi, hot showers and comfy sofa. But thanks to our warm down sleeping bags we were perfectly warm in the tent at 3700m.

The next day we headed south, through the bare rocky landscape, to the southern entrance of the park and then down towards the panamerican highway. We stopped at a dirty road side shack where an Indian lady cooked us 2 plates each of fried potatoes. We were going to Quilotoa. This region was known as the indigenous heartland of Ecuador. We had been told that the local Indians here were very poor but also generally happy. They seemed very shy and closed when talking to outsiders.

The landscape was so green. The most intense green I had ever seen. And the scenery was incredible. A volcanic land of weird shapes, round bumps, jagged peaks, sharp edges, deep valleys, high mountains. It was a fascinating melting pot of strange shapes and typical farmland.

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Beautiful dark faces stared at us from below bowler hats. Traditional dress, particular for women was very common in this area. Along with the distinctive hat they wore long white socks, black skirts, and a woolly cardigan. That night we camped by a river in the bottom of a deep gorge.

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Then next day we climbed 500m up to Sigchos where the asphalt ended. The next part of the ride up to the village of Chugchilan was tough with a rough, rocky road, constantly looping around the mountain side, climbing up and down. Between the mud, the gravel, I threw rocks at killer dogs, suffered under hot sun, shivered in the wind. I was thirsty, hungry, with trucks flying past me, I wiggled around every bump in the side of the mountain. By the time I reached Chugchilan I was destroyed, after only 3 hours on the road. But things were about to get better. We checked into the famous Black Sheep Inn Ecolodge. And were welcomed with a plate of popcorn, cookies, cheese sandwiches and a fruit smoothie. It was a very relaxing and tranquil place with gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside, an interesting mix of international guests and yummy veggy meals. They also had the most beautiful long drop toilet I had ever seen, with a lush green garden growing inside the room, fed with waste water from the sink. I spent the rest of the afternoon reading on the comfy sofa and soaking in the hot tub.

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The next day it was very difficult to leave. The road to Quilotoa and its famous crater was closed so we had to take an even smaller and dirtier road that first dropped down into the nearby canyon and then climbed the other side. It was all on uneven dusty dirty roads and very very steep. To add to all this the altitude was affecting me seriously for the first time. After every ten metres I was gasping for air. This was proving to be the toughest riding of the entire trip. We were climbing up to the rim of the famous Quilotoa crater at 3800m. And when we arrived, cold and wet, we were greeted with the spectacular view of the massive Laguna surrounded by pointed peaks.
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We camped on the rim of the crater, in cold but calm weather, and the next day spent 4 hours circling it on the tiny trail in strong winds. On one side of this trail there were vertical cliffs down to the water and on the other side steep fields full of crops falling away to the valley floor. There were wide views of the outlying countryside with jagged mountains pointing up, mirroring deep gorges pointing down.

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Down in the town of Zumbahua, stray dogs roamed the littered streets. I walked around the few basic shops and realised for the first time that people weren’t speaking Spanish but Quechua. We ate rice and fried eggs in a little tavern with orange walls, woven rugs and voodoo dolls. The owner sat with her friend on another table. And then it was my turn to stare. I loved the way they dressed, so notable, they seemed to take so much pride in this. Wrapped up in many layers of ponchos and that hat they always wear. In the dim light I watch them speaking their language, their strong brown beautiful weather beaten faces. Their hair woven back in a long plait, deep in conversation over a plate of greasy chicken. I suddenly feel very curious about their world and the certain difficultly to penetrate it.

The hilly road to Quito

Instead of zooming down the highway from the border town of Tulcan, we chose to take a small road that disappeared into the high mountains. This is all part of the adventure and our goal for the trip – avoid the lifeless, busy highways and take the smaller routes through the rural, isolated, mountainous areas. However after Stefan spent the night in Tulcan suffering from a bout of food poisoning and with the dense rain clouds hanging over us, this idlyic mountain road proved to be more of a challenge that we had expected. Ecuador was not giving us a friendly welcome.

We slowly climbed on a deserted dirt road through pretty green country side, at first I couldn’t help thinking that it all looked a bit like the Lake District- the scenic country side, the rolling hills, the drizzle. But then that changed, drastically. We soon were in a bleak, vast moorland at a very high altitude, 3000m, climbing to 3700m. This landscape is known as the Paramo. The rain continued. We climbed very slowly. It got very, very cold. The road was full of puddles, boulders and turned and climbed constantly. The land was full of only one type of plant, a thick, tall shrub, multipied by 1000. It dominated the landscape. Finally we arrived at the mountain pass at 3700m, where we found a refuge with a park warden. He was looking after the El Angel nature reserve and gave us hot tea. The rain wouldn’t stop so, wet through, we started the bumpy descent down to the village of El Angel at 3000m. It was a damp, empty and windswept little place, but we took refuge in a cosy and very cheap hostal.

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The next morning, Ecuador finally started being nice to us and we finally got to see some of this beautiful country. The view on the descent from El Angel was spectacular. We saw the bulging, snowy peak of Cayambe of 5790m, it is the only place on earth where the equator line crosses glaciers. Other peaks on the horizon included Imbabura and Cotacachi, both volcanos well over 4000m in altitude. We made a massive descent down to the panamerican highway at 1500m and then it was up again to the village of Cotacachi, with many more ups and downs inbetween. We were quickly learning that Ecuador was a very, very hilly country. It wasn’t just a question of altitude but also gradient. The inbetween climbs were short and steep, along with the altitude, this would leaving you breathing rapidly after not even having travelled very far.

We spent the next day hiking around the crater lake of Cuicocha, back up at 3000m of altitude. The clouds were swirling around and around but luckily enough they soon cleared and we had that perfect view of the laguna along with its floating island. In Otavalo we visited the famous handicraft markets as the rain trinkled on and on. The locals covered the pretty purses and beads and rugs and bags and jewels with plastic sheets to protect them from the falling rain. We visited the food market and saw strong women ripping open pigs and chopping up intestines with big knifes. We saw tiny old women carrying enormous bundles of grass on their backs. Many of the local women wore traditional dress, white blouses with embroidery, and wide, pleated skirts and long white socks. Many of the men and little boys had long hair, tied back in a chunky plait. There were a lot of ponchos and wide brimmed felt hats. And of course people were very small, much, much shorter then in Colombia. A local man saw Stefan ducking down to enter a shop and stopped to stare and chuckle to himself. He must have come up to Stefans elbow.

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We continued on our road towards Laguna Mojanda, a high altitude, isolated mountain lake, back up at 3,700m! The entire 1000m climb was on cobblestone. Ecuador seems to love its cobblestones as we have now cycled over many miles of them. For the cyclist however, cobblestones are a nightmare. But, there was a reward. The Lake was beautiful, surrounded by wild peaks. These were the amazing places a cyclist finds on the quest to avoid the highway! We camped by the lake and the following morning at 6am, we set off to climb the dormant volcanic peak of Fuya Fuya, at 4200m. Apparently there were views of Cotopaxi from the top but the consistent Ecuadorian cloud covered that view. However, we did see Quito, 45km away in a straight line, a sprawling mess of buildings, tucked in between volcanos.

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We descended again to the Panamerican highway and we were reminded of the reasons why we chose the hilly road to Quito. Massive trucks and buses zoomed past, without a single thought for the poor cyclist. We hated it. So for the final stretch of our route to Quito, we chose yet another very hilly road. It was another 1000m of climbing on cobblestones but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything as we were alone on a mountain side, between fields, inca ruins, volcanos, in the wind, in the cold and it felt pretty good. At the very top we met two cycle tourers who were heading to the jungle, one from France, one from the USA.

Instead of cycling into the centre of Quito, we had learnt our lesson from Bogota, we decided to stay on the outskirts and take the bus into the centre just for the day. Luckily for us there was a Casa de Ciclista in Tumbaco, 15km from the city. This Casa de Ciclista, is a local who loves cycling and opens up his house to passing cyclists. In Tumbaco, the Casa de Ciclista is run by Santiago. We camped in his garden for free for two nights. We met 12 other people on cycle tours through South America, cyclists from France, Austria, USA, Canada, Colombia, Germany, Switzerland. After having only met 1 cyclist in all of Colombia this was quiet surprising for us. There was a lot of bike talk, about chains, wheels, pedals and punctures. Routes were compared, stories were shared. Later on in the trip we plan to stay in another Casa de Ciclista in Laz Paz. For now, we took the bus into Quito to see the old town, but we spent most of the day running around the city looking for spare parts for the bike and gas for our stove, which we will finally start using on our way to Cotopaxi. This famous volcano would be our next stop on our journey south.