Biking Through Ecuador, Day Two: Mindo to Cotopaxi

Tired from yesterday’s mountain climbing on our bikes, we fell asleep quickly and soundly only to be woken up a few hours later by the loud, obnoxious, and seemingly never-ending cacophony of barking dogs. I swear they were right outside our second-story guest room. After what seemed like an hour – but was probably more like 15 minutes – they finally curtailed their excitement only to start up again a half-hour or so later. Needless to say, we didn’t get a good night’s rest. But we were up early this morning, ready to go, and after a cup of thick, dark coffee that alarmingly resembled motor oil, we loaded the jeep and headed out of Mindo. Our destination was Pululahua, a dormant volcano that hasn’t erupted for a few thousand years, but is still considered active. Arie said that it’s one of only two active volcanoes in the world that has people living within the crater, the other inhabited volcano being in Yellowstone National Park.

We drove for about an hour and a half along a scenically beautifully highway that followed a ridge-line and looked down upon steep green valleys. After climbing several thousand feet, Arie turned off onto a side road and thus began day 2 on our bikes. We started off with a short downhill and then a 20 minute gradual ascent to the ridge of Pululahua Volcano. Arie met us at the top with some bananas and from there it was a full-on, brake-clutching, downhill slalom along the inside wall of the crater. It was amazing. To our left we could see the hills, ridges and flat-bottom floor of the volcano where generations of farmers have cultivated crops in the rich volcanic soils. At the bottom, we continued on up another a dirt road, passing cows and horses and the occasional dog until we came to a crossroad where Arie greeted us with a homemade lunch. Plates of spaghetti tossed with olives, sauteed veggies, and herbs and glasses of lemonade hit the spot. After lunch we loaded the bikes back on top of the jeep and began the rather harrowing drive out of the volcano. The road reminded me of our drive out of Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania – steep with no guard rails to keep you from going over the side. We kept going higher and higher and the drop kept getting steeper and steeper as the clouds rolled in and obscured the bottom of the crater.

At last we made it to the top. We kept to the highway for another hour and a half or so until we came to our next destination: the middle of the earth (aka the Equator). Obviously a tourist stop, I was a little hesitant to go on the hour-long tour, but I’m very glad that we did. Our guide had a great sense of humor and it was fascinating to learn about how the ancient Inca’s figured out the constellations and knew how to tell time by the sun. C and I got our picture taken on either side of the Equator and then our guide showed us a few Equatorial tricks. The first was a basin filled with water set right on the Equator line. He lifted the plug and we watched as the water went straight down into a bucket below – no swirls or vortex. He moved the basin over to one side of the Equator and did the same thing. The water exited the drain in a counter-clockwise spiral. And on the other side of the Equator? In a clockwise spiral. It was pretty cool. Then he explained that since there is no centrifugal force at the Equator, it’s easier for things to balance by themselves. He had us try to balance an egg on top of a nail driven into a post. I was the only one who managed to get the egg to balance. Twice 🙂 The final trick was a strength test. Off the Equatorial line, we tested each others strength by pushing down on our partners arms. Back on the Equatorial line, we did the same and we were each markedly weaker. Why? I couldn’t tell ya.

After visiting the middle of the earth, we headed back through Quito, and out toward Ecuador’s most impressive, and destructive, volcano, Cotopaxi, towering 5897 meters (19,347 feet). Unlike other tours that I’ve done and read about, Arie knows how to get off the beaten track. We were out in the middle of nowhere, passing remote ranches and wild horses, heading to a lodge in the middle of nowhere. The “road” up to our accommodations on the south slopes of Cotopaxi was almost as harrowing as the steep climb out of Pululahua. It was deeply rutted and so steep in places that I was sure we wouldn’t be able to make it up. But Arie’s 4×4 jeep proved itself worthy and we made it to Cotopaxi Cara Sur, an eclectic lodge (at 4,000 meters, or 13,123 feet) with an amazing view of the snow-capped peak and expansive panorama of the paramo, or high country, below. It was beautiful, but freezing. No electricity in our room, no hot water (again), and not heat, but it was such a cool place and magnificent setting that I really didn’t care. We were the only guests, so we had the lodge to ourselves plus two Ecuadorians staffing the place. They cooked us a delicious dinner of quinoa and potato soup and spaghetti with vegetables for me and meat sauce for the boys. I don’t know how they cooked it, but it tasted so good! Situated above the clouds, we watched as lightning illuminated the mountains in the distance. It was fascinating to watch a thunder storm at eye level.

Cold, tired, and still slightly muddy from the day’s ride (there was no way I was taking a cold shower), we climbed into our bed and piled the blankets on high. It was another good day exploring the diverse beauty of Ecuador’s nature.


Biking Through Ecuador, Day 1: Quito to Mindo

I’m pretty sure I climbed a mountain today, on a bike. We started down in a low valley and ended up swathed in mist somewhere up high in a cloud forest. Eight kilometers of switchbacks and somewhat gradual inclines along a severely potholed and stoney dirt road took us several thousand feet up into the Andes mountain range. It was beautiful. We passed steep terraced slopes dotted with cows and small haciendas looking out over deep valleys that encompassed every shade of green. At every bend in the road there was a stunning vista and I had to restrain myself from stopping to take a picture each time the valley’s and mountains came into view.

We woke up early this morning to finishing last-minute packing and enjoy our last breakfast at La Casa Sol (although we also made another reservation to stay there on our way back through Quito before heading to Guayaquil and the Galapagos. We are creatures of habit). Arie met us at the hotel with his brand new Land Rover-esque jeep topped with three bikes and a trunk full of gear. Originally from Holland, he has lived in Ecuador for the past 19 years and done bike tours for a good 16 of that. After loading the car with our bags, we headed out of Quito and into the hills of the surrounding countryside. As I said before, Ecuador is beautiful. After about an hour of driving, we pulled off onto a dirt road, unloaded the bikes, and geared up for our first ride of the trip. Arie followed us in the jeep as we sped downhill for 24 kilometers along an extremely bumpy road. It wasn’t long before my wrists and back hurt from being jarred around so much, but the views and experience more than made up for it. Arie met us at the bottom of the massive downhill with bananas and water and then we began our grueling eight kilometer climb into the cloud forest. I was very glad that I had forced myself to work out on the elliptical 5-6 days a week on the ship in Costa Rica/Panama! At the top, Arie had lunch ready for us, but it started raining, so we didn’t dally much. He lent me his raincoat and off we were again. More bumpy roads and beautiful sights. With the rain, it looked like we could almost have been in Ireland or Scotland, it was so green.

We finally reached a paved road, and from there it was about a 20 minute ride into the town of Mindo. Thankfully the rain stopped, so it was a nice ride, and my wrists and back were happier.

Sweaty, muddy, tired, and a little chilled from the rain, we rolled up to our little guesthouse looking forward to a hot shower. Surprise, surprise, the whole town was without water for a few hours for some reason I couldn’t catch. A bit disappointed, C and I sat on our balcony for awhile and then set out to explore the town. On our way out the hotel, we stopped by the open-air wooden porch that looks out onto a garden. The owners have hung several bird-feeders from the trees and we watched, amazed, as dozens of hummingbirds and other feathered species flitted about. This area apparently has 33 different kinds of hummingbirds alone.

After snapping photo after photo of the hummingbirds, we were still chilled, so we stopped at a nice restaurant for a cup of tea, which warmed us up. Then we strolled through the small park and down the one and only main street which was lined with no-frill eateries and convenience shops. Mindo is a sleepy town, but it’s cute, and most people come here, I think, for it’s abundant bird life rather than good food and historical sites.

It had started drizzling again, so we slowly made our way back to the hotel, but the drizzle turned into a downpour and we were soon soaking wet. Once in our room, the water was back on, but a hot shower was too much to ask for. I got most of the mud off, then climbed into bed and underneath the warm blankets. Outside the rain had turned into a thunderstorm that sent lightning strikes alarmingly close and rumbles that shook our wooden walls. I also learned something new – I didn’t know that thunder set off car alarms.