Biking Through Ecuador, Day 5: Riobamba to Baños

Today we went from 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) to 2,580 meters (8,465 feet), by bike. That’s an 8,000 foot drop in just about 4 hours. Crazy! Not to mention the temperature change, which I’ll get into in a little bit. We left Riobamba at 7:30 this morning and drove for an hour and a half up the slopes of Chimborazo volcano, the highest volcano in Ecuador at 6,310 meters (20,700 feet), making it the tallest volcano of the earth (not sea level) and the closest to the sun. It was pretty cloudy as we drove up the slopes, but we caught a few glimpses on the way of the volcano’s snowy banks. After reaching the first refuge (which is where climbers spend the night before attempting to summit) at 5,000 meters, though, all we could see were dark, misty clouds that enveloped us as well as Chimborazo’s peak. We had a quick look at the basic, but functional refuge, complete with a dorm room, kitchen, dining area, and fireplace and then C and I bundled up for the 200 meter (650 foot) hike up to the second refuge. Our guide book says, “at an altitude of 5,000m, there’s only a 200m vertical height gain between the refuges, but it can be totally exhausting if you’re not acclimatized.” Luckily C and I were at 13,123 feet on Cotopaxi, but we were still huffing and puffing with every step as we made our way up the gravelly slope toward the snow line and Whymper refuge (named after Edward Whymper, who made the first ascent of Chimborazo in 1880). The clouds were still obscuring the peak as we climbed, and rested, and climbed again, but when we were only about 150 feet from the refuge, the clouds parted, the sun came out, and we were rewarded with a spectacular view of Ecuador’s highest volcano. It was magnificent. With renewed energy and breath, we climbed the last few feet and spent the next half hour or so admiring the snowy slopes of Chimborazo. I had thought that it would be a lot more colder than it was, since Cotopaxi was absolutely freezing, but it really wasn’t too bad. The hike up got our blood pumping and our outer shells kept most of the wind chill away. The clouds began to roll in again, slowly returning Chimborazo to obscurity, so we started heading back down the trail toward the refuge.

Arie greeted us with hot tea and coffee to warm our hands before embarking on a 75 kilometer (46 mile) and 8,465 vertical foot decent by bike to Ambato. Before we left, though, we were graced by the appearance of a fox!

The first part of our ride was extremely windy and cold. We biked down from the refuge on a dirt road, spotting herds of vicuñas (similar to llamas and alpacas) in the open, dusty brown paramo, and trying to keep warm against the blustery wind.

We eventually reached a paved road, but even though it was a slight downward gradient, we still had to pedal hard because of the headwind. This went on for about 18 kilometers until we turned off onto another road that would take us along a spectacular valley road with stunning views of waterfalls, white-water rivers, and tall, jagged canyon walls suffused in green. It was a little slice of heaven. Some of the scenery we encountered rivaled the beauty of many other places that I have traveled to.

At 17 kilometers short of Ambato, we stopped for lunch beside a small hydro-electric dam. We also shed some layers because it wasn’t nearly as cold and windy as it had been up at 16,400 feet! We biked the last few kilometers and then Arie met us again by the side of the road and we hoisted the bikes up to the roof and set off, by car, to Baños where we will spent the next two nights. Baños is situated just beneath the active volcano of Tungurahua, which last erupted in 2006. The woman at the front desk of our hotel informed us when we arrived that there were five blasts last night from Tungurahua. Not sure what the blasts entailed, but I’m hoping that whatever they are, they’re minor…

Biking Through Ecuador, Day Three: Cotopaxi to Quilotoa

Remember the second harrowing drive I describe yesterday? The road all the way up to the Cotopaxi Cara Sur lodge? Well, we biked down it this morning. But before our brake-clutching decent, C and I took a hike up the slopes of Cotopaxi. The first steep hill above the lodge was almost too much for me (remember, we were at 13,123 feet!), but I pushed on and was sure glad that I did. We could see the snow-line of the volcano ahead of us, but it was much too far for us to hike to. So instead, we enjoyed a nice climb along a ridge that dropped several hundred feet to each side. There was a stunning canyon farther down the slopes behind us and ahead of us were gentle slopes and narrow ridges. The vegetation was sparse and fragile – small patches of lichens, a few hardy flowers that resembled Indian Paintbrushes, and stunted scraggly trees that could be well over 70 years old. The last time Cotopaxi erupted was in 1904, and the plants are still trying to find purchase in the harsh environment.

After about 15 minutes of walking (and stopping for breath), we spotted some llamas off in the distance, not too far off the trail. We made our way over there and they promptly circled back onto the trail behind us. I’ve dealt with horses and cows and sheep and pigs, but never llamas. Do llamas bite, kick, charge, or spit like camels? They seemed curious – one even cautiously made her way over to us, but never quite came within hands reach – but I was still a little wary of getting too near. Since the herd of llamas were between us and the lodge, we slowly tried to edge our way around them, and eventually they skittered off the trail and into the scraggy brush, letting us pass. Back down at the lodge we were greeted by six donkeys. I knew they were friendly because they came right up to C and nudged him with their heads to get him to scratch their ears. They were so cute I wanted to take one home as a pet!

And then it was time to get back on our bikes. After admiring the snow-capped peak of Cotopaxi one more time, we loaded our bags into the jeep and set off down the steep, rutted, and serpentine road to the bottom of the volcano. The clouds had rolled in and everything was swathed in mist, making our decent rather ethereal. C was ahead of me most of the time and I only saw brief glimpses of him through the mist, eerily reminding me of chasing a ghost.

Switchback after switchback later, we finally made it to the bottom and from there we continued on by bike with Arie leading the way in his jeep. We passed through small towns with dogs chasing our wheels and over incredibly pot-holed roads where we traveled faster than the trucks. When we reached the intersection of the Panamerican highway, we got back in the jeep and continued on to our next destination by car. Quilotoa was about a three hour drive up and down and around the mountains and past a patchwork landscape of hand-sown agriculture. Each turn presented a photo opportunity, but I resisted because tomorrow we’ll be biking back the same way. We finally arrived at the small town of Quilotoa (3850 meters, 12,631 feet) and while Arie was preparing us some sandwiches, we stood in awe at the top of the beautiful lake-filled crater of Quilotoa volcano. After a quick lunch, we dropped our bags off at the hostel and then C and I took off down the path into the crater. It was a steep and sandy descent down to the lake, but we took our time and enjoyed the view. C said that it reminded him somewhat of Crater Lake in Oregon. Once at the bottom we sat on the pebbley shore, soaking up the warm sunshine and felt the lake water with our fingers. I expected it to be cold, but it was surprisingly warm! An Indian girl offered us horses to take us back up to the rim, but we declined, preferring to keep warm by hiking up the steep trail. It was a good hike, our hearts were beating fast in no time and we had to stop mid-way to shed a few layers.

Then it was back to the hostel for a hot shower (yay!) and a bit of relaxing in front of the wood stove with hot tea before dinner. Tomorrow we visit the colorful markets of Zumbahua!

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.