Ecuador – it’s a small country probably best known as home of the Galapagos Islands and of course, the Equator. Initial research suggested that we had a choice of coastal, lowland jungle or highland routes. As our experiences in the Central American sauna have left us with a deep fear of going anywhere near sea level, the mountains it was.
Crossing the border at Tulcan we immediately turned off the highway and towards the El Angel Reserve. This route is well documented by touring cyclists and the directions were clear …
Once we descended from El Angel, we made tracks for the market town of Otavalo. Unfortunately this involved way too much time riding on our new least favourite surface – Ecuador’s ubiquitous cobbled roads.
Arriving in Otavalo we settled in for a ‘rest’ day, really just an opportunity for me to visit the renowned market and look at all the snuggly alpaca wool blankets, rugs, shawls, scarfs, jumpers, hats, mittens and other paraphernalia that I couldn’t buy. Alas, Ed holds firm on the ‘you buy it, you carry it’ rule, and I’m having enough trouble clawing my way up Ecuador’s steep road grades as it is.
We were fortunate to find a crack in one of Ed’s bike disc brake rotors while we were here – a quick rustle through his bike shed and Santiago was able to produce a couple of barely used spares for us. Before long we’ve had to replace all our rotors, with both rotors and brake pads quickly falling victim to Ecuador’s crazy steep road gradients.
It was a tough ride out from Tumbaco heading towards Cotopaxi National Park. Steep cobbled climbs brought tears to our eyes as we climbed and climbed some more.
From Cotopaxi we headed west towards Lake Quilotoa. Diverting off the TEMBR briefly, we aimed for the town of Sigchos, a glorious ride on a quiet narrow road that dropped into a dramatic canyon before finishing with a steep uphill pinch. The next days ride featured a couple of the more spectacular road collapses we’ve seen thus far, with large sections of the relatively new road having fallen away.
Now back on the TEMBR we settled in for a few days of deserted back roads, the odd llama for company and the usual ups and downs.
It was great to see dozens of vicuñas as we rode through the Chimborazo reserve. Vicuñas are a wild camelid species related to the llama and native to the high Andes. Highly valued by the Incas for their extremely fine wool, it was illegal for anyone other than royalty to wear vicuña clothing. However, following the arrival of the Spanish, vicuñas were extensively hunted and were declared an endangered species in 1974. The species was locally extinct in the Ecuadorian páramo prior to the commencement of a reintroduction program in the late 1980’s. The most recent census now shows a population in excess of 7000 individuals in the Chimborazo region.
After descending from Chimborazo, and facing some inclement weather, we headed directly to Alausi. Our timing was off so we missed the arrival of the train, which basically chugs up the main street of town.
Approaching the border the road continued relentlessly up and downhill at seemingly impossible gradients. Feeling increasingly weary after weeks of tough riding, we kept our days short and spent afternoons lazing around in the plazas of small villages where we could usually find a cheap hostal in which to spend the night.
Finally we rolled up at the tiny border post of La Balsa. The place was buzzing by local standards, and unlike others ahead of us we didn’t need to seek out the border official, who was actually both in his office and awake when we arrived.
So now we are in Peru – where the mountains are higher and the hats even larger than we have previously encountered. If initial experiences are anything to go by it’s going to be another cracker of a ride …..