‘El Chaquiñan’ is a bike path which follows the old train line from Quito to 20km outside of the city. We joined this route two blocks from Santi’s Casa de Ciclista in Tumbaco and had an easy route out of the city with very little traffic to contend with and an easy gravel path to ride. As the route was once part of a larger rail network, we wound our way around a gorge before riding through a number of long tunnels, which were surprisingly dark and cold. After almost 20km on cycle path and quiet roads we reached the main road which, sadly, we’d have to join.
When we showed Santi the route which we had planned to follow he advised us against taking the first part after the cycle path, warning that it’s steep and rocky. He said it’s very much for mountain bikes and with a loaded bike it’s really hard. We knew that there would be a big climb on day two, which is fine if you are riding down it but would be really hard to ascend. (We are loosely following the TEMBR but riding it in the opposite direction which means some of the tracks are difficult to ride up as they were intended as a descent). Normally we would have thrown caution to the wind and said we’d be fine because we have mountain bikes, but as it was our first time back on the bikes after almost six weeks off we decided to take it steady. The main road it was. Yeah, it was pretty busy and we had to avoid trucks parked in the shoulder, glass strewn on the road and general chaos of being on a busy road near the capital but it was very easy. We made good time on the first day, making it to a hostel which Andy (the English-but-lived-in-South-Africa guy we met at Santi’s) had stayed at two days earlier. He must have mentioned that we were coming because Maria, the owner, came out saying “Ben! Steph! Bienvenidos!” She lived there with her husband and son, and she not only let us use the kitchen but let us taste all this different fruit that we hadn’t tried yet. Tomate del árbol (an acidic, citrus tomato fruit which you eat with sugar on) was a delight, then she made a juice with that and some other local produce which was also really good. We were quite sad to be leaving the Casa de Ciclista but after only a day we remembered why we’re here and meeting people really is the best part of our trip.
The second day out of Quito was a big milestone for us… we reached the northern hemisphere by bicycle. We started in Ushuaia at 57 degrees south and made it to 0 degrees! There are a number of different monuments and equator lines on the PanAm, all with varying degrees of accuracy, but the actual equator line is where the ‘Quitsato’ sundial is built. It is a nonprofit, local run museum but with very interesting guides and we learnt about how even before the Incas settled in the area, there was a monument to the sun at this point.
After an easy day being tourists we decided to stay at the ‘Mitad del mundo’ (middle of the world) campsite run by Valentin, a very friendly guy that Santiago recommended to us. It was a nice place to stay and we could have easily spent a few days here. Well, Valentin and his son wanted us to but we had already made arrangements for a Warmshowers host the next day so we had to decline. Before we could leave though, they did show us around their land which included a hill with a great view over the valleys and below it had its own cave. There was also this weird snake-like thing in the rock across the valley which he brought out his telescope for us to see and then insisted that Ben take a photo. We had lots of photos of us taken in our hours tour with Valentin!
Our Warmshowers hosts in Cotacachi, Clare and Rod, were the type of people that make us excited to visit the US. They are from California and Montana originally but they have been living in Ecuador for three years, but before that they lived in China working as teachers and have travelled quite extensively. We had a great four days staying with them, sharing stories over lots of great food and beer, and staying in a lovely big house (with chickens and hummingbirds in the garden too!). One evening we were all invited up to Suzy and Ron’s house (their friends also from the US) for dinner and had another evening of great food and drink.
Whilst staying with Clare and Rod we visited the weekly Otavalo market. First we went to check out the weekly livestock market but by the time we’d found the right place (they’ve recently opened a new, larger market which is a few kms outside the city) it was starting to wrap up. It was interesting to see how they sold their animals though, not auctioning them off like at home, but by putting them on display and allowing people to wander around and choose which animals they want to purchase. No wonder it’s busiest between 5 and 6am!
Held on a Saturday in the centre of Otavalo is apparently the biggest market of artesian wares, mostly textiles, in South America. It certainly was big, covering most of the streets in the centre of town and as we were wandering around we did see lots of tourists perusing the scarves and ponchos. If only we had more room on the bikes (or more money to courier things home) we’d have bought so much, but as it was we just looked and took photos of the artesanías at work.
We also cycled up to Cuicocha lake, a volcanic crater lake similar to Quilatoa further south but with two islands in the middle. It was an easy 12km climb and although the day had clouded over the views were nice and the small museum was quite interesting.
As you can probably tell, we’ve very much eased back into the cycling. We haven’t gone very far or done anything too strenuous, which we continued by staying with a Couchsurfing host in Ibarra, only 30km from Clare and Rod in Cotacachi. Our hosts were Tatiana and Javier, from Argentina and Ecuador respectively. We spent two nights eating some local food which we would have never tried otherwise (fish soup for instance! ‘Encebollado’ is an onion and tuna soup with lots of tasty spices and flavour). We also took some time to do some planning, something we’re terrible at doing but that worked quite well for planning our route though Ecuador (when we knew we had our flight home from Quito to get to) and so thought we’d have go at Colombia!
As is becoming the norm now, we had two days of climbing solidly uphill to our next point of interest, El Ángel Reserva. The first day was difficult but paved, so after riding all day we reached El Ángel town, 17km from the Reserva and checked into a hostel as a reward for making it so far. The town had a lot of charm and had some interesting statues and intricately pruned trees in their main plaza, something we weren’t expecting from a small town in the hills.
The remainder of the climb was on a dirt road which then turned into rocks and eventually cobbles. These were quite difficult to ride in the wet, even with our big tyres! The weather wasn’t on our side though and we were riding in the clouds by the top. We did get to see lots of the famous ‘frailjeones’ (pronounced ‘fry- lay-ho-nays’) trees upclose and as we descended we saw that they spread across the surrounding valleys. They are strange trees, growing in very specific environments known as paramo, similar to moor land but between elevations of 3000-3500m, generally humid with large day/night temperature differences and only in northern Ecuador and Colombia.
Ben hadn’t been feeling right for a few days at this point (sore throat and a headache) so the idea of camping at altitude, in the clouds and rain wouldn’t have been great for him so we continued on to Tulcan, which was all downhill, on the Ecuador-Colombia border. We had a day off here so Ben could recover from his cold/sore throat and as there’s very little to do here, it was a good place to rest.
We needed some fresh air though and the main, if not only, tourist attraction in Tulcan is the cemetery. Here in South America a cemetery is not just a load of gravestones around a church. They are places to visit, take a picnic and often are quite interesting as a tourist. Tulcan’s cementerio was the best we’d seen in South America yet with cypress trees of different shapes and sizes shaped and sculptured into various pre-Columbian totems, animals and shapes. There are over 300 in total! The man that came up with this idea, José María Franco Guerrero, died in 1985 and was buried in the very cemetery and quite fittingly his epitaph reads, “In Túlcan, a cemetery so beautiful that it invites one to die!” We would be inclined to agree with him on the fact that it is a beautiful place. When we were there some people were paying their respects to the dead but many others, like us, were enjoying exploring the maze-like hedges and looking at the different tombs (from those that are like apartment buildings for coffins, to the more traditional headstones and then the rich who essentially build conservatories for their dead).
Next up – Colombia. The last country we will visit on the South American continent (this time anyway). What will country number 9 bring? We’re excited to see what all the fuss is about and wonder if cycling is as popular there as everyone says.
Until next time,
Steph and Ben