Well, there it was. In the same afternoon of 5 December 2016 we clocked up 5,000 miles on the bikes and left Peru, the country that we had called home for more than three incredible months, for our sixth country, Ecuador.
And it did feel more like the beginning of the end, rather than the end of the beginning of this amazing journey. After all, in order to avoid the rainy season in the Andes, lying ahead of us (as per the current plan) was a bunch of pretty uninspiring highways leading first to Guayaquil, the sprawling economic and population capital of Ecuador, and then up the coast – possibly all the way to the equator -before we’d take a right and start climbing to Quito. And while the beaches were supposed to be beautiful, for a long time now we’d planned to hot-foot it along this route to get to Colombia, which we’d heard would be a lot more interesting (and a lot drier).
But of course, that’s not how it turned out! Lacking much motivation to follow our Plan A; remembering that there’d been a devastating earthquake on the Ecuadorian coast earlier in the year; and, after studying the climate charts a bit more, realising that the highlands have a mini dry spell from mid-December through January; we as usual performed a dramatic u-turn and ended up doing something entirely different.
We did begin by following the Pan-American highway up to Guayaquil, passing by miles upon miles of lush banana plantations, a real contrast to the desert-scape of Northern Peru just days before. In Guayaquil we stayed a couple of nights with Christian and Carlos – our brilliant Warmshowers hosts, who gave us a free sample of the city cycling tour they are currently setting up – before realising the full exhausting implications of our change of plans when we embarked on the biggest climb of our whole trip, a 3.5km vertical slog in just over two days, back into the heart of the Andes.
From the central highlands backpacker capital of Banos we took a quick detour to the southern highlands cultural capital of Cuenca, before heading North towards the stunning Cotopaxi national park, where we camped for a couple of nights in the shadow of Ecuador’s two highest volcanic peaks. We finally rolled into Quito on Christmas eve-eve-eve, spending a day recovering before jumping on a bus to the coast in time to celebrate Navidad, Ecuadorian style. Back in Quito a week later we stayed with the wonderful Fernando, Andrea and Samuel for a while, also with Warmshowers. After bringing in the New Year we took one final week to make it to the Colombian border via the scenic route, culminating in passing through the awesome El Angel national reserve on one of the best (i.e. worst) dirt roads of our trip to date.
It did rain – a lot – but Ecuador turned out to have so much more to offer than we’d originally thought. For starters, the food was some of the best (and best value) on the continent, with plentiful bananas, tropical fruits, grilled meat, roast pork, juices and of course sickly-sweet cakes on sale pretty much everywhere. There is also an excellent scheme whereby anyone can camp (or stay in a refuge) for free in every national park in the country, which meant we were able to save a lot of money and sleep in some really beautiful places. The whole country is also incredibly green, and on the days when the sun was out (i.e. not very often!) the riding was really quite lovely. And the people were lovely too: From our great warmshowers hosts in Guayaquil and Quito to Jesus who gave us a lift and made sure we found a hotel when Charlie wasn’t feeling well, to the street seller who gave us a free chocolate bar when we were exhausted on the long ride in to Guayaquil, and many more besides, Ecuadorians afforded us way more than our fair share of friendliness and generosity.
The country does have its downsides – the prices for accommodation, clothes and basically anything imported were far higher than in Peru; the roads are often insanely steep, making for some very tough riding days; oh yeah – and the bread is absolutely appalling. But all in all, it was six more fantastic weeks of cycle touring.
As usual I’ve split the rest of this into sections – four, this time. I realised the blog was getting a bit geeky with stats, maps and the like – if you want to see all that this time you can head over to my new Longwayup app!
1. The Pacific Coast: Tumbes to Guayaquil
Getting from the Peru border to Guayaquil was a long and boring ride on main roads under mostly gray skies so I’ll keep this brief. After entering Ecuador we were immediately hit with an enormous blow when we realised that the shops don’t sell Sublime bars here – Bolivia’s and Peru’s excellent take on a Snickers. We also found out that cash machines don’t much like foreign cards and accommodation is really expensive (minimum $15 for a basic hostal), so we spent a while scrambling around for an ATM. Yes folks, those were some of the highlights! The Pan-American did at least have a decent hard shoulder but this wasn’t really up there in terms of classic cycling.
One highlight for both of us was the sudden abundance of food, particularly bananas, roast pork, and rice and beans. And, to get over our disappointment at the rising cost of living, we somehow thought it was therefore the logical thing to do to eat out more. (It definitely was).
Things improved a lot when we reached Guayaquil. We’d kindly been offered by Christian, a local cycling enthusiast and Warmshowers host, to sleep in his old room in a flat in the upmarket Urdesa district, staying with his buddy Carlos. The flat was awesome, complete with a huge pool shared with a few other residents, and we whiled away the first evening drinking some of Ecuador’s (terrible) beer from the shop down the road.
Christian and Carlos have sacked in their old jobs to set up Iguana Bike Tours in Guayaquil, and the next day they were kind enough to give us a free sample of their tour in exchange for using my GoPro to take some promotional videos! The best bits were the crazy Iguana park – a downtown plaza that is absolutely full of the reptiles roaming freely around – which was once a rich family’s private zoo (if I understood the tour correctly!), as well as the cafe selling head-sized cheese empanadas for one dollar. Unfortunately, Guayaquil is baking hot and about an hour in, they decided it was siesta time and all went back to the pool. Undeterred, Charlie and I soldiered on. We strolled down the Malecon (riverside walkway), which is Ecuador’s answer to London’s South Bank, but soon found ourselves in the modern art gallery – not because we needed a culture fix, but because it had really powerful air-con! We eventually carried on, checking out the Las Penas neighbourhood and climbing up the nearby Santa Ana hill which had some great views over the city. But the undoubted highlight of the day came right at the end when we found an all-you-can-eat pizza place for just $6 each!
The next afternoon, after getting our bikes fixed up at the local shop, we made a quick escape from Guayaquil. Partly as our new plan to hit the Andes meant we had some hard cycling ahead and wanted to make it to Quito by Christmas; partly as Guayaquil wasn’t actually all that nice; and partly because all our new Ecuadorian friends were nursing huge hangovers from the night before and didn’t have the energy to do the second half of the tour!
2. Back to the Mountains (Already): Guayaquil to Quito
So we’d decided the coast wasn’t for us, and that we’d rather be back in the mountains. The only problem was, that meant climbing from sea level to more than 3,500 metres above it. Not that we hadn’t done this before of course; it’s just that the last time took us about two months, but this one, thanks to some stupidly steep Ecuadorian roads, would take more like two or three days.
We chose to take the main road – albeit a lot quieter than the Pan-American highway – to the highland metropolis of Riobamba, because after looking at the elevation profiles of the prettier-looking secondary roads we didn’t believe any of them would actually be possible to ride on a bike. As it was, after three and a half exhausting days we’d made it up and over the pass, down to Riobamba and then, via a spectacular (and spectacularly tough) dirt road, down further to the backpacker hub of Banos.
The route itself was often breathtaking (both literally and metaphorically), although mostly being on wide, paved roads somehow detracted from the experience a little. By the time we reached Banos we were both relieved and completely shattered, so we naturally decided to check into a nice hostel with its own pool and hammocks!
We’d made it to Banos with good intentions to do some of the outdoors-y things that all the backpackers seem to do there, like go white-water rafting, abseil down waterfalls, hike up volcanoes etc. etc. But all we really managed to do was go on a giant swing! The ‘swing at the edge of the world’ was, in fairness, pretty awesome, perched as it was high above a plummeting canyon with views (just about) over the nearby Tungurahua volcano. We did also cycle some of the famous ‘route of the waterfalls’ – a beautiful, if main, road leading steeply down from Banos to the jungle town of Puyo, which passes many beautiful waterfalls as well as zip lines across the huge valley set up by enterprising locals. But, with the rain beginning to fall almost every day now, we spent most of our time in the hostel doing not very much.
We actually had a bit of a mid-trip crisis in Banos, suffering from a lack of motivation to do all of the backpacker activities on our doorstep, and with the novelty of staying in comfortable mid-range hostels (which in reality are the cheapest things you can find in Ecuador) wearing off and making us worry about money a bit. So we decided to try to travel through the next bit of Ecuador with a bit more urgency. Our test-run for this was Cuenca – a hugely popular colonial town seven hours away by bus to the south, but where we decided only to spend one night. And it went well, with two very fun days passing by as we explored the beautiful town center and surroundings, ate a lot of roast pork at the central market, drank a few pints of IPA from a local microbrewery, and even caught the latest Star Wars film!
After heading back to Banos to pick up our bikes we did yet more steep climbing to get back to the highlands proper before turning north towards the Cotopaxi National Park. The road continued to be beautiful although by now the clouds were surrounding us from early on each day. Unfortunately I think those IPAs and an excess of popcorn in Cuenca didn’t get along very well with Charlie’s stomach and a bout of illness ensued, meaning we had to hitch for a few miles later that day. After that the tables turned, and, on the way up the long and steep climb to Cotopaxi, my stomach started feeling funny – cue a night of much vomiting and much less sleep. Just my luck that this was our first night of camping for over a month!
Actually I was quite lucky. The campsite in the national park was incredible, with running clean water, a big sheltered area, barbecue pit, a kiddies play area and (most importantly for me) probably the cleanest toilets in Ecuador. All for the grand sum of zero dollars, as camping in national parks is free in Ecuador! Even luckier than this, Cotopaxi, the huge volcano which is usually covered in clouds and had been for at least the past week, was completely clear for most of the two days we were there, as was nearby Chimboarzo – which holds the little-known title of the furthest point from the centre of the earth (and closest point to the stars), thanks to the Earth’s equatorial bulge. Cue a lot of photo-taking.
3. A Christmas Break: Quito and the West Coast
After dropping more than 1,000 meters out of Cotopaxi on a beautiful dirt road, we completed one final big climb on a busy motorway and arrived in Quito pretty broken and exhausted on the afternoon of 22 December, ready to meet our Warmshowers host for the night, Fernando. Fernando works in a nearby bike shop, which was just as well as on the final corner before his apartment my chain decided to get stuck between the chainrings, making the bike completely unrideable. Charlie had also broken a pannier on the cobbled roads coming down from Cotopaxi earlier that day, so he had his work cut out! But in no time we had fully functioning bikes again.
Fernando and his girlfriend Andrea turned out to be incredibly generous hosts, and despite the fact they were going on holiday to Guayaquil for New Years, offered for us to stay in their apartment until they got back on January 5. That’s right – for two weeks!
After asking them a thousand questions about Quito and agreeing to have dinner when they returned, we were all on our way to the coast, albeit in different directions. Charlie and I were heading west, and took an overnight bus on the 23rd to the surf/party town of Montanita, where we spent a wonderful Christmas on the beach, eating and drinking to our hearts’ content, lounging in the hammocks in our hostel, and playing a lot of frisbee in the sea! We then headed up to coast to Puerto Lopez and the nearby Isla de la Plata, which is often described as a ‘poor man’s Galapagos’. It would probably be fairer to call it a ‘bankrupt man’s Galapagos’ or a ‘blind man’s Galapagos’ as the arid, deserted island wasn’t much to see, although we did get to see some birds called ‘blue footed boobies’, and do a bit of snorkelling, for our 30 dollar’s worth of mandatory guide fees.
Back from the coast, and we enjoyed the luxury of having a beautiful apartment in one of the nicest parts of Quito by doing basically nothing. We did manage to get out and about a bit: up the new cable car to the west of the city; into some of the city’s many beautiful parks; to the outstanding Capilla del Hombre – the artist Oswaldo Guayasamín’s enormous purpose-built museum housing some of his best, larger-than-life artworks; and to the nearby bouldering wall where I lost about half the skin on my hands, but we mostly did a lot of relaxing, cooking, blog writing and a little bit of boozing to see in 2017!
On that subject, Ecuador has some bizarre and hilarious New Years’ rituals. First, everyone seems to buy/make a papier mache figure of a superhero or cartoon character, often filled with firecrackers, inside which they put a paper list of all their regrets from the past year. At midnight they light the things and watch/listen to them go up in smoke. There is also a tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight, setting off a lot of fireworks in crowded public places, wearing red or yellow underwear for luck, and stopping cars in the street while dressed in drag to ask for money. While we didn’t get involved in any of this (honest) it was pretty cool to be there and watch it all happen.
Anyway, when Fernando, Andrea and their awesome son Samuel finally returned from the coast we (read: Charlie) cooked them a lovely Mexican meal to say a massive thanks for the apartment, and we went on a mini tour of a couple of the local ‘brew pubs’ that seem to be slowly enveloping the whole of eastern Quito. We finally said our goodbyes two weeks after we all first met, and before we knew it we were back on the bikes beginning the final leg of our Ecuador ride.
4. The High Roads to Colombia: Quito to Tulcan
One thing we’d decided to do when in Quito was to try to be a bit more frugal when it came to sleeping, given the concept of cheap hotels or ‘hospedajes’ doesn’t really exist in Ecuador and we’d been paying up to $20 a night for some pretty basic rooms (quite a lot when you haven’t been paid for seven months!) The obvious thing to do was to camp more, and we did manage to do that, or sleep for free, on four of our last seven nights – meaning we’d had free accommodation for over 40% of our nights in the country.
Our route out of Quito began by taking the very indirect but pretty El Chaquiñan route – an old railway line-turned-cycleway that starts from the edge of the city and leads down to the Pan-American highway via some beautiful scenery and without a car in sight. We then turned north and after mulling over spending the night in a ‘hostal’ when the daily storm inevitably hit, remembered our pact and carried on through the rain to a set of thermal baths right on the equator, at which we’d heard we could camp. We could indeed – for free – and we returned the favour by paying the small entry fee to have a dip the next morning, squeezing ourselves into the hot pool in between local truck drivers doing their morning aquatic exercise routines!
Next up was the small matter of crossing the equator(!!) although unfortunately the place in which we crossed it didn’t exactly have the bells and whistles we were secretly hoping for. Instead a strange phallic statue and sundial – with an extravagent entry fee (we didn’t pay) – marked the spot. But buoyed on by the pretty cool feat that we’d now cycled through the whole of the tropic of Capricorn we headed onwards to the most touristy town in Northern Ecuador, Otavolo. We visited the local condor sanctuary – complete with cheesy bird show – a beautiful set of waterfalls, and out great local pub which made a cracking burger.
Otavolo was all a bit touristy and we were looking forward to get back out into the countryside, sothe following day we took a cab just the thousand or so metres up a nearby hill to the Lagunas de Mojanda, a series of lakes situated high in the paramo (wetlands) above town. We pitched the tent in a beautiful lakeside spot away from the crowds, and the following day set of on what was supposed to be some great trekking.
To be fair, the climb to the nearby peak of Fuya Fuya (4,250m) was nice, although we were just beaten to the top by the mist and clouds. Undeterred, we decided to go back to the main lake and follow a trail around its circumference that’s on Openstreetmap. Big mistake. The trail was well-trodden to begin with, but gradually disintegrated until we were left pushing our way through chest-high vegetation, wading across marshes and literally scrambling/grappling through dense woodland, just as the heavens opened to completely soak us. What was supposed to be about an hour’s walk turned into about four, and we arrived at the stone refuge on the far side of the lake drenched and exhausted, and very appreciative of the cup of instant coffee the bemused-looking local rangers made for us!
To make matters worse we returned to our tent to find it had now turned into an island in the middle of a river!
Well we lived to tell the tale, and after spending a day back in Otavolo mostly washing clothes, we were finally onto the home straight…well, almost. Standing between us and Colombia was the small matter of a 2,000 meter climb up to the El Angel nature reserve, and then a similar drop down the other side to the border. Oh Ecuador, how we love you! The climb was incredibly hot and steep and took a day and a half, by which time we were again exhausted and drenched by the storms that started just before we reached the top. Expecting to be able to camp (for free) I was more than a bit despondent when the lone park ranger at the top told me it was forbidden. The good news, though, was that there was instead a refuge with a private room where we could sleep for free!
That afternoon we walked around the reserve and the nearby lake, which is packed as far as the eye can see in every direction with surreal Frailejones – plants that resemble giant hairy green sunflowers.
Our final day in Ecuador was spent navigating the absolutely amazing road leading down from the reserve to the border. Amazing for cycle touring, that is – I don’t think it would be possible for normal cars, and we didn’t see any the whole way down. The landscape was utterly desolate save for these bizarre plants, and it was quite strange to be spat out onto a highway at the bottom of the road, just outside the city of Tulcan. Here we had just enough time to visit the beautiful cemetery in the center, before spending our last dollar coins on ice cream and taking the short highway to the Colombia border.
Over the other side of the reserve, the road was in pretty terrible shape!
So, what was supposed to be a flying visit turned into five and a half weeks of some of the most diverse cycling we’ve done on the continent. It wasn’t perhaps as otherworldly as Argentina, as iconic as Bolivia or as star-studded with sights as Peru, but it was a lot of fun, very surprisingly had possibly the best food on the continent, and was yet another country we were sad to leave. Still, ahead of us lay the nation everyone seems to rave about, with cheap prices, great weather, even better coffee and basically everyone dancing the Salsa all day long. Welcome to Colombia!