In Ecuadorian Andes, we are riding between two rows of volcanoes and it is kind of like a ladder as there is a series of valleys where the cities are with a climb over a mountain ridge between them. We scaled our first “ladder” right after the border crossing a pass at around 3200m and descended nto San Gabriel, a colonial town with a suprisingly big market at 2846m elevation. It felt a little like a roller coaster ride going over the hills with short steep descents followed by steep ascents. Before Bolivar was three of these hills where you would bomb down them as fast as possible to try to gather enough momentum to make it up the other side. Bryan got over 72km and I was right behind him. It’s the first time I’ve been over 70km/hr! We flew down to the river below, dropping from 2848m at San Gabriel to about 1500m at the lowest point of the day. At the bottom of the valley, it was a hot and dry desert. We had lunch at El Juncal at the bottom of the descent just across the river and it had a very strong Afro community that seemed another world than the indigenous farming communities in the high mountains where people wear woollen ponchos, felt fedoras and pan pipe music plays in stores and restaurants instead of rap with a pounding beat. We rode along the river through fields of green sugarcane for a while before starting to gain elevation once again up to Ibarra, where Bryan and I spent our first anniversary of our marriage! It was an uphill ride out of Ibarra over a ridge on the side of Volcan Imbabura but stunning views. We spent a few days in the prosperous indigenous town of Otavalo known for its amazing markets.
We crossed 10,000km and the equator almost at the same time! Nearby Cayambe is the indigenous Quitsato sundial monument right on the equator on Latitude 000. Quitsato was built in 2000 right by the PanAmerican highway with Cayambe town below and the snow covered peak of Volcan Cayambe in the distance. However, it represents the ruins of sundial, Catequilla, found nearby on the equator line. Our guide told us that the Andes is also a great place for mapping the heavens because the mountains make great reference points. Consequently, the sun rises on the slopes of Volcan Cayambe on the equinoxes and on specific other locations on summer and winter solstices – summer solstice on the 15 now grass covered pyramids of Cochasqui and winter solstice on the six tiered oblong shaped mound of Pambamarca. This is a very special place, our guide told us, because it is the centre of the world. Astronomers in the northern hemisphere see a group of star constellations while those in the southern hemisphere see the southern star constellations. Only at the equator can you see the whole celestial array.
In Quito, we stayed at a Casa de Cyclistas in the suburb of Tumbaco which literally translates as a home for cyclists. Santiago, a bike mechanic and tutor for children with special needs, has been hosting cyclists for over 24 years! He has a huge garden in the housing complex he shares with his extended family which is sometimes full of cyclists and their tents. We hung out at Santiago’s for 9 nights meeting other cyclists including Paul, a cyclist we met in Baja California, and exploring the area. The architecture of Old Town Quito is impressive. It is the very first city that UNESCO named a World Heritage site in 1978. Across from the Centro Cultural is one of the most beautiful cathedrals I’ve ever seen with stunning blue painted domes and gold painted ornate altars – a combination of Moorish and Baroque influences. The floors were wooden, motivating people to step slower and softer in the spiritual sanctuary to prevent the floorboards squeeking. Just down the road was the elaborate La Compania church from the early 17th century, which is the best example of Baroque Rococo in all of the Americas with apparently 7 tonnes of gold used to gild the walls, ceilings and altars inside.
Quito is a very unique city. It is surrounded in a ring by eight volcanos, nine if you count the new vent on Pichincha, Guagua Pichincha. Along with Gary, a cyclist from England also staying at the Casa de Cyclistas , we hiked up its inactive counterpart, Ruka Pichincha. Guagua means young in the indigenous Kichwa language while ruku means old person. We went to the Teleferiqo, a cable car line that took us up to 4050m, and then it was a 3 hour hike up to the ragged black peaks of Ruku Pichincha. The beautiful highland paramo grasslands with cold mist rushing by hills and ridges were in sharp contrast the the vast urban sprawl of Quito city below. We hike up the volcano with a local man who escapes the city up to the volcano often “to breath”. Clearly, he comes up to these slopes often as part way up the climb, he started calling out into the misty sky, “Hoooola! Ninaaaas!” – Hello! Daughters! Two black Curiquinque birds soared over the wide grassland valleys and dropped out of the sky right by us on the trails. These birds are nicknamed “the Bird of the Incas” and have popular folkloric songs around them. Our local unoffical guide gave them some bread, nearly eating out of our hands. They also eagerly looked at Bryan and I’s sandwiches. Our local friend left us a little later and though I made the same call out to the birds, there was no answer for me! We scrambled up a rocky cliffside as the trail seems to lead there and we reached a peak! It was all white all around us, dropping out in sheer rocky cliffs. We were not at the highest peak but we made it to a knife-edge thin jagged peak at 4650m, under 50m shy of the peak of Ruku Pichincha at 4698m (actually the Guagua Pichincha vent is actually the highest peak of the volcano at 4784m). The conditions at the peak were quickly deteroriating with icy droplets of chilling rain in blinding white. It was a bit of an extreme game marco polo as we headed down, sliding down the scree slope and calling out to each other in the fog. Overall, it was an exhilerating, fun climb with challenging conditions and stunning views of the otherworldly paramo and Quito city below. After our long walk the day before, we treated ourselves to the luxurious hot waters of Termals Papallacta.