We really didn’t know what to expect of Ecuador except that we heard that it is really hilly. Ecuador had a hard act to follow because we really loved riding in Colombia and in the first couple days, we were always comparing things like the food and avaliability of hotels with Colombia (both of which were better in Colombia). However, Ecuador won us over and we ended up staying longer in Ecuador than Colombia even though Colombia is much bigger. This second smallest country in South America has a lot of big dreams and big heart…and big mountains! We have cycled with people who seemed to hate climbing and avoided mountains whenever possible. We didn’t avoid climbs but we didn’t search them out either. However, in Ecuador, we ended up riding down the spine of the Andes taking in all the mountains without dropping to the flatter landscape on the coast or in the Amazon.
Ecuador was one of the first times we met many people who were so excited about mountains and off-roading. It was truly inspiring the other cyclists we have had the pleasure to hang out with, including Paul from the UK who we first met in Baja California over eight months ago, Sam from the US, Gary also from the UK, Mattias from Germany and an older French couple who we actually never learned their names but kept running into. Also, cannot forget to mention Santiago and his wonderful family who have been hosting cyclists at their house by Quito for 25 years and have become a mecca for cycle tourists in Ecuador. For these people and others, the mountains of Ecuador are celebrated and cherished and every opportunity to go off the main roads and into the wild was seized with enthusiasm. The energy was infectious and though our touring bikes are more on the road bike side of the spectrum than mountain bikes, we decided to get off that busy (but well built and well paved) Pan-American highway. Our first adventure was up to Cotopaxi National Park, the tallest active volcano in the world. After some extreme off-roading trying to find the road from El Boliche to the southern entrance of the park, which there isn’t one anymore, we rode up into high, windy paramo grasslands around the picturesque peak. We ended up spending a week in the area hiking, riding and wild camping with wild horses right in the full view of the majestic volcano. The mountains are truly beautiful with the Avenue of Volcanoes in Central Ecuador where some of the highest volcanoes in the world are situated. There are beautiful crater lakes such as Quilotoa and easily accessible day hikes up to around 5000m on giants of ice and fire, Volcanoes Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. All the volcanic activity also meant that there were many hotsprings to relax in as well such as Papallacta, Banos and the lesser known Banos by Cuenca. The mountains lowered in Southern Ecuador but there was still lots of climbs through indigenous Andean farms growing colourful quinoa and potatoes, following age-old routes with Incan ruins and mysterious Canari pyramids on top of mountains, and riding through the remote cloud forests in the far south where the paved road ends. There was so much to do and see that we kept finding ourselves staying just one more day. However, if this is our complaint then life is pretty awesome.
Ecuador’s motto right now is “ama la vida” – love life. I think the excitement and enthuasism for mountains that we truly enjoyed really reflected the atmosphere in Ecuador right now – take what can be considered challenging and celebrate it as passion for life and development. Unlike some of the other places we have visited on this trip so far, indigenous culture is treasured…and not just as a means of drawing in tourist dollars but as a way of life. It is not seen as a challenge to development or as relics of the past but rather as tools for the future. We were told that President Rafael Correa has learned Quecha in order to connect with Andean peoples better and incoporates the three major indigenous laws – don’t steal, don’t lie and don’t be lazy – as a model for his government. People have such pride in their culture, wearing traditional clothes and speaking Quecha more often than Spanish. There is this atmosphere of positvity in Ecuador and it was amazing to experience. Mountains, as well as challenges in general, can be feared, avoided, hated and complained about….or they can be embraced for the exhileration of passion, hard work, accomplishment and the amazing views from the top. Challenges themselves are challenges of perpective. Love mountains, love life!