Riding to new highs in Central Ecuador

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With Santiago and family

Santiago, Ana Lucia and their whole family have been so incredibly nice to us. It was a home away from home and it was great to recharge our batteries and also meet other cyclists. While many other cyclists ride south out of Quito to the northern entrance of Cotopaxi National park, we opted to stay on the Pan-American mainly because we wanted to avoid the 6km of steep uphill cobblestones on that route but ended up with other perks including checking out a rowdy local rodeo with cowboys lassoing bulls and camping with llamas in El Boliche National Recreational Area where we also did a little hiking through the mossy everygreen forest. We had an extreme off-roading adventure trying to find a dirt road from El Boliche into Cotopaxi – there isn’t one anymore – and then spent four nights in Cotopaxi National Park camping in the shadow of the picture perfect snow covered cone of highest active volcano in the world. Wild horses would gallop by our camp around sunset as they slept in a nearby grove of trees. We could hear them nayying into the twilight (and giving us eerie staring contests in the night as we go out to pee). 

We hiked up to the refugio at 4864m. From the parking lot, it was a tough climb at the high elevation with glaciers all around. We had a snowball fight and made snow angels in the pristine snow – incredible to believe since we’re so close to the equator!

From Latacunga, we took a side trip up to the crater lake of Quilotoa for a couple days kayaking and hiking the dramatic knife ridge all the way around the rim. When we walked up to the cold, windy rim and got our first glimpse of the lake, our first thought was WOW! We had seen pictures and heard that it was beautiful but it was just so much more amazing in real life. Its water shifted in gorgeous blues, greens and turquoises set within a jagged dark volcanic rock bowl. The deep greens and royal blues of the water is from the dissolved minerals and the water both in the lake and in the town has a bit of a sulphur smell to it. On the rocky sides were purple lupins and yellow flowers.

Repelling down waterfalls in Banos

Repelling down waterfalls in Banos

The ride from Latacunga to Ambato, a livable commerical city, was on the busy PanAmerican highway through urban areas. The ride from Ambato to Riobamba, a high city surrounded by mountains, rose up to the farm covered hills around Chimborazo. They were both fairly easy, uneventful rides but what really made this section amazing was the surrounding area. 

We stayed with Bruno in Ambato who told us how amazing the nearby town of Banos was. We took a day trip there and relaxed in its namesake hotsprings beside a cascading waterfall and children splashing in the pools. After our relaxing hot spring dip, we went for our cold dip adrenaline rush by going on a canyoning tour and repelling down five waterfalls. Our grand finale was a 35m waterfall. Our guide did all of the work on this one as we dropped off the side and then behind the waterfall with the crashing water surrounding us. It was so beautiful. The scariest part was looking over the edge at first.

We met Beth and her mother at the hotsprings and she was really excited that we were staying in Ambato, where tourists usually just pass through on the way to other more touristy locations. Beth is Canadian from Alberta and has a bakery catering business in Ambato. Their speciality – nanaimo bars! Yum! After visiting with Beth, we grinded up to Mocha, which Beth had told us had some of the best cuy, guinea pig, in all of South America. We probably tried guinea pig when it had a lot going for it – we were starving after our uphill grind and it was late for lunch and we went to a good restaurant in a town known for cuy. Still, it was kinda gross. It had a really thick, greasy hide and the meat was also kinda oily and dark. Sometimes, I could imagine it as chicken but then I would bite into some meat that had a very distinctive non-chicken flavour. It really felt like rodent meat…and there was not that much meat between its leathery thick hide and bony body. It is an acquired taste….acquired after periods of starvation!

Roasted guinea pig - an acquired taste...one that we have not yet acquired

Roasted guinea pig – an acquired taste…one that we have not yet acquired

It was a cold descent into Riobamba where we stayed with Borja and Nathalie and visited Chimborazo, the highest peak in Ecuador. The extinct volcano is a giant at 6268m and it is considered the closest point on Earth to the sun since it is so close to the equator. Bryan debates this because Earth has a tilt but we lathered on the sunscreen anyways since it is really high elevation nevertheless. Just after the turnoff from the highway, we already started seeing high altitude plants including the “Flowers of the Andes” (Chuquiraga jussieui) by a deep canyon with a picturesque waterfall tumbling out of it. The iconic highland plant, Flowers of the Andes, is not only a high altitude plant but its flowers can be brewed as a tea to help with altitude sickness. The only things that lived on this windswept high desert were the Flower of the Andes plants and vicunas, a small deer-like cousin of llamas and apacas that is extra tough for surving in extra tough high elevation environments. Vicunas traditionally lived here but were hunted into extinction. They have been recently reintroduced and protected in the park and now there are around 4000 of them living around the volcano, which is the only place they’re found in Ecuador. We hiked up from the first refuge at 4800m to the second refuge at 5000m and just a little higher to a small puddle like murky brown lake and a frozen river. 

Borja, Nathalie and us leaving Riobamba

Borja, Nathalie and us leaving Riobamba

Of all the people we’ve met and stayed with that said “Oh I wish I could join you” or “I wish I could go on a bike trip like that” and we replied, “Join us!” on this trip so far, Borja and Nathalie actually did! They are both such wonderful people, really kind and great conversationalists. We cycled with them for two days from Riobamba to Alausi through colourful quinoa farms. These highland hills are a real indigenous area and people were working in their fields or gathering grass for their animals in traditonal dress with bright shawls, fedora hats, black skirts and embroidered belts. Everyone was so friendly and it was a highlight to see everyone’s smiles and waves. It was a descent into Guamote, a high elevation indigneous village with cobblestone streets. The ride from Guamote to Alausi was through the Palmira desert, a high plain of rolling hills, desolate with grasses bent in the wind and stubby green pine trees growing in the sand under the low hanging grey clouds. It used to be just sand here whipped barren by the cold wind up over 3000m elevation and Ecuador decided to nurture pine trees with irrigation to stop growing desertfication and today it is a stunning but stark forest growing out of the sand. We got to really experience this desert turned forest as we had to stop every 15-20minutes to pump up Borja’s tire which kept on having issues.

Brake problems

Brake problems

I also had my share of bike troubles and we spent an extra day in Alausi fixing my brakes. It was hilly but beautiful from Alausi to Cuenca past the mysterious Cerro Puñay, which is supposed to have an ancient pyramid complex on top in the shape of a macaw, spiritually significant as legends tell of how the indigenous Canari people are descended from the Macaw (Guacamaya). The ruins are considered the oldest in the country. From El Tambo, we explored Ingapirca, Ecuador’s largest set of Incan ruins. A lot of it is just foundations now but our guide painted us a vivid picture of its gardens, graneries, burial and ritualistic areas (all in Spanish! Great practice and the other 20 or so Ecuadorians in the tour – included in the ticket price – were so patient with my extremely basic and silly questions). It is a very interesting site because it was first an important Canari spiritual centre from around 1000 CE that was further developed by the expanionist Incas in the late 15th century for about 60-70 years before the arrival of the Spanish. The Canari’s main deity was worshipping the moon and their architecture was characterized by circles and eliptical ovals while Incan imperial style was more in the form of rectangles and the Incan premier deity was the sun. The mergings of both Canari and Incan influences made for a very special and unique archaeological site.

Ingrapirca ruins - largest ruins in Ecuador

Ingrapirca ruins – largest ruins in Ecuador

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