Valley of the Volcanos|
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
|Photo By Nathan Ward
|Laguna Quilotoa, Ecuador
High in the mist-shrouded Andean Mountains, Andrea and I pushed pedals and let gravity draw us down the perfect descent. It was a steep road and we rode wide open, the wind blowing through the last hairs on my head, spiriting us faster than the frenzied farm dogs who ran out just to taste our dust. We raced two boys on rickety mountain bikes, passing them, then slowing to let them blow by. Then we’d race and rip by them again. Twenty high speed minutes later we reached the bottom of the hill and stopped to catch our breath, all of us giggling and high from the speed.
"Where are you going?" one boy asked. "Where are we going? Isn’t it obvious?" I thought. "To Chugchilan!" I answered, liking the way the Quechua name rolled off my teeth. The two flushed boys looked at each other with concern and said "No!" They craned their necks back so far it looked like they were searching for condors, and pointed to a thin line high on the mountainside above. "That is the road to Chugchilan." they said and cracked up laughing as they rode off.
We groaned our way back up the hill in our smallest gear, as I mused "We may be lost again" and thought of the map I accidentally left 100 miles away in the Quito hostel.
Despite being mapless, for two days we had navigated successfully from the hip, following the trail our broken Spanish painted. But lady luck eventually tired of our company and we found ourselves stymied at another unmarked South American intersection.
After pointing fingers at the various roads, and arguing as couples do, we turned to the "South American map" – a wrinkled man who sat on the porch of a house on the corner. "Is this the road to Chugchilan?" I asked, pointing to the downhill road. "Sí. Sí." he answered, flinging an arm loosely toward the road.
We took his directions as truth and headed downhill. Later, when we finally pedaled back up the hill and reached the same corner, the old man still sat there. I pointed to the uphill road and said "Is that the road to Chugchilan?" He turned his milky blind eyes towards us, flung an arm toward the sky and said "Sí. Sí."
Tucked into northwest South America, Ecuador contains more geographical and biological diversity than almost any country in the world. In an area the size of Nevada, Ecuador contains everything from sandy beaches to glaciated volcanos to the steamed green jungles of the upper Amazon Basin. The potential for unique mountain biking tours in this green country is unlimited.
Our goal was to find a route through the Valley of the Volcanoes, a string of fire-filled peaks that bisects the country, by linking variety of different climatic zones and nice hostels at night. We planned to carry nothing but snacks, water and a change of clothes – no panniers, no trailers, no camping gear, no emergency back-up plan – just a pedal and a prayer for a South American adventure.
Day One: Quito to Cotopaxi National Park
We caught a taxi out of the capital city Quito and drove 30 minutes south to the village of Sangolquí. The street vendors were roasting cuy, guinea pigs, on open fires. Their skinned little bodies crackled and sizzled, their front teeth stuck out like miniature fangs, and the sweet smell of this Ecuadorian delicacy filled our noses as we pedaled south toward Cotopaxi National Park.
Ecuador is crowded with 13 million people, and sometimes it seems the whole country is a littered, smog-filled mosh pit. However, just a few minutes from Sangolquí, we entered an area that reminded me more of Ireland than wild South America. Cobblestone roads wind between smooth green hills punctuated by whitewashed houses topped with red-tiled roofs. The big shoulders of the Volcano Ruminahui dominated the skyline, and I promised Andrea it would be like this all day - peaceful easy riding through happy flowing fields.
Eight hours of cobblestone road later, our asses were wrecked and our thighs begged for mercy. The pavé of Paris-Roubaix looked like a Sunday stroll after this daylong trial by cobblestone. Outside our physical selves, the surroundings were still stunning. We crossed the historic Santa Rita Hacienda on a private road, encountered zero traffic and climbed high into the grassy páramo beneath the flanks of Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world at 19,783 feet.
Eventually the cobblestone won and we pushed our bikes the last two miles to the Hacienda Porvenir where we planned to sleep. As we walked, Andrea and I stared at each other blankly and shared an explicit fantasy about gorging on rich foods, getting drunk on gallons of red wine and never riding bikes again. Ever. We would have even settled for cuy burritos.
Finally we reached Hacienda Porvenir, one of the oldest haciendas in Ecuador and the new face of responsible tourism in Ecuador. Porvenir partnered with Hacienda Santa Rita and promotes sustainable tourism as a way to preserve traditional hacienda life, create jobs for the nearby community and support the disappearing Andean cowboy culture. As part of this project, Porvenir transformed their main house into a guest house where we soon sat in front of a roaring fire, sheltered by thick adobe walls, drinking cups of red Chilean wine and listening to the cold Andean winds blow across the grasslands outside. It was bliss.
Day 2: Cotopaxi National Park to Saquisilí (a place not to visit)
The second day dawned with a teasing line of sunny sky over the hips of the horizon before clouds raced in on the back of the wind and all was hidden behind a thick wall of gray. We pedaled through the northern entrance of Cotopaxi National Park as shafts of sunlight shot through the clouds to briefly illuminate the massive glaciated peak above. Given the area’s low-slung cloud tendencies, it’s not unusual to visit the park several times before ever seeing the summit.
Rolling through the park with a welcoming committee of spitting rain and winds, our trail cut through a boulder-strewn landscape, the huge rocks strewn like pebbles from a giant’s hand - clear remnants of when the volcano last blew its top long ago. Clouds rolled and boiled above us in a crazy equatorial storm dance and the whole landscape felt very new and alive. All too soon we crossed the entire park and raced downhill through clear cut hillsides to the furious PanAmerican Highway.
|Photo By Nathan Ward
|Andrea Schultz near Quito
Our destination was the town of Saquisilí which looked close when we originally planned the route, back when we had a map. To get there quickly, we turned onto the PanAmerican, the paved lifeline that runs the length of South America. The highway resembles an oil-eating beast heaving with trucks and buses, all spewing oil and exhaust. Compared to the backroads it felt like we were throwing our fate to the dogs. "Here doggy, have some fresh meat" was the mantra ping-ponging inside my head as diesel smoke filled my lungs. We rode just a few frantic miles and turned off, telling each other we cheated the devil and got away with it.
A mile to either side of the PanAmerican, it’s a different world. Life is super-tranquilo. No people, no traffic, no road signs telling us which way to ride. To find our way, we embraced the "oral map" tradition and asked people how to get to Saquisilí. As the afternoon slowly passed on the tides of misdirection, the town changed location several times. One person said it was "north", another "south." It was "15km," "5km" and "20km" away, depending on who we asked. I looked at Andrea and said "I should have remembered the map."
We found the town late in the afternoon, not 30 minutes away like anticipated. No. We pedaled more than three hours. Who really knows, we could have been riding in circles. In Saquisilí, we ate some nice day-old rice, got a comfy room in the local brothel, listened to the town band practice beneath our window and decided we wouldn’t honeymoon here.
Day 3: Saquisilí to Chugchilan
We woke to blue skies and bumps on my buttocks. The spots where my buttbones met the seat were swollen like small painful apples. Instead of taking a rest day, we decided to take a rest "bus" high into the Andes and the village of Sigchos.
The 37 mile road to Sigchos would have been a beautiful, challenging ride through a remote area as topographically-textured as crumpled paper. The hills didn’t bother us as we watched them pass by the bus window while we snacked on choclo, fat ears of corn and threw the cobs to fat braying donkeys along the road.
In Sigchos we feasted again on fried chicken and soda pop before promptly taking the long wrong downhill road which set us back a couple of hours. Once on the real road to Chugchilan, it was bicycling heaven as the road traced hillsides overlooking steep fields, simple adobe houses and a long drop to the river below. Clouds raced across the land and the twin summits of the icy Iliniza Volcanoes rose above us, beckoning sirens for another day.
In Chugchilan we stayed at Mama Hilda’s Guest House, an inexpensive locally-owned version of the well-known Black Sheep Inn. Both of these hostels have brought a few tourists to this region where previously there were none. It’s a stunning area deserving much more time than we gave it. Smiley Mama Hilda offered us hot drinks, steaming showers, meaty stew and big beers. We accepted, tripled up on the beers and spent the rest of the day testing out the hammocks.
Day Four: Chugchilan to Zumbawa
Our butts and legs asked us not to ride, but we had a date with a mountain in Peru so we pushed on. The road followed the shape of the fluted land, twisting and turning into each valley past farms and fields perched on the steep hills. Children ran to the road shouting "Hola! Hola!" then turned away giggling.
Women in the fields stopped their work to watch us, throwing a hand up to block the sun. We thought they were waving, so like good tourists we waved back furiously and bleated "hola" back at them.
In contrast to the natural hues of the land, the women wore neon pinks and greens. To fight the high altitude chill, the women wear three or four shirts with a woolen shawl thrown on top, two or three skirts and a few pairs of socks over feet stuffed into open-toed plastic slippers. Alone they act shy, but in groups they yelled greetings with gusto and laughed heartily at our funny clothes.
After a couple of hours we crested a hill and came into the wind-swept town of Quilotoa, a squat town with an immense view. On the edge of this ugly town sits one of the most amazing places in Ecuador, Laguna Quilotoa, the immense caldera of an extinct volcano now filled with brilliant green water. The Andes stretch across the skyline behind the lake and it looks so incredible it doesn’t seem real. I rode a singletrack into the extinct volcano, evaded an errant burro, and watched herders bring their flocks of sheep out of the crater and back to the village.
Rosy-cheeked girls ran to us with their bundles of tigua paintings and woolen gloves. We laughed with them and bought a small painting before the wind blew us spinning down the road. Andrea dodged a boy throwing dirt clods and we sped into the village of Zumbawa, the end of our whirlwind tour.
After a long bumpy bus ride back to Quito, we left the green hills of Ecuador for the dry sands and pickpockets of Peru. Another adventure passed under our wheels and even before my butt-apples stopped hurting, we started to plan the next ride, without a map.