All sorts of photos after the words.
When I finally realized we were sharing this trip with other people we were kneeling on an area-rug sized map of South America on the floor of the Casa De Ciclistas in Medellin, pointing to our expected routes in a sort of weird version of Twister for the bike-stiffened inflexible. 60 cent beers retrieved from the tienda stood at each corner. Notes from past bicycle travelers dated sections of the room's walls. Our host's voice came from the next room, tirelessly chatting up a fellow Colombian, who, after 3+ years on the road was a few days from returning home to Bogota. From under the house, in the makeshift workspace, the tinkering of another cyclist doing his best to make a tandem beach cruiser Andean ready. All with Colombian radio reggaeton competing over top. A Brit, a Belgian, and the two of us framed in perfect movie montage cliché, following the Sharpied path that someone had carefully traced in a caffeinated zig-zag along the continent's Western edge.
It's true we have met other cyclists on the trip already, though nearly all of them headed North, a consequence of intersecting paths. We also follow a number of others online who are at different points in their travels. But, sitting in a hillside cabin of bike kitsch, built as a guest house solely for the benefit of those traveling South America by bicycle, sharing similar timelines and itineraries, you realize that your long bike trip isn't in and of itself unique. There are a good number of other people on a similar trek. And there is community. It's both encouraging and humbling. There are resources to share and read, routes to follow, friends to follow, challenges to seek out etc. Where it becomes more unique, is deciding where your line zigs or zags. What kind of experiences you're looking for. Choose your own adventure and endure whatever consequences may come. Our choice in Ecuador -- as it has been throughout -- mountains. Volcanos, mostly. As for consequences, in keeping with the hundreds of government mandated warning signs that surround Ecuador's volcanoes: evacuation routes - literal, figurative and bodily.
We began Ecuador on the heals of another couple we had previously only known through their posts online. Brandy and Lewis, via Wisconsin, Brooklyn and 3 years on and off riding Southward. The introduction was long overdue, given we had been picking up their odd blogged breadcrumbs since hiking the volcano Acatenango in Guatemala. Putting faces to Facebooking, we knew we appreciated their taste in route selection so it made sense that we both chose to start Ecuador by way of a dirt track through a mountain reserve, opting for climbing and cobble stones in place of the PanAm.
It's surprising how often a country's border marks a drastic change in actual geography. In 10 miles the landscape changed from the lush green mountains of Colombia, some two month's familiar, to a near alien landscape of high altitude grassland, complete with cacti, new wildlife and the looming spectre of 20k foot snow-capped volcanos. As if on cue, Ecuador was offering a basic course in altitudinal zonation, where climate is determined almost wholly by altitude. The El Angel Reserve itself is a section land called paramo, a saturated bushy grassland, too cold and too high to farm, but not quite to the tundra and snow line.
For the first time riding in 9 months we were a group of four rather than two. The immediate benefits being commiseration and comic relief. We took the opportunity to work back through past pains, steep sections, odd characters and all the suffering endured from the familiar places between Mexico and Colombia.
This particular road had its own challenges. The surrounding paramo, especially soaked by this season's neverending rains, was funneling into the road making puddle navigating a sporting challenge. Lewis took more than a few bootfulls of water as opaque brown puddles proved deeper than initial inspection all for the "good of the group". Much appreciated.
We shared dinner that night in a frigid gazebo at 12k feet next to the park's ranger station. It was great to see another couple work through meal dynamics, taking notes on how they do things "better." A more comprehensive spice collection, being one takeaway. We learned that they planned to fly home in a couple of weeks. They would be the third couple from our vicarious internet friends to stop for one reason or another. Rattling, in a way, as I think the two of us are guilty of rolling along with a feeling of inevitability, guaranteed penguins, when in reality anything can happen. Here we are in Ecuador feeling like, in a way, we're just getting started.
That feeling of just starting South America is probably why, when the ranger buzzed up on his moto and opened the other side of the lodge for us to sleep in, we insisted on staying in our tent. Even as near-freezing saturated clouds whipped over top. It was cold, but all of the sudden so recognizably the Andes, both of us wanted to see how we would do. So it was through the mouth sized hole of my cinched sleeping bag that I managed to fully fall victim to the slight cold I had picked up in Colombia. A gift I would later pass on to Tara for her birthday.
The next morning, wearing every layer we had been carrying since Portland, we bailed as soon as we could pack up our dripping wet pride/tent. 10 miles of cobblestone into the quaint town of El Angel and another lesson in Andean altitude as we added some 30 degrees during the descent. We were seated eating second breakfast in a little over an hour, drinking hot coffee and eyeing the frequent buses that would expedite our arrival into Quito, just in time to meet up with some surprise visitors.
As far as trip evacuation options, getting a peek into Ecuadorian bus systems was a dangerous prospect. With Tara's friends Caitlin and Alicia already on the ground in Quito, we had to cover 120+ miles as quickly as possible. Buses leave every hour, it would cost us $2 each and they are happy to open the spacious back compartment for the exclusive storage of bags and bicycles. Painfully easy. They even played a movie. The poor man's Armageddon, "Deep Impact" or Impacto Profundo.
It was at some point during Deep Impact that we crossed the equator on our way into Quito. Though I'd been watching latitude numbers decrease for weeks looking forward to crossing the line, our trip has not been big on traditional symbolic moments and I was sort of proud to be shirking this one. Besides, I think Deep Impact's Spanish speaking Morgan Freeman would be honored.
The bus dropped us off at Quito's North station and though we still had 15 miles of city traffic to sort through, by middafternoon we were wheeling our bikes into an elevator and towards the posh-AirBnB Caitlin and Alicia had rented. It was surreal and amazing. Good friends somehow instantly and easily there. Credit to the power ladies for pulling the trigger on a whim.
Quito meant more mountains as well. We took the tram and hiked along the rim outside the city. South America's first World UNESCO Heritage Site, a city of 8 million, and the bustling capital of Ecuador and we were walking around in clouded, blustery mountains. Painfully similar to the time we came out of spending two weeks in the Colombian jungle and our first city tour stop was Medellin's Arboretum and an anemic approximation of the landscape we'd already seen. A fact which Tara took great pleasure in pointing out... We also toured basicallas, restaurants with Portland familiar ingredients, and even a brewery with ex-pat owners, formerly of Oregon themselves. Better still, we celebrated Tara's birthday cooking in a kitchen of our own, in a complete removal from trip life.
We parted ways with Caitlin and Alicia as they did a bit of Ecuadorian sightseeing further South. We spent the next 3 days hunkered in Quito as Tara's sinuses had their own evacuation plans. Knowing that I had likely handed it off, I ignored the fact that she had somehow staved off the worst of it through a kind of red-wine-rally while the friends visited and we would share the mucus meltdown just the two of us.
Mostly recovered, and a blog post launched, we left Quito toward the next volcano. Cotopaxi was a rain soaked, steep cobblestone ascent, with the hack wheeze soundtrack of Tara's cold, and totally worth it.
Though not technically permitted we found our own spot hidden from the road and the available camping's absurdly high fees. Fortunate, because without early morning access we would have missed our only chance at a non-clouded view. It didn't take long for the clouds to move in, so very soon we were dropping back down all of the previous day's climb.
The reason for the all of the evacuation route signage is that Ecuador's history has been repreatedly scarred by the eruptions of it's many volcanos. Active as recently as 2016, Cotopaxi, is due for another big one. Apparently the ash and debris from recent activity has driven out a lot of those who live around the volcano. The message to those who choose to remain nearby seems to be "get ready," Though you can't help but wonder what a line of evacuation signs will do for a person without a place to go or a vehicle to carry them.
From Cotopaxi, we spent two days crossing the valley, staying in heavily trafficked hostels. As in other moments when our paths overlap with a different traveler set, there seems to grow a long list of what you must "do". Trips to craters, waterfalls, etc. It all ends up feeling a little overwhelming. We ended up following the route of another cycling pair and again headed toward a volcano called Chimborazo. Chimborazo is notable, in that, due to the equatorial bulge, it is the highest point on the planet when measured from the Earth's center. Of course, it's hard to notice any sort of equatorial bulge, and although we did end up riding to over 14k feet, clouds kept things pretty well capped.
We did have a few clear moments and again the haunting lunar high-altitude landscape made the detour well worth the trouble. The long ascent took us through a sandstone river valley, smelling of eucalyptus, before climbing through indigenous farming communities full of rosy cheeked women in bright shawls and fedoras. Further up still, were herds of Vicuña, orange and white downsized llamas who chirped and bleated at the wheezing bicyclists passing them by. We arrived at the visitors center at 4:45to downparka'd guards saying that we were 45 minutes late and there was no where to camp. Tara, being quick on her feet, made her eyes water pretty seriously and within moments we were ushered to a nice sheltered spot next to the water spigot.
Of course, no story would be complete without some digestive woes and the climb to Chimborazo was just the beginning. Operating along the same principle as an inflating potato chip bag on an airplane, my insides seemed to disagree with the climbing. I did manage to at least warn Tara and send her on ahead, and although I apologized both times, that tree may never forgive me.
We didn't get our clear moment the morning waking up on Chimborazo. I did feel fine at this point, but being fully socked in with fog with no real reason to head up to the refugios above, we opted to escape again down the mountain to warmer weather and bit more recovery time.
I should have known when we checked in but the room was $10 and nice enough. We even sprung for the private bathroom. In general, I would venture to say that it's a bad sign when there is any kind of text on bedsheets, but maybe worse when it reads "Happy Surprise Tonight". Someone's bad translation, I'm sure, but seriously unfortunate foreshadowing. I felt fine going to bed. It wouldn't be until after midnight that I woke up and had to make a move for the bathroom. I'll spare you what few details remain, but I found myself unhappily surprised to be gripping a toilet that flushed poorly while employing ALL available evacuation routes.
We ended up switching hostels the next day and spent the following day in Riobamba in the shadow of Chimborazo, watching it rain while I, and my insides, tried desperately to shelter in place. It's a tough balance between enjoying all sorts of wonderful food and paying the price. At this point, like choosing a route that climbs mountains, it seems like it might just be a thing that makes our trip, if not special, at least memorable.
Since leaving Riobamba we have logged more than a few long days on the PanAm, another couple layover days in the beautiful city of Cuenca and climbed what feels like an absurd number of hills as we make our way through Southern Ecuador. The experience of connecting valley villages feeling a bit like a sadistic game of Chutes & Ladders.
We're currently a couple days from crossing into Peru. The rain seems to be stopping and we're enjoying some time in Vilcabamba. A town known for the longevity of its citizens and, as an unfortunate result, attracting a glut of zany foreigners seeking immortality. Seeing as how most of the foreigners we've seen seem to be drinking and smoking with abandon, it may actually be that their just looking to level the field. In the meantime, the coffee is good and we're avoiding surprises.