Ecuador: Avenue of the Volcanoes

Posted by James Anderton on May 17th, 2018


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Ecuador is home to an astounding array of wonders. Picturesque colonial towns, Amazonian rainforest, spectacular peaks of the Andes, countless volcanoes and of course the fragile but alluring Galapagos Islands. Whatever your preferred cycling terrain is you will find it in Ecuador.

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Quilotoa Crater Lake, Ecuador

I entered Ecuador from Peru at La Balza, a remote mountain border crossing in the south of the country. Within a minute of entering the country I was pushing my bike up a steep dirt road. This would be a common theme for the first few days. Pushing uphill and full on the brakes trying to not to fall off going down. When it rained the roads would quickly turn to mud. Slow progress but in such a remote corner of the country it was to be expected. It was hard not to enjoy the peaceful, narrow roads engulfed in thick jungle teeming with life. Then it all went pear shaped. A bumpy descent did for my front pannier rack. I heard a sharp crack and then a horrific clanging as part of my pannier rack began smashing around my spokes. Never a good sound. I broke off part of my pannier rack and removed my front left pannier and attached it to the back of my bike with bungee chords. I proceeded with a lop sided bike. Found a nice place to camp by a waterfall but during the night I was bitten on the forehead by god knows what. I woke in the morning to find my left eye fully closed and my right eye beginning to swell up. I was about 30km from the town of Palanda. I didn't want to go blind in the middle of the jungle so I packed up quickly and got on my way. Naturally it then began to chuck it down like you wouldn't believe. The roads turned to a river of mud. There I was cycling a lop sided bike in the pissing rain, through thick mud squinting through my one good eye. I couldn't help but laugh. I decided that one day I would laugh about all this so may as well start now. It's funny how when things go tits up I tend to shrug it off but when I get a flat tyre I throw my toys out of the pram. Anyway, it was with much relief that I made it to Palanda. I bought plenty of food and holed out in a hotel and waited for my eye sight to return. Thankfully my right eye never did fully close. The next day I was fortunate enough to meet an English cyclist going the other way who kindly gave me an anti-histamine and I was soon on my way again. Then my rear derailleur broke and I had to get a bus to the next town to get it fixed. So not an ideal beginning to my Ecuador adventure but these are the trials and tribulations of cycle touring. It's isn't always plain sailing under a clear blue sky without a care in the world.

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Yes that's me. Eyes still swollen but beginning to go down and ready to get going again in Palanda. I've no idea whose camera that is.

Things picked up from there. I had a choice to head down to the Pacific coast, go through the mountains on the Pan American or head through the amazon rainforest. Normally I would head for the mountains but I didn't fancy the traffic on the Pan American and I think I was a little mountained out after Peru. The coast sounded hot and boring so I decided it was time to head into the rainforest. I've been cycling for months with the amazon rainforest never more than a couple of hundred kilometres away but I was yet to see it as I explored the stunning vistas in the high Andes. Now was a good time to check it out. I headed down out of the mountains and was soon riding through rolling hills before finally descending into the jungle. This part of the country is noticeably poorer than the rest of the country. Villages are few and far between. It is hot and humid. I didn't need to camp. I would often be invited into homes of the people I met along the way. Simple wooden huts on stilts. I would be plied with food and enjoy the company of strangers. The roads were often paved, sometimes gravel, sometimes dirt through thick forests and alongside roaring rivers. A part of the world where I wish I was a bird spotter. It was an enjoyable break from the high mountains but the heat soon had me pining for cooler air and I found myself climbing back into the Andes.

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Back road through the amazon south of Puyo

The highlight of cycling in Ecuador for me was the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Every bit as good as it sounds. Home to a string of high peaks, stunning volcanoes and incredible crater lakes. Here is where you will find Mount Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest mountain. The summit is the point on Earth closest to the sun. Due to the mountain’s location along the equatorial bulge, its summit is the farthest point from the Earth’s core. There is Volcan Cotapaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world and also one of the most picturesque. You can also cycle up to Quilotoa Crater Lake for one of the finest views in South America. The cycling is wonderful. The majority of the area is a well preserved national park. Large swathes of the land are off limits to cars but not to bicycles. You can meander through the national park on empty dirt roads and camp at the foot of dramatic volcanoes. I camped at the foot of Cotapaxi itself. Just me and a few wild horses. I attempted to climb up it in the morning but a thick fog descended and I turned back. You can get wonderfully lost in the national parks. I did. I left the dirt roads altogether. I would make my across the grasslands wading across streams and shallow rivers. No idea where I was but rarely happier. I could have easily have checked my GPS and figured it out but I didn't want to. Content to aimlessly make my through one of the most beautiful places in the world. Eventually I hit some cobble stones and had an extremely bumpy exit to the park and back to civilisation.

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Volcan Cotopaxi National Park (CC Image courtesy of Simon Matzinger on Wikimedia)

After the wonders of the Avenue of Volcanoes it is a short ride to Quito. I headed straight for the Casa de Ciclista run by Papa Santiago to relax with other cyclists for a few days. Quito is 2,850m above sea level making it the highest official capital city in the world. La Paz in Bolivia is higher but it cheats a little as it is not the constitutional capital (that’s Sucre), only the seat of government. I was there on Good Friday and I went into the city to enjoy the Easter celebrations. Easter is a big thing in Ecuador and hundreds of thousands flood the capital for colourful processions throughout the city. During these processions many people carry bone breaking heavy crosses and bleed from self-inflicted wounds. All while dressed in macabre purple cone hats, dramatic capes, or wrapped in barbed wire, which was a bit freaky but fascinating all the same.

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Good Friday procession in the heart of Quito

Heading north from Equator I soon crossed the equatorial line. Or at least I must have done. I somehow failed to notice. It's a big tourist attraction with a huge monument and a yellow line to mark latitude 0°-0'-0". Tourists gather to get their photo with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern hemisphere. I must have been away with the fairies because it passed me by. I was 30km past when I realised I had missed it and I couldn't be bothered to go back. So it was with much amusement that I later read that the monument and yellow line isn't actually on the equator at all. The real equator is actually 250 yards away. Made me laugh. Anyway I was now in the northern hemisphere and it was a short ride through the highlands towards the Colombian border.

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Cathedral in Quito

Roads:

Expect everything and anything. Obviously if you stick to the Pan American you can keep it paved but I experienced mud, gravel, tarmac, cobbles stones and everything in between.

Wild camping:

Hot down in the Amazon but everywhere else the wild camping was easy and often spectacular.

Visa/Border Crossings:

South America so nice and straightforward. No visa restrictions. You just need a passport. Border crossings were painless. I exited at Tulcan into Colombia and I entered at La Blaza from Peru

Bicycle Shops:

Chinos bike shop did a great job fixing my rear derailleur in Vilcabamba. Loads of good bicycle shops in Quito.

Costs:

Ecuador is wonderfully cheap. Cost of living and quality of life make it very popular with expats.

When to Go:

The dry season (winter) runs from June to September and the wet season (summer) is from October to May. Ecuador is on the equator so the temperature is the same all year round.

Tips:

There's a great Casa de Ciclista in Tumbaco, Quito run by bicycle enthusiast Papa Santiago and his family. Be warned, you won't want to leave.

Food:

Ecuadorian cuisine is diverse, varying with altitude, and associated agricultural conditions. Beef and chicken are served with carbohydrate rich foods, such as rice accompanied with lentils, pasta, or plantain. So good for cyclists.

Safety:

Ecuador is perfectly safe. People are very friendly and hospitable.

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Right.