Ecuador. This is when things get interesting.
About 10k from the border I turned off the main road and joined a dirt track that led up into the mountains above. This was the beginning of the Trans-Ecuador Mountain Bike Route, made up by the enterprising folks at bikepacking.com, and as first impressions go, it went beyond what I expected.
As first impressions go, it felt like that little dirt road took me to another planet.
Meet the Paramo: the high up, sponge-like ecosystem that is almost unique to the northern stretches of the Andes. It’s filled with frailejones that, although look like spiky pukka plants, actually have leaves that are as soft to the touch as felt. People call this ecosystem a water factory: these plants are able to suck moisture out of the perpetually damp air and deposit it into the ground that feeds rivers and eventually civilisation that exists below. Bogota, for instance, gets all its water from these delicate ecosystems. The paramo supplies tens of millions of people with the essentials for life and I had never even heard of it. Instead in high school geography, we’re taught how oxbow lakes are formed.
It’s immediately apparent that the TEMBR, as it’s known to the acronym-inclined, will treat you with access to these sort of places. As I followed it further up into El Angel Ecological Reservation the number of frailejones reached epidemic levels, until it really looked like some triffid-like invasion was taking place. They were everywhere. Thousands of them.
The greatest thing, though, was that I was finally on my own. I hadn’t just escaped people, the hustle and bustle of the main roads of this continent or the dull patchwork of land that’s farmed, I had escaped civilisation. For the first time since outback Australia, I found myself pedalling along, alone, surrounded by a landscape that had barely been touched by the human hand, save for the road I rolled along and some distant radio mast in the distance.
The northern stretches of the TEMBR has pure, untouched nature on tap, the kind where the silence is so enticing that you’re compelled to take your headphones off and listen to it. Except for the odd stint on the busy Panamerican for lack of alternatives, where the mercury goes into the mid-30s and where sugarcane is king, the road between the Colombian border and Quito has kept giving and giving. Stunning views and sweet isolation between the supply points of charming rural villages.
But this post is starting to be at risk of being all too positive. So I’ll nip it in the bud and sign off with a bit of full disclosure.
These views, unexpected and infatuating landscapes come at a cost and that cost is someone’s idea a long time ago that cobblestones are a good thing to make roads out of.
My shaken bones, and a lot of broken things on my bike, beg to disagree.