Two out of Three Volcanoes

I left the Casa de Ciclistas in good company, in the form of the Swiss cyclist, Martin. He’s on a similar worldwide trip like mine and whose reason for riding to wild and remote places was ‘to escape humans’. Naturally, we got on well.

Leaving Tumbaco we continued to follow bikepacking.com’s TEMBR route, winding our way along a network of dirt roads that link up three of Ecuador’s most spectacular volcanoes and charming towns that burst to life once a week when the market turns up. If mother nature is feeling merciful, and if grandfather time is on your side, this route can offer the rider a ‘best of’ display of Ecuador’s natural and cultural wonders.

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Camping over the light pollution of Quito

Cotopaxi

The first, and visible from downtown Quito, was Cotopaxi. Getting there was nice on one hand that it was virtually traffic free, something which never happens so quickly when you leave a big city. The cost of this, however, was that we would suffer from Ecuador’s enthusiasm for making roads out of cobbles and making them go almost vertically up hills. These steep, cobbled roads of Belgiu Ecuador stand out infamously amongst cyclists doing the Americas. Most other countries that find themselves on the Andes seem to think dirt/asphalt and gradients less than 17% are a better idea and I know who’s side I’m on.

Imagine that you ask some kids to draw a mountain. Chances are they will hand back a piece of paper with an almost geometrically perfect triangle topped off with some white snow. That’s pretty much what Cotopaxi looks like. This little thought experiment proved useful as we make progress closer to the peak, battling a headwind that made light drizzle feel like torrential hail on any exposed skin. At that time, Cotopaxi is completely hidden behind a shroud of rainclouds that was the cause of said ‘hailstorm’ so we have to use our imaginations a little.

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Approaching Cotopaxi
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Euphoria when the rain stops and the mountain comes out of the cloud
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Traffic on the TEMBR

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After 3 hours of swearing, we take shelter in Topaxi Lodge and buy an expensive lunch that allows us to stand around by the wood burning stoves as we wait for the rain to pass. Eventually, the clouds separate and the occasional teasing glimpse of the white triangle that is one of Ecuador’s most active volcanoes. It’s amazing what a nice view can do to morale: language turns to more positive, PG-rated levels as the rest of the day we descend down smooth asphalt of the main road that serves the National Park, always looking back to see the white triangle gleaming in the sunlight. We end the day camped on a football field that had the luxury of water on tap, a roof over the tents for the coming rain, and toilets. It’s not the Instagram-worthy type of epic wild campsite but these types of places we call home for the night are much more functional (due to aforementioned facilities and proximity to bakeries) than those picturesque wild camps, and a much more representative example of life on the road.

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The other One

The journey to the next volcano was tough, thanks to the perfect storm of bad cycling conditions: A steep hill to climb out of an arid canyon, a sandy road, and a headwind that slowed us down and threw said sand into your face. It went on like this for a most of the day, interrupted by a lunch break of ‘emergency [instant] noodles’ we keep in our bags in case we can’t find a restaurant for a usual 2 dollar completo of soup, a huge main, and a drink you’ll find all over South America. We reach the main access road after 5 hours of pedalling and are faced by a choice: turn right, continue up to the crater lake, and camp (probably having to pay to do so) exposed to the unusually strong wind; or turn left to go downhill into the town to have a proper dinner. Our stomachs make the decision for us. We promise ourselves to google image search the supposedly beautiful crater lake as we munched on two dinners and camped, for a change, in a football field on the edge of town. Due to events, I’ve forgotten the name of this one, but I’ve heard it’s genuinely worth a visit.

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Steep sandy climb out of the canyon
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Camping in football fields can be glamorous if you get the angle right

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Pose for instagram

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Waiting for second portions

Chimborazo

We spend the night on a – no prizes for guessing – a football field in Salinas de Guaranda after deciding that a family sized pizza each was worth our money more than a hotel bed for the night. Leaving Salinas, the valley is fully of green trees and vegetation and the higher we go the more barren it becomes, to highland plains that could easily be mistaken for Scotland. The climb is actually quite gentle (for Ecuador) and as we climb the ecosystem gets drier eventually becoming a lovely little taster of the Andean Altiplano that will to come after a few border crossings and a few months’ time.

After one more breathless push Chimborazo emerges from the clouds. Again, like another group of Year 3s were in charge of designing the ecological wonders of Ecuador, this is another volcanic triangle. But this triangle has the power of the sublime. I was shattered and fed up of climbing, slightly understocked villages (we’d got our timing off and missed most of the weekly markets by this point), but the sight of this monolith gave me the second wind of the century (haha, because it was bloody windy at the time). My morale lifts and I remember I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.

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A wall of cloud coming in as we climbed Chimborazo

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We climb up the access road to the second Refugo and camp there for the night. At 4850 meters above sea level, it was the literal high point of the trip so far, finally knocking the Tibetan Plateau from the position. The wind drops and with no grass to rustle, we sleep at the foot of Ecuador’s highest mountain basking in absolute silence.

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Camping by the Refugo
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Night time
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Going down the next day

We have to go back down the way we came the next morning, but it’s totally worth it. There’s something about pushing a heavy bike to these places that improves the whole experience of any natural tourist attraction. You can drive up here and camp, doing exactly the same as us and enjoying the same view and suffer the same cold night, trying to figure out how to take nighttime photos of your tent at night before diving back into your tent to get the feeling back into your hands. You can have all this fun by driving up, but when you’ve ridden up here there’s the sense of achievement for doing so that elevates the impact of that place in your memory that goes beyond just looking nice in itself. You’ve earned it a little more and can/should bask in the smugness that you got here under your own steam and suddenly all those days of headwinds and steep, cobblestone roads you took to get here suddenly have a purpose: they make this moment better because they make that moment well earned. When you ride, you earn every parting in the clouds that reveal an epic triangle and that time in the middle of the night when you unzip your tent to see the clouds have disappeared and you’re left with a view of glaciers reflecting off the moonlight. It has more significance because it’s not just a beautiful, beautiful place: these moments are the reward (or compensation) for those damned cobblestones and steep hills.

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5 thoughts on “Two out of Three Volcanoes

  1. Scenery certainly deserves the title of ‘epic’ ! I think I must be mentally one of those Grade 3s, because the mountains you are riding over, and climbing up, are exactly what I would draw if asked to draw a mountain. Glad food is getting a mention – you really deserved those pizzas!

    Liked by 1 person

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