27 May 2014

Tumbaco to Latacunga via Cotopaxi and Quilotoa: Entering the avenue of volcanos

We stayed in Tumbaco longer than we had planned – it's hard to escape the gravitational pull of such a warm family and comfortable place. But it turned out to be an excellent decision to stay, as in addition to great times with Santiago and family we met plenty of other cyclists with information to share, including Marc and Noemie who would become our riding partners for the next stage of our route, one of the most challenging, but rewarding, stretches of riding so far.

Alberto enjoyed using Santiago´s excellent workshop to service our bikes
Alfred, from Sweden, was heading North to Colombia
Rafa, from Poland, has been travelling by bicycle for ten years, earning money by playing guitar on the street
Henrich and Jack from Colorado were headed to Brazil for the World Cup
We set off from Tumbaco on the via Intervalles towards Sangolqui heading to Cotopaxi. This is a quiet but hard way of getting to Cotopaxi's national park, much preferred by cyclists instead of the Panamerican highway to Machachi. By mid-afternoon, the rain was coming down hard and we called it a day in the tiny village of Rumipamba. The awning of the (locked) local government building was just big enough to fit four cyclists sleeping side-by-side and apart from a midnight chorus of dogs we had a good night's rest.

Saying goodbye to Santiago for the second time... hopefully not the last!
The road south of Sangloqui soon turns into hard cobbles. 

Lucy, Marc and Noemie, waiting out the pouring rain under a conveniently-located awning

Getting cozy in Rumipamba
The following day the climbing continued, but mercifully the cobbles ended mid-morning and we enjoyed a great-quality dirt road to the northern entrance of Cotopaxi National Park, home to Volcan Cotopaxi, Ecuador's highest active volcano. The top of the volcano was hidden in clouds but we set up camp, hopeful that the morning would bring clear skies.

The route took us onto empty dirt roads with great views all around. Here the volcano Rumiñahui at 4700 m

And finally the northern entrance (or control norte) to the park. The mighty Cotopaxi hides behind the clouds.

Having decided against the more remote Eastern route used in the Vuelta al Cotopaxi mtb race, we headed West around the volcano, 

And then just before sunset, we all got excited to see the snowline

Getting ready for a chilly night at 3900 m
When the morning dawned clear and bright, we excitedly set off to get as close to the volcano as possible, by climbing to the parking lot of the Refugio Jose Rivas, altitude 4620m. It can't really be said that we rode there, as there was just as much pushing as pedalling, and it took nearly all day to climb just 6km, but we made it! The highest we've ever been with our fully-loaded bikes, by quite some bit. It definitely qualifies as the hardest ride of the trip so far.

A 4am pee, a wake up call by Noemie and we catch our first full view of the mountain. If you look close you can see a bright light of a climber heading up towards the summit

And finally, at 6 am, the full view in daylight! We couldn´t contain our excitement!

And also Rumiñahui just behind our camp

After a quick hot coffee, we got the group picture

Then headed up towards the refugio

The road to the refugio was so rough that even cars and 4x4s had trouble going up it

Marc still cycles, while the rest of us get to pushing

At some point, Alberto and Marc split from the girls at their own paces. Here taking a much needed breather!

The view from the road was superb, and we can only imagine how great it must be from the actual summit. Spot the two dots on the road: that´s Lucy and Noemie pushing their bikes!

We all reunited at the top of the climb at 4620 m. Bitterly cold but happy faces!

The summit doesn´t look that far from here...perhaps next time
A quick ride back down the hill and we set up camp again. As we cooked dinner, the fog and rain rolled in, and by morning it still hadn't let up. After a few hours of waiting we gave up and descended in the fog, for a brief ride on the Panamericana highway before turning right in the direction of Sigchos. The Quilotoa Loop is a relatively popular backpacker route, but we seemed to hit it in the off season (good for us).

The descent was equally stunning. Here the last glimpse of the volcano

The following morning we barely saw 20 m ahead of us, so we were glad to have had a full day of almost clear skies

The paved road wound through beautiful countryside, and we thought we were in for a relatively easy day until we were informed that we had misunderstood the location of Sigchos. Instead of being in the valley at the bottom of a long descent, it was actually 500m above the valley floor, up some of the most punishing switchbacks we have ever experienced. We were all tired after a long day's ride (not to mention the cumulative effects of all the climbing since Tumbaco). There was nothing to do but get on with it, and eventually we arrived in Sigchos with the light fading and checked into a cheap hospedaje for the night.

Stunning valley road through to Sigchos
The next day we set off on the dirt road to Quilotoa. The morning was sunny and crisp, the road was in good condition, and the climbing was gentle. It was cycle touring at its best, and we all felt we deserved it after some tough days of riding.

After lunch was a different story. The gradient picked up and the roads deteriorated, as virtually the whole section between Chugchilan and Quilotoa is in some stage of road maintenance. We dealt with heavy machinery, thick layers of gravel, and delays as we waited for parts of the road to be clear. When we finally escaped all that, a few kilometers from Quilotoa, we were back on paved roads but they were steeper than ever. 

Cycle touring does not get much better than this

The mountains in the background form the crater lake of Quilotoa

We saw a lot of piglets

Soon the road to Quilotoa will be completely paved

We huffed and puffed our way through the final stretch and soon found ourselves in Quilotoa, not so much a village as a collection of accommodation for visitors to the Laguna Quilotoa, all run by the indigenous community in the area. At 4,000m it was very cold and we decided against camping. We bargained a cut-price rate for a freezing cold cabin, put on our warmest clothes, and went out to see the laguna for the first time. At the viewpoint, who should we find but Rafa, who had had a few days head start on us from Tumbaco!

Rafa offered us hot tea on arrival, almost as if he was expecting visitors

The Laguna Quilotoa. Pictures don´t do it justice

The following morning the five of us set out on what was supposed to be a relaxed morning walk around the crater's rim (the lake is in the crater of an extinct volcano). It soon turned out to be harder than we anticipated, and in the end took most of the day, but it was well worthwhile. The rain started to come down just as we reached the end of the walk, and didn't let up all night – so again we felt extremely lucky with the weather.

Check the colors of the water!

This one is for our parents

We enjoyed the ever changing views of the lake

The trail took us literally on the edge of the crater

That´s the hightest point of the trail, at almost 4000 m

Marc and Noemie lit a fire in their cabin to keep the chill out and we all cooked dinner and rested after a hard day's effort. Rafa brought out his guitar and sang some old favorites. A great way to spend a rainy evening.

How many cycles and bikes can you fit in one cabin?

We were all looking forward to getting to Latacunga the next day, where we had hopes of finding such luxuries as a supermarket and a hot shower. It was a beautiful day and the morning's climb was very gentle. Once we reached the top, we had an exhilarating downhill all the way. We pulled in to Latacunga in the early afternoon earning a much-needed afternoon of relaxation.   

A quick descent and we reached Latacunga
Route notes:

- Tumbaco to Control Norte of Cotopaxi National Park: we took the intervalles to Sangolqui, where another road heads South to Cotopaxi. After Sangolqui it is mostly cobbles and quite steep, with a few small villages where you can get essential supplies, although best to stock up earlier. After you reach the plateau at 4000 m, the road turns into a nice packed dirt, which was very pleasant to ride. There´s no more resupplying other than one fancy hospedería past the Control Norte (Tambopaxi). Water is available though, from a number of canals.

- Control Norte to the Panamerican highway: we considered doing the route to the East of the Cotopaxi, going all the way to Latacunga (see Whileoutriding and Nathan´s blog) but ultimately ended up doing the most traditional Western route. The climb up to the refugio is on a gravel road with loose rocks and steep slopes, barely doable on a loaded bike. Other than that, the route is not challening and the descent is almost fully paved.

- Panamerican highway to Sigchos, Quilotoa, Zumbahua and back to Latacunga: it´s a quiet paved road to Sigchos, very scenic, but we believe there´s alternatives on dirt via Isinlivi. From Sigchos is unpaved but in very good condition to Chugchilán, where the climb begins. There´s small villages providing essentials, but not much else. There was heavy construction works from Chugchilán all the way to Quilotoa, as they work to pave the road. In Quilotoa there´s ample accommodation, but at tourist prices, so best to bring your own supplies. From Quilotoa to Zumbahua it was all paved, but Zumbahua is the only re-stocking opportunity befeore Latacunga.

09 May 2014

Lago Agrio to Tumbaco: Back where it all began

There was a marathon just about to start as we left Lago Agrio. Roads had been closed, meaning we were treated to a traffic free exit from the city. We enjoyed a flat morning's ride through small towns interspersed with dense vegetation. Unfortunately much of the rainforest in this area has been destroyed by the oil industry. Our GPS unit calculated that, if we continued at our current pace, we could reach Tumbaco by 10:30pm. Of course, the GPS unit wasn't taking into account the 4100 meter pass we had to climb.

The Trans-Ecuador Oil Pipeline kept us company for our first two days in Ecuador.
We found ourselves in the town of El Reventador in the late afternoon. It was one of the most well-stocked towns we had passed all day, this area of Ecuador being quite poor although there is lots of industry. We asked the police about a place to camp and were pointed to the municipal sports facilities. It was a covered football field, and even had toilets, lights, and an electrical outlet. Camping luxury. As we made dinner we were treated to a quite serious game of volleyball being played with a football (soccer ball). We also realised that, when it wasn't completely closed in by clouds, we were actually very close to the Volcan Reventador, which is on orange alert for its volcanic activity. We reasoned that we were right across from the police station so we should be the first to know if the town had to be evacuated. 

Back on Ecuador's flawless highways...

The volcano Reventador looms over the town of the same name
Next morning we left town to lots of cloud, meaning no more glimpses of the volcano. We were climbing slowly, but with plenty of downhills in between. There was lots of construction traffic for a big dam project currently underway, which we learned was being run by a Chinese company after briefly being mystified as to why there were road signs in Chinese in this part of rural Ecuador. We were still adjusting to being in a new country and had taken for granted that we would pass plenty of roadside restaurants and stores, but this wasn't the case. Luckily, we rolled into the small town of Las Palmas in time for lunch. The woman who owned the restaurant struck us as a bit rude at first, but later she warmed up to us, talking about life in this part of the country and giving us four peeled oranges to fortify us for the afternoon. 

Chinese signage became commonplace as we rode through the area where they are damming the river
It rained heavily in the afternoon, and by the time we got to El Chaco in the late afternoon we were sick of it. We checked into a cheap hospedaje which mercifully had hot showers, and walked around the town which was quite big for Eastern Ecuador standards. We bought bread, stocked up on snack food and pasta, and ate dinner at the restaurant with the most construction workers eating in it – always a sign of good value for money.

The rooftops of El Chaco in the evening mist.
It was still raining the next morning and we found it difficult to wake up because the room lacked natural light. We probably could have used a day off after our race to the Colombian border, but the town didn't really warrant it and we were so looking forward to the comforts of Santiago's Casa de Ciclistas that we wanted to press on. When it became clear in the mid morning that the rain wasn't going to let up, we set off. Sadly, due to the all-day rain we don´t have any pictures of the days ride.

We had rolling hills until Baeza, where we stopped for lunch. This was where the real climbing began and we decided to try to make it to Papallacta, elevation 3200m, although it was an ambitious goal. A light rain kept us from wanting to take too many breaks (lest we get cold) and before we knew it we were rolling in to Papallacta just an hour before sunset.

Papallacta has several hot springs complexes, so we weren't sure if it would be too touristy to camp, but in fact everyone we asked suggested the field next to the municipal hot springs – it seems it is fairly normal for people to camp there. Also spending the night there were a German-Mexican couple who were travelling South America in a car they had bought in Lima. They suggested we duck under the marquee tent that didn't appear to be in use for a drier and warmer night. When it started raining hard again overnight we were very grateful for the extra cover!

Luxury camp spot
It was still raining lightly the next morning as we climbed the last 900m of the pass. The clouds meant that we didn't have much of a view, just the roadside construction as they work to widen the road. The rain and the altitude made for a tough climb, and we were both really ready for it to be over far before we actually reached the three hours into the ride. 

Papallacta from above, as we leave for the high pass
We bundled up as much as we could (it was cold up there at 4100m in the rain) and started the very fast descent to Tumbaco. The road was newly built and very quiet, and as soon as we got below the cloudline we were treated to great views of Quito. A short while later we were ringing the doorbell at the Casa de Ciclistas, just three and a half months after we left. It felt a little bit like coming home, except without it having to mean that the trip was over. The thought of arriving in Tumbaco had kept us going each day as we rode through Ecuador's Oriente, and it felt great to finally be there.

Descending towards Tumbaco, on a brand new two-laned highway

We spent a while in Tumbaco taking care of an ever-growing list of errands, catching up with Santiago and his family, and even had time to fit in a side trip to the beach (by bus)!

Canoa is a working fishing village as well as a tourist destination

Even though it is the wet season, we were treated to one nice sunset

Seafood is cheap and plentiful at the coast. Here, ceviche de camarones.

Route notes:
- Lago Agrio to Papallacta: Great road surface and mostly quiet roads all the way. There are not many amenities between the towns but the towns have what you'll need. We noticed there were two 'peak hours' for trucks - in the morning before 8am, and again after 4pm (getting steadily heavier as you go into evening).
- Papallacta to Tumbaco: They are widening the highway at the Papallacta pass which means some short unpaved sections and sections without shoulders - but this should steadily improve over time. The roads are quiet until Pifo. After Pifo, there is more traffic but in this direction it's not a problem because it's all downhill.