Sunday, July 19, 2015

Off the Beaten Track, July 14-19

Quito-Sangolqui-Parque Nacional Cotopaxi-Lasso-Toacazo-Isinlivi-Yanaurcu Grande-Chugchilan-Lake Quilotoa-Zumbahua

Before the actual post, here are a few photos from our time in Mindo.
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Mindo

Cloud Forest

July 14th
It´s hard to say goodbye to our wonderful hosts who have provided a second home for us here in Quito, and to all our new friends at Construbicis.  We can´t thank you all enough!! 
For some bike-building photos, see here.

We end up leaving Quito around one in the afternoon after spending an educational morning with Carlos learning about a few important bike maintenance techniques. Despite the large size of Quito, the ride out of the city isn´t too bad.  We take a bike path down to the old town and then a busy road which fortunately has a shoulder for much of the way.  After a big descent on the Pan-Am, we turn off onto the old highway, which takes us through a collection of small towns and has much less traffic. Since it´s already getting late, we decide to stop in the town of Sangolqui, where the friendly firefighters let us stay at their station.  It´s the nicest station I have ever seen, with a huge tower for practicing rescues from high buildings, a volleyball and basketball court, and a massive dorm room that no one is using, except for, now, us.  Best of all?  Bakery and fruit store right across the street.

July 15th
We sleep in a bit, tired from a week of bike building and learning that was more exhausting than we expected. Out of town, our road is paved then turns into smooth cobbles, then into uneven stone cobbles. Slowly we begin to bump our way up into the high mountains. The road is beautiful, bordered by green farmland, river gorges, and the occasional large waterfall. The bumpy ride is improved by our new shocks and wide tires, but it´s still exhausting. Soon, after a quick lunch in a tiny town, we leave the farm land and enter high altitude paramo (grassland). From here the skyline opens up and views are incredible. On the right, a jagged caldera, on the left, a colorful rocky peak poking into the clouds, and in front, the immense, snow-covered volcano, Cotopaxi.

Volcan Sincholahua, en route to Cotopaxi

When we´re tired of climbing on the rough road, we start looking for somewhere to camp.  With a bit of unexpected luck we find the perfect spot.  In a few minutes the tent is set up on soft green grass next to a series of three waterfalls and a pool with a small pebbly beach. We´re bordered by rocky cliffs that block the wind and provide a breathtaking view of Cotopaxi when we climb to the top of them.  What an amazing place we are in.
Cotopaxi was a bit shy. This picture was taken from an altitude of around 12,000 feet, which gives some scale to just how big the volcano is.
July 16th
We wake up to sunshine and clearing clouds after a night of rain. Our campsite is blissfully warm and sunny, but once we´re back up on the road we feel the full force of the chilling wind. Thankfully the climb is gradual, and after a night of rest, I´m better prepared to tackle the sandy road. It´s not long before we reach the park entrance, where two friendly rangers greet us, take down our names and wave us through. We continue into a grassy wasteland strewn with boulders from an eruption long ago.  On closer observation, the area is quite beautiful, bursting with wildflowers.  I spot red paintbrushes, yellow asters, purple-blue lupines, and fragile geraniums. Flying around us are some andean lapwings and carunculated caracaras, both new species for us! Unfortunately, the huge volcano at our side is mostly hidden by clouds; you would hardly know it was there.

The Cotopaxi Plateau. I was riding on a trail next to the road, Tam on the road.

We stop for lunch behind a huge boulder sheltered from the wind and enjoy the landscape for a bit longer before decending out of the park.  The road turns to pavement part way down, which makes for an excellent, smooth ride. Near the bottom of the descent we turn off onto a smaller road that runs parallel to the Pan-Am. Here there is no traffic, and we are shaded by glorious eucalyptus trees on both sides.  After a little while we start passing huge greenhouses that are filled to the brim with long-stemmed roses. Apparently Ecuador is famous for these roses, the majority of which, wierdly, are exported to Russia.
After doing some shopping in Lasso, a town near the Pan-Am, we cross the huge road and start climbing into the mountains on the other side. Up and up we go, until around 11,000 feet I´m tired of climbing and we decide to stop for the night. A friendly guy we talk to gives us permission to camp in the yard of a local recreation center.  It´s a nice place, with a volleyball court, soccer field, and pool! Soft flat grass to camp on tonight.

July 17th
As we´re heading out in the morning, the family who lives on the property as caretakers bring us out a steaming bowl of soup.  We have barely spoken to them, and yet they thought to make us breakfast.  So generous! The soup, at first glance, looks good, filled with onions and potatoes, and it is good, filling our bellies with warmth. Unfortunately, at the bottom we discover huge pieces of chicken.  We determine that they´ve probably given us the choiciest bits because we can´t recognize what any of them are. A liver? A heart? We try to throw a few pieces to the dog when the family isn´t looking, and then give the rest back with the excuse that we´re not used to eating chicken in the morning. The small kids seem happy enough to eat what´s left. What a kind gesture!
Our first bit of riding is a paved climb, but soon we turn off onto a cobbled road for a scenic detour recommended by other cyclists.
Cobbles and Cotopaxi, route from Toacaso to Yanaurcu Grande

The cobbles are awful for riding, but happily, when our road begins to climb in earnest, it becomes paved. So begins an unbelievably spectacular ride, gentle switchbacks with little traffic, and amazing views of Cotopaxi across the valley as it finally starts to emerge from the clouds. 
At the top we find a tiny town where we buy some snacks. We notice that everyone here has toughened, reddened cheeks. I imagine that this is a result of cold wind chill and sunburn, the trials of living at such high elevation. Despite the tough environment, the ladies are incredibly fashionable. High heels are the norm. Pair this essential with tights, a fancy long pleated skirt, sweaters, carefully knitted shawls, and the characteristic felt hat, and you´re ready for life as an Andean lady. I don´t know how they manage to keep warm while looking so nice.
Fields and Cotopaxi
Ascending to 13,000 feet on ¡pavement!
The church in tiny Yanaurcu Grande

Out of town our road turns sandy and rocky, and the wind really picks up.  At one point it literally blows our bikes around. Most of the time I´m focused on the trials of the road, but when I do have occasion to look up, the scenery is fantastic. Surrounding us are green hillsides with long, fluffy white grasses blowing in waves with the wind, and huge jagged boulders.  Volcanic remnants perhaps?
Finally we reach the top of the pass and it is time to head down.  We stop multiple times as Danny helps me improve my mountain biking skills. I can ride all day and night on pavement, but I still need a lot of practice to feel confident on these rocky mountain roads. It´s worth the challenge for the amazing places we get to visit.
Once in the picturesque town of Isinlivi, we decide to splurge and pay to camp at a hostel.  We cook up a delicious dinner and enjoy talking to the lady who runs the place.  She gives us info for a shortcut we can take tomorrow!

More fields
July 18th
After a big oatmeal breakfast, we´re back on the road. Out of town we descend a ways down to a river valley, and then begin to slowly climb back up. We begin following the lady´s vague directions for the shortcut, and at first the road surface is good and climbs gradually up the cliff along the river.  When we reach a junction, we´re not sure where to go, but luckily a truck pulls up (the only car we have seen all day) and the friendly family inside gives us some road beta. We decide to head right and up to the main road.  Not quite as easy as it sounds.  The road turns extremely steep, with loose sections of rocks and sand.  We´re reduced to pushing our bikes in sections. Still, all things considered, when we reach the main road, we agree that the shortcut was faster, more scenic, and a better challenge than taking the main road out to Sigchos.

The back route to Chugchilan
More of the back route

Back on the main highway, we rejoice in easy grades and well packed dirt. Almost as good as pavement! Below are houses perched on cliffs, small green vertical farms, and the cliffs of the impressive river gorge.  I imagine that in the U.S. this would either be a National Park or these houses would be worth billions of dollars.
Hungry, we stop for lunch where some ladies are cooking things on the side of the road. Turns out they have fried potatos, eggs, huge avocados (for 30 cents), and mandarins. Paired with our bread and cheese, we couldn´t ask for a better lunch! 
Shortly after eating we´re back on our bikes and cruising into the town of Chugchilan. Here we discover that the rest of the road to Lake Quilotoa is paved! This will make our afternoon much easier! Even better, there are very few cars on the road, with the exception of a pack of driving school cars, mostly piloted by older men who I assume never had the chance to learn how to drive when they were younger. Many of them honk at us in greeting. Pretty much everyone we pass is friendly and waves in greeting.  At one point we encounter some kids who chase after us, asking us questions and helping us up the hill by pushing our bikes from behind as we ride. Nice to have a boost! Then they start asking us for money. This is a tough situation, and not the first or last time we will be stuck in it. Obviously we have more than these kids, but giving them a dollar isn´t going to fix anything; if anything it will only teach them to beg for money from other light-skinned people, and that certainly isn´t a formula for success in life. We want to help, though, so we give them a few bread rolls that we had in our bags for an afternoon snack. They eagerly snatch them, and we continue pedaling. We decide that from now on we´ll carry some cookies for this sort of situation.

The last part of the climb is the toughest. Workers have avalanche-proofed the hills on either side of the road by covering them with cement, creating a gray tunnel with nothing else to look at but the similarly gray sky above.  The wind starts blowing in our faces, and the air turns frigid. The road is steep and seemingly never-ending.  Around every turn I keep hoping for it to level off, but we keep climbing. Finally, what a joy it is to reach the top and put on our warm layers! From here it is a short descent into a small valley by the lake. Excited to see this world-famous destination, we ride our bikes up to the viewing platform. Spectacular! Such a reward for all our hard work today. A glistening blue-green lake far below, bordered by steep cliffs. There are no roads, just small trails and tiny villages. In every direction stretch more mountains, the sun highlighting some, clouds floating among others. It´s wild.
Lago de Quilotoa
A pensive dog

We ask some American tourists if they would mind taking a picture of us with our bikes.  They seem a bit embarrassed to admit that they came from Quito today via bus.
Back in the town of Quilotoa, a little collection of houses near the rim, we find a place to stay for $10. It´s freezing up here with the wind, so it´s worth it to pay for a bed inside tonight and a hot shower. The family who owns the place lets us use the kitchen to cook dinner, and afterwards the place warms up with a big fire in the wood stove and some flying, passionate, indigenous music.  Danny joins in with his ukulele. The littlest kids of the family stumble around trying to dance and are completely adorable.

July 19th
Jose: an artist, musician, and father in Quilotoa
My sore legs make me reluctant to get going in the morning. We sleep in a bit then have breakfast and spend some time with Jose, the owner of the hostel, helping him learn English.  He says that whenever English-speaking travelers come through he tries to learn a little, and he already has a notebook filled with some common phrases.  We help him with hostel-specific things, like how to say ¨$8 per person,¨ ¨we have rooms with private bathrooms,¨ ¨we have showers with hot water,¨ etc. Jose is also an artist, so we help him with some painting-specific vocabulary and he shows us around his artist workshop, a beautiful place filled with brilliant paintings of the local landscapes and indeigenous people. He tells us that his dream is to be able to exhibit some of his work internationally. I don´t know anything about art exhibitions, but if anyone reading this is interested in exhibiting or selling some spectacular Ecuadorian art abroad, let us know!

Inspired, I head up to the lake to do my own painting, and we do some people-watching.  This place is swarming with tourists taking selfies.
After lunch, we head out.  A short ride brings us to the town of Zumbahua where we find internet and groceries. The wonderful Father at the local church opens up the school dorm next to the church for us to spend the night.  We have bathrooms, beds, and wonderful thick blankets. Such kind people.

From here we´ll be heading south on some more back roads towards the volcano of Chimborazo and then Riobamba.  There is limited internet access in these areas but we´ll do our best to write another update soon.

Route Notes:
- Leaving Quito: We connected to the Pan-Am and turned right onto the old highway after bridge #8 (the bridges are clearly labeled). From here, ask for the old highway, a roughly paved road to Sangolqui. Not sure if this is the best route out of the city, but it wasn´t bad.
- Sangolqui to Cotopaxi National Park: follow the well-signed Calle Juan de Salinas southeast out of the city to a rolling climb on cobbles. After about 15 or 20 km, the road turns to dirt at the paramo.  Windy with loose rocks and sand in places, but always rideable and beautiful.
- Cotopaxi National Park to Lasso: We took the road on the west side of the volcano.  At first it is dirt, then it turns to washboarded gravel.  Partway down, the descent becomes paved.  Near the bottom you will pass a large mine. Take a left on the road here. This is beautiful dirt, running parallel to the Pan-Am for a few kms before turning to pavement and bringing you to a bridge to Lasso.
The other option for Cotopaxi is to do the Vuelta de Cotopaxi mountain bike route around the east side. Other bikepacking blogs have info on that; check theridesouth or whileoutriding. We heard upon arriving that it was a swamp and decided against it.
- Pan-Am to Toacazo: paved ascent, not too much traffic.
- Toacazo to Isinlivi: Look for a blue sign for Insinlivi along the main road.  The road starts as cobbles for a short, mostly flat section, then there is a paved switchbacking climb. After the town of Yanaurcu Grande, the road turns to dirt\gravel\sand. An incredible ride.
- Isinlivi to main road connecting Sigchos and Chugchilan: theridesouth has info on a direct route from Isinlivi to Quilotoa, but with phrases in the narrative like ¨the suffering is not yet over,¨ that route seemed a bit too masochistic for us. We still managed to find a decent shortcut to avoid going around to Sigchos. Follow the main road on a smooth dirt/gravel descent to the big river. About 100m after crossing, take a left. It´s a small road on Open Maps. Look for yellow splotches of paint on the rocks near the junction. There´s a smooth dirt climb up to another junction where there are two options (actually three, but one is a short path to some houses): 1) Staying left/straight, we learned, takes you down a road to the river, and then up a trail to the main road. Apparently you may need to push your bike in sections. Could be fun. Or 2) Veer right. (this is what we did). This is an extremely steep climb up to the main road, with loose sections. We pushed our bikes for parts.
- Main road to Chugchilan: well packed dirt with nice grades and little traffic, excellent riding.
- Chugchilan to Lake Quilotoa and then to Zumbahua: All nicely paved, not much traffic. Steep leading up to the lake. Entrance is $2 per person, and if you want to meet Jose and his family, his place is the handicrafts store on the left just after entering the little town.

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