Of the 250 km we’ve ridden so far, only 15 of those have been on asphalt. What a blur to suddenly be riding faster than 4 km/hr!
After starting on the southwest side of Quito on Jan 2, we rode up and out of the city through the first of many steep sloped farming communities. Afternoon rain encouraged us to stop at a rustic trout “sport fishing” lodge where we became instant celebrities with the owner and the teenage girl working for him. He caught and grilled a trout for James, and we all feasted on choclo and granos (boiled corn and a hearty lima bean like grain). He kindly swept out a side room where we spent the night sheltered from driving rain.
From there we rode down to 800 meter elevation on a long sweeping dirt rode that paralleled a pipeline (oil or natural gas). Almost every home that tucked against the pipeline used it for drying their laundry. After descending nearly the entire day in intermittent rain, we landed in Union del Toachi, a crossroads town on a major east-west highway. Up off the road, we were stopped by a beetle biologist who offered to let us stay on his land, which was the entrance to a wildlife preserve and field station. He said many students, including University of Dayon Ohio spend multiple weeks there studying birds, insects, flowers, and mammals. He motioned to a flock of egrets above and said they were returning to their roost for the night, to join over 10,000 other egrets that roost there along the river.
To start day three, we immediately began climbing the steepest road we’ve ever encountered. We averaged 4 km/hr climbing grades between 10-20% all day. Midway we stopped in a school yard of a town with no more than 100 people to dry our gear. The woman we spoke with couldn’t quite believe our destination was Sigchos (so high!) and said they’d never seen cyclist pass through their small town. Sugar cane, vanilla, and cattle grazing were the main industries we passed for the day. That night we slept at a different school in Las Pampas. The school master opened a small classroom for us and gifted us a 5 pound round brick of cane sugar, which we have since regifted. The lesson left on the marker board in the classroom had this to say, “hippies: long hair, sicodelic music, Bill and Hillary Clinton.” It then had a drawing of a high-heeled shoe next to a geometric wedge to illustrate the dimensions.
Day four climbed again from scorching sunshine into cold rainy clouds. We spent much of the day with low visibility on steep grades and learned to be grateful for the details of our immediate vicinity to distract our burning legs: beautiful bird song, leaves the size of bed pillows, sugar cane, and cows. The real jaw dropper though was a earth worm the size of a four-foot gardening hose. It could have swallowed us had we not kept our distance! At some point we climbed out of the “jungle” into the Andes where we suddenly found ourselves not just wet but cold. By the time we reached 3,300 meters in elevation, we were ready to stop. While asking a small family about where to pitch our tent, a man walked over and said to follow him to his small spare room. His wife was out of town, so we’d be nice company. He lit a candelaria (an open fire in a small smoky room) and proceeded to be amused by our peculiarities for the rest of the evening. For work he bought bananas along the coast and distributed them in the highlands. He also had milk cows, geese, pigs, and guinea pigs. We made him “soup from California,” which was the first time in his life he’d ever eaten unpeeled potatoes. He also eyed our little loaves of accompanying bread with curiosity since those are normally a breakfast food with coffee. Instead of dipping bread in his soup, he peeled a banana, encouraged us to do the same, and alternated between bites of it and the soup (using his spoon to eat the banana). That was the normal way to do it.
The next morning (day 5), we rose to incredible views of what we’d climbed the previous day. On a clearer day, we might have even been able to see the Pacific. We climbed another 10 km before descending into Sigchos, promptly eating 2 chocolate donuts a piece and the typical $2 lunch and then climbed into Isinlivi where we slept at Llullu Llama. The hostel was a welcome treat. The first time we’ve paid for sleeping, but well worth the opporunity to do sink laundry, dry out, shower, and eat two well-cooked meals.
From Isinlivi, yesterday we descended down into a massive canyon before climbing back out. It reduced us to a 28 km day, but we knew what we were getting into. Much of it was on sand and fine gravel. Coupled with the insane grade, Alex pushed most of the ascent. He’s sorely missing not having his smallest gear on this touring bike. Last night we slept just beneath the lip of Quilotoa Lake, formed in the crater of an inactive volcano. We haven’t had any rain since the lowlands before staying with the banana distributor. Instead, we’re sludging through thick sand, passing farms that we can’t begin to fathom how they exist or what they grow.
We just refueled with fried plantains, beef, rice, fresh juice and Coca Cola. From day one, we decided we’d die if we tried to continue on as vegetarians. Instead, we reguarly eat half chickens and will likely try fried guinea pig in the upcoming days. This afternoon we’ll try to make our way onto the Inca Trail to head further south toward Cuenca then onto the coast. It’s been challenging to find internet, but trust we’re well and alive down here in Ecuador. Time to privision with food, find water, and hit the road. Stay tuned for more!