Final days in Ecuador


Climbing out of Laguna Atillo

Climbing out of Laguna Atillo

From the start, our grand plan has been pretty basic: explore Ecuador on as many dirt roads as possible. We’re using three separate maps, and except for major highways, none ever really agree. The routes we choose in advance really only exist hypothetically until we can confirm that the roads are there. Day by day, town by town, we ask locals whether it’s possible to do what we’re thinking. Generally they tell us yes and that we’re crazy. Other times they tell us yes and it should only take us half an hour, which inevitably turns into four hours on a bike. We never know whether they’re gauging their times by scooter, horse, truck, or by foot.

Up in the páramo, or high plains, there’s a bit more gravity to choosing our route, since the consequences could be hypothermia, altitude sickness, or running out of food and water. There’s a sizeable community, but it’s spread thin over hundreds of kilometers, tucked in the folds of the hills where they raise their livestock and small farm plots. We’re constantly amazed when we see entire families tilling the land by hand at over 4,000 meters. Luckily, we’ve had great weather for the climb from Macas, except for one torrential downpour early on in the cloud forest and bouts of riding inside clouds at the higher elevations. We’ve been able to manage with our array of gear, including shoe covers, waterproof ski mitts, and some combination of wool shirts and rain jackets.

The landscapes have been stunning. Our jaws drop around every turn, and we can hardly scoop them up before they fall again. We began in dense jungle, then climbed into cloud forest. After our first day climbing, we stopped in the small town of Zuñac, which at one point was the end of the road and a thru hiker’s haven. Since the road paved over much of the route the trail used to follow, the town sees almost no visitors these days. Every adult who spoke of it seemed to long for the days before the road. We spent the late afternoon entertaining the entire population of children under ten (9 of them) with our bike bells, helmets, and MSR stove. We’d been invited to sleep in the empty colliseum, and with the help of a town supervisor the kids organized a soccer match alongside us so they could wait to watch us pitch our tent. We woke before sunrise with the hope of clear skies to be able to see the highly active Volcan Sangay in the distance. It helped that a rooster stood in the doorway and belted his morning cries into the vacuous echo chamber. We watched a child squirt an old man with a water gun and out of self preservation left town in a hurry.

Camping at Lago Atillo

Camping at Lago Atillo

Climbing another 40 km to reach over 3,500 metres (11,500 ft) to reach Lago Atillo, we slowly watched the vegetation’s stature diminish into high plains, blanketed by bunch grasses and lined with pine trees planted as wind breaks in the crooks of the hills. We camped at the foot of a stunning butte and solicited the local restaurant for dinner and breakfast the next day. We’ve gone from worrying about humans stealing our things to worrying about sheep and pigs running off with our laundry.

From Lago Atillo we rode along a double and sometimes single track horse trail that hugged a ridgeline and took us over 4,000 metres before dropping down into Tortoras.

High plains horse trail

High plains horse trail

The communities in the plains have been predominantly Quechua-speaking, and the deeper we rode, the more definitively we felt out of place wearing our drab technical gear in the midst of their colorful skirts, shawls, belts, and ponchos. We must have seemed like ninjas sleeking along the landscape. In Tortoras, we found a park rangers’ office (for Parque Nacional Sangay) with small thatched hut accommodations, a kitchen, and bathrooms. Since it was locked with no one to be found, we camped under the awning. In the morning, a ranger came by, ran up to fill his moto with gas from a jug in the closet, said good morning and left. We couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of the purpose of the building contrasted against his nonchalance that we were shivering with our oats sitting by the front door.

From Totoras we screamed downhill to the town of Achupallas at 3,300 meters, where we were met by bull fights, faces covered in colored talcum powder, water balloons, and spray foam. Our dreams of riding to Cuenca via the Inca Trail were dashed when we learned from the locals it wouldn’t be possible by bike.

With Carnaval in full force, we were weary of riding on the main roads, since we were exceptionally easy targets for buckets of water and drunk drivers. We hitched instead in a covered box truck to El Tramo, rode up a short access road to the ruins of Ingapirca, and laid low with a plate of corn and cheese. When we arrived to the ruins though, Katie’s heart sank when she thought she saw the start of another drunken foam parade gathered on the ruins. Through binoculars, we confirmed it was only a group of nuns unloading from a tour bus.

On the 9th, we caught an overnight bus to Quito to make it in time for our flight to the Falklands. We had an incredible time in Ecuador and look forward to posting more about it when we get back on the mainland. Until then, happy Carnaval everyone!