I tore through the local Loja city traffic towards the northern reaches of town; I was heading to Terminal Terreste bus station. My cousin Rhods had arrived in the city after a crazily convoluted journey over the best part of a week from the UK. A delayed plane, a missed connection, a night in Madrid, business-class upgrade, night in Lima, connection to Quito and two buses later, he had finally arrived in Ecuadors largest southern city. We were to be riding all the way back to the UK together, and I was excited to have him alongside to experience the adventure home in ‘tandem’.
We rode back through the city together, immediately getting stuck in with a few beers and a good catch up on what had been going on with him for the past two years I’d been away (it’s crazy to write that out – two years on the road sounds like a heck of a long time to have been cycling). After a bit of an admin day getting sorted where I decided to take the big step of sending home my handlebar bag, we hit the dirt road out of the city, taking the first of what will be many pedal strokes together.
We had opted to follow the famous TEMBR dirt road route that bisects Ecuador (TEMBR is an acronym for Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route). Many cyclists had told us how beautiful and brutally hard the route is depending on the weather. On that first morning out of Loja, we met a couple who had been riding for five years! They had some serious off-road bikes. Verging on fat bikes, they seemed like the perfect beasts to tackle the worst of the TEMBR, so when they said they had only been following it intermittently we were worried. I’m riding 2” wide, 26” wheels and Rhods (now known by his South American alias of Rodrigo) is on some skinny gravel tyres atop some 700c wheels. His bike set up is a solid 20kg’s lighter than mine, so I realised it would probably be me in most trouble here!
We followed a beautiful dirt track away from the main drag that led us into a few small villages where everyone was blind drunk enjoying a mad fiesta. There were people dressed up jesters and some others wearing what looked like a haystacks. The jesters and haystacks danced around madly in front of a marching band that paraded down the road, holding up all cars and trucks as the people swayed back and forth to the music. It was amazing; totally nuts but absolutely incredible. We watched on from the side of the road as a petrol tanker violently ground to a halt so as to avoid mowing down the 50-odd drunkards in the parade – not one person in the group batted an eyelid. If there was ever an indication that we would enjoy a country, this was it.
That afternoon we topped out our 1000m of climbing just before dark. Over the saddle the weather took a sharp turn for the worse – engulfing us in a cloud of UK-eske drizzle and grey. We pitched up our first camp together a few hundred meters off the main road, next to a muddy track. It was one of this ‘no thrills’ camp spots, but the following morning we awoke to see a beautiful view down into the valley below. It was to be one of many over the next days. After another long slog back over the next ridge line that afternoon, we began exploring the rugged dirt roads that Ecuador is famous for. Rhods was feeling a little under the weather, so we used the day to ‘take to the skies’, flying the drone for the first time, we managed to get some decent footage of us riding for what will hopefully become a video documenting our journey home.
The roads and surrounding mountains framed by blue skies and sunshine were stunning. The riding, although tough, was more than compensated for by these jaw-dropping vistas at every turn. We found ourselves constantly stopping for photo breaks after every steep hill – and there were a lot of steep hills! What goes up must come down, and unfortunately for me, that involved falling pretty heavily off my bike. Running out of road after a few ‘wags’ of the back wheel on the loose gravel was enough for me to take friends with the floor, ripping off one of my panniers in the process. Although a bit shaken, I was more concerned about what to do with the bag. The plastic clips had snapped clean off – a first for this trip – meaning I had to delve deep into the repair kit for a bodge. It took some time, but a long forgotten about, chunky metal hose clamp came to the rescue along with a couple of cable ties. My pannier, now rendered a permanent fixture on my bike, sat dead still on the rack over the harsh surface and amusingly seemed to hold a lot stronger than my working one.
It got put through its paces over the following days, as the tracks got rougher and steeper still – some we could barely push the bikes up without slipping over ourselves. Throughout all this though, the weather stayed mercifully sunny. After hearing horror stories about riding across the country during its wet season, we weren’t taking any incredible views for granted. Admiring another one at 75 kph, we soon found ourselves at the bottom of the valley, in the town of Cumbe. After grabbing some cheap food for dinner, we began riding up one of the surrounding ridges in search of a camp spot. A passing local advised us ‘gringos’ that we must keep a decent distance from the town square itself ,as it was meant to be dangerous at night. The central plaza definitely wasn’t top of our list, although we now had a bit of a spring in our step to find somewhere before dark. I reckoned we had 15 minutes before then, and began desperately scouting some abandoned houses off the quiet road. Unsurprisingly none of them took my fancy, and we resulted to asking the locals for advice. One guy came to our rescue, directing us to the concrete shell of a house he was building for his family. The basement opened out directly onto the road, although we happily managed to hide ourselves away next to some plastic barrels.
These daily ‘micro adventures’ always make for an interesting time on the road. Sometimes I find I get so caught up in it all, that I forget to look at the broader picture. Look at us setting up a tent in basement of a guy we just met at the side of the road; cooking cross-legged on the bare floor in a random Ecuadorian town – waving a bemused passing locals. The situations you find yourself in are always interesting, although I find I often only realise that with time.
The following morning we woke from a surprisingly good sleep to ride into the city of Cuenca. A beautiful place to spend a few days in, although we spent almost the entirety of our days attending to the bikes. I made a futile attempt to find some spares to fix my pannier, whilst Rodrigo was in desperate need of some more gears. Opting for a humongous cassette for the mountains ahead, the whole job was a little bit of a bodge, with the mechanic warning not to use the big cog on his crankset whilst in a low gear, otherwise the cassette will bend…
As we powered our way along the main road out of Cuenca, Rodrigo’s bike was making a strange sound, the cassette, it had bent… It’s all too easy to forget to change into the right cog, and within the first hour of riding he’d encountered the worst case scenario. After a lot of questionable craftsmanship (smashing the cassette against a rock and some full body weight spanner work) the bike was rideable in those gears but it definitely wasn’t riding well. Thankfully it held strong over the next few days, with those low gears in constant use up the big climbs to Riobamba. On our way we opted to take the main road, in a bid to celebrate Christmas with other travellers in Banos. To our surprise we really enjoyed some of the riding, finding the roads reasonably quiet and scenery as spectacular as ever. One night we camped on the foundations of a house to be dug neatly into the mountainside. We watched the clouds envelope the valley below before nightfall, then watched on as the nearby neighbours hosted a wedding party that saw salsa dancing and music run way into the wee hours.
In order to reach Banos in time for Christmas, we figured we needed to drop the bikes in the nearby city of Riobamba, grab a bus to Banos, before picking them back up on our return. Treating ourselves to a nice hostel after an incredible days riding to Guamote, we hit the jackpot in the form of Edison. Edison was a bike tour guide living in the city, and a good friend of our hostel owner. He happily agreed to hold our bikes for a few days at real late notice, meaning we could hop on the bus that day and be all tucked up for christmas – what a legend.
Christmas away from home is always a strange affair; nothing can replace that home cooking and festive atmosphere leading up to the big day. I was happy to have Rodrigo there and we both enjoyed being surrounded by other travellers feeling just as weird to be on the road today. We called home before hiring some bikes (yes, we did leave our bikes behind only to hire more) and exploring the local waterfalls. It was a perfect activity to take the mind away from home for a few hours, and waterfalls were really something. Over the next few days we explored a bit of the area on foot and enjoyed resting legs for a change. It didn’t take long for us to pine for two wheels again though, and the following days were set to be some of the biggest.
After picking our bikes up from trusty Edison, we set off to ride the Chimborazo volcano. Standing at 6,263m next to the equator, Chimborazo is actually the highest point on the planet with respect to the earths core. Because the planet bulges at the equator, it means that Chimborazo is the closest point to the sun in the world. We fancied being the highest cyclists on the planet for the night; endeavouring to ride the gravel track before pushing the bikes up a walking path to breach the 5000m threshold. It was a tough day’s ride from the city in order to make it to the first lodging at 4850m (already the highest point on my trip so far). Arriving just before darkness, I was seriously feeling the altitude. Just setting up the tent was a serious struggle and eating any food was just out of the question. Rodrigo was fairing better than me, but neither of us was close to top form the night. The tents froze solid in the early hours, leaving us to reluctantly emerge from igloo the next morning. I was feeling slightly better but really not great – managing to just about keep down an overpriced hot chocolate courtesy of the lodge.
We decided to ditch all the bags, and at least give the 2km walk up to 5000m a shot. Pushing the bikes through the loose gravel, even with reduced weight, was an arduous task. But we made it. 5030m to the second lodge, and we were dead chuffed. It was the third time on this trip I’ve tried to make it over 5000m on the bike, with every attempt being thwarted by one thing or another. In India a rogue storm shut the Manali-Leh highway for the winter just days before I could ride it, then leaving Lima I got turned back by mining security guards just a few kilometres away from the pass summit. This day I thought it would be the altitude sickness, but we made it just in time. A quick shot of us next to the sign, hands in the air like we’d summited Everest, and we were straight back down to the lodge where we bumped into our good mate Edison!
After riding the Martian landscape down the volcano, we took back up the TEMBR trail for what would be an adventurous few days. A few crashes, more broken panniers and some incredibly hairy roads – this was the Ecuador we’d heard about. Two days of riding some seriously small dirt roads in the pissing rain, trundling along at 7 kph, we went through the ringer. It was tough riding, but man was it good. Not a car in sight, to be honest, it was so foggy that nothing was really in sight other than our muddy bikes the whole two days. Rodrigo decided he fancied a mud bath around mid-afternoon, stacking it into a lovely gloopy patch of molten mud – emerging like something from Willy Wonkas chocolate factory. I reckon you could have asked him how it tasted and he could have answered you.
After 6 and a half hours of riding that day we had only made it 53 km’s – yes, it was that kind of ride. 53 km’s was enough however, as painfully cranked our way up the final climb to Angamarca. A dreary town that looked as though it, and its people, were constantly enveloped in fog. We had been told there was a hotel here, but looking around things didn’t seem to hopeful. Eventually we were directed to a small shop with two kids sat behind the counter, one of which ran out the door when we mentioned needing a hotel and I was told to follow. What ensued was nothing short of comedy gold, although having spent 6 and a half hours being soaked at altitude, I wasn’t in the perfect state to properly enjoy it. No one had stayed in this hotel for so long that the door was jammed shut. One of the kids realised a long forgotten piece of broken key was jammed in the lock and began trying to dislodge it. He called the older brother, who sent order up to the Dad – none of which could open the door to their own ‘hotel’. Of course hotel is a fluid term here, whereby we are talking about a decaying house with room in which desperate cyclists with no other options will be forced to sleep. After failing at opening the front door, the Dad sent his teenager to climb up the side of the building to a first floor balcony, where he began shoulder barging the door until it gave in. Perfect.
Our ‘room’ consisted of two chipboard walls separating it off from other rooms, not that we needed to worry, there definitely wasn’t going to be anyone else staying here tonight. We hung out our wet gear all over the place and in every room with available space we could find. Shower? The shower was a pipe from the gutter, which to be fair, was firing out water with a decent pressure it was raining that hard outside. We cooked our dinner and breakfast on the stove, before getting ready to set off the next morning. I was having problems with my front brake, whereby it was clamping shut and not retracting properly. I had a spare brake cable with me and decided to switch them out before we got going. Big mistake. Of all the things to go wrong, the brake cable somehow managed to get stuck whilst I was pulling it out. Stuck, how on earth…? We tried both of us pulling, we tried pushing is back, we tried cutting the outer sheath to pull it backwards, nothing… Now I was screwed, there was no way I could ride these roads with one brake. We managed to find a motorbike mechanic in town, hoping he would have a replacement outer sheath. Reluctantly he came to help, but butchered the outer sheath after removing it from the handlebar wrap, meaning I had a taught cable running directly from the lever to the brake. It ran right where I strap one of my dry bags to rack, and there was no other space to put it. Looking at it, we both knew it was hopeless. The bouncing bag would pull the cable through before we had made it around the first corner and I would be left without a brake again.
We asked and asked but there was no one with any spare parts in town. ‘In Zumbahua’ they said. The town was 40 km’s away and there were buses running that day. To make matters more pressing it was New Years Eve that night. What to do..? After deliberating we took the painful decision to put the bikes on the bus. Only crossing the Chinese border (where it is impossible to cross without taking a bus) and where the Pakistani army refused me entry without and armed escort have I not ridden a section. This decision hurt a lot. I knew the brake wouldn’t hold out, and if the roads were anything like yesterday’s, I wouldn’t be able to even walk the thing down the descents, yet still I wanted to ride. I brooded over this on the bus, although I didn’t have long to do so as the bus came to grinding halt. Ahead another bus was stuck in the mud on a flowing left hander. We were about to try pass it on the outside of the bend.
The driver gunned it as we flanked dangerously close to the edge of the road. Then we start to slide back into the apex – we were stuck. A lot of deliberating by the locals over the next 3 or so hours had no avail as we and then another bus coming the other way – that actually clipped us on its way down – were all left stuck. Eventually we took our bikes off the bus and began walking up the road to where we were told another bus was parked. We were the last two onboard with our bikes stowed away as it began upwards. After 10 minutes this bus too came to a halt, with me and Rodrigo fearing the worst, the driver addressed us all. What film would you like to watch? You’ve got to be kidding me. The masses ironically voted for the Fast and Furious, so we all watched Vin Diesel drifting around the Southern States of the US as we precariously made our way to Zumbahua.
Finally in the town, we found a spot to stay before heading into the main square to see if there was anything going on for New Years Eve. Zumbahua is not a tourist town, and we found the square jam packed with poncho wearing locals, dancing about to music being played out on a stage. It was perfect. People dressed as bulls charged at bystanders whilst matadors waved their red capes dramatically; there were even llamas out amongst the dancing masses. Quickly we got talking to some locals around our age who invited us to dance with them around a cousins car. The car had a hefty sound system, so soon enough there was a big group of extended friends and family dancing around there with us. This escalated to us being thrown into a ring to salsa dance, which, as you can imagine, went terribly but was hilarious for everyone. We kept dancing into the wee hours as the party raged on, before eventually retiring to bed.
All in all it was probably the most fun I’ve had at a New Year’s party. Totally spontaneous, yet a real reflection of the fun to be had in Ecuadors indigenous region. We were welcomed as one of their own for a night that we’d never forget.
Continuing on seeing in the new year in great fashion, we spent the day checking out the Quilotoa volcano. A lake set deep inside the caldera made for an incredible view. Genuinely it was one of those ‘pinch yourself moments’ when it came into view. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The next few days were spent riding over the historic city of Latacunga, before heading on towards the Cotopaxi national park. The jewel of the park is of course the legendary Cotopaxi volcano – if you’re lucky enough to see it. Riding into the park, the peak was shrouded in the infamous mist whilst rain poured down on us. We carried on up to the plateau where mercifully the weather eased off, allowing us to enjoy the summit and dirt road we found ourselves on. Riding along the road, we spotted another cyclist with their tent set up a few hundred meters away from us. After a wave we rode over to say hi. As we arrived the guy came straight over, greeting me as the cyclingsugarglider (my name on instagram). I was taken aback, ‘how do you know who I am…?’. ‘Oh I’ve been following you came the reply, your set up is also pretty distinctive…’ Crazy.
Lucien had been watching my dot on the map progress north up the Andes as he began his journey south. We were both following the TEMBR route and so I guess it wasn’t the great coincidence we initially thought, but it was cool. We decided to pitch up next to him – trading stories about our journeys so far. Lucien had been riding on and off for 3 years, earning money working back in Amsterdam between bike trips. His journey started in Alaska, and he was determined to make it to Ushaiua, Argentina this time.
It got real cold as the night fell, and we all tucked up as the frost set in. The next morning I woke early to the sound of a drone buzzing above my tent; I checked my phone – 5:50 am, what the hell…? I got out my tent and look around to see an incredible view of the rising sun illuminating a perfectly conical, snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano. Beautiful is an understatement. It was incredible. On the other side however, was the source of our drone. A group of cars and people were conducting a film shoot. It turns out they were filming a Chevrolet commercial. A lady from the shoot came over to ask when we were moving on. We laughed, looked back at our frozen tents, still solid in the 6 am sun, and told her probably after they were done shooting. Tough luck if we were ruining your commercial by actually camping here honey.
The sunrise over the volcano was mesmerising – there’s something special about watching mountains like that. They flitter between majesty and then nothing, as the cloud forms on their slopes and obscures your view. That morning we hit the jackpot and we would never forget it. Riding along the dirt tracks around its banks, we just kept glancing over our shoulders, ‘whooping’ at how incredible the view was. Right then and there was cycling perfection. Dirt track roads, blue skies and a snow-capped volcano, it was a heck of a last day before Quito. A gnarly cobbled descent to the main drag into the city couldn’t dampen our mood. We set our sights on the Casa de Ciclista – a world famous cycling refuge belonging to a man named ‘Santi’. Santi has had his doors opened to any passing cyclist for the past 27 years. If you know, you knock, and they let you in to camp in the garden. It isn’t advertised anywhere, but if you ride for long enough someone is sure to bring it up. I first heard about these casa’s couchsurfing in Wellington, New Zealand, the most famous of which was right here in Tumbaco, next to Quito.
Immediately we made friends with some other bike packers staying there – Tara and Sue. More stories and tales were to follow as we hung out in what’s affectionately known as ‘the bunker’. The walls were covered in the scrawling of previous cyclists from many years gone by. We were an ant in the vast nest of all tourers that have ridden these contours. It’s rare you get to view the community in such a way. By definition tourers are separated by distance, no official body or communal voice, yet this place embodied the spirit, the DIY attitude and everything about what I’d come to call my own from the past two years. I may be 1000’s of miles from the UK, but maybe for the first time since rolling out my driveway, I felt I could truly call a place my home.