05.23.2003-06.12.2003 Quito, Ecuador to Cuenca, Ecuador|
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|After Guatemala Central America had slowly begun to bore me. Occasionally there would be interesting sections but by the time I arrived in Panama City I had been in a rut for some time. I was looking forward to South America as an end to this condition. As our plane approached Quito I could see snow-capped volcanic peaks rising through the clouds and I knew help was on the way. Plane travel ruins the rhythm of a bicycle trip and the flight from Panama City to Quito was especially disruptive. After a lengthy period at sea level I suddenly found myself at over 9000 ft. Several days of acclimitazation were therefore in order. After a few days of rest I made the obligatory trip(by bicycle) to the equator. Quito has a fine colonial center but I did little more than wander through it. The Andes were waiting. Before departing I paid a visit to a bicycle shop to make some tweaks to my bike in anticipation of some rough riding in the Andes. I note it here because it was by far the best bicycle shop experience I have had on this trip. A special thanks goes out to Gonzalo at X-Bikes for his help with my bike as well as his excellent route advice.
The ride out of Quito was a struggle. The route was uphill and as if the oxygen weren't scarce enough I constantly found myself engulfed in the toxic clouds of exhaust discharged by passing buses and trucks. As I continued to climb through the countryside I developed a pounding headache and could find no rhythm in my riding. If this were due to elevation, I thought, the Andes would not be my savior after all. However, a stop at a roadside cafe for a few cups of powerful coffee did the trick. I road comfortably from then on and was relieved I'd found a simple solution to altitude discomfort.
Just outside Quito lies Cotopaxi National Park, home to the world's highest active volcano. I stayed near the park and decided to further progress my acclimitization with a day ride inside the park. At the park entrance the attendant looked a bit bewildered and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was just cycling around. He asked where the others were. I said I was alone. This really confused him. There are daily guided mountain bike tours from Quito. But these are gravity tours. Clients are driven up the volcano so they could whiz down its sides without exerting any energy. From the attendant's reaction I gathered that few riders actually rode uphill, let alone without a guide. As I cycled through the park I couldn't undersand why not. After ascending to 12,500ft. I caught my first real glimpse of the paramo, the high-elevation treeless landscape that had me thinking I was back on the tundra in Alaska. Apart from a few tour groups the park was empty. This was just what I needed. I took a lunch break at the base of Cotopaxi and watched as ever-changing cloud formations would sporadically reveal a view of the peak. I was tempted to continue up to 4000m(13,000 ft.) but I thought that milestone would best be met with a fully-loaded bike.
After Cotopaxi and with much anticipation I embarked on the Quilotoa Circuit, a mostly gravel route that would take me up into beautiful, but rugged Andean terrain and through remote Andean villages. I've come to realize that these off-road circuits often become highlights of the trip so I allowed myself ample time to accomodate the road conditions and enjoy the surroundings. The route would serve as a sampler of Andean scenery, taking me up through sparse paramo, down through a lush river valley and then up and down through some wild Andean scenery before arriving at the highlight of the circuit, Lake Quilotoa. At the lake I was again amused by the clouds, as their movement caused the colors of the lake to change fluidly between navy blue and turqoise. From the lake I headed to Zumbahua, where I spent my third and final night of the circuit. As I ascended the steep road that led to the town's plaza I nearly gagged on the alcoholic fumes. I had arrived admist a large fiesta and the plaza was full of the sounds of the revellers and a relentless band. For the first time on the trip I witnessed Indian women completely hammered, swaggering back and forth, arms held high, engaging in what can only be called the International Dance of the Drunk. The music ensemble was comprised mostly of horn players and I was amazed at how they could continue playing non-stop at an elevation of 11,500 ft. I merely watched the festivities because a 4000m(13,000 ft.) pass lay between Zumbahua and my next day's destination, Latacunga. The ride up to the pass brought me up into more bleak and chilling paramo, the only other lifeforms being the occasional solitary sheep herder and their herds. A long and steep descent brought me back to the Pan-Am and the town of Latucungo.
I continued on the Pan-Am as far as Ambato. From there another side-trip took me down into another lush river valley to the town of Banos. The name translates to "baths" and I spent a pleasant afternoon soaking in its famous thermal baths. From Banos I took a day trip down the famous Avenue of Waterfalls. The route lived up to its name. During a ten mile section there were waterfalls everywhere, dozens of them. Several times they fell directly on to the road. The valley was particularly narrow during this section and the drop-offs steep, perfect terrain for cycling but no doubt a bit harrowing in a bus or truck. I dropped my plan of returning by bus and instead returned by bike.
I did return by bus to Ambato and then ascended another 11,500 ft. pass to arrive in Riobamba. I took a day off there to take in the weekly market. It was a well-chosen rest day as a cold rain fell throughout most of the day. The ride from Riobamba marked a definite transition in the feeling of the Pan-Am. Heavy traffic gave way to dramatic scenery. On that day I met Matthieu Monceaux(http://www.tdmbent.fr.st), a Frenchman riding a recumbant, on the highway. He had come from Washington, D.C. by way of Quebec. We played leap-frog for the rest of the day and decided to stay in Alausi. Matthieu shuns indoor lodging so we scoped out a campsite on the outskirts of town, with a fine view of the town center below. It was behind a bar but since it was Sunday I didn't expect much noise. The bar's location at the outskirts of town, its lack of signage and the presence of several flirtatious women should have tippped me off. However, it wasn't until I walked in for a drink later at night and saw the numbered rooms lining one of the walls that I realized it wasn't just a bar. It was more like a multi-service facility. I ordered a drink anyway and soon one of the maidens tried to drag me on to the empty dance floor to the sounds of Rod Stewart(IIIIf you think I'm Seeeexy...). She was anything but sexy(try missing front teeth for starters) and my legs were tired. I held fast to my seat. Unfortunately she had a hairy leg fetish and I was wearing shorts. I did my best to keep her paws off my legs while I quickly finished my drink. I retired to my tent but it provided little insulation against the loud music that continued almost until morning.
The dramatic scenery continued past Alausi and the Pan-Am had its most remote feeling yet. Progress was slow at first--there were just too many amazing views that required a moment or two of appreciation. However, a thick fog eventually moved in and the ride was reduced to a grey, featureless, uphill grind. A detour at El Tambo took us to Ecuador's most important yet unspectactular Incan ruins at Ingapirca. After another 11,500 ft. pass we descended back into less wild and more heavily populated areas. The next day we arrived in Cuenca, Ecuador's third largest city. I took my 365th day of the trip as a rest day there while Matthieu continued on in search of better camping locations.
|Distance||Elevation Gain||Flat Tires|
|Leg||549 mi/883 km||46470 ft/15246 m|
|Trip||12368 mi/19904 km||137 mi/221 km||15||