ECUADOR, 16th-20th August 2019
The border between Colombia and Ecuador was one of the most extraordinary we’d been through, particularly on the Ecuadorian side, where the immigration building and its surroundings had the look of a makeshift refugee camp. Everywhere sat families with their backs propped up by their meagre possessions, kids running around, their little faces dirtied from life on the road. This appeared to be a sticking point for those heading south, entry into Ecuador was not guaranteed, and it was with a little embarrassment that we were shepherded to a special line where our passports were stamped quickly. We didn’t need to get into Ecuador nearly as much as the people around us, but thanks to our privileged status as European travellers, we were welcomed in without a moment’s hesitation.
Back at our bikes we found a tall man admiring the map on the front of my basket. This was Jose, one of the many Venezuelans that appeared to be trapped here in no man’s land. But whatever troubles he had on his mind, they were not immediately apparent as he asked us with great enthusiasm about our travels and told us how amazing he found it all. Like all of the Venezuelans we’d been in contact with, his big smile revealed him to simply be a genuinely friendly and warm-hearted human being. “It’s beautiful that you get to see so many things,” he said.
We asked him about his own journey, and he explained that along with his wife and child he was heading for Ecuador’s capital, Quito, to try and find work. “I hope I can return to Venezuela in three years when things are better,” he said, before asking why the United States couldn’t just help to remove Maduro, like they had removed Gaddafi from Libya. That was rather a tricky political discussion, and unfortunately our Spanish wasn’t quite up to such a complex topic. “You should come back and visit Venezuela in a few years, it’s a beautiful country,” he told us, and we’d seen enough of its people to believe we really would enjoy visiting it one day. We wished Jose well. Like refugees all over the world, he was just a human being hoping for a better break in this world for himself and his family.
We cycled off into Ecuador which, if you can believe it, began with a steep climb. That led us up to Tulcan, a surprisingly quiet town that we could cycle though quite easily. Along the way we stopped at a supermarket for some supplies. While I was inside doing the shopping Dea was surprised by the sight of the smiling Jose coming up to say hello once again. He had made it into Ecuador, and we were as happy about that as we were to be in Ecuador ourselves.
We found a reasonably priced hotel with a huge, curved window that overlooked a cathedral and a little plaza, a bargain at $16. Ecuador switched their currency to the US dollar a few years ago, something which has helped stabilise their economy and led to a faster rate of development than their South American neighbours, but I found it a little confusing. After three months in Colombia, I’d gotten so used to rapidly converting the price of things from pesos into dollars, that I now found myself having to convert the prices in dollars into pesos, which I then converted back into dollars. Hopefully I’d streamline that system soon.
After our tough slog through the last of Colombia we naturally elected for a rest day in Tulcan. We didn’t just rest though, we also made use of our time and wandered over to the cemetery. And what an extraordinary cemetery they have in Tulcan. I believe I am right in saying that it is the biggest and best topiary cemetery in the world, or at least in South America, or at least in Ecuador. I’m not really sure to be honest. But it was certainly the biggest and best topiary cemetery I’d ever been to. Rows and rows of cypress trees trimmed into all kinds of weird and wonderful designs, many of them with a nod to native American artwork, as well as faces and people and a variety of animals. It was apparently started by the creative-and-bored cemetery gardener, Jose Franco, back in 1936. Franco said that he wanted to create a cemetery so beautiful that “it invites one to die.” He finally achieved that goal in 1985, and now his five sons continue the maintenance of the incredible gardens.
We considered taking another rest day, but decided to just spend the morning relaxing and have a half day of cycling in the afternoon. On the way out of town we stopped at another supermarket and I went completely crazy, spending $70 on fruits and vegetables, beans, granola, oats and all sorts of healthy foodstuffs, having the previous night watched a video about how bad processed sugar is for you. A shame really that I’ve been living on the stuff for so many years, but having survived such a spectacular invitation to die the previous day, I now had a new zest for life. At the very least hopefully my teeth will stop falling out now.
I made it out of the supermarket a few moments before Dea organised a search party and, after seeing the look on her face, I volunteered to carry most of the excess weight I’d just purchased. It wasn’t long before I was regretting my spending spree as we left town on a dirt road that climbed steeply through a section of road construction. The road was so steep that we had to push through the soft road surface here. After getting back on our bikes, climbing a bit further, then taking a break to eat some healthy snacks, we realised that we were going the wrong way, and had to descend all the way back through the construction to find the correct route. We were trying to follow the Trans-Ecuador Mountain Bike Route, otherwise known as TEMBR, a cycle route through almost the entire country that mostly follows dirt roads and tracks. We knew it would get us away from civilization and back into nature, and the attraction of being “out there” wild camping again overruled the fact that it would obviously be really frigging hard.
Our decision to take on the TEMBR was vindicated when a couple of hours of steady climbing had us leaving behind the last farms and fences and heading into a wilder environment. We knew this pass went up to 3,700 metres and, with both of us having had altitude problems before, we didn’t want to camp that high so stopped at 3,400 metres. It felt great to be setting up the tent in nature again, with nobody else around for miles and miles, watching the sun set and cooking up a huge veggie stew before cosying up in our sleeping bags against the cold of these higher elevations. Ecuador had certainly made a great start.
And things only got better the following day. After a delightfully silent night in the tent we resumed our ride upwards. The road grew tougher, but the scenery made it absolutely worth the effort. Everywhere around us were frailejones, tall, resolute plants that stood like armies of soldiers across the landscape, their straight brown trunks topped by crowns of green leaves. We were now in the El Angel Ecological Reserve, and it was great to know that this truly special scenery was being protected. After a few more hours of toil we reached the summit, where we found an empty car park, an empty cabin, and a trail up to a lookout point. I tried running up the steps of the trail while eating an apple, a combination of activities I soon discovered myself to be incapable of in the thin air.So I settled for walking up breathing heavily, and then eating my apple from the lookout, which offered even better, 360 degree, views of the incredible landscape.
Back at our bikes we discovered that the cabin was not actually empty when a park warden named Luis came out to say hello and invite us to sign his guestbook. Luis, I assume, is a very lonely man. He was certainly the first human we’d seen for many hours, and it was a little sad to have to leave him again, but if you’re going to be stranded alone someplace, this stunning natural world seemed about as good as anywhere.
The initial descent was tough, especially when the dirt road turned into cobblestones. Dea was having some pain in her right wrist, a location where she has previously suffered with tendonitis, and descending over cobblestones while holding hard down on the brakes was far from the best remedy for such an ailment. But eventually we made it down to the nice little town of El Angel, where we admired more fine topiary in the park before continuing our descent on paved roads. We had decided to deviate from the TEMBR route through the next section for a variety of reasons that I won’t bore you with, and that meant we had a massive downhill. Altogether we descended for 2.2 kilometres, which doesn’t sound that far until I point out that that is the vertical distance we descended. From the 3,700 metre summit where we were wrapped up against the cold as we stood in the clouds, we ended the day at 1,500 metres looking to set up camp in a section of desert. I went in first, bold and brash as ever, and promptly got a cactus stuck in my ankle. It was, needless to say, a little painful. Several of the spines had pierced my skin, hooked on somehow, and were simply not in the mood for being pulled out. I had to find my tool pannier and cut most of the cactus away with a pair of scissors, before yanking the spines out with the aid of a wrench.
We found a
flat, cactus-free spot and set up camp. Over dinner we discussed how great it
was to be wild camping again as we looked around at the dry mountains that
towered around us.
“Yeah, it’s great to be back in the desert,” Dea said. “I was excited to come in here again, remembering how you have to watch out for the cactuses and be careful to step between them.”
“I didn’t remember very well!” I replied, nursing the red sores that had appeared in my ankle.
“Well, I don’t think you ever really learnt,” she laughed.
We had foolishly pre-booked a hostel in the tourist town of Otavalo. From the comfort of our hotel room in Tulcan, three days had seemed like plenty of time to ride to Otavalo, but now we wished we’d allowed four, as we still had a very tough 60 kilometres to cycle to get there. The first few kilometres were flat on the shoulder of a highway, but then we left that and began climbing. It was a lovely little country road, well paved with almost no traffic on it, but it climbed up at a relentlessly steep gradient. Still, knowing we had non-refundable accommodation booked kept our pace steady all the way up to a little town where we took our first break in the square. From our bench we could look back down the hill we had been riding up and across a chasm of a valley to the huge mountains that rose spectacularly up on the other side. We really were in the Andes now, there could be no doubt about that.
More steep climbing followed, past the curious eyes of Ecuadorian men and women in their traditional shawls, and the yapping and howling of a hundred irritating dogs,before a sharp drop down into another valley, another tough climb back out again, and so it went on. Then our spirits were almost broken when the good tarmac turned suddenly into cobblestones. Whoever it was that came up with the concept of cobblestone roads must have had a real grudge against cyclists. Never much fun at the best of times, here especially I was concerned about Dea’s wrist, but she showed great character and got on with the task before her without fuss.
Thankfully, the tarmac later returned and we had a relatively easy final run in to Otavalo. On our way through town we passed by the famous clothes market, which we completely ignored in our haste to find somewhere to lie down. Altogether we had climbed some 1,600 metres through the day and we were both truly exhausted as we arrived at our hostel, to find that they had plenty of empty rooms and pre-booking had been completely unnecessary.