ECUADOR, 21st-26th August 2019
that guy! That was Gerald!” Dea exclaimed suddenly.
“Yes, I think it was,” I concurred, having noticed the long blonde hair as it passed the open door of our hotel room on its way to the bathroom, and now again on the way back, I was confident it was Gerald. He was one half of an Austrian couple who, defying the odds created by their landlocked nation, were keen surfers. We’d met them way back in El Salvador and not really kept in touch, yet if our suspicions were correct the universe had by some bizarre coincidence now placed them in the room next to ours. I wrote to Tanja, Gerald’s other half, on Facebook to ask how she was enjoying Otavalo. Her reply was one of confusion, but when I explained my suspicion that we were in the very next room we were soon knocking on the wall in greeting to one another.
The next day the four of us all went out to lunch together at a Chinese restaurant. It was by that point our third rest day in Otavalo, a prolonged period off the bike necessitated by the long, tough days we’d ridden to get to Otavalo, and the need to protect Dea’s wrist which was still giving her pain. We had taken the time to visit Otavalo’s famous clothes market, and also to visit an indigenous museum, where we were taken on a two-hour guided tour in Spanish by three local students, which was perhaps slightly longer than we needed. The tour took place at an old factory where indigenous people were once forced to work creating the garments Otavalo is famous for under their Spanish “employers” in dubious working conditions. We saw one man actually weaving in the traditional way, sitting on the floor and working away in a rather uncomfortable looking fashion. We had wanted to visit the museum to understand the indigenous way of life, though it felt more to me like a lesson in how the Spanish ruined it.
But now we were enjoying another side to Ecuadorian life, together with our fellow travellers in a restaurant that looked very much like it belonged to another continent, even down to the red and yellow Chinese ribbons on the walls, the obligatory fish tank, and the angry-looking woman barking loudly at us. We each ordered a plate of rice or noodles with vegetables and were most satisfied with the portion sizes. Genuinely the biggest plates of food I’ve ever seen outside of cruise ship buffets, they certainly satisfied our appetites. Well, at least three of our appetites. Tanja, Dea, and I could only finish half our plates, but Gerald managed not only to eat all of his, but also the other half of Tanja’s too. Along the way we chatted and laughed half the afternoon away, and it was really very nice to get to spend some time with some fellow travellers who we got along with very well.
The next day we finally got ourselves out of Otavalo and on with our journey. We wanted to rejoin the TEMBR mountain bike route once again, and we knew it was going to be a long, tough climb out of town, so we delayed until midday and then spent a lot of time looking for a supermarket. I manged to avoid buying as much as last time, and a good job that I did, for the climbing started straight away. We knew we would be going up 1,200 metres over 16 kilometres and it was cobbletones all the way. The only good thing about that was that cobblestones aren’t nearly as bad going uphill as they are downhill, due to moving so slowly, and we really were moving slowly. In fact it was so relentlessly steep that a good deal of the time I was not even going fast enough for my bike computer to register me as moving. When my speed dropped below 3.7 kilometres per hour the computer simply refused to count anymore, no doubt under the impression that nobody could possibly ride a bike slower than that. But my computer was wrong, I could ride a bike slower than that, and I did, for most of the afternoon.
feel good. I didn’t really feel like I wanted to be doing this anymore. At our
first break we sat and talked and I realised that Dea was feeling much the same
way. Her wrist was hurting and we both questioned why we were doing this.
“Do you think meeting Gerald and Tanja makes this harder?” Dea asked, and I agreed that maybe she had a point. Briefly having friends and doing normal life things with them, laughing and joking and being social perhaps made us both long for a different way of life. Cycle touring is amazing but there are only so many mountains you can ride slowly up before it starts to get a little repetitive, and six months in the Andes was starting to feel a little too long. Gerald and Tanja were planning on heading down to the Amazon to ride on some boats and it was once again discussed by us as a way to fast forward down to Peru, although our favoured option remained to head down to the desert on the north Peruvian coast to get out of the mountains for a while there. But that felt like a long way off.
We ended the day only half way up the climb, making camp in a little clearing off the road. It was a lovely place to sit and make dinner and, no longer struggling away up a steep hill, this way of life started to make sense to me again. My final thoughts for the day were reminding myself how much I will miss all of this when it is over and gone, that I should probably try to appreciate it while I still have it.
The next day things got a lot better, starting with waking up to blue skies and the sight of a little snow on a volcano we could see from our campsite. The cobblestone climb continued to be steep for another four kilometres, but then it started to level out through grassy plains. We were up into real nature again, and we loved that. At the top of the climb we came to a lake, a big, stunningly blue lake, a really beautiful lake actually. It was the weekend and there were a few local families camping up by it. It was nice that they came out and enjoyed this amazing place, and Dea and I also stopped to enjoy it, playing some Eurekaball on the flat grass by the lake. Life was fun again, and the road onwards was the kind that we both love. The cobblestones ended and, even though the dirt road was a little sandy in places, it was all ours and it made for a great ride through great scenery.
passing another lake we had another short, steep climb. It was hard work and we
had to stop frequently, which gave us the chance to admire the great views of
the grassy landscapes.
“At this altitude, it’s… breathtaking!” Dea said, laughing at her own joke, before adding, “I’m so funny.”
At the top of this climb we had an extraordinary view down. We could see huge distances, down to Quito and the rows of mountains surrounding it. We could even see a little of the peak of the huge Cotopaxi volcano, it’s snowy slopes not easy to distinguish from the clouds that floated around it. The cold wind whipped hard at us and we decided to begin our long descent. We were still on the dirt road and a lot of hard braking was required, which was really not good for Dea’swrist. The TEMBR was a great route but it was also very tough, and I worried about whether we could go on like this.
We took a bit of a shortcut from the TEMBR, albeit still on dirt roads, that took us past an archaeological site. We didn’t really know anything about it, but we’d seen it on the maps and were curious to check it out. There were a few people in uniforms who were standing outside the entrance gate who seemed to be asking if we wanted a tour. We didn’t want to pay extra for a guide, we just wanted to pay the three dollar entrance fee and look around, but no one would sell us tickets. All we really wanted to do was wander around the site by ourselves and see what we could see, but one of the guides explained that the three dollars would cover the cost of her services, and it didn’t seem like we were going to be allowed in without a guide, so we finally agreed to go in with her.
Our guide could only speak Spanish and she did so rather rapidly at us for about ten minutes before we were allowed to enter the site. We then went through a gate and could see many grassy hills, which were apparently pyramids. We stood on one and the lady talked for another fifteen minutes, I’m not sure what about, then declared that it was now too late for us to walk around the site. She then lay down on the ground, with her arms spread out, and didn’t move for fifteen minutes.
Dea and I were a little bemused and went and sat a little way from the woman and enjoyed the views. “Maybe she said something about energy coming from the ground,” Dea said, so I tried lying down on the ground myself, anything to help get through the TEMBR. We could also see some llamas on the other side of the site, the first we’d seen in South America. We would have liked to go and see them close up, but the woman had told us not to walk around, there wasn’t time of course. Which made it all the more strange that she just kept lying there, until eventually we had to go and wake her up, and tell her that we wanted to leave.
We had a nice night camping in a forest. We were really enjoying being able to camp out again after the limitations of Colombia. For a short while we had a paved road, and at a junction we had a choice as to whether to continue to follow the tarmac down to a highway, or to take the back roads. With Dea’s wrist in pain the tarmac was the sensible option, but it looked like the back roads might be paved too, as we could see what looked like tarmac up ahead. We decided to try the back roads.
The tarmac turned out to be an illusion. In actual fact we found ourselves struggling on a very sandy road, where we often had to get off and push our bikes through the thick sand, while strong winds swirled around throwing dust and sand in our faces. It felt pretty hopeless. Clearly we had made the wrong choice and I feared Dea would struggle mentally, but actually she remained very positive about things and we kept ploughing, quite literally, on through the sand. After a while the road improved enough for us to ride again, and the views became gradually more spectacular as we wound down through the mountains. Ahead of us we could see the most incredible deep troughs and valleys cutting through the mountainous landscape. On the far side of the hills we could see Quito, at once a huge city and at the same time so small in comparison to the nature around it. All around it were volcanoes and mountains, and then there was the real showstopper, Cotopaxi, shining proudly like a diamond on the horizon, its white slopes now revealed in all their splendour on this clear day.
It was a wonderful road in the end, actually one of the greatest ever in many ways. The scenery really was that good. We descended down further and at a random point on a random dirt road, we reached a significant landmark. With the aid of the GPS on Dea’s phone we located the point at which it read 0°N and, with nothing else to mark the location, we drew a line across the road and I got out a marker pen and wrote “EQUATOR” on a conveniently positioned rock. We jumped back and forth across the line and posed for photos. I stood in the southern hemisphere and asked how Dea liked it in the northern, and vice versa, and it really was great fun, and we didn’t even mind that there was no one there to hustle us with a cheap water-spinning trick.
We had to join a highway a short while later, but it had a shoulder and it was fine. We also finally reached the bottom of a valley and had to start climbing back up again, an initial 250 metres on the main road before we hit a town where we rested in a nice park. Then it was back to the real TEMBR once again and another sandy back road. This one had absolutely no traffic whatsoever and wound up along a cliffside. It was again a really tough slog with the sand and yet it was a staggering place to be and we loved it all the same. The scenery had really gone to new heights this day, but after gaining another hard-fought 500 metres we were both exhausted by the time we hit another highway. With Dea’s wrist in pain we decided to stop early when we came across a roadside hotel. The hotel pool was too murky to consider using and there were broken windows and dubious smells, but the woman running the place was lovely, even bring us a glass of juice each to welcome us, and for ten dollars we got ourselves a comfortable bed and fast wifi.
The wifi brought with it some bad news. Our friend Anni, who Dea had first met over a year ago in Canada, and who we had both then cycled with in Central America, had just had her bike stolen. It had even happened on the TEMBR route, a little further south from where we were, while Anni and a Polish cyclist she’d been riding with were sleeping under the stars. Anni had left most of her stuff on the bike, and she’d woken up in the morning to find it all gone.
This was obviously terrible news for our friend, but it also happened to get us thinking again, especially when I followed a link someone had posted online to other incidents that happened in South America. I saw that robberies were fairly common for cyclists in Ecuador and in Peru, especially in the desert sections of Peru that we’d been planning to use to get out of the mountains. With this in mind the desert route lost all of its appeal, and we started to look seriously at the boat idea again. From where we were it was only a few days’ ride east to Coca, from where we could take a series of boats down the Napa River and then along the Amazon to Pucallpa in Peru. It seemed to be something more travellers were doing with success, and it would get us through the difficult mountains of Ecuador and northern Peru, leaving us with more time to enjoy the high plateaus of southern Peru, Bolivia, and northern Chile, the big, empty landscapes we really dreamed about cycling through the most.
The more we sat and discussed it, the more this idea seemed to make sense. Dea’s wrist pain and our general slow progress meant that continuing to follow the TEMBR, spectacular as it was, just wasn’t going to be an option. Continuing to cycle would therefore mean following highways, which we knew climbed up and down just about as much, but with the prospect of trucks spouting out clouds of dirty exhaust into our gasping lungs, that didn’t appeal too much either. By contrast, what we were reading about the river option made it sound like a tremendous adventure, something quite different from what we were used to, something new and exciting. There would be challenges of course, with the heat and humidity, the mosquitoes, the uncertainty of the boat schedules, but as Dea rightly pointed out, “South America isn’t just the Andes, it’s the rainforest and the rivers too.” And that was absolutely true, we could actually see more of the continent by cycling less, and wouldn’t it be great to see the Amazon before it’s too late? We were growing more and more towards this idea. Sure, there was an element of giving up, of taking the easy way out, but I’m not too proud to say I just didn’t fancy all those mountains. After nine years and four months on my bike I didn’t have anything to prove any more. I was tired, I wanted a break. I didn’t want to cycle another mountain. I wanted to lie in a hammock on a boat for a week and wake up in southern Peru.
There was a sense of irony in coming round to this decision to get out of the Ecuadorian Andes on the very same day that we’d had some of the best cycling in the best scenery of the whole trip, but if all that wasn’t enough to keep us slogging away, then heading for the Amazon was surely the best choice for us anyway.
Within a few hours our minds were made up, and when Dea discussed it online with her brother, Johan, he summed everything up perfectly when he said he thought it was a great idea, and that it was time for us to, “Just roll down to the river,and jump in a hammock!”
(Of course, he no one had told him about the 1,700 metre climb between us and the river.)