ECUADOR, 27th August – 20th September 2019
After taking a couple of days off to give Dea’s wrist a little chance to recover, we rode the last 28 kilometres to Tumbaco. We opted to take the highway, which was in some ways a shame as it meant we missed out on a gravel bicycle path, but it proved to be the right choice to protect Dea’s wrist as there was a good shoulder and even a paved bike path for the last few kilometres to Tumbaco. This town just east of Quito was destined to be our home for the next couple of weeks, and more specifically we would be staying at the casa de ciclistas run by the extremely warm-hearted Santiago. There are many casa de ciclistas spread out throughout Latin America, places that open their doors to bicycle travellers, and Santiago’s was one of the longest running. A local bike mechanic, he’d started hosting almost thirty years ago. Up until about ten years ago he only had a handful of cyclists each year who heard about him through word of mouth, but the internet had caused an explosion in popularity, and he now has a handful of cyclists staying every day. His record apparently stood at nineteen cyclists at any one time, a record that we would soon be close to breaking.
We pitched our tent in the shade of a large avocado tree and met some of the other cyclists, friendly people who hailed from Germany, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia, most of whom appeared to have been settled in the peaceful yard for some time. Later in the day we were joined by Tomek, a friendly young Pole who was riding around Colombia and Ecuador on a fantastic old yellow bike that had been on earth longer than him. And then a couple of days later a familiar face rolled in through the gate. It was Anni, our German friend who had suffered the misfortune of having her bike stolen. She’d got her bike back now (which is what she rolled in through the gate on, I hadn’t intended to create an image of her doing a forward roll or anything like that). The police had done a good job of tracking down the thieves, which perhaps wasn’t that hard as it turned out to be the weird guy who’d spoken to them the night before, who was the only person living in the vicinity. Unfortunately not all of Anni’s possessions had been found, however, and she’d come back to Quito to get some new gear. With that in mind I cycled with her to a big mall that could be reached on part of the excellent rail trail we’d missed out on riding in on. It was truly a Western mall, a place of consumerism and wealth that showed Ecuador isn’t doing too badly economically, or at least some people in Ecuador aren’t. There was an outdoor shop where Anni got some things, and a big supermarket where I got vegetarian sausages. Most days.
Then a group of five cyclists arrived, a family from Alaska who had left their bikes at the casa de ciclistas while making a side trip out to the Galapagos Islands. Having discussed with Dea the idea of cycling through Africa one day with our as-yet-not-existing kids, it felt a little bit like looking into our potential future, to see Mike and Abbey and their three kids ranging in age from eight to twelve. The effect was compounded by the fact that Mike’s beard gave him a slight resemblance to me, and even more so that Abbey’s blonde hair and glasses gave her more than a slight resemblance to Dea. Upon hearing of Dea’s nationality, Abbey exclaimed that her own ancestors originated from Denmark, which certainly explained a lot. And while we’re on the topic of resemblances, the two blonde, long-haired boys, Cordor and Thalen, and their younger sister, Mira, soon had me humming the classic 90’s tune ‘Mmm Bop.’ If you’re reading this guys, you’re obviously too young to remember the band Hanson, but I suggest you give them a google. And get practicing on your guitars, you’re gonna make a lot of money.
The Janes family had started their trip in the south of Ecuador and had followed the TEMBR and other dirt roads to keep them away from traffic, a trip that would take them on up through Colombia next. We told them about our own experiences and how we were now planning to take boats south because the TEMBR was too tough for us, which to be honest was a little bit more embarrassing to admit now that we knew an eight-year-old girl had done it. Having already had quite a bit of time off their bikes exploring the Galapagos, they were planning on getting moving again soon, but when Mike came down with a bad case of man flu, they were forced to delay for a couple of days. I tried to do my bit to keep the kids entertained by introducing them to the very fine sport of Eurekaball. Our first attempts were rather ruined by Santiago’s pet dogs, who couldn’t quite get their heads around the fact that we weren’t throwing the ball for them, but once they’d dozed off we got rather a good game going. In fact it turned into a whole morning of Eurekaball Olympics, eventually won by Argentina, and with skateboarding and breakdancing on their way into the real Olympic Games, it surely won’t be too long before the organisers start seriously considering Eurekaball for inclusion. If this particular morning was anything to go by, it will surely by a big success.
In the afternoon some of us went to check out a local water park. Actually it was just Abbey taking her kids, and me, and another new arrival, Jace. Jace was a very cool American with a big bushy beard and lots of interesting questions and bad jokes. He’d just flown into Quito in order to ride the TEMBR, having briefly interrupted his ride down through the Americas after meeting a girl. A nice story. He should write a book.
We’d walked past this water park a few times and been impressed by the size of the slides, but had never seen anybody using it. Perhaps that was because the water was so utterly freezing cold, as we found out to our cost when we jumped in. The only thing that could save the experience was surely the big slides, but the twirly one was apparently out of action, and for some reason they weren’t turning the water on on the long straight one either, even though Abbey had asked.
“Please ask again mom, pleeeease!” pleaded Thalen, who was clearly keen to try it out. Eventually I got a little tired of waiting, so I decided I didn’t need water to go down it. I climbed up the old wooden steps of the creaking structure, being careful to avoid stepping on the parts that had almost rotted through, or the rusty nails poking out of them. It took longer than expected to get to the top, and when I made it up there I realised I was much higher than I liked. I began to have second thoughts, wondering if this was really safe. But the kids were watching on, laughing at me, so I went through with it, and stepped down onto the dry slide. I very slowly made my way down the first steep section until, halfway down, it levelled out for a bit and I came to a complete stop. I shuffled along on my butt to the next decline, and slid slowly down, only to come to another stop before the water. It hadn’t been that good, but at least everyone found it funny, and the kids were soon queuing up to do the same thing.
Later on someone did eventually come out and turn the water on. The kids excitedly all ran up, and the eldest, Cordor, jumped down first. Well, the addition of water had completely changed the nature of this slide, and the poor boy zipped down at about a hundred miles an hour, eyes wide with surprise as he splashed into the shallow pool of water at the bottom. I thought of Thalen’s pleading to have this water turned on as he and his sister turned around and made their way back down by the steps, not going near the slide again. Jace and I were not so put off by the dangers posed by this unregulated Ecuadorian water slide, and we were in fact heading up the steps in the opposite direction. He went down first, then I followed, whooping with delight. It really was quite a thrill, especially on the middle bit, where the short flat section acted to throw you up into the air, and the last section of descent, when all control was gone and you just had to pray for a safe landing. I managed to burn the skin off my forearms, while Jace was bleeding from his ankle. That didn’t stop us going again, of course. Altogether I think I went down five times, injuring a different body part each time. On the fifth go I actually banged the back of my head on the slide after catching air through the middle section, and decided it was really actually too dangerous. So I only went once more after that, and I think I got whiplash.
Altogether it was a fantastic time at the casa de ciclistas. We ended up staying longer than planned because Dea’s wrist was still playing up, but it was such a nice place and such a good group of people to be hanging out with that we didn’t really mind that one bit. With so much time, I managed to make a start on my next book, learn a bit of Danish, and help fix up bikes, and each night we’d join Anni, Jace, and Tomek in playing cambio, a very fun card game Tomek had learnt in Colombia. It was a really nice break from cycling, and easy to understand why so many people stay so long here. We owe many thanks to Santiago and his family for their incredible generosity.
On the 10th of September we finally left the casa de ciclistas. Anni had left a few days earlier and was already a few hundred kilometres south, but it was sad to say goodbye to Tomek and Jace, who had quickly become good friends. After being waved off, we rode through Tumbaco, the town that had briefly been our home, past the slide that had left me with my arms still covered in plasters, and back to the highway bike path. We were now heading east for the Amazon, but we had the small matter of a 1,700 metre pass to climb up first. Actually, it wasn’t a 1,700 metre pass, it was a 4,000 metre pass, but thanks to the considerable altitude of our starting point, we only (!) had to climb 1,700 metres. To our surprise the bike path kept on going, on and on. It seemed rather ridiculous that this bike path existed, for the road was also four lanes wide and had hardly any traffic on it, and with the road climbing constantly at over 5% there was of course nobody else using the bike path. But we weren’t complaining of course, and it was very nice to forget about the road and just enjoy cycling, which would have been easier to enjoy if we didn’t also have a massive headwind to supplement the steep gradient. We decided to call the day off early when we came across a village with an affordable hotel in it.
We were up again before it got light, hoping to make some distance before the winds picked up again. We began by riding up through the village in the first light of dawn, being barked at by a hundred small dogs. It was probably the most dogs I’d ever seen in one place, but they were all so tiny and harmless, and with the lights of Quito visible behind us it was a special moment really. We still had 1,000 metres to ascend and it turned into an almighty slog. The wind wasn’t as strong but it was still against us, with little protection offered by the grassy hillsides, and the thinner air took its toll on us as well. In fact Dea began to suffer once again with an altitude-induced headache long before the top. There wasn’t a lot to do about that, and she showed again how determined she could be, practically crawling to the summit at 4,068 metres. We didn’t stop longer than it took to throw on some layers, and descended down the other side to get to a friendlier altitude.
The bike path continued down the other side too. A few times it switched the side of the road that it was on, and there were even little tunnels under the road to make it safe to cross. These were quite unnecessary given the low traffic levels, and I’m sure have never been used. But altogether it was a most extraordinary thing. I’ve never come across such a bike path, even in Europe, going all of the way up and all of the way down a mountain pass continuously, but I like to think it’s a sign of the future. One day I hope every road will come with a bike path beside it.
We got down to a town famous for its hot springs and stopped for lunch to warm up in a little restaurant. Here the bike path finally ended, and the road also shrank to just two lanes, but it was still not busy and took us down through some beautiful forested mountains. It seemed that the rainforest had begun already, with a noticeably wetter and greener environment here. We made it down to Baeza, and checked into another hotel, both tired and relieved the last pass was done.
We stayed at the hotel until the midday checkout, knowing that we actually had plenty more tough riding ahead of us. When we did leave there were dark clouds over the mountains ahead of us, and sure enough it started to rain almost immediately. The road was at least pretty nice as it headed through the Andean foothills, a transition zone between the mountains and the jungle. After a while we came to a big covered football court and sought refuge from the rain along with a couple of horses. We’d gone to an outdoor shop in Tumbaco and looked at the available waterproofs, balked at the prices, and then bought ourselves a cheap emergency poncho each, and Dea put hers on as we went to continue. It was interesting timing, because it had actually stopped raining. It was really just a bin liner with arm holes, and it billowed about in the wind, making her look like a giant pink jellyfish, on a bike.
We had a 500 metre climb near the end of the day, but we made pretty light work of it. The problem was there was nowhere to camp and it was getting late, so we descended down the other side looking for space for our tent. Everywhere was extremely waterlogged and we just had to keep on going, until with the light almost completely gone, we came to a little village. After asking a man for advice, we were pointed to a volleyball court near to the community centre where we could pitch our tent for the night. It wasn’t a perfect place but it was really our only option, and everything seemed fine as we made dinner under a little shelter. Then, just as we were about to climb into our tent, an obviously very inebriated man stumbled across the volleyball court in our direction, falling about all over the place in the dark. He arrived at our tent and then stood staring at us, saying nothing. We said nothing either, and for a while all three of us simply stood there, fixed on one another in silence. I wished he would just go away, but knew he wouldn’t, and with no one else around I worried how things would develop. The spell was broken by another man approaching us, calling out for the first guy. This second fellow seemed much more normal, so we talked to him and, though there was an overpowering smell of alcohol about him too, he seemed okay. After a while, however, he started asking us for money.
Then still more men came, another three I think, all of them drunk. One was younger than the others, just a kid really, and yet he seemed far more sensible then the old drunks he was with. He was friendly enough, and we made conversation with him a little as we waited for them all to get bored and move on. After a while they all started to ask for money, saying that we had to pay to camp here. I felt uncomfortable of course, though not really unsafe, and rather sad for these men. They were pathetic men really. Luckily, our Spanish remained sufficiently bad that we could get away with pretending we didn’t understand what they meant, and they eventually gave up and staggered away into the night.
Thankfully the rest of the night passed peacefully, which was surprising really because it was Friday the 13th and a full moon to boot. Early in the morning we resumed our cycle towards Coca, the town where we would swap our bikes for boats, that was now only a few days away. But the hills were not over yet, and in fact this was the hardest day of our ride, with brutally steep ups and downs as we navigated the last of the foothills. Our compensation was the beautiful scenery, for it was all rainforest now, trees everywhere, waterfalls everywhere. But the tough ride was taking its toll on us, and the worst of it was that Dea’s wrist was in pain again, a pain that was spreading through her arm. At one of our rest breaks she confessed that she thought maybe she wasn’t going to be able to continue cycling, even after our boat ride. She started talking about taking a plane or a bus. “You can finish it without me,” she said at one point, a thought that broke my heart a little bit. This really was turning into a crappy Friday the 13th. This was our journey, ridden together, and I didn’t want to imagine doing it without her. I wanted her to make it around by bike and boats too, and even suggested that we could take boats all the way east, down the Amazon and across the Atlantic to get home while preserving this achievement. But after we talked more about it later I realised that I was putting my ambitions on her, that cycling every inch was never her goal. She told me that she wanted to see Peru and Bolivia, and that she was okay with taking a bus rather than destroying her wrist forever, if that’s what she had to do. But for now we agreed that the thing to do was to slow right down and take our time with the boats, take time off in towns along the way, and give her wrist the best possible chance to recover.
We struggled on until the worst of the climbing was over, and then decided to stop early in a little village. We’d originally stopped only to take a break in the shade of a bus stop and have a drink, but the charming little village won us over as the man next to us extracted juice from sugar cane while a mule and a herd of cows and all sorts passed us by. We asked the man if we could camp in an empty field next to his property, and he happily agreed. His wife suggested the covered sports court in town would be better in case it rained, but we’d had enough of camping on sports court the night before and preferred the relative protection of being close to other sober people. And besides, it was nice to be with this family, and their eleven-year-old daughter and three-year-old son came and sat with us and watched us cook and eat dinner, and showed us their newly born kittens, who really were very newly born.
We awoke to a rain-soaked tent. The field was almost flooded. Maybe the woman had had a point about the covered sports court. Sleeping on the ground just isn’t done here. Most of the wooden homes were built on stilts, and now we really understood why. We packed up and cycled on through the pouring rain, Dea looking like a pink jellyfish once more. After a while we came to another village with a covered sports court and we stopped to dry off a bit. I made some eggs to try and cheer us up. The hills were at least over and after a while the rain let up and we continued. On the last section of descent we could see down over the Amazon rainforest, and it really was quite a sight, this vast forest, clouds smouldering above the canopy.
We decided to stop in Loreto, 50 kilometres short of Coca, and checked into a hotel for a couple of nights. I would have been happy to stay longer, but Dea was keen to get to Coca and start resting her wrist properly, so the next day we rode the final section. Now the road was completely flat and stretched out in front of us, simply cutting an arrow-straight path through the forest. The rain was gone, and it was hot and humid beneath the blue skies. Yet it was not nearly so bad as it had been in Panama and northern Colombia, and it felt really quite bearable so long as we were generating a breeze by cycling.
With such an easy road we were soon in Coca, and found a big hotel with good Wi-Fi and air-conditioning for $15 a night. We decided to stay for five nights, until the weekend boat down the Napo River. On one of these rest days we wandered down to this river to buy our tickets and look out over the water, water that was going to provide us with quite a different adventure over the coming weeks. I looked at it and wondered at just what we might find as we headed off into the Amazon.