In 2007 I cycled round Ecuador in South America. Starting from Guayaquil I followed the Pacific coast northwards to Pedernales, crossing the Equator in the process. I had never cycled over the Equator before and was excited about it. Thankfully there was a sign and a yellow line painted across the road. I had always wondered what colour the Equator was.
The article below appeared in December 2008 Cycle Manazine, the magazine of the CTC.
Touring at 14,000 Feet.
The payoff for pushing my bike up the steep dirt road for miles would be a glorious descent. That’s what I told myself at the summit. Two miles later I rounded a bend to find the road obliterated by mud several feet deep, stretching for at least 40 yards. No wonder I hadn't seen any cars for a while.
The guide books had warned about mudslides in Ecuador. I was on a scenic road that goes from the small town of Baños over the mountains to Patate. I had found one.
I started to carry the bike over it. Half way, it got more slippery and I realised I could only carry the weight of my bike if I removed all my bags. I waded through several times, carrying my bike, bags and boots. As I was rinsing my wheels a small pick up truck pulled up. The driver took one look at the mud and turned round, wheels skidding. I asked them where they had come from: Patate. I knew I would get through.
Mudslides apart, Ecuador is a good country for cycling. The roads are quiet and Ecuadoreans pass cyclists wide, even though there are few of them. Road surfaces vary widely and can dictate your route. Basically there are four types – asphalt, dirt, cobbled stone, and loose stone, in order of acceptability to cycling. Good maps will indicate the road surface, but can’t be relied on as the roads are steadily deteriorating through lack of maintenance. It’s best to ask people, particularly bus and taxi drivers.
I spent a morning in Riobamba bus station interviewing bus drivers about the state of the road to Guaranda. The consensus was that the road was asphalted all the way, it climbed very high, had a lot of potholes but was easily passable by bike. One bus driver had seen a group of cyclists on it.
The following morning I set off early, aware that I had a long day ahead of me. The road climbs 26 miles to a mountain refuge at about 4,500 meters above sea level, on the flanks of Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador at 6,310 meters. As I puffed my way up to it, feeling the lack of oxygen, I realised that I was about to cycle at a higher altitude than I had ever been mountaineering!
Each bend always seemed to bring more ascents into view. Finally I saw the mountain refuge hut and knew that was it. It was bitterly cold and I had all my clothes on. The views of snow-clad Chimborazo repaid all the work. It is a massive bulk of a mountain, and it was awe inspiring to sit on my bike at the edge of the road peering up at it. I didn’t hang around for long though as cloud came down on me.
Then I had a 26 mile descent into Guaranda. The chill factor of doing 26 miles downhill is immense - I was frozen! Needing something to warm my hands I stopped at the first place I saw for a coffee.
I had started my journey in Guayaquil, and from there headed north along the coast. A tarmac road, the Ruta del Sol, stretches along the coast as far as the Colombian frontier.
It was an ideal beginning to a cycle tour. Passing through mangrove swamps, shrimp farms, and rice fields the road seldom climbs more than a few hundred meters. I left the coast at Pedernales, just after crossing the Equator, which is marked by a sign and a yellow line painted across the road. I headed inland for Santa Domingo, as I wanted the challenge of riding up into the Andes. From Santa Domingo I pedalled uphill for two and a half days, resting in the little town of Mindo.
Mindo is a good place to see a wide variety of hummingbirds and butterflies, and the gently babbling rivers make it a tranquil place to recharge the batteries. From there I continued to Quito, the capital, which nestles 2,800 meters above sea level in two valleys surrounded by impressive volcanoes
Quito has an attractive colonial centre and is packed full of things to see. I spent nine days there before heading south to the Quilotoa loop. This route of minor, mainly dirt roads threads it’s way through the mountains west of Latacunga. Highlights have to be the Laguna de Quilotoa, an azure blue lake sitting placidly in the crater of a great volcano, and a visit to the colourful indigenous market at Zumbahua.
The loop is very hilly, but the dirt roads have smooth surfaces and it can be cycled comfortably in four days, with plenty of accommodation en route. The most homely is probably the guesthouse in the mountain village of Isinliví, which is run by a Dutch lady.
From the Andes it was an exhilarating downhill run all the way back to Guayaquil. The last stretch was scary as the road crosses the estuary by a long bridge, about a mile and a half long. Once, I had tried to cycle into Panama City over the Puente de Las Americas, but traffic policemen had prevented me from doing so. This time, although there was a Traffic policeman at the start of the bridge, he ignored me. The bridge has two lanes in each direction, but no shoulder or path. The parapet is only 18 inches high, so I pedalled along peering into the murky waters of the estuary, hoping a bus wouldn’t knock me into them…
I made it back into Guayaquil, having covered 1,029 miles and enjoyed the hospitality of a very friendly, welcoming, and charming people. Doing a circular route enabled me to see both cultures – the coast and the mountains. Coastal people are very open and approachable. When you stop for a drink someone will always come and sit with you for a chat. In the mountains, the largely indigenous people still wear colourful traditional clothing and are more reserved. Hardly anyone speaks English, so a knowledge of Spanish is helpful.