In the past when illness or weather has meant that we’d spent longer off the bike than we wanted it has led to us craving adventure, and on to paths that we probably otherwise would not have chosen. These have become some most memorable parts of the trip, that feeling of getting back on the road after a long time is like nothing else, I always feel like I’m dancing on my pedals. My memories of the journey from Queretaro and to the Huasteca in Mexico, and the time we got back on our bikes after the hurricane in Mexico still feel so clear and pure to me. So I’ve learnt to be patient, it always leads to something magical.
Here are the pictures that belong with this post.
We’re in Andean rainy season so I’m writing this blog entry on my iPhone in a petrol station watching the rain.
12th March Tumbaco to close to Rumipamba
13th Rumipamba to Cotopaxi
15th Cotopaxi to Ambato
16th Ambato to Banos
17th Banos to Cotopaxi (by bus)
18th Cotopaxi to Banos (by bus)
We set off from Tumbaco late, as usually is the way when leaving somewhere after a while. We had a pretty unremarkable day of uphills and negotiating our way through small towns and villages on the outskirts of Quito.
PPS not GPS
Santiago at the Casa Ciclista had given us a list of villages with the instructions to ask for the next village on the list once we arrived somewhere. He said rather than use your GPS you have to use your PPS (pare, pregunta, sigue, which means, stop, ask and continue).
The final village on the list was a place called Rumipamba, which meant leaving the Pan American Highway and heading up hill on cobbles, the only problem was that no one seemed sure about how to get there which meant taking a few wrong turns before getting on to the road. I’m totally sick of the traffic on the PanAmerican so I wasn’t going to complain about pushing my bike for miles up hill on the cobbles. We were back into the countryside, surrounded my fields, the road dotted with indigenous campesino villages. We stopped at one for the night, hoping to camp in the church. But asking the guy who lived next door he said we could stay with his family. There was a small house next to their own, they told us that the government provides social housing for people who live ruraly. We totally lucked out, here I had my first HOT shower for around 3 weeks, and we even had a bed to sleep in and extra covers to keep ourselves warm.
The following morning we set off for more pushing our bikes up hill on the cobbles, passing Rumipamba to buy some last minute supplies before heading into the national park. The gradient wasn’t as tough as the previous day so we could actually do some riding, about 10km before the park entrance the cobbles ended and it became open and flat, riding on dirt track rather than cobbles was a dream. Here we caught our first glimpse of the volcano Cotopaxi, and it was beautiful. Sadly about 1km before the park entrance it tipped it down. We were close to some work camp so we sheltered under some tarp and a guy who worked at the camp made a fire for us, we even heated water for tea on the fire! When the rain eventually stopped we headed off again to the national park entrance.
Ecuadorian tourism is impressive and well organised. To enter the park is free but you have to register your entrance with your passport. When you enter you’re given a map, plans, and details of the official free camping spots, signs in the park are in both Spanish and English. We were entering via Control Norte, which isn’t the main entrance to the park so it’s pretty quiet, there was just one park ranger, Giovanny, working there. He said we couldn’t just camp anywhere in the park and that park officials would come in the night to wake us up if we did, we therefore decided to stay at the control norte. Giovanny was great company and he cooked us dinner and hot chocolate. The park entrance itself is at 3800m (12 500 feet) so pretty high which makes it pretty cold. For all the British reading this our highest mountain Ben Nevis is 1344metres. He said we could sleep inside the office if we liked, but we were keen to wake up in front of the volcano. It was so cold at night but we were cozy sleeping with extra blankets given to us by Giovanny. All the cold nights we’ve experienced so far we’ve been fortunate enough to have people give us blankets, we will freeze when we eventually fend for ourselves!
The following morning we woke for breakfast cooked by Giovanny and set off through the national park. The volcano sand was like cycling on moon dust. We’d made the plan to cycle to the campsite, leave our stuff and then hitchhike up to the foothills of the volcano. A guy called Charlie gave us a ride, and we all hiked up to ‘El Refugio’ (The Refuge) and then up to the first snow glaziers, which is as far as you can go without hiring a guide and needing crampons, harness, rope, and a pick axe. We were at about 5000m ( 16 400Feet) the highest I’d been in my life. Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world and I understand that it’s appeal is that it tall, not crowded by any other mountains comparable in height. This makes it both beautiful to look at and the views from the volcano truly wondrous.
Charlie later drove us to a lake in the national park called Limpiopungo, a bird watchers paradise. That night at the campsite there were a group of people waiting to climb the volcano. People scale it at night to make it up in time for sunrise and then climb back down in the morning. Usually people wait at the Refuge at the foothills (partly to get used to the altitude and partly to make the ascent easier) but this is under construction at the moment which means there are less chances of making it to the top. Anyway, a seed had been planted, the volcano had really got into my head and captured my imagination and I was envious of those people attempting to make it to the top.
The following day we cycled down hill out of the national park through small side roads to the city of Latacunga before having to hit the PanAm highway again, it was as horrible as ever and we got caught in the rain all afternoon, but I just sort of embraced it, this would be our last day on this motorway that stretches the length of the Americas potentially for the rest of the trip. That night we stayed with Giovanny (the Cotopaxi park ranger) who lived in Ambato. It was Saturday night so he took us for some beers, Ambato even had some rock clubs, reminding me of being a teenager. The following day we didn’t leave to the afternoon, going to Banos, a place well and truly on the backpacker trail and a popular base for doing activities like mountain biking and rafting.
In my head
I couldn’t get Cotopaxi out of my head, the cost was the only thing making me hesitate but I knew I’d always regret it if I didn’t try and climb it. So with that I caught a bus back to Latacunga and hired a guide. That night we drove up to the foothills of the volcano and set off about 11.30pm. Wearing heavy duty waterproofs, snow boots, crampons and a helmet, and armed with a pick axe and tied to my guide by harness and a rope.
I can’t say I enjoyed myself going up that mountain, it was steep and I needed the pick axe for every step, and of course it was pitch dark so I just fixed my head so that my head torch could light the way. I’m not the strongest walker either, my muscles now more used to cycling than anything else. The altitude makes the air thin and it is therefore hard to breathe especially whilst exercising, but I seemed to manage ok. That night I didn’t make it to the top of Cotopaxi. Once we got near the top my guide realised there had been an avalanche and it wasn’t safe to continue, so we turned back. I’d never felt so alone or humbled by nature as I did on top of that volcano, knowing in the dark we were the only people up there, so high,, so dark, so alone; life suddenly seemed so fragile.
At the time I felt pretty disillusioned but now I’m more pragmatic, it my first time with all that equipment, hiking in the dark and at altitude, and I made it to 5400metres (17 700 ft), the highest I had been in my life and I tried, so I have no regrets. And really…. an adventure wouldn’t be an adventure if it was easy or it worked out every time, would it?
the choice is yours to make, the time is yours to take, some dive into the sea, others toil amongst the stone; to live is to fly, all low and high; so shake the dust from your wings and the sleep from your eyes.
- Pan American Highway and Quito
- Into the wild