Nueva Loja – Lumbaqui – El Reventadora – Santa Rosa – Baezes – Papallacta – Casa de Ciclistas – Quito
We rolled on and into our 10th country, Ecuador, which like Colombia in only a couple of days cycling can offer a mix of Amazonian jungle, forested mountains, snowy volcanoes, mist and murk and dry, sunny valleys. From the Colombian town of Mocoa we had two options to reach the border, each with pros and cons – if you read our last blog firstly well done it was lengthy 🙂 and secondly you’ll know this already… Option 1 involved a lot of dirt road climbing, a lot of tarmac climbing, the busy panamerican highway and a potentially very slow border crossing. Option 2 involved mostly tarmac, far less climbing, promised to be quieter and with an easier border, but lots of travel advice suggested various dangers from low-level crime and robbery all the way up to kidnap and extortion.
We chose option 2 having spoken to a couple of local people who were very re-assuring, and we think this was definitely the right call for us. Crossing the border between Hormiga and Nueva Loja kept us a on flat, hot, jungle-looking route with much excitement when multiple Toucans were spotted. The border was unusual (see previous blog post here) and the ride into Neuva Loja pretty peaceful. This town, we read, was hacked out of the rainforest pretty much in the 1960s in an oil-extraction operation lead by Texaco. The pollution levels here are apparently horrendous, though nothing is really obvious above ground in the area of the town, it looks pretty ‘normal’, with roads and cleared grassland (which should probably be jungle…). The town itself on a Sunday afternoon was quite ghostly, lots of abandoned buildings and hardly anyone around. It is a tourist drop-off point for the Amazon though, so plenty of basic hotels. It did have a wild-west feel to it, and the only entertainment appeared to be 4 caterpillar-looking tourist trains, the sort you get at the zoo or on seafronts, one of which spent a couple of happy hours pulling donuts down the street from our hotel that night.
Doing anything at all in Neuva Loja apart from staying in your hotel and then getting out of Dodge asap is not advised, and whilst we didn’t hang about we didn’t have any problems and met the normal nice people over breakfast and a couple of shopping errands. Having only decided to come this route a couple of days before, we hadn’t really looked into the possibility of an full-on amazon trip, but with a date with dog-sitting in Quito it wasn’t an option.
From Nueva Loja we had a day of two halves, with a flat, straight road in the morning and then more climbing as the road started to twist its way up into the foothills of the Andes again. The countryside looked like pristine jungle in many places, unlike Colombia where for the most part cultivation was a lot more present. Stopping for the night at the “Cabanas Shamana” in Lumbaqui was great for a good night’s sleep, and from here the road pretty much would climb gradually up to the Papallacta pass at 4000m, the highest point on our trip so far. We were very much in the rain shadow of the Andes here so we started out in light drizzle, things dried a little during the middle of the day as we crossed the equator, and then got progressively wetter in the afternoon. The equator was relatively underwhelming here although the was a small monument in the nearest village.
Approaching El Reventador (apparently a properly spectacular, active volcano…) in the pouring rain, we both got totally soaked and started to get cold, and with accomodation options running out we reluctantly paid $20 to mild camp in the roof area of a hotel which though expensive, was deserted and not in great repair. No hot water but it was dry at least. The next morning was drier and we ambled on, up and down, into a stunning valley to Santa Rosa and another basic, cheap hotel.We knew we were missing various waterfall walks in the area though with sub-optimal weather and a bit of a timeline, we pushed on. Luckily the route in Ecuador so far had been pretty well-lined with tall waterfalls 😊.
Another wet morning up the valley to Baezes, a small town of mostly tourists who come for rafting and kayaking, birdwatching and outdoor stuff. Finally a free night in the tent, under a building, and a really nice restaurant. We had a day off to do a few chores here, also in the knowledge that a 30k climb, potentially in crappy weather, was our next job.
Somebody up there was in a good mood it appears, as for the next three days the weather was not just dry but cloudy, so we suffered with neither rain or sun (which is really strong here – the bulge in the centre of the earth pushing us closer to the sun, even though the height above sea-level is not as high as elsewhere in the Andes). The climb from Baezes to Papallacta was very long but not steep, pretty easy going and we arrived at an Overlander-recommended hotel and found a cheap room up in the roof which was really nice with big windows overlooking the town, and two lovely rattly old Ecuadorians running it. Unfortunately there was a building site next door, and it seems the norm to keep a very nervous dog on-site overnight. So totally ridiculous barking all night – I don’t know how anyone in South America got any sleep that night.
The fantastic Thermal Baths at Papallacta kept us busy (ie, not busy at all) the next day. We met a nice man who owned a restaurant next to one of the cheaper sets of pools (there are at least 4 or 5 near the town), and camped under his house again for free. The baths were $4 each and with a pretty cool air temperature it was lovely to spend a few hours just sitting about being warm – and occasionally explaining our trip to astonished people. The next morning the air was clear and we got a few nice glimpses of Volcan Antisana, which is not far off 6,000m high and definitely a proper mountain.
Papallacta sits below the pass before descending to Quito, so we had a moderate but pretty long climb up to 4000m still to go. The road is big, with a cycle lane all the way up, and by the top with more cloud cover and wind the temperature had really dropped and we needed gloves, longs, jumpers and windproofs, the lot, before heading down and pausing for a couple of hot chocolates and massive fried chicken for lunch. From here we had views of Pichincha, another peak above 5000m on the other side of Quito. The landscape became dramatic quickly as we approached Quito, with a partial view of Coatapaxi, probably Ecuador’s most famous volcano, to the south. We also warmed up rapidly as the sun came out and we dropped altitude, and the weather here in the valley around Quito looked to be a lot better than over the hills towards the Amazon.
A warm-showers host – who wasn’t able to help us out – recommended the Casa de Ciclistas in Tumbaco, which is in the valley just before climbing up to Quito. It was a great recommendation, we spent I think 3 days there meeting some other cyclists from South America, a couple of other Brits who had ridden from Ushuaia, and the owner Santiago (Santi) who’s a great guy, incredibly friendly and also a bike mechanic. Hundreds of cyclists have stopped here over the years and it was really nice to feel ‘at home’ after some of the more anonymous stops on our route. Well-rested and cleaned up we headed to the outskirts of Quito to meet Delaney, Brian, Luna and Jack. We’d found them through Trustedhousesitters and signed up to take care of the two dogs over Christmas while Delaney and Brian had a holiday in Patagonia.
Their flat from where I’m writing this is idyllic for a couple of cycle tourers, with hot showers, a kitchen and Netflix – in that order of importance! The dogs are very funny and easy, so we’ve had a good mix of having a break and being able to do some day trips around Quito. The cable car/walk up around Pichincha is a great trip, accessible and the high altitude is fine for ‘normal’ breathing but does noticeably making walking uphill more breathless. Quito like all civilised South American cities closes a major road to traffic on Sundays, so we’ve enjoyed pottering around town a little too. Apart from this we are very close to a great park with views in every direction, we keep an eye out for the moments when the higher cloud clears to give views of three huge volcanoes. There is even a gym in the building we’re in, so the treadmill got a little go too.
If you follow us on instagram or have otherwise been in touch in the last week or so you’ll know that whilst our adventures continue, they won’t be continuing together and we have decided to go separate ways – Zoe is returning (temporarily, that is certain!) to the UK in a couple of weeks, and I’m carrying on heading south for perhaps another 12 months in South America. I won’t offer an explanation of all this, and at the moment perhaps it’s enough to say that we have both had the most incredible time so far, and are both (in amongst various emotions) also very excited for whatever comes next. One or both of us will still be posting various blogs, instagrams and facebook updates – it’s a great record for each of us, and a way of keeping in touch too. So more pictures and words of funstuff still to come, watch this space!