Everything in Ecuador is Extremely Steep

When last you heard from us, the Troll Boys were in Baños enjoying the marvelous hot springs. The next stage of the journey aimed to bring us into Quito, the capital and second-largest city in Ecuador. Baños, while still high in the mountains, is a thousand meters lower in altitude than Quito, but for some reason, we decided the several day climb was not enough and that we needed to bike up Cotopaxi, an active volcano, as well. Our first day out of Baños took us along a beautiful hedge-lined road with very little traffic.

This route was every biker’s dream, and we ended up in a lovely, flat camping spot on a soccer field next to a private swimming pool. We had so much energy and excitement from the day that we ended up playing catch with a frisbee for nearly an hour before starting to cook dinner.

Bike touring tip #6: Always remember to have fun when you have the energy to do so!

However, our easier day of biking simply meant that there was more elevation to climb all at once in the coming days. Despite the constant uphill at a slow pace, we still found plenty of things to enjoy on the way to Quito. On the second day, we went through a town where the children ran alongside our bikes in an attempt to race us to the top of the hill since they could sprint nearly as fast as we were going.

We had a less pleasant second half of the day when we hit a very dusty road through a quarry in a valley, where dogs constantly came out onto the road to chase us. Although we had to take a break to calm our tempers and steady our nerves, we were soon able to enjoy the beautiful path ahead of us on our way into Latacunga, a city where we stayed the night in a hostel while Cody taught Jon and I how to strategize while playing Black-Jack.

Our next day brought us to Cotopaxi, one of Ecuador’s tallest peaks, and a currently active volcano. We had done some research about entering the Cotopaxi national park ahead of time, and read that it was impossible to stay overnight in the park itself due to the volcano. However, we found out that there was a free camping spot within the park with bathrooms and cooking facilities, and we biked hard up the road to reach the campsite before dark. We enjoyed occasional glimpses of the Cotopaxi peak through the clouds while Jon cooked up a pizza.

We were finally a short distance from Quito, and we planned to bike all the way from Cotopaxi into the capital. However, we had not foreseen that the road would be so difficult to bike down on our way towards Quito. We learned that it is not gravel or dirt roads that are the hardest to bike on, but cobblestones that win the title of most difficult road. Cobblestones rattle your body and your bike and prevent you from going at even a halfway decent pace. True, the path was beautiful with nice views and endless pastures along the way, yet our bodies were being jolted so badly that it was hard to even think.

After spending several hours on the cobblestones, we reached a nicer pavement road, which we enjoyed even though it quickly became steep enough that we had to walk our bikes up. We hit a much quicker pace through a soft rain for the last few kilometers to Quito, hoping to arrive with plenty of time in the evening to enjoy the city.

We reached the outskirts of Quito, and it was at that moment that we realized we had a large problem. Nightfall was fast approaching, and biking to downtown Quito included large amounts of climbing uphill through stressful traffic.

Biking touring tip #7: Do everything within your power to avoid biking at night.

We ended up biking nearly two hours longer than we had anticipated, each of us with flashing bike lights pointed ahead and behind to warn cars that we were in the street. We stopped at the first hostel that we could find, which had neither hot water nor wifi, and smelled slightly of bathroom.

The next morning, we explored Quito, which was one of the first two declared UNESCO World Heritage sites for the beautiful, well-preserved colonial center. There was also some sort of bike race going on throughout the downtown section.

We were most excited to visit the Basilica del Voto Nacional (Basilica of the National Vow), which commanded a fantastic view over the whole city from its lofty hill. We were dismayed to find out that although we were now feeling strong on the bikes, walking up steep hills was quite a struggle.

The Basilica was beautiful, and we spent a lot of time climbing up and down the stairs of the towers and enjoying vistas of the city.

We relocated to a new hostel, Hump Day Hostel, where we socialized with other travelers for the remainder of our time in Quito. Instead of heading out of town by bike, the Troll Boys decided to tackle a gigantic challenge, climbing Cayambe, another large peak and active volcano in Ecuador.

What I Would Do For A Hot Bath

Cuenca is the third-largest city in Ecuador, and it’s historic downtown area is listed as a UNESCO world heritage trust site, due to the many beautiful colonial-style buildings.

The Troll Boys enjoyed the beauties of the city, especially the New Cathedral, an opulent church filled with expensive marbles imported directly from Italy. However, we soon succumbed to the exhaustion that comes from climbing several thousand feet of elevation every day, and we retired to our room to eat two large pizzas and watch The Fellowship of the Ring.

Bike touring tip #4: Rest days are a necessity. When you push your body to the limit for several days in a row, it is essential that recovery time is scheduled where you can recuperate from the vigors of the road.

Once we had taken sufficient rest in Cuenca, we hit the road again, excited to get back on the bikes and head directly towards our next watering hole, the hot-spring baths of Baños, Ecuador. We calculated that it would take a full six days of riding to accomplish our goal, so we added an extra day of rest in the middle to remain true to tip #4.

On a trip as long and as intense as this in a foreign land, it is important to share the burden of leadership equally. Jon helpfully suggested that we could take turns shouldering the responsibility of tasks such as navigating, cooking, and communicating with locals using a method from his work with NOLS called “leader of the day.” Each day, it would be the turn of one of the members of the team to step forward and take charge, allowing the other two to assume a follower role for the duration of the shift. This method is designed to streamline all decision-making processes, as the general day-to-day affairs are easily handled by the one person who has planned ahead for their specific day (such as this picture of Cody navigating through mountain dirt roads).

Over our next three days to our rest-stop in the city of San Pedro de Alausi, each of us struggled in different ways with the weight of leadership, working out seemingly simple things like how much food to buy, when to find a campsite, and how long to bike before taking short snack breaks. Luckily, each mistake informed our future choices, and we even ended up benefitting on occasion from our errors, like the night that a friendly stranger offered us a beautiful campsite long after we had accepted the fact that we would be sleeping in a cold and windy abandoned building.

Finally after several days of biking through gorgeous mountains, we rolled into the town of San Pedro de Alausi on the morning of September 21st, the main station for the Nariz del Diablo (Nose of the Devil), a train that traverses one of the most dangerous railways in the world due to intense and sudden changes in elevation made necessary by the sheer walls of the mountain through which it passes. Unfortunately, Jon was feeling a bit ill, and so we decided another day of Lord of the Rings and lying in bed with chocolate milk was in order.

After a day of regenerating stamina for the mountain roads ahead, we continued on through beautiful ridges and small towns where we stopped for lunch breaks and chatted with curious schoolchildren.

And then came the infamous “Splat and Splurge Saturday,” so named by yours truly for an adventure that unfortunately tested the generosity of the Ecuadorian healthcare system. First, a little backstory. In Ecuador, many of the natives own dogs, and far too many of these rascals are unused to bikers, and so chase you across the property. This makes a rider a bit nervous in the best of circumstances, as a dog tangled between the wheels could make for a quick disaster, but when a larger, more aggressive dog comes out and snarls while nipping at your ankles, it is time to take steps to defend yourself. The first line of defense is typically a threatening yell, but sometimes throwing rocks to scare off the dogs is a necessity. On “Splat and Splurge Saturday,” the Troll Boys were practicing their defensive bombardment on cow-crossing signs we were passing, and in an ironic twist of fate (literally), I ended up wrenching the handlebars just enough as I threw, to land on my chin with my bike flipping over me. In case you were wondering, Cody had perfect aim and hit the sign dead-on.

The casualty count: One broken molar, one profusely bleeding chin, and one very bruised jaw.

Luckily, Jon was able to patch me up as Cody flagged down a passing vehicle to take us to a hospital in the nearby city of Riobamba. The Ecuadorian healthcare was amazing, getting me in and out of the hospital and a dentist for FREE in about three hours total, while Jon and Cody secured a meal to eat and a place to stay. Hence the Splurge part of the day, where in their infinite wisdom, they decided that spending more money on a comfortable room was in our best interest as a group. The Troll Boys streamed an exciting game of Hawkeye football against Penn State and ate pizza, and the next morning, were ready to roll the last few miles to Baños.

The next day was grueling as we traversed canyon gorges over rickety bridges and biked up sandy roads where the wind blew debris into our eyes.

And that, dear readers, is what I would do to reach a hot bath in Baños with my wonderful friends Cody and Jon.

Over the next few days, we enjoyed the famous Swing at the End of the World and went from wallowing hole to wallowing hole across the town, keeping our chins up in the face of adversity (in my case literally because those hot-springs probably had bacteria) and gathering our strength for the next bit of adventure.

Before I sign off, I want to leave you with one more piece of advice:

Bike touring tip #5: Don’t get hurt. But if you must, do so in a country with free health-care!