Getting our stamps into Ecuador was a whole lot easier than getting our stamps allowing us to leave Colombia, within a matter of minutes we had both been processed, our details put into the system and the all important stamp punched into the passport; we were even given a nice little map to help us on our way.
As we stood rather perplexed at just how easy this was, and hoping that finding some food would be just as easy, we spotted another fully loading touring bike. Michael, a guy from Poland, was on a 3 month whistle stop trip where he was aiming to do some crazy miles in a crazy number of countries. We rode into the first town together, all of us in search of food and supplies for the road ahead.
Straight from the border, Ecuador gave us a taste of what she has to offer with a cheeky uphill. We had heard from other cyclists that Ecuador was not a fan of switchbacks, opting more for the straight up and steep approach to hills; this small initiation wasn’t even a taste of what we had to come over the next few weeks though.
Over lunch of bread, cheese and Mayonnaise, while sat on the floor outside of the supermarket, us cycle tourists are classy folk; we discussed routes. Michael, with his huge distances was looking at heading straight down the Pan-American highway all the way to Quito; we however were looking at doing as little on this route as possible, opting for a back road we had been told about that would take us almost parallel with only slightly more distance added. Michael liking the sound of our alternative route, even with his very thin wheels, decided to join us, at least for a few days to see how it went.
The road turned out to be an amazing choice, one of those, “haha screw you busy highway, I’m king of this road” moments. The road was climbing, but so far it wasn’t too steep, and the scenery was amazing, all helped of course by perfect weather. Michael, it turns out was a bit of a dab hand at the whole photo and video making and we soon got to see him pull out some of his unexpected gadgets, and to my excitement he even had a drone with him! After far too long playing and taking photos we realised we hadn’t covered anywhere near as much distance as we wanted, and we were supposed to be trying to get through Ecuador as quick as possible! With failing light we were on camp spot lookout; this proved harder than usual, as flat land spaces were not very common. Just as we were beginning to prepare ourselves for a tough ride in the dark we scouted a spot that can only be described as less than ideal, the best of a really bad selection. It may have been flat to look at but the physical act of walking across this area was near impossible due to the vegetation, attempting to sleep on this terrain was going to be a challenge. We pegged out the tent as best we could and mentally prepared ourselves for a hellish night, our Thermerests did an impressive job of making it almost sleepable as we wrapped and curled our bodies around what can only be described as babies heads, in-fact no, they were bigger than babies heads, we were attempting to sleep on full size human heads and it didn’t make for a great night.
Morning broke and our previous days good weather was also a thing of the past. The clouds had rolled in and it was starting to look a lot like rain. A quick breakfast, no easy feet with very little flat ground to balance a stove and water for the all-important first coffee of the day, and we were back on the trail.
We set off slightly bedraggled after not the best night and as we slowly climbed the weather did not help our mood, wind and drizzle soon had us wrapped up and battling the cold, wishing that every bend would reveal the top. Eventually, after what felt like far more than the measly 10 km we had climbed we topped out 3700m in a cloud. What a difference a day makes. We donned every layer we could and prepared ourselves for the frigid decent, luckily we couldn’t go too fast due to the road conditions so the wind chill factor didn’t increase by too much. Once again though as we often find in these situations, the adverse weather conditions bring about their own majestic beauty. We may not snap as many photos or fully appreciate just what we are experiencing at the time but looking back it always seems worth the pain for the experiences we had, perhaps this is why we keep putting ourselves in these places questioning our sanity…
Materialising below the cloud line the good weather returned along with a good road surface and an overall happier, smilier mood. In our euphoric states, and probably enjoying the downhill a little too much, we missed a turning and descended an extra 6km only realising our mistake as we joyfully ate our jam and crisp sandwiches, this had a somewhat sombre effect on lunch as we realised we know had a 6km climb on our hands.
The rest of the day saw us make no more navigational errors and finally descended into the tropical like conditions that you experience when not stupidly high in the mountains, this mornings freezing decent on cobbled roads was just wishful thinking now that we joined the Pan-American highway, even in the brief section of shade we found, nothing could cool us down. Our camp for the night, although flatter, was also lacking the wow factor of the previous night. Hiding a mere 5meters from a main highway in a sugar cane field doesn’t make for the most atmospheric camp, or quietest. Michael was a little happier down here, turns out he didn’t have a sleeping bag and camping at the headache inspiring altitudes we were at the previous night meant not only couldn’t he lie flat but he was also awake shivering for most of the night.
With an early start planned and the prospect of our first night in Ecuador in a real bed we pushed big and made it to Cayambe. This had been our aim since crossing into Ecuador as from here we were going to try and ride and old rail trail all the way into Quito, it promised to cut out any nasty steep climbs by making use of the old bridges and tunnel systems, there was a very rough guide but not much information existed for riding it from so far out but we were hoping that it wasn’t going to be too difficult to follow a set of steel parallel lines on the ground!
Michael who had already forgotten the cold miserable night in the mountains was only too keen to ride another back road and agreed to join us for the next few days into Quito before we said our goodbyes. Unfortunately illness struck and he was up all night ensuring he got his full monies worth from the hotel bathroom. The next morning he looked dreadful but was still keen to at least try and ride his bike, turns out these Poles are tough cookies, I would definitely have taken a day in bed rather than get on my bike if I felt anywhere near as bad as he looked!
We found the rail trail and set forth following the haphazardly placed steel line that would hopefully take us to Quito. Gradually we climbed but the gradients were gentle, as huge sections of hills had been removed to enable the train to keep climbing. All was going well and we thought we were onto a winner, if this carried on we would make Quito with no problems at all. Unfortunately this wasn’t to be the case; before we realised it we found ourselves on a stretch that was becoming far more overgrown than we had bargained for, we pushed on confident that the entertaining riding would soon return only to find ourselves at a dead end. The bridge that once carried the trains now laid at the bottom of a gorge forcing us to retrace our steps, pushing back through what we now realised was more of a forest than a path.
From here it was a short stint on the main road but our morals had been sapped, Jess was also becoming to the mystery illness that was hindering Michael. Both parties were rather subdued as we fought our way back on to the trail hoping the worst was behind us.
Our hopes were mislaid, the bushes and thorns grew thicker and we were forced to don waterproof trousers and long sleeves, gloves if possible, anything to protect the exposed flesh from the might of the thorn bushes. At this point most sensible individuals may have turned round and opted to take the highway, giving up the rail trail as a good memory. Not us however, whether it be the bad night’s sleep or the zombie like state Jess and Michael found themselves in but we just kept pushing, forging a new path for any other stupid cycle tourists that may want to indulge in some self punishment. At least they would have some form of path broken for them!!!
After 6 long KM of pushing, swearing and at one point a huge sense of humour failure on my behalf we emerged, literally having been dragged through a hedge backwards, machetes would have been better for the stretch of trail we had just attempted rather than bikes.
With the trail becoming rideable again we made the most of it and began a great decent that saw us make up some of the time we lost playing in the huge hedgerow but the further we went the more Jess’ health deteriorated. With tiredness and illness taking its toll we found ourselves a secluded spot in a farmers field hidden from view of the road. With the tents up both Jess and Michael retired early leaving myself to reflect on the days adventure and cook for anyone who could face food, dinner for one it was!
Darkness fell and I felt confident in us achieving a good nights rest, as far as stealth camps go we hadn’t done too bad. Well until the farmer arrived that is. I was awoken to a shout of “Que mas?” (what’s up?). Great it’s dark and we are now going to have to pack and ride on, what time even is it?
I scrambled from the tent in a sleepy disorientated state using my best Spanish to apologise and try and explain what two tents were doing pitched in his field. ‘Disculpe, disculpe; Mi Novia es muy (imatetes being sick as I don’t know the word). La calle es muy difficile y nosotros somos muy cansado. Vamos. Roughly translated as sorry sorry my girldriend is very (sick). The road is very difficult and we are very tired. We go.
The farmer didn’t seem too phased by finding us and insisted we stay, “tranquillo, esta bien” and with our brief conversation over I crawled into the tent to grab whatever sleep I could before light. It was at this point jess informed me it was 11.30pm What kind of farmers start work at this time?
When we rose in the morning the famers were just finishing up. Tough shift. They pointed us towards some clean drinking water and wished us a safe journey. With this we were back on the road, Micheal and Jess still not feeling great but the prospect of making it to Quito and for some rest spurred them on.
The trail only got better from here on and slowly it became more built up. Amazingly the last 20km was a recently restored purpose built cycle trail. What we didn’t realise was that this trail would drop us 10km out of Quito at the bottom of a huge mountain with no other way in than a main highway. It was here we said our goodbyes to Michael, he had decided enough was enough and that the prospect of cycling up the mountain was too much for him in his weakened state, he was going to stay at the bottom. Jess and I, having arranged to stay with Sofi, our friend who we cycled with in Colombia took the climb head on.
This short stretch is, stand out, the most horrific riding I have ever done, from navigating the crazy roads of Ho Chi Minh to the worst roads in Brazil. This tops them all. Never have I felt so close to death. The climb was steep, the lanes were narrow, the shoulder was non-existent and the traffic was heavy. Everybody squeezed far too close and when a bus went past that actually scrapped my panniers causing a rather nervous wobble between falling into the drainage ditch on my left or under the wheels of the next vehicle on my right we decided enough was enough. We found the best spot we could and put out our thumbs praying that some kind soul would take pity on two stranded cyclists.
Luck was with us and after 30minutes or so a pick-up pulled in and offered to take us where we needed to go, turns out they were heading one block away from our final destination so they dropped us at the door of Sofi’s house.
The next few days in Quito were not much fun. The mystery illness finally caught up with myself and left both Jess and I bed ridden for the next 4 days. We even took a trip to the doctors and got ourselves some antibiotics. All that was left to do was rest and make as quick a recovery as possible!
Danny and Jessica living the nomadic dream.