After a medley of trains, planes and even a nocturnal bicycle ride across LA (with dumpster-diving feed en route), here I am back in Quito. Or rather Tumbaco, a small town squeezed between steep, quilted hills, set some 12 kms to the east of Ecuador’s sprawling capital. And sprawling it certainly is. Despite its relatively modest population size – sub 2 million in number – this runner bean-shaped metropolis extends some 48kms in length, draped between a rugged corridor of active and dormant volcanos.
The culture shock of such an arrival can be intense. It’s a time when senses are at their sharpest and their most impressionable; before the brain has a chance to adjust to the barrage of sensory experiences that bombard it. After a smooth transit through Ecuador’s immigration, I crammed my bicycle into the trunk of a cheap taxi sedan, resuscitating my neglected Spanish into life over small talk with its driver. Luckily I had a home to head for that night, courtesy of Steve Tober – a teacher at a British school near Tumbaco – and his Colombian, elite-level mountain-running wife, along with their two kids.
Steve has a passion for bicycle touring that courses strongly through his veins. Nowadays he concentrates his two-wheeled explorations around Colombia and Ecuador; pre-kids, he travelled all over around world. Check out his excellent blog if you ever question the plausibility of touring as a family in South America – his stories are inspiring. In fact, it was Steve’s local route-finding expertise and enthusiasm that I have to thank for one of my favourite rides: Tulcan to El Angel, via the otherworldly Paramo. And, no doubt, his guidance that I’ll be grateful for when it comes to the adventures that lie ahead. Indeed, it wasn’t long before we’d cracked out a collection of well-thumbed maps; now my head is spinning with possibilities for unbeaten path travel to Peru and beyond.
It feels good to be back on the road, especially given my happier state of health than last time round. Although the sensation of returning to a nomadic lifestyle, after so long, is overwhelmingly one of excitement, I have to admit it’s tinged with apprehension. I’m back on my own, dealing with whatever life throws at me. Last time my journey to Ecuador took months; a slow, natural adaptation to Latin America. This time it’s been accelerated into a handful of hours. Almost immediately I’ve had the realisation – or rather the stark reminder – of how much more intense bicycle touring is here, compared to my recent journeys in South West USA.
Which is probably what keeps drawing me back. Aside from the physical challenges of near vertical climbs through the Andes, there’s that infamous Latin American edge to contend with. And the cars too – and the frenzied, diesel belching buses – that drive with wild abandon. The glass-littered roads, mined with unexpected, cavernous potholes, or protruding with sculptures of contorted rebar.
Of course, these challenges are more than offset by the vibrancy of life here, the warmth and curiosity of those I meet and the natural beauty and diversity of the land. Not to mention the wealth of new foods to savour – streets and markets resplendent in mysterious produce awaiting the intrepid, hungry cyclist…
The Tober Rig: a hardtail pulling a tag-along pulling a Chariot trailer… Incidentally, the tag-along bike is 9kg, Ramon is 17kg, the Chariot trailer is 15kg, and Carla is 12kg. Add Steve’s bike and 10kg in the panniers, and you have some serious load hauling… Every Sunday, a car-free route – the Ciclovía – runs much of the length of elongated Quito, so we headed out en famille to rub shoulders with hundreds of Ecuadorian cyclists. The Tober Rig proved to be quite an eye catcher.
The historic centre of the capital, which lies some 25 kilometres south of the equator. Hence the name of the country.
Room for two in the deluxe Chariot. After a long day out, treats help keep smiles on faces…
The next morning, Steve and I awoke at the crack of dawn to head out for a day ride to Cumbre del Llalo. A chance to refamiliarize my legs with relentless Ecuadorian grades, the route covered the full gamut of terrain, including cangahua, dry mud moulded into a curious lunascape.
And, of course, the classic Ecuadorian cobblestone – empedrado – a filling-loosening surface that defies even the benefits of 29er wheels.
During much of the ride, we were engulfed by a thick veil of cloud cover. As we neared the top, we weaved our way through an alleyway of eucalyptuses poking out of the swirling mist.
A triumphant Cass and Ogre at Cumbre del Ilalo, 3200m. (photo Steve Tober)
Let the street food feast begin… These tortillas de tiesto are made from wholewheat or corn, stuffed with cheese and sweetened with panela – unrefined whole cane sugar. Prepared on a traditional ceramic bowl, they go down a treat after a ride.
I did, however, pass on this poor fella – hornado de chancho – cooked in a large dome oven and served as seen.
A devout vegan, Steve had rustled up some of his delicious powerbars, laced with all kinds of nuts and flax seeds for a slow burning, long lasting and nutricious energy boost. Recipe below…
‘Endorphin Adventures Vegan Powerbars’
chopped brazil nuts and walnuts
chia seeds (indigenous to South America…like poppy seeds)
Mix ingredients, adding water until consistency is that of thick cookies dough. Bake in cake pan for 45 mins or so. Cut into squares and freeze until jet power needed!
Another healthy boost: lush, tropical fruit sold at almost every street corner in Ecuador.
Sometimes you don’t even have to go looking for it – it comes to you. This open air fruit truck passes by Steve and Maria’s home every week to unload the latest in fresh produce.
Alternative uses for a stroller…
Incidentally, the Ogre arrived safe and sound. Although the flight was operated by American Airlines flight, booking through LAN Ecuador meant there was no excess baggage fee to pay, saving me the $150 charge I’d have been hit with otherwise. As usual, I used my Ground Effect Body Bag, bolstered with locally sourced cardboard. It folds down small to be forwarded onwards or sent home.
When I flew home from Quito last year, I’d left some panniers and gear at the ramshackle Casa de Ciclistas in Tumbaco, so I headed over to sift through long forgotten belongings.
Resident hound Luna.
I set up camp in the open garage at the end of the garden, protection from the afternoon deluges typical at this time of year, before the dry season takes a firmer hold.
My neighbour, Frenchman Arthur, who has ridden down from Mexico City.
And Miguel, from Asturias, Spain, who’s pedalled up from Ushuaia, Argentina.
Of course, no self-respecting Spaniard begins the day without a cigarette and a cup of coffee…
For the perfect cup of coffee you need, of course, a miniature caffettiera in your panniers.
Gear talk… I hadn’t realised the Truvativ GPX crankset fitted to the Ogre wasn’t Shimano compatible – even standard Shimano chainrings won’t fit without modification. Luckily (for me at least), someone else had run into same issue. There was a damaged crankset amongst Santiago’s treasure trove of spares which I cannibalised for parts .
For aspiring 29er riders, the good news is that the big wheel revolution has made it to Ecuador – or at least, to its high end bicycle shops. I noted an impressive collection of Maxxis 29er tyres were available, for as little as $23 each.
Our hosts. Santiago and his wife Ana Lucia have been receiving roving cyclists for over 20 years, offering them a place to pitch a tent, a workshop to repair their bikes and warmhearted, Ecuadorian hospitality.