I ❤ Cotopaxi; Ecuador

I guess I must do, as I’ve found myself back at Cotopaxi once more… And I certainly took enough photos of this beautiful, symmetrical cone of a volcano to suggest some form of obsession…

This time round, I took the slightly more conventional backroad/cobbles/dirt route into the park, via Sangolqui and Rumipamba, and was lucky enough to coincide my trip with the most pin-sharp, clear conditions I could have hoped for. In doing this ride, I’m ‘closing the loop’  on my recent bikebacking trip – I can now officially say I’ve cycled all around Cotopaxi. Next up, I just need to climb it…

Leaving on a Sunday morning involved running the gauntlet through villages touting for weekend customers, each displaying lavish spreads of food to entice hungry drivers – skewered guinea pigs and oven-cooked pigs being the local, delectable specialities.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that food plays a pivotal role in my life – as it does with most bike tourers. The profusion of street food is one aspect of travelling in South America that keeps me motivated to explore. As well as supplying cheap sustenance, it’s a place to meet and reclaim the streets, a chance to interact and chat over an outdoor meal.

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Vegetarians, please look away…

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Although I’m no longer a pork eater these days, this dish – a dollar’s worth of pork, crackling and corn – brought back memories of my dad’s legendary sunday roasts.

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We’d have fought over massive shards of crackling like this when we were young…

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Tostatas –  toasted corn – and mote – soaked and cooked corn – make a great roadside snack.

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Cuy – roasted guinea pig – an Ecuadorian speciality. Note pained expression on Cuy no 4.

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And yet more food… I stopped for a recharge in Santa Rita. This little number set me back $2. The new potatoes were especially delicious.

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The lady running the restaurant pointed out some of the local medicinal plants, including tilo, which is recommended for the lungs when made into a tea. I collected a sprig for my brew that evening.

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A reminder of the importance in conserving the natural habitat of the páramo – the high altitude wilderness to which I was heading. Hunting used to be a big problem and nowadays, the consequences are severe: a $10 000 dollar fine. If you can’t pay that (which no one can), then it’s a year in prison.

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Paris Roubaix? I should be so lucky. 15km of filling-dislodging cobbles sorts the wheat from the chaff…

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Finally, evil cobbles give way to luxurious dirt and open views towards Cotopaxi and Rumiñahui.

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I camped that night at the northern entrance to the gate. The guard on duty, Jose Louis, invited me in to sit round the fire and have dinner. We chatted about Ecuador’s president, socialist Rafael Correa. The general consensus appears to be that things are moving in the right direction for Ecuador, and that poverty is slowly lessening. Through the likes of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, this is an empowering time for Latin America.

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The altitude here is 3800m. These hardy dogs curl up into a ball and sleep outside. I was especially taken by the sandy-coloured mongrel. Tough, friendly and lithe, he would have made a good travel companion.

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In the early hours, I crept out of my tent to steal a view of Cotopaxi.

The shadows were fast retreating and soon the sun clipped the crater top. Whoever was summiting the 5897m peak that day would have been enjoying some spectacular views…

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Bidding farewell to Jose Louis and the stray, hardy dogs, I rode on, following a dirt road that runs to the west of the volcano.

Road thoughts…

Occasionally, everything I aspire to in a journey is distilled into one brief moment.

I pedalled across the Cotopaxi plateau on a cold and clear day, my MP3 fully charged and music in my ears. The road was rutted and peppered with sharp stones; lichen-ringed boulders jutted from the earth to either side. In the distance, an old and battered pickup truck – a Ford Ranger – was slowly making its way towards me. When our paths crossed it lurched to a stop, and the driver wound down its grubby window.

Inside, I could see the cab was crammed with weathered passengers garbed in stripey ponchos traditional to these parts – the uniform of the Chagras, the local cowboys. In someone’s lap, baby fingers poked out of a bundle of woollen blankets. The driver asked me where I was headed, where I had been, and what I thought of Ecuador. Then he shook my hand and wished me well for the road ahead. The truck bounced off once more, kicking up dust into the clear morning air, and I was back to being on my own on the windswept plateau.

It’s during these precious moments that I feel clarity in my mind: complete happiness and appreciation in being where I am, doing what I am doing. It can be a powerful, overwhelming feeling. Sometimes I laugh out aloud – and sometimes laughter is overwhelmed by tears, and I cry. It’s real heart-chakra opening stuff…

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Wild flowers on the high plateau, as yet unidentified. Simon, can you help me out on this one?

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Some Ogre-talk. I’ve gone relatively compact for this next section of the journey, with two small rear panniers, a framebag, a roll bag on the handlebars and a seat bag. I’ve also packed an Osprey Talon 11 daypack for mountain biking side trips.

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My Arkel XM28s aren’t the lightest panniers by any means, but they’re tough, repairable and I like the mounting fixtures: kung fu grip for rattle-free riding. Perfect for the cobbled toils of Ecuadorian roads.

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One last detour to Limpiopungo lake, home to six species of migrating birds, before beginning the 1000m descent back down to the highway… Next stop, the Quilatoa crater lake.

Need to know bit:

It’s under 60km from Tumbaco to Cotopaxi’s North Gate. It’s paved till San Rafael or so, then there’s 15km of relatively intense cobbles, with severely steep grades thrown in for good measure. Finally, this gives way to 10kms of gorgeous dirt with open views. Plenty of spots of food too, or camping if need be. There’s no entry fee to the park anymore, and you can camp at the gate for free.

Once across the park and on the way down to Lasso, hang a left at the first junction after the Southern Gate. A quiet road will deposit you on the edge of Lasso, avoiding the Panamerican Highway completely. From there, you can cut right across towards Toacazo, to start the Quilatoa Loop.

17 thoughts on “I ❤ Cotopaxi; Ecuador

  1. Gerco

    With your current set-up on the Ogre… Do you have sufficient room for camping gear? Including tent, stove etc.?

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Yep, I have everything. If I didn’t have the backpack squished in there, they’d be more room though. Also included is a DSLR and a few lenses, plus computer, backup hard drive, too many cables etc… There’s room for a decent amount of food, but not for weeks on end…

      Reply
      1. While Out Riding Post author

        I should add that the main reason I’m using the Arkel 28s is that they’re the panniers I left out in storage here when I returned from Quito last year. Otherwise I might have gone for some lighter Ortlieb rollers – even the 40L ones probably weigh less, with 12L more space. However, I prefer the Arkel attachment system (I always lose the Ortlieb inserts), and I like the elasticated lids for stuffing extra things in.

        Reply
  2. Julian

    Do you ever upload larger versions of your photos? I’d love to use some for my desktop photo at work while I daydream of bike trips.

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      ‘Fraid I don’t. I keep meaning to on Flickr, but it means more time in front of the computer… If there’s anything in particular, send me an email and I’ll see if I can track a few down!

      Reply
  3. Simon G

    Difficult to tell without higher resolution of the flower…but I’d shoot for a member of the dwarf gentians (Gentianella Cerastioides (Kunth) Fabris .var Chimborazensis). Fairly common at altitudes 3000m – 4500m from Southern Columbia to Peru (with different sub-variants). Grows in clumps…5cm high.

    Keep them coming…S

    Reply
      1. Simon G

        Friday the 15th June…Noah is bike obsessed by the way…we watched the full 30 minute highlights of the Dauphine Libere last night….bike,bike,bike…obsessed with Robin as well.

        Reply
  4. Susie Moberly

    Oh! Cass… I loved the photo of the delicate ‘Tilo’ plant… and the volcano, those mountain crocuses (well, they looked liked them?) and smiled at your reference to your dad’s wonderful cooking (though I have never been privileged enough to taste any… YET!) I know he is a foodie (like myself!) and yes that Pork crackling is VERY tasty… quite addictive… ( poor little roasted pigs heads!) yes, crispy pork skin is sold everywhere here in CM too… and a great ‘sick making’ snack which we regret for hours after munching toooo much`) Those ‘precious moments’ you refer to warmed my heart and remind me where I am, now… doing what I am doing on the beach for the next month running with my dog and interaction locals squid hunters wading knee deep over the dead corals… yes… It is an overwhelming feeling in this stormy monsoon downpour here in the south and sometimes I laugh out aloud as well – and sometimes those uncontrollable tears as well… isn’t life great? Wonderful writing and photos as always… Take care X

    Reply
  5. Tim Joe Comstock

    Cass, I was introduced to your work by Gypsy Nick. At 3:45 am everything is a little more crystalline and your post helped me to think my way through to something I have been trying for but couldn’t quite get. It is this: all the beautiful sunrises and soulful moon risings; every magnificent mountain or lovely forest moment pales in comparison to even a brief encounter with a good dog, or the warm acknowledgement in passing of a fellow traveler while on our separate, yet combined journeys.

    We seem to be here for each other, for whatever purpose, (perhaps simple acknowledgement). Your stories tell more than the words you are typing and I look forward to reading more.

    tj

    Reply
    1. Sarah

      Cass, I love the personal nature of “road thoughts” – thanks for sharing a bit with us of how it makes you feel to be there – I miss the intensity and rightness of that more than I can say. Sarah

      Reply

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