With Ecuador famed for its Avenue of Volcanoes – as coined by German explorer Alexander von Humboldt back in the 19th century – I took the opportunity to stretch out my legs by tackling the climb up to Volcán Pichincha, whose crater rim lies at a lofty 4780m. Rising up like a jagged crown to the west of the capital, it’s very much an active volcano: the last major eruption was in 1999, smothering the city with a thick layer of ash, darkening the sky and grounding air traffic to a halt.
From Tumbaco (2250m), I headed up to Quito (2850m) via the cobblestoned Avenue de las Conquistadores, crossing the city and hurdling another pass to the small settlement of Lloa. I left late, so broke the ride up with a night in a hacienda there – a dairy farm – run by mountain biking enthusiast Gabrielle.
Then began the hard graft in earnest: a gain of some 1450m over just 14kms in distance, following a dirt road that wound its way up to a mountain refugio at 4550m. From there, a short section of singletrack lead me to the crater’s edge, peering down into a steamy cauldron of bubbling sulphur.
With a crack-of-dawn start, you could tackle the whole ride in a day – but it would be a long one. If you’re well acclimatised, it would be cool to stay at the refugio.
Quito is more bike-friendly than you might expect, with several bike paths crossing the city, as well as the weekly Ciclovia, when much of the centre is closed to motorised traffic.
The route I took wended its way through the historic part of town, where steep, cobblestoned streets are the order of the day.
I’d paired down my belongings to what I needed for the night – a sleeping bag, Thermarest, extra layers and food. This grafitti reads: no hostage taking, no coup d’état.
Refuel. At a few cents a banana (Ecuador was dollarized in 2000), they’re almost giving them away.
As I climbed up towards Lloa, the full extent of the city sprawl could be seen – Quito extends some 48kms in length.
More cobblestone conumdrums.
This time I came prepared. I wrapped Ogre’s chainstay with an old inner tube to muffle the clatter and rattle of the chain.
I was tempted to help myself to this mini mountain of bananas, cow food at the dairy farm I stayed in for the night. Gabrielle kept me company for the afternoon, exchanging travel stories – as well as being a keen mountain biker, he’s bike toured from Honduras to Ecuador. Then he left to go home in Quito, claiming it was too cold for him up at the hacienda, so I rolled out my mat, put on the TV and watched the Simpsons in Spanish.
In the morning, Gabrielle returned with his daighter, Allesandra, also a mountain biker. We rode the first few kilometres together, before the altitude forced her back. She’d been working for the last few weeks by the coast, so hadn’t had a chance to acclimatise.
I pushed on up the dirt road, which corkscrewed its way every higher. The grades were steep in places, then eased up with more gentle switchbacks.
Welcome to the Ecuadorian páramo, the ecosystem squeezed between the continuous timberline and the permanent snowline in the northern Andes of South America.
Chuquiragua – the flower of the Andes – up at 4200m.
Finally, at close to 4600m, the Refugio emerged briefly into view, before being enveloped by cloud cover once more. This last 200m was the hardest part, a muddy climb that felt a lot steeper than it looks in the photo. The altitude might have been part of that…
Ogre at the Refugio. I jettisoned the rest of my belongings at the hacienda in Lloa.
Me being me, I figured I’d struggle on up the singletrack that links the refugio to the crater’s edge, rather than hike up, as most sensible people do.
I have yet to find out the name of these bizarre, finger-like plants that probed this humid, high altitude landscape. UPDATE: I am informed, by the venerable Simon Giles, that they are a sub-genii of the Huperzia Crassa… or Club Mosses in colloquial English.
They came in several tones.
By the time I’d made it up, clouds were hurtling by overhead, so I huddled behind a rock. out of the wind. Before long, there was nothing but a thick bank of swirling mist to be seen.
Then, just when I was preparing to head back down to Lloa, the clouds parted unexpectedly, revealing a rugged, Middle Earthean land…
I hiked up quickly towards the peak of the crater to get a better view…Until then, I hadn’t felt any of the effects of altitude. But as I balanced on a ledge to take a photo, I became aware of how wobbly and light-headed I’d become…
Looking down into the crater. Plumes of steam came belching out of its belly and the smell of sulphur wafted through the air.
You can see the singletrack I rode to the left.
Heading back down the volcano was a blast. The disc rotors on my bike pinged and hissed as rain began to fall.
In Lloa, I refueld on a warming glass of colada morada, a warm, thick drink made from forest fruits, typically prepared on the Day of the Dead. It helped wash down a donut-like empanada de viento. Viento means wind in Spanish, and it’s no named because of the way it exhales with air when you first take a bite.
Retracing my steps back through the city, with a view of 5897m Cotopaxi in the distance.