A Cycling Guide to Ecuador
—by Jim Redd
There is no better way to experience the nuances of the Andean landscape than by bicycle. With your legs you learn the contours of the mountains and valleys. With your senses you become one with your surroundings. With each curve comes a new discovery, each downhill a swell of energy, tires carving like skis. You travel light and free in the here and now with all you need stuffed in your panniers.
WHO THIS GUIDE IS FOR:
There are many ways to experience mountain biking in Ecuador.
(1) International tour agencies sometimes promote mountain biking as one of several sports for "active professionals."
(2) There are a few international agencies which bring tourists solely for mountain biking (Ibike, etc).
(3) There are a handful of local agencies (mostly in Quito) which offer mountain bike tours exclusively. (Biking Dutchman, Aries, Biking Spirit).
(4) Independent touring, using mostly main, paved roads, like the Pan American Highway. (Not really mountain biking, per se)
Most mountain bike riding in Ecuador is done by people who are tourists first, and bikers second: In other words, biking is one activity among several.
This guide is not for them: it contains more information than they need or want. They are paying someone else for the knowledge you will find in this book. If you are an independent cyclist first, a tourist second, and want to use your bike for sport, self-supported transportation, and cultural enlightenment, this book is for you.
But be aware that there are reasons why people pay tour agencies. You will discover there is a price to pay for independence, too.
You will be stuck in the rain and have flats without a sag wagon. You will wait hours for a bus on rural roads. When you do get a bus, your bike may not be handled as delicately as you would like and you may be crammed in, standing in the aisle with indigenous and campesinos gasping for air and grasping for something to hold on to while the bus twists and turns on tortuous mountain roads. You may climb 1000m in an afternoon. You may sometimes be greeted by unfriendly dogs. Your accomodations may, shall we say, be less than 5-star. When you are thirsty you will not find a convenience store in the next block with 6 flavors of GatorAde.
But you will be a better person for it. In my experience, the discomforts soon fade from memory and what you are left with is this: the satisfaction of having ridden the roads less traveled, not as a spectator, but through direct engagement: the Andean landscape challenged and conquered, etched in the very fibers of your body; volcanic summits, indigenous in red shawls in the fields, the fragrance of orchids and a thousand other exotic plants, roadside kids greeting you as you pass; long, slalom-like downhills on twisting roads.
TOPOGRAPHY AND SCENERY
Much like other aspects of the country, the topography of Ecuador is complex and disordered. It is constantly being reshaped and re-created by the action of water, earthquakes and volcanoes, with little regard for the existence and constructs of humans. It is a chaotic collection of mountains, valleys, and river drainages which resists human intrusion. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. In Ecuador it abhors a road, which, in the mountains, is always a work in progress. Derrumbes (mud slides) as well as the occasional volcanic eruption frequently re-write the roadscapes, either covering them with mud or ash, or washing them into rivers. The surface of mountain roads can be dirt, gravel, cobblestone, or volcanic ash, sometimes with sharp-pointed, tire-piercing chips of solidified ancient lava flows.
What more perfect setting could you imagine for mountain biking?
The roads are one lane, and wind through sparsely-populated farm settlements, forests of Eucalyptus and pine, areas of dense, lush semi-tropical vegetation, and sometimes the treeless plains of the paramo. The scenery can be astounding: riding on a mist-shrouded road, round a bend and the curtain of fog will suddenly open and reveal a sunlit patchwork of farms, or a deep valley with waterfalls and a river far below, or, sometimes, the crater and ash cloud of an active volcano.
In the Sierra you will be biking between about 1,000m and 4,000m above sea level. Descents of 2,000m over 40km or less are not unusual. The reverse is, unfortunately, true as well. You will find yourself layering and un-layering as you move through different climactic zones. Climbing at higher elevations may challenge your respiratory system. It is possible to use "petro-assist" for long climbs, but as a cross-country cyclist, it will be impossible to avoid uphills. And in the Andes we're not talking about Wisconsin-like rolling terrain. An uphill here can last a lifetime. An Andean uphill will, after the first 2 hours or so, produce the "next-bend" syndrome wherein the switchback in the road just ahead appears, mirage-like in your sweat-fogged vision, to be levelling out: surely this is the summit, you dream. Well, maybe not this one; the next one, for sure... and so it goes.
The first two Spanish words you learn will be "bajada" and "cuesta." A "bajada" is a downhill and a "cuesta" is the opposite. Between these to words, the former will quickly become your favorite. The Spanish word for "level" you will not need to worry about. In other words, mountain biking in Ecuador alternates between tormenting cuestas and extreme bajadas.
TOPOGRAPHY AS METAPHOR:
In fact, the topography and climate you will experience could be thought of as a metaphor for the extremes of the country itself: a few peaks of wealth and power surrounded by a vast landscape of poverty; distant beauty and up-close ugliness.
Sometimes, biking along a farm road, a concrete block hovel may interrupt your viewing pleasure, perhaps of the cloud-shrouded profile of a far-off mountain. It is the home of a campesino family. The wife is washing clothes. The husband is cutting or sawing or fixing something. Kids and dogs and chickens and maybe goats are scattered around in the dirt. There may be a pig rooting roadside and a cow out back. It may be hard to distinguish the building where the humans live from where their animals live. To a middle class cyclist such as yourself, on a $2,000 bike, this may seem an eyesore. How dare them interrupt the enjoyment of my ride today with their squalor, you may say to yourslf. It looks for all the world like "poverty."
But slow down and look again. Look at the kids. They are bright-eyed and friendly. "Buenos dias" they will squeak, smiling, curious about you and your equipment. The father will stop what he is doing and greet you politely. He will ask where you are from, and where you are going. You will sense a surprising dignity. There is no hint of a threat to you, or of any sullen despair you might expect. If you ask him for directions, he is eager to offer it to the best of his ability.
Rivers and their watersheds define the character of the terrain in the Ecuadorian sierra. Except on the paramo, you will never be far from a river.
Sometimes roads go along rivers. But again, don't picture the Great River Road bicycle trail along the gently-meandering Mississippi. Rivers in the Andean Sierra do not waste their time meandering. They are wild, raging torrents with one goal in mind: to get to the Amazon as quickly as possible. The sierra is the gravity-heart that pumps life through a thousand deep, river-valley veins to the Amazon basin.
These rivers, their tributaries and waterfalls, in their beauty and power, can pose a hazard to the cylist descending at 30mph along a valley wall because they can easily distract attention from the road ahead. Roads following a major river undulate and sinuate to the rhythm of the watersheds defined by quebradas. A quebrada is a smaller valley formed by a tributary. Road builders deal with this topography by going "down and in" to find the narrowest section to build the bridge. There will then be an "up and out", sometimes 300-400m in elevation change.
DOGS OF ECUADOR
As a cyclist on the farm roads of Ecuador, you should be aware of the challenges posed by dogs. There are two basic dog personalities you will encounter: Many "ecuadogs" (as they are sometimes called) live in the streets and do not have a plot of land to call their own. These are rarely a threat to you as a cyclist passing through their loosely-defined territory. In fact, many of them are starved for human companionship and will want to befriend you.
The dogs which will concern you are the ones that are kept and fed by the campesinos in their roadside dwellings and small farms. These dogs usually have a strong sense of "place," if you know what I mean.
A person walking will rarely attract the attention of one of these dogs. Neither will a bicycle, per se. However, put the person and bicycle together and you have a rolling ecuadog attractor.
An approaching bicycle, if detected, will arouse them from their midday dog-doze among the chickens and roosters. Your first weapon is stealth. Pedal smoothly and quietly while building momentum to carry you thru the danger zone. Approach single file and do not talk to your companions. If the road is downhill, take advantage of gravity to build speed. (However, do not underestimate the speed of dogs. I once clocked two chasing me at 35mph downhill on ashalt.)
Failing this, you will be facing the doggie greeting party. There are usually at least two. When you first see them arrayed against you in the road ahead, you will not be able to distinguish the "barkers" from the "biters," so you must assume all are "biters."
Your natural tendency will be to avoid them by swerving and giving them wide berth. Forget it. They will sense your fear and will be even more emboldened. Like all predators they rely on weakness of the prey. The strategy I have found most effective is one of "pre-emptive attack." In other words, leave your fears in the roadside dust and head directly for the dogs! That's right. Let them know who is in CHARGE! (so to speak) This behavior will be unusual in their dog-experience of passing cyclists and they will become confused and disoriented. Their basic cowardice will become manifest in the face of an aggressive cyclist.
Move in as close as possible to their "home base", all the while building momentum for your escape once they have scattered and retreated. If, after this strategy, one or two manage to recover and continue the attack, be aware of the difference between a "barker" and "biter" mentioned above. In other words, they sometimes play "Good dog, bad dog." One of them, the "barker" will be distracting you on the left side of you while the silent "biter" is preparing to take a chunk out of your right calf.
BICYCLE DIARIES: A WEEK OF MOUNTAIN BIKING AROUND QUITO
This is the description of an itinerary I followed in May, 2008. It is offered as a suggestion of the possibilities of biking in the Northern Sierra while enjoying the amenities of Quito between trips.
I stayed at Cafe Cultura because it is similar in ambience to our own hotel in Banos. It has fireplaces, soft leather couches, good food and attentive service.
The trips were:
(1) a 70-km, 2000m descent from San Juan (SW Quito) down the western flank of the Western Cordillera on the "old road" to Santo Domingo,
(2) exploration of the El Chaquinan Ciclovia, a 23-km "rails-to-trails" development along the old Quito-Ibarra railbed,
(3) up and over the Eastern Cordillera through "Termas Papallacta," a natural hot springs complex, down the eastern slope to Baeza, a 500-yr-old town at the entry to the Amazon jungle,
(4) the "Quilatoa Loop," a 120-km route south of Quito whose main attraction is Lake Quilatoa, a blue jewel of a lake in a volcanic crater at 4300m on the paramo
The Routes: San Juan to Santo Domingo
Like so many "old roads" in Ecuador, the one from Quito to Santo Domingo through Chiriboga is greatly exaggerated on maps, perhaps out of respect for its former importance. Or maybe I neglected to examine the map key. In any case, my bike is in the trunk of the cab, and I have pointed to the intersection where I want to be let out. On the map, the road is solid and red, but the driver seems to be taking me on endless back-road switchbacks to nowhere.
I point to the map again. "The real road is somewhere over there," I say, gesturing. Soon, we reach an obscure, little traveled fork in the road (unsigned, of course, in the Ecuadorian style). One fork seems to go up, the other down. The driver consults with a group of campesinos on the roadside. "The road to Chiriboga" he says, and points to the downhill fork. I am skeptical, but down is good, I say to myself. And like so many times in the past, biking in Ecuador, I just decide to go with the best information I have and hope for the best. (As I have said before, this style of biking has its challenges.)
The driver turns his cab around, gets out and pees (an Ecuadorian custom), and heads back to Quito. I am left alone, in a place where I have never been, about to head out on a road whose destination is questionable. If I had to backtrack I would have no idea of how to return to Quito, itself only a vaguely-defined sprawl where you could ride the streets and barrios for days without finding any real "center."
I put the front wheel in the fork, zero out the GPS, and head down. My direction is generally southwest, which is encouraging. It's 10 in the morning, so at least I've got plenty of daylight ahead. For a while I catch glimpses of the southern barrios of Quito over my left shoulder but soon the descent gets serious and all my attention is focused on the road ahead. It is dirt and gravel and follows the Rio ...
... until it bottomed out at Chiriboga, where I was approached by a well-dressed gentleman who appeared to be the town "greeter." After the usual questions: "Where do you come from? Where are you going? What country are you from?" he directed me to a store where I could buy water. Then "the mayor" (who, I had decided for some reason, he was) said "Que le vaya bien" (have a good trip) and I head out. From San Juan to Chiriboga the road had been eastward and downhill, following the river and general gradient of the western cordillera.
It is not uncommon in the Andes for a village to be a punctuation mark for the topography. In other words, settlements tend to be at the bottoms or tops of things (where the road gets flat for a while). Chriboga is no exception. From there, the road turned southward and upward, crossing watersheds, instead of "going with the flow" as before. For the biker, this translates into steep uphills and downhills. The "cross-watershed" itinerary is like this: (1) follow river for a while, (2) swing away from river, (3) climb, (4) reach summit, take a break, (5) descend to next river. (6) Repeat.
[The rivers themselves are wild and beautiful, but if you are offended by oil pipelines (which, as a cyclist, you should be), be aware that oil is one of Ecuador's major exports. It is pumped from the Amazon to the coast. The elevated pipeline, unfortunately, runs along parts of this route, sometimes interfering with your view of the river. As if I needed any more reasons to hate oil.]
The final watershed is the Rio Toachi. The road descends below the 1000m level, where the transition zone between the sierra and the coastal zone begins, as signalled by the appearance of large tropical ferns and warmer, more humid air in your face. Across the river the old road joins the new, where I caught a bus back to Quito, following the same river upstream as far as Aloag.
The Routes: El Chaquinan Ciclovia
As far as I know, this is the only "Rails to Trails" bike route in Ecuador.
For this ride, I left Cafe Cultura at 8am and headed for Hotel Quito. Why Hotel Quito? Because behind it is the Guapulo, an intrigueing Quito neighborhood which may be the most vertical neighborhood in the world. It has a reputation as a bohemian and artist hangout, with it's one narrow, twisting, cobblestone street on which I descended 800 meters in 6 km, to the Cumbaya sector of Quito where I began my search for the start of the Chaquinan Ciclovia.
The intense downhill from Guapulo shot me like a cannon out into the Cumbaya shopping district, where the upper-middle class residents of the walled communities of Cumbaya shop like suburban Americans. Just 2 blocks downhill from the McDonald's is the center of "Old Cumbaya" where I finally found the railroad tracks across the road, running beneath a fruit vendor on one side and a streetside parrillada on the other. I knew the entrance to the ciclovia must be near. But which direction?
A short digression: I have learned that asking directions in Ecuador is an exercise in PSYOPS. The first rule: never phrase a question like this, while pointing: "Is that the way to Oyatachi?" I have never known an Ecuadorian to answer "no" to this question. In fact, I can't remember an Ecuadorian ever answering "no" to any question. Ecuadorians can't say "no." Perhaps that is one reason there are so many Ecuadorians but that is another story...
So the rule is; Keep your hands on the handlebars when asking directions. And do not put words in their mouth. You can say "Where does that road go?" or "Where is Oyatacahi" and let him or her supply the hand gestures.
Once you have (you think) determined the direction, you may be interested in the distance. This is another matter. A question like "How far is Oyatachi" can reinforce all those cross-cultural latin concepts of space and time you have heard about. Distance from one point to another on the earth's surface involves, of course, both space and time. Discussing this with an Ecuadorian campesino may convince you (even if your high school physics teacher never did) of the truth of Einstein's space-time continuum.
When you ask "How far to Oyatachi?" you will at first receive one of two answers: "Mas alla" accompanied by a gesture, or "Oy! muy lejos." with another gesture. The first, loosely translated, is "just a little further," which could, in my experience, be anywhere between 500 ft and 5 miles. The second means "very far" and can also carry with it implications about the terrain ("on a bad road, too"), depending on the facial expression and severity of the hand gesture.
If you press for more specifics, things get more complicated and Einstein's theory kicks in. First of all, forget kilometers as a unit of measure. You will do better using time. Since few campesinos use the bicycle for transportation, their estimate of time will be either "caminando" (walking), "a caballo" (on horseback) or "en carro" (in a car). So your job is to convert the campesino time scale to "bicycle time." In my experience on these twisting mountain roads, a rule of thumb is to multiply "car time" by about 2.8 to get "bicycle time" if the destination is "mas arriba" (higher) and 1.8 if the destination is "mas abajo" (lower).
So, with that digression suffice it to say that I ascertained that the entrance to the ciclovia was to the left, just a block away. Following those rails for that block was a pathway into the history of Ecuador.
In the early twentieth century, Ecuador, under the guidance of president Eloy Alfaro, built an extensive passenger rail network, connecting Quito with the northern provinces, the coastal city of Guayaquil, and the southern colonial city of Cuenca. However, as happened in other countries, internal combustion replaced steam power, roads were built for cars and trucks, and the rail system fell into disrepair. Unlike North America, however, not even the freight services survived, mostly because of the high cost of maintaining rail lines in the unstable terrain of the Andes. However, the rail right of ways still exist, and the rails themselves are still more or less intact throughout many sections. Some are still maintained as tourist routes, such as the famous "Devils Nose" route from Riobamba to Alausi.
One route was between Quito and the coastal city of San Lorenzo via Ibarra, in the north. It was built over a period of 57 years, completed in 1962, and operated until 1998 when El Ni–o destroyed much of the track. In 2003, "Vida para Quito," an environmental, pro-bike group, converted a 23-km section of the rail bed to a biking and hiking trail.
The southern entrance is in Cumbay‡, an upper middle class suburb northeast of Quito. It is well-maintained, with mile markers, scenic "overlooks" and, in some sections, trailside landscaping. It winds through upscale ("walled") communities as well as poor barrios, pastureland, forested slopes and farmland. Throughout much of the length it follows the beautiful valley of the Rio ..., passing through a number of vintage 1920 tunnels. There are six sections, each marked by an entrance with route information. They are named after the neighborhoods or communities they pass through: San Pedro, La Vi–a, La Esperanza, etc.
In some sections the rails are still visible, but the surface is mostly smoothe with gentle grades. When I rode this last in May of 2008, I never reached the supposed end, a community named "El Puembo," according to the map. Instead, the "trail" part gradually just disappeared somewhere after the "El Chiche" section and I found myself just riding alongside an abandoned rail bed. Perhaps I missed a turn or perhaps the trail is still a work in progress.
In any case, I had no idea where I was, so just kept following the railbed until, in the middle of a poor barrio, I happened upon Hacienda San Jose, an incredibly beautiful, restored 18th century structure, where I had a chicken curry and rice lunch. I "waypointed" it with my GPS as a reference point for the end of the ciclovia and as a place to which I knew I would want to return.
The location of this Hacienda along the rail line made sense. Picture a train stop here in the '60s, bringing Quite–os to the Hacienda for a weekend outing. Lunch. perhaps, and a game of ecua-volley in the landscaped gardens dominated by a 500-yr-old Eucalyptus tree.
Now, of course, the remnants of the track are "behind" the hacienda, an entrance only for intrepid cyclists. The "real" entrance is for cars, on the other side, accessed by a 3km cobblestone road from the main highway to Pifo.
But for me, today, it as just a lunch stop between the ciclovia leg of the trip and the next, which, according to plan, would end in the jungle town of Baeza, after a 1500m ascent to the hot springs of Papallacta.
[Note: If you have read this far, you must really be interested in cycling in Ecuador. For more biking info, please visit the website of our mountain biking operation, The Andean Bicycle Touring Company. You may notice this guide isn't finished. Due to my hotel management duties, and my growing interest in single-track, I spend less time biking here and more in places like Sedona, AZ. I am teaching my son, Jason (who is our chef) the routes and will be turning most of the guide duties over to him.}