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Mountain Biking
Dominic Hamilton (with some first edition text by Derek Davies)

Extracted from the Traveler's Ecuador Companion The Globe Pequot Press. Reproduced with permission.

I really shouldn't have had those drinks last night. I really should learn my lessons.

I'm not feeling like death warmed up. But I'm not feeling too hot either. It wouldn't be so bad, usually. But the thing is, in about two hours' time, I'm going to be careening down a mountain at over 40 miles-per-hour, with only two wheels and a piece of metal between me and the ever-after.

Now, where was that aspirin.

It's a beautiful morning, despite the moody cloud rolling listlessly in my head. I've got my fingers crossed the volcano gods will be kind to us. Twice I've been at the foot of the world's highest active volcano, only for its snow-encrusted crown to be shrouded in storms, rain and frustration.

A short drive south of Quito, with only two near-death experiences under our belts, and we turn off the Panamericana onto the dirt road which coils its way up towards Cotopaxi's refuge at 4,800 m (15, 744 ft). We pay our park's entrance fee, put our jackets on and brave the roof of the jeep. At first it seems the gods aren't going to smile on us today. But then, as we round a bend, the mountain emerges in its full splendour, its snow-encrusted peak blinding in a lapis sky. Just as well I brought my sunglasses.

As we wind ever-higher on the stony track, my hangover lifts with the altitude and my spirits soar. By the time we get to the our destination, a car park not far below the refuge, it's a struggle to seek the oxygen with which to give the bike a test ride. Smoking a cigarette doesn't help much. In fact it makes me feel so dizzy I wonder if I'm going to be able to remember which brake is which. Let alone know what to do with them when I do identify them.

But my fears are allayed, somewhat, once we get going. Except 'going' isn't really the right word. The beginning is the steepest part of the one-day Cotopaxi trip. It's a baptism by rubber.

The only way is down, and you 'go' at breakneck speed. Of course, you can just pootle along at vicar-pace with your brakes full on, admiring the views. But there's something about being on a bicycle which brings out the little boy in every man. And I'm no exception. When I was eight, I drove into my garden shed on my bike at full tilt. One of my front teeth still remembers the encounter.

As we start our descent on our metal steeds, the boy in me emerges, with a vengeance. I'm egged on by a fellow Englishman, Adrian. Before we know it, we're hitting crazy speeds. We bounce and skid and jolt our way down the mountainside, the wind in our ears defeaning, the views mesmerising, the adrenaline rush absolutely electrifying. I'm eight all over again, except this time, there ain't no garden shed. Just more downhill. More, more, more.

I'm trying to get some photos and some video footage, so I speed ahead at silly-miles-per-hour. I find a good spot, dump the bike, unclip my pack, whip my camera out and try to frame up something resembling a decent shot. The others come whizzing by, kicking up plumes of dust. They pass me, stop for a breather, and we exchange 'wows' and waterbottles before hitting the road once again.

And it's like that for the most of the morning. As we descend and wind away from Cotopaxi, its cone becomes less threatening and ever-more serene. We are truly a lucky bunch of bikers.

The terrain flattens out and we actually have to peddle for the first time. This shocking reality is offset by the dramatic landscape, which gently changes from the harsher lunascape of the higher altitudes to the greens of alpine meadows below.

We pass a lake where an Ecuadorian family is picnicking, and all I want to do is cycle round it, find some long grass and collapse with the cone of Cotopaxi reflected in its glassy waters.

But lunch awaits, and not having downed anything more substantial than coffee that morning, I'm starving.

There is a long, elegantly sinuous descent to the Cotopaxi museum and the café. It's perhaps my favourite stretch of the day: not too steep, with fewer skiddy stones, stretches of forest between rolling grassland, and that inescapable amazing feeling to be gliding along so fast, so effortlessly, so very, very free.

For a one-minute promo video of the Cotopaxi downhill, go here

Blasting down mountains with only two wheels between you and the earth is becoming an increasingly popular way to spend a day or two in Ecuador. The country offers some awesome adrenaline rides, plunging down from mountains to the plains below. But Ecuador is also a great country just to enjoy from the frame of a bike, stopping at highland villages, coming across markets, and camping in the wilds or staying at humble hosterías.

On a practical level, as with climbing or hiking, you shouldn't over-exert yourself too soon at high altitudes. Carry plenty of water with you, and lather yourself in sunblock. Bring a lock which passes through both wheels and frame. Most buses will carry bikes on their roofs, but supervise the loading to avoid any damage. You can take your bike onto TAME domestic flights, but arrive early to ensure all goes smoothly.

If you're renting bikes, then check them out carefully and go for a test ride before committing. Unscrupulous operators exist. Try not to skrimp. You might think you're saving yourself a few dollars, when you are in fact risking your life -- especially on some of the downhill runs.

As a rule, it's best to avoid the congested and often dangerous Panamericana. So, for example, if heading north of Quito to Otavalo, head out to El Mitad del Mundo and continue on the old road through San José de Minas, and from Cayambe, take the old road to Zuleta and then cross over to Lago de San Pablo and Otavalo. Heading south of Quito, ask for detailed directions for the quieter route through Machachí.

As for routes, one great ride is the thrilling, mostly downhill run from Baños to Puyo. In town, you'll find a plethora of places renting bikes. One of the most thrilling rides is the "up hill by jeep, down hill by bike" Cotopaxi descent, but you can also do the 'Latacunga/Quilotoa Loop' by bike; from Pichincha near Quito down to Nono near Mindo; down from the Papallacta hot springs to Baeza or beyond; and the long-distance Cotopaxi to Chimborazo expedition. These are just some ideas, and don't include the coastal rides which are also popular.

photos: Biking Dutchman


Many operators organize the above trips, providing support vehicles and all-inclusive deals. Among the most experienced is Biking Dutchman TEL (02) 254 2806 fax (02) 256 7008, Foch 714 and Juan León Mera, which was the first operator to specialise exclusively in mountain biking in Ecuador.

Arie's Bike Company TEL/fax (02) 906052 e-mail web site , Wilson 578 and Reina Victoria, is also recommended, begun by Arie who used to work at Biking Dutchman.

For the Cotopaxi area, Hacienda San Agustín de Callo TEL/fax (03) 719160 in Quito (Mignon Plaza) (022) 242508 fax (022) 269844 e-mail web site, can arrange bikes with experienced guides.

For the Otavalo area, both the Hotel Ali-Shingu and Hacienda Cusín rent mountain bikes in excellent condition, but some operators in town do also.

For Riobamba, contact Galo Brito of Probici TEL (03) 2951759, 2941880, fax 2951760., web site, Primera Constituyente 23-51 o 23-40 y Larrea, next to Empresa Eléctrica Riobamba.

In Cuenca, contact Ciclismo Total TEL/fax (07) 451390, Solano 563 and Avenida del Estado.

In Vilcabamba, horses are the preferred means of transport, but ask around for bikes. On the coast, Hostería Alandaluz can arrange bike tours too.

To celebrate the deal, Guide2Galapagos is offering Ecuadorial visitors an exclusive offer: Book a Luxury class yacht with them, and they'll give you THREE AIRPORT TRANSFERS FOR FREE; two for first class and one for tourist-superior. So, what are you waiting for? Check out their highly-informative site. Blue boobies, giant tortoises, sealions and marine iguanas are only a click or two away!

SMALL PRINT: On the request page, you must state you came from Ecuadorial to benefit from the airport transfer offer.
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