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.
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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
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.
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 www.bikingdutchman.com,
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 email@example.com
web site www.ariesbikecompany.com
, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
web site www.incahacienda.com,
can arrange bikes with experienced guides.
Otavalo area, both the Hotel Ali-Shingu and Hacienda
Cusín rent mountain bikes in excellent condition,
but some operators in town do also.
contact Galo Brito of Probici TEL
(03) 2951759, 2941880, fax 2951760. Email:email@example.com, web site www.probici.com,
Primera Constituyente 23-51 o 23-40 y Larrea, next to Empresa Eléctrica Riobamba.
contact Ciclismo Total TEL/fax (07) 451390, Solano
563 and Avenida del Estado.
horses are the preferred means of transport, but ask around
for bikes. On the coast, Hostería Alandaluz can
arrange bike tours too.