El Mitad del Mundo
Quito is right on the equator, as far north in the Andes as you can get without venturing into Columbia and thus makes an excellent starting point for a journey south. Whilst it may not have the reputation of Columbia for banditry, Quito is nevertheless a dangerous city. This is a place where you are escorted by armed guards to your car and where men openly carry pump-action shotguns. We didn’t linger.
The sense of awe isn’t really possible to put into words and even the photos don’t do it justice: you’ll just have to go and see for yourself.
We rode south past Cotopaxi volcano, climbing steadily. The gain from 2800 m to 3500 m was tough as we were unacclimatized and, given that we’d got lost on the way out of the city, this was a long day. To make matters worse, on arrival at Cotopaxi National Park, we couldn’t find the promised campsite. Our collective inability to speak any Spanish didn’t help and whilst searching along a railway line in the direction we thought the ranger was pointing, we lost Will. Then it got dark.
This was not the ideal start by any means but fortunately we were able to locate him by torch light. Then a moment of trail magic; the ranger offered us the chance to stay in his cabin.
Ecuador is hilly. These mountains may not be as high as some of those further south in the Andes, but they are a good deal bigger than anything in Europe. The ranges also seem to point in an east-west direction so that the road south climbs then descends, then climbs again, seemingly forever. It was tough going, particularly in our relatively unfit and unacclimatized state but there were some real highlights. Coming around a bend or over a crest and looking out over a huge, ancient landscape is one of those things that makes a trip like this worthwhile. The sense of awe isn’t really possible to put into words and even the photos don’t do it justice: you’ll just have to go and see for yourself.
Cuenca is a beautiful colonial city and after some hard riding, we didn’t need any further excuse to stay for two nights. Andrew’s Spanish was improving rapidly and mine was relatively close behind. Will had not yet learned to say hello…
Food, it must be said was remarkably good and I, being vegetarian, particularly enjoyed locro de papa, a kind of potato soup with a large lump of cheese and a half avocado in it. Avocados were beautiful here, as was most fruit. I didn’t pass up the opportunities to have fresh juices whenever possible – fresh strawberry juice for 50p is perfect! The US dollar is now the currency in Ecuador and though things were pretty cheap, this currency change has meant that it wasn’t the bargain that Peru and Bolivia were.
On the plus side, petrol stations were well stocked with cold Coke and chocolate bars, and frankly, if you can’t get these essentials, being a bargain is no consolation!
We took the road down to the coast from Cuenca, intending to camp after 80 km or so. Unfortunately we found that the roadside at these lower altitudes was lined the with shacks of banana farmers. The banana trees themselves occupied the rest of the available land. We pushed on into the twilight in order to reach Pasaje, the nearest town to the border. Arriving in this god-forsaken place so late, we were at the mercy of the hotel owner who charged us about double what he should have. There was nothing here, nowhere to eat and nothing to do and the whole place had a sinister air – avoid if at all possible! We were delighted to leave despite the light drizzle, not knowing that this was a foretaste what was to come on the coastal Panamericana. For now the huge banana plantations and the thought of reaching Peru today kept us entertained.