🚵🏼♂️🚵🏻♀️ Pasto (Colombia) – Loja -> Route
After a cold scuba dive in southern Colombia, our eyes were fixed on the Ecuadorian border. We followed the busy Panamerican highway, disrupted by road work here and there. We had one last stop planned before we would leave the country, the famous church Las Lajas. Usually, we are not ones for religious splendour, but we had heard impressive things about this particular building. We weren’t disappointed.
Squeezed in a tight valley this pompous church hovers over a river, with half of it built into a bridge. We spent an afternoon staking out the many paths in and around the building and visiting the museum which showed the church through the ages, featuring a model.
After spending a night in the church’s refuge, we made the last push towards the border. The number of Venezuelan refugees we saw increased the closer we got, making their way to Ecuador loaded with suitcases, small wagons and blankets.
There were long queues as only handful border agents were processing the hundreds of people. Spotting our bikes, one border guard waved us to the front and less than an hour later we started pedalling in Ecuador.
Instead of continuing on the big Panamericana, we headed towards El Angél, the most northern national park.
The 16,000-hectare alpine moorland is a Paramo, a very unique eco-system, with many plants and flowers that are only found here. Situated between 3,100m–3,400m, it is almost year-round dipped in fog. We were surrounded by millions of frailejones, sturdy sunflower-esque plants which soak the moisture directly out of the clouds. The whole area acts like a giant sponge, providing most of northern South America with fresh water.
We fought our way to the refugio at the top, feeling like the only people for miles, only to run into another cycling couple from Switzerland travelling in the opposite direction. Luckily Ecuador’s national parks always make room for travellers who need shelter, so we spent a cold and stormy but very lovely first night at altitude in Ecuador. Many were to follow.
Dropping down the next day was easy and we got our first taste of rural Ecuador. After spending the next night with Bomberos (firefighters), we hit the Pan-Am and continued to Cotacachi. The Swiss couple recommended we stay there with Suzy and Ron, Warmshowers hosts.
Ron welcomed us with a big smile and hearty laugh. Shortly afterwards, we were cooking together and hit it off as if we had known each other for years. We stayed for two days, planning a side trip that would shortly become very real and cycling 1000m up to the beautiful Laguna Cuicocha.
We hugged goodbye, hoping for a reunion in the future and continued our way towards Quito, Ecuador’s capital. For weeks we had heard of Santiago and his family, hosting cyclists for over 27 years, in their Casa de Ciclistas. After passing a street sign informing us that we had rather unspectacularly crossed the Equator, we arrived in the suburbs of Quito to meet the man in person.
He was an absolute star, helping every cycle traveller with a place to sleep, to cook and to learn from each other. No request was too wild, even support to build a dedicated guitar rack was possible!
He also allowed us to store our bikes, while we took off for our vacation on the incredible Galapagos Islands. Blog post HERE.
When we returned, the house and garden were filled with cyclists from Colombia, Argentina, Germany and France. Even Javier, who we first met a good 1000km earlier in Colombia was there. We met up with Julian from Canada who we hadn’t seen since Medellin and we had an invitation from Suzy and Ron, to meet them for lunch in the city. We loved our new Ecuadorian life with friends.
It wasn’t easy to leave, but after idling on tropical islands, it was time to climb mountains again. We headed south, climbing an unpaved road towards Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second highest and active volcano.
Chewing coca leaves against altitude sickness, we fought our way towards the peak along an empty dirt road. Suddenly, we saw a dust cloud approaching. A rental car hit the breaks and out jumped Nora and Jose – the lovely couple from the Dominican Republic we were with on the Galapagos cruise two weeks earlier. Of all the places…
After our short reunion, we parted ways and as we continued the clouds darkened above our heads. Only a few minutes later, big hailstones started to fall. The landscape was barren and we hurried to get to the next trees, emergency pitching the tent in record time. But it was too late, we were wet and cold. Not great at 4200m altitude. On top of that, we hadn’t brought enough food. The next morning, with colds and very hungry, we promised ourselves to prep a little better for the next volcano.
We rolled down to warmer regions, rested a few days and got better, gaining new strength for the next step, the 250km Quilotoa loop.
Refreshed, we set off through the spectacular green mountains, enjoying the sun in the mornings and hiding from the rain during the afternoons.
The loop is one of the most popular multi-day hikes in Ecuador. Hostels along the way offered package deals for dinner, bed and breakfast. Perfect for hungry cyclists!
Election day was approaching and more than once we got caught in small rallies whilst cycling through villages. We enjoyed one election song, a cover of Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re not gonna take it’, with the ‘anymore’ at the end replaced with ‘Ecuador’!
We met incredibly friendly people on the way, always interested to know about our journey. On our final day climbing, we befriended a limping dog who decided to follow us the 20km to Quilotoa. He was rewarded with a tin of tuna when we arrived.
The volcano lake was spectacular! We hiked along the ridge, stopping every few meters to soak in the breathtaking view.
In the evening, Jesus from Venezuela cooked us dinner and, together with Verena, a German doctor, we ate and chatted the evening away, before falling asleep under 400 blankets.
We blazed down the mountains, finishing the loop and adjusting for the next challenge. By now we had gotten used to the up and down in the mountains, but this experience made every downhill also a little painful. Some of the gradients back up were hardcore!
We saved the best for last: Chimborazo is not only Ecuador’s highest volcano but also the point on earth closest to the sun (due to being close to the equator and the earth, in general, being a bit squished). The landscape was pretty, bizarrely reminding us of Bavaria and the North Pennines.
After two days of gradual uphill, we arrived at the national park. It was hailing and storming again, so we were more than happy when we were welcomed with hot chocolate. We pitched our tent in the entrance (4200m), cooked a delicious dinner and got ready for the ascent the next morning.
Hoping for clear sky, we were bitterly disappointed to wake up at 6:30 to fog rolling in. But we weren’t going to give up now. We left the bags at basecamp and started pedalling up the dirt road towards the top, seeing very little other than the odd vicuña (skinny, wild llamas).
An hour in, we spotted a patch of blue sky peeking through the clouds. Sure enough, only a few more meters up, we broke through the clouds and there it was: Chimborazo. This moment was incredible, we couldn’t believe we had gotten here only with our tired legs.
We stopped every few meters to take a picture, before making it to the refugio, where the road ends at 4800m. We felt like the king and queen of the world!
We hiked the last 200m up to the furthest point we could get without climbing gear and guide and called it a day. We had made it to 5000m, the highest we had ever been.
After the highest point, came the longest downhill into the city of Riobamba, putting our legs up for two days before heading to Cuenca.
The south of Ecuador made us work for distance. Rarely did we have a 50km day that did not also include at least 1500m of climbing, regularly wearing us out by midday.
Most of the time we got lucky and the tent was up before the rain started, but one particular day we got caught off guard. We had planned a ridiculously long day, that would have even been hard even without a downpour. We made the snap decision to cut the day short and ask at a nearby farmhouse to camp in the garden. Tired and soaking wet, we tried to make a friendly and non-threatening impression. As if that was necessary. It took 90 seconds before we were invited in, offered a bed in the garage (once we moved a mouse that occupied it) and another 5 minutes before dinner was served. This was most definitely the culmination of hospitality that we had experienced in Ecuador. The lovely elderly couple made sure we felt at home, calling their daughter in the United States so we could chat with her too. With the next morning came more food, as well as a packed lunch of leftovers. Simply incredible!
When we finally got to Cuenca, we were exhausted and opted for an extended time in bed, although we got to enjoy some of the fantastic food in the city. That was definitely the best choice, as more mountains awaited us on the way to Loja. Up and down we went, often camping in the fog that set in at over 3,000m.
We increased our gear ratio, stockpiled food and rested our legs again, getting ready for the many more mountains coming, just over the border in Peru!