If you missed part one of Andean Breakfasts, get up to speed here.
After Enshalala and the rugged terrain around the crater, the touristy overlook at Quilotoa village didn’t seem too appealing, so after slightly overpriced and under-portioned meal in town, we decided to head straight down to Zumbahua.
We stopped at the first bakery we saw in Zumbahua and raged several pan de chocolates (chocolate bread) – a bike tour favorite all over Ecuador. It was getting late at this point and we had a nearly 1000m climb on a big paved road ahead of us, with limited options for camping so we opted to stay in Zumbahua that night rather than camp. It was a good opportunity to dry out our stuff, get some good food, and restock on supplies. We found an $8 a night shabby hostel, dropped our bikes and went back out in search of more food. Cass and I braved some street meat (not sure if it was chicken or pork – but damn it was good!), but Vince opted out. I’m glad we ate it since it was the only decent food we found in town. Later that night we ate in our hotel and it was one of the worst meals I’ve had in Ecuador, only breakfast the next morning at the same hotel being even worse!
After a rather loud nights sleep, we got up early, forced down the unappetizing hostel breakfast, and began the Andean breakfast climb up to the high páramo around 4200m. Since the road was paved, we climbed rather quickly. Vince was still tired from the hike-a-bike the day before and he was less acclimated than Cass and I, so we sped ahead and waited for him at the top of the pass, where we turned off onto a dirt road. We found a nice place to sit and wait with stunning views of Zumbuahua way down below, figuring Vince would see us as he passed by.
After half an hour or so, we saw Vince cruising up the highway and yelled out to him. He looked over at us, so we assumed he saw us and would be coming along shortly. I guess it was just coincidence that he looked our way just as we yelled, since he ended up riding right past us up to the top of the pass on the highway, rather than turning off. When he didn’t show up, I was was kind of freaked out, thinking he might drop down the other side which would have lead him several thousand meters down to the coast. I hopped on my bike and tried to follow him up the pass, and just as I crested the top, I saw Vince heading back down towards me. Whew – I was stoked he didn’t drop to the coast.
Shortly after we got back on track and began trekking across páramo on rolling dirt roads looking down on the cloud forest below, with the occasional glimpse of the coastal banana plantations thousands of meters below. This is one of my favorite páramo areas in Ecuador – the hillsides are dotted with choza that people still inhabit, rather than the cement buildings many of the shepherd families have more recently begun to opt for. It has a remote feel to it, bordered on one side by high steep mountains with the precipitous drop into the cloud forest on the other side. Cass stopped to take a picture of a some shepherds with their flocks with a great views in the background, when his wide-angled lens must have rolled out of his bag. Vince and I were a ways ahead before we noticed Cass wasn’t with us – apparently he had noticed his missing lens and ridden back to find it, but we didn’t know it at the time. We waited for half an hour or so before heading back to look for him. We hoped nothing bad had happened. Shortly after, a truck passed by and relayed a message from Cass, telling us what had happened and to head on to Angamarca, the next village on the route. We hoped he’d find the lens soon and heeded his advice, continuing on our way. Less than half and hour later, another truck passed by and handed us the wide angled lens, having spotted it on the road! Yet again, I was completely taken aback by the honesty and kindness of these people. The lens is probably worth more than they make in a year, yet they handed it off to the crazy gringos on the bikes rather than taking it to the nearest city to sell it. #RestoredFaithInHumanity
We were stoked to have it but they hadn’t seen Cass so we knew he’d still be looking for it. We decided that rather than turn back, we should send him a message with the next passing vehicle. We didn’t see another for a long while, but finally a guy on a motorcycle passed by and we begged him to let Cass know we had the lens. From there we took our time getting to Angamarca, stopping to take pics on some singletrack sections and enjoying the day, finally making progress and hoping Cass was on his way. It wasn’t too long after that Cass caught up with us. The motorcycle guy had relayed the message, but Cass couldn’t believe it – we could hardly believe what happened ourselves. From there we had a “small” (1500ft+) climb to another pass before the big drop down to Angamarca, one of our lowest points on the ride. The weather at the bottom was sunny and beautiful until we made it to the pass where the fog rolled in. I was a bit ahead at this point and hung out at this creepy little church with a medieval red door.
After descending through the fog, we finally caught a glimpse of Angamarca and made our way down to town. I really like this town, it just has such a remote feel and the people are super friendly. Right in the central plaza of town a woman was cooking some fantastic tortillas de papas with eggs for $1. It hit the spot after a long day, so much so that we all had a second plate. Probably not the best idea considering we had a 1500m+ climb ahead of us, but we hadn’t eaten anything so tasty in several days, so it was worth the discomfort later on.
After lunch, we stocked up on the limited food supplies available town, and got on our way just as thick fog rolled in which quickly changed over to fairly heavy rain. We ducked under a small shelter, hoping the rain would pass, but after a while we knew we had to start the big climb, rain or shine. Fortunately, the rain tapered not long after we began the climb, which was good, because the climb turned out to be one of the harder ones of the trip. It started with steep switchbacks on loose gravel and dirt, but as we got higher it turned into a thick muddy slop with the consistency of peanut butter, so for the next few hours we slipped and slid our way up to the páramo. In Ecuador, you either quickly learn to find your zen place on such climbs or you stay at home, so we put our heads down and happily grunted our way up the mountain. As we climbed above the foggy cloud forest and finally reached the páramo, we were rewarded with a beautiful rainbow arcing over the peaks as the skies began to clear.
I reached the top of the pass ahead of the guys and was stoked to find a very basic little community store in the tiny hamlet on this cold windswept section of páramo. The wind was bitingly cold up there so I braved the snapping dogs and made my way into the store, happy to be out of the wind while I waited for the guys. The owner was very friendly and talkative for high Andean standards and I quickly bought up half of his stock of chifles (fried plaintain chips that are ubiquitous in Ecuador) and a soda. Cass arrived shortly after and we asked the owner the name of his dog, which turned out to be “Twitter,” because the dog serves as a sort of messaging system across the high valley through its incessant, loud barking. Maybe it was the altitude or the setting but I found this to be hilarious at the time. Although this “village” probably won’t have internet connections for another 20 years at the earliest (they’ll need electricity for starters!), somehow the locals knew about Twitter. It’s nearly impossible to truly get away from the internet and global communication these days – for better or worse. Still, I found it amazing.
Vince arrived a little while later and had thoroughly enjoyed the climb to the páramo having met some really friendly locals on the trail and still stoked about the rainbow. It was quickly getting dark by this point, so we boogied down the other side to look for a place to camp for the night and escape the icy winds on the pass. Not even 10 minutes later, just as the last rays of light dropped below the horizon, we came upon a small schoolhouse with an unfinished concrete building that would make for a great home for the night. Continuing the tradition of noodles and tuna which is the only meal you can consistently buy at the small shops in the small highland villages, we had our dinner and turned in for the night under the brilliant, now full, moon. It had been an incredibly long, eventful day but couldn’t have ended better.
We woke up to stunning views of the steep Andean slope leading to the cloud forest thousands of meters below, and after a power breakfast of oats, raisins, and machica – we were on our way. This was the first morning of the trip where we didn’t start with a non-stop 1000m+ climb, instead we rode up short steep hills followed by exhilarating descents, one after the other, as we contoured along the edge of the páramo and ticked away the morning hours in great spirits. Just before lunch time we finally made to our first major climb of the day which would lead us up to our highest point of the trip to that point, about 4300m. We had been on fun jeep track all morning, but for the climb we turned onto a better dirt road so the climb, though steep, went quickly until we gained the ridge and were buffeted by strong icy headwinds. Cass and I battled our way along the ridge to the highpoint marked by a cross, and decided we better hunker down as we had gotten ahead of Vince.
Fortunately we found a little dirt cornice that we could huddle under to escape the wind, but when Vince arrived, I was chilled to the bone and ready to get off the pass. Unfortunately, rather than a fun descent, we lost several thousand feet of elevation on nasty cobblestones, the bain of Ecuador backcountry roads. After a few kilometers I couldn’t feel my fingers on the brakes and it became hard to grip the handlebars in the icy cold with the nonstop teeth-rattling cobblestones, but finally we found some smooth dirt singletrack and had an epic descent for the last couple thousand feet into the valleys around the mighty Chimborazo. Chimbo (6268m) is the highest peak in Ecuador and due to its proximity to the equator (the Earth bulges at the equator and pinches down at the poles), is actually the highest point on Earth relative to the earth’s core, or put another way, its summit is the closest point to the sun on Earth.
But Chimbo is perhaps even better known for the world renowned “Bar Internacional Don Max (pictured below),” the most hoppin’ bar this side of the páramo.
Cass had passed by this landmark several years before and I had been looking forward to seeing this place. I still can’t get over the name or location of this “bar.” It’s literally just an old dumpster and shipping crates in the middle of nowhere that Don Max has converted as the only bar for miles in any direction. I was crushed to see that it was closed, but even so, there were two young ladies waiting to get into da club.
From Don Max’s, we headed down the road a bit and passed by some hot springs. It was a holiday weekend so the baths were hoppin’, and fortunately there were some food stalls catering to the bathers. Conditions were far less than sanitary, with dogs everywhere and buckets of fish heads and guts next to the wooden bench seating area, but we were starving and it was a chance to get some hearty eats. The stall was serving fanesca, a soup consisting of 7 types of beans and grains along with fish chunks and some other veggies. It’s incredibly hardy, but an absolute gut bomb. It was damn tasty though, so we each had 3 bowls followed by a delicious sweet squash drink that was served piping hot. I was bursting at the seams by the time we were finished, and of course we had to climb all the way back up to 4300m that day, so we would pretty much be climbing nonstop for the rest of the day.
At the first hike-a-bike up an impossibly steep hill, I immediately regretted the 3rd bowl of fanesca, but the scenery was beautiful and we were following a neat, off-trail route up to the páramo, weaving our way through tussock grass and following small irrigation ditches that led down to the farms in the valleys below. After a hard, but fun, few hours, we reached the páramo again, and cut out of the tussock grass bushwhacking and onto a dirt road as we approached the Chimborazo Reserva de Producción Faunística. As we entered the reserve, the sun began to burn through the clouds and we started to get glimpses of the glaciers of Chimborazo volcano. Not long after, we came upon several herds of vicuñas, which are native, wild camelids, similar to alpacas, their domesticated cousins. Their wool is world renowned as some of the finest on the planet. The herds in Ecuador were actually hunted to extinction many years ago, but recently they transplanted a population from Chile that is now thriving in the reserve. Back in my mountain guide days in northern Chile, we would see hundreds of vicuñas everyday, but seeing them never gets old, especially in such a majestic setting.
Once we entered the reserve, it was just a short, gradual climb up to the base of the pass that separates Chimborazo and its neighboring peak Carihuairazo (5018m)(which might be the hardest word ever to pronounce). The indigenous community in the area runs a small mountain refugio, which we didn’t want to stay in, but fortunately there was an amazing choza right next to it, and we decided to spend the night there so we could spend the remaining hours of daylight enjoying the amazing views of Chimborazo.
In one of those “small world” type coincidences, I ended up knowing the guide, Fabian, who was staying at the adjacent refugio, having met him during a climb of Cotopaxi a couple months before. We chatted for a while and it turned out he knows my colleague Deb, a world-renowned alpine stream ecologist, who has studied some streams on Chimborazo. It also turned out that I had a mutual acquaintances with two of his Spanish clients, a fish biologist that lives in Quito. We were all so stoked to be rewarded with such stunning views of the peak. I’ve been to Chimborazo several times and had never had such good views. As the sun went down, it got bitingly cold and we were glad to be staying in the well-insulated thatch choza. After dinner, I went outside of the choza to take a leak and was floored by the view of Chimborazo basking in glow of the nearly full moon. I ran back in and told Vince he had to get some pics. He was tired and ready for bed, but suited up and went out with his tripod and got this epic shot.
We woke up the next morning and climbed the couple hundred remaining meters up to the pass that splits the two peaks at 4400m. From there we had a huge descent on singletrack that started out as great fun, but quickly turned into a deep muddy bog. Even though we were descending, the mud and standing water was so deep, we ended up having to trudge through a good part of this descent rather than ride. The guys on the fat bikes definitely had an easier time of it through the slop; they seemed to be enjoying it while I was struggling and walking! After a few river crossings and some steep muddy hike-a-bikes, we finally made it to a dirt track, and from there it was smooth sailing down to Urbina, where Vince would split off to the Panamerican highway while Cass and I would continue up and over the highest pass of the trip at 4500m then drop way down to Salinas, a small town on the edge of the cloud forest.
Kudos to Vince for an epic ride. What an effort to come directly from Texas and then ride for 5 days mostly above 12,000ft and with passes over 14,000ft through such challenging terrain! After splitting off from Vince, we contoured around the base of the mountain on cobblestone roads until we came to Cuatro Esquinas where there was a small store, and we stocked up on bread and crackers.
From there we climbed up a brutally steep dirt track that is part of the Chimborazo Extremo race. In fact, we later found out that nearly all of the route we did from Urbina to the main entrance to the Reserve was part of the race course. The only difference was that we were carrying an extra 20+ lbs of gear and had been riding all morning before getting on the course.
After the dirt climb we hit a paved road, which we followed for a while but split off on dirt roads and singletrack every few km. As we were heading up one of the paved sections, I saw two riders blazing down from the pass. They both had blue helmets and looked eerily like my two great friends Pericles and Gaby, whom I ride with several days a week in Quito and surrounding areas. As they got closer I realized it was indeed Peri and Gaby and I called them over. It was so weird to see two close friends so far from home after 7 days of nonstop backcountry bikepacking. After chatting for a while, we all still had a lot of ground to cover that day, so after snapping some group pics, we continued up the mountain and they sped down it.
From there, we continued on old dirt roads and trails up to the pass.
As we crested the pass, it became completely socked in with fog, limiting visibility to a few feet and making it impossible to follow the track, so we had to drop down to the pavement, just as the clouds began to burst. We dropped down off the pass in the thick fog and rain, hoping drivers would reduce their speed in these conditions and not hit us. On the other side of the pass, the rain turned to a snowy slushy mix, which froze and soaked us to the bone. At highway crossing, we ducked into a derelict building that apparently is used as an outhouse by highway travelers – it was a true cesspit – but it got us out of the snow for a bit. We waited about 20 minutes, but just kept getting colder and we still had a long way to go to Salinas, so we reluctantly stepped back out into the wintry mix that was still coming down in buckets. One thing you can count on in the highlands of Ecuador is variable weather, and fortunately the snow/slush let up after a short while and turned to light drizzle. It had been a while since I could feel my fingers and toes, and was soaked and cold to the core, so it was a relief when it stopped snowing, especially since we were close to the top of yet another pass which would be followed by a long, cold, muddy descent down to Salinas.
We dropped several thousand feet down to the tiny hamlet of Pachancho Central and I arrived cold and shivering. Cass is more prone to overheating than getting cold and he seemed to faring much better than me. After Pachancho, we turned off of the dirt road onto an epic 12km descent on singletrack that led straight into the central plaza of Salinas. Due to the heavy rain, the singletrack had morphed into a small river, punctuated by deep mudholes, so it was incredibly challenging. At least it took some effort so I began to warm up. As I approached town my bike and I were nearly completely covered in mud when I came upon mud-puddle the size of a small lake. I tried to avoid it by traversing across a small muddy ledge above the mudhole, but the ledge crumbled and my bike and I went into the mud, reaching up to my handlebars and causing my GPS to shutdown! I was worried I had lost the entire track from our trip. Huge bummer! (I was later able to recover the files-whew!) From there, I cruised into town looking like some sort of swamp beast and waited for Cass in the plaza.
He arrived a few minutes later and we found a sweet hotel for $10 a night, with a wood burning stove so we could dry out our things a bit. I felt bad tracking in several kilos of mud, but it was unavoidable. Seven days and 500km of páramo after leaving Quito, we had arrived in our destination and could relax. If you find yourself doing a big bike trip in Ecuador, make sure you pass through or finish your route in Salinas (the remote highland one 35km north of Guaranda, not the beach resort town!) – what an amazing little town.
Apparently, in the 1970´s, Salinas was one of the poorest towns in the country, consisting of little more than a church and some thatch roofed chozas, when an Italian missionary named Antonio Polo rode into town and completely transformed the place by setting up a credit cooperative to buy cheese and chocolate making equipment. Under expert Swiss guidance, they set up world class cheese and chocolate factories and now export very high quality products all over the world. This has benefited the town immeasurably, and when coupled with the towns beautiful location high up in the Central Andes, has turned into somewhat of tourist destination, mostly for local tourists. That night we sampled some of the local fare at a pizzeria run by an Italian – it was the best pizza I’ve had in Ecuador. I guess he couldn’t believe we each ate our own medium pizzas (which were admittedly large for one person, but we had earned it), so he gave us each a free shot of some local spirit that burned like crazy but had a good flavor. What a town!
The next morning, after stocking up on incredibly cheap organic dark chocolate and nibs, Cass and I said our goodbyes and I took a pick up truck taxi down to Guaranda and from there caught a bus (unfortunately with no spare seats) for the 5 hour ride back to Quito. What a stellar route through spectacular country with great company. I highly recommend this route for the intrepid bikepacker, or with some slight variations that avoid the trails and hike-a-bikes and keep you on the dirt roads, the route could be doable on a touring set up with MTB tires.