Volcano Biking

One of the recommended activities to do around Quito is mountain biking.. there are many companies offering one- to several-day trips, and I decided to do a two-day tour with one of the highest-recommend outfits: The Flying Dutchman. It was a bit pricey at $110, but that included transport, bikes, food, guide, and one night of accommodation. This is the trip I chose.

At 7am (ugh) I met up with our fearless leader Fernando and my fellow bikers Ali and Chris who are on their gap year from England. We were a small group, which I liked. Fernando and I hit it off, it turns out the contents of his iPod is about 80% the same as mine. Chris and Ali were also delightful fellow travelers.

After a couple of hours driving south from Quito, Fernando turned the Land Rover onto a crazy bumpy flooded dirt track and started heading up Cotopaxi – the world’s highest active volcano, at 19,347 feet.
Now let me just stop here and report on a few science tidbits the local tour operators boast about – you probably thought that Mount Everest was the tallest place on Earth, right? Well, it turns out it depends on how you define tallest. Everest is in fact the highest point on earth when measured from sea level. But if you define the height of a mountain as the distance from it’s base to it’s peak, then Mauna Kea in Hawaii has it beat, even though most of it’s base is underwater. By the same token, Mount McKinley in Alaska also wins. Similarly, some argue that Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is taller than Everest because it rises straight out of the African plain, whereas Everest is merely one of many peaks topping the enormous base of the Himalayas.
Now, suppose we define “highest mountain” as that which is furthest from the center of the earth. By this definition, Mount Chimborazo (nearby Cotopaxi, here in Ecuador) wins by the technicality that the earth bulges along the equator due to centrifugal force. In fact, Chimborazo is 2.1 kilometers closer to the sun than Everest. A neat fact, although it feels like cheating to me, since by this accounting even the beaches of Ecuador are higher than Everest.

Cotopaxi volcano also boasts one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world. From Wikipedia: “There have been more than 50 eruptions of Cotopaxi since 1738. Numerous valleys formed by powerful lahars (mudflows) surround the volcano. This poses a high risk to the local population, their settlements and fields. During a war between the Incas and the Spaniards in 1534, the volcano erupted and put an end to the fighting as both fled from the battlefield. In the 1877 eruption pyroclastic flows descended all sides of the mountain, with lahars traveling more than 100 km into the Pacific Ocean and western Amazon basin draining the valley.” That’s a long way for lava to flow!

Continuing up the 4WD track in our trusty Land Rover, we rose above the tree line to the strange world of the páramo until finally reaching the climber’s hut at 4600m. Of course we couldn’t actually see the top of the volcano above us, because Murphy’s Josh’s law states that whatever volcanoes he visits are perpetually covered in cloud and fog. But there are some pretty pictures on the web.. here is a neat photo of the summit throwing a shadow onto the clouds below. And here is a panoramic shot of the crater itself.

Upon disembarking from the jeep we were hit by howling winds, and suddenly understood why we were instructed to buy gloves and wool hats in Quito the day before. Wow, was it cold. And that crazy altitude made me dizzy again. Like being a teenager, doing whippits to feel lightheaded – which I didn’t particularly like at the time, and now was just annoying. Fernando proceeded to give us training in how to ride a mountain bike (which Josh rolled his eyes at) before sending us down the road we had just driven up. I understand why we weren’t allowed to just cruise across the páramo (fragile ecosystem, blah blah), but boy was it tempting – that would have been real mountain biking. As it turns out, though, the road was not as wimpy as I first thought – the volcanic ash and water channels provided some challenges. We stopped often for photos, as Fernando slowly followed behind us in the jeep. I got a flat at one point – those rocks are sharper than they look – but not only had Fernando brought spare parts, he had even brought completely spare bikes! Two minutes of down time, and I was back on my way. The landscape we cruised through was eerily barren, with scattered little plants and flowers that are much older than they look. It is a rare kind of plant that is able to adapt to the high levels of UV and the perpetually cold and dry conditions.

We also came upon a pack of wild horses – imagine! Apparently there are several hundred of them living out there, as well as speckled bear, condors, deer, foxes, and bunny rabbits. We did not see any of these. The climate quickly shifted as we dropped in altitude, becoming warmer and even a bit of sun poking out. Next we were led to a pretty site of Incan ruins.. low stone walls that formed a small village once upon a time. The village was not permanently inhabited, apparently it was more like a way station where travelers would stay.. or something like that. Adjoining this site are several perfectly formed pyramids (now covered in grass) that I swore must have been human made, but Fernando told me they were natural.. the Incans didn’t build pyramids, apparently. Huh. Continuing our ride down the mountain, it started raining (of course) but with the temperature rising it wasn’t so bad, other than getting completely soaked – but we were dressed for it. The road descended through cloud forest before reaching the base of the park.

Thereupon we loaded up the jeep and hit the road again.. stopping for supplies in some quaint town where Fernando gave us yet another kind of exotic fruit I’ve never seen in my life before. A couple of hours later, nearing dusk, we arrived in the wee little village of Quilotoa. The town takes it’s name from the enormously beautiful crater lake that it sits upon the rim of. After picking up our jaws from the sight, we went to check out our accommodation for the night. The home hotel/hostel turned out to be nicer than I was expecting.. and apparently much nicer than it was only a few years ago, when the toilet was an outdoor pit! Now there are private rooms with private bathrooms, hot water, and each room has it’s own wood-burning stove which we were sorely thankful for, given how cold it got at night. What a lovely invention, the wood-burning stove – to fall asleep to the nice smell and crackling sounds of a fire just a few feet from your pillow.

The family that runs this lodge is indigenous like everyone in a 50-mile radius, and as such, the women wear the beautiful traditional clothes. The men generally dress in western style. Again, I wanted to take photos of every woman and girl I laid eyes on, they were so strikingly beautiful. But I held off, not wanting to be rude. The women wear Mary Jane heeled shoes no matter what they’re doing – tending sheep, collecting firewood, or doing housework. Embroidered mid-length skirts with knee socks and a brightly colored blouse completes the outfit. If outside, they will add a wrap/shawl that is often brightly-colored as well, plus the classic fedora hats. Their super-long hair gets braided together into a beautiful multi-colored tassel. The entire look is quite striking.

This village actually didn’t exist until fairly recently when tourists started visiting the lake. Everyone lived in Zumbahua, 16 km away. But the locals started building accommodation for the tourists arriving, and it’s become a win-win situation – Fernando explained how this family has really come up in the world thanks to the tourism – they can now afford to send their children to college, whereas five years ago the kids would have been asked to stay at home working on the farm. And we get the benefit of their yummy home-cooked meals, cozy beds, and the cultural delight of witnessing their home life – kids and dogs wandering in and out, grandparents nattering on, etc.

It’s common around here to put popcorn in your soup, which is much more delicious than it sounds. We were all pretty zonked after dinner, and of course there’s not much to do once the sun goes down so we were all in bed by about 8:30. Fernando said the best time to see the lake is at dawn, so I dutifully set my alarm for 6:00, which as it turns out wasn’t quite early enough. Kicking myself for missing the actual sun rise, I still witnessed the beautiful low-angled light that always gets my heart pumping. Those photos don’t lie – this lake is a strange, opaque green color, apparently due to the high concentration of minerals. It’s incredibly deep (820′), due to it being a caldera (collapsed volcano). I really wanted to hike down to the bottom to witness it up close, but there wasn’t time to hike back up before we had to hit the road. There is also a trail that goes all the way round the rim which would be a beautiful hike, but it takes 5 hours. You can hire kayaks down on the lake and there is even a simple hut for accommodation. Amazingly, the locals take their animals down to drink from the lake – somehow their bodies have adapted to the stagnant, alkaline water. You would think the lake might be warm owing to the fumaroles and hot springs, but apparently it’s freezing cold.

After a hearty breakfast we jumped on our bikes and cruised downhill towards Zumbahua. This was quite different terrain than yesterday – today it’s all cultivated land, with the plots extending straight up these steep mountains. Imagine harvesting your crops at a 45° angle. There were so many National Geographic moments that I wish I had captured on film but wasn’t able to for one reason or another – an 8-year old boy leading a flock of sheep in bare feet; an ancient woman (also barefoot) with deep rutted lines in her face walking hunchbacked down the mountain carrying a load of reeds to feed her animals; three little girls about 5 years old skipping hand in hand on their way to school in their darling uniforms.. the list goes on. Llamas and alpacas are common around here, which are in my opinion just about the cutest farm animals in the world. Vicuñas and guanacos are also seen, albeit less commonly.

Cutting it’s way through the valley is a shockingly deep but very narrow canyon. I couldn’t tell if it was formed by a river or tectonic activity.. perhaps both. We also passed the first cacti I’ve seen on my trip thus far. Strange, I wouldn’t have thought it was that dry around here. Although 80% of the biking was downhill, we did have some nice challenging uphill sections. Even though I consider myself in good shape and certainly kept up, at one point Ali and Chris went flying past me and I realized, “they’re literally half my age!” This trip was the first time I’ve been conscious of hanging out with people who are half my age yet who are also fellow adults. But interestingly, rather than it making me feel old, I actually felt confirmation that I’m exactly the age I want to be. I’m happy for the life experiences I’ve had and look forward to many more, and unlike many of my peers, I don’t really want to be 20 years old again.

Loading up the bikes again, we drove up to descend the last section of our trip. Along the way we stopped at a famous local painter’s studio and gallery to peruse his work. Apparently they’ve been painting simple scenes on their drums for years, but only recently (with the encouragement of a gringo) expanded to painting on actual canvases. The canvases are actually stretched pieces of dried sheepskin. Fernando showed us how to determine the quality by looking at the backs of the paintings.. some skins were tanned, while others were not. Although not my cup of tea, the paintings were quite well done, and sold for peanuts. Most of the paintings were simple pastoral scenes or depictions of rural life.. but one that struck all of us was a strongly anti-IMF political painting showing the flags of the G8 nations dripping from a cross.

This last ride is normally on paved road (boring!) but we convinced Fernando to take us to an alternative descent, along and beside an old road that didn’t see much use anymore, all pock-marked and deeply rutted. This turned out to be my favorite ride because it was the most technical. It wasn’t single-track, but did offer good jumping opportunities and dicey bits that required skill and concentration when going fast.

After dropping Chris and Ali along the Pan-American Highway where they could flag down a bus for points south, Fernando and I headed back to Quito, where we caught the Pink Floyd show that night (see next post).

Here is a 360 view of the páramo, shot from within the Incan ruins.


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