It's late March and the Northern Hemisphere is still very much in the grips of a winter slumber. Bleary-eyed I slowly trudge forward in the boarding queue with "Quito" brightly emblazoned on the screen above. A little over twelve hours later and the screech of tires on the runway signals our arrival into the capital city of Ecuador. I had an overriding feeling of bewilderment. It was distinctly nothing like I’d imagined. It was my first experience of South America and I expected a chaotic and nervous arrival into its city streets, it was neither. With a mind full of intrigue and excited curiosity, we set off for seven days (very roughly) circumnavigating around Quito, crisscrossing over the equator for good measure.
The diversity of terrain we took in during the week was rather ridiculous. Away from the hustle of the city, our first taste of Ecuadorian trail was Infiernillo or “Little Hell” as it’s known thanks to the abundant mosquito population. In truth, it was closer to heaven than hell. Marooned deep in the jungle is a ribbon of ancient Inca trail, a powdery volcanic gulley coated by lush vegetation - one hell of an introduction to riding in Ecuador. The starkest contrast came the very next day as we headed to the Imbabura region and the Chota valley, tackling axle-deep dust below the baking sun, brushing by cactuses and getting a little too close for comfort on a couple of occasions.
They were both somewhat trumped by what lay in wait on the barren ash-filled slopes of Cotopaxi. Having topped out at 4800m we subsequently cut our own line through the crusty surface, surfing on the marble-like volcanic rock. Chased by rain and thunder we quickly funnelled onto a narrow trail atop a flower-covered ridgeline. What unfolded was a few of the most memorable minutes I've had on a mountain bike... The trail flowed beautifully with natural rises and rollers that could be launched as much or as little as you wanted. Everything linked up perfectly. It just. felt. right. A combination of the landscape we were in, the people I was with, the weather we were running from, and of course the trail itself, made it one of the most surreal experiences ever. To use Thomas' words, "that was all time".
Aside from the incredible riding, we got to absorb some of Ecuador's traditions and culture up close and personal. Having traversed the flanks of Cotopaxi to the opposite side we'd ridden previously, we ended up three hours from civilisation at a remote hacienda called El Tambo, home to traditional chagra (cowboy) Gerardo and his family. The site dates back to Inca times with travellers stopping here on their way to the Amazon basin, the current farmhouse is even built with the original stones hand-carved by the Incas. There was no agenda, we were just there to take it all in. An afternoon watching Gerardo at work rounding up cattle was followed by an evening of steaks, whisky, and guitar, then to round it off the morning consisted of watching dawn take hold as Cotopaxi drifted in and out of the clouds. The culture juxtaposed the riding somewhat, but it also gave the trip the perfect balance.
Thanks to H+I Adventures
for putting the pieces of the puzzle together to make this trip happen as well as Scotty and Thomas for their obliging trudge back up the hill each time the words "one more time" left my mouth.
Welcome to Quito - Shaking off the jetlag
Infiernillo - Through the green of "little hell"
Chota - Fist to a cactus fight
Cotopaxi - Riding Heaven's ridge
El Tambo - Following in the footsteps of Incas
Quilotoa - Lagoon lap on the dash back to Quito