Cycling through ‘volcano alley’ from Riobamba to Quito
Having climbed back into the Andes, we were excited about the next stage of our journey towards Ecuador’s capital, which would see us pedalling through ‘volcano alley’. We took the stretch from Riobamba to Quito slowly, admiring the stunning views and stopping off at the many attractions on route.
At the bus station in Riobamaba, we discovered the road to Banos, which we’d hoped to cycle, was closed because of the activity of the nearby Volcano Tungahurua. The volcano was still erupting, having sprinkled Banos with ash the week before.
Around ‘volcano alley’, the signs warning of lahars (mud slides) depicting a man running away from a volcano reminded us of the similar ones on the Pacific coast for tsunamis, and we wondered how people could possibly hope to outrun them and lava flows. We heard that the last time nearby Volcan Cotapaxi exploded it took just 18 hours for the lava to reach the Pacific Ocean, after having destroyed many towns and villages on the way.
Because of the road closure we continued along the Panamerican Highway towards Ambato. We climbed out of Riobamba and slowly closed in on the cloud that occasionally cleared to give us a glimpse of the snow-capped summit of Volcan Chimborazo, the highest peak in Ecuador and the furthest point from the centre of the Earth thanks to the Equatorial bulge. The lower flanks of the volcano were a patchwork of agricultural efficiency, and we had to give credit to the locals for making the most out of the land at over 4,000m.
The climb was slow and energy consuming. A couple stopped and handed us a bag of hot, tasty rolls filled with stewed fruit. They were delicious and incredibly well timed as Laura, in need of a sugar fix, had just realised I had eaten all of our sweets. We saw them later along the road, where we were all eating at a traditional restaurant. We passed on the roast cuy (guinea pig), devouring delicious platefulls of potatoes and maize instead.
The long descent into Ambato was busy with traffic and we were surprised by the size of the town. However, we didn’t stay long to investigate as we locked up the bikes in a hostel room and headed to Banos by bus for a day trip.
Famous for its volcanic, thermal waters, the town is popular with locals and backpackers alike and had more hostels and eateries than you could shake a stick at. We took advantage of this, exploring a microbrewery and Swiss cheese fondue restaurant.
We cured our hangovers with an early morning dip at the Termas de Virgin in the town. The sulphuric, yellow pools of warm and scalding hot water were a real treat to our tired legs, and we thoroughly enjoyed the vistas across the town bathed in early morning sunshine. Not a bad way to spend a Friday morning.
With the sun out, we hoped our luck would change and allow us a glimpse of mother nature in all her glory, so we hired quad bikes and sped up to the opposite side of the steep valley to catch a glimpse of Tungahurua. Frustratingly, a tablecloth of cloud was laid out over the top of the volcano, but Laura entertained herself with puppies and a tree swing instead.
Back in Ambato, we caught up with fellow cyclist, Joel, who we had left surfing on the Peruvian coast. It was nice to swap stories of our climbs in the mountains, but the next day we went our separate ways again as we headed down the valley towards the picturesque, colonial town of Latacunga.
Here we booked into the lovely Hotel Cotapaxi and secured ourselves one of the cosseted rooms with a view out towards Volcano Cotopaxi. In two days though, the weather refused to allow us a glimpse of this picture perfect conical peak.
We were happy, however, with the stunning views of Lake Quilotoa in the cone of an active volcano. We visited on a day trip from Latacunga, driving up along the road towards Guayaquil. This was the road we had considered cycling on, before we opted to ride via Riobamba. On seeing the condition of the road we decided we had made the right decision, as there are lots of climbs, road works and water with it being the rainy season. The track was so difficult that it killed our first 4×4 and we had to swap guides halfway up the hill.
The drive offered a great insight into life for rural Ecuadorians. We visited the Sunday market in Pujili where we were overwhelmed by the quantity and variety of the local produce on offer and by a table of roasted, mangled pigs. We couldn’t quite work out how many animals were together on the table but there were many legs and at least two heads.
In the middle of the countryside we passed the former home of President, Rafael Correa, who had lived in the local community as a teacher. The house he had stayed in was a single concrete block, with no windows. Our guide explained that Correa has lived all across Ecuador and stayed in this community to learn the local language, Kichwa. It is hard to imagine any of our politicians back home making efforts like that.
After our days of sightseeing, it was back on the road and a final push to Quito. We had an 800m climb out of Latacunga, which was hard enough with the gradients, but for the first time in three and a half months we got rained on. The wet made the uphill unpleasant, but as we reached the top the heavens opened. With all the water our brakes were slow to respond and it was difficult to see with the rain lashing into our eyes. It was miserable, so we dived, dripping wet, into a roadside restaurant to wait out the storm.
Not wanting to arrive late into a wet Quito, we stopped in Machaci, a small town 35km from the capital. The next day we were glad for our decision, as the 300m climb went on forever and it took much longer than expected to cover the distance. We were rewarded, however, with beautiful views of the city and a quick descent off the ridge down into town.
We were relieved to have a cycling friend who lives in Quito to help guide us through the city, as the traffic is incredibly busy. Surprisingly, there are many bike lanes to avoid the worst of it, but there is no way we would have found them on our own. As it was we had a nice relaxing ride across the town and managed to catch glimpses of the city that we are looking forward to exploring over the next few days.
From Quito we have less than 50km until we cycle across the Equator and we hope to be celebrating New Year in Colombia. But first there is Christmas to mark and Laura’s present to buy. For although she says she doesn’t want anything, I’m not going to fall for that!
The one thing left to do then is wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year.