Jan 07

Never-ending hills on the way from Quito to Colombia

by in Colombia, Ecuador

“Are you the people who were on TV last night?” asked our hotel manager in Quito. We were, having spent one of our days off in the capital answering questions from the national media about our trip around South America. It was a different way to get ready for Christmas. After a busy break, we weren’t totally rested when we set off towards the Colombian border, through Ecuador’s never-ending hills.

Our day in the spotlight had been organised by the lovely staff at the British Embassy in Quito, who also asked us to record a short video to promote the London 2012 Olympics. I think the gathered journalists were disappointed we weren’t set to take part in the actual games, but they seemed interested in our trip and had us cycling up and down in front of the Embassy to video us. We couldn’t help thinking our mums would be disappointed that for our TV debuts we were dressed in our scruffy cycling garb.

A few days later, we celebrated Christmas with a bunch of ex-pats in an Irish pub. There was a delicious dinner on offer so we did get our Christmas meal, just without the sprouts, and we sipped potent Black Russian cocktails in honour of Christmas Day in the Pollitt-house.

But our alcohol intake was limited as the next day we were back on the bikes and heading towards the border with Colombia, where we hoped to spend New Year. The ride out of Quito was quiet with most people still enjoying the festive break. On reaching the outskirts of the city we flew down, only to start crawling back up immediately on reaching the valley floor. Ecuador’s gradients don’t make for easy cycling on a loaded bike weighing 70kg, but it seems many locals take a lot of fun in racing up and down on their light, road bikes and we received many waves and nods of approval.

Celebrating reaching 11,000km in Ecuador's hills

Celebrating reaching 11,000km in Ecuador’s hills

We took the first few days out of Quito slowly as we were suffering with colds, so stayed the first night in Guayambamba just 35km from the capital. The next morning we were glad for our decision as we had a long day of climbing on the 37km to Cayambe, during which we celebrated reaching our 11,000km mark with a leftover Christmas panetone.

Faced with a shorter route to Cayambe we decided to stick to the Panamerican so that we could cycle past ‘the Equator’ sign. We spent a fun hour playing about on either side of the line and recorded a brief video for friends and family back home. There’s a lot of cycling – including five new countries – before we cross back over in Macapa, Brazil.

Standing on either side of the Equator

Standing on either side of the Equator

Having left the southern hemisphere behind and officially in winter now, it did get a little colder as we climbed into Cayambe. The scenery however, was stunning and the next morning cycling up to the top of the valley we felt as if we were in the Alps, with all the lush green fields, wooden huts and animals grazing.

The views continued to impress on our way to Ibarra, as we passed sparking lakes and deep, green volcanoes whose tops were nestled in cloud. We had an afternoon off here, and were able to satisfy Paddy’s insatiable appetite for ice cream at a Ecuador’s most famous café where the owners make all flavours by hand in huge brass pots that they swirl over ice in the middle of the shop.

Back on the bikes we had a mammoth day in store for us as from Ibarra we again descended, this time low enough to get bitten all over by midges. The climb out of the valley from El Juncal was so steep that it was impossible to get up enough speed to escape them, so they had a fabulous moving, feast.

Laura cycling the Panamerican in Ecuador

Laura cycling the Panamerican in Ecuador

The valley leading to El Juncal was a real surprise, with most of the local population being of African descent. We learnt that with the end of slavery in Ecuador many slaves settled in this area. Cycling through it felt as if we had been transported to Kenya, but the next valley over we were back to rural South America.

Starting our climb up from the riverbed we expected to reach the next town of Bolivar in 10km, as indicated by the road signs. Perfect, we would be there for lunch we thought. However, it was a good couple of hours cycling up that distance, where instead of a town we found a tiny village with no shops or restaurants. Bolivar, a road worker told us, was another 10km away. So after a measly lunch of crackers and running out of water we set off.

Two hours later we finally rolled into the town, exhausted and ready to collapse onto a comfy mattress. It turned out, however, that there were no beds for us. The town had no hotel and a lady who sometimes rented out a room in her house was sick. With a warning from some friendly locals that this wasn’t the safest village to stay in anyway, we decided that the only option was to cycle another 15km to San Gabriel where we were assured there was a hotel.

Enjoying a downhill for a change

Enjoying a downhill for a change

It took another couple of hours to reach the town, climbing up and down rolling hills. We made it into town just as the sunset and hurrah, there was a hotel. We collapsed on the beds, and that was us for the evening.

Not surprisingly, we slept very well on our final night in Ecuador. The next morning we dragged our aching bodies up to the top of the valley at 3150m and were rewarded with a lovely downhill past Tulcan and towards Colombia. A patrolling police helicopter helped us make out the route towards the border and reminded us of the recent politics between the two countries.

It seemed like we had picked a bad day, as it took three stressful hours to complete the crossing. Apparently though, with this border being the safest and hence most commonly used between the two countries, it normally takes so long. Trying to get our passports stamped whilst keeping our eyes on the bikes at all times was tricky, but in the end the customs officials didn’t ask to see both of us and stamped us in and out without problems.

Paddy heading towards the border with Colombia

Paddy heading towards the border with Colombia

So we did make it to Colombia just in time for New Year. Ecuador was a fantastic country to cycle through, with friendly locals, stunning scenery and even our day in the spotlight. Our everlasting memory of Ecuador though will be the roads and the crazy gradients of the never-ending hills, which made for challenging but rewarding cycling. It may be a small country but for us it leaves big memories.

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We took a break at the Equator to record a short message for friends and family.