The hill was so steep that even with both brakes on the bike was sliding back down. It had been like this for 3 days now, and we were making 6 kms in a 6 hour day, both pushing one bike up, then walking back down to get the second bike. It was like having a full body work out in a sauna but for 6 hours instead of one hour.
We had left Quito six days ago with no real plan except that we did not want to cycle with traffic, we wanted to see some volcanos and we quite liked to look of an eco-route we could see on the map.
So leaving Quito we literally went straight up with the rush hour pollution. Quito is there under that cloud, it’s prettier that way! But wonderfully we soon left all that behind and cycled along a small lane amongst landscape that could have been Exmoor except that we were at 3300m. Then we left the tarmac behind us for the next 6 days and initially headed down into thicker and thicker forest full of wonderful flowers and trees dripping with bromliads. We were heading for an eco-lodge which is in the cloud forest, so it was no surprise when there was first a thick mist then heavy rain. In fact with all the mist and rain we did not notice until later that we had crossed the equator twice! No big tourist signs out here.
Cloud forests are found in the Andes between 900 and about 2500 meters, and the cloud forests of Ecuador have the highest diversity of epiphytes (air plants) in the world. We had meant to find somewhere to stay in small a village on the way, but unlike in Colombia, Ecuador has other tourists and the only accommodation was full, so we had to cycle the whole distance in one go, with the final 9 kms being a very steep climb. But it was worth it, we spent two days at the Bellavista Cloudforest Ecolodge that had stunning views if you could catch a moments between the mists rising and the clouds dropping.
We spent some time learning about the birds, although this one looks like it is studying us including a lot of species of humming bird The humming birds were incredible, there were literally hundreds of them in all sizes, shapes and colours.
But even better from my point of view was finding all the orchids. and other plants found in the cloud forest. Our local guide, Nelson, was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic (and funny) about the plants and although his real enthusiasm was for the birds, but I was occasionally distracted from some rare brown flying blob by a fascinating tiny orchid attached to a leaf. I have literally 100’s of plant photos, so they will be in a separate blog but I can’t resist putting one more in here. We saw several mammals, including one that was first discovered in 2013, an Olinguito, which is only found in SW Colombia and NW Ecuador.We made a short video of it feeding on the bananas that had been put out for it, it was at night so the video is quite dark. You may be able to see that it has a prehensile tail.
We also saw a stoat like mammal called a Tayara which moved high in the trees at an incredible rate.
There were quite a lot of smaller things creeping around too. The owner, Richard and his family, had bought the deforested farm land in 1991 and allowed it to naturally regenerate to become an active cloud forest and a home to hundreds of species of plants and birds.We set off again early before the clouds started forming too much (it had been raining all night) and slowly left the forest and were surrounded again by farmland as we dropped into the tourist adventureland of Mindo, a very strange place.
We just stayed here just long enough to stock up with 2 -3 days of food and attempted to dry off our clothes, so we didn’t spend as much time as we should have done studying our next section of remote cycling or we might have noticed that 2-3 days of food was not going to be enough! Then we set of happily down a muddy track towards the tiny community of Saloya, initially passing the occasional pickup truck, then no-one except the occasional isolated small holding. We got an idea of what was in store for us when we dropped down some hills that were so steep that even with a fully loaded bike I still felt I needed to drop off the back of the seat to keep the back wheel on the ground. The hills went down for a long time, and there was no way to stop once you started down, even with both brakes on I was still slithering down on the gravelly and muddy surface and dared not more my weight forward to get a foot on the ground.
We were very pleased to find all the bridges in tact as we had several large rivers to cross and we had been warned in Mindo that some on the bridges might be down.We reached the tiny community of Saloya around lunch time and decided to stop there for the night as we could see the next section was going to be very hard, plus the fact that it usually rains here in the afternoon. The villagers grew Yucca and leeks in small plots pink bananas and there was a small herd of cows. Although it looked very much subsistence farming we noticed one or two very shiny 4-wheel drives under cover next to some of the houses. We camped on the edge of the football pitch and we were soon host to two little boys who wanted to eat their way through our supplies and were so fascinated by how fast I was writing their heads were sometimes so close to the page I could no longer write. This little one, who I thought was about 5 but turned out to be 8, let out shrieks of delight when he finally recognised a word, it was Saloya, the name of their village.The next morning we saw them running happily into their small school room along with the 4 other children between 7 and 14 from the village. We had quite a noisy night as we were camped near the river which was home to a very large community of frogs. It’s amazing how something so small can make so much noise! On the other side of the bridge as the mud and stone track had been washed away by the river so no vehicles could get through, we didn’t see anyone for two days. Initially leaving the village was tricky with the deep mud stirred up by the cows and the very narrow track. And it was from here that the climbing and pushing began. It was worth it as the scenery and views were stunning and ever changing with the rising mists and dropping clouds and early sun. You could tell how high we were by the changing plants and flowers, with these ones at the start of the climb at about 1100mas we climbed up through the cloud forest with its bromliads and rising mists, and finally out the top to the green farmlandand a small farm on the peak of each hill above 2200m.When we had looked at the route before setting off we had seen that we would be going up to about 2200m, which did not worry us as we had done this several times before with no problems. What we did not notice was the gradient, which averaged 25% and was over 35% in others. At these gradients we were not strong enough to push the loaded bikes, weighing 50kgs and 43kgs respectively, up the hill on our own. So we had to push then up one at a time, doing about 0.1 km each time, then walk back down and push the other bike up. With the odd rest in between. Of course this meant walking 3 times the distance and pushing the bikes up twice the height. This also called for the occasional bowl of pasta and cup of tea. Then of course there were two peaks, not just one at this height, and the road plunged down steeply in between, losing our hard won height.
We thought we were at the top at the point we took this celebratory picture, but we were a day and a half away from the real top.It was hard to find somewhere to camp as the land was either steep forest or steep fenced farmland. But we eventually found a little corner of flat ground just before it got dark. We had been on the go for 7 hours, using all our muscles and energy, in hot sun, mist and rain, we were exausted and had covered the pathetic total of 12kms. But the views early in the morning were just great!Walking back down to get the second bike meant that we saw things we would not have noticed otherwise, such as small mammals and odd insects. And we could fully appreciate where we were and our peaceful surroundings.It was hard, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The next day we were able to cycle occasionally, in between pushing, so we actually covered 21 kms. We had by now realised it was going to take much longer than expected to get through, so we had been through our food supplies to make sure we could make them last for 4 days. In the process of this we discovered why our powdered milk was so lumpy. I hadn’t put my glasses on when making the tea and had been using the bread flour. Still, it was nice and filling. We had now reached a slightly wider track and there were more little hill top farms.As we passed by they were just finishing the morning milking of their 10 or 11 cows and were taking the milk churn out to the collection point. Many of the farmers we spoke to did not understand our terrible Spanish, but this old guy did and he was mine of information about the route ahead, only he forgot to mention that we would still be going up for the rest of the day, but we clung to his words of it being downhill all the way to Santo Domingo and uphill all the way to Quito. We both made the mental decision that we were going to Santo Domingo even though we had no idea where it was. But we still had to push for the next 4 hours.On an unexpected flat bit of track we came across a tiny community that had a surprisingly large school It village was so isolated that the children must have come in from the tiny hilltop farms. At this stage it was quite late in the day and the views had disappeared into cloud. Then just as the skies opened and the rain came down in buckets, we reached a very small village that had a church and a school, and best for us, the school had a playing field where they normally allow camping. While I was knocking on the door of the first house to ask permission I noticed Bernie filling up our water carrier from the rain water pouring off their roof. We hadn’t passed a river for a while and had run out of water. We pitched our tent in the least boggy area we could find, in the pouring rain. While we were cooking the clouds began to lift and we were treated to a stunning sunset.The rain hammered down all night and although it had more or less stopped in the morning everything was drenched. We watched the clouds rising while eating breakfast, each quietly hoping that we were somewhere near the top. So it was great when we left the village and immediately started downhill. In fact we carried on downhill for the next 60 kms. It was wonderful.
We were now cycling on what is oddly called the Quito Expressway, which is made from mud and stones and full of potholes. I suppose it was the only way through before they built the highway. We only saw 2 vehicles on it and they were local. We passed a few little villages on the way down in the sunshine. Then suddenly the rain started and we were on the main highway, surrounded by fume belching lorries and trucks and horns from cars. With one accord we just carried on heading downhill. The sign said 25 kms to Santo Domingo and that was where we were now heading. As it happens it was a mistake but that is another story!
While we are cycling we are also raising money for ShelterBox who are a humanitarian charity who provide emergency shelter and water purification for people whose lives have been devastated by disaster. If you would like to donate drectly to ShelterBox click on the donate button at the bottom of this blog or go to the ShelterBox tab at the top of the page. To find out more about ShelterBox go to our links page and click on ShelterBox. Or click directly into their website here ShelterBox