Ecuador: Quito to Cotopaxi

The transient nature of our trip and our preference for mountains over cities means that we spend most of our time alone. But the past few weeks have been unusually (and enjoyably) sociable. There hasn’t been much cycling but we have done some amazing hiking, including summiting Cotopaxi Volcano - a literal and metaphorical high point of the trip so far.

Upon returning from the Galapagos we spent a couple of days exploring Quito, which we kicked off with a walking tour (our standard practice when in a new city) through the UNESCO listed historical centre.

Quito has a long history, with the oldest traces of human presence dating back to hunter-gatherers in 8000 BC. Evidence of permanent human inhabitance in the region has been found dating back to 1500 BC. By the time the Spanish arrived in Ecuador in 1526 Quito was a major Inca city. But the Inca did not take the Spanish presence lying down. Rumiñahui, an Incan General, ordered the city be razed before the Spanish arrived. (Rumiñahui was later captured and executed).

In 1534 the Spanish lieutenant Sebastián de Benalcázar founded the Quito atop the Inca ruins. In 1809 Quito was the heart of an independence movement, which included establishing its own government and president. This movement was overthrown in 1810 and Quito would not achieve independence until 1822 when, under the command of Simón Bolívar, General Antonio José de Sucre defeated the Royalist army at the Battle of Pichincha. What followed was several more years of conflict as Ecuador found itself stuck in the middle between Peru and Gran Colombia. In 1830 Ecuador separated from Gran Colombia and the Republic of Ecuador was formed, with Quito named as its capital.

Having spent the day exploring the city we returned to the The Secret Garden Quito, where we spent the evening chatting with other travellers. It was a diverse crowd with people from all places and all ages, including a 72-year-old Norwegian woman travelling with her granddaughter because “people my age are boring and too concerned about where they sleep; I like couch surfing.” We want to be like her when we grow up.

The hostel had an amazing view of the city and the nearby Pichincha Volcano. While Gabe spent a day resting to try and shake a cold, Matt and one of the guys from the hostel caught the TeleréfiQo gondola to the Cruz Loma lookout and hiked up to the summit.

The next day we made our way back to the Casa de Ciclistas and a warm greeting from Santiago. During our time in the Galápagos the Casa had filled up with several other bikepackers who, like us, were using it as a base to sort out logistics/bike issues before continuing on their journeys.1 There’s nothing like finding yourself amongst kindred spirits and we spent many hours happily comparing bikes, gear, route notes, and stories.

The socialising inevitably escalated, which resulted in Matt experiencing his first hangover of the trip: an afternoon BBQ at the Casa turned into $10-all-you-can-drink-craft-beers and the rest, as they say, is history.

Making friends with fellow travellers means that you soon part ways. The morning after the night before we woke up early to farewell Oli, who is walking from Ushuaia to Alaska with Carlitos, a stray dog that he adopted (those two facts alone give you some idea of the kind of person that Oli is). You can follow his progress here.

Then it was our turn to say goodbye.

Tumbaco to Cotopaxi

Even though it had only been a few days together, after 6 months with mostly just ourselves for company it was an emotional farewell - the sadness of goodbye tempered by the shared excitement for exploring. Fortunately, we were on gravel roads through pretty countryside within about 10 minutes so it was easy to continue looking forward towards the unknown.

With Nacho, Chavi, Santiago, Nathan, and Oskar at Casa de Ciclistas.

Before long we were so consumed by the act of riding our bikes that there wasn’t space for any other thoughts. Almost a month off the bikes, a lot of which was a sea level, meant we had lost fitness and acclimatisation, and now we were climbing above 3000m a.s.l. on cobbles and through fields. Let’s just say that it was a tough day.

Volcan Cotopaxi coming into view in the background.

Somehow, no matter how much the suffering, a spectacular view makes it all worthwhile. And Volcan Cotopaxi is certainly spectacular. At 5897m a.s.l. Cotopaxi is the second highest mountain in Ecuador, and an almost perfect conical shape. Even though it was getting late in the day we couldn’t help but stop to take photos.

It was just on dark with the first drops of rain falling when we arrived at The Secret Garden Cotopaxi. After a warm meal and a hot shower we snuggled with a dog by the fire, tired but content.

It’s hard not to be content when this is the view from the hostel.

Pasachoa Hike

Having felt the loss of our acclimatisation we decided the best option was to brute force it back by summiting Cotopaxi. To make sure this wasn’t a completely misguided idea we set off on a hike of Pasachoa with a group and a couple of dogs2 from the hostel.

We walked through some fields at the back of the property then followed some old Inca trails3 through a small forest before coming out in the high open grasslands. Eventually we made it to the rim of the Pasachoa crater, some 4200m a.s.l. with views in all directions: the sprawl of Quito to the north, the snow-capped peaks of Cotopaxi and Antisana to the south and east respectively, and the craggy Rumiñahui to the west.

At the top of Pasachoa. The snow-capped peak in the background is Nevado Antisana.

Views of Quito to the north…

And Cotopaxi to the South.

Importantly, we both felt fine on the hike so committed to summiting Cotopaxi the next day - an early birthday present for Matt.

Cotopaxi Summit

The next morning we woke to a perfect blue-bird day. We could only hope that the weather would hold for one more night for us!

Cotopaxi is a non-technical ascent and the most popular of the country’s “big peaks” to climb. It was inactive for more than 80 years, but began smoking again in 2015. The summit was re-opened to climbers in October 2017. Cotopaxi is climbed at night, when the cooler temperatures and lack of sun mean the glacier is more stable (with the added bonus of a spectacular sunrise from the summit). However, this meant we had a big “day” ahead of us…

Our guide picked us up around midday and took us to the shop where they kitted us out with alpine boots, crampons, harnesses, helmets, ice axes, snow pants, and gators. We had lunch then we piled into the 4WD and began the bumpy drive to the refugio car park. After a 40 min hike up a scree slope we arrived at Refugio José Rivas. We made friends with some of the other people doing the summit over dinner then went to bed, hoping to get a few hours sleep before our 11pm wake-up call.

All too soon we were rolling out of our beds and, bleary eyed, putting on layers of clothing and fumbling with foreign buckles. We had a light “breakfast” (if you can call it that when it’s being eaten at 11:30pm), the room buzzing with nerves, anticipation, and excitement. Then it was midnight - time to leave.

After about an hour of hiking up the scree slope we made it to the edge of the glacier, where we donned our crampons and our guide roped us up. We soon got the hang of walking in crampons, following a well worn trail up the mountain, around seracs, and over the occasional crevasse. The perfectly clear night and almost-full moon meant that most of the time we didn’t even need to use our head torches.

The Southern Cross was shining brightly.

Hour after hour passed by and we continued our march up the mountain. Finally we came to “the chute,” a particularly steep section just before the summit. Our guide took advantage of our fitness and upped the pace, overtaking the other couple of parties that we had been hiking with, so that we reached the summit first.

We stood alone in the pre-dawn darkness, blasted by wind, overwhelmed by what we had just achieved, and watched the glow of first light appear on the horizon.

Volcan Chimborazo was visible in the distance.

Our silent reverie was broken about 15 minutes later when the other parties began to appear and the atmosphere became one of celebration. While the others departed again soon after summiting, we stayed, shivering, and waited until the sun appeared.

Going downhill is much easier than going up and we made quick work of the descent. After a bite to eat4 we hiked back down to the car and our guide dropped us back to the hostel for a much needed nap.

We have given ourselves a day to recover5 and catch up on sleep before getting back on the bikes. From here we will continue the TEMBR’s tour of volcanoes as we head towards Quilotoa and Chimborazo.

¡Hasta la próxima vez!

Highlights

  • The historical centre of Quito is beautiful and definitely worth a wander.
  • Repairing Matthew’s bike (yet again), it’s now ready to go with new shifters, brake callipers and bars (no longer is he limited to 5 gears, and a non-functional front brake)
  • Meeting some wonderful people at the Casa de Ciclistas. For some more wanderlust check out:
    • @olithewalker, who is walking from Ushuaia to Alaska. You can follow his progress here.
    • @260litros, who are bike-rafting from Ushuaia to Alaska.
    • @thenathannorth, who has almost finished his journey from Ushuaia to Bogota, but will undoubtedly be on another adventure soon.
    • @desdentao, who has been riding north through South America.
  • Summiting Cotopaxi was an amazing experience.
  • We thoroughly enjoyed our stays at the The Secret Garden Quito and The Secret Garden Cotopaxi. Both the hostels have great facilities and a fantastic, sociable vibe.

Lowlights

  • A hard day on the bike as we regained fitness and acclimatisation after almost a month off the bikes, a lot of which was at sea level.

Logistics

  • In Quito, we stayed at The Secret Garden Quito and thoroughly enjoyed it. They were also incredibly helpful in receiving some packages for us.
  • The Casa de Ciclistas (WiFi, toilet, shower; you can WhatsApp Santiago on +593 99 588 4311).
  • Tumbaco to Cotopaxi (64km, 1800m): Mostly cobbles, with some sections of pavement, gravel, and grass. We camped at The Secret Garden Cotopaxi($30, all meals and snacks included, hot showers, jacuzzi).
  • You need a guide for most of the hiking around Cotopaxi. We organised this through The Secret Garden Cotopaxi when we arrived. They also organised the Cotopaxi Summit for us.

Note: Distances and elevation are what we recorded on our GPS. In most cases the elevation we recorded was significantly less than indicated by base maps.

  1. The left shifter on Matt’s bike, which had broken, has now been replaced, as have his brakes and bottom-bracket; Gabe’s bike has new tyres - fingers crossed both bikes run smoothly for a while! 

  2. Hiking with dogs is the best. 

  3. The guy from the hostel leading the hike readily admitted that he was not sure whether they were Inca trails or not. But it’s more fun to think that they were. 

  4. We supplemented a leftover snickers bar and bottle of coke with some granola and cake provided by the refugio - breakfast of champions. 

  5. Although given the phenomenon that is second-day DOMs it is quite likely we will be even sorer when it comes time to get on the bikes.