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Saturday, February 8, 2014

Down a Slippery Slope - Three Days of Volcanoes

SEVERE BLOG WARNING!  Before you start reading the main content, go to the bathroom, get yourself something to drink (complimentary to the weather you are experiencing) and perhaps make up a bowl of popcorn or other preferred snack.

It was a banner weekend last week...Ron and I went on our first multiday excursion. Now you might think that we were temporarily insane (the thought did cross my mind) because we opted for a three day mountain biking tour of three "active" volcanoes. (FYI-active is a relative term, these things haven't fired up for a few hundred years.)

I had my reservations, most of my bike riding has been "civilized", meaning paved or groomed paths and roads. Sure I'd negotiated traffic, but I've never pointed myself down the slope of a mountain and thought "Hey, let's see how fast I can get down!". Okay, that wasn't really the point of the trip, but I could fee the lure of a certain sense of competitiveness, but I digress. We were invited on this little odyssey by some friends and our little group grew to 19 brave souls. 
Our bus ride buddies, but not the whole group.
The actual tour started in the town of Latacunga, where we were picked up by a tour bus (and two Jeeps crested with racks of bicycles). We drove to a National Park on Mount Cotopaxi, where we were introduced to our faithful steeds (on wheels), our safety equipment and a bracing pep talk by our guide Fernando. (Yes, like the Abba song...he requests that you don't sing it.) Our drivers were Angel (he drove the big bus), Patricio and Cesar. These fine gentlemen work for a company out of Quito called the Biking Dutchman. The following photos are from our ride up to Latacunga, our starting place.

First view of Chimburazo (the 3rd volcano)

Very old church combined style of Inca and Spanish

Main Plaza in Latacunga
Sunset in Latacunga

One of the many churches at night

The parking lot is the highest point you can drive to on the volcano. It's at 4,600 meters or 15,091 feet. We were blessed with astoundingly good weather. It's unusual to be able to see the top of Cotopaxi, but as you can see, there it is in all its glory.

The whole gang - finally in one shot
We intrepidly headed down the mountain slope and were introduced to terrifying new concepts of switchbacks (lassettes/hairpin turns - not really new, but a completely different experience on a mountain bike) and wretched things called "washboards".  I know it doesn't sound all that appealing, but honestly, we had the time of our lives.  There's something so amazing about conquering a new skill and overcoming a daunting task that makes the adrenalin just flow and give you a sense of accomplishment. Once we arrived in the "foothills", we took a trail through an old lava flow and over hills and dales through some breathtaking countryside. (This description lacks impact, I know, but I'll let the photos speak for themselves.)
Lava flow field at the foot of Cotopaxi.

Traditional thatched hut nestled in the foothills.
In a strange turn of events, one of the volcanoes that we weren't traversing decided to erupt. We could see the ash plume from the roof of our hotel on the first night and it continued to be visible during the rest of our trip. The ash didn't affect us, but apparently some fell in Cuenca while we were gone.  There's no evidence now, but we did hear that there was a bit of a clean up.

The weird thing was that the plume never really seemed to be moving. I always expected something like a loud BOOM and a rush of ash and cloud, but not so, at least from where we were. We completed an awesome paved road run, loaded ourselves onto the bus and headed for Quilotoa, a town on the edge of a likewise named volcano and crater lake.
Hoodoos or arroyos carved by water over time

Sunset in Quilotoa the speck just above the middle is the moon.

 We stayed in a "hostal" just a short walk away from the lip of the crater on Quilotoa. The volcano isn't quite as high up as Cotopaxi, but is an impressive 3,914 meters (12,841 feet). The lake surface is another 300 or so meters down.
Sunrise over the crater

The trail (lower right) is the easy part.

 We ate a fairly early breakfast (7 am) and headed down the steep trail on foot. It takes about 30 to 40 minutes to hike down to the lake.

The lake is green because of minerals

Looking up to the lip of the crater
The pictures don't quite capture the emerald green colour of the lake, it is truly stunning. The lake has a couple of warm areas where the water is heated by the heat of the volcano in spots, you can see the bubbles rising to the surface. This is not a dormant volcano.

The wind was completely absent in the crater and, as you can see it was another beautiful day. The hike up takes considerably longer (1.5 to 2 hours) so we opted to hire a mule to get back up to the top.
Ron didn't ask what his mules name was.

I'm sitting on Enrique - slightly gassy, a bit lazy, but he got the job done.

Our friend Carl, on Ismael, a mule unto himself.
 Once back on top, we refilled our water, loaded up the bus and found our bikes.  (It's funny how attached to an inanimate object you can get.) We had a beautiful paved ride down from Quilotoa and then branched off once more into the country side.

We enjoyed a lovely picnic lunch and then grabbed the bus to take us to our next down hill stretch. (There was just enough time for some of our happy band of cyclists to grab a nap.) Our next leg was a 20km stretch of road that was mostly gravel. We were back on the washboards and switchbacks.  This was the hardest stretch for me and my braking hand was so weak I had to take a break and ride in one of the Jeeps for a few kilometers. As always the views were stunning.

Our end of day destination is in the back ground.

We stopped a ways outside the town of Urbina, loaded up the bikes and drove to Riobamba, a town with little to recommend, but it did provide a fairly decent nights sleep. We got a bit of a later start, having breakfast at 7:30.  

Yes, we're the yellow hat club, a gift from one of our fellow cyclists.
It was our final day and our longest ride (70km). I confess I was worried, because of the day before, but I was determined to enjoy as much of the trip on the back of my bike as I possibly could.

It took almost an hour and a half to drive to the first refuge station on Mount Chimburazo and we took a few photo ops along the way.

I know, it looks fake, but it isn't - I swear!


Is it just me, or does he look a bit stoned?

The noble Alpaca - dignified in his fluffiness.
Chimburazo is a noted mountain climbing destination and the highest point in Ecuador, or so I believe. The elevation at the first refuge (vehicle accessible) is at 4,800 meters or 15,744 feet and our highest point in the tour. If you've never been at higher elevations it's hard to describe the effect that it can have on you. Our whole group was very lucky, as no one suffered severe altitude sickness, but I had trouble breathing if I had to exert energy, like say...pedal uphill or hike up a steep incline (thank you Enrique!) You can sometimes suffer headaches and dizziness as the air is quite thin. Being at altitude is also very dehydrating, so we had to be careful to drink plenty of water and suffer the consequences - remember we were in the middle of absolute nowhere at times. We finally got to see the very high altitude cousins of Llamas and Alpacas - the diminutive Vicuna. For some reason they reminded me of miniature Giraffes.

Above the clouds again!

Strapped in and ready to ride - Teddy had the time of his life!

For the first time, I found that the ride ended much faster than I thought it would. (At least the first leg, as we headed down the mountain, once again enjoying switchbacks, washboards and loose rocks.) There's nothing like having a seat weary butt going rapidly over a deeply rutted road...and I mean that, you get a certain amount of pride from withstanding the jarring and it becomes almost pleasurable. I spent half the time doing the classic "ahhhhhhhh", just to hear my voice warble.

At the base of the hill we loaded up the bikes and headed to a quieter road, off the main highway. This was the longest leg of our trip, but happily (at least for me) it was a paved road. The trip started almost at the mouth of the Ambato river and would follow it all the way down to the town named after it. (Or vice versa.) 

Start of the Ambato River

Rolling hills of Central Ecuador

Stopping to see if the road is clear ahead due to construction.

Heart of the valley

The final leg curled through the mountains, alongside the river and we could see the river slowly widen as we made our descent.  The views were absolutely stunning - I know - I've overused that word, but how else can I describe it? At one point, we thought our trip might be cut short, as they are doing waterway improvements, but happily the road was opened and we got to enjoy the full ride. 

When we arrived in Ambato, it was a jubilant and yet, strangely sad, moment. Our trip was over, we had made friends with our group and bonded with our guides and it was all coming to an end.
Cesar, one of our intrepid Jeep drivers

Hiding his face is Angel, our bus driver

Patricio, our other Jeep driver
In all the rush, I never got a photo of Fernando...I'm mad at myself, because he made the trip what it was. Here are some photos of Ambato, if you can handle a few more:

The weather finally turned on the day we were returning to Cuenca, but we were blessed with mainly sunshine for the majority of our journey.  On our way home, we stopped in a quaint little town called Alousi (Allow-sie) for lunch and this are the final pictures I'm going to inflict on you.

Train that runs over the "Devil's Nose" or Nariz del Diablo

More incredible country side, just outside Alousi

Thank you to all of our group, you made the trip extra special! That's it kids, thanks for sticking it through to the end.  Hope to have more adventures from the centre of the earth soon!


  1. The pictures really do look amazing, sounds like a terrific trip, much more exciting than just taking a bus tour even if it was a bit hard on you at times.
    What luck to actually see the volcano erupt while you were there.
    Love the colors in the buildings.

    We went away on the weekend also, to Powell River, not a volcano in sight....

    1. Lovely Powell River...didn't think the weather was good for travelling, but maybe that's now, not on the weekend.