We arrived in Quito again feeling relaxed and laid back from the beach. We were so relaxed we spent our first day back, would you believe it, relaxing. We did have a few errands to run, however, as we were due to leave the very next morning on a three day mountain biking trip with the Flying Dutchman.
We sat in the cafe at the meeting point the next morning excited about the events to come. We soon met our crew, consisting of the Dutchman himself, two Brazilian women and an English journalist. The journalist was there to write an article for KLM’s in-flight magazine. It seems we were destined for fame, as the rest of the group were his good-looking, extreme, mountain biking posers for the entirety of the trip (keep an eye out for us if you ever choose to fly with KLM!)
We all clambered into the back of the truck and off we set on our biking adventure. Our first stop was Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world. We drove all the way to the top carpark and were given our mountain bikes. At around 4000m, it was freezing! It seems my high tech alpine gear was no match for the winds of Cotopaxi. Soon enough we were off on our way down the steep winding gravel road to the bottom. However, as we were now extreme, adventure models, we had to stop numerous times while the journalist moved to take better photos of us. By this stage the cold had seeped its way into my blood stream and I was worried my little fingers would jump off to save themselves from frost bite.
We continued on through the Cotopaxi national park and rode a single track through a volcanic area. Similar to the Tongariro National Park in New Zealand, we were surrounded by volcanic rocks from a long-ago eruption. We stopped for a much needed hot ginger tea, which convinced my little fingers to hang on for a little longer. Then we continued to bike through the rolling hills. We stopped for a delicious lunch shortly after. It seems the Dutchman’s wife is a magical cook and prepared a delightful feast for the whole three day trip. We set off again after lunch and flew down the road through the national park. We reached speeds of 60km/h as we flung ourselves around the corners and bends in the road. However, the rain man decided to literally rain on our parade and we were soaked to the bone by the time we got to the meeting point. Luckily we had a chance to get changed before we set off on a two hour drive to Quilotoa, our second stop on the trip.
Quilotoa is a crater lake, high up in the mountains of Ecuador. We stayed in a basic hotel close to the crater, at around 4000m elevation. As the sun set, the cold air wrapped us in its chilly blanket. It seemed no amount of beer would warm us up, although we did try. It was a hasty retreat to bed that night, dressed in a full days clothes.
The next morning we set of biking from the hotel. I was expecting to be biking through the mountains and trails of nature, but instead we were on the main road through the mountains. At first I was a little bit disappointed, but soon enough I realised how much faster you could go on an asphalt road. We flew down the hills, able to keep up with the few cars that did come by. We stopped off at a small market village along the way so the journalist could get photos of the local old cronies. Photographers have a thing for wrinkles, they must photograph well. It seemed, however, that local people would not allow their photos to be taken unless they were paid. Everyone has a price and theirs was $1.
The truck took us over the next few hills and before we knew it, we were back on our bikes again. We had a long stretch of downhill with some long, swooping corners that were a lot of fun. We zoomed along at full speed, until one of my contact lenses decided to it had had enough and departed my eye. This made for fun riding at well above 50km/h and to make matters worse we came across the after-party for a downhill trolley race. We weren’t the only ones who wanted to go fast down the hills. Now South America is one of the most disorganised places I’ve ever been, so moving the spectators and their cars isn’t an easy task. The endless number of men with whistles did their best to point aimlessly and generally confuse all involved, but eventually we made it to the bottom, with the truck in tow. It was quite a sight, especially when viewed through my one functional eye. We had lunch out the back of a gas station, which happened to be the first time we tasted the sweet, sweet taste of the Dutchman’s wife’s chocolate brownie. I’m not usually a fan of brownie, but I swear little fairies were killed in the making of this one and they tasted magical.
After lunch we returned to the truck for our drive to Riobamba, our next stop on the trip. Riobamba was a medium-sized town at the base of the Chimborazo volcano. We drove in past the looming mountain and caught our one-and-only glimpse of the peak as the clouds rolled through the sky. We checked into a nice hotel and had a few hours rest before dinner. For dinner we went to a historic restaurant where Simon Bolivar used to stay. Simon is a famous man in South America, credited with liberating Latin America from the Spanish (Bolivia is also named after him). As we soaked up the history and a few beers, the Dutchman told us a few stories of his own. The Dutchman has had the most fascinating life and after a beer or two of his own, was more than happy to retell his stories involving working for the mafia, being homeless, trying to get deported from Australia and numerous other tales of adventure. He has been to the ends of the world and back again, but after meeting the love of his life, an Ecuadorian cooking goddess, ended up running a mountain biking business in Ecuador.
The next morning we drove up through the fog to the top carpark on Chimborazo. We were surrounded by snow, which was bizarre considering we were so close to the equator. From here we hiked for half an hour to a hut on Chimborazo. This was at 5000m and was not an easy climb. The effect of the altitude was like breathing through a straw with glue blocking your throat (or at least how I would imagine that would be?). It was slow and painful. But we all made it to the hut and rejoiced briefly, before returning to the truck at highest base camp in the world. Take that Mount Everest! Now I should disclose that it’s only because there is an asphericality (bulge) in the earth at the equator, but thanks to science I can claim it. After the hike we drove down a wee bit before biking down the remainder of the road. The Dutchman, Ben and I took a short cut to bike down a scree slope. By this stage my confidence got the better of me and I very gracefully (or so I’d like to think) became the first person to crash their bike. Thankfully it was a soft landing and only my pride was injured.
After lunch and another bite of the heavenly brownie, we continued on the longest section of our adventure through a canyon and rolling hills. It was lovely scenery and had both swooping and tight corners. It was my most enjoyable section of the trip and we passed small towns and a dam on our way. After 40kms of nonstop biking we reached the end, totally exhausted. The Dutchman had convinced us to go to a small town called Banos the next night and dropped us off at the bus station before he drove the rest of the group back to Quito. Hungry and tired, we boarded a bus for the two hour trip to Banos. Now the next sequence of events I wish i could take back, but unfortunately life does not work this way. A kind, little old lady walked on the bus selling the most delicious looking bag of strawberries and grapes I have ever seen. I asked Ben to buy some for me, to which he replied “you can’t eat them, you’ll get sick”. One of the main hints for travellers in South America is to not eat fresh fruit and vegetables, as they are washed in dirty water with dangerous bacteria that foreigners cannot digest. Despite this, in my delirium I insisted that I would be fine and I proceeded to wash the fruit with water from my drink bottle. Apparently this would not suffice.
We arrived in Banos and failed to find either the hotel or restaurant that the Dutchman had recommended. We found another hostel called “Plants and White”, named after the white walls and plants in the room, and checked in. We then headed for the natural hot pools, which Banos is famous for. We were very excited considering how tired and sore we both were. We walked into the complex only to find hundreds of people and only one small hot pool. We climbed in and had to sit shoulder to shoulder to the people next to us. People stood on our legs and pushed us as they walked past. It wasn’t quite the experience we were after. After 20mins we had had enough and went wandering around the complex. Then we saw it, a nice big empty pool. For some unknown reason everyone was sitting on the edge of the pool and noone was in it. We weren’t ones to question good luck, so in we hopped. I’m not sure if I could actually hear my nerve endings screaming as I entered the burning water or I had imagined it, but the pain was unbelievable. The pool must have been well over 45 degrees and was hotter than any New Zealand regulations would allow. Burnt and tired, we retreated and decided to call it a night .
That night I awoke at 2am, as it was time for my little strawberry and grape friends to remind me of my foolish mistake. I was violently ill all through the night. Ironically “Banos” translates to toilets in Spanish, which is exactly what I will always remember of that horrible town that burnt me and tricked me with its strawberries. The next morning I wanted nothing more than to leave, so we hopped on a bus (without a toilet) and I clutched my stomach and prayed for a ceasefire for the three hour trip back to Quito. Luckily my prayers were answered and I managed to not throw up all over the bus.
The next few days in Quito I tried to get up and explore, but was forced to rest. Given my previous food poisoning experience, it seemed my body was in no hurry to get better. So I sat in bed feeling sorry for myself. On our last day in Quito I dragged myself into a taxi and Ben and I went to the middle of the world. Just north of Quito there as a monument built by the French to mark the equator line. Unfortunately it was built well before GPS was invented and was out by about 200m. We got some photos at the monument either side of the supposed northern and southern hemispheres, then we went on the hunt to find the true equatorial line. Ben had a GPS receiver on his phone, so we were able to locate it in the middle of the highway. We both wanted a photo with the gps showing it was the 00 line, so we waited for lulls in traffic and ran to the middle of the road to get the prized photo. That afternoon we had a look around the historic centre of Quito, including the ginormous Basilica church. Then we got a taxi to the airport for our flight to Lima, Peru.