There’s something about the first couple of hours riding every morning. For me these are the golden hours, the times when my head is full of freedom and optimism, and I feel like I could just keep riding and exploring forever.
The early morning caffeine has kicked in, and every sense is heightened, on edge. I fill my lungs with clean, crisp mountain air. My legs feel fresh, the fatigue of yesterday’s riding long forgotten. The gradients which had me wobbling to grind out the last few kilometres the day before no longer feel so steep. Even my bike feels lighter – now part of me, rather than just a heavy weight trying to drag me back down each hill. Pedalling seems like the most natural state in the world; the possibilities endless.
This is when the Andean light is at its best; a pure, high altitude light in which colours become more vivid and objects more alive than I’ve ever seen before. An Ecuadorian colour palette: the cobalt blue of the sky and the rich greens of the patchwork fields, broken only by the splashes of red or purple from the shawls of figures high on the hills.
Old men in ponchos grin, and doff their felt hats as we ride past. “Pa’ dónde van?” (“Where are you going?”) they ask, twisting their palm upwards in that questioning latino way. We shout the name of the next village, and they just laugh. “En bici?! Suerte!” (“By bike?! Good luck!”). Pigs on leads run through the streets, driven out to pasture for the day by children wielding sticks. Toothless old ladies suddenly pop up out of the verges, knitting in hand while they watch over their roadside flock of sheep, goats or llamas.
And it is always on backroad rides like this one from Quilotoa to Riobamba that I feel my early morning freedom most intensely. This route was no exception; a real rollercoaster through beautiful valleys, sleepy villages and lively markets – all with a healthy dose of mud and lung-busting Ecuadorian climbs thrown in for good measure.
A big thank you once again to Cass Gilbert for trailblazing this route, and for tempting us off the tarmac and onto the dirt with his account.
Not many rides in Ecuador start like this: a smooth, fast descent from Quilotoa...
...past more of those classic patchwork fields of green...
..and towards Zumbahua, where we'd visited the market the day before. Today, the town feels sleepy, hungover even - but not enough to stop Sunday League football, which is in full swing against a looming Andean backdrop.
From Zumbahua, we wind our way slowly up on the paved road towards Quevedo, before turning off onto a dirt road across the páramo towards Angamarca - "Nido de Condores", or "The Condors' Nest".
As the road winds its way up past thatched shepherds' huts, the clouds close in, the rain begins to fall and we start to get that cold and wet páramo feeling. A bus driver stops to ask where we are headed. "Angamarca!" we reply. He bursts out laughing, and rolls on.
Eventually we hit the top of the pass and begin a freezing descent, pausing to defrost our fingers and admire this Superpig in his fertiliser bag cape. You know it's wet when even the pigs are wearing their rain gear...
...and we are truly sodden by the time we roll into Angamarca. We get lucky - it turns out the village is home to an Italian mission, and the priest takes pity on the two soggy cyclists asking for permission to camp on his very nicely-tended lawn. Within half an hour we are set up with bunk beds, sipping espresso and tucking into a pasta meal. Grazie mille Padre Bautista e Mario!
The next morning the sun is shining, revealing Angamarca in all its tumbledown, friendly charm.
We head for the village bakery to begin our daily search for cheap, filling calories. To our delight, Ecuador seems to have far more sophisticated bakery tastes than Colombia. Baguettes, brown bread that's not sweet, and, best of all... croissants, or cachos as they are known here. We sit in the sunshine and devour a batch fresh out of the oven.
From Angamarca, the Cordillera begins to drop away towards the coast, and we descend - past sheep, cows and goats brought out to the roadside to graze, watched over by young children and old ladies...
...and past farmers working the impossibly steep fields. Before reaching the town of El Corazón, we turn off in Pinllopata onto a seasonal track which should lead us towards Simiátug.
Just as the now regular afternoon deluge begins, we make it to Quishpe, a sorry cluster of houses draped in plastic sheeting for the rainy season. We shelter in the porch of Maria's shop, and watch as the basketball court where we are planning to camp begins to fill up like a swimming pool...
...and so when Maria offers us a spare room to roll out our mats, we are quick to accept.
The next morning the rain is still falling, and even the donkeys are refusing to budge. Gradually though, the downpour eases and we set off nervously, expecting a mud-bath...
...and we're not disappointed. Luckily though, most of the route is still rideable...
...give or take the odd minor landslide, which calls for a bit of push and shove. Somewhere under here, there is a track.
By mid-morning the clouds begin to disperse, breaking the misty bubble we have been riding in, and revealing the road snaking ahead, ever upwards.
By Mindina, a calorie crisis is looming and we set about finding the village shop. It's dusty and half-empty, but with the stove on hand you can always rely on bread and eggs to plug the gap. Possibly the yellowest eggs I have ever eaten - somehow I think they may have been free-range.
We had been warned that this leg to Simiátug had a sting in the tail, and so it proves. Some very thoughtful, very un-Ecuadorian switchbacks provide the warm up; followed by a far more typical, brutally steep and direct last few km into Simiátug.
The scenery as ever does its best to distract, as we crawl our way up through a beautiful lush valley peppered with wild flowers. Not for the first time in Ecuador, it feels like we had been transported back to Scotland or the Lake District.
Gourmet street food, Ecuadorian style. After days of fantasising about chips (our food fantasies go through these phases), we make it to Simiátug and Sarah finally gets to indulge. It definitely feels like we've earned them.
After a night snoring peacefully on the floor of the office of the Ministry of Agriculture (long story), we set out to explore Simiátug in the morning sunshine. It's a friendly, well-worn place - all ramshackle wooden balconies...
...peeling walls and intriguing doorways.
By pure luck, we've managed to coincide with the town's weekly market. It's by far the least touristy and most interesting we've seen so far - piles of fresh veg laid out on simple wooden tables...
...and the effortlessly cool Ecuadorian felt hats. Gringos need not apply.
Forget poncy cycle tourists, these guys are the real heroes of the Latin American cycling world. They spend all day every day hauling massive loads on their cargo bikes - and still manage a friendly grin.
We come across a guy who must be in his seventies struggling to push his bike loaded with chairs, tables and salted fish up the slope into the market place, and so I offer to lend a hand. Don't worry, I say, I've had a bit of practice at pushing heavy bikes up hills around here.
Back in the main square, the local volleyball tournament is in full swing as the mist rolls in. This seems to be Ecuador's national sport, with courts squeezed into flat spaces in even the most tiny of villages.
The next morning, we set off towards Chimborazo and Riobamba, hoping to make it in time for Easter. In accordance with Bolívar's First Law of Andean Town Placement, Simiatúg is conveniently nestled halfway up the mountainside - meaning that as well as a climb into the town, we are treated to a climb out of it as well...
...up towards the distant radio masts.
Even on rested legs, it's not easy, gaining 1,000m over just 14km into a vicious headwind...
...but by the top, we really are up above the clouds. At least, you'd think, we'd be rewarded with a decent descent...which we are - except it's cobbled. And so after 10km of truly unsatisfying, bone-rattling descent, we pop out onto the Vía Flores, feeling like we've just stepped out of a blender.
However, this is where we do get our reward - a first view of the snow-capped Volcán Chimborazo, the highest point in Ecuador's chain of volcanoes at 6,310m.
With time running short, we decide to take the paved loop around Chimborazo instead of the tempting dirt option through the middle. It turns out to be a good decision, as we are treated to spectacular views of the mountain in the evening light...
...with herds of beautiful vicuñas (a wild, more athletic type of llama) grazing on the lower slopes.
Surely we're allowed at least one cheesy "girl conquers volcano" shot, right? Go Bedders!
After probably our most freezing night to date sleeping in the half-constructed Chimborazo visitor centre at 4,350m, all that's left the next morning is an easy coast down towards Riobamba - but not before Chimborazo allows us a sneaky summit glimpse in the early morning light.
We roll into Riobamba on Good Friday, hoping to sample the traditional Ecuadorian Easter dish of fanesca - a soup made with 12 different grains and topped with cheese, salted fish and boiled egg. Within minutes of arriving, Ecuadorian hospitality strikes again - we are adopted by Ruperto, and spend a brilliant afternoon with his family of 40 sampling the fanesca they have spent the last two days preparing.
Appetites still raging, on Easter Sunday we head to the market to experience another Ecuadorian culinary tradition: chancho horneado, or roast pig. It's like a scene from a vegetarian horror film - imagine a room with wall-to-wall pig heads and parts, presided over by ladies in blue surgeons' uniforms wielding huge carving knives. Now I know what happens to all those roadside pigs - but it has to be said: the crackling is to die for.
Finally sated, we head back to our characterful hotel room, which - in keeping with the Easter theme - is presided over by a beautifully coiffeured Jesus. "Please Lord," he seemed to be saying..."Just spare them the cobbled descents."
We used Cass Gilbert’s excellent route description in the Need to Know section of this blog post.
In Angamarca, we found out about a more direct up-and-over dirt route to Simiátug. This would have avoided the descent to Pinllopata and subsequent climb back up, but we were told that it would be pretty much impossible in wet season with heavily-loaded bikes. It sounded like it could be an interesting dry season alternative though.
We were also sorely tempted by Cass’s dirt route between Volcán Chimborazo and Carihuairazo, but in the end opted for the paved, more direct option into Riobamba. The cobbled descent from Simiátug drops you onto the Vía Flores (a paved, quieter road out of Ambato). Turn right and it’s about 10km to the main Ambato-Guaranda Road, where you can then pick up the loop road towards Riobamba. The first Chimborazo refugio is not at the park entrance as we thought – it’s another 8km of dirt uphill. Luckily, the guards allowed us to sleep in the half-finished new visitor centre, as we arrived just as it was getting dark. It looks like this visitor centre will also have accommodation eventually though.