It’s been a chilly couple of weeks, mostly because we’ve been cycling around some of Ecuador’s highest points. Leaving the comfortable casa de ciclistas (and the perpetually generous Santiago and family) in Tumbaco near Quito felt like leaving a micro climate. Warm days – with sunshine and birdsong – and cool nights – perfect for sleeping in our tent in Santiago’s garage – gave way to snow-capped volcanoes and icy winds.
Climbing up to Volcán Cotopaxi and then up again to Lago Quilotoa had us digging out every scrap of warm clothing we’ve been carrying, and developing a new found respect for those who live their lives at high altitudes.
Cobbles keep you warm. A massive cobble sceptic, I found that they do have a benefit after all...tackling a 15km climb on cobbles definitely maintains a cosy body temperature.
This donkey, just near volcano Cotopaxi, has just the right amount of snuggly fur to keep a smile on his face...ascending higher, the donkeys put on more fur, getting shaggier and hardier.
On the approach to Volcán Cotopaxi = layer up with all the clothes you've got and then sit back, pedal and enjoy the view. Riding your bike doesn't get much more spectacular than this.
Determined to soak up this incredible view, we search around a boulder field for a good sized rock to shelter behind...
...and find ourselves with a sweet spot to spend the night.
Not all of our campsites are as idyllic as this and we were so lucky that the volcano came out to play having been shrouded in cloud for most of the day.
With just a few clouds and soft morning sunshine, Cotopaxi knows very well how to show off all of its 5897 metres.
Never more grateful for our trusty little stove, we are making hot drinks throughout the day to keep warm. A shame then, that on this particularly crisp morning, we run out of fuel for our stove and have to abandon plans for coffee and porridge.
Arriving in the bleak little village of Yanaurcu Grande, we find Patricio pushing his five year old daughter home in a wheelbarrow. Everyone shelters together in his little shop from the miserable weather and then he kindly invites us to camp at his place across the square.
As she refuses to give us her name, we christen Patricio's daughter "La Osita", the little bear.
Not only bears trying to stay snuggly around here. The sheep in this neck of the woods have developed a dashing furry coat to keep the warm in and the chills out...quite how they manage to see anything is another story.
Camping in Patricio's sheltered yard is a blessing as the mist rolls in and the rain comes down; not before the day goes out with a spectacular sunset...
...and then an early morning farewell. Standing in the rain, with La Osita perched on my bike, we have a last minute giggle and wave goodbye before disappearing into the mist. The little bear is off to school and we are headed for the Quilotoa Loop, a series of roads taking us past Lago Quilotoa, a crater lake at 3800m.
Climbing out of Yanaurcu Grande, another volcano comes into view. The snow covered twin peaks of Illiniza.
One. Chilly. Cyclist.
On a bitterly cold descent to the village of Isinliví, we meet Patricio's father coming towards us on his donkey. With only the traditional felt hat common in these parts and a fleece jacket to keep him warm, I am surprised he's not shivering away like us.
"Warning: snow-capped volcanoes in mirror may be further away than they appear."
After a couple of nights camping in the cold, we're grateful to come indoors at Chugchilán. Thanks to a very generous gift from Raul & Lina in Medellín, we can splash out and spend a night at the lovely Black Sheep Inn...
...where the eco-tourism credentials are impressive. Recycled rainwater feeds a living flower bed in the toilet...
...and walls are given a cheerful look with colourful old glass bottles.
I am half tempted to pinch a pair of these snugglies while we are at the Black Sheep. My thick smart wool socks are currently my most prized possessions and seeing these beauties all lined up makes me crave a second pair.
Making friends with one of the two resident llamas at the Black Sheep...
...it seems she's more interested in her breakfast...
...but eventually she pauses for a moment to bat her eyelashes and pose for the camera.
Half a day's climbing through ugly roadworks and in freezing rain brings us to the beautiful Lago Quilotoa. We're not lucky enough to see the famous turquoise colours in the water but we do catch it at sunrise the next morning with Illiniza lurking in the background.
We visit the colourful Saturday market in Zumbahua and take note of how the locals wrap up against the cold. I'm still not convinced that the trademark felt hats worn in these parts are enough to keep you warm but teamed with a colourful poncho and layers of blankets, they do look very fetching.