Eco Reserves, Lagunas, and Frailejones - Adios Ecuador

Quito offers up warm sunny days, the standard over consumption of city food and coffee, and time to wander through the historic center's nooks and crannies.

A trip to Basilica del Voto Nacional – the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas – includes a shaky-knee climb to the tower over the nave.  Technically unfinished, though hard to discern what exactly is incomplete, local legend has it that completion equates to the end of the world. 

I wander the city enjoying a "white walls of modernism" tour.   

With the pervasive increase in more "modern" western conveniences in Ecuador, it's always refreshing to see smaller, traditional ways of commerce still holding on.

I backtrack out of Quito on the ciclovia towards Pifo and pick up the mellower Trans Ecuador north.  Sadly, a grumbly stomach the day before thwarts the opportunity to swing by the Dammer Farm and say thanks to Michael in person for his help with routes and random questions along the way.

An on again off again wincher brings me up through a sliver of Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve. With nearly a million acres set aside, the Reserve offers a sublime setting of thick grasslands and crystal clear waters. Not on the typical tourist route, it is a study in silence.

I awake to views of Nevado Cayambe; the third highest mountain in Ecuador. And, somewhere out here I cross the Equator. 

From Cayambe, I cut across to Tabacundo and pick up a stout climb up to Laguna Mojanda and its smaller sibling Huarmichocha.

Otavalo mural.  Shame I put my bike in front of it...

A mellow, nearly out an back to Reserva Ecologica Cotachachi-Cayapas to see Laguna Cuicocha deposits me a stones thrown up the road in Cotachachi.

A day long climb up towards Pinan serves up a fantastic midway flat section along a water canal,

including two of these crossings.

The other side deposits me into tomate de arbol heaven.  A staple Ecuadorian fruit and my favorite in SA, these guys send me on my way with a few for the remaining climb.

Since it's Thanksgiving, I follow American tradition and stuff my face with an open-face avocado, cheese, onion, and la Sazon sandwich chased with an apple and a scoop of knock-off Nutella.

And this is what all the days efforts are about - pristine paramo Andino views and a thin squiggle of dirt meandering along. Magic.

Morning brings a decent into the isolated indigenous village of Pinan. 

Rodrigo and his Lee Chan whip escorts me around town with a stern eye.

I drop my bike at the tienda in town and hike out to Laguna Pinan.

Exiting Pinan turns into an ordeal. The whole town is encircled by five foot high dirt walls and drainage ditches equally as deep.  In the span of about a hundred yards, I  cut through someone's yard and piss off the dogs, heft my bike over two walls, cross a pig pen and a waist deep stream.  Then it's deep into the middle of the waist high grassy paramo.  Three hundred meters shy of the highpoint and about four miles before anything rideable, I turn around and make my way back to the edge of the village.  As I try to pry open a gate, a super nice local comes out to assist in hoisting my bike up and over another two walls, before I can escape.  The short of it is currently I can't get my bike on my back, which makes this type of hike-a-bike draining, to say the least.

I exit the village the way I entered, reconnecting with the road and the approaching late afternoon soup.

The following morning brings a long decent down to sweltering, greener lowlands.

I bottom out in Guadual at a roadside restaurant, where the nicest Colombian owners chat with me while I polish of a few Arepas con queso and jugo de guayaba. They send me off with an arepa for the road and hearty waves.

Crossing Rio Mira, I pick up a deserted old train track paralleling the main highway.

Tracks disappear and the slow creep upwards towards the border begins with a stop in La Concepcion for the night.

Outside of El Angel, I enter El Angel Ecological Reserve home to the frailejón. Standing between half a meter and seven meters high, they grow a scant 2.5 cm per year and cover the hills as far as the eye can see. Other than the park ranger, I have the meditative landscape to myself.  I stare in awe at the shear scale of their coverage while they resonate at different frequencies in the morning wind.

February and March are the main flowering months; one can only imagine the spectacular yellows spreading out in all directions.

El Angel Ecological Reserve marks a majestic end to my tour of Ecuador. It's easy to think the bulk of the Ecuadorian highlights exist between Cuenca and Quito, but there's so much more to the country and its biodiversity. Scratching the surface a bit deeper is worth every effort.

Route:

Quito - Pifo - Papallacta - Cayambe - Laguna Mojanda - Otavalo - Cotachachi - Pinan - Guadual - La Concepcion - El Angel - Tulcan

Notes:

For any of you following along on this blog with kids in the high school range who might be looking for a semester alternative to the classroom, please checkout either the Dammer's blog at eltraumara.blogspot.com or their Facebook page Nahual Aventura y Sustentabilidad.  I know Michael Dammer through following the routes he and Cass Gilbert put together and from his help with questions along my journey.  And while I don’t know all of the in’s and out’s of their program, it strikes me as an excellent opportunity to advance beyond traditional classroom settings and gain early leadership skills. I wish I had done something similar when I was getting ready to transition from high school to college.