Thursday, March 17, 2005

Quito, Ecuador


Thursday March 17, 2005, 82 miles (132 km) - Total so far: 777 miles (1,250 km)

Friends: The climb to Quito will go down as one of the more enjoyable I have encountered. It was no great conquest like "The World's Most Dangerous Road" in Bolivia that peaked out at over 15,000 feet or the climb to Kathmandu over the Himalayas or even some of the Tour de France cols. It's satisfaction came from the pleasure of it rather than enduring the strain. The first 25 miles had a gentle enough grade that I rarely had to use my small chain ring, and could average ten miles an hour. It was almost effortless. The road followed the fast-rushing, predominantly white-water Rio Pilaton through a narrow, lush, green canyon, much more confining and much less spectacular than the canyon from Banos to Puyo. It was heartening to be gaining elevation and knocking off miles with such ease, and with the temperature cooling as I climbed, it was almost invigorating. The first few miles were lined with stands selling tropical fruits for those returning to the highlands. I thought I could do without my helmet, but I dared not, as there was too much traffic, many impatient to pass slower vehicles, both ascending and descending. I had a micro shoulder, set off by a white line, studded with reflectors, though I didn't necessarily have to stick to my side of the line.

I set out late in the afternoon from Santo Domingo hoping to get a leg up on the climb, despite the threat of rain, which did materialize. The altitude function on my cyclometer has turned into a barometer and it was going berserk, indicating the imminence of rain, a near daily event. There was a town 15 miles away, though I did not know if it would be a Zhud and without hotels. But two miles before it, about half an hour before dark, I came upon a cluster of restaurants and one lone hotel, a veritable oasis. I was the only resident that night, though the accompanying restaurant was popular with buses. I had stayed in a bare bones three dollar hotel the previous night in Buena Fe, which left me with a rash of bed bug bites the next morning. This, at five dollars, was much nicer and cleaner, though as with the bed bug hotel, it had no hot water, no great necessity.

My breakfast consisted of a couple of self-prepared peanut butter and banana sandwiches, as I tried to finish off the jar of peanut butter I had brought along. I had another leisurely hour of climbing. I kept thinking what a superlative descent this would have been, probably not having to brake for 20 miles or so. Finally, the going got steep and I had to resort to my lowest gear for prolonged stretches. Still, with the comfortable temperature and some cloud cover, it was a climb that had me merrily humming. There was enough traffic on this route that there were no maniacal dogs. Nor were there any mud slides, as I'd encountered elsewhere, blocking half or more of the road. An 18-wheeler, however, had slid off the road into the cliff side at about the half-way point. Traffic was halted and backed up as a tow truck tried to extricate it. I could circumnavigate the congestion, and for better than half an hour, had no traffic coming up from behind me. When it finally was unleashed, I took a break and let them all pass. My only complaint was the occasional ill-timed friendly toot, a little too close to my ear.

It was exactly 100 kilometers from Santo Domingo to the Pan American Highway, and then another twenty miles to Quito. There were nicely designed signs, the best I'd encountered on this trip, with a yellow circle and red arrow counting down every kilometer. The design would have been suitable for the Road to the Sun in Glacier National Park. I had anticipated the climb taking me two days, but I was actually beginning to visualize the possibility of getting to Quito that night. Making it before dark would be very close. It all hinged on whether the grade tapered off, or if it remained steep. I began to closely monitor my speed and the ground I was covering, happy to have this self-imposed challenge to inspire me. By early afternoon, I had climbed into the clouds, and once again I was in mist that limited visibility and eventually grew into a drizzle. My pauses had to be short before I cooled off too much, which all aided in my effort to get to Quito this night.

The last five miles to the Pan American highway were downhill, but in the rain, preventing me from letting loose, as I otherwise would have. It was five p.m. when I reached the intersection. If I'd seen a hotel, I would have grabbed it, as I was cold and wet. I had scouted out a couple places before the summit as places to camp, but they weren't suitable. Even though I had biked the remaining twenty miles to Quito on my way to Banos, I couldn't remember how much climbing they demanded. If it was flat or downhill, I could manage those twenty miles in the 90 minutes of light I had left. There was an initial descent, but then a prolonged climb on a severely pot-holed stretch that was almost as bad as the worst of Cambodia's "Roads from Hell." It was appalling that the main thoroughfare into a country's capital could be so horrific. With bumper to bumper traffic rushing to get to Quito in time for dinner, it was no fun. I nearly crashed before I could extricate myself from my clipless pedals. Fortunately, they are just loose enough that I jerked my foot out when I was close to a 45 degree angle. After 45 minutes I knew I couldn't make it to Quito before dark and began looking for a place to camp. It would be a minor miracle, but fifteen minutes later I noticed an abandoned house on a small cliff over the road. There was a corn field beside it.

There was a steep path up to it. I was happy, on one hand, to notice fresh donkey prints pressed into the dirt, as they gave me a little extra footing, but I was leery that it might mean a habitation near by. There were two small dwellings off in the distance, somewhat blocked by vegetation and no one to be seen. It was raining, which meant there wouldn't be too many people about with prying eyes. This would have to do. It was fairly secluded, though I had the roar of traffic below me. I had just enough food, a tin of tuna, some nuts, a granola bar, and, if need be, several power bars. I was tired enough to be asleep by eight, the rain drops on the tent drowning out the traffic below. At least I wasn't hugging the highway, as I did my first night in Ecuador, when only a hedge of bushes separated me and my tent from the highway, with a barbed wire fence on my other side. Not all my camping in Ecuador was so marginal. I had one night in a quiet, secluded forest, with a thick covering of pine needles that made for a fine mattress. Off in the jungle, I camped behind an abandoned house with no other habitations within sight or sound. But all in all, it was a challenge to find a place to camp here, even more challenging than India.

It was twelve miles further into the heart of Quito. I was there by eight a.m. As I had breakfast, I perused the guidebook for a hotel. The first I went to was happy to let me have a room, even at this early hour. My next order of business was to check email and send out this. Now I will go to the airport to see if my bike box is at the hotel I left it at. If not, I will utter an expletive, and then begin the search for a box at a bike shop. My flight home is in 48 hours giving me time to explore the city, and maybe even take a ride back up to the northern hemisphere to one of the monuments marking the equator about 15 miles north of the city.

Later, George

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