What Do You Call A Giant Tandem?
No Vanessa is not pregnant. It’s called a bus.
What a difference a week makes. If you’re short on time, here’s the reader’s digest version. We tried riding for a week, found the roads to be too crazy for us, sold the tandem, got on a bus and hope to be able to get back onto bikes when the population thins out farther south. The long version? It’s long, but we’ll try to keep it shortish too.
We left Quito early on Sunday morning, taking full advantage of the Ciclo Pase, the weekly closure of one of Quito’s major north-south routes for bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Our aim was to make it out of the city as quickly as possible, but since Quito is shaped like a 50 mile long worm stretching toward the poles, that meant heading east. We rode the Ciclo Pase southward into Quito’s old town, winding past colonial buildings and cobble squares with other cyclists giving us thumbs up and waving as we went. It appeared that riding a tandem in Ecuador, as is does state-side, makes you an international ambassador of good will. The riding was great until that wonderful Ciclo Pase ended, thrusting us into four lanes of shoulder-less Quito on and off ramp traffic.
We found the road to Sangolqui with the help of a few cops and some gas station attendants. It tuned out to be a highway, but that is more or less what we expected for the first day. The shoulder was nearly nonexistent and the lazy Sunday meandering of the bike path was replaced with Nascar drivers drag racing to their mom’s house in the suburbs for a visit. As we rode out of the city, the road dropped from Quito’s mountainous perch on a life-affirming 30 minute descent. The shoulder widened a touch and we were able to enjoy the ride down. Sangolqui clocked in at about 30 km outside of town and proved to be a beautiful, yet busy, mid-sized city. We found a hostel and went for a walk, finding the central square and taking in some of the Carnival festivities. Although the riding hadn’t been great, the city was pretty nice and we held high hopes that as we left Quito’s metropolitan area behind, we would be met by pastoral country lanes soon.
Riding out of Sangolqui the following day, we started climbing up toward the highlands around Cotopaxi National Park. We were quickly met by cobblestone hills far to steep to ride up on a loaded touring bike, much less with a dog. We let Fern out to run, and started the arduous task of pushing 150 lbs of tandem up the mountain. We knew this type of climbing was coming at some point, but what we didn’t know was that even though the road was at a 30% grade and cobbled, cars and trucks would race up it none the less. In retrospect, we had been mistakenly harboring the idea that when a road was this bumpy, steep and rural, we’d be able to let Fern off the leash to run with us. As the morning crept on and we slowly gained inches, the traffic started picking up. Without us noticing, it was actually getting relatively busy, but any standards. As the road flattened out some, we got back on the bike and started riding once again, continuing to let Fern run next to us. Then, unfolding in horrible slow motion in front of us, we saw a truck come rocketing around a corner and hit Fern. We dropped the bike and ran to her as the truck took off. She had been hurtled across the road and looked shocked. We sat there for a long time, holding her, crying and reevaluating the world. By some miracle that we’ve come to attribute to the Madonana del Ghisallo necklace that Derek, Gretchen and Fasuto gave us, Fern was entirely unharmed and unfazed. As we sat and wept, replaying the scene in our heads, Fern was continued to look around trying to figure out why we had stopped. After a few minutes and a several awkward exchanges with the concerned families that kept stopping to check on us, we saw another biker come up the road. We talked to him and decided to give up on this route and head down a different way, just trying to leave this road and experience behind. He recommended a dirt path just a tick ahead and told us to watch as he descended it. He did so for about 50 yards, only to flip over his handlebars, landing in barbed wire. This was truly the Bermuda Triangle of bike touring and we had to get out of there fast. We spent the rest of the day slowly ascending and descending a road not much better than the highway we had come out of Quito on, only to end up on the Panamerican Highway. The Panam from Quito to Riobamba can more of less be thought of as I-95 with no shoulders. Sure it’s more flat than the non-paved alternatives, but after a heart pounding half hour on it we had had enough for a lifetime. We thankfully found a smaller footpath that eventually took us to Machachi. We spent the night in a motel with a mirror over the bed just off the highway, but it was cheap and had a garage for the bike.
The next morning, without seeing any non-highway options, we decided to hire a truck to get the three of us and our albatross of a bicycle to Cotopaxi where we could regroup with a few days. For $40 (which seemed to be the going gringo rate) and two hours of driving, we landed high up in the paramo, the highland plains surrounding towering volcanic peaks. We stayed in a neat little A-frame cabin for two nights, enjoying the thin air, beautiful moor-like scenery and intermittent views of the snowcapped Cotopaxi, soaring yet another 7000 feet above us. It was beautiful, rejuvenating and even though it rained all day each day, we decided to try to continue on, biking farther south. It just felt like we had to find better roads as we continued – so many touring cyclists have had wondering experiences on this route!
If anyone asks us, all we can say is that Cotopaxi looks like a cloud. A really beautiful cloud
We left the park early and headed toward Latacunga. The road was more encouraging, as we traded cobbles for stone dust, winding through pastures and small towns. We had high hopes for Latacunga and were itching to be reaffirmed . What we were met with, however, was another busy mid-sized town, honking cars, freaking-out Fern and sidewalks far too narrow to be of any help. As we found our hostel and downloaded the bike on the curb, it just became too much. We weren’t having fun. We know that biking is fun, we know that Fern is fun and we know that Ecuador is fun, but when we put them all together it just became more than we could handle. We’ve always talked about how bicycles, especially loaded touring bicycles are a mysterious force; when you’re riding them, they’re the most wonderful, liberating and life-affirming devices in the universe, but when you’re not, they’re the biggest, heaviest and most annoying things you’ll ever have to wrangle. What we’ve discovered is that when you’re in Ecuador, those emotions double. When the bike is a tandem, they double again. And, when you have a dog tagging along, they double still again. The other catch with a tandem is that, when you’ve had enough and you just want to take a bus, you can’t. Your bike doesn’t fit anywhere. Put a dog crate on the rack and you barely fit down the street. We still know that there is a world of biking out there to be enjoyed, but our honeymoon had quickly become a giant ball of stress and we came to the breaking point. After an introspective and challenging night, we decided to trade the tandem for backpacks and continue our explorations on bus for the time being. Ecuador has the highest population density of any South American nation, and although that makes for the highest density of nice people it also makes for very busy and stressful roads. We know our roads are out there some where, ones that we can ride and actually enjoy ourselves, but until we find them, this family is going by bus.
We put some of the nicer bike parts and our panniers into storage at South American Explorers in Quito, and sold the frame to Jaoquin at Bike Life in Latacunga (a wonderful bike man if there ever was one). Bouyed by our now svelte backpacked profiles, we boarded the bus for Baños, determined to camp somewhere beautiful. What we found was better than we could have guessed. Half way up Tungurahua, the giant black active volcano that towers over the town, we came into the wonders of El Casa Del Arbol. For $2 a head the proprietors let you pitch your tent (or if you don’t have one, they’ll lend you one for no extra) in the shade of a precariously balanced treehouse, leaning ominously over a cliff. They let you use their wood and sell you provisions or they’re happy to cook three square meals a day for you for a song if you let them. If you ever feel down on the world, go no farther than El Casa Del Arbol and they’ll have you fixed up faster than you can say “Carlos sabe todo sobre el volcan.” We whiled away the afternoon there and, in spite of our best efforts, couldn’t bring ourselves to leave the next morning. Vanessa welcomed 30 with a day of lounging around in the sun, watching Fern happily rub her little face into the grass.
El Casa Del Arbol is the best place so swing in your thirties that we’ve every tried
So that’s where we are now. As I write this, we’re sitting on a bus winding through the mountains south to Cuenca. We’re sad about the loss of the bike, but tandems are like light switches – they’re either on or off. Sometimes a tandem is the most wonderful way to see the world you could ever imagine, but when they don’t work out, they really don’t work out. If you’re reading this thinking about biking southward on a tandem, our one big recommendation would be to make sure it either has couplers or can fold. Having something that is too big to fit under a bus won’t get you very far in Ecuador unless you are ready to exclusively ride it. So we move onward. We have neat new backpacks, a healthy dog against all odds, and a newfound excitement to see what the road holds to the south of us. When the day comes that we once again find ways that are bike worthy, that’s when we will bike. What’s that? We’re a blog about a bike trip with no bike? Don’t worry, we have a few bikes up our sleeves yet.