Day 512 - Volcán Cotopaxi, Ecuador - 10258 km

After a few days in Quito I hit the road again with a lighter bike. My panniers with laptop, hard-disks, clothes and other heavy stuff I could miss for some days I shipped ahead to a town on the Pan-American highway. Just out of the city I pick up the mountain bike route (TEMBR) again which will lead through small villages on unpaved roads and around Cotopaxi. After 4 days I should be able to see my laptop again to back up my cameras, after which I will send it onwards south and cross the Pan-American highway to continue on the mountainbike route again through the mountains towards Crater lake Quilotoa. A far from straightforward route, but I’m not on these trails to make distance in a short time. I’m here to experience the rugged nature of the Andes. Be away from the heavy traffic and amongst the remote nature of the Andes and the native villages.

From Tumbaco (2350m) the cobblestone road goes up in the hills through small towns and villages, slowly leaving the urban sprawl of Quito behind. I camp along in village in a green canyon. At the end of day two I reach the refuge of Cotopaxi at 3900m. The landscape is bare and stretched out with páramo grass, the tree line far behind me. There’s a lodge with a restaurant where I stop for dinner and charge my devices. Inside are only Germans and French seniours who belong to a tour group climbing the volcano. After dinner I cycle into the cold night to set up my tent in the field. The soft green-white plains stretch out in front of me with in the nearby distance the volcano. Big black boulders are scattered around the field. It’s a beautiful cold night.

The next day I get on the trail, clockwise around Cotopaxi. While TEMBR shortcuts the volcano I’m on a different mountain bike route which is more challenging. This is the first time serious single trail for me, or even sometimes no trail at all. A different game. Although the bike is a lot lighter, progress is slower than on paved roads. 50km is a long day because of the terrain, altitude (all above 3500m) and some hike-a-bike sections, for example carrying the bike over a fence, or through a ditch or river. The sense of freedom in this landscape is incredible. The silence almost terrifying. Alone here means really alone. The only manmade thing is the vague notion of a trail ahead. But sometimes even that is gone and I just have to follow the valley and use a common sense of direction because sometimes the battery of my phone fails because of the low temperatures.

I often wonder ‘Can it get any worse?’ And because the terrain slowed me down so much: ‘do I have enough food with me?’ and ‘Will I have enough battery power on my phone to navigate?’ because the trail sometimes completely vanished. Fears that follow up by being impressed and becoming quiet by the beauty of this grand nature. I knew I had enough food, although sometimes not more than just bread and rice. I needed to let go and surrender to the landscape and solitude. Much a different situation than following the regular roads, which at some point always provide in food, shelter, electricity, connectivity.

There is one more pass to tackle, at 4200m the highest so far. I’m now south of the Volcano heading for the Pan-american highway. The grassland is soft and muddy. It’s almost impossible to cycle. Many stretches I have to walk and push. The altitude takes the oxygen from my lungs. A few kilometres takes me hours, dragging the bike through trenches, puddles and finally over the last hilltop. From here it’s easy. I pick up the dirt road again and let the bike roll down, through paramo, young pine tree forests and eventually farm land again. My friend Martina, whom I’d met in Quito has booked a room for me in an ancient family-owned Hacienda La Cienega where I take a good rest. This was really ‘away from it all’ for a few days.