Louise Alexander gets a baptism by fire on the slopes of Ecuador’s Mount Cotopaxi… “Es muy facil!” I was assured as I booked my ticket with a little apprehension. “Gentle downhill all the way, wide and smooth”. I drew attention to the fact that I was not what you would call accomplished on a mountain bike. “But you have ridden one before, yes?” My response was vague and evasive. But it was true that I had ridden one. Once. To my local shop. “Then it’s no problem”. I was reassured with a vision of comfortably meandering down the lush slopes of Mount Cotopaxi at a leisurely rate, taking in the spectacular scenery of one of Ecuador’s most popular national parks as a gentle breeze kept me cool and fresh.
Early the next morning a little truck trundled eight of us out of Quito through its sprawling suburbs and towards the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’. Once inside the national park our hour’s journey was rewarded with glimpses of majestic snow-capped peaks. As we climbed out of the truck at our starting point, the refugio at 4600 metres above sea level, I quickly realised the folly of ignoring the fact that every other sensible person attains at least a degree of fitness and then tackles gentle hills on home territory before jumping in at the deep end with a high atlitude downhill descent. At this height, a mere few hundred metres from the summit of Ecuador’s highest active volcano, the air was icy and the wind was blowing so hard that I had trouble standing up straight, let alone mounting a bike.
Admittedly the view was absolutely spectacular, with the snow line and the summit seeming tantalisingly close. As I crouched down trying to hold my bicycle steady our guide informed us what we should do in the event of an eruption. My friend Kate rather more helpfully advised me to use my left hand brake, as overuse of the right hand one would apparently send me over the handlebars. Before I knew it the group had set off and I was teetering down what seemed like a remarkably steep and really quite narrow path winding down the upper slopes of the mountain. Predictably I soon lagged behind and I was left to discover by trial and error what happens when you don’t manage to avoid stones or boulders of varying sizes. I seemed to have little control over the steering… I hope I’m not quite this bad in my car! I was just beginning to relax into a somewhat awkward style of juddering along with brakes held in a vice-like grip when I encountered a truck coming up the pathway; the coolness with which I skidded to a halt close to the edge was a little marred by the high pitched yelp that accompanied it.
After twenty minutes or so the gradient lessened and I began to breathe again. Our truck was patiently bringing up the rear behind me for which I was thankful as the others were, I was sure, way ahead. I took the opportunity to relax and appreciate the awesome beauty of Mt. Cotopaxi and its environs. The sky was a dazzling blue and the volcano stood silent and mighty with the odd frail wisp of cloud flitting across its face.
Then the road got really bumpy. I felt like the bones were being shaken out of my body! For once in my life I wished for more flab on my backside as I bounced along, crossing gurgling streams and avoiding most of the larger rocks. The road was flat, but for the first time on my trip to South America the altitude really got to me. Even going downhill felt like an uphill struggle for my lungs; I was soon boiling hot in the layers I had put on, and getting the bike to chug along at anything more than a laughable speed was hard work. So when I rounded a bend and saw a gentle incline up ahead, something approaching despair crept over me. I made it about three feet up the slope on the bike and promptly got off to push. Our truck pulled up and drove beside me, and I could see the driver grinning at me from the corner of my eye, but I still had too much pride – surely I could at least push the goddam thing up the hill! Another thirty seconds and I gave in. The truck stopped, I clambered gratefully on board, and the driver hopped out and swung my bike onto the roof rack with remarkable ease. Just as I was beginning to feel very small not to mention unfit (both of which would be quite true) I realised that we were driving alongside my friend Kate, who was also pushing her bike. She gave the driver a similar look of apologetic gratitude as he hoisted her bike up beside mine and she hopped on board. One by one the girls of the group dropped like flies and I began to feel marginally better! Only the boys made it all the way to the top without hitching a ride, and when we all caught up with each other, it was time for a refreshing lunch in a little grassy hollow in the sunshine. This included a slice of famously excellent chocolate brownie!
We were soon back on our bikes though, and the second half was easier terrain (or was I by any chance getting better at this biking thing?!). I only fell off once and passed more incredible scenery, as well as some locals on horseback in their traditional ponchos. I was chased by a dog at one stage, the only thing that managed to make me pick up any speed! I arrived at the finish, triumphant, proud and amazed that I’d made it. Despite the bumps and a few bruises, I wouldn’t have wanted to see the park any other way… flying along with the wind in my hair! The one-day trip that we took was an excellent way to see large parts of the park if you are slightly limited for time. We encountered no other tourists, and felt like we were all alone in a quiet and expansive wilderness! And fortunately for people like me, such trips come complete with a good lunch and emergency rest facilities that never leave you behind!
Louise visited Mount Cotopaxi with Biking Dutchman, www.bikingdutchman.com, who are based in Quito and offer tours ranging from 1 to 8 days.