Taking the bike path less travelled in Ecuador

October 17, 2018

I cycle to work most days. I’ve cruised around Boston and Portland on clunky bike-shares. I’ve spent countless weekends on two-wheeled treks through southern Ontario. But the most memorable bike ride of my life was one I never planned to make.

In September 2018, a university friend and I flew to Ecuador to meet up with a former classmate who’d been living abroad for several months. After a few days in Quito, we boarded a bus to Baños, a mountainous town of 15,000 named after its hot springs but better known as a hub for thrill seekers. It’s a place where every second storefront is a hostel or tourism office, where the Andes rise above you in every direction, where backpackers breathlessly ask if you’ve “done the swing”—shorthand for a mountaintop attraction that leaves you dangling in pure nothingness 2,600 metres above sea level.

On our first night in Baños, we ran into a Canadian couple, who recommended a cycling route east of town called La Ruta De La Cascadas. We hadn’t planned to go biking—there were so many other ostensibly more exciting things to do—but they insisted, “It’s worth it.”

So, the next morning, we pedalled our rentals to the edge of town and began coasting along a smooth mountain-ridge road. We marvelled at the lush slopes above us—Baños is often called the Gateway to the Amazon—but the ground-level scenery remained humdrum: second-tier resorts, power stations and an eerily empty amusement park blasting “Ra Ra Rasputin” over the speakers as a deserted carousel spun for no one.

Then, as we emerged from a dicey tunnel that wormed through the mountains, that changed. The valley stretched out in front us with the sort of beauty I thought existed only in the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien. The Rio Pastaza raged below us; cows grazed on impossibly angled farmland above us; spectacular waterfalls appeared around every bend in the road.

Halfway through our 30-kilometre journey, we locked up our bikes and took a cable car across the valley to get a closer look at one of those waterfalls. We hiked downhill for about a half-hour without running into anyone before we spotted unexpected signs of settlement: a fence, stone sculptures and then a roofed gateway. As we stepped through, a gadget overhead announced our arrival with a startling electronic chime. Up ahead, through the foliage, we approached a cabin. A ham radio rested next to the outer wall, a menu of snacks and coffees hung on the front porch, and souvenirs stood on a shelf, whether on sale for days or decades I couldn’t tell. Eventually, after a short trip to the base of the waterfall and back, we found the proprietor, a frail elderly man who shuffled to meet us on the patio. We told him we were from Canada but didn’t manage to communicate much more. I wish my Spanish had been better, so I could ask how long he’d lived down there, how he sourced his supplies. He had the air of a man who could have thought WWII was still playing out beyond the confines of his private paradise.

Our final destination was a second, more stunning waterfall: Pailon del Diablo (the Devil’s Cauldron). As we hiked closer, a light drizzle turned into a wall of mist, the by-product of millions of litres of water violently rushing through a crack in the stony earth. Unlike, say, Niagara, these falls never presented themselves in one awe-inspiring view. Every perspective we got—from a suspension bridge, from a drenched stone stairway, from all fours inside a claustrophobic cave—failed to do it justice, as if the falls were too monumental to capture all at once. When my phone was officially soaked, I stopped trying to take hazy pictures and accepted that.

We rewarded ourselves with pints in the nearby town of Rio Verde. It was the off-season, so we had the second floor of a cliff-side restaurant to ourselves. We sang along like idiots to the eccentric soundtrack (“Hooked on a Feeling” followed by 2000s emo rock), and stared out at the horizon. At one point, a rainbow appeared, shooting from the tip of one mountain to the next. We felt spoiled. How did we end up here without even planning it? We kept drinking, singing and giggling. In the face of indescribably sublime beauty, all we could do was laugh.

Getting there

Check out our small group tours to Ecuador here.

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