I’ve been asked a few times ‘isn’t Scotland mountainous..?’ The answer would normally be yes- but there is no comparison to the landscape here. Even at 3000m, huge mountains tower over the road on both sides, the highest ones crowned permanently with snow. (I’ve also had to revise my answer to the question about whether Scotland is close to Russia..)

Re-joining the PanAm close to Tumbillo, we found ourselves on a broad six-lane freeway. Not as awful as it sounds- there is plenty of space at the side, and even occasionally evidence that horses pass that way. The traffic is often chaotic, but for the most part drivers have a better awareness of cyclists (and motorcycles, horses, handcarts, food-stalls..) than I’ve encountered in the UK, so it rarely feels unsafe.

We cycled off the highway towards Cotopaxi, and up to where the El Boliche and Cotopaxi national parks border one another. We camped close to a little used railway station at 3600m. Regrettably, the road connection with the Cotopaxi national park was ropey at best (not least an entirely missing bridge), and we couldn’t find a reliable answer as to whether or not the road was at all passable. My bike isn’t especially suited for roads made of deep sand and broken rocks. Faced with this and diminished supplies, we went back to the main road and towards Cotopaxi the ‘proper’ way.

The road up to and past the park entrance was of remarkable quality most of the way- it even had a bike lane. We again made our camp in the woods just off the road before making rather slower progress up to an official campsite at 3800m- a new altitude record for both my bike and tent. In a mountaineering sense, that isn’t particularly high- but riding a heavily laden bicycle uphill is noticeably harder at such a height.

We joined two French climbers already there; two hundred or so Ecuadoran infantry were also encamped close by. The soldiers spent the night running around in the dark shouting at each other, and much of the morning cheering and singing; evidently their exercise was a success. They were nice guys though- their medics shared our fire for a bit, faintly amused that we would choose to camp there for fun. The weather was quite wild- wet and below 5ºc at night. After a chilly night, English Breakfast tea was enjoyed French, German and Scot alike. I’m still learning to love the coca tea.

The sky cleared latterly, offering a spectacular view of the icebound summit, but we didn’t have supplies to hang around. Cotopaxi is very wide as well as high, so it was some distance even to the refuge that sits just below the snowline.

We descended the relatively short distance to Latacunga for a welcome hot shower and beds, before 80km of graft southward on the ever undulating highway brought us to the town of Baños, on the slopes of another ring of fire volcano- Tungurahua.

  • ‘Neck of the Moon’ is often given as translation of the Quechua name Cotopaxi, but there is no real consensus.
  • Some photos are courtesy of Simon Kutruff
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