Quito was a nice experience for our first day in Ecuador, but by Monday morning, it was time for adventure. Our group would be mountain biking today in Baños – a four and a half hour bus trip away.
After Stella and I ate another delicious hotel breakfast, we checked our bags outside and boarded the bus. With a temperature of around 70 degrees and a few clouds in a blue sky, the weather seemed ideal. It would help us to enjoy the scenery even more.
We soon left the city behind and entered a landscape not unlike my native New Hampshire: lots of rolling green hills dotted by black and white cows. I wondered what to make of this, but then the land changed to something resembling the Southwestern United States. I half expected to see a coyote chasing a road runner.
Along the way, we stopped at a gas station and bought snacks and iced teas. They accepted our US dollars and gave us our change in Ecuadorian coins. Somehow, the guidebooks neglected to mention this might happen. And they seemed to be low on five, ten and twenty dollars bills, but had plenty of ones.
We drove by Cotopaxi State Park but failed to see the giant volcano as it was entirely hidden by clouds. So we pressed on to where the desert landscape slowly turned green again, and mountainous. Towns began to appear, and as we slowly motored through them, we could study the people. Some of the women wore traditional hats, slightly mannish in design, with the front taller than the back. The colors ranged from dusty black to forest green. The men wore a variety of other styles, or more commonly, no hat at all.
It was hard to tell exactly when we entered Baños; there was no sign to speak of, just a sizable village/town at the base of some mountains, and, we learned later, another volcano named Tungurahua. The bus took a side road that zigzagged up a steep mountainside. We arrived at our destination, the Luna Runtun “adventure lodge” and got off the bus.
We were surprised when our American guide, Becca announced lunch was ready. “Go eat now and your bags will be outside your rooms when you come out. Get dressed and ready for the bike trip and we’ll meet back at the parking lot at 1:00 o’clock.”
Lunch was delicious in the spacious dining room, with spectacular views of the mountains and the town far below us. We checked into our rooms quickly and followed Becca’s instructions. Our original modern bus had left the parking lot and was replaced by a strange, truck-bus vehicle, with wooden benches where the plush, padded seats would normally be.
Our guides squashed us into these benches, five to a seat, and soon we were underway. It took a surprisingly long time to get to the bike launching area, a clearing along a narrow cobblestone road. A long line of old-looking bicycles were lined up, and nearby, piles of helmets. We all picked a bike and scrabbled for a helmet. We had to trying on several to find ones that fit.
Once we were outfitted and ready to go, a few Ecuadorian guides had us line up, experienced riders first, then medium, then slow. Stella and I aligned ourselves with the medium riders, and off we went.
Our first shock was the road. The cobbles felt like boulders as we rode over them. And the road itself took started to go uphill (they told us it would be flat!). Soon we were both shaken and winded at the same time. Our group started to stretch out as some went surging ahead and others fell behind. I lost sight of Stella several times and stopped to wait for her, gulping water and air as I did.
At one point while riding along the road that skirted several cliffs, I found myself alone. Thinking I must be far ahead of Stella, I turned back to look for her. I found her about a half mile back, dealing with a headache and resting along the road. I tried to arrange for a truck to pick her up, but Stella wouldn’t hear of it. Finally, she convince me to ride on ahead. I did.
I found the truck about a mile ahead, and asked the driver to go find Stella to give her a lift. But then, I noticed two dots coming around the mountainside, coming toward me. The dots turned out to be Becca, our American guide, and Stella right behind. We all stopped to rest. Stella still had a headache, but she felt she could continue. We let the truck go on its way.
The ride took us past some amazing views, of mountains, drop offs, and high altitude farms. We passed a small avocado farm and stopped to rest nearby. We could see lava trails where the mighty Tungurahua had erupted several years before, descending to the river below.
Darkness came fast. We were still riding, high in the mountains, with no idea of how much distance we had yet to cover. Soon we came to actual paved roads and road signs we couldn’t read. Becca came along to tell us we were close, and when we rolled into a village square ten minutes later, the early arrivals cheered us.
Exhausted, we turned in our bikes and helmets, posed for a few pictures, and climbed back on the wooden bus. Back to the hotel, where we were late for dinner, we all dined in our sticky, sweaty outdoor clothing. From there, a short walk back to our rooms and straight to bed, tired and sore. On top of this, I was developing a bad cold.
After our hard day, we looked forward to a night of rest in Baños. But we knew the next day would be even harder: We would hike to the Devil’s Staircase and bravely attempt white water rafting with a bunch of newbies. Ourselves included.