Friday, November 23, 2012

Cycling in the Andes Round 2: I don't know where I'ma gonna go when the volcano blow.

Been meaning to get to this one for a while, now. Back in early August I had the crazy idea that since there was a volcano nearby, I would like to ride a bike on it. Linked up with a cicloturismo outfit in Quito called Biking Dutchman that leads single or multiple-day bike tours throughout the country. Of course, I would have loved to head out for several days and ride around the Amazon or something, but the petty cash I had budgeted for the trip was getting low by that point and so I opted for a single-day excursion to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi. That's Ecuadorian for Cotopaxi National Park, by the way. The Park, as its name suggests, surrounds Cotopaxi, Ecuador's second largest mountain peak AND an active volcano. The 'Pedia has more here.   

Notably, the peak is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

That's right, I said active volcano. It hasn't erupted for something on the order of 150 years, but more on that later. After leaving work and heading over to the Mariscal to pay for my spot, I then went and dropped way too much money on a pair of hiking pants from the Quito North Face. Unlike my good buddy Jonathan, I had not expected to need any outdoorsy clothes walking around the city and was caught in a dilemma of spend more money or try to ride a mountain bike in jeans. Needless to say, convenience won out over frugality, and so it was that on the morning of Diez de Agosto (something akin to the 4th of July and thus a free day off) me and my hiking pants trundled on down to a coffee shop popular with tourists and backpackers and met up with a group of other internationals and our Ecuadorian driver/guide/cultural expert for the hour-and-a-half trip to our starting point. 

My companions included an Italian engineer helping to design Quito's subway system, a lovely young Kiwi couple on a trip lasting several months, and a semi-nomadic Dutch woman named Pascala who planned to hike up Cotopaxi's glacier the night after the ride. Bonding over our shared love of travel, the outdoors, lack of mountain biking experience, and a few cups of coca-leaf tea at a stall in the foothills, we hoped the somewhat cloudy morning would break and allow us some of the spectacular views the park advertises. Though the clouds never totally went away and we had to contend with the wind pretty much the whole time, our enthusiasm never flagged. 

From our jumping off point just below the glacier that blankets Cotopaxi's peak...

...down the dusty slopes...


...across the undulating badlands...

The saddle adjustment will not save the dude on the right from 
face-planting soon after this photo was taken (he was fine.)

...through a gorgeous area cut by streams and pools where we stopped for a delicious lunch...   

Ginger tea, pasta and brownies, what WHAT!
...past wild horses...
They got out of Dodge pretty quick once we rolled by,
so I was lucky to get this.
...out the access road and to the end of the ride...
Welcoming committee!

You guys remember Cotopaxi the llama, right?
Yeah, I'ma guess this is probably him.
...we all made some great memories from this rare, incredible experience. So thanks to all the other riders, and to Biking Dutchman for offering restless gringos a chance to explore the outdoors a little more after learning about Ecuador's biodiversity for several weeks. Our guide (Juan? Probably Juan) mentioned on the ride up that the government is planning to pave many of the dirt and crushed-gravel roads around the Park which, while undoubtedly improving the overall experience for the majority of visitors, is going to wreck a significant portion of what makes the mountain biking fun. 

That might not be the biggest worry, however. As I mentioned, Cotopaxi is technically an active volcano, although it hasn't been live in like a century and a half. The thing is, the historical eruption schedule is just about every 150 years, so the seismologists are pretty sure things are due to jump off sometime soon. If and when that happens, not only will much of the park land and infrastructure be wiped out, but the weakest part of the rock faces southern Quito, basically turning the volcano into a 19,347 foot artillery gun just waiting to launch a pyroclastic shell that would more or less wipe out half the city. Of course, the southern part of Quito is where the poorest folks live, so even if the government could take measures to reduce the danger it's by no means clear that  they would. 

I'm not sure what a volcano-evasion plan would even look like, maybe we should ask former mayor and veteran volcano-panic manager Roque Sevilla. Amanda, Jonathan, Faye, Nobu, any of you guys get his number?


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