The novelty of cycle touring has been wearing on me for quite some time. The daily packing and movement to a new location has lost its luster. Our bikes, unfit for gravel surfaces due to the composition of my bike frame, our tires, oh, and our dog, force us to stick to the main roads, like the Pan Americana, where we spend several hours each day inhaling the caustic fumes sprayed into our face by outdated diesel vehicles. I wanted to be in nature, sleeping under the stars, not sharing the road with cars.
In some places where we were traveling in Perú, we were warned that it was unsafe to camp. Further, accommodation was so inexpensive that it didn’t break the bank. But camping was what I missed and craved and while I got a brief nature fix on the Ausangate Trek, I still pined for long walks in the woods. Our little tent had become such a cozy mobile home. A place we could erect anywhere of our choosing, yet it was becoming rare that our rectangular home emerged from my pannier.
To read more about the Ausangate Trek and the crazy snow storm we encountered, read my post Ausangate Trek Part I: At Least It’s Not Raining.
And yet, I suffer from cyclists’ remorse. But I really want to do Huascarán Circuit! Really, I don’t care that the rain is coming and we have to climb 5,000 meters from sea level! It’s a cycle touring classic and we came all this way!
One day into our climb toward Huaraz in Perú and I pleaded that we about face and head back to the coast. I couldn’t handle days of climbing insane hills with the even more insane Peruvian drivers who blare their horns so constantly and so loudly, I wore headphones at all times to avoid going deaf. The following morning, we retraced our route and sailed back down the hill which we had just climbed and made our way to the animal shelter where we volunteered for two weeks.
Learn about the amazing shelter where we volunteered on the Peruvian coast in my post Volunteering at an Animal Shelter in Northern Peru.
After volunteering, we pedaled the remaining several hundred kilometers to Ecuador. Though fairly easy riding, I felt bored after 15 kilometers. My phone had been stolen, so Dave and I switched off using his phone for podcasts. The minutes and miles crawled by every second I went without Ira Glass cooing in my ear. My ass was killing me from riding on 20-month old chamois. All I wanted was to be off my bicycle. I wanted nothing to do with it.
But our friend Adam was coming to visit for a month, specifically to cycle. I had to rally. I had to find a way to love the ride again.
Back In the Saddle
We had planned his visit months prior, when I figured a bit of rest and hiking around Cusco would rekindle my desire to get back on the bike and fulfill my nature fix.
But it didn’t.
Once we crossed the border into Ecuador from Perù, I still had no desire to get on my bike. Ecuador was notoriously difficult for touring, thanks to the many grueling hills set to at least 8% grade for 20 kilometers. I knew I’d be pushing a lot of the way and it just didn’t sound fun. Traveling by public means of transportation with a dog is not really possible. Sure, we can put her with the cargo, but you know, then she would have no air for several hours, and we’re not really OK with that.
So after several rather pricey van transfers and visiting friends in Cuenca for a few weeks, Dave set off to Quito tackle 8% grades lasting 20 miles and 27,000 feet of elevation change on bike with Sora, while I ran, blogged, and caught up by bus.
Adam arrived late on the night of the US unelection. Dave went to pick him up from the airport and had taken the key to our room, leaving me locked out, so I had little to do but watch Netflix and refresh the polls every 20 minutes, watching in disbelief as the outcome tipped the toward the direction of what I had been so certain would never happen.
Fortunately, Adam brought proper Oregon IPAs with which we drowned our sorrows until 4AM when we finally decided we should go to bed.
Just under a week later, we departed for our adventure. I wasn’t looking forward to packing my bags, loading my bike, pushing up hills, navigating our way through a smog-heavy city where the green traffic buffers are stained black from the diesel exhaust exhaled from city buses. I just didn’t feel excited.
We pedaled single file down a long, steep, and narrow cobblestone hill. A main entrance and exit into Quito, the road was packed with cars looking to get to work on time, leaving discomforting amounts of space for vulnerable cyclists.
I breathed deeply to manage my anxiety. I hate cycling through cities.
El Chaquiñan: The Best Cycle Path in South America
Upon reaching Cumbayá, a university suburb, we passed a vegan pizza joint. Despite the 11 o’clock hour, I requested that we wait until they open and eat an early lunch. It was our first time in over a year seeing the words vegan and pizza in the same sentence. They even made vegan chocolate salami. It was divine. (On a somber note, we learned that the owner of QuiPizza was hit and killed by a drunk driver just days after we visited the Quito location).
With happy bellies, we continued our descent and arrived at a sight we hadn’t seen in well over a year: a 22-kilometer, car-free, multi-use path. El Chanquiñan is a fairly flat gravel route built on a 100-year-old former rail line that winds gradually down a canyon and through small towns. When completed, it will be the longest contiguous cycle path in South America connecting 66km of park. The name of the trail derives from the indigenous Kichwa words chaqui (foot) ñan (trail).
The gravel path intersected private gardens with views of Quito standing tall as we followed the Rio Chiche and ascended into the canyon. Shady trees lined the route and we waved hello to the locals sitting outside their homes. There are several chase-happy dogs along the route, though part of that could have been the fact that we had Sora running alongside (because we COULD!). Just stop riding and they’ll stop chasing.
Note that we did try to ride along the non-completed section of the path between Puembo and El Quinche and we were not able to pedal much of that portion, due to our set up. The path along this portion followed the still-existing train tracks and was not yet closed to road traffic, but a mountain bike or most cycle tourists would do just fine.
What Makes a Great Cycling Path?
Every several kilometers, we passed a rest stop with potable water, the cleanest public bathrooms I have ever seen (which included (cold) showers), and a picnic area, where we could have camped if we had liked. The bike parking included functioning bike fixing stations and pumps. Friendly guards answered any questions and make sure we were comfortable. We could pass through tunnels without fear of feeling invisible to the cars roaring through. I could stop and take photos and video from anywhere I liked without hesitation or risking my life. It reminded me of many the EuroVelo cycle paths we rode in Europe, specifically the Alpe Adria in Austria. And, in fact, I thought that El Chaquiñan even provided more services than we found on many routes in Europe. It reminded me of why I like cycling.
Read about our favorite cycle path in Europe in High, Low, Sleeper: Cycle Touring in Austria.
At every rest stop, large maps pointed to our current location, indicated all road crossings, labeled future rest stops, and marked every kilometer, so you know exactly how far you had to ride before arriving at the next station. Giant signs welcomed us to each rest stop and let us know, to the meter, what kilometer we were at. Further, several cafes, including a bike cafe, bike shops, and bike-themed murals lined the path.
Nowhere else in South America had a path like this, at least that we had found. Sure, the Carretera Austral had little traffic and some of the most spectacular scenery we’ve seen during our two years on the road, and the Lakes Region in Chile had some fabulous bike lanes running alongside volcanoes, but neither was a dedicated space solely for non-motorized traffic. The well-labeled signs signifying distance covered, the beautiful rest stops, and the abundant picnic areas competed with any path we had seen in Europe, in terms of services, making El Chaquiñan, without a doubt the best cycle path in South America.
In general, Quito has one of the best urban park system of any major city we found in Latin America. With several metropolitan parks right in the city, Quito provided nature escapes from the loud noise of cars, pollution, and dedicated space to enjoy the outdoors—all of which were dog-friendly.
You can read about all the dog-friendly parks in Quito in my post: Dog-Friendly Quito: Parks and Vegan Bites.
For an entire day, we pedaled slowly along El Chanquiñan, before stopping at Zaysant Eco Lodge, where we convinced the incredibly kind owners to allow us to camp in their large property.
I knew that when we departed in the morning, our path would end just a few kilometers later. I knew we would be back on the noisy highway with cars loudly whizzing past. I was well aware of the massive 20-mile (not kilometer) hill we would face the following day. But for that one day, I was reminded of the pure joy of using my bicycle as my mode of travel.