Riding high: An expat forgets his aches and pains and joins an old folks’ outing, Cuenca style

Jul 30, 2017 | 0 comments

Photos and text by John Keeble

It’s tough getting old. You kind of split in two… your mind sees the world with the adventurous I can do anything optimism of your twenties and your body says: “Yeah, well, I’ll try.”

Our guide Fernando preparing the troops.

Just as bad, you look out at someone as a 25-year-old and you see the mirror in their eyes showing an old geezer you hardly recognize.

Expat life helps. Especially in Cuenca, which has attracted a large and impressive  community of retired baby boomers raring to enjoy third-age excitement and interests.

My last conversation on the subject of age, aches and mortality came recently when our biking group — three aged 71, seven in their 60s, and a kid of 59, all old geezers except one young gal of 68 — was about to take the plunge for a bit of fun.

With long johns and fleecy tops firmly in place, we were ready at 16,000 feet on Ecuador’s highest volcano for a five-hour bicycle ride to 8,000 feet through volcanic landscapes and incredibly beautiful ravines and valleys.

Trucking the bikes to 16,000 feet.

We had already met our closest companions for the next four days — Trek mountain bikes, mostly, and we were going to get them to live up to their name on our four-day adrenaline rush.

The weather was perfect, so so we started at the highest possible trail point on Chimborazo volcano near Riobamba. The sun was shining, the volcano was crowned in a halo of rolling cloud, and the down-hill run was waiting.

“Try not to go too fast, guys, and stay away from the edges,” Fernando Silva Ponce, our guide, warned at a pre-plunge briefing with Chimborazo looming behind him. For someone like me, from the flat lands of eastern England, being at 16,000 feet with a volcano summit in close proximity was mesmerizing.

The author, all bundled up.

Most of us looked inflated in our cold weather gear. I was kitted up with a thermal vest, thin T-shirt, thick T-shirt, microfiber jacket, thicker jacket from hot and humid Thailand, and windproof walking jacket. No long johns for me — I made do with my pajamas under hiking trousers. Anyone would think it was cold — and they’d be right, too.

Then we were off! We pedaled over a brow and started the descent. Oops, senior moment discovered: forgot to tuck my trousers into my long socks, and my jimjams were flapping out of the bottoms. Okay, that’s done. Now off again. Picking up speed, entrancing views competing with slippery surfaces and impressive drops for the unwary.

The thrill of speed. Enjoying the moment. Grabbing a quick snap on my phone. Yes, all! As our spreading straggle came out of the friendly lee of a mountain, the icy wind hit us head-on, making bends more hazardous and raising the riding stakes and excitement with extra challenges.

On the trail.

The experienced riders streaked ahead and I lagged with the less experienced, bouncing about the ruts and gravel, stopping for photos and making the most of the ride.

Now, as I write this, I think back to the excitement and a comment from Fernando, who was a fantastic and caring guide. He is 40 years old, with a twin career of organizing biking trips and — with a change of dress style — guiding city walking tours in Quito.

He told me as we rode a couple of miles together on Day 2: “I would love to be like you guys when I am your age.” Later, when I asked how he felt about taking a group of our ages on cycle treks, he added: “As people get older, they need to realise what they can no longer do.”

“To hell with that,” I thought. “At my age, I don’t have time to be sensible.”

A lot of people apparently feel the same because Fernando said his company, the highly recommended Biking Dutchman in Quito, gets a couple of older people on most mixed-group tours. But maybe some would-be bikers think it is enough to dream and do not put in the training hours that our group, especially hiking and biking buddies Jeff Van Pelt, Shahbaz Khan and Lois Andrews, clocked up in and around Cuenca.

Taking a break.

The training paid off on Chimborazo with everyone zooming to the bottom of the first leg of the trek. A short van ride to the next riding stretch, and we started down again, much of it steeper than on the volcano’s side. We rode roads hugging verdant mountain slopes, beside white-water rivers, through sudden tiny hamlets and below almost vertical fields being planted with crops.

One family walking in a rutted road took me by surprise and, choosing a course to avoid hitting them, riding off a 100-foot drop on my right, or skidding off to my left was an instant reaction. I’m not sure how, but I got between everything without hitting anyone or killing myself. It’s amazing what adrenaline can do, isn’t it?

And then, into the jungle.

Eventually, we stopped for a picnic lunch by the road. Meat pasta for everyone except me. Vegan ratatouille followed by apple pie refueled me for another downhill dash before we loaded the bikes and vanned into Baños, a town of cycling, hiking, good restaurants and tempting coffee shops. Does it have a local volcano? Of course! This is Ecuador!

Day 2 started with getting the bikes ready for another downhill stretch. More air in the tires to meet the change in ambient air pressure; and routine checks and adjustments by our qualified cycle mechanics who doubled as our drivers.

Then we gaggled off until we turned into the fast road and the best bikers showed their speed. This was easy riding compared with some of the previous day’s roads but later it took its toll with uphill sections. We stopped to look at the volcano, then again at a waterfall where some of us ate chocolate-covered fruit on wooden skewers and rode in an open cable car to get a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the cascading water.

Neal Adams’s custom-made hat.

Onward and downward. The next cycling halt saw three of us and Fernando ride a long, fast zip line, and later, at a lunch stop, we hiked off to see the area’s famous Devil’s Cauldron waterfall. And ate empanadas just like Fernando’s mom makes.

Then the cycling got serious. By evening, with a combination of pedaling and vanning, we arrived at Hosteria Rio Napo, an Amazon jungle resort at Puerto Misahualli. It was as hot and humid as Chimborazo was cold and dry. Lush growth and exotic flowers were everywhere and a lazy river wandered past.

On Day 3, we hiked and slid through the muddy jungle before riding the river.

Day 4 reprised our earlier adrenaline rush down Chimborazo. Our two vans took us up to about 13,000ft near another of Ecuador’s highest volcanoes. We togged up in our cold weather gear and sped down a wild road with captivating views and unpredictable potholes.

Within a few hours, we were overheating and stripping off layers as we headed towards the end of the trip on the outskirts of Quito some 5,000ft below our start point near Papallacta.

The end of that adventure was the beginning of another — exploring Quito.

But before the city action, we went in search of a beer or two. And a rewarding meal, including a vegan Mexican pizza for me. After all, we were poor old people who needed our rest and somewhere to talk about our aches and pains.

All photos were shot using my phone


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