Perhaps the biggest deterrent when it comes to foreign travel are the “what-ifs,” and there are more of those than ever in the past two-and-a-half years. What if I’m stuck in a foreign country and can’t go home? What if I get sick in a foreign country? What if I get lost in the dark and don’t know the native language?
The negative what-ifs often outweigh the positives, and we forget to ask the important questions. What if mountain biking in a foreign country gives me perspective which makes me a better person? What if I’m tougher on the other side of this trip?
These thoughts swirled around my head with excitement as I descended into Guayaquil, Ecuador for 12 days in country and seven days of mountain biking with 2Wheel Epix. Despite having traveled to a handful of foreign countries before, some more-developed, some less-developed, a common, yet unique element of uncertainty rested in my gut.
The renowned mountain bike destinations at the forefront of mountain biking are usually tied to developed cities and countries with wealthy populations like Whistler, Finale Ligure, and Madeira. Ride your ass off, finish the day deep in a bowl of pasta and a pitcher of beer before laying in a climate-controlled room, falling asleep while scrolling Instagram. That was night one in Guayaquil, but with a parsed down riding scene.
The 500 trails, Guayaquil
After breakfast, introductions, and rebuilding our bikes on our first day in Ecuador, two of the 2Wheel Epix guides, myself, and five riders from Utah packed into small, diesel Chevy pickups and drove up the mountain for our first laps in the jungle. After we entered a gated neighborhood with concrete walls billowing with tropical plants, we drove for a few minutes and stopped at a pull-off behind a few other trucks with mountain bikes on the back. On the left under a canopy of trees, mountain bikers gripped beers and laughed and hollered.
The 500 trails sit on a mountain just west of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s most populous city with 2.7 million people. Mountain bikers built a handful of trails which jut down the hillsides — steep as waterslides with the average grade between 10 and 15%. The trails are all about two miles long and lose about 1,200 feet of elevation each time over fall lines, drops, bridges, and the occasional rock garden.
At lunch, one of the guides, Jose Cuervo (real name) broke out homemade cheese, jam, almond butter, and kimchi, and we snacked under the canopy and gave our hands a reprieve from squeezing the brakes. Cuervo, and Tony Martin (2Wheel Epix’s founder) briefed us on avoiding sketchy food. Stomach issues are common and it can bench a rider for days.
The first day on the trails is challenging, but everyone is strong and stoked for another lap. We had heard the ominous howl of monkeys throughout the day, and on our last run, we stopped and watched a half-dozen bound from branch to branch directly above us, watching us watch them. No demonic growls this time. They were as curious as we were.
And so were the Guayaquilians when our bus full of gringos, topped with tens of thousands of dollars of mountain bikes ducked and weaved below webs of power lines in the 500-year-old city. On the side of us, some walked home from work, stray dogs wandered from person to person, and a few Guayaquilanian dug through trash barrels, tediously separating recyclables from waste to earn a dollar or two.
Let’s go to the mountains
The next morning, packed up and ready to start the meat of the trip, we drove into the Bolivar province to ride in the Andes, traveling from sea level to a tropical 8,000 feet. This is where our group from the dry and rocky Western U.S. will learn how to ride in mud.
The first ride of day two starts with a short climb and hike-a-bike, into a descent above valleys of corn, coffee, rice, bananas, and sugar cane.
The trick to riding in mud is staying off the brakes. However, my trick to not crashing is using the brakes. When the calipers engage the rotor, the wheel stops, and the braking edge on tire knobs pull more mud onto the tire and into the arch of the fork or rear triangle. A 30lb bike can easily add on 10-15lb of weight. It’s a tough tightrope to walk, finding just enough brake to slow down without pulling mud onto the tire, and every time I thought I got the hang of it, I had to throw one or both feet out to catch myself, or risk a slam into the bank.
As we got lower, the trail dried slightly and I regained some confidence before the last drop into Changuil, a small village surrounding a covered concrete soccer field. No one was playing ball, yet, but a few kids saw us and grabbed their bikes to show off their wheelies. Marvin Bosquez is one of them; an 8th grade student, and a trail builder. He digs every day during the summer.
“I like building these trails so I can spend time with everyone and I like to see everyone come here, and to see how happy everyone is,” Bosquez told me on the side of the trail.
Tony and the 2Wheel Epix crew brought him an older Specialized downhill bike to ride, and Marvin led us down the mountain once more, before a nightly soccer game ramped up in the town center. I’ve never been a ball sports kinda guy, so I opted for fresh, sweet cheese empanadas topped with raw, crunchy sugarcane and a side of sweet sugarcane alcohol, cana.
Through the Vicuñas, up to Chimbo, and down to Coco’s
After the ride in Changuil that evening, we drove to La Guilena, a mountain lodge at the base of the Andes covered in eclectic art. Coco Chavez owns the lodge, though it’s been in his family for some time. He is a recovering lawyer who finds peace hosting mountain bikers and offering his family’s spirit of generosity and creativity to anyone who visits.
“For 20 years, I was a lawyer,” he says. “But now I’m happy.” Coco has mountain biked for 16 years and La Guilena lies in the midst of big mountain trails in the Andes with riders frequenting the lodge every weekend. “Now, this is my office and I spend every day in the mountains, in the place that I love.”
La Guilena feels like a friend’s house with private rooms, and Coco is always close by with tea, beer, or local spirits at the ready.
The next morning, the group pulled on damp shoes, gloves, and helmets for two big rides below the Chimborazo volcano. The first ride starts well above 14,000ft and drops about 3,000ft in elevation.
There is no trail at the top, just black sand, and ridges to pop off of for about a thousand feet. Like snowboarding in powder, we keep our front wheels light and steer in the rear. The dune tapers off and we end up on damp, spongey, Andean highland soil with a herd of Vicuña a hundred yards to our left. Vicuñas are more petite than llamas or alpacas and have some of the most expensive wool in the world. Now protected around the Chimborazo area, there are herds everywhere.
The trail below carves and flows through ancient farming trails, muddy trenches, and pops out at the base of an indigenous farm. With more mountain bikers using the trails, the villagers collected a fee from our group as kids donned in wool swarm home from school.
Suffer in silence
The second ride below Chimborazo goes great — wet, boggy trail, some rocks, natural flow and dirt road climbs — until it doesn’t.
“I’ve never seen the bottom of this trail not muddy,” Tony warned the group. Some of us are faster than others. All of us are slipping on our asses, bruising our bruises, flying off the trail, and pulling chunks of mud off of our bikes.
A cowboy on a horse and another man alongside walked by in galoshes and laughed with sympathy. After more than an hour of this, we made it back to the bus caked in mud, drained of motivation. We stripped off our clothes, threw them in the back, and piled into the bus wearing only our chamois’.
Two days prior, all mostly new acquaintances, we would have thought it a bit awkward to sit next to each other on a bus in only our underwear, but that’s the great thing about challenging yourself with other people. Self-consciousness fades with each fall, and apprehension disappears once we realize that everyone else is struggling just as much as we are.
Out of the rain and down with the sickness
After departing Coco’s, we had a travel day and much needed break from riding. It’s our fourth day on the trip, and after three days of descending between 15,000 and 20,000ft in rain, shine, and mud, we gladly stuck to the bus’s snug seats.
Should we be surprised that everyone started to get sick at this point? Josh and Jack are the first victims and sit out for the fourth ride in Cuenca.
Cuenca is Ecuador’s third most populous city, and it’s a charming one. The Spanish colonized the area in 1557. Cuenca sits at 8,500ft and is decorated with Spanish architecture, splashes of worn pastel blues and pinks, coffee shops, German-style breweries, and bike shops. Just outside the grid of downtown, houses dot the hills, and the hills turn to mountains.
The fourth day of riding starts with an access road climb from 9,600ft to Incan ruins at 10,000ft before descending a rocky Incan trail for 2,000ft past houses, and farms, and dogs in hot pursuit that act like they’ll bite your ankle, but never do.
Before the Spanish, Incans occuppied Cuenca, and before the Incans, the Cañari occupied by the area. Every day of the trip has a diversity in trail, but Cuenca is maybe the most varied, starting with a history lesson down ancient stone-stacked trails, and then rocky ridges with neighborhoods dissected by singletrack, and dense jungle smothered with eucalyptus trees. The shade keeps the dirt slick.
At the end of the ride, I sat on a cooler and felt fatigue and body aches creep over me. It was my turn. The next day, as Josh and Jack recovered, I sat out the ride, and by that evening Tony was sick too, and most of the group turned into a sad sack of feeble, ass-draggers at the will of a stomach bug. Fortunately, Rick and Nate, both ER doctors brought anti-nausea meds, which helped tremendously. If you’re traveling in a foreign country, I recommend going with doctors.
Back in the saddle
Like clockwork, after 24 hours, the bug moved on and I recovered too on a bus ride to the sparsely populated mountains of Abañin and Uzchurrumi. Illness is always a risk traveling to new countries, especially Central or South America. The food is different, the bacteria are different, and sometimes it’s inevitable. Getting sick is a price you pay for living, a friend once told me, and boy had we been living in Ecuador. Seeing wildlife is a bonus on any ride, and so far our group had mountain biked under monkeys, ridden past dozens of vicuñas at the base of a volcano, shared trails with farmers hauling crops on the backs of mules, and driven past six-foot snakes on jungle roads.
When I think about things that make me uncertain about traveling, being ill is on the list and I’m not sure why because healthcare in the U.S. is as scary as it is anywhere else.
When I think about other things that make me uncertain about foreign travel, it’s feeling unsafe and having no recourse for salvation outside of my homeland. My wife and I traveled to Cancun and Tulum earlier in the spring in the height of panic surrounding the cartel-related shootings of tourists, and potentially driving our rental car onto the wrong jungle road worried both of us. Nothing happened. We were stopped by federal police once at a checkpoint and asked if we had drugs. I responded in broken Spanish and we were set free.
After a sunset ride into the clouds on the first night in Abañin, our group followed the taillights of one of our shuttle trucks down the never-ending mountain road back to the hotel. The sun was well behind Ecuador and the mountain was covered in fog as thick as clam chowder. This is where I screwed up.
Impatient with the truck’s pace, I pulled ahead and made a turn I shouldn’t have. Thinking I was now ahead of the group, I stopped past the intersection to wait. A few locals sitting on benches at the intersection village looked back at me underneath the dim glow of a street light, just as the truck and group roared down the mountain road behind me. Oh, I think that’s where I’m supposed to go.
I chased back down the mountain, only to be consumed by darkness. I stopped, pulled out my phone and checked my map. Nothing loaded. I dialed phone numbers. Nothing connected. I felt lost. I was lost. I should turn around and go ask the locals I saw at the intersection for help, I told myself. Necesito ayuda…right? I hiked back up the dirt road, punching digits and messages into my phone, and about five minutes later headlights bored through the fog. I wandered into the middle of the road and waved my hand like a team flag at a pep rally.
It was the second shuttle truck from earlier and the driver hopped out and grabbed my bike while I rattled off gracias’s. Covered in mud, I hopped in the truck bed and sat on the bench seat, and he drove us to a roadside restaurant, with barred windows, where two ladies cooked up dinners for travelers under buzzing lights. Another rider from earlier, Gabriel Ugarte sat at a table drinking a pilsner.
“Hola!” I shouted. “I thought I was lost. Uhh, perdido. Very scared. Asustado.”
“Oh!” he says and crosses his shoulders, sternum, and belly button, with his hand and says “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
“Si, si, si!”
Gabriel poured me a beer, and we sat and talked about Ecuador, the enduro scene in Abañin and his life as a lawyer in Ecuador until the truck took me back to the group, who settled in at a party for Juan Jose Ugarte, the organizer and developer for the trails in Abañin.
Getting lost in a foreign country — even if you might not be as lost as you think you are — feels like the ultimate test of faith in humanity and the social contract. Stripped of our nationalities, we’re all humans trying to coexist to some degree and I like to think I’d do the same for someone who thought they were in danger in my homeland. But, I wonder how many times I’ve driven past someone who needs help because it made me feel uncomfortable.
Back to Guayaquil
After another two full days of riding in Abañin (read about the history of trails and enduro racing scene here) we packed up our bags and hauled them out of the hotel and onto the bus for a four-hour drive to Guayaquil, out of the crisp mountain air and back to the fluttering city.
After setting our bags down we B-lined it for a American restaurant with Harley Davidson decor and loaded up on fries, wings, and burgers — a welcome change from the steady diet of rice, lentils, banana/plantains, and chicken/beef/pork.
Some of the group packed their bikes and started their flights back to the U.S. that evening while a few others stuck around for an added beach trip and a jaunt to the Galapagos. With another day until my flight, I hung around Guayaquil, caught up on emails and rest, and toured the boardwalk with Cuervo, walking past an iMax theater and seafood restaurants and absorbing city views of favelas and smoggy air and water.
I felt beat down and ready to go home, where I could drink out of the faucet, take a 20-minute, piping-hot shower, and shovel spoons of peanut butter into my mouth whenever I wanted.
The advanced trip isn’t for everyone. 2Wheel Epix runs a more moderately paced 10-day Ecuador trip with easier (not easy) riding and more comfortable accommodations. At times, I wondered if I should have signed up for that one, but I guess it depends on what you’re looking for. In the end, I appreciated the challenges on the trail and off — the mud, the steepness, the exhaustion, the language barrier, and the culture and food, and the total immersion of it all.
Tony says that his trips are life-changing for people. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what you don’t have: a house as big as your friend’s or a car as new, and since I’ve been back from Ecuador I’ve had more gratitude for the things that I have that matter the most, like a happy relationship, a home, public lands, and the means to enjoy them on a mountain bike.
The trails weren’t the hallmark of the trip for me, but rather what was just off of the trail. Countless piercing green mountains, unique vegetation and wildlife, new food, new friends, and seeing ways of life that were new to me.