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It sometimes surprises us how many of the cycle tourists we meet regard Latin America’s big cities as obstacles to overcome or annoyances to avoid. It shouldn’t, perhaps. Not everybody is as predisposed towards city life as this pair of Londoners; indeed, many riders are drawn to Latin America chiefly for the opportunities it affords to cycle off the beaten track. Then there are the practicalities: few cyclists, even those exhilarated by urban buzz, enjoy riding the highways into and out of large, confusing and possibly dangerous capitals. (More on that later.)

Case in point: many riders passing through northern Ecuador head not for Quito, the capital, but Tumbaco, a small town about 15km to the east. The Tumbaco route is prettier and quieter than the Panamerican Highway into Quito. However, the main reason for Tumbaco’s popularity is that it’s the location of one of the continent’s most famous casas de ciclistas, private homes whose doors are left open to cicloviajeros by their owners (in this case, the famously generous Santiago and his wife Ana Lucía). Along with a cheap-to-free place to stay, casas offer ciclistas a ready-made community of like-minded souls, and a chance to seek out route tips, spares and repairs.

The casa de ciclista is a lovely Latino tradition that we’ve enjoyed before and will likely enjoy again. This time, though, we didn’t really consider it, and instead headed straight for the heart of Quito. The sum invariably greater than its parts, a proper city is a visitor’s book with countless blank pages. We’re always anxious to sign our names.

 


 

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The population of Quito is 1.6 million; if you include the surrounding towns that make up the greater metropolitan area, it’s about half as large again. However, it feels much bigger, an illusion caused by its setting. Hemmed in on east and west by hills and volcanoes, Quito is close to 40km long but only about 5km wide. Riding in from the south, the road passes through a string of barrios that starts early and ends late, giving the city the feel of somewhere much more considerable.

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The colonial centre is beautiful, and it’s beautiful not just for its elegant squares and spectacular churches but because it’s still the living, thriving heart of Quito. Some colonial-era towns and cities in South America are little more than open-air museums: preserved rather than inhabited, used by locals only to milk tourists of their money. By contrast, central Quito hums with the back-and-forth of the urban day-to-day, even as some of its residents seek to commemorate their past. Little visited by tourists, Calle San Marcos is dotted with unassuming tile plaques, each with a hand-painted description of a family who once lived in the building to which it’s attached.

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Guidebooks generally divide Quito into two areas, the older centre and the newer parts that ring it. (Ours prefers ‘Colonial Quito’ and ‘Modern Quito’. Same thing.) It’s useful shorthand but reductive, for the newer parts hold multitudes.

The focus for most tourists is hotel-packed La Mariscal, pleasant during the day but something of an Ecuadorian Camden Town by night. Plaza Foch is lined on four sides by gaudy bars of the three-cocktails-for-two variety; the surrounding streets are even more belligerent after dark, both with funseeking Ecuadorians and backpacking imports. As gauntlets go, it’s little fun to run.

Away from the centre, a pair of cultural landmarks sit high in the hills, almost opposite each other but separated by the mass of the city. To the west, edging up towards the dormant Pichincha volcano, the Casa de la Música opened in 2006 and has become the city’s main venue for concerts small and large. Attendance at the Friday-night concert we visited suffered from a near-clash with Ecuador’s 2-1 win over Honduras in the World Cup, which ended an hour before the lights went down. But the empty spaces didn’t spoil the vivid acoustic, which showed off a national symphony orchestra in fine fettle.

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To the east, meanwhile, lies the geographically and socially elevated neighbourhood of Bellavista and the former home of Oswaldo Guayasamín, all but unknown outside Latin America and Spain but widely regarded as Ecuador’s greatest ever artist. Sketched by Guayasamín, designed by his architect brother and donated to the nation after the artist’s death in 1999, his elegant, modernist house is now open to the public; as, too, is the Capilla del Hombre, a museum dedicated to the artist that was completed in 2002. Loosely themed around human suffering, the works – some modest, some gigantic – benefit from the cavernous space in which they’re housed. (Photography, sadly, isn’t permitted.) The effect is dramatic, even theatrical, and the impact immense.

 


 

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Quito has the most developed cycling culture of any Latin American city we’ve yet visited. And as this interview with onetime local activist Heleana Zambonino explains, the cycling infrastructure has grown as a direct and inspiring result of grassroots activism. This Streetsblog article, a follow-up to the above-linked interview, is now three years old but offers a good snapshot of the scene, which exists as a tribute both to the cyclists who agitated for changes and the city fathers who agreed to make them.

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Most visibly, the city is criss-crossed by a comprehensive network of bike lanes, which to our surprise and delight are shown on the excellent street map that the local tourist office distributes to visitors. In 2012, to complement the bike lanes, the city launched BiciQ, one of only half a dozen Vélib’-style cycle-share schemes in South America and an evidently popular addition. The consideration paid to cyclists even extends to the TelefériQo, a cable car system that gains 1,200m in altitude on its 20-minute climb to the edge of the Pichincha volcano. Several of the cable cars have bike racks, allowing keen mountain bikers to take their steeds to the top and then fly back down to town on two wheels.

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There are bike shops galore, none more welcoming to visiting cicloturistas than Construbicis. When we stopped by to drop off Ruth’s bike for much-needed professional attention, solicitous owner Carlos Tacuri invited us to use his workshop for free, a service apparently offered to all touring cyclists who visit. Will subsequently spent an afternoon there performing running repairs on his own bike.

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Walking into a bar one evening, Will hadn’t even sat down when the chap two seats away looked over, motioned to the cycling cap Will was wearing and said, ‘¿Es ciclista?’ This, it turned out, was Cristian ‘Crosty’ Medrano, a well-known presence on the local cycling scene who’s previously toured south from Quito to Patagonia. These days, he’s a serious downhiller and the ebullient owner of La Cleta, the first out-and-out cycle café we’ve come across since Porto Alegre. Two days after we worked our way through the house brews at Bandido, we rode over to La Cleta for a beer; then, two days after that, we ran into him again at a service station as he was returning triumphant from a downhill competition in Cayambe. Good guy.

 


 

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A mix of careful planning and good fortune made our arrival in Quito a breeze. The careful planning: we made the 95km trek from Latacunga on a Sunday morning, when the traffic is at its lightest. The good fortune: on this particular Sunday, Ecuador were due to play their first match in the World Cup. At 11am, when the game kicked off, the six-lane Panamerican Highway was practically deserted. The traffic didn’t pick up even after the locals’ balloon had been burst by a stoppage-time Switzerland winner.

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A week later, we left the city, this time taking advantage of Quito’s flagship cycling initiative. Every Sunday from 8am until 2pm, a 25km stretch of the city centred on downtown is fenced off for the Ciclopaseo, and Quiteños take to their bikes and ride.

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Some hardcore roadies treat it as training, while others shepherd their kids through their first rides at considerably slower speeds. Most, though, are just out for the fun of it. Even with 75 hilly, headwindy kilometres to cycle that day, legs sluggish after a week off the road, so were we.

from San Juan de Pasto, Nariño, Colombia