Helped Along by Locals, Hardest "Push" Through Southern Ecuador into Peru : Cuenca, Ecuador to Jaen, Peru
Literally pushing fully loaded tour bikes up sloppy, muddy, rutted, bolder littered single lane "road" with the rain pouring and soaked through, one would have to wonder, "What in the hell are we doing here?" Guess we both are, truly, clinically insane...
Cuenca was a touring cyclists dream! Really stunning Colonial architecture, large enough to score dishes of Indian food, liters of real gelato ice-cream (oh yes we polished one off together every day we were there), pizza, but not so large we were lost in the chaos. We ripped off the Band-Aid and loaded up and headed south. Back on the road, ready for what was next around the bend. It took us about two and a half days to roller coaster the hills to Loja. The scenery was pretty distracting, even while climbing. Our first night out, we found a great spot under a giant tree a little ways from the road to camp and watched the sun set and shadows creep up the giant mountains in front of us. We scored breakfast at a gas station/restaurant in a small town the next morning and continued south stopping just before dark near La Chorera. We were struggling to find a place to camp as the hills had become so steep there was not good flat spots well hidden for a tent. As we chugged slowly up a hill, there was a family waving at us from their yard next to the road.
Ville rode over and asked if it were possible to camp in their yard and they welcomed us right away. The older couple, who's modest home it was, told us to sleep on the porch under the roof in case it rained. Sadly, we timed most of the ride in Ecuador through tons of wind and rain, so it was a challenge for our night camping as well as days of being soaked. The couple's nephew, his wife, and their two young kids were there and it was really special to be able to chat with them and get to know about their village. Then the local priest arrived and we were invited to Catholic mass down the hill, which of course we accepted. It was all I could do to keep from laughing as we sat in our pew with about 15 people from town, right next to 3 young boys trying so hard not to stare wide-eyed and open-mouthed at us. They were so curious! And when I asked their names, they became so shy they cowered behind each other.
After mass, we were given fresh, hot home-made tamales and coffee and watched the firework show in celebration of Virgen De La Cisne. Getting to play with kids and be treated as friends was incredibly special and both of us were so grateful (as we repeatedly are on this journey) to meet so many kind and generous people. Even though, by both our countries standards, these people were very poor and had "nothing", the feeling of community, love, and acceptance of each other was felt very deeply while we were there. The kids were happy, kind to each other, and looked out for one another. The mothers gave them the space to play without helicoptering around their every move. The older ones took care of the younger ones. Watching people, families, and communities and questioning "normal" is one of the greatest gifts of travel.
Early morning, as we waved goodbye to the family and up into the mist, we had a long day of misty, wet riding that took us by noon dropping down into Loja. We checked into a hotel, got showered and were slightly disappointed to discover Loja was not quite what we hoped or heard about as a city. It had been compared to Cuenca, just smaller, but was not at all as cool. It did however have a newly built castle that looked eerily like the one at Disneyland on the way into the city. We spent a day and headed on our way, not having great expectations for the next stretch to the boarder of Peru. We had heard from two separate cycling friends that this next stretch would be rough and it far exceeded those terrible expectations I'm afraid.
You know it's going to be bad when the "Road Construction Update" billboard on the side of the road is super faded as if it was thought about and long forgotten. That being said, the traffic began to drop off after the Gringo-filled town of Vilcabamba (yet another "eternal spring" cities that claims everyone lives forever) and we got a cheap room in a local woman's house in the tiny town of Yangana. The next day we climbed up into the National Park Yacuri, the scenery was fantastic and we were almost all alone in it! As we reached the top of the park, birds, waterfalls, butterflies everywhere we had to stop to take in all the views. Followed by a thrilling winding downhill that took us way down, down, down a canyon as the road slowly began to disappear and magically turn into not-car-graded gravel and dirt steeps. After again struggling to find a good camp spot with such steep hills, we pulled over to chat with a family in a three house, one church town, Canada.
The father, Stalin, was kind enough to open up the church and let us sleep inside. We enjoyed chatting with his three daughters, whom all helped grow, dry, and bag coffee beans. I got in the habit long ago of carrying everything from lollipops to cookies and stickers for kids and was able to share some with the girls and they were super excited. They were very shy around us, but were so cute running and playing with each other. All I could think was what a horrible little fighting sister I was and that I had not realized at their age how lucky they were to have each other. They obviously realized it.
Feeling good, with Google telling us we only had about 22 miles to the border, we rode out early all pumped and ready for Peru! Well, well, well, that's not quite how smooth sailing it went. First the pavement disappeared after a mile. Then as we crested the hill, the downhill was the the steepest we had yet experienced on this ride, stopping multiple times to give our hands a break from breaking so hard, fearing hitting boulders that would throw us over the handlebars, the occasional passing truck kicking rocks into our faces, all to look straight across the mountain at the jagged dirt road cut straight up the side of the mountain across from us in the baking sun. And, yes, that is where we crossed the river at the bottom of the canyon, kicked down to our lowest gear, and cranked for over an hour to get up the hill. By the time we reached Zumba on the other side of the mountain, with just over 22 miles for the day, nowhere near the border, and a splitting migraine, we had to get a hotel room and re-hydrate.
(STAY TUNED FOR MORE PHOTOS, WIFI IS NOT COOPERATING)
For some terrible reason, I have taken to getting migraines a lot and especially when I'm dehydrated. After wringing out my Buff a handful of times of sweat, it was apparent we were not taking in enough water for as much as we were losing and stopping was a great plan. I crawled into a dark room and we tried to get some sleep. The next day, my migraine was still full-on, it poured rain all night making the dirt road sloppy, and we contemplated staying put another night. Wanting so much to get through this nightmare and get to the promised land, Peru (where we heard rumors of pavement and normal grades again), I downed a bunch of Aspirin, ate some crappy food, and we saddled up.
We had a rough day of two more big hill climbs and descents in the pouring rain, a handful of times we had to literally push our bikes up sloppy, muddy, bolder-littered single-track "road" with flashbacks of the fun-filled Dalton Highway in Alaska in our memories from so long ago (if you missed that, read it HERE). Brakes squealing, we came straight down the hill into the border of Peru. After an easy stamp out, bike across the river and stamp into Peru, we were thrilled to discover the rumors of pavement were true! We got a room to dry off and clean off the mud in Nambale, 4 miles from the border. The prices in Peru have been some of the best we have seen, $3 for both our lunches and $6 a night for a hotel! And the people are super friendly here as well.
We had a glorious next day climbing to San Ignacio on pavement, followed by a giant sweeping downhill into a wide open valley, bright green rice paddies with giant mountains in the backdrop. And where the road in southern Ecuador went straight over mountains, the road in Peru followed rivers and canyons allowing for pretty sweet biking grades. The scenery in Peru was a full day of fireworks and as the sun began to fade, we pulled over at a small cafe on the river to get dinner and ask the super nice couple, Jose and Melva, who owned the place if we could camp. They were kind enough to let us camp on the floor of the open air cafe (there was not a sole there) and I was able to play with their baby chicks that were running around the place. Awwwwwww cute. Melva made us a giant rice and eggs breakfast and waved us on our way. We had a a pretty chill 40 miles today, hot now that we have dropped down and are hovering around 2,000 ft., but enjoyed a stop at one of the many roadside fresh-squeezed juice stops, and arrived in the busy city of Jaen.
We checked into a nice hotel, $11. Got showers, food $3. Getting blogged up. And planning a day off tomorrow to rest, recharge, catch-up with parents, and then we do what we do, keep on keepin' on! Oh, and in case I forgot to tell, my parents, Mango and Magoo, have airplane tickets booked and are meeting us in Cusco, Peru mid-October. We are PUMPED to get some family love and to get to check out Machu Pichu with those two recently retired wackos! YAY! We recently connected with our good friend, John, who has opened the coolest and best bicycle shop in Bend, Project Bike, who will be our go-to shop for goods and is sending some much needed parts down with my parents. If there is anything anyone wants to get to us. Like, maybe a motor for my bike, a pony, or a Farrari, please get in touch with us or my parents and they can bring it when they come. All right ya'll, off to bed. Thanks for following and being a part of our journey!
Flying down a hill enjoying the bright green patchwork hills littered with black and white dairy cows and local farmers working the fields, when a streak of brown fur latched onto the back of Ville's shoe and clamped down hard. When Ville tried to shake it, it went for his heel. That's when Ville lost his temper...
Hey folks! Ville here, I'm giving K.G a break from writing so she can enjoy her ice-cream here in Cuenca, Ecuador. Like she declared in the last post, we did go hike the 2 mountains Pasochoa and Ruminahui and what a fun, exhausting time it was!
The first mountain, Pasochoa, we tackled around noon after heading east out of Quito with our good buddy Freddy. We reached the summit using a different route than most of the people climbing it use. Freddy is like 'The Godfather' in the mountains, and he knew a farmer who let us hike through his property. The farmer was excited to see Freddy again and we tipped him about the location of one his runaway cows. Both K.G and I were a bit worried about how our bodies would deal with the high elevation (4,200 meters / 13, 779 ft ) but were happy to discover that our bodies had already acclimatized after a week and a half in the high country. The entire way to the top and back Freddy explained us things about the local flora & fauna while we bombarded him with questions about his expeditions to mountains like Denali and Aconcagua. And when we arrived at the summit, the clouds parted for us to look down into the giant crater of lush green native plants.
After reaching the top and spending few minutes soaking in the views and taking pictures we headed down. Freddy had reserved us tent sites at a nice hostel in the foothills of Pasochoa Mountain. From the hostel we had great views of one of Ecuador's highest peaks Cotopaxi ( 5,897 m / 19, 347 ft ). A couple of years ago the mountain/volcano became active again so at the moment you can't climb to the top. It's not spewing lava, but it's creating some pretty dangerous gases that could kill the happy climber, similar gases can be found in one of the gas station toilets along the Pan American Highway.
The hostel price included all the meals, which were fantastic. We've been eating a lot of chicken, rice and beans lately so it was nice to get dishes like quiche and hamburgers. The next day we took off to summit Ruminahui ( 4,721m / 15,488ft ), unfortunately the first few hours of the climb we were inside the clouds and could not see more that 60 ft in front of us. After getting closer to the summit it started to clear more and now we could see more of the amazing views. Getting to the top required some scrambling and on the very top we were almost bouldering. Reaching the top felt pretty amazing, we were happy to be there with a great friend like Freddy whom we owe huge thanks to showing us around in his country and taking us to these places that without him we probably would've never seen.
Getting down the mountain proved out to be harder than getting up it, as some of you know I've had 5 surgeries done on my knees thanks to soccer/football so to say the least I was the slowest one coming down. After getting back to the hostel, Freddy and K.G headed to the natural water jacuzzi while I took a shower and studied the guidebooks for Peru.
The next day was a rude awakening getting back on the bikes and continuing South, the last few days of intense hiking had taken it's toll and we were hurting on the uphills. Luckily day by day the views were getting more and more amazing enabling us to to forget our achy legs. The towns and cities along the way were almost as beautiful as the surrounding landscape they were in. We stopped in places like Ambato and Cajabamba where we were definitely the only "Gringos" in town judging by the looks we got, the looks were not negative like a lot of the ones we got in Central America but more curious and friendly.
One of our favorite places between Quito and Cuenca was the small town of Cunchi where we got to enjoy some amazing views of the clouds below us and the sun setting behind the mountains. The downtown area was beautiful and the people extremely friendly. Al the these amazing views did not come for free, it's been constant up and down. Some hills are steeper and some more mellow graded but none of them are small, they're all 5-20 miles in length. To add to the work out, Mother Earth has given us some intense and cold headwinds to battle with complete with mist and rainshowers! Oh boy!
Now that I've told you guys all the positive things about Ecuador I have to be honest and say that the dogs have been the worst on the trip so far. There is a lot of them around, some of them are stray and some have a collar. The stray dogs don't seem to care too much about us, they might have gotten beaten up too many times that they seem pretty timid, or they are too busy scrounging for food to waste energy on us. The worst ones we have problems with are the ones from people's yards, a lot of the times they chase us and try to bite our tires or even worse, they jump in front of us when we are bombing 40 miles per hour downhill. Most of them are not small ones either since they are used as guard dogs, they don't look like they ever get petted or loved a lot, just thrown in the yard to guard the place. Man's best friend here is something else, not the cute mutt in the yard.
Yesterday we passed a house while slugging slowly uphill and a dog took off after us, in a few seconds it was biting the heel of my shoe and it had a pretty good hold of it. I freaked out because if it would've gotten hold of my Achilles heel with it's razor sharp rabies infested teeth that would've been the end of the trip for me. I kicked the dog the best I could once it lost it's hold but that only got him more angry. I stopped the bike and picked up a rock the size of my fist, as soon as I did this the dog started running back to the yard. I ran after it with fury, once I got inside the yard there was a small girl looking at me with eyes wide open and full of fear. I tried to explain to the girl that the dog attacked me and now it was time for him to learn a lesson about biting passing cyclists. The girl ran inside the house and left me standing in the yard feeling bad about it. The dog was standing in the doorway and I swear it was giving me the middle finger.
The rest of the day I carried 2-3 rocks at hand all the time, I'm planning to make a stick out of some limber sapling so I'm ready the next time when overly aggressive Lassie wants to chew my leg. We've seen all kinds of protective gear against the dogs among the cyclist that we've met, anything from pepper spray to a full size whip ( or maybe that was for the bedroom?)
We made it to Cuenca yesterday and we are planning to take couple of days off here. It seems so far like a really cool city, we've heard that there's a lot of retired Canadians and US citizens living here. Like Cuernavaca in Mexico and Medellin in Colombia, Cuenca is also called the city of eternal spring due to it's temperate climate. We're staying with a warmshowers host Jacobo who is originally from Venezuela, his place is on the outskirts of the city but there's an awesome bus system here so right now we're sitting in a cafe sipping coffee and telling stories to you fine folks. We're planning to continue south to Loja on Sunday and after Loja we're heading to the border of Peru. Right now our bodies are aching from all the climbing we did on and off the bikes here in Ecuador so we'll be taking it easy here in the eternal spring. Until next time, as Ron Burgundy says it " You stay classy San Diego!"
Ville couldn't refuse the opportunity to pluck one of the giant, wiggling, 4-inch-long live larvae from the bowl of squirming critters and stick it in his mouth, biting off the head, chewing the meat and swallowing it down alive...
Pasto, Colombia was a great stop for a couple days rest. We stayed at the Koala Hotel in downtown and although on the high end of our budget, the couple that own and run the place are incredibly kind and made some tasty pancakes complete with diced fruit to give us some extra juice to continue the climb south. We also met a super nice French couple, Leo and Virginie, whom we ended up riding on and off with on the next stretch to Quito, Ecuador.
Riding out of Pasto was a short long climb, followed by a gigantic easy, "whatcycling dreams are made of", downhill for 15 miles! Where Pasto was rainy, cold and chilly, we dropped all the way down to sunshine and some warm weather again. The road then climbed ever so slowly up along a meandering river in a deep gorge and we took in some stunning scenery the entire day to Ipiales. Ipiales was another crappy border town with not much to see but a place to sleep. We and the Frenchies woke up early and were at the border by 6:30 am only to find that the systems were down and with a gigantic line already waiting to get in or out of Colombia. For those not following the news, Venezuela is in a pretty chaotic state right now and two days prior to our arrival at the border, Colombia granted temporary visas to Venezuelans, making for a complete chaos at Immigration and a complete shut-down of the systems. Really sad and sorry for all the struggles the Venezuelan people are going through and have been struggling through! To lose everything you have worked so hard for in your life and to have your money so devalued you can't even buy food, is a very sad place to be for so many of these people.
After 5 hours of waiting in an ever increasingly agitated line, ONE AGENT WORKING even though there were 7 booths (inefficiency at it's finest), locked gates to keep the hoards of people outside until they could be filtered into the line, we made it to the front of the line and got stamped out of Colombia. Yipee! And biked about 100 yards to the Ecuadorian Immigration were we were stamped into Ecuador in about 2 minutes. Loving Ecuador already. From the border we could already tell the roads were amazing, multiple lanes, recently paved, and decent biking grades. We stopped at the first overpriced restaurant we could find to get lunch together and then pushed on up the hill passing rolling hills of green checkerboard pastures littered with colorful cows. It was beautiful, very similar to the countryside in France the Frenchies said.
First night in Ecuador we spent in San Gabriel, a decent sized little town high in the mountains with a cute central square, beautiful old buildings and a long walking street market. With the change in elevation (hovering around 9,000 ft/ 2,750 meters roughly), we have been biking in pants, layers and rain jackets for the mist, but very much enjoying the biking in cooler temps. Nights drop in temps enough to get to sport our new puffy jackets (we picked up warmer puffies in Bend to tackle the Andies). From San Gabriel we continued southwest through some beautiful misty countryside and even had the return of pretty extreme winds (we haven't had wind like this since Baja!). As Ibarra came into view, we were confused but excited that the elevation chart must have been wrong because we were almost in town and had a decent day of riding, until the road took a sharp left turn into a switchback and we began to climb. Luckily, the climbs in Ecuador have been really easy grades with switchbacks so far and we were in Ibarra earlier than planned. Debating to push on, we decided to get a room and have time to put our feet up and relax a bit before pushing on.
From Ibarra we had a very scenic and easy day of oscillating hills where we came around a turn to see Cayambe's snow-capped Mountain reaching into the clear blue skies. We find ourselves stopping constantly to get pictures or video of the scenery here in Ecuador it's so beautiful. In the early afternoon we passed Otavalo, a small town in the Andean highlands surrounded by volcanoes and where traditionally clad indigenous twonspeople sell colorful textiles and handicrafts. We stopped and sat to have some coffee while the world walked by, but are always so sad to not have the room/space to buy anything to pack along. Somehow , with the roads easy riding and the climbs easier to tackle than Colombian roads, we managed to get all the way to Guayllabamba, one long climb (and only 15 miles) away from Quito.
With an early start, we pushed the long, slow climb to Quito and met our good friend Freddy, whom we met just before beginning this bike ride from Alaska to Argentina, in Myanmar while traveling. What a great feeling to see an old friend after so long on the road! Freddy took us to his beautiful home right in the heart of the city and convinced us to drop our stuff and head with him on an adventure. Freddy is one of the oldest and most fantastic trekking/mountaineering guides from Quito (http://sierranevada.ec/en/home), and who has traveled all over the country and world climbing mountains. Freddy had to drive over 5 hours to the Amazon to pick up some students and bring them back to the city, but had a great plan for us to drive up into the mountains to Papallacta where there was hot springs to soak and stay the night in a hotel, then continue to Puerto Misahualli the next morning to pick up the students in the Amazon and drive back to the city together. And who is not more down for a fun adventure than these two wackos?!
First, we headed out of the city to drop down an insanely steep road into a ravine, cross a river and then climb all the way up to 12,000 ft over the Andean Pass and then dropped down to a beautiful lake where we found a hotel with thermal pools in back all to ourselves to relax and soak our soar muscles. The next morning, surrounded by the Andes, we could see Cotopaxi covered in pure white snow towering high above us. Back in the car, we dropped far down along the river and eventually turned up another highway climbing up and winding into the cloud forest. Having loads of rain, many places in the road had been previously washed away or were still scattered with debris. Lucky for us, Freddy is a sure-footed driver and we dropped back down as the heat and humidity of the Amazon Jungle engulfed us.
In Puerto Misahualli, we stopped for a quick lunch and to stretch our legs, where one of the local ladies was selling giant LIVE larvae to eat. Apparently a local delicacy, Ville couldn't refuse to try something that crazy, and picked one out of the bowl of squirming, wiggling 4 inch long critters and popped it into his mouth! I was so disgusted by them, I try a lot of things, but there was no way I was going to eat one of those! I took the video instead. We managed to find the two students, pack up their things, and back up the way we came we headed, arriving back in Quito around 7 pm for a walk around the hood, a bite to eat, and crash.
While soaking in the hot springs, Freddy had mentioned he really wanted to get to go do some hiking with us while we are here, and so this morning we laid out some plans. We are planning to leave tomorrow morning up to the El Boliche National Recreation Area to hike and summit Pasochoa Mountain (4,200 meters/ 13,779 ft.) and then camp at the base of Cotopaxi, summitting Ruminahui Mountain (4,721 meters/ 15,488 ft) the next day. From there we will get ourselves back to the Panamerican Highway and continue south towards Cuenca, which will be our next planned stop. Freddy has to come back to Quito for an appointment, but is hoping to meet us on the road with his bike to bike a few days with us. Very excited to have such a fantastic friend in Ecuador wanting to show us his beautiful country! If you have any interest in outdoor adventures in Ecuador or beyond, we very highly recommend Freddy at Sierra Nevada Expeditions (his website). Until next time ya'll keep on keepin' on...
K.G. & Ville
On a cruise ship, heading north up the west coast to Los Angeles.
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!” - Hunter S. Thompson
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