Cuenca, Ecuador

I arrived in Cuenca early Saturday afternoon, though really shouldn’t have arrived until yesterday or today. Here’s what has happened the last week or so. I’ve had more than plenty of time to write an overly detailed account.

In Latacunga, Greg, Dylan and I say goodbye, we’re all headed to Baños but each at our own pace. An O-ring on my stove has split, and the replacement one does the same after a few days of use so I send an email to the stove company asking if they can send parts to Cuenca. I leave Latacunga at noon, and the rain makes me almost call it a day a few miles outside of town. But it isn’t too hard, so I keep on. This is the first time since Costa Rica that I’ve biked alone.

There are signs for a back route to Baños (via Pillaro and Patate), so I decide to check it out. A mile up the hill, a delivery truck stops me and strongly warns me about the road ahead. Later I would look a topo map and see that it indeed would have gone up and down the sides of several valleys, so I’m glad I turn around and get back on the Panamerican.

It is still early in the afternoon when I arrive at the outskirts of Amabato, so I decide to keep going and take the road around instead of going through the center. This drops several miles into a gorge, and the climb back out of it is very slow. Several more small towns and the drizzle starts again. I know it is a long descent to Banos, and descents are never enjoyed in cold wet weather, so I stay the night in Pelileo.

On TV is a Mexican movie that takes place in the Sierra Tarahumara. The movie opens with a family taking the ChePe train up to Creel. The dad works for the saw mills that are stripping away the hillsides. His young son befriends a Tarahumara boy. The Tarahumara son and dad are going on a trek into the canyons, and invite the city boy along.  They teach him about nature and their traditions, and see a bear. So wonderfully 1980s, so wonderfully Mexican, but I fall asleep before the end.

In the morning, on my way out to find a bakery, the manager asks if I’m not leaving yet. I tell him no, I still need to find breakfast and pack, and that I was told check out time was at noon. He kindly asks if I can leave any earlier, the whole hotel is booked for the town’s patron saint celebration, and all the rooms need to be ready for the various dignitaries coming into town.

The 15 miles to Baños go quickly. On my way down into the valley I pass a couple on touring bikes, but am going too fast to stop and find out who they are.

After two plates of llapingachos in the food market (cheesy potatoes with fried eggs and sausage), I run into Greg on the street, he’s made it from Latacunga in one day. I spend the afternoon talking to taxi driver, food vendors, police and tour operators about the road to Riobamba. It follows the base of Volcano Tungurahua and has been in various states of disrepair for the better part of the last decade. Some say it is completely blocked off, so I ask how the folks of the small towns in the area get around. Oh, maybe it is open after all. Other folks say it should be passable on a bike, I ask when the last time they saw it with their own eyes was. Not before the most recent mudslides. I’m sure I could get through, but it might be a very muddy and dangerous affair.

My only option if I want to stay in the mountains is backtrack to Pelileo or Ambato and take the main highway, but I hate to backtrack. Plus, Greg is headed down to the Amazon, and I start considering the possibility of going with him. The mountains in Ecuador have been kind of a let down in that it has been cloudy and rainy, even though it is supposedly the drier season. The famed snow caps have failed to make many appearances, and I decide that if it is going to rain on me I might as well be in a warmer climate and change up the scenery a little.

Later that evening Greg and I head to the thermal pools, which give the town its name. It is Saturday during holiday season so the place is packed with tourists, nationals and foreigners alike.  Baños reminds me of Pigeon Forge in Tennessee or Navy Pier in Chicago, it is a town for tourists. The streets are lined with tour operators, buggy rentals, and restaurants with bilingual menus. Signs advertise jungle treks, bungee jumps, hotels, massages and laundry services in awful English. I seek refuge once again in the food market, a place where tourists don’t venture into. Why pay $1.50 for a plate of llapingachos when you can buy bad pizza for much more? I spend the day researching the Amazon route and getting groceries.

Greg and I head to Puyo, about 50 miles ride. Several times the main road heads through tunnels, but bikes are forbidden, but the old road goes around the side of the valley and cars don’t head this way so it is rather pleasant. Some illwill ambassadors ride by in a truck and the passenger throws an orange at me. It hits me in the back and stings pretty good. Greg is just a ways up ahead, and I shout out to warn him about these guys even though he can’t hear me. They toss something at him as well, the chase is on. A few minutes later I get to the next town, and I catch a glimpse of the back of the truck again, it has slowed down for the speed bumps, but I don’t see Greg, so I know he’s gotten ahead of them. They’re surprised when they see Greg again, Greg is merciful and makes sure not to break any windows.

The valley eventually opens up and as far as your eyes can see is the jungle. This is the Amazon basin, no longer boxed in by the mountains in every direction. Puyo is much much bigger than I had imagined and the center of town not straightforward to find. I haven’t seen Greg since the orange tossers, so wait in the main square, the obvious place to run into him, and he rolls in a few minutes later.

We find a hotel, food and internet. The stove company has already sent a package to Cuenca via DHL, it should be there soon. Now that means I have to get back up to the mountains. I was just about to email them and ask if they will instead send the package to somewhere in Peru, I’m still a few weeks away from there so that would give it more than enough time in case of any delays.

We watch the highlight show for the Tour de France. It is the first time I’ve watched the Tour for more than 5 minutes, and it is good to have Greg there to explain the intricacies of bike racing. In the morning the mountain stage is on and so we can’t leave until it is over. A little bit of teflon tape wrapped around where the O-ring should be means my stove is back in business, so I’m not without my mandatory morning coffee.

We don’t get going until very late in the morning, and the 80 miles to Macas seems a little far for such a short day. But having watched the pros that morning means we’re stoked and the miles roll be easily. The road is quiet and newly paved. The weather is warm, but sweat isn’t rolling down my arms, and it is rather enjoyable. We eat lunch at the Pastaza river halfway to Macas, rest up a little in the hammocks and don’t get going again until after 3. We know we’ll get into Macas after dark, but are determined to get there.

As the sun sets, I take my eyes off the road to take a look to the right, the west. The clouds have cleared and the ridge of the Andes are out. I’m at 3,000 feet (1,000 m), and over there is Volcano Sangay, 17,000 feet (5,200 m). We stop to take pictures and right then Sangay lets out a puff of smoke. All in all a great day.

From Macas we head to Mendez, again the road is in very good condition and very quiet. The ups and downs a little more pronounced than the day before. We pass a pickup truck with the hood open, the driver waves me over. He shows me the steel cable running from the cabin, it is damaged somehow and he wants to know if I have one like it. I’ve been carrying an shifter cable since Whitehorse, Canada, it is thinner than the truck’s cable, but the guy thinks it will do the trick. He offers to pay, I just ask for a picture in return.

Macas is a town at the junction of the Troncal Amazonica, the road that runs north-south in the jungle and the Transversal Austral, a road that heads up to Cuenca and over to the coast. I had a nice detour in the jungle, and heard the road gets bad further south headed to Zamora, and besides, I need to get the package in Cuenca, so I part ways with Greg once again.

[Click here for Greg's account of the Amazon route]

I knew I was in for a challenge, the few cyclists’ reports about the road made it seem tough. Greg talked to some travellers that said it took them 6 hours to travel the 100 miles down from Cuenca. I figure I’ll take it easy and spread the 100 miles over 3 days.  When I leave Mendez the sign said 165km to Cuenca (though maybe it should have said 185). The math says the chunk missing on the ITMB map would be 40km to Amaluza… good target for day one. After 4 hours of pedaling mostly standing up, averaging 5mph I’m exhausted and all I see is the road continue to climb the side of the steep gorge. Some guy walking on the road says “2 hours to Amaluza by car”. I camp for the night in a gravel lot by a house.

Day two… Amaluza is close, right? Surely I can get there and then maybe make it to Sevilla de Oro later that day. After all, the road on the map stays within one elevation color, it must just follow the river up the valley. I stop in front of a maintenance station and ask a worker how many kilometers to Amaluza. He stares at me blankly, so a few seconds later I ask again. This prompts a head scratch, but still, no response at all. He stares for a little longer, I say thanks and keep on.

At some point the road turns into gravel. I talk to the girl at the yogurt stand, a Spanish cyclist had spent the night there only a few days ago. She said he said the same thing, the climbing is the worst he’s done, supposedly he’s been on the road for over 2 years. Who is this guy?

4 hours of pedaling and again this time an average of 5.4 mph gets me to Amaluza. That makes a total of 40 miles, 65 km in two days. In a moment of weakness that I’ll probably regret later, I get on a bus to Paute. From the looks of things, it could have easily taken me another 2 days to make it those 50 miles. Either up or down, the road curves in and out at every waterfall.  I have no idea what the folks who aid the road gets flat ahead were thinking.

I spend the bus ride thinking about my decision. Surely I’ve had stretches of road much worse than this? The ride in Panama from Almirante over to the Pacific, the day between Huehuetenango to Xela, or from Ciudad Quesada over to Alajuela in Costa Rica come to mind. But at the end of those days I had gone much farther than 20 miles, and never before on the trip had I averaged less than 6 miles an hour, much less two days in a row. It wasn’t that I was unable to bike any further (though I don’t think my knees would have liked too much more standing up all day). I think it was more that I became bored, impatient, anxious and frustrated with such lack of progress.

Getting a ride on a bus is a slippery slope, now that I’ve done it once, will I find it more difficult to resist the temptation again? I justify it in a way, after all my detour into the Amazon meant that I’ve biked more miles overall than if I had just headed straight to Cuenca from Latacunga. But if I’ve given in now, do I stand a chance with the tough roads awaiting in Peru and Bolivia? For know I just try not be too hard on myself, and tell myself to remember this the next time I think about getting a ride.

I check the DHL status in Paute, it says the package has been in Guayaquil for the past 3 days with a “Clearance Delay”, which I guess is a nice way of saying stuck in customs hell. Another reason to regret riding the bus, I’ll be in Cuenca and the package may still be days or weeks away from delivery.

I leave Paute the next morning , the busy traffic resumes as I get close to Cuenca. The riding is slow, my legs are tired, but I also feel sore in my arms after balancing on the handlebars while standing up on the bike the past few days. It is drizzling and in for a second I loose my concentration and ride into the shoulder, and try to get back on to the road. But my front tire won’t grip the ridge of pavement and the bike slides out from under me and I roll over onto the road. Fortunately no one runs me over.

By the time I find a place to stay in Cuenca (on a street called Benigno Malo, which I think is humorous name) it is still early on a Saturday afternoon and the DHL website says they have location open. I know the package isn’t here but I at least want to talk to someone and get an idea of what I’m up against. I write down the address, it is Av Americas 6-118. I came into the city on Av Americas, a main road, so I know where it is. Surely this will be easy to find. I walk up to Americas and I’m at address 4-134 or something. Going west the next block goes to 4-82 or something, then 5-842. The numbers make no sense to me, I’m running out of time, so flag a cab.

He has no idea where the number would be, I ask him if they don’t go in some sort of sensible order. Of course not. How anyone gets pizzas delivered or ambulances called in Ecuador’s third largest city I have no idea. I give him the corner street and he radios his pals for a few minutes, until someone radios back. The intersection is a ways out and it will cost me $3 dollars.

Finally we get to the intersection, but the 6-118 is no where to be seen, just the cross street, and I don’t see any DHL sign. He’s as fed up with me asking why we can’t just go to 6-118 as I am with his boozy breath covered up by mint gum. So I pay, get out, and take a bus back into downtown for $0.25.

The historic center is dead on Saturday evening, it seems that only one in 20 storefronts are open, even more so on Sunday. This makes procuring butter an issue, even in the large stores everyone only has margarine. I spend my time walking around aimlessly, in between bouts of catching up on cable reality TV. For almost the past 4 months I’ve been travelling with other cyclists, so the solitude is something to get used to. The company was a good to have, but for now I’ll have to take advantage of the change of pace, I’ll run into more cyclists again sooner or later.

It is Monday morning and Cuenca has come back to life. The DHL office says that they can’t release the package from Guayaquil until I approve and pay the customs charges on the package. It could be here as early as Tuesday. I worry about how much it will cost. Originally I had asked Optimus to just send me new O-rings, but the kindly sent a whole new pump as well, which may end up costing me more than I bargained for. But looking down the road ahead, it may not be a bad thing to have a backup pump.

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