30 June 2014

Cuenca to La Balsa: a steep farewell to Ecuador

We enjoyed a few days off in the touristy, and car infested (but still somehow pleasant) town of Cuenca before heading South and into the last leg of riding in Ecuador. We were headed for the border crossing at La Balsa, a relatively remote crossing that many Ecuadorians have never heard of. Our last week in Ecuador seemed to encompass all that had come before it: high passes, heavy rain, colonial towns, beautiful countryside, thick mud, and climbs so steep we all had to push. There's no denying it was tough, but it was a great way to say goodbye to Ecuador.

Leaving Cuenca through the quiet road South via Tarquí
We waited in Cuenca while Alberto recovered from yet another stomach bug which made him very tired, and stocked up on supplies, as this was our last big city for quite some time. After taking quiet roads to leave the Cuenca area, our foursome rejoined the Pana, which was surprisingly very quiet.

Scenic and quiet roads leaving Cuenca

On our first night out of Cuenca we camped behind some roadworks, and overnight awoke to the now-too-familiar sound of rain on our tents. It seemed we could hardly get a day without rain in Ecuador (but then, the countryside is lovely and green everywhere). After making it through the rainy top of the pass we stopped in the town of Susudel to make some sandwiches by the roadside and ended up with a group of 5 or so kids who were very curious about us and our trip.

We enjoyed a long descent into a valley and then began climbing up the other side, stopping in the town of El Tablon where we asked if there was anywhere we could camp. We were offered the covered, stage-like area overlooking the basketball court, and could use the police station's bathrooms all through the night. Luxury camping, and very welcome when it started raining again as we cooked dinner.

El Tablón luxury camp

Miraculously in the morning there were clear skies, and we set out to continue the steady climb with great visibility for once! We descended to Saraguro for lunch, a really nice-looking town where the indigenous people are actually from Bolivia – they were forcibly moved to southern Ecuador by the Incas. It seemed like a nice place to spend a half day off but in the end we decided to take advantage of the sunshine and carry on.

Leaving Saraguro the scenery improved, and this time we even had clear skies!

Even though this was still officially the Pana, we had the road all to ourselves
Passing through the small settlement of Ramos we spotted a school, complete as usual with covered area and running water. It being Saturday, it seemed the perfect spot to camp – even if we were still somewhat traumatized from our last experience camping at a school. We asked at the nearby tienda if it would be ok, and were assured that it was fine. Alas, no sooner had we set up the tents than the entire town started to show up for their weekly football match. Everyone was friendly and we enjoyed talking to the locals (most of whom had lived in Spain), but it wasn't exactly the quiet night we were hoping for.

The following morning we descended to San Luis on our second day of sun in a row! There, we finally turned off the Pana onto a beautiful dirt road which took us all the way in to Loja, through a river canyon and helpfully avoiding some of the climbing that the main route takes in. 

A quiet and flatter way into Loja - turn off the main road in San Luis and follow the dirt road all the way

The busy market in Loja provided some yummy breakfast - morocho (a sweet milky drink with spices and corn) and deep fried empanadas

From Loja we arrived in the infamous Gringolandia of Vilcabamba in the early afternoon. We had real fears of an exaggeratedly touristy place with prices to match, but luckily ran into a couple of Argentinian cycle tourists heading North who told us of a cheap hotel outside of town.

El Chino´s bike shop in Vilcabamba had some basic bike parts, and some cool bike art

Sunset in Vilcabamba
Leaving Vilcabamba, we climbed our last big pass of Ecuador. As per usual in Ecuador, the rain and fog rolled in as we got higher up, and we made the decision to descend until the weather improved or we found good shelter. The shelter appeared first, in the form of a small building that seems like it is used as a resting point for tours visiting the nearby Podocarpus National Park. We made ourselves at home for the night.

After leaving Vilcabamba we headed back up to the high mountains one last time

The perfect shelter at 3600 m
In the morning we continued our descent, first in fog but then in bright sunshine, on a stunning road down into the rainforest. A resupply stop in the first village we passed turned into a longer break as Marc discovered not one but FOUR broken spokes on his back wheel. Soon we were back rolling towards the border, until the pavement ran out just before the town of Palanda.

Early morning fog treated us to views of the lower valley

After a long descent, we set out to fix Marc´s broken spokes with the help of a local kid
Then we tackle some river crossings (photo by Noemie and Marc)

And multiple obras
Eventually the road will be paved, but for now the roadworks churn up terrible, impossibly sticky mud – thankfully not for too many kilometers. After Palanda, the road, while still muddy, was passable. There was almost nowhere to wild camp, so we were resolved to find somewhere to sleep in the first village we passed. Luckily, this route is popular enough with cyclists that the locals in the small settlement called Canada were not too shocked to see us. They opened up the church for us to sleep in and let us use their drinking water. There was also a hose of water coming down from the mountain above which we happily used to wash the worst of the mud off our legs—only later to learn that it was actually runoff from a fish farm located above the village! Yuck!

Struggling with the mud

Lucy reports that the mud surface was very comfortable to fall on

Despite the conditions, the scenery was amongst the best of Ecuador
The next morning was Lucy's birthday. Celebrations kicked off with crumbling some Oreo-type cookies into our oatmeal in the morning. The road continued to be tough, with plenty of rain thrown into the mix, but the views were spectacular and the feeling of isolation incredible. We arrived to the town of Zumba, last town of any size before the border, in time for a late lunch, but ultimately decided to stay the night rather than push on in the late afternoon. Plus, it meant we could cook a nice birthday dinner.

Mud, rain, and massive landslides

At times, it felt like we were in the jungle!

Hard to believe this roads leads to an international border crossing

To celebrate Lucy´s birthday, Alberto treated himself to a massive sopa de bagre (local river fish)

Zumba´s main plaza features an interesting mosquito-ant mutant sculpture
The next day we were glad to have waited in Zumba overnight. The final 25 kilometers to the border took us four hours. We were all reduced to pushing the bikes more than once, and even the final downhill to the border was slow on account of the poor road surface. Arriving into Balsas close to lunchtime, we got our exit stamps from Ecuador, changed some dollars into soles at a restaurant, and walked across the bridge into Peru. 

The last 25 km out of Ecuador proved to be some of the toughest - we all pushed, even super-human Marc

Perú´s mountains salute us from across the valley

Ecuador waves us goodbye - after about 1800 km and more than 40.000 m of climbing!
Getting the Peruvian entry stamp was a different story, that ended with us looking all around town for the border officer and eventually tracking him down by standing outside his home and yelling. After he kindly gave us a 6-month tourist visa, we saw him close the border office at 2 pm (officially opened till 6 pm) before he sped off in a mototaxi with a woman.  

Welcome to Peru!  
Route notes:

- Cuenca to Loja: there´s a few quiet roads to the South of town towards Tarquí, where we rejoined the Pana. From there to San Luis it wasn´t too busy, and from San Luis, there´s an excellent quiet dirt roads that takes you all the way into Loja. Turn left at the bridge just after San Luis or ask the locals.

- Loja to Palanda: it is currently (as of June 2014) all paved. It wasn´t as quiet as we would have expected, with plenty of trucks and a small shoulder. A couple of cycle tourers informed us of an alternative dirt road that appears to the left just after passing the official entrance to the Podocarpus National Park, about 10 km out of Loja. This dirt road goes most of the way to Vilcambamba. The bad mud starts just before Palanda.

- Palanda to La Balsa: we found thick mud before and after Palanda, but this depends on the amount of rain the area gets. We hardly had to push due to mud, but expect plenty of it all the way to the border, if wet. Zumba is a relatively big town with restaurants and accommodation, as well as minimarkets. From there to the border at La Balsa there is not much, except a few steep climbs. Once entering Perú, ask the locals if the border officer is not as his post - they will point you in the direction of his house!

03 June 2014

Latacunga to Cuenca via Chimborazo and Lagunas de Atillo: Rainy skies and tough dirt rides

It was a relief to arrive in Latacunga after the tough route in the high mountains. We had a half day off there, and met up with some distant relatives of Alberto. The following day's two hour ride on the Panamerican highway to Ambato was enough to remind us that we get no enjoyment out of riding on busy highways and that we would always prefer to suffer extra hills or unpaved roads than to ride on the Pana. Luckily there were others there to share our pain (and make us more visible to the cars) as we rode in a fivesome with Marc, Noemie, and Rafa. 

The Lana's family welcomed us in Latacunga

In Ambato we headed for the Casa de Ciclistas, run by Leonardo. It was a bit of a weird atmosphere there and none of us really were able to relax the way you would hope for in a Casa de Ciclistas, but it wasn't a big deal because we weren't planning to spend much time there. We took a bus to the tourist trap of Baños for the day, where we enjoyed a well-needed soak in the thermal baths, and the next morning we were off again, headed for the highest volcano in Ecuador, Chimborazo. 

Lucy and Noemie enjoy a soak in the thermal baths... the stylish headpeices were a reqirement, but they came in handy a few days later in the pouring rain! Meanwhile Alberto and Marc snoozed away...
Leaving Ambato, we stopped at a bike shop and the girls each got early birthday presents in the form of new cycling jerseys. We faced a stiff climb to leave town, although later the gradient improved a bit and we were able to climb comfortably into the afternoon sunshine. With the road climbing up the side of the mountain, we were lucky to find a spot of flat land just big enough to fit three tents to spend the night. 

We left Ambato as a group of five. Here Rafa leads the way up the steep hills on the Ambato-Guaranda road

We've seen strange advertisements on our tour, but this one won them all.

200 m off of the main road and we found the perfect camp spot, perched at 3500 m

Rafa, with his heavy load, was following behind, so we found a way of letting him know where we were
 The next morning we headed towards Chimborazo, catching glimpses every now and then, although the top stayed in the clouds. As we turned off for Ecuador's highest paved road (4400m), the weather deteriorated and instead of close-up views of the volcano we instead were focusing on trying to see through the thick fog and rain and trying not to get blown over by the wind. Once over the top of the pass, we set up camp in the first sheltered spot we could find and hoped the weather would clear so that we could enjoy the volcano. Marc braved the elements to make us all a hot drink, but afterwards we all ate cold dinners rather than get back out into the weather. 

Our first glimpse of Chimborazo

Having lunch, using our bikes as wind-shelters

About to go around the West side of Chumborazo, still covered in clouds

The Chimborazo has a fauna reserve, mainly to protect and breed vicuñas, a more stylish relative of the llama

We got a brief glimpse of Chimborazo in the morning before the fog and clouds rolled in and we descended to Riobamba in a cold wind. We arrived in Riobamba at around 11am and checked into a hospedaje for an afternoon of rest.

At down we were gifted with an almost full view. Chimborazo at 6310 m.
And here our scenic, if cold and windy, campspot

As we were descending towards Riobamba, we passed this finca with tremendous views

Riobamba is a charming town and we enjoyed seeing the colonial architecture as we went around town doing errands

Our hospedaje in Riobamba afforded great views of the volcano...if there had been no clouds that is!
From Riobamba our foursome (Rafa having been behind the weather system in Chimborazo) set off on some dirt roads that would take us a good portion of the way to Cuenca while avoiding the Pana.  We set off from Riobamba on a quiet, paved road and climbed most of the day, finding a quiet place to camp just a few kilometers before the town of Atillo.

Couldn't have been a quieter road
As we were descending towards Cebadas we came across a group of four French cyclists coming from Cordoba, Argentina, and heading to Quito. The impromptu touring cyclist convention on the side of the road was obviously not a common sight for the children of the surrounding farms, and we developed an audience of curious kids as we exchanged notes on the route ahead.

We woke up to rain and a stiff headwind, and by the time we had climbed 6km we called a second breakfast in a roadside restaurant. We waited for a few hours to see if the weather would improve, and seriously considered stopping for the night at the attached hospedaje, but the rain had lightened up considerably so we decided to head towards the main attraction of this part of the route, the Lagunas de Atillo. 

While waiting for the weather to improve we began some route planning for Peru... so close and yet so far away.
We reached the lakes at lunchtime and with the weather remaining unstable we decided against climbing to 4000m on a dirt road. The restaurant and campsite next to the lake didn't appear to be in operation (perhaps only on weekends), but we found a great unlocked building to pitch inside – which we were very grateful for overnight when the rain came down extremely hard. 

The lagunas de Atillo were stunning, and reminded us very much of Scotland

If you continued on the empty road past the lagunas de Atillo, possibly one of the most scenic in Ecuador, you would find yourself on a big 2800 m descent to the Oriente and the town of Macas. This time of the year we heard there were landslides past 9 de Octubre, so best to check with the locals if you are taking this route.

Our very fancy house for the night

After a full night of heavy rains we were sure there was no water left in the sky to fall on us during the day.We backtracked to Atillo where we took the dirt road up the hill and through small villages to eventually connect us to the Pana again. We were warned that the road got very muddy, but nothing could prepare us for the conditions we found once at the top of the hill. A 5km stretch was covered in mud so thick that we could barely walk, mud that was simultaneously sticky and slippery beyond all belief. We struggled to push our bikes through this for the best part of the morning, before finally conditions improved to a road reminiscent of a cyclocross route.

Rio Atillo and Atillo in the background (only a few houses!) as we climbed towards Poca Totoras and Osogochi

Then the fun began

If pushing up a hill wasn't hard enough, we each got some extra weight

There was a car parked on the far end of Poca Totoras, good news as it meant that the next section should at least by driveable! We enjoyed a quick descent with minimal mud to slightly-less-tiny Osogochi, where we found a tienda with some much-needed calorie supplements in the form of crackers and soft drinks (and not much else). The road conditions continued to improve on the climb up the next ridge, and just before the town of Totoras we hit beautiful pavement. 

Arriving in the tiny village of Poca Totoras we spotted a house with a flowing hose of water and gave the bikes a good washing, to the amusement of the local kids

The conveniently placed streatm crossing past Osogochi helped us clean our muddy shoes

Totoras was the biggest town we had seen since leaving Cebadas two days before, and we had high hopes of finding somewhere indoors to stay as we were all feeling a bit beaten by the tough day. We descended into the village to buy supplies (thankfully the stores were better stocked here) and were informed there were touristic cabins back up at the top of the hill we had just come down. So back up we climbed, to an entrance to Sangay National Park, where there were indeed cabins but no park rangers to unlock them for us. We set up camp in the shelter of the cabins, and went to sleep just as another rainstorm came through.

No staff so free camping for the night!
In the morning, we finally had sunny skies as we set off for the 26km dirt road to Achupallas. We were treated to stunning, ever-changing views as we skirted the side of the ridge. We were in high spirits as we arrived in Achupallas, where we were sure we could find a restaurant to serve us a proper almuerzo. This proved to be much harder than anticipated though, and in the end after a quick snack we took the crazy paved descent back to the Pana at La Moya, where we finally found a restaurant and ate one of the most satisfying meals of the trip. 

Climbing away from Totoras (3800 m) and looking back at the hill we had come over the previous day

Pure cycle touring gold

We took a break to build a diorama demonstrating the farmlands of Ecuador. (Just kidding, it´s a normal photograph).

Then started the descent towards Achupallas
Plenty of property for sale in rural Ecuador

The town of Achupallas was a welcome sight after a few days' riding through tiny villages. No restaurant had almuerzos for us, so a random Spaniard, visiting his wife's family there, recommended to descend to the Pana.
The Pana was not nearly as busy as we had worried about and we enjoyed some good views and fast riding to Chunchi, where we found a hospedaje to finally clean the mud off our bodies. We set off the next day into sunshine, but as we climbed the fog rolled in and by the time we descended into Zhud for lunch we were wet and cold. 

Lucy vs. mountain on the 15 km fast descent to La Moya
Traffic picked up after Zhud (where the road from Guayaquil joins), so we were happy to take the newly-paved turnoff to Ingapirca. Although Ingapirca hosts the most important Incan ruins in Ecuador, there weren't many options for hotels and we ended up in a pretty crappy one for more than we wanted to pay. We were glad to be inside though when the rain started coming down overnight again. 

We were grateful for our hi-viz vests and lights in the fog
The rain still hadn't let up in the morning, so we decided against paying to walk around in the rain at the ruins, and settled for seeing them from outside of the entrance. After climbing up to the Pana on a dirt-road shortcut, we bundled up for a freezing descent to Cuenca in the rain and fog. After plenty of hard riding and harsh weather, we were ready for some days off.

The ruins of Ingapirca, seen from afar

Route notes:

-  Latacunga to Ambato: The Pana is miserable, and due to construction works, it narrows down to one lane several times. There are alternative roads on either side of it, that we did not take, but wish we would have.

- Ambato to Riobamba via Chimborazo: we took the main Ambato-Guaranda road to the turnoff that goes to the refugios del Chumborazo, but it turns out there was another, quieter, road. You can take it also from Ambato, it is called the Antigua Via Flores, which drops you about 3 km to the turnoff of the road to the refugios. After the first few villages near Ambato where the road climbs steeply, there's limited re-supplying and more traffic that we had anticipated (though it doesn't feel unsafe). There's plenty of wildcamping around. Once on the road to the refugios (signposted for Riobamba), traffic minimizes and the climbing continues to 4400 m. The descent to Riobamba is quiet, and after a short stretch of the Panam, you reach the centre of town.

- Riobamba to La Moya (on the Pana): in order to avoid the Pana to Cuenca, there's at least two options. Having decided against going to Macas (Oriente) and back up to the Cordillera in Loja, we took notes from the excellent Big Sur blog, and set off on the dirt road route between Atillo, Poca Totoras, Osogochi, Totoras, and Achupallas. The Big Sur blog  has great information on distances and road conditions, though we had more rain than them and therefore more mud. Cebadas has a couple of restaurants, and two supermarkets, and is the last proper town before Chunchi, for more than basic supplies.

In Atillo there's a hospedaje ($7 per person) just after the town proper, and a few restaurants. But if you continue 8 km to the lagunas, there's great wild camping, or like we did, a semi abandoned (during the week at least) tourist complex with empty buildings. The dirt road starts from Atillo (Punto Cero) and once on the top of the climb we encountered ankle deep mud for some 5 km, which made for some hard pushing 2 hours. Once in Poca Totoras the trail improved and we got back in the saddle. Osagochi had a couple of  very basic shops. The trail then climbs to almost 4000 m before dropping to Totoras, where there's a few better supplied shops. From Totoras you can either take a direct road back to the Pana (but taking you back more North than necessary), or continue to Achupallas, on a 25 km up and down dirt road. Achupallas had a couple of basic shops and, apparently, a very good hospedaje in the fanciest looking house in town. There are a few restaurants but none were open for lunch mid-week unless you had ordered food in advance or were happy to wait around for a wile. The 15 km descent down to the Pana is best done in the morning according to the locals - afternoon thick fog rolls in most of the days. The descent is paved but with plenty of debris in the road it needs to be done with care.

- La Moya to Cuenca: The road is very quiet and for most of the time had a good shoulder. Traffic picks up after Zhud but the shoulder remains. We took  the (newly paved) turnoff to Ingapirca at Tambo. We struggled to find any decent and cheap accommodation in Ingapirca - we stayed at the hospedaje just in front of the ruins, the cheapest we could find ($7.5 per person), but possibly one of the worst of our whole trip.

From Ingapirca, the road continues down for 2 km, then a good dirt road (even in the rain) appears on the left, which takes you up all the way back to the Pana (at 3500 m) cutting both distance and climbing from the more obvious paved road which drops you at Cañar.

The Pana descends abruptly towards the town of Biblian, where a newer and faster highway can take you to Cuenca. We stuck to the old highway (not signposted for Cuenca but it does go there!), all the way in to Cuenca, and found it more bearable, with no trucks and slower moving traffic. Traffic in Cuenca was heavy and fast, so best to avoid the rush hour, as in any other big city.

All our route is now updated and can be downloaded as a gpx.