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!

1 comment:

  1. That's quite a police slogan on the side of the Migracion station!