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|
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|
|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|
- 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.
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.