Cycling days 142-149: Ibarra to Cuenca

Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
Trip End Jan 19, 2012

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Flag of Ecuador  , Azuay,
Sunday, May 15, 2011

We have put a lot of cycling work since our last blog entry. First we changed hemisphere in Cayambe, which means that the water spins the other way when we flush the toilet :-). Next we cycled 575km since Ibarra in 6-1/2 days climbing and descending a lot of mountains. We have basically been cycling between 2500M and 3500M the entire time with one pass at 3650M = 12,000ft (according to our GPS)...we clearly felt the lack of oxygen at times but we are acclimating quickly! We love being at altitude though.

The Andes are tough to cycle through with cold temperatures, and bad weather at times but the views are spectacular, when there is a view. We are now in Cuenca, the 3rd biggest city in Ecuador, where we are enjoying a hostel night for a well deserved rest and shower. Enjoy the reading...

Day 142 (5/8/11): 0km

As Shirley sews a patch onto Yannick's t-shirt and he works on the computer, we hear the sound of high pressure air being released. Yannick checks the bicycles and his rear tire (which used to Shirley’s front) is completely deflated…aagh! We pull out the tube and there is a big hole – we patch it and stand there, just staring at the bikes. It’s now passed noon and we might as well do a full tune-up on them and stay here at Bernardo’s another night. We still have a laundry list of things we can do even if we don’t have internet here.

By 5pm, we still haven’t stepped out of the house and are going a little stir crazy in addition to being super hungry. Time to go for a walk! We stop at another Chifa (Chinese restaurant) and order curry this time…mmm mmm good. Afterwards, we go check out why people are crowded along the street next to the bus terminal and find a whole bunch of vendors selling random items such as pots, jackets, toys, sandals, etc. and a guy auctioning other miscellaneous items from the back of a moving truck. It’s very interesting to watch, but we remind ourselves that we had wanted to find a grocery store, so we move on. We eventually buy the snacks that we want for the next couple of days on the bike and are excited that most items are about half the price they were in Colombia. Done with snack shopping, we return to the sugar empanada lady, where Yannick overdoses on another dozen…a good thing because we’re leaving this city tomorrow morning and he won’t have to crave something he might not get again! :) A little more calm and relaxed, we return to Bernardo’s place to finish our chores, then have another comfy night’s sleep.

Day 143 (5/9/11): 93km

We leave Bernardo’s place at about 7am and head for the Panamerican Highway. Not even 2km into the ride, Shirley’s rear brake cable snaps and we have to pull over onto the side of the street to pull off the rear panniers and wheel to replace it with a new one. Not even a couple hours later, we go up a small hill and approach the city of Cayambe when Shirley hears, "psshh…psshh…psshh…" She pulls over onto the side of the road to inspect her front tire and locates the source of the “psshh!” Air is leaking from the bulging tire…great. We remove the front panniers and wheel to inspect the tube and find that the corner of the credit card we used to reinforce the tire has rubbed a hole into the tube. We patch it and replace the card with a thin, flexible laminated card and hope it works better. What a frustrating morning this is turning out to be…everything we did yesterday, we are having to re-do today. In another couple hours, we stop at a gas station to clean the chains that we changed out yesterday, a maintenance job we haven’t done in over a month.

At times we get so fed up with the bicycles…and this moment is one of them. Good thing we are in a country with good food to take our minds off our woes. We make a stop to try bizcochos, something we keep seeing advertised on restaurant signs all day. We ask the woman what they are and how people traditionally eat them – we end up buying ten little delicate buttery biscuit cookies, a couple pieces of cheese, and some dulce de leche. Yumm…all three items are are delicious already good on their own, but having the bizcochos with the cheese makes a nice salty snack, and combining with the dulce de leche makes a delicious dessert.

Ecuador is also a country of beautiful scenery and we love being surrounded by spectacular volcanoes. We pass next to Cayambe, whose summit is the highest point along the Earth’s equator, then reach the monument along the road marking the equatorial line. We are now in the Southern Hemisphere!!!

From here, the highway takes us up, down, and around hillsides as it follows some valleys and canyons. The Panam continues towards Quito, the country’s capitol, but we detour to a smaller highway to stay at a higher altitude and pass through smaller town we haven’t seen before. For our late 3pm lunch, we have some strange grilled meat with potatoes – they say it’s chicken, but it certainly doesn’t chew like chicken! We don’t mind it though…it still tastes pretty good and only cost $1.25 a bowl. We then stop at a tiny bicycle shop to buy a couple more rear brake cables for $0.50 a piece, which have performed just as well for Shirley as the $5 fancy Teflon reinforced cables we bought in the States.

We ride towards El Quinche and the road is smaller and a lot bumpier than the 4-lane, wide-shouldered, super smooth Panam Hwy. Oh well, the cars and trucks are respectful of us and there is less traffic here, so we don’t mind the lack of shoulder room to ride on. As we pedal up another hill, Shirley notices the bump, bump, bump feeling of her front bulging tire has gone away. Uh oh…what’s going on? She looks down at it as she rides along, but can’t quite tell if the tire has deflated. We pull into a gas station to find out that she has indeed gotten another flat. The laminated plastic card inside the wheel ripped in half from rubbing on the torn problem area inside the tire, which then rubbed two holes into the tube. We patch the tube yet again and put another card into the tire and cover it with a big strip of t-shirt so the corners won’t rub holes into the tube again…we hope. This is the last attempt at fixing this tire. If this doesn’t work, we’ll have to replace the tire completely because we can’t keep patching tubes every 50km!

Now it’s 5:30pm and it’s getting too late to continue on, so we ask for permission to stay at the gas station. The guy in charge immediately says yes, making our lives a little easier. We wash off in the bathroom, eat some snacks for dinner, buy a couple popsicles, and hang out until dark, then pitch the tent in the grass behind the gas station.

As of today, we have exactly one month to make it to Lima, Peru to meet our friend for some climbing action!

Day 144 (5/10/11): 97km

The bulging tire stayed inflated over night…nice! We hit the road and ride a couple kilometers to El Quinche, where we get our first view of Cotopaxi, one of the tallest active volcanoes in the world. Such a beautiful sight – perfectly conical and loaded with snow…makes us want to climbing right now! But not yet…we have to keep pedaling for the moment. The road continually climbs up and down all morning, giving us a hard leg workout, and brings us to the Southern end of Quito. The traffic gets heavier, the drivers are more aggressive, and the amount of black smoke coming from some vehicles’ exhaust pipes almost becomes unbearable. We are very glad we avoided the capitol!

We connect back to the Panam Hwy where the road is in great condition with a nice shoulder most of the way, which is a very good thing because cars are driving FAST! The Panam climbs at a gradual grade and brings us by Machaci and El Chaupi, the starting points for a couple of the mountain climbs we went on a couple years ago, bringing back fond memories of our first trip to Ecuador. Beyond these cities, the road keeps gaining elevation and the cold headwind gets stronger, forcing us to move at a slow steady pace. We almost feel as though we’re mountaineering…except on bicycles! As we near the top of a pass, we get encouraging honks from people passing us in their trucks and cars, ”go, go, you can do it!” We reach a bicycling altitude record of 3,500m and are feeling pretty good…cold, but good.

It’s 5:30pm and we want hot food and a place to camp. We spot a gas station along the side of the road, but unfortunately the restaurant is closed and the mini market is overprices. We decide to leave hungry and head for the forest across the way where we duck into the trees to hide from the biting cold wind. We put on warmer jackets, set up the tent, crawl inside, and have a bunch of snack foods for dinner. Ah, a night in the woods camped as close to the base of Cotopaxi along the Panam as we can possibly get. Good stuff.

Day 145 (5/11/11): 107km

Although it is a cold morning, at least the wind died down overnight. We put on a bunch of clothing layers because we now we’ll be going downhill for a while. Boy, were we right…we end up covering 29km in the first hour of riding! We stop for a hot breakfast of seco de pollo (chicken and rice) and caldo gallina (chicken soup which Yannick chose to have with coagulated blood and intestines), then resume riding.

The Panam is being widened to a 6-lane highway in many sections and the riding is fast and smooth. We’re traveling at a high speed as we near Salcedo, but slow down as we enter a roundabout. We don’t slow down enough though, not expecting the road to immediately turn into crap at the city limit, and we both hit a depression and bump in the road with too much speed. Yannick’s camera goes flying out of its pouch and slides into the middle of the road and most of the panniers pop off their bottom hooks. Yannick pulls over immediately and runs over to retrieve the camera after a bus passes by – it thankfully doesn’t get run over, only has a few bangs and scratches, and is working fine. We check the bikes and the bulging tire also survived the violent impact…phew! The road through the entire city of Salcedo is in poor condition, but one we exit the city, it’s perfect again.

As we ride towards Ambato, Yannick dreams of filling his belly with a Chifa lunch and taking a good break. As we arrive at the city, we see that there is a lateral road to bypass the busy city center. We usually take these roads because they skirt around the edge of the city, avoiding most of the traffic, and still have streetside shops and vendors. Not this time! The lateral road takes us way around Ambato, drops us into a valley, and makes climb our way back out…and there is no food available. Poor Yannick was already hungry and now he has to do more work before he gets his lunch. We eventually make it up the steep climb and find a good place to eat, although it isn’t the Chifa he was craving, but good enough.

Refueled, we climb and climb and climb up the road, where we get a nice view of Chimborazo, the summit of which is the furthest point from the center of Earth…even further than the top of Mount Everest! We reach a pass at 3,600m, even higher than yesterday’s record and are really enjoying the thin air. A few more downs and ups, then we grab a quick dinner and start looking for camp. Finding a place to sleep is more difficult than we expect because we enter an area of fenced farms built on steeply angled hillsides. We don’t want to jump a barbed-wire fence, trample over crops, or be completely exposed to passing traffic. Finally, at 6:20pm, just before it begins to get dark, we find something workable – we take a tractor trail for about 20m, then hike-a-bike up a hill to a flat spot with a few bushes to hide us from view. Not a bad spot for a couple desperate hobo cyclists.

Day 146 (5/12/11): 90km

It rained quite a bit overnight and we didn’t stake the tent fly down, so water accumulated on the roof and dripped through the ceiling, wetting parts of the sleeping bags and tents.  More an annoyance than anything, but we won’t make that lazy mistake again. It’s drizzling a little now, so we just pack up the wet gear and will take care of drying it later.

After 30 minutes of riding, we climb up to a 3,630m pass, which is a little higher than yesterday, then drop into Riobamba. We see a woman cooking eggs and giant sausages along the sidewalk in front of her “restaurant” and can’t resist. We put in two orders at for $1 per person and receive plates piled high with potatoes, sausage, beef, lettuce, beets, tomato, and a fried egg. Whoa, this is the best deal ever! Yannick is tempted to get another plate, but resists because he’s already pretty full. Shirley tries to encourage him to eat more because he’s trying to gain some weight back, but he doesn’t want to ride with his stomach too full. Oh well, guess we’ll just have to make more food stops throughout the day then. :) We ride, we eat, we visit a small village, then we ride, eat and visit another village…repeatedly several times through the day. We are really enjoying Ecuador’s peaceful pueblos, beautiful countryside, and inexpensively good food. We’re taking a pretty chill pace today, taking a lot of time to take in our surroundings and let Shirley rest because she’s feeling pretty beat today. Early in the afternoon, we see a little church on the side of the road and decide to take a look because we haven’t gone inside one in a while. It turns out to the oldest Catholic church in Ecuador, built in 1534…so soon after the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas!

From here, the road makes a very gradual descent through a gorgeous valley – we try taking some video of the ride, but the dark clouds overhead make for poor lighting. At 4pm, it begins to drizzle and we put on the rain jacket and pants because the temperature is dropping quickly and we are heading downhill. Wind chill = brrr! We stop in Guamote to grab a quick snack and to warm up. Shirley goes into a small grocery store to buy a few pieces of bread and the store owner also gives her a couple of bananas free of charge after finding out we’ve been on such a long journey. He says we need the extra energy and insisted we take them…so nice of him.  As we leave Guamote, we see a few buses with live sheep strapped to the roof – must be purchases from the Thursday animal market. Too bad we arrived too late in the day to see the action…something tells us it would have been pretty interesting!

The last kilometers of the day are very peaceful – we ride along saying hello to farmers, cows, burros, sheep, and pigs. At one point, we stop to ogle over a cute little piglet next to the road and a farmer across the way watches us with amusement. We wave to him, he smiles, and we continue on. At 5:45pm, we take a dirt road and head into the pine trees to camp. Far enough from the highway, we barely hear the sound of passing traffic…aah, Ecuador is nice.

Day 147 (5/13/11): 93km

It’s dark under the trees and we sleep in a little after the 6am alarm goes off. We are warm and snuggly in our sleeping bags and are hesitant to climb out of our comfy cocoons, but…sigh…we have to. We fold the damp tent and put things back into their panniers as the trees drip down on us. As we get back on the highway, we find that we are in the clouds. The air is misty and we have to zip up our rain jackets and pull the hood over our heads to keep warm and somewhat dry as we ride passed Palmira and drop steeply into Alausi.  The road is wet, oily, and very curvy, so we ride carefully to avoid having an accident as we descend in the dense fog. Alausi is off the highway and down half a kilometer in the valley, so we decide to skip our food break because it isn’t worth that much extra effort. Unfortunately, the road switchbacks steeply up to a pass and we burn a lot more energy on an empty stomach than we want anyway. At least the views from up here are really nice!

On the other side of the pass, we ride down and up and down and up many more passes. It feels almost as though time has stopped as we ride in the clouds and lose track of time. It is so peaceful to travel through this countryside full of farmed plots blanketing the steep hills like patchwork quilts. The people tending the land wear traditional clothing making them easy to spot in the fields from afar because of the bright red wool wraps they have around their shoulders. Some of these people we meet are so tiny…some of the women’s shoulders are barely the height of Yannick’s bicycle seat!

In the early afternoon, we arrive in Chunchi and have a late lunch. As we wait for our food, we aren’t able to stand the burning sensation in our eyes…they’re so red and irritated. Is it from the cold wind and mist being pelted into our eyes from the downhill sections? Washing them out with cold water helps a little, but we can’t stop them from tearing as we eat our food. After our meal, we pedal up some steep hills, letting us forget about our irritating malady – amazing how that happens :)

We wind around along the mountain road and pass by the impressive El Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose), a very abrupt ridgeline sitting between near-vertical valleys. Such a scenic area – Yannick is already talking about a future return visit when we have kids! At one point, we make it to the top of a pass and stand there in the fog completely still and listen for a minute…all we hear is complete silence. No birds, no insects, no cars…absolutely nothing…and we just love it.

When 5pm rolls around, we can’t believe where the day went. Being in the fog makes it hard to judge time when the amount of light doesn’t change through the day. Yannick says, “Let’s ride up to the next pass and see what we find for camping… I think we’re going to be lucky today.” We pedal up and up and scope out a couple okay spots, but aren’t satisfied, so we keep going. At 5:45pm, we turn around another hillside and suddenly we see flat pastures between the mountains. Wow, we are lucky! What perfect timing to arrive at such a perfect place. We coast into a small town, grab a little bit of hot food, then take a road leading us away from the highway and stay at the school. Doesn’t get more perfect than this!

Day 148 (5/14/11): 80km

It rained through most of the night, but the sky is only overcast when we get up in the morning. Seven kilometers into the ride, we stop to inspect a squeaking noise coming from Shirley’s rear wheel and find a metal wire in the tire…no wonder the slow leak has been getting worse. It’s probably a double puncture, but we can’t find the other leak. We fix the tire and then search again for the squeaking noise and find its source – some of the wires we used to reattach the plastic disc protecting the gear cassette from the chain are getting a little loose…glad it’s nothing problematic.

We begin riding again through the unending mountain range. We’re getting exhausted from all this ascending…it’s the 6th day since we left Ibarra and we want to rest, but want to take our break in Cuenca. We pass a sign that tells us Cuenca is about another 100km away, which is too bad for us because we won’t make it there until tomorrow unless there is a significant amount of downhill along the way.

At 11:30am, we arrive in El Tambo and get some much needed food. We descend a few kilometers into Canar, a very unpleasant city of under-construction concrete brick buildings and roads. (By the way, roads built out of concrete slabs are not fun to ride on because it makes us go thump, thump, thump.) The Panam slowly climbs out of Canar and keeps gaining altitude as it weaves through the mountains and over passes. We are so tired, but somehow we muster up the strength to keep pushing on. We reach 3,550m and stop for a few minutes to take in the view…and some oxygen! We put on some layers because we can see we’ll be descending for a while and it’s going to be cold. We were wrong…it isn’t cold, it’s FREEZING! As we drop into Biblian, we lose much more altitude than we expect and our hands, face, and feet become numb by the time we reach the city.

As we take the left turn into town, it begins to drizzle – looks like we made it right on time! We put on even more layers to keep warm while we ride around to find a place to have an early dinner. We stop at a hotel/restaurant and inquire how much a double room would cost just in case the rain continues and we decide to stay in the city. For a very basic room with a full size bed, warm shower, but no internet or TV, the price is $10. We go to the restaurant to think it over while we eat. The reain reduces to a drizzle and we decide $10 is a lot for a lumpy bed and roof over our heads (we had nicer hotels in Ecuador 2 years ago for $7), so we skip out of town.

A little more downhill and a few turns in the road brings us to another small village about a kilometer from Azogues where we spot an abandoned building and a church from the highway. We take the road down to check it out and the church seems perfect. A couple men come out of their house to greet us and say we are welcome to spend the night at there. We pitch our tent on the covered deck of the 2nd floor and take a shower at the spigot. This seems even better than the hotel, is less trouble with the bicycles, and saves us ten bucks to spend n some good food to help fatten up Yannick.

Day 149 (5/15/11): 40km

We finish packing up all of our things just as the first people begin arriving for the 6:30am mass at the church. We sit in the courtyard having breakfast and listen to the music being played over loudspeakers and can be heard all over town. The highway is nearly free of traffic as we pass the city of Azogues and make our way to Cuenca. Wow, a 6-lane highway and hardly a car around…guess it is a good thing we didn’t arrive last night because we are much less stressed as we arrive in the 3rd largest city in Ecuador as people sleep in and relax on this lazy Sunday morning. We pass a “Welcome to Cuenca” sign at 8:30am and can’t believe we’ve made it already…well, that’s because we haven’t quite. We ride for another half hour and still don’t see the big city. We’re already hungry, so we can’t resist when we see roasted pigs at some streetside restaurants. Mmm…so tender and yummy! We’ve been buying most of our meals from vendors since entering this country because it’s cheaper than buying ingredients from grocery stores and preparing them ourselves. We don’t mind though…the food has been good and it’s nice to have variety.

With our 2nd breakfast taken care of, we are ready to proceed and find brunch :P  At the outskirts of Cuenca, we make a stop at the gas station and try to see if we get an internet connection just for the heck of it…and it actually works! Pretty crazy that this is the first time we’ve gotten a wifi connection in over 10 days…the last time was way back when we were still in Colombia. There are a lot of things to catch up on, but we try to take care of the more urgent things. We end up staying on the computer until 11am and only get back on the bicycles because we’re running low on batteries and our stomachs are starting to protest. With Mariscos (seafood) for lunch and a stop at a panaderia for dessert, now we are ready to find the downtown area. What was supposed to take us 15 minutes, according to people we asked for directions, takes us about 3 hours because of all our stops. We make it to the center of the old town and find that the city is pretty deserted. Most shops are closed and the only thing rockin’ with activity is the Cathedral. As we sit in the plaza taking turns going for a walk, we watch people pour out of the church as mass ends. As quickly as they appeared, they disperse in their different directions and the city is quiet again.

For the next few hours, we ride through the cobbled streets of Cuenca asking a dozen hostels their price for a double room and for the dorms. As Shirley walks out of one hostel quoted at $18, a local guy stops to chat with us. During the conversation, he tells us that the place normally costs $10 and is surprised that we were told a much higher price. He says, “We eat the same food, we shit the same, we pee the same…why does it cost you more than it costs me?” We say we have a big sign on our foreheads that say “Rich Gringos” that only businessmen can see. We say goodbye to Martin and speed up our hotel search because the wind is picking up, it’s suddenly getting cold, and it looks like the sky is about to blow. We go back to a place that asked $6 per person for the dormitory. We check it out and find we’re getting a giant room with 14 beds and will be the only ones staying the night…in the entire hostel. Not a bad deal…for us anyway.

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Tina on

Guess what, I found my Helens Cycle water bottle so the one you have isn't mine...sorry I accused you of taking mine, hehehe.

Karissa on

Just wanted to say hi! Ive been reading the blog pretty religiously since we saw you in Tuolomne. You guys are amazing (and a little bit crazy)! I feel like I'm reading a great book and can't wait for the next chapter to come out. Good luck!

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