Cycling days 142-149: Ibarra to Cuenca
Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
120Trip End Jan 19, 2012
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
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.
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.
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!!!
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.
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.
Day 145 (5/11/11): 107km
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.
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.
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!
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
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…
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.