Cycling days 150-155: Cuenca to Peruvian border

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

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Flag of Ecuador  , Loja,
Sunday, May 22, 2011

Crossing Ecuador was hard but we made it through. Other than a detour to avoid Quito (the capital) we rode the entire Panamerican highway through the highlands, battling cold temperatures and oxygen deprivation.  A ton of elevation gain and drop, which makes us look forward to the coastal road that we will be using once we get to the next country...Peru.
But for this entry, this is how we went from Cuenca to the Peruvian border:

Day 150 (5/16/11)
: 0km

We stayed up late last night doing homework and the beds are comfy, so it was easy to sleep in until 8:30am. We take care of some more business and finally get out of the hotel room at 10am to go for a walk. We head over to the Mercado and find plenty of eateries to choose from. We try encebollado (fish soup with red onion and yucca) and another dish with a mish mash of chicken heart, beef tongue, intestine, potato, and coagulated blood. After our meal (…or was it our appetizer?), we buy a lot of fruit and eat two pieces each, then top it off with a couple croissants and some sweet bread. Satisfied for now, we go back to the hostel to work on mountaineering gear lists and updating the blog. At 4pm, we leave the hostel and relocate to Cam and Summer's place, the couple we met just South of Cali, Colombia – they’re renting a place in Cuenca for a month and invited us to stay with them. We enjoy the rest of the day socializing…now this is the kind of rest and relaxation we needed!

Day 151 (5/17/11): 43km

We hang out with Cam, Summer, and their dog Toka all morning. The longer we stay in one place, the harder it is to leave – we’ve been in Cuenca for a full 48 hours and have gotten comfy. At 11:30am, we finally drag ourselves out of their apartment, go have lunch, and start making our way back towards the Panamerican Hwy. Along the way, we stop at a couple bike shops to check out what kind of tires they have in stock, but there’s nothing that would work for us. One shop has the Schwalbe brand tires that we’re using, but the ones available are just a little too wide. Oh well, we’re carrying a spare mountain bike tire for a reason…no point spending $40 on something else that would fit, but doesn’t look durable. As Yannick is bending over to show the store employees the bulge in Shirley’s tire, he feels his lower back get tight…uh oh…we hope it isn’t giving out again!

We ride about 10km when Shirley notices her front bulgy tire is deflating slowly. We pull over and it looks like the shredded inside thread has grown longer and rubbed another hole into the tube – we decide it’s time to retire the tire after putting in an extra 600km on it. Tube patched and tire changed, we get back on the bikes – Shirley is happy with the smoother riding…no more rhythmic bump! Yannick’s back is getting more stiff though…and he feels like a crippled old man. Riding a bicycle isn’t as painful as walking is, but being in a sitting position all the time seems less therapeutic…it doesn’t stretch and warm up the muscles. It also doesn’t help that we have a biting cold headwind and are starting to gain elevation – Yannick is able to pedal on though…he’s a tough boy.

As we climb the steepening road, we feel as though it’s hard to catch our breath with the cold, dry wind blowing so hard. We struggle up the hill and make slow progress. As the sun begins to set at 5:45pm, we see an abandoned one-room brick building and stop to see if it is suitable for camping. The floor inside is dirty and un-leveled, but the outside looks pretty good. We use the building to hide the bicycles from view of the road and pitch the tent close to them. Yannick has a hard time getting into the tent and settling down, but at least he’s able to move around (his back has given out several times in the past and was much worse than this). We have dinner and go to bed hoping his condition doesn’t worsen overnight.

Day 152 (5/18/11): 105km

As we watch the sun rise from our roadside camp at 3,300m, the thermometer shows -2 degrees Celsius. We layer up and resume riding uphill. We shortly reach the ridge and are rewarded with gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains. Yannick’s back is still hurting a lot, which makes him walk hunched over…he feels like he’s aged 50 years in just a day. A strong dose of ibuprofen seems to help relieve some of the pain though.

After 30km of rolling hills above 3,000m we reach a gas station and take care of business: delayer, brush our teeth, refill water bottles, dry the tent, etc. One kilometer farther, we enter the little village of Reina de La Paz ("Queen of Peace") and treat ourselves with a hearty breakfast of fried pork, mote (hominy), yucca, and empanadas sprinkled with sugar. For some reason exercise seems to make us hungry! As we get back on the saddle, we can see how this place earned its name…it is really peaceful up here.

At 11:30am, we start losing elevation and at some point, we notice a lot of flying insects in the middle of the road. We are going too fast to stop and plow into the swarm of bees. We feel a few of them hit us and we freak out for a brief moment, yelling “beeeeees!” to each other. Luckily, neither of us gets stung. The road continues losing elevation and we drop 1,000m in 25km, down into a valley, which means that there is a big uphill waiting for us on the other side. As we get on our granny gear for the long ascent, the thermometer reaches 37 degrees Celsius…no, 40 degrees – that’s about 70 degrees Fahrenheit from this morning!

As we take one of the many breaks during the grueling ascent, we notice 3 cardboard boxes on the side of the road. A closer inspection reveals that they contain milk…36L of milk to be exact. We check the expiration date and it hasn’t passed yet and the milk containers are made of Tetra-pak, so we figure they should still be good. We open one to find out. Hmm, the consistency is right…the smell is fine…and the taste is cool and refreshing! We finish one liter on the spot and take 7 more liters with us. It’s funny how things work out for us – just yesterday we were talking about getting some milk because we haven’t had any in a while…and now we could have more than we can carry! And this is just one of the many times something has happened like this. Yannick jokingly says, “I think we could use a few bars of gold. What do you think?” Haha…yeah, right!

We continue uphill, about 14 pounds heavier and feeling a little bloated. After a stop at the next gas station to refill water, we ride a little further to reach another pass…then another long descent and long ascent. Sheesh, we’re climbing a lot of mountains today! We reach the pass at about 4:30pm and it starts to get chilly. We see gray clouds ahead of us and as we take a break, the wind blows the clouds into our path. We layer up and begin descending in the fog. We’re moving at a speed of about 50kph, creating our own wind chill – by the time we reach the bottom of the hill, our faces are numb and our hands are so painfully cold we can barely move our fingers. Thank goodness we have 7km of uphill to the city of Saraguro to help us warm up a little! We make a quick stop at yet another gas station to wash off for the night and top off our water, then finish the last 500m to town. We arrive at 6:20pm, just as it’s getting dark…right on time. We find the school and get permission from the guardian and director to stay the night. Sleeping arrangements secured, we go find dinner. At the restaurant, we order the set meal for $2 each and receive a hot bowl of comforting soup, followed by a plate of tender beef, rice, and an assortment of vegetables, then a cup of coffee to cap it off. Aaah, it’s nice to go to bed with a belly full of warm food :)

Day 153 (5/19/11): 103km

Awake at 6am, we pack up quickly before the school officially opens. Yannick says his back pain is a different pain than before – it hurts in his upper right butt cheek rather than his lower back and was slow growing rather than a sudden onset. He doesn’t think the ibuprofen is helping anymore, so he skips taking one this morning. We go visit the city briefly and see some of the indigenous people who wear all black, although there are far fewer of them wearing their traditional dress around town than our guide book seems to describe. We get back on the road and immediately start heading uphill…and keep climbing all day! The maps we have made it seem as though today would be pretty mellow and a descend into Loja. Why do we keep going up? It turns out to be one of the mentally toughest days for Yannick and we have a hard time enjoying the scenery because we are suffering so much.

We eventually arrive at the highpoint of the road and see the city below us, making us excited…food! WE barely ate anything all day, not expecting there to be such an absence of comedors (small restaurants) and gas stations along today’s route. As we drop down towards Loja, we come to a roundabout and find that the city is another 1,000 feet below us and the Panamerican Highway continues above it. We see the good and the bad: it’s a good thing because it saves us from the extra elevation loss, but it’s also bad because it means we have to delay our much needed meal. The road begins to climb…again. We are so done with climbing, except this time it’s even worse…the road is under construction, so now we’re ascending up a hill on dirt and scree. Fortunately this doesn’t last more than a few kilometers; unfortunately, we pop out just a little too far out of the city and don’t pass by any places to buy food.

The road sign says it is 37km to Catamayo and we hope that all the traffic along the road is telling us there are other settlements along the way. It is a little passed 3pm, giving us 3 hours to get to the other city; doable if it isn’t all uphill. We ascend another 5km and have to take a break – we sit in the grass for 30 minutes trying to get our physical and mental strength back. We are tempted to drink some milk for the calories, but there is only so much milk a person can drink in a day without causing digestive problems, so we resist. We resume the ascent, which Yannick starts calling “the food challenge.”

At 4:30pm, we arrive at the pass…YESSS! Downhill to Catamayo!! We zoom down, down, and down, losing A LOT of elevation and arrive in the city just after 5pm. We have dinner, pastries, and ice cream and could eat more, but we’re a little worried about where we’ll sleep tonight. We go look for a school, but end up having a hard time getting permission to stay overnight – at one school, the director is not available; the second school is having a big parade and celebration, so we’d be up all night; and the third school’s guardian says he would let us stay, but we need permission from the director who will stop by at 7pm. We wait and the 7pm meeting is postponed to 8:30pm, which is really late for us and isn’t a guarantee that we’ll be able to stay at the school, so we go looking elsewhere and keep this as a backup option. We go find the Bomberos (firefighters) and Jose gets the okay from his boss. We find a comfy spot on the roof, have more snacks, and are ready for bed at 8:15pm…too bad the high school across the street is having band practice! It doesn’t really matter much though…we are so tired we fall asleep anyway.

Day 154 (5/20/11): 74km

Yannick’s pinched nerve isn’t doing much better today. After packing up, we head back to the parque central for some breakfast and catch up on the journal. So far, so good…but the hour that follows causes a lot of frustration. Once we leave the main plaza, we head uphill, outside out of town and get back on the Panamericana, where we left off yesterday…just to realize the road curves back down and towards town right away…even lower than the main plaza. Remark #1: “We could have saved ourselves 15 minutes and uphill climb, #&$!” So far, we can handle this. Then, the Panamericana arrives at a crossroad: ahead, the road is completely blocked by piles of debris; on the right, the road heads back into town where we came from; and left, the road opens up to the countryside. In absence of a road sign, we head left…the obvious way! For 5km, the road heads gently downhill, but slowly, we start having doubts that we are on the Panamericana. The traffic is light and there is no painted center line in the road, and we are supposed to head uphill. Pulling out the compass and GPS successively tells us that we screwed up. Remark #2: “We just wasted 14km this morning, some energy and precious hours of cool temperature for the uphill.” Now we are pissed. As we turn around and retrace our steps towards town, we see where the Panamericana should be – unfortunately, it is completely blocked to traffic with construction equipment everywhere. There is an unmarked deviation (gee, thanks!) through town. As we ask the locals for directions on how to get back on track, we find ourselves passing by the Fire Station where we spent the night. At this point, we become really upset. We’ve done quite a bit of riding, it is already 10am, and we have done a zero net kilometers today! What comes next isn’t much better: 12km of road construction, which means no pavement, and it is dusty, bumpy, slow, noisy…and on top of everything, it is all on a steep uphill climb. Staying on the other road this morning may have been the better option after all…AAAGGGHHH!!!

At noon, we pass by a village where we decide to stop for lunch. At 1pm, we continue on our climb, a difficult task because of the heat and lack of shade for rest breaks. At 3pm, we reach the highpoint and ride along a ridge with absolutely stunning views of the valleys below – almost makes the ascent worth it. No, not really…we’re sick of all these hills! Soon, we come across some road construction men putting new reflectors on the highway. Yannick asks if we could use some of the tar to try to repair the bugling tire that we are now keeping as a spare. We have no idea if the tar will really work, but it’s worth a try. They slab some tar onto the iside of the tire and we use some plastic bags to press the peeling, shredded portions of the tire together and hang it off the back of Yannick’s bicycle to dry. We thank the guys and continue on our way.

At 5pm, we arrive in Catacocha, a city sitting high along a hillside. We make a stop at the gas station, which has a shower and soap, so we wash off and do some laundry before ascending into the city. The police allow us to sleep at their station, so now we’re free to take our time having dinner. Catacocha is a tranquilo city with a beautifully lit center plaza. We talk to a curous family for at least half an hour, answering their endless questions about our trip and our lives, but in the end, they still don’t quite understand why we are on this trip. Oh well, it is now 8:30pm and time for us to head back to the police station for some rest. As we turn the corner to the station, two little dogs come running at us and barking like crazy. They are just annoying little dogs, so we just keep pushing our bicycles up the road. We try to ignore them, but they get pretty aggressive and even bite Shirley’s pannier and drags her freshly laundered shirt into the dirt….grrr! They are lucky their owner steps out of the house at that second because they were about to get it! Shirley has had it with untrained, unruly dogs – this week, two others (on separate occasions), came running after her, biting at her panniers and legs. We’ve had a lot of dogs chase us, but these two actually made physical contact…so they got a face full of Shirley’s foot! She never imagined she could ever kick a dog before this trip, but these two really deserved it. She just hopes they learned not to chase cyclists again because they were lucky they didn’t get hit by a car this time! [sigh…]

Okay, time to calm down and go to the police station to get a good night’s sleep. Too bad there is a celebration of some sort starting – the music is fine…if we could actually hear it, but the really annoying LOUD guy yelling, “Arriba, rriba, rriba, rriba…” literal hundreds of times into the loudspeaker drowns out every second of every song. It wouldn’t have mattered if we chose to sleep miles outside of the city because we are sure we would still hear him. Even now, we can hear his voice echoing off the valley walls! A little passed 2am, it finally becomes quiet and we are able to sleep in peace.

Day 155 (5/21/11): 82km

We wake up at 6:15am, groggy from our short night and ride back to the city center to have some cereal with milk for breakfast and to dry the tent from the condensation it collected over night. We also tighten Shirley’s brake cables because we expect a long descent today. At 9am, we finally get going and the downhill begins right as we exit Catacocha. We ride just a few kilometers and realize Yannick’s brakes are failing, so we pull over and tighten the front cable and change out the rear brake pads. The descent doesn’t last nearly as long as we had anticipated and the rest of the day is not nearly as plano (flat) as all the people we spoke to had described. Sure, it might be plano if yo’re sitting in a car and letting a motor do all the work, but when you’re powering you and your house up the hill with your own two legs, you’d be able to tell it is absolutely not plano!

Each time we round a bend in the road, we catch a glimpse of the upcoming section of road and most of the time it is higher than us. We are soooo tired of pedaling uphill – we’ve crossed the entire Ecuadorian Andes and it sure has been hard work. We are definitely ready for a break! By 5pm, we find that we are still in the mountains and still quite a distance from Macara, the border town. We agree to stop at the next settlement to buy some dinner, but 6pm rolls around before we can find a comedor. We do find a village of 40 people and ask to sleep at the school. They unlock the gate for us and give us a great place to stay the night, but they inform us that no one in the village sells food. Ah well, one out of two wishes granted isn’t bad. They tell us Macara is about 8km away, but we think it’s more like 20km. Oh well, we’ll find out tomorrow. For now, we just settle on eating crackers, granola, and milk for dinner.
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Kathy Pezdek on

Shirley & Yannick,

Your trip continues to sound amazing. I'm really enjoying reading your blog.
We enjoyed stage 7 of the Amgen Tour de California that started in Claremont
last Saturday and ended 80 miles and about a 10,500 ft. elevation gain at the
chair lifts at Mt. Baldy. It was pretty amazing.

We're doing well in the research group. I met with Lisa on Thursday. She
looks very happy and is due with a baby girl at the end of July. School's over
for the semester so we have a nice summer ahead of us.

Just know that I'm enjoying your trip along with you.

Love, Kathy

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