Wet and wild in Southern Ecuador

Sheila and Todd in Cuenca

Sheila and Todd in Cuenca

Flower market

Flower market

In Cuenca, we stayed Todd and Sheila, who have just recently moved here from Washington DC. We met them on a site called Gringo Tree, a forum for the many expats who have made Cuenca their home. The culture (for example, free symphony!), the predominance of local indigenous cultures, historical centro (UNESCO world heritage site), pleasant mountain climate and in a valley away from volcanoes (such as erupting Tungurahua) has made Cuenca a top spot for expats. I think the free health care for everyone is also a perk for retired Americans. Todd and Sheila are really inspiring people and we talked a lot about travels, life and living less materialistically. We explored the historic centro with Todd starting with the tree filled Parque Calderon. On one side of the Parque is the Old Cathedral built in 1557 whose tower is famous (more famous than the Egyptian pyramids as the plaque says) for being a kew reference point for the French Geodesic Mission in 1736 to measure to measure the arc of the Earth’s curvature. Though I knew of the Egyptian pyramids long before of this old church tower, apparently we should be thanking it for its part in the first accurate sizing of the Earth, which in turn led to the establishment of the metric system! On the other side of the Parque is the New Catherdral with its iconic sky blue tile domes. Built in 1885 (less than 20 yrs after Canadian Confederation to put it in perspective), “new” is a relative term. Close by is the colourful indigenous flower market by the white Sanutario Mariano church and down the river is the wonderful ethnobotanical gardens/bird rescue center and Incan ruins of Pumapungo.

Five parrots and one toucan - uneasy neighbours

Five parrots and one toucan – uneasy neighbours

The city was known as Tomebamba and it was the northern capital of the Incan empire. Pumapungo was once the palace of the Incan emperor, Huayna Capac, and was reputed to be one of the grandest in the whole empire. Today, it is just the foundations. However, in one of these walls, archaeologists found a man’s skeleton. There was a building custom of burying a man alive in the foundation of a new wall to give it strength. Imagine the conversation:

Hey, you have been chosen to strengten the new wall of the emperor’s palace!”

Wow. That’s awesome! I have some engineering ideas that might help!”

Oh well, it’s a little more hands on that that. It’s going to be painful at first but then it will be dead easy!”

The last Incan emperor, Atahualpa, was briefly captured by his half-brother and held here. After his narrow escape, he razed the city and massacred its people in vengence. Archaeological remains of shattered jars, widespread scorching and rooms filled with ash attest to the palace’s violent end. However, the wall is still there!

Ruins in Cuenca

Ruins in Cuenca

The iconic blue domes of Cuenca's cathedral

The iconic blue domes of Cuenca’s cathedral

We went up to El Cajas National Park with Bruno, our warmshowers host from Ambato who is now travelling to Brazil, and his couchsurfing host, Christina and another couchsurfer from France. It was a fabulous clear sunny day and we hiked around Lake Llaviuco, a calm glacier lake surrounded by grasslands and tall mountains.

The following day, we went up to the hotsprings near Cuenca in a quaint little alpine town of Banos with Sheila and two friends, Bo and Linda. We were led through an eucalyptus steam bath, blue and then red volcanic mud treatments where we unleashed our inner child and rubbed mud all over our skin, an underground cave hot tub and cold plunge pool, boxed steam treatments which seemed like a medieval torture implement but was much more relaxing and then ended with lounging in the outdoor mineral hot spring pools. We celebrated our one year on the road with Todd and Sheila in Cuenca.

volcanic mud that we lathered all over our skin at the spa

volcanic mud that we lathered all over our skin at the spa

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s an overall downhill from Cuenca to Loja as Southern Ecuador drops into the rainforests of the Amazon from the high heights of the Avenue of the Volcanos. However, the ride itself continues to have a lot of climbs. We have three 3000m plus passes until Loja, each peak just a little lower than the previous one but you still need to climb up to them! The first was near 3500m as we rose up from farmland to high paramo grassland scrub and pine forests. We camped the first night with Mattias, another cyclist from German, in a mountain biking park called Ecopark Silvan where Javier and his brother had set up a food stand and campfire for weary pilgrim. They start from around Cuenca and are heading to Loja, over 200km away, for the festival of the Virgen de Cisne when the statue is brought from the Cathedral el Cisne to the Cathedral in Loja. The incredible thing is that they don’t stop to sleep at night but rather rest for a little bit at these little impromptu cafes set up on the side of the road.

Pilgrims hiking along the road

Pilgrims hiking along the road

By around 130km into the journey, the procession is starting to look more and more like a zombie march as people are getting tired, slowing down, limping and not talking as much. Still, they’re still smiling and that’s pretty incredible. Most are journeying with very little in terms of gear and on very little sleep as well. Boys are riding bikes that seem way too small for them or on bikes that seem barely able to make it around town and some of them had flashlights taped to the handlebars while others I guess just ride in the dark at night. They have backpacks slung across the handlebars but other than that, it looks like they are just riding around town really. Actually most of the pilgrims look like teenagers out on a stroll dressed in sweatpants, a jacket tied around their waist and a backpack slung over their shoulders. They all tend to walk their bikes up the hills but they just don’t stop. We talked to one cyclist on the final leg of the journey under 30km left to Loja. “Oh you left Cuenca last night at 9pm? We left Cuenca four days ago!”

After the little town of San Lucas, we took a dirt road that ran through the narrow river valley instead of climbing up and over some more mountains with the Pan-Am. It was one of the most beautiful rides of the trip going through little villages and stunning mountain landscapes. It was cyclist heaven as it was mainly downhill on a road with very little traffic, lots of friendly villagers and pilgrims, beautiful sunny day, an amazingly scenic river canyon, and random people giving us food and drinks! Families would come out to the pilgrimage route, especially in this quieter section, and hand out oranges, cups of Cola and even a full lunch complete with juice to the weary pilgrims.

Footprints of all the pilgrims on the road

Footprints of all the pilgrims on the road

We got into Loja on the day of the big celebration in the Central Park. The whole plaza filled completely and it was walls of people in the whole square. It was festive to the point of celebratory chaos with fireworks going off in the middle of the park, three bands playing at once and not one of them playing the same song as each other and traditional dancers would be performing in tight rings of people. It was a festival inside the mind of someone with ADHD as everyone would crowd around one performance and then fireworks or a band would start up in another spot and everyone would rush over there. The three story towers rigged with fireworks was the crowning glory of the night.

Riding through the cloud forest

Riding through the cloud forest

From Loja to the La Balsa border is about another 200km where we ended up riding about half of it. We relaxed for a bit in Vilcabamba and climbed over 4 mountains in about 35km after it Climbs here in the southernmost part of Ecuador are steep and the road fades into gravel sections for stretches. After the fourth mountain which I gave my all, I was tired, wet and cold from climbing for hours in the rain. We had a little downhill into the heart of Podocarpus National Park bysected by the highway, which was beautiful surrounded by mountains upon mountains covered in virgin cloud forest wreathed in fog and cloud looking like it was some place no one had ever been before lost in time. However, through the fog and cloud, I could also see the road rising up once more…steeply….with a section washed out with slippery mud instead of pavement. The sections of dirt become more frequent and longer until it just becomes a dirt road around Palanda. It rained the whole two days in our southern journey out of Ecuador, which is unfortunate because the last approx 100km is on steep dirt roads that becomes a muddy mess when it rains. We ended up taking a bus, which itself got stuck on a 10% grade hill in thick, slippery, soupy mud about half a foot deep a little after Palanda. After two hours and eight unsuccessful attempts including once being towed by a giant gravel truck (which ended with a big crashing bang like it had pulled the bumper off but actually the truck just pulled the bus into a giant boulder – one of the many that looked like it had tumbled down in a landslide recently on this stretch of road), the bus turned back to Palanda for the night. It was attempt two the next morning after raining all night. I was worried that it would be too full for us to fit our bikes which fills up a full back compartment since the bus starts in Loja. Well, it ended up all fitting – they took out the spare tire to make the room. Who needs one of those anyways! The road was really bad until Bellavista which is the main construction area. However, it was still muddy and slick the whole way and still raining as we got into Zumba. Zumba is a larger town with well built homes and lots of school kids in crisp uniforms – a miracle with all the mud around. It made me wonder how so many people live here, so unconnected from everything else and roads that were basically muddy steep slip n’ slides. Randomly, the bus station seemed overly large for the size of the towns and the conditions of the surrounding roads.

Our bikes on top of the bus

Our bikes on top of the bus

With continued rain, we took a ranchero bus, basically covered rows of seats built on the back of a big truck that is still open air on all sides, the 35km to the border. After an hour and half of bumpy roads through very rural and remote mountaneous landscape, we could see a river below us…and a paved road. The paved road was Peru and we were almost there. We got into La Balsa, which is just a few wooden buildings, one of which was the immigration office. The office was open but we had to track down the immigration officer…which I don’t think we actually ever did. A young man came after a little while to tell us to wait a little bit as the immigration officer was coming. Then, after a little bit, he said, “well, let’s see your passports so I can start writing the numbers down.” Well he finished and stamped us out and then we left and rode over the bridge into Peru in the rain. It has been a hard exit from Ecuador but I think Ecuador is hard to leave even in the best of times. We have met a lot of expats who just came to Ecuador to visit and decided to stay and I can definately understand why. Ecuador has been a treasure.

This is an international border crossing!

This is an international border crossing!

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