I leave Cuenca on a sunny morning with a heavy heart, having thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I am however running slightly behind schedule, so it is time to move on towards the Peruvian border.
I head directly south, re-joining the TEMBR route near Patabamba and follow it past Cumbe along a quiet dirt road. Around lunchtime, I realise that it is Thursday, and that my usual Spanish class back in Munich is about to start. Noticing that for once I have full phone reception, I pull over, sit down on a comfortable-looking stone, and proceed to take part in the Skype group call. Unfortunately, it turns out that my 30-days prepaid card has just run out, which means I have no internet after all. Slightly irritated, I pack my things and continue the hard climb south of Cumbe, only to otice after five kilometers that I have lost my earphones… Not quite sure what to do, and hoping that I have left them on the stone where I took that small break, I hide my bike in the bushes and hitch a lift with the first passing car back down the dirt track. Unfortunately, the earphones are nowhere to be found, and I don’t see them during my hour-long hike back to the bike. Failure. Before the start of the downhill to Jima, I choose to leave the TEMBR route and join the Pan-American Highway, along a small and sometimes very steep dirt road, resulting in much pushing and cursing. Luckily, once back on the tarmac, it is only downhill, so I squeeze in another 15 km before finding a nice camping spot right under a big electrical pylon.
The next day I pass the small village of La Paz, seemingly the place to stop if you want to eat fried pig’s skin. After a short chat with a road cyclist who is going all the way from Cuenca to Loja in one day (a stretch that will take me 3 days in total), I start a long downhill down to Rio León, dropping a good 1000 m in the process. An altitude difference that I have to gain again on the other side, all the way past San Felipe de Oña. My legs feel strong though, so after a short ice-cream break in Urdaneta, where a village fiesta is in full swing, I push all the way to the town of Saraguro and get a 10-dollar room in a small and clean hotel.
After a short but tiring climb south of Saraguro the next morning, I reach a 2960 m pass in a slight drizzle, happy to know that it is almost all downhill from then on until Loja. In San Lucas I stop for some delicious side-road tortillas (I keep ordering one more) before leaving the Pan-American Highway for a dirt-road following Rio Zamora in a beautiful and deep valley. The dirt track is in good condition, allowing me to thoroughly enjoy the scenery. At one point a landslide stops my progress, a man on a motorbike tells me that the road has been cut off during the night. Luckily a digger has been working at it for quite a while by that point, and only after five minutes of waiting a path big enough has been cleared for two-wheeled vehicles to pass. The long queue of cars and buses on the other side will have to wait a bit longer though. Towards the end of the valley, during the only climb remaining, I pass three men and a horse working a sugar cane press. One of them spots me and calls me over for a chat. He pours me two glasses of fresh sugar cane juice with a bit of lemon juice, and I can honestly say that I have never tasted anything so delicious and refreshing.
In Loja I find another cheap hotel room and spend the remaining hours of daylight exploring the quaint streets of the city, known as the music and cultural capital of Ecuador.
Before leaving the next morning, I finally ask the hotel clerk a question that had been bothering me ever since I arrived in Quito: Why do Ecuadorians love and drive pick-up trucks so much. He answers me with three valid points:
– They are practical for the working folk, enabling them to easily load and carry things like construction material or animals (or people),
– They can cope pretty efficiently with Ecuador’s bad roads,
– They hardly lose any value over the years (this point seems the most important to him).
After a short 45km ride, punctuated by many sugar cane juice breaks, I arrive in the small town of Vilcabamba, known on the travelling scene for its enjoyable weather but mainly for being a place in South America where many north Americans come to enjoy their retirement. The climate is noticeably different in these parts, more tropical, the mountains full of palm, coconut and banana trees. The town is not particularly pretty, but does indeed has a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere, with countless little restaurants, bakeries and cafés, all tailored to the hippie backpackers and boho retirees. I take two days off in Vilcabamba, to catch up on my blog-writing, binge-eat, get a cheap full-body massage, binge-drink mango smoothies and rest the legs before the final dash to the Peruvian border.
One morning during breakfast I meet Peter, a Canadian-American who, you guessed it, has just moved to town to retire. Tired of American politics and Canadian’s stance on the environment’s protection, he tells me he is never going to return to North America and is looking for a property to buy near the town. Peter has had an interesting life, born in Canada but raised in the US, he’s worked many jobs in his life, amongst other things as a Greyhound driver or a gas station manager in the west of Virginia (where he would regularly be visited by members of the Ku Klux Klan). He’s also travelled a lot in the early 80’s, crossing Central Asia (and especially Afghanistan) all the way to Nepal. Curious, I can’t stop asking him questions, as I always imagined travelling at that time to be a much different experience to what it is today, with a lot less tourists around and a lot more undiscovered roads and places. But Peter is quick to remind me that most hippies had already done the overland crossing to Kathmandu a decade earlier and that there had been nothing pioneering about his trip. Still, I am fascinated, but when Peter starts talking about UFO sightings and how we all exist because aliens visited earth millions of years ago, I take it as my cue to say goodbye and get on with my day…
From Vilcabamba it takes me three days to reach the tiny border village of La Balsa. Upon reaching Yangana dark clouds gather and it starts pouring, so much so that the ladies at the restaurant where I have lunch recommend that I go no further, warning me that the weather in the Sierra will be cold and wet. Even though they are right, the rain doesn’t bother me too much, and reaching the 2770 m pass, I roll down into Valladolid at dusk and find a 5-dollar room in a grubby little hotel near the market square. I fill my belly with chuleta and rice and end the night watching a heated game of ecuavóley, to the amusement of the locals, who must be wondering what in heavens I am doing here.
The road then follows the Rio Palanda downstream through tropical landscapes, taking me through a village of the same name, before climbing back up past the Palanuma, until I reach Progreso in time for lunch. Being at a much lower altitude, it is a lot more humid and I am happy to take a break in a nice little restaurant just outside the centre, where I share a table with a man and his two sons. The boys are on school holidays and their dad is showing them the ropes of working as a veterinarian in the countryside. We have an interesting chat about the current crisis between the Ukraine and Russia. He tells me that moving to South America would be a wise choice now, since Europe is going to be in troubled waters for years to come. Another long downhill followed by a steep climb takes me to Zumba for my final night in Ecuador.
The last 25 km to the border still involve more than 1000 m of climbing, Ecuador making me work hard until the last moment! La Balsa is probably the smallest border crossing I’ve ever been through, so tiny and quiet that I completely miss the Ecuadorian immigration office upon arriving… Quick stamps in my passport on both sides of the Rio Chinchipe (plus a check of my COVID vaccination status) and I have officially entered Peru. A new chapter of this journey is about to begin, and I couldn’t be more excited!
To be continued…
More photos of Ecuador can be found here!