What is supposed to be a short stopover turns into a three-day break, Salinas being a relaxed and quiet village with good food options and a well-stocked shop. The fact that the guesthouse is comfortable and cheap doesn’t help me leave either. I use the opportunity to rest and write my first blog post, hike to a nearby summit to admire clear views of the Chimborazo summit, catch up on some current series, and watch locals play ecuavóley from the guesthouse’s rooftop.
I also eat way too many pizzas. Salinas is not only famous for the local production of chocolate and salamis but also of cheese, which means almost every single restaurant in the village is a pizzeria. After finding one that I think makes excellent food, I return there every night. I have many interesting talks with the owner, mainly about the paro nacional (the Ecuadorian name for the indigenous national protests), which he tells me the community supports, even though they know it is generally hurting the national and local economy.
Staying at the same place are three young blokes from Germany and Switzerland. They look shocked to see me come out of my room on the first day, assuming that because of the paro they would be the only tourists in the village. They had been spending way too much time in the backpackers’ hotspot of Baños and had decided to rent some mountain bikes and cycle west to Salinas. On the second day, around lunchtime, a young man in his cycling gear walks into the guesthouse, looking for something to eat for him and his girlfriend. Sónia and Eloi, two bikepackers from Catalunya also cycling the Transecuador route, are on their way to Chimborazo and dying for some proper food (i.e. fruits and vegetables). We chat a little, exchange details, and off they are already.
I leave Salinas on day 18 of my trip, the day the government and the representatives of the indigenous movement come to an agreement that ends the national strike (the result being a strengthening of price controls by province governors, more government help in the health sector, more budget for education, and a reduction of petrol prices). Following Rio Quila on a narrow dirt road, the deep valley opens up once I reach Pachancho and the main road to Chimborazo. Behind a 4340 m pass, the Chimborazo volcano comes into sight for the first time that day, in all its mightiness. Its summit, however, is hidden behind clouds. What a thrill it is from that moment on to be cycling with the highest mountain of Ecuador constantly in your line of sight.
Passing the junction with the main E491 road, I can feel that the paro is over. For the first time since day two of the trip, I am confronted with heavier traffic. It makes me uneasy at first, but I get used to it pretty quickly, especially since main roads in Ecuador generally have a shoulder to cycle on. After another endless climb, I reach the entrance of the Chimborazo Reserve. I have read in the route description that cycling to the refugio at the base of the volcano is quite a rewarding experience, but by this point I am quite exhausted. I had actually made up my mind to skip this part and start the descent towards Riobamba when a young man walks through the park gates and asks me whether he can hike up to the refugio. I answer that I am the wrong person to ask, but that in theory, yes, he could do it, although on foot it would be a three-hour hike there and back, that it is already 15h30, and that he would probably have to walk back down in the dark! No worries, he replies, he has an extra coat for the cold and a full bag of chocolates in case he gets hungry. “You should come with me!” he tells me before setting off on foot.
Liking his candour and optimism, after five more minutes of internal debating, I make up my mind. “Espérame!!!!!!!!” I shout as I hop on my bike to catch up with him. Emilio is from Peru and spending his last day in Ecuador before having to return home the next afternoon. Having had appendicitis while in Riobamba, he has decided to do one last cool thing before leaving the country. We go up the road together, him walking and me cycling, in the end going at the same speed (I actually believe he has to slow down so that I can keep up with him!). He gives me a chocolate every now and then to keep my spirits high and does most of the talking, which is fine by me at this altitude. And even though I only understand half of what he is saying, I am glad for his company. After two hours, we finally reach the Refugio Carrell, situated at 4850 m above sea level. Emilio asks me to take some photos of him and then decides to hike up to the next refugio (Refugio Whymper at 5060 m) while I set up my tent. It is a fairly cloudy evening, but the sun still manages to shine through once in a while, creating a spectacle of orange shades all around me. It is dark, and I have started cooking dinner, when Emilio returns from the Refugio Whymper. He is frozen, but there is a smile on his face, and he seems not at all discouraged by the fact that he has to hike back down in darkness.
The next morning, when I poke my head out of the tent, I realise it has snowed a bit during the night, and the ground (and my tent) is covered with a thin white layer. I had been expecting to get a clear view of the summit, but to my disappointment, the volcano is once again hiding behind clouds. So I decide to take my time getting ready, hoping that the view clears up. I am finally rewarded one hour later when the clouds partially disappear, leaving nothing but a misty trail on either side of the summit. By the way, here’s a little fun fact for you: The top of Chimborazo is not only the highest mountain in Ecuador; it’s also the point on the surface of the earth farthest away from its centre, due to the equatorial bulge!
I leave the Chimborazo reserve behind and end up having my first “dull” day of the trip. The only exciting thing worth mentioning is that I finally manage to cycle more than 50 km in one day, having reached Guamote in the evening after 80 km on the road. I check in at the Inti Sisa Guesthouse without really looking at any other options in the town, simply because the place is recommended by the TEMBR creators on bikepacking.com. Which is why I have a slight shock when Sarah, the Belgian manager of the guesthouse, quotes me a price of 50 dollars for the night. Oh well, at least I take comfort in the fact that Inti Sisa uses part of the income to fund educational projects for the local indigenous communities, some of the poorest in the country, such as sewing and music classes, English and computer courses, and homework support (and many other cool projects). On top of that, the place is beautiful and the breakfast one of the best I have had in Ecuador so far. Shame that I am the only guest again to enjoy it.
The following day I stop in Alausí after only 45 km of riding. It has rained all night and although it is dry when I leave the guesthouse, the wet weather resumes shortly after. Add a strong headwind, and by 2 PM I am ready to check in at a guesthouse near the town’s old train station. Alausí looked promising from the many vantage points of the Pan-American Highway, with its colonial architecture and its tall San Pedro statue sitting high on a hill in the middle of the town. It feels a bit shabbier once I get a closer look, but I still enjoy a nice afternoon meandering through the narrow streets. I bump into a rowdy group of teenagers at the foot of San Pedro, one girl still visibly so drunk that she proposes to me on the spot… Having narrowly escaped using my finely tuned distracting technique of “oh look over there it’s Delfín Quishpe!”, I treat myself to a nice Colombian dinner and hit the sack as soon as I get back to the guesthouse.
The next day is a mixed bag. The morning ride offers some of the nicest Andean landscapes I have seen in Ecuador so far, especially on the section of the Pan-American Highway between Alausí and Chunchi. The road cuts sharply into the side of mountains, high above deep and green valleys, and low clouds hover just below the summits. Around midday, after enjoying a delicious ice cream in Chunchi, I hear a motorbike approaching from behind and slowing down as it levels with me. I turn around to see two smiling teenagers handing me a tangerine. I thank them, but they are already just a little black spot in the distance… Later in the afternoon, as soon as I leave the Chimborazo province and enter the Cañar one, the state of the road changes for the worse. It starts raining heavily, turning the road surface into a wet brown puddle. Reaching a higher altitude again, I cycle into a deep fog that renders the visibility non-existent and forces me to put on my high-viz vest and turn on my back light. Two hours later, every single part of my bike and my lower body is covered with a thick layer of brown grit. My high-viz jacket resembles a used mop and is completely useless. The weather improves later in the evening, and upon reaching the 3000 m road pass at Cashapamba, I find a public baño where I can give myself a quick wash and refill my water bottles. I follow a dirt track a couple of hundred meters away from the Panamericana and find a promising-looking campsite. The night has fallen by the time I finish cooking, and as I leave my tent to empty my bladder one last time before bed, I am treated to an amazing light show from thousands of fireflies hovering low above the grass in the fields around my tent. An unforgettable moment.
I am awoken the next morning by the sound of heavy rain, and more worryingly by an incredibly strong wind that is almost flattening my tent on top of me… It feels like the poles are going to snap and my tent fly away. I realise at this point that my mood is very much weather-dependent. The feeling of loneliness has slowly been fading away, now that I am getting used to the daily routine of traveling by bike. But the motivation to get started in the morning, the way I tackle my days, and my choice of accommodation for the nights are really impacted by the color of the sky. I feel annoyed at myself for letting mother nature influence my mood. I should be enjoying myself, no matter what! But the truth is that I can’t help finding it hard to leave my comfy room or tent in the morning when I look outside and see menacing clouds, and that I can’t help preferring to stay in a cosy guesthouse rather than camp when I feel down. I realise this isn’t a very adventurous approach, but it’s what keep me going at the moment…
I use a short lull in the weather to pack up my gear and tent and start the day. The unusually cold temperatures make it hard though, my fingers soon losing any sensitivity. It starts raining pretty much right after I hit the road, and the continuous rain rapidly breaks through my rainproof defenses. After 25 km, completely frozen and wet to the bone, I arrive in El Tambo and decide to check in the cheapest hotel I can find; I just need a roof over my head and a warm bed.
When I look outside my hotel window the following morning, things look a bit more promising. It’s still cloudy, but these clouds are much higher, look less rainy, and some parts of the mountains in the south are bathing in sunlight. I don’t hang about much and quickly jump on my bike towards the village of Ingapirca and its old Inca ruins. The drizzle that falls feels like such an improvement compared to the heavy rains of the previous night, and before I know it, I have reached my destination. Ingapirca, which in Kichwa (the Ecuadorian and Colombian Quechua language variety) literally means “Inca Wall,” is home to the most important known Inca ruins in Ecuador. They display a mix of both the local Cañary civilization and their Inca invaders (the former use mortar to keep stones together, the latter cut their stones so precisely that they fit perfectly against each other, thus removing the need for mortar). I meander alone through the impressive network of old stone walls, trying to imagine what those streets might have looked like in the 13th century.
On my way out, I start talking to Luis, one of the maintenance workers on site. He tells me he used to work on construction sites in New York and was actually working the day the Twin Towers fell. He saw everything unfold with his own eyes and explains how his brother, who was there with him, actually believed the one tower was being demolished by the city, until they saw the second plane crash into the second tower… I ask him why he didn’t stay in NYC, and as always when I ask Ecuadorians that question, he replies that there is no place as nice as Ecuador.
In the afternoon, I follow an old train line out of Ingapirca, which means smooth gradients and easy riding, despite the constant drizzle. At one point, most likely due to the recent heavy rains, a huge chunk of the road has crumbled down the side of the mountain, leaving the two old metal rails hanging absurdly in the air. Although locals had warned me that the road is blocked, it’s easy to carry my bike around the gaping hole and continue my journey southwards. Once the route has taken me back on the Panamericana, later in the afternoon, I decide to skip the remaining TEMBR section and make a dash for Cuenca on the main highway, eager to reach Ecuador’s third biggest city as quickly as possible. And eager to discover a place I have heard is so much different to any other cities in the country!
To be continued…
More photos of Ecuador can be found here!