What was supposed to be a short stopover turned 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 was comfortable and cheap didn’t help me leave either. I used 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 ate way too many pizzas. Salinas is not only famous for the local production of chocolate and salamis, but also of cheese, resulting in almost every single restaurant in the village being a pizzeria. After finding one that I thought made excellent pizzas, I returned there every night… I had many interesting talks with the owner, mainly about the paro national (the Ecuadorian name for the indigenous national protests), which he told me the community supported, even though they knew it was generally hurting the national and local economy.
Staying at the same place were three young blokes from Germany and Switzerland. They looked shocked to see me come out of my room on the first day, assuming that because of the paro they wouldn’t meet any other foreigners. 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 walked into the guesthouse, looking for some food. Sónia and Eloi, two bikepackers from Catalunya also cycling the Transecuador route, were on their way to Chimborazo and dying for some proper food (i.e. fruits and vegetables). We chatted a little, exchanged details and off they were already.
I left Salinas on day 18 of my trip, the day the government and the representatives of the indigenous movement came to an agreement that ended 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 opened up once I reached Pachancho and the main road to Chimborazo. Behind the 4340 m pass at the top of the road, the Chimborazo volcano came into sight for the first time that day, in all its mightiness, its summit however hidden behind clouds. What a thrill it was from that moment on to be cycling with the highest mountain of Ecuador constantly in your line of sight. After passing the junction with main E491 road, one could feel that the paro was over. For the first time since day two of the trip I was confronted with heavier traffic. It made me uneasy at first, but one gets used to it rather quickly, especially since main roads in Ecuador generally have a shoulder one can cycle on. After another endless climb I reached the entrance of the Chimborazo Reserve. I had read in the route description that cycling to the refugio at the base of the volcano was quite a rewarding experience, but to the be perfectly honest by this point I was pretty exhausted. I had actually made up my mind to skip this part and start the descent towards Riobamba when a young man walked through the parc gates and asked me whether he could hike up to the refugio. I answered that I was the wrong person to ask, but that in theory yes he could do it, although on foot it would be a three hours hike there and back, that it was already 15h30 and that he would probably have to walk back down in the dark. No worries he replied, he had an extra coat for the cold and a full bag of chocolates in case he got hungry. “You should come with me!” he told 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 shouted as I hopped on my bike and went after him. Emilio was from Peru and spending his last day in Ecuador before having to return home the next day. Having had appendicitis while in Riobamba, he had decided to do one last cool thing before leaving the country. We went up the road together, him walking and me cycling, in the end going at the same speed (I actually believe he had to slow down so that I could keep up with him!). He did most of the talking, which was fine by me at this altitude. And even though I only understood half of what he was saying, I was glad for his company. After two hours we finally reached the Refugio Carrell, situated at 4850 m above sea level. Emilio asked me to take some photos of him and then decided to hike up to the next refugio (Refugio Whymper at 5060 m) while I set up my tent. It was a fairly cloudy evening, but the sun still managed to shine through once in a while, creating a spectacle of orange shades all around me. It was dark and I had started cooking dinner when Emilio returned from the Refugio Whymper. He was frozen but there was a smile on his face, and he seemed not at all discouraged by the fact that he had to hike back down in darkness…
The next morning when I poked my head out of the tent, I realised it had snowed a bit during the night and the ground (and my tent) were covered with a thin layer of white. I had been hoping to get a clear view of the summit but to my disappointment the volcano was once again hiding behind clouds. So I took my time getting ready, hoping that the view might clear up, and was finally rewarded one hour later when the clouds partially disappeared, 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 the farthest away from its centre, due to the equatorial bulge!
The time following leaving the Chimborazo reserve turned out to be my first “dull” day of the trip, the only exciting thing happening being the fact that I had finally managed to cycle more than 50 km in one day, having reached Guamote in the evening after 80 km on the road. I checked in at the Inti Sisa Guesthouse without really checking any other options in the town, simply because the place had been recommended by the TEMBR creators on bikepacking.com. Which is why I had a slight shock when Sarah, the Belgian manager of the guesthouse, quoted me a price of 50 dollars for the night. Oh well, at least I took 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 was beautiful and the breakfast one of the best I had had in Ecuador so far. Shame that I was the only guest again to enjoy it.
The following day I stopped in Alausí after only 45km of riding. It had rained all night and although it was dry when I had left the guesthouse, the wet weather resumed shortly after. Add a strong headwind and by the time it was 2PM I was ready to check in at a guesthouse near the town’s old train station. Alausí had looked promising from the many vantage points that the Pan-American Highway offered, with its colonial architecture and its tall San Pedro statue sitting high on a hill in the middle of the town. Even though it felt a bit shabbier once I got a closer look, I still enjoyed a nice afternoon there. I bumped into a rowdy group of teenagers at the foot of San Pedro, one girl still visibly so drunk that she proposed to me on the spot… Having narrowly escaped using my finely tuned distracting technic of “oh look over there it’s Delfín Quishpe!” I treated myself to a nice Colombian dinner and hit the sack as soon as I got back to the guesthouse.
The next day was a mixed bag. The morning ride offered some of the nicest landscapes I had seen in Ecuador so far, especially on the section of the Pan-American Highway between Alausí and Chunchi, the road cutting sharply in the side of mountains, high above deep and green valleys and low clouds hovering just below the summits. Around midday, after having enjoyed a delicious ice cream in Chunchi, I heard a motorbike approaching from behind and slowing down as it levelled with me. I turned around to two smiling teenagers handing over a tangerine to me. They were but a little spot in the distance before I had time to say gracias… Later in the afternoon, as soon as I left the Chimborazo province and entered the Cañar one, the state of the road changed for the worse. At this moment a strong rain started falling, turning the surface into a wet brown puddle. Reaching a higher altitude again, I entered a deep fog that rendered the visibility non-existent and forced 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 were covered with a think layer of brown grit that felt impossible to remove. My high-viz jacket resembled a used mop and was completely useless. Later in the evening the weather had improved, and upon reaching the 3000 m road pass at Cashapamba I found a public baño where I could give myself a quick wash and refill my bottles of water. I followed a dirt track a couple of hundred meters away from the Panamericana and found a promising-looking campsite for the night. The night had fallen by the time I had finished cooking, and as I left my tent to empty my bladder one last time before bed, I was 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 was awoken the next morning by the sound of heavy rain, but more worryingly by an incredibly strong wind that was almost flattening my tent on top of me… It felt like the tent poles were going to snap and my tent fly away. I realised at this point that my mood was very much weather dependant. The feeling of loneliness was slowly fading away, since I was getting used to the daily routine of travelling by bike and receiving daily pep talks from my loved ones. But the motivation to get started in the morning, the way I tackled my days and my choice of accommodation for the nights were really impacted by the colour of the sky. I felt annoyed at myself for letting mother nature influence my mood. I should be enjoying myself, damnit, no matter what! The truth is that I couldn’t help the fact that I found it hard to leave my comfi room or tent when I looked outside and saw menacing clouds and that I couldn’t help preferring to stay in a cosy guesthouse rather than camp when I felt down. This wasn’t a very adventurous approach and I felt ashamed…
I used a short lull in the weather to pack up my gear and tent and start the day. The unusually cold temperatures made it hard though, my fingers soon losing any sensitivity. It started raining pretty much right after I hit the road and the continuous rain rapidly broke through my rainproof defences. After 25 km, completely frozen and wet to the bone, I arrived in El Tambo and decided to check in the cheapest hotel I could find, I just needed a roof over my head and warm bed.
When I looked outside my hotel window the following morning things looked a bit more promising. It was still cloudy, but these clouds were much higher, looked less rainy and some parts of the mountains in the south were bathing in sun light. I didn’t hang about much and quickly jumped on my bike towards the village of Ingapirca and its old Inca ruins. The drizzle that fell felt like such an improvement compared to the heavy rains of the previous night and before I knew it, I had arrived at my destination. Ingapirca, which in Kichwa (the Ecuadorian and Colombian Quechua language variety) literally means “Inca Wall”, are the most important known Inca ruins in Ecuador and display a mix of both the local Cañary civilization and that of their Inca invaders (the former used 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 meandered 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 started talking to Luis, one of the maintenance workers on site. He told 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 explained 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… As usual I asked him why he didn’t stay in NYC, and as always when I asked Ecuadorians that question, he replied that there is no place as nice as Ecuador.
In the afternoon I followed an old train line out of Ingapirca, which meant smooth gradients and easy riding, despite the constant drizzle. At one point, certainly due to the recent heavy rains, a huge chunk of the road had crumbled down the side of the mountain, leaving the two old metal rails hanging absurdly in the air. Although I had been warned by locals that the road was blocked, it was easy to carry my bike around the hole and continue my journey southwards. Once the route had taken me back on the Panamericana, later in the afternoon, I decided 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 had heard is so much different to any other cities in the country!
To be continued…
More photos of Ecuador can be found here!