Ecuador Part 2: THE GREAT ALONE
On July 25, my riding buddy Sharat rode his last day solo. Since his first day riding in Ecuador was solo, It seemed somewhat fitting for him to go on a last solo mission to see Chimborazo before returning to Germany. We said our farewells on a happy friendly note and I took an exhausted rest day.
On July 26, I pedaled with the four Americans for a bit on lovely single track and dirt roads as we climbed up towards the volcano against headwinds. Fatigue and stomach pain had me dragging behind and eventually they grew so small in the distance that they were dots and then gone. The wind was intense and did nothing to boost my morale or speed. It took me a minute to feel the hole Sharat left but then it came. It was still nice knowing other people were out there struggling in this nonsense, but I did feel very alone, with 1 car passing me all morning.
If I’m honest, I’ll admit that all I really wanted to do that day (and several other days) is watch my first-ever Netflix obsession, “Orange is the New Black”. I think I got so into the show and learned a lot from it because it’s everything my life is not. A combination of sedentary stationary life, many women together and familiar, (even though they are trapped in prison) and a lot of big city NYC in the background. My life is pretty solo, definitely not around female camaraderie, and opposite of city life, moving through some of the most remote areas I’ve even seen. The characters are also dynamic and the show is incredibly well-written and well-acted. I sometimes had dreams about it or wondered what some of these fictitious ladies would think of my trip. Red would probably tell me I’m crazy, Piper would cluelessly think it was cool. It might sound silly, but I think it’s normal for the human brain to fills its social gaps however it can when you’re not being social.
However, I appreciate the fact that I’m not in prison and I continued climbing up and up, taking shelter from the wind in a ditch a few times.
Seeing Chimborazo was like a splash of cold water to the face when you’re hot. It refreshed and invigorated me and took my breath away and I felt lucky to get a clear view of it for most of my ride. it was all worth it, to see that volcano!! Snow-capped with its own weather system up there it was just Glorious. Unfortunately it was too windy to stop much and take photos. But wow! That peak was so high, and I was already so high at 14,388 ft (4,360 m) on the road that every pedal stroke was that much harder with less oxygen.
When the downhill started I was a safety squirrel being so very cautious as the wind gusts continued to try knocking me off my bike. Luckily they failed and I had a pretty fun if white knuckle descent. I took a lunch break shelter in a small lodge that was the only building for miles and met some tourist cyclists out for a day tour of the area. I should have joined them for a few miles on the dirt descent, gleaning knowledge from their local guide about the history of the surrounding canyons. But I was nervous about getting to riobamba before dark. Oh well. Lessons.
I pulled into hectic honking-filled Riobamba, found my Airbnb and settled in. Finally a rest day with laundry and groceries and ATMs. I spent two days route planning, eating foods I’d missed, and sleeping. It was great and I could have used even more of it.
I left my little apartment, still feeling travel weary but also ready to move forward at the same time. I struggled to fit all the groceries I had bought into my bags. Don’t ever go to the grocery store as a hungry cyclist on an empty stomach!! Ugh. #Lessons. I bought a completely ridiculous amount of food. I blame my mom’s influence.
My route to Guamote is through gorgeous farm fields, still in view of Chimborazo and then up super steep dirt roads to camp in a forgotten forestry area. It was sunny and hot and I was still a little homesick but I loved the rainbow colors of the quinoa fields. I was at it again and slowly getting back in my solo groove.
The next few days took me on constant up and down gravel and dirt roads. My body and mind were sometimes elated and sometimes so exhausted with wind and cold that I wanted to curl up in a house and never leave.
I rolled up and over a pass near Cihunchi at 13,860 ft (4200m) through more sideways blasting wind. After hours of no other humans and some singletrack, near the top I almost missed a shepherd crouched in the tall grass. His brown and yellow wool Poncho blending in perfectly. He said hello like it was the most normal thing in the world for just the two of us to be out in this gale force wind. I took shelter behind a cut bank to put on all my layers at the top, or else my gear would have blown away in the wind. The descent was full of landslides and some singletrack that was eroded to be barely wide enough for my panniers.
Part of the descent was enjoyable (yay! Downhill! No cars! Remote as hell!) but then towards the end it was so cold that navigating around creeks took all of my energy. Once again Cold and wet, I ached for someone to wave to me or invite me in for tea. This is a theoretical “someone” since I didn’t actually see any people for most of the day. Instead I struggled to find a flat place to camp. I kept telling myself “next house, next ridge”
There has to be the right combination of location and people outside to ask to camp. I hate knocking on doors, and very rarely do it. Eventually I asked a girl of about 12 and she said yes, as usual. An hour later I was cozy as the sun came out in the later afternoon to give me a show of a light across the mountains, having green and azul and cerulean spots of sun and shade. Emerald and sapphire all at once, I wondered why people watch TV so much when there’s this to look at. The sunsets everywhere, every day.
As I was repairing my stove (again) I peered outside my nylon cocoon of a tent only to see a precious 7-person family leaning down staring around my tent curiously, wondering who this creature was in this funny casita. They invited me into their home. Their first language was Quechuan and their Spanish was hard to understand. I explained my stove was broken so they let me cook on their propane! Their kitchen hut was made of mud and straw, like most structures in this area. It had no windows and animal bones on the floor and a smoldering fire in the corner with small dirty-cheeked kids continually appearing. It was amazing and I felt so lucky. I was grateful for the warmth and small conversation. I shared my vegetable stir fry which they politely pretended to eat before dropping pieces of broccoli on the ground. I wanted to make sure I was polite and eating without sharing felt wrong, but then I saw that it was fine and maybe these vegetables were just too foreign, or too differently flavored, for their rice and corn based diet. I don’t know, but lesson learned, because I could have easily eaten it all myself.
The Abuela, Rose, only spoke Quechuan but kept holding my hand and speaking to me anyway. I did gather that She told me I was pretty (I was like “I think your eyesight is bad, Abuelita”) and brave and that it was crazy and dangerous for me to travel alone. She wore traditional dress of skirt and red sweater with many strands of white beads around her neck. It was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit but she was barefoot with feet that looked like they would be uncomfortable in shoes.
The kids graciously walked me back to my tent in the black hole darkness with no moon, and pushed each other to ask me for “plata,” money. To which of course I said no because that is just a horrible precedent to set. On that note: There is a great book on foreign aid called Road to Hell, which focuses on Africa but if you haven’t read it I highly suggest it.
The next morning Rose let me warm up by her fire and fed me a sweet rice porridge drink, before I got my picture taken by the kids on their phone with no service. Again constant up and down hills guided me as I pedaled into the wind more and took shelter for lunch in the alcove of a house where I asked permission from a very confused teenager. The rest of his family was at the river washing clothes and I don’t know enough spanish to ask how he got out of this chore on such a cold day. This remote valley was just unbelievable.
That night I got turned down twice when asking for camping, which was a first and I was discouraged and worried with sunset coming fast in the valleys. But then I pulled up to a house with a woman outside and for some reason The first thought to prominently project in my mind was “she is the same age as me.” Which was indeed correct. Angelisita was visiting her mom in the country, and lives in Quito. She was also 32 years old, with her birthday the next day, August 1, with mine one month down the road. She had all the curious questions and at first I just wanted to relax in my tent when she kept “knocking” on the door which at first was exhausting but then I rallied energy and enjoyed the conversation. We shared pictures and videos of our respective places of residence. She had videos of bull fighting and her two kids;I had friends, bikes, tall trees and flowers.
I woke up early to Angelisita the amazing hostess bringing me bread and tea to my tent (breakfast in bed! I am a queen!). A glorious sunny downhill to start my day reflected my whole interaction with her. It really gave my whole outlook a new golden hue of strength, and I felt as if I had made a friend who was happy to have me as a guest, instead of my usual hoping to not be a hospitality nuisance. I had a friend instead of the briefest of acquaintances. We are still in touch.
My route continued across long sunny uphills and downhills over the next two days, partially on asphalt which was a smooth and soothing relief after all the small bumps of rock. It was also fun and fast at times! I truly relished the winding descents and big views of enormous canyons as I inched my way toward Cuenca. I camped in a farmer’s field near Zhud, then another farmer’s field near Narzón. I was looking forward to staying with Veronica in Cuenca (who I had met on the bike path near Quito) and taking more much-needed rest.
On my final day of riding into Cuenca, steep Muddy scenic backroads took me through the cold fog and drizzle. At one point I was really feeling sorry for myself, lamenting my lack of warmth and pancakes when at the top of my second climb a man said (in Spanish) “Hola! do you want coffee?” I was like, “damn I am hallucinating again”. But then I wasn’t and I sat at his huge dining room table while his wife made me toast and eggs and hot strong coffee and he showed me the rooms they keep just for traveling guests. His name was Daniel Solano and his granddaughter was Daniella. He asked me to share a gps point for other cyclists taking this route which I did. I can’t even put into words what that interaction did to lift my soggy spirits.
Once in Cuenca I took care of errands and enjoyed modern comforts (I’m inconveniently addicted to cappuccinos) for the first time in what felt like ages. Over wine and dinner at another huge and gorgeous dining room table, Veronica and I had easy and lengthy conversations about everything from cycling, rock climbing, men, language and culture. She speaks Spanish, English, and German fluently. She’s my age and we’ve had very different backgrounds but again I felt like I had a friend. I stayed two days, one spent mostly in bed and washing clothes, and one spent on errands, the art museum, good beer and salad (!!!) with Veronica and a small tour of the town with her, a wealth of knowledge.
It was like the female companionship I had been craving and trying to compensate for via TV was providing itself in real life, via Rose, Angelisita, Veronica, and Sylvia, Gloria in the coming week. How great.
From Cuenca I was starting to enjoy the road again after so much fatigue in my legs and mind. I stayed in a woman’s unfinished concrete house, camped in another woman’s yard next to her house which I’d thought was abandoned (sometimes it’s very hard to tell), watched the sliver of moon begin to reappear. I slept 12 hours one night and rode past gorgeous farms and canyons and rocks. On a cloudy morning I met a fellow cyclists heading north and that gave me a huge energy boost. We chatted for nearly an hour, both straddling our bikes just trading info and thoughts on gear back and forth. We are also still in touch. I made it past Nabòn and Saraguro, noticing that even the small towns were getting nicer, the houses were getting bigger, if still never all the way finished. Some of the houses look like someone saw a TV show and thought “that’s nice!” But since there’s no bricks they just paint brick designs on other materials.
As August gained speed so did I, towards Loja and a lengthy gradual gravel descent along Rio Zamora. As I continued south on my zig-zag route, the climate was getting a little drier and the views were less expansive but still very pleasant, encompassing the next ridge and farm instead of miles of green mountains. The plants were changing from green emerald every where to a variety of tall grasses and trees. Everything was still very green but the landscape had more human management and was more groomed than the previous miles of wild.
Loja was an unremarkable town that I barely explored, walking around eating empanadas and papaya juice like I was homesick for Colombia.
On August 10 I aimed for Vilcabamba, a well known expat town where I was planning on meeting up with Jean Pascal, my French Canadian friend I had met on my first day in Ecuador. We had stayed in touch and our timelines were similar enough to ride together for a bit. After a smooth paved downhill that left my cheeks sore from smiling, losing thousands of feet in altitude, I was ready for something that felt more like summer, the heat, sunshine and humidity of the lowlands for a bit. I was also ready for the company.
ECUADOR PART 2: NUTS AND BOLTS= Distance + Vertical
July 26: Salinas de Guaranda- Riobamba, 72km/ mi; 1300m/ 4,290 ft up; 1700m/5,510 ft down
July 27: Riobamba, Rest Day, 0 miles
July 28: Riobamba, Rest Day, 0 miles
July 29: Riobamba- past Guamote, 75 km (46 mi), 1200 m/3,960 ft up; 800m/2,640 ft down
July 30: Near Guamote- Quechuan family hut, 45 km(28 mi) 1500m/4,950 ft up; and a lot down
July 31:Quechuan hut- near Achupallas, 47km(29mi) , 1700m/ 5,610 for up; 1,800m/ 5,940 ft down
August 1: near Achupallas- near Zuhd, 70km(44mi), don’t know up and down. A lot of down.
August 2: near Zhud- Nazón, 66km(41mi), 1000m/ 3,300 ft up; 800m/2,690 ft down
August 3: Nazón- Cuenca, 50km (35mi)
August 4: REST DAY, 0 miles
August 5: REST DAY, 5 miles around town
August 6: Cuenca- a little passed Jima, 54km(37mi), 1839m/6,068 ft up, 1700m/5610 ft down
August 7: outside Jima- near Nabón, 52km, 1866m up; 2031m down
August 8: near Nabón – Saraguro, 67km, 2166m up; 2295m down
August 9: Saraguro- Loja, 62km, 600m/ 1980 ft up; 1200m/3960 ft down
August 10: Loja- Vilcabamba, 36km, 800m/ 2690 ft up; 1000m/ 3300 ft down