The Northern Highlands

At the bakery we meet a cyclist from Sao Palo. Last night, one from California. There’s only a couple ways to the border between Peru and Ecuador and this is one of them. 

We leave San Ignacio and some how manage the 108 kilometers to Bellavista. The road is downhill and almost flat in some spots. I don’t know the last time we covered this many kilometers in one day. Mexico, perhaps.

In the cool morning air we descend to the river. Within minutes, we’re across for two Soles each. 

There’s a gap in the mountains here, a wide open valley baking in the sun. I can see the mountains and the clouds on the other side. We just have to get there. Stopping for watermelon and coconuts whenever we can, we slowly make our way to the other side. Rice, sugar cane, bananas, piñas, it’s all grown here. 

The canyon sinches down and we go up. The river is a boulder garden. Rocks and pour overs at every bend. I get the willies just looking at all the obstacles. 

The canyon narrows and opens up again. The river is lazy, blue green water floating by. The road is lined with fruit stands. What’s not to like? 

Scott shows up in Nuevo Tingo late in the day. It feels good to see a friend again. We ride to Leymebamba, solving all the world’s problems on the way. 
In Leymebamba we stay a day. 

I ask the señor at the hotel about laundry. I spied a machine in a  upstairs corner. He says after I wash it by hand, I can use his spinner. His spinner is a full on fancy Samsung washing machine. I ask why he doesn’t use the machine for everything. He says it takes too much time. I smile and nod, but inside I am raising an eyebrow. Tyndall’s mom once said that the washing machine freed women. All along our route I find myself agreeing with her over and over again. 

As the crow flies, it’s less than 70km to Cajamarca. As the road winds, it’s over 200. I have heard that the climbs are long and gradual in Peru, the descents the same. It’s true. We descend 2,700 meters over 60km. 

At the bottom is an oven. I bake. The heat is alarming. Mango trees are everywhere. Cold coconuts aplenty. We have good intentions to eat lunch and regain our beloved elevation in the shady afternoon hours. It turns out the road builders have other plans for us. 
From two German overlanders we learn that the road up and out is closed. It is open from 6:00-7:00 am and 6:00-7:00 pm everyday. Construction workers are blowing things up. We cannot pass. I embrace the heat, buy a kilo of mangos, a Sole worth of bananas and fill all my water bottles. We’ll try again in the morning. 

The full moon keeps me wide eyed all night. Just as it is dipping down, the roosters sound their alarm. The air is cooler. We climb in the early morning light, watching the canyon come alive with color. 

The sun catches us and I take frequent breaks, hiding in diminishing patches of shade. 
Shouts of gringo follow us in Peru, more so than anywhere else. I feel like a bear in Denali, with bus loads of tourists stopping to peer out at me.

Seven hours later we reach the top. 

After tuna sandwiches, we descend to Celendin then make our way to Cajamarca. There we eat our way through town, replenishing calories lost.

These mountains don’t mess around. 
Where we went: San Ignacio – Bellavista – Pedro Ruiz – Nuevo Tingo – Leymebamba – Balsas – Celendine – Cajamarca 

The launcha after Bellavista runs from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. 

Near as we can tell, the road closure at Balsas is permanent for the time being. It is also open 1:30-2:30 pm, but then you would be climbing in the hottest part of the day. The campestre just across the bridge and down river 400 meters offers camping on donation. She has bathrooms, showers and lots of flat space. 

Pedaling for Perú

We arrive in Cuenca to find Joe and Dean and Dang and Scott. Our first stop is for a new rear derrailleur. Mine is old and the spring doesn’t spring right anymore. Between a broken shifter, a worn out drivetrain and now this, it’s been ages since I have had all my gears. Now I do, at 50% off. Perfecto. 

A day and a half in Cuenca is enough. The six of us leave town together, riding through the hills to Tarqui and the PanAm. 

The paved miles click by fast with company and ice cream stops. Mid afternoon, our six becomes eight. It’s a regular bike gang. Five tents fill the volleyball court in Jarata. 

On the descent into Loja three dogs chase Joe. He’s going so fast they slam on the brakes, skidding and rolling over in the road. Dogs zero, Joe one. I laugh. My ears pop.

For one night our group grows to 12 in Vilcabamba. We cook and eat and drink and laugh, celebrating Scott’s birthday whether he wants to or not. We’re a mobile mass on 24 wheels. 

The hills roll to the border. 

Landslides cover the road. Fresh dirt fills my nostrils. 

A warning about the heat ahead has us leaving Zumba early. But then I lolly gag, hoping if I stop enough our friends will catch up. They don’t. I pedal on. 

Coffee and cacao dry in the road. Political ads cover buildings. Mototaxis are of a tougher breed here. 

The power surges on and off in San Ignacio, but the bakery has coconut macaroons and the Chinese food fills our empty bellies. 

Welcome to Perú.

Where we rode: Cuenca – Jarata – Saraguro – Loja – Vilcabamba – Palanda – Zumba – San Ignacio 

We stayed at the Casa de Cyclistas in Loja. Pablo started it two months ago. It’s located at 04-56 Bolivar y Quito. His phone number is 593984763441.

It’s all paved in Ecuador until Bellavista. Without rain, the road is hard packed dirt. In Perú, pavement again. 

The Wind Blows

We do all we intend to do in Quito. We saw Tyndall’s parents and mine. We were invited to family fiestas and danced until the sun came up. We made new friends. We learned about growing food on the equator. We learned about milking cows and the market here for organic milk. We amassed ideas about what routes to ride south. We spoke Spanish. We spoke English. We met other bike packers.

It’s time to go.

Our friend Joe is about three days ahead of us. We first crossed paths at Chickenstock over a year ago. We think we can catch him. We have the bright idea to ride the PanAm for half a day. After an hour I’m bored and Tyndall’s angry. Plan B involves a railroad. It winds through the countryside, intersecting the Trans Ecuador Trail. This will take us south, slowly. The trail has blissful high altitude riding and the occasional ditch to navigate through. What’s not to like?

New bike bits.

We ride through indigenous communities. Women wave me on. Their gold jewelry sparkles in the sun, layers of brightly colored wool flap in the wind. Shy school children watch, wide eyed from the side of the road. A buenas tardes to a group of teenage boys in sharp red sweaters elicits a good morning and an I love you, despite the afternoon hour. They dissolve into giggles.

The wind blows. For 30 cents we buy two helados and get a weather report gratis. June, July, August: wind. Sometimes it herds us along, willy nilly, pushing us down the road. Sometimes it stops us in our tracks, blowing sand in every available orifice. 

We camp next to a casita filled with cuy, this señor and his daughter sharing their space.

Clouds race across the sky. We pass up Quilatoa and it’s entrance fee in favor of Zumbahua. The weather is getting the best of us and we’re looking for some respite. I am sold on a hostel with a woodstove and giant tea pot. 

It’s not likely the weather will change, but we need a break. The wind is intense. We listen to it blow all night. 
Morning comes and we pack up, but I’m not ready to go. It’s too comfy here, and I hear the wind howling. We stay another night. 

Cows are fewer here. Mostly llama and sheep dot the hillsides. Kids fly kites, perhaps celebrating the last day of school. 

Dinner in Angamarca is the standard fare, plus beet salad. Dangerous or not, Tyndall can’t resist it. Our hostess won’t take our pennies. She insists on a nickel instead. Fog rolls in and the wind drops. We camp on a flat space behind the church. 
It’s 2:00 am and Tyndall is up, paying for his adventurous appetite. The 3,000 foot climb planned for this morning will have to wait. Instead, we find Dr. Jose Gonzalaz of Cuba. He takes us in, no questions asked. I play board games with his daughter and his wife Eva cooks us dinner. Tyndall sleeps. In Cuba, Jose made $27 a month as a doctor. In Ecuador, he makes $50 a day. He would like to emigrate to Canada with his family. 

Belly on the mend, Tyndall races me up the climb. I know he is feeling better because he wins. These two young fellows keep me entertained. 

Please, could they have my bike as a gift they ask. Lo siento mi amigo, pero necesito mi bici. Please, could you buy me a bike then? I offer a short test ride but it’s clearly not what they are looking for. They peel off, we continue up. 

Mist swirls around. In one comuna a brass band is warming up for the weekend fiesta. We pedal on, wanting to avoid fiestas this weekend. Truckloads of revelers speed by in the other direction. 
We hunker down behind our handlebars, pushing for the pass before dropping down the other side, teeth chattering. 

The cold takes us by surprise. Numb fingers are useless as we work to set up the tent. Numb lips must work twice as hard to inflate thermarests. Chimborazo plays peek a boo in the evening light. 
The Trans Ecuador Trail goes to the north of Chimborazo. Dark clouds fill the horizon. To the south, blue sky and sun. We lived in Alaska long enough to know to follow the sun. In the rain shadow of Chimborazo it’s dry. 

We’re tossed along by the wind, sometimes it helps, sometimes it hinders. For a moment, we consider pushing up to the refuge to sleep for the night. The moment passes and we go down. Down past the vicuñas, down past the cows and the potato fields and the cho chos. Down past the small comunas and into Riobamaba. 
The first stop is the bus station. We’ll be in Cuenca in six hours. 

Where we rode: Quito – Tumbillo – detour to El Murco – Aloasí – Toacaso – Guayama Grande – Zumbahua – Angamarca – Chimborazo – Riobamaba 

We used bike lanes, the tourist railroad and the unfinished bus metro lane to exit Quito to the south. We picked up the railroad again in Aloasí and followed that to the Trans Ecuador route, with only a minor detour around gated hacienda land.