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. 

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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.

Vuelta de Cotopaxi

The number of people riding north to south through the Americas by bicycle seems large. The number of people bikepacking through the Americas as we are is small. Not many people choose dirt roads, two tracks and single tracks. When we have the opportunity to ride with other like-minded cyclists for a couple days, we seize it.

Dean and Dang arrive at the farm Sunday. Monday they take the bus to Tumbaco to ship items ahead, south so they don’t have to carry them. We ride our bikes to Pifo to source stove fuel. If the pintura doesn’t have it, the ferreteria will, it’s just a matter of finding the right one. After five tries we get lucky. At the grocery in Pifo Tyndall finds Ecuadorian peanut butter, a whole pint for $1.85. It’s a steal, and comes in the usual, suspect, unlabeled container. It’s fine.

It’s Tuesday and we all pack up and ride out, bouncing down the cobbled farm road in a line. We meet the milk truck at the bottom and pull over to let him pass before crossing out onto the highway.

The highway riding is short lived and then we are climbing up towards Pintag.

Mid morning salchipapas give us a boost. Fresh bread is bought and stashed away for later.

While at the farm, Tyndall acquired loads of GPS tracks. We’re following what’s been named The Family Route. Dean has what we call The Horse Trail on his GPS. The Family Route is meant for towing kids in two wheeled trailers, we’re told. Easy peasy. And it is, until we go off on a grassy lane, down a ditch, and through bottomless pits of mud. Perhaps The Family Route is meant for the dry season? Perhaps the families here are made of tougher stuff than we are?

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We climb and climb and climb and then find an abandoned house to camp at for the night.

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Parts of Cotopaxi peek from behind the clouds. We supplement our dinner with dehydrated veggies from the farm.

The road continues up. We dodge mud puddles and cow paddies. A jeep passes, full of fishermen out for the day with a guide. The fishing is great he says. Tell your friends. There’s big trout to be had in Ecuador.

We pedal on, picking our way through a boulder field and up to 13,500 feet. I stop often, taking photos and wishing for more oxygen. The Chia seeds from breakfast are waging a battle in my intestines. I thought these things were supposed to be good for me. All the open space makes me giddy.

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The road continues down, but we’re directed up to the top of a knoll and across a grassy slope, towards Tambo.

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There’s a hacienda there and we set up our tents behind an old earthen wall, protected from the wind. Business is slow as this section of the park is technically closed due to volcanic activity. Five dogs patrol the premises, joined by a herd of alpacas in the morning.

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Cotopaxi is out, and then it’s not as clouds are whipped up the valley. We join the clouds in their journey, but at a slower pace. It’s like riding on a golf course, but with a few more obstacles. We should have brought some clubs, and found a caddy.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

I wish for a horse, but none appear. Onward.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

From the top, we look down and see our road. We part ways, Dean and Dang continuing south to Latacunga while we start looping back north to Malaló.

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The road funnels us down into a ditch. I lack the energy to get out. Instead, we stretch our remaining food and make camp for the night. A big pot of tea goes a long way.

Hot breakfast in Malaló replenishes calories lost. The road seems lonely now, but we ride fast, climbing up one more time on the park road. It’s wide and gravel and almost boring until we dip off onto a double track. We keep heading north, reconnecting with our tracks from two days ago.

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Back at the farm, I say hello to our new neighbors and reacquaint myself with the outdoor shower.

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Time Out

It’s market day in El Quinche. We wind our way through. Anything you need, it’s here: fruit, shoe laces, clothing, hats, vegetables, street food. Tyndall only gets distracted once by a wheelbarrow full of zapotes.

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We’re looking for signs of an old railroad bed, and an easy way into the city.

A ninety degree turn to the right past the market and we find it: a gentle grade heading off into the trees, and old rails sticking out here and there amongst the grass and trash.

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Bridges and tunnels intact, it’s the best way to enter a city. Sometimes there’s a road, sometimes there’s a two track, and occasionally a single track. It delivers us to Puembo. Here, we meet up with Tyndall’s parents.

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For the past couple weeks they have been traveling in Peru and Ecuador. This is the end of their trip. For us, it’s the beginning of our time in and around Quito. We have a few things we want to do, and a few curiosities to satisfy.

Inbetween, we fix things that have broken, stumble through conversations in Spanish and replenish calories lost.

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We’ll be here for awhile before heading south again.

Where we rode: Guayllabama – El Quinche – Quito

Ecuador: Mystical Paramo and Four Legged Friends

The border between Colombia and Ecuador is at the bottom of a long hill. Our exit from Colombia is fast. A passport stamp, a changing from pesos to greenbacks and we’re through. A month after we arrived, we leave. My eyes have been opened a bit wider. There’s much more to Colombia than cocaine and coffee. Come see for yourself.

In Tulcan we find supplies for a couple days, and then struggle to remember how to pack them all on our bikes. It’s been ages since we have gone over 24 hours without a resupply. Tyndall says he has no room for vegetables. I wonder what he has stashed in his frame bag instead.

It’s not long before we turn off the main road. We’re going up, looking for wide open spaces and paramo. Mother Nature has other plans for us though. Wind lashes at our backs and rain pours down. We take temporary refuge under a porch. The dogs have the best spot though.

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We’re all waiting for the storm to pass.

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When it does, we ride on, waving our thanks to the kind lady who shared her roof for the afternoon.

Pockets of paramo appear above 11,000 feet. Frailejóns majestically dot the mountainsides, standing witness – although to what I haven’t yet decided.

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I hear water running everywhere, but can’t see it. I imagine streams, cut deep through the peat rushing down to quench the insatiable thirst of those below.

At the top of the climb, the alleged ranger station appears. We inquire about camping and are shown a room all our own, complete with a view. This is what we have been craving: quiet wilderness and open spaces.

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We listen to the crickets and watch fireflies in the dark.

In the morning, mist swirls around. It’s mysterious and magical.

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The park rangers switch out. One leaves for his home near the fronterra. He says it is a six hour walk, but now he has a moto. Esmerelda arrives on foot. She tells us she walks three hours from San Gabriel to come to work. She forages in the paramo and comes back with piñueles for us to try.

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She says they help with stomach and intestinal troubles. She tells us about the bears and the wolves and the birds that live in the paramo. One wolf frequents the area. He is called El Muchacho.

We walk up the hill and watch the sunset. We count five volcanos on the horizon.

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Cooking dinner, a shooting star drops through the sky. Later, El Muchacho comes by, watching us with blinking yellow eyes. We consider walking to San Gabriel tomorrow to get food, just so we can spend another day up here.

The morning is clear and crisp. It’s time to move on. We descend through the paramo.

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Dirt road turns to cobbles turns to pavement and it just keeps dropping. It’s fun, until it’s not and my stomach sinks at the thought of all those feet we will need to regain. Green hillsides turn brown. Cactai reappear. The cool breeze turns into a hot blast. Where are we? What is this place? We’re in a rain shadow filled with prickly things and bitey bugs. I wilt.

In Tumbabiro I hear music. It sounds like an ice cream truck. I pedal faster. The truck with the noise comes around the corner. It’s not an ice cream truck at all. It’s a garbage truck. Well. Nothing to do but pedal on.

The heat diminishes and the bugs disappear. Balance is restored.

We take back roads to Cotacachi. Roads we think might be dirt are pavement. Roads that might be pavement are cobbles. I bump along, riding the sandy singletrack on the side.

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The market in Otavalo is a colorful feast for the eyes. Blankets, clothing, ponchos, rugs, wall hangings everywhere.

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Instead of lingering, we head for the hills. 17 kilometers on a cobbled road later, and we arrive at Laguna Mojanda just before the sky opens up.

Along the way, this guy adopts us.

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He doesn’t chase bikes, is afraid of cars and doesn’t bark. His legs are long enough to bound through the snow and he keeps up with the bikes.

He is an Ecuadorian pup, and we have no home to share with him.

Not sure what to do with him, we go to sleep, hoping he will have returned home come morning, or found his place among the dog pack at the lake.

He doesn’t. I ask a couple returning down to Otavalo if they will take him back to where he came from. They won’t. Instead, they feed him and the other strays, like people feeding ducks at a pond in the States.

Tyndall climbs Fuya Fuya. I play with the camera. We’re ready to go. All the dogs are sleeping. Can we sneak away?

I look back and our pack of three has become a pack of five.

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It makes no sense to me. We haven’t shared any food with these pups, but still, they come. After awhile, two return to their lakeside refuge, but our one friend from yesterday hangs on.

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Breaking up is hard to do, but we’re headed for a short stretch on the PanAm and that’s no place for a timid pup. We break ties outside Malchinguí and pedal on with heavy hearts.

Where we rode: Ipiales – Tulcan – Taques – El Angel – Salinas – Urcuqui – Cotacachi – Otavalo – Laguna Mojanda – Malchinguí

The ranger station in the El Angel Ecological Reserve is at the very top of the climb from Taques. It appears to always have a ranger on duty, but even if it’s locked up, there’s a vestibule one could sleep in out of the elements.

At Laguna Mojanda there’s a structure with good protection from the wind and rain for camping.