To Cuenca with a Dirty Little Diversion

Over the years I’ve spent touring I’ve found routes and rides invariably fall into a number of categories. These range from smashing my head against the wall dull boring ‘utility miles’ to the exhausting but incredibly satisfying ‘involving routes’. ‘Involving routes’ are my inspiration, they are both culturally immersive and physically demanding and for me the jewel in the crown of bicycle touring. But ‘involving’ doesn’t come that often, I found it to greatest effect in Norte de Santander, Colombia and the Guatemalan highlands. These routes hold hands with other challenging rides such as ‘dirty beauties’ (e.g. Cotopaxi), ‘wilderness romps’ (e.g. Dalton Highway) and ‘committed causes’ (e.g. Copper Canyon) as my rides of choice. However, if I rode the hardest most challenging routes all the time I’d be a physical and mental wreck. Variation is the key. Some routes offer more than others but there is something to be found in every ride.


This leg from Riobamba to Cuenca took us through Ingapirca, home to Ecuador’s most significant Inca ruins

No matter what the route or country it is vital to try and keep an open mind. You never know what is around the corner, who you might meet and how that may change your life. Shit days often turn to gold and good days get better. My experience in Fort Bragg, Northern California comes to mind when a series of chance meetings on a rainy day thrust me into the heart of the Raw Food movement and left me with a good friend I had the privilege of staying with for a number of weeks in Mexico City. But keeping an open mind is not always easy, I know that mine can close up quickly, usually a symptom of tiredness or travel fatigue. I also find it a lot easier to stay available to the world when I am travelling alone, a major reason why I love solo travel so much.

Laguna Atillo 2b

Along the way we also took in the beautiful Laguna Atillo

‘Utility miles’ are the necessary evil of moving from one great ride to the next, they’re often made bearable by a fully charged Ipod and generally go hand in hand with any time spent on the dreaded Pan American highway. On our 205 mile (330 km) ride from Riobamba south to Cuenca, my sister Jo and I had a couple of utilitarian PanAm days but before these it was an easy and relaxing ‘nice little ride’. The ‘nice little rides’ are vital for recharging the batteries and remembering how easily rewarding touring can be. Taking route notes from Sarah and James (post here) we rode a lovely stretch of pavement up the Atillo valley to Laguna Atillo before turning around and hitting some easy dirt through the small rural and largely indigenous settlements of Osogochi, Totoras and Achupallas. From there a quick paved descent took us down to just over a day of wet PanAm boredom, punctuated with a night in Chunchi and ending with a relaxing stay in Ingapirca. After taking in the Inca ruins at Ingapirca in celebration of Jo getting (another) year older, we sped down the PanAm to affluent city of Cuenca. A mixed bag of riding made more interesting by the enormous eruption of nearby volcan Tungurahua and a couple of rare sunny days…


Loma de Quito’s Church, Riobamba


The day after our two days sleeping and riding directly underneath Chimborazo without seeing her, the clouds clear and the sun comes out. We get some great views from Loma de Quito, Riobamba

IMG_5604bIt is clear from Riobamba that Volcan Tungurahua is erupting in an abnormally big way

Having suffered an unbelievable amount of problems with her disc brakes Jo takes her bike to the highly recommended Patricio for an overhaul and the addition of V-brakes (his address is Patricio Cabezas, Juan Montavo, 19-24 y Villanoel)


Happily avoiding the PanAm we head directly south from Riobamba on the paved road through Punin and Flores


On February 23 Ecuadorians will go to the polls to elect around 5,652 officials among mayors, prefects, vice-prefects, councilors and members of parish boards. As a result the entire country seems plastered with electoral campaign material


This guy has the kind of styles I trust… he’d have my vote


Having climbed from Riobamba up through Flores the road drops dramatically down the other side into the Atillo river valley we follow up to its source at Laguna Atillo


Cebadas not only has a bad ass name but also a great bakery just off the main square making it the perfect lunch stop (apart from the fact none of the stores sell crisps)


Blessed with a perfect bout of sunny weather the ride up Rio Atillo is a delight…


… and despite generally climbing the riding is really easy on the well paved road


As the sun drops we set about finding ourselves a cosy little camp spot


As we sat cooking in the dark I kept thinking I could feel rain but nothing was getting wet. Then I remembered my days hiking Volcan Santiaguito in Guatemala, it wasn’t rain but volcanic ash. By the morning everything held a thick layer of ash. We were to discover on arrival in Chunchi that it came from Volcan Tungurahua that had been experiencing massive eruptions creating ash plumes surpassing 40,000 ft (13 km) altitude


Setting off the sky is heavy with volcanic ash and the road carries a coating that swirling winds keep dusting up into our lungs


But this is quickly forgotten as the valley broadens and the mountains become beautifully craggy


Riding about 7 km past the route we’ll take west we reach Laguna Atillo and take a break

Laguna Atillo 2

Unlike Jo who describes it as ‘a bit shit’ (compared with the Quilotoa crater lake), I am completely charmed by the wilderness feel of Laguna Atillo. Like so many other Ecuadorian places it reminds me of Scotland. It may not have the tabloid beauty of Quilotoa but for me Atillo is far more naturally attractive


Backtracking to Punto Cero we can see our dirt road climbing up the other side of the valley


It feels great to be on dirt after a day of pavement… even if parts of the climb offer a bit of a challenge


After traversing south a short while on the western ridge of the valley we buy some eggs from a tienda and topple west into the next valley for lunch


We skirt this valley until dropping down into the village of Poca Totoras…


… a low-key world of woolly animals…


… and eye-catching washing lines


Then we join a wide piece of dirt that takes us up through Osogochi…


… past many traditional Ecuadorian shepherd’s huts…


… and up to over 13,000 ft (just under 4,000 m)…


… where the small town of Totoras becomes visible below


After a quick zip through Totoras on a piece of paved road we ran out of light and retired to a friendly family finca to camp


The next morning bought glorious sunshine and a picturesque piece of unpaved riding through to Achupallas


An example of how people live in these parts… with the obligatory full washing line


An easy and relatively flat unpaved road…


… skirting a dramatic deep valley…


… the epitome of a ‘nice little ride’


Arriving in Achupallas I have hopes of finding a way of avoiding the PanAm…


… but despite a lot of asking no route makes itself known…


… so it’s a thrilling 9 mile (15 km) paved descent…


… down to the PanAm in La Moya


After a miserable bit of wet and cloudy PanAm riding we arrive in Chunchi and find a hotel. Walking around town we discover an amazing array of great street art. From these recently sprayed characters…


… to this zen like character…


… and somewhat surprisingly… elephants


Having arrived in Chunchi with only a few yards visibility…


… it comes as quite a surprise to see its picturesque surroundings


The morning sunshine of Chunchi very quickly gives way to clouds and after leaving Chimborazo…


… cold rain sets in forcing us into bus stop for lunch


After a largely miserable day in the rain we arrive in Ingapirca at dusk. After a bit of a search we find a great hospedaje to stay in… next morning we awake to Jo’s 36th birthday and start the celebrations with breakfast in the hallway.  The hospedaje address is Cyber Ingapirca, 28 de marzo y Humbolt s/n… it’s owned by a funny guy named Edgar (


We’re in Inpapirca to visit what s regarded as the most important Inca site in Ecuador


Although many of the buildings have gone the obligatory guided tour helps bring them to life


The centre point of the site is the Sun Temple or ‘Castle’. Here a series of gold statues were placed in strategic positions within the temple. As the seasons changed the sun would shine through the temple openings at angles that illuminated the statues


The ‘Castle’ is constructed of green andesite blocks that display the famous Inca skill for precision masonry


It is the Inca ability to erect constructions without mortar that has helped many of them survive to this day


The modern-day town of Ingapirca is literally just down the hill from the ruins and a perfect place to relax for a day


As we leave our accommodation in the morning we’re gratefully greeted with sunshine


Leaving Ingapirca we’re finally given some views of the surrounding valley


It’s a gentle 9 miles (15 km) and 1,100 ft (335 m) on the brand new paved road from Ingapirca south to rejoin the PanAm. Once on the PanAm it’s a further 3.5 miles (5.6 km) and 1,000 ft (300 m) of climbing before hitting the high-point and starting some dramatic descending down to Cuenca


Cuenca is a popular destination among tourists in Ecuador. It’s easy to see why as it’s a very affluent and sanitized city with a very palatable climate


There’s a fair mix of colonial and modern architecture. All dominated by the cathedral


Cuenca also boasts a lively art scene… a sure sign of affluence. This building on Larga actually contains a series of images by the same artist that painted the zen like character I pictured in Chunchi


There are a couple of streets behind the university that house a series of high-end bike shops. Trek, Cube and Specialized are just three of the brands that have moved in. I was in desperate need of reversing my rear sprocket and chainring but like to work on Shermy myself. To my great fortune David at Bike Life Cannondale let me use his workshop free of charge


So Shermy got the attention she craves and we’re all set for the push down to Peru


3 responses to “To Cuenca with a Dirty Little Diversion

  1. It seems like you guys had a whole different experience riding from Atillo to Poco Totoras! We had 7 km of awful mud to push through just after the climb out of Punto Cero, but then it was all wonderful. The Inca trail should go all the way from Achupallas to Ingapirca, but am not sure it is more than a tiny walking path. Some people asked if we had taken that route…so perhaps it is doable on bikes.

  2. Pingback: Riobamba – Cuenca: Esa es la cuestión | MientrasPedaleamos·

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