Cuenca to Cajamarca Pt. 1: To The End of Ecuador

Resting on your laurels seems to be a cycle touring sin. The moment as a cyclist you start to believe your bike is invincible and riding a route will be as simple as just riding a route, something will almost certainly spring up and smack you in the face. Learning to expect the unexpected is in my opinion one of the most valuable lessons experience teaches a cycle tourist. Add in a weighty dose of patience and an experienced tourist will always have food to eat, water to drink, somewhere safe to sleep and a bike to ride. The unexpected can be good, typified on this 260 mile (420 km) southerly sweep to the Peruvian border by a chance meeting just outside of Saraguro that led to a safe and comfortable camp spot. Or it can appear bad, exemplified on these same miles by an incident in Loja involving a car, my bike and a terminally damaged front wheel. But however you choose to categorize it, the unexpected can be easily translated into excitement and excitement can never be all bad.

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¡expendir!… expand!… open your mind… the mantra of Vilcabamba (the most bizarre of Gringolandias)

‘Everything happens for a reason’. ‘There are positives to be found in everything’. And wafflings about karmic balance are statements and sentiments that grew to dominate my thoughts in the early months of this tour back in 2010. Since then what I considered extraordinary such as kindness and coincidence have slipped into my normality. I’ve had my fair share of ‘bad luck’ over the past four years. Such as the injury that put me back a couple of months in Alaska, or the time in Canada when my bike was extensively damaged in a fall from the top of a speeding car. I’ve had ill-timed mechanical failures such as the cracked rim that forced me to cycle out of the depths of the Copper Canyon, Mexico with only a front brake. And inopportune gear failures such as a broken tent door zip in the New Years snow of Yosemite National Park or the recent broken camera that robbed me of photos of the stunning El Angel paramos, northern Ecuador. But I’m still here, I’m still cycling and most of the time, I’m still smiling. And with hindsight I can safely say that I am glad that these things happened because I learnt a lot from each of them.

Map - Cuenca to La Balsab

Route through from Cuenca in the north to La Balsa on the Peruvian border…
click here to view the fully interactive map and elevation profile

Cuenca to La Balsa Route elevation profile

My 1,200 miles (1,930 km) in Ecuador have certainly not just been riding a route. There have been plenty of smacks around the face. But that is cycle touring for you. Everything happens for a reason and there are positives to be found in everything. Thus Ecuador has been more than good to me: It’s given me some lifelong memories of riding with my sister, Jo, in the shadows of some truly magnificent volcanoes. It’s blighted our partnership with mechanical problems. It’s sent me to hospital with illness. It’s soaked us. It’s showered us in volcanic ash. It’s had us pushing our bikes up impossibly steep hills. It’s bored us with stretches of dull PanAm drudgery. It’s taken a lot more money out of our pockets than expected. It’s forced retreat. It’s invited adventure. It’s rewarded the privilege of bicycle travel. It’s bought us closer together. It’s introduced us to a fascinating culture. It’s stoked my love of dirt roads. It’s brought surprises to the end. And it has proven to be an extremely comfortable and easy society in which to tour. All in all, I’ve really enjoyed the variety of experience Ecuador has offered and will treasure my memories from within its borders.

Here is the story of me and my sisters last week in Ecuador, our journey south from Cuenca to the Peruvian border at La Balsa…

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After two too strong cups of coffee leaving Cuenca turns into a stressful ordeal. Jo’s mechanical issues continue requiring another mechanic stop. I get doored by an apologetic man who subsequently suffers the full wrath of an extremely angry cyclist who’s demonstrative finger prod at the cars side mirror leaves it dangling. A bus runs me off the road and my general dislike of Cuenca swells into a full-on hatred. Fortunately the first hour of middle digit flashing madness morphs into a long gentle climb and night camped among pine trees with extensive views

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From Cuenca Highway 35 makes for some quick paved progress south. This despite the ten-mile (16 km) plus climb up through Oña.

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Having descended out of easy camping country and back into civilization we were struggle to find space to pitch up on the approach to Saraguro. Luckily a friendly tour guide, Lauro stops to talk. This conversation ends in him arranging for us to camp for free at his friends hostal (Achik Wasi). With access to a bathroom and great views over Saraguro we’re under no illusions as to our good fortune

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On our third day out of Cuenca, Loja appears beneath us in impressive style

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It’s a veritable limp into Loja. Jo’s rear wheel is wobbling violently with yet another broken spoke, one of her rack bolts has sheered off leaving it to rub the misshapen wheel and my back tyre is slowly deflating. It is clear to us that if we can’t get Jo’s wheel completely rebuilt then our proposed route into Peru probably won’t be possible.

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Things are starting to look up after we find some good mechanics at BiciMania (Av. Emiliano Ortega y colon, Tel: 072586783) to rebuild Jo’s wheel. As she disappears out to find help with removing the sheered bolt from her frame I set about mending my puncture in the hotel car park. During a quick dash back to our room (bordering the car park) I hear a gut wrenching ‘CRACK!’ and know immediately what has happened… someone has run-over my bike

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The hotel owner, Hans, has misjudged a turn in his fancy Porsche and driven over the Shermsters front wheel. Things look ugly. I arrive to find the floor covered in bearings spilled from the hub. The front forks and front rack are horribly bent and the rim twisted and cracked. Fortunately I’d unhooked the brakes otherwise the calipers would have been toast too. My ‘bomb proof’ wheel that I loved and had absolute confidence in having not needed to true it once since its build in Las Vegas, U.S.A., is completely totaled

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I count myself very lucky that my bike was partially destroyed by a good kind man with money, a big heart and a passion for mountain biking. Hans takes us to his friend Diego’s shop, Zona Bike (Av. 8 de Diciembre y Guayaquil, Tel: 2588510, dcabrerasamaniego@yahoo.com). Initially unimpressed, Diego eventually wins me around as he carefully sets about bending the fork and rack back into usable shape. But I still need an entirely new front wheel. Aware that Loja is the last stop on the way south before high quality bike components become very hard to find and extremely expensive, I’m not in any mood to settle for anything I don’t think is up to the job

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After many fruitless phone calls in search of an XT hub and much persuasion from Hans, Diego reluctantly lets me have a wheel from one of the bikes for sale in his shop. So after much stress but only a few hours Shermy is miraculously back on the road. The new front wheel isn’t a patch on the old one but it’ll do. My ultra strong Rigida Andra 30 Tungsten Carbide coated rim has been replaced by a far inferior Alex Rim EN24, but at least it’s double walled. On the plus side the old XT hub I’ve been riding since it was gifted me in Arizona (and was well overdue a service), has been replaced in kind with a brand new one. Despite it being his fault, I’m extremely grateful to Hans for his patience in the face of my stubborn demands and for paying for the repairs

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After a very stressful day we hit the streets of Loja in search of pizza. As we trudge around our spirits are lifted by a political rally with a difference… a critical mass bike ride in support of a local party

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Against all the odds we’re able to ride out of Loja the next morning. Time is tight as we fight to reach Cajamarca, Peru in time for Jo to catch the first of her flights home. One day in Loja is all we can afford and that day was horrible. Despite this we both declare our affections for the genuine and bustling city. Loja is everything Cuenca fails to be

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Buoyed by our eventual good fortune we zip down the descent from Loja with huge smiles. One puncture and lunch later we’re passing beneath the distinctive blue church of Malacatos

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A short day delivers us into the strange little town of Vilcabamba, fame for the longevity of its residents

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Vilcabamba is a bizarre little outpost of Gringolandia. Neo-hippy types and gringo retirees fill the streets of what would otherwise be an appealing and beautiful little town. Jo’s description is apt… ‘it’s full of people who hug and hold on just that little bit too long’

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From Vilcabamba three small climbs and one final bigger ascent take us over the mountains to Valladolid. On the second climb we pass some interesting geology…

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… heavy erosion of the soft sandy rock has left features resembling those of Colombia’s Los Estoraques

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After each of the three small climbs a short descent takes us down to the next. Here we’re well on our way up the third out of Yangana

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Looking back from part way up the days major climb over to Valladolid the previous few hours riding can be seen snaking away into the distance

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Our entire descent into Valladolid is spent immersed in wet cloud. As the temperature drops and pavement gives way to fluid mud and road construction we’re glad to see the town appear below

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For years I have battled internally over the merit of keeping mud guards (fenders) on my bike. On arrival at our nights concrete box in Valladolid my decision to keep them is vindicated by the mud that cakes my fenderless sister

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The evening we arrive in Valladolid the towns large plaza is full of people as a political rally takes over the town. But by the time we’ve moved our things into the hotel everybody has disappeared. It seems that supporters are bused around to make the candidates appear more popular than they might be. By morning it’s as if nothing ever happened

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A night of persistent rain means we leave Valladolid on a river of mud…

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… a river that soon turns into an ocean

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The entire 10 miles (16 km) to Palanda is a miserable muddy battle through heavy road construction. Thick sticky mud and heavy machinery plague us the whole way

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On arrival in Palanda I’m more than prepared to swallow the glee I felt the night before at having fenders to protect me from mud splatter. A few miles of heavy mud clogging the space between my mud guards and tyre and I’m once again considering getting rid of them

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Just after Palanda a river crossing provides the opportunity to clean up our bikes. From then on the road is good packed dirt and our smiles return

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Our final day in Ecuador starts from a squalid little concrete box in Progresso, a small village delightfully located on the pass over to the Rio Isimanchi crossing

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Only a couple of miles out of Progresso Jo’s back wheel is off again, thankfully only for a puncture. This is when we discovers my spare tube of glue has dried up and we no longer have the pretty important ability to mend punctures

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At the start of the climb up from Rio Isimanchi we meet Stewart, a very amiable Californian motorcycle tourist travelling the other way

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After climbing up into the town of Zumba we leave with a nasty taste in our mouth as shop keepers try to rip us off. Zumba is the last town on route to the border, only a series of small villages (pictured) remain of urban Ecuador

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The road to the edge of Ecuador at La Balsa is a beautiful undulating piece of dirt that gives the impression of remoteness

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The final climb of Ecuador (a country in which I climbed about 130,000 ft., 39,500 m) is a steep little affair

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As the Rio Blanco comes into view we can see the edge of Ecuador and the start of a new country, Peru. Soon we descend down to La Balsa the international bridge appears along with a small collection of buildings that mark this most docile of border crossings. To our amazement the road on the Peruvian side of the river is a brand new piece of wide paved highway, the first indication that the dirt road route into Peru might not be dirt anymore beyond Ecuador

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As darkness falls we quickly change some US$ for Nuevo Sols at a restaurant near the border and scoot along the paved highway into Namballe. A good deal on a nice hotel later and we’re left to celebrate the start of a new country with tired faces and a cold Peruvian beer

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3 responses to “Cuenca to Cajamarca Pt. 1: To The End of Ecuador

  1. So happy to see your smiling faces next to those Peruvian beers! What an eventful few weeks for both of you!
    —Marilyn

  2. Pingback: A mishap and a mission: Riding to Futaleufú. Hitching to Puerto Montt | Velo Freedom - Cycling South·

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