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Latacunga, Ecuador to Baños, Ecuador

posted Sep 27, 2010, 3:11 PM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Sep 28, 2010, 1:56 PM ]
¡Hola! First of all, I just figured out how to easily type Spanish accents, so I'll be doing more of that now! This was a tough section, with the worst roads I've seen on the entire trip, but also with some incredibly good scenery. I wrote a little more than I usually do for the picture captions in the album for this section, so this will be a less detailed posting than usual. Besides, I just haven't been too motivated to write about it...

After Latacunga, I rode mostly downhill, but with a few climbs to Baños, which is gets its name from the hot springs in the area. One one of the climbs I decided to do a little "truck surfing" - holding onto the side of a slowly moving truck - to give my legs a break. I had tried to do this a few times, but unsuccessfully, in Colombia and I thought I'd give it a shot again. After the driver saw me, he used some truck driver sign language that I interpreted to mean "Let go of my truck, ya freakin' hobo!". OK, strike one. A bit later on, a more friendly trucker beeped as he approached, and even slowed down and pulled over a bit so I could grab on. I enjoyed the tow for a little bit, until my hand got tired and I saw a cop on the side of the road, then I let go and waved "Thanks!". 

On my first day off in Baños I rented a bike and rode the popular "waterfall route" in the direction of the jungle town, Puyo. The scenery was pretty nice and there were several good sized waterfalls, but all the touristy stuff kind of ruined the experience for me. When I was done, I waited for a ride back with a couple from the states who had also rented bikes. Eventually someone with a big enough truck drove by, and we threw our bikes in and jumped in the back. 

I had only planned to take one day off in Baños, but after taking three weeks off in Quito (and Galapagos), and immediately doing some very challenging riding through Cotopaxi and around Quilotoa, my knees were feeling a little strained, and I wanted to take a day off without doing any biking at all. Instead, I headed to one of the hot-springs in town, which on Saturday morning, was like family day at the Y. There were indigenous families everywhere, and I'm guessing that's the only place they get to bathe. 

While I was in Baños and Latacunga I asked as many people as possible about the road from Baños to Riobamba. I had heard that it might not be possible to go that way and I wanted to get some more information. From the nearly ten people I talked to, I got nearly ten different answers. These ranged from someone in a tourist office telling me, "Yes it's opened, I was just there a few days ago", to an old lady at the entrance of the road who would only keep repeating "No hay paso!" (directly translated: "There is no passage"). After she said it a dozen times, I just decided she was crazy and I turned down the road to see for myself. 

There was a steep climb at first, and when I stopped to rest and held my front break, my bike would skid backwards down the hill. Just a little beyond the climb the "old" road appeared - it was nicely paved, had two lanes, and cement gutters on the sides. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before that changed back to a dirt road, with several temporary bridges spanning ravines where the road used to be. Finally, I came to a huge ravine with no bridge or any other way for a vehicle to get across. I walked down and up a steep, loose footpath to the other side to do some reconnaissance, and followed the road by foot for probably a couple miles to see how the condition was. Other than a small washout, it seemed OK and with the amazing scenery in the area, I really enjoyed the walk. 

After crossing back through the ravine again by foot, I found some locals who assured me that I could just carry my bike through the ravine, and after that the road would be fine. While I wasn't looking forward to making four trips with each piece of equipment, it was better than the other options of continuing east of Baños to the jungle, or backtracking uphill to Ambato, to take the other road to Riobamba. So... I took everything apart, made the four trips down and back up the steep path through ravine, and reassembled everything on the opposite side. I rode to just beyond where I had walked to before, and rounded a corner to see that a landslide had completely blocked the road. This wasn't exactly what had come to mind when the locals had told me that it was smooth and in good condition after the ravine... Once again, I had to take everything apart, carry it all to the top of the landslide, put it all back together, and ride down the the other side. Just beyond that was a nice flat spot by the river with great views all around, and I decided after that ordeal I would call it a day and set up camp. I would have thought that after a day like that I'd be in a pretty bad mood, and maybe it was just due to the endorphins coursing through my veins, but I was pretty happy and realized I was smiling and humming a song - I think it was something by "Hootie and the Blowfish". 

Before the sun set, an obviously lost and frustrated tourist drove by, reached the landslide and turned around, not even acknowledging me when I waved. It took me a minute to realize that that the sighting was actually a good thing. If that person could get there in his rental car, surely I could get out on my bike. 

The next day was a much easier ride the rest of the way to Riobamba, and since backtracking to Ambato on the "safe route" would have also taken two days, I was still on schedule and came out of the experience with a story to tell at least!

In Riobamba I found the ProBici tour company, which I had found on the internet when looking for more information on my next road from Riobamba to the jungle town of Macas. The owner was very busy running his fabric store, but made the time to tell me about the road conditions, and even drew me an elevation profile with distances for the whole route. I had come across the road while pouring over my maps, which is how I spend many of my nights, and when I saw that it went through páramo and some lakes before descending into the jungle I was just hooked on the idea and knew that was the road for me.

It was raining the next morning in Riobamba, but a little after 10AM it stopped and the sun came out. I decided I'd pack up quickly and at least get in a short day to Cebadas, the town half way between Riobamba and the lakes. It ended up being a nice ride through a lot of small farms, and I found a hotel that was basically just a big dorm room when I got to town.

The ProBici guy had said the road from Cebadas was a rolling climb to the lakes, where I planned to stay at Cabaña Saskines. For some reason I had absolutely no energy that day and before each hill I had to stop and wait for the energy and motivation to climb to the top. Normally I don't think I would have considered it hard riding, but for whatever reason, that day I was struggling. I couldn't figure out what the reason for this was, since I had a good dinner in town of rice, pork and lentils, and also had some of my favorite granola with yogurt in the morning. It was hard to think that food was the culprit.

I finished the day in the rain, and was pleasantly surprised to find that Saskines was closer than I had thought. They said their normal rooms were full even though I didn't see other people there, or even a place were the rooms might have been, and I ended up sleeping in a partially walled off corner of the restaurant. I occasionally got a whiff of something nauseating, there was no glass in the window and I paid $4 for the privilege of staying there.

The next two days were the descent to Macas, a small city on the edge of the Amazon. The road turned from being nice, wide and paved, to a one lane dirt road where missing bridges forced me to ford at least three large rivers, and countless small streams. The scenery was spectacular though. The first treat was seeing the lakes just beyond Atillo, and later the descent through an enormous valley, which took me past huge waterfalls, and down into the jungle. Totally amazing stuff. 

Macas is considered the "city" of the area, and there was nothing too noteworthy there including the overpriced hotel I stayed at.

From Macas to Mendez the road was slightly downhill with some rolling hills along the way. It had been so long since I had seen anything even remotely flat, and I cranked hard for the fourty-or-so miles to Mendez. It was nice to know that I was still capable of riding fast on flatish roads at reasonable elevations.

I stayed at a place just outside of Mendez where again I overpaid for a room and didn't take advantage of the swimming pools. That night I had a pretty long conversation with someone from town, who I got some compliments on my spanish from. While we were talking it started raining so hard and with such big drops, that the sound from the metal-roofed sun shade was deafening and the owner ran outside to see where the noise was coming from. She said it never rains that hard there, and I figured it was just the same rain cloud that has been following me from El Salvador. I didn't get to see the town that night, but I rode through briefly in the morning while I was looking for a bakery and I was pretty impressed by the clean little town.

Back in Latacunga, I had talked to Matt online about my plans. He had already been to the jungle, but by following the Baños-Puyo route, and like me, planed to ride back into the Andes to Cuenca following the nice valley that was on our topo maps. He said it was one of the worst climbs he had seen and encouraged me to either stay in the jungle, skipping Cuenca, or shipping most of my stuff ahead to Cuenca on one of the busses. After riding toward Cuenca into the mountains for two days, he got on a bus for the remainder of the road. I decided that it was important for me to take the Atillo route down to the jungle, and that the valley route was still my best option back to the mountains and to Cuenca where I wanted to go to study some more Spanish and see Cajas National Park. If it was terrible and I had to take a bus, then so be it. 

Like Matt, it took me two days to do the 35ish miles to Amaluza. The road was paved and in good condition, but with some steep climbing, before the halfway point where I camped, and on the rest of the way to Amaluza the road was rolling with less pavement. Once I got to town, I talked to some locals about the road ahead. I could see that there was a steep, unpaved climb out of town, and the person I talked to said that if it took me two days to get to Amaluza from Mendez, it would take me two more days to get to a town named Sevilla de Oro. From there, I guessed I would still have another day and a half to two days of riding to get to Cuenca - for a total of 6 days for 100 miles of riding. I had already been riding significantly shorter days than I would have liked before this point in Ecuador, and riding another four days just to return from a detour didn't really appeal to me, so the next day I hopped on the 8AM bus to Cuenca. I figured it was about 70 miles from Amaluza to Cuenca and it took the bus 4 hours to make the trip. 

I've been in Cuenca for six days now. The first day I made all my arrangements for a trip to Cajas National Park, and for two half-days of Spanish lessons. Those things occupied the next three days. Yesterday I had a pretty bad headache and nausea, which continued into this morning, so I didn't leave today as I had planned. I was going to leave tomorrow, but two other PanAm travellers (Phil and Manu) rolled into town today, so I might hang around another day to talk to them a little, and we will probably head out together towards Loja in two days. 

I met Phil and Manu for the first time about a month into this trip while they were coming back from the Dempster highway towards Dawson City and I was riding to Whitehorse. We met again (also riding in opposite directions) when I was returning from Stewart, BC and they were heading in that direction. Amazingly, we met a third time in the middle of the Mojave desert - again, riding in different directions. We've all been on the road for about 15 months now, and like me, they know that they won't hit their target finish date, and have moved it back to February 2011. I think February or March will be when I'll finish, but for all of us to hit our marks, we'll need to take slightly more direct routes than we may have otherwise. 

When I got to Cuenca, I started looking into my routes to Peru. There are basically three. One is what I call my "bailout" route, which would be a short climb from Cuenca, followed by a 100 mile downhill to the ocean, and more or less flat riding through the desert of northern Peru until Trujillo where I would head back into the mountains. Another option goes south to Loja in Ecuador, then branches down into the Peruvian desert from there. The third, which comes highly recommended from other PanAmers, continues south from Loja on some tough dirt roads and into the mountains of Peru. Phil and Manu are planning to do the third route, and I have pretty much decided on it myself. This would mean that I'd be in the mountains for basically all of Peru, and not making the progress I'd like, but seeing what will be some of the best scenery of the trip. This is really my biggest conflict: either making progress and finishing the trip in a reasonable amount of time (but skipping some of the things I want to see), or going to the places I want to see and not letting a schedule hold me back. What I'll do at least is avoid making too many side trips and follow a more or less direct route through the mountains. It's the best compromise I can come up with.

OK! This was supposed to be a short post and I've gotten a little carried away. Ciao!