Up and Downs and Pre-Inka Kuelap

I successfully avoided the mud between Vilcabamba, Ecuador and San Ignacio, Peru by using public transport: a bus , a ranchero and collectivos. The road has been badly damaged after a lot of rain and was extremely muddy! Very sticky mud with a lot of clay content, good for building houses and making your bike unrideable. The border crossing was super relaxed and after signing out of Ecuador I had to look hard to find the immigration office on the Peruvian side. I was greeted with a lot of cheerfulness and friendliness. From San Ignacio the road dropped back down to a tropical hot valley floor and run along a river with many rice plantations. I stopped on the turn off to Bellavista and got invited to stay with a young family living on the side of the road in very basic conditions but with a huge flat screen TV  which the whole neighbourhood came to watch. Since it was my birthday the next day I decided to stay, enjoying the company and experiencing local life….. The next morning after a hearty breakfast I left for Bellavista, took the boat across the river and carried on to Bagua Grande. At 400m it was humid, hot and sticky and since it was about to rain I caught the bus to Chachapoyas (2350m) adding in a nice downhill ride to Tingo (1800). I arrived on dark not without my share of mud because of the works on road. It’s a tiny town and accommodation was pretty basic. The next day I hiked up about 1200m over 9km to Kuelap, a spectacular pre-Inca walled city. It was built from AD 500 to 1100 and contains three times more stone than the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt. Considering its size surprisingly little is known about Kuelap. The word Chachapoyas actually derives from the Inca – the Cloud People. The population of the settlement was said to be around 2000, and the site is made up of some 400 structures, most of which are the foundations of cylindrical houses, 3-12metres in diameter. A guinea pig run forms a small partition for the kitchen and allows easy access to snacks. Despite its size and importance, the whole place remains something of a mystery – it’s not even fully understood why it’s there, or why it seems so heavily fortified at a time when the Chachapoyan’s had no significant enemy.  Kuelap is set on two levels – uptown and downtown and  the massive stone walls, 585m long by 110m wide at their widest has three entrances to the citadel. The slot passageway narrows down in width, limiting entry to just one person at a time. The structures have been left in their cloud forest setting, but there is some indecision if it should be cleared for a more manicured ‘Machu Picchu’ look. Rex, the local Alsatian from Tingo guided me all day and made for great company.

From Tingo it was a very gentle climb along a beautiful riverside to Leymebamba on hardback dirt and a succession of idyllic villages. I had the afternoon to relax and rode to the local Museum 5km up the road, which had a good collection of Chachapoyan and Inka artifacts. But it is the room packed with mummies – 219 of them – that made the visit most worthwhile.  Some were still bundled up, bound with plant fibre rope and embroidered with faces, while others had been unfurled. They ranged from fetuses complete with umbilical cords, to adults and had all been unearthed in the nearby Laguna de los Condores.

The next morning I enjoyed a massive downhill from 3600m down to 850m over 60km…..followed by a massive uphill….but I was lucky enough to manage to catch the only bus of the day from Las Balsas all the way to Cajamarca.

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Adios Ecuador…. Hola Peru

From Latacunga I took a night bus to Cuenca, and arrived just before daylight. This not only saved me many km of Panamerica riding, but also did my lungs a favour by not having to inhale exhaust fumes. I got to see Cuenca deserted of people to start with while I was looking for a hostel. Cuenca (full name Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca) is the capital of the Azuay Province. It is located in the highlands of Ecuador at about 2500 m above sea level. The center of the city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage trust site because of its many historical buildings. Many American expats settle here and the cafe where I was having an extended breakfast was full of them. I spend the day walking around the now busy town and enjoyed the architecture as much as the food and many cafes. One of my favorite places for snacks became the ‘mercado de 10 de Agosto’ which had a whole second floor of food stales. I visited the museum of modern art and enjoyed the exhibition of local artist Fernando Coellar ‘Labyrinth of Pieties’.

But I decided that one day in a rainy city is enough and took the bus to Loja the next day and biked on to Vilcabamba. As I dropped down from the highlands to approximately 1500m the climate changed, the temperature rose and there was many flowers and fruit trees. Life seems to be a lot easier on this level. Vilcabamba is often called the ‘Valley of longevity’ as it is widely believed that its inhabitants grow to a very old age, due to the good climate and healthy living conditions. It’s now a very popular place with tourist and foreigners buying property alike and has become a strange mix of locals and an aging hippie population, best described as ‘gringolandia’. Still it had the amenities a traveler likes and I spent 3 nights here resting and deciding which way to go from here: Continue via the mountains, which was to be the most scenic and adventurous, but very remote and hard option with mainly dirt roads. Also currently the road to the border has been severely damaged with still continuing rain. Or take a bus to Trujillo and head back into the mountains from there. But the coast is known for unfriendly treatment to ciclistas and some being lightened of their possessions. After much soul searching, blog reading and back and fourth I settled on the mountain road…..hoping that with the help of buses it’ll be ok. So I’ll be taking a bus to Zumba this afternoon, as the road is badly damaged, and will cross the border to Peru in the morning. It was my aim to be in Peru for my birthday and I will be a day early….spending it riding dirt roads and probably camping out…..but I stocked up on Belgian homemade chocolates here in Vilcabamba:))))

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Cotopaxi Volcano and the Quilitoa Loop with the help of PPS

While I was away in the Galapagos the rainy weather has turned into summer days accompanied by strong winds, which are to last for the next 3 months…. apparently. After the holiday I was eager to get back on my bike and make some progress, but stayed an extra day in Quito as there was a Canadian cyclist keen to share the road.

Stephanie from Quebec and me planned to traverse the Cotopaxi national park and than carry on  with the Quilotoa loop. We left early next morning and circled around Quito to the south, traversed a couple of villages before heading towards the north entrance of the park. The road changed from asphalt to pavement to cobblestone and our progress slowed down accordingly.  Cobblestone is  really hard to ride on especially once it gets steep and with a heavy load. We had to push our bikes on several occasions and progress slowed down to a meager 5km/h  and got very frustrating and exhausting. When a 4×4 came past we took the chance and got a ride to the entrance of the park. The landscape changed from green farmland to a high altitude paramo. We were now at about 3800m and the Cotopaxi Volcano (5897m) with its snowy top dominated the barren landscape. It is a stunning place, but windy and cold. We cycled on a sandy track towards the beautiful volcano and had to work hard to keep our breath. We seemed to be the only ones in the park until we hit the main access road to Cotopaxi, which is a classic climb and tourist attraction. There is a good road al the way to the hut at 4800m, from where the climb starts. The campground was only a few km along this road and had no amenities. We were too tired to care and settled into our tents after a quick meal. We woke up to mist, rain and a lot of wind, and quickly made our way down the hill to the south entrance of the park, realizing that the proper campground with toilet and kitchen was only 1km along from where we had camped. We joined the noisy and smelly Panamericana again just before Lasso, were we decided to stay the night. It was just too windy to carry on and we felt we deserved a lazy afternoon. We found a nice little hotel, but left again early next morning to bike the Quilotoa loop, which is including the market in Zumbahua, described as one of the nicest excursions in Ecuador. The road to Sichos, 2800m where we stayed the first night, was stunning and all asphalted, but still hard work with many ups and downs: high Andean landscape with steep valleys and patchwork fields high up the mountains. The local Indigenous in the remote mountain villages are still wearing the traditional clothes and dark hats. The next day was a hard slog on cobblestone/gravel and earth road to Chugchilan 3200m and than a steep sandy climb to Quilotoa at approximately 3900m. The day had started out calm with beautiful blue sky but turned windy by lunch time. At the end of the day we twice thought to have reached the top but to our disappointment the road kept on climbing and the wind was fierce and head on. When we finally reached Quilotoa we were totally exhausted but happy to have made it. The daily average was only 7,4km/h. But we were rewarded with a nice hotel with real feather duvets and a fireplace in the room…all for a bargain of $12 including dinner and breakfast, after some negotiating. Because of the low season they dropped the normal rate of $25. It was so nice we decided to stay an extra night, allowing us to visit the Quilotoa lagune the next day and rest in the afternoon. The last day started with a great downhill to Zumbahua were we stopped to ring our families which had birthdays to celebrate: my Mum,  my Grandma and Stephanie’s Dad…Happy Birthday!! We than had to climb back up, than had a great downhill before climbing all the way to 4000m…..which seemed never ending especially with the windy conditions. But than a long 25km downhill was the reward. Back in the main valley the noise, smells and traffic were a shock to the system after the remote time in the back country. We stopped for a hot chocolate in Pujili and than found a nice hostel to stay in Latagunga. The next morning we visited the famous market in Saquisili, but were too obsessed with the food and missed the artisan market altogether! Probably saved me some money!!

Since neither of us has a proper road map of Ecuador nor a GPS we had to use the PPS for our trip: pare, pregunte y sigua  – stop, ask and and carry on!

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I arrived in Quito and stayed at the Casa de Ciclistas in Tumbaco, just outside of the big city. This super nice family opens their home to passing cyclists and creates a worldwide family. What hospitality….the world needs more families like that. Santiago works from his bike workshop from home, has plenty of good advise and is of great help in planning my trip. I spend a day looking around Quito in the rain and than organize myself for a trip to the Galapagos, hoping the weather will improve while away. I decided I need a holiday from this trip. I got a last minute flight for a week and opted against a cruise boat option. Just couldn’t get myself to spend the money for being told what to do. …prefer doing my own thing. And as it turned out I got to see most animals and had a great time. I had nice one on one time with some of the animals and that was special to me. I first arrived in Puerto Ayora, St Cruz island, and the same day visited the Darwin center, where they keep some of the giant land turtles. I also got to see lots of marine iguanas and some birds just hanging out on the verge of town. On the way back I passed the fish market and the fishing boats had just come in with the catch of the day. It was a great spectacle watching the pelicans and a couple of sea lions begging for scraps. I ended up eating there too and it was delicious! The next day I went for an early swim to beautiful Tortuga bay and got to swim with sharks and big rays, even a turtle showed up. The next two days I spent on Isabella island, a 2 hour boat trip away, where I joined a group for an excursion to the Volcano and a snorkel around the harbor. I met a very nice french couple from Bordeaux and we kept bumping into each other for the rest of our trip and had great fun together. Thanks Malika and Xavier:) We went on a snorkeling trip to St Cristobal island together and got to swim with sea lions. I think this was my favorite part. They are so beautiful, curious and engage in the play, come close to look you in the eyes than shoot of again to continue their dance….and they are so elegant and flexible, amazing to watch and fun to play with. The last day was spent relaxing on the beach and eating excellent ceviche and grilled fish in the company of my new friends. I was very sad to leave and could have easily stayed longer. But ‘mi mariposa’ is calling me and wants to get back on the road. I’m back at the casa de ciclista now and had a trial start this morning but than ended up staying an extra day to catch up on things. Also there is quite a few ciclistas here and these are the first I met: a swiss couple, a canadian, a french, 3 argentinians, and an american. I went for a lovely bike ride along an old converted train track through a beautiful gorge with the swiss couple and we found it hard to believe this is just outside of Quito. And summer has arrived and the sun is shining…..

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