Southern Ecuador

Written by Michelle

I had been craving Indian food for months. Saag Paneer is my favorite, but really anything would do. Cuenca, full of 16th century Spanish colonial architecture charm, cobblestone streets, tourists, and expats, is full of cafes featuring locally grown coffee, vegetarian friendly restaurants, and many ethnic food options. After being in small villages among the Andean highlands for the past month, we didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the more expansive options that a bigger city offers.  Indian food was on the top of the list.  Unfortunately, the $2.50 almuerzo ended up being much more costly.  Evan’s backpack, filled with my phone and Ellen’s powerpack charger, was snatched off the back of my chair by the family sitting behind us while we were eating.  Yes, we knew better. We never bring the backpack out. We never put the phone inside it. I cannot recall ever hanging a backpack on the back of my chair in any of the past seven months that we have been traveling. We were in a comfortable, friendly, and very small restaurant, and honestly it did not even cross my mind. It is hard to remember to constantly be “on guard” when we are surrounded by so many warm, friendly, and welcoming people. This is another reminder of why we need to take extra caution while traveling through cities that see a decent amount of tourists. Unfortunately, tourists get a reputation of having an unlimited access to money and being easy targets.  I initially hesitated buying my THIRD phone in South America in a little over a month (first one stolen out of Evan’s hand in Colombia, second one fell off my bike, and now this one).  Although I don’t have a phone or data plan, we use the phones as our GPS, riding music, and for wifi when we have it.  We resorted to buying the cheapest smart phone option for just over $100 and vowed to take extra special caution with it.  Unfortunately, the backpack was not as easy to replace.  We use the backpacks for our hydration source and to carry other very important misc. items (like bakery goods) while riding, so it is definitely a necessity. We found one bike shop in Cuenca that had a couple Camelbak pack options, but a comparable one to what Evan had was over $300!  Evan was not interested in making any rushed decisions, so we decided to head out of town without a pack and pursue other options.  Ellen, Evan, and I said our goodbye’s to our fabulous hosts, Kristen and Zach, and we hit the road south.

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Panilandia- our favorite bakery in Cuenca near Zach and Kristen’s. We went there daily.
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Ogres and friends. All packed up to depart Cuenca with our visiting friend, Ellen

Despite being in the heart of rainy season, we decided to continue on the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route and hope for the best. The route south of Cuenca started with a steep, rocky, singletrack hike-a-bike in the rain.  Luckily the hike-a-bike section was pretty short, and before we knew it we were on fun singletrack then dirt roads.

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Church in a small town off the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route

Although much of the dirt road was populated with rural communities, we managed to find a nice hill to camp on: out of site of houses, the road below, and barking dogs.  However, that did not eliminate some evening visitors. Curious locals came by to see what we were doing.  How they saw us there, we have no idea.  At first we could only understand that they were saying something about robbers and that we could not camp there.  We had already set up camp and eaten dinner.  Darkness was fast approaching, so packing up and trying to find another spot seemed less than appealing.  After some discussion, we discovered they wanted to make sure that we were not robbers.  Evan reassured them “solo gringos en bici, no malo” and they were more than welcoming to have us camp on the hilltop.  

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Our hilltop campsite

A few more days of riding brought us into Loja and then to Parque Nacional Podocarpus. The national park is the meeting point between four ecological systems: Northern Andes, Southern Andes, Amazonian, and Pacific. Such an amazing place! We took a short hike to enjoy the beauty, made an enormous pot of an Asian peanut dish in the park ranger’s outdoor kitchen space, and finished the evening with some intense card games of Egyptian War.  As darkness fell, I began shivering beyond control.  Unfortunately, Ellen and I woke up in the middle of the night with a bad case of food poisoning.  Every 30 minutes or so, sometimes even less, brought on more diarrhea. We were very thankful to have access to a bathroom that was stocked with a healthy supply of toilet paper.  I am pretty sure Evan was glad he was not the one sick this time. We had a lazy morning, took some Cipro (anti-diarrhea antibiotic), and rode to Vilcabamba.  Thankfully we had a short and easy ride that was mostly downhill (due to our sickness, we took the paved road option instead of the dirt road).  I do not think Ellen or I could have managed to endure anything more than that.

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Scenic climbing as we were headed to Ona
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Rolling hills to Loja (It was laundry day, I was drying my clothes off of my pack as I rode)
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Departing Loja (photo credit: Ellen)
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View off of the climb as we were climbing up to Parque Nacional Podocarpus (photo credit: Ellen)
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The final town of the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route: Vilcabamba.  A cute (now hippy) little town that is well known for its longevity of life.

After recovering in Vilcabamba, we worked our way towards the coast.  Mud, landslides, banana groves, cacao fields, and rolling coastal roads were all in abundance. 

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Lots of rain brought on many landslides.  Prior to heading to the coast, we had to retrace our steps back up to Loja.  We opted to take the mountain bike route instead of the pavement because we missed the last segment when we were sick.
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Landslide crossing
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Fun, steep dirt road climbing as we headed north back up to Loja.
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We camped at the school due to heavy rains. We were very thankful for the overhang.
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Night scene at school
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Scaring the cow away
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Night scene in Zamora, a cute town up a steep hill climb
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After a long day of riding very muddy roads, passing thru many landslides, and riding in cold heavy rain, we descended 7000′ back down to sea level- our first time back at sea level since we were in Colombia! It was warm, and we rode past banana groves and cacao trees! (photo credit: Ellen)
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Riding past miles of cacao trees! (photo credit: Ellen)
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We had made it to Machala and we were riding north to Guyaquil.  Traffic was heavy, the shoulder was slim, and it was pouring rain, so we opted to take a bus up to Manta.

From Manta, we rode south along the coast to Olon, where we had our airbnb reservation.  We had a few spare days prior to our reservation, so we had a bit shorter riding days and stopped in a couple of cool coastal towns along the way.

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The riding was hot, but incredibly scenic with an enjoyable sea breeze
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Sunset in San Lorenzo
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Morning walk on the beach in San Lorenzo
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Our final coastal ride before Olon- we stayed in Puerto Lopez the previous night

We loved our week and a half at our airbnb in Olon! We swam in the gorgeous clear water, made very good use of our kitchen, did yoga, played games, and even made some friends from Fort Collins!

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We had just entered Olon and were heading off to find our airbnb
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Ellen is displaying cantaloupe on the left and squash on the right. We bought ingredients to make a coconut squash soup.  However, when we got back to the house, the “squash” was actually a fruit similar to cantaloupe.  This was especially disappointing to me, as I hate cantaloupe.  Luckily, we returned to the market and found a nice large squash!
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Sunset swim
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Ellen taught us how to make sauerkraut, which is surprisingly super easy!  We used it to make our version of kraut and yucca pierogis.
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Ellen jumping in the waves during a sunset swim
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Pictured on the left: We made yucca a couple times, and this time we used it to make a yucca leek stew.  It felt like we were buying a hunk of a tree limb, but it is very similar to a potato once the bark is cut off.  Pictured on the right: Mango pineapple cocktails with local liquor
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We ran into Rachel and her son, Atticus, who happened to be from Fort Collins! She had us and another couple from Seattle over for a dinner party filled with good food and lots of wine! Huge thanks to Rachel for such an enjoyable evening! (photo credit: Rachel)
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Recycling is Easy!  I love seeing public health related signs throughout our travels!

After returning back to Cuenca via bus, we met back up with Zach and Kristen, who graciously put us all up again for Ellen’s final few days in Ecuador.

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Loading the bikes under the bus as we return back to Cuenca
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Hanging out with Zach on his river front property

During our time in Cuenca, Evan and I were hoping to receive a package from the States (huge thanks to Evan’s parents for shipping it out!!) that included a replacement backpack as well as some other essentials for our bikes.  Unfortunately, the package was taking longer than planned, and the lady at the post office said it will take an additional 20 days.  Evan and I were running low on our allotted visa time, so we were forced to exit Ecuador and return via bus once the package arrives.  Ecuador only allows us 90 days a year to be in their country.  Once you exit and re-enter, you do not receive an additional 90 days.  We were at around day 80, so we did not have time to wait for the package to arrive and then work our way to the border.

We were so thankful to have been able to spend so much time with Ellen, Zach, and Kristen.  Ellen took off last May in her truck camper to explore the US.  It was so wonderful that she was able to fit a bike tour with us into her year off.  We shared many laughs, had deep conversations, endured tough climbs, played many games of cards, and ate lots of awesome food.  Her presence will be surely missed as Evan and I continue on.

It had been a few years since we had seen Zach, and it was great to reconnect with him, see his life in Ecuador and meet his girlfriend, Kristen.  Kristen teaches English in Cuenca and plans to be departing on a bike tour sometime in the near future! I enjoyed watching Zach make Keifer, trying some of Kristen’s homemade sourdough bread, and tasting their fermented kombucha.  We even managed to squeeze in a local micro brew fest and a few games of Catan on a homemade board! It was just like a mini vacation back home to Fort Collins!  We said our final goodbye to Ellen and temporary goodbyes to Zach and Kristen, as we will be back to pick up the package!

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Andean quinoa! (photo credit: Ellen)
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I bought a huge bunch of fresh horchata (an Ecuadorian herbal tea mixture) at the market in Cuenca, then washed and dried it and had tasty tea all week.  All of this for 50 cents!
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Saying our goodbyes to Zach and thanking him AGAIN for such a great time in Cuenca!

We took a couple buses down to Vilcabamba, the southern most point we had biked, and continued riding south to Peru.  To our surprise, the road south of Vilcabamba was filled with good steep climbs, open mountain terrain, and fun dirt road.  We crossed the border, climbed another big hill, then made it to San Ignacio.  

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We found a sheltered pavilion off of the road near the end of a long, wet climb.  It was a religious memorial, which was quite fitting as it was the night of Easter Sunday.  A couple had come by while we were about to go to sleep and lit the candles inside the memorial.  The candles stayed lit all night.
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Mid day water refill
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Looking down at the Ecuador/Peru border crossing.  The border is divided by the river.
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Evan crossing the border
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There was no “Bienvenidos a Peru” welcome sign, so I opted to take a photo of a motorcyle truck with a Peru license plate instead
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Drying coffee and cacao beans on the side of the road- a familiar site in Ecuador and Peru

We are now here, in San Ignacio, waiting for our package to arrive.  Once it arrives, we have long bus rides ahead of us as we return to Cuenca once more.

If you are interested in our route, or if you are interested in following our location in between blog posts, you can click here to check out the map that creates a line of best fit connecting our check in points.

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