Friday 25 April 2008

ECUADOR - Country Snapshot

March 30- April 27
Tulcan N 00.44 - Zumba S 04.58 (Lat. 5 degrees)
Total kms: 1217kms. Total Days Riding: 18 days
Rest days: 9 days Daily average: 68kms
Total Elevation Gain: 19,565 metres.
Daily climbing average: 1090m.
Highest elevation: 4422m (El Arenal/Chimbarazo camp)
Lowest elevation: 720 (La Balsa- Peruvian border)
Total riding hours: 96hrs. Daily av: 5hrs 20mins
Longest riding day: 7hrs 24mins Max. speed: 72.6kph
Road Surface: Sealed 1044kms Gravel 173kms

Bicycle Mania

1 puncture (at the end of my last day in Ecuador)
torn rear pannier (curse the curs!)
1 broken spoke (rear wheel)

1. Chimbarazo and vicuñas
2. Podocarpus National park
3. Guamote market
4. Cuenca and Casa Sol
5. Cycling Vilcabamba - Zumba

Ecuador dropped the unstable sucre in the mid 90´s and now the US dollar is the official currency. It´s unpopular with the rural population but it suits the business people in the towns. They use US coins but also equivalent centavos (5-25).

Daily budget - $US14-16 a day.

I rode from north to south down the central axis of the country, passing through a corridor of volcanoes, traversing the high sierra and dropping into the warm lush valleys. Here are some examples of the varying terrain and different altitudes I travelled across on my Ecuadorian journey. Four slices of landscape.

Puna 4000m Mt. Chimbarazo.

Paramo 3400m Podocarpus NP

Montane cloud forest 2700m Podocarpus NP

Sub-tropical highland valley 1500m Vilcabamba

The Ecuadorians seem quite diferent to their northern neighbours, the Colombians. They are more withdrawn and much less extroverted - quite reticent and often difficult to chat with them but also less prone to shout `Gringo´ or blow their horns at me. They are very courteuos to strangers and often say `Buen aprovecha´ when they enter a restaurant while people are eating.

As I stayed mostly in the sierra I didn´t get a complete cross-section of the Ecuadorian population. There is a strong African influence on the western coast and a pioneering mestizo population in the eastern lowlands. In the highlands, I encountered a dominant indigenous presence around Otavalo in the north, in the villages south of Ambato and a small pocket around Saraguro. Many of the large towns and cities (eg. Cuenca, Quito) have large ladino populations, but are very mixed.

Cane lazo - aguadiente (cane spirit), panela (dark brown sugar), lime juice & cinnamon sticks. A nice sweet drink on cold sierra nights. I first tried it in Bogota but the Ecuadorians boil up a sour fruit (naranjilla or lulo with the cinnamon and sugar. A great little drop.

Juices in Ambato market of all tastes and colours- alfalafa, coco, blackberry, guava, naranjilla, orange, pineapple. An endless variety.

Costs for a single room varied from $3-8. I´m a born cheapskate so I often went for the shared bath rate. I scored a great deal in Ibarra- 3 star w/ cable TV and ensuite for $7! The cheapest (and noisiest) hotel was the Hotel Sucre. Of course, my favourite was Casa Sol in Cuenca, shown in the photo below.

Another favourite was the adobe cottage at Rumi Wilco outside Vilcabamba.


How far (connell)* is it?
In Ecuador, like many places around the globe, distance and time are relative. I have maps and a GPS but I like to get up-to date regional info. Alas, I wrongly presumed local knowledge would count for something. Before I set off or when I pass through a town, I often ask a local on the street about the road ahead, ie, How far is it to the next town? Does it climb steeply? Is it sealed or dirt? The answers are bewildering.
One such road was Vilcabamba to Zumba. Leaving Vilcabamba, I asked a German guy who lives in the valley who I thought would have reliable knowledge. "Does the road climb much?". "No, not veally, just a little oop and dawn". In fact it was bloody tough steep climbing - over 2 days I climbed almost 4000 vertical metres! Oops and downzies, my arse.
In the next village, Yangana, I sought out a shopkeeper for some information - about how far it was to the next town with accommodation. "Cercita", or `not far at all´, was his response. I pushed him for elaboration. "Una hora, no mas", or `1 hour, no more´. 6 hours later I limped into Vallolodid, after a brutal 43kms and a 1200m climb on a muddy, dirt road.
And to add salt to the wounds, the authorities get it wrong too. Outside Yangana a sign gave the distance to Zumba as 217 kms. It was actually 111kms. I think the sign was put in the wrong place. What the hell!
And the guidebooks (I´ve got an essay on these texts of misinformation and poor research) can never get it right either. Footprint has the distance between Vilca and Zumba as 112kms when it´s 134kms. Lonely Planet ..don´t get me started...

* As for the colloquial title of this grumble...In my hometown, Smithton, there was a family of Connells. Ivy (Ma), Pa and their mute son, who we called Far. It was always "Far Connell!"

Ice cream man and his bi-polar bear

Mariachis in the Sierra

Papal Propaganda An anti-abortion poster which you find in the Catholic churches all over Ecuador. Very subtle for a place of worship eh? I´d like to put up some photos of dying Aids patients I saw in a clinic in Bujumbura, Burundi in 1990. It was shortly after the the Pope´s visit when he forbade them to use condoms. Talk about the sanctity and dignity of life.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Southern Highlands- Cuenca to Zumba

REMINDER: If you want a closer look at the photos, double click on the image to enlarge.

Woke up on Tuesday to heavy rain so I stayed an extra day at Casa Sol in Cuenca. Both the city and the hospedaje were great places to laze about. La Familia Nivelo were great fun and helpful, fantastic hosts. Left to right- Jose, Maria Elena, Maria Belen, Muñeca (dog), Maria Salome & Luis.

And a bit of advertising for the best little hostel in Ecuador - La Casa Sol

To kill some time on a wet miserable day, I went out to Baños, a hot spring resort 5kms away. Sweated out some toxins in the turco (turkish sauna)*.
Smell of eucalypt leaves permeated the steam bath. Later on plonked the hot sweaty body in the sulphur-rich waters of the pool.

Next day, after another hearty breakfast from Luis, I hit the road. 20 kms of unusually flat terrain, then the climbing started. The gradients are a lot steeper here in the south than further north and the roads are in worse shape. Patches of bitumen have collapsed and created big potholes.

I came across some road crews on the steeper sections. They seemed determined to make the road bombproof by laying down 30cms of concrete.

They let me ride on the new concrete road. Nice and smooth but bloody steep.

Tasmanian trackworkers have it easy with their mechanized power barrows. Imagine hauling granite rock uphill in this cart. Slow work unless you ride it downhill (complete w/ brake, stick not V-brake).

Climbed high onto the paramo and rode across a plateau at 3500m. In the mist and cloud it was an eerie place- no people or houses, but there were remnants of montane forest which must have covered the entire cordillera at one time. Some showy and colorful vegetation, like these large waratah-like flowers (Proteaceae?).

I camped on the first night out. Lovely views of the highlands to the north in the early morning as I climbed up to Oña. To the right you can glimpse the road I descended the day before.

But sadly, the Oña residents don't seem to care about the beauty of landscape. It's the local illegal rubbish tip, straight off the cliff and seen for miles!

I arrived in Saraguro, a small indigenous town in a beautiful setting at 2500m. I liked the place immediately and stayed the night, walking around the countryside in the late afternoon. The indians who inhabit these valleys are an interesting group. Originally from the Titcaca region they have settled here to become very skilful artisans and productive farmers. Just as the Otavalans in the north dress in white, the Saraguros wear primarily black costumes. The men and boys grow long ponytails and wear knee-length shorts and black ponchos. The women wear wide black skirts with red shawls and glittering silver pins. Everybody seems to don the bowler hat. It´s like being on a Charlie Chaplin movie set where the cast are all playing the hapless comic hero. It´s a friendly place with a carefree bonhomie atmosphere. I guess on market day (Sunday) it´s full of tourists and quite different.

Up at 5am , breakfast on the MSR and off at 6.30 (my usual start to the day). Climbed out of Saraguro on a very steep road (500m climb in 7 kms- what degree is this?). The predictable rain started to fall as I hit the pass and a very wet, sloshing run down to San Juan. Had another breakfast (do all cyclists need 5 meals a day?). Met a bus driver who told me of an alternative road, not shown on my IGM map. It was dirt but shorter, following the river down to Loja. I was tired of the PanAm, the traffic and the truck-stop besser-brick ugliness, so I detoured down the muddy but delightful track. Far more interesting scenery with small villages of adobe houses and neat, manicured farms (a glimpse of Ecuador from the 80´s).

I came across this snoozing sow under a rock face in the middle of nowhere.

When I screeched my gritty brakes, she was startled and quite disgruntled. She waddled over to the bike and started hoovering my muddy Schwalbes (a German schwein?. Mmm, some lovely fresh filth..."What are you looking at?"- she inquired from the wet, curious cyclist.

A bit of R & R in Loja. Felt ill the next day (with severe stomach cramps) so stayed in bed for most of it reading a silly book about 2 lovers, Camilla and Curtis and a pet dachshund. Dosed up on peppermint tea and some purging laxatives and the pains had disappeared the next morning. Fortunately, the only sick day in 3 months.

Rode out of Loja on an out-of-character sunny morning to a pass (2400m) and climbed up a steep but scenic dirt road to Podocarpus National Park.

Delicate wisps of cloud were rising from the warm valleybelow into the high cool cloudforest.

As I climbed, the native flora of the cloud forest shyly emerged.

I left my bike and other gear at the ranger station (Cajanuma) and with backpack and camping gear climbed through the Podocarpus forest to the paramo. Some beautiful thickets of ancient trees, moss, hanging lichen and epiphytes reminded me at times of another equatorial botanical wonderland, the Ruwenzori Mountains (aka, the Mountains of the Moon) of central Africa.

At 3200m I emerged out of the slipping, dripping forests and onto the open paramo with its shrubs, grasses, rosettes and stunning flora.

Bomarea setace

Valerian, a rosette growing in large clumps like Tasmania´s Astela alpina or pineapple grass.

Brachyotum alpinum local name - zarcillejo

The bromeliads were putting on a show, both on the paramo and in the gully forests. Some were terrestrial, in the most startling and brilliant colours...

....while others preferred to float high in the trees.

..and this finch or tanager on the paramo

This is also the habitat for the rare Spectacled Bear, or Oso de Anteojos. I was so keen to catch a glimpse of Four Eyes, I´d rehearsed my meeting with him, giving him a pseudonym. I wasn´t sure why he wore glasses so I just took a punt. "Hey, Gladly, my Cross-eyed Bear". But then I realised it sounds like that Christian flagellation mantra...`Gladly my cross I´d bear´ (apologies to A. Hopkins `Talking to a Stranger´ for the cheap borrowing). So, no bear...although I did see paw prints and some bear poo (or was that Pooh Bear?)

It was a long hard tramp up and down the ridgeline to Las Lagunas de Compadres. The skies were clear and I could see the distant cirque walls surrounding the lakes. In true Ecuadorian style, as I approached them, the mist came down and obscured everything. Just managed to get my tent up before dark and the pouring rain.

Laguna Grande, the next morning, an eerie silence in the soft mist. Walked, or rather sloshed, back to Cajanuma. It was cold driving rain now and I had a few deja vu moments where I felt I was back in Tasmania, climbing over the infamous Beggary Bumps of the Western Arthur range in a southwesterly gale.

Back to Cajanuma and dried off gear, stayed the night in a small cabin. The only other guests were 3 botanists doing research on liverworts. In my muddy sodden clothes I felt a little like an alpine bryophyte too!

Cycled down from 2700 to 1500m to the Sacred Valley of Vilcabamba. This once quite remote village has acquired legendary status as the `valley of ancient ones´, where the natives live to ripe old ages. It has marketed itself as the fountain of youth, a place of rejuvenation. Some say it´s the mineral-rich water flowing from the lakes in the paramo, but I reckon it´s the quality of the local tobacco and this old healthy codger seems to thinks so too.

Now it is flooded with ageing and disillusioned hippies buying up land to escape Armageddon, befuddled young backpackers wandering lost and aimless in the quiet streets and a sprinkling of serious envrionmental defenders. Two such conservationists are Orlando and Alicia Falco from Argentina who have established this private reserve outside town, to help preserve the threatened Wilco tree, a mimosa variety, similar the Australian wattle.
I´m now staying at their place, the Rumi Wilco Lodge. Lovely spot away from town. Nice room in an adobe cottage. $6 a night.

Great place to relax, to do some birdwatching and get prepared for the long hard ride through the Peruvian Andes. This will be the most gruelling part of the journey - rough gravel roads, steep climbs and descents, pickpockets and brigands vicious dogs and bad food. Ah the saying goes....gladly, my cross I´ll bear. Wish me well. You may not hear from me in a while. Hasta luego.

Scenery south of Vilcabamba - limestone country

Summertime Insects
At this relatively low altitude (1500m) and warm humid climate, the butterflies, cicadas and dragonflies were prolific. I came across this specimen by the roadside.

Beyond Vilcabamba, the sealed road came to end. A very dusty dirt road snaked its way up and down the valleys. This ascent (in the foreground) climbed 300m in 3.5 kms.

After a rainstorm in the hills, the dust turned into mud....

View of the road climbing through the Podocarpus National park. Another tough day - a total vertical climb of over 2000m in heat, then mist and rain... but the scenery was spectacular and well worth the pain and discomfort.

Siete Cueros These trees are very unusual as they have a bi-floral disorder. On the same tree there two different colour blossoms - mauve and violet. A remarkable sight - splashed against the green expanse, similar to the rhododendrons in China and Tibet. I saw this species in southern Colombia

And the bright iridesence of bromeliads in the dark wet forest.

Vultures waiting to pick clean the carcasses of cyclists who fall by the roadside....

The road from Vallolid and Palanda was a pleasant ride, undulating and meandering above a valley of coffee and banana fields. It was heartening to see that some areas had been reserved for Los Palmas Ramos, the diminishing native palms and habitat for some threatened parrots.

And some very showy irises peering out of the forest.

Stopped for lunch at a small village (bananas, bread w/ tuna and tomatoes) and these shy kids came down the road and sat with me. Very timid and shy.

The road became really steep towards Zumba. This 5km section climbed from 800m to 1300 metres (1 km for 100m. rise). A real gut buster with a fully-laden bike. Unrideable on the stony surface and I had to push it up the steepest sections. Where were the surveyors when they constructed this road? I guess they were in a hurry to get it completed to reach the newly opened border with Peru in the 1990´s.

Dog Day Afternoon
Just before Zumba I was bouncing and braking down one of these steep hills and I was set upon by a pack of four dogs. I tried to avoid them and lost control of the bike. I hit the road hard and slid down the rocky slope, taking off a few layers of skin from my elbow and shoulder, and tearing a hole in my rear Ortlieb pannier. Later I repaired the hole with Aquaseal, but I´ll have to wait for Nature´s sealant to heal my wounds.
So, a curse on all curs (except Max , of course). Peruvian dogs are supposed to be the most aggressive in Sth America. I hope they´ve heard about the Dog Day Morning when the people of Lima´s barrios woke up to find hundreds of dogs hanging from lamp posts. A shocking publicity stunt from the nascent Shining Path guerilla movement. When I meet Los Perros Peruanos I must sit them down and give them a brief history lesson. Where´s my `Dazzer´ Richard (Chin)?
The weird thing about this particular pack of dogs...when I fell onto the road..they just yelped and ran off, disappearing behind some a group of kids larking about and then realizing they may get scolded for causing mischief.

I came across this sign along the dirt track and got quite excited about this famed village and it´s attractions. "Welcome to El Chorro. Land of Beautiful Women".

The main street of the same town. Didn´t spot the renowned beautiful women, as I was probably more captivated and preoccupied with the lovely mud. Or did I misread it...? Perhaps they meant `Women of the Beautiful Earth´, and the town was promoting its prized mud packs for skin treatment for females. Giant mud packs! I didn´t stick around to get the real dirt on this one.

Rocks and mud glued to my tyres. But the Schwalbes are good at self-cleaning.

In Colombia the military presence is everywhere..and I would encounter them everyday on the roads. But in Ecuador they are very low key and this is one of the few times I met a contingent. This is a few kms north of the border with Peru. All were from Guayaquil and the coast (high unemployment). Very friendly and curious fellows.

This section of road is 200 metres from the bridge and Peruvian border. Steep to the very last. I was so glad to come to the end of this rocky rollercoaster. Poor ol´ Rocinante had had enough too! Brake shoes screeching, wheels pounding, tyres sliding...

This is la ranchera , the Ecuadorian equivalent to the Colombian chiva. A truck masquerading as an open sided bus - perfect for the steep rough terrain and the tropical heat.

Divine Improvidence
Here it struggles up the steep stony track. Check out the kids on top, hoping Divino Niño (the divine child) is looking over them. In fact it was La Niña (the troublesome alter ego of El Niño) that damaged so many of these roads in the south this winter.

Adios, Ecuador! Check Country Snapshot.