Friday 11 April 2008

Central Highlands - Quito to Cuenca

I left Quito very early on Sunday morning to avoid the traffic out of town. I was staying in the Old City in the south - straight onto the PanAmericana and the traffic wasn`t too bad.
I didn`t get too much sleep in my 4 nights in Quito - drunk and rowdy young backpackers keeping ol´ Grumpy awake to the early hours. In 1984 I stayed at the legendary Gran Casino, It was an eccentric place on the hippy gringo trail, with its own turkish baths and sauna next door. The old city has still retained some of its charm of those halcyon days, but nostagia sees it differently.

The 140 km ride south to Ambato was uneventful and not very interesting, although the PanAmerican highway was smooth, with the usual wide shoulder..and some nice sweeping descents. Cotopaxi was hiding under a heavy grey sombrero and the Illinzas were doing likewise. I knew April was the wet season in Ecuador and this has been their wettest winter in memory. I had to sacrifice one country to the foul elements. When I hit Peru, hopefully, the rain will have cleared from the Andean region.
I arrived in Ambato the following day in time for the Monday market. It´s supposed to be the largest in Ecuador, all modern and covered, but with some colourful produce.

The juice stalls were amazing. I sampled three different flavours. The mauve one being poured is passionfruit and blackberry, my favourite...mmmm!

Many indigena from the surrounding area come to this market to buy, sell and catch up on the latest news.

From Ambato (2700m) I climbed up to 4400m skirting the western and southern flanks of Mt Chimbarazo. At 6310m it is Ecuador´s highest peak. In 1985 I climbed to within 500m of the summit without climbing gear and had to bivvy out at 5000m.
I camped out 2 nights this time, just beyond human habitation and then on the Arenal at 4400m. On the ride along the western side I came across some very curious llamas.
I wanted to introduce myself......
¿Como se llama? o ¿Como es su llama?
`What´s your name?´ or `How is your llama?´

Family group - mother and two very timid young llamaettes.

Climbing around Chimbarazo in the early morning. I haven´t taken many self portraits. Often I can´t be bothered setting up the self-timer and this time I was keen to make use of the clear skies and get up higher. But here´s one for the blog. Fortunately, the sun was out this morning- the only occasion in Ecuador so far.

The mist came down over the peak but I encountered about 6 herds of vicuñas. This is the wild species of camelids of the central Andes and they have been successfully introduced to this high alpine area (the Arenal). I saw at least 100, some in family groups with the dominant male keeping watch, or else a solitary male ostracized from his clan. They were very timid and were constantly aware of my prescence. The male would let out warning shrieks or would raise his tail if I got too close to his harem.

Vicuña group with young

Vicuñas and Chimbarazo, near my camp, with the sun just about to peer over the peak.

Dawn on Chimbarazo South face (from my camp).

My high camp on Chimbarazo 4400m, about 200m from the road.

Heading down the paved road above 4000m and the thick mist obscured everything. I just had to concentrate on the yellow median strip with about 2 metre visibilty.

This small village was an unexpected delight. I arrived the day before the Thursday market and the village was deserted. The railway runs through the middle of town.

Next morning the whole town was packed with people. This is the animal market- mostly sheep, goats and pigs. Lots of bartering and animal noises.

In Guamote I stayed at a small hostel, Inti Sisa, meaning `sunflower´. It´s a Belgian/Ecuadorian community development project, with two volunteers, Lieve and James as project managers. They run educational programmes for the indigenous kids as well as computer and sewing classes for the adults. Also tourist ventures to raise funds for their school. It seems a very successful grassroots project. Check out their website at

After the euphoria of Chimbarazo and the charm of Guamote, I had three tough days in the rain, mist and must, climbing up and down the Ecuadorian Andes. As I headed south, the road deteriorated, the weather packed in, the people became more sullen, the buses and trucks blew more black smoke, the litter accumulated on the roadsides and the dogs got nastier. (See below - Grumpy Old Man)

However when the skies did clear, the green landscape really shone. These shots are on the approach to Aluasi and climbing out of the the same town. There is a famous tourist train from here around El Nariz del Diablo, or the Devil´s Nose. I took this train in 1985 when it ran further down the Andes (some of the line was destroyed in the bad El Niño year of 1986 and hasn´t been repaired).

On the second day out from Guamote I climbed 2150m, with 20kms of new road construction (mud and potholes) and constant ups and downs. I struggled up the hills and through the rain until the fog came down on me. At 6pm, just before dark, I dragged my bike off the road and found a camp among some bushes in the thick mist. Next morning, after a long night of rain, I peered from tent to see this view. I was just below a pass 3100m (15kms north of El Tambo).

A landslide north of Cuenca which held up traffic for a long time but I just walked the bike around it.

Cañari women at El Tambo market.

Cuenca was a welcome respite from the wet and miserable towns along the way. It´s a World Heritage site with cobbled streets and colonial buildings. The cobbled roads are a sod to ride over, especially for my clattering dentures. I thought I was going to lose my three front teeth again (courtesy of Dr Tith in Phnom Penh).
Here is a view of the cathedral.

Four rivers flow through and around Cuenca. Rio Tambopampa after the recent heavy rain.

I needed a good rest and I was lucky to find a great place to stay. La Casa Sol is a residencial (or family guesthouse) where La Familia Nivelo let out their wonderful house to guests. No sign on the dwelling and unlisted in the guidebooks. Comfy beds, full breakfast, hot water..all for US$6. Luis and Maria Elena are very hospitable and knowledgeable about the city. The best place I´ve stayed so far on this journey.

Cuenca is the hat capital of Ecuador. Home of the panama hats and the more traditional stiff white sombreros. I came across this hat repairer by the riverside. Some are 20 years old. He was very dismissive of the soft panama hats made here and often seen on the heads of middle-aged tourists. Here is El Señor de Los Sombreros at work.

...and his proud sign

And here are two Cuenca women wearing the traditonal white hats.

I don´t know why pigs are exposed in public like this but I can´t stop this piggy theme now....the pig pics keep coming..

This little piggy went to market.....

..and this big piggy was highly-strung.

If Pigs could Fly

Paul Theroux, the snobbish misanthrope once wrote that `travel is the saddest pleasure´. It can bring so much euphoria, stimulation and deep undertstanding and then it hits you in the face you with the ugliness, depravity and tragedy of the world.
(More text to come)

Here are five greivances of a grumpy old man cycling through Ecuador.

These canine little devils have yapped at my heels for far too long. The ride from Aluasi to Cuenca was a constant barking and chasing frenzy. I got so mad with them I would jump off my bike, collect some rocks and run at them flailing my backpack frame and hurling stones, shouting `Perros Bastardos´. The locals thought I was a madman. The dogs just yelped and hid behind the houses.
I´ve noticed in Colombia and Ecuador that once you get off the main route or into remote areas, the dogs become more territorial and fiercer. I saw this on the Tibetan plateau too, where the Tibetan mastiffs protecting the nomad camps were potential killers and would chew off the leg of any passing cyclist. Why do the poorest people own the most dangerous beasts - los perros peligrosos? I guess they have so little, they have to protect what scant possessions they have. Or it could be just the reaction of an insular and fearful community.
Well, Jude has sent me the Dazzer dog scarer, which emits this high-pitched whistle, inaudible to humans, but frightens the living shit out of dogs. We´ll this space...

Now here is the dog I like to meet on the road. In Ambato I saw this funny mutt looking curiously out at me from his cosy house. Actually she was "Lady". This is how I like my dogs - quiet, indoors and slightly dim...

2. Christian Missionaries
Almost as rabid as the dogs. I loathe these people. When they´re not praying on their knees, they are preying on the vulnerable. They proliferate in indigenous areas of developing countries, like Ecuador, and set up large churches and halls to attract the indigena with song and dance routines. Lots of happy clappies!
They´re the usual suspects - Mormons, Jehovah Witness, Assembly of God, etc. but a new wave of very efficient and wealthy evangelical groups from the US bible belt (where else?) have spread across the continent, like this one outside Cañar (notice the stars and stripes).

In Norman Lewis´ book `The Missionaries´ he chronicles the ethnocide of primitive South American indian cultures by these self righteous spiritual hunters and collectors. It´s a harrowing read but an excellent account of the exploitation of these people by contemporary religious zealots. As if Pizarro and his illiterate bastard brothers didn´t wreak enough havoc on the continent with their god and gold crusade. These modern day crusaders are like vultures picking on the leftovers of the Spanish Conquest and their near-annilihation of aboriginal culture.

3. Litter
I came across this neat patchwork farm outside Guamote. It was so geometric and tidy, interspersed with complete...

..... while on the opposite side of the road was the usual pile of rubbish. So disheartening to see scattered about this beautiful landscape.

Rubbish is everywhere. In the Chimbarazo reserve I came across large bags of rubbish dumped by the road. Even saw dozens of obsolete and broken computers lying discarded
in the shadow of the mountain. It´s a national pastime in Ecuador and it crosses the class divide. In my indignation I reproached a middle-class family who were throwing all their rubbish from the windows of their 4WD. I saw it occasionally in Colombia but there´s seems to be more civic pride further north.

4. Weather
more text to come

5. Pollution
photo and text to come

Where´s my spoke wrench? It has to be here somewhere. A bike repair shop in downtown Cuenca. Not as professional or as tidy as the Colombian shops. Notice the accordian and guitar at the back. A funny old bloke ran this messy and chaotic place - more music tunes than bike tuning I think. I bought some chain lube off him - the classic Singer variety (no pun intended).

Rocinante rolls on... Hotel El Quijote- `A place that you will always want to remember´. Here is the errant rider on his old hack, Rocinante.

The horse with a name is doing well. In this rain the chain needs constant cleaning and keeping lube on it is a real battle. Going through the brake pads too. I´ve given up on Shimano pads- they´re rubbish in these conditions. Steep descents with grit and rain just grind them away (and wear the rims too). I´ve put on the Kool Stop pads and they are much better with much less wear on the rims. I bought 4 new pairs in Quito at $7 each- a good price.
The Rohloff cables get a bit stiff after rain. A bit of lube in the grip shift usually frees them up again. I´´m still nervous about ripping a nipple off again. Ouch! That hurts!
Panniers and racks doing well with the abuse. I´m very happy with the aluminium front Old Man Mountain rack. Loaded with the lighter weight (15kgs w/out water) carrying the red back classic panniers. The black roller panniers fit more in them and are loaded with heavy gear (30kgs) at the rear with folded backpack & spare tyre.

Does my bottom (bracket) look big in this (photo)? This is the welding job done in La Plata, Colombia. The old fella did a great job and seems like it will hold up. I had some black paint sprayed on it to stop rust. It´s all black and blue. What do you think Tim? Sorry I didn´t get a photo of the welder at work. I was too nervous.

1 comment:

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