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On the road . September 2009 . Ecuador and Peru

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Internet Cafe, Cuenca, Ecuador, 12-09-09
Arriba, arriba y vamos... [Up, up and away]

Quito to Cuenca (6 cycle days; 1 rest days; 463km;7747m)

Quito to Latacunga (93km; 1138m)
Latacunga to Mucha (69km; 1244m)
Mucha to Guamote (85km; 1301m)
Guamote to Chunchi (80km; 1342m)
Chunchi to Tambo (60km; 1611m)
Tambo to Cuenca (76km; 1111m)

Quitting Quito
Even if it was an easy city to cycle into, Quito doesn't really impress me at all. It is bubbling over with that strange breed of budget tourists who somehow have enough cash to buy a beer at almost 3 times the local price and spend $20 on a pizza. Everything in the immediate vicinity of El Mariscal caters towards entertaining and ripping them off. This includes the opportunist thief, as our cycle companion Karsten finds out the night before we have planned to quit Quito.

After way too many beers - the boy has difficulty knowing when you should say "no more" - he is lightened of his camera, money and mobile phone. The slashes in his pockets look more like the trademark of the well documented gang robbers that lie in wait for those that accidentally slip away from the comfort zone. Karsten admits he can't be sure, but thinks it was a girl who tried to seduce him. And while the whole story is still a bit of a mystery to me too - we were snug asleep in bed getting the shut eye needed before embarking on the subsequent cycling leg - it does mean we stay another day. It also means it is pointless visiting Baños or the thermal baths just outside. We'll arrive at the weekend and neither places are really recommended at this time of the week.

The only thing dangerous about cycling out of Quito is the high possibility of being side swiped by a bus or keeling over from exhaust asphyxiation. The latter is so bad, that coughing fits develop and have me grabbing for the nearest piece of fabric I can find to wrap around my face. It just happens to be our trusty tea towel and while it certainly wasn't the best fashion statement of the month, I'm a little bewildered as to why Ali says later that he was ashamed of me pulling such a stunt. Lucky for him, a pair of my knickers weren't dangling off the back of my bike that day.

Both Ali and Karsten fly on ahead of me and I try to keep up, but can't: especially not on the roller coaster ride getting out of the city. The first couple of hills, though not long, have dagger pain gradients not to forget the black fume billows clouding my lung capacity. I'm already zapped before we hit the 000 kilometre marker, 22 kilometres and 377 altimetres from where we started off. There is nothing attractive about the outskirts of most big cities in South and Central America and Quito is not exempt. Blackened from the excessive amount of traffic, the built-up area remains with us the whole way out. Though not particularly pretty either, there are enough gaps in the concrete surrounds towards the closing stages, to see some of the green countryside.

In fact the landscape is not at all spectacular until we have: dropped down an 8 kilometre stretch into Tambillo; pedalled on to Aloag, where I get a flat tyre; climbed back up the 673 altimetres and 22 kilometres to reach the top of the pass (3546m); admired Volcano Cotopaxi; stopped while Karsten fixes his flat tyre; and are beginning the cool 13 kilometre descent into Lasso. Its a ramshackle little village, but has a few accommodation options and I want to stay here. My main concerns are that it will be dark soon, no-one can tell us how far away the next town is, signposting is a complete joke, my stomach is playing up, and above all, I am completely knackered. The boys want to move on and start up again with their: oh, its all downhill; its not far; and whatever else they pull out to convince me that we should continue.

Twenty one kilometres later and at dusk, we arrive in Latacunga (93km; 1138m). Hotel Los Andes is lovely with its piping hot shower, clean room and very comfortable bed. I don't remember much else.

What mut ya in Mocha?
The first 13 kilometres to Salcedo is a surprisingly flat ride. The town is decorated with pigs hanging from every restaurant frontage. Again, the following 20 kilometres are easy compared to what we have been doing lately. People are incredibly friendly, traffic polite in general, though there are way too many trucks, buses and exhaust on the highway. Every piece of green, as far as the eye can see is farmed. I hadn't expected Ecuador to be so populated nor cultivated.

A sign points us around Ambato, which we take assuming it will save us the hassle of cycling through the centre of town. Our thoughts soon change to believing we have made a big mistake when we start nose diving 8 kilometres and 259 metres towards the river and the bottom of the canyon. Our hike back out is diagonally inscribed on the rock face in front of us. As we labour up the 10% gradient and peer out over the ravine, we are reassured that either way, would have meant a stiff pedal.

We stop going up after roughly 11 kilometres and 500 altimetres and find ourselves at a major intersection with the road to Riobamba veering to the left. And guess what: it continues to ascend. After a little more than half of the 15 kilometres and 429 altimetres left to our destination, we stop at a service station for Karsten to pop a bit more sugar into his body. He is not holding up too well today. Its a roll up and down the rest of the way into Mocha (69km; 1244m).

The owner of the mechanic shop at the beginning of town, shakes his head when we ask about accommodation; another doesn't sound too promising when he suggests trying at the Eco-lodge down the road; the girl at the corner store, a bit further on, says we need to go all the way to Riobamba. Adding to our confusion, the advertisement pointing the way to the only hope of accommodation reads: "only open on weekends". A restaurateur at the top of the hill rest assures us we can spend the night there. So, it is a rather dubious plummet down the little country road and over the quaint little bridge leading us to the not so well signposted Tupac Tambu Eco-lodge.

The whole set-up is beautifully situated amongst the valley green: with rustic rooms; untamed country garden; llamas; and other somewhat smaller furry animals that end up on the dinner plate in the wood-fire warmed restaurant. The price tag for this scenic rural authenticity is US$13 per person including breakfast. While that may not seem expensive for such a unique homely experience, it is way above our budget and quite a shame to be wasted on cyclists who rock up at dusk and leave just after dawn. The good news is that, in the not too distant future, the owner will invest in a bathroom block so the more budget travellers like ourselves can still soak up the atmosphere in their tent and for a much smaller fee.

Where time stood still
Stomach problems have plagued Karsten all night and he remains an extra day at Tupac Tambu Eco-lodge. There is nothing much to keep us here and since food supplies are limited and we don't fancy eating cute little animals, we decide to move on to the next major town: Cajabamba; and wait for him there. The rise up to the highway reveals our first day of blue skies in a while. Volcano Chimborazo flaunts its frosty ice cream glaciers way up high and with a bit of an imagination, the rest of the landscape is reminiscently close to a very steep and rolling English countryside: with patches of green and brown prominently hedged by even more shades of green and brown. Yesterday was cool and overcast, making the cycling disposition a tad uncomfortable. Today in comparison, is perfect.

As well as a bit of sun, the gradient seems easier than the last leg of yesterday's journey into Mocha, but I reckon being on my last legs at the end of the day had something to do with that. The climb today to the pass (3599m) is only a little more than 10 kilometres and a steady 470 odd altimetres. The terrain plateaus out for a while and clouds cover Chimborazo's icy peak completely. A 22 kilometre plunge towards Riobamba follows and the side road we wanted to take, either doesn't exist or we somehow miss it. In any case, locals are completely hopeless at telling us how far away or even where the next town lies. One guy tells us the turnoff to Cajabamba is just one kilometre down the road: ten confusing kilometres down the track, we finally hit the roundabout.

Our path now takes us back up nearly all that we have dropped and along some seriously dirty roadside. While it is nowhere near as bad as Mexico, after the clean, green environment of Colombia it is a discouraging sight. Also dampening our spirits is the discovery that the one and only hotel in Cajabamba is full and we have no other option than to cycle on. A short 3 kilometre incline to Colta (3345m) brings us to the last pinnacle of the day and then we tumble down some of the most beautifully laid tarmac we have encountered since western China.

With each rounding of the bend, I can't believe that the road is continuing to descend. It hardly seems possible. Down past little farmlets with purpley red shades of the quinoa plant. Down past the contrastingly green grassy cow-studded pastures. Down past sun browning corn fields. Down past little wind-weathered people pottering around shaking the grain from one plant or hoeing around another. They all stop to wave as we fly down past their unurbanised world.

The wind gets the better of me over the last few kilometres: dead in the face and adding to the struggle, the road escalates a little too. The smooth ride ends with gravel roadworks leading us all the way into the little village of Guamote (85km; 1301m) where time has stood still.

Bona fide home grown
Having the chance to spend time in a town like Guamote is why cycling is the only way to travel. You get to bump into the most unusual places. No-one in their right mind would stop off here, unless they had inside information about how uniquely indigenous it is.

An old railway once ran through the centre and the station and platform still remain. What with the surrounding buildings and their cheerfully bright paint, the whole scene could have been transported direct from a Hollywood western set. The only difference is, the women are dressed in velvety skirts bordered with elaborate embroidery and white blouses embellished with puff sleeves instead of gingham and lace. Not only the men, but also the women don dark felt bowler hats: a size too small for their heads if you ask me. Donkeys drag clover up and down the steep cobbled inclines, cows are escorted through the town, pigs are walked home and we have to get off and push our loaded bikes up and through the obstacle course the council has made of the roads. They have unfortunately ripped up most of the streets to renew or relay some sort of piping.

The only other downfall is that we arrive on a Saturday afternoon, when almost everything is shut and trying to grocery shop on a Sunday in Ecuador is nigh on impossible. We stumble upon a couple of corner stores with eggs, pasta, a few tomatoes and some onions as well as the eclectic selection of produce sold by a handful of ladies at the central market. While you are limited to buying only what is in front of your nose, one thing has to be said: its fresh, guaranteed to be home grown and as a rule, tastes rather good too. Karsten arrives late the next day after we spend the day lapping up a bit of the friendly local culture.

Another very different birthday on the road
Today begins with Ali and Karsten speculating once again about the terrain. Pointing at their maps and babbling away like a couple of housewives discussing the price of potatoes, they come to the conclusion that we are going to go down today and that there will be no major uphill course at all. By now, I have learnt to shut my ears to their optimism and just take the journey as it comes. It will definitely not be as they say: that much I do know.

We begin by going up 180 altimetres and then the territory plateaus out a little into rolling desolate pampas grassy plains: quite unlike any landscape we have seen in South America so far. Our first stop of the day, after 18 kilometres and where I give Ali the first of his birthday taste sensation presents, is Palmira. He opens up a box of panella caramels. Very creamy, very caramel and very, very, sweet.

The wind picks up and doesn't help us get up the 6 kilometres and 207 altimetres of climbing: bringing us to the first real pass (3417m) of the day. From here it is a massive drop a bit short of 900 altimetres: past the corrugated tin roof village of Tixán; followed closely by the town of Alausí with its monster statue of Saint Pedro, where we pause just above for lunch. Ali enjoys his second sweet present: guayaba (guava) brocadillos. Very intense, very fruity, jelly delicacies.

The extra energy comes in handy as our upward path reveals itself. The road switchbacks its way over 5 kilometres and 300 altimetres. From the bottom of the barren mountain, it looks as if Saint Pedro has leaned effortlessly over and carved a random trail in the sand with his sharp index fingernail. It is one of those patient, sit back in the saddle, granny gear pedals in order to reach the microwave tower in one go. At the pass (2818m), it becomes clear that our climbing is not quite over for the day and time for another one of Ali's presents and another sugar fix. Like peanut paste, chocolate is something we haven't been indulging in recently due to the radically excessive price of the luxoury treat. So you can imagine Ali's delight when he unwraps a couple of chocolate bars. Very much like we remembered good chocolate should be. Very addictive!

And its another winding topple into Guasuntas and then La Moya, before clambering up and then down again over the succeeding 20 kilometres to Chunchi (80km; 1342m). Here, Ali receives his last little box of extravagant chocolate indulgences. Very, very many happy returns of the day, Ali!

Our accommodation at Residencias Patricia on the other hand, is anything but a delight and is incredibly poor standard for the $US7.00 per person. While Karsten gets his own room, Ali and I are shoved, not only into the same amount of space, but also the tiniest little bed complete with sloppy mattress and sagging base for double the price. Birthday or no birthday, in the same situation again, I'm asking for my own room too.

Tambo can't come soon enough
Today we go up so many hills and then down again to valley floors that I not only lose count, but I have no interest in knowing about it until I am writing in my journal. Even then, its all a bit of a blur and Ali's statistics are the only way I can decipher our long cumbersome journey. The first height conquested comes after 20 kilometres and 709 altimetres: Alto de Santa Rosa (2880m) and is only 4 kilometres out of Saguin. Alto de Zhud (3119m), 12 km from the Chamborazo border, is our next accomplishment followed by a well earned 5½ kilometre drop into Zhud. Unfortunately, we meet with another ascend taking us back up to where we started from at the pass (3111m), 5 kilometres on the other side of Zhud.

And if you aren't dizzy from just thinking about this yo-yo influenced landscape, then I can assure you I am as I stand at the top and peer directly down into the dell below. Our path doesn't stop here neither: it weaves its way back up and over our maximum achievement of the day: pass (3166m), 8 kilometres from Charcay. What I won't neglect to tell you either, is the road turns to dirt, gravel, or some form of dis-/repair at this point, so cycling is laboured. Tambo (60km; 1611m) can't come soon enough as far as I'm concerned.

Walking the dog...and the goats, the sheep, the cows, the donkeys and the pigs!
Karsten stays behind again today to recuperate and Ali and I make an early start, only to be thwarted by a flat tyre on my bike. It's no wonder though with the atrocious state of the roads around here and the preliminary drop out of Tambo is no different. Apart from this initial trend; a downhill bump in the road just out of Cañar; and me stopping to take a photo of a very crooked painted face of Jesus, the climb lasts for 2 continuous hours. The gradient is not particularly steep but the headwind is mighty annoying as we traverse the 14 kilometres and 653 altimetres to the pass (3563m).

Ecuadorians not only walk their dogs, but every other farmyard animal apart from chickens. I guess the roosters have the ladies exercise time under control. And it doesn't matter if there are traffic lights, a major highway, roadworks, or whatever. The animals are ushered along: some on ropes; others urged in the right direction by a branch and a strident hiss. I watch, not for the first time mind you, as a middle-aged woman takes her pig, a couple of cows, one donkey, three sheep, two goats and her canine out for a jaunt around the town. They must be on the way back home for some food, because they all know exactly where and when to turn the corner. As she disappears down the clay side road, her cherry red velvet skirt sways to and fro, sequins and gold embroidery glisten in morning sun. A shawl wraps her shoulders warm while the long nylon socks constrict her plump knees. Two long jet black braids fall from inside her bowler-like hat. It's like no other costume I have ever seen and exceptionally elegant for just a walk with the dog.

From the top we descend to Biblian and then further to Azogues: almost a 1000 altimetre drop over 27 kilometres. The road is blocked in parts due to roadworks, which slows us down and other sections are barriers with half the road raised on concrete slabs. No-one can overtake and traffic jams result. Its a long, cold plunge.

Not another backpacker trap
Cuenca (76km; 1111m) is only another 32 kilometres further on and comparatively warm. Finding the city centre, despite there being absolutely no signage, is relatively easy. Finding suitable accommodation is another story. Hostals dedicated to foreigners are outrageously expensive. Thirty US dollars for an itsy bitsy double room with share bathroom is about the going rate. According to internet reviews, you will also get a really disgusting breakfast, unworkable wifi connections and considerably rude staff thrown in for absolutely no extra cost.

So, unless you have money to burn or you simply don't care, the best piece of advice I can give you is: do not bother with them. Instead, try your luck at any of the other establishments and you might happen to stumble upon a little gem just like we do. I'm looking out through the wrought iron barricade on our balcony: geraniums in flower pots and grand architecture opposite. Sun is blasting in. Contrastingly, the breeze is cool. Our wooden floorboards creak a little, but that's what you would expect for something as aged. Ali sits on a sofa across the room near his double bed and I at the kitchen table adjacent from mine. To my right a television shows the US open finals. Above me a staircase leads upstairs to our private bathroom and a spare bed, where you are most welcome to join us for a night if you like. The going price: US$14 for us both per night. Now honestly, what would you choose: Hostal Latina or a backpacker trap?

Vilc@net, Vilcabamba, Ecuador, 25-09-09
Just let me be there

Cuenca to Loja (3 cycle days; 214km; 4215m)

Cuenca to La Paz (71km; 1294m)
La Paz to Saraguro (72km; 1584m)
Saraguro to Loja (71km; 1337m)

Capital of car alarms
The traffic in Cuenca is simply atrocious: noisy; polluting; pushy; arrogant and way too excessive for the narrow network of one-way streets. Cuenca could also win the title of "car alarm capital" hands down. It is common, at any time of day mind you, for three or four of those irritating sequences of whooping, whirring and whistling to simultaneously contaminate the airwaves. What is worse is that no-one does anything about it. People just walk by, not batting an eyelid; some of them even sit in the vehicle while it is happening; police continue on with their customary business; while Ali and I almost go stark raving mad in our hotel room above. And while our insanity is totally pointless, at least we respond in some way. What's the blinkin' point of having an alarm in the first place, if it is ineffectual in arousing anyone's attention. Anywhere else in the western world, this just would not be tolerated, or better still someone would totally flip and wedge a crowbar firmly across the front bonnet. I can tell you I thought about it more than once.

Luckily, the city has a lot more going for it. It is not only full of majestic colonial style buildings and churches, but has its share of museums to peruse as well. The Museo Artes Populares (CIDAP) is certainly one worth looking at if you like traditional costumes and authentic handicrafts. The Museo de Arte Moderno, though not as spectacular as far as display is concerned, is a beautifully attractive and in a tranquil setting. As well as the sightseeing, I spend five days locked up with a Spanish dictionary and teacher trying to get my head around the language. It is actually quite a lot of fun, though draining at the same time. At least after the end of the five half-day sessions, I feel I can understand more than I did before and there is a basis for me to start with. that is, if the person I am speaking to slows down a bit.

Praying for sunshine
Apart from the rain which holds us up for half an hour and Ali's back rack snapping off, requiring a quick repair job: it is a pretty normal city exit: It is Saturday and not too busy on the road, and we soon find ourselves rolling away from the clouds of dirty black exhaust, the onslaught of horns and the impeding network of one way streets. The first 22 kilometres, up until the turnoff to Loja, is easy going. Basically flat with the occasional gentle slope and then we hit Cumbe: a small village with a couple of shops selling the usual goodies and a couple of local men already on the booze at 10am in the morning. After all it is weekend.

From here on in we have to climb solidly for 17 kilometres and 790 altimetres to reach the pass (3456m). Some sections of the concrete block highway average between 10 and 13% and the unwelcome rain that materialises turns the ascent into one of those journeys you'd rather like to forget. It is cold and windy and we are soaked through. Near the top we stop for an hour under a shelter hoping the weather will turn around. With the promise of a change, we take off again in light drizzle. Teeth chattering, pushing against the chilly gusts and up the last legs of the climb, my rambling mumbles of "sun please come out, sun please come out" turn into a breathless rendition of George Harrison's: "Here comes the sun, little darling, here comes the sun..."

It does bless us with its warmth for a short while, but disappears again too. At least we dry out, but the next few hours teeter between good and bad bursts of weather. The wind insists on persistently blowing in the wrong direction. Today's destination is 26 kilometres and an undulating 280 altimetres from the pass. High altitude grass prairies and rolling hills of low lying shrubs abound the view. There are few water sources, but a couple of wild camping possibilities. With this thought in mind, we purchase 5 litres of water at the little road-side village of Las Nieves and set off in the direction of the next town. Karsten flies on ahead and is almost in the village before he stops. Since the sun is beginning to set, it pretty well rules out camping. La Paz (71km; 1294m) has no official accommodation, though locals along the last stretch of highway rumour that there is. We end up sleeping on the floor of the resident hairdresser's shop

(From dizzy heights to blustery depths) x 2
The sound of the blow torch scorching the rind black on the spitted pig across the road stirs me from my sleep. The nostril assault from burning hair and crackling animal fat wakes me up completely. Pork is a staple in these parts and each restaurant in every town has their own display of swine in varying degrees of disembodiment. The roller door which rattled all night long in the wind is lifted to reveal an old man on the other side sifting sand through a hand held tray attached on one side to the ceiling by a piece of string. Roosters crow, dogs bark and car alarms go off intermittently as we ready ourselves for today's onslaught of hills. Blue skies and a radiant sun greet us this morning which starts the day off on the right foot.

It is a seven kilometre dawdle before we drop from an altitude of just over 3000 metres down the mammoth 18 kilometre, 1064 altimetre free fall to Rio León (1971m). The headwind is just as monstrous and once we cross the bridge, the battle with the next 10 kilometre ascent begins. A brown and barren landscape permits the air current to kick up a storm at any time without any resistance whatsoever. From the valley floor, it is not particularly scenic though the incised road zig-zagging its awkward way up to our starting point on one side and our daunting finishing point on the other, is quite inexplicable.

I know I've mentioned it before, but the influence that wind can have on your journey will either make or break your sanity. For a few seconds, it turns in our favour and the legs are boosted to an easy rhythmic rotation. The top is not far away from this vantage position and you are almost ready to start sending out the celebration invites. But there isn't enough time for such frivolity as the air torrent hits you smack in the face and the sensation that someone has strapped a couple of lead weights to your pedals returns. Every push is mentally and physically exertive. The top takes forever to come.

We reach the little town of Oña (2352m) after a short plateau-come-downhill in the terrain, only to embark on another climb. This time we rise up through sweet smelling pine forests on the rough cement block highway to two metres short of the same height we had started at today. From Oña, the pass (3112m) is 16 kilometres and 809 altimetres further on. It is also the commencement of yet another 16 kilometre downhill tumble, which my aching knees find great solace in. My mind however, is only thinking of the consequent 5 kilometre hike back up to Saraguro (72km; 1584m) where we spend the night.

The village is like Guamote, in that it is inhabited predominantly by indigenous people. I'd like to investigate further than the bread shop, but we have arrived close to 6pm, I'm physically beat, totally brain dead and all I can think about is crawling into bed and sleeping. So much so, that I totally forget to collect my change in the bakery: as soon as those rolls are in my hand and I have handed over the one dollar bill, I'm on my way out and halfway back to Hostal Samana Wasi before I realise what has happened.

Dressing up; dressing down
I don't remember falling asleep last night and I don't want to wake up this morning either. It is overcast, cold and I'd much rather stay under the covers, but it is also Karsten's birthday and I know he'd like to get to Loja today. Ali tells me, when I'm halfway through psyching myself into starting the morning ablutions, that Karsten said last night that if I wasn't up to it, then we should stay. Since I have already convinced myself of the ride, I decide we should go and besides, my bags are light today as the only food I am carrying is for the journey.

We start immediately with a 424 altimetre climb in just 6 kilometres, followed by a downhill and uphill close together. It starts to rain a couple of times along this stretch and we dress up. It stops raining, we start to climb and we dress down. We fall into San Lucas and then climb out; another drop into Santiago and another ascent pursues; drop; rise; plateau out and then a long tumble down on roads which become progressively worse by the time we reach the cobbled streets of Loja (71km; 1337m).

Veggie torture
The town is the biggest we have seen in three days and after a bit of cycling around, we manage to find Hostal San Luis on Sucre for $US8.00 per person. It is perfect for a couple of days and especially after Karsten swaps his larger, brighter room with our pokey dark one. A car park out the back means bike maintenance is made easy and the town has all the modern conveniences we need, except that is, a decent Chinese restaurant. Two of the three establishments we come across are run by the same people and they refuse to make vegetable fried rice. They are obviously not real Chinese. The other place does, but the dish is pretty boring with its meagre amount of carrot, onion and capsicum. Karsten on the other hand orders pork with vegetables and gets not only the vegetables mentioned above, but cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage as well. It is almost gastronomic torture watching him eat.

Another celebratory goodbye
Karsten is leaving us tomorrow and heading towards the coast, whereas we will continue on into Peru and venture a little east into the Amazon region. Ali and he celebrate their last night together with a few too many beers, not that they ever needed an excuse in the last four weeks of travel to prise the top off a cold Pilsener. Karsten is a really easy going type of guy and naturally generous too, so even though we pedalled through some pretty intense cycling terrain with each of us reaching our limit from time to time, it was always in hindsight, an enjoyable journey. Catching up with him in Santiago when we eventually arrive there around Christmas will certainly be due reason for the boys to crack open another celebratory drink.

Internet Cafe, Bagua Grande, Peru, 04-10-09
Never ending mountains

Loja - Ecuador to San Ignacio - Peru (6 cycle days; 1 rest day 252km; 6250m)

Loja to Vilcabamba (44km; 684m)
Vilcabamba to km 36 (36km; 1510m)
km 36 to Palanda (44km; 619m)
Palanda to Zumba (50km; 1357m)
Zumba to Nambella - Peru (34km; 783m)
Nambella to San Ignacio (43km; 1297m)

A little too much of the western accent
In comparison with what we have been used to, today's ride is a cinch. Only two climbs to worry about: the first just after we have left the outskirts of Loja and through to the turnoff to Podocarpus National Park (2410m); and the other one which begins directly out of Malacatos and lasts for 6 kilometres and 270 altimetres. Otherwise, it is a swerving, rolling, freefalling downhill.

The landscape is quite stunning, which the weather can take most of the credit for: sun sparkles through the wooly clouds, casting light and shadow on the hillside's mix of green and gold. Patchy blue highlights are forever changing shape as the wind pushes the grey accented puffs above the oddly blended vista of citrus, banana, sugar cane and big, beautiful farmhouses. The land is as rich as the people that live here. From what we have seen, Ecuador appears to have a decent proportion of relatively wealthy folk. Even in the mountains, where besides outskirt city slums, you normally encounter the most poverty of all.

The coast down the 21 kilometre stretch dropping us 900 odd altimetres into Malacatos is on bitumen road, which is great though still requires a bit of braking due to the disrepair. In general, the roads in the south are markedly worse than in the north of the country. Malacatos in hindsight, would have been a much more interesting place to stay than our planned objective of Vilcabamba (44km; 684m). On our way there, the surrounding landscape progressively dries up and strange brown rock formations protrude high into the skyline.

Locals from as far back as Cuenca have been telling us how beautiful it is in Vilcabamba. And while the scenery is quite entertaining, for all the hype, it is so much smaller than we thought it would be and so overrun with gringos that it is quite a shock. Our hearts sink at the first accommodation we ask at: they want $US12 per person for a private double with share bathroom. But with the guidance of a friendly local, we manage to find Hotel Valle Sagrado for half the price, including our own shower and toilet facilities and a clean share kitchen.

I think the only thing we can say about Vilcabamba is you get to chat with other travellers, there's a good book exchange and the chance to connect to wifi, though shamefully expensive for Ecuadorian standards. Other than that, we are glad we will get a few more days of cycling in a more authentic countryside than here. Just a little too much of the western accent for our liking.

If the weather were my friend...
It is an immediate climb out of Vilcabamba: 395 altimetres up and over 7 km, before plummeting down 5 kilometres and 319 altimetres to the river. The road responds with corresponding ascent of 6 kilometres and 312 metres and then back down roughly half of that again into Yangana. We top up the water supplies and embark officially on dirt road. As we pass the police post outside of town, an official tips his hat and relays that it is 6 km to the top. I thank him for the daunting info though in our favour, he does over-estimate by one kilometre.

At one point on this stretch of trail, my legs just won't turn the pedals around anymore and with an exasperated: "Why cant I get up these hills?", I get off to push. "Maybe because it is 20%?": comes the reply from Superman, who just stands in his pedals and labours on. Other factors might also include the high mud potential of the loose dirt; the headwind; the random bouts of irritating drizzle-come-rain followed by the bursts of intense sun through the clouds. Needless to say the journey is energy zapping and although there is a 3 kilometre downwards motion, taking the pressure away from the legs and giving it to the hands, we still have to lug ourselves and our bikes over 12 kilometres and nearly 800 altimetres of uphill slush, as well as carry the load over two mounds of loose dirt road blocks with the assistance of helpful road workers.

it comes pretty obvious by the uphill nature of the terrain that we will need to camp wild tonight. Only problem is there is almost nowhere to pitch the tent. Either drop offs or rising inclines border the road side and anything flat is dense bush. We eventually stumble upon a small clearing behind some shrubs: km 36 (36km; 1510m). At this point, if the weather were my best friend, I wouldn't be talking to him anymore. I wasn't particularly happy about the wind, nor the previous bouts of rain. But to send in a downpour just as we are pitching the tent is downright vindictive.

The whole setting up camp ordeal takes a while, but once we are both dry and settled inside our safe haven, everything looks a little rosier. The rain stops and blue skies, for the first time today mind you, appear. They quickly turn into a pitch black heaven with twittering stars; our warm meal tastes ever so good; and the block of dark chocolate, saved especially for occasions like these, is a welcomed treat. Sleep is easy.

My ex-friend sends in the rain about midnight and it doesn't stop until we rise at six, leaving the discouraging prospect of plenty of mud.

Up, down, sloshing around...
Something has eaten through our rubbish bag during the night, probably one of those long tailed tree possums I've seen squashed one dimensional on the road. The sun is trying to come out, but clouds foil its attempts. We fall for a measly one kilometre past the boundary post of the Podocarpus National Park before the onslaught of the next 5 kilometre and 336m climb. Just before we close in on the first pass (2715m) of the day, the territory levels out slightly bringing the average 8% gradient down to 7%. Like yesterday, sections reach 20%, which means I'm pushing: well sloshing, more like it. Bitterly cold headwinds blow the clouds in our direction and we can hardly see 50 metres ahead of us. The roads are, as we had imagined after last's night dumping of water: sludgy, sloppy and very slippery.

Going down the next 4 kilometres is almost as slow as going up the following 3 kilometres to our second peak (2620m). A further drop of fourteen muddy washboard kilometres and nearly 1 kilometre drop in altitude and we hit the quaintly unusual little village of Valladolid, where they have a very good bakery. Good enough cause in any cycling expedition to stop for a bite to eat. The national park we just passed, is a delightfully green, steamy, rainforest environment with plenty of water gushing from every crevice. Apart from a couple of abandoned houses staked by barbed wire, there are not many clearings and the chance of wild camping here is limited.

We basically continue to fall for the next 14 kilometres before crossing a bridge 3 kilometres prior to Palanda (44km; 619m). The sun escorts us in fervent fire for the whole 93 altimetre climb into town. It is easy in comparison with what we had faced earlier on in the day. There are couple of accommodation options and at $US6 for the night, Pension Palanda is the bare basics. After settling into the tiny room with matching sized lumpy bed, the owners of their own accord, offer us a little bit bigger room with correspondingly larger bed. It is also minus the bumps and so as far as I'm concerned the trade is a good one. The share shower is surprisingly hot and more than the usual trickle, but once the hostal fills up, sharing the bathroom with men who piss all over the toilet seat and spit on the floor becomes a little aggravating. Besides having to dress and stumble from your room in the middle of the night, it is one of the main reasons I'd much prefer private facilities. Unfortunately, they are not always available.

Life just wasn't meant to be easy
Nothing much changes in the terrain today. Generally it boils down to: three climbs each followed by three drops. The most extreme being the monster brake chafing descent from just outside of Bella Vista to Isimanchi: 385 altimetres in 5 kilometres; and the following leg muscle workout to the highest point (1458m) of the day: 558 altimetres in just 7 kilometres. Peering out at our finale path in the mid afternoon is almost heart wrenching; especially after the hard work we have already done today. Gradients hit 18% regularly which is difficult to manouevre through at the best of times, let alone in the rain and on unkempt dirt roads. The weather is so unpredictable and highly irritating that, just like those mood rings from the eighties, my outlook darkens and lightens with the colour of the sky. Though, I have to add that light drizzle is hardly an apprehension: there is more sweat dripping from me than rain. We only stop when it really starts to come down.

It takes just over two hours to complete the last ascent and Zumba (50km; 1357m) is such a welcomed sight. We have to register with the cheerful guards at the military checkpoint just before the town. Ali can barely get a grunt out of our accommodation host on the other hand and the room she shows us is pretty substandard. The quoted $US6 asking price makes it acceptably cheap. When it comes to paying however, it appears the price has jumped to $US6 per person: making the now $US12 asking price totally outrageous. We already have our bags off the bicycles, but I feel pretty duped, so investigate across the road, making our host even more crabby.

Fortunately, as soon as I am on my way up the stairs of the adjacent hotel, the piss aroma disappears. A shabbily dressed man appears, but that is of little consequence at the moment. He has room for us and already knows that we are in town. "¿Dos biciletas?": he says. I reply with a smile: "Yes, two bicycles". He shows me a room that really does cost $US6 and it hardly differs from the one across the road, except that the share bathroom facilities here are really dank, dingy and only have cold water. I say okay, but will need to talk to my husband first. He says let him know and he will come and help with our luggage.

Back at Hostal La Choza, after a bit of indecision on both our parts and the release of a couple of physically and mentally frayed tempers we basically can't be bothered repacking and trundling off round the town checking out our other options, nor saddling up to go across the road to even lesser amenities. So, just to make life a little easier for a change, we stay and we pay.

¿Direción frontera?
We already know, from a very reliable crazyguyonabike blog that today's journey is about 35 kilometres in total, but it still doesn't really prepare us for what the road has in store. We leave Zumba, after Ali spends half an hour trying to connect with the Quito Postal Service regarding a parcel that should have arrived a week ago in Australia. All my video tapes; some amazing indigenous handicrafts, backups of our photos and other odds and ends are in that box and it plays havoc in my brain that it still hasn't arrived. At least the woman who Ali has contact with is obliging and trying her best. We now have her email address, so communication is not only cheaper but also a lot easier.

The children jubilantly yelling "hola, hola, hola" in monotonous rhyme have no idea I am worrying about this detail as we make our way down the 328 altimetres to the river. It is 4.6 kilometres long of zigzagging to the widest turning circle; the lesser camber; the least rocky patch; or the section without mud. By the time we have completed a kilometre, my mind is back on only the road: there is little concentration left over for anything else really. And if it hadn't already occurred, then the subsequent 4.5 kilometre and 300 altimetre climb would have blanked my mental thought altogether.

There are two ways of getting your loaded bike to the top of a mountain. One: and the much preferred method, is sitting in your saddle and pushing the pedals around; the other: is walking by the side of your bike and pushing via the handle bars. In the past couple of days, I have done more of the latter than ever before in my life.

I've been pedalling up this incline for about 50 metres now. It takes every bit of strength I have. The gradient doesn't relent from its 14% and as I round the corner it jeeringly continues. I can handle 100 metres with some real determination, and especially when I can see the levelling out. It doesn't eventuate and unreasonable slopes just keep on coming at me. I get off, click my gears back two notches from the granny wheel and wind my pedals round by hand. This exercise normally takes a few goes on such an incline and one time when a Rohloff hub would have its advantages. In this gear, when the road becomes a little less steep, I can manage to get back on the bike.

For the meantime though, it is simply one foot after the other; my mind goes blank; my breathing is heavy but it is steady. I try to admire the butterflies and insects and pay attention to the birdsong; anything to while away the time and to keep my thoughts empty from the slow agonising ascent ahead. Sweat is dripping to the rocky floor below, darkening the surface colour; I notice the grey pebbly tones; the smoothness; the patterns they make. Patterns that blur at times and on other occasions are so overwhelmingly clear, the vision is surreal. I often think about nothing, until I realise that I am thinking about nothing, and then for every reason I have just explained, I think I'm insane.

Four kilometres downhill is a welcome rest for the legs, but not for the hands and the rain before we reach the top ijust adds to the pain. We enter the township of El Chorro with double story housing boasting wooden lattice balconies structurally similar to a wild west town. The mud brick and bamboo struts exposed by age old crumbling are the only tell tale signs that we are definitely not in North America.

The road continues downhill and we are annoyed constantly by dogs and the lack of interest from some of their owners display when they come-a-snapping and a-snarling at our heels. A 257 altimetre climb follows to the military boom-gate and by the time we reach it, the heavens have opened up again. We were probably supposed to register, but the guards don't like the prospect of standing out into the rain either. Its a hurried scramble to the bus shelter 50 metres further on.

From here we spy the next piece of road sent to test our stamina. Two hills in one kilometre take us up 84 altimetres and the 20% sections almost have me crawling on my hands and knees. Valiantly, after Superman has risen up in his stirrups and gallantly made it to the top, he comes down to assist me. Honestly, it is hard enough getting myself up the hill, let alone pushing 45kgs as well. At this point in the afternoon, we have managed to accumulate the grand total of 20 kilometres.

The 7 kilometre drop to the border post is just as steep making the descent pretty difficult going. Signing out of Ecuador and changing our dollars into Peruvian soles is way easier and a damned sight quicker than on the other side too. When we arrive at the Peruvian immigration hut, the official is apparently on a break, supposedly ending at 3pm. Twenty minutes past the hour, he rocks up in his sloganed t-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers and sets the latino music on at a level that has the speakers rocking in his office. Sitting between two official desk flags still in their plastic covering, head bobbing to the beat, he asks Ali and myself, in a booming voice loud enough to be heard over the racket, what our occupations are. With that established, we need to fill in our forms and go and get the police clearance at the office 100 metres up the road. I stay with the bikes hoping Ali can get both our clearances.

No such luck: the police officer wants to see me in person too, if not out of curiousity but to exercise his authoritarian stamping procedure in front of another person today. I don't think he gets to practise this too often in front of non-latin foreigners. He is most concerned that I have a nose ring and my picture in my passport does not show this. When the picture was taken, I was wearing a stud: try and explain that in broken Spanish. Anyway, after drawing a little picture for him, he gives up on the fruitless inquisition and then asks me if I am cycling through Peru. Ah duh! Here I stand before him, in padded bike shorts, cycle gloves, hair matted to my head from wearing a helmet in sweaty conditions, legs and steel toe capped boots covered with mud and he wants to know if I am cycling through the country? No man, I'm a ballerina that has gone completely of the rails. I guess it is a good thing that my Spanish is pretty inadequate, otherwise we may have spent longer than 1.5 hours in La Balza.

On our way out, a young boy hands me a banana which is awfully sweet of him and a little further down the dirt track I'm offered a lift. This guy insists the journey will be difficult, but then again it probably doesn't dawn on him that to get here, with a fully loaded bike that looks like it has just finished a round of mud wrestling, I had to have traversed the Ecuadorian mountains. In comparison, the next 7 kilometres and 81 altimetres are no more demanding than a stroll in the park, like the one the council is trying to erect in Nambella - Peru (34km; 783m).

According to our swinging immigration official, it is 10 kilometres into the town and it is also very big. He is wrong on both accounts, though there is ample choice of accommodation We detect four places in total and our choice of the hostal with no name above the ferreteria is cheap and reasonable at 20 Soles, (2.88 PEN = 1.00 USD) though it is obvious we are going to have to get back to the bare basics once again. Other amenities are severely lacking in Nambella: non existent bakery as far as we could see and pretty poor choice of fruit and vegetables in the town as well.

Glorious Mud?
It is a showery start to the day and at first we decide to sit put in Nambella, but as soon as we spy a patch of blue and a bit of sun, we are packing as quickly as we can. San Ignacio, our next destination, is much bigger, but it is a rumoured 1300 altimetres of climbing over 45 kilometres of dirt road. The rain is going to make the journey even more interesting.

There are basically two big hills today with straggles of downhill randomly spaced in between. The first ascent takes us up for 13 kilometres and 513 altimetres and all the way to the township of Linderos. Neat mud brick houses line the streets here and it is no wonder this is the preferred method of building, there is enough of the stuff here to build an entire mud empire. The 5 kilometre downhill to Puento 3. de Mayo is followed by another 8 kilometre and 458 altimetre climb into Nueva Esperanza. At any fresh water crossing, I stop to clean my shoes of the few extra pounds of weight they have gained along the way. The gears on our bikes are caked; mud and grit stones get stuck between the brake pads and the rims making an awful racket; and as a rule, the going is painfully slow due to the slippery state of the roads. The flat sections are the worse, but thank goodness, there are not too many of these.

We rise even further to today's peak (1744m) ; drop a bit, go up again and then Ali makes a splendid fall of his own in the mud while swerving our way downhill into San Ignacio. A car trying to overtake, hovers at our side for way too long forcing Ali through a muddy patch and resulting in the bike sliding out from under him. I can't believe the driver kept going! He cuts open his other knee this time and gets a scrape on his shoulder though no emergency patchwork is needed on the spot. However, his clothes covered with glorious mud, could have done with a quick wash.

Everything's new
San Ignacio (43km; 1297m) is indeed bigger than we have seen for a while and it has paved roads as we enter. You just don't know how good that felt. We are directed by a local to a small plaza near a fruit and vegetable market, which we believe to be the centre of town. It has a few hostals to choose from, but we later discover, that there are more options a bit further on and a few roads above us. There is also a Chifa [Chinese Restaurant] in town that we don't find out about until too late. Nonetheless, the 15 Soles room at Hospedaje Morales, with share bathroom and where our bikes are happily stored in the owners living area is ample for two nights. Besides needing to rest the highly shaken up body, there are plenty of things to contemplate now that we are officially in our 38th country: new culture; new currency; new prices; new shopping arrangements; new route; new landscape; and of course a brand new month.

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