Giant Dogs, Trays of Grubs and Saying “Aloha” to Loja

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Taking the bus was easier than expected. All I had to do was detach all my panniers and pay the porter a small fee (I suspect this was a gringo tax) to store the bike. The road from Salinas to Guayaquil was just as I’d imagined: a boring, straight road past innumerable banana groves, and I felt further vindicated in taking the bus when the entire area around Guayaquil proved to be a swelteringly hot maelstrom of traffic and confusion.

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Las Cajas national park. I obviously didn’t take this photo.

The only time I regretted my decision was when, after 2 straight hours of driving uphill through the clouds, we emerged into Las Cajas national park. The park was something special: all jagged ridges and moody lagoons – essentially the Lake District on crack – and I wished I was experiencing it on 2 wheels. If I’d been better prepared I would’ve asked (or more likely bribed) the bus driver to let me off at the park entrance and cycled down from there.

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Cuenca

Cuenca, where I spent the next couple of days, is considered “the world’s best place to retire on a budget” by International Living and it’s easy to see why. It’s brimming with culture, has a lively student scene and the weather is neither too hot nor too cold (according to my British sensibilities, anyway). For a city of 500,000+ residents it manages to retain a small town vibe – despite all of the Spanish colonial architecture it reminded me of Cambridge – and I soon felt at home as I aimlessly wandered the labyrinth of cobbled streets.

Another selling point is the food and drink. I’d not seen as many Indian restaurants or kebab shops anywhere else on the continent and there’s a burgeoning brewery scene: the Nordica IPA I tried (and then returned the next day to try again) was by far the best beer I’d had since leaving the UK.

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The gothic cathedral dominates the centre of the city
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The river Tomebamba, which runs through the middle of town, is named after the Incan city state that was once situated in the valley.
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One of Ecuador’s biggest exports is flowers and Cuenca’s flower market is meant to be one of the best in the world although it just looked like a bunch of ladies selling flowers to me.
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Feeling peckish? Why not try some of the assorted sugar munch…
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…or better still, eat a live grub. The salesman assured me they’re good for all different types of ailments and taste like chicken.
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Bridge to nowhere.
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Most people come to Cuenca simply to have their photo taken with this giant dog.

Leaving Cuenca made me feel like a lab rat as I did my best to navigate the maze of one way streets. After nearing an hour I emerged from the May Day traffic and onto the Panamericana which led me off towards the hills. I was enjoying being back in the mountains until, after 30km of forgiving flats, I had to actually cycle up one. Having spent a month down at sea level I was no longer acclimatized to the altitude and while my legs said yes, my lungs said no. Slopes that wouldn’t have troubled me a few weeks back left me panting like a chain smoking pup.

One long afternoon later I made it up to 3500m where, having reacquainted myself with my old friend the paramo, I started looking for a place to spend the night. As I passed a sign to Hacienda el Hato I remembered reading that a couple of German cyclists had camped there and I decided to check it out.

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My old mate the paramo.
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A typical Ecuadorian almuerzo: soup, meat, rice and a wee salad usually served with juice but in this case hot tea due to the altitude. ($2.50)
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I followed the steep, muddy road for 1km…
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…before pulling into the eerily quiet Hacienda el Hato…
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…whereupon this gargantuan dog, whose name I later learned was Scooby, threatened to eat my face while I searched for signs of life.
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A little while later the owners Pablo and Veronica, from Uruguay and Ecuador respectively, showed up. We had a little chat and, being extremely nice people, they offered me a room for free.
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The place was extraordinary. It had an indoor pool…
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…a Marilyn Monroe themed living room…
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…and terrific views of the surrounding countryside.
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Alas I didn’t take much time to appreciate it as I fell asleep the second I put head to pillow.
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Pablo and I got to talking over breakfast. He’s led an interesting life, working as a chef in Spain, France and New York. Buoyed by his words of encouragement I ventured off once more.

The next couple of days were a bit of a roller coaster as I descended down to 1800m then back above 3000m repeatedly on the road to Loja. It was tough but by the end I could feel my lungs were acclimating and I was getting closer to my pre-beach bum condition.

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The countryside was equally beautiful and somber.
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Some of the mountain roads put me in mind of Canada and the Pacific North West.
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And while I was lucky to avoid any heavy rain, there was still the odd rainbow.
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For about 50km the roadside rock walls were covered with the guerrilla advertising of warring grua (car towing) companies. By the time I reached Saraguro I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to set all the people treating nature as a billboard on fire…or if I just really wanted a grua.
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The countryside approaching Saraguro was gorgeous.
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Saraguro town square.
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The town was full of “educational” murals.
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I made my way through the Loja dusk in search of my Couchsurfing host.

Having been rejected by a magician in Cuenca (the ultimate shame) I thought I’d give Couchsurfing another try in Loja. Diego instantly answered my request and said I could come and stay with his family for a couple of nights. His wife, Diana, welcomed me into their home and fed me arroz con pollo while their adorable 2 year old daughter, Corina, ran around destroying things.

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Diego (left) and his brother Armando. Armando works in a gold mine in the Amazon and I gave him an English lesson as a way of thanking Diego for his kindness.
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Corina and Diana.
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I’d read that Loja was the last bastion of good bike shops for thousands of kilometres so I stopped by Bicimania to replace my worn out tyres (I got a puncture 10 metres from the shop which was an obvious sign) and to sort out a few other minor issues. Diego, who runs the place, is a great guy and gave me a few tips on my route.
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I know what you’re thinking but no, I didn’t take a detour to Paris. I just stopped by Loja’s Jipiro Recreational Park which is full of near identical replicas of famous landmarks.
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Uncanny.

I’m now less than 200km from the Peru border so the next stretch will be my last in Ecuador. I’m hoping to make it down to San Ignacio, the first Peruvian town of any note, for my birthday on Monday so I can cry my lonely tears into pisco sours rather than the pisswater masquerading as beer on this side of the border (I’m looking at you Pilsener).

Wish me luck.


Tunes: The Beatles – A Hard Days Night —> The White Album, The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet, Pinegrove – Cardinal

Reads: Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt – Michael Lewis

Route: Salinas – Guayaquil – Cuenca – Ona – Saraguro – Santiago – Loja

3 thoughts on “Giant Dogs, Trays of Grubs and Saying “Aloha” to Loja

  1. Matt R May 5, 2017 / 1:17 pm

    wish you’d have a pic with the dog, he’s a strong presence

    Like

  2. lvecuadorPam Hawley May 5, 2017 / 1:20 pm

    Loved your trip through Ecuador. I am so glad that I got to know you and spend some time with you. Did you see that Billy just won 2nd week in a row? Grrrrrr. Wish you were here to help stop that. Thanks for sharing your blog. Have a safe trip through Peru and beyond. xoxo

    Like

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