Travelling by bike is full of surprises. You cycle 200km relatively untroubled and look at the next 200km on the map and think “It can’t be that different, can it?” but of course it always is. I didn’t know much about the route from Loja to Peru other than that it was lower in altitude and I assumed that meant “easier”. I was wrong.
Well, I wasn’t completely wrong. The first 30km south from Loja to Vilcabamba was as easy a stretch as I can remember: a leisurely roll down through the mountains and into a balmy valley peppered with luxurious villas and gated communities.
At first glance Vilcabamba appeared to be a typical Ecuadorian town but as I approached the main square things took a turn. It was as if I’d entered a portal into an alternate hippy dimension. Every other person was either a 60-something white North American wearing bright coloured baggy trousers and a jaunty hat, or a wispy bearded, 20-something ukulele fudger. The square was lined with natural yogurt shops and all sorts of New Age joints with adverts for yoga retreats and “Biodynamic farming workshops”. I feared I’d entered a hippy version of The Stepford Wives and, after taking advantage of the excellent coffee, I got the hell out before my hair dreaded itself and I started talking about chakras.
A heavy fog hung low over Zumba threatening a miserable day of cycling but by the time I’d stuffed my face with some breakfast tamales the sky had cleared and the sun was scorching down. The dirt path snaked its way through the hills – up up down down left right left right (a, b start) – and aside from the occasional taxi I had the run of the road. In typical Ecuadorian fashion the grading was frankly ridiculous (I’m talking 20%) and the last hill felt like an end of level boss battle. It was as if Ecuador was laughing at me. “Thought you were done with me, kid? Ha! Think again”. I fail to see how anyone other than the greats like Chris Froome and Alex Gandy could get up those hills on a fully loaded bike without getting off to push.
The border crossing was a breeze and within 15 minutes I was on Peruvian soil brandishing a 6 month visa. In a surprising reversal, especially considering the economic disparity between the two countries, the road on the Peruvian side was newly paved and as smooth as The Fonz. It was also much less steep and, after the sadistic climbs I’d just endured, this was more than welcome. But it was also hot. Really hot.
I had a cheap lunch (about half the price of the average lunch in Ecuador) and then started the first of the two steady climbs up to San Ignacio. As the afternoon sun beat down like a club I felt simultaneously bloated and dehydrated and had to shelter under roadside trees for shade every few hundred metres in order to survive. It was slow going and when I eventually reached the cluster of houses that goes by the name of Linderos I stopped at a tienda to chug 3 bottles of Gatorade. Wearing nothing but shoes and lycra shorts I was garnering even more stares than usual. With my already dodgy hairstyle now deep in the “inbetween stage” the Peruvians must’ve thought they were being invaded by a giant gay lion from the eighties.
With dusk fast approaching I arrived at “Nueva Esperanza” or “New Hope”. Was it a sign? A pack of drunkards waved me over. “C’mon, stop for a while! Have a beer with us!”. They handed me a bottle and the calls of “chug” started. Half in an attempt to impress them and half because I was beyond the point of caring about anything anymore, I got it down me and judging from their reactions it was about the funniest thing they’d ever seen. A couple of beers later one of them offered me a free lift to San Ignacio on his tuk tuk. There was about half an hour of light left in the sky and I had well over an hour of cycling to go so I thought “what the hell?” and hopped aboard. Consider it an early birthday present.
That evening, after I settled into my matchbox of a room in San Ignacio, my stomach took a turn and I spent much of the night running back and forth to the shared bathroom. I’d only been in the country for 6 hours and Peru was already having its wicked way with me. I was almost impressed.
My Birthday wasn’t particularly memorable. I did some laundry, tried and failed to Skype friends and family (internet up here ain’t so great) and ate some very good ceviche after failing to find any restaurants serving cuy (guinea pig). I also watched some films (The Hunt For Red October, The Mosquito Coast and Get Out in case you were wondering). Sean Connery’s beard was my favourite.
Distance Travelled: Somewhere in the region of 1700km (not including busses)
Best Moments: El Angel Paramo/Arriving at The Cottages by the Sea/Winning at poker
Worst Moments: Being shouted at by Shawn at the pig farm/Crashing at Cotopaxi
Things I’ll miss:
– The lush, well tended town squares. Unlike in Colombia or Peru where they call them plazas, in Ecuador they refer to them them parques, which about sums it up.
– The countryside. Volcanoes are always cool and a lot of the country has a kind of muted, somber beauty to it. I’ll never forget that El Angel paramo.
– The bakeries are pretty decent. I enjoyed being able to buy little chocolate croissants and donuts everywhere I went.
Things I won’t miss about Ecuador:
– Road planners in Ecuador didn’t think much of cyclists. Everything is straight up or straight down. Where are the switchbacks goddammit?
– Coffee. Coming from Colombia I had certain expectations and it was annoying having to traipse around trying to find a single place that would sell me a crappy black coffee in the morning.
– The food. Colombia’s food ain’t great but at least it has a few memorable dishes, while empanadas and bunuelos make solid snacks. In my whole time in Ecuador the only food that made an impression was encebollado which they kinda ruin by drowning in crisps.
– It’s pretty expensive.
I’ve still not been to Banos, Mompiche or The Galapagos and now have plenty of friends to visit so I fully intend to return.
“Thought you were done with me, Ecuador? Ha! Think Again.”
Tunes: Lots of podcasts: Nerdist, Joe Rogan, WTF, World Football Phone In, Kermode and Mayo Movie Reviews
Reads: Too tired to read