In our last few weeks in Ecuador, it seemed everyone was obsessed with telling us how much of their country we had missed. Geographically, Ecuador is split into three parts: the coast on the west, the jungle to the east and in the centre, the Andes – which form the spine of the country from north to south. Reluctant to make a long descent to either coast or jungle and then have to make a big climb up again to the cordillera, we stuck doggedly to the mountains.
The head shakes and sighs we encountered when people learned of our neglect of the coast and jungle led us to start asking questions about the route decisions we make. When travelling by bike, you are inevitably forced to choose your route through just one small section of a country, unless you have endless time to divert and wander. Every time you choose one path, another is closed to you (until next time at least) and there’s always a sense that you may have missed something. Had we made a mistake and chosen the wrong path through Ecuador?
After the umpteenth conversation about how silly we were to neglect Ecuador’s “best” sites, we reconciled that it wasn’t about a terrible choice we had made and what we were missing – it was more about learning to accept what we like doing. For the views, the climate, the people and the roads, staying up in the Andes holds the most appeal. This trip has turned us into montañeros - mountain people. Cycling through the mountains might be difficult, but to us it’s far preferable to the humidity of the enclosed jungle and its hungry bugs or the flatlands and scorching dry heat of the coast.
Decision making has become harder and harder as the realisation dawns on us how much South America has to offer. This is magnified by the fact that when travelling as a couple every choice is a compromise, a discussion, often over-analysed and always subject to the second-guessing of your partner. Everything is up for debate: which road to take, where to drink a coffee, what time to set the morning alarm, when to stop for lunch, where to stock up on supplies, whether to cook fried eggs or scrambled for breakfast on a rest day, and even which brand of toilet roll to buy. Thankfully the only thing we really bang heads over is how to eat our eggs.
When it came to deciding whether to cross the border from Ecuador to Peru via the coast or the mountains though, there was no deliberation from either of us: mountains all the way. So with everyone’s advice ringing in our ears, we ignored it and took to the hills south of Cuenca to cross into Peru.
The market pigeons stage a line up to bid us farewell from Cuenca.
The ride out of town spits us out into the countryside fairly swiftly and after nearly six weeks off the bikes, the legs start to feel the burn immediately.
First night’s accommodation turns out to be a cosy little spot nestled among some pine trees at over 3000m…
…and as we remind ourselves how to put up the tent on a nice spongy bed of pine needles, the stove bubbles away with a quinoa/pasta feast.
Early next morning, the mountains reveal themselves in all their glory.
It’s appropriate that we arrive in Vilcabamba – Ecuador’s village of eternal youth – on the day before my birthday. The poem reads “Lady take care of your husband, man take care of your woman, because when you are both elderly, the only sure thing you will have is each other”.
All smiles as I wake up another year older and think of the big climbs to come that day…
…even happier when I find a packet of crisps bearing my adopted Spanish name; what a treat – doesn’t take much to please this birthday girl.
Then after the crisp excitement, it’s back to business as usual the next day with a long but beautiful climb on the way to Valladolid.
We are warned of major roadworks ahead with accompanying mud and dust so the buff comes out for the chic cyclist/bandit look.
Coconut treats from the bakery in Vilcabamba help keep the legs turning…
…and ongoing construction provides a chance to stop for a breather and chat to the friendly gangs of engineers who line this part of the route.
In Valladolid on a Saturday night, on the weekend of my birthday, we are sorely tempted to stick around and see what goes down at Danni’s Discotek…
…instead we end the day further along the road at Palanda, camped out in the church sacristy while ladies busily prepare the next day’s flower arrangements around us.
Onto dirt after Palanda, and though the road building continues we are lucky to get away with very little mud – cyclists passing through here shortly before us talked of pushing their way through ankle deep bogs.
A nasty steep climb in the rising heat has us both seeing stars by the time we reach Progreso for lunch.
There’s only more of the same after lunch; it feels like we are back in Central America and with sweat pouring off in all directions, we dig out the sun hats, slap on the factor 100 and grind into the pedals. This is by far the hottest weather we have experienced in Ecuador and it feels alien. Making it to Zumba feels like a real achievement.
Almost at the border so almost time to say goodbye to charismatic Presidente Correa…
…not before admiring the name choices of his colleagues…Clever, now there’s one you can trust.
Our last night in Ecuador mirrors our last night in Colombia – spent enjoying the hospitality of the local nuns; we camp in the cloisters of the convent at Zumba…
…and in the early morning mist, we leave the oddly placed mosquito sculpture behind us in the town square and set off for the border.
This road through the mountains into Peru is a pretty quiet crossing and the dirt track leading to immigration at La Balsa hardly feels like we’re on the way to an international border.
Ecuador still has a few hills left for us to admire…
…and one brutal one left to climb…
…before we reach immigration.
Turns out the immigration office is just as low key as the road leading to it.
We are stamped out of Ecuador with just a day to spare on our visas.
Now onwards into country number thirteen – I am off in search of an old childhood friend…
…who supposedly came from “deepest darkest Peru”.