April 14th, 2013
Much of the time atop my bike, shiny silver panniers gleaming in the sunlight, polystyrene helmet perched on my head, lycra rippling in the breeze, I feel more than a little stupid. We are travelling through rural areas, with backdrops of grass, mud, rivers, manure, trees, woven fabrics and farmyard animals…to say we stick out like sore thumbs is an understatement. If I was hoping to blend in, I’m not sure I thought through the colour scheme and fabric choices for my kit properly before we left the UK.
The routes we’ve chosen lately don’t see many long distance cycle tourists passing by. Riding through tiny indigenous villages, miles away from main roads, the sight of two gringos – on bicycles of all things – leaves many we pass with mouths wide open, pointing and shouting for relatives to come and take a look at the lycra-clad spectacle rolling past.
I sometimes wonder if I will be able to adjust to life after this trip when we are not being stared at. Intensely uncomfortable at the outset with being gawped at and crowded around, now I almost expect an audience when we park the bikes in a village and head to the local bakery.
Those who crowd ask hundreds of questions, the most common one being: “Why?”. Why would we want to cycle our bikes all the way down a continent just for pleasure? Saying that we have a passion for travel and a love of riding our bikes sounds so frivolous in comparison to the daily grind we encounter here. When we are talking to those we meet in the countryside, who are dragging their pigs to a patch of grass or walking with an incredibly heavy load on their backs, I want to lie and claim the trip is for something noble or important.
It’s often difficult to explain that we’ve come from the other side of the world to explore South America, when people we meet have often never visited their nearest big town, let alone their capital city. The best dollar we have spent in a long time was on a globe (travel-sized of course) to show people where in the world the UK is and the places we have travelled through on our journey so far. What amazes many is just how small the UK is; perhaps the name “Great” Britain makes many imagine a country as grand in physical size as its status in history.
Sometimes we don’t get chance to stop and chat; we go slowly and like to talk, but not so slowly that we can spend the whole day stopping to talk to everyone. In place of conversation, I try to make a point of at least smiling and saying good morning/afternoon to anyone within shouting distance. It’s amazing what a smile can do. A universal ice breaker, reassurance, a sign of peace, friendliness and solidarity. Many are visibly taken aback when they receive a smile from a stranger on a bike who has suddenly appeared in their familiar environment.
Yet the immediate and almost involuntary reaction of most is a smile back to me in return; that most basic of human interactions which transcends language and culture. I may seem alien, with spaceman panniers and a mushroom helmet, but smiling at each other bridges a thousand differences.
We wanted to go from Riobamba to Cuenca, but without the 80km descent to Macas and subsequent climb back up into the sierra. Our compromise was to climb as far as the Lagunas de Atillo, before cutting west on some unmarked dirt roads to join the Pan American for a day into Cuenca.
The paved road from Riobamba to the Lagunas de Atillo was relatively traffic free with pretty countryside – around 100km. We then backtracked from Atillo to the junction at Punto Cero – 8km before the lakes – and headed towards Osogochi. There are a number of tracks around here so ask for Poca Totoras and Osogochi. From Punto Cero, it’s a 3km climb on dirt road followed by 7km on mud/dirt (a bit of pushing required if it has rained a lot) to reach Poca Totoras. From here, the road improves with 3km of good dirt bringing you to Osogochi.
It’s a 9km climb from Osogochi to reach a newly paved road – turn left to Totoras or right to the Pan American at Palmira. We chose left and after 5km went through Totoras (market day is Wednesday), before joining another good dirt road (beautiful ridge riding) for 26km to Achupallas.
From Achupallas there is a white-knuckle 15km descent to the Pan American at La Moya. From here you can take a right to Aluasí, or we went left to Chunchi – a further 20km. Our total distance from Punto Cero to Chunchi was 93km.