Meeting the locals

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.


View of the posada señor de la agonia in Punín, Ecuador

Leaving Riobamba with a bit of a false start: James has a dodgy stomach - perhaps an overdose of Easter eggs - and we cut short our day after just 20km in the small town of Punín. With no accommodation available, we ask at the nearby convent and the priest grants us permission to camp indoors at the aptly named Posada Señor de la Agonia or "Guesthouse of the Lord of Agony".

Lady walking with greenery on her back, Punín, Ecuador

An everyday sight around here: a lady carrying animal feed on her back and milk in a bucket.

A field of wheat between Punín and Atillo

Wheat blowing in the breeze...almost feels like home.

Billboard in Ecuador featuring a young girl holding a lamb

We pass a series of Cuban-style billboards extolling the virtues of a newer, happier, Ecuador since President Correa has been in power. The link between national pride and the girl with a lamb is still unclear to me.

A petrol station attendant rides James' bike near Cebadas, Ecaudor

It's clear that this guy has had a dull morning when he jumps up and demands a test-ride of James' bike as we pull into the petrol station to fill up on fuel for our stove. James looks on anxiously as his baby is taken for a turn on the forecourt.

The road between Cebadas and Atillo, Ecuador

The ride to Lagunas de Atillo is beautiful, on a blissfully quiet paved road. We happily spend the day switching between waving and chatting to farmers and soaking up the wonderful rolling scenery.

House with a thatched roof on the way to Atillo, Ecuador

I feel the estate agents' spiel would read something like: "Quaint country cottage with thatched roof, open fire and original features".

James and three men from Atillo drinking aguardiente.

Invited to shots at four in the afternoon with three cowboys. Why not?

View of Lagunas Atillo, Ecuador

Thanks to the shots, we arrive at misty Lagunas de Atillo with a fire in our bellies.

Sarah's bike leaned against a school in Atillo, Ecaudor

The spaceman panniers look a little out place leaned against the wall of school at Punto Cero where we camped for the night...

Sarah talks to a man on horseback near Atillo, Ecuador do my waterproofs and bike alongside a poncho-clad chap on horseback.

Thatched kitchen building outside Atillo, Ecuador

The kitchens around here are thatched - it lends a certain charm you can't buy from B&Q.

Sarah pushing her bike on a muddy path from Atillo to Osogochi, Ecuador

Always seeking the less trodden path can sometimes find you in some very sticky mud...

Lady crossing a stream with her donkey and dogs near Osogochi, Ecuador

...but it does often bring you to places where seeing donkeys crossing rivers is more common than seeing a car.

Shaggy donkey near Osogochi, Ecuador

Can't get enough of the shaggy donkeys around here...

Country dog near Osogochi, Ecuador

...but would rather see less of the vicious dogs. We're encountering more yappy and aggressive hounds here than anywhere else so far.

Ladies near a blanket stall in Totoras, Ecuador

Reaching Totoras, tucked away in the mountans, we happen on the market in full swing...

Sarah riding a dirt track in the Andes between Totoras and Achupallas, Ecuador

...and then find ourselves riding a beautiful dirt track between Totoras and Achupallas.

Three girls on the track between Totoras and Achupallas, Ecuador

These ladies were a delight to talk to...

The view from our tent between Totoras and Achupallas, Ecuador

...and this view was a delight to camp in front of.

Hector stands outside our tent between Totoras and Achupallas, Ecuador

Camped on a manure pile (another first on our campsite list), we provide endless entertainment to Hector who lives nearby. He spends the evening running backwards and forwards delivering fruit to us from nearby bushes.

Sarah with a group of school children on the road between Totoras and Achupallas, Ecuador

The following morning we waving goodbye to Hector, we ride straight into the middle of a group of inquisitive school kids. One is foolishly brave enough to ask about our trip...

Sarah shows a globe to school children on the road between between Totoras and Achupallas, Ecuador

...and out comes the globe for an impromptu geography lesson. I've never seen such an amazing collection of hats.

Sarah with two local men outside the bakery in Achupallas, Ecuador

In Achupallas, a man with the machete insists we take his picture - and you don't disagree with a man carrying a machete.

A view of the Pan America near Zhud, Ecuador

The thought of spending a day on the Pan American heading towards Cuenca was filling us with dread, but thankfully the traffic levels are not as heavy as anticipated - and the views are still as epic as out in the sticks.

A man laying on a sofa outside Cañas, Ecuador

At 1030 in the morning, this fella is already enjoying the after effects of a session on the local firewater.

Keyring showing a picture of Jesus entitled "Lord of the Good Death"

Just outside Cuenca we arrive in little Cojitambo after a long climb up as the sun is going down. We're fortunate to meet Natividad, a lady who runs a shop in the square. She promptly gives us a room to sleep in complete with our own set of keys; the keyring reads "Lord of the Good Death" there such a thing?

Yolanda and Luis making empanadas near Deleg, Ecuador

We can't resist making a final stop before Cuenca when we see Yolanda and Luis making empanadas over a wood fire by the roadside. Talk covers politics, geography, education and of course national cuisines. Soon two hours have passed by and we have eaten more than twenty of the delicious fritters. On a carb and sugar high, we ride the remaining 30km into the last major city in Ecuador.

Route tips:

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.


9 Responses to “Meeting the locals”

  1. Caliche Says:

    Que bueno leelos, veo que tengo cosas por hacer en Ecuador…un abrazo fuerte para ambos, que todo vaya bien es mi deseo…


  2. Dinah Says:

    Wonderful update as usual. Keep them coming cxx.
    Hope you had an excellent birthday James xxx


  3. Mum and Dad Says:

    No doubt the day the “Gringos’” came will be remembered!! Hope you did not eat all the food they cooked.ood luck with the Farming.
    Love Pxx


  4. Laura Bowery Says:

    Another fabulous instalment. Love it!xxx


  5. Angela Shryane Says:

    Loved reading your blog!! Your uncle Phil has been telling us all about your adventures while he was here visiting us in Toronto. Looking forward to keeping in touch. Happy travels. :) :)


  6. Edgimundo Says:

    I’ve just looked at where you guys are and you’re barely over halfway! What’s with all the dawdling?? Does Estomagos! Step away from the empanada…


  7. mario kausel Says:

    I am always fascinated with your detailed and very expressive narrative.Those mountains and routes used are beautifull and inspire challenges, which you are truly accomplishing.Keep on doing your good work.keep healthy!


  8. To Cuenca with a Dirty Little Diversion | Velo Freedom - Cycling South Says:

    […] and remembering how easily rewarding touring can be. Taking route notes from Sarah and James (post here) we rode a lovely stretch of pavement up the Atillo valley to Laguna Atillo before turning around […]

  9. Alberto Says:

    We´ve just finished this route – also with plenty of mud pushing after Punto Cero, but all in all a really great few days of dirt riding. Many thanks for your accurate descriptions of the different sections past Atillo!


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