When it comes to bicycle touring, I’m more of a mountain man than jungle man. Thus far, my route across Ecuador has stayed high in la sierra, the Andean corridor that runs the length of the country.
But as I was struggling to find a way through to Cuenca – at least, one that didn’t require battling with the footsoldiers of the Panamerican Highway – I decided to delve down, down, down towards the Amazon, paralleling it instead. Ecuadorians call this region El Oriente, and a sizeable chunk of the country is made of alta selva, the high forest that spills out into the Amazon basin. Beyond this, any remnants of a road infrastructure soon give way to waterborne transport.
Most of the reports for this 600km route recount tales of muddy jungle quagmires. Conditions have changed considerably recently – ironically, for the kind of riding I enjoy most, I’m probably a couple of years late to the area. President Correa and his army of zealous road crews have been hard at work asphalting Ecuador’s backcountry, and the once water-logged and potholed road south of Macas has now been buffed smooth.
The good news is that for the most part, it’s still an extremely quiet route, passing little more than a string of tiny village hamlets – where houses on stilts and rain-washed paint are the norm – punctuated by occasional small towns caught in the crooks of lush, misty valleys. El Oriente is a land of jungle tendrils, brightly coloured birds and giant bugs, set to a soundtrack of wobbling ceiling fans and chirping crickets come the fall of dusk. There are no ponchos down here – string vests and flip flops are the uniform.
It’s also an area infamous for rainfall – natural power showers that flick on and off throughout the day, at any time of year. Unfortunately for me, the switch seemed stubbornly stuck to the ‘on’ position during most of my visit. Beyond Gualaquiza, I didn’t see a glimmer of sunshine, just rain, rain and more rain. This watery deluge took some of the wind out of my sails – as well as sealing the fate of my Macbook Air.
On the topic of costly equipment meltdowns, I have a few mishaps to report…
1. The little Air, which has done me proud despite the tough conditions endured these last 18 months, unexpectedly refused to show signs of life in Gualaquiza. As luck would have it, Loja is home to the recently opened MacHouse, manned by the incredibly helpful Santiago and Alexandra. For a very reasonable $15, dust/sand/dog hairs have now been removed and it’s back to some semblance of an existence, albeit it one that’s tethered to a power source, like an IV drip. Unfortunately the humid climate and the resulting hongos - mushrooms – have caused a premature failure of the battery. Note to self, and other travellers: place some silicon gel packs (the ones you get when you buy new electronics) in your laptop bag if headed to damp parts of the world.
2. My rear Deore hub also bit the dust, with both a cone and cup pitted beyond repair – it’s had a propensity to loosen up from the start. I was able to source a replacement set of silky XT hubs in Loja, and have had these rebuilt with the same rims. The charge? $124 for two hubs and 2 discs – both wheelbuild kindly thrown in for free.
3. Seeing as I was on a general fixit drive, I sent my Nikon DSLR to Quito for an overhaul, as some of the function buttons (crucial ones, like image playback and the joystick to change settings) are behaving erratically. Fingers crossed it will all work out.
Although there’s a direct road from Riobamba to the Lagnas de Atillo – en route to Macas – I’d been told that if I detoured to the ramshackle town of Guamote, I could pick up a dirt track alternative.
Guacamote lies on the train line between Riobamba and Cuenca, and locals pick their way along the tracks that run right through the centre of town. Between trains, it’s a quiet, forgotten place, where much of the day’s spent watching the world drift gently by.
This lackadaisical air seems even to have pervaded its dog population, which were of the rare dozing and non-barking variety.
I spent the night at the technicoloured Inti Sissa, a Belgian non-profit foundation. The $7.50 charged for its spotless dorm room goes directly into running the community centre.
Back on dirt. The road from Guamote to Atillo is ‘under construction’. Thankfully, its widening only extends for the first dozen kilometres or so.
For the most part, it’s a mellow track that wends its way up to 3900m, before dropping back down to meet the new road from Cebadas to Macas. Just a handful of vehicles use it.
My alternative road rejoined the main highway some 8km before the first lake at Atillo – its strip of new, luxurious tarmac felt bizarrely lifeless after bouncing around on so many ruts and cobbles.
Knowing I was in for a pavement stint, I fitted my spare tyre – a fast rolling Marathon Dureme – to the rear wheel. The speed injection makes a big difference. On well-packed dirt roads, the Dureme feels ideal, though as soon as conditions deteriorate, the tyre slips and struggles as you’d expect.
This enormous platter of fresh trout, rice, salad and corn set me back $2.50. Just what I needed after a hard few hours in the saddle from Guamote.
The fringes of the Parque National Sangay. The new road to Macas is lined with signposts urging Ecuadorians to look after the natural environment (Cuidamos los arboles, son los pulmones de la tierra - Look after the trees, they are the lungs of the planet). Ironically though, the road’s very construction was hugely controversial with environmentalists.
Laguna Magdalena, part of the Lagunas de Atillo, 3500m. In pre-Hispanic times, it’s said the Puruhae people drowned their most fearsome criminals here.
The road plummets down from 3500m to 850m at Macas, with barely a bump in between. Just as I was scoping out a camping spot round one of the lakes, a group of park rangers pulled over and invited me in. It was a steep 12km further down the road to their office, and I sped ahead of them, touching 80kph.
Part of the Sangay National Park crew.
Fresh mint tea was prepared in prepared in the morning, laced with a couple of handfuls of sugar – as is the way in Ecuador. Then I was fed a hearty bowl of rice, vegetables and grizzly meat – also the Ecuadorian way.
I was surprised to see these pictures of acupuncture techniques on the wall, which is apparently popular here.
The buttery smooth, paved road descends quickly from the páramo to the forest. Only the last segment before Macas is rough and unpaved.
With the drop in altitude, rain-faded timber buildings begin to appear.
The Abanico river, snaking through the jungley valley below.
And with the ear popping descent, the leaves grew…
The epiphytes are back.
A well camouflaged stick insect I nearly rolled my way over.
Welcome to the Amazon.
Colours all the more vivid in the bright sunlight that follows rainfall. If anyone can provide names, I’d be most grateful!
As well as the many environmentally-themed road signs, there’s a big push to recycle in this area too. Unfortunately, Ecuadorians love to their plastic bags, which I always decline. ‘You are the enemy of plastic bags. Which is better for the environment,’ agreed one lady in a tiny village store, with unexpected drama.
A popular paint scheme, it seemed.
Freshly flayed pig meets dog with pink collar, San Juan Bosco.
At home, children draw pictures of cats and dogs. In Ecuador, its cats and llamas…
Roadside snack, with obligatory damp jeans in the background, destined never to dry.
Vials of jungle remedies to cure all ills.
Pio Monte, glimpsed for a few tantalising seconds before being engulfed by cloud and drizzle once more. From here, the road climbed and descended relentlessly. In Ecuador, there is no flat.
For a brief stint near Gualaquiza, a few of the sun’s rays permeated their way through the rain, just as the road turned the dirt – the only segment left between Macas and Loja that has yet to be paved.
Gualaquiza, one of the more sizeable settlements along the way.
The lobby of a $4 hotel.
And its residents.
Smaller in size than the local bugs, a well-worn jockey wheel on my derailleur.
To my surprise, there was even a proper mountain bike shop there. Hoping the rain might pass me by, I took a day off to go ride with its owner, Memo, and little Cocolo.
We headed out into the local forest trail network, where we slid our way through muddy singletrack for a couple of hours.
Somewhat surreally, a swimming pool provides the perfect post-ride bikewash.
The climb from Zamora, 950m to Loja, 2500m, unravels over some 45 kilometes in distance – payback for those lost metres on the descent to Macas. A series of RadioLab podcasts helped motivate and educate me. Take colours… Did you know that we see more colours than dogs, butterflies see more than us, but it’s the peculiar mantis shrimps that see by far the most? You can even hear a choir aurally depict who sees what in a rainbow.
At 2800m the road crests a pass, before dive bombing into the valley beyond – into the sprawl of Loja, Ecuador’s last city before Peru.
Santiago and Alexandra came to the rescue of my Mabook Air at their newly opened MacHouse in Loja, resuscitating it back to life and saving me from falling into a pit of disrepair – and despair.
Another Mac on the surgeon’s table.
Other ailments included the pitted cups on my rear hub.
Bicimania’s expert mechanic Armando, building up a new/old set of wheels. Ready to roll again…
The Need to Know bit:
I followed the main road out of Riobamba, turning off before Cebadas for a short stint on a rough unpaved road (unmarked on the map, it’s a right turn a few kilometres after the Flores turnoff) to Guamote. From here, take a left at the gas station onto the unpaved road to Atillo.
I also found out about an even more interesting option, which involves briefly hitting the Panamerican in the direction of Cuenca, turning off at Estacion Velez towards Totorillas. This unmarked jeep track climbs to 4200m at Loma Mira, before dropping back down towards the lake and meeting the dirt road I took. Had I known I was destined to climb considerably too, I’d have definitely taken it, as the distance looks to be similar. As it is, it’s 56km of dirt from Guamote to the main road, then 8km to Atillo.
If you decide you want to go to Cuenca from here – I was wavering – there is also an unmarked dirt road to Osogichi and Achupallas, just before the dirt road from Guamote meets the main road to Macas. From there, you can either take a paved back road to Chunchi, or if you’re travelling super light, hike and bike your way along the Inca Trail to Ingapirca, a la Joe Cruz).
Tom and Sarah have a very handy profile of the main road between Riobamba and Loja, perfect for letting yourself know what you’re in for each day. There are only two unpaved sections – the last part of the descent into Macas, and a short stretch before Gualaquiza. Traffic all but peters out beyond Macas, until it returns again in Yantzara. There’s cheap hotels and food all along the way, even in smaller settlements like San Juan Bosco, and internet cafes are omnipresent. Heavy rainfall discouraged me from camping – many cyclists sleep at the bomberos – the fire stations – for free.
Expert Mac repair:
MacHouse, 10 de Agosto 10-17 y 24 de Mayo, Loja; email email@example.com
Expert Bike repair:
Bicimania, Emiliano Ortega s/n y Colon, a media cuadra de TAME, Loja; email firstname.lastname@example.org
Loja is the last stop for spare parts before Peru, where options are considerably more limited and more expensive. Bicimania have a good selection of tyres (inc 29ers) and Shimano/Sram gear.