Jungle tendrils and faulty power showers – Riobamba to Loja; Ecuador

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.

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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.

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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.

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This lackadaisical air seems even to have pervaded its dog population, which were of the rare dozing and non-barking variety.

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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.

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Back on dirt. The road from Guamote to Atillo is ‘under construction’. Thankfully, its widening only extends for the first dozen kilometres or so.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Part of the Sangay National Park crew.

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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.

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I was surprised to see these pictures of acupuncture techniques on the wall, which is apparently popular here.

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The buttery smooth, paved road descends quickly from the páramo to the forest. Only the last segment before Macas is rough and unpaved.

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With the drop in altitude, rain-faded timber buildings begin to appear.

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The Abanico river, snaking through the jungley valley below.

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And with the ear popping descent, the leaves grew…

The epiphytes are back.

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A well camouflaged stick insect I nearly rolled my way over.

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Welcome to the Amazon.

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Colours all the more vivid in the bright sunlight that follows rainfall. If anyone can provide names, I’d be most grateful!

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Pipe-cleaner like.

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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.

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Lunch stop.

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A popular paint scheme, it seemed.

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Freshly flayed pig meets dog with pink collar, San Juan Bosco.

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At home, children draw pictures of cats and dogs. In Ecuador, its cats and llamas…

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Roadside snack, with obligatory damp jeans in the background, destined never to dry.

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Vials of jungle remedies to cure all ills.

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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.

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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.

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Gualaquiza, one of the more sizeable settlements along the way.

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The lobby of a $4 hotel.

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And its residents.

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Smaller in size than the local bugs, a well-worn jockey wheel on my derailleur.

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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.

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We headed out into the local forest trail network, where we slid our way through muddy singletrack for a couple of hours.

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Somewhat surreally, a swimming pool provides the perfect post-ride bikewash.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Another Mac on the surgeon’s table.

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Other ailments included the pitted cups on my rear hub.

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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 santiagoceli@me.com

Expert Bike repair:

Bicimania, Emiliano Ortega s/n y Colon, a media cuadra de TAME, Loja; email diego_jaramilloxcdh@hotmail.com

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.

35 thoughts on “Jungle tendrils and faulty power showers – Riobamba to Loja; Ecuador

    1. While Out Riding Post author

      I´ve always heard good things about the Crossroads – burly and puncture resistant.

      I think you´re best asking Gypsy by Trade Nicholas about those dirt road tyre recommendations, as he´s just been riding that way. Albeit on a rather different kind of bike.

      Reply
      1. Josh Spice

        Thanks, Cass. Will do.
        Enjoy your travels and keep the stories and photos coming! It’s wonderful to read and see it all through your camera. Thanks!

        Reply
    2. Steve

      I’ve been riding crossroads for 5 years now…..excellent tires….can really pump them up for the road and grab well enuf on dirt etc…..no sidewall blowouts or anything

      Reply
  1. gyatsola

    Despite the rain, your photos are great as usual. I’m actually surprised your camera has outlived XTR pedals, a Mac air and so on… impressive. A pity you don’t have a dynamo hub, you could use it to charge up an external battery for the Mac.

    Reply
  2. gypsybytrade

    You’ve done it again, as you do daily, weekly, monthly. If I wasn’t so busy doing what I’m doing, I’d like to be doing what you’re doing. Free wheel build with $100 pair of hubs? Nice.

    Reply
  3. Simon G

    I’m confident that the first is a Helliconia (possibly Velutina but it is tough without the leaf or stamens). The second is trickier, I want to say the it is from the Callistemon familybut I am not confident that they are indigenous to Ecuador. I know that there are Callistemons (bottle brushes) in Costa Rica but not that far south.

    Like Nancy I am loving Laguna Magdalena…already searching through expedition trailers to accommodate two little boys. May need some extra horsepower though!

    ///S

    Reply
  4. Steve

    Buttery smooth….as a babies bottom….not a good thing for you unless you’re describing dirt!
    How many kms of gravel around Gualquiza?
    What’s the name of the 4usd hotel? is that in Gualaquiza?
    Glad you got a taste of the Amazon!! Now wouldn’t you be really dissapointed if it didn’t rain??? :)
    So now off to Zumba!! and Peru
    Suerte amigo
    and great to see you can get 29 inch stuff in Loja!

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Yes, the 4 dollar place was in Gualaquiza, just round the corner from the bike shop, same street. No TV, no bathroom. Good place for washing clothes though. Friendly.
      The dirt starts on the descent down to the valley before Gualaquiza (there´s a small settlement there with basic food), through the climb, and a little of the descent down to Gualaquiza itself. It´s quite a rough road, would be tough with the triple. Not sure the length, maybe around 15km? They were kind of working on it.

      I´d say the climbs in the middle section would be tough with the triple – some of them are relatively long as you can see from the profile. But lots of places to stop and rest and have a drink. It´s a lot easier going on either side of this section, though as you sell know, nothing is flat… Yantsara to Zamora is narrow, winding and busier than other sections, as they are both sizeable towns. The riding is easy though.

      Reply
  5. Mindy

    Hi Cass, The plant name you requested, re “Colours all the more vivid in the bright sunlight that follows rainfall. If anyone can provide names, I’d be most grateful!” = Strelitzia reginae. Cheers, Mindy in Boulder

    Reply
      1. Eric

        funny. the last link between Zumba and the border was totally impassible to vehicles when I went through there. Active mini landslides as I pushed my bike through. Just spray mud on the Peruvian side though. hope the camera gets fixed!
        That Cuenca-Loja roller coaster was rad, even with buses playing joust on it..

        Reply
  6. anna

    Hi Cass.

    I listened to that RadioLab podcast recently, too. The endless joy and pain of electronic gadgets. (joy=listening to podcasts/pain=the demise of the gadgets)

    Do you think that there is any point putting silicone gel in with electronic bits and bobs if they are not in an airtight container of some sort? I’ve been pondering on that one a while now in my very tropical Panamanian village. I suppose they can’t hurt either way.

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Yep, I think it’s still well worth doing. For the battery particularly, which gets hongos really easily.

      I like to throw in some Moth to break up my Radiolabs… (-:

      I just sent back my panniers… Goin’ lite.

      Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      The battery went a bit mouldy and I couldn’t get a replacement in time in Ecuador unfortunately.

      I managed to get it cleaned and eek some life out of it in Loja, but it’s still playing up. Some days it works, others it’s just a heavy weight to be carrying around…

      My advice is to throw in some packs of silicon gel if headed to damp climates.

      Reply
      1. docsurf

        Thanks, sorry I didn’t read your post carefully enough or I would have seen what happened. I had been riding through Mexico, but came back to the States right before the rainy season started. I’ll take you advise and bring the desiccant beads when I come down. I had considered bringing them for my panniers which hold my clothes for the same reasons.

        Doc

        Reply
  7. RebSolomon

    Hey Cass, we just stayed with Santiago and Ana Lucia in Tumbaco who recommended we have a look at your blog. Really enjoyed reading about how you travelled through Colombia and Ecuador – we’ll hopefully be taking some route ideas from you!

    Also really enjoyed the guardian link from this Christmas…sobering.

    Take care,
    Becky and Sol

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Thanks for your message. Please let me know if you need any advice.
      I really enjoyed crossing Ecuador. I mainly followed dirt roads, expect for an extended pavement stint through the Amazon. As it happens, this stretch wasn’t the high point of the ride for me, but it was a change from the mountains and a chance to experience a different aspect of the country. I generally crave traffic free roads, but in hindesight I’d have gone on the main drag to Cuenca – I ended up backtracking to check it out. It’s a cool city, and far more easy going and compact than Quito.

      Reply

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