In Cuenca and Back on a Bike

Cuenca is such a great city! Tons of beautiful churches and green parks. Last night, after C and I arrived in town after a four hour bus ride from Guayaquil, we explored the cobblestone streets of Cuena and admired its old colonial building, remnants of Spanish colonizations in the mid-1500’s. We had a late afternoon snack of hummus (yay!) and then a light dinner at Raymipampa. I’ve been craving salads and luckily they had a great lettuce, bean, and avocado option for me! The hotel we’re staying at – Macondo – is on the outskirts of the center of town, which is fine with me because it’s quiet at night. The hotel reminds me a lot of the place we stayed at in San Jose (Aranjuez) because it’s an old converted house centered around an open courtyard.

In the morning we ate breakfast with some other travelers and had a leisurely start to the day. The plan was to walk around Cuenca some more, but other than that our agenda was open. We found our way to a giant indoor food market with vendors selling everything from fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, cooked legumes and almost anything else you can think of, including fresh carrot and apple juice! Except for a juice and some bananas, we didn’t buy anything, but vowed to return later to stock up on a few mangos and avocados.

Our next destination was the Museo del Banco Central. Now, I’m not a museum person, but we spent about an hour walking through the exhibits showcasing the history and archaeology of indigenous populations. By that time I had had enough of museums for a week, so we continued on our way. We stopped in at a local travel agency and inquired about bikes to rent. We were in luck because they had two brand new bikes for only $8 for half a day. C and I said we would return after lunch and take them for a spin. For lunch I was eager to try a restaurant called Nectar, which is %100 vegan. The inside was really cute with wooden tables and nice decor. The menu was a set lunch, so we sat down and waited to be served. We had broccoli soup topped with popcorn (per the Ecuadorian way), fresh tree tomato juice (also an Ecuadorian special), a mix of potatoes in some sort of gravy, cabbage, beets, and a small salad. For dessert, it was some sort of sweet barley (I think) pudding. It was good, but not exceptional.

After lunch, we returned to the hotel to change into biking gear, and then returned to the tour office. Our speedily devised route was to bike up to the Mirador de Turi, a lookout point about 4km outside of town and then continue on 8km to a small town called Baños (not the one we visited on Arie’s bike trip) where there are several thermal hot springs. The bike up to the top of the lookout was somewhat challenging (we’re at 8,000 feet here), but felt great after being at sea level for a week and a half. I’ve wondered several times these last few weeks about how frequent and rapid elevation changes affects your body and mind…

After snapping a few photos of Cuenca from above, we coasted back down the hill and pedaled on to Baños. According to our guide book, the best place for a soak is at Hosteria Durán, so that’s where we went. We payed the fee and brought our bikes inside the gate where we were could see the large thermal pool occupied by several bathers and a small building up on a hill that housed the steam room. We opted for the steam room first, which felt great, and then headed down to the swimming pool filled with warm volcanic waters. It felt fantastic! We soaked for awhile before returning to the steam room and then settling down into wicker chairs for a cup of tea (me) and coffee (C).

It started to drizzle a bit, but nothing too depressing and as we bundled up and rolled out of the parking lot, we could barely tell that it was raining. Luckily, the ride back into town was mostly downhill because I felt pretty rubbery from all that warm water. We sort of zig-zagged back into the city without a direct route, but we did find a nice gravel path that ran alongside the River Tomebamba that splits Cuenca in two. The light was fading as we brought the bikes back to the tour office and since it’s a 10 minute walk back to the hotel, we opted to stay downtown for dinner despite the mud on our faces and clothes.

Tomorrow, depending on the weather, we’re hoping to do some hiking in Cajas National Park, dubbed “one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in Ecuador” by our Rough Guides guide book. Can’t wait!

Biking Through Ecuador, Day 7: Baños to Misahualli

I have a new blog! Check out more biking stories around the world at Two Wheeled Wanderer

We set out from Baños this morning, on our bikes, and headed east toward Ecuador’s share of the Amazon rainforest. And guess what. It rained. A lot. We started out dry, but as we steadily biked on, it started to drizzle and pretty soon we were soaking wet. The road we were biking on is nicknamed Ruta de las Cascadas (Road of Waterfalls) as well as Ruta de las Orquideas (Road of Orchids). And it didn’t take us long to see why. As we pedaled gradually downhill (and quite a bit uphill), the vegetation became more and more tropical and waterfalls began appearing after each bend. The hillsides were strewn with purple and white orchids and to our left we followed the curves of the Napo River, which eventually drains in the the Amazon. Along the road were several tunnels that we had to skirt around because they were too dangerous to bike through (cars and trucks only). On one bypass a landslide had blocked the road’s passage and we had to carry our bikes up and over the rubble.

Before the rain got too bad, we took a minor detour from our biking route to hike down into a gorge to see one of the biggest waterfalls along the Napo river, Pailon del Diablo, or Devil’s Cauldron. It was a kilometer descent down to the river and at the bottom we came across a beautifully built lodge that doubled as the entrance to the waterfall. It was $1.50 per person to enter, so C and I paid and then started up the hand-laid stone steps. We could hear the raging water long before we saw the falls, and when it emerged into view, C and I were quite impressed – both with the stone walkway leading up to the falls as well as the waterfall itself. It cascaded down into a roiling pool and then the whitewater continued on down the river, past large slick boulders and green vegetation.

The stone path continued up to the top of the falls via a very low and narrow cave-like walkway. I almost had to get down on my hands and knees to pass through. After we were thoroughly misted by the the Pailon del Diablo, we retraced our steps back down the stone stairway and up the dirt path back to our bikes. At the top we stopped for a refreshing glass of fresh squeezed orange juice.

We continued on the Ruta de las Cascadas, but when the rain got too heavy to bike on, we got back into the jeep and went in search of sunshine. After a stop for lunch by the side of the road, the skies dried up and we got back on our bikes and continued on to the town of Misahualli where we will spend the night. By the time we arrived, both C and I were exhausted, so we rested for about an hour and then headed out to see the town’s main attraction – Cappuccino monkeys who have taken over the center square. We’ve both seen Cappuccino monkeys before in Costa Rica, so we didn’t stay long to watch their antics. Instead, Arie had told us about a large Ceibo tree about half and hour’s walk outside of town. We took off down a dirt road and soon came to a tiny town composed of just a few wooden houses and a large, half-built suspension bridge spanning the roiling brown waters of Misahualli river, which converges with the Napo river in front of our hotel. I was a little hesitant to cross because there were gaping holes where slats missing and steel beams laying in piles waiting to be put in place. But we crossed safely and on the other we were dwarfed by the giant Ceibo tree. It towered over C and I! There’s also a large tree – maybe even bigger – on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, which we sometimes visit during hikes on the island. Then it was half an hour walk back to town and our hotel. We grabbed our computers and books and then walked toward the center square for a relaxing evening of writing, reading, and enjoying the warmer climate.

Biking Through Ecuador, Day 6: Baños

I have a new blog! Check out more biking stories around the world at Two Wheeled Wanderer

We had a free day today in the town of Baños. Not named after what you might think (toilets), Baños is called such for its warm thermal baths that are filled with heated water from the Volcan Tungurahua. After a good night’s rest – so good, actually, that we didn’t hear the windows rattle as Tungurahua let off an explosion early this morning. Arie informed us of the event when we ran into him before breakfast – we rose early and headed out to enjoy a pre-breakfast soak in one of the thermal baths nearby. The baths are outdoors and the one we visited included several pools with varying degrees of hot/warm/or cold pools. The water isn’t very inviting at first look – it’s a yellowish brown – but we donned our bathing suits and waded in despite the murky color. And it felt delightful. We soaked in the largest pool for a few minutes, surrounded by local residents and travelers alike, and then we moved over the the hotter pool, which was smaller and less crowded. It took a few seconds to get fully in because the water was so hot, but once submerged, it felt blissful. Like an outdoor jacuzzi, but without the bubbles. When we felt sufficiently soaked through and rubbery, we headed back to the hotel for some coffee and breakfast. Since we didn’t have to get on the bikes or drive to our next destination, C and I took the morning easy, catching up on emails and such.

Then we headed out to get some sandwiches to bring along on a hike that skirts the town and climbs a steep mountain up to a lookout. We started off walking through town and then turned onto a side road which led to a dirt path up the side of a mountain. We gained elevation surprisingly quickly and soon we were gazing down on the bustling town of Baños, nestled in a valley and surround by tall, green mountains. The path led us up to a spot called Bellavista where we were rewarded with a gorgeous view.

From there we backtracked a few hundred meters and turned onto another steep dirt trail that took us even higher up to the luxury hotel of Hosteria Luna Runtun, situated on the edge of the escarpment. We just glanced through the gates and saw a beautifully manicured resort with small white-washed cabañas and trees decorating the grounds. We continued on down the trail and stopped at a nice overlook for lunch. The trail led us slowly down to the Mirador del Virgin, a giant statue that watches over the town of Baños. There were stairs leading down from the Virgin, which brought us down from the mountainside and back into town where it was a 10 minute walk back to our hotel. We passed a cemetery city where the graves are actually above ground and look like tiny apartments. There were even roads passing by each complex. Weird.

The whole loop took us about 2 1/2 hours (our guidebook said it would take 4) and even though we didn’t see the the top of Volcan Tungurahua, we still have great views of the valley.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a great little specialty food store where we bought some nuts and seeds to make trail mix and 100% dark chocolate. Yum! Tomorrow we get back on the bikes and head into the Amazon!

Biking Through Ecuador, Day 5: Riobamba to Baños

I have a new blog! Check out more biking stories around the world at Two Wheeled Wanderer

Today we went from 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) to 2,580 meters (8,465 feet), by bike. That’s an 8,000 foot drop in just about 4 hours. Crazy! Not to mention the temperature change, which I’ll get into in a little bit. We left Riobamba at 7:30 this morning and drove for an hour and a half up the slopes of Chimborazo volcano, the highest volcano in Ecuador at 6,310 meters (20,700 feet), making it the tallest volcano of the earth (not sea level) and the closest to the sun. It was pretty cloudy as we drove up the slopes, but we caught a few glimpses on the way of the volcano’s snowy banks. After reaching the first refuge (which is where climbers spend the night before attempting to summit) at 5,000 meters, though, all we could see were dark, misty clouds that enveloped us as well as Chimborazo’s peak. We had a quick look at the basic, but functional refuge, complete with a dorm room, kitchen, dining area, and fireplace and then C and I bundled up for the 200 meter (650 foot) hike up to the second refuge. Our guide book says, “at an altitude of 5,000m, there’s only a 200m vertical height gain between the refuges, but it can be totally exhausting if you’re not acclimatized.” Luckily C and I were at 13,123 feet on Cotopaxi, but we were still huffing and puffing with every step as we made our way up the gravelly slope toward the snow line and Whymper refuge (named after Edward Whymper, who made the first ascent of Chimborazo in 1880). The clouds were still obscuring the peak as we climbed, and rested, and climbed again, but when we were only about 150 feet from the refuge, the clouds parted, the sun came out, and we were rewarded with a spectacular view of Ecuador’s highest volcano. It was magnificent. With renewed energy and breath, we climbed the last few feet and spent the next half hour or so admiring the snowy slopes of Chimborazo. I had thought that it would be a lot more colder than it was, since Cotopaxi was absolutely freezing, but it really wasn’t too bad. The hike up got our blood pumping and our outer shells kept most of the wind chill away. The clouds began to roll in again, slowly returning Chimborazo to obscurity, so we started heading back down the trail toward the refuge.

Arie greeted us with hot tea and coffee to warm our hands before embarking on a 75 kilometer (46 mile) and 8,465 vertical foot decent by bike to Ambato. Before we left, though, we were graced by the appearance of a fox!

The first part of our ride was extremely windy and cold. We biked down from the refuge on a dirt road, spotting herds of vicuñas (similar to llamas and alpacas) in the open, dusty brown paramo, and trying to keep warm against the blustery wind.

We eventually reached a paved road, but even though it was a slight downward gradient, we still had to pedal hard because of the headwind. This went on for about 18 kilometers until we turned off onto another road that would take us along a spectacular valley road with stunning views of waterfalls, white-water rivers, and tall, jagged canyon walls suffused in green. It was a little slice of heaven. Some of the scenery we encountered rivaled the beauty of many other places that I have traveled to.

At 17 kilometers short of Ambato, we stopped for lunch beside a small hydro-electric dam. We also shed some layers because it wasn’t nearly as cold and windy as it had been up at 16,400 feet! We biked the last few kilometers and then Arie met us again by the side of the road and we hoisted the bikes up to the roof and set off, by car, to Baños where we will spent the next two nights. Baños is situated just beneath the active volcano of Tungurahua, which last erupted in 2006. The woman at the front desk of our hotel informed us when we arrived that there were five blasts last night from Tungurahua. Not sure what the blasts entailed, but I’m hoping that whatever they are, they’re minor…