Baños to Cuenca
The day before leaving Baños, Christine, Jules and I walked the town and the outskirts.
The cemetery was an interesting layout I've not seen before. It's like a small town with houses for the dead and families. There are streets and blocks, the buildings looking different, the niches filled with those passed on and empty spots for the remainder. It's like a white city of the dead, a continuation of life where you move into your next home a few blocks up the way.
The days had been generally rainy and overcast, but we decided to take a harrowing cab ride up a steep mountainside to view the town below. A cab ride is a cab ride, whether in a bustling city or on a narrow super steep switchback mountain road. :O
The mountainsides were so close to vertical, it seemed almost impossible to work the farms and various crops of tomaté and maiz, but the rubber boot clad farmers planted, maintained and harvested with smiles.
Somewhat amazing are the cattle, who grazed so tenuously on the sides that it was difficult to tell if they were lying down, the sides of their bellies touching the mountainsides as they stood chewing. As Jules said in French "one slip and there's no stopping until they roll into the butcher shop way down in town".
Tungurahua volcano, which sits above the town and is close to 17,000 feet, had been shrouded in clouds and overcast, but as we watched from the top, blue skies and winds from the east slowly uncovered the beast. An amazing phenomenon happened, at least to me, when the last of the clouds moved a way, a smooth flowing cap of cloud flowed over the top, and then a flowing circular disc of vapor formed around the top rotating around the top even into the winds. Was a beautiful sight to see as the clouds slowly dissipated until the bare rock of the mouth was clean save some slivers of snow in crevices.
From Baños, I'd planned to ride north again to Quilotoa and then east and back south. The weather forecast for the region was 94% rain for several days straight so I decided against it, since visibility would be close to zero on the high peaks. It was very disappointing. I rode with C&J until Riobamba where they peeled off for the coast and I continued south for Cuenca.
At a toll station on the way south, I paid my 20¢ toll and pulled forward to some cones, not quite clear of traffic to put on my gloves. A small, older security guard came quickly for me, and I knew he was coming to run me off. Instead, he grabbed my hand and shook it fiercely smiling a huge smile and welcomed me to Ecuador in Spanish. He continued to ask me questions and held my hand. I told him gracias and he continued to hold my arm, then again welcomed me and patted me on the back hard laughing as I pulled away. To be honest, I got a lump in my throat at the true warmth of the greeting from a total stranger.
Ecuador is a stunning country, and the ride was no less so. For the very first time on this trip, I felt like I was truly in a different land, escaping the ever-present sense of rap music, skinny jeans and sideways baseball caps of societies far removed from the US but entranced with the tv culture.
The road ran from 9000 to 12,000 feet the entire way, generally on a high rolling plateau, to be broken by massive valleys below. Plenty of "Oh my God I can't look" moments.
As if watching a movie, my shield the screen, mountain peaks and wisps of clouds cracked with blue skies went past, patchwork quilts of varying greens and browns covered the steep treeless mountainsides where indigenous women dotted the landscape, their brilliant pink, green, blue or red shawls standing out like lone flowers on green fields. They herded sheep, or cattle, or llamas in their black hats, tilled soil with large hoes or waited on roadsides with bundles of grass or bags of harvest.
To the side were deep valleys that stole my breath, endless points of fascination. I laughed out loud in my helmet or said the occasional "Holy crap!" at the sense of wonder so high in the mountains. Spats of rain and black clouds came and went, the children of the mountain gods. For over an hour I rode at 20 due to the zero visibility, my shield open and face dripping from the moisture of the clouds, trying desperately to see a few feet ahead as a bus or semi would suddenly appear in the white as if from nowhere. It was fascinating and tense, an hour I desperately wanted to end, despite the adrenalin that makes me feel alive. At an intersection in a small town, the fog was so dense I had to wait a few moments before gathering courage to merge into another road, unsure where the road and turn actually lay, needless to say what trucks or buses would come from what direction I knew not.
Two highways merge here... somewhere
A few moments later, I pulled over to look at something briefly, and immediately was passed by a bellowing semi oncoming in my lane at about 50 mph. He had no lights, which made no difference as they couldn't be seen until about 75 feet anyway. He was passing a bus in zero visibility conditions and driving blind. I have no doubt that had I not stopped, it would have been a head-on end for me. Chance, or gift from God? I know which.
At last the clouds thinned as I reached Alausi, a really interesting town along the route, where the famous train runs the La Nariz del Diablo. I was tempted to stay there a night, but continued on. I'd been in touch with Michnus, who were on the coast and heading for Cuenca in a couple of days, and it turns out were en route for Alausi. Later that evening, I found out they'd actually made it to Alausi in a long day and I missed them by a couple of hours.
By the time I made El Tambo, I hadn't eaten since breakfast and took a break in the town. I was engulfed by curious onlookers before the bike was quite stopped, as if I were an alien craft landing. Two men, dressed in suits and sunglasses amidst the curious indigenous dressed, came up to me immediately and grabbed my hands, shaking them and welcoming me. We made our conversations and they were happy to find out where I was going and of my travels, talking for a long time and recommending places to eat in the town before again shaking my hands and patting my shoulder. A they walked away I sat on the curb to the curious looks of the local women. I'd smile and nod and their expressions wouldn't change but they would continue to stare. After a snack and bottle of water, I got to the bike again and preparing to leave, pulled out my camera to get a shot of the onlookers and bike. Like magic, they vanished or turned their backs!
Rolling into Cuenca, I was quite surprised and frankly impressed at what a nice, clean and beautiful city it was. Traffic was thick as with any large city, however the colonial town was much nicer than I expected. That evening Michnus and I connected on WhatsApp and made plans to meet up a couple days later in Cuenca.
I had no knowledge or expectations of Ecuador, but have been truly impressed with this country. It runs at a slower pace, the roads and infrastructure are excellent, and it has been extraordinarily friendly and beautiful.