Having spent the last few weeks trudging through some of the most challenging conditions in South America thus far, I had finally arrived at my next intended (and well-earned) resting point, the gorgeous colonial city of Cuenca. I’ve gained an awareness over the course of this journey that I have a peculiar love/hate relationship with large cities. They offer greater opportunities of meeting world travelers, access to quality food and quality beer, and are the only places to get newer bike parts in Latin American countries. They also are loud, busy, and full of people staring at their cell phones, an antithesis to the raw wilderness I crave. Given this struggle, I generally only stop in cities where I have some contact ahead of time, a way to quickly connect to local community. Luckily, a kind soul from Seattle shared with me some time back that her father had retired to Cuenca and might be willing to offer a place to crash for a night or two. Little did I know how fortuitous this connection would be…
Rolling into the traffic-filled outskirts of the city from a quiet morning of dirt roads, I was overwhelmed by its size and frenetic energy. I’d spent the last 3 weeks exploring rural Ecuador, passing occasionally though tiny towns for food resupplies, and this place felt enormous. Landing in the huge central square I immediate sought a wifi connection to contact my friend’s dad Rick, hoping to escape the hustle and bustle. Nervous to leave my bike outside a cafe in the busy streets, I went looking for a wifi signal. Excellent: a policeman told me there was free wifi in the park. Weak, but good enough to text with Rick. He directed me to his apartment, “just behind the main cathedral.” I was blown away by the accuracy of his directions, JUST behind the church, almost on top of it! (this shot taken from his rooftop deck).
Rick welcomed me with a big bear hug, walking me through his gorgeous 2-story apartment, showing me what would be my own bedroom on the way to sharing a beer on his private rooftop deck overlooking the city. I later met his sweet partner Ali with whom he lives, who even has space for her grand painting studio on the second floor. This is a man I’d never met, now inviting me to share his home as long as I wished based solely on the word of his daughter and the kindness in his heart. Wow.
Over that first beer on his deck, we spoke about life choices and why they among so many US Expats have chosen Cuenca as a city to ‘retire’. He’d shared his story of an interesting and varied professional life, now keeping himself quite busy promoting the arts locally and volunteering his many skills. I’d have connected well with him independently, but it’s an added facet that he’s the father of a woman to which I’ve had a long-distance attraction for some time. Almost awkward: getting to know her father more than I have her at this point. Having only spoken over the phone once since leaving Seattle, I’m cautious not to have my time with Rick influence our nascent connection. We are separated by an increasing land mass and that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. At this point it feels most honest to let things unfold as they will without presumption or expectation. Anything else would just be confounding reality with imaginary tales of an unknown future. But the storytelling mind is a powerful one nonetheless. Sigh.
I was told Rick liked to host live music nights on his deck. I figured it’d be 5-10 people having beers and playing music together. Not so! “Rick’s Cafe Americana” is a staple among Cuenca’s expat community. Every 6 weeks or so, he hosts crowds upwards of 50 people in his small deck space, offering catered food and performances by international musicians traveling through town. Luckily my visit coincided with a show, so I offered to help serving food and drink to the guests while enjoying the music.
I loved watching how much pleasure it gave Rick to support the music and build community in Cuenca. He’s clearly by no means withering away in retirement. Between the music nights, exploring the wilderness, even co-writing a musical about expat life in Ecuador, there’s never a dull moment. He even arranged for me to offer a photo presentation of my journey to a small group in his space the very next day.
Then there were the bikers. It appears that all cyclists, whether heading North or South through the Americas, come through Cuenca. I’d been following the tire tracks of my now old friends Dean and Dang for a week before arriving in the city, now finally caught up to them for the first time since our separation in Costa Rica!! (pictured on the right). They’d connected with quite a few other cyclists who were currently in town, so we planned a grand meeting of the minds (and legs).
Rick so kindly offered his rooftop deck with built-in fire pit tables and sound system, and we thus held a Trans-American biker summit at his Cafe Americana. 10 of us gathered in total. Bruno and Lorraine from France (not shown). Joe from England. Michel and Gin from Canada. Tyndall and Liz from Alaska (also on bikepacking setups!). And of course Dang and Dean. Rick helped us order the best pizza in town, the beer and stories flowed from there. Having traveled alone for so long these last few months, I was really excited when we all realized we were heading South, at the same time. We arrange to have a group depart from Cuenca a couple of days later…
Dean, Dang and I spent a day wandering the streets of Cuenca, looking for bike shops, museums and good food.
Happened upon a soccer game in the stadium. Fun to see how excited the fans get, especially to a sports ignoramus like myself.
We found our way into the Museo Pumapungo, half modern art museum, half archeological exhibit featuring the Tsantsa tradition of shrinking human heads.
Yep. That’s a real head. It’s about 6” in diameter. I’ll spare you all the details I learned about the actual head shrinking process (all easily researchable online anyway), but it was quite profound and curious to see a collection of these heads up close. Truly odd and amazing.
One of Cuenca’s “Solmaforos”: Sol (sun) — Semaforo (traffic light). It’s a strategically placed kiosk in a park illustrating the intensity of UV rays on any given day, providing advice about how to protect one’s self in dangerous conditions. Cuenca is a funny city in this way. Certain features such as this highlight it’s modernity and progressive metropolitan culture…
… yet others are a bizarre mix of city and small-town life. This ATV-powered food cart joins street food and four-wheeling into one fantastic experience!
Back in the two-wheeled world, I connected with an employee at a local bike shop who invited us out for a weekend ride. We loaded the bikes onto a couple pickup truck taxis and shuttled about 40km out of town to a high ridge for a day of single track.
Despite not having ridden unloaded single track in a while, Dean tore up the trails like a pro.
Big, deep, steep ruts. One of the major themes of this route. One must keep those tires right in the narrow center groove of the rut so as not to wipe out. Keep your hands light on the brakes, ass behind the seat to keep traction in that rear tire, then skid your way down…
One of the beautiful aspects of meeting local mountain bikers is the instant sense of camaraderie I feel. Bikes are a fantastic unifier of culture, language and age. Everywhere I’ve ridden with local riders, from Northern Alaska through all of Latin America, I’ve been welcomed to share the trail with fantastic people. It’s an excellent way to instantly jump into a new community and learn about people’s lives in the area while being introduced to trails I’d never have found on my own.
After 5 action-packed days in Cuenca enjoying the largely indescribable hospitality of Rick and Ali, it was time to push on. I likely could have stayed a few more weeks without blinking an eye, with plenty of biking opportunities, plus options to build up a short-term bodywork practice here within the expat community. Next time Gadget, next time. Rick cooked us up a fantastic French toast goodbye breakfast and with grand hugs they sent me on my way to meet the other bikers for our group departure.
Dearest Rick: Thank you. Your kind heart and open door have warmed my heart and facilitate filling my wells of connection for the next stretch of trail to come. You are a special man with much to offer the world, and I truly hope we find our way into the same space in the future. Big hugs from down South!!!