… In fact the Incan empire, for how amazingly advanced it was on so many levels, remained remiss in utilizing two fundamental architectural/design developments quite common by it’s heyday: keystone bridges and wheels. They overcame the lack of stone bridges by crossing large gaps using tree trunks. The latter however befuddles me slightly. Yes the geographic areas covered by the Incas contain some of the tallest and most rugged mountains on the planet, not ideal for wheels or wagons. But I was surprised to learn they didn’t utilize wheels to help transport goods or building materials in any way. The construction of Inca trails in South Central Ecuador confirms this observation, as my wheels did not travel particularly smoothly around here….
Planning my arrival into the metropolitan city of Cuenca within a week or so from my location in Guamote, I had trouble deciding how much food to carry. I’d be combining an initial 100km of remote terrain with a very rough route through 50km of Incan trail to reach the famed religious site of Ingapirca. While in Alaska I could easily cover 150km in one day, Ecuador has proven such distances virtually impossible with it’s tough terrain and endless climbs. Leaving Guamote I carried 5 days of food, just in case I couldn’t restock for a while.
With backpack and food bag overflowing, I rolled to the edge of town to fill up on gasoline for my stove from a service station. “NO.” said the worker. “We cannot sell gas to foreigners. Read the sign,” he said briskly. The sign actually said it was illegal to sell diesel to commercial vehicles with international plates. “But I’m none of those things, not even a vehicle! I’m just trying to get 1/2 liter of normal gasoline for a stove!!!” No go. I’ve found all too often in my travels that some people develop their interpretation of “the rules” unwaveringly and either cannot or will not adapt the rules based on logic. Sometimes redirecting misconceptions can be just too challenging. I felt powerless and frustrated as most of the food i’d just purchased and was now lugging needed to be cooked in order to be eaten. Luckily a trip across town to the only other gas station afforded a fill-up without hesitation.
Once moving I started immediately up a 4000′ climb out of town. Beginning on a smooth enough dirt road, the route diverged from it through an enormous grass slope with no visible road or trail in sight. Perhaps there was a trail here but the field had just been upturned by a tractor and the only way through was dragging the bike over grass plumes, catching the pedals every few feet and tripping regularly on the uneven terrain. Pushing the bike through here, steeply uphill, was about as challenging as any terrain I’ve encountered so far. My feet would sink down into the dirt and/or slide backwards on the soft soil while trying to lift the bike forward. Every step was a major affair. I continued forward out of shear hope that the trail would open into something, someday soon. Luckily it did a short while later.
This unmapped dirt road intersected with many others along the climb, cutting their way through the high alpine grass in various directions. The occasional dog bark in the distance was my only mammalian accompaniment for hours. It was lovely.
At one point I started seeing what were clearly mountain bike tire tracks. Assuming it was just the tracks of a local farmer or kid riding to/from home, I thought nothing of it. But they kept ahead of me along my specific route, leading me correctly through various intersections. Eventually I got off my bike to study the track. It was familiar… wait…It was the same tire as I use on my front wheel: A Maxxis Chronicle. Not available in South America, that specific tire with its accompanying second bike track could only belong to one couple: My long lost friends Dean and Dang, a Canadian bikepacking couple I’d last seen in Northern Costa Rica! I was clearly fresh on their tails and pushed harder up the steep climb to try and catch them…
Up at the pass, the wind was whipping across my path at speeds rendering riding impossible. I’d get blown off the bike by gusts every few seconds. But the treads remained on the dirt ahead of me, so I pushed on. Down the other side, all visibility disappeared into dense fog and whipping rain carrying tiny freezing water droplets within it. I raced down the mountainside to escape the rough conditions along a windy, cliffy old road, through numerous small landslides, until….
I hit the big landslide. It had started a ways up the mountain and completely taken out a 50m wide section of the cliffy road ahead. The mud pile it left behind was… formidable. With no safe way through above or below it, I pushed the bike into the mud. At first it seemed dense enough to remain on top of the mud, but a few feet further it turned into a very dense, but loose, mud soup: Weight bearing would cause me to sink deeper (think Artax sinking into the Swamps of Sadness) with every step. First my foot dissapeared. Then my ankle. Then my knee. I quickly considered the possibility that my sinking would not be stopped by solid ground anytime soon, so with all the force I could muster schlooooped my leg out of the muck. It was as if the mud was giving birth to my very own appendage. Scary because looking up the mountain slope it was unclear whether another large slide could occur at any moment, and if stuck in it’s path I’d be buried… A slightly different route through the muck luckily kept my sinking more moderate, not surpassing mid-thigh depth, as I dragged the bike through the chocolate stew. Those tire tracks I’d been following didn’t appear to cross this mess, so I assumed the slide had occurred after Dang and Dean had passed here.
It was getting late and the terrain was not lending itself nicely to camping conditions: no open flat ground aside from a wet, sloppy muddy road. I pushed onward through the rain with great gusto to avoiding a horrible cold/wet/dirty night camped on a roadside. Up up up a 600’ climb. Down a sloppy muddy road that prevented speeds faster than a crawl. UGH. Up up up another 500’ climb. Still no flat spots, all covered in mud. Down another sloppy road to a small river crossing. I could now see a slight bit of pink peaking through through the dense clouds to the West … uh oh, sunset. I’d have about 30-40 minutes of light to find a place to land. Up another 500’ pass, I slid and bounced down the other side, my reckless velocity increasing quickly with inverse relation to the fading light.
The road abruptly stopped at the shore of a swift river, the depth of which was unclear, but it did pick up the other side. With no time to waste I ran into the flow with injudicious abandon, soaking my shoes and shorts (yet cleaning the mud from both myself and the bike’s undercarriage quite well!). The final few kilometers were in almost complete darkness as my light seemed to be malfunctioning. I arrived at what appeared to be a small hamlet, a few lit homes refracting through the raindrops in the dark night. Desperately requesting a dry spot from the one person I could spot, I was directed to an abandoned church on the far side of town. I managed to find it with my tiny flashlight and wandered in.
Whew!!! A huge, DRY, open space — free from the pounding rain and whipping wind. It was a quite eerie feeling entering this huge, dark, open space, the torn plastic window covers fiercely flapping in the wind’s gusts in occasional waves, but I swallowed my ghastly fears and rolled the bike in (this picture of course taken the following morning). Looking down at the dirt floor ahead of me, I spotted the same damn bike tire tracks I’d been following! Dean and Dang had found this shelter as well. Good on them. After 10 hours of travel, falling asleep was not difficult. I hesitantly left the church early the next morning, the new day greeting me with more whipping rain.
Luckily the clouds parted later that morning to reveal a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains. I stopped by a small waterfall near a cliffy viewpoint to take in the vista and swallow some much needed calories. While eating, a small group of kids were walking down the hill on the road toward me. As soon as they noticed me they stopped. They’d formed a small circle and every couple of seconds a few of their faces would turn towards me. I could read their minds, trying to decide if it was safe to keep walking on the road to pass the lone stranger.Their short term solution: run behind a curve back up the road where I couldn’t see them and wait it out.
This has not been a completely rare experience here in Ecuador. Of course it has happened almost exclusively with young girls here, but occasionally with elderly women and boys. Either way, they eventually seemed to muster up the courage to continue toward me. When they did approach, the boys walked right toward the bike to study it, the girls scampered past, until they seemed to be at safe distance past me. They boys then just just stared. Right at me. Not at the bike, not talking, just staring at me. I asked them what they were looking at but either they were too transfixed or confused by my accent to respond. As I gathered my stuff to keep riding, they approached and formed a circle all around me, including the girls after a few moments. Without any ability to get a word out of them, I eventually hopped on the bike, said goodbye and rode away… only to be followed by them all, running behind me at top speed. If they weren’t so damn cute I’d have been afraid of being under a zombie attack!
Riding into another small hamlet of homes, I reached a route decision. There were two options for heading South to the famed Inca Trail to Ingapirca. The first was to descend to the highland town of Achupallas and the traditional start to the trail for most hikers. I opted out due to another track I’d been given. It would keep me at high elevation and drop me down onto the Inca trail about 15km to the South. Luckily I’d packed enough food out of Guamote to avoid the need for resupply, so I was ready to roll.
The turnoff for the high route started as a well established albeit steep mountain road….
2km up the climb the road transitioned into a very clear single track through the paramo, which I assumed would continue as such. Totally rideable. Fun!
Unfortunately the trail only lasted about 500m before the gps track I was following became more of a directional guideline to cross the open paramo. There were some signs of cattle tracks headed in my general route direction but unclear if I should follow them. This may have been well and good for a hiker, but pushing a 90lb loaded bike through this rough grassy marshland proved quite challenging! Between sloppy boggy sections to bumpy highland grass, it all feels like walking on a 6-8” thick wet sponge. The bike just sinks in and pushing uphill is significantly harder than on more sturdy soil. So much effort that I had to stop to rest every 20-30 paces (not to mention the thin air at over 13,000’!).
I turned around on one such break to see a small herd of cattle guided by 4 men on horseback, then a whole family walking up behind me… they were heading home to their remote community, over the next mountain ridge. While the women predictably walked around with wide berth, the men on horseback rode up to me, asking me in broken Quichua/Spanish where I was going through this huge valley, especially with a bicycle. Hard to explain to a person who’s never seen or heard of a gps device that you’re following a gps track you got from someone you’ve never even met… They each kindly offered me some “water” regardless. This bathtub gin of sorts derived from fermented sugar cane was meant to warm the body for cold paramo travel. At a point where I was running low on energy a few shots of this stuff really did do the trick! I was all the sudden a little lighter in spirit and energy! The family rode on past me and I trusted my route, hoping to encounter some flat refuge for camping as marked just ahead on my track. No luck. Definitely nowhere to camp in this boggy marshland. The track I was following turned even steeper uphill, heading up a tall cliffy embankment. I started huffing and puffing upward, over huge tufts of paramo grasses, but the reality of the situation combined with my few shots of “agua” forced my hand. “Fuck this,” I said aloud. Given that there has been no real marked trail for nearly 2km now, there is no way of knowing whether there’d be a more established trail/road for the entire 18km to reach the Inca trail. At my snail’s pace, this was no viable option as I didn’t have the food for a possible extra day of bike pushing. I turned back with hopes of reaching Achupallas by dark. At least the paramo afforded descending with a bit of speed and the riding actually got fun once I hit the single track below!
A little asking around and I found a cheap b&b in town. Lovely.
Early push-off from Achupallas and the start of the Kapak Ñan (Inca Trail) to Ingapirca. Directly out of town, everyone I saw told me I was crazy to bring my bike on the trail. How correct they all were I still had yet to realize…
The trail started off from the road immediately as an extremely slow going steep rock garden. Drag the bike over a rock, and walk a step to catch up to it. Sigh. I was oddly excited to have the full challenging experience so I pushed forward. A bit further up this rock trail a woman walked down from her tiny home to tell me it would likely take me 7 days to get to Ingapirca with my bicycle. She was very nice, but told me I was crazy.
The rock garden eventually widened into a reasonably smooth single track for a while. A man approached from behind me here, walking his mules. He asked me about life in the US versus Ecuador. I tried to be honest about what I thought US culture was like versus here, addressing the pros and cons of fast-paced American culture. He told me a farmer like him could make about $5/day if lucky, that getting enough food to eat for him and his family was difficult. Despite some hardships in life, I’ve never come close to that degree of struggle. I felt lucky, but ashamed of my privilege. He then openly asked why a man of my age is not married with children and home, as is so fundamental in Ecuadorean culture. It was so hard given our cultural differences to explain my attempts to avoid materialism, to honor my beliefs about overpopulation and a lack of deep drive to procreate. Then to explain the visceral and hopefully sagacious need to journey, in search of inner peace. He seemed curious about our differences the more we spoke and compared our lives. We were even able to discuss the fundamental problem of having too many options that abounds in Western culture. He seemed to relate conceptually but clearly not experientially. I walked away from our short acquaintance with great appreciation, that despite our differences we were able to find common ground, as humans.
The trail got rideable for a little while here as I entered the long deep valley. I rode a little but chose to continue walking after a bit. I was enjoying the dry air, the breeze, the wide and smooth dirt trail in this section was easy going and provided lots of space for enjoying the subtle senses. I stopped for lunch/relaxation at one point, crouching into a nook in the trail to avoid the harsh headwind.
Tiny shelter camouflaged by the grassy hillside.
Random mules wandering through the gorgeous open valley.
The trail got narrow. Very narrow. Like deep ruts that I had to roll the bike through while hiking up and over huge grass plumes alongside the faded cattle trail. It was unclear where the best place to hike was, not a single clear trail, more like a little maze of small hiking capillaries.
Short attempts to actually pedal my bike often didn’t fare well.
The higher I climbed into the paramo, the wetter it got, with muddy crossings of sub-grassy drainages. I managed to keep my feet dry for a bit but gave up after a few slips into deep mud and spongy grass. I was now hiking the bike over little rut islands with mini water ways in between them. When not this terrain, it was back to rolling the bike through rutted grass, hopping over the huge plumes as I went. Nonetheless the vista was gorgeous and the weather clear, albeit a bit chilly with the wind.
I reached the lunar terrain of the route’s high point (4450m) in the very late afternoon. The winds were unbearably rough (cross/headwind doncha know), forcing me off balance, almost falling over the rocky ledges numerous times. I was fully covered with my wind breaker, but I could feel my face freezing with every violent gust. But the energy of having reached the top after such hard work had taken over, combining with the hope of descending to warmer/wind-protected campsite terrain. Fantastically the grass had all but disappeared up here, leaving smooth open terrain of Moab-style rock riding. The pinkish rays of light through the clouds again communicated my need to find shelter. I’d have about 45 minutes of twilight to find flat ground before I’d be traveling in the dark. Again. Luckily I could cover ground quickly and hoped I’d be able to actually ride downhill to a viable campsite.
Around a few twists and turns, Laguna Culebrillas came into sight down a gorgeous mountain valley. And with the arrival of such grand views my rideable trail came to an end…
The trail took a sharp turn and dropped into a very rough rock garden, and never became rideable again. It was extremely steep, narrow and gullied, with 1-2’ wide rocks scattered throughout. I was at least 1500’ above potential camping on the valley floor and the final rays of light were fading into the night sky. The combination of zero flat ground and very high gusty winds precluded any camping on the way down the valley. I started rushing down the trail, bouncing and knocking my bike through rock piles. When the small streams entering the trail rendered it slippery and boggy again, I began to lose my patience. The ruts deepened. Not the kind of ruts I’d dealt with so far where I COULD at least hike alongside the bike atop the rut. These were very narrow and getting deeper like narrow walls of a labyrinth rising above me, beginning to rise above eye level. Finally they deepened enough that I had to hop down into the gully, squeezing between the bike and the steep walls. It was so tight I’d repeatedly cut up my ankles on the bike frame/pedals, the sharp rocks, even scraping myself with my other foot with not enough width to clear a step. I ignored the increasing pain in my legs, avoiding examining it as that valley floor didn’t seem to be getting any closer. At one point I lost my footing on a small ledge and slipped off of it, the bike falling head over heels on top of me. It was pure luck that the tire happened to make first contact as the heavy bike landed hard on my exposed hand. A broken hand this far out here while needing to drag the bike for possibly another 20km… not a good thing. Okay. Push on. Keeping hope that there would be some perfect campground down there, I push on faster and clumsier, all the while logically knowing that in this terrain a valley floor meant even wetter and boggier than here. I had no idea how I would find a place to camp and was battling between blind hope with realistic pessimism. I considered the possibility that at worst I could just hike through the night if I couldn’t find dry ground. NOT excited about this option after the extremely challenging day.
Still in mid-descent, I made the genius decision to turn on my flashlight. At least my near-sighted capabilities increased, but my ability to navigate a general sense of direction completely disappeared. I was now entirely reliant on following my gps track, staring down at the tiny screen every few turns to make sure that the rut canyon I was committing to was actually taking me the correct way and not to some cliff edge. Finally I reached open ground, which, of course, meant that the grass plumes returned. God-fucking-damn-it. Walking through 6-12 inch soaking sponge grass, catching the pedals on grass plumes, and navigating by pure electronics with zero visibility and a complete lack of trail. Not fun.
I heard running water get closer as I kept on my little blue line on screen. Yep. Time for a river crossing. I shined my flashlight down the steep embankment to see swift flowing water of uncertain depth. I slid down the embankment to test the water. Yep, plenty cold, and about thigh deep. Well, not much choice here. Didn’t look much more shallow anywhere else I scouted, so I dragged the bike and hoisted it over the cold, flowing water, across the 15 foot wide river, finally heaving it up onto the other bank. Dragging myself back up onto the spongy soaking grass, I was now at least less muddy. Just very soaking wet, and getting colder. The winds in the valley floor were coming from behind at least. You really have to take whatever positive observations you can in moments like these!
Pushing on through more grass plumes into the pitch blackness, I hit… yep… another section of the same winding river. Well, at least I’m an expert now. I crossed faster this time, not distracted by hope of dry ground on the other side. Good thing. The valley floor eventually started turning uphill again, clarifying that I’d crossed the whole valley and reached the other slope. Somehow I found a sign signifying I was back on the “trail”! Fuck. Same consistency as I’d been trudging through before the pass: islands of boggy spongy grasses/mosses with rivers of muddy muck in between them.
By majestic grace, I stepped up onto one section of grassy slope and the squish of my wet shoes was oddly quieter. I put the bike down and patted the ground with my hands. Seemed…. somehow miraculously… dry! Of course it was just a 6’x10’ little dry moss island and on a moderate incline, but beggars can’t be choosers. I was out of energy and needed to rest.
So how’s this gonna go? There was no way to put the tent up in this extreme wind, plus I’d just break more tent poles. I staked the tent to the ground to prevent it flying away, clipped the fly on, and crawled in to the flattened fabric. While the fly was flapping violently to the gusts, I was at least slightly protected from the freezing temperatures. I put on all the layers I had, crawled into my sleeping bag and wrapped my ears with two hats. A couple crackers for dinner and I was out. It was not a restful sleep, needless to say, I was up every 10-15 minutes due to the slapping fly against my body, trying to make sure it was at least a dry wind and not rain. I got lucky…
At first light I was up and packing. Taking a shivering moment to digest the intense beauty of this enormous valley, I shoved my gear back into its bags. One by one, the bags made it back onto the bike, in between each mounting I’d stare back at the most dreaded endeavor: taking my warm/dry wool socks off and putting those soaking wet muddy socks back on, slipping them into cold wet muddy shoes. Ugh. I waited for the last minute when all else was complete. Sang a familiar tune replacing the lyrics with the complex tones of the word “fuck fuck fuck fuck” in repetition, I made the transfer and was ready to continue.
So just to recap: I was now 20km into a 38km long route. At the far end of a long wide valley that is clearly going to be a continuation of the spongy muddy mess I’d been dragging my bike through since yesterday morning. I had no idea if the trail will improve at any point in the next 18 kilometers. All I had to motivate me was the memory of a reading a review on bikepacking.com by the only other biker I know who’s passed through here. He’d not mentioned any of the conditions I’ve experienced so far in his short writeup. He did say there was a fun, SEMI-technical descent back into the town of Ingapirca at some point. So I had that to look forward to. Someday.
I pushed on through the muck. Somehow, impressively, it was even harder than yesterday. Perhaps it was that my shoulders, pecs, and wrists were completely fatigued by the amount of bike hoisting yesterday. But I don’t think so. The terrain was just that much rougher. Plus the scrapes and bruises on my ankles were now raw and extremely sensitive open wounds. I began to wonder if some of the plants I kept scraping by actually had some stinging capacity as the level of sensitivity was impressive… Every time a bush or pointy blade of grass would drag across them (which was about every other step), it would send burning, searing pain. Okay. Nothing to do but keep moving. Just keep moving.
Taking a wind solace in a random old Inca refuge for a moment, I was almost at the top of the last climb. Perhaps that SEMI-technical descent was almost nigh???
Well… as to the review I’d read: descent: yes. Technical: yes. SEMI?? no. VERY TECHNICAL. The Inca trail widens at this point to about 7 meters across. But it’s consistency: a long carpet of HUGE rocks. I’d weave between them for about 30-50 yards, then get stuck on a dense boulder field for a while. Then another super wet and sludgy bough. Then more boulders. I tried riding on the edge of the trail. Too deeply rutted and narrow. Eventually I gave up and returned to bike-shoving. Looking down valley, I could see the wide rocky trail rolling over the hillsides in the distance. Looks like I’ll be walking all day today again. There were a few small sections where I could ride through rough cattle trails through the grass plumes, which was…. better than the pain of every step with my raw ankles. Not exactly fun mountain biking, but way way better.
At long last the boggy, rocky shit show ended at a farm. A man was returning home to it as I approached, asking if I’d come from Achupallas on the Inca Trail. I shrugged in fatigued acknowledgement. Hilariously, he immediately asked if I’d give him my bike. With no small degree of sarcastic laughter I explained to him a little about what I’d just gone through and he agreed that perhaps it wasn’t the best place for a bike. Still, he again asked why I wouldn’t give him my bike before I go back to my rich country. I explained that this bike was my home. However, I would happily trade my home for his: Give me your land and your farm, I’ll happily give you my bike. He decided not to go ahead with the exchange.
Elated, I rolled onto a real dirt road to continue down the valley from his farm. It was glorious to be RIDING the bike again for more than 30 second stretches!
The famed ruins of Ingapirca. They were interesting, but I was just too exhausted physically and emotionally to really take them in.
Still, those Incas were pretty impressive with their masonry.
From here I’d be sticking to smooth, RIDEABLE roads… Or so I thought. The route led onto an abandoned railway turned road. The first few kilometers were lovely: since trains can’t climb up steep grades the road followed gentle inclines through rolling hills. But at one point the packed road ended at a small farm, all that continued on the rail-grade was deep deep mud, completely swiss cheesed by passing cattle hooves. For small sections i could balance on an old train track as it emerged above the mud, pushing the bike through the muck. But looking ahead, there was an enormous section of it that continued around a corner. This could go on for at least 3-4 kilometers, according to my map. NO WAY. I’m OVER walking this FUCKING bike. I slid down a muddy side-trail to a small river crossing, dragged the bike up a cow pasture on the other side past some very confused peasants, and up onto a road I’d seen from the tracks. Fuck yeah. I rode smooth dirt roads for the next couple of hours over some rolling hills to the public park of Nazón and its covered picnic areas, perfect for camping. I got as far as cooking my pasta dinner but not eating it. I woke up the next morning with a full pot by my side.
With only 35 more kilometers to Cuenca, I followed the dirt route through the hillsides into town. A beautiful city with many huge churches, clean streets and a metropolitan feel. I found a small internet cafe and called Rick, the father of a friend, who’s been living down here for a few years. He generously offered to let me stay with him and his partner in their spare bedroom for a few days.
Arriving to Rick’s fantastic flat, I marvelled at the location directly across the street from Cuenca’s main cathedral. Quite a strong contrast from my previous nights’ roosts.
Finally coming to rest in my own room with walls and a real bed, I pulled off my socks for the first time in a couple of days. Indeed my ankles had seen better days. You should have seen what they looked like BEFORE that glorious shower!
This third installment marked the end of my travels along the wonderful and challenging Trans-Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (See parts one and two for the background). Developed originally by the Dammer family with help and support by Cass Gilbert and Nick Gault, it was certainly not an easy way to explore Ecuador. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. So much beauty in extreme challenge. So much of a sense of achievement when you’ve been pushed to learn your edges. Now to explore city life in Cuenca for a few days!