Cuenca is the third-largest city in Ecuador, and it’s historic downtown area is listed as a UNESCO world heritage trust site, due to the many beautiful colonial-style buildings.
The Troll Boys enjoyed the beauties of the city, especially the New Cathedral, an opulent church filled with expensive marbles imported directly from Italy. However, we soon succumbed to the exhaustion that comes from climbing several thousand feet of elevation every day, and we retired to our room to eat two large pizzas and watch The Fellowship of the Ring.
Bike touring tip #4: Rest days are a necessity. When you push your body to the limit for several days in a row, it is essential that recovery time is scheduled where you can recuperate from the vigors of the road.
Once we had taken sufficient rest in Cuenca, we hit the road again, excited to get back on the bikes and head directly towards our next watering hole, the hot-spring baths of Baños, Ecuador. We calculated that it would take a full six days of riding to accomplish our goal, so we added an extra day of rest in the middle to remain true to tip #4.
On a trip as long and as intense as this in a foreign land, it is important to share the burden of leadership equally. Jon helpfully suggested that we could take turns shouldering the responsibility of tasks such as navigating, cooking, and communicating with locals using a method from his work with NOLS called “leader of the day.” Each day, it would be the turn of one of the members of the team to step forward and take charge, allowing the other two to assume a follower role for the duration of the shift. This method is designed to streamline all decision-making processes, as the general day-to-day affairs are easily handled by the one person who has planned ahead for their specific day (such as this picture of Cody navigating through mountain dirt roads).
Over our next three days to our rest-stop in the city of San Pedro de Alausi, each of us struggled in different ways with the weight of leadership, working out seemingly simple things like how much food to buy, when to find a campsite, and how long to bike before taking short snack breaks. Luckily, each mistake informed our future choices, and we even ended up benefitting on occasion from our errors, like the night that a friendly stranger offered us a beautiful campsite long after we had accepted the fact that we would be sleeping in a cold and windy abandoned building.
Finally after several days of biking through gorgeous mountains, we rolled into the town of San Pedro de Alausi on the morning of September 21st, the main station for the Nariz del Diablo (Nose of the Devil), a train that traverses one of the most dangerous railways in the world due to intense and sudden changes in elevation made necessary by the sheer walls of the mountain through which it passes. Unfortunately, Jon was feeling a bit ill, and so we decided another day of Lord of the Rings and lying in bed with chocolate milk was in order.
After a day of regenerating stamina for the mountain roads ahead, we continued on through beautiful ridges and small towns where we stopped for lunch breaks and chatted with curious schoolchildren.
And then came the infamous “Splat and Splurge Saturday,” so named by yours truly for an adventure that unfortunately tested the generosity of the Ecuadorian healthcare system. First, a little backstory. In Ecuador, many of the natives own dogs, and far too many of these rascals are unused to bikers, and so chase you across the property. This makes a rider a bit nervous in the best of circumstances, as a dog tangled between the wheels could make for a quick disaster, but when a larger, more aggressive dog comes out and snarls while nipping at your ankles, it is time to take steps to defend yourself. The first line of defense is typically a threatening yell, but sometimes throwing rocks to scare off the dogs is a necessity. On “Splat and Splurge Saturday,” the Troll Boys were practicing their defensive bombardment on cow-crossing signs we were passing, and in an ironic twist of fate (literally), I ended up wrenching the handlebars just enough as I threw, to land on my chin with my bike flipping over me. In case you were wondering, Cody had perfect aim and hit the sign dead-on.
The casualty count: One broken molar, one profusely bleeding chin, and one very bruised jaw.
Luckily, Jon was able to patch me up as Cody flagged down a passing vehicle to take us to a hospital in the nearby city of Riobamba. The Ecuadorian healthcare was amazing, getting me in and out of the hospital and a dentist for FREE in about three hours total, while Jon and Cody secured a meal to eat and a place to stay. Hence the Splurge part of the day, where in their infinite wisdom, they decided that spending more money on a comfortable room was in our best interest as a group. The Troll Boys streamed an exciting game of Hawkeye football against Penn State and ate pizza, and the next morning, were ready to roll the last few miles to Baños.
The next day was grueling as we traversed canyon gorges over rickety bridges and biked up sandy roads where the wind blew debris into our eyes.
And that, dear readers, is what I would do to reach a hot bath in Baños with my wonderful friends Cody and Jon.
Over the next few days, we enjoyed the famous Swing at the End of the World and went from wallowing hole to wallowing hole across the town, keeping our chins up in the face of adversity (in my case literally because those hot-springs probably had bacteria) and gathering our strength for the next bit of adventure.
Before I sign off, I want to leave you with one more piece of advice:
Bike touring tip #5: Don’t get hurt. But if you must, do so in a country with free health-care!