Monday, August 3, 2015

Out of the Oriente, July 30 - August 3

San Juan Bosco-El Pangui-Gualaquiza-Yantzaza-Zamora-Loja

A centipede washed out by the rain
It rains every night here in Ecuador´s oriente. On July 29, camped at a tiny police station at the edge of an equally tiny town, we were sitting in the tent talking when we heard a low thundering sound. The area around us was still dry for the moment, but the sound grew into a roar as the rain reached us, falling in sheets all around. It was so loud we could no longer talk, so we let it lull us to sleep.

The next morning we set our sights on Gualaquiza, a large town not too far but on the other side of some pretty big hills. We tackled the ascents slowly and steadily, and around mid-morning the rain began again. Our experience here in the Oriente, the part of Ecuador east of the Andes, had been that the rain comes and goes all day but never for longer than about twenty minutes. So, expecting it to stop, we didn't put on our rain gear, but unfortunately it didn't stop. For over an hour it poured, and we happily found that we enjoyed the long ascents because our movement kept us warm. Finally, reaching the top much sooner than we otherwise would have, we zipped our rain layers over our sodden clothes and descended down to sunny, low-lying Gualaquiza to get some hot chocolate.

About a month ago, we were adopted for a night by a nice guy, Mario, near Ibarra in northern Ecuador, and when I mentioned to him in an email that we would be passing through Gualaquiza, he told me that his brother-in-law lives there and would be happy to take us in for the night. We met Leandro at the centro, where he drove us out of town to his father-in-law's place. Rafael, the father-in-law, runs a hotel/retreat center with private cabins for guests to stay in, all landscaped with fragrant flowers and set among lush forest. He told us to make ourselves at home in one of the cabins, a big step up from our tent! (In case you're lost, we were at the cabins of the father-in-law of the brother-in-law of the guy we met a month ago outside a supermarket. Okay.) We immediately took out all of our things and spread them everywhere; the past few days and nights of continuing humidity were beginning to take their toll.
Our house for the night
Our restful night transitioned easily into a delicious breakfast and more conversation with Rafael and Leandro, and then we hit the road again. The road from there to Zamora, about 70 miles away, was apparently flat. We knew better - there's no flat in Ecuador - but there weren't any mountain passes, that much we knew. Between the good road and our desire to move south, we busted out the 70+ miles without too much trouble, arrived late in the day, and camped, urban style, at the municipal government building in Zamora. Of special note was dinner: ramen noodles, red beans, pink beans (whatever those are...), chia seeds, onion, red pepper, tomato, olive oil, and oregano/black pepper/garlic seasoning, all eaten with tortilla chips. Chocolate and peanut butter for dessert. Mmm!

The next day found us at Parque Nacional Podocarpus, a stone's throw from Zamora but in the middle of dense primary forest. It feels like wilderness; you would never believe there´s a city nearby.

Waterfall along the scenic road to Podocarpus

We arrived in late morning, stashed our bikes in the woods, and went for a walk down to the river. Only a few bird species were out and about, but we were able to find the one-of-a-kind amazonian umbrellabird! It's all black, like a large crow, with an impressive crest that looks like an umbrella.

Umbrellabird habitat
On our way back to town, we stopped at an eco-lodge and asked if we could camp there, and the friendly owners said yes! Little did we know, Copalinga Lodge is a private reserve widely known as a bird and wildlife hotspot. Their feeders (bananas and sugar water) attract all kinds of incredible bird species from brightly colored tanagers to funny, chicken-like chachalacas and tiny, brilliant hummingbirds. Tam and I sat watching the show all afternoon, content with our decision to spend the day there and thankful to the friendly owners of the lodge for having us! If you are into birds at all and are in the area, check out Copalinga! It is a natural paradise.
Green Honeycreeper
Violet-fronted Brilliant

The upside of camping in a bird reserve is that you can wake up, walk out your front door (or crawl out the vestibule, in our case), and find yourself surrounded by birds! No transportation necessary. Before beginning our big climb up to Loja, we were able to spot a few new species and have a nice chat with some birders from Texas.

Golden-eared Tanager
There´s something meditative about a big climb. No need to shift gears or worry about route choice. Just get the legs pumping and go up and up, feeling the temperature change slowly, watching the clouds get closer and the rivers and valleys fall away, breathing deeply and rhythmically, setting into a constant cadence. After a few hours, however, we were excited to reach the fog of the paramo and see Loja far below in the next valley. All in all, according to, over 35 miles we ascended 9,958 feet and descended another 6,233. Quite the climbing day!

Arriving in Loja, we found a cheap hotel where two other travelers, Julia and Hannes, were staying. Having cycled from Alaska as well, they have had similar unique experiences to ours, and we stayed up late with them sharing stories and eating, of course.

Hannes and Julia, fellow cycle tourists from Germany

We´re spending August 3 in Loja and will be heading south from here, Peru in a few days!

Area notes: The road to Podocarpus is about 6 km, a smooth and scenic dirt road. Entry to the park is free, like all Ecuadorean National Parks. The road terminates in a trail - there´s nowhere else to go - and a 30 minute hike brings you to the visitor´s center, a map, and some other hiking trails.

The bomberos in Zamora share a building with the municipal government, so they don´t have space to host cyclists. We did stay at the building, however, just under the watch of the general security guard. Because the space is shared by so many different organizations, no one seemed to care about our being there. If you want to do the same, save time and simply ask the security guard at the front rather than heading upstairs to find the bomberos.

Zamora to Loja: Big climb, no shoulder, not too much traffic. There are streams everywhere for water.

In Loja we stayed at the Hotel Londres at Sucre 07-51. For $6 per person, it provided a bed, Wi-Fi, and a central location from where we could run our many errands. Bicimania, also in Loja at the corner of Colon and Emiliano Ortega, is a well-stocked shop with helpful service.

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