Sunday, May 22, 2011

One last ride

In what may be the last entry on Ecuador for awhile, I'd like to share a little more about one of my favorite pastimes, in Ecuador and anywhere I go, really.  For me, there's nothing much better than getting on a bike and finding some dirt roads outside the city to ride around on.  I don't mind if it's single track in the woods or a country road winding between small towns.  Either way, it's a great chance to get out of the city, and to find beautiful places not far from where I live.  More often than not, these aren't the kinds of places with anything to attract tourists, and the population of these areas is low enough that there aren't buses that go to them very often.  So unless you've got a car (which I don't), the only reliable way to get there is on your bike.

Cuenca is blessed with dozens of tiny villages surrounding it.  While you won't find much natural forest nearby the city, there is plenty of farmland and rural community.  This kind of low density population means that there is a complex network of dirt roads tying them all together and connecting them to the hub that is Cuenca.  For a cycling enthusiast living in the city, it's perfect.  You've got countless routes to choose from, and on the weekend you don't have to worry much about traffic.  I was never able to find a comprehensive map of the area, and even Google Earth was lacking in accurate imaging of most of it.  So I was pretty much on my own in finding good places to ride.

One of my favorite places to ride is the road to Soldados, as I have come to call it.  Soldados is a remote village far outside of Cuenca, and the road to get there, as I've been told, was once the way to get to Guayaquil.  It runs roughly parallel to the highway that goes there today, and covers many of the same changes in altitude and ecosystems along the way.  I've occasionally plotted to make the ride to the coast by that road, but so far, it hasn't happened.

It's a beautiful area that I've written about before.  Always green, with very few houses and a constant but gentle climb upward on a well maintained road running alongside a picturesque mountain stream.  An agreeable daytrip indeed, which stops whenever you're ready for it to.  You simply turn around and go back the way you came, much faster than when you went up.

If you go far enough up the road, you get to some hot springs.  They are the reason why I know that the road exists, as the story in the link goes on to explain.  I've been back to them a couple of times since the writing of that story a few years ago, by setting out much earlier in the day than I did at first.  But even when I have no intentions of making it that far, the road to Soldados has proceeded to become one of my preferred routes when I can't think of anywhere else to go.  Predictably, it also happens to tie into a few other roads, a few of which lead to the little town of Baños.  Now practically absorbed by the city of Cuenca, that village takes its name from the piping hot spring water that occurs naturally in the area, and has given rise to a number of resorts and spas.  The combination of a long ride, a soak in a hot tub and a subsequent cold beer is undeniably excellent.  And the ride home, as it always seems to be when you live in a valley, is all downhill.

One of my favorite places for the post-ride beer and accompanying meal is Che's.  A much-underrated roadside attraction in the nearby village of San Joaquín, the restaurant serves all kinds of grilled meat, beer and chicha, all best consumed on the outdoor patio.  And of course, Che himself.

Never falling out of character, the proprietor sits iconically at the grill when he isn't talking with the clientele.  After a beer we once decided to ask him for a photo, to which he responded by inviting us inside for another drink and some conversation.  Once indoors, we discovered the main hall, covered from floor to ceiling on all sides by the biggest collection of Che Guevara memorabilia I've ever seen.  Featured also in the above is Louis, who can also take credit for a couple of the photos in today's story.

Another ride worth mentioning is the road to Aguilas.

A little further up the highway from San Joaquín, you connect with a road heading up to Cajas National Park from Sayausí.  And in that neighborhood is a nondescript dirt road heading up into the mountains, much like any other.  This is the road to Aguilas, which I assume is the name of yet another distant mountain village.

But the road to get there is a destination unto itself, one of the many unspoken mountain biking routes for aficionados around town.  Any Saturday or Sunday will find it almost entirely vacant of automobiles but bristling with cyclists, either heaving their way up or barreling back down.  Much like the road to Soldados, it will afford you many unique perspectives on the gorgeous landscapes that make up the countryside outside Cuenca.  From up here, you can even get a good look at the city itself:

But while the road to Soldados is a relatively mellow ride, this one I would call much more technical.  That is to say, steeper.  Lots steeper.  The way up, you're in your highest gears.  In order to maintain your resolve, you look down at your front wheel and not up at the indeterminable length still above you.

On the way down, you've got both hands on the brakes the whole time, rattling over rocks and around curves.  I'm far from being a professional, but it generally takes me an hour and a half to get to my preferred stopping point from the trailhead, and twenty minutes of blurred scenery to get back down.

The road is evidently a road for pilgrimage as well, if the thirteen crosses along the way are any indication.

A cross alongside a country road is a symbolic reminder that our journeys are sacred, the transformative means to an end that ought to be an end unto itself.  Where have your roads taken you?  Even in today's world of motorized transportation, modern day pilgrims still often choose to undertake at least part of their spiritual journeys on foot.

Practitioners of Buddhism also speak of something known as walking meditation, to which a pilgrim from any spiritual tradition could relate.  By acknowledging this most basic human form of motion as an innately profound activity, the act of moving around by your own two feet becomes suddenly more powerful.

There are arguably far fewer proponents of cycling meditation, but if you ask me, there is an undeniable source of perspective inherent in a peaceful ride along a gentle country road.  There's an unequaled sense of accomplishment upon reaching the top of a steep hill without stopping, and an unparalleled exhilaration that you feel at the end of an adrenalin-fueled downhill.

When you have a destination in mind, especially a far-flung one, there's also nothing like making it there after hours of riding.

I was raised Catholic, but I admit I don't usually go to church on Sunday.  But Ecuador is a country steeped in Catholic traditions, and so it's not uncommon for a Sunday ride to have a few churches along the way.  This one is really far from any towns, and at the end of a side road opening into a large clearing.

It did happen to be Sunday on the day of this photo, but there was no sign of a Mass having happened any time recently.  In fact, this place looked deserted, from all indications.  Every time I went up the road to Aguilas, I considered trying to take it all the way to whatever Aguilas was, but each trip wound up at this abandoned church instead.  At one time, perhaps it was the destination of the pilgrimage for those who followed the route of the crosses on the way up the same road.  This particular day, the breaking of bread was not the Eucharist, but rather a tuna fish sandwich, followed by a few swigs of plain water instead of communion wine.
I imagine it will be awhile before I get to see these roads again.  The bike in the photo is in storage at the moment, and there are still plenty more country roads in Ecuador I haven't explored yet.  Fortunately, I've got a different bike now, and in the meantime, there are plenty of country roads in Chile, too.