Rolling into Cuenca is like a homecoming of sorts. I know the city like the back of my hand and spending a few days off the bike with Elena and her extended family is fantastic. The Original Barber Shop goes to town on my mange and I emerge looking like a pre-teen Swedish boy. Jen, Dave, and Sora arrive a day or two ahead of me and it’s great to catch-up with them over a few stiff artisanal beers.
It feels good to be approaching more of the proper Trans Ecuador - a route the Dammer brothers along with Cass Gilbert put together running through Ecuador north to south on dirt roads, single track, some stout hike-a-bikes, and a few 'connective' paved sections.
After a healthy dose of Cuenca's finest rush hour bus diesel, its back out onto quiet dirt roads passing through sleepy little towns like Solano and Nazon.
Sometimes buried beneath cow hoof comings and goings, sometimes battling encroaching grasses, and sometimes smooth as butter, I pick up an old rail trail in the afternoon over to Ingapirca.
Not bad Ecuador. Not bad.
Ingaprica deposits me at the start of the Inca Trail; a roughly a 40k stretch following the route - and sections of the original road - of the Incan Royal Road that extended north to Quito.
The initial clearly defined road transitions into a mix of boggy and grassy single track running along the edge of a huge valley. Not much time on the bike...
I stare at my GPS in the late afternoon light and search in vain for the supposed climb in front of me. Nudging straight up through the grassy tussocks, I finally come across what turns out to be the most heinous hike-a-bike I’ve experienced to date - steep, ditched, and rocky switchbacks make for tortuously slow going.
Midway up I find a 'flat' area just wide enough to get my tent down where I regroup and enjoy the distant view of Laguna Culebrillas.
The previous days effort is rewarded with a rideable ridge line splitting uninhabited valleys on either side. Justice.
Light on food, I peel of the Trans Ecuador for the moment and pick up Dan and Gina’s tracks into Achupallas. Having not seen too many bikepackers in this area, the few locals I run into on horseback curiously look down at me and run me through the standard questions. The remoteness I have longed for since leaving Peru makes the Inca Trail grind worth every bit of slogging.
Leaving Achupallas the next morning, I pick up the Trans Ecuador again and follow a series of mellow dirt roads that seem almost too easy.
I pass through tiny communities and encounter some of the nicest Ecuatorianos I've met thus far. Luis gives me a thumbs up and hangs out with me over lunch. He's a good little dude who enjoys his first taste of Nutella.
Morning brings the final bit of a 4000 m bump.
Grassy paramo gives way to the antithesis of monocroping above Guamote.
The next day I skip the "water bar" gully traverse and noodle into San Juan before heading east over to Guaranda, crossing a 4000 m pass being readied for the white line. I grab onto the back of a few trucks lumbering upwards but the dust is unbearable.
After cleaning out of my ears, I piece together a few dirt roads up to the small Andean village of Salinas de Guaranda, taking in some pretty ridge riding and a nice tree lined bit.
Salinas de Guaranda is an excellent example of community cooperative based projects including chocolate, cheese and textile factories. There are supposedly thirty factories in town, each working together to economically support Salinas and the outlying regions. There's also a solid pizzeria and cafe.
Apart from lining me up perfectly to ride Cass' newly minted Los Tres Volcanes route in reverse, my arrival coincides with the beginning of a three day festival.
A visit to the old salt mine on the edge of town.
I wander amongst Ecuadorian tourists through the tented main square sampling chocolate nougat,
and leaf wrapped trout.
There's one slight caveat to Salinas - if you don't arrive on Tuesday (market day), your resupply options are pretty much limited to chocolate, cheese, salami, bread and cold pizza.
Cuenca – Nazon - Ingapirca - Inca Trail - Achupallas - Guamote - San Juan - Guaranda - Salinas de Guaranda
Base Extreme in Cuenca carries a few Maxxis fatbike tires.