Final leg – Trans Ecuador 5 – Cuenca to Vilcabamba

This last stage from Cuenca to Vilcabamba was a lot of fun to ride. With lower altitudes than the previous TEMBR sections, it passed through pleasant farm valleys and canyons and, of course, had the obligatory fun steep dirt sections to challenge one’s calf muscles. For some parts I deviated from the original TEMBR. One short section I chose for the penultimate day had me in virtual tears due to my slightly overweight ‘bikepacking’ setup and short bout of food poisoning (a familiar feature in Latin America). An interesting finale to an epic ride through Ecuador.

This is how it went down…


A couple of hours from Cuenca, these kind people let me sleep on their floor. They were normally smiling. 🙂

Then, after a few pleasant days zig zagging my way south on steep dirt roads out of Cuenca through the Ecuadorian countryside, the route joined a shortish paved stretch.


Climbing up this 800m change in elevation with this dark threat looming ahead


Somehow I managed to avoid the storms this day, missing them by minutes. Snow (or hail?) at this ~3000m pass.


After the paved section, the route took me down this rather pleasant valley towards Loja



…pausing to cook up some noodles



This nice cycle path leads you into the heart of Loja



It’s very often worth checking out the ‘mercado’ in these South American towns/cities. This just one of many ‘booths’ where you can get some good cheap food.


Fatty pork (chicharrón) with mashed potato etc and a drink ($2.50).  An ideal breakfast for what I had in store.


Looking back on the climb out of Loja.

Cycling up out of Loja seemed innocent enough, aside from the usual baffled looks as to why I was climbing 800m of altitude onto a ridge when there was a perfectly good descent alternative down the valley all the way to Vilcabamba (it even has a dirt road interlude). I could have been there in just a couple of hours. It had me indecisive for a few minutes. I even turned back to go the other way. And then after a hundred metres I stopped again to re-consider. Damn it! Finally I decided to go for it, when could be the next opportunity to ride it again? Sniffing the end of the TEMBR, I excitedly peddled up the winding dirt road at record speed (for me anyway). Halfway, I stopped to eat fruit and a couple of boiled eggs; one of them didn’t taste that great. Cooling the cracked boiled egg with Loja tap water wasn’t the best idea; it must have been bacterial heaven. Half an hour later had me ducking into the bushes, not ideal for the route insanity I had in store for me.


Photo taken from the roller coaster ridge.  The sun kindly came out for the view.


Not bad

I continued on up to the top of the ridge and thought it had finally topped out and was in for a nice easy descent. Not quite. As is so often the case, tiny blips on my elevation route profile that looked like one or two metres were in fact steep climbs of 100 metre changes in elevation. It was hard with the stomach cramps but I still enjoyed taking on the characteristically steep Ecuadorian dirt. I continued along the roller coaster up and down for several more kilometers along the beautiful ridge (ducking into the bushes once more for good measure). Hundreds of metres below, the Panamerican Highway occasionally popped into view.  How much easier it would have been…but so much less fun.

Before I describe the route further, I must make clear that I was somewhat of a guinea pig so sections such that I’m about to describe are unlikely to feature on the final TEMBR.  I’m doing these sections so you don’t have to etc. That said, it was all rideable until…



A seemingly nice start to the ‘singletrack’.

It had been mentioned that the descent I was about to take was ‘quite technical’. And maybe this downhill section would have been partly OK on a super light fat bike setup, it’s hard to say…

Anyway, I thought ok, my bike is quite heavily laden but I can muddle through this beast. And so, I naively headed down the single track (instead of taking the easy dirt road alternative that leads directly to the Panam Highway).


Another rideable section

It started off quite innocently and semi-rideable…then it turned ugly.  After twenty minutes my path crossed with an ascending man on a horse.  “El camino es MUY FEO por mucho tiempo, amigo; es mejor regresar”.  In no uncertain terms, “the path is horrific, my friend; turn round!”. I had descended a fair way and pushing my bicycle back up the steep slope wasn’t appealing.  How bad could it be?  For the next three hours into the dark, I found out.  The words ‘quite technical’ were playing through my mind as I wrestled my laden bicycle down the 800 metre change in vertical; occasionally riding but mostly hauling, sliding and virtually having to throw the bike down the steep incline. Although there were some short rideable sections, it was basically a very steep horse track. Some parts had 6 inch wide gutters that ran down the centre of the ‘path’ which were in fact muddy / rocky channels up to head high. Banging pedals into the sides was often unavoidable, as was swearing. The sun started set about halfway down. I was glad to finally get to the dirt road which catapulted me downhill through the dark into Malacatos where I slept very deeply. Vilcabamba would have to wait until the next day.


This misleading photo kind of makes it look OK here


It could be an optional alternative?  Experts only need apply.


Finally in Vilcabamba, tucking into enormous plates of Chinese food (on the main highway)


Polishing it off with three of these frozen yoghurt cones. I could barely stop eating them. It’s natural yogurt after all, so it must be good for you.  (It was 30m from Hostel Margaritas).

In summary a very nice few last days on the epic TEMBR with an unexpected challenging finale thrown in for good measure.  Happy to finally arrive in Vilcabamba, I had some much needed rest in Hostel Margaritas (one block south from the plaza on Calle Sucre,$15 with breakfast; a nice clean quiet hostel). I then wasted no time in planning my assault on Peru; expected to be one of the highlights of the entire trip.

Route notes / tracks / waypoints to follow once final route finalised; most likely through Cass’s site.

NB: In a bid to catch up on my recent incredibly inconsistent blogging, I have decided to not put a video up for this post.  I’m not really sure how interesting it is to post semi-similar amateur footage of my travelling down dirt roads so I intend to only do videos when it’s significantly different or something of particular interest.  Plus they seem to be immensely time consuming, finding suitable music is half the challenge and it gets muted later for copyright issues which is particularly tedious although perhaps understandable.


4 thoughts on “Final leg – Trans Ecuador 5 – Cuenca to Vilcabamba

  1. Great to follow your recent bike packing experience Nick. You are taking on some real challenges but still going strong after our brief meeting years ago in Alaska, way to go. Charles

  2. So nice to read your adventures on the TEMBR Nick!, Glad you did it and suffered a bit…While I agree that is not for every tourer or bikepacker, is a route that leads to adventure and that is what matters… Yuhuuu!

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