We've spent our last week pedaling through the southern third of Ecuador. It was partially what we expected, but far from what we had hoped for. Admittedly I was a little nervous about riding here, especially after all of the warnings and expressions of concern we had received from family back home, yet at the same time we've run into many other travelers who have had nothing but good things to say about traveling in South America.
We chose to start our ride in the town of Cuenca, a quaint little mountain town. We quickly realized how difficult it was going to be traveling in a place where neither of us could fully communicate. The road signs here, if at all present, didn't exactly match up with what our map said and we ended up zig-zagging through Cuenca for the first hour of our ride. We'd stop and ask directions and between the two of us we'd catch a few words of what the person said. They'd point us in the general direction we needed to go and a few blocks later we'd have to stop and ask again. It was a lot of stop and go, but we eventually made it out of town.
Our first day back was anything but a gentle reintroduction to bike touring after taking a month off. The Andes Mountains are simply relentless. I'm convinced that whether one is in top physical shape or not, this terrain would get the best of anyone. It has been 6 days of non-stop climbing on the steepest mountain roads we have ever seen, pedaling to the rhythm of our hearts pounding in our ears, sure we were going to die of a heart attack at any moment. We have climbed an average of 4 hours every day and it's frustrating having to end every day after traveling a measly 40 miles because we're so exhausted and can't possibly pedal another mile. We both love the challenge of the mountains, but a little reprieve would be nice once in a while!
Not only has the terrain taken a toll on us, but there's also a combination of other factors that are compounding day after day and I think they've finally gotten the best of us. Granted, we both love the mountains and we have been surrounded by some monstrous peaks this past week, but all truths be told, the scenery has not been all that great. They are desert mountains, the air is hot, dry and dusty, the atmosphere is hazy, the vegetation is nothing to write home about and there are heaps of garbage everywhere. It's not just here or there where some jerk decided to dump his week's worth of trash or something flew out of a car window, but it's literally everywhere. People here don't think too highly of their environment and I've found it really difficult to look past the ugliness of riding through a dump to see the beauty that could potentially be here.
Neither of us have been overly impressed with the people we've run into so far. We didn't necessarily expect to be welcomed at every place we passed through with open arms as we were in the US, but we also didn't expect to receive the vast amount of glares and cold shoulders as we have. When we roll into a town, everyone stops to stare and when we say hello, try to have a conversation or ask a question, smile or wave, a few will politely respond back, but mostly people just watch, cold and expressionless. It is not a very welcoming feeling.
On the road, people have been generally friendly. We have received plenty of honks, waves and thumbs up, but we've also had a fair share of unfriendly encounters. There are continuous whistles and cat calls as I ride by (and sometimes when Mike rides by, too, because he has a ponytail). It was funny for about the first two, but hundreds a day got really old really fast. It's degrading and gives me an urge to pull over and slap those guys. Our second day was by far the worst, as we got harassed by 4 teenagers on motorbikes who didn't say or do anything to us, but followed slowly behind or right next to us, then sped ahead a bit and continued this for several miles. I think they were just teenagers being little punks, but it put both of us on edge for the rest of the day. Later that day we stopped for a minute in the banana fields on the outskirts of the city of Machala, a decent sized town near the coast. Suddenly a man pulled up next to us telling us we shouldn't stop there because it's very dangerous and we'll get robbed. As he spoke with Mike, I stood next to our bikes and an older man walked by, a little too close for comfort. In hindsight we figured they were working together, one as the nice guy to help us out and be a distractor while the other could grab our stuff and run. Day 2 was bad. We spent the night in a hotel, both of us unable to sleep, feeling anxious, vulnerable and questioning our desire and decision to bike here.
We made a few changes before venturing out the next morning. We both swapped our brightly colored cycling jerseys that we'd been wearing for our dark gray t-shirts, figuring the dark colors would draw much less attention to us than the pink or red. We also modified our hair-do's by pinning our long, blonde ponytails up under our helmets so we didn't look like two girls from behind, hoping that people would be less likely to mess with a guy and a girl. It helped a little, but not enough to put our minds to rest.
Another huge contributor to our unease is the dog population here. We have been chased by more dogs in the past week than the average mailman gets chased in their entire lifetime career. Dogs here are big. They are mean-looking; mostly black or brown colored with big barks and bigger teeth. They are free to run wherever they please and there are often entire packs guarding a single home. Every once in a while we get lucky and all they do is bark, but more often than not, we find ourselves already exhausted tyring to sprint up the mountains, shouting at the top of our lungs, with dogs nipping at our heels. We both have a can of pepper spray attached to our handlebars, ready to use in an instant. Mike was very pleased to use his today and we laughed as the dogs ran into a cloud of burning spray and immediately retreated. Though I love dogs, I find myself hoping for a huge truck to come barreling down the road and take one out just as he takes off chasing me. As nice as it is to have the pepper spray on us, it still doesn't relieve the anxious anticipation of when the next attack will be, nor does it stop the nightmarish visions of vicious dogs I get in my head every night as I'm drifting off to sleep. I think it's safe to say that I hate South American dogs.
Needless to say, our week in Ecuador has been stressful. We are on guard at all times, fearing that if we let it down for a minute we'll be taken advantage of given our vulnerability on bicycles. We've only camped twice because we don't feel comfortable sleeping in a tent, worried that we'll be robbed in the middle of the night. We don't sleep soundly becuase we're thinking about all of the frightening and unfriendly happenings from the day. Today we ran into a couple who was heading north and had just cycled through Peru. Unfortunately they didn't have great things to say regarding feeling safe there either. It is not fun bike touring when you're tense at all times, frequently scared, and though trying to enjoy the sport, the landscapes and cultures in a unique way, it's impossible to do when you don't feel safe. Neither of us want to throw in the towel on South America, but the stress finally got to us today. Fortunately we both feel the same way; don't ride for the sake of saying you did it. Ride because you love what you're doing.
We've decided that we'd still like to see some sections of Peru (though not by bike) and once we cross the border tomorrow morning, we're planning on catching a bus and doing some traveling that way. We will likely still do short bike trips in some areas where we feel comfortable and once we get down to southern Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile or northern Argentina, we will continue on our bikes down through Patagonia as we had originally set out to do, in hopes that the landscapes, people and experiences will be more enjoyable than they were in Ecuador.