Kilometers 600 to 867 Pucara, Ecuador
December 1, 2022
After 10 days of rainy, undecided weather and a few shorter morning rides of 50 kms or less, I took advantage of the nicest week of weather this spring has given us by going for a longer ride. I have been searching the maps, watching people’s ‘must do while in Ecuador’ lists and decided to ride south to Pucara, Ecuador. Why? Because it was on the top of a mountain on the way to nowhere else. So why not!
Pucara is just a pinpoint on the map near the top of a mountain south and west of Cuenca. To get there, I have to pinball through Cuenca traffic to get out of town, then brave the two lane highway south to the Loja turnoff, by which time much of the traffic has gone somewhere else. From there, Highway 59 takes traffic from the Cuenca area SW to Machala, a town on the ocean. While there is the advantage of less traffic, the roadway south of the Loja turnoff adds more obstacles to safe passage in the forms of heavy trucks speeding downhill in one direction while creeping uphill in low gear, road crews trimming branches and removing fallen rocks from the mountainsides that line the roadways, and heaved pavement, missing pavement, potholes, speedbumps, animals, bicycles, and many other potential obstacles to moving traffic. You really always need to pay attention to what’s around you, a distraction could mean a crash.
Speed limits are low in Ecuador, and for many reasons. Signage is missing, is often misleading, hasn’t been removed since the road was repaired, hasn’t been put out yet, or something new is waiting just around the next corner. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles will pass at any opportunity, real or imagined, and you may just find two busses or trucks coming side by side at you on a two lane roadway. You have to be ready to use the shoulder for an unmarked third and sometimes fourth lane on an otherwise two lane road. Lane markings are optional, even if they exist. If you are a motorcycle, you are expected to use the breakdown lane so oncoming traffic can use your lane to pass a slow moving vehicle, or for vehicles wanting to pass you. Most motorcycles are small displacement, so vehicle drivers expect a motorcycle to be using the rightmost part of highways as most motorcycles are incapable of maintaining the speed limit. Motorcycles share that space with road debris, rocks, dirt slides, animals, pedestrians, horses, etc. Car and truck drivers are often surprised when a motorcycle has enough power to pass them!
My ride was full of surprises. This is unusual for me as, in the past, I have planned most of my rides and as a result, removed many of the surprises. Ecuador is full of surprises and I am giving up over planning my trips so I can see more of what is out there, rather than simply putting down miles for the sake of riding miles.
Surprise #1. Unusual for me, I wake up late so get out of the apartment later than anticipated. Entering the elevator, the door closes and the power goes out. Nice start to the trip, I’m trapped in the elevator. At least I have water with me so they won’t discover a desiccated body when the power comes back on. There is no emergency lighting, probably because they haven’t changed the battery in years, so the alarm bell doesn’t work either. No one is going to hear me yell. Luckily, the elevator car hadn’t moved yet, so I was able to pry the door open with my fingers, and use the stairs to walk to the basement garage, hoping that this isn’t a portend for the trip.
Surprise #2. The Loncin is a basic bike. One of the few features it has is a low fuel light. Even though it is carbureted with a gravity feed fuel line, the motorcycle doesn’t have a fuel reserve like most carbureted bikes of my past. Rather it has a fuel light, like the fuel injected version of this bike sold in Europe. I know that I’m at 200 kms on the tank when I leave and I want to see where the fuel light comes on, so I bypass several gas stations leaving town, instead checking the fuel light regularly. I know the light works as I’ve seen it in the garage when I turn the key on to start the bike. Unfortunately, I don’t find out that the fuel light is white, small, and cannot be seen in daylight. I run out of gas on a downhill 8 kms past the last gas station. I now know that my max fuel range is about 250kms and I should look for gas around 200 kms. The bike does have a trip meter, so I can keep track of that. As lucky as I was with the elevator earlier, I am lucky again. I have run out of downhill coasting near a rural oil change business and the very kind owner has a bit of gas he can sell me. Eight kms back to the last gas station and I have a full tank having lost only about ½ hour of traveling time.
As I run south, I am losing altitude. Highway 50 goes from Cuenca’s 8200 feet to sea level. I’m not going that far, but I am still in the mountains. The landscape’s flora changes rapidly, from the forested mountains of Cuenca to treeless, but still green landscape further south, to the bare rock mountains where I am going. I am at 3450 feet at the turn from Highway 59 to start my 50km climb to Pucara.
The climb to Pucara is on nice pavement. Narrow and winding, but a fun road. On the way I notice it getting greener and greener. The higher I go, the more farming is evident. I can still see the barren rock wasteland of the surrounding mountains. I am confused about this until I see the accumulated runoff from mountain streams and the wind whipped clouds coming off the lower valleys bringing moisture from the lower valleys to the upper mountain regions. At one point, I’m running through these accumulated clouds.
Surprise #3 comes when I see the word ‘desvio’ painted on the pavement with an arrow pointing to a dirt road. I now know that desvio means detour. No signage, no road blocks. I stayed on the pavement, which pretty quickly turned into an offroad minefield. Good thing I have a dirtbike! Soon enough, I see another desvio painted on the pavement and the other end of the detour. Learn something new every day!
Surprise #4 is just around the corner. In a section of 1.5 lane width narrow roadway, I come up behind a truck slow hauling a very heavy load. No problem, I scoot around. This is only the 3rd vehicle in 25kms I have encountered so when the next slow heavy truck appears in from of me, I go to pass it as well, only to find an ambulance with its siren going coming at me. We all squeezed through that situation that I created, and I write one of those notes to myself to not take anything for granted and to ride with more awareness at all times.
Pucara is next and is a pleasant surprise. Bigger than I anticipated and much higher at 10,400 feet than I anticipated. The road I am traveling essentially circumnavigates this (relatively) lush mountain. The town has an active town square in front of the Catholic church where people are enjoying the sunny day, children are playing games and everyone is enjoying the decorated Christmas outdoor tree. There are several places to eat and I choose one, getting a glass of fresh squeezed mora juice, a slab of pan fried chicken, French fries, cucumber and tomato salad, and rice, all for $4. Basically, as much food as you can put on a 12” plate, for 4 bucks.
It’s after 1pm now and I have two choices to get back to the main highway. I can go back the way I came on the paved road or take an unknown dirt road 50 kms around the other side of the mountain. There is no way to know the conditions of the road ahead of time. My limited Spanish keeps me from asking the locals. I figure, at least it’s downhill, so I take the road less traveled. Many mountain dirt roads start out well graded and maintained, becoming less so as you approach the middle, especially when there aren’t many or any people living out in the middle. The middle could be decent, but is usually pretty rough, sometimes downright scary, sometimes making you wonder if you are truly still on a road. Luck caught me well this time, as the roadway, while narrow and not as well maintained in the middle, was in good condition, for a mountain dirt road. I noticed quite a few houses, people walking and riding horses on the roadway, people sitting and working in their driveways and other signs of civilization. Not so many cars, though. Only 3 pickups and 2 motorcycles.
Surprise #5 and #6 on this road was that on this side of the mountain, the winds drove a lot of moisture laden clouds up the mountain as the sun heated the day below. I’m guessing this is normal as there were quite a few more people living on this side of the mountain vs the other side with the paved roadway. The moisture and rain providing soils to grow crops and grasses to feed animals. Surprise #5 was that the clouds fogged everything in at around 9000 feet and stayed fogged in until around 3500 feet which meant that my visibility was limited to 10 to 15 yards for about 30kms. Surprise #6 was the local bus looming out of the fog at the narrowest, worst part of the roadway. We were unable to pass each other, so I was forced to turn around to a wider place so the bus could pass. I was not expecting a bus on this road. Again, expect anything and be prepared.
At highway 59 again. I am 1000 feet lower in elevation than when I left the highway 15kms further north. I have taken an 80km detour around a mountain and had a lot of fun seeing a new part of the world. In the 15 kms back to my detour’s beginning, I find a hydroelectric dam and its lake as well as a small wind farm providing electricity to the local area.
Surprise #7. Police in the road. A not too unusual sight are police in the road randomly doing vehicle document checks. Today was motorcycle document check. There are a lot of unregistered motorcycles in Ecuador. People make fake paper plates for vehicles and ride them until the vehicle gets confiscated by the police, the vehicle gets too expensive to maintain, or stolen by someone else. If a vehicle goes unregistered for 10 consecutive years, it cannot legally be registered again – so much for that awesome barn find! But some will buy that motorcycle for peanuts and run it on the road until it gets confiscated. They pay a small fine and look for another. They will often ride off road only motorcycles on the street in the same manner. For me, this wasn’t a problem, my bike is properly registered and I have the papers in my pocket. The officer, however, sees my face, hears my halting Spanish, smiles and waves me through without any checks. I’m told this is part of the “don’t mess with foreign tourists, they are spending money here” plan, or simply, the “I don’t want to deal with someone who doesn’t speak Spanish”. When I get to a certain traffic circle in Cuenca, I see the local police there loading up several seized motorcycles into a truck. They aren’t checking any more papers, so I just ride by.
My plan after coming back to the main highway after Pacara was to take the river road on the West side of the river back to the north. I cut this part of the trip as I was getting tired and would miss getting home before dark. I will go back another day.
I am now back out of the wet farmland and in the dry, rocky high mountain desert. The rest of my run back to Cuenca is surprise free. I have traveled 250kms (155 miles) in a total of 6.5 hours, with 1.25 hours of stopped time. About 80kms of that was at understandably low speed because of road conditions and fog. Even the main highways and autopistes don’t extend themselves to fast travel. Traveling in Ecuador takes time. Safe travel takes even more time. There is no way to safely speed up travel times. Take the time to see what there is to see. Take the road less traveled. Stop, look, see, take pictures.