A quick 40-mile blast down the PanAmerican highway to Latacunga saw us checking into a hotel in the centre of the small colonial town just before lunch…the earliest yet!! Our trusty bible, the Footprint Guide to South America, thoroughly recommended a picturesque ride/drive near Latacunga, so (sans panniers – faster bikes – woohoo!!) we set off. Fifteen minutes and 3500m up into the spectacular scenery we were rapidly boring of the tarmac roads – we’ve got enduro bikes, dammit! – and diverted from the ‘recommended’ route onto a dirt track winding off round the side of the mountain. The route apparently took offence to Will’s initial complaint that ‘it’s not challenging enough’ and we were soon scrabbling for grip along little more than a farm track clinging to the side of massive valleys, fissured by weathering and covered in gravel and sand and clawing it’s way through some of the most rural and remote parts of the Andes we’ve yet seen. Families living in adobe huts and farming dusty squares of 45-degree hillside pause and stare as we thump past, trailing a roiling cloud of dust from the rear wheels. It seems like the entire family is involved in the farming…as we approach one of the tiny villages, a brown and wizened woman creaks up the slope and moves two tethered llamas from the road…children drop tools and bound across from one side of the straggling crops to the other to watch us creep tentatively around a dodgy downhill hairpin. Contrasted against the somewhat bleak hillside, the ponchos worn by the local women are incredibly striking – llama wool dyed a bright pink creates bright dots of colour in a mostly beige landscape.
Confidence growing, we push the bikes harder, back tyres spinning, front tyres sliding out in the sandy tracks as we make slow and dusty progress, seeing some incredible views out across the colossal valleys and gradually getting more and more lost. A dead end in a remote village, locals arguing amongst themselves and offering twenty conflicting opinions on which road was right thoroughly confused us and we head off in what we think is kinda the correct direction, now running out of daylight, still lost in the Andes and beginning to wish for our luggage complete with tent and cooking gear… GPS maps are pretty much useless, only showing an approximation of the route that doesn’t really appear on our small scale paper map, and we resort to asking locals for a route. The road widens and occasional trucks, one spectating as Matt wearily drags his bike out of a ditch on the inside of a hairpin, give us an indication that we might be close to the main road. Dogs harry and…well…’dog’ us as we pass remote farms, disaster striking as one runs parallel to Will’s front wheel before suicidally throwing itself in front of it…Will goes down on the right hand side in a cloud of gravel, dust and windscreen shrapnel – thankfully the only damage was a few bruises and battle scars for the bike (they’re incredible machines) – even the damn dog was apparently ok. Eventually the gravelly track grows cobbles, and we figure we’re on the right track…two hours later we claw our way out of the mountains and down towards the PanAmerican highway – we know the way from here and eventually pull into the hotel carpark, dehydrated and shattered from the tough roads…120 miles, seven hours with no stops – ouch.
Next day and we’re up early, muscles aching from the day before. Today is a long one…nearly 500km (apologies for changing units, blame the metric map!) to Loja in the south of Ecuador, ready for the border run to Peru. The usual stunning scenery accompanies us along smooth tarmac road. We discover that locals believe that all destinations are either one, three or twelve hours away…although it’s hard to estimate times when the roads are perfect tarmac one minute and then a potholed nightmare the next. We’ve learnt to take ‘poor road surface’ signs very seriously…it’s not unknown for a beautiful tarmac road to turn into a gravel surface around a blind corner…a bit of a nightmare when you’re approaching at crusing speed, bike leaning over as you anticipate another sweeping curve only to have to cram on the brakes, stand the bike up and desperately avoid a weaving front-end slide before hitting the gravel patch. The scenery is incredible, roads zigzagging up and down mountainside patchworked with fields – in Ecuador they seem to (over) farm EVERY available square inch of land, even when it’s bordering on the vertical.
Matt’s bike drinking fuel at an alarming rate thanks to the altitude led to a ‘i’ve just hit reserve’ moment at about sixty miles short of our normal range and thus in the middle of the Andes…not a great place to try and find petrol. Thankfully we coughed and spluttered into a tiny mountain hamlet where an ancient chap, muffled by a star-wars-esque gasmask, sold us four gallons of fuel – enough to get us into Loja…or so we thought. The interminable roads wound on and on through mountains turning purple with dusk…Matt’s bike coughed to a standstill having gulped through nearly eight more litres…thankfully Will’s bike, running a little leaner thanks to his Cunning Fuel Tap Plan ™, had just enough spare to scrape both bikes into the first fuel station available on pretty much nothing but fumes. Luck held once more as we stopped to consider accomodation options outside a very nice hotel – the manager noticed the bikes, came out and offered Matt preferencial rates based on the fact we knew (of) a famous trans-america biker – Ricardo Rocca – $20 for the night including hot water and soft beds…deal!