Cycling out of Cuenca, i met Maggie and Bryan, a canadian couple cycling south as well. We met again on top of the first climb out of town where i had stopped for lunch. While eating, a guy came scrambling out of the bushes from the other side of the road and from what i gathered from the conversation he had with the lady of the roadside kitchen, he had started on foot from Cuenca at five in the morning. This was only the first of many pilgrims we saw along the way to Loja where the most important festival of the year in honour of the ‘virgen del cisne’ was about to start soon.
We were on the lookout for a spot to camp when we passed a hacienda in front of which Javier was waving at us. A cyclist himself and competing in earlier years, he now catered for the pilgrims passing along the road, keeping a fire going throughout the night and having some food and hot drinks available. He invited us to camp at his place, an offer we gladly accepted. A perfect campspot beneath pine trees next to the house, with a bathroom and a nice indoor place decorated with all sorts of antique things, from bicycles to radios.
Many animals were roaming around. Next to all the horses, a donkey seemed to feel out of place and was looking for some company.
The next morning i left early with plans to meet up with the two at a hostal in Loja. Having heard it from Maggie and Bryan, a pilgrim and other cyclists along the road confirmed that there is a dirt road following the river on the last part to Loja and thus avoiding another climb and the traffic along the main road.
The atmosphere among the pilgrims was more relaxed as the the goal was near. Even better was the provisions handed out by people along the road. Some even made their way out of town with a pick up truck loaded with pots and everything one needs for a proper lunch to come and greet the arrivals.
Hearing mixed things about how difficult it would be to find accommodation in Loja, i tried it with only slim hopes. It seemed the pilgrims had already taken over the town and at least all affordable accommodation was booked out. So i cycled out of town and took the turn-off to the Podacarpus National Park. It was a beautiful ride into the park while the sun was setting behind the ridge on the other side of the valley.
There are places to sleep at the refugio, but as the park was closing when i arrived, I pitched my tent next to the outdoor kitchen. Rusty, but still a nice hangout for the evening.
The next day started with cycling the dirt road back to the entrance and then the downhill continued until Malacatos, where i stopped for lunch before making my way to Vilcabamba.