A Cuenca Triple Shot: The Xtremo bike race on the cobblestones, Hiking the Amaru Zoo and some swinging thrills over Cuenca
Text by Scott Fugit
Photos by Dee Fugit
There’s still something special about the old fashioned photograph. Although this is undeniably the video era, the attraction of a frozen instant in time cannot be denied. Of course, this is age related. We remember terms like f-stop, depth of field and composition. Still pictures also require thought from the viewer, a forced expectation of what happens before and after the image. In a photogenic city like Cuenca, the subjects are endless. Once again, Ecuador takes us back in time — to when photographs challenged our imagination.
It’s known in the sport of mountain biking as a yard sale. This happens when a rider crashes so hard, his gear is scattered around him on the ground, like there’s a sale on. Luckily it didn’t happen, although there was certainly plenty of opportunity. The event was the Bicicleta Xtremo, a fast paced bike race on the old, cobbled streets of Cuenca.
Rider categories ranged from juniors to experts, and up to fully sponsored pro riders with the latest gear like big travel full suspension frames, light race wheels and top end hydraulic brakes. The course loop took them along the Rio Tomebamba on 3 de Noviembre, then up the horseshoe climb at Benigno Malo, before the sprint down Calle Larga toward the Hermano Miguel Escalinata, where most of the crowd gathered. I’m told it’s a special feeling going off the top edge of the 90 steps in this tricky descent. One rider was consistently clearing a full flight of 18 stairs — a vertical drop of almost 10 feet — and then landing on a flat stone surface.
First-time competitor Brian, a Cuenca expat with 2,500 bike kilometers logged since arriving last year from Arizona, called the staircase descent, “The thrill of a lifetime. There’s so much vibration, it’s hard to see anything. It makes it tough to control the bike. You have to be at the right speed when you go over the top, because you can only brake on the landing areas between stairs.” He adds, “If you touch the brakes when you’re on the steps, you’re in for a bad night.”
The large, enthusiastic crowd cheered both tentative young riders and the big air Go-Pros. With the bright lights glowing under a dark Andean sky, Cuenca’s beautiful stone architecture formed the perfect stage for some high end cycling action. Xtreme mountain biking has come of age in Ecuador.
The Amaru Zoo, on the slopes above the Hospital Del Rio in southeast Cuenca, is an experience that will leave you permanently reflective. The increased $5 cab fare hinted at one reason few gringos see it all. There seems to be more uphill than down. Bring your best fitness level. It’s a two to four hour hike on narrow trails, which are often covered in deep undergrowth. Follow the red arrows because it’s not always easy to tell where you are. Reaching the top is worth the effort.
The Amaru Zoo has a lot to experience, much of it above 10,000 feet. Resting is easy when you can stop at each incredible view of Cuenca, that appear regularly. Watch feeding time in glimpses as you hide your eyes. A live pollo, acting thirsty, is dropped into the crocodile pen near the plant covered pond. Lions get a wheelbarrow full of smelly cow chunks. Chicken wire strung between rough cut polls is the cage of choice. We saw several interesting animals that were on our side of the fence.
Opinions vary on Amaru, especially among expats. It helps to know that most animals arrive there as rescues from other failing zoos. Many were abandoned. Several of the large raptors and condors have been injured, making this semi-wild refuge their last option. Amaru Zoologico Cuenca is a challenging hike, a close up wildlife safari and the perfect menagerie of contrast and culture that is Ecuador. Experience it if you can.
From the famous Mirador de Turi Church sitting high atop Cuenca, the incredible view is only the foreplay. Follow the narrow winding staircase up through the stone castle turret hanging from the hillside. Near the top is a little tienda of thrills called Aventuri, that could only exist in a country free of licensing inspections, liability insurance, litigation lawyers or those pesky OSHA-type safety regulations.
Un dolar gets you in the gate. Kids R free. There’s a half pipe tube slide, a hanging bridge to test your balance, a Tarzan rope setup, and a zip line for the little ones.
The highlight has to be the Xtrem “Screamer,” a huge arc swing that provides a pilot’s view of Cuenca — without the airplane. For only two additional dollars, you buy a serious adrenalin rush. The rigging looks to be from the neighborhood hardware store. Ignore any cable rust you may notice. The swing is suspended from two massive Eucalyptus trees on the edge of a steep slope, with lines that must be 80 feet long. Sure, the support tree on the left looks to be dead, but don’t let that bother you, the suspense just adds to the thrill.
Be sure and visit the baño first.