Ecuador

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The border crossing into Ecuador from Colombia was a breeze. We stopped on the Colombian side to get our passports stamped out and I handed in the import permit for the bike. Five minutes later we were on our way to Ecuador, I prepared for the normal onslaught of “helpers” but there were none to be seen. After parking the bike we had our passports stamped at immigration and I imported the bike which only took half an hour. The girl in the customs office never asked for any photocopies either, instead she took photos of my documents with a digital camera, Ecuador was making a good impression right away. The whole border crossing procedure for both sides was all completed within an hour, a breath of fresh air after Central America.

Ecuador’s landscape is as diverse as Colombia’s except the Ecuador is smaller so the changes in scenery seem to happen more quickly and in addition Ecuador has a lot of volcanoes. From the point where we crossed the border into Ecuador we traveled south through Ibarra and bypassed Quito heading straight for the Pacific coast and a town called Puerto Lopez. It took us three days to get there, rode through the mountains to new heights of 4000m where I had to use my heated grips again for the first time since the USA in November. We had heard that there is an island close to Puerto Lopez called Isla de la Plata which hosts multiple species of bird wildlife and Franziska thought it would be nice to visit for some photography so that was basically our main reason for visiting Puerto Lopez. The other reason was that we were looking for somewhere to burn time before returning to Quito to meet up with my cousin Asa who was coincidently in town on business from London but wouldn’t be available to meet for another few days due to work.

Puerto Lopez turned out to be a pretty dirty and dusty pseudo tourist town. It became blatantly obvious after a few days of riding through Ecuador that they have a problem with people littering everywhere. Motorways as well as back roads, large cities and small towns are dotted with signage saying don’t litter or don’t throw your rubbish out of the car window. Fair play to the government for trying to tackle the problem but it still exists as we found out multiple times when riding behind a car and rubbish started flying out of the window and bouncing along the road. Some made the effort to pack it all in one large bag before throwing it out which made it more of a hazard for a motorbike. It just strikes me as odd that it suddenly becomes a problem when you cross the border into Ecuador. We never saw any carry on like that in Colombia or signs telling motorists not to litter.

Anyway back to Isla de la Plata, it was interesting but I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to visit it unless you’re passing through Puerto Lopez. It is sold as a bird paradise on the tourist leaflets and states that the Albatross nests there. We found out later that this statement is technically true, the Albatross does nest there, two couples nest there during some months in the year but when they do the island is closed to visitors. So obviously we didn’t see any but we did see the island’s two other bird species the frigate bird and the blue footed booby.

As well as being dusty and dirty Puerto Lopez was also boiling hot with a lot of mosquitos, it was 36 degrees Celsius as far as I remember and I had 36 mosquito bites to go with it. We stuck it for a couple of days and then started heading back inland towards the mountains. Next on the agenda before visiting Quito was a visit to the tallest active volcano in the world, Cotopaxi. The nearest town to Cotopaxi is Machachi so we rode there and searched for accommodation, Machachi is definitely not on any of the tourist trails so hotels and hostels are at a minimum. We struck out with a bargain room at what seemed to be a funeral parlor hotel combination. The downstairs was open plan with rows seating for people to come and take part in ceremonies while the upstairs had around 10 hotel rooms for mourners who had to travel long distances to get there. Probably two of the best night’s sleep we’d had in long time. When we decided to visit Cotopaxi we were disappointed to be turned away at the park entrance the ranger told us that motorbikes are not allowed into the park because they bother the birds. I wouldn’t mind but they allow cars in no problem, I suppose somewhere there is a bureaucrat or environmental activist that really doesn’t like motorbikes. This was the first national park on our trip that we have been denied entry into in any country. It was also a little frustrating as we had driven on unpaved roads for an hour just to get to the entrance.

 

Another odd difference that exists between Ecuador and Colombia is the coffee. In Colombia the coffee is great, when you order a black coffee there you get a brewed cup of the local crop. When you order a coffee in Ecuador they bring you a cup of hot water and a jar of Nescafe! This happened to me on several occasions but to be fair never in Quito it was always in smaller towns around the country. But still, you have some of the best coffee in the world growing just north of the border and you serve Nescafe?

After the Cotopaxi attempt we set our sights on Quito to meet with Asa. For the next 5 days we explored Quito together, ate well, drank well, went to a local football game, and visited the equator line tourist attraction called Intinan Solar Museum. There is a huge monument marking the equator which you can also visit but the funny thing is that it isn’t actually on the equator. After GPS was invented they realised they had missed the mark by 200m to the south so the Intinan Solar Museum is now able to boast having the “real” equator line running through it. They run a little tour explaining a bit about the native Indian tribes of the area and facts about the equator. We learned how the natives had a custom of making shrunken human heads and wearing them as status symbols. Usually the victims were enemies defeated in battle, they would promptly have their head removed then the skull removed from the head leaving only the skin and scalp this would then be shrunk by a process of steaming and later filling it with hot stones. Where did they come up with this idea?

Quito is quite a nice city to visit it seemed less hectic than other large cities that we’ve been to and it has a very international collection of restaurants to choose from. A nice break from the Latin America standard of a plate consisting of white rice, a small portion of salad, and a piece of chicken or beef. In fact we went to the same Indian restaurant three out of the five nights we were there because we enjoyed it so much, it was so nice to taste some spices and flavor in our food again.

We left Quito with another biker, Greg from Minnesota. The last time we met was in Bogota and before that Costa Rica and El Salvador. He had caught up with us due to our detour out to the coast and waiting to meet up with Asa. As he has the same general direction as us we decided to ride together for a while. Next stop was the town of Banos which was nothing too exciting. It is one of those tourist towns which offers mountain biking tours and rafting tours to backpackers looking for the extreme experience. All good if you’re just visiting Ecuador but as we’ve been through Central America and Colombia already we have seen it all before. San Gil in Colombia and La Fortuna in Costa Rica come to mind. One novelty that we found interesting was something labelled the world’s scariest swing or something to that effect. Someone hung a swing from a tree at the top of a mountain about 2000m high and you can swing in it for a dollar. The view is supposed to be amazing but we wouldn’t know because the day we visited it the whole place was surrounded by a cloud.

Banos was really just a stopover on the way to our real next destination Chimborazu which is a dormant volcano and the highest point on the planet. That’s right the highest point is not actually Mt Everest if you want to stand at the closest point on Earth to space it is in Ecuador at Chimborazu. The reason is that the Earth is not a perfect sphere and it bulges in the middle around the equator, the radius of the Earth measured from the core at the equator is actually around 21km thicker than the radius at the poles. Taking that into account the summit of Chimborazu is around 2.5 kilometres closer to space than Mt Everest. So obviously we had to go there.

We rode into the carpark at Chimborazu at 4300m and were told yet again that motorbikes are not allowed to go further into the park because they bother the wildlife. Who came up with this rule? Meanwhile cars and pick-up trucks are driving up and down the road we are not allowed drive on up to the mountain lodge at 4800m which we had hoped to get to. So we settled for 4300m, it was pretty cold and the peak was obscured by cloud except for about five minutes when the wind seemed to clear an opening. When it did we ran for a good spot to take a picture which was a bad idea because we were at 4300m and the air was thin. It took about ten minutes to catch our breath again after a ten second run.

Photographic Impressions of Ecuador

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With Chimborazu ticked off the list we set our sights on Peru and began riding south west towards the lower coastal plains of Ecuador. Within three hours we descended from 4300m to 150m and the temperature increased from around 8 degrees Celsius to 30-35 degrees. The landscape at lower altitudes near to the coast is packed with banana plantations and looks very similar to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica and Panama. We rested for two nights in two separate towns on our way to the border with Peru. On the second night we stayed in a small mountain town called Celica, I only mention it because of our experience trying to leave Celica the next day was let’s say interesting. We checked into a cheap hotel and when we asked about parking for the motorbikes the owner brought us to a gated car park across the street. She said it didn’t belong to the hotel but we could park there and it would be included in the price that she would pay the owner. Everything looked fine so we went ahead and booked the room and went to eat some food, rice, a bit of salad, and piece of meat of course.

The next morning when we were packing the bikes an old lady approached us in the carpark and asked us for money for parking the bikes there. We explained that we were with the hotel and it was included in the price. Actually Greg said that to her because his Spanish is better but the strange thing is she just ignored him. She asked again for the money, and again and again and again. Greg told her she just has to speak with the hotel (5 metres away) and they will clear up everything. She walked off and paced around mumbling and then continued to ask for the money again. We figured out that she is the cleaning lady and we reckoned that the owner had asked her to collect money from the people that own the motorbikes before they leave not knowing that we were staying in the hotel. No matter what we said she would not believe us, at one point she walked outside the gate and stood there for a minute or two (now only 3 metres away from entering the hotel entrance). I could see her the whole time, then when she walked back in she said she had been over to the hotel and they said that we had to pay which was a total lie. Don’t worry we are quite capable of distinguishing crazy from old and frail and this lady was definitely the former. Our continued refusal to pay her and her refusal to believe us and talk with the hotel led her to move aside momentarily and have a conversation with herself out loud kind of like Golem in lord of the rings. Luckily for us she did this conversation Golem style because we heard her say “Yes I’m going to close the gates and lock them in”. As soon as we heard that Greg who was almost ready started the bike and rode over to the entrance and stopped in it then I followed and we both rode outside. We rode off to the tune of her threatening to call the police on us. What a lovely start to the day.

The border to Peru was only an hour away, we rode through some fantastic scenery with winding roads. It was quite common to turn a corner and one lane of the road would be covered by debris from a landslide caused by heavy rain or there would be an animal standing right there chewing on something then dart off at the sight of us. We had chosen an off the beaten track border crossing in the mountains to avoid the crowds and the heat of the coast.

The last thing we did before leaving Ecuador was to get a full tank of cheap fuel, regular cost around 40 US cent a litre (or $1.50 a gallon) probably the cheapest fuel we have had on the whole trip. The border crossing was almost as easy as the Colombia Ecuador crossing the only thing that delayed us was that the official entering our data into the computer on the Peruvian side was super slow at it. He was an older colleague of two, the younger one was standing behind him and apologising to us through facial expressions every now and then because the process was taking so long. We also had to buy insurance for Peru which cost 35USD for one month as opposed to 8USD for a car. That is the most we have paid for insurance for one month on the whole trip. In under two hours we were out of Ecuador and in Peru. We had been warned by many Colombian riders that Peruvian drivers are the worst in South America, we took these warnings with a pinch of salt but didn’t ignore them so we rode on cautiously towards the low plains and about 1000km of hot sandy desert ahead of us.

Right now we’re in the town of Huaraz in Peru and the plan is to ride south through Lima towards Nazca, then inland to Cusco to visit some Inca ruins and after that onwards to Bolivia. Unfortunately yesterday when we were riding off road my rear shock packed in and all of the shock oil leaked out. This is a direct result of the “service” done to the rear shock absorber back in Guatemala City. Normally the nitrogen should be recharged in the shock absorber with a special tool but the service agent in Guatemala didn’t have the right tool so he drilled a hole in the pressure chamber and installed a Schrader valve which is a valve like the ones found on a car tyre for pumping it up. Ever since this bodge job which I was never consulted over the pressure chamber has leaked the pressurized gas back out over th period of a few days to a week. So yesterday when we were riding on unpaved roads the shock absorber oil found a way out somehow and I’m presuming it had something to do with there not being enough pressure in the chamber to keep it inside the shock. We were 50km from paved roads when it happened so I had to ride extremely slowly to try not to damage the suspension anymore by bottoming it out. I have to say though I am impressed with how well the bike still performs just relying on the spring alone. With two of us on the bike and all of our luggage we were still able to ride another 150km without much trouble although slower and more cautious of speed bumps. Next stop is Lima where I’ll search for someone to fix it…. Let’s see what happens.