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.

 

Guatemala

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We crossed into Guatemala via the 190 from San Cristobal Mexico. We were a little apprehensive about whether it would be difficult or not, we wondered if there would be “helpers” hassling us to use their service, how long would it take, did we have all of the right documentation, etc.. etc. However our worry was in vein because at the end of the day it went pretty smoothly. We had to stop in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc a few kilometres from the boarder on the Mexican side to cancel our Mexican import permit for the bike and get our passports stamped which only took about 20 minutes. Between Ciudad Cuauhtémoc and the border are rolling tropical green covered hills but with the stench of burning rubbish in the air. We soon saw the cause, there is a huge area where rubbish is being dumped over the side of one of the hills and multiple fires were burning in it. I guess that road doesn’t see much tourist traffic. The boarder post in Guatemala was smaller than expected and not busy at all. We rode up to it and stopped behind some cones in the middle of the road. We got off the bike and it was fumigated then we moved it over to the immigration office and went inside. No queues or anything we were in and out within a couple of minutes. After receiving the stamps all that was left was to import the bike. A few metres away from the immigration office is the SAT office which looks after that. The lady there was watching Lord of  the Rings on TV, she asked for the usual documents including the cancelled permit from Mexico which she used to copy of the values into her system which was good because it meant I didn’t have to explain anything in Spanish. She made a few photocopies and around half an hour later we were ready for the road with import permit in hand, we put the boot down and made to the city of Huehuetenango just as darkness set in.

Our aim was Lake Atitlan and Huehuetenango was just an overnight stop. We stayed in a small hotel on the edge of town, there didn’t seem to be many tourists around at all. Another thing that wasn’t around was WiFi, for the first time on the trip while staying in a city I could turn on my phone and not pick up any networks at all it was great, I felt envious that the people still live without WiFi everywhere. We had dinner at a small simple family run restaurant where the children stared at us over the counter and if we looked over at them the hid and giggled. I hadn’t come across this reaction before in Mexico and it obviously gave the impression that not too many tourists visit this area.

On our way out of Huehuetenango the next day heading for Lake Atitlan we were dumbstruck by how good the road was compared to what we had traveled on the day before. It was brand new, freshly tarmacked and very curvy with hardly any other traffic on it. I think it was called the 7W. After some time the road did deteriorated and we began passing through medium sized towns. Most of them don’t have any sort of bypass system so the main road goes straight through the centre of town. This makes for hairy driving and a lot of traffic, at one point we came across a traffic jam caused by two 18 wheelers which met going in opposite directions and had millimetres between them it took about twenty minutes for them to inch past each other with the help of several men wearing high viz jackets, armed with whistles and waving their arms around. It seemed like total chaos but somehow the Guatemalans are able to understand what is going on. Either that or they were just ignoring the guys, hard to tell.

We made it to Panajachel at Lake Atitlan where we saw a volcano for the first time in our lives. It had the distinct uniform triangular shape and rose high above the surrounding hills. Central America is dotted with them, I knew this at the time but when we turned a corner and saw one for the first time I was still startled. It’s funny how quickly you get used to them, at the moment we’re in El Salvador, it’s only two weeks later and I’ve already begun not paying attention to them anymore. Panajachel is small and tourist trodden, it was nice to see but we were ready to move on by the next day.

We decided to try to find the back road to Antigua from Panajachel, it looked doable on google maps and OSM but after an hour of being misled by the GPS we gave up. It turned out our maps software had a road on it which was actually a rock filled river with water flowing in it. Eventually we arrived in Antigua and ended up spending about 12 days there. We enrolled in Spanish lessons which lasted 4 hours a day of on one tuition, it worked out something like 100 dollars for 20 hours of one on one per person which is great value. We stayed in a student house run by the school which we shared with four or five other students and two local girls who ran the house and cooked the meals. All in all the Spanish lessons were useful, I never expected to come out fluent after one week of learning but now I can certainly better understand what people are saying to me. I was mainly learning phrases, numbers, basic verbs, and how to conjugate them but every now and then my teacher and I would drop the learning and talk about Central American culture, customs, and history instead which was equally as useful as learning some Spanish. Another plus was that next door to the school was a restaurant called Toko Baru run by Eduardo from Holland which made great curries, it was nice to have cheap high quality food for a change and not a salsa massacre on a plate. Nine times out of ten when you order local food it’s smothered in red salsa sauce, even if it’s a ham and cheese omelet for breakfast with a fruit side on the same plate unless you specifically ask them not to they will dump salsa sauce over the lot of it.

I decided to use our down time to service the rear shock absorber, it was shockingly easy to remove it from the bike which I did while the bike was parked in the living room of our student house. I had already stopped into Moto Tours Guatemala www.mototoursguatemala.com who are based just down the road from the school, they offer off road tours and help to any adventure bikers passing through as I found out. I met Jose and Rodrigo who were an immense help, between them they rang around their contacts and dealers asking if any could service a WP shock absorber. In the end the Husaberg dealer in Guatemala City Revolution Bikes said they could do it. Apparently it is the only place between Mexico and Columbia that has the special machine needed to service WP shocks so it was quite lucky that I decided to do it in Antigua. A couple of days later I went back to Moto Tours and I got a lift into Guatemala City with Jose to drop off the shock.

I learned from my Spanish teacher that Guatemala City can be quite dangerous, he had been robbed around three times last year at red lights by thieves on a motorbike. They pull up beside you and the passenger points a gun in the window. Not much you can do other than comply. He also told me that the city bus drivers have to pay a tax to the gangs who control the territory they drive through. Failure to pay or not pay enough has led to the deaths of 300 bus drivers over the past couple of years. So I was quite happy to be driving in a car with someone who knew the city.

Everything went smoothly with the shock service, it had an oil change and a nitrogen recharge. When I re-installed it on the bike it felt like new again. I think suspension is like eyesight you don’t notice it deteriorating over time until it’s really bad. Luckily I didn’t wait until it was really bad and serviced it out of precaution but I could still notice a huge difference afterwards.

Antigua was the original Spanish colonial capital city of Guatemala but it was devastated twice withing a hundred years by earthquakes so the decision was made to move the capital to Guatemala City, 40 minutes drive away. Antigua is filled with tourists, restaurants and souvenir shops. It has cobble stoned streets and is surrounded by volcanoes one of which is active. It’s called Fuego and plumes of ash pump out of it constantly. If you’re lucky you can even see lava shooting out at night. I don’t know what the Spanish were thinking when they decided to build their capital city here. In general it’s a very nice place to visit but does not represent the average Guatemalan city.

One day after Spanish lessons we visited a Mayan town about half an hour away from Antigua with our teachers. The local people there worshiped Maximon with voodoo style offering ceremonies in which they burned cigars and threw alcohol inside a church which looked a little bit like a Catholic church. On the church walls were plaques from people thanking Maximon for the new car or motorbike they received or for other good fortunes. It was interesting to witness and nice to see the real Guatemala after a week in Antigua.

There is a huge difference between Mexico and Guatemala, population density seems much higher in Guatemala and you don’t see as much wealth in the form of new cars or fancy houses like you do in Mexico. Not everyone has a mobile phone and an internet connection is pretty hard to find outside of tourist centres. Most startling for me was to see so many children playing outside, actual real playing. Like motorbike suspension and eyesight you don’t notice the lack of children in the streets playing until you witness it in original form again. Hide and seek, football, and randomly chasing each other around the streets are still top on the things to do list for Guatemalan children. No video games or apps to be seen for miles.

At the moment we’re in El Salvador, we came here straight after Antigua. It was only a two hour drive to the border but it took us four hours to do the border crossing. Anyway more about that in the next post…