Where's the road gone?
The seasons finally caught up with us in Ecuador, with rain 28 out of the 30 days we were in the country. Just as well we bought those waterproofs!
The Peru - Ecuador border crossing was tiny; no more than a few huts and a barrier. For the first time in South America, a border guard asked us for a 'fee'. "Got a receipt?" we asked. He fuffled with some papers and looked at the floor. "No," he mumbled. "Off you go."
Namballe - La Balsa border crossing
The main road from the border
Road to Vilcabamba
The main road from La Balsa was small and rough. Grass grew in the centre but mud soon took over. We slid our way along and were stopped at another barrier so soldiers with big guns could check our papers and have a chat.
Despite the road conditions and intermittent rain, the ride to Vilcabamba was a cracker; spectacular views and testing riding, what more could you want?
Arriving in Vilcabamba just before dark (as we have a habit of doing) we met American John sitting in the plaza. We got talking and discovered he happened to be staying in the hostel we'd had recommended, Rendez-vous. With directions and an arrangement to meet later for a beer, we set off, checked in and parked Bertha amongst the plants and flowers.
Vilcabamba is famous for the longevity of its inhabitants, many of whom reportedly live to be over 100. For this reason perhaps, many ex-pats have chosen it as their new home. The longevity is mostly attributed to a life of hard work, lots of walking and a low-calorie, mostly vegetarian diet. Maybe not what the ex-pats had in mind!
It was a very relaxing place with good walks nearby and delicious food for sale in the many restaurants. John became a friend and we shared meals and chats, especially about motorcycle travel as he was once a keen rider and is thinking about it once again.
Em and John
We also met Jane and Sue, two intrepid women who've been on many adventurous trips together since they met on an overland trip in a Land-Rover from Cape Town to London in 1972. They were great fun and we enjoyed their company very much.
Intrepid travellers Sue and Jane
All too soon, it was time to leave. It was a lovely few days, despite the rain which fell on a daily basis. Yes, we knew it was the rainy season, but we didn't expect it to be quite so rainy!
Loja Cool Cops
We spent the night in Loja on our way North to Cuenca where it was raining even harder. Holing up in our room, we switched on the telly and hoped our clothes would soon dry out. Waterproofs are only good for so long on a bike, then the wetness finds its way in, somehow....
At least the rain makes it all lovely and green...
Ecuador, and Cuenca in particular, is famous for its Panama hats. Made from a palm which grows in the lowlands, the hats can take months at a time to make. We checked out a local factory and watched them being made. Of course we were tempted into trying some on, and then we surprised ourselves by buying... six... (well, they were cheap!) before sending them home.
Hats for sale
It was in Cuenca that Hame noticed the brake pads needed replacing. He thought they'd get us to Colombia where we'd find replacements, however all the recent mud had taken its toll. With no pads available in Ecuador, Hame resorted to local methods, having them re-lined by a local frenos mechanic. And at US$7.50, who was complaining! Mmm, more on that later!
Back on the road we expected to arrive in Banos after a long day's ride. We might have made it but for the landslides. The Pan Americana was completely obliterated at one point and not even Bertha could get through.
With some sketchy directions for a diversion via roads not on our map we headed off into a valley. Another landslide stopped us but this time Hame was able to squeeze past the machines before the other cars.
Land slide? What land slide?
It was still raining and I, wishing I'd bought rubber gloves like Hame, designed my own out of fetching blue and white plastic bags. It was only later we discovered Ecuador's Prime Minister, Correa, had declared a state of emergency in Ecuador because of all the flooding.
Not exactly Goretex...
We rejoined the Pan-Am as darkness fell, stopping in Riobamba at the wonderfully named 'Hotel Whymper'. No, not some dodgy love-motel, but a respectable establishment named after Englishman Edward Whymper, the first person to scale Volcano Chimborazo (6267m) in 1880.
We peeled off our wet layers and headed out to eat. Now, there's only so much chicken and rice you can eat so things like pizza become sought-after foods. In Riobamba, we found pizza which could rival any made in Italy itself, so we ate loads.
It was a short ride to Banos where we'd arranged to meet up again with cyclist Grant and his girlfriend, Adeline. Banos is famous for its hot baths and the nearby volcano, Tungurahua. Tungurahua has been smoking away and erupting fairly regularly for the last 1300 years.
Room with a view
We spent a lovely few days soaking in the hot pools, walking in the hills, playing backgammon and eating a lot with Grant, Adeline, Aaron and Kate, who we'd met briefly in Cuenca.
Hame and his new found friends
Through a series of coincidences, we met Carlos who owns a piece of land with great views of the volcano. We asked him if he'd mind if we camped up there and he said it was fine.
Carlos has a small house, a treehouse with great views of the hills and the volcano, and a swing which swung out over a steep drop. We pitched camp and had a great couple of days cooking on the fire, chatting and volcano watching. On the second afternoon we were awarded with some fantastic views of Tungurahua smoking away.
Carlos told us that when Tungurahua erupted in July 2006, he donned his hard hat, put on a mask, grabbed his walkie-talkie, and sat under his tree-house to watch the show. I asked him if he was afraid but he simply replied that he had faith in God and that He would tell him whether or not he would live. I think I'd have run.
Of course, it had rained most of the night so we said our farewells to our friends and waited a while for the tent to dry before we packed it up. The day's ride took us down the route of the waterfalls, great big gorges and lots of falls. The road then descended into the Amazon region - from green forest we found ourselves in thick lush jungle, with tropical rain to match. The road was made of big chunky riverstones which were a so-and-so to ride on, but as ever Hame got us safely there.
We arrived in Misahualli to find monkeys in the plaza and the lazy River Napo gliding by, en route to the Amazon some 500km further inland. We got a room with a river view and went in search of something other than chicken and rice.
Room with a view 2
A Dutch couple in a huge truck invited us to join their group for a tour. We spent the day in a narrow boat, downriver to an animal rescue and rehabilitation centre and back upriver to a small museum about the indigenous people in the area.
Grant and Adeline arrived that evening and we enjoyed a few drinks with the Dutch overlanders and some Austrians in a VW van, whilst the sandflies munched our ankles and the monkeys wandered past.
In Banos, Hame and I had the rather scary realisation that the rest of our trip can easily be counted in weeks, not months or years. Fourteen of them, in fact. For various reasons we're heading home to the UK from Houston, Texas in June, but it has always seemed miles off in the future. Suddenly, it seemed closer - and we're still down here....
We decided to get a more on, or at least attempt to! On the way North we stopped in Tena, the centre of rafting and kayaking in Ecuador. Hamish took a couple of days' kayaking lessons. Bruised and battered by being constantly tipped out of a kayak, Hame nevertheless enjoyed his lessons immensley. Tempted though he was to take further lessons, we decided to push on, our June deadline appearing ever-nearer
Upright for once!
We met Grant and Adeline a few times for dinner. One of these dinners was at a relatively upmarket place with downmarket prices. The food was excellent and we were all quite surprised when a sloth crawled out from the thatch decorations, made her way along the roof and lay down on the bar to be fed. The owner told us she'd been rescued after her parents were hunted and killed. Part koala, part Paddington, the sloth had incredible claws with which she hung from the tiniest grooves in the wall. (Reminds me of Em in the mornings! - Hame)
Quito was our next destination. However, on the way we rode past Papallacta hot springs. We decided to take a quick look and were instantly tempted to stay by a hotel which had three hot pools and a small private pool, as well as a real fire, in each room. How could we refuse? After trying out all hot water options repeatedly, we were utterly relaxed and happy.
Hame chats to some locals
We arrived in Quito to find a confusion of roads, gorges, hills and big swooping highways which sucked us in and dropped us off somewhere not on the map. More by luck than judgement we found our way to the centre and found a place with space for Bertha. Ecuador has not been the cheapest country to travel in and funds quickly disappear, especially in bigger towns.
Another green Ecuadorian view, on the way to Quito
People, however, have been welcoming and friendly and the scenery is fantastic. We've not been to the coast but the highlands are green and beautiful (and rainy). We discovered that although we'd picked the wrong season for Ecuador, from now on we should have it about right as the rainy season has not yet reached Central America.
Quito was edgy, busy and boasted some great old colonial architecture. We didn't stay long, just enough time for a stroll around the Old Town, a visit to the cinema (a treat!) and eat expensive food - though at least it was easy to avoid the chicken. We even managed to track down a Scottish pub for a pint or two.
Quito Old Town
Soon, it was time to hop back into our own hemisphere. 22km from Quito (okay, 82km, I got us lost) the equator is marked by an impressive monument. Unfortunately, it's in the wrong place. The Mitad del Mundo - "Middle of the World" was calculated back in 1739 by the French Equatorial Mission and without GPS they got it slightly wrong. The correct ("calculated by GPS!") equator is a yellow line inside the Inti - Nan museum, a lovely little place which tells you all about the equator as well as history of the Inca and pre-Inca people in the area.
We watched while our guide did some experiments which can only be done right on the equator - for example water which runs down the middle of a sink on the line, clockwise to one side of the line and anti-clockwise to the other. It was quite amazing.
Our last stop in Ecuador was Ibarra, a lovely town full of colonial architecture and ice-cream shops! Rosalia a local woman who devised a way to make ice-cream using copper bowls, ran a shop just up from our hotel. She lived to be 108 - who says ice-cream is bad for you?! It was closed the evening we appeared so I was forced to try it for breakfast the following morning.
As we were about to leave, we got chatting with Pepe, owner of the hotel. He asked us if we had time to look at a 'little museum'. We said yes, not expecting much, and were amazed when he opened a door into a room full of treasures! He's been a private collector for years and had many Inca and pre-Inca artifacts, many of them in perfect condition. He was great fun and we spent an hour looking at his collection with him and listening to him play Inca instruments.
Pepe showing Hame his Inca treasures
As we left Ibarra the sun came out and for the first time in weeks, we were awarded blue skies which made our spirits soar. The road to the border was surrounded on either side by wonderful views.
We'd been slightly concerned that there would be some problems at the border - Colombia had recently bombed a FARC camp on the Ecuadorian side of the border - without telling Ecuador. Ecuador was not happy and for days the news had shown various debates and re-runs of FARC members' bodies being removed from the jungle. Not fully understanding all the issues we could see it both ways. The border, when we arrived, was absolutely hectic. On the Colombian side there'd been a march for peace all morning and cars were bumper to bumper for kilometres. We sneaked down the middle of the jam and entered the confusion. Nobody, not even the customs guys themselves, seemed to know if the border was open or not but we managed to get stamped in and out and rode through after only an hour or so of waiting.
We bid farewell to Ecuador and with time definitely not on our side, rode North, excited, as ever, to be in a new country.
I must just add here that there is no finer feeling than jumping on the bike every morning and setting off to a destination unknown. Even if the previous day has been exhausting and long, the following morning always gives a buzz of excitement. Where will we end up today? Whom will we meet? Where wll we sleep tonight? We love it!
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