Santa graciously granted my Christmas wish for the end of the wet season, at least for a while. I crossed the border from Colombia to Ecuador on the first dry day I had seen in weeks and saw virtually no rain over the Christmas and New Year period. I have ridden on dry dirt roads and walked on dry, mud free footpaths and trails, I had almost forgotten what a mud free existence was like. The occasional rain shower would fall once I reached Quito but at least the ground has time to dry out between the showers.
Christmas In Ecuador
I had been told that the Colombia - Ecuador border crossing at Ipiales was one of the quickest and easiest borders in Latin America. Unfortunately for me, just before Christmas the border is swamped with Colombians and Ecuadorians returning home for Christmas. It took me six hours to get across, most of that time standing in queues. The most frustrating wait was to clear the bike out of Colombia. I know two people that had left their bikes in Colombia until their bike import document expired and just rode passed Aduana (customs) without any problem. I was tempted to do the same because of the queue, however I joined the end of the line having checked with an official and showed him my paperwork to make sure it was the line to process exiting Colombia. Everyone in front of me was entering Colombia so I checked again with a policeman to confirm I was in the right line. Whilst waiting I counted six brand new unregistered cars being driven into Colombia without stopping to process any customs paperwork which didn‘t seem right. Eventually it was my turn to be processed. The official that had seen my paperwork when I first arrived simply took it from me and said I could go. I suppose I should have been grateful that he didn’t want to check the VIN number which is the usual procedure but I just thought, why couldn’t he have taken the paperwork from me when he first saw it an hour and quarter earlier.
Pan Americana Highway Cycling Monument
I’m still benefiting from the motorcyclists that I have met and have run on ahead of me acting as my scouts sending back reports on places to go, places to avoid, good roads, bad roads. Sandra and Jordan from Canada send regular reports and I’m glad to say have frightened me off the road I had intended to take into Peru. Younger and fitter riders have dropped their bikes on the road south from Vilcabamba; crossing the border at Zumba so I will happily find an alternative. The other options are via Macarà or the most popular, the coast road at Huaquillas.
The first stop in Ecuador was in San Gabriel not far from the border. At just over 9000 feet (2800 metres) it was cold enough for three blankets at night but fine during the day. Surrounded by mountains with peaks normally concealed in the cloud. One day the sky was clearer and from the mirador (viewpoint) above the town I saw my first snow covered Andean mountain peak, just a few days too late to make it a white Christmas. If a snow covered mountain on the horizon counts as a white Christmas, it was close enough for me.
The Nearest I Got To A White Christmas
Ecuador, or at least San Gabriel was refreshingly cheap, fuel was 2$ per US gallon (34 pence a litre), my private room with ensuite bathroom complete with lukewarm water and WiFi was $5 (£3.30) per night and a huge breakfast (desayuno completo) of rice, potato, salad, roast chicken or beef, a fruit smoothie, coffee and a cheese sandwich followed by two soft boiled eggs right at the end of the meal was $2.50 (£1.65). The cheese sandwich is served with the coffee and I saved mine for later on in the day. Breakfast topped up by some cheap fruit kept me going for the rest of the day. My main gripe with Ecuadorian cuisine having ridden from Colombia and all the good coffee is that instant coffee is served almost universally.
Otavalo is renowned for its arts and crafts market, particularly the Saturday market which spills out from the market place onto the surrounding streets. In my travels south through Latin America the indigenous “Indians” have been a noticeable minority, sometimes rarely seen and when they are present in the towns they are usually selling arts and crafts on the street. In Otavalo they were very much the majority and doing all the jobs normally done by the Latinos which was nice to see. The Saturday animal market had people leading pigs and cows past the hostel from 5am onwards. Having woken me up I decided to locate the market at a more reasonable hour of the day to see what was going on. It was a very colourful affair with most people dressed in their local costumes.
Otavalo Animal Market
My hostel in Otavalo had a large garage where I could wash and check the bike over. It had developed a problem of being reluctant to start in the mornings but was fine after that. The engine would start, run for a second then stop as if the ignition had been turned off. It would take up to twenty attempts before the engine would run by which time I started to worry about draining the battery. As the garage was warm and dry I eliminated the problem being related to the damp or cold (it sometimes felt cold at night but was never cold enough to effect engine starting) although altitude was a possibility. I decided the problem was related to the computer controlled engine management system shutting the engine down shortly after it started. I disconnected and reconnected the battery in an attempt to reconfigure the computer without success so decided to take the bike into the next BMW dealership which was in Quito.
Cuicocha Lake Near Otavalo
On the way south on the Pan Americana Highway to the equator and Quito I saw my second huge snow covered mountain towering over the road. Normally there is too much cloud to see the mountain tops. This stretch of the Pan Americana Highway was free from the lines of slow moving trucks and I was able to enjoy the scenery and the sweeping bends.
The equator was a significant landmark on my journey so I crossed it twice. Once on the Pan Americana Highway on the way to Quito and again a few days later when I went to see the Middle Of The World Monument (Mitad del Mundo) at San Antonio. The Mitad del Mundo centrepiece is a 30 metre high tower erected in 1979 with a yellow line running along the ground then up and over the centre of the tower denoting the equator. Unfortunately due partially to more accurate GPS measuring devices being available now and partially to the people that do the calculations choosing a different mapping datum the tower is 240 metres (780 feet) south of the equator. The true equator is unmarked and runs outside the whole Mitad del Mundo tourist village of museums, shops and restaurants although a steady stream of tourists still await their turn to get their photograph taken straddling the ‘equator’.
Equator - Pan America Highway
Equator - San Antonio
If They Had Had GPS in 1979 The Yellow Equator Line Would Have Been In The Right Place
While playing with my GPS I discovered that the equator is half way (as near as makes no difference) between the best place in the United States, Big Timber, Montana and Patagonia. Big Timber being 3720 miles (5951 km) to the north west and Patagonia slightly closer at 3672 miles (5875 km) to the south.
I arrived in Quito, dropped off my bag and headed straight to the BMW dealer to try and get the cold starting problem sorted out. I had heard a few tales about the dealership taking a long time with repairs but I got an email 24 hours after dropping the bike off to say it was ready and the bill was $29 (£20). They suggested that I pick the bike up the following day so that I could see it being started for the first time that day and sure enough it started immediately. I rode off delighted to have the problem resolved so quickly and cheaply. Alas; anything that seems too good to be true usually is. The following day and each day since; the first time I start the bike takes a lot of cranking. I suspect the mechanic had started the bike before I arrived and the $29 no longer seems such a bargain.
Calle de la Ronda, Quito Old Town
The only reason I went to Quito was to try and get the bike sorted out as I normally avoid the bigger cities but the old colonial area of Quito was well worth seeing. Quito was declared the 2011 American Capital of Culture and the plazas and parks all had displays of public art that were worth seeing.
Quito - 2011 American Capital Of Culture
Public Art In San Francisco Plaza
One afternoon I was walking through the main Independence Plaza and saw a crowd, TV cameras and a large police and military presence at the Government Palace. As I went to investigate a large fleet of Iranian diplomatic cars drove away. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president had just arrived from Cuba on a tour to win support for his nuclear development program. On this trip I have now been outside buildings containing the Presidents of the USA (a hotel in San Francisco) and Iran, two leaders who are not on the friendliest of terms at the moment.
Government Palace With The Presidents Of Ecuador And Iran Inside
There is a hill with a large aluminium statue of El Panecillo Virgin towering over the old colonial town of Quito which seemed an obvious place to walk for views of the city and the surrounding countryside although the day I went was very hazy. On the way back down I noticed a sign painted on a wall in English warning that this was a “Robbery Zone” and advising that tourists should not walk on this street. Further down I stopped to talk to a tourist policeman who’s role I have now ascertained is to aid and assist tourists rather than to make sure we behave ourselves. He said all tourists should take a taxi up and down the hill and that there were a lot of robberies during the day as well as at night. He was standing near the bottom of the steps to turn back tourists on their way up. Fortunately for me he wasn’t there when I started my ascent and nobody deemed me worthy of robbing. The dangers of climbing the hill were common knowledge to everyone in Quito except me and anyone I spoke to thought I had been lucky to escape the bad guys attention.
Panecillo Hill, Quito
Armed Tourist Police - I'm Glad They Are On My Side
I had a cold night near Cotapaxi National Park where I hoped to see Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world at 19,348 ft (5897 metres) but for the twenty-four hours I was there the sky was gray with mist and drizzling rain which reduced visibility to a couple of fields full of the hostel owners cattle. There is no guarantee with mountain weather, sometimes your lucky and sometimes your not and today wasn’t my day.
Quilotoa Crater Lake Near Latacunga
Baños turned out to be a very touristy town full of young Chilean and Argentinean tourists attracted by the cheap prices and the large choice of adventure sports (or exciting, exotic ways to kill yourself as I think of them). I was sitting in a roomful of boisterous, conscript age Argentineans checking the news and read that my Prime Minister, David Cameron was accusing the Argentines of colonial aspirations over the Falkland Islands, or the Malvinas as I’m trying to get into the habit of thinking of them. I wish he would think before making such silly statements. With our history, the British have no right to accuse anyone of having “Colonial Aspirations”.
The town of Baños nestles beneath the very active Tungurahua volcano. There was a large eruption from Tungurahua in 1999 and there have been five more since then, the latest in April 2011. The volcano supplies abundant hot water which Baños (Spanish for bathrooms!) has used to create a spa town. As usual my quest was to try and see and photograph the volcano. The best I managed was a partial glimpse of the snow covered summit through swirling cloud.
Rickety San Francisco Footbridge, Baños
My paper and GPS map showed a direct road between Baños and Riobamba but a number of old blogs dated between 2003 and 2007 said the road was closed as a section had been buried under ash and rock when Tungurahua erupted. It wasn’t far so I decided to ride out and establish whether it was still closed. The road was open and paved apart from the section where a new dirt road had been carved through the deep volcanic debris. The dirt road was very dusty as it made it’s way through the lunar landscape of volcanic boulders and ash. A road sign; which if I interpreted correctly said “Do Not Continue If Lava Is Flowing” sounded like seriously good advice!
Road Carved Through The Luna Landscape Of Volcanic Ash And Boulders
A Chilly 4422 Metres (14,508 Feet) In Chimborazo National Park
An ongoing quest to see snow capped mountains took me on a day ride from Riobamba to Chimborazo National Park in the hope of seeing Volcan Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest mountain at 6,268 metres (20,565 ft). The summit of Chimborazo is the furthest point on the Earth's surface from the centre of the Earth. Some clever chaps worked this out based on the fact that the Earth is not a true sphere but bulges out around the equator making mountain tops on the equator further from the centre of the earth than larger mountains nearer the poles. I rode to a height of 4422 metres (14,508 ft) through a cold biting wind, misty cloud and hail (hailstones on the equator!) but I did get to see the summit although partially concealed in cloud. I also got my first close up sight of either a llama or an alpaca, I know one is bigger than the other but until I see them obligingly standing side by side I don’t know which is which. Forty five minutes later I was back in pleasantly warm Riobamba.
The journey from Riobamba to Cuenca had a bit of everything thrown in, light drizzle when I set off, negotiating the bike through the gridlocked downtown streets thanks to road closures as they carry out resurfacing work and re-lay a railway track through the centre of town. The rain soon cleared up as I headed south on the Pan Americana, the traffic was light, the mountain scenery wonderful and it was all too good to last. After an hour of dry weather it started raining again, heavier this time. Rainwater was leaking inside my visor so that I had to keep lifting it up to see which brought back memories of riding with open faced helmets in my youth with the rain feeling like pinpricks stinging my face. With a wet face and the wind chill it started to feel cold, not riding across the Yorkshire Moors in the depths of winter cold but definitely cold.
Riding through a village a dog ran out barking loudly as it approached the bike. This happens often and the best way I have found of dealing with these attacks is to veer towards the dog as it approaches to make it back off which gives you an extra few valuable feet when it gets alongside snapping at your leg and commencing its chase. Once the dog is alongside I veer away and accelerate. This time the dog either failed to back off or skidded on the wet tarmac and ran into the side of the front wheel. The dog was injured but I didn’t stop to see how badly and face a possible argument with the owner. I have had numerous close encounters with dogs chasing the bike while owners just stand and watch as if nothing was wrong. I can’t understand how a dog owner can think this is acceptable behaviour. Presumably a lot of the dogs end up being injured or killed, it is dangerous for them and the motorcyclists and cyclists they chase.
While continuing to deal with the poor visibility caused by the leaking visor and riding in and out of the cloud I spotted a trail of diesel fuel lying on top of the wet tarmac. The spill was at least three feet wide and ran along the centre of my lane for as far as I could see. I have seen and avoided the occasional diesel spill in the past and heard tales of how slippery diesel fuel is but this was the first time I got to experience it myself. There was so much spillage you could clearly smell the diesel. I tried to ride on one side or the other but inevitably I would have to ride through the spillage sometimes. The slightest bit of throttle would get the back wheel spinning and sliding so I made sure I never had to touch the brakes while riding in the slick which would inevitably result in a skid. I stopped once to see if I had a rear wheel puncture, that’s what it felt like; with the rear wheel losing grip almost continuously. I was wet, didn’t want to stop, there wasn’t an alternative route and how much further could a trail of spilt diesel go on for? It continued for miles and the only source I could think of that carried that much fuel was a tanker; but that would be ridiculous, a tanker driver would know the danger caused by spilt fuel and would get off the road. Accelerating gently out of a corner when I had lost sight of the spillage the back end of the bike stepped out, I was on the wrong side of the road by the time I regained control, fortunately there was nothing coming the other way. The experience did wonders for sharpening the concentration. After twenty five miles or so of riding in and alongside the diesel spill I crept up on a group of half a dozen slow moving trucks with a few cars amongst them approaching the crest of a hill. Two of the trucks were tankers, could one of them be the source of the leak? I gently pulled out to overtake with both feet on the ground as I could feel the rear tyre wanting to break away. I was too busy keeping the bike pointing in the right direction to look at the tankers as I rode past them but as soon as I pulled in front of the convoy there was no more diesel just your regular wet tarmac. A couple of experimental tweaks of the throttle to confirm that the bike would go where I wanted it to go and the adventure was over. The road descended out of the cloud, the temperature rose, the rain eased off and eventually stopped. With the help of the GPS I found my accommodation, the Alternative Hostel in Cuenca straight away and was soon having a hot shower followed by an even hotter cup of Mata de Coca (tea).
Cocaine Tea !!!!!!
Mata de Coca is made from coca leaves. If you add hot water to coca leaves you end up with a nice cup of tea, if you treat them with obnoxious chemicals you end up with cocaine. The coca leaf is illegal in all countries except those in the Andes where the legal status is merely dubious. There is a tradition going back to long before the arrival of the Spanish of chewing coca leaves and using them to brew tea. It tastes very much like green tea and has none of the expense or effects of cocaine.
Unlike most Latin American cities I have been in, Cuenca; despite being a historic colonial city has fast free flowing traffic probably thanks to a series of wide dual carriageway ring-roads. This made getting in and out of town on the bike a breeze but the downside was waiting forever to cross the roads when on foot. The traffic ignores the pedestrian lights which nearly caught me out the first couple of times I crossed the road. When the pedestrian light changed to green, the traffic turning the corner also got the green light and accelerated away; racing towards me intent on committing Gringocide. The driver’s instinct when faced with an obstruction is to keep going and sound the horn rather than apply the brakes or make a detour. One day while waiting to cross a wide four lane road a pick up truck stopped in the centre of the road intending to turn left. A second vehicle appeared to be still accelerating as it sounded its horn and ploughed into the rear of the stationary pick up truck spinning it through 180 degrees and tipping it onto two wheels. A motorcyclist being hit that hard from behind would have been seriously injured or more likely killed.
Cuenca Old Cathedral
Cuenca has two cathedrals around the main plaza or park. The old cathedral, founded in 1557 and built on top of Inca ruins became too small as the population of the city grew. The new cathedral was started in 1885 and eventually completed in 1967. Due to a major calculation error by the architect the towers had to be shortened as the foundations would not have been able to support the additional weight if they had been built to their intended height. The new cathedral is huge, when it first came into use it could accommodate 9,000 of the 10,000 inhabitants of Cuenca. The old Cathedral has been deconsecrated and renovated to house a museum.
Cuenca New Cathedral
My first Inca ruins lay right across the street from the hostel and admission was free to it and the associated indoor museum. The indoor museum houses a collection of shrunken heads. In bygone days the decapitated heads of enemies were shrunk to prevent their spirits returning to avenge their death. Commercial interest in the shrunken heads eventually overtook the religious significance and “headhunters” continued the practise of killing, decapitating and shrinking the heads to satisfy the demands of western collectors until the early 1960s.
Pumapungo Archaeological Park
Pumapungo Archaeological Park is laid out as a large landscaped garden with the fifteenth century foundations of Inca temples and administration buildings laid out on the top of a hill. The side of the hill is terraced with the typically Inca tightly fitting dry stone walls. The terraces were used to grow plants associated with Inca sun worship. At the base of the hill there are gardens, a pond complete with ducks and an aviary containing rescued local birds. Astronomy was at the centre of the Inca religion and a 180m long system of canals and pools faithfully represents the Southern Cross constellation.
Toucan At Pumapungo Archaeological Park
Panama hats are surprisingly manufactured in Ecuador. They are made from a straw that only grows naturally in the lower altitudes of Ecuador near the coast. Weavers in Montecristi make the super fine quality hats. Each Montecristi hat can take up to three months to make and costs between $300 and several thousand dollars. Cuenca is the largest producer, manufacturing and exporting over 90% of finished Panama hats. The Cuenca hats are made from thicker straw producing a coarser weave which are quicker to make and therefore more affordable. The nearest international market for the hats was in Panama. The easiest route between the east and west coasts of America was via boat journeys to and from Panama and a land crossing of the narrow isthmus where the canal was eventually built. The hats started to arrive in the USA in increasing numbers when they proved popular with the prospectors and traders travelling to California for the gold rush. They reached Europe when they were exhibited in the 1855 World Fair in Paris. As the hats were purchased in Panama they became known as ‘Panama Hats’ much to the dissatisfaction of the Ecuadorians who still refer to them as ‘Toquilla Straw Hats’ after the type of straw that they are made from.
Cuenca Hat Museum And Factory (Note Bored Man Watching Partner Shop!)
I had seen little rain since arriving in Ecuador despite the wet season for this region normally starting in January. There was the odd shower wherever I was staying and rain or even hailstones when riding at higher altitudes. The weeks of drier weather encouraged me to get the camping gear out when I arrived at the small southern town of Vilcabamba. There was a dirt road leading to the Rumi Wilco Eco Lodge and campground which ended at the reception office so I had to leave the bike there and carry the camping gear 400 metres along a forest footpath called the floodplain trail to the camp site. Maybe I should have paid a bit more attention to the name. It rained for between twelve and eighteen hours every day for the next ten days. It was dry in the mornings and sometimes into the afternoons although the footpaths were a sea of mud and the river burst its banks flooding part of the track; making it difficult to get into town without getting wet. I managed to stay dry inside the tent but drying out clothes and particularly shoes became a constant battle.
The last section of the dirt road running downhill towards the river became a fast flowing stream sweeping soil, gravel and stones before it. Overnight a six inch (150mm) slope up to the campground entrance became an eighteen inch (450mm) vertical step. After ten days the ’road’ was as much as four feet (1200mm) lower than it had been when I arrived. Everyone with property alongside the ‘road’ was trying to reinforce the ever deepening embankment to prevent their garden fences then their gardens from being swept away.
My motorcycle was trapped in the campground. There was a point; after rebuilding the first lot of damage at the junction between the campground road and the main road when I thought I could possibly ride out with someone following to help push through the softer sections but I decided to wait another day or so and see if the water would stop flowing. Wrong decision! By the following day there was no chance of getting out without serious assistance. There were a number of landslides around town including one directly behind the campground owner’s house putting it in danger and another where part of the road to the owner’s house slid down the hillside preventing him from getting his car out.
The 'Main' Road To The Left And The Campground Road To The Right After The First Nights Erosion
Repairing The Ramp Up To The Campground Road
More Rain Washes Up To Four Feet (1200mm) Of The 'Main' Road Away
The rain eased after ten days but the ground and hillsides were completely waterlogged and a fast flowing stream continued to flow down what used to be the road. As if there wasn’t enough water around, the Vilcabamba Carnival started; the main theme of which seemed to be throwing water at each other. It started off quietly enough on the Friday with boys squirting girls with water pistols and girls parading around to be squirted carrying their mobile phones in plastic bags. My favourite carnival sight was the look of pure joy on a ten year old girls face because someone had noticed her and squirted her from behind. She turned and gave the boy some verbal abuse then walked on with a smug contented look on her face. As Carnival progressed through to Tuesday (Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday) it got more and more boisterous with the adults joining in with hosepipes and buckets of water being thrown from passing cars. Carnival is the catholic wild celebration to let off steam prior to forty days of abstinence, prayer and fasting during Lent.
Laid Back Downtown Vilcabamba
One afternoon on a particularly hot day which had almost dried the footpaths out I tackled the campgrounds ‘ridge trail’ which climbed up above the tree line to give views over the Vilcabamba Valley. A lot of the footpath consists of steps cut into the clay as it steeply ascends through a series of hairpin bends above the trees into a band of cacti and finally into rocks and bushes. The climb had my heart trying to pound its way out of my chest and my lungs gasping for more oxygen as I felt all of my 59 and 11/12ths years old.
Vilcabamba Valley From The Top Of The Ridge Trail
The Argentinean owner of the campground and Eco Lodge, Orlando and his two sons got my bike out once the stream had eased off and was no longer washing more of the road downhill. They spent several hours moving rocks and shovelling gravel to create a smoother track and then pushed the bike up through the hundred metres or so of stream to the next junction. I had discussed with Orlando the possibility of using a vehicle fitted with a winch to pull the bike up through the stream so that we would only have to keep it balanced but he insisted they could manhandle it out. True to his word they got the bike out with minimal help from me. Once on the dry road above the campground Orlando said that he was “As confident of getting the bike out as he was of getting the Malvinas back one day” and I wasn’t about to argue with three blokes clearly much stronger than myself.
Three Argentineans Rescue My Bike Despite The Current Malvinas Argument
It was a huge relief to get the bike back onto drivable roads. I parked the motorbike in Vilcabamba police station for a couple of days before heading back to the Alternative Hostel in Cuenca for some serious rest and recuperation before heading to Peru.
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