Northern Ecuador

Written July 14, 2016

We arrived at the Ecuador border early in a soft rain, and were stamped out of Colombia in about 10 minutes flat.  We were stamped into Ecuador just as fast, though we had to wait for the Aduana guy to get back to his desk.  We learned that insurance is not required in Ecuador, nor available at the border, so off we went, into the land we had visited two years before, the country responsible for triggering this whole episode in our lives.

Ecuador is a different place from Colombia and most of Central America.  There are abundant road signs.  The margins are largely free of garbage.  The farm fields seem a little cleaner and greener.  Drivers at least obey red lights and are generally well behaved (motos still do largely as they please, thankfully). The whole country just seems more organized and together.  This day took us to Otavalo, a town well known for its local indigenous markets on Saturday.  We stayed at a place just outside of Otavalo at Hosteria Rose Cottage, a beautiful setting perched above corn and grain fields, with horses, llamas, and goats all around us, on the flanks of an old volcano.  We took a two-night break here, and used our day to have fun in both the Mercado Artisano and the Mercado Animales, where one can go to buy and sell any and all forms of farm stock.  Need a huge pig to take home?  This is the place, and don’t forget to grab a dozen chicks while you’re there.  Nearby can be seen every type of fruit and produce found in the area, of both the familiar and strange.  It looks, sounds, and smells like you’re right there in the orchards, fields, and barnyards.  In the artisanal market a few blocks away, I searched for gifts and found fine, super-soft alpaca wool scarves and shawls of all colors imaginable.  I also began my search for a Panama hat, taking a little time to learn about the quality of weave, shape, and so on.  Throughout my time in Ecuador (which is where the real Panama hats are made), I never did find one that grabbed me, but came close in a few places.  Maybe next trip.

After a day of market sampling, we had a quiet evening with our hostel hosts, and met a couple from England, while enjoying a postre (dessert) of baked tomate de arbol, which is “tree tomato”, a sweet orchard fruit that looks much like a tomato on the tree.  It was simply baked in a small dish with some red wine and sugar, much like a baked apple.  The wine reduced to a thick sweet sauce, and the hot, softened tomate could be spooned up.  Absolutely delicious!  After a good night’s sleep, snug on our hilltop, we packed up the bikes to head for Quito, but started our day’s ride by heading up the hill to Laguna de Mojando, a lake in the top of the old volcano above us, about 17 km up the bumpy cobblestone road.  We climbed all the way, and found it gray, cold, and windy at the top so early in the morning, so we stayed only for a few photos and to make friends with a dog, and then headed back down the road.  On these cobblestone roads I find myself marveling at who took the time to set all those millions of stones by hand, and at how they somehow stay in place while motos, cars, and trucks drive over them, although is does take maintenance.  Let’s see, if the road is 50 stones wide, and each stone averages 20 cm, and the whole Mojando road is 20 kilometers long…  And there are lots of these roads in Central and South America.

We had reserved an Airbnb place in Quito, but needed to burn up a few hours as they were not expecting us before about 2 pm.  So we headed up to Mitad del Mundo  (Middle of the World), the big monument tower at the Equator.  We had lunch at Subway, then walked over and found out that tickets were $7.50 each, so satisfied ourselves with photos from the gate, knowing we had already crossed the Equator many times in the last couple of years.  What cheapskates we are sometimes.  We headed back into Quito and forged our way through the traffic to find the big football stadium, where our host Felipe drove up to meet us and lead us to the house.  We soon felt at home with Felipe and his wife Mila, and loved the separate downstairs apartment in their house, which they had worked hard to convert from a storage space.  Kitchen, hot water, wi-fi, very secure parking for the bikes, even NetFlix for us to use.  And then I saw Felipe’s Yamaha Super Tenere parked in the entryway to the living room to make room for our bikes in the garage. We were friends immediately.

It was a good thing we had struck gold with the place to stay, because it turns out we were there for a while.  A long while.  I had asked our friend Mary Kay to send down a re-supply of my migraine meds, which are not available in South America.  She had boxed them up with a few other things, written “Miscellaneous personal items” on the Customs form, and sent it off to our friends at Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental in Quito.  They had arranged our two-week tour two years ago, and had agreed to receive mail for us.  One box from home had already come, and we were awaiting the second package with the meds in it.  We went down to the local officina de Correos del Ecuador, the post office, and asked about it.  To cut a very, very long story short, the package was stuck in Ecuadorian Customs.  We gave them all the paperwork they asked for, and then waited.  And waited.  We wanted to continue exploring and traveling, so our friends Felipe and Mila agreed to pick it up if and when it ever appeared, and had a way to forward it to us in Peru.  We hadn’t given up on it, but after 26 days of waiting in Quito (while doing bike repairs as well), we were ready to see a little more of Ecuador before heading south into Peru.

So we took off south, wanting to explore areas of the country we had not seen on our prior trip.  We went south along the PanAmerican as far as Latacunga before making our way west and climbing up to the incredible Quilatoa Crater, which is like a 1/8-scale Crater Lake, and just as stunning.  Snowy Volcan Cotapaxi and Volcan Quilindaña towered in the background, making you realize that you were in a land of volcanoes and fire.  We spent the night in a comfortable hostel at 3,900 meters (12,800’).  Our room, like all the others, had a little woodstove, and as bedtime neared, the staff came in and lit it, and left us some wood to stoke it with.  We stayed comfortable and warm that night, snuggled under thick wool blankets, and slept well.  We had arrived in a cold light rain, but in the morning we were greeted by a dry overcast sky, and after breakfast rode down, down again to the highway taking us southward.  At Ambato we turned to the southwest and climbed up again, way, way up and across the skirt of Chimborazo, the tallest volcano in Ecuador, and, like two years prior, we were cheated out of the view by clouds enveloping it.

Quilatoa Crater Lake

Northwest of Chimborazo, we found our way to the little mountain town of Salinas, which is known for its cheese making.  Apparently a French guy settled there some years ago and started a cheese tradition, and they still turn it out in broad variety.  We found a hostel with a big fireplace in the lobby, and after walking into town for pizza and watching the locals play pickup games of volleyball in the town square (it’s popular down here), we lit a fire and toasted our feet for a while, enjoying a glass of wine and getting sleepy.

Morning found us riding under bright sunny skies through beautiful mountain farmland, climbing up again directly toward Chimborazo, but this time to pass over its south flank, where the road gets up to 4,500 meters (14,700’).  As we neared the mountain, we met two riders on big bikes coming the other way, and flagging each other to a stop, it turned out to be our friend Laura Buitron from Spain, and another fellow who was riding with her along this part of her journey.  We met Laura in Quito after she flew in with a part for my motorcycle.  She had come back from a month-long travel break to the US (her bike was stored in Quito).  My fuel injection had gone all wonky, and she brought a new idle control valve from the US for me, saving me a lot of time and a ton of money.  Laura rides a BMW 800, and travels mostly alone into incredible and difficult places – she is a brave and crazy woman we both admire - check her out on FaceBook.

This time Chimborazo gave us a good view before the mid-morning clouds began to form, and rapidly shroud the peak.  We got a few photos, but by the time we were right up next to it, it was only peek-a-boo from time to time.  Still, we were thrilled to be able to look up through the clouds at that immense volcano beside us.  Here we were on a road as high as Mt. Rainier’s summit, and we were looking upward at a volcano towering another 6,000’ above us, topping out at 20,700’.  We were constantly stopping and gawking at it, amazed at the glaciers and cliffs, and shivering in the cold air flowing down off the mountain at us.

After coming down in elevation and warming up in Riobamba, we turned to the northeast and made our way up a river valley toward another volcano, this time Volcan Tungurahua.  Erupting when we saw it two years ago, this time it was quiet, and we passed around it and down into the semi-bohemian eco-tourist town of Baños.  This is a town noted for its many thermal baths, especially the big public bath where the whole town gathers.  We paid our $2 and went in, where we found a wonderful public gathering place, very similar in feel to the beer-gardens in Germany, where whole families can gather with other families from the neighborhood, and there was a relaxed, welcoming feel.  I entered the hot pool about 3 minutes before Jalene appeared, but by that time enough strangers had spoken with me that I had to introduce everyone to Jalene, and before we knew it we were feeling welcomed as total friends.  I think that if we lived in Baños, we would be in the baths with the locals regularly.  Not to mention that the super-hot green mineral water felt terrific, and after 20 minutes it was enough, and time to cool off.

When we left Baños two years ago, we rode down the Rio Pastaza canyon in torrential rain.  We could see it was incredibly beautiful, but in the bucketing-down water the fun was spoiled, and there was no stopping to pull out the camera.  This time, I went for a day-ride alone to explore the canyon in better weather, and just to get away, while Jalene took the day to do a volunteer project she had been looking forward to.  This time the weather was dry and partly cloudy.  The road down the canyon has several fairly new tunnels, and the old road, running along the canyon wall, can still be found around most.  I poked along down these narrow, one-lane roads that hugged the canyon wall, often cut into the overhanging rock, and found spectacular vistas of waterfalls and sheer cliffs down to the river.  In many places there were frighteningly high and narrow suspension walkways over the river, across which people made their way to houses high on the opposite side.  I found places where the road cut completely underneath the cliff wall, forming a rocky roof over me at times, and other places where a small waterfall came down directly onto the road, making a dandy bike-wash.  Just remember to close up your jacket vents before the dousing.  Further east, I found a place to ride down to the river, and there was a suspension bridge that leaped across.  Though wet and slippery, it looked pretty sturdy, so I ventured out onto it with the bike, and soon was getting near the middle, so I went ahead and rode all the way across.  On the other side I pulled the camera out and hung it around my neck and shot some handheld video on the way back.  The boards on the bridge looked fairly new and about three inches thick, so I quit worrying and had fun with it.  When Jalene and I came down the canyon the next day on our way down to Amazonia, we stopped there and she took pictures of me from below.  Shortly after, we saw a guy leading a massive bull across, and I knew that motos were entirely safe on that bridge.  One thing to note is that if you pull your earplugs out before crossing a wooden crossed-decked bridge like this, you can hear every crack and creak and pop and crunch as the boards move under your tires, high above the madly rushing muddy waters below.

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Since Keith is playing catch-up with the blog posts, our photos and posts are out of synch. The link I'm sharing here is the same link I shared in the last blog post, which will take you to our South America Gallery. To see the photos specific to this blog post, scroll down to the photo gallery named Otovalo Ecuador and and then continue up through the one named Banos to Macas. (The newest photos are at the top of the Gallery page.) Thanks for coming along on our journey with us! We truly love knowing you're out there reading about our adventures.