After spending the past few weeks riding through the hot desert landscape of coastal Peru, the crossing into Ecuador was like crossing into a lush green parallel Universe. The contrast couldn’t have been any greater and the other thing we immediately noticed was how clean and litter free the roadsides were.
We went through the usual customs conniptions and given this was our 11th border crossing in just a few months we were getting pretty good at it. Even communicating via hand signals (or rather a set of fingers that tapped commands) through a small slit in a mirror glass window which constituted the aduana office didn’t phase us.
We had met a group of fun Ecuadorian guys in northern Peru and caught up with them again at the border. We chatted and laughed together, making the time go super fast. We promised to meet up with them in their home town of Guayaquil after we had explored a bit more of Ecuador. And then we were off…riding through the lush green forests and smiling at the signs stating “Protect Our Environment”, “Water is Life” and “Trees are our Breath”- signs we certainly hadn’t seen anywhere else in South America.
There are three routes you can take through Ecuador – the western route to the coast, the central route through the highlands and the eastern route along the edge of the sprawling amazon basin. We chose the latter and were soon to experience our first real wet-season rainfall. Man did it come down! We sought shelter in a small village, found a room in a cheap hostel and ate greasy street food from a local vendor. From there we headed north up Ruta 45, stopping at the gorgeous colonial town of Loja before continuing to Puerto Mishualli to spend a few days in the beautiful rainforest there. We tubed down the river, hiked to waterfalls, learned about the local culture, met the cheeky local monkeys and made amazing chocolate from raw cacao pods. What a great introduction to Ecuador!
After our jungle experience it was time to enjoy culture of a different kind – a few days in the country’s gorgeous capital city Quito. We left the jungle with sweat trickling down our backs from the heat and humidity and climbed to over 4,000m within 3 hours, layering up as we went. The ride into Quito was stunning and we blasted down the mountain crossing the plunging gorges around Quito on large concrete span bridges. Amazing! We found a lovely French-style hotel in La Colon and planned on staying a couple of nights. But, we quickly fell in love with Quito and enjoyed exploring the local area so decided to stay an extra couple of nights.
We hiked up Volcan Pichincha on the edge of town which included a scramble up volcanic rocks to reach the summit at 4,600 metres. The views over Quito were superb…and we enjoyed lunch at the top with a fun mix of people from all over Europe, the UK, Canada and of course Australia. We may have lingered at the top just a little too long as the low cloud and mist moved in and we quickly had to scramble (and slide) back down as visibility was reduced to zero. We made it safely back down and were happy to get back to our hotel and relax after 10 hours of pretty steady walking!
After a great night’s sleep we were ready to do it all again – this time taking on Volcan Cotopaxi to the south of Quito. We had booked a hiking and mountain bike trip through a local tour company and were picked up at 7am for the 2 hour drive south. The guide had warned us that Cotopaxi had been in cloud for a couple of weeks, but as we bumped our way down the dirt road leading the National Park we caught our first glimpse of this incredible volcano. Together with two young Koreans, a sick German tourist and a student from the US we let out a collective “stop the van” as the clouds lifted revealing the majestic mountain. Selfie sticks appeared and poses were struck as we tried to capture the moment and share the beauty of this place with friends and family across the world. We continued driving, admiring Cotopaxi from every angle and finally parking the van in a carpark some of the way up the mountain at an altitude of xxx metres. The walk to the refugio was breathtaking in both senses of the word – the views and the thin air! The soft volcanic sand provided an extra challenge, but we kept a steady pace and had soon overtaken the ambitious young Koreans who had set off at a frenetic pace. They later told us they wanted to be just like us when they were older (how cute)!!!
We reached the refugio with energy to spare and after a quick drink and snack, Richard and I continued the steep climb up to the snow line. Amazing! The volcano with its plunging ice cliffs and snow fields towered above us. Our guide explained ice and snow on the eastern side of the volcano was thinner and less formed due to heat coming from lava that that bubbles close to the surface there. The snowline looked tantalisingly close from the refugio as we slogged up through deep volcanic sand and ash to the nearest patches of white. The thinner air slowed our progress but we were eventually rewarded with even more sweeping views of the surrounding countryside and sparkling ice sheets above us. The ever-energetic Koreans followed us up in leaps and bounds accompanied by kung fu yells and much drama. Hilarious.
From there it was all downhill back to the van, stopping only to dump sand out of our shoes. The mountain biking component of the day consisted of riding some of the most beaten up, dodgy bikes we’d ever seen down the steep corrugated road. The forks on Richard’s bike were completely seized and my brakes worked only some of the time. Needless to say the Koreans raced off at break neck speed while we bumped carefully down the slippery road, sitting on our brakes the whole time. Any opportunities to look at the scenery was rapidly replaced by watching for potholes, gravel pits and staying out of the way of oncoming vehicles. After riding for 20,000km we weren’t about to get ourselves injured riding ratty old bicycles. After about half an hour of cursing our way down the hill we finally pulled over to be picked up by the van, especially as it began pouring with rain and hailing about five minutes later! Pity the poor Koreans who were soaked.
The guide then took us to a lake to look at birds but by this stage we were all so stuffed we didn’t even get out of the van!
The next day we headed south to meet up with the guys we met in Guayaquil. Whilst the extra day we spent going to Cotapaxi was so worth it, we’d only left one day to get to Guayaquil. This looked doable from our maps but we didn’t take into account:
1. Getting lost a couple of times due to poorly signposted roads and a couple of map reading errors
2. Some really bad twisting roads
3. Torrential, freezing rain and poor visibility for most of the trip over the highlands.
The rain was by far the worst we had encountered on the whole trip and we were completely drenched by the time we came down off the mountain. ‘It’s the wet season’ people told us on several occasions and we sure knew it. It took us 10 hours of almost continuous riding to get to Guayaquil and we still had to navigate through Ecuador’s second largest city during rush hour and in the dark. By the time we got to our friend Gonzalo’s place we were completed exhausted. However, the amazing Ecuadorian hospitality was in full swing and after peeling off layers of soaked riding gear and getting into dry clothes it was off to cocktails and dinner with a bunch of other riders. No rest for the wicked! Meeting many members of the Guayaquil Motorcycle Club was fantastic and we had a lot of tall tales to exchange with them. Consequently we found out that we had taken the most circuitous route possible to get to Guayaquil – typical. The boys then took us for a walk through the historic port area of the city (it reminded us of The Rocks in Sydney) before dropping us off to our hotel at 1.30am. All ready for our 8am flight to Galapagos.
All in a (long) day’s work…