Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Ecuadorian Delights

By Mark

After the disappointment of Canoa we decided it would be best to head back to the mountains and for the town of Banos which is famous for its thermal baths and lush valleys topped off with its own active volcano.
The ride there was going to be long, around 500kms which is more than we usually like to ride in a day, but with not much in between we went for it. The other reason was that if we arrived in Banos on a weekend all prices rise in the hotels by 50%! So were going to make sure we had at least 2 nights before the price rose. Soon as we left the coast the landscape changed dramatically from a sunburnt, brown backdrop with the odd palms to lush green hillsides and small winding roads. The road was littered with speed humps and potholes but to take an eye off the road meant there would be the odd pothole or two that you were sure to always hit. After the back roads through the hills we came back out onto the main ‘highway’ east which was a much smoother surface to ride on. Now we didn’t have to worry about potholes anymore, it was just the stupid drivers instead. After negotiating our way through the first sizeable city, we had problems again with Sanne’s sprocket coming loose. Luckily I noticed it quickly, the main tell tale sign was engine oil over Sanne’s rear wheel. Not the safest thing to happen. We were looking forward to getting to Quito to get the bikes fixed but we were still awaiting parts, and now we also needed new seals on the output shaft to stop this oil leak.
I tightened the nut that holds the sprocket on as tight as I could and hoped that it would see us through to Quito, or at least Banos. Our biggest problem was other road users this day. Their utter stupidity, ignorance and lack of respect towards motorcyclists are outstanding. On one occasion as we were headed down the road stuck behind a large vehicle a guy from way back decides to overtake all vehicles in a procession in front of him as he was headed towards a blind corner! No worries for him, I am sure he thought 'ah there are only 2 motorcycles stuck behind the truck and I can force them off the road as to not have an accident myself' and so he went about his business not expecting me to hold my line and turn to verbally abuse him. In return I got a mouthful of abuse and the middle finger for my troubles along with him tailgating me until he could have another shot of getting around the ‘slower’ vehicles.

We were headed for more back roads to get away from the madness on the main roads and this is where we started our steep ascent winding back and forth up into the cloud forests and above. The surrounding landscape was so beautiful with so many cacao plantations spotted along our route - that was until we were high up into the mountains and everything became brown again. Finally we popped out back onto another highway hoping to just cross it and continue on through the back roads. Well our map was lying to us, there was a road printed on our map but after asking around all the locals it has not been built yet. Great, our so called short cut was not going to happen and now, and was going to extend our trip by 50+ more kilometres. Not only this but we had to keep climbing higher into the mountains and before we knew it back into the clouds and freezing our arses off. Usually we are always prepared but this particular day we left it too late to try and rug up, we stopped and added more layers and put on our winter gloves, it never really worked and we found it difficult to get warm so we just had to push on. As we got closer to Ambato the sun was getting low and the traffic was picking up. There were not many signs to Banos so we found ourselves stopping constantly to ask for directions which slowed us down to the point we had no choice but to ride the last 40km’s in the dark. It probably wouldn’t be so bad if our headlights weren’t so horrible. They are fine if we are in the middle of nowhere with no traffic but we pushed on finding ourselves squinting the rest of the way hoping for a safe arrival in town.

We made it safely enough and were knackered after our long eventful ride. The following day we headed straight for the thermal baths to ease our aches and pains from the previous day's ride. We were not alone as everybody else in town had the same idea. I couldn’t really say it was fully relaxing as the pools were full of people and children screaming and so on, it was nice at least to be in the beautiful surroundings with 2 water falls on either side of the baths. It was also too hot to stay in for any length of time so we thought we should check out the town and the many other things to do.
One of the activities is the bridge swing, somewhere between 50m  to 100m above the fast flowing river below is a rope hooked up to the bridge, then attached to some mental punter who thinks it is a good idea to throw oneself over the edge superman style. I am not usually bothered by heights and the like and thought at first when I saw photos that I would be keen to give it a shot. Well that was short lived, soon as I stepped onto the bridge I knew it was not for me. The operator tried to get us to have a go, when we asked if he had ever tried it he answered with a NO, what you think I am mad type of answer!

While in Banos we were really hoping to get a good view of the volcano Tungurahua but the whole time we had nothing but cloud surrounding the volcano. We decided we should push on since the weekend was upon us along with the rising prices. We headed down the spectacular valley known as the Via de las Cascadas (road of waterfalls) towards the Amazon basin and the town of Puyo where many tourists head for treks into the Amazon. We came across the concrete jungle known as Puyo and decided we should just keep going. So on the edge of the Amazon we turned north for the town of Tena, known for its white water rafting. The road twisted and turned all the while with the jungle surrounding us, a great back drop to an uneventful ride through to Tena.

Our first observation of Tena was the huge amount of police presence in town. Everywhere you looked on the street there would always be at least 3 officers walking together down the street, we would cross the road and then there would be the same amount or more again. They were also very young which made us think there was some kind of police academy there. After talking to the hostel owner he told us that it was to do with drugs and that the police here don’t do anything and that they turn a blind eye to most things, especially road/traffic violations, which of course we already were well aware. There was not a whole lot to do in Tena, we decided not to head deep into the jungle on a tour, for one it was expensive and we never like to go on ‘tours’ anyway but to always try and go the independent route. We spent our time checking out the local protected forest in the middle of town and chilling out by the river which ran right by our hostel room.

Our plan was to head for the Quilotoa loop and from there to Quito. Again our map was lying to us and the road we had intended on taking up a valley back into the mountains was non existent! We had heard that they started making the road and only made it 20km’s before they decided to stop. We never like to back track but we knew it was a scenic ride back to Banos so that was where we headed. On the way back we stopped in Puyo to visit a monkey sanctuary there which was a nice experience. It was now Sunday, the prices were back to normal and we found a great little place to stay after we managed to get around all the traffic trying to get out of town. So happy we were not here for the weekend and the hoards of domestic tourists who make their way here for just the weekend.
We were hoping to sneak a peek at the Volcano but it was once again covered in clouds as is most of the sky in Ecuador, we did get to see some smoke coming out quickly before the clouds rolled in once again. We decided it was time to move on and check out some more of Ecuador including the Quilotoa loop just south of Quito. It was not a long ride from Banos but the weather turned for the worse for us not long after leaving, fortunately you usually only need to travel another 30 minutes and the weather will change again and it did. No rain but the higher we climbed the colder it became.
We were headed for a volcanic crater where there is a lake inside. After passing by a large military group (no idea what they were doing there) we took the very short walk to the rim of the crater. Sadly the sun was not beaming down upon us and showing the beautiful colours of the water down below but it was impressive all the same.

While we were taking pictures we noticed someone calling to us, not having any idea who it was I turned my back and kind of ignored them, it wasn’t until they were closer that we noticed it was some friends who we had met back for the first time in Salta, Argentina. Mathias and Maria have been travelling in their van all over South America and the last time we saw them was when we had them over for dinner in Sucre, Bolivia. It was great to catch up with them and to meet their travelling companions who are also Argentines. We were invited to have lunch with them which was great. It was cold up at the crater so after a great meal with good company we parted ways to find a hostel for the night which we did in the village of Chugchilan.

After a cool night we had ourselves a short easy ride to our next destination on the loop, Isinlivi. We had first heard about this place after meeting a couple of Aussies on a motorcycle earlier this year who had volunteered at this hostel. We liked the look of the place so we thought we would check it out. It was a really chilled out place, expensive but nice. The hosts, a Swiss couple made us feel very welcome and we hung out for the most of the afternoon talking about our travels. As nice a place as it was we both agreed it was overpriced and we probably would have went mad volunteering there for a long period of time, the owners usually expect you to stay 2 months!

The time had come to move on but again we were taking only small steps toward Quito as we had a place to stay with a fellow biker who runs a hotel just south of Quito in the country side which is stunning farm land mixed with parts of what used to be jungle. The hotel was once the family home until Raul turned it into a hotel. Beautiful place that was quiet and Raul cooked some great food. Just very lucky to have gotten the room for free! We talked that hopefully we could take a ride together once we had our bikes fixed and with that we were off to Quito and straight to Ecuador Freedom Bike Rentals who we used to get our parts sent from the US. We made our way into Quito easily and met up with Court and his partner Sylvain. Within minutes I was on the back of a scooter and was taken to the post office to pick up just one of my parcels as the other had yet to arrive. Court tried to stress us out telling us over and over that UPS who had originally sent our parts were terrible and they can take up to 3 months to deliver goods. We really hoped that this was not going to happen.

We parted ways after meeting Diego their mechanic who was going to help us out with our bikes to then meet up with Mateo, well his brother anyway. We met Mateo back in Vilcabamba and he invited us to stay with him and his family in Quito. So we met up with Tomas his brother since Mateo would be out of town for another day and we were shown to our room at their huge home in Guapulo. Well when I say room I actually mean a 3 bedroom apartment all to ourselves. We had landed on our feet again! It was not so close to the centre or the old town but the taxis here are dirt cheap so that made life easy to get around. The following day we received a message from Court telling me that our other parts had arrived. Sweet! We met up with Diego again to organise the work on the bikes including a new rear tyre for me now that my old tyre was completely bald.

This is where things started going down hill again. We were meant to meet Diego at the workshop at 10am, Diego showed up 2 hours later with no apology, he had been out in the hills riding his dirtbike... When inspecting the bikes there were a few other jobs that needed to be done including machining 8 new valve guides, finding shims for the valves and new gaskets. This was not going to happen over the weekend so we did what we could and met up again on the Monday. On the Sunday we headed out to see some of the city including the ride on the Teleferico up towards Volcano Pichincha which gives you an awesome view over the city. It was cold and windy so we did not take the walk the rest of the way to the volcano, we just took in the sights and marvelled at the 3 other volcanos that surround the city. Next stop was the old town where there is a famous street, La Ronda. It was nice walking around the old town but Quito was not really doing it for me. To top it off, I got pick-pocketed for the first time on this trip while on a crowded bus. They took the ipod which annoyed me not so much for the value, but more for all the music w had on there, photos and the map function on there that we would use in big cities. While in the old town we were looking for a place to spend a couple more nights as sadly our apartment had been rented out. We spent the last night having dinner with Mateo and his family which was great. We had not spent any time with many other families for a while so it was a nice change.

After the weekend we were back at the mechanics to only be told the machining of the new parts were going to take longer than expected. Diego was quite blasé about the whole thing and we never quite knew where we stood with him. There was another problem, this time my fault. When getting my brother Callum to order the parts for me I made a mistake and ordered the wrong brand of rings for my piston and only 1 out of 3 fitted. Awesome, all this time spent to get this fixed and I have the wrong parts. We left feeling a little deflated by it all and tried again the next day. As the story goes we were delayed yet again, while another company were looking after the machining of the valve guides they snapped one while fitting it. Another day set back! Diego did little bits of work here and there on the bikes while awaiting the top end but I was never 100% comfortable as to what the outcome on the bikes would be. He was not organised and left everything to the last minute so the following day when we were meant to get the bikes by early afternoon it became close to seven in the evening and that was with my help putting the bikes back together. Diego also snapped a bolt on the throttle cable when fitting it again to the carbie, again no apology or that he could sort something out or pay for a new one, not that he could get one in Quito anyway. There was also bolts missing when putting the bikes together and he would look at me as if I should know where they are.
In the long run the bikes were put back together and started fine. That was until the next day when leaving Quito after being there for a week. I started my bike and a plume of grey smoke comes bellowing from my exhaust. Great! After some time however the smoke stopped and we made our way back to Diego. He was not around so I spoke with him on the phone about the problem, he reassured me all was ok so we hit the road keeping an eye on the bikes performance. Because of the hold up we never ended up getting to take that ride with Raul sadly.

We were headed for Mindo, a small village in a valley surrounded by lush green mountains, on the way we had a quick stop at Mitad del Mundo, the equator monument to take a picture or two of crossing the equator. There was some small village set up for tourists to take it all in, very cheesy in fact and we went and took the obligatory photo before high tailing it out of there. Sadly the bikes did not get in the shot. Twice we have now crossed the equator on opposite side of the globe and no photos to prove it on the bikes.

We headed to Mindo on a roller coaster of a ride down into Mindo, a sleepy village that attracts a few tourists with tourist prices for accommodation. After searching around for a while we finally found a place to call home for a few days. We spent our time strolling around town and the rivers and topping it off with some more zip lining. It was fun to head up into the cloud forest and check out the surrounding countryside with a view from a cable as we sped across it. As good as it was it was nowhere as good as the one we did back in Bolivia. After a couple of days chilling and trying to forget about the previous problems with the bikes it was time to move on and we had just one more night in Ecuador and that was in the market town of Otavalo. The ride there was a perfect way to end our ride in Ecuador, nothing beats riding dirt back roads with stunning nature all around you. Our last night was spent camping on the outskirts of town where we enjoyed having the place to ourselves.

All in all Ecuador was another great country to travel through, even better if there were no other cars on the road. Having a little bit of everything in such a small country the people of Ecuador should feel very lucky for the beautiful country that they live in.

Where's Wally?

Can't you just see how impressed I was?

At least there was a lovely waterfall to look at while having a dip

The main river running past Banos

We came across some youngsters doing some dance show at half time of kids football in Tena

The tranquil view from our hotel room, Tena

Where 2 rivers meet

This guy enjoyed baring his teeth to us, at the monkey sanctuary Puyo

While this little fella probably would have preferred to be on the outside of his cage

Laguna Quilotoa

Sanne with Mathias and Maria

Having a tasty lunch with the Argentines

Chillin at llullu llama hostel in Isinlivi

Room with a view, this particular room is the toilet!

This 'friendly' cat thought I was its mother!

With Raul at his hotel, Sierra Alisos

Street art, Quito

The babies getting some much needed attention

Sanne thought this was pretty!

Volcano Cotopaxi in the distance overlooking Quito, we are standing on Volcano Pichincha

My Something About Mary moment?

La Ronda, old town Quito

Iglesia Guapulo

Mateo next to Sanne and his welcoming family

Tomas giving me a little gift of vegemite that was given to him by his girlfriend, needless to say the whole family hates it

Basilica del Voto Nacional

I like to get the most out of my tyres

The view from our room in the Old Town, looking at La Virgen de Quito

Same again but in the daylight

That's me looking totally excited at the Equator

While Sanne was ecstatic about being there

Obviously the excitement was too much to handle for Sanne

This cat was loving Sanne's bike to the point it still would not get off when we tried to leave one day for a ride

Zip lining fun, not sure what I was trying to do there

In a slightly compromising position, 'superman style'

A few shots from Sanne after visiting the local butterfly farm

We loved the scenery throughout Ecuador

We stopped at this waterfall for a quiet break for lunch

Didn't know what to expect when taking a detour around road works, It wasn't this that's for sure

Great little tracks to all but finish off our time in Ecuador

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