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Ecuador 2012

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After several trips to Central America, Dr Dave (Farnsworth) and I decided that it was time for something different. Something very different. Let's go to a place with very few Americans, practically no tourists, no McDonalds, no traffic lights, and off the freakin' grid.  Give me llamas, herds of vicuna, face-to-face contact with real Incans, and ... the Andes! No, not Peru. Ecuador!
A third rider, Michael Chaffee, and I have wanted to take a bike trip for years but given that we work together in a small IT department, it has not been possible. Until now. 

One of the biggest challenges with these motorcycle adventures is finding a place that rents good equipment.  It's always a gamble but, then again, so are many aspects of what it is that we do. In this case, I stumbled across Freedom Bike Rental in the back of a magazine, sent a few emails, and pulled the trigger.  Unlike most trips, we relied on Freedom to manage our lodging reservations and trip routing.  We did this because I did not make the time to prepare as I typically do.

Friday, Jan 20: Chicago - Panama City - Quito

Connection flights in February can be iffy.  In 2010, we literally had to run from one terminal to another in Charlotte to catch our flight to Costa Rica. This year we had the luxury of a six hour layover in Panama City on the earlier of two flights that had us beating a snow storm by about an hour.

Almost everything went without a hitch except that I had a terrible stomach ache by mid-day and we hadn't even arrived in Ecuador's capital city of Quito (Pop: 2.2 million, Elevation: 9200 feet.)  I worried through the evening about altitude sickness but, by morning, everything was great. We spent the night in a nice hostel (Hostal El Arupo) that was only five blocks from the rental place.

Saturday: Quito to Mindo

I'd forgotten to setup a meet-up time with Court and Sylvain, the proprietors of Freedom, but managed to reach them via Skype and someone's non-secure WiFi connection. (Thank you, trusting person!)



Freedom was off to a great start. They were well organized, the bikes were spotless, they provided tools, spare parts, and waterproof(ish) bags. Once we signed away our bank accounts, they handed us two GPSs and we were on our way.

Now, for those uninitiated to traffic outside of our nanny-state, it can be a little intimidating at first. Particularly if you're lost, can't read Spanish, and it's a busy day, in a huge city. Signs and lights, especially for motorcycles, are merely suggestive and are about as effective as our federal government.  I quite literally had a homeless woman yell at me for sitting at a red light only three blocks from our point of departure.  But as Darwin noted, you adapt or you die. And adapt we did. Reading Spanish road signs became irrelevant and we quickly got into the rhythm of the traffic dance and, before long, we were heading up and out of Quito. 

We stopped at the equator for a photo op then stumbled across a very nice (white tablecloth, black tie waiters) place for lunch. From our seats, we looked out one window down a cliff and watched clouds form and fly by.  Outside another window, a young boy played with the family llama. (See picture above)

The ride to Mindo was on very nice, paved roads that wound through the cloud forest exposing us to beautiful vistas around nearly every corner. The riding conditions were excellent with only a brief spell of rain.  Arriving at our hostel (Hostel Caskafessu), we quickly settled in to our rooms and chatted with the owners; husband and wife, ex-pat Americans.

We arrived early enough that we were able to walk to a nearby cacao farm for a tour of their operations. We learned about how the beans are grown by many families, purchased and dried and ultimately made into cocoa and chocolate. Our host, Jose, was a native Ecuadoran that spend many years living in Ann Arbor before returning home.  It was his love of brownies that served as his impetus for growing cacao.

That evening we walked around the small town taking in our exposure to the locals enjoying their Saturday night.

Sunday morning in Mindo - After a nice morning stroll we stopped by a Paneria (bakery) for some pastries.  (Food and lodging in Ecuador are very inexpensive. Cheap enough that we had our own rooms most nights.  My morning snack was $0.15 and it was not uncommon to spend $2-3 for a hearty meal.  Fuel ran about $2/gallon for premium.)


Sunday and Monday: Mindo - Pedernales - Jama - Canoa (182 miles)

Heading out of Mindo, we continued to climb for awhile crossing over roaring rivers, winding our way through the tropical forest as we headed westward, and downward, toward the coastal city of Pedernales.  It was amazing to see the "junglesque" foliage growing along the road. On multiple occasions, I thought to myself how, with little attention, the area would quickly disappear like Machu Picchu.

We continued our descent from around 9000 feet to sea level passing through several palm groves before arriving in the coastal town of Pedernales. Pedernales is a reasonably large city that is known to be Ecuador's shrimp capital.  But we were on a mission and forged ahead, riding south along the ocean atop a newly constructed, and occasionally under construction, road. At one point we had to take a detour down a muddy road that led to a river. So that traffic could pass, large pipes had been dropped into the raging river then covered with soil.  Well, it was probably soil before the recent rainy season began and, on this day, it was deeply rutted with one-at-a-time traffic.  We made it across without events and proceeded on our merry way.

A different bridge crossing

Crossing a bridge in Ecuador from Roger Ness on Vimeo.


Arriving in the rain at the little fishing/surfer-dude village of Canoa, the first impressions were not good.  It had been raining for several days, it was still the weekend and the place was packed with Ecuadorian guests. The normally dirt roads were massive pits of mud.  Fortunately, Hotel Bambu was on the end of the strip where it was relatively quiet. We quickly changed into our street clothes and met in the outdoor lounge for a cerveza and some food. We hung out there until dinner time and had outstanding fresh camarones (shrimp) at the hotel's restaurant.

The next morning (Monday), the town had cleared out, it was only raining lightly, and Mike and I decided to go do some riding. Dave stayed behind to relax.  About two minutes out of town, the rains stopped, the skies cleared, and I'm pretty sure I heard angels singing. Our mission for the day was to head back north to get some pictures of us on the equator (having twice already missed the opportunity).

When we got back to the makeshift bridge, we could not cross because a truck was firmly stuck in the muck. After watching a bulldozer work to free it, we decided to take a detour down a wonderfully gnarly dirt/mud road.  It wound along the river and up and down some great hills often challenging us with technical obstacles and a few road construction machines clearing recent landslides. (Landslides became a very common challenge throughout the week).  We finally hit conditions that would not allow us to continue if we had any hopes of finding the equator. Turning around, we rode back to the river crossing and were able to proceed north to Pedernales where we stopped at a little cafe and each had a large bowl of shrimp ceviche while sitting at a little plastic table and watching the locals go about their business. (We garnered some attention as well in our heavy riding gear, shaved heads, and my blue eyes).  The cost for this delicious meal including a Coke and bottled water totaled $6 (for both). It was awesome.

The ride back to Canoa was uneventful and we met up with Dave and spent the next several hours just sitting at a beach table enjoying ice cold cervezas, and taking notes about various movies to add to my NetFlix list.  That is...

Argh!!
...until one time I went to make a note and my phone was gone! What the? How in the..? We haven't even left the table!  Aaaahhhhh!  It must've slipped out of my pocket and been picked up by a passerby.  Tragic. No iPhone music, Spanish lessons, email, Skype for the rest of the trip (except when Dave and Mike graciously shared their phones).  Worst of all... all my photos from the first three days were gone!
Canoa from my window.  Two days after the rains had gone.

Since I have no pictures, you'll have to imagine seeing Mike and me standing on the giant red stripe circling the globe (ie. the equator), the mud bridge, our giant bowls of shrimp, ..., etc., and my temporarily sad face.

Tuesday: Canoa - Bahia de Caraquez - Quevedo (about 150 miles)


Me gusteria tres agua pura por fovor.
Despite raining periodically, today's ride was very pleasant, leading us through a largely agricultural area of rice and cacao plantations and cattle ranches.  The highlight for me was when I missed a turn and we landed in a fairly large city and decided to stop at a corner Tienda (store) for snacks and drinks.  Our big (by Ecuadorian standards) bore 650cc bikes always drew a crowd and folks gathered around asking about them and our trip.  Mike, having mastered Spanish including all known dialects from his iPhone app, served as our linguist/translator, entertained everyone, and often communicated on Dave's and my behalf. 

As I was preparing to gear up, a group of about ten teens and a younger boy crossed the street and struck up a conversation with me.  And, I must say, I did pretty good.  The young boy, in particular spoke slowly enough that I could understand and even ask him some basic questions.  I felt so proud.
Thank goodness he was speaking in English...

Quevedo served as a stopping point and not much else. We stayed at a nice hotel that existed in the middle of not much else.  The one memorable feature of the Hotel Olimpico was that it had an Olympic-sized pool. Quevedo was settled by the Chinese in the 1920s and we had been prepared for a great meal at the highly recommended Jade restaurant but ended up at a different, reasonable, but unspectacular, Chinese spot.  C'est la vie/Asi es la vida/生活就是這樣/Such is life.

Wednesday: Quevedo - El Corazon - Facundo Vela - Salinas  (85 miles)

Today was challenge. It rained most of the day. The altitude was high - up to 14,000 feet. It was cold. The narrow roads were unpaved, muddy, and resulted in three get-offs and led to several close encounters with big vehicles.  We had no idea when it would end. By the time we stopped, we were all exhausted and nearing hypothermia.
I live for days like this.

About 10 minutes outside of Quevedo, we hit the dirt that would challenge us for the next eight hours. Mile after mile we rode through groves of palm trees, cacao and banana plantations, all while increasing our altitude high into the Andes mountains.  In this part of Ecuador, farming is still done without modern machinery and we saw plenty of oxen, horses, and donkeys.  The indigenous inhabitants wear traditional dress and were often very surprised to see us foreigners come through their villages and front lawns.

Around lunch time, we came into the small, remote town of El Corazon and upon seeing the street vendors cooking, pulled over for a lunch break.  We were immediately swamped by curious locals. They were fascinated by our bikes and gear, particularly my GPS. We strolled over to two women that were cooking up something interesting and they reached out to us with delicious samples. We shared a small plastic table with a young boy and enjoyed our unidentifiable meat, some weird white acorn-sized veggies, and tomatoes. The food was good but I most enjoyed the social interactions and the town.  We had some concerns about fuel and a local offered to take us to their gas station.  After following him, we stopped at a house and he yelled to a woman to come out and she brought a plastic Pepsi bottle of fuel.  It wasn't the proper grade so we reluctantly had to refuse and, most likely, hurt the man's pride.



Now the fun was about to really start. Immediately leaving the town, the road turned into a very muddy two-track, that was cut into the mountains and provided amazing views and technical challenges for the next four hours.  Initially, it was pretty dry, tame, and gorgeous. Apart from the tight switchbacks, it was not very challenging.

Get Off #2 from Roger Ness on Vimeo.



And it soon became more challenging as we rode up and down, across streams, past roaming livestock, and eventually, the rains returned.




Mike following Roger high in the Andes from Roger Ness on Vimeo.


Entering the town of Salinas

Salinas is a very interesting little town.  At our hotel, El Refugio, we met a mother, Mary from Madison, and daughter Arden, who is traveling with her husband for seven months. They told us about the town and we spent most of the evening sharing travel stories with each other.  As they explained it, not long ago Salinas was terribly impoverished and kids and adults were malnourished and often did not get timely medical attention. Then, someone came through the town, and stayed to help them build a cooperative around chocolates and cheese.  The hotel where we stayed is part of the cooperative.   (Parallels to Salinas in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath)

We went for a walk into town to find chocolate and ran into this nina and nino. The little girl stole my heart with her smile and she allowed me to take her picture.  We found the tiny little market and asked the woman for chocolat caliente (hot chocolate). She also made us some queso y jamon tortas (ham and cheese sammiches) that really hit the spot.  As luck would have it, she turned out to be the little girl's mother and we enjoyed her (the child's) company while she watched a French horror movie.
We had a nice, relaxing evening sitting around a fire place in the hotel lobby.  The hotel was not heated and at 11,000 feet, it was quite cold.  After some of the guests had retired for the evening, we brought out our motorcycle gear and tried to dry it off for the next day's ride.

Thursday: Salinas de Guaranda - Chimborazo - Riobamba - Banos

We had been told to prepare for extreme temperature changes today, ( Colder!!! ). And it was cold but at least it was not initially raining.  On a clear day, we read that we could see the top of the Chimborazo Volcano which soars to a peak of 20,702' and is the highest mountain in the Americas.  Due to the shroud of relatively low clouds, we would settle on immediate views but we were not disappointed.  At one point, a herd of several vicuna, bounded across the road in front of us. It was beautiful but very cold. My heavy gloves were soaking wet and to keep my hands from freezing in my light gloves, I would alternate holding each hand on the engine block.  This worked very well but was not super safe when I would try to manage the throttle and steering with my left hand.

Heading across the high-altitude plains


At one point, our route led us up a fun and challenging "road" but after several miles, we had to turn around because it disappeared into a land slide.  The alternate route to the touristy town of Banos got us there early in the afternoon and we were able to have our laundry done by the hotel (finally warm and dry) and walk around for a few hours. Based on recommendations from our friends from the prior night, dinner was an easy choice for Dave and Michael: French food.  Mike spent three minutes watching a Marcel Marceau video and mastered the language yet again to speak fluent French to the owner of Cafe Mariane. This was my first experience at a French restaurant and I was very impressed.

Friday: Chugchilan (Mama Hilda)

Our trip was winding down and we began the morning in the rain but it soon stopped and we enjoyed several hours of beautiful views of the Andes.

The goal today was to see Crater Lake (check out the link).  In a few years, it will likely be a big tourist attraction but, for now, they are mostly just building a road there and down into the very deep, and large lake.  The weather had been cooperating most of the day but, I kid you not, as we pulled up to the gate for entrance to the lake, a giant cloud rolled in. Undeterred, we paid the two bucks and I captured a shot of Mike's disbelief at the beauty.
We stood around for a few minutes and joked about our luck.  At the very least, we had been riding for several hours and it felt good to be off the bikes and be able to grab a bite to eat.  Jokingly, we wondered, "wouldn't it be funny if the lake was actually on the other side of that mound of dirt?"

Meet Dave and Quilotoa (aka Crater Lake)
We really did luck out.  We toyed with the idea of hiking to the bottom but figured that we might not make it out and to our destination before dark.  We also wanted some lunch and strolled up to a nearby building to see what they had.  (It turned out to be a tiny hostel). Like so many places, we walked in and there was no menu, we asked for coffee and sat down at an unpainted picnic table.  After a short while, we were provided with a big bowl of potato soup.  Perfect!  Then they brought us each a huge plate of chicken, rice, and tomatoes.  Too much food but we ate it all and paid the tourista price of about $2.50.

By now, it was raining and we had a short ride of about 20 kilometers ahead of us but much of it was under construction.  Almost immediately, we hit very deep mud that caught Mike's bike and sent him over. The deep mud, road equipment, and heavy rain made for a challenging ride into Chugchilan (pronounced: Chew-Che-lan) but it was very fun.  After we unloaded the bikes at Mama Hilda's Hostel, Mike and I decided to head out for a little more riding and had a great time.

This is one of my favorite pictures from the trip. We took some cow paths and rocky/rutted roads to get here but the views were spectacular.  Here, I'm above Mike on a hillside as we look down a very steep cliff. (possibly 1000 feet down)
We met several interesting people that evening from Germany and the States. Everyone but us was spending multiple months touring Ecuador and/or South America.  (I love staying at hostels because you meet so many interesting people.)

Saturday: Quito

Gassing up on our way out of town


By now, I've used up all of the adjectives to describe the beauty of this country.  We enjoyed our last day of "more of the same" and made it back into Quito by mid-afternoon.  We stayed at the same hostel and had time to check out the local scene in the very trendy section of old-town.

For the rest of the afternoon, we reflected on our amazing week: The incredibly friendly people and beautiful, always waving, children, the Andes mountains, the varied natural beauty.  We wished that we had more time to do more non-motorcycling activities such as cycling, climbing, hiking, and rafting.  A repeat of Ecuador will certainly be at the top of my list of destinations for my next adventure.

Sunday: Homeward
We woke to beautiful blue skies and warm temperatures. Had a nice, relaxing morning where we struck up a conversation with an Alaskan fisherman and learned a great deal about how fishing has changed over the years to where it is today. Fascinating.

Outside of the hostel, we grabbed a taxi. The price from the airport had been a very reasonable $15 but I went ahead and asked the driver the cost.  His answer for the three of us: $6.  Man, I love this country.


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