We entered Ecuador vibing off of the excitement of our South African compadres Dave and Mark. It was the first border crossing of their trip, an occasion that we had grown accustomed to with the small countries of Central America. We were reminded that no matter how often you do it, you’ll never know quite what to expect when you arrive at a new nation.
The most apparent change was in the curiosity of the people. Suddenly we were no longer celebrities. We still got the usual stares and point-and-laughs, but very few people came up and asked us what we were doing, or offered to buy us dinner. We got turned down by the bomberos and the iglesia for camping, but then we met Pablo and he offered to let us stay at the storage room by the fútbol field that he owns. Though perhaps not quite as forward as Colombians, Ecuadorians certainly do not lack the incredible hospitality that we have been spoiled by.
A fútbol game in the evening with the local kids and the gift of coffee and bread in the morning put us right at home, and we made our way through the hills of the border highlands. Towards the end of the day a last minute decision ended up dropping us deep into a low elevation river valley. We descended with speed into the guts of the Andes, surrounded by epic peaks and infinite hills and gullies.
We rolled in to a local league volleyball game next to the bomberos station to see if we could stay the night. Again we were surprised when nobody cared that we were there. Everyone was more interested in the game than the six bearded white kids that just appeared. After the sometimes overwhelming hospitality of Colombia, it was nice to just be ignored for a change; watching the (very impressive) Ecuadorian volleyball game without having to tell our story over and over and pose for pictures.
However we did get recognized that night. Anita, a German cyclist that we had met in Oregon turned out to be staying in the same town that night. We were dumbfounded to be seeing her again, and were perplexed at the fact that we hadn’t encountered one another at other stages of the trip, as she had been following almost the exact route through Central and South America. We shared a beer and traded stories, and planned to try to connect tomorrow. She left early to get a head start and unfortunately we never caught up to her.
After a long lunch break at the Ibarra market we stopped for the night in Otavalo. Otavalo claims to have the largest outdoor artisanal market in South America, and from what we saw it’s an easy rumor to believe. The normal shenanigans in the middle of the week are impressive enough, but we heard that on Saturday the streets are completely full through the entire downtown area. We saw an epic food market overflowing with local produce, meats, and treats, in addition to some excellent $1 plates that we kept coming back for.
Chris had been searching for a poncho to give an extra layer to his thin Central America style sleeping bag, so the first place we went when we got to town was the Plaza de Ponchos. It was quite the event to see the Plaza de Ponchos in action. Everyday it was completely full of artisan booths and vendors, and every night it got totally emptied out. Almost everyone got a souvenir there, and Chris got his poncho.
We ended up camping on the yard of a place called Leyton Tours, an adventure guiding company that graciously granted us the space. The owner, Carlos, told us that they were running a week-long kids camp starting the next day. He then showed us pictures of hiking up Imbabura, the volcano that had been towering over us all day. These were two great reasons to stay another day in Otavalo, so we prepared for a day in the hills.
The activity for the first day of the kids camp was a hike up to the “Lechero” a 500 year-old tree of spiritual importance to the people of Otavalo. We enjoyed a gorgeous walk through the forest and to the top of the hill that looks over town and Laguna de San Pablo (a large lake at the base of the volcano) on the other side. At the Lechero we listened to Carlos (with help from the kids) tell the Quechua legend of the Lechero and the lake, and the significance of the place where we were sitting. It was an awesome segment for the film project, and a ton of fun hanging with the kids.
As the group began to descend back down to finish the day, half of us decided to split and make our way up the mountain. We dropped down to the lake and then started walking toward “El Corazon”, the heart-shaped face that was the closest piece of Imbabura to us. Just as we were about to exit the village at the base, a laughing and smiling man and son named Luis and Andy came out of their home and asked if we were going up. Upon our confirmation, they asked us if they could join us, and then invited us in for lunch as they changed their shoes.
We could instantly tell that we were in a good place as we entered to the incredible smells of the meal we were about to eat and some groovy tunes filling the room. Luis’ wife Elena brought us heaping plates of delicious vegetables, fish and rice. It was easily the best meal we had eaten in a while, and good fuel for a day of hiking. It was also a great opportunity to meet the family that would end up totally changing our Ecuador experience for the better.
We took off for the mountain with full bellies and happy hearts. Luis led the way through backyards and across dry creek beds, while ten year-old Andy gave us the naturalist tour of the local flora. We were blown away by his knowledge of the local edible and medicinal plants, and excited to try all the different tastes and smells he offered us. When asked how he had learned so much about the area he told us that it was mostly through experimentation. This kid embodies something that we have been searching for on this journey: a deep connection to his local place. It was awesome to be able to spend some time on the mountain with the boy, and got us even more stoked to hang out with his father, who was giggling his way up the trail.
We soon found out that this was Andy’s first time climbing Imbabura, and we could see why. The trail was steep and very challenging, especially for legs half the length of ours. But Andy was tough and never complained once, despite taking many rest breaks. Soon we were high above the town, the lake, and the hill we had walked up earlier that morning. After so many days on the highway it was a real treat to get above it all again.
After struggling through thick grass that brought to memory the sensation of breaking trail through deep snow, we stopped for a snack just below the ridgeline. We decided that we probably had just enough light left in the day to descend the steep sections of the trail, so we celebrated our victory and started sliding. The slope was steep and the grass was fast, and Luis and Andy led the group in laughing and rolling and sliding down to the dirt part of the trail. We arrived at the base of El Corazon just in time for the perfect golden light of the sunset, and then turned in to the house for another great meal.
Luis was feeling generous after such a fun day, and after playing some songs on his flute (which he used to tour around Europe when he was our age), he decided to let Kanaan keep the instrument. It was an incredibly meaningful gift, well beyond the value of the walking stick that Kanaan gave in return, but Luis and Elena were not done. It turned out that Luis had recently inherited some land, which he had sold in order to buy a house in Quito. They invited us to stay at their house when we arrived in the city. We left the house buzzing with good vibes, and spent the trip back to Otavalo recounting the great moments from the day.
We were surprised when we reached the Plaza de Ponchos to see our long lost friend Seth, whom we had traveled with in Panama, sharing beers with Andrew and Dave. As if the day couldn’t get any better, we now had more stories and more friends to share them with. We had a group vote and decided that it was “a pretty good day”.
The next day we played games with the kids camp, cruised around town perusing the markets, and captured a bit more footage to fill out the segment on Ecuadorian place-based education. The following morning we prepared bamboo strips for the kids to make kites, had one final dance party with the group, and hit the road. After a solid climb out of the province of Imbabura, named after the beautiful mountain that we had befriended, we found ourselves at the top of the hill and in the province of Pichincha.
As is often the case, our timing was perfect, and we ran into two Australian bike tourers that were coming the opposite direction, “in search of good pie in Otavalo”. We swapped stories and beta for a bit, and we were pleased to find that these were some particularly cool people. They had bought their bikes a few hours before getting on the plane, and were riding to wherever sounded good at the time. They also wanted to end up in Argentina eventually; the fact that they were now going the wrong direction just made them that much cooler.
Eventually we split ways and found ourselves descending a series of hills that put us deep into a hot and dry river canyon. The wind was ripping hard and definitely felt a bit dangerous when it blew across us. But when it was at our backs it was pure adrenaline; probably the fastest speeds of the trip for most of us.
The goal of the day (and honestly, of the week) was to reach the equator, 0 degrees, the middle of the world. Unfortunately we had to call it a day when we arrived to Guayllabamba with the sun already behind the mountains. We went to the bomberos station for the night, where we were informed that we were actually already in the Southern Hemisphere! After all that excitement for such a significant checkpoint of our trip, we had blown right past it with the heavy wind and fast downhill! Why wasn’t there a sign?! Or a painted line or something?! Oh well, at least we were cruising fast and getting a good rush when we switched hemispheres. So much for balancing eggs and doing infinite handstands. The night ended with a good healthy fútbol match against the local kids. We let them win.
The next morning we began to cycle up the long gradual climb into Quito. Just as we crested the hill, we were met by familiar faces. Andy and Luis from Otavalo were waiting for us on the highway with wide grins. We followed them down into their neighborhood in the outlying town of Calderon, young Andy riding like a cowboy on the back of Max’s bike. They had a huge and mostly empty home, as they spend most of their time in Otavalo, and they were ecstatic to share the space with us and all of our stuff. We spent the night having a good meal, laughing, and talking about mountain climbing. It was good to see our friends again. They told us that they would be leaving early the following morning, and to make ourselves at home for as long as we wanted.
The gang decided to check out the city the next day, taking the jam packed buses and trolleys into the endless sprawl. It was a chance to get some things fixed, pick up new supplies and eat some good food. We had been scheming for a while about trying to find some waves to surf, and decided that an all night bus ride to the coast would be well worth it. We returned to the house, packed up small bags and made our way to the bus terminal bound for Mantanitas. Mark, one of our South African friends, elected to stay behind in Quito to check out the city, so the four bearded ones and Dave (the other South African) set off to find a bus. At 10 O’clock at night, the bus terminal showed little sign of slowing down, it was alive with the hustle and bustle of thousands of people headed off in all directions. It struck us as more of an airport than a bus terminal. Ecuador being such a small country and having extremely cheap gasoline (just over a dollar a gallon), buses are very affordable and an easy way to get around.
We jumped on board, and quickly fell asleep, dreaming of blue curling endless waves to ride. Typically, we travel between 1000 and 1500 km each month by bike, over night we traveled the equivalent without moving a muscle! It was nice to be taking a short vacation from our vacation. Finally, we arrived at the beach to find waves breaking steep and fast. It looked to be a challenging welcome back to surfing after taking a couple of months off. Our tents were erected at a nearby campground, we ditched our stuff and rented some boards.
Over the next couple of days we caught waves and enjoyed the nightlife. The waves were tough, and I think we were all a bit frustrated with the conditions, but never the less it was a good time. The little town knew how to party, each night the streets were full, live music resonating out from restaurants and dance clubs. It was good to get our dance groove on, bringing some Alaskan flavor to the Latin dance floor. After a couple of days, we decided it was time to head back North, after all, we had some Juneauites to meet up with!
Our good friends Donovan and Ellen had been traveling throughout Ecuador for the past month, and the plan was to rendezvous in Quito before their flight back home. After another long stretch in a bus, we arrived back in the Quito area and looked forward to their message. Communicating proved to be quite difficult, but after many messages back and forth and one missed meeting, we finally found each other in the city. It was great to see our buddies; we made a big meal and spent the evening swapping stories and talking about things back home in Juneau. The following day we explored the old town of Quito together, wandering through museums and among the incredible old Spanish architecture. After a fun afternoon, they found a taxi to the airport. So we hugged, wished each other good journeys and made our way back to our temporary home outside the city. Crazy to think that they would be back in Juneau in only two days, a stretch of traveling that has taken us well over a year to complete! Awesome to see you guys, tell everyone back home hi from us!
We awoke the next day with a mission. Many had told us about the “Teleferico” gondola running up the massive mountain that stands above Quito, and the trails above that allow you to climb up its peak. Think Mt. Roberts Tram with a walk to Gastineau peak, only magnified to the size of the Andes. So we did the routine melee of buses and trolleys, then found a cheap taxi to the base of the gondola. From there we purchased our tickets ($8), and boarded the whirring lift. A 10 minute ride or so brought us to the ridgeline with a spectacular view of the seemingly endless expanse of homes and building below. A well defined trail followed the gradual incline up to the peak. The further up the trail we went, the less people we saw, but the number of Germans travelers seemed to increase. We stopped and talked to one group and learned that many were using this short trail as an acclimation hike before embarking on trips up the much higher and more strenuous volcano climbs to the south. We had a chat and a snack, and then followed the path around the back side of the peak and began the steep ascent towards the rocky summit.
Towards the top, the trail disappeared into some rock features, so we scrambled and climbed the final stretch, laboring in the thinner and thinner air. Atop the peak, we were greeted with a brilliant clear view of the mountains, valleys, and city around us. The sign read 4,696 meters, and we could sure feel it. All of our warm clothes were dawned; we hadn’t felt this type of cold for a long while. We snapped a few pictures, and then clouds began to move quickly to us. It seemed that weren’t moving in, but actually forming right below us. Deciding it was time to move on, we made our way down, gaining strength as we went lower and lower. The gondola ride was grand, giving us a glimpse of the massive volcano Cotopaxi above the city in the setting sun. Most of the crew headed back to the house, while Max and Chris went to the airport to meet yet another visiting friend.
About one week prior Chris and Max’s friend Patrick found out he had a six-day break from work; so he came to Ecuador. The timing couldn’t have been better for a buddy to come bike for a few days. After a fender-bender on the bus to the airport where the driver and all the passengers fled leaving Chris and Max with a bus on the highway, Chris and Max met Patrick coming out of customs and welcomed him to the life of A Trip South.
The following day in Calderon was their annual Festival de Toros; having not seen a bullfight yet on this trip we knew we needed to postpone biking for another day. Crossing the plaza into town as we headed to the bullring we encountered a major parade reminiscent of the 4th of July. There were dance troupes, stilt-walkers, and dancing horses. Max got a horse ride for the second time in his life when one of the performers spotted the gringos and waved us over. The laughter of the crowd rocketed as the performer’s buddy decided to give the horse that was sitting there with a gringo on his back a hearty spank. Chris and Patrick can attest to the hilarity of the scene, Max on the other had was meanwhile busing himself with thoughts of being on a horse accelerating down a one-way street and how I don’t hit the oncoming cars (thankfully the horse wasn’t interested in hitting the cars either). Eventually some instinct or conditioning or western movies kicked in and Max pulled back on the reins slowing this mighty stallion. He also figured out that he could pull to the right and make the horse turn around, at which point the slightly nervous performer had caught the horse – and Max was very relieved to relinquish the reins.
Moving on to the next adventure of the day Chris, Patrick, and Max paid the $3 entry fee to the bullring. We entered an almost empty “stadium” and had the next hour to postulate about what was to come as people (including Kanaan) filled in. We couldn’t quite figure out what was going on; we saw no costumed matadors, a mound had to be shoveled to allow the bulls to exit the back of the truck, and there seemed to be a lot of people (AKA young males mostly with beers or bull-horn flasks) standing in the ring. As bull number one came barreling into the ring it immediately became apparent that this was a community bullfight and all were welcomed into the ring.
Falling in to the above definition of “people” and with the confusing cajoling/reserve of our new friends at the bullring, after about the fourth bull we realized it was our time to get in the ring (literally). For the next few bulls we jumped in and out running around with all the other trying to avoid the bull. The second to last bull of the night got Kanaan in his sights and ran him down to the fence. As Kanaan went down in a cloud of dust we all got a bad feeling, this included all the viewers and other participants whom all seemed to really not want the gringos to get hurt. Thankfully Kanaan was able to slide under the fences unscathed (except for a 4in bruise that we later found on the back of his thigh).
Max then got chased up one of the fences along with some others and was able to have a perfect view of what was to come next. As the bull circled the ring again he must have got another hankering for gringo, because there he came charging for Chris and Patrick. Those large animals move quite quick and instantly he was on the two. Chris who was running in back, slipped-out and fell to the ground. The bull immediately focused Patrick as his target and just ran over Chris – only giving Chris one hoof to the leg. As the bull came up behind, Patrick too went down. But then he was up again and somehow he grabbed the bull by its horns (no, no, no he literally grabbed a charging bulls by its horns), enough to drive the bull off.
As Patrick came running to the fence we couldn’t contain our shock about what just happened. We hopped out of the ring and it immediately became apparent that what Patrick did doesn’t usually (or ever) happen. The crowd was giving Patrick a standing ovation and not enough people could give him a handshake or pat on the back. That is when our reputation in Calderon soared.
After everyone’s close calls and memory of the previous bull that had put a horn through someone’s abdomen, we decided to retired from our bullfighting careers. We exited the event with more stares then entering in addition to some memories of a $3 bullfight. And Patrick hadn’t even been in Ecuador for 24 hours.
The rest of the night held its own sort of boisterousness; it wasn’t looking like an early departure the following day. Chris had managed to capture over 150 pictures at the bullfight, including many from in the ring. However, for this a camera sacrifice was required; hence another mission into the city for repairs. By the time we reached the city we realize that there would be no departure that day, so we spent the rest of the afternoon sightseeing with Patrick.
Bizarrely the next morning we did get an early departure. With a wake-up in time to see sunrise and some last minute house cleaning we were riding once again. We had six riders leaving Quito; gaining Patrick but losing Mark. Our good South African friend had decided to remain in Quito for an additional two weeks to attend a language school. It was a real bummer to be splitting with him, but we hope to find him somewhere down the line.
Into the city right at Monday morning rush hour – perfect. A local cyclist pulled up in his car to chat as we navigated through the city. He gave us directions and said he would follow us there. We got a kick out of this and it added some comfort to have a car behind us blocking traffic and waving us to the correct streets. About 3 hours later it seemed as if we had made it to the southern edge of Quito and south we continued. It was a hard day of riding with a strong headwind but for his first day of riding Patrick kept up amazingly well. The winds seemed to clear out the clouds and we were able to see Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s most well known volcano, up close.
A typical night camping out next to a small town police station and in the morning we were off to the town of Baños and its namesake hotsprings. Another long day of riding and saw us riding into the late afternoon not really sure how far we had yet to go. But then we hit a 20km downhill starting our descent out of the Andes and into the Amazon Basin. We arrived in Baños and from all that we had heard of it were unsurprised to find it thick in tourists. The manager of the fútbol stadium allowed us to camp in the locker rooms that night and after dropping our gear we headed directly over to the town baños to bathe.
The hotsprings in Baños are developed swimming pool style and when we reached there they had reached capacity, so we joined the line waiting for bathers to leave. Kanaan took a walk up to a large waterfall that overlooked the springs and came back chuckling about the “soup” he had seen. The pools were at capacity and it was tight packing in the murky water, but nonetheless very relaxing.
After a leisurely morning with an awesome breakfast at the Mercado we bid our adios´s to Patrick and pointed him to a bus that we think was headed to the airport. It was great seeing a good old friend in an exciting new place. Seems like Patrick came at the perfect time to get the full experience: capital city congestion to endless downhill and stadium sleeping to Mercado munching (and a little bullfighting thrown in there as well!) Maybe it was a good enough time to convince him to come down for another break!
As Patrick headed north back to Quito, we took a hard left and continued our descent out of the Andes and into the jungle. At first we probably wouldn´t have recommend a stop in Baños – just an average tourist town with some ¨soupy¨ hotsprings. But after our ride out of Baños we would absolutely recommend a visit. The 60km that day revealed to use the splendor of the Andes hitting the Amazon. We were warned that we would stop 30 times on our ride out and we made at least that many.
For those Juneau-area people it was like biking through Tracy Arm. Massive waterfalls cascading around every bend, huge mountains dwarfing the rapid-y river below and thick jungle taking over from every direction. Certainly one of the more spectacular rides of the trip, an awe-inspiring display of the power of water. This was the headwaters to the Amazon River. As we continued to lose elevation we rounded a turn and saw what almost appeared to be the ocean, but it was the sea of the Amazon jungle extending to the horizon before us.
As we reached Puyo that evening we decided to accelerate our transition from the mountains to the river. We had been told that boats departing on the Rio Napo from the town of Coca leave only twice a week, not wanting to miss the following day´s boat we hopped a 1am bus and took another night ride. As we stepped off the bus in the early morning it was evident that we were embarking on a very different phase of the trip.