From Costa Rica and beyond

Friday, December 30, 2011

A long entry - lots to share from Ecuador!

Of all things, Adrian, Tim, and I missed the monument and museum dedicated to this country´s namesake - the equator. Having never crossed that imaginary line, I was especially keen to commemorate the event with some photos. Alas, our belief that the monument was just off the Panamerican Highway was mistaken and apparently we missed the sign that pointed the way (not the only sign we missed!). Right now though, that omission seems a trifle. Ecuador has so much to offer. Plus, all those things are tangible!

We had been warned in Colombia that Ecuador, aside from the amazingly cheap fuel ($1.48 per gallon), was not such a great place. The women are not as good looking and the food is rotten. Even the fuel cost was a mixed blessing because sometimes you could only get $10 worth at a time. Well, we have determined that the first point is debatable, the second is wrong, and we simply don´t know about the third, because we can´t get more than $9 worth of fuel in our tanks at a time.

Certainly, Quito is an excellent city. Mountains near and far are visible in all directions. The city has a modern feel - especially where our hostel is located. That area is actually very gringo-ified, but it was nice to find English language bookstores, eateries of all sorts (including great Ecuadorian-style hamburgers with salad between the patties), and outdoor gear stores with all the offerings we expect at home. Quito´s real charm however is found in the Centro Historico. The colonial character of its buildings is typical of other well-preserved cities in Latin America and is equally pleasant. Above all it was the churches that bedazzled me. Oddly enough, it is the comparatively modern (1920s) Basilica del Voto Nacional that first wowed me. The size of this Notre Dame-like structure is imposing and seductive enough that I paid the dollar entrance to view the nave. I had read one could climb the towers for free, so I walked around the outside to the facade and approached the stairwell. My way was blocked - I needed a ticket first. Great, another two dollars in a country where you can get a hotel room for $6. I suppressed my cheap-ass mindset and splurged. Little did I know that the fun and views to be had above would be worth much more than that. Go up six flights of stairs and you arrive at a level which crosses over to the other tower and which puts you right in front of the rosetta glass. Go up another couple flights and you are above the nave. There is a narrow wooden walkway that traverses across the top of the roof over the nave (see my pics). Reach the far end of the nave and there´s a ladder that puts you outside above the sanctuary. From there you can climb another ladder to a small platform in a tower. I got up there and met a family and a couple college students from Hanover, NH. Small world. All these vantage points afforded commanding views over the entire city. I was thrilled about what those two dollars were getting me! But from the tower over the nave I could see there were also people up in the other tower at the facade. So, I crossed the nave again and then went to the east tower. More stairs and even more ladders awaited the adventurous. Chartres in France boggles with its history and artistry, the cathedral in Ulm wows with the world´s highest church tower, but no church offers its visitors the chance to explore, climb and almost play.

The next church was the Iglesia de la Merced. This church dates back to the 1700s and is very, very ornate. Finally, as I was running out of time to get back to the hostel so I could arrange oil recycling (I had changed my bike´s oil in the morning), I hurried over to the Convent of San Francisco. The church at the heart of this institution dates back to the early 1500s and is still in its original state. The choir where the monks sat and chanted was dark, oaken and creaky (although I am sure it was not oak), but noble and mysterious. It was elevated and overlooked the sanctuary and the altarpiece at the opposite end. Both of those almost defy description with the amount of detail from the floor, up the walls, to the arch of the ceiling. Supposedly, elements of the church were influenced by Moorish architecture that was still relatively new to Christian Spaniards who had reconquered Grenada in 1492.

The next day, it was time to leave Quito. The sky was sunny and the air crisp - good omens. We had risen early to beat the traffic, but had not traveled even one mile before congestion squeezed us up next to a police truck. The officer behind the wheel started yelling at us. Adrian was well ahead of Tim and me, so he simply drove off. Tim and I  pulled over wondering what could possibly be the problem. It turns out their issue with us was legit, even if it was extremely inconvenient for us. Quito, in its effort to mitigate traffic congestion (and pollution?), bans certain license plate numbers at certain times on certain days. Tim and I had plates ending in zero and nine...both of which just happened to be prohibited at that time. When Adrian got back to us, we saw his plate also ended with a zero. What terrible luck! The senior officer made clear to us that our bikes would be impounded for the day and we would have to pay a fine of over $80. Great. How would we get out of this one? We appealed to the Christmas spirit. We appealed to common sense ("How are tourists like us supposed to know this?" or "We just want to leave the city, not busy its streets!"). Not even the yummy, warm chocolate pastries Tim bought across the street and offered to the officers helped our case (each officer refused). We insisted we were not driving our bikes away from that place on the side of the road. That slowed the process down, which worked in our favor. The senior officer tried to drive off with some of our documents. Tim and Adrian responded very fast and stood in front of him so he could not get away with our essentials. I suggested the officer leave the docs with another who was staying with us. That worked. More police arrived. At one time, there were eleven officers present (Nothing better to do?). Eventually some of the officers, probably the elder and the youngest, realized that this really didn´t make sense. Why all this trouble for a couple foreigners who had no ill intent? A way out was found in that the ban on our plate numbers expired at 9:30am. The solution: we would have to wait until then before driving away. An officer or two would remain with us until that time. WHEW!!! We used the remaining time well, buying flashing lights for Tim´s bike, buying spare inner tubes, and prepping the bikes.

The road out of Quito gave us our first glimpse of the snow-capped volcano peaks that dot Ecuador. Our path put them at our backs, though, as we rode down toward the Pacific. The most memorable aspect of this day trip was smoke. Out of the highlands, the landscape was marked by sandy looking hills with corn or bananas or sugarcane growing on them and with wooden homes upon stilts. Many of these hills were smoldering though. The local farmers are still using slash and burn farming techniques here. Some of these hills were apparently then worked over in such a way as to leave alternating stripes of light brown and charred brown - not beautiful, but interesting. We encountered more smoke in a town that had at least a dozen kilns baking bricks. The at times faint and sometimes pungent smell of smoke that continued for dozens and dozens of miles made me wonder about the health of the kids in these areas.

At last, we reached the coast. Another hour of driving along scenic and winding roads brought us to Montañita, where our friends Andre and Mark awaited us. I last saw Andre and Mark in Cartagena, Colombia. Our fivesome was joined by James, a West Virginian on a Suzuki DR650. Despite the artificial Christmas tree and a few strings of lights around our hostel compound, it did not feel like Christmas. Perhaps it was the warm temps and the lounge chairs around the pool. Perhaps it was the beach and the ocean without so much as a single floating patch of ice. Perhaps it was the thumping techno beats in this town catering to bikini and tattoo-clad Western tourists. Maybe a delicious plate of Ceviche doesn´t conjure the holidays like turkey and cranberry chutney do. Regardless, we had a great time. I took advantage of the beach to go for a couple jogs. We all took great pleasure in eating well. Andre, true to his folk, made muesli with yogurt for breakfast, but added local exotic fruits instead of raisins and nuts. Mark and Andre also teamed up to prepare our dinners - steak one evening and fish the next.

A couple days of rest and we were all ready to move again. On Boxing Day, Adrian, Tim, James and I headed out looking for some good back roads to explore. We found a perfectly dusty, sandy, and gravelly road heading inland from the coast. Despite a number of wrong turns, we made our way through a brown, parched landscape and out the other side. There were quite a few small villages along the way and we even encountered a couple buses that travel those one lane roads to service those otherwise isolated communities. Almost each village had a small town square, sometimes just a sort of playground, and a church. That day´s ride brought us to Quevedo where the rain convinced us to stop. As we approached our hotel, a man ran out in the street to talk with us. Nelson is his name and he wanted to meet up with us. He claimed to be a rider himself and was excited to see us in town. We agreed to meet at 7pm. Seven came and went. We were hungry and dubious about this fellow anyhow, so we took advantage of his failed sense of ´gringo-time´ and went out to eat. We were soon spotted though. Although Nelson spoke only Spanish, we heard him mention something about promoting Quevedo. I heard him use the word "Alcalde", which I know means either mayor or city government. He showed us photos of kids he has supposedly helped. Uh oh, I sensed we were going to be hit up for money. He said we should all meet in the morning at 9. We wondered if he was legit. Adrian and Tim watched some TV that night in their room. Surfing channels, they saw Nelson on TV. Ok, he´s legit. This time, in the morning, Nelson was very punctual. He led us on his BMW to the town hall where he and his friends made a bunch of pics of us and our bikes. Instead of asking us for money, he presented us with T-shirts and little gift packets of promo material for Quevedo. Apparently, Nelson is trying to promote Quevedo as the center of the motorcyclist community in Ecuador. We wish him luck!

A little over an hour of driving the next day brought us to 3800 meters elevation and to my third crater lake of the trip. Laguna Quilotoa is a blue-green jewel set amidst the rolling and sometimes jutting scenery of the Andes. The short ride left us time to descend to the lake and, as I have done at each other crater lake, go for a swim. The cold water and the cool air definitely made me think twice, but a little encouragement (or is it peer pressure?) from my friends and in I went. At this elevation, the majority of Ecuadorians are native peoples of pre-Columbian descent. Many of these dark-brown skinned people are of modest stature, some are diminutive. They are hardy and hard-working. The steep trail down to the lake was being upgraded with a stone wall and some supports to halt erosion from human and horse traffic. Long tubes brought cement where it was needed and adults, boys and girls, the latter wearing their traditional skirts, stockings, and dress shoes, carted rocks in wheel-barrels. It was nice to see that most of the businesses, including the hostel where we stayed (each room complete with its own woodstove!) were owned by these indigenous peoples and not by Westerners, as is often the case.

James headed off on his own the next day. Adrian, Tim, and I hit the backroads again. The first dozen miles or so were magnificent. The skies were mostly blue, the roads stony (not so fun) but dry and well-traveled. We encountered numerous herds of sheep, cattle and llamas being driven by men, women, and even kids. The scenery was, of course, spectacular. We could look off into the distance and see how our road was going to hug the sides of mountains and pass over into distant, unseen valleys. As the day progressed however, more and more clouds were blasted our way and slowly, especially on roads out of the sunlight, we had more and more mud to contend with. Our bikes, heavy with gear, became harder to manage. Extreme concentration was needed to avoid a fall. The steep mountainsides we were skirting reminded us continually not to lose our focus. Eventually, we reached the town of El Corazon. It was time to refuel - our bikes and ourselves. The gas station being out of service, we found a local woman who sold us each a couple gallons for a modest mark-up. I was under the impression that we would be on paved roads from here to our destination. Instead, we had another 50 miles to go. This stretch was worse than the previous. Mud. Hills. Slippery switchbacks. Then rain. My helmet and glasses fogged up. The only thing to do was remove my glasses. Things were then blurry and a bit distorted, but at least I wasn´t looking through prisms of raindrops and condensation. At last, the weather cleared and revealed a vast brown landscape and cliffs of basalt. After one more turn and another ridgeline, we stopped and stared in awe at an amazing snow-capped volcano. Chimborazo - Earth´s closest point to the sun (the equatorial bulge puts it closer to the sun than Everest). Soon, we were back on a paved road that led us around Chimborazo and on to Baños a town popular with tourists for the great views and with adventurers for the guided climbs up the nearby volcanoes. Before reaching Baños though, there was one very memorable event. As we passed through a small town, we saw a young bull running straight down the road. A couple young men took shirts and held them out like matadors, tempting the bull off the road. The bull was clearly furious. He charged the men and then continued down the road. Adrian is not one to let something slow his progress. He zipped past the line of cars and then became the bull´s next target. Adrian veered to the left and accelerated, but the bull still managed to hit Adrian´s right leg with his horns. Fortunately, speed and inertia were on Adrian´s side.

Tim and I explored more backroads today. One road we looked for eluded us, until we realized it was this steep, unmarked two-track. It winds up through magnificent farmland, past horses, cows, donkeys, and Ecuador´s ever-present canines (I think the many shepherds here rely on them), and gave us great views of the volcano and the city of Baños. The ride back down to town was steep and a bit treacherous with loose gravel. At the bottom of the last hill I noticed my rear brake had overheated and was no longer working. Thank goodness I had made it that far!

I am completing this blog entry in Cuenca, Ecuador. We made it here after yet another flat tire on my bike (The sixth flat. I will buy new tires tomorrow!). Tomorrow is New Year´s Eve. Hopefully, this city knows how to bring in the new year. Firecrackers are already popping around town and hundreds of effigies are on sale here - all waiting to go up in celebratory smoke. It has been an amazing 2011 and I have many people to thank, especially my parents and sister for their support, my colleagues and the Academy for making this possible, Frank Bowen for helping me prepare, and friends like Brad and Karen Alexander for looking after business back home for me. I wish you all a fun slide (as Germans say) into the new year and a very happy 2012!

1 comment:

  1. Banos, Cuenca, and El Corazon are my old stomping grounds in Ecuador. El Corazon was actually where I taught my first class as a teacher in training back in 1998. Ecuador is great and the people are both "tranquilos" and "carinosos." Anywho, it's 8am and the twins are crying. Light snow has fallen and I had my first good day at Burke yesterday. This has been the worst December for snow since I've been here, so you're not missing much in that area. I've been up to Mt. Hor a bunch though for XC. Missing you around STJA. Looking forward to catching up when you get back. Good luck with everything. South America is sweet magic! - JBentley