July 21 to Aug 8, 2010
The midday sun warmed my face as we zigzagged down the empty dirt road from one breathtaking view to the next. Above us, indigenous farmers, many wearing the ubiquitous bowler hat, cultivated crops by hand on impossibly steep hillsides. Below us, deep valleys plunged towards rushing rivers and flat, fertile fields – prime land owned by the minority wealthy elite. But instead of feeling resentment towards our world of inequity, I continued to drive with a look that might be best described as post-coital contentment. Why? Because for the first time in a long journey, I was neither thinking of where we had been nor where we were going. Instead, I was focused only on the NOW and I loved it. Those moments of clarity are rare on the road (and life in general) so I tried to hold on to it for as long as I could.
It was a funny head space to be in because, as usual, Roz and I didn’t know what we were doing. We had left Cotopaxi National Park with little more of a plan than to continue south. Along the way, we stopped at Latacunga, a cute little town that Lonely Planet described as having an inordinate amount of barber shops. Never did find out why there were so many, but since we were both in need of a cut, this was obviously the town for it. Overwhelmed with choice, we finally picked out a modern-looking salon that had a fun Colombian stylist (who had found better work opportunities in Ecuador than in his homeland). And, for the first time, we indulged in a hotel facing the town’s main square – usually a pricey option, but in this case, quite reasonable. From Latacunga, we decided to check out a well-known scenic drive known as the Quilotoa Loop – a remote, mountainous road that linked several high Andean villages with Latacunga. Along the way, we stopped at the market town of Saquisili and stocked up on fruits & veggies. Roz was very happy. (ROZ: The market was interesting because it was for the locals from the highlands, mostly indigenous, and not for tourists. In other words, lots of traditional herbs, plants and leashed pigs, and not a lot of tacky overpriced “hand-made” crafts). Next stop was Laguna Quilotoa. Situated 3,900 m (12,795 ft) in the Andes it’s a 3 km wide volcanic crater containing a 250 m (820 ft) deep emerald lake. Hugely humongous dude! We could have hiked to the bottom in a half-hour, but that would have required a labourious 400 meter vertical climb to return. No thanks. Claiming it was too late in the day, us fat bastards ate chocolate instead. A much better choice.
We spent a leisurely couple of days driving the loop, starting on narrow unpaved roads and ending on relatively smooth cobblestone. It was some of the most spectacular scenery we’d seen, made all the more unique by the remote highland villages that would spring up out of nowhere and the indigenous villagers who inhabited this region. It was during this time that I had my “NOW” driving experience. It was also when Roz and I finally decided not to visit the Ecuadorean coast. We had already spent nearly two months (and a ton of money) in this country and we were eager to put on some miles. A quick glance at our South American map pointed out the obvious – we had hardly penetrated this huge continent and there was still more than three-quarters of it to explore. Plus, Roz had been reading up on Peru, our next destination, and it sounded amazing. So we decided to visit a few more places in southern Ecuador and then push on to the border.
Our first stop after the loop was Banos. Beautifully set in a valley between a huge river and a recently active volcano, the town was a popular destination for Ecuadoreans and foreigners because of its hot springs. We were looking forward to them because the weather had turned cold and rainy, but were disappointed to discover that they were really just huge, crowded public swimming pools fed by spring water. Having soaked in some beautiful intimate pools in desert and jungle settings, we decided to skip these ones. What can I say? We’ve become hot spring snobs. But Banos did have other things in its favour: stunning views of the surrounding green mountains (the town’s a gateway to the upper Amazon Basin), some yummy restaurants and a fun chaotic energy. Watching tourists (mostly Ecuadorean) drive up and down the streets in rented quads and dune buggies was always good for a laugh. Why they needed them on paved streets, I’ll never know, but they were obviously having a good time.
Warning to the squeamish – the following video contains a slaughtered pig. View with discretion.
After leaving Banos, we went looking for a scenic road south that appeared on our maps but which we couldn’t find for the life of us. Then we learned from some locals that it had been destroyed a few years back (along with a number of villages!) by eruptions from nearby Volcan Tungurahua. Yikes! Strike one for us. When we went looking for said volcano and others in the region (including Ecuador’s highest peak, Volcan Chimborazo), we were thwarted by low-hanging rain clouds that obscured everything but the road. Strike two. And finally, in the town of Riobamba, we learned that the famous train that switchbacked along a spectacularly steep gorge known as “Nariz del Diablo” (Devil’s Nose) was closed due to track maintenance. Come back in six months, they said. Strike three. We just weren’t having much luck with this part of the country.
Undaunted, we carried on south until we got to Cuenca, Ecuador’s 3rd largest city, where we decided to hole up for a few days and get some work done on our trucklet, Yuki. Nine months of speed bumps and potholes had taken their toll – it was time the ol’ gal had an alignment and a tune-up. After a Hungarian lunch in a downtown restaurant, we drove in circles for what seemed like hours until we finally found Cabanas Yanuncay – run by Spanish-English-German-speaking Umberto and his lovely wife Maria – on the edge of town. Unfortunately, the self-contained cabins were already rented, but they had a nice ensuite room available in their house. (ROZ: Although the advertised hot tub was broken, they did have a sweet little wooden sauna that we took advantage of every night. Cuenca is in the highlands at an elevation of 2,500 metres (8,000 ft), so even though we were there in July it was pretty chilly at night (and usually raining). We had the sauna all to ourselves so we did the Scandinavian thing and got it and us VERY hot. Then we ran outside, doused ourselves in cold water from a garden hose, then ran shivering back into the sauna for another round. Ahhhhhh. Oh yeah, there was also an adorable German Shepherd called Sophie and lots of crazy chickens. All in all, not a bad place to hang out for a week). Best of all, Umberto had a cousin who was a mechanic with a garage next door. Nice.
While Yuki spent time getting tinkered with, we explored Cuenca. Our first visit was to the Panama Hat Museum and factory. That’s right, Panama hats are made in Cuenca, Ecuador. Turns out that when the Americans were building the Panama canal, they ordered a zillion of these hats for their workers (that’s right – a zillion) and they became known as Panama hats. Who knew?! With the help of a young salesman named Juan, Roz and I left the factory with two new cool hats – I even got to watch mine get made. We also visited a museum (yawn), some ruins (double yawn) and a bird zoo that was kind of neat (even though it saddened us to see them behind bars).
Also staying at Cabanas Yanuncay were Alan and Susan, a couple from the U.S. that were waiting for their condo to be built. They, like many other Americans, were moving to Ecuador because of the comparatively low cost of living and the easy entry requirements. They said that Ecuador was now the number one country for American expats to retire to. Personally, I found Ecuador rich in natural beauty, but weak on infrastructure and art. The highways were terrible, road work badly planned and the resulting detours devoid of signs. Building codes seemed non-existent, which resulted in a landscape of unfinished buildings with exposed rebar and bare concrete. I heard no music in the streets (other than American Top 40 crap) and the only art and culture I encountered was from the indigenous population. I also heard many stories, from both expats and Ecuadorians, about the widespread corruption within the government, courts and police department. Just because it’s cheap and an easy place to immigrate to doesn’t mean I’d want to spend my retirement years there. But hey, that’s just my opinion.
(ROZ: While Cuenca wasn’t without its charms – lovely colonial architecture, nice cafes and markets – it had the usual problems of any big city. In addition to pollution and garbage it had the most public displays of urination I’d yet seen – and Ecuador was already topping my list as the country with the most public pissing. I thought I’d seen it all until we left the Panama Hat Museum and saw two very drunk guys passed out on the sidewalk. But that didn’t stop one of them from letting loose with a stream of arcing piss from his dangling wang. How he managed that trick without wetting himself, I’ll never know. Ah, the sights you see when you travel.)
Before leaving Cuenca, we found a tent maker who was able to make us a rain cover for the back of Yuki based upon my bad drawings and my even worse Spanish. So next time it’s pouring rain we’ll be prepared – we can set up the vinyl shelter over the stove on the back door and cook while staying dry. Very cool! Speaking of cool, a German couple, Wolfgang and Brigitte, arrived at Umberto’s with a very sweet driving rig based on a Toyota Land Cruiser body. I think I know what I want for our next trip. Check it out in the photo gallery.
From Cuenca, we drove south along, up and over gorgeous grassy highlands where, for some unknown reason, we also saw the most roadkill since our journey began (4 dogs, 1 cow and a horse!). We arrived in the blue-collar town of Loja at night in the pouring rain and vowed never to do that again. (ROZ: Yeah, right!) Luckily, we didn’t encounter any wildlife or killer potholes along the way. After spending the night in a grim hotel where we awoke to the pleasant sounds of a neighbour hacking up phlegm, we also vowed to avoid hotels whenever we could. We always had our best sleeps in our tent, so why not camp as much as possible in the future?
Our final Ecuadorean town was Vilcabamba, which gave new meaning to the term “sleepy, one-horse town”. Right up our slacker alley. Best of all, the weather was hot and sunny thanks to its low(ish) elevation of 1,500 m (4,950 ft). We found a large, decrepit hotel that was a cross between Deliverance and The Shining, but we didn’t care because we were camped in the back with a nice view of the town below. The next morning, we awoke to an incredible cacophony of noise. Birds sang, dogs howled, pigs squealed and donkeys brayed. It was unbelievable and left us laughing. At least it wasn’t a guy coughing up his lungs. After a few restful warm days, we bid farewell to Vilcabamba and aimed Yuki’s nose for the Peruvian border. But instead of taking the easy route back to Loja and then the highway south to the border-town of Macara, we decided to check out an unpaved “shortcut”. Shortcut? Ha! It climbed and descended a number of mountains on a dusty, hot road, and probably added 3 extra hours to our day, but we didn’t care. It was incredibly beautiful and a wonderful last drive through Ecuador.
Travelling isn’t easy. Sometimes you’re high as a kite in the NOW loving it and other times, you’re shaking your head wondering what the hell you’re doing. But in the end, if everything lines up and you persevere, it’s pure magic. Besides, it beats working.
Tune in next time for “Is there something alive inside my leg?!”
END OF PART 29