Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Bustin outta Ecuador

We both saw Ecuador as a country we just wanted to get through quickly, largely because we were already there a few years ago and because we would rather spend more time in Peru and Bolivia.  Also because once we were in Ecuador, we thought the people were not very friendly and that everywhere was trying hard to be a tourist trap.  Ecuador has three major North-South routes - the coast road, the mountain road (also known as the Panamerican) and the jungle road.  There are other small roads that you can take, but it doesn't seem like there are that many.  Since we wanted to travel fast, we thought we would take the Panamerican the whole way, but everytime we take the Panamerican we reaffirm to ourselves how much we hate it.  We much prefer smaller, more rural roads.  Even so, some of the sights in Ecuador can be pretty amazing from the Panamerican or close to it, for instance, views of Cotopaxi and other random sights:

Field workers near Quilotoa
(field workers outside of Latacunga)

there were a number of strong women working construction while still wearing their traditional skirt and hat.
(women working hard while on the road construction while wearing their traditional skirts and hats)

From Latacunga (access to Quilotoa), we went to Baños, a well known tourist destination located in the valley of the Tungurahua Volcano, which is very active and actually had an eruption in late August.  People often go to Baños for extreme sports, bicycle riding to several waterfalls, hot springs, etc.  There are plenty of hostels, tour agencies, and bars for everyone.  We were lame and cooked dinner in the hostel kitchen, walked around just a bit, and spent the rest of our time on the hostel internet and watching cable. 

The next morning we decided that instead of getting back on the Panamerican we would take the jungle route through Puyo down to Macas.  The road was in good shape, taking us through lots of small towns with nice views of the mountainous jungle.  Even though the Panameican has nice views, this road can compete.

country church outside of Baños

Good (new) pavement in southern Ecuador (between Baños and cuenca)

South of Macas we cut across the mountains to Cuenca.  This road was beautiful and in very good shape, except for the numerous construction zones (where the road will be in very good shape soon).

Making beautiful (new) pavement in southern Ecuador

Dangerous lake on the way to Cuenca

After a long day of riding, we got to Cuenca after dark and after searching for quite a while for something in our price range, finally found Hotel Pichincha for $6 per person (GPS coords:  S 2 deg 53.788 min / W 79 deg 00.404 min).  Cuenca is a very nice colonial city which seems to have quite a bit of money both locally and from the large amount of retired American tourists who have moved there.  We found a delicious pizza place that was much more affordable because they forgot to charge us for the liter of wine we drank.

In the morning, we drove down to Loja, where we decided to stop for the day because we were pretty exhausted from our previous day.  Of course, it was a Sunday and everything was closed, so we took the opportunity to rest and catch up on our American reality TV shows on cable.  From Loja we headed directly south to the border. 

The Panamerican crossing, as well as the crossing over close to the coast, is a major crossing.  The one we took is most definitely not, feeling a lot like some of the small Central American crossings that we used (partially due to its rural nature, mostly due to the silly order of operations...).  The road is unpaved and very rural.  They are currently in the process of paving the road, which is unfortunate for several reasons.  For one, the lack of pavement deterred traffic, keeping the area uncontaminated.  Also, the dirt road was in very good shape, except for areas of construction.  Where they were working, the road was a complete mess - very muddy and unstable.  We saw a bus almost get stuck just getting through a work area. 

Mud hole construction zone on the way to Zumba, south of Loja
(Ecuadorian construction zone)

A bus just that lost traction about kept us from getting through this stretch, on the way to Zumba
(the bus barely made it through here)

The construction also stops traffic a lot.  We had to wait for the bulldozers to scrape off the side of a mountain and load it into several dumptrucks for an hour and a half before we were allowed to pass.  Had we known it would be such a mess, we may have gone the Panamerican route. 

We watched this scene unfold (while stationary) for almost an hour and a half trying to get to Zumba.
(our view for an hour and a half)

We ended up staying in Zumba just north of the border.  It is a very sleepy little town, but the exchange rate was great.  We got 2.60 soles to $1 when the official rate was 2.53.  In the morning we ran into 2 other motorcycle travelers and had coffee with them.  They were two very amusing and entertaining characters.  Matt, from the US had bicycled down to Colombia, but got impatient to get to Ushuaia, so bought a Suzuki DR200 and raced 3 other travelers south, making it in 30 days.  (Sadly, 2 of the other guys ended up wrecking and having to go home.)  He is now working his way back north with plans of doing an around the world trip before he finishes.  The other guy, Ollie, is a German in the middle of an around the world trip.  He bought a 70cc in Pakistan, sending his nice XT600 bike home.  He is a wild man and has an awesome clown horn to match is bike.  He also gave Mike his hand warmers, which are truly appreciated.

Matt (DR200) and Ollie (70cc from Pakistan) in Zumba.  Ollie was a gent and gave Mike his handwarmers, which will be much appreciated as we venture higher and further south

Just outside of town we met, Steve, another traveler on a bike from England.  He has been on the road 3 years and thinks it will take another 3 to get all the way around the world.

Steve outside of Zumba, on the road about 3 yrs, expecting 3 more to complete his round the world
(Steve taking a break on a long uphill into Zumba)

We made it to the border at lunchtime and had to wait for the officials to get done eating.  Las Balsas is very, very sleepy.  There is one hostel on the Peru side, a couple money changing shops,  and a  restaurant or two.  Once the Ecuadorian officials got done eating, the checking out process was very quick. 

("Ecuadorian National Police - ¡Much more than a good Friend...!")

The circus really began as we crossed the bridge into Peru.  The huge, 2 lane spanning gate was down, and even in the bowed up middle, it was shorter than the TA.  The police officer just 15 meters away signalled that we should just come on through, and then proceeded to watch our struggle instead of unlocking the padlock to raise the gate.  So with Jill pushing up on the gate with all her might, and Mike walking the fully loaded TA at a solid lean angle while crouching, we made it (gracefully) into Peru.  Yet again, we had to wait for officials to be ready for us.  The very same police officer who was watching our entry instructed us on where to find the immigration officer. 

At the Ecuador-Peruvian border, turkeys run the place.
(this turkey was about as helpful as the officials)

So we walked down the street to find him, ended up waking the guy up, who told us he had to finish eating.  Then when he came to help us, we had to wait for that very same police officer to approve us, but he had chosen the very moment when we walked into the immigration office as his lunch break (full well aware that he was our next stop in the process).  So we ate in the same restaurant as him (where they served the equivalent of beef jerky for lunch).  Once he was ready, he approved us and sent us back to the sleepy official.  After that, the bike was super easy to check in, by the one official who smiled, was helpful at all times, and didn't make a show of his authority.  If our timing wasn't so bad, we would have been through the border in less than 30 minutes.  As it was, it took about an hour and a half but was very, very low stress... just a bit ridiculous. 

This border provided the additional bonus of getting us into an area of Northern Peru that we wanted to see as opposed to the northern coast which we have already been to in the past (and really isn't all that exciting).
On the Peruvian side of the Ecudor-Peru border crossing.
(in Peru!)

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