Saturday, November 9, 2013

Motorcycle Trip Ecuador


After spending a three month stint backpacking through South East Asia, my husband Josh and I were more than ready to settle down for a bit; have a place of our own with a steady income, a comfy bed, and a Netflix subscription. Boringness. Normalcy. It sounded nice. We found stable jobs, together no less, and a place to live that wasn’t a grungy Asian guesthouse. And for a while it was nice. We ate pizza and Mexican food (practically unheard of in South East Asia) and re-acclimated to American life.… But then a familiar itch began again. Slowly, we began to realize how much we missed our life in that other world, the world often referred to by backpackers in Vietnam as “same same, but different,” and plans of another venture began to formulate.




One of our favorite memories of our time in Asia was this crazy trip we took while in Laos known as the “The Loop.” It was a three day journey through Laos’s mist covered mountains riding on rickety 110cc motorbikes that threatened to fall apart at any moment. It was a challenging ride, at times off-roading on extremely muddy 60 degree hills. I cried because it was so hard, I also laughed when I dropped my bike for the umpteenth time, and I was quite proud of myself for completing it at the end. It was definitely an adventure that I will remember for the rest of my life.


Josh and I both agreed that riding through a country was the best way to really see it. We decided that we wanted to recreate the experience so we started looking into renting motorbikes in other countries. Eventually I found a company based out of Ecuador that rented out dual sport motorcycles and had some pretty nice self-guided tour options. The tour we decided on was the Avenue of the Volcanoes tour which had us doing the Quilotoa Loop (we’re fond of loops), and would bring us by the beautiful Laguna Quilotoa, which is a volcanic crater lake that sits at an elevation of about 11,500 ft. We’d also be traveling through the touristy town of Baños and part of the Amazon. 

We made plans, and convinced our friend Lauren to join us, and after a year, finally found ourselves flying to Ecuador. We landed just before midnight at the Quito airport. By the time we slogged through the massive lines for customs, we gained entry to the country and picked up our bags.  After a harrowing and apparently normal 40 km taxi drive to our hostel in the dangerous area of Quito known as La Mariscal we finally arrived and tucked in for the night.

Excited to begin.  Especially Lauren.

The next morning we found ourselves waiting outside of the rental shop, despite the opening time on the door having already passed some time before. The staff finally arrived, shrugging with a grin and saying something about “Ecuadorian Time” and helped us prepare for our journey. After going over our paperwork and packing up our saddlebags we were ready to go. And we did go, quite slowly, through congested Thursday morning Quito traffic. After some terrifying experiments in lane-splitting between rows of stuck cars, and almost getting hit several times by aggressive drivers (by American standards anyways), we made it out of Quito and were on our way.
We named these bikes Delirium's Mistress and The Happy Gringo.
From the beginning the ride was definitely colder than we had been anticipating. We had just left 100F+ degree weather in Austin, Texas, and until we arrived in Ecuador we hadn’t quite realized how much of a difference in temperature a 10,000 foot change in elevation could make. Also, it rained. It rained a LOT. But as bad as the rain may have seemed on the first day, it was nothing compared to what was to come.  More about that later.
The weather the first day as we set out from Quito was pretty nice actually. Until about an hour or so in when it started to slightly drizzle and then began to rain in earnest. To escape the rain, and also because it had been recommended to us by both the rental company and a friend who had lived in Ecuador, we stopped at a small café in Machachi that was painted like a cow. True to its reputation, the food was delicious, with some of the freshest ingredients we would taste on the entire trip.

These burgers were amazing.


After lunch it was still raining, but we had a schedule to keep so we set out on our soggy bikes anyways. Soon enough we found our turn off from the main road, set out on the Quilotoa Loop and began ascending into the mountains. It was beautiful but perilous with hairpin turns, plenty of gravel, and wandering llamas and livestock relaxing in the road around every corner. It became even more harrowing at some point between Lasso and Sigchos, as we found ourselves travelling these same looping roads but now with 11 km of thick, viscous fog which reduced our visibility to about a foot in front of us. Giant trucks heading in the opposite direction would frequently be in our lane as they came around corners and I heard Josh honk as aggressively as he could so we could avoid them.
There's a cow way up there.  No idea how it will get down.


Eventually we made it through the fog, but it slowed us down measurably and by the time we reached Sigchos we were hours behind schedule and dark was falling. We thought for a moment about staying there for the night, but we decided against that since we had already paid for our stay in Tigua as part of our tour. We assumed we could make it before the sun set. Little did we realize, the sun sets around 5 pm in Ecuador. As we pressed on the paved road suddenly ran out and we found ourselves traveling on a dicey dirt road in the dark. And then the fog came back.  This reduced our speed yet again, and we were quickly becoming concerned about the cold, and where we would be sleeping that night.
Freezing but still happy.
After about 20 km of this type of riding we came to the small town of Chugchilan, freezing and filthy, and we had a decision to make. Should we keep going and try to make our reservation in Tigua? Or should we find a place to stay in Chugchilan? Also, we were supposed to visit the Laguna Quilotoa on the first day, how would we see it in the dark if we kept on?


While Josh and I debated the issue, our friend Lauren went off to investigate a hostel she had seen when we first entered town. After about five minutes, Josh and I decided that it would be safest to stay in Chugchilan in any case and followed. We found Lauren, and as we rode into the gated hostel, they closed the doors behind us and locked them. Lucky us. They had rooms for $15 per person which included dinner and breakfast. We took it, not that we had a lot of other options.




After a cold night huddled under dozens of blankets we set off, excited to see the famous Laguna Quilotoa. As we left Chugchilan we were very thankful that we had decided to stop there for the night since the dirt roads started up again as soon as we were out of town. We pressed on slowly through the gravel and dirt and for some reason our GPS had us veer off what turned into a paved road and onto a sand filled path which then reconnected to the paved road again. After a few falls in the sand, Josh generously helped Lauren and I pick up our heavy bikes and we were off on our way to Laguna Quilotoa. Which was beautiful.

Beautiful but windy view.  Very windy.

As much as we wanted to stay and explore the beautiful lake and around it, we had already taken longer than we wanted and we had to get going. Luckily the dirt roads were over and we had an easy, curvy ride to Ambato. On the way we stopped in Latacunga and checked out the market there. Lauren had some delicious cheesy fried bread.

After Ambato we began our ascent up to the Chimborazo Volcano which stands at an elevation of 20,000 ft (our route would take us up to 14,500 ft, higher than Pike’s Peak in Colorado). It began to get quite cold, and as we rode up we saw that our route would once again take us into impossible to see through fog, which meant that we would be unlikely to see much of the volcano either.
Chimborazo in the distance
 After some consideration we decided to take a lower elevation route to Baños. We ran into a whole slew of construction sites and were so slowed down that we didn’t reach Baños until dark had almost set in. Again. This was turning out to be a trend.

Waterfall in Banos.

Unfortunately, since we arrived late and had to leave early the next morning we didn’t get a chance to experience the hot springs which the town is famous for. We did enjoy a delicious dinner at a nice restaurant across the street from our hostel which was easily the nicest hostel we stayed at the entire trip. We went to bed early, and slept really well that night.









The next morning we woke up well rested and tucked into an enjoyable breakfast at our hostel. Josh oiled the bikes, and then we were off on the third day of our adventure. The route out of Baños was beautiful and took us through green winding roads. Shortly out of the city, we hit a traffic jam which was caused by failing debris that had slid down the rock face.

On our way to Puyo we decided to stop and see a waterfall Lauren had heard about called Pailon del Diablo which means “Cauldron of the Devil”. Since we had all of our things with us Josh elected to stay behind and watch the bikes while Lauren and I went down to check it out. The waterfall was pretty amazing and Lauren got some great shots from above by crawling through a small cave that climbed about 20 ft up from the viewing landing.



While Lauren and I were hiking around viewing waterfalls, Josh was bored back at the bikes and decided this would be a great time to buy me a gift - a small Hello Kittyesque tom tom drum, which I found elaborately strapped to my bag for the rest of the ride. Hilarious.



After exploring for a bit we were back on track, riding through the Amazon Basin jungle. We stopped in Puerto Misahualli to see the local mischievous monkeys - our friend who used to live in Ecuador said that she had her earring stolen out of her ear without even noticing, so we kept our distance. The day had been pretty sunny up until then, but while in Misahualli clouds began to drift in so we decided it was time to leave.

 As we neared our final destination for the night, Papallacta, we began to ascend in elevation again, and it began to get cold, drizzly and darkness began to fall. After some close calls winding around slow moving semi trucks on 2 lane roads, one of which we had to pass on the right side next to a ravine, we finally made it to Papallacta, a small village only a few hours drive from Quito that is famous for its thermal hot springs and spas.


Unfortunately the hotel that we had planned on staying at was presumably booked for the night, which was upsetting. As we left in the cold dark we wondered if our drenched, muddy attire had played a factor in none of the rooms being available for us.

Our friendly host.
Fortunately we found a cute little hostel with a restaurant inside almost immediately and went in and asked about rooms for the night. Through our broken Spanish and the innkeeper’s non-existent English we determined prices and also we came to understand that she wanted us to bring our bikes in for the night and park them in her little restaurant so they wouldn’t be stolen. The rates were fairly reasonable and there was also a hot spring swimming pool in the back.  It was a great deal and we agreed to take the rooms.



We had a delicious dinner and some kind of weird corn thing with cheese called choclo con queso and then climbed into our swimsuits for some thermal spa time. It was wonderful after a long, cold day of riding. After that we went up to our freezing cold rooms and went to sleep in anticipation of our last day of riding.

The water was great. Getting out was not.








The next morning we woke up bright and early, or should I say misty, cold and early? It was freezing. But we had to be back in Quito by 11:30am to return our bikes so we headed out anyways. Luckily the closer we got to Quito the better the weather got so that was something. Riding back into Quito had much less traffic than riding out of it, most likely because it was Sunday morning and everyone was at Church or sleeping off hangovers.





After dropping off our bikes we wandered La Mariscal in search of a hostel, which we found out later is one of the most dangerous things you can do in Quito on a Sunday. This is because of common muggings in that area due to the lack of crowds and police presence. Somehow we managed not to get robbed. After some searching we found a nice little hostel on Juan Rodriguez St.

The next day we decided to move to the Old Town historical district which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978. It was lovely and quaint and we stayed there for the rest of our stay in Quito.


At some point we took a bus out to Otavalo which is about a two hour ride from Quito. Otavalo is famous for its indigenous market known as Plaza de los Ponchos. We went on a Tuesday which is far from its most popular day, Saturday, but the amount of crafts and goods sold is still somewhat overwhelming. I got talked into buying a colorful woven purse and Josh naturally bought a shrunken head. It’s fake, we hope.  



While in Quito we also visited a very nice fruit market, the Museo Nacional, a gigantic statue of a winged Virgin Mary, La Virgen del Panecillo, and a fantastic cathedral, Basilica del Voto Nacional. The Basilica was especially noteworthy since we were able to climb up through an amazing amount of spiral staircases, a wooden plank and then a walkway that went all the way to the top of the church. The view of Quito from there was spectacular and it becomes apparent just how large the city actually is.
























Hail Satan!



  While in Quito we visited many things, among them Mitad del Mundo, a touristy area featuring a monument that is supposed to mark what was once declared “The Middle of the World.” Nowadays that has been proven inaccurate as the true 0° 0′ latitude is actually 300m north of the monument. While there we also tried a local delicacy known as “cuy” which we in America like to refer to as “guinea pig.” It was surprisingly good, although a little unsettling since the animal was simply fried whole and served to us, head, paws, teeth and all.


We had to head back to Austin far too soon and we are already on the look out for another adventure to go on next year.





Special thanks to Lauren Bruce Lund for use of her amazing photos.

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