Looking for a lot more of this, somewhere in the Andes between Mindo and Otavalo
So, after spending 2 years driving around Latin America while living out of my Van, I returned to the workforce to be reminded it sucks. I needed desperate relief, so last year I took a 3 week vacation to Thailand (A Tale of Highs and Low-Sides: My 3 Week Motorcycle Adventure in Northern Thailand), but I felt Thailand was just too easy. This year there is no wussing out, it’s back to Latin America, Ecuador to be exact.
I arrived in Ecuador worn out. Stayed at work till 10:30 the night before leaving to make sure that everything was done, then I was up all night packing cause I am a procrastinator. Next thing I know I am on 3 hours sleep and jumping on a bus to make my way to the Tijuana border hauling a big ass luggage full of moto gear. Flying out of Mexico was cheaper and gave me an extra day in Ecuador schedule wise, but in hindsight I won’t do it again, its just too easy to fly out of SD. Figured I would sleep on the plane and be set as it’s an overnight flight from Mex City to Quito, but of course I can’t sleep. I arrive in Quite at 6 am, can’t check into the hostel until noon, so leave my bags and walk around for a few hours in a comatose, wondering why the F I cannot breath, and keep breaking into a sweat even though there is a nice crisp cool breeze in the air… might have something to do with going from sea level to 9,350 feet in altitude.
If you didn’t know, Quito is the highest populated city in the world, sitting alongside a Volcano factory, which equates to some amazing riding. It is also the most unaltered of any UNESCO site, and while there is a KFC in centro historico, Quito still has a great old city feel to it overall. I decided to spend the 1st 2 days exploring the city and letting myself acclimate before picking up the bike. i didn’t get any headaches or feel sick, but I did feel off, and had no appetite for 3 days or so, glad I made the decision as I enjoyed my time in Quito.
I stayed in between the Historic Center, and the more modern area, think its called plaza foch, this area and the surrounding streets are where you can find the touristy stuff. If your not sure if your in the vicinity of Plaza Foch, but see a couple McDonalds, a Burger King, a KFC, and other gringo joints, rest assured that’s the place. Anyway, it was perfect as I was far enough from the modern area while still having access. I was able to walk all over the place and be back on the streets of Latin America where I think I belong, but in reality probably don’t haha. Unfortunately Quito has a minor problem with theft and pick pocketing so you do need to use some caution when out and about, but most Ecuadorians read my blog so already knew not to mess with this gringo, but the rest of you should keep this in the back of your mind.
These senoras whipped me up a delicious treat, I think there was butter inside the pancake thing….Inside!!
The night before picking up the bike I decide I would go to bed early so was just relaxing in bed at the hostel when it started. I had been pretty sure I was the only one in the room, what the hell is the guy above my bunk doing jumping all around? A couple seconds go by and I realize, oh, it’s an earthquake……oh, I am on the 5th floor of an old ass building built in the 1600’s, and it’s an earthquake. I just stay where I am and see what happens, I dont think running for the creaky stairs is the right play, but I am not sure what I should really do here, the floor literally springs as you walk without and earthquake taking place. I live in San Diego now, and have felt a few quakes over 4.0, but our buildings are new, and the quakes were never that close, so they have always been fun. Well, this was a 4.7, and only 7 miles away from the city, but I admit, it was still fun. As long as no one is getting hurt and nothing getting damaged I love them, The fact that everything can shake like that just amazes me. There have been a larger than normal amount of quakes here in Quito the past year I am told, so most residents went outside in fear of aftershocks, now in hindsight that would have been the right play. This guy just called it a night and went to bed, but what a great way to kick off the trip.
I rented from Freedom Bike Rental in Ecuador…contrary to my comments above this portion of this trip couldn’t be easier. Stopped by the shop, grabbed the Suzuki DR200 I reserved, was given some tire irons, spare tires, air compressor, and a cell phone….hey, I wanted this to be difficult! Left the shop headed for Mindo, an easy ride, only to realize my GPS Ecuador map was still on my computer, not my GPS. There is the challenge I was looking for. Decided to wing it, had an afternoon ride out of Quito, looping around Quito, and deciding to go back to Quito…only problem Quito is F’ing Huge. All I know is I am now in South Quito, know idea what that means , but the city runs north to south so I just made my way north following the flow of traffic figuring I would get back to the centro, which I did eventually. Take 2
The next day I have my maps, and the weather is looking good, so it’s off to Mindo, a sleepy town located on the western slopes of the mighty Andes mountains, and according to Wiki one of the most heavily tourist-ed places in Ecuador, with tubing canyoning, bird watching, hmm, no mention of motorcycles, this place can’t be that great. The area here is known as a cloud forest, whatever that means, so it was no surprise I ended up riding in rain and fog high in the mountains. I arrive in the early afternoon wet and cold, but figure I might as well ride a little more so after doing a lap of the town on the bike scoping out some places to stay with parking, I head up a dirt road I see at the back of town to try and kill an hour or so….hmm, I knew they left the motorcycle part out accidentally. The road was nothing special, but being on dirt, surrounded by lush green mountains while getting rained on, yes this is why I am here.
After playtime on the dirt road I make my way back to Mindo, which again, is a sleepy town. Nothing I saw on a Monday night would indicate this is on the tourist map aside from the numerous hostels and several pizzarias in this small town. I only saw about 6 or 7 small groups of gingos if that. Thats ok though, its tranquil here, and I like that, plus it was cool but not cold, and I like that as well. I lay in my hammock watching the rain for an hour or so just listening to it and the birds Once it stops raining I am free and walk around the small town for hours, literally doing laps up and down the main street and the few side streets, crazy yes, I am not giving gringos a good name, but I was bored, and hoping something, somewhere in this small town would happen, eventually. Every restaurant was empty, aside from the occasional gringo couple in this pizzeria or that one, which were otherwise empty. I eventually gave in to the woman selling chicken and bananas on a stick on the street, the timeless classic chicken-bananabobs. I don’t play favorites though, so also snagged some carne with mayonnaise, and some corn with cheese. That was the highlight of my evening, so eventually I went to bed. Its beautiful there though, and there is some great hiking and birdwatching, but I am here for the riding, so these are just stop overs for me.
The next day I make my way towards Otavalo, famous for it’s Saturday market, of course it is Wednesday, but that is supposed to be the second best day to get a taste. Well, that little Suzuki 200 is sloooow, and I stop to take pictures, and I take dirt roads when i can, so we will see what the Thursday market looks like haha. I arrived in Otavalo around 6:30, grabbed a hostel and headed down to catch the end of the market, ti find the market closes at 7, just as I arrive. Oh well, the days ride was amazing, and exactly why I am here, you’ve seen 1 market you’ve seen them all, I am only here for the food anyway.
Half of my day might have been on dirt, the other portions on some great asphalt, some on decent asphalt with lots of dirt/rocks/boulders/sink holes, and even parts of the Inca trail I believe, literally a bit of everything. The views were great, and today I managed to stay dry, always a plus. I decided to stop by the Laguna Cuicocha for a photo on the way, a beautiful crater lake located just outside Otavalo. I arrived late in the afternoon and had no intention on hiking, but you can hike the rim in about 4 hours, so I have decided to stay an extra day to do the hike, before heading south to Banos the following day. Turns out this is a good decision for several reasons, as when I arrive at the hotel a couple guys in a car are pointing and saying something, but I cannot hear them. Not sure if they are trying to get my attention or the car behind me as they point behind me. I pull over to take a look, and when they pull up realize they are telling me my tire is low on air. No problem, at least I am here and not miles up in the middle of nowhere, I had to park in a parking area separate from the hotel, so rather than change it out myself I am going full gringo and paying the guy to do it tomorrow, just need to find, the guy. Now, there is a flat tire scam that goes on at time in parts of latin america, I don’t think this was the case, the guys letting me know came from the 1 way road crossing the 1 way road I was on so there was no way they were involved, and I hadn’t left my bike in awhile, I think it was just a fluke picking up a nail outside Otavalo.
So it took awhile to find “the guy”. Spoke to a woman, who sent me to a tire guy, but he tells me he only does cars. Couldn’t give me any help as to where I should go, I assumed he didn’t want to help the gringo. Turns out, after several car only tire guys, a moto guy is hard to find in Otavalo, and probably many places in Ecuador. From what I can gather, for some ridiculous reason, unlike other places in Latin America where 5 year old children can drive motos without helmets, here in Ecuador you need to obtain a license before riding…..so there are less bikers, and thus less moto specific shops. They exist, but it isn’t like the days I was driving around Colombia.
I stop and talk to some moto police, surely they know…they send me off in a direction where I eventually find a young kid who tells me no problem. Great, I will return with the bike. I come back and the kid is gone, and the father wont touch it….sigh. Eventually I find a bicycle shop that also claims to work on motos, though I saw no indication of this aside from the “Honda”, and “Moto Yama” painted on his storefront….who cares, this is now the guy! We pop off the tire and while he works I talk to the locals who are obviously drawn to the gringo in distress for the next 30 or so minutes. The guy asks for 6 bucks…no no sir, you have helped me immensely, here is 10$, plus, its been a blast hanging out here. He wants me to come back after he closes, there is talk of Anna, who is described as “tall and fat”. Not sure if he is trying to sell me, so I tell him I am not sure where I will be later, maybe, though she sounds “nice”. Time to get the F out of Octavalo.
I return to Quito after an afternoon of back roads for one last night, ready to head south to the Quilotoa Loop. Once I get down to the start of the loop I have routing issues with the GPS, but its fairly easy enough to make my way through the back roads. I see a bit of everything, even sandy switchbacks on a steep mountainside which sucked, but that’s all part of the adventure. I make it to the laguna earlier than I expected, it is cold up here, so rather than stay at the local hostel I push on thinking of the warm volcanic thermal baths of Banos further south. Before departing the mighty Suzuki draws a group of bikers also parked at the lagunas attention. I Chat with them for a bit, and mention how I have seen so many Ecuadorian riders in full protective gear. Not everyone of course, but he told me there was 1 store in Quito where they could buy gear, and that is why I see guys decked out in some nice stuff from head to toe. When I asked him about the riders in Ecuador, his response was yes, there are “enough”…which may have been too many for his taste. I give them a head start out so as not to t show them up with the Suzuki. They all have nice bikes, and equally nice gear on, loving the protection awareness I am seeing here, not sure if it is more safety, or social status, but it is good to see.
I didn’t make it to Banos, so decided to stop in Ambato due to the time of evening. Latacunga would have probably been a better choice for things going on as it is a stop off for people who want to tackle Cotopaxi, but at the time I knew nothing of either. Ambato is just a city, doesn’t sound like it has much to offer tourists, but I am no expert. Naturally, I walked around to grab some grub and people watch. Don’t think I saw any gringoes, though I am sure 1 or 2 stumble through at times. I decide since I am so close to Banos to loop up north and around a bit on backroads showing on my GPS to kill time and explore, so I arrive in Banos around 3 the next afternoon.
Banos is slightly less touristy than I imagined, though don’t be fooled it is touristy, and there are plenty of gringoes here, but there are more Ecuadorian tourists here, which is a plus. I struggle to find some good food, so hit the local market both days. Banos sits right in the path of the active Tungurahua volcano, though sadly the last eruption was in March and there is currently no lava flow (or is that gladly?). It provides natural hot baths full of minerals and miracles, so that is the main draw for people here. Banos from above looks very nice, once in town, it is rundown, not in a dangerous way, just not a nice looking place. It felt completely safe though, as is most of Ecuador.
I decide to stay here 2 nights rather than move, so leave my stuff and ride out to Volcan Chimborazo, an inactive, though immensely impressive volcano a couple hours away. It is the largest mountain in Ecuador, and the farthest point from the center of the earth. Basically, all you bitches climbing Everest have nothing on me. I stick to the paved roads today, and run from Banos, through Ambato to the Volcano, following the road around the volcano which take me down to Riobamba and back here to Banos. Its an easy ride, but my ass hurts, damn this little clown bike…the thermal baths will have their work cut out for them tonight.
On my way back to Banos, I stop at a small store in the middle of nowhere for some water, and a sandwich. I could have easily been in and out in 1 minute, but the owner starts up a conversation with me which last 10 or so minutes. I really enjoyed the stop, and think about how often people here have just started chatting with me. Those little “tiendas” are what I look for when I need something, even f there is a supermarket around, though trust me there was not that day. Not thinking too much of it, later the same day I stop by a local store in Banos to grab some water again, and the girl there keeps me in her tiny store for over 30 minutes as we talk about anything and everything, while customers come and go. The people here really are friendly, not just a hello how are you, but they will gladly sit and talk to you with interest.
After leaving Banos I continued on South, eventually arriving in Cuenca. Cuenca is apparently a beautiful colonial city, but they are currently tearing it to shreds to build what I assume is going to be a trolly that runs around town…so the beautiful part was not present for me, lots of construction, gates, etc. Still an ok city to walk around in and check out the sites, but this time of year Ecuador is empty. I have stayed at large Hotels where I am pretty sure I am the only person in them, same with small hostels. I see some non Ecuadorian tourists now and then, but overall I have been a bit underwhelmed by my destinations. The getting from point A to B is excellent, the Andes are amazing, I could spend months riding around on dirt roads which lead me to nowhere, but not having a travel partner in Ecuador at times has been harder than other countries, so I don’t always know what to do with myself.
From Cuenca I continued south to Vilcabamba, based on a conversation I had some travelers I met in Quito, as they had regretted not making it down there before their trip had ended. I hated this place, for the reasons above. It is a nice, tranquil, do nothing town, good weather, and plenty of hiking around, but with a rented bike and a ticking clock I am not interested in that. I saw about 10 other travelers in town the 2 days I was there, a group of 2 or 3 here, another there, as well as a couple of expats, nothing going on just a few hippies looking to do drugs. The majority of people would hangout at the restaurants and cafes setup by expats, not my thing…I came here to give my money to the locals. I chilled on a sidewalk for about 30 minutes people watching while I waited for a table to open up at a small place which appeared to be run by a local, and the food was great for 3 dollars a plate. Now, the place I ate at also had a pair of travelers, so I am not trailblazing here, or claiming that I am better than everyone else even though I am cough, but it is strange to me when you see people hanging out at a cafe or restaurant run by an expat rather than the real deal, but some people like comfort, to each their own. Of course full disclosure, I don’t like the food here, so have eaten at a Burger King, McDonlads, KFC, and Carls Jr. so pot meet kettle.
The only reason I did 2 days here was I wanted to take the bike further south before heading back north. Had a fun ride on the road south headed towards Peru, and kept forgetting I was not on my 2 year adventure and needed to turn around, I am sure the guys wouldn’t even miss this little DR200 if I kept going and never came back. They told me I could get around 200km on the tank before the reserve came on, I missed a turn down a dirt road I had originally setout to explore, so when I hit 100 turned around and returned to Vilcabamba for 1 more night, though considered going an hour north to the city of Loja, which I probably should have done in hindsight.
After that, I hit up the mountain town of Zaruma. I liked it here, had great weather, and you can walk all over and get some great shots of this town which sits up in the mountains, the roads are steep, and I didn’t see any gringos, sometimes a plus. Zaruma is apparently know for containing some of Ecuadors most beautiful women, and while I saw a few, there was nothing going on at 7pm on the Fri I was there, so I returned to the hotel to settle in. Where do these beautiful women hide at night, I am sure I would have enjoyed it much more had I found some, I must be going to bed too early. Unfortunately the next morning is when I got the previous bad news, so the trip has been a bit meh since then, certainly jading my views on the places I am visiting, don’t let me discourage you, Ecuador is great.
Not all the food is bad, just sick of the main choices, Hamburger with fries, hotdog with fries, chicken with fries, meat with fries. This plate was HUGE, but I wouldn’t let it defeat me. Even when I order Hamburguesa, they cannot resist throwing in some Salchipapas! (fries with cut up hotdog, everyone’s eating them)
From there I looped around near Malacha solely to take back roads towards the southern route through Cajas national park as I returned to Cuenca. I thoroughly enjoyed this journey, as 75% of it was on dirt roads taking me through the mountains, it was just what I needed for my state of mind at the time. It starts off on straight, fast paced roadways which I could have done without, but once you turn onto the dirt road things get good again. After hours of meandering around back there I did start to worry, it was cold, I didn’t know how long the journey would take me. The area looked like it must be a national park, but there were no signs indicating this. The thought of sleeping in my adventure suit huddled behind some rocks constantly crossed my mind, as some of the area was very desolate. When I pulled up to the gate for Cajas, I asked the guy how long it would take to get to Cuenca. 30 minutes or so…Yes! I thought I would have to sleep without a tent I told him, beaming with happiness at the thought of a nice warm bed. Turns out this gate was the entrance by Cuenca, and I vaguely recalled am open gate hours ago that had no sign or person around, not even realizing I had entered the park yet. It was more than 30 minutes, but I blame the Suzuki.
The next morning I hit up the northern route through the park, it is also beautiful, but you are only in the park for about 20 minutes or so, so if you are ok with dirt roads take the southern route at some point if you can, there was a mix of everything, but it is not that bad assuming you know your limits. From there I headed west, time to check out the Ecuadorian beach life.
Ok, so I have to get the bike back to Quito, still had a few days to go so decided to try my luck on the coast and see if I catch any waves. Not the best time of year for waves but not the worst, so I head west. The roads straighten out and turn flat for awhile, but the coast itself has nice easy winding roads that follow along the edge at times, though the best riding is obviously in the mountains.
I was debating between hitting up Playas or Salinas, both have southern facing beaches which increase my odds this time of year. As I arrived at the turn off for Playas I saw it was closed. It was not overly obvious how to get over there, though one car decided the closed sign was optional. I was cruising along a highway at a good legal pace, so decided to continue on west to Salinas rather than pull a U-turn and investigate, thanks Universe.
I arrived in Canoa early, and as I suspected it was dead being mid week, so I did a lap and continued north, looking to cut down on the next days longer ride to get me somewhere close to Quito for a problem free return. Didn’t know where I was going to stay, but could tell Pedernales was a good sized place from signage, and recalled reading something about it. Turns out it was a popular resort town with the people of Ecuador, just my kind of scene. Unfortunately in April of 2016 it was devastated by a 7.8, and while 5 months had passed, it looked like it had been 5 days.
But in a way it was just what I needed, a stop that wasn’t on the typical gringo trail, and a perfect example of how life goes on. The place was full of activity, if people were not selling their crap, they were rebuilding something. Many shops were destroyed, but the crap would be setup in the front area, sometimes even out the back of a semi truck. If I am going to stay somewhere it might as well be here, whatever little money I spend is certainly needed. It took me awhile to find a hotel that was actually operating, but there are a couple, and if you head out on the peninsula the hotels/hostels out there seem to be less affected, but you might as well stay in town and spend money there.
I stopped in Atacames for a night, nothing going on this day. Walked around a little, went back to the hotel, then did the same that night. This place is defiantly ready to handle a party, they have the neon lights and loud music, just no people this time of year I guess.
One of the guys I was talking to had me sit on his bike….oooh, after 2.5 weeks my seat feels like cement, we should trade bikes Senior. Now I just have to find some white paint.
I looped up around the coast making my way north of Quito. Not wanting to stay in Otolavo yet again, I headed to Ibarra to see something new, it was a decent enough city, the surrounding area looked like it had good exploration potential.
After the side trips I made one last stop before heading back to Quito. This tourist trap wanted 5 dollars to take a motorcycle in, but that is not how I roll. I said to hell with that, jump the fence, wheeled around the monument a few times with both middle fingers in the air yelling this is for America….and then during my moment of pure greatness the clown bike slid out of control in a fiery blaze coincidentally landing on both sides of the equator, so I snapped a tourist pic to try and blend in with the crowd. It was then back to Quito to return the bike, and catch a flight back to the US
I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Ecuador, while it wasn’t my favorite country visited, it was great to be back in Latin America, driving around the Andes, meeting very friendly people. I never felt as if I shouldn’t be in an area due to safety reasons, and think Ecuador is a great entry way to Latin America if someone is just looking for a taste, without all the tourists. FreedomBikeRental made it very easy, and their setup was part of my reasoning for choosing this country. Ecuador is small enough where you can get a bit of everything, and a motorcycle is great way to experience it, but after 3 weeks on the clown bike I was ready to head home. Also, all of my conversations have been in Spanish, while I am not fluent I can converse…I do not think there is much English down here at all, but have not resorted to it either, you have been warned.