Thursday, September 24, 2009

Casual Wanderings In Ecuador

Well, you can’t do it all. I confess that I hadn’t done a lot of research on Ecuador and planned on fast tracking through the country. Nothing personal mind you. I had just spent over a month in Colombia and had to be in La Paz, Bolivia by October 5th, with Peru’s Machu Picchu caught somewhere in the middle. Sacrifices had to be made.

I crossed into Ecuador on August 27th and headed straight to Quito. I found a hotel in the New Town district. A hotel that had seen better days. The staff was friendly and I was able to secure a double room for $25 a night, with decent bike parking. I stayed for a week resting up, while also acclimating to the 10,000 ft elevation. Quito is the second highest capital in the world, second only to LaPaz, Bolivia. With its proximity to the equator and the altitude, the weather is like a perpetual spring.

While going through the usual border song-n-dance, I met a young Ecuadorian couple returning from a vacation in Colombia. They were returning to their homes in a suburb of Quito. Cristian was mesmerized by the bike and had many questions for me. His dream was to ride around South America on his own motorcycle that he someday would have, and by the caliber of his questions, he had already done some research. We exchanged email addresses.

After a few days into my stay I was ready to pick up the bike from the BMW dealer. I had new brakes put on front and rear and a new front tire mounted. I also purchased a rear tire that I would carry with me and mount at the very last possible moment, getting every last bit of rubber off the current tire. After the purchase was finalized, I found out that Ecuador is not the place to buy tires. Just recently, President Correr had dramatically increased the taxes on many imported goods. The same tire back home cost me $130, in Guatemala $210, and here $340! I would’ve been better off buying the tires in Lima, but I had been hearing scary stories about the availability of my specific tires. It cost me yes, but I had the tires

I got a ride to the dealership on the back of Chris’ bike, with August following behind. I had met the both of them at the hostel in Panama. We have crossed paths several since. We would pick up the bike and then visit Mitad del Mundo, the equator monument. I was now in the Southern Hemisphere.

I had made arrangements to meet my border friend, Cristian at his college campus and then to his parents’ house for lunch. His English was no better than my Spanish, but his girlfriend showed up to translate. He lived in a prosperous suburb, where I saw the first strip malls since leaving home. His mom was making a traditional Ecuadorian dish, and had obviously been working on it all morning. Cristian mentioned that it was a stew made with “cow’s leg”. Didn’t really understand, and let it go. Sitting down with his two brothers, girlfriend and mom, “soup was on”. They acted very pleased to have me there, and I was honored by all the attention and hospitality. The stew was tasty, but I couldn’t quite place the texture of the “meat”. As I chewed and chewed, my mouth started to get a bit “pasty” feeling. Finally, his girlfriend chimed in, “It’s really good, but it get’s a little gluey after awhile. It’s made of cow hooves, you know?” Oh, “cow legs”? Now I get it. I did my best, but couldn’t finish.

The next day Cristian met me at my hotel and we toured the old town together, including the Presidential Palace. President Correr is, unfortunately, following in the footsteps of the lunatic dictator Chavez and the country seems to have a long road in front of it’s self.

I had a wonderful afternoon and vowed to stay in touch and to help with any trip planning that he might have in the future.

Once on the road again, I backtracked north to visit the town of Otavalo. The town is famous for its Saturday market, and I would be getting there at about 3:00 on a Saturday. Many of the indigenous people of the region come here to sell and trade their wares. Not so much a tourist market but a living vibrant local market. What I didn’t know was that they had also just kicked off a weeklong city festival. It was a colorful and lively place for sure, and I enjoyed new and interesting street food – such as a boiled fig and cheese sandwich. That night I went to a local nightclub for a concert by a popular Latin American acoustic guitar artist, Juan Fernando Valasco. Based on the screams by the young women in the audience, he is quite popular.

The next day started with a headache. I had made plans the night before with a new friend to visit the Parque Condor. It was a nearby shelter for birds of prey. (I have really gotten into birds since getting into South American, and even Central America. I keep meaning to pick up a good bird book.)

One of the beauties of Ecuador is that it is so small, but packs a powerful tourism punch. There is an amazing coastline with surfing and whale watching, rainforest, magnificent volcanoes, and desert all in close proximity to each other. And of course, don’t forget the Galapagos Islands. Back on the road, I covered some ground, or least it seemed that way due the generous scale of the map. I enjoyed a beautiful day driving through the Avenue of Volcanoes on my way to the city of Banos.

Banos is small mountain town that is overrun with tour operators peddling outdoor adventures. If you want to rent a 4-wheeler, bungee jump, river raft, go canyoning, etc… then there will be five tour operators vying for your attention (or so it seemed). I spent some time in the natural hot springs, took a short hike, and got a pretty decent massage during my two day stay there, but otherwise wasn’t very impressed. I did schedule a paragliding trip, but cancelled when the clouds started dropping water.

One more overnight, in Ecuador and then I would be at the Peruvian border. I spent two weeks in Ecuador and really enjoyed myself, but admit, the country deserves more attention.

(*Casual Wanderings in Ecuador was a book published in 1923 in New York, by Blair Niles. I like the title and have decided to borrow it.)