Ecuador – The Most Photogenic Country So Far?

With the last 10 days spent waiting for my bike to be serviced, we had to write off a part of Ecuador.  We had a choice to make: the coast or the mountains.  We chose to forgo the coast and catch it further south in Peru.  Instead, we would devour the views and culture of the Andes, one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world.  In Ecuador, the Andes divides into two parallel ranges, the Western & Eastern Cordilleras and they run the entire length of the country from Colombia to Peru.

Our ride from Quito took us through the Avenue of Volcanos, which runs between the two ranges in the central highlands.  Our destination?  Lago Quilotoa , via the Quilotoa Loop – a spectacular ride on a combination of newly-paved and bumpy gravel roads through remote andean villages and communities situated at 3,500+ metres.

Unlike Colombia, there is a strong indigenous presence in Ecuador (Quechua is still spoken as a first language by more than 50% of the Andean population more than 500 years after the Spanish conquered the Incas) and we love the  traditional Andean clothing – especially me.  The typical Andean woman’s’ wardrobe consisting of a cardigan, scarf, skirt, tights, and fedora looks fantastic.  In fact I’m pretty sure sure I wore that outfit myself in 1984.

Modern take on the Ecuadorian Andes costume

Young girl in Quilotoa

Great riding to Quilotoa

...with inspiring scenery

Lago Quilotoa is an alpine lake at 3,914m formed in the collapsed crater of a still-active volcano.  The crater is 2km across and 300 vertical metres deep, and although the walk down only takes about 30 minutes, the climb back up in the altitude and heat can take over an hour.  Anxious for some exercise, we pushed it and made it back up in 45 minutes, albeit red-faced and breathing hard.

Just back from a steep walk

Great view of the Quilotoa Crater

The trail down to the shore is very basic and quite steep.  At the moment, a gentler graded trail is being created, complete with stone walls to guide and protect.  No machinery is being used in the building of this trail.  The men and women (in skirts and high heels!) are manually hauling and lifting the boulders up and down the rough slopes to create the trail.  Though most of their methods would fail every single health & safety guideline issued by the Canadian Department of Labour, their efforts and abilities are impressive!

No machinery necessary

We slept overnight in the village of Quilotoa at a cute hostel complete with dinner, breakfast and a wood fireplace in each room.  They even had space for our motorbikes in the dining room.  A number of other travellers joined us late in the day as part of a bicycle tour and we were reminded how lucky we are to be travelling overland when we watched a Dutch tourist succumb to serious soroche (altitude sickness) – he had flown in from below sea level, after all – with no opportunity to acclimatize.

Alpaca in the village of Quilotoa

more great parking!

The second half of the Quilotoa Loop is just as amazing – or more so, in Jordan’s opinion.  Completely paved, but incredibly twisty as the road clings to the edges of the valley walls, with heaps of tight hairpin turns.  We rode to the village of Sigchos for lunch and on our way, noticed a Land Rover parked in a much smaller, unnamed village.  Jordan, having an obsessive memory for all things cars, knew immediately that this was Helen and Paul, whom we also met in Panama at the now-defunct hostel popular with overland travellers.  We stopped for a chat to learn that they, travelling for years, had been stuck in the little village for the last 6 weeks awaiting parts for the broken-down Land Rover.  They set up their new home in the community hall, and became part of the local scene, helping with building projects and being part of the day-to-day life in the tiny village.  Now that’s embracing your situation!

Helen & Paul

Christmas was approaching, and our plan was to camp at the gorgeous Secret Garden Hostel at the base of the Cotopaxi Volcano.  This meant a bit of a back-track up the Avenue of Volcanoes.  Normally, we don’t like to ride a road twice, but this was an exception… on our way down, we thought the road was nice and all, but we didn’t fully understand the attraction until our second ride on a crisp, clear morning.  Avenue of Volcanoes is lined on both sides by numerous snow-capped volcanoes both dormant and active.  We saw Tungarahua spewing smoke and ash to the south (last December, it caused an evacuation), Chimborazo volcano to the west and the magnificent Cotopaxi awaiting us in the east.  You just have to be on the road early to take in the sites before the afternoon clouds obscure the views.

We rode the stressful 17 km, wet & steep cobblestone road from the highway to the dirt road that would take us on to the hostel’s grounds.  Gorgeous scenery if you dared to take your eyes off the road for even a second.  And, there to greet us at the hostel were 5 other Canadians, cold beer, hot coffee, and promises for a great Christmas dinner.  We were very lucky this Christmas… I got my bike back, our parents generously plied our bank account with some cash with which to treat ourselves, and the nice people at The Secret Garden bumped us from a tent to our own luxury cabana at no additional cost.

17 kms of these

This road was much nicer

Cotopaxi from our cabin window

We enjoyed a few days at the hostel, hiking around, lounging, reading and eating very well.  Christmas dinner was much anticipated… we had hoped for something traditional and were more than thrilled to enjoy a turkey dinner complete with mashed potatoes, gravy and stuffing around a large wood table with every chair occupied.  The ecuadorian staff ate with all of us and while the gringos were devouring the amazing dinner, I couldn’t help over hear them comment to each other about the “comida mala” (bad food).  I waited then politely asked them what they would have as a traditional dinner for Christmas… ‘pollo, arroz, frijoles…’ (chicken, rice, beans).  So, basically what they eat every day, twice a day (and, something we now miss terribly as we write from another country).

Christmas in Ecuador

In Cotopaxi National Park

Near The Secret Garden Hostel, Cotopaxi

Hostel grounds

Ranchland surrounds the park

After a few days in our favourite spot so far on our trip, it was time to leave.  We tried to take a different road out, a 4×4 route recommended by the staff, that would allow us to avoid the cobbles, only to find this was a rougher, equally steep track of loose rocks and gravel.  The worst of it was it lead to the highway via Cotopaxi National Park, which… prohibits motorcycles.  We only learned of this after bumping into some travellers on horseback 10km into the trip.  This meant another 10km back (slowly) only to be presented with the aforementioned 17km of cobbles that had to be traversed in order to get back to the highway…  But, it was a gorgeous day following a gorgeous week and nothing could ruin it for us.

We planned to meet our fellow motorbike travellers, Daan and Mirjam for New Years in the town of Cuenca, located a few hundred km further south, so we spent the next couple of days visiting the resort town of Banos and enjoying the amazing mountain roads.  Cuenca turned out to be one of the nicest towns we’ve visited on our entire trip.  We had a great time wandering around the town and visiting one of their great (and free) museums.  We couldn’t help imagining what it would be like to move there… A beautiful colonial style city located in the mountains, what’s not to like?

Cathedral in Cuenca

More Christmas parades

We were  more than a bit intrigued by the local New Year’s Eve preparations.  In addition to the street markets being crammed with every conceivable type of fireworks (we bought more than our fair share), they were also selling paper mache masks on practically every street corner, so we had to have those as well.  Even more intriguing were the hundreds of stuffed ‘dummies’ and paper mache statues and dioramas that were popping up on everywhere across the city.

A selection of masks

Sandra and the effigies

Detailed paper mache character (will be burned)

We soon learned that these dummies and represented the old year and important issues for the new year, and that they would all be burned at midnight.  There were paper mache mockups in the form of politicians, local civic issues like public transport, and even a giant Smurf village complete with a full compliment of Smurfs.  Who among you wouldn’t want to see a giant Smurf village go up in flames at the stroke of midnight?  As you can imagine, the four of us were very excited.

The evening consisted of a lot of unregulated fireworks use and the air was thick from the smoke of hundreds of paper mache effigies set ablaze on every street corner.  It was pretty cool and from our vantage point overlooking the river, we would see fires and explosions all across the entire city.  Although it did not turn out to be the all-night party were kind of anticipating, it was great fun and a very family friendly and fiery way to ring in the New Year.  We ended the night with a long walk in search of some traditional late night Ecuadorian street food, however we settled for some delicious shwarama.  All in all it was a very memorable evening spent with good friends.

Mirjam, Daan & Jordan

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