Entering Ecuador took longer than expected because the officers didn’t really know what they were doing. The last vehicle to enter the country via this border was in December 2010 - that’s 7 months ago!! And it was only as we drove away from the border that we finally understood why the officers at the border were refusing entry to a Peruvian 4x4 pickup unless they took passengers. None of the local trucks or vehicles were going anywhere - the rain had turned the steep uphill road into a horrific mud-bath that meant the locals were having an unexpected day of rest.
We slipped and slid all the way to Zumba - it took 3 hours to get there! Getting out of Zumba was a trial, we faced a terrible mud road and only half way up Nessie could go no further - she slid sideways into the soft road edge. Fortunately we turned the front wheel at the last moment and it left our tyre straddling the edge rather than sunk deeply into it. We were already in four wheel drive and our crawler gear so we imagined we were going to have to dig but fortunately Dave remembered our differential locks and with this we were able to reverse straight back and out of the ditch to then slide sideways down the hill to the junction where conditions were less traumatic. I then walked the roads to find a alternate route out of town.
Conditions were better until we reached a major road works section - the heavy machines have made the road another mud hell and for safety reasons the workers were operating a one way system. In front of us were a military truck and a 4x4 pickup jeep - all 3 of us slid down the mountain-side and around a corner sideways only to find a huge digger in our path. It was impossible to stop and to our right was a sheer drop off the mountain with no barriers. The only thing that saved everyone was that the camber of the road made us all slide toward the digger who, at the last minute, managed to drive forward and away from us.
We were now desperate to get off this terrible road before dark and before the rain started again. A further 3 hard hours of driving took us to Vallidiod where, thank goodness, the road conditions improved dramatically. The mud disappeared leaving us with just the usual potholes, river crossings, corrugations and landslides. We were very happy now as we climbed high into the mountains where the rainforest clouds reduce our visibility and the daylight turned to night bringing rain. And then we discovered that one of our headlights had a fault - but nothing was going to stop us reaching our destination - Vilcabamba. Almost 8 hours after leaving the border we finally reached Vilcabamba - absolutely exhausted.
Vilcabamba is a tiny village with a large population of foreign settlers, friendly and easy but not really what we are looking for in Ecuador so we move on quickly. Cuenca was our next big town stop - a Unesco city with dozens of lovely decaying heritage buildings where we found a slice of countryside in the city. Humberto has a small holding of chickens, horses, dogs and a cat - we were in heaven! He even had a organic garden full of delicious vegetables and it was only a 20 minute walk from the city centre. Perfect except for one thing - the weather. We are genuinely shocked at how bad the weather has been since we entered Ecuador - only three degrees off the Equator and we are wearing our fleece tops 24 hours a day!!
So, once again, we move on faster than expected searching for some warmth. We had wanted to drive up the far eastern Amazonian routes but the rain has made us think twice about those routes, so we drive west toward the coast and hopefully some sun. We spend a night at Ecuador’s most important Incan site - Ingapirca before we drive toward the ‘big bad’ city of Guayaquil - reputed to be Ecuador’s most dangerous city. We found a great exhaust workshop on the way so we got our system extended to the back of the truck but this meant we drove into the city late on a Saturday night - not our cleverest decision! With terrible maps, busy traffic and dark streets it was impossible to find somewhere to stay near the centre that was safe, so we asked a local fuel station to break their rules and to allow us to sleep in their forecourt.
We had planned to stay in a campsite west of the city and to return by bus to see the city sights - especially the huge wild iguana’s that roam the city plaza, but the following morning we found the campsite and drove straight out again.....
Finally we reach the coast and find a great place to park by a white sand beach, still no sun but at least it is not raining and the weather is warmer, but a parking attendant refuses to let us stay - so yet again we move on faster than expected.....
At last - a beach, no parking attendants, just lovely friendly locals but it’s cold, overcast and raining!
Another day, another search and this time we strike gold - a superb hill top Swiss camping area with views of a island and two sweeping sand bays, where pelicans and frigate birds cruise by on the warm air currents and where Humpback whales leap and play in the sea. But the weather remains bad and our plans to visit Isla Plata ‘the poor man’s Galapagos’ are dashed. Instead, we decide to take a boat trip out to see the whales close up - especially after seeing a whale leap completely out of the water right beside a boat yesterday. But even that did not work out - we stood for an hour waiting for our boats second engine to be repaired and then, when all the passengers got on board there were no seats left! We were not going to stand for 3 hours. We asked for a refund and as Dave was doing this I went in search of bread. When I came back to the truck Dave was anxious to go, ‘Let’s get out of here before there’s a riot’ - it seems there was a huge screaming fight between the boat owner and the ticket seller that brought shop owners out on to the streets to watch!
I guess we will have to come back down this way once the weather improves, it’s clearly a lovely area of white sand beaches backed by howler monkey jungle - we are just here 3 months early. So we make the decision to briefly visit the coast and then return to the hills, if they are still covered in cloud and rain then we will risk the Amazonian routes - at least there we will get to see animals - we hope! Ha ha (fingers crossed)
Feeling just a little peckish? Ingapirca ruins and our new exhaust being shaped.
Views from Islamar - beautiful. Colourful Whale tails in Puerto Lopez. It’s NOT a panama!
Traditional stilted home near Canoa, a local ‘bus’ and a candy maker on the way to Quito.
On our way up to the mountains we decide to find some traditional culture, first was the famous ‘panama’ hat. The problem is that this hat is not called a Panama - it’s called a Montecristi after the town where they are made which is in Ecuador NOT Panama! Confused? So were we..... but the friendly locals are happy to tell you the history of this famous hat and to show you their skills. One woman explained that she never cooks, her hands must be cool and absolutely dry at all times to weave the straw hats - a very fine woven hat can take 6 months to make and will cost $500.
Our next piece of culture is to track down a famous indigenous group - the Tsachilas. These fascinating people live in a rural area near a large city where they try to keep their traditions alive. The majority of this group do not welcome visitors so you have to approach the chief to gain permission to enter their community. We drove into the general area and spoke to the locals - word soon spread and the chief appeared to meet us. Unfortunately, you need to give 8 days notice to visit or book through a agency in the city, so our plans were dashed but we did see some Tsachilas wandering around the city with their strange vibrant orange hairstyles.
So we carried onto Quito past the village where all the roadside stalls make fresh candies and colourful sticks of candy rock and up into the cloud covered Andes where, once again, we completely mess up our plans!
We had planned to spend a night somewhere before Quito, to plan where we were going to stay in the city and which route we would take in. But we found ourselves, once again, driving into a huge city on a Saturday night with no idea of where we were going to stay or how to get there - our GPS map has not ONE street on it. NOT ONE. And we had NO paper maps either. It was another stressful event.
It’s strange how some cities immediately grab you and shout ‘Love me’ and others do not. Quito screamed ‘Love me’ and we did. That Saturday night we eventually found a tiny bus station that also allows parking - it’s not ideal and the buses arriving at 4am to park up do ensure a very early good morning call but we are really happy here. The owner is fun, the bus drivers are very friendly and the city is great. What more could you ask for?
Sunday sees the city having fun, the parks in the modern centre are full of locals picnicking, playing football and enjoying the sun, (yes, we have SUN!) and in the historical centre the roads are closed so that everyone can enjoy cycling around the old streets - we even see a fiesta. It was a great introduction to Quito.
Nessie needs a oil change and some other minor work so we drove to the Mercedes Benz Star Motors garage only to meet the WORST mechanics in the world. First they told us Ecuador does not have any filters or parts for our truck - a strange lie considering the roads are full of trucks like ours. Then they ordered the wrong filters and then they tried to force the wrong filter on, when that didn’t work they tried to fit it on upside down - no luck with that either! Never mind, lets throw away the sprung pressure plate from inside the filter holder and see if that works.......Dave started to shout at this point.
For eight hours we had watched these incompetent fools until I got very angry in the office and Dave started to swear in the workshop. We would have left but they had ‘lost’ our old filter!!! Finally we made such a fuss that the staff jumped in a car with Dave and drove DIRECTLY to a store where they hold a business account - the store was FULL of parts - why didn’t they do this to start with?!
Our filter fitted, we asked to stay parked here for the night and it was when all the staff left that Dave found our old filter hidden in a room. The next morning Dave checked our oil - the bloody fools hadn’t changed it!!!! We asked the security guard to call in a mechanic or service manager but he denied having any phone numbers. We had no choice but to leave but we will be sure to return and demand a refund. God help any overlander who leaves their truck here for work to be done. BEWARE!!
Some more sights around Quito.
We plunge downhill toward the Amazon jungle, past thermal springs and huge rivers, investigating routes into the forests and jungle along the way. The weather gets hotter and hotter - 35 degrees and up to 98% humidity with little breeze. This is what we like best.
We feel at home here - it’s like Malaysia in many ways, so we are very happy. Our lucky streak holds and we encounter Shuar tribal dancers, boa constrictors, ocelot and some very cheeky monkeys who spend their days smashing drinks bottles so that they can reach the last drops of juice or beer. They chase the police with teeth bared when they try to stop them!!
Shuar dancers and our surprise guest (a boa constrictor) being evicted.
A ‘clever’ sign, a monkey checking his fingers for glass cuts and tourists wondering which indigenous tribe hangs out M&S knickers to dry!
The big rivers here are a hive of activity - laundry, bathing, fishing and dish washing, the local dogs patiently stand downstream waiting for some scraps of food to float past. Wooden motorised longboats ferry indigenous people (and tourists) up and down the waters to and from villages and markets and some communities have united to buy a water pump to use for gold panning.
But a lot of the jungle is disappearing - cattle, coffee and banana plantations demand a slash and burn policy to clear the land for their use. People need land to live on and food to eat. We even see signs warning locals that the forests are being observed by satellite yet the forests are being cut by the government to make way for new roads across the landscape to service trucks and oil exploration.
One local truck driver is very happy to see us - he has a very old Mercedes and is keen to admire our truck, so we compare vehicles as the riverside fills with indigenous people coming in by longboat for the weekly market. For us this is the end of the road but a bridge is being built to link our track to one cutting in from the north - it is only a matter of time before you will be able to drive right across the Ecuadorian amazon into Brasil!
We leave the road and treat ourselves to a longboat trip upriver to see some animals before driving back to the nearest town to drink some vodka and whiskey with Russian biologist friends we have met. Lucky us!
Meet Lisa - a sex mad spider monkey and professional sneak thief. Lisa loves to spend her days stalking Dave until he is alone before jumping on his leg for a ‘intimate’ moment! One day Dave was knee deep in the middle of a river, stupidly believing he would be safe there from Lisa’s advances, when he bent over to collect water he felt this sudden weight land on his back. Lisa. She was so obsessed with him that she had actually waded into the river to reach him.............
Her other favourite hobby is to sneak raid the house or vehicles for food. She will lie on the ground pretending not to look at her target and then, with the speed of an Olympic sprinter, will dash into a opened door only leaving when she has a stolen piece of fruit safely wrapped in her tail. Lisa is our superstar!
Lisa waiting for Dave to come out and ‘play’. A intimate moment caught on film...
Meet the rest of our ‘family’ - morning cuddles to warm up, searching for bananas in the strangest places and Lola plus Muriel catching a free lift up from the river.
Who said work was boring?
The sad decision has to be made for us to leave our new family and so we drive south along the edge of the Amazon in search of new adventures. We had seen a couple of tracks leading deep into the jungle that we considered investigating but the indigenous people in the Amazon region are not very friendly. Some villages deliberately cut themselves off from outside contact, some only accept visitors if they are accompanied by a indigenous guide and most simply ignore you. It’s not an encouraging feeling to have when you appear in or near a village and we hate to think what would happen if we started to take photographs..........
We met Jorge, a local man with good strong contacts for a very indigenous area of the Amazon that is linked by road. He told us that 5 months ago a Canadian backpacker made the fatal mistake of camping in a hill by a village. The backpacker never asked permission, never spoke to the chief or villagers and this made them think he was there to steal their shrunken heads. They murdered him that night.
Indigenous villages consist of wooden huts with tin roofs where the people all wear t-shirts, jeans, wellington boots and carry a machete - it’s not really the cultural image we had in mind for the Amazon and Jorge’s sobering tale helps us to decide that a 200km drive down a dead-end road in that area is maybe not for us.
Back up on the mountains we are struck with a wealth of culture - elaborate colourful clothing and people are once again all around us, and although the Amazon is where we were happiest we have to admit that the high altitude people are far more interesting to look at. Our drive up the mountain was not easy - locals told us the road was closed due to a huge landslide, others said it was only open for 2 hours a day. Ultimately we found several problem areas - landslides, collapsed bridges, deep river crossings and an attempt to create a concrete road in almost impossible circumstances. We needed a construction digger to create a path for us in one area where deep sharp rocks filled a long section. But the views from the top were superb - snow capped peaks, pine trees and lakes. It could have been my beloved Glencoe in Scotland.
We were in the Andes for less than 48 hours before we drove back down toward the rainforest/jungle area!
And it was near Rio Verde that we met Marc and Sue - a Australian/Brasilian couple who have a hostel. It’s not often in life that you get the chance to meet such great people and we spent several wonderful days at their lovely place. A big thanks to them for sharing their little slice of paradise.
A final drive down to see our monkeys again and it is time to leave this great area. Our time in Ecuador is running short and we still have a lot to see.
Nessie is in need of some loving care - her rear cabin paint work is looking very sad indeed, but considering we hand painted her in Scotland with temperatures of -15 degrees, it’s no wonder she looks sad. Our rubber rain seals for our battery box area are very old and porous and we want to put on all new metal edging along the lower edge of our rear cabin. It’s all work that has been needing professional attention for a long time, so we were very happy to get a personal recommendation for a coachwork place in Ambato.
It turned into what is becoming a very tiring but typical South American experience. The ‘professional’ metal workers tried to fit the new metal on top of the old corroded metal and the painter started to spray paint our truck while she was still covered in sanding dust. It was a very long and difficult experience where we had to spend 12 hours a day working with the team showing them how to do their jobs properly. It meant that we were not popular at all, and although we have had to make the decision to sell Nessie over here, we are determined that she is given 5* treatment until that point.
It’s time for a party, so we drive to Latacunga to experience one of Ecuador’s biggest fiesta’s - Mama Negra -it’s such a treat to be in a place where everyone is really friendly and actively want you to photograph them. Whole families dress up to enjoy the weekend and to watch local men struggle to carry a flayed roasted pig decorated with bottles of whiskey, hens, guinea pigs and rabbits, up the street toward the church. It’s a very heavy load that requires drinking lots of alcohol as they rest their sacrifice on a table placed behind their backs. We spend the morning watching the celebrations before driving up to the famous volcanic lagoon of Quilotoa where we are plunged back into rain, clouds and freezing temperatures. At night we visit a local hostel to buy some drinks to support the local economy. The indigenous owners are happy to share the warmth of their wood stove as Dave entertains the children with his magic tricks. Everyone is having great fun until I get my camera out to show the children the photographs of the fiesta, and quite suddenly the atmosphere changes - we’re back to the photograph paranoia that seems to follow us everywhere in Ecuador.
We leave the lagoon the following day and drive north on a road that includes a dry river bed section, trying to avoid the stone throwing children along the way. By lunchtime we are in one of Ecuador’s most famous national parks - Cotopaxi, and once again it’s cold and raining and the low cloud cover means we have no views. So we spend only one night before leaving the park via the north entrance - a track that is so rough, that one of our distance antennae is ripped off and all the paintwork on one side of our truck is scratched. It was going to happen eventually but we had hoped it would be a little longer than only 3 days! Ha ha
New wheels arches, very close supervision and the final result.
Mama Negra visiting Nessie, a heavy pig load and some ‘senorita’s’.
We return to Quito and drive straight to the Mercedes garage. We explain about our oil change and the service manager tells us that all oil turns black and dirty overnight when left in a engine! He is asked to demonstrate this by opening the hood on a new display truck in his showroom - he refuses. We demand to speak to the garage manager and tell him our story, Dave explains this is Star Motors opportunity to show they care about customers and are prepared to demonstrate that they can be professional in customer care if nothing else. We leave empty handed. Once again - we warn all overlanders not to go near this garage.
Two very brief and lovely days later, we leave Quito and drive to the Equator, crossing it 5 times in one day to reach Mindo - probably the top place in Ecuador to watch birds (the feathered kind). Then we race down to the coast hoping to find some palm filled beaches and sunshine - there were none. So we continued north to the very top of Ecuador and there we finally found something we’ve been looking for - polished ebony skins, topped with corn curls, sporting smiles that could easily eclipse the sun. WOW. In Las Penas even the sun shines in celebration of this little beach town. No guide book or person has mentioned this place and we can’t believe our luck that we happened to stumble upon it. Lucky, lucky us.
The Quilotoa ‘dry riverbed’ road and Dave looking unhappy and cold in Cotopaxi.
Lovely sunset in Las Penas and ‘Fox Hunting’ races in Ibarra.
Dave having fun at Graham’s, traditional ice-cream making and us with Graham.
Our lucky streak holds and we meet up with Graham, a Australian expat, who invites us to spend the day watching the famous annual fox hunting races in Ibarra. You’ll be glad to know that the ‘fox’ is actually a man dressed in black riding the lead horse. We meet other expat’s who have all settled over here and it’s nice to share some British/Oz humour again.
Graham invites us to stay at his place and we spend our time there and visiting some of the nearby sights including lagoons, indigenous villages and Otavalo’s famous market.
But we have to admit that Ibarra’s central market with it’s great mix of Indigenous Indian, Highland and coastal African people makes it a far more interesting place to wander than anything Otavalo’s touristy markets can offer.
Our time with Graham has been a delight - this gentle man invites overlanders to stay on his grounds to ‘ have a rest from their travels’. It’s finally time for us to leave Ecuador and adventure into Colombia.