Waiting for the Volcano: Motorcycle Travel in Ecuador
I felt stupid. Not a new experience, to be sure. But this time, even more than usual.
I’d been invited to ride a motorcycle through Ecuador. Which sounded like a great idea. It did, however, raise some basic questions. Like what—and where—is Ecuador?
I feel just a little smarter now. It took 10 days of riding some of the most challenging roads I’ve seen. It took rolling out of the clouds at over 14,000 feet. It took swimming out past the breakers in the Pacific surf. It took learning that Panama hats don’t come from Panama. That guinea pigs can be pets today, and lunch tomorrow. That the higher you go in the Andes, the shorter people get. And that it’s entirely possible to be just a couple miles from an active volcano, and not see it at all.
I learned that Ecuador is a small, friendly Latin American country on the northwestern Pacific coast between Peru to the south and Colombia to the north. Like Colombia, Peru and Chile, its territory starts at the sea and rockets up into the clouds, topping out up in the Andes mountains. Way up.
The tour was created by Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental (http://freedombikerental.com). Its owner, Court Rand, is a multilingual ex-Bostonian who rode through Ecuador, fell in love with the country and its people, and now helps other adventure-addicted riders do the same. Ecuador Freedom offers four different human-guided tours, from a four-day offroad thrash through the nose-bleed volcanoes, crater lakes and tropical valleys around Quito, the capital, to a 12-day, more pavement-oriented lap of the entire country.
It also offers a wide range of self-guided tours. EF sets up the itinerary, including prepaid hotel reservations, and sets you off from Quito with a luggage-equipped motorcycle, a preprogrammed GPS and a hearty handshake. Or you can just rent a GPS-equipped motorcycle, from a Honda XL200 to a BMW R 1200 GS, and head off into the clouds on your own.
Just don’t hit a llama. Trust me on this.
Court, five fellow Americans and I were booked for the “Ten Best Days in Ecuador” tour, a smorgasbord of offroad, onroad and near-road exploration. Court’s business partner, Sylvain, would follow in their luggage-and-spares-filled support truck. The day before we left Quito, Court led me and fellow tourers, Texans Mark and Joel, on a barely sane, damn-the-buses scooter tour of the humming, hectic, 1,000-year-old city.
I soon learned that Ecuadorian bus, truck and taxi drivers do not respect a motorcyclist’s personal space as much as one might prefer. They will touch you, intimately, with their vehicles. At speed. Court Rand: “If you think those guys are nuts,“ he said later, over the ubiquitous Cervezas Pilseners, “you should see the Peruvians.“
The Center of the World
The next morning we rode upward and north, like so many awkward ducklings, and soon pulled into an equator-based roadside attraction, Museo Inti Nan. Our pretty museo guides showed us how water drains in opposite directions, depending on whether the basin is six feet to the north or south of the equator. The Coriolis effect doesn’t actually work like this—it takes a lot more than six feet to make any difference. But she was a true artist in pulling the plug with a subtle twist to start the water swirling the way she said it should.
She also showed us a few shrunken heads, miniaturized by the fierce Shuar people of Amazonian Ecuador and Peru. Missionaries trying to “civilize” them as late as the early 20th century often found themselves quite small—one museum example resembles nothing so much as a tiny, red-bearded Ewan MacGregor.
Backwards into the Clouds
Court Rand knows Ecuador. He is actually helping Garmin create better GPS maps throughout the country, donating tracks to beef up their local database. He’ll turn off a main road onto an unmarked, sleepy-dog village street, and in a couple minutes you’ll be climbing into the clouds and straight back in time.
You’re suddenly on a simpler, slower, rougher planet—cars, taxis and stoplights are replaced by llamas, ducks, chickens, horses, burros and brightly dressed, very short indigenous mothers, sleepy babies slung in scarves over their shoulders.
On The Road
The twisting highland roads are an endless, unrolling challenge. Many were handmade of stones over breathtaking mountain passes, many years—or centuries—ago. They are usually wet or dusty or muddy, or all of the above. Just about anything can come swimming out of the mist, from a llama to a running school kid, a gobble of turkeys or a bogged-down beer truck.
People who think they need 100-plus horsepower to have a proper motorcycle adventure might reconsider before they take on the Andes. I fell in love with my air-cooled, old-tech Suzuki DR650SE, which soaked up everything Ecuador could dish out from sea level to almost three miles high. It was smooth, plush, nimble and effortless, over 1,200 miles of “roads“ that were often anything but.
We spiraled down into a dusty canyon, across a roaring mud river and back up into the clouds, then had a gorgeous lunch in San José de Minas—soup, chicken, fries, rice, salad and Coca-Cola, all for about $2, while children and dogs outside giggled and barked. Then clouds again, to well over 12,000 feet. If we had been flying, we would have been on oxygen.
Our stop for the night was a study in culture shock, Ecuador-style, a modern lakeside resort at Lago di San Pablo. One minute we were riding: wet, dirty and spent. A half hour later we were floating on a sunset boat cruise, warmed in the mist by red fleece ponchos and hot spiced rum.
We rode hard the next day in the mountains northwest of Quito before rolling down into Mindo, a mecca for bird and butterfly fans. The next morning we rolled west toward the Pacific over dry rolling palm, cocoa and cattle plantations. The lowland farmers and ranchers burn their crop stubble every year. This may improve their yields, but the ever-present smoke and ash don’t do much for the area’s environmental ambience.
Canoa would be our home for the next two nights. It’s a sleepy beach town where backpacking Euro-girls and world-weary expatriates come to drink, sun bathe, surf, paraglide, kayak and drink again, all at attractive third-world prices.
If Canoa was sleepy, Puerto Cayo, 100 miles down the coast, was unconscious. Our hotel, built on a rocky promontory, looked out over a fishing village straight from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The proprietor cooked our dinner as we bought beers from the fridge, leaving dollar bills on the bar, and watched the village fishermen run their long fishing pangas through the black surf and onto the sand.
Then inland, through more dusty, ashen farmland to Quevado. Our fortress-like hotel had a 50-meter Olympic-sized pool, where a gaggle of 10-year-old boys challenged me to a swimming race. They could hardly swim, so this turned into an impromptu lesson, a pale gringo walrus demonstrating freestyle breathing technique to a scrum of flailing brown legs and Spanish laughter.
The Highest Place on Earth
Our target for the next day’s ride was Chimborazo, the highest point on earth. Its peak rises 6,890 feet farther from the center of the earth than Mt. Everest. The earth, it seems, bulges at the equator—an extra 26.5 miles across. Everest is the highest point above sea level. As the earth bulges at the waist, sea level bulges with it, giving Everest what many Ecuadorian travel-brochure writers consider an unfair advantage.
We climbed from 250 to over 14,300 feet, and into the inevitable clouds. I was wet, cold and could barely see. At one point I realized that my glasses weren’t just fogged—they had a layer of dusty ice. We popped out just as the setting sun lit the glacier-draped flanks of Chimborazo—proud, eternal and impossible.
As we rolled into the valley we caught a glimpse of the erupting Tungurahua volcano, a long pennant of black and orange ash streaming off its peak.
The Bathrooms of Wet Santa
Baños de Agua Santa is an adventure-crazed mountain town crammed with paragliders, waterfall rappellers and whitewater kayakers. Over the next two days we rode up the mountain behind the town to see the Tungurahua volcano again, now just a mile and a half away. As Joni Mitchell put it, clouds got in our way, except for a fleeting four seconds the second day.
With the skies looking bluer we regrouped for another assault on Chimborazo. The clouds cleared again, as if a film director had ordered it so. We rode slowly over the volcanic plain below the glacier, a rare herd of rust-red vicuña, the wild ancestors of domestic llamas, bounding over the tilted desert.
We rolled into Quito two days later, dusty, dirty and inspired. It had been another 250 miles and thousands of feet of ups, downs, lefts, rights, volcano-crater lakes, snowcapped peaks, bamboo forests and eucalyptus trees. Brightly clothed, oddly hatted, height-challenged Incas, scratching a living from mountainsides too steep for some people to hike. Open trucks loaded with 40 highland villagers, and 100cc motorcycles carrying entire families.
How was it?
Exhilarating. Exhausting. Overwhelming. I’ve never had so many new experiences thrown at me so fast. I’ve never concentrated so hard, for so long, on a motorcycle. Or felt more connected to one.
If the rest of the places I’ve never heard of are this good, I’d better get out and get riding.