I must be honest: after Peru, Ecuador thus far has been a bit of an anti-climax. Our encounter with Edwin the customs officer was a promising start, but since then the journey has felt a little hollow.
Vilcabamba, one of those ‘must see’ places on the tourist trial, was quaint but full of gringos, either visiting or living there. (Interestingly, all five of the gringo residents I found myself in conversation with were ex-US military.) The colonial city of Cuenca, its centre a UNESCO world heritage site, was beautiful – but it lacked the character of other colonial towns such as Arequipa in Peru. With the exception of Saraguro and the adjacent villages, local folk in traditional, indigenous dress were notably absent. And even the objectively spectacular scenery flanking the twisting Panamericana Highway lacked that ‘something special’.
So a few days ago we decided to set off for the backwaters of the Central Highlands, in search of the missing X-factor. Armed with a list of villages which constituted a route, provided by the guys at Freedom Bike Rental in Quito, we left Riobamba and headed into the mountains. We were soon on the dirt; and except for about 50km of tarmac we would be riding on dirt for the next 400km.
Over the following five days, we became intimately acquainted with the phenomenon of ‘cloud forest’. Whilst there may be little remaining forest now, there is still ample cloud. Every day we woke to it, went to bed with it and rode most of the day through it. The colourful village of Salinas, at 3800m and known for its small cheese factory and local chocolate, enticed us to stay for two days and enjoy its rustic, everyday vibe. There, we lived in cloud for about 21 hours a day. When we left the village and climbed higher still, we finally found ourselves riding in sunshine with an unbroken layer of cloud blanketing the valley below. Here a little of the magic began to return: I always find being above the cloud special, be it high on a mountain or flying a glider – it’s a sense of being separated from the world below, feeling that little bit closer to the heavens.
As the track slowly descended, we re-entered the cloud. After lunching in the damp and sleepy vilalge of Facunda Velo, we pushed on into terrain which was just a blank space on my map. The locals assured us the route continued north, but as we switch-backed downwards on an increasingly deteriorating track through the jungle, I had my doubts. After reaching an altitude of over 4000m earlier the morning, we bottomed out in dense, humid jungle at 960m. There was indeed a small, mud-coverd bridge. We crossed it. Then it began to rain.
As we ate lunch an hour earlier, I lamented to Pau that since leaving Peru, where the rains presented us with obstacle courses almost every day, we hadn’t found any adventure on the road. Now we had it. Pau dropped her bike on a muddy bend. I then followed suit when she stopped in front of me on a steep and very loose, rocky slope. Her little Suzuki had no problems getting going again, but the heavy Tenere struggled to find traction an the rear end spun out. I picked her up, tried to walk her up the difficult section with a soft throttle, but dropped her again when I slipped on some mud. By now I was soaked and becoming a little tense. Pau was long gone up the hill, which was probably a good thing at this juncture.
I was also concerned about my engine. I am still riding without a fan, and slow going on rough, ascending ground in humid conditions is an invitation for an overheated engine. We continued upwards through the jungle, still in thick cloud, for perhaps 6km more until we reached the very inappropriately named village of El Corazon – or ‘The Heart’. There was nothing here that remotely resembled the source of love and life. It was a soulless and depressing place, but we were wet through and the prospect of another two or three hours of cloud riding was enough to tempt us to stay. We checked into the only hotel, took a hot shower and passed the afternoon enjoying Ecuador’s surprisingly fast wifi (even in rural areas).
Clad in wet riding gear we set off the following morning, once again in cloud and rain. I am sure the scenery around us was spectacular, but we saw nothing of it. Then suddenly, as we crested the high ground, the skies cleared. The landscape had a completely different feel to that we had become used to further south – much more rugged. Below us was the village of Zumbahua. As we rode into the plaza, the stark change in the feel of the region became even more apparent. Nearly all the women and many of the young girls were back in local traditional dress, sporting natty felt trilbys atop colourful shawls and knee-length skirts – another small dose of the elusive X-factor.
As we ate yet another lunch of chicken and rice, we were joined by Andy Lord, a fellow British motoquero on a BMW F650 who has been on the road for six years (with the same moto and 150,000 miles on the the clock!) and his girlfriend riding pillion. He is heading south, so we exchanged stories and information. By the time we finished, the cloud was inevitably descending, so we stayed put.
Many of the the tourist hot spots I have visited, such as the massive Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia or the El Tatio geezers in Northern Chile, have disappointed. The following morning, when we stopped at Lago Quilotoa – a picture perfect volcanic crater cradling a turquoise lake – we were presented with a truly stunning site. The sun was doing its best to shine and we shared the lip of the crater with only a handful of other gringos. Then onwards along more dirt roads, at one point passing a classic, maroon VW camper loaded with a pair of surfboards and mountain bikes. I took my hat off to the driver’s sense of adventure, taking such a venerable old lady along the back roads of Ecuador. I just hope he got through the 10km of mud we had just passed.
As I write the sun is finally shining. Today we head onwards. Maybe we will finally see Ecuador’s famous volcanos. And best of all, a new fan for the moto awaits me in Quito, a hundred kilometres north.