The border crossing from Colombia to Ecuador was our first in South America and we were a little nervous with not knowing what to expect. Throughout Central America we grew to despise border days and didn’t want to carry on that anxiety and stress if it wasn’t going to be the same. The process turned out to be time consuming as usual, but in comparison to our other border experiences, this was great. The staff was actually friendly and helpful, moving us along in line and making sure we were in the right place. And no “helpers” were present! Once through the border we filled up on glorious, $2.00 USD gas. On our way to Ibarra we ended up on a dirt road with heavy construction. About 50 miles into the drive we hit a large bump and immediately heard something dragging under Pedro. Our first thought was, shit, the bikes. We pulled over on the dusty, gravel road and I jumped out of the back. Turns out the rusty tailpipe finally had enough and was barely hanging on. Eric then proceeded to rip the thing off the rest of the way and we tucked it safely in the back. That was now a new problem for a different time.
Our first evening was spent at Finca Sommerwind, a small, lakefront campground run by a German couple. Unfortunately, the German café with traditional cakes and coffees was only open on weekends and we didn’t have the time to stay. The next day we tried to go to Laguna de Mojanda. In theory the place was very close to where we were in Ibarra, but due to our sometimes-not-so-awesome map, we got lost. The map took us up a cobblestone and dirt mix of a road that eventually just ended at the top of the hill above town. At the top, we could see the road we were supposed to be on. By the time we headed back into town and all the way up the other road, it was too late in the day to enjoy a hike around the lake. We ended up jumping on our bikes and seeing how far we could get. Somebody (the shorter person in our party), was not super excited to be riding straight up hill after our recent lack of exercise and we ended up turning back before getting to the lake. The views were still beautiful and we made it back to the car for hot showers before the rain and fog set in. That evening we sat in the common room of La Luna Hostal next to the fireplace and planned out our next few weeks.
From northern Ecuador we made the necessary pass through the tourist attraction at the equator, took the middle of the world photos (similar in quality to holding up the leaning tower of Pisa)and listened to a spiel about how vertical maps make more sense. After that stop we made our way into Quito for three days. Some of our favorite times are when we pack up a bag and rent a little place in a city. Our airbnb pick for Quito was perfect and super affordable. We enjoyed the time cooking great meals, some of the best craft beers yet and exploring the city. We walked around the old town in the city, explored churches and discovered an interesting exhibit visually displaying what families in many countries spend on food for 1 week. It was incredible to see the vast differences, not just of the cost, but of the food items, cooking methods and amount and/or relation of family members in each house. To top off our city day, literally, we climbed to the highest point on the Basilica del Voto Nacional. It was possibly the sketchiest ladder plus amount of people climbing situation, but beautiful views nonetheless. Our most memorable dinner in the city was at the Abysmo brewery. We were expecting the usual brew pub feel and hoping the beer was worth the cab ride, but instead we were welcomed into their yearly anniversary party and enjoyed huge beers, free empanadas and live music.
After our time in Quito we were looking forward to camping in Cotopaxi National Park. We drove about an hour in the general direction and were quickly punched in the face with how terrible at keeping up with the news we had been, and also how lively Cotopaxi had remained after the initial new activity. The park was closed, the air was so cloudy you couldn’t even see an outline of the volcano, and there were workers on the side of the highway shoveling the thick gray ash into buckets. Needless to say we moved on to Laguna Quilitoa, which was next on our radar. The road to get to Quilitoa was through beautiful countryside which casted amazing shadows as we arrived late in the day. As I was looking in awe at the landscapes, Eric was getting increasingly worried about the clutch. It’s one of those “feelings” when you know your own car. So I trusted that we had an issue and sadly the best thing would be to go back to Quito if the clutch was really going out, especially that fast. We tucked that sad U-turn away for the next 24 hours and enjoyed the area. Our camp spot we were heading for was basically a parking lot, but we were just there to sleep and then hike around the crater lake the next day. The following morning we got up and bundled up for a very windy but amazing hike. We enjoyed the morning by getting to the highest point around the lake by lunch and sharing our snacks with our adopted dog for the day. Unfortunately with the thought of a broken down Pedro stashed away in the back of our minds, we didn’t walk the entire lake, but turned with our tails between our legs back to Quito. To keep the story short, after three more days in Quito, a perfectly fine clutch, the super helpful Toyota dealership and what turned out to be a broken oil pump, we were back on the road. With our tailpipe reattached too!
Banos and Rio Verde were our next stop in Ecuador. We had heard that Banos itself was not the most impressive town, expensive and full of backpackers. Our sights turned to Rio Verde where we found Pequeno Paraiso camping. The campground actually caters to large groups of Overlander tour groups. Eric and I had never heard of this, but it’s basically a private service for young travelers who pay more for a personal bus tour. So when we arrived there were about twelve 19-21 year olds, discovering the newness of travelling. It made us feel old but they were super nice and it was awesome to see their excitement for everything. Sue the owner of the campground, used to run tours like this but now has taken over Pequeno Paraiso for the last 8 years and created a wonderful space for all campers with hot showers and an awesome kitchen and common area. The draw to Rio Verde was not only the great campground but the walkability to two huge waterfalls. We walked up to Pailon del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron) in the morning along with quite a few other tourists, foreign and local. The attraction to come here is the ability to get close to the waterfall, behind it actually and it was terrifying. The power coming from the water was overwhelming along with the sound that comes from the waterfall. It was definitely a new and unforgettable experience. Our favorite evening in Rio Verde was spent with the only other camper there, Steve. He is an older, English man, travelling in a giant yellow Mercedes camper. Although quiet at first, we walked into town together for the coronation of Miss Rio Verde, and he opened up about his travels, life and work over beers on plastic stools outside of the tienda. We made it over to the ceremony eventually and got to see the past years queen and see the new contestants walk around the stage in a choreographed manner. By 11:30 pm we still hadn’t been able to view the new Miss Rio Verde and with only the second act on stage (a ten year old singing), we decided to leave the party and walk back to our sleepy campground.
The same Swiss couple that we had met in Colombia had told us about the town of Salinas, famous for cheese and chocolate. And if there is one thing you can trust a Swiss person’s opinion on, its cheese and chocolate. The drive took us right past the highest peak in Ecuador, the inactive volcano Chimborazo, and then we turned right into the high plains and through tiny villages to arrive in Salinas. We parked and looked like the usual lost gringos in such a small town so an older man came and walked us over to a hostal with brightly colored paint and textiles in an interior courtyard. There was no parking but for an affordable room and a window to look out to Pedro on the street we were comfortable. That evening the square was full of men playing two volleyball games, and it turns out the rules are not the same in Ecuador. We walked around until dusk, found an amazing pizza place and went to bed early. I had been fighting a cold for a few days and being sick on the road was exhausting. The next morning we had breakfast, bought cheese, and a dozen chocolates all in the same place. It was a quick stay but perfect to get a little off the beaten path and have some delicious goodies to take away. We absolutely ate a chocolate right after breakfast.
From Salinas we had our fingers crossed for some epic Chimborazo views and we were lucky! The clouds were covering the mountain for the entire morning but as we drove past the sky cleared and we got the view we had been waiting for. Our next stop was going to be Cuenca which we heard was a great city, but unanimously we were ready for Peru. We drove south to Machala, through the amazing amount of banana plantations and ended only 3 hours north of the border at Ka Luz Hosteria. It was a funny little place in the middle of nowhere but it was cheap and comfortable and they made us the most delicious corn and potato fried balls for breakfast. It spurred one of those usual conversations, who actually found this place, and then deeper, how the hell did we get here in life.
The next day is the border to Peru and we couldn’t be more excited!