15 August 2013
I remember telling my parents before entering Ecuador that there didn’t seem to be too much to see in Ecuador and that we would likely go through this small country much quicker than Colombia. I was wrong in both regards, Ecuador had a lot more to show than anticipated and we ended up staying almost a month and half! To be truthful, the time spent in Ecuador may have had a little something to do with our sturdy steel steed that injured a leg leaving us immobile for over three week. Yes, legends also need some time off and so too did the Cruiser. We had just had our morning coffee, thawing in sun next to a beautiful stream after freezing next to one of Ecuador’s many high altitude lakes, when we heard a the most terrifying sound any overlander ever hears…the unmistakable sound of metal sheering! After a short inspection, Marius found the origin, the left side shaft sheared out the flange. For those less mechanically blessed, the thing responsible for transferring the power from the diff to the wheel broke. This was a serious break, one that could only be fixed with a new side shaft from a Cruiser just like this one. Luckily we could still drive (in front wheel drive), although not in any way good for Cruiser, after Marius disconnected the rear driveshaft. In situations like this you can almost always count on the smallest, most remote town imaginable being the one closest to where you are. In our case, this was Alausi, a quant, tiny town with a Jesus statue on a hill and a main street lined with nothing more than hotels and small eateries. It was a stressful 15kms uphill to find only one affordable hotel with parking. Although very small, we were lucky to have internet so we could try and find some spare parts. We hoped it would be as easy as taking the bus to a Toyota dealer, but hadn’t really seen a whole lot of 70 Series Cruisers in Ecuador and so weren’t very surprised when the Toyota website showed none of those models. No harm in phoning though, right? So, in our best Spanish, we phoned up a few Toyota dealers and then later some Toyota parts dealers and soon realized that Ecuador had a lot of things, but a sideshaft for a 70 Series Landcruiser was not one of them. Meanwhile, we opted to get out of barely-on-the-grid Alausi and drive north (very slow in front wheel drive) to the town of Banos which had a great campsite, Pequeno Paraiso where we could stay and be closer to the biggest city in the vicinity Ambato. More internet searches showed that Colombia had the Cruisers, but with a civil unrest causing roadblocks and burning cars, it wasn’t much of an option to take a bus back to a Toyota dealer there. On top of that, the Toyota dealers were adamant that even if you get a 70 Series sideshaft in South America, it would not be identical to the South African part. After an 8-hour bus trip to Ambato from Alausi, followed by another 4-hour bus trip there from Banos, we had to accept that our only option seemed to be to have a sideshaft shipped from South Africa. My wonderful parents got quotations and organized the whole thing effortlessly and within 5 days of our breakdown the parts were at the Fedex offices. And so started the wait…fexex express delivery took 19 nail biting days and we were stranded in total for 24 days. It cost an absolute fortune and for the time it took to get to Ecuador and, more importantly, be cleared by Ecuadorian customs, it may have worked out cheaper to just brave it back into Colombia. It was a frustrating, nerve wrecking few weeks which gave Marius at least a few new grey hairs. Pequeno paraiso was a heaven sent with its cozy communal area, kitchen and hot showers. Marc and Sue made us feel more like friends than customers and we ended up feeling rather sad to leave. Thanks guys, you were the best thing that came out of the breakdown! Anyhow, this all happened in the middle of Ecuador, so let me backtrack to the start…
We said goodbye to Colombia high fuel prices and endless tollgates with a sigh of relief and welcomed Ecuador’s U$1.48/gallon (R3.91/liter) fuel price. It’s so cheap compared to Colombia that there is something like a 100km region surrounding the Ecuador border where you are not allowed to put more than U$10 worth of fuel in at one time. We made good progress on our first day going through the desolate Reserva El Angel (where we saw some rare plants called frailejones) and all the way down to Otavalo.
Otavalo is famous for its enormous market and offcoarse that had Marius superexcited ;-). The next morning we headed to the town square where all the action was, walked around a few hours and even bought one or two souvenirs. It was huge and somewhat overwhelming and then slightly redundant. Good place to get some beautiful Alpaca product at dirt cheap prices though!
We drove south to Lagunas de Mojanda after that and it was here at this high altitude lakes (+-3700m) that Ecuador started to show its colors…huge beautiful mountains, endless variations of blue glassy lakes all wrapped in an icy wind and low temperatures. These high-altitude areas are called paramo and is characterized by harsh climates, high UV levels and wet soils. We stayed there for a night after I had put on all the clothes I owned and had our first altitude sickness experience. Wine and beer is good for the cold, but it’s less conducive to high altitudes. We guess it has something to do with both causing low oxygen levels…duh! Unlike us, the Ecuadorians seem to do fine at these heights and lucky for us three delinquants showed up with their bikes and made a night out of revving their small bike engines and drinking until screaming at the top of their abilities seemed a good idea. Breathless and tired we descended to Mindo (1250m) the next day.
In Mindo we managed to find a great camping all to ourselves next to a stream and instead of going off into town and finding the orchids and flowers Mindo is known for, we just did some washing and sat around soaking up the heat. From Mindo we headed further south to one of the many volcanoes, Volcan Cotopaxi (5800m) in Ecuador. It’s one of the few volcanoes where you can drive almost all the way to the top (sounds like our type of volcano) and is also apparently one of the easiest summits to reach if you are an amateur mountain climber. Neither of us fit that profile, so we drove to the highest point possible (4600m) and while we both felt quite drunk from the lack of oxygen, Marius got out and took a few photos as I sat cozy and warm admiring the desolate landscape. We never got to see Cotopaxi’s summit but we felt we got most of the experience when we watched the clouds made the whole mountain disappear as the sun started to set.
After coming down from up high, we navigated ourselves around the rather well-known Quilatoa loop which stretches west from the Panamericana road through a number of indigenous small towns before returning to the main highway. The road there is windy and the area picturesque and isolated. We had to take a detour at one point because someone went over the side of the road and ended up a good 300m down the side of the mountain. The road was closed because they were trying to winch the vehicle back up, a feat that seem rather impossible to us as it was so far down. We don’t know what happened to the guy driving, but the cab seemed intact so he might have survived. Back on the loop, we stopped for the night in a small town called Chugchilan where we stayed in a cozy room for only U$22 including breakfast and dinner (which was both pretty good). We even got play some pool and table tennis in their games room that was heated with a fireplace.
The next day we unexpectedly drove to the most beautiful lake we have ever seen. Laguna Quilatoa is a volcanic crater lake filled with turquoise-green water, an unbelievable breathtaking sight! We wondered why they don’t charge you to go have a look, the free stuff is always the best!
After the loop and the lake, we made our first trip to Banos (literally translated as the bathroom), which is known for all the hotsprings and waterfalls in the area. We only stayed in the warm temperature of 1800m for a night or two before we ascended into the cold Andes mountains again. This time to the slightly higher cousin of Volcan Cotopaxi, Volcan Chimborazo (6310m). In fact, Volcan Chimborazo ‘s peak is the furthest point from the earth’s centre as a result of the Equatorial bulge. At around 3800m the desolation of the height started to show and this time, we got to see some Vicunas, wild relatives of the Llama. We slept at the visitor centre at Parque National Volcan Chimborazo’s entry at the highest altitude (up to that point), 4200m, and managed to put ourselves through another one of those super-eloborate-dinners-at-the-worst-possible-time. Making broccoli soup, fried plantains and chorizo on a single plate petrol stove at 4200m with all the clothes you have on you while it rains, is not conducive to your sanity or your relationship. We slept rather uncomfortably as the height somehow induces insomnia.
From Chimborazo it is not as far a drive as it is a rough road to a town called Salinas. This “model of rural development “ use to be a town with poor inhabitants and thatched houses until 1971 when an Italian missionary rode into town and changed the place for the better. He helped the peasants set up a cooperatives, bring in equipment and technical expertise. A Swiss guy was brought in to help set up cheese factories and subsequently cooperatives for producing chocolate, dried mushrooms, salami and wool clothes. When we heard there were chocolate (for me), salami (for Marius) and cheese (for both of us) we knew it was a place we needed to visit. We did have to “sniff out” the Embutadora (Salami factory), which gave us the whole experience from the pig to the mold covered salami’s drying in the basement, but for the cheese and the chocolates the most difficult part was choosing which variety we wanted. Oh, joy for chocolate truffles, salami and cheese!
We headed back to Banos for our second visit, before heading to our third Ecuador volcano. VolcanSangay (5230m). This volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, constantly spewing out rocks and smoke. It is so bad that guides actually recommend hikers to carry a metal shield to protect them from the wrath of this monster. They have built a road through a section of the Parque National Sangay, which had some beautiful views (not of Volcan Sangay unfortunately) and a pretty scary tunnel which had scaffolding in the middle (?)
Further south we took a detour to Laguna de Ozogoche which is another paramo (high-altitude grasslands and scrublands) lake set in a particularly icy background. The setting was very dramatic and isolated but without exception we found indigenous people making their living here. Three small kids curiously approached these two funny looking white people after herding their sheep to the designated spot for the day. It was freezing to the point where we could not use our hands if we didn’t have gloves on, but these girls had on only skirts and blanket tops and were playing in the grass as if it was a sunny day in South Africa. I can be so spoiled sometimes!
On the way south from this lake, thanks to God only 5km from the tarmac, the sideshaft snapped and eventually culminated in our third and final visit and 24 days stay in the bathroom of Ecuador, Banos.
After we said goodbye to Marc and Sue, we headed south and getting somewhere for the first time in weeks felt good. We flew past Cuenca, not really wanting to navigate another colonial city with tiny cobble-stoned streets and as a final tribute to Ecuador with its high-altitude paramo landscape, we visited Parque National Cajas. Literally, the name means “boxes”, which some claim to come from the shape of the lakes in this park. Others who have actually been there think the name derives from “caxas” the word for cold in the Quichua language. We hiked around one of the lakes at 4000m (slowly but surely) and slept at the visitor centre for the night. Strangely, you can sleep in a dorm room for the same price as camping, but if you camp you can only use the toilet until 7pm at night and again at 7am in the morning. Try and tell your bladder it has a curfew! We left quite early that morning but in true Ecuadorian style, the park had beautiful views. We descended from 4200m to sea level that morning and felt on top of the world with all oxygen when we got to the bottom.
Parque National Cajas
Somewhere between Banos and Peru I managed to get a parasite infection, a very worthy opponent indeed! Learned a lot about these nasty critters and nearly poisoned myself with the old generation medication used to eradicate them. All I can say is it may be worthwhile to get tested for these nasty bugs once in a while. Ecuador was a country of surprises, from icy peaks on the Ecuator to the good roads and super cheap gasoline. It is an easy country to travel in with friendly people, good food and beautiful lakes! As places go to get stuck in, Ecuador was pretty good, our only wish would have been that had a Series 70 Cruiser!