Jenn writes on 2014-04-14:

Hola from hot and humid Guayquil!  We have descended from the Andes mountains and are moving towards the coast of Ecuador for a much needed break from the chill of the Andes.  The Andes can be challenging with its steep grades and twisty roads.  Our final decent was enjoyable and rather abrupt in that with little warning, we found ourselves in hot, humid flat lands.

We are staying in a basic hotel (Mi Casa Hotel) in a bustling part of town, within walking distance of some of the more major attractions of the city.

Iguana keeping a watchful eye over the Metropolitan Cathedral

Today we visited the Seminario Park (or Parque de las Iguanas), the Metropolitan Cathedral (which was packed for mass and lent), Malecon 2000, and the neighbourhood of Las Penas.  The Seminario Park was a little unreal, full of iguanas (dozens and dozens) parading around and putting on quite a show for the masses of people, and the highlight of our day’s outing. The Cathedral was full to the brim with standing room only and had shrouds covering all paintings and statues leading up to Easter (we are guessing).  Malecon 2000 is a 1.5 kilometer promenade along the city’s waterfront with food stalls, playgrounds, a cinema with IMAX theatre (actually, the first in South America), museums, and a McDonalds. The Las Penas neighbourhood is full of brightly painted houses, some which are home to artists’ studios and shops, that wind up a steep hillside.  Yes, Guayaquil has some gems, for sure.  But let’s go back, shall we?

Once we left Quito (one gets tired of rain in one place and needs to move on to see rain in new places), we headed south to Baños, which was recommended to us by our new friend Dennis.  We had originally planned on attending a motorcycle rally in Cuenca last weekend, but decided not to after we fell in love with Baños.

Baños turned out to be a small town in central Ecuador, and popular for its hot springs, volcanoes, and hand-pulled taffy.  Located alongside a river and nestled at the base of Volcan Tungurahua, it certainly made for a picturesque break from our travels.  Every street corner boasted a tour operator ready to whisk one off on a rafting, bungee jumping, rock climbing, or jungle adventure; or to rent out an ATV, motorcycle, or dune buggy. We didn’t delve into the adventure side of Baños or partake in any of the many spa offerings, in fact we didn’t really do much at all.  As much as we wanted to, this stopover turned out to be mostly about sleeping and recharging our batteries, and giving some much needed attention to our bikes, which by this time required some TLC, especially on the brakes.

View of Banos perched on the edge of the river

No matter. Baños produced quite a bit of excitement for us, without even having to look for it.

The cozy chimney fireplace

We arrived on a Wednesday afternoon, and quickly found a hostal that could accommodate us with parking and a room on the ground floor.  Santa Cruz Backpackers turned out to be, to date, probably the best place that we have stayed so far.  In addition to a kitchen (which we didn’t use because eating out was cheaper than buying food and making our own), there was also a chimney fireplace outside of our room in the common area which we warmed ourselves by each night.  We had a private bathroom, the bikes were parked right outside, and there weren’t too many people around. Paradise.  Well, an  Andean paradise.

On Friday evening, around 6:10pm, the volcano exploded. We didn’t notice.  And neither did anyone else, it seemed.  We only heard about it the next day when Adam was researching a possible excursion to the top, or part way, and found that our neighbour had made the international news. Even Al-Jazeera and the BBC were reporting it on the “front page”, at least the on-line versions. It seemed funny that the international community gave it so much attention, while the local community barely made a peep. At the time, we were out having dinner.  The low cloud cover obscured any smoke plume that we might have seen, and every day life continued as usual.

Volcan Tungurahua erupts!

 On Tuesday afternoon, the volcano erupted again, and this time, under clear skies, we could plainly see the steady stream of vapour billowing up into the blue sky.  The volcano sounded like a steam cooker, frequently letting off pressure, accompanied by a few rumbles here and there, and the rattling of the windows in our room.  Scary stuff.  We asked a local man if it was anything to worry about, to which he replied “tranquilo” which loosely means “stay calm”.  Nothing to worry about.  From my limited amount of volcano knowledge, I have deduced that pluming clouds are a good thing, since it means that the volcano is steadily releasing pressure thus avoiding a violent explosion.  Apparently the explosion on Friday dislodged a blockage in the cone so now pressure could be released in a manner that didn’t send the population fleeing for the hills. In any event, two eruptions in one week was enough to make us a little nervous.

Volcan Tungurahua as per BBC (click photo for news item)

Taffy and other sweets on display

The rest of our time in Baños was spent doing very little. Mainly, Jenn needed some time to rest and regroup.  The past five and a half months on the road had caught up to her, and she was feeling quite road weary. Pondering whether it was time to perhaps end the trip, it was some much needed time spent trying to inject a bit of normalcy into the travel.  We worked on bikes, we watched movies, we went to the supermarket and bought toothpaste, hand lotion, and soap.  We ate hamburgers, cheap pizzas, and shawarma on french fries at fast food joints. Normal things. In contrast to what most people to perceive as a great adventure (which is has been), motorcycle travel is not the glamourous lifestyle that many make it out to be.  It involves a great deal of moving around which is difficult for someone who is somewhat of a homebody and has never ventured too far from home for such a long period of time.  It also gets a little tiresome living out of a bag.  Although we are travelling relatively slowly, adapting to a constantly changing environment and being surrounded by strangers can be a little stressful and scary.

Roasting cuy

Mmmm… frozen choco-bananas…

We were also able to give some much needed attention to our brakes.  Jenn’s rear brake gave her a bit of trouble when descending Volcan Pichincha near Quito,likely due to boiled brake fluid from minor drag plus hard braking, so it was time to flush the system, and give them a good cleaning. We were still running DOT 3 fluid which we had put into the system in Nicaragua, and it was likely proving unsuitable for the Andean riding since it has a lower boiling pint.  Without too much trouble we were able to purchase some good quality imported DOT 4 fluid in town, but it was a few days before we were able to actually complete the brake job due to rain.  Since water and brakes don’t mix well, Adam would start the job only to abandon it shortly thereafter due to rain.

Getting a little work done before it starts to rain again

After our restful week it was a little difficult to say good-bye to such a perfect place, or as perfect a place can be without a beach.  We were able to lighten our load once more by dumping a few more extraneous items from our gear which managed to take a few more pounds off of our bikes.  And so we packed up and headed out under cloudy skies.  After not being on the bikes for an entire week, things felt a little funny.  In addition to some adjustments we had made to Jenn’s bike to make it slightly lower, she was still feeling a little shaky from the fall on the volcano, and experiencing less confidence than normal.  Unfortunately, the leisurely ride that had been expected turned out to be seven hours on a winding, undulating road that took us up and down through the mountains, and through a long stretch of road that was completely obscured by low-lying clouds.  We have also been having fitment issues with our Pin-Lock anti-fog inserts for or visors and previously took them out of our helmets. Unfortunatly, since we were now travelling at altitude, our visors were fogging up with every breath, making things even more difficult.  We found ourselves riding with our visors open with stinging cold rain hitting our faces as we followed the only thing visible – the white line that marked the edge of the road.  The going was very slow and pretty scary.  It is also rather frustrating as, our helmets weren’t  cheap, and we can’t get the anti-fog inserts to stay in place which is not our experience with other helmets using the same item.  Design flaw of the helmets with not enough clearance and too much interference?  But we made it through and arrived in Cuenca at dusk.

That’s some heavy cloud cover!

While we were looking forward to Cuenca it turned out to be quite a large city, much bigger than what we had expected, with many options for accommodations and a lot of traffic.  Little did we know that we had also arrived just in time for the start of the city’s annual festival, which we were able to take in some of the goings-on.  Unfortunately we were unable to stay for the main attractions on Saturday, at least at our hostel as it was booked solid, and parking isn’t straight forward in downtown Cuenca.

Pretty girls in colonial costume at the Cuenca Festival

Our short stay at Yakumama Hostal was a bit of a disappointment.  The hostel itself was very tastefully decorated, and our room was huge with a private bath.  They even let us park our bikes in the corridor.  Unfortunately, the hot water was near near non-existent (don’t get us wrong – we can deal with cold showers, but if a place boasts having hot water then it better be HOT), and the internet was the worst we had seen so far.  While it was clear that there were intermittent issues with the internet provider, when it was working, it worked in the hostal bar, but not very well at all for the rest of the hostel – easy way to siphon guests to the bar for overpriced drinks?  The staff seemed pretty complacent about the bad internet (i.e. didn’t do anything to try to solve the issue but were well aware of an issue with one of the access points), and seemed to share a common desire to keep the availability of cheaper open beds a secret.  It turned out that there were cheaper two-bed dorms right next to and across from our more expensive room.  Adam, having already mentioned that price was an issue, wasn’t made privy to either of these rooms.  Not cool.

One of the twelve churches in our area.

Although we didn’t see much of Cuenca, we did manage to find a brew pub that served a pretty good stout and a somewhat home-brewy IPA, which somewhat made up for the farce that was the brew pub in Baños.  As Adam celebrated his birthday while we were there, we thought that we had hit the jackpot by stumbling across a brew pub in the quaint little town.  Unfortunately, the beer in Baños was terrible – very sour and it tasted like it had a bacterial infection – a great disappointment.  Beer report:  beer in Cuenca was “good for Ecuador” but not as good as in Colombia were some of the beers were just “good” and would be purchased back home!  As for the rest of our sight-seeing, Cuenca had a lot of churches (12 within walking distance of our hostal), as well as many restaurants, bars, and shops.

We are also happy to report that we managed to successfully and easily pick up the replacement screen for our Chromebook at the local post office in Cuenca. All it took was a $5 handling fee and a copy of Adam’s passport and we had the package in hand.  This screen is actually the second one that we ordered, after the first one sat in customs so long that it didn’t make sense to stay in Colombia and pay more and more money to stay in hotels in Pasto waiting for something to arrive in the mail.  This is probably a good thing since by the time the tracking information was updated on the DHL, the package had already been refused delivery by the post office and was back on its way to the USA.  We had also been checking the Colombian postal mail systems tracking daily and the first time the system had actually retrieved the tracking ID, the package was “returned to sender” – we were never going to receive this package.

That’s one happy customer!

So we left Cuenca. Jenn was feeling quite nervous about the ride again (the ‘going up’ thing really has her rattled), but fortunately the roads were graded in a reasonable manner (rather than someone who designs roller coasters), and there was plenty of sunshine to light the way. What we missed in the thick cloud cover the first time around was the the countryside here resembles what we imagine Scotland or Ireland might look like – very green rolling hillsides, with agricultural patchwork and livestock dotting the landscape. It was quite beautiful. We also decided to check out the ruins at Ingapirca which were supposed to be quite impressive. The road, at first, was in good condition been aving recently paved and winding through small towns. About two and half kilometers before the ruins, the pavement stopped and the road deteriorated to gravel where a work crew was busy prepping the road for paving. Unfortunately this made the road a little hairy and, after a scouting mission by Adam, we abandoned the ruins and headed back to the highway mainly due to parking congestion, hordes of people, and really no where to parking the bikes securely.

The ruins at Ingapirca

One thing that we are quickly figuring out, is that many attractions are not geared toward the motorcycle traveller. Sites noted in guidebooks are often geared toward backpackers taking buses and taxis to sites where they don’t have to worry about the security of their vehicle. The parking at Ingapirca was non-existent with persons parking alongside the roadway. Unfortunately for a person travelling with a fully loaded motorcycle, the condition of the road, as well as the security of the parking is an issue and we have abandoned a few sites and attractions simply because it is not safe to leave the bikes unattended or the roads have been to hairy to risk injury to ourselves or our bikes. So no Ingapirca for us.  Maybe it would have been better to go on a week day.

Can you see me now??

No sooner had we left Tambo (the town closest to Ingapirca), the clouds descended again and we were once again shrouded in thick cover. This time the riding wasn’t as bad, although our attempt to prevent fog in the visors using the shaving cream method didn’t work out so well, and we were riding with wet, cold faces once again. Our LED lights have proven to be very useful in these situations making us the brightest vehicles on the road, and our fluorescent rain jackets do a good job as well.

The common dish in the region appeared to be ‘hornado’ (roast pig), cut from the pig as it hung from a hook in front of the restaurant. We decided to grab our lunch from one of these stalls, and admit to thoroughly enjoying the fare. Our pork, served with skin and a think layer of fat, was accompanied by a potato, mote (two types – boiled and roasted), and plantano, and eaten with one’s hands.

Lunch time!

After a couple of hours riding through the clouds, we descended to sea level and warmer temperatures. As we hit flat ground, our bike thermometers had risen almost ten degrees and we quickly pulled over at a gas station to shed our rain suits and base layer merinos in favour of our summer riding gear. Our destination was to be Milagro, and the (beautiful) flat road took us past wetlands and many Dole banana plantations. Milagro turned out to be a scuzzy town with no real center and a lack of hotels, so we hastily beetled it out of there and headed to Guayaquil – the largest city in Ecuador – where we were sure to find some place to stay. Unfortunately, there was only one hostel listed in our GPS (a multiple-floored mid-rise at $35 for a room) so we ended up driving around the city many times in an effort to find somewhere to stay. We were unable to predetermine some place to stay before leaving Cuenca due to the cruddy lack of internet at Yakumama, and places listed in our GPSes were either shut down, relocated, or not appropriate. On our way around the city for the fourth time, we took a chance on Mi Casa, which had been renamed to Casa Hotel, but ended up being affordable ($25) with air conditioning, great internet and free parking on a multi-storey parking lot . Since it was dark by now, we took the room and were happy with our decision.

Another iguana. Because they were pretty cool.

Tomorrow we head for the coast. Since it is Santa Semana, we are hoping that everything isn’t booked up and we will be able to find some place to stay for a couple of days.  While we love the Andes and its charm, it is time for some warmth of the coast and hopefully some beaches and swimming.

We should mentioned how surreal it is at times here in Ecuador.  Adam recently commented that it was really rather strange to be wandering around the Malecon 2000 and eating Ecadorian Chifa were as 24 hours prior we had been eating an indigenous meal in the rain and fog of the Andes some 3500 meters higher.

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