I might actually be the last person in the whole world to make the connection that "Republica del Ecuador" means "republic of the equator", but just in case it also didn't click for you.. well now you know where to find me on a map. I'm uploading pictures now, but this'll take a while so I attached a few to this email just for fun.
So I'm out of the Quilotoa loop now and a bit further south in a city called Ambato. Ambato is situated in the shadow of the mighty volcano Tungurahua. Go ahead and try saying it... it's fun and it literally means "throat of fire".
Tunguraua is actually active right now, but at the moment the fires aren't visible at night. Nevertheless in the long run this makes the Ambato area one of the most awful examples of city-planning you can possibly imagine, and while the volcanologists are cautiously optimistic about it not decimating the city in the immediate future, everyone still likes to keep an eye on it. For anyone in the audience who shares my macabre interest in worst-case geological scenarios though, may I suggest the Cascadia subduction zone as an even more gruesome topic to consider.
Anyway I'm soon I'm leaving Ambato for a place called Banos de Aqua Santa. I've heard speculation from some backpackers that the translation is something about "toilets of the sacred water" but it's more about sacred thermal baths. This is an interesting region because it's sort of located at the intersection of the "avenue of the volcanos" and the "avenue of the waterfalls", and it's near where the Andes fall away into the Amazon.
Cycle touring is rough down here! I practically started above 3000 meters in the Quilotoa loop, a height that would be a respectable achievement for a climber (let alone a fully loaded bicycle) in most of the continental US. Sometimes I pedaled to almost 4000 meters, although those are passes and at those heights you don't see a lot of permanent settlements. In the high Andes I typically woke at 5am to try and make some distance before the afternoon thunderstorms arrived. At that altitude the sun really beats down on you if you can see it at all, and when it goes behind the clouds you're normally in for some cold fog, frigid rain, and high winds. Sometimes I even have to pedal to go downhill because of the wind, it's really amazing.. I'm thinking of carrying around a kite and seeing how much I can get it to pull me :)
Around Quilotoa I went on some side trips waaay off the map, and I encountered small villages of indians where both of us have Spanish as a second language (they speak Quecha first.
Andinos (i.e. people from the Andes) are even more friendly than your standard Latin Americans. Inevitably I meet kids who I give candy, who then bring more kids who want more candy, until there's such a growing crowd that the village adults all show up. Sometimes we can't communicate much so they'll eventually fetch some guy who speaks perfect Spanish only for him to realize when he arrives that my Spanish is terrible. Then I'll begin the familiar routine of describing my from/to vectors, and trying in vain to justify my strange appearance and various bizarre accoutrements. Some spectacle, right? Well it sounds weird but I guess a touring bike looks pretty space-age for farmers who in their wildest dreams might occasionally entertain the idea of leaving the village only for visiting their own far-off capital. For them, Norte Americano's (some are careful to avoid saying "gringos", as if it may give offense) are peculiar folk and may as well be space-aliens. Most of the time they try to give me refreshment or a roof for the night.
Once I came across a village where the roads were too muddy for vehicles other than a mountain bike, and when I was leaving the people gave me all this mail to take for them down into a bigger town. So if anyone needs me, you can tell them I'm basically down here running the gringo pony express...
For some reason a lot of these incredibly friendly people have the most monstrous dogs. No bites or dog-induced bicycle crashes yet, but I've learned to watch them all pretty close and bark ferociously myself and swerve towards them rather than away. I thought India was supposed to be bad about this kind of thing, but I've never seen anything like it. When approaching or exiting cities I keep my trekking pole strapped to my handle bars so I can brandish it at the beasts! It's ridiculous but it feels a bit like jousting and I'm lately wishing I had space and energy to carry a bilingual copy of Don Quixote. There are lots and lots of mutts, but other than that German Shepherds and Mucuchies are the most popular purebreds. I've even seen a few Saint Bernards. In Quito they like smaller dogs naturally since these are companions that don't do any work.. and there they seem very fond of schnauzers.
So when the small back roads fail me there's one thing I can always count on. It's back to the Pan American highway, aka The Pan Americana, aka the real Mother Road which puts even the legendary Route 66 to shame. With the exception of a few kilometers of dense swamp on the Panama/Colombia frontier, his thing stretches uninterrupted from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego and in all that space of two continents the road is always, somewhere, in every kind of condition you can possibly imagine, from 1 lane to 10. In some places it must be frozen solid, washed out, or cracked with heat, running on and on over mountains, through jungles, deserts, rainforests and massive conurbations. In Ecuador so far, the Pan Americana varies from 3-lane divided highway sometimes to a barely one lane dirt-and-gravel track, but there's always been a decently wide shoulder for cyclists, or burros, or come-what-may. Unfortunately though they aren't too serious about emissions standards here, so if I'm on the big road at all it's as likely as not that I'm sucking diesel fumes. Overall Ecuador has some of the best and most modern roads in South America (which makes sense considering it's rather densely populated and small in terms of its overall size). It's impossible to know now what I can expect from the Pan Americana further south, but maybe later in the comparative vastness of Peru I'll get to trade some of the diesel fumes for bumpier roads and consider myself lucky.
When I'm not wild camping I've developed a knack for finding these glorious old haciendas (for example ). These places are normally pretty luxurious accommodation, and at $60 - $80 / night are probably about the most money you could manage to spend on a hotel anywhere in Ecuador (compared with a more standard rate of about $10 - $20 / night). It's worth it though because they are so odd and charming. Plenty of them are more than 200 years old, which basically makes it older than the Ecuadorian Republic. The food in the Cienega I linked to above is great, and every room had a high ceiling, arched windows and doors, and a fireplace. The whole place was surrounded by birdsong and huge old-growth eucalyptus trees, and the nearest neighbors were huge sweet smelling flower export operations.
So what exactly makes it a hacienda? Well it's sort of like a plantation.. a kind of family estate that additionally has a productive purpose and such an army of support staff that it was once practically a village. They are often walled off like small fortresses, typically have several gardens, pools (for breeding fish, not for swimming), barns and livestock, a church, a library, water wells, old servant quarters and whatnot on the grounds. One place had an old cheese factory that was turned into a huge game room, a still-functioning tannery for sheep hides, and a old copper mine elsewhere on the property. Well, I guess that's how you used to go about diversifying your investments. I've stayed at 3 different haciendas so far and each was run by some cultured, well-educated, and extremely old man or lady, presumably from the same family who's owned it for generations. For me it's all somewhat more like European aristocracy than anything I expected to find in this part of the world.
As far as future plans.. chances are very good I've
tricked talked a friend of mine into going with me to mountaineering school on the glacier Cayambe, in which case I'll be storing my bike somewhere in the south and returning to Quito briefly to meet him before we leave for the high Andes again. We'll see if that works out. I'm thinking about taking Spanish classes while I wait for him to arrive if pedaling further south doesn't make sense. Stay tuned!
Hasta luego, Mateo