Crossing into Ecuador was too easy. Like, really. They need to tighten up their ship. Colombia let us go with no fanfare. They stamped us out with a smile and once we handed our temporary import permit for The Joan over to a disinterested official we were free to go to Ecuador. In Ecuador they didn’t ask us any questions nor did they look at our truck. I showed them pictures on my phone of our truck. They took pictures of the pictures and sent us on our way. No questions, no peeking inside. We could have had our camper-shell stuffed full of contraband and we would have been home free. We must have honest faces because I heard from some other travelers that they got thoroughly searched at the border. Not that they didn’t have honest faces. I do live a charmed life. Pretty sure we only smuggled in a wilted cabbage and some less-than-turgid potatoes.
Our first night in Ecuador was spent in a very grim hotel room. It was painted Pepto-Bismol pink with lime green accents. It smelled musty. There were about two feet of space surrounding the bed on the sides that weren’t tucked up against the heavily textured, dingy, Day-Glo walls. We did not linger in the morning. Bright and early we headed downstairs in search of coffee. Sadly, we were informed that coffee is not available in the morning. Only in the afternoon. This did not bode well for our time in Ecuador. We made tailgate coffee in the parking lot and tried to put the experience behind us. It is easy to say that things went uphill from there (uphill is good).
We headed to a spot in the town of Ibarra where we anticipated camping in the driveway of a plant nursery for five dollars a night and having free access to a washing machine. We ended up getting far more than we bargained for. They had a little guest apartment that they let us stay in. It was quite a luxury. We ended up staying for free in return for Scott driving them on a couple of errands because the proprietor’s license was expired. Scott drove them to pick up their daughter at school, out to dinner, and eventually, to the DMV to get a new license. We stayed an extra day to be able to take him to the DMV appointment. While our host was navigating the bureaucracy that is the Ecuadorian motor vehicle department, we got to pretend we were living #vanlife and went joyriding in his Sprinter to an equator monument not too far away. There are a number of geographical monuments but this one was reportedly the most accurate to the exact location of the equator. The nice folks who gave tours (in English!) were advocating for all maps to be redrawn with the equator running vertically. It made good sense at the time, something about the word north coming from an old English word for left. North is to your left if you are facing the rising sun. They still have a big job ahead of them to change the rotation of the world so for the time being, we are still aiming for the bottom of our map on this trip.
We used our time in Ibarra to plan our route through Ecuador. That plan included a wee backtrack up north (left north?) to a hillside camp spot. Rumor had it that we might be able to spy on some spectacled bears from there. I was feeling skeptical as we approached because the land was very developed. There was no forest to be seen. We were surrounded in steep farmland. We persisted and the road got narrower as it climbed and wound around the mountains. Just before the road threatened to become a trail we arrived at our destination. Mirador del Oso Andino. We drove through an orchard of avocados and peaches before arriving at a little picnic spot with an observation platform built up in a large eucalyptus tree. We were high up on a mountainside with a view of the opposite mountain with a river flowing far below. The hillside was only a patchwork of farms with some native vegetation persisting between. Spectacled bears will eat animals and have been known to kill livestock and llamas but 95% of their diet is coarse vegetation. We climbed the observation tower and stared at the hillside for quite some time. We tried to convince ourselves that some of the shadows we saw were bears. Our eyes started to cross and we were getting hungry so we stopped searching and started to make camp. That is when the guy who owned the mirador showed up. His name was Daniel and he was very enthusiastic about the bears. He spotted the bears in no time. There was a mother bear and two cubs foraging bromeliads on the hillside. I swear they weren’t there when we were searching. He took us on a trail that headed down to the river to get a closer look at them. Apparently, he hadn’t seen any bears for a few weeks. We were very lucky they arrived when we did. We watched them eat the tough vegetation on the impossibly steep hillside for quite a while. One cub did lose footing and took a tumble/slide downhill for a short distance. It was a thrill to watch. Daniel let us peek through his camera lens. He had a much larger zoom on his camera than we did. Once we all had our fill of bear-watching we hiked back up the hill to camp.
The mirador had more than just bear viewing. There was also a giant teeter-totter and a giant swing. Daniel offered us a ride on both. How could we say no? The teeter-totter was way too big. When I was at the top, I felt certain that I was going to flip over the handlebars. There were welded patches over areas that had rusted through. I did not feel safe. I was very happy to climb down off of that contraption and get strapped into the swing! We would later learn that giant swings are ubiquitous in Ecuador. This was our first encounter. I liked this one better because it looked newer and there was a harness and a safety belt involved. The biggest thrill was the initial drop. Once properly strapped in Daniel pulled a peg and the plank I was standing on dropped out from beneath me sending me on an arc out into space. So fun.
Once we had our fill of bear-gazing we headed back south. It was market day in Otovalo which is reputably the largest indigenous market in Ecuador. We aren’t big on souvenirs but the vegetable market was fascinating! We picked up a few familiar favorites and then we bought some mysteries. Babaco was the first mystery to come into our possession. It looked like the love child of star fruit and papaya and is a cousin to the papaya. We were told it would be ready to eat when it was bien amarillo (very yellow) and it would taste like a strawberry. It tasted more like a kiwi. The texture was spongy. It made Scott nauseous. I ate the lion’s share of the babaco. We even bought another one a few weeks later thinking maybe we got a dud on our first try. I ate that one too. No more babaco for us. Next, we picked up way too many of these little tiny pink potatoes. After much combing of the googles, I am still not convinced that they are actually potatoes. They look like potatoes but they taste exactly like beets. They dominated everything we cooked with them. We used them sparingly. I avoided them because I was too lazy to properly wash the little buggers. Finally, we bought some other small tubers that looked like overfed grubs. They were called oca and are the root of an oxalis plant. Apparently, they need to be set in the sun to break down the oxalate content in them prior to eating. They were sitting in the sun when we bought them… hope that was enough! The oca was nondescript. It did not add nor detract from any of our recipes. When eaten in isolation it produced a shrug of our shoulders.
With our pantry full of fresh veggies we headed out to camp for the night. Our destination was Volcan Cayambe, the third highest mountain in Ecuador. It was to be the highest sleep in our lives. The drive up was spectacular. We followed a web of tiny rural roads. At one point we came to an intersection with signs pointing both directions for our destinations. A nice local guy came over to see if we were lost. We told him we were heading up to the refugio on the mountain to camp. He told us we could take the easy way to the right or the hard way to the left. As we drove off to the left he sent us away with a smile and a benediction. We have seen a lot of rough roads. We never needed our four-wheel-drive so this one is classified as tame to us. That being said the views were jaw-dropping. We were treated with rainbows in the crepuscular light as we climbed up beyond 15,000 ft in elevation. Wild deer trotted across the road and through the fields. When we arrived at the refugio there was snow on the ground. Mind you we were only two degrees of latitude away from the equator. We were fixing to camp amid equatorial snow!
I have been anticipating the Andean chill since we initially left on this trip. I knew that eventually, we would be really high up and really cold. We were prepared with a feather comforter that my grandmother made for my grandfather decades ago. It had kept us cozy on many a high elevation night. But we had never been this high before. This night called for some extraordinary measures. Nights like this are the reason why we brought a 12v electric blanket and an extension cord! Nobody was going to find our bodies frozen in an eternal spoon the next morning! We were beyond cozy. We were toasty! Our little noses were chilled but other than that it was a very comfy night as far as temperature was concerned. We didn’t really sleep much though. It was very windy up on that mountain and wind is the arch-nemesis of our rooftop tent. Between the rain fly and the window awnings, there are many flappy bits to whip around and smack the sides of our tent. It is very loud. Also, there wasn’t much oxygen up there. We woke up warm and toasty, not rested, nursing raging headaches. We decided that it wasn’t in the cards for us to hike up another 1000 feet or so to kiss an equatorial glacier. We felt like hammered dog poop and it was all we could do to put away the tent in the midst of being battered by blowing ice crystals. As we headed back downhill with our tails between our legs we felt like we had survived some intense trial. Andean condors circled overhead lamenting the fact that we made it out alive. We learned a big lesson on acclimatization. It matters.
Feeling damaged all the way down to our bones we headed for lower ground. Much lower ground. We drove to a secluded little camp spot in the Puluhua Botanical Reserve. Past where we camped, was a stream and a tepid spring-fed pool that did not invite one to swim. We were happy to be warm and surrounded by lush vegetation. We cooked up our new weird vegetables and basked in the abundant oxygen. After a full 24 hours of decompression, we felt ready to move on to more adventures so we packed up and headed to the town of Mindo.
Mindo is located in one of Ecuador’s sweet spots. These are areas that are not hot, not cold, and have no bugs. We are not the first to recognize the ease of Mindo. It is quite a tourist destination. Most people go there to zip line and float the river in makeshift rafts of lashed-together inner tubes. I was tempted by the tubes but as I mentioned it was not hot there. I need pretty hot weather to be enticed to float for hours at a time. We opted to take a trolley ride across a canyon to hike a trail that connected a series of waterfalls. It was a beautiful hike and some of the waterfalls were impressive. Some of them were decisively not impressive but it was nice to be out and about. We camped in the parking lot of a hostel that allowed us to use the kitchen. We were able to cook on a flame-thrower poorly disguised as a stove in the company of a flock of chickens. They literally roosted in the window above the stove. Not hygienic. The rooftop terrace was almost enough to make up for the chicken poop in the kitchen. There were hammocks and couches angled to be able to relax while staring out at the abundance of hummingbirds swarming the feeders. They had to refill the feeders a couple of times a day, there were so many hummingbirds.
It had come to our attention that our Bluetooth speaker that is very integral to our lives was no longer with us. We last used it while camping with the spectacled bears and neglected to remove it from the top of the truck before driving off. This meant we needed to go shopping. Lucky for us Quito was on the way to our next destination. We ended up getting sucked into a shopping vortex and lost hours of our lives to a spiral-shaped shopping mall. We left the mall with a decent quality knock-off speaker and an electric kettle. The speaker is too loud for my sensibilities and it shouts at you when it connects or disconnects from Bluetooth. I am trying really hard not to foster too much animosity towards it but I think I might hate it. I love the kettle though! Now we can easily make coffee when we have an electrical outlet at our disposal and don’t have to bust out the whole kitchen set up. We can make coffee in our room when we stay in hotels! We both love our kettle. Her name is Scarlet and she is perfect. The shopping trip took too long so we stayed overnight in a lovely hotel. They had coffee and water available 24 hours and the entire place was decorated in a rose theme. Our room had walls painted a dusky rose color exactly like my mother’s bathroom back in California. We loved it there. But it was still in a city and we don’t really love cities so we boogied out of Quito the next morning in time to enter Cotopaxi National Park before the rangers shut the gates for the night.
Cotopaxi is an active volcano. It erupts from time to time and when it does people die. Upon entry to the park, there are complex signs about which direction to flee if an eruption occurs. I couldn’t make sense of the directions. We decided to go with fleeing to the nearest high ground in the case of an eruption. Lucky for us, Cotopaxi remained quiet. We learned our lesson about elevation on Cayambe and chose to camp down at the base of the volcano this time. We were tucked back into a draw that afforded us views across the valley to the scenic yet extinct Volcan Rumiñahui. It was cold there. Feather comforter cold, not electric blanket cold. Plus, we were protected from the wind. We ended up staying for three nights in that little nook of the Andes. We hiked up Rumiñahui until the trail changed from hike-able to a rock scramble. We were blessed with views of Cotopaxi all the way back down.
We also spent a chill-out day doing a whole lot of nothing. I struggled to make a pot of beans in the pressure cooker. For some reason, I didn’t think elevation would have an effect on cooking time inside a pressure cooker. I was wrong. Or maybe they were exceptionally recalcitrant beans. I had to bring that thing up to pressure three times. All the while it was alternating between raining and hailing. We were just thankful that we chose the clear day to do our hike. When we were finally ready to leave we packed up camp and made a quick drive up the volcano. We drove even higher than we had on Cayambe and hiked up a few hundred more meters to visit the refugio. We were hoping to partake in a cup of hot chocolate with a view from the refugio. Unfortunately, they make their chocolate with milk and the bread was full of cheese. Sigh. We instead opted for the vegan delights of coca tea and plain potato chips. Coca tea is made from the leaves of the coca plant. The same coca plant that cocaine is made from. It helps with elevation sickness. We didn’t get the view either. While we were hiking up the clouds rolled in. We hiked back down in a cloud and got to our truck just in time for another hail storm.
After leaving Cotopaxi we decided to capitalize on our acclimatization and head straight over to Chimborazo, the highest peak in Ecuador. Because the earth is not perfectly round and has an equatorial bulge the peak of Chimborazo is the closest point on earth to the sun. Pretty cool. We were looking to camp up near Chimborazo and had our sights set on a spot that was supposed to be tucked up against a sand dune. That sounded neat but we were thwarted by customs police. They stopped us just before the turnoff to the camp spot wanting to see our papers. They were surprised to see us because the northern borders were closed due to a strike over immigration policies concerning refugees from Venezuela. Once they saw that our papers were stamped before the strike began they were happier with us. We told them we were looking to camp and they told us to go to the beach. We told them we were hoping to camp in the mountains and they let us know it is cold in the mountains and directed us to turn around and drive up into the park that is home to Chimborazo peak to camp. Okay, no sand dune camping for us. We drove through the park but were running low on fuel so we didn’t feel confident to explore. The Joan doesn’t get the best gas mileage when we are at high elevation and we were really high. We decided to drive to the nearest town, get gas, stay the night, and explore Chimborazo the next day. One night turned into two as we really enjoyed the novelty of hot showers and flushing toilets.
When we returned to Chimborazo we had been softened by our time indoors. We drove up to the refugio on the side of the mountain. It was misty and snowy. We were the closest to the sun we would ever be and we were cold. We didn’t linger. Further down the mountain was more our style. We drove out on a tiny side road that leads to nothing but wilderness. We walked around and contemplated camping there but we were not feeling it. We were surrounded by herds of vicuñas. These are the wild cousins of llamas and alpacas. Vicuñas had been recently reintroduced to the area and were thriving. When we first saw a few of them we thought it was a rare sighting. Pretty soon it became impossible to look out and not see vicuñas on the horizon. They are exceptionally cute but not cute enough to entice us to camp in the cold again. Back in the Joan with the heater on we headed even further downhill. We contemplated camping at a muddy hot spring but instead opted to drive a little further to the town of Baños where the hot springs would not be muddy.
The drive was gorgeous. We followed a river surrounded by steep canyon walls. The vegetation became more and more lush the closer to Baños we got. We rolled into town and found camping at a hotel that had a nice grassy courtyard parking lot. They had a dedicated bathroom with a hot shower just for overlanders camping in their lot. Baños is in a sweet spot much like Mindo. Not hot, not cold, no bugs. There are a ton of tourists in Baños which means there are a ton of restaurants that cater to tourists. We were in heaven. Our first stop was an Indian restaurant. It was soooooo delicious. Most people go to Baños to swing in the giant swings and visit waterfalls. We were there to eat. We stuffed ourselves with Indian delights and rolled our big bellies back to camp to sleep surrounded by beautiful cliffs and tall waterfalls. Then next morning we were having leisurely coffee in the parking lot that was our home of the moment when our proprietor told us that it looks like we were stuck. We just laughed and said we weren’t stuck we just loved it here. He started telling us about all of the different routes through Ecuador we could take to the border. We told him we weren’t ready to leave. We had a few more things we wanted to see in Ecuador. We asked him if he thought we should visit the beach. We were that oblivious. It wasn’t until the next day when we read some chatter on the Facebook that we realized we needed to check the news. We were indeed stuck.
Ecuador had been experiencing an era of peaceful stability. For fifteen years the country had been at relative peace. There had been some mounting unrest resulting from the government allowing foreign mining companies access to indigenous lands in the Amazon region. The straw that broke the llama’s back was when the president introduced some austerity measures in an effort to reduce the national debt. The most controversial was the repeal of the fuel subsidies. Diesel in Ecuador was $1.03/gallon and gasoline was $1.85/gallon. The cost of fuel doubled overnight and the people did not take it sitting down. A movement that came to be known as the “Paro” began with a transportation industry strike. All buses and taxis quit running and they took to the streets to ensure that nobody would be able to use the roads to go anywhere. That official strike didn’t last long. The indigenous community took over and continued and broadened the roadblocks. The blocks could be passed on foot or bicycle. Those who tried to pass on four wheels were often met with threats of violence. Tires were slashed. Windows were broken. Even the tiniest of side roads were blocked. Trees were felled over roads. Piles of burning tires blocked passage. Trenches were dug through stretches of the highways. They were serious about the blocks. The big cities were host to large demonstrations. The demonstrations did become violent. Leaders of the indigenous communities demanded that the austerity measures be repealed. The president offered to meet with the leaders but swore he would not repeal the measures. They were at an impasse. We heard there were pockets of peace on the coast where people could travel unobstructed but the rest of the country was completely shut down. Baños was a bubble of tranquility. It is surrounded by farms and aside from the initial transportation industry strike we saw no evidence of the Paro. Well, the city ran out of fuel at the stations since resupply trucks could not run but that was about it. There was plenty of food for everybody. Plenty of things to do to while waiting to see how things were going to play out.
We did feel a bit of tension not knowing exactly how things would go and how conditions could evolve but I’m a big fan of thinking that everything is going to be fine. Other vacationers were freaking out. We saw a British woman break down in tears in a restaurant saying that she felt threatened. The chef came out of the kitchen and hugged her until the tears subsided. People were paying hundreds of dollars to charter private planes to fly out of Baños to the airport in Quito in hopes of flying out of the country. Knowing we could be there for a while we opted to purchase our own bathing caps for the hot springs. They are obligatory. A rental is fifty cents and it is a dollar to purchase. Besides the economics of it, I find rental bathing caps creepy. I chose purple and Scott chose blue. We all looked like a bunch of multi-colored floating gumdrops in the pools. It was cute. We used our time to visit and revisit our favorite restaurants in Baños. My favorite was Arepas To Go. They did a fabulous vegan arepa with avocado, beans, and fried plantains. Mmmmm. We also had great falafel, serviceable ramen, decent sushi, and of course a revisit to the Indian restaurant. We did not save any money by being stuck in Baños. We hiked all of the hillsides, visited the hot springs, ate all the food and waited patiently for the end of the Paro.
Eventually, the president caved and we were free to travel the open roads. Gas prices were back to normal but the stations were still empty. We chose to stick around another day to wait for gas so we could leave with a full tank. Also, the roads were a mess and it took some time to clear the roadblocks. We figured if we waited a bit we wouldn’t be the ones to pick up the remnant nails from the roadblocks in our tires. So, we ate one more arepa, did some laundry, took one more soak in the hot springs and readied ourselves to resume our road trip after 13 days in Baños. We still had a lot of Ecuador to see.