When we originally started our trip, two and a half years ago, we planned on passing through Ecuador without really stopping. One of the fortunate side-effects of me shattering my ankle was that we could return to the journey and at least attempt to spend the right amount of time at some of these amazing places.
Due to some issues with the manner we entered Colombia and then the way I broke my ankle during our first time around, forcing Aaron and me to leave the country and our bikes, certain aspects of our motorcycles weren’t completely legal in Colombia. We’d been stopped by police during the first trip and after a fun chat, we explained our situation and they seemed very understanding. They said as long as we were leaving soon, there’d probably be no problems.
Now it was over two years later. As we approached the border, we were a little bit worried that these mistakes we’d made would be exposed and that we’d have to pay fines… or something.
Actually, we’ve sort of developed a system that usually takes care of these sorts of problems. When traveling, just try to be as likeable as possible, especially to police and authority figures, and especially when you’re doing something wrong.
Years ago, when riding through Costa Rica, we knew that we were supposed to wear ugly reflective vests when riding our motorcycles, but we didn’t think that we’d be in the country long enough to warrant the expense. Sure enough, police pulled us over and while one of them was writing our tickets we made friends with the other and were soon sharing stories. The other guy warmed up to us and we ended up getting a couple good laughs and a warning. These sorts of interactions happen all the time.
In fact, in our experience, usually, if being overly friendly doesn’t win someone over, they’re probably looking for a bribe.
Anyways, we were getting a little paranoid about the border, but we followed some advice we received earlier and the issues we were worried about never even came up. It took an incredibly long time to get our bikes through customs in Ecuador, and that kind of freaked us out, but the crossing was mainly uneventful, and took about two hours.
A few days before we crossed, Aaron started talking to Ecuador Freedom, a motorcycle tourism company based out of Quito, about off-road routes to Quito from the border. We had some deadlines in the not-so-distant future, but we figure that if we have the right sort of bikes to do these kinds of rides, then we really ought to.
So we took a side road early on and as the sun got lower in the sky and we realized we only had about 45 minutes until dusk, Aaron suggested we pull down a dirt driveway labeled as the entrance to a trout farm.
On the one hand, I kind of thought this was a silly idea. On the other hand, these sorts of things work out really well and lead to great experiences for us with shocking frequency. So I followed him down the trail.
A worker quickly pointed us to the boss of the operation, whose name was William (or the Spanish equivalent), and we gave us permission to camp anywhere we wanted on the premises. In addition to this, he offered us two trout.
He kept asking to make sure we knew how to cook them and that we had the means to do so as we walked along the different trout tanks filled with trout of progressively larger sizes.
When we reached the last pool, he handed Aaron a net and told him to go get two big ones. So, dressed in full riding gear, Aaron jumped down into the pool, which was only filled to about 5 inches, and began trying to net us some fish.
He caught a couple small ones at first, but William insisted they be bigger. Before long, Aaron got the hang of it and we had two rather large trout in a black plastic bag.
We shook William’s hand and thanked him for the fish and started walking to the spot we chose to set up camp. As we pitched the tent, arranged our camping area, and as the bag of fish ceased to shake about so much and then stopped entirely, we started thinking more critically about the predicament we were in: we weren’t really properly prepared to cook anything as extravagant as trout-in fact, none of our cooking vessels was ever big enough to hold one of the trout in it completely.
Aaron has a fair amount of experience in this, however, and said the best thing for us would be to build a campfire and construct a little spit for the fish and let them cook that way.
So we started chopping wood and looking for the right shaped sticks. The grass was a bit wet, so we had some complications getting the fire started, but we prevailed. The whole area was also covered in cow poop. With it being dark during this time, avoiding the danger areas became increasingly difficult and it was somewhat common to hear one of us express disgust or dismay as we went about trying to make the trout dinner a reality.
We were mildly successful with trout. They stayed suspended above the fire on the stick, as planned, for long enough for us to think that they had cooked, until we checked them and realized they still needed a little more time.
Then, one of them fell off the stick and into the fire. We did our best to rescue him and, in the end, finished cooking them in a pan and shared what might be called a ‘trout slurry.’ It was surprisingly good.
We went to bed afterwards and woke up early the next day. It had rained during the night, so we spent a little extra time with the tent laid out, waiting for it to dry.
As we finished cleaning up the campsite, I went down to the stream where we’d been going to wash our hands and dishes. I didn’t want the fish smell to take over everything in the bag and I figured one last wash would help. When I bent down to dip the pan in the water, however, I realized that what I assumed in the dark was a clean and healthy little stream was actually the trout graveyard just downstream of the trout butcher of the farm. Aaron and I didn’t get sick or anything, which I took as a sign that our stomachs were finally at travel strength.
We got back on the bikes and were met, a few miles down the road, by a roadblock and several police officers. They tried to turn us back and claimed that we were going the wrong way.
We told them we knew exactly where we were going, but they didn’t believe us. They told us the roads behind them got difficult.
We tried to tell them that this was exactly why we wanted to go that way.
Luckily, Aaron had road by road directions written down from the guys at Ecuador Freedom. The police scrutinized the directions and murmured to each other in agreement as they finally told us that these directions would eventually lead us to Quito and that everything would work out just fine.
We road past a volcano and, as we descended, it started to get a lot warmer. At one point in our off-road ride, we were pretty close to the Pacific Ocean.
We continued to weave through mountainous terrain, passing waterfalls and going through small villages into the early afternoon. At lunch, we decided we really did need to make sure we made it to Quito that day, so we looked ahead and planned to take the nearest paved road towards the capital. This road wasn’t incredibly close yet, but we were happy that we still had another couple hours of dirt and mud.
Then it started raining. Not long after it started raining, the KLR started doing that thing it likes to do: disconnecting the carburetor sleeves and generally making things difficult. We had to stop several times to get it sorted. This was particularly aggravating because it was raining.
About at the same moment that we fixed the problem, it stopped raining… because that’s how life works.
We made it to Quito and without much difficulty found the Ecuador Freedom shop. The guys were happy to see us and we had a good time swapping riding stories and hanging out. Their shop has just about anything you might want to relax; couches, coffee, a shower, hot tub, etc. They’re definitely doing things right there.
We told them what was troubling us with our bikes and we left them there for the mechanic to work on things while we checked into a hotel. We spent a lot of time just hanging out and chatting at Ecuador Freedom over the next couple of days.
Cotopaxi was our next goal. We wanted to ride to Cotopaxi, climb it, then ride further south, but that wasn’t possible anymore, because our bikes were in the garage. We searched online for a while, trying to find a basic and cheap climbing company that would be willing to come to Quito to pick us up for free (Cotopaxi is about an hour’s drive south of Quito).
To tell the truth, we’re the sort of people that prefer not to have a guide at all for this kind of stuff, but, as of about two years ago, Ecuador made some new laws regarding climbing mountains. Supposedly, the new laws were put into place just after a few people fell into Cotopaxi. Now, you can’t attempt to climb any reasonably high mountains without a guide and the ratio must be, at most, two climbers to one guide.
Eventually, we found Andes Climbing. They offered to pick us up and drop us off for free and said we could use our own equipment instead of renting everything, so it was a good match for us.
The next day, around 9am, their driver came to our hotel and brought us down to Machachi, a town close to Cotopaxi. We met with our guide, Jorge, and rented ice axes, crampons, and lightweight waterproof pants. We were able to use our own boots, jackets, and gloves, though, which saved us some money.
Then there was another decently long ride up a bumpy dirt road to the national park entrance. A little bit further along we parked in a packed-dirt parking lot at the base of a steep, loose-dirt walking path.
We met three Danish guys that were going to climb Cotopaxi that night with us and we started the first ascent.
Other than getting a mini lesson in crampons and ice axe technique in which we were told to walk either like a penguin or a Frenchman, we mostly just sat at the base camp.
The Danish boys had spent a few days at a hostel just a little bit further down for a couple days to get acclimated to the altitude, which at the base camp is around 15,495ft.
We watched the sun go down and took pictures of the sunset and then ate dinner. We were treated to jell-o jigglers for dessert, which was particularly entertaining because of the confusion it caused in our new Danish friends who had never seen this form of food before.
Then we went to bed. It was only about 7pm, but the way it’s planned out, you need to sleep for about four or five hours, then wake up around midnight. Then you eat “breakfast” at about 12:15 and get prepared to start the climb.
Getting sleep at the base camp can be a little bit difficult, however, and not just because it’s only 7pm and you’re in a bunkroom with 10 other people.
The base camp is a new building. It’s only been useable for a couple months. Before they finished rebuilding the place, people had to start much further down, which meant starting even earlier… it sounded awful. Before they started rebuilding it, there was a perfectly good base camp there, but Ecuador just wanted to build a new one, so they did.
The new building has some interesting quirks. Like, for instance, it howls like some kind of poltergeist when the wind hits the roof just right. Sometimes it sounds like a large man bellowing like Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol. Sometimes it sounds like fifty people blowing through party favors at a surprise birthday party. No matter what form the noise came in, it was always pretty loud and it made sleeping a chore.
We managed to get some sleep in the end and were up and moving at midnight as planned. We ate some oatmeal, had a cup of tea, and put our backpacks on. Aaron and I had unnecessarily heavy backpacks. Upon departure, however, we weren’t aware of exactly how much heavier our bags were than everyone else’s, but it became apparent later on.
The first short stretch was just a simple hike in the dark. Everyone’s headlamps bounced along as we trekked along the side of the volcano. As mentioned earlier, b y law we needed a ratio of 2/1 with a guide, so Aaron and I were tied to Jorge, two of the Danish guys were with another guide, and the last had one all to himself; which was probably best for him, because he was showing some serious signs of altitude sickness.
Not too late into the morning… or night… or whatever you choose to call 1am, we put the crampons on and started climbing up into the snow and ice. At some points the incline was so steep that our steps hardly seemed to advance us forward at all.
The hike to the peak of Cotopaxi from the base camp is only around 5km. This ascent generally takes people four to seven hours to climb, depending on their level of fitness and how well they adjust to the altitude. The base camp is at about 15,495ft (4723m) and the peak is at about 19,347ft (5897m), so the the rise in altitude is over 3,800ft.
After about an hour and a half, I was ready to be finished with the whole experience. It was dark. I was tired. My crampons didn’t feel quite right (keep in mind I’m not entirely sure what crampons should feel like, but I was pretty sure something wasn’t right) and I was slipping more than I thought I should. I’d feel like I’d forgotten to breathe at some points and would have to stop everything to focus on deep breaths.
In addition to all that, my ankle was also starting to throb, which caused me to favor my right leg heavily. Ever since the accident in Colombia, my ankle has been a concern for me. I try not to let it hold me back from doing cool things, but I was definitely worried that climbing Cotopaxi might be beyond my abilities now.
I wasn’t about to give up, however. For one thing, I was tied to Aaron… literally. There was a rope connecting us and my decision to turn back would necessitate him doing the same, because the guide was also tied to me.
In addition to this, I knew there was a guy just ahead of us who I’d just observed throwing up (more than once) and I would fall off a volcano twice before admitting that he, someone visibly ill, could do a better job of this than me.
So onward we went. Before long, the internal mutterings in my head dulled and, for all practical purposes, I ceased to be Nathan. I shuffled slowly upwards and kept my head down. Every once in a while a part of me would wake up and say, “You need to look around you. Look over there. Isn’t this beautiful?” but this voice was quickly drowned out by protests of pain and discomfort and a solemn swear that I would never do something like this again that rang through my head like a mantra.
At times I lagged. At other times, Aaron did. There was a stretch where Aaron kept stepping into deep snow and it was obvious that the effort necessary to get out each time was wearing him down. The whole time, Jorge kept the rope tight and even though I stopped paying attention to things around me, I was able to use the rope and the ice axe to slowly continue up.
We asked a couple times how much further and if he thought we’d make it before the cutoff time. You see, if you’re not within a few minutes of the peak at 7am, they make you turn around and go back. There was a while when I really thought we were going too slowly to make it, but Jorge never threatened to make us turn back.
When we reached the top, I almost couldn’t believe it. Aaron and I collapsed where there was a plateau and for about two or three minutes, I don’t think we moved, other than to reach out a hand to the others who’d arrived a little bit earlier and were congratulating us.
At just under 20,000ft, it was hard to catch our breaths, but we eventually stood up and took a look around. It was amazing. We were above the clouds and in some areas it was difficult to tell where the snow stopped and the sky began.
We had to begin the descent relatively quickly, though, because it was a little past 7 already. The way down generally takes about two to three hours and is way easier than the way up.
Facing down the mountain was a good deal more scenic than facing up. For one thing, it was light out, so we could actually see the surrounding area. Also, while going up, with how steep many parts were, my eyes just naturally fell on the snow directly in front of me or my feet.
Now everything looked expansive and grand. The areas that we passed in pain on the way up were now marvels that caused us to stop and take pictures.
When we felt like we were finally getting close to the end, however, we hit some really heavy slush. The Sun was beating down on us at about 9am and the snow had deteriorated into incredibly a difficult to manage slushy. We took a lot of distance by only having one person move while the other two dug into their positions. This was a very slow way to move.
We could see the base camp, but it was still so far away. We pushed onward.
It was about noon when we finally got back to base camp. We were very, very tired. My legs didn’t feel like they worked anymore and I’d crushed my feet in my boots to the point that both big toes were mostly blisters and my nails felt like them might fall off.
We gathered our things at the base camp and made the last walking descent to the truck. We fell asleep on the ride back to Quito.
We didn’t want to spend too much longer in Quito, though. Basically, we just needed our bikes to be finished and we’d head out. That’s not to say that Quito wasn’t great. We had a good time walking the streets and eating at some restaurants. I think Quito will forever have a special place in Aaron’s heart because of the $2 schwarmas we found there. But we had other places to be.
We were promised that our motorcycles would be ready in the morning and that we would be able to get them at 7am. This meant we had enough time to drop some clothes off at the laundromat, so everything seemed to be coming together nicely.
We had one last night of wandering around Quito. In the morning, we went to get our clothes from the laundromat we left them at in the downtown area and were surprised to find some of the nefarious sorts of characters one expects to find out at night still wandering around. It was strange being offered drugs at 7:30am. We declined, and thus began a very uncomfortable period of time where we had to wait for the laundry place to open in an area, apparently, that’s generally reserved for drug deals.
We waited for about thirty minutes. Then we got breakfast. Then we waited longer. Everyone we asked claimed that it should have been open by then, but it wasn’t. So we gave up and went to get our bikes.
After paying for the work done and packing the bikes, Aaron visited the phone repair shop one more time. I have no idea how many times he went to this place to have them repair the camera on his phone. Each time it would seem a little better, but something would shake loose and impair it again.
This time they let him go into the back room to see how to do it himself. When he was satisfied, we went back to get our laundry. It was finally open and we left for Banos de Aguas Santas.
Banos is an adventure and backpacker sort of town. The ride there from Quito is quick and we were sitting in natural hot and cold tubs in the evening and watching fireworks. The warm baths were a little bit off-putting, in that we were sharing it with maybe 30-40 other people and the water was not really that hot… and there were no bubbles. It was basically a giant, communal bath with a great view of a waterfall.
The pools downstairs were great, though. One of them had to be near 110 degrees Fahrenheit and the other was frigid. Going back and forth between those two made me completely forget that I was still feeling some pains from the Cotopaxi climb.
The next morning we jumped off a bridge. There are lots of tours and day-long canyoning trips that are probably great, but we didn’t feel that we had the time to spend a full day there. We figured bungee jumping off a bridge would satisfy the adventure part of us and would take the least time.
We were the first ones at the bridge and we watched as the truck came up and set the rigging. It confused us a bit. I’ve never bungee jumped before, but what I saw them setting up just didn’t look right to me.
We started talking to the guy who seemed to be in charge of things and before long he had Aaron in a harness and was pushing him over the railing. Aaron protested.
Originally Aaron asked this guy to jump first. “It just seems prudent,” Aaron said.
The guy happily agreed and then was immediately told by one of the other workers that he wasn’t allowed to. So when Aaron was on the diving platform and hadn’t seen it performed yet, he decided he needed to back down.
Moments later one of the other bungee workers volunteered to go first and that’s when we found out that it wasn’t a bungee at all. It was a swing. Suddenly the rigging made sense and we felt a lot more comfortable about jumping.
Aaron went next and I followed soon after. The initial drop was enough to pull the air out of me, but as soon as the rope started to redirect me under the bridge and I was finished flipping, it was just a huge swing tied to a bridge. It was a lot of fun.
I was later told that there is no bungee jumping in Ecuador. The story goes that a couple of years ago a girl died while bungee jumping. Her father happened to be a top official of tourism in Ecuador and immediately made some laws to prohibit bungee jumping in the country. Not sure if that’s true, but that’s what I heard.
We left Banos with Cuenca as our next destination. Riding through the mountains on the way there became incredibly difficult, though, as some of the thickest fog we’ve ever encountered settled around us.
For the sake of safety, something that doesn’t always get a say in our decisions, we decided to stop for the night at a hotel. That night we wandered around the small town in the fog and eventually found a decent pizza place where we ordered the ‘Chicago Pizza.’ It was alright.
The next morning, we woke up with the sun and started riding. We made it to Ingapirca, which in Kichwa means ‘Inca Wall,’ at about 8am. Ingapirca is an area with lots of cool old Incan ruins that we were told not to miss. We were happy to have made it there in good time.
The bad thing about this was that Ingapirca doesn’t formally open until 9am. We got breakfast and thought about waiting, but this would have drastically changed our plan for riding all day, so we talked to the guards. They let us in the first area and we were able to see a lot of the ruins from the other side of the fence, but we had to move on after that.
At the beginning of this day of riding, my hands were going numb and it was rainy. By the end of the day, we’d nearly made it down to sea level and we were in Peru.
The border crossing went smoothly… by our standards. We rode back and forth from the actual border of Peru to a border station. We accidentally entered Peru and had to turn around because we had been warned that not giving the appropriate paperwork to the proper authorities before leaving Ecuador would result in something like a $500 fine per bike.
The place where we had to do customs stuff for the motorcycles was a few miles before the border. Once we found it and took care of that, we rode into Peru and did the exit and entrance stuff with the visas and paid for Peruvian insurance.
By law you need to have insurance for your motorcycle in Peru. We’re told many people don’t, but we had to show proof of it to a guard before we could ride through the gate into Peru. Later there was a police stop and we had to show it again, so it’s clear that you do need it, if you’re a foreigner at least.
We were told that it didn’t have to be bought in Peru. Insurance from home that says it covers international stuff would work, but as Aaron and I were riding bikes that we weren’t using for over two years as they sat in Colombia, we had to buy it there. It was something like $56 per bike for two months of coverage.
There was something nice about buying two months, even though it was more expensive. We were about to spend over a month in Peru.