Wonderful people! Here comes an update from the road towards the Caribbean Sea!
After more than two months in Peru I was very excited to enter Ecuador. A sudden change in culture and behavior occurred once again when crossing the border to the new country, although not as big as the change between Chile and Bolivia, or between Bolivia and Peru. The roads got better (sometimes the shoulders were even marked with bicycle-only signs!), the honking of the horns got fewer, and the people were more relaxed in the way they approached us. Ecuador is overall a wealthier country than Peru, but what I observe is only a larger gap between the rich and the poor. As in all of the countries I have visited on my trip, the minimum wage is around 350 dollars, and a large percentage of the population earns a salary of this amount or very close to it (regional differences exists). Even though many things here are a lot cheaper than in Europe, far from everything is, and for many it’s difficult to manage economically. Very often I get the questions; “What is your bike worth?”, and “How much does the flight from Europe cost?”, and when I tell them that the one-way ticket is approximately four times their monthly salary, they are clearly chocked.
When entering Ecuador, what also stroke us was the incredibly high humidity. When climbing from sea level up towards Riobamba, which meant an uphill to 3800 m.a.s.l, we were totally soaked by sweat/humidity, a strange feeling.
In Ecuador, the uphills are steeper than in Peru, which made it quite a challenge to make it to the top. Once there, I was greeted by a gang of super-enthusiastic girls and boys who were going to spend “Semana Santa” in Riobamba, and I got to pose with them for a while and feel like a star! 🙂 Actually, this posing happens very often, I guess it’s very exotic to encounter a blond, long-haired cyclist around here.
We arrived to Riobamba the same day, and we had planned to climb the volcano Chimborazo, the highest mountain in the world (counting from the center of the earth, not altitude from sea level). We decided there and then that we would climb Cotopaxi instead, which is some hundred meters lower in altitude. Thus, we continued our way towards Quito, with ups and downs following each other in a landscape packed by volcanoes. When riding through Ambato, a city in a valley, we were caught in a crazy traffic and the exhausts from the cars were just awful, which made breathing difficult. Only La Paz has been worse than this stretch air-wise, and we had to breath through our noses, which is a hassle when cycling in an uphill. The reason for the contamination is mainly bad petrol, but also high altitude, old cars or new cars without exhaust cleaning system and a hilly landscape, contributes to a horrible air quality.
We survived the bad air and made it to the legendary Casa de Ciclistas in Tumbaco, just outside of Quito. The great welcome we got by Santiago and his family was exactly what we needed, and we immediately felt like home. Many people ask what the owners of such “Casas” personally get out of it, and that’s the beauty; They (the ones I’ve met at least) just think it’s nice to be able to help other people and support the cycling community, and to meet new interesting people with great stories to tell. It may sound strange to some, but there actually exists such people.
We decided to take a trip to Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, which is located in the Amazon rainforest. Being a pure pessimist, I was afraid that, because of the high frequency of tourists visiting this reserve, we would encounter problems on the way to obtain our jungle tour. Problems was an understatement for what was waiting for us, and we would soon get chocked by how dishonest people really can be.
We had spoke to some people before, who advised us to go directly to the reserve and try to get in touch with a guide that way. The reason for this was that it would be much cheaper than to get the tour through an agency in Quito. Therefore, we got on a bus to Cuyabeno, and arrived there after a long and curvy ride down the mountain range. The picture below shows Martin standing in a typical Ecuadorian line to buy a bus ticket! 🙂
We didn’t have to wait long until we found a guide who, unfortunately was busy with another group, but gave us directions to a lodge, where all our needs would be satisfied. We walked to the lodge, where we met Brien, a calm and most assuring young man, with whom we explained how we wanted our tour to be like. “No problems!”, answered Brien in a most convincing way, we would paddle down the river for four days and camp along the way. The price was going to be the same as a “normal” tour, and he was going to be our private guide. We should just sit down, and he would arrange it all. In the meantime we got a “cabaña” to relax in. After a while, Brien returned with bad news; The water levels were too high so far down the river as we were planning to go, so he suggested a new tour that meant that we would go down the river and camp one day, and then do smaller trips in the area around the lodge. This was clearly not what we wanted, so we would have to talk to the owner of the place.
The lady arrived, and she just laughed when we told her what Brien had told us; “Ha, Brien is not a guide, and it will absolutely not be the same price for going that far down on the river with a private guide!”. They discussed among themselves, and after a while, they said they had found a solution, which was more or less the same as Brien’s second offer. After long discussions and arguing they just said that they didn’t have enough guides to do what we wanted. At the end, we had to organize it ourselves, and they where very surprised and happy that we had done their job for them. All of a sudden, it was possible to go where we wanted from the beginning (apparently the water levels had dropped while we were arguing!), but it would of course be more expensive. We accepted this, actually believing that we would get the tour we wanted.
On the first day of our tour, we went with the big group (12 persons) down the river in a motorboat. It was all going so fast, and we didn’t have the time or space to appreciate this incredible natural wonder that surrounded us. We only stopped when the guides occasionally spotted some animal, that usually got scared by the sound of the motor and the excited tourists, and ran/flew away. Finally we were discarded from the group and were driven down the river to meet two Canadians with their guides (one translator and one guide), who was on the end of their tour, a similar trip as the one that we had in mind. The plan was that we would simply take over their guide (we didn’t need the translator). They all looked very surprised by our arrival, so we asked them if they knew that we were coming. “Oh, yeah, no problems!”, was the answer, and right after they asked us what we wanted to do. We said that we wanted to go further down the river, but to this they didn’t answer.
The next day, they didn’t announce any itinerary, and as usual we didn’t have a clue. When we asked, they said that we had to paddle upstream to an indigenous community, so that the Canadians could be picked up and sent back. But why couldn’t they come here? It would take them 10 minutes more to drive down here from the community, and for us it would take hours to paddle upstream with six persons and gear. To that they answered that it was more convenient and that they would find us easier this way. They asked us if we didn’t want to do some activities in the community, but we had heard from the Canadians that this community was so far from genuine, so we declined. We again expressed our will to go further down the river, and guess what the guide said; “The water levels are to high further down the river, we would have to sleep in the boat!”. We understood that this was not true, so we replied that it was no problems for us to sleep in the boat. To that he mumbled some other lies that I actually don’t remember.
When paddling upstream, I overheard the guide and the translator talking about going home, and I asked the guide if this was true. He just laughed, and made some joke about paddling all the way back. At that point I stopped paddling and tried, in vain, to figure out what was actually going to happen. The guide just said that if they sent another guide, then that guide would go with us, and if not, then he would be our guide. They had managed to totally confuse us, but also make us very upset. We arrived to the community (with only the guide and translator paddling), and fortunately they had sent another guide for us (which turned out not to be a proper guide). In the end, we got what we wanted, which was to paddle downstream. We gave it a new try, again in vain, to understand why everyone that we had met so far was lying to us all the time. It’s such a shame; here we are in one of the most spectacular wildlife reserves I have got the chance to visit, and it all gets spoiled by horrible organization and dishonesty.
Reasons for this behavior can be many. What I mostly blame it on, is the great financial gap that exists between the tourists and the people living in the area. With such inequalities, problems with dishonesty occurs, and when there is a lot of money at stake, people get nasty. The same thing goes for robbery; the risk of me getting robbed, is a consequence of having such a good situation (being born in a country like Sweden, where I’m able to have an insurance, and be a part of a society that always will take care of me), and the risk of robbery is just something I’ll have to live with. I can’t emphasize enough though, that (almost) every one of the many persons I’ve met on this trip have been incredibly nice to me, some even too nice (if that’s even possible!). The first day in Ecuador for example, we met a guy who saw us preparing our food in the park with our gas cooker. He didn’t think we should eat there, so he insisted on buying us food in a restaurant. He was working in the banana plantations, and I’m guessing that he doesn’t earn much more than the minimum salary.
The last mission I and Martin would attempt together was to climb the second highest volcano of Ecuador; Cotopaxi. This proved to be a real challenge, mostly because of the altitude and the fact that we didn’t have any experience of climbing mountains. We were brought by car to about 3200 m.a.s.l, from where we walked up to the refuge on the south side of the volcano, situated at 4000 m.a.s.l. There we rested until the next day, when we hiked up with our guide to high camp at 4800 m. We rested a couple of hours there, before we at 00:15 began the real ascent. At approximately 4900 m the snowline started, and from then on we used crampons, ice axe and a rope that connected the three of us. We hiked up the mountain all night, and at about 07:30 we arrived to the crater at about 5890 m.a.s.l. I was feeling a bit sick when arriving to the top, probably because of the altitude, but mostly proud of our achievement. What we didn’t know was that the worst part was in front of us; the descent. After more than seven hours of hiking up the steep mountain slope, we had very little energy in spare for the tricky way down. There where stretches with a 70 degree gradient, and with the snow melting as the day set, it was really tough (Martin vomited on the way down out of exhaustion!). Finally, at about 12:30, we arrived to the refuge on the north side, where a car waited to pick us up. Crazy, but a very beautiful experience nonetheless!
In a couple of days I will continue towards the border of Colombia. Martin has gone home, so I’m on my own again. I really look forward to Colombia, which many cyclists rank as their favorite country. But first I’m going to eat some more of the delicious vegetarian food they serve at Shalom, the best restaurant in Tumbaco! Stay in touch, Abrazos!