From Ibarra, the next stop was a brief one to see Otavalo and its signature markets, even though it was not Saturday when the big one occurs.
Stopping at the main plaza, vendors were just getting going and even though it wasn't market day, it was impressive. The goods were handmade and more interesting than much of the crap I'd seen elsewhere. For the first time I was wishing for a way to buy a bunch of things for home - blankets, ponchos I'd never wear, carvings and more. Oh well, I settled for a keyring as a souvenir.
The friendliness of Ecuador continued to engulf, as vendors gave genuine smiles, people wandered to the bike and made conversation as best we could. A couple were admiring the bikes as we walked up, turning out to be from France and GS riders, but on a "regular" vacation this time. We exchanged info and good wishes before re-energizing with a coffee for the road.
Ahead lay the Equator and it was an exciting prospect. There are multiple locations where one can cross, the Mitad Del Mundo in Quito probably the biggest, however the one lying outside Cayambe is touted as being the true and most accurate, based on GPS technology. Mitad differs slightly as it was made before GPS mapping.
The Quitsato location was desolate, save for a an expedition camper and couple from Canada who'd been on the road for 4 years. What was great about this location is that for $5 you can park the bike on the plaza for photos and we took advantage of it. There is also a campground there for moto travelers and overlanders.
Photo fun over, we were treated to some explanations which were interesting, including the desire of the organization to change the orientation of the globe with the equator as the vertical center, turning the world sideways compared to the way we know it. Makes sense from the information, but it ain't happening. They also said the Coriolis effect of water swirling opposite directions on either side was a parlor trick and not real. My life was ruined.
Quito lay ahead and we both needed our Yellow Fever vaccinations, the only real reason it was a destination. True to expectations, traffic was obnoxious and despite the cool air of the near 10,000' elevation, Charlie's bike was running hot and we had to stop a couple of times to let it cool down.
Twice in the slow moving traffic, I got lightheaded, partially from the thin air, but also because it was loaded to the gills with smog and diesel. We'd been in 9500' elevation for the last three days so it had to be the smog reducing the oxygen content. After a death defying ride where we both almost got creamed by huge triple-car buses, the hotel was finally found and we got our rooms.
Wandering out that evening we found a soup kitchen loaded with locals and ordered a bowl described as "visor" soup on the English description. I joked it must be cow eyelids, and later wished it was. The liquid was delicious but "visor" translates as "viscera" and the meat was chopped stomach lining and other internals. Neither of us could deal with the rubbery and bitter chunks it was loaded with.
Order of the next day was to get shots and find the public health location downtown in the old section.
A huff and puff walk led to the old hospital and Charlie was a bit nervous about the gig. Not so much the shot but the idea of being pumped with a disease. He's had relatively little inoculations purposely, but I said to consider it a Visa into Bolivia.
Reminders of the previous night's meal
The vaccination process was very easy, the receptionist pointing us upstairs and after a couple of meanderings were led to the vaccination office. A couple of questions and a signature after presenting our passports and the shot was done for me. I sat waiting with my camera for Charlie to pass out, but alas, it didn't happen :(
We both felt a bit unsteady, more from the oxygen and mind game than anything else, but made our way back to the hotel to take it easy for a day or two since the reactions vary. Along the way I spotted a souvenir shop and found a vaunted sticker of Ecuador, despite the lady's insistence I should buy a patch. She asked how I liked Ecuador and told me that Ecuador was beautiful, and the people were quiet, tranquil and chilled compared to Colombia, which was a more aggressive country. I told her the sense of peace was apparent immediately across the border. The roads were amazing, the traffic little, the drivers being considerate and cautious on the roadways and the people very friendly. After feeling like I was in a combination demolition derby and motocross race the entire time I was in Colombia, her words rang true.
Everything was cool until the evening when we both developed mild sore throats and head congestion. Later that night, it was if I'd been given speed. I tried to sleep but my mind was going at insane speed and each time I tried to close my eyes it was a crazy party of thoughts. By 4 am I was going nuts from fatigue and a sense of smothering, I think from the congestion and resultant lack of air. Somewhere after 4, I passed out but was awoken by noise from the parking garage below around 6 am, onto which my window opened.
At breakfast I could barely stay awake and went back to the room, getting a couple hours of sleep around noon. Part of my plan for Quito was to try and find Nikwax to rewash and apply waterproofing to my Firstgear jacket which was no longer rainproof and sent a couple of emails to outdoor stores there. No joy.
We'd wandered to a couple of tour agencies to find out about Galapagos, trying to compare costs and make decisions for the next day. I decided I wasn't going to the spend the money as my budget is getting tight and there was a long way to go still. Charlie texted me that night he'd booked a tour and would spend the next day getting things in order. I decided to stay an additional night and leave the day he did, paying the hotel for the next evening.
I had the same experience as the previous night, a racing mind and sense of smothering, which kept me awake the entire night. Zero sleep. I knew that altitude sickness can bring insomnia and though I had no other symptoms, am guessing that was it. I let Charlie know I was heading out for Baños and lower elevation and less pollution, about 3-4 hours south, and got my money back after loading the bike.
The ride was miserable due to being groggy and in such a fog that I was barely able to function. It was dangerous and I stopped a few times on the road edge to try and sleep if only for a minute or two, my eyes unable to stay open. It was a difficult day and by God's grace I didn't get hurt. In one of the moments of blurriness, a car traveling alongside moved over and slowed down, a woman leaning out the window to wave and shout "Welcome to Ecuador! Welcome to Ecuador!"
I couldn't help but smile and wave, momentarily lifting the fog. A few miles ahead we stopped at the same light and she again welcomed me.
The highways were outstandingly good and the scenery amazing, even in my stupor. The road to Baños was inspiring, eventually arriving in the town and working my way to the center square and hotel. There was a huge sound stage set up in front of the hotel and the owner warned me a fiesta was going to happen and it would be loud. I didn't care and just wanted to lay down somewhere. I got to the room and opened the window to a cool breeze and singing birds in the plaza. In a matter of minutes I was sprawled on the bed to the sound of the music system testing, and within 15 minutes the sound pumping out was so loud and strong, that pieces of plaster literally fell off the wall in my room.
The volume made no difference and I was asleep in minutes, feeling the vibrations through my body. I slept three hours in the monster dance sound and it didn't bother me a bit. Crazy.
I finally got up and out on the streets to wander, a solo female singer belting her out-of-tune heart out, with about ten people watching from 50 yards away. No one got close to the stage. The booming sounds echoed through the small town as I continued wandering.
By nightfall I was back in the hotel, the poor manager/owner sitting in the reception desk absolutely worn out from the volume and incessant beat. It was stupidly loud. As the evening progressed, the crowd grew to a couple hundred and various singers rotated through. At nine the concert ended, and by ten the stage was gone and it was quiet. I still had some residual insomnia but finally slept a good 5 hours.
Exploring Baños the next day, I was able to get some images and a better feel for the town. It reminded me very much of a Latin American version of Ouray, Colorado, lying in a bowl or valley at the foot of Tungurahua Volcano, with steep mountains covered in lush green vegetation. It is a sports center with mountain biking, paragliding, bicycling, dirt bikes and all the other tourist based activities. Nonetheless, it still had character. In wandering, however, I have never seen so many hostels, hospedajes and hotels. I'd say there was "one on every corner" but that wouldn't cover it, since there were several in each block.
The next morning, Saturday, the streets were lining up for a parade which began about 2 pm. The bustling crowds, which seemed to appear from nowhere, pushed and elbowed their way in front of me. One particular old lady was the biggest pain in the ass I've met and my evil half wanted to kick her. She literally pushed me with all her strength to get in front of me, then bought a chair from one of the many vendors and sat down, then turned to push me with her hands to allow space for her older daughter to stand next to me. As the sun came out she bought an umbrella, opening it up directly in front of my face. We had an umbrella pushing match for most of the parade. Up down up down up down. The things we adventurers must suffer through. The horror.
The back streets were quiet as I walked, going to visit the waterfall and thermal baths located in the town. As I wandered down quiet streets, I eventually heard the sound of an announcer and discovered the finish line of a mountain bike race, the riders coming down what appeared to be almost a vertical mountainside, doing their final jump before sliding sideways into the small crowd who cheered each arrival. That mountainside was steep.
That evening about 8, the parade fired up again and went another couple of hours but was entertaining until the final minute.
With all the Stahlratte exes wandering around, it was little surprise when Jules and Christine rode into town and we caught up on gossip and stories. That evening the hotel attendant indicated he wanted to take a picture of my bike when possible and showed me a picture of his V-strom and son, who were in Venezuela. It would be interesting to know the story of his working in Banos, as Christine and Jules had a 7 hour crossing at the same border as I, due largely in part to huge numbers of Venezuelans without papers - we're guessing refugees.
Antique bicycle show
The next day I paid for an extra night and headed east for Puyo, a town in the Amazon basin and a little known monkey rescue farm I'd read about. The morning was drizzly and rain was forecast, but I needed to ride. The road was great, hugging the steep mountains following the Pastaza river flowing to the Amazon. The rain was gentle and mists covered the mountains, the cool temperatures so enjoyable after months of heat. Views were spectacular and several tunnels were on the way.
Ecuador is such a relief to ride. The roads are excellent, wide, smooth and pothole free. For the first time on this trip, I've been able to actually look at scenery and rubberneck, appreciating the mountains without being glued to the tarmac watching for potholes and deadly drivers. It's one of the reasons I'm becoming enamored with Ecuador. Stunning scenery, inexpensive and incredibly friendly.
As the road began to descend, seeing the river flowing heavily into the plains ahead, it was obvious I was in the Amazon region. Tropical plants were everywhere, houses built of wood planks on stilts, and a sudden rise in temperature. Amazing to see such an obvious change in climate, from cool, high, misty mountains to sudden temperature and foliage change.
I stopped briefly near a bus stop to fiddle with something, and was approached by a guy who looked about 20, speaking Spanish but with a bad stutter. He talked and asked me questions for a while, but I had no idea what he was really saying other than pointing to the stickers on the bike. Defaulting to my litany of descriptions of where I was from, where I was going, how long I would be traveling and so forth, none of these satisfied his questions. He continued on and finally I decided it was going nowhere other than him saying "cellular" so I assumed he wanted a card, but when I produced one, he waved no and stepped back a bit. Okay. Next I tried a decal of the website, but again he shook his hand no as if it were a snake.
Deciding this was fruitless and nicely trying to leave, he began saying "Argentina" and then did pantomime golf swings. He was quite animated in trying to get me to understand whatever he was asking, and then mumbled "gringo" as well. He didn't seem angry but I finally gave up and got on the bike. The conversation was either too deep for my comprehension, or he was just a weirdo. Who knows.
A storm was rolling in over Puyo as I arrived and I timed finding a portico in front of a roadside tienda perfectly as the rain started. Adjacent was a chicken-based restaurant, as practically every one here seems to be. I wasn't really hungry but decided to get a 1/8 chicken meal for $3, but the roasted chicken wouldn't be ready for another hour, so I got a pineapple juice drink made with leche, a great smoothie style drink, and watched the rain and cars slowing to stare at the gringo and bike.
After two hours of waiting for the rain to stop I decided to find the outdoor monkey reserve, though I had serious doubts about how fun it would be with a bunch of wet, muddy monkeys crawling all over me. Still, it seemed appropriate based on some of the other bullshit I've survived on this trip. The GPS said it was ten minutes further and the slight lifting of rain that had led me out of my dry chicken-less restaurant suddenly changed back to heavy. A dirt and rock road to the left off the main highway had a small sign, so I swung onto the road and rolled down some mud and river rocks toward the boonies. It wasn't far before the road forked, of course with no sign indicating which direction, so I followed the better one, which led down a steep hill to a dead end. The bike squirmed it's way back up and I planned to take the other fork, but while I had been gone, a huge dump truck had managed to get stuck on the fork, blocking any entry or exit.
That was my sign to forget it, and I headed back for Baños and the hotel to escape the rain, which continued all the way. The road was really beautiful, with many waterfalls and vistas of the river below and long, dripping tunnels to ride through.
Rain 1, monkeys 0, but a ride worth making!