Ecuador Overland by camper truck
Ecuador is situated on the equator on the Pacific coast of South America, bordered by Columbia to the north and Peru to the south and east. Despite being a very small country it really has so much to offer. You can experience different landscapes in a single day. The country has colonial cities, cloud forests, fabulous Andean peaks, Amazonian rain-forest, wonderful people and the great Galápagos Islands. If interested in reading about these islands you can read our Galapagos blog post here
New year celebration in Ecuador
We crossed the border into Ecuador just before New Year and we stopped in the small town of Vilcabamba. It is famous with longevity all throughout Ecuador due to the simple and stress-free lives and the fresh Andean air. The area has beautiful scenery, mild weather all year round, never too hot or never too cold, and perhaps it’s the laid-back vibe which attracts so many people, mainly for retirement. There tends to be a sort of ‘gringos ‘ boom judging by all the big new houses dotted in the hills. The positive side is that jobs in tourism and construction are booming so young people have little ambition to leave this great area. It really was a great find of a place in more ways than one for us. We parked our truck about two blocks back from the main square for three nights, nobody even blinked an eye-lid, thus we were able to walk everywhere. Wandering through the little streets its amazing what you find. We found a French Bakery, as you do in Ecuador, with the second best baguette and bread in South America – Rurrenabaque in Bolivia topping the list so far. Bread is generally not so nice here as it is all made with way too much sugar for our liking, should I say my liking. Then to top it off we managed to find a Swiss man making his own Granola and Chocolate, enough said I had to hold Merv back from the chocolate, think of the budget I said, lol. It’s amazing how such small things are big things when traveling. Every now and then the taste buds need a treat!
We bumped into , as you do, two friends Pierre and Monique and we celebrated the New Year with them over lovely grilled steaks and wine. Mind you the Ecuadorian wine needed a lot to be desired apparently, but I always take the safe option and drink the local beer, it never disappoints. A live band started playing about 9 pm and even by this time the atmosphere was electric, so just imagine what it was like 3 hours later, superb. The plaza was filled with people of all ages, babies asleep on their parents shoulders to grannies on walking sticks. Even Merv had a sleep but not in a sleeping chair (Tim Willoughby) instead a hard bench, but he still managed, as he said if you can’t beat them, join them, lol. Fantastic to see such a mix of people all waiting for 2014, enjoying the music and the warmth of the evening. Atmosphere just oozed from everybody. Throughout Ecuador people ring in the new year by burning elaborate life-size puppets in the streets at the strike of midnight, followed by launching explosives into the sky, hence throwing caution to the wind as far as public safety was concerned, was great. These explosives continued until the sunrise. The next morning all that was left was a pile of ashes outside people’s houses, street corners, shops, restaurants, but by midday all traces of the previous nights partying was long forgotten, everywhere was clean.
We were back traveling through the mountains again, we just can’t seem to leave the Andes behind us, but then who really wants to with such good views on offer. The city of Cuenca was our next stop. A beautiful old colonial city and it seemed every corner is graced by either a church, a shrine or a plaza. We had a great visit to Museo del Banco Central – Pumapungo here. This museum has an entire collection of traditional costumes of Ecuador’s indigenous cultures. For example coastal farmers of the western lowlands and highlands, several rain-forest groups, and last but not least the shrunken heads (tzantzas) from the Shuar culture. I must say they looked a little scary. It was sad to learn that some of these cultures are slowing dying out due to people destroying their homes in the rain-forest , hence they have to leave, leaving their cultures behind. For them adapting to ‘normal’ life, must be so difficult, what a shame this is happening.
So to the coast , 30 degrees in temperature and humid, but before getting there we stopped at some hot water springs in a non-descript place – Jesus Maria. Before getting there we stopped at a little petrol station for ice-cream, sat outside and over came this man and his two daughters to chat to us, really about the truck. He was driving a truck himself so was interested in the beast that had parked beside him. All the usual stuff, going to, coming from, is it 4×4, how much water do we carry, solar, how many kms per gallon (yes in Ecuador we are back to gallons),
what country are we from etc, etc., .Half an hour later he asked us where we were going to sleep for the night and we said at the Hot Springs. Great he said, follow me I will show you the way and the best place to park your truck overnight . It was right beside the pools, a huge area, no low trees or wires involved, just a river crossing, a doddle for us. We decided to wait until the next day to use the pools, but once we stepped out of our truck we were met by a jolly lady Amelia (no english) offering us empanadas. (Pastry filled with cheese, meat or vegetables and cooked in hot oil). Amelia brought 2 chairs for us to sit on, plastic of course, but never the less, a quick wipe of the table, oil heated up, pastry rolled out with a coke bottle, no fancy rolling pins here, cheese popped in, into the hot oil, and one minute later dinner, scrummy. Oh, it didn’t stop there. A family joined the table chatting a little to us and then amongst themselves. Amelia was delighted to see such a bit group arrive, it was all hands on deck as 25 empanadas were ordered, mind you she still gave us preferential treatment. In the meantime one of the younger
members of the family, 13 years of age, spoke to me in Spanish and I answered as best I could, and then he asked me in English, do you speak English. Obvious answer. The next hour I spoke to this lovely young boy Gonzalez, with excellent English skills. He wanted to know all about Europe and how it was different to Ecuador, its people, its culture and of course what I thought of Ecuador. Only one answer for his question really having been greeted with such hospitality in one afternoon. In return for the history lesson about Europe, Gonzalez gave the best tips for Ecuador. They haven’t disappointed yet. The hot pools were closing for the evening so I went to pay the lady, one dollar is all she charged, and not only that she gave me one to go. I insisted on paying but Amelia was having none of it. Later on in the evening we heard a knock on our door, and it was our friendly truck driver who showed us the way, checking were we ok, did we need anything. Not only was it him and his family, but he had managed to muster up two English speaking students to help with the translations. We were overcome with such kindness and friendliness we really did not want to leave this place. Of course the next morning Amelia had a great hello for us, more empanadas were cooked for us once we had had our soak and whether we wanted them or not we were treated to BBQ bananas also filled with cheese, all for one dollar. All done with smiles. Everything starts really early in Ecuador, so the first family arrived to the pools at 6 a.m, oh yea. Not long after we got a gentle knock on our door asking us to move our truck as we were parked in prime pay parking area ,but insisted we did not have to pay. Of course we obliged.
Next stop was some TLC treatment for the Mog in a garage in Guayaquil. Starmotors used to be a Mercedes garage but now it has the dealership for MAN trucks. Our friends Jurgen and Ruth from happyfeetontour had been there, and recommended them. They also VERY kindly left 4 part worn tyres there for us as they put a brand new set onto their MAN truck. Luckily we had the exact same size!
We got a full service done, even the brake fluid was all replaced, and a full set of new belts fitted to the engine as well as all oils and filters. The total bill was about $550, which we thought was pretty fair. The oil alone comes to almost $200.
On leaving the garage we felt that the Mog could now fly so we headed to the mountains yet again. The coast was just so humid it didn’t make for pleasant living. Volcan Chimborazo stands at 6310m and is Ecuador’s tallest mountain with a glacier on the top. It is now extinct but its peak is also the furthest terrestrial point from the center of the earth. Climbing Chimborazo is possible but only for the well-acclimatized experienced mountaineers, obviously we didn’t fit into this category so we viewed from our truck. We stayed overnight in this park with the many hundreds of vicuna (related to the Llama) keeping watch over us. Early the next morning we managed to get glimpses of this wonderful mountain,in between the sun and showers of snow. Such a difference in the climate in just 8 kms from where we slept overnight! Up at this level you can have many seasons in one day but this adds to the whole beauty of these wonderful sites.
As most of you know by now, we don’t like to spend too much time in cities and towns, we prefer the countryside and seeing how the local people really live. Well in Ecuador the country areas didn’t disappoint. We did a great loop The Quilotoa Loop which was a bumpy road off the Panamericana into the more rural farming areas of the country.
Here we encountered indigenous markets, a beautiful lake, a village that was full of painters who are keeping the stories of the Andes alive through their pictures. The beautiful Laguna (lake) Quilotoa offers stunning views from its craters rim and in the distance you can see the peaks of Cotopaxi, another of Ecuador’s great mountains. Most people speak Kichwa in the area . Transport is very infrequent so when we met a bus or a truck it was full to the gills, people even sitting on the roof. All the little villages are linked by muddy bumpy roads, but soon the road is irrelevant as you are so engrossed with its breathtaking views. Mind you in a few places we hoped the road would not get any smaller . Some of the wires overhead were just that little bit too low for high trucks, care had to be taken ….. We already
had pulled down the electricity line to a lady’s house in Peru, we didn’t want to have to pay to fix another one…… .Its all farming along this route mainly vegetables and dairy. The fields are meticulously tilled and sown by hand. In some cases an ox pulls the plough. These farms are on the edge of slopes so using a tractor would not be for the faint-hearted. The cows were milked by hand out in the field with their 3 legged stool. Brought back memories of my childhood. In one field there were only 3 cows, each one being milked by a different person. Grass is very plentiful in this area, due to the climate, so strip grazing was in operation.
Parque Nacional Cotopaxi was our next adventure for two days. As morning views are the best to see this million dollar view of 5897m we slept overnight there. The closest you can drive to and park at is at 4810m . Many wild horses live in this parque, also deer, llamas, fox, owl, all of which we saw, but the rare spectacled bear escaped us. The snow on the mountain top is getting less and less due to global warming. There are many great walks and hikes throughout this parque, some of which we did, also great off road areas , and many wonderful places to sleep with stunning views. During the night you would hear a pin drop due to the parque being so tranquilo.
All National Parks are now free throughout Ecuador. Excellent news for overlanders!
We also drove across the Equator! We stopped off to mark the occasion, and found a nice monument set up to mark the spot. We did a quick check of our GPS to make sure it was in the right place (It is), and we had a little look around. They had set up the orange “chimney” in the middle of a circle, and it acts as a solar clock. Depending on the time of the year, the shadow is in different places, and at different times of the day, it’s a different length. What is really cool is that on the equanox, at mid day, the sun is exactly over the equator, and is at its highest point in the sky, so it shines down the chimney, and lights up the mirror they have on the bottom of it.
The white lines you see in the photo are white stones, and they show where the tip of the shadow from the chimney will be on the summer solstice and the winter solstice. Really cool! We told the guide who was there about Newgrange, the Irish structure that lights up inside on the winter solstice. He was a little shocked when we explained that the Irish built it almost 5000 years ago, way before we showed the Egyptians how to build pyramids. Ok. I made that bit up, but Newgrange WAS built in about 3200 BC.