Ecuador, Part 3: Cuenca

June 12 – 16, 2010

Heading away from the snow-capped mountains and volcanoes, I spent a few days in colonial Cuenca and visited the Cajas National Park before heading for the Peruvian border.

As I was taking a break and warming up back at the Panamericana, Riccardo here pulls up on a 2009 Suzuki DR 650, touring around South America from Santiago, Chile. He had been riding up for 2 months and was now on his way back.

He was also headed to Cuenca for the night, so we rode together.

The Panamericana heading south, leaving behind the lofty snow-capped volcanoes.

Riccardo sharing his sandwich with me for a spot of lunch near Alausi.

The girls getting to know each other. His bike was mostly stock besides an engine guard, windshield and the full Givi pannier set. He was carrying two spare 1 gallon petrol canisters to supplant the stock 3.4 gallon gas tank. He expressed shock at my 9 gallon capacity.

More pleasing riding on Ecuador’s excellent roads.

Taking a coffee break and I just had to get a bite out of this juicy pig hanging by the roadside.

They blaze the exterior of the pig with a blow torch and serve up the meat during the day. You can ask for a specific cut. They said they go through about 2 or 3 pigs a day, with each one costing about a $100 to procure.

A panoramic view across a valley with low hanging clouds.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

That gadget on my helmet is my GoPro video camera. I enjoyed riding with Riccardo and he, likewise.

Meeting up with Juan and Pedro about 50 kms (31 mi) north of Cuenca. I contacted Pedro through HorizonsUnlimited and they invited Riccardo to stay, as well. They were riding KLRs and were part of the KLR club of Cuenca.

Being escorted into Cuenca as the road widened to a 6-lane highway.

Getting an idea of the city from the mirador (lookout). Cuenca is Ecuador’s third-largest city sitting at about 2,500 m (8,200 ft) with a population of around half a million. It’s known for its colonial architecture and charming cobblestone streets.

Pedro firing up the grill with the aid of a hair-dryer.

Juan grilled up a big, fat, juicy steak with plantains and arepas.

Besides the occasion of welcoming two riders, it was also Juan’s birthday, being celebrated with friends and neighbors.

The next morning, I had some maintenance to do. This is in my top box and it’s the wires from the solar panel running to the switch box up front. I was constantly rubbing this electrical junction taking in and out a liner bag with charging electronics and it was only a matter of time before it got pulled apart. I reconnected it and rearranged the items in the top box so that my softer sleeping bag was against this connection.

We then went on a day trip to nearby Gualaceo, about 20 kms (13 mi) east of Cuenca, known for their markets. A well-roasted cuy (pronounced cu-ee) (guinea pig), a delicacy in the Andes.

Skinned, speared and ready to roast. It might be a bit discomforting if you were brought up in the West, as guinea pigs are raised as pets, but in the Andes, they’ve been domesticated for about 5,000 years and the local people have been raising them for their meat ever since.

It’s a tender meat tasting similar to rabbit and the dark meat of chicken. There is very little meat, but what there is, is quite good. It’s high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol. The brains are presented to the guest of honor and it tasted like most other brains that I’ve eaten (chicken and goat), soft and mushy and quite fatty. The skin was quite good, as well. If you intend to try it, it’s cheaper in Peru. This roasted cuy cost $10 here.

Mmm, I’m loving this guinea pig.

Juan and his lovely little daughter in the mercado (market). Juan is a mining engineer, working for a Canadian company.

Taking a walk through the Sunday market in Gualaceo.

Juan’s son, Riccardo , Juan’s wife, Angelica and her sister, Lorgia.

The central plaza was quite charming with well manicured trees.

A super tall pine behind a bushy tree.

The whole crew at the main plaza in Gualaceo.

We finished our visit with a walk by the river, which looked quite swollen, flowing full.

The new cathedral of Cuenca in the main plaza at night.

It’s quite grand on the inside with cavernous domes.

Luck be it that we were there during the annual confectionary festival, held next to the cathedral.

Everything looked so good. I sampled a variety of sweets and chocolates.

A typical desert of a crunchy tortilla (crepe) with various spreads, such as Nutella and toppings of nuts, coconut, etc.

The well-lit Santuario Mariano.

Breakfast at Juan’s house. Riccardo took off a day before me as he had to pickup some items in a different town before continuing south. We agreed to meet up again along the way or when I make it to Santiago.

Angelica prepared a variety of tasty eats during our stay. Upper left: fried yuca, UR: arepas, LL: steamed corn (choclo). Lots of corn products, but they tasted different and very agreeable to my taste buds.

Taking in the weekday flower market in front of the Santuario Mariano.

A nice variety of roses and other flowers.

Juan having a flower tea.

Intricately carved door of the original cathedral (built in 1557).

The new cathedral (1885) with its blue domes in front of Parque Calderon.

Interesting stone work and nice colors.

It was pleasing to walk around historic Cuenca, lots of nice stone work.

A tiled street sign.

Mmm, meringue in a cone (whipped egg whites, sweetened).

And look what’s hiding under the cover. It’s a Classic Mini Cooper in the same color scheme as the one I had in Chicago. Juan said one of his friends is part of the Mini car club in Cuenca but he was out of town.

Cuenca is defined by the four rivers that flow through the city. There’s green space around each river for jogging and cycling and it’s easy to see why many ex-pats choose to settle down here.

Heading out with Juan for a day trip to Parque Nacional Cajas on the way to Guayaquil. It’s defined by its misty mountain tops and over 230 lakes. Elevation is around 3,350 m (11,000 ft).

Clean rivers rushing under misty peaks.

A closer look at the misty peak. Can you see the image of the Virgin Mary in the rocks?

Panorama of Parque Nacional Cajas.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

The lust setting looked quite inviting to go on some hikes.

White, fuzzy plants with bright yellow flowers.

A local tree with bark that flakes off like paper.

Rushing river.

Juan with his Mazda truck that we went around in. These are very popular down here. He said the Chevrolet Luv is the cheapest of the 4-door pickups, then the Mazda, topped by the expensive and well-reputed Toyota Hilux.

Leaving Juan’s house after a wonderful few days in Cuenca. Good luck on planning your Alaska trip.

Ecuador has lots of new concrete roads. On the one hand it’s good cause they’ll last longer, but they are more expensive, and I don’t like them as much since they’re not as smooth as asphalt roads and produce more road noise.

I was taking a break by the side of the road when Holger and Anja pulled up on their BMW F650GS’s. They’ve been riding around the world since 2007 from Germany and we rode together to Loja for the night.

Lunch stop in Saraguro. They come from a small town near Cologne and Holger’s a school teacher and Anja’s a modern dance instructor.

Their trip website is, which means 2 who are traveling.

I spent the night in Loja with Roberto from the local HorizonsUnlimited community. He rode his BMW R1150GS down from Washington, DC and took the Stahlratte just like me across the Darien. We’re picking up Holger and Anja from their hostel.

Roberto leading us out of town towards the Peruvian border.

The 3 BMWs showing love to the ‘Zook.

Anja on her BMW F650GS. They were setup identically to reduce the number of spares to carry. They did have a few rear shock failures and were carrying a spare shock. They had the expanded Touratech gas tanks giving them a total capacity near 38 liters (10 gallons). We all filled up with Ecuador’s cheap gas ($1.48/gal) before crossing into Peru.

The landscape of southern Ecuador getting hot as the elevation dropped and the lushness withered away to dry lands, an indication of the scenery ahead in northern Peru.

Ecuador was a delight to ride through. I enjoyed all the high mountain roads, dotted with volcanoes and misty mountains. There’s more to explore here and with all the nice friends I’ve met, another visit in the future is likely.

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Previous: Ecuador, Part 2: Volcanoes

Ecuador, Part 2: Volcanoes

June 10 – 12, 2010

I spent a few days in Ambato, staying with motorcycle friends from HorizonsUnlimited and visited Banos, the active Tungurahua Volcano and the glacier-covered Chimborazo Volcano.

Commercial, non-touristy Ambato, near Banos, staying with Xavier Leon from HorizonsUnlimited. In trying to stay with local people as much as I can, I’m not only saving on lodging costs but am also getting insights into local culture and how people are living today.

Ambato was leveled by an earthquake and thus no colonial buildings exist, but they’ve reconstructed with that architecture in mind.

Having a steak dinner at La Hueka with Xavier (stripped shirt), his riding friend, Carlos (L) and Carlos’ daughter, Karen and her boyfriend. Xavier and another riding friend, Enrique rode KLRs up to Alaska two years ago. He currently manages the family furniture factory. Carlos recently got into motorcycling and wants to tour South America.

A tasty dinner of grilled chicken with herbs, a few ribs and a salad.

Carlos and Karen on his brand new BMW R1200GS with less than 1,000 km on the clock on a day ride to Banos.

But first, upon hearing that I’m a mechanical engineer, Carlos wanted to show me his machine shop in the adjacent town of Pelileo.

He’s a tool and mold maker, making things like plastic bottles for Gatorade, shampoo, etc along with other plastic injection pieces such as parts for car interiors.

All the various drill bits used in the CNC milling machines.

With Carlos and a few of his machinists.

Nice to see him employing women machine operators, as well.

A surface grinder that’s…

…made in the USSR and still running strong.

Karen in her go-kart that she races in Quito.

Being treated to a local lunch of…

…broiled pork with corn, potatoes and friend plantains. Tasty, tender meat on big chunks of bone, where you have to work with your teeth to get all the meat. Just the way I like it. Not much of a boneless meat kind-of-person.

Heading down to Banos.

Those aren’t just regular gray clouds. It’s a puff from smoking Volcan Tungurahua (meaning throat of fire in the local language of Quichua).

Impressive to see an active volcano for the first time. There was no immediate danger as the volcano is simply venting pressure. A few weeks ago at the end of May, it was spewing bits of hot lava and was a sight to see at night. There was a glacier on the peak that has melted away now since it went active again.

However, it is a danger for the farmers living and grazing their herds on the flanks of the volcano and the army evacuated residents from the area.

A mud slide from the recent eruption and a strange sculpture of a giant bird??

In the hot springs town of Banos, a tourist destination for locals and foreigners. However, the recent eruption has suppressed the local economy as scared tourists are staying away, but the local vendors say everything is tranquilo.

Situated under Volcan Tungurahua (source of the hot springs) and graced by waterfalls and green peaks, it’s a pleasing location.

Having some sugarcane juice and guayaba fruit paste.

Riding up the backside of Banos with el volcan looming in the distance.

Volcan Tungurahua huffing and puffing over Banos. To get a sense of scale, note the house in the lower right of the picture. I’m always intrigued by people’s motivation to continue living under active volcanoes, thinking the big one won’t come in their lifetime. I guess it’s a two-fold problem of population stress (where else can they move to in this already crowded planet?) and the stress of migrating a family until being forced to is too much to bear.

Riding back to Banos in this lush valley with waterfalls in the distance.

The next morning, being led out of town by another of Xavier’s friends, Julio who toured all over South America on his KTM 525 and who now wants to make a big loop of North America.

Ecuadorian police using new Kawasaki KLR 650’s.

Riding the beautiful via Flores route from Ambato towards Guaranda.

The route slowly climbed from 2,800 m (9,200 ft) in Ambato up past 4,000 m (13,100 ft). The air was moist with fog.

The lush, high altitude valleys made for a pleasing ride.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

The road followed the river and curved tightly around the rocky cliffs.

sanDRina blending in with her natural environment. She likes green spaces.

Something about a road following a river in a canyon makes for excellent motorcycling (like Lolo Pass Road in Idaho and many more).

A wooden bridge across the rushing river.

Climbing out of the canyon the road twisted ever higher, until suddenly, around a corner, I was greeted by this view of…

Volcan Chimborazo surrounded by clouds and dry, windswept páramo. I took a break admiring the view and trying to get a glimpse of the glaciated peak of this extinct volcano.

I followed the road around the base of the volcano towards Riobamba and was engulfed in thick clouds for a few kilometers. The road elevation peaked at 4,300 m (14,100 ft).

A small herd of vicuña, a wild relative of the llama.

Vicuña’s are renown for their extremely fine wool, which was prized by the Inca elite and today’s elite as well. They produce only about a pound of wool each year and aren’t easily domesticated, making it difficult to gather enough wool to produce garments. A yard of vicuña fibre can cost up to $3,000 resulting in the $20,000 cost to have a suit made. I was bundled up in all my cold weather gear, but sure could use some of their wool in my sleeping bag.

Another view of Chimborazo, still covered in clouds.

Finally the clouds parted to reveal the majestic Volcan Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador at 6,268 m (20,565 ft). Its peak is also the furthest point on the Earth’s surface from its center due to the bulge at the Equator from the planet’s spin (think of a spinning ballerina). The radius of the Earth at sea level at Chimborazo is 6,378 km (3,964 mi), which is 4,748 m (15,573 ft) more than at Everest (29 degrees north, elevation of 8,848 m (29,029 ft)). This puts Chimbarazo’s peak 2,168 m (7,113 ft) further into space than Mt. Everest’s. On a clear day, the peak can be seen about 140 kms (88 mi) away on the coast in Guayaquil. It last erupted around 500 AD.

Next: Ecuador, Part 3: Cuenca

Previous: Ecuador, Part 1: Quito and Quilotoa

Ecuador, Part 1: Quito and Quilotoa

June 4 – 10, 2010

Ecuador is the smallest of the Andean nations, yet it packs a punch in the sights and sounds it offers. Its namesake comes from the fact that the important Inca and Spanish colonial city of Quito just about straddles the Equator. It’s also the most densely populated South American country, and one gets a feel for that after seeing almost every mountainside stripped bare for agriculture. And what beautiful mountains they still are. Ecuador’s skyline is defined by picturesque snow-capped volcanoes and others that are still active, as part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Volcan Tungurahua went active again in 1999 and recently erupted, albeit not too violently, on 28 May 2010. I was excited to see my first active volcano.

I stayed primarily in the sierra (mountains) of Ecuador, all though I hear its coastline and jungles are worth a visit too. I followed a route south from Otavalo to capital Quito, down to industrial Ambato, then onto colonial Cuenca and the junction town of Loja. I stayed with motorcycle friends, either recommended from other travelers or contacted through HorizonsUnlimited.

On the northern side of Ecuador, there’s only one land border with Colombia near Ipiales.

At the customs office, waiting 3 hours for the computer system to come back online so that I could be processed in. The yellow Bajaj Pulsar is Andres’, a motorcycle friend from Pasto, who accompanied me to the border. He wanted to ride a little into Ecuador, but the customs delay went late into the day.

My route through Ecuador. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

When I enter a new country, I’m excited to see what my first impression will be. The setting sun was painting warm light across the mountainous landscape was making a great first impression.

And what a beautiful welcome a rainbow is. It was in my sights for a good half hour and it always makes me smile to think about how simple a concept it is, sunlight being split by water molecules, and how gracefully nature shows us the complexity of light. The blue light towards the inside of a rainbow is on the shorter wavelength side of the light spectrum and is the reason the sky is mostly blue (blue light gets scattered first when the sun is overhead). The red light on the outside of the rainbow is of a longer wavelength and is the reason sunsets are red as the light from a setting sun has to travel through more atmosphere to reach us, leaving only red light left for our eyes.

Landscape reminding me of south-west Wyoming.

Volcanoes coming into sight.

The sun setting near the town of Otavalo, where I spent the night.

My hostel in Otavalo, Tamia Taki for $4. Otavalo is known for its Saturday street market and I got my motorcycle out the door before the entire sidewalk was covered in stalls.

Ecuador uses the US Dollar as its official currency. It’s original currency, the Sucre, was losing too much value (104% inflation rate) during the 1990s after decades of deficit spending and the then president, Jamil Mahuad, made the decision to switch currencies to stabilize the economy and prevent the government from printing money to meet its budgetary needs. However, nowadays, there is talk of going away from the dollar as the local economy is stagnating.

The vendors were selling crafts and other daily items for the locals. A typically dressed woman walking in front of me. Even in the chill air (2,500 m (8,300 ft)), the woman are dressed in skirts and wear hats typical of their region.

I slowly gravitated toward the food market, lead by my growling stomach.

Mmm, a welcoming sight first thing in the morning. Note how they’ve stuffed peppers in its ears and looking fang-like from its mouth.

Fresh meat on one side and fresh veggies on the other.

Don’t mind the roast pig staring you in the face as you devour some of its juicy flesh. At the eatery section of the market where different stalls are setup offering various fresh eats. If you’re accustomed to a Western way of life, your meat generally doesn’t bear much resemblance to its live state, but I think down here, the closer the resemblance, the fresher the food is considered, as in ‘I want to see where my food comes from.’

Various sausages and innards.

‘Get my fried skin off of me!’

Returning to find my hostal engulfed in stalls. The items aren’t only for the tour groups as locals were busy buying, as well.

Heading south to Quito on the Panamericana. The last bit of the Northern Hemisphere for the rest of the year.

At the Equator. Entering the Southern Hemisphere.

I’ve been as far north as 70 degrees (Prudhoe Bay, Alaska) and let’s see how far south I can go. For some reason, I didn’t bother taking my GPS off the bike to find exactly where 0’0’0 was. This is close enough.

Ah, here it is. The exact marking of latitude 0’0’0, the Equator. Straddling both hemispheres. As you’re coming south from Otavalo, turn left at Cayambe and you’ll come across this monument.

Having lunch with my hosts in Quito, Carlos and Christina Riaño. Carlos is a rider and graciously hosted me on recommendation from Sargento, the Mexican rider I met in Cartagena, who stayed with Carlos on his journey.

Having a Chinese seafood stir-fry.

Walking the streets of Quito after lunch we came across this little cute pup.

Quito is situated in a 40 km (25 mi) long valley between snow-capped volcanoes, some of which are active. That’s Volcan Cayambe shining in the setting sun. Population is about 1.5 million at an altitude of 2,800 m (9,200 ft). I had a headache from all the varying altitude in getting to the city.

A tile sculpture of a jaguar in a store window.

Carlos is a musician, playing the keyboards in the back at club Naruba, with his salsa, cumbia and other forms of Spanish music band.

I discovered a crack in the corner welds of my Happy Trail panniers and figured best to get it re-welded before the crack spread down the sides. Maybe it happened when I had my small fall in Costa Rica, but I would’ve noticed it before then or maybe I’m stressing them too much, don’t know.

At the aluminum welder’s shop. Sign reads ‘god bless my work.’

Having a little salty snack of fried corn, plantain chips and varied beans.

I also found this complete crack of my steel pannier frame. Now this probably happened when I fell in Costa Rica and am surprised I didn’t notice it until now. All my bolts are in place and none are broken.

Getting it welded on the bike since it was too much effort to remove the pannier frame.

Victor Manuel doing a nice job on all the welds. 8 aluminum welds (4 corners of both boxes, beefed up the current welds before they started cracking) and this steel weld for $10. He’s located at Av. Las Toronjas and Av. El Inca. Hard to find good aluminum welders.

The pannier frame welded up and ready for another fall.

The corners of the panniers welded up.

At the main monument for the Equator, the Mitad del Mundo, about 35 kms (22 mi) north of Quito. The position of the Equator isn’t exact here as when the site was created, exact instruments weren’t available, but it is grander and has more of a theme park atmosphere, costing $2, compared to the free entry for the exact site at Cayambe.

Having one of many excellent meals at Carlos and Christina’s house. That’s Christina’s brother, Riccardo. I’m wearing my swimming trunks as I had all my regular clothes washed.

A typical meal of a bean soup with rice, fried plantains, avocado and arepas. Carlos and Christina are actually Colombians from Bogotá and moved to Quito about 10 years ago. Can’t take the arepas away from Colombians.

Meeting up with Aaron and Carol, on the red KLR, who contacted me through ADVrider and along with Carlos (gray Motor1, Chinese 150 cc runabout), taking a tour of Quito by night. Carlos also has a Honda Shadow 800 cc for touring. This is the Palacio del Gobierno (government house).

Lots of beautiful grandiose churches in Quito, which has the largest and best-preserved historic center in Latin America.

The main cathedral in Quito, where there’s a painting of the last supper with cuy (guinea pig) as the main course. Quito was the first city to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1978.

The Monasterio de San Francisco, the oldest church and grandest colonial building in Quito, finished in 1604. Having features such as sunlight shining on the altar during the solstices shows how indigenous artisans brought their Inca influence to Christian architecture.

Having dinner at Mariscal, the center of developed restaurants and the nightlife.

It’s also a popular biker hangout.

Having a nice salad for a change.

Dinner with Aaron, some Harley riders, Carol and Carlos. Aaron is from Minneapolis and he met Carol there who’s from Quito. They got married and rode down here, he on the KLR and she on a BMW F650.

Their uber-expensive Harley-Davidsons. There’s about a 70-100% import tax in Ecuador, so these bikes cost around $60-$70,000!

Saying good-bye to Carlos and Christina after a good 5 days in Quito.

Interesting geology exposed by a road pass.

Climbing up to Quilotoa Lake from Latacunga and riding through the páramo, a neotropical ecosystem that exists above the tree line and below the snow line in the Andes.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

First time crossing 4,000 m (13,100 ft) on the bike.

First sighting of a llama in the wild. They’re indigenous to the Andes and have been mostly domesticated for their fur and occasionally for their meat.

From Latacunga, the ride to Laguna Quilotoa climbs high and provides good views.

A small patch of trees remaining. Too bad most of the mountain sides have been deforested.

Wonderful twisting roads following the natural contours of the land.

The air is very clear up here and it makes for some nice photos. sanDRina with the cultivated mountainsides.

Arriving at Laguna Quilotoa, costing $2 to enter.

Panorama of Laguna Quilotoa, a crater lake which formed after a violent eruption in 1280 of Volcan Quilotoa. It sits at a height of 3,900 m (12,800 ft), is about 3 kms (1.8 mi) around and 250 m (820 ft) deep. The clouds and conditions were constantly changing.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

To reach the lake, you have to hike through this narrow, steep canyon.

The road to Quilotoa from Zumbahua is a bit sandy but nothing a heavy bike couldn’t handle.

Cactus on the road-side.

Heading back to Zumbahua across this high-altitude valley, situated at around 3,700 m (12,100 ft).

There weren’t that many options for lunch on the road back in the small village of Zumbahua besides a few shacks serving up fatty pork, corn and eggs.

For a dollar, I got a small bag with 2 pieces of pork fat attached to a few strands of meat and some oily plantains. I should’ve just gone for 2 or 3 boiled eggs instead. But I guess up here in the cold, pork fat is what’s needed to sustain the calories.

On the way back to Latacunga, the clouds cleared and I got a nice view of snow-capped Volcan Cotapaxi at an elevation of 5897 m (19,342 ft).

Sheep on the road back down to the Panamericana, grazing on the green hillsides.

Next: Ecuador, Part 2: Volcanoes

Previous: Colombia, Part 4: Cali, Popayan, Pasto