Fish Out of Water: Tales of The Writer's travels through South America: Part 4 Ecuador

Ecuadorian Adventure

Chapter 14: The long journey into the unknown.

The bus journey was long and for the most part, I struggled to get any sleep. I was feeling anxious about what was ahead of us. Apart from the glacier course and volcano climb there was hardly anything planned. Usually I don’t like going into a country blind but then again coming to this continent was already quite the adventure. I trusted that the three of us combined would work out an ideal plan. The scenery of the journey kept changing but for the most part we would be hugging the coast by taking the Panamerica highway. One thing which we found out the hard way was that unlike the other Cruz Del Sur buses there was no food provided. Instead the bus would bring us to rest stops where we could purchase food. This was difficult for us three as we had exhausted most of our Peruvian currency before boarding this bus. At least we had purchased some bread to have on this journey along with a variety of sodas to keep us somewhat energized on this trip. I had purchased a bottle of ginger ale for myself while the other two had decided to drink their new favourite soda, Inca Cola. After already spending roughly 19 hours on this bus ride we were finally coming close to the frontier.

The Panamerica highway

Goodbye Peru, Hello Ecuador

This would signify our last land border and the beginning of the end of this trip. The border was a significant improvement over the Bolivian one in terms of infrastructure. The organization of this checkpoint was also much better than the Bolivian one. The checkpoint was arranged in a simple way. It was set up in a way that we would clear both the Peruvian checkpoint and the Ecuadorian checkpoint side by side. For some reason we all got separated from each other and I was in for an interesting experience. While clearing Peru was a breeze, entering Ecuador was quite interesting. The immigration officer seemed rather bewildered at the sight of my bright red Singapore passport. I was quite worried that I had done something wrong. A mix of visions flashed before my eyes and one of them was me starring on the next episode of National Geographics Banged Up Abroad. However after seeing her expression change multiple times, it felt like she had never seen one before. This was not a surprise given that not many Singaporeans come to this land border let alone this country. She had even called supervisor to show her that it was a Singaporean passport and she even asked me if I was allowed in to this country visa free. I said yes but shouldn’t you know that. She double checked in her system and after taking a quick photo of my passport cover, she cleared me into Ecuador. It took about an hour and a half for the entire bus to clear immigration and soon we were on the last stretch to Quito. It was another ten hours all the way to the capital city. Soon we arrived in Quito, tired, hungry and confused as to what to do between now and the up coming glacier course. After grabbing a bite to eat and procuring a sim card for myself for emergencies we made a rough plan. The plan was for us to go to the town of Banos which we read about previously. This town was famous for being an adventure and for being home to a swing which was called a swing over the end of the world. Given that all of us were thrill seekers this felt like the ideal destination to go to spend time before the glacier climb.

Chapter 15: From swinging to rafting

We had a 45 minute wait before boarding the three hour bus ride that would bring us to the mountain town of Banos. We passed the time by playing cards as per normal. While we were playing one of the many rounds of the game “Big Two” I was seeing how the Ecuadorians run their intercity bus services. I found that they were run similarly to the Bolivian and Peruvian services. It was almost a perfect mixture. Soon we boarded the bus and headed towards the town. I only notices at that point that the word Banos in Spanish means toilet. At that point I was hoping the town wouldn’t be essentially just a toilet. While we were traveling to the town I was able to see some of the Ecuadorian countryside. After spending the last couple of days traveling through the deserts of Peru it was nice to be surrounded by lush greenery. The scenery looked very European and another pleasant surprise was roads. The intercity highways that crisscross Ecuador were incredibly smooth. After about two and a half hours of expressway we turned off the expressway. The remainder of the journey was spent on some lovely mountain roads. Soon we reached the town and proceeded to hail a taxi to take us to the hostel where we would be spending the next couple of nights. The three of us first decided that what we needed after several days of traveling by bus was a shower. After we all freshened up we were discussing with our hostel owner about some of the activities we could do. The hostel owner was incredibly friendly. He was telling about the popular activities in town. One of the popular activites to do in this town is quadbiking and specifically quadbiking up to La Casa De Arbol. This place is home to a swing called the “swing over the end of the world.” It’s namesake comes from the photos which many people take on the swing and it looks like they are swinging into nothingness. In most of the photos taken here there is a 5000-metre-tall volcano that predominantly takes up most of the background. We had also arranged a white water rafting tour that would take up most of the next day. The quad bikes were arranged for a two hour self guided tour and this would be in the mid afternoon. First we wanted to grab a bite to eat but we were unsure about the food options in this town. Thankfully I did a little bit of reading on food in Ecuador and the town of Banos is home to two popular dishes that are only found in this town. One of them is a potato patty called a Llapinggacho and the other is an incredibly sticky taffy which simply known as the Banos taffy. According to the blogger who wrote the article on the food items in Ecuador the taffy is so sticky that it can break your teeth. We did eventually purchase the taffy but first we set forth to find these potato patties. Our hostel owner told us that the central market has the best patties in town and so we set forth towards this market. The main centre of town is quite small and as it is with most South American towns there is a large church that dominates the centre.

The main church in Banos

Thankfully all the adventure tour companies were situated close to each other. These companies were in the vicinity of the central market. The market was just like a hawker centre and soon we found a small stall which sold these patties in the traditional way. The traditional way to have these patties is to have them with rice, beans, beetroot and an omelette. For people who are non-vegetarians there is also the option of having the dish with some chicken or beef. The stall owner also had her own homemade salsa which really complimented the food. While eating this amazing dish Vinay and I were reflecting about some of the food we had on this trip. We both agreed that we have a newfound taste for hot sauces. Sadly our colleague Ethan didn’t obtain this newfound taste due to his inability to handle spice.

After the delightful lunch the three of us set forth to collect our quad bikes that we had reserved. Immidiately there was a problem as the quadbike. They had given me one which couldn’t turn left properly. I then proceeded to request for a replacement and the replacement quadbike was vastly different to the other two. The other two had a quad bike with a 200 cc engine and it was with an automatic gearbox. I was given one which had a manual gearbox and 250cc. The bike was like a little rocketship. Since it had no muffler on the exhaust it roared through time waking everyone up from their siesta. We had a rough map to guide us towards La Casa de Arbol. The road was simply sublime. It had the right curves and the right sections of straight road. The manual gearbox really helped on this climb and I felt my inner nine year old coming out. The rush and excitement was so good.

The road heading up to the swing

Pristine scenery

Ethan conquering his swing

The volcano that towers over the city of Banos

The famous photos every one takes when coming to this locale

After about 25 minutes of driving fun we soon reached the swing. We were plseantly surprised to find a massive queue there. Nevertheless I queued up to ride the swing and the photos made it look intense. However, when I actually went up to the swing the ride I was thinking of two things. This ride wasn’t as intense as I thought and while the drop was large, the view of the volcano is insanly beautiful. After spending time on the swing we realized that there wasn’t all that much time to get back into the town to return the quadbikes in time. So we literally jumped on the bikes and roared down the hilly road back to the main town. Not before we decided to have some fun with a small bit of dirt track. Since my quad was a manual 250 cc monster I was able to do a proper wheel spin. This was achieved by putting maximum throttle while holding the clutch then letting it go. What happens next is the wheels start to spin very quickly and the result is some epic video footage. I was also able to drift and get a little bit of oversteer on the quad which I had never been able to do before. After the delightful bit of quadbiking it was time for dinner and we were looking around for places to eat. Our attention was brought to a restaurant which had an amusing slogan which is uses to attract customers. This was the aforementioned slogan, enjoy a pint of beer while getting a foot massage. Within three seconds, the three of us looked at each other and said yes, lets do it. The décor of the restaurant had a distinct Middle Eastern Vibe and even though it was summer it had several fireplaces. My wardrobe choice of jeans and a long sleeve shirt was clearly a mistake. The three of us tucked into what was quite a delicious meal along with unique house cocktails and a bottle of wine.

The ride down

The restaurant in question

Cocktails and wine

Clearly this trip had improved our tastes in drink. After the evening we headed back to get an early night for next mornings white water rafting trip.

The next morning, we got up bright an early with a pipping hot cup of coffee and set out towards the office where the tour would be leaving from. After filling in some paper work we were given wetsuits, helmets and life jackets. Then we briefly met some of the others who would be coming with us on this tour. Then we boarded a bus and rode to the start of the river which was about 45 minutes away. The ride took us further down the windy mountain roads which followed the river. Soon we reached the start point and they had divded us up not by number but by our native tongue. The three of us were group with these three Australian students who were traveling around Ecuador and Colombia. After we got to know each other we helped put the raft in the water and got a rather pleasant introduction to our guide. We found that it was great that we had been divided by native tongue as it would make it easier for the guide to shout safety instructions at us. Our guide offered us two options for today’s rafting, the tour or the “Super-Extreme Tour.” Before answering he quickly said okay everyone lets do the “Super-Extreme Tour.” As we were setting off he asked if I wanted to leave my glasses back on the bus or with the guide. I insisted on keeping it with me and the guide categorically stated that he will not take responsibility for my glasses. I was ok with that and we set forth on to the nice cold water.

Soon we were out on the water and within minutes we were in sight of our first set of rapids and immediately we all braced ourselves. Usually most people don’t fall off on the first set but one of us fell off the raft. That lucky person was me and my travel colleagues were deeply concerned about me. They showed this concern by acting like the laughing hyena and calling me ridiculous names. It felt good to get the “love and care” from my dear friends. Soon afterwards much like dominoes we all fell into the water one by one. At one point our guide told us to stand on the edge of the raft and stand up while riding down the rapids and surprisingly we made it. Then our guide pushed one of us in and all six of us fell in. After the rafting fun which even involved Ethan and Vinay fighting, we headed for the shore and proceeded to lunch. After lunch we went back to the hostel to pack and prepare for the next day before going out for dinner. The next day we would be doing a glacier course on the mountain which we would be climbing, or so we thought.

Chapter 16: One by one we were broken

We woke up incredibly early to get to the meeting spot, a hotel just outside the town of Latacunga, at eight in the morning. Things were in high spirits as we were looking forward to climbing a mountain with actual snow and ice. We reached the hotel and we're delighted to hear that we had the opportunity to have a spot of breakfast. I decided to treat myself to a plate of big pancakes. Afterwards we met our guide William who would be accompanying us. Soon we headed for the mountain with a stop of in the town of Cayambe to collect the equipment. The journey would be a significant milestone in our journey. This would signify the first time we would be in the northern hemisphere since Singapore. On the road north we would pass through Quito and of course the Equator. We expected that there would be a large landmark showing that here is the Equator. But it was not as expected for it was just a small sign on the side road which said “The Equator.” Soon we reached the town of Cayambe where we would collect our equipment and have a spot of lunch. We assumed that the climb wouldn’t require much equipment. We thought that it would be of a similar difficulty to the Misti volcano climb we did in Peru. We had never been more wrong. We were given new boots, overalls, jackets, helmets, gloves and ice axes. Among this plethora of equipment we were given crampons. These are spikes which attach to the boots to give traction and grip on the Glacier ice. We also came to the unanimous agreement that this climb has to be taken very seriously and no one and absolutely no one can get left behind. After this short briefing, we enjoyed a spot of lunch.

Ecuadorian sunrise

Some furry friend

Soon after William drove us up to the cabin where we would be camping for the two-day Glacier course. As we climbed up to around 4300 metres above sea level, the weather started to get wet and the temperature drop. After unpacking at camp and preparing the gear for the Glacier walk, the weather started to get cloudy. William suggested that we move forward as the weather wouldn’t be improving till tomorrow. Soon we set forth towards the Glacier and after about 40 minutes we reached the base. As we were gearing up, I felt something small hit my helmet and one by one it started to increase. The little pieces hitting my helmet turned out to be hail. This was quite exciting for me as I had never experienced a hailstorm before. I was grateful that the size of the hail was manageable. While we were up on the ice we were learnt many techniques on how to walk on the ice. This included tutorials on how to climb up, climb down and how to stop yourself from falling down the mountain.

Gearing up for the climb

The never ending ice

Vinay feeling happy after accomplishing the first day of the glacier course

It was all good fun but as we headed back to the cabin, Ethan started to feel unwell. The menacing weather should’ve been a sign of things to come. As we settled in for the evening, Ethan started to feel very cold and very weak. Everything of his started to ache and he covered himself in numerous layers to help him stay warm when he went to sleep. While this was happening, Vinay started to display similar symptoms to Ethan but weirdly I was still alright. So we retired for the night.

The next morning was the part where everything went wrong. Ethan woke up with absolutely no improvements at all and Vinay was exhibiting similar signs. They told me that they were not fit enough to do the climb and William agreed that they should rest. It was up to me whether I was able to do the climb and I was feeling fit enough to climb. We set forth on the actual climbing route which involved a bit of up and down trekking before reaching the ice. Initially the weather was clear and we were able to see many of the other volcanoes around the region. This included the the incredibly volatile Cotopaxi. Cotopaxi was actually the volcano which we were meant to climb. However there was an eruption in August 2015 and the park was closed, hence climbing to the summit was not allowed. However, the clouds came in and with it came a sudden drop in temperature. The altitude started to get to be but I felt that while we were up there, there was a strange feeling in my system. I started to feel very dizzy and weak and I told myself, “no more messing around, it’s time to head back to the camp.” As we descended back down towards the camp, I thought the altitude sickness would go away. Unfortunatly as I was climbing down I started to feel weaker and weaker.

The bleak, desolate and unforgiving ice

The feeling was sickening and I just wanted to lie down. However, there was a steep downhill path that lay between myself and the cabin where my two colleagues were resting. While walking down the path, I had collapsed several times on the path. Thankfully I didn’t roll down the hill because that would’ve been a disaster. After walking back to the cabin I saw my two colleagues hadn’t moved since last night. They were not in a great shape. I told them that I was feeling like hell as well and that the mountain broke me. We were all feeling sore, dizzy and sick. I felt that we were on the cusp of death. The three of us have been pushed physically before but this was a completely different level. We drove back down to the town of Cayambe to return all the equipment and to attempt to have a spot of lunch. For us three this was a low point, I fell out of the car when getting out of it and we struggled to eat a bowl of soup. Then we had to make a judgement call. Technically I completed the glacier course so I could in theory still make the climb all the way up Cayambe volcano. However, we decided that as a team we wouldn’t do the climb. We stated that it is ridiculous to carry on and we do things together and no one gets left behind. Initially we had planned to go to Latacunga to do the Quilatoa loop. However, we decided to head back to the town of Banos and to the same hostel. This was because we knew that the prices were friendly and the town was good place to revive ourselves.

We decided to stay there all for four days before going to our second AirBnB rental in the capital city of Quito. William agreed to drop us off at a near by town where we could catch a bus to the town of Banos with our heavy bags. So one by one, we all came down. This truly was our lowest point on the entire trip. My talk about wanting alone time had come to an end and I knew at this point, we all needed each other to get through this time. The next three days we would slowly recover and eventually get back to our old self.

Chapter 17: The road to recovery

The first day in Banos was fantastically uneventful as we spent the greater part of the day in bed struggling to move. It was around this time that I concluded that the source of our problems came not only from Cayambe but also from the white water rafting. Since we fell in the water multiple times it is very likely that some of the water entered our system and cause us to fall ill. Nevertheless we settled in to doing abolutly nothing productive at all today. Vinay had volunteered to get us a spot of breakfast. This included copious amounts of water along with bread rolls which were simply delightful. We spent the time playing cards and streaming videos on Netflix and “not so legal” streaming sites. I went out in the evening as I started to feel a little better. I went into the centre of town for a cup of refreshing fruit tea and to get my colleagues some more bread. While walking in to town I accidentally stumbled upon what appeared to be a street that had only bars and pizza places on it. I felt that this would be a good area to come to once we’re feeling better. I got some bread and coffee and I took this opportunity to explore this new square which we didn’t see earlier. After the mild exploration, I headed back to the hostel to find my colleagues hadn’t moved much apart from taking a shower. We retired for the evening to prepare for another recovery day.

The next day we woke up early and I went for a short walk around the area just to get some of the fresh, crisp mountain air. While incubating in the hostel the three of us were looking up some places to eat at whilst in the town. We were starting to have the energy to actually go out an about today. We had arranged with our hostel owner to rent a set of quadbikes for four hours the next morning. It took some time to negotiate a good price but after an hour we were able to get some progress. The quadbikes had been arranged for us the following morning. For dinner we had decided upon this place which had a rather hippie vibe about it. They had a lot of posters about Buddhism along with vegetarian friendly food. Just the general atmosphere had that hippie auora. I had settled on a spicy enchilada while the others had something with a tad more meat in it. Ethan and I tried the local beer which in this case was a fantastically cheap beer called Buddha. While the beer wasn’t exactly up to par, the food was rather excellent. These were further suplimented with my newfound love of hot sauce. These enchiladas were simply sublime with the addition of the new hot sauce. We retired back to the hostel to get up early for the quadbiking.

It was seven in the morning and our hostel owner brought us to the officer where we rented the quadbikes last time. This time we were all given automatic quadbikes but some how Ethan’s quadbike was unbelievably fast. Even though we all had one gear quadbikes they were all tuned differently. The result was that mine was fast going uphill but slow every else.

Ethan’s was generally fast and Vinays was fast on level ground. We took our quadbikes on an off road path which gave us some gorgeous views of the main volcano along with the main town of Banos. It was a good thing we were all wearing jeans and boots for this ride as the mud was flying everywhere and the boots provided good support. After going off road for a good hour and a half we reached the road we took several days earlier to the start of the white water rafting point. This was where I was starting to have issues with my quad as the engine was overheating and at random moments the revs would cut. However, I was able to stick the rear out and do some oversteer on the bike.

Later while we were biking towards a different town, the bike started to overheat again and more so than usual. While I was getting off the bike to inspect the engine, I smelt something burning and it wasn’t the engine but it was my trekking shoes. The leather part was actually resting on the engine as well so it completely burned off. After realizing that I ruined my boots we continued further.

The remains of my shoe

The three of us really wanted to race each other but since we were on public roads it wouldn’t be advisable. However I stumbled across an abandoned gas station which had dirt tracks, cones and large tire for us to set up a rally special stage. It was a good time for us to test who was the better driver despite the uneven playing field. We first had some practice just on the site just to see how our bikes handled the surface when we really open the taps. Afterwards we designed a course which would test our brakes and handling. To see the arrangement on our little grid we did proper qualifying laps. One person would leave the starting line, do two laps of the track and then a flying lap which would be timed. I set of first in my quad. While my first two laps were good, my timed lap had cost me as on one of the corners as I applied too much power and almost spun out. The other two had much better lap times and soon we arranged ourselves on the grid. Ethan had posted the fastest time. Just as we were about to start, Ethan suggested we reverse the order so that the fastest would start third and so on and so forth.

At the count of three we were off and we were racing. Ethan had quickly overtaken Vinay and myself but the race between Vinay and me was really heating up. It was some proper wheel to wheel racing. In the end, Vinay just beat me due to his higher straight line speed. We lined up again in the same order and started the three lap race. However just as we were coming on to the last corner of the second lap there was someone from one of the other tour companies. He had walked straight towards us, stopped us and said we should head back into the town and we shouldn’t be riding these bikes off road. This confused me as these bikes are designed to run off road and work best off road. They are called not all all-terrain vehicles for nothing. Any way we decided that we should head back in to town as the four hours was almost up. The drive in to town was great for we had some stunning views and great weather. However, the engine from the quad bike was acting up again and more often than not the revs would keep cutting. After the ride back to Quito we decided to treat ourselves to a massage to really heal ourselves. This was well deserved after the death mountain climb.

After the incredibly relaxing massage along wit lunch we headed back to the hostel to rest a little and pack for tomorrow. we would be heading towards the end of our trip, Quito and the city of Rio in Brazil. While we were packing, I reflected upon the time here. I felt happy that we were no longer climbing Cayambe as this town, small as it may be, provided shelter for us and had a lot of charm.

It is a city that I would recommend to any one coming to this lovely country. While we didn’t explore all of this country, I know for a fact that one day the three of us will return. We will return to conquer Cayambe once and for all. After packing we headed into town for an early dinner which was at a small pizza place and my word their pizzas were amazing. We felt that after our systems took a beating, these pizzas would be what the doctor would order. After dinner headed back in to town to rest and relax before catching the eight o’clock bus back to Quito, the capital city of Ecuador.

Chapter 18: Saying goodbye to the Spanish Speaking part of South America.

We woke up bright and early to freshen up before the three hour bus ride up north to the capital city. When I say we, I mean I woke up bright an early to freshen up and finishing a little bit of packing. After waking Vinay up we finally left the hostel towards the bus station at precisely nine minutes past eight. The bus ride was relaxing and one the way we even passed by Cotopaxi. The weather was gorgeous and we were able to see the 5897-metre-tall volcano in its full glory.

In the background is the Cotopaxi volcano

After a while we eventually reached the town and proceeded to find a taxi to take us to our AirBnB which is in the newer part of town. Interesting fact about Quito, the city is divided into two parts where one is old and the other is new. The old part of town along with Krakow in Poland were the first towns in history to be declared a UNCESO site in the year 1978. The AirBnB was situated in a part of time near the main youth areas of the city. The house, while it took us an hour to find, was quaint. It had a modest kitchen, spacious bedrooms and the owners were very friendly. It turns out they had actually leased the top floor of the house and the owner was also a vet. He had adopted five dogs where one of them was an incredibly massive yet friendly German Shepard.

We were reading up in Quito about places to go to on our first night out. Sadly while Ethan and I were look up on places to have a drink and club, Vinay decided to stay the night in. He was and rather tired and wasn’t enthusiastic to go out. But first we decided to go to the nerby supermarket to pick up some groceries to help us remain fed throughout the next three days. After the groceries we just relaxed and chilled in our new flat. In between some of the nerf gun fights we introduced ourselves to three of the dogs that the owners had adopted.

After a cooking up a storm in what turned out to be a poorly stocked kitchen and having an enthusiastic nerf gun fight we headed out in to the town. By we I mean Ethan and myself headed into the town to try the local clubbing scene. The clubbing scene there is rather interesting as for one, they don’t just bump and grind as they do in clubs back home. Instead they actually dance properly here. They almost dance to the level of professionals. Ethan and I were truly out of our element. After having some liquid courage, I bravely ventured in to uncharted waters and after some time I had learnt one thing. Salsa is most definitely not my forte even though I have some sense of rhythm. After some time and visiting more clubs we headed back to the AirBnB to chill and sleep in.

The next morning, I woke up nice and early to work out and make a rough plan for the day. I decided that we should explore the old town in the afternoon. This was a good call as knowing the others, they wouldn’t be up till the greater part of the morning. Ethan eventually woke up and the two of us, after making a spot of breakfast decided to get some laundry done. Since it was a Sunday it took us some time to find a Laundromat that was actually open but eventually we found one. After leaving the clothes for laundry to came to find Vinay sitting in bed having not moved since last night. We informed him of the plan today and he decided that it was a good plan. After cooking up yet another storm in the poorly stocked kitchen we set forth for the old town. The old part of town was incredibly beautiful for it was filled with Colonial architecture. We spent around two hours walking around to see the old churches including the famous Iglesia de San Francisco.

The church was jam packed with tourists and locals who were coming to attend Sunday mass.

The coolest looking bank I've ever seen

Ethan posing for the camera

After looking around this area along we headed back to collect our laundry, pack and have an early night. The next day was to be be our last day in Spanish speaking South America. While I was packing I began to look back not just on Ecuador but on this trip as a whole. I came to the conclusion that this trip, not just this wonderful country, has been life changing. It allowed me to experience new things which I wouldn’t have done before if I was still remaining in Singapore. It allowed me to explore new levels of independence that I had never experienced before. It had changed me for the better and I have never been more thankful for the ridiculous and insane things I’ve seen on this trip. It was the first time where I would be sad about leaving this continent. While I would be happy about seeing my family again, I was not all that excited about coming back to Singapore. The charm, simplicity and wackiness of this continent is something that you cannot find anywhere else. I never felt stressed at all on this trip and I was going to miss that along with the more relaxed pace of life. Even though we still had four days left in this continent I knew that the trip into Rio de Janiero would signal the end.

Continued in Part 5