Although we were sad to see our Galapagos trip come to an end, we were excited to see what the rest of Ecuador had to offer. There are three separate regions to the mainland. The flat Pacific coastal plain that runs east, right up to the mountains. The middle central highlands which form the Andean spine running north to south. Finally, the Amazonian region in the eastern part of Ecuador. It was the middle part, the highlands, that we targeted for further exploration with just a short side trip to the western cloud forest.
The four of us piled into a rental car, the mighty Chevy Vitara, and off we went, bouncing down the mostly good Ecuadoran roads. Through banana plantations and up a winding road, onwards to Cuenca. We started climbing not far from Guayaquil and the road kept going up, and up, and up, until eventually we reached 13,000 feet. We topped out into some countryside that could have been mistaken for Scotland or Ireland were it not for the high terrain. All of this less than 100 kms from sea level!
Our first mainland city to visit was Cuenca, with three rivers running through the old part of town and plenty of colonial architecture to look at. We wandered around an art fair for a while, strolled around looking at some old buildings and dashed into an ice cream shop just in time to catch a group of nuns gobbling some ice cream. Henry has amazing ice cream radar. We stayed in a cool old restored mestizo house that had a beautiful courtyard, and that evening enjoyed a bottle of wine (or 2) and dinner.
Our plan after Cuenca was to go to Baños. Looking at the map, we realized that it was about a 6 hour drive away, on twisty mountain roads that kept us to a fairly low average speed. Switching up drivers, we knocked out the miles slow and steady. The scenery varied between high and dry and pockets of lush green valleys which were so deep they make the rocky mountains look like furrows in a field! Our eyes were wide open when we figured that we had a good chance of spotting volcanoes along the way. Volcano spotting gets tricky when the clouds get in the way but we were rewarded with a good view of Tungurahua (at 16,480 feet) on the drive into Baños.
Famous for its hot springs (hence the name), Baños is also the launching point for tours into the giant valleys running eastwards out to the amazon. We lucked out in finding a hotel that was right next to one of the hot springs, so after dinner we decided it was time for a soak. Braving the hottest pool, we could only manage a dip for a few minutes before jumping out and looking like cooked lobsters! The medium temperature pool was more suited to a good long soak.
The area around Baños also offers good hiking and it was time to hit the trails for a bit and work off all of that good food from the Galapagos. The hike we chose was, in theory, all down hill since we were to follow a river valley flowing out to the east. Well, we went up too, up on what seemed like goat tracks at times. If only we had gotten away with packing that machete in our hand luggage because we could have used it in places. The trail had grown over in places but luckily Henry’s superior navigational skills kept us on track. After 4 hours of slogging up and down with some bushwhacking thrown in for good measure, we popped out at our planned destination; a cluster of houses on the side of a cliff with a river running through the middle of it that turns into a waterfall. How were we going to get across the river to the road on the other side? A cable car! Sort of. More like a cage suspended by two cables and powered by gravity until you reach the bottom of the sag in the cable, then it’s powered by some sort of old truck engine contraption operated by a guy on the other side. Having survived the jungle hike and the cable car crossing, we treated ourselves to sodas and chips at the little shack on the side of the road.The next challenge was to get back to where we had parked the car, so we started flagging down buses that were headed to Baños. The first one blew right by us since it was a school bus, but the next one flashed its lights and stopped. This one was a long distance bus but they had 4 empty seats so we piled in and explained that we wanted to get off at the bridge by the dam before town. These long distance buses are deluxe, the seats have cushions, there is a tv playing weird films dubbed into Spanish and A/C too. Our ride back to our car cost the equivalent of 50 cents each.
Back in town and it was time to find the hot springs on the other side of town. This one had hardly any people and no boiling pot to cook lobsters either. We had a mellow soak and chatted away to the local folk who were curious as to why we were there and what we were doing.
Then the morning of the 9th of November hit. We wish it hadn’t! Our friends needed to head home to put some out some work related fires, or be ready with the hose anyway. We checked out, jumped into the car and hit the road, dropping them off at the airport in Quito 4 hours later.
The only good thing about having to drop them off was that we had occasional glimpses of Cotopaxi volcano as we got closer to Quito. Well, what were we going to do now? We just lost 50% of our crew! We carried on with the planned route, changing a couple of details here and there.
One particularly chatty Ecuadoran at the hot springs had mentioned a crater lake not too far from the main road to Quito, so after some research we decided to go to Quilatoa crater lake up in the mountains. The road to Quilatoa was amazing. Lots of winding roads that climb in and out of high mountain valleys where they cultivate impossibly steep slopes. This was rural mountain Ecuador at its best.
The great thing about the crater is that you can hike along the rim in either direction or hike down to the bottom of the crater and back up. Both options have amazing views so we opted to stay up high and walk along the rim. Timing is everything when in the mountains and we were luck to have great views of the crater before the clouds rolled in. Seeing how quickly the clouds move was fascinating and before we knew it we we covered in cloud ourselves, you could feel the droplets on your face.
Most people come to this area to hike the Quilatoa loop, a rural three day hike with cozy hostels at each stop. We had a car so we didn’t need to hike but we wanted to check out the cozy hostels tucked up into the high valleys.
Despite not having to hike, the road wasn’t exactly easy going, in fact, the road wasn’t actually there in places. A large section of new construction was underway, yet the road was still open to traffic! It started off just fine, some gravel sections and a few detours, no problem. Then it got interesting. The heavy equipment started creeping into the road way, one Caterpillar at a time until most of the road was blocked by giant beasts. We squeezed through narrow gaps, dodged piled up rocks, hit mounds of dirt left behind after a grader went by. Death by heavy equipment seemed imminent! At one stage the road was blocked by a massive excavator, we figured it would move out of the way eventually and it made some room for us but kept working, loading a huge pile of dirt and rocks into a truck. We had to time our escape between sweeps of the excavator’s boom to avoid ending up in the truck.
Just when we thought the worst was over, we came around a corner only to see rocks and dirt rolling down the steep slopes high above us. We looked up and saw another excavator way up there clawing away at the slope and sending debris cascading down onto the road ahead. Now the timing would have to be perfect or else death by falling dirt and or rocks was on the menu. I hit the gas and was unfortunately reminded of the poor acceleration at 11,000 feet in a car with an anemic engine to begin with. Finally we built enough speed to dodge the falling debris and the opposite direction traffic, headed towards us who were doing the same!
And everyone thinks the flying is the most dangerous part!
The town of Isinlivi is a dot on the map, and we were lucky to find it in the cloud and rain. Climbing out of the valley towards Isinlivi, 2 rain soaked local ladies flagged us down for a ride and we obliged. Quechua speaking only, we smiled, used hand gestures and laughed for communication, dropping them off in the town square on arrival. A cute village surrounded by eucalyptus forest, Isinlivi appeals to travelers in the region since it’s laid back and has a good hostel. The hostel was filled with guests from all around the world and it was fun to catch up with other travelers. Unfortunately one night is all we made time for, we wished we had stayed longer and hiked a bit in the area, but we had to make our way up to Otavalo the following day.
Otavalo is famous for one thing, it’s market. It actually runs all week but the weekends are when it gets bigger and has smaller side markets attached to it. We really only targeted one thing: Textiles. Blankets, pillows, sweaters, scarves, shawls; all could be had. Of course, the challenge in any market is to get the item you want at a fair price. Bargaining is expected, and can be fun if you are in the right mood. An alpaca blanket, a shawl and a gift for an expected grand niece were all acquired.
To get from our location in the highlands out to the western foothills we ended up driving most of the way back toward Quito and then catching a ring road in order to avoid most of the city.
The change in landscape was dramatic as we dropped down from the dry valleys around Quito and entered the cloud forests on the western slope.
The town of Mindo is not that big but has become a center for travelers seeking the forest experience. It’s is a popular bird watching destination too and all sorts of ‘twitchers’ go there to tick various birds off their lists. Covered with primary cloud forest, the surrounding area is like a thick green blanket of vegetation. Without many trails or roads, access is limited but it’s that impenetrable nature that allows the forest to remain pristine and undisturbed. We found one of the jungle trails after taking a small cable car across the valley and over to the opposite slope. The trail took us through some really thick forest, over a stream a few times with a rickety bridge or two, and up to some small waterfalls. There were tons of butterflies and brightly colored birds to see along the way.
In the interest of full disclosure, it is no secret that we both like birds. We enjoy watching birds, listening to their calls and then trying to figure out which ones we just saw. However, we don’t consider ourselves ‘birders’. We are not obsessed or crazy about the tiny details of bird watching like some people are. In fact, we actually make fun of true bird watchers even though that’s a mean thing to do!
So, once we started to see some interesting birds, we realized that Mindo would be a good place for us. Even if there were no birds or animals to see in one particular area, just being out in the forest was an experience in itself. Coming from the desert southwest, cloud forest is an unusual landscape for us. One can’t help but be impressed with the density, variety and ‘green-ness’ of the forest. It’s a whole different world in there. A tough place to see the birds when they are buried in the jungle. But, walking down the dirt road was pretty good as far as seeing toucan, tanagers, motmots, hummingbirds and hawks.
One night we decided to go on a small walking tour through some forest and around a frog pond. The frog chorus was so loud you almost needed ear plugs. The guide showed us different species of frogs and toads then we wandered around for a bit and saw spiders, glow in the dark bacteria on decomposing wood, all sorts of fascinating stuff! It really brings out the 7 year boy in all of us, stomping around the forest at night with a flashlight looking for bugs and frogs!
Ok, so in the interest of even fuller disclosure, the next morning we woke up early and went on a bird watching walk with a guide….O.K, maybe we are bird nerds…we don’t care; the walk was awesome! Luckily our guide was a real pro, identifying birds by their calls and rattling off all sorts of information relating to each bird. 3 hours later were back at the hotel and going through the book to verify what we had just seen. 4 different toucans, guans, hawks, countless tanagers, little birds that we can’t remember, you name it! We have decided that Mindo really deserves another visit, with more forest exploration next time.
No trip to Ecuador is complete without spending some time in the old city of Quito. Not all of Quito is old, mostly just the central core. Never the less, the colonial architecture, the spacious plazas and the impressive churches are all worthy of a visit. We were also lucky enough to meet up with yet another Maule pilot, Alfredo, and his wife for dinner. The best part of meeting up with local residents of a city is the behind the scenes tour of the city sights that you otherwise wouldn’t get. Not only did they make plans to take us to a great restaurant with an amazing view, but on the way, they drove us around the old part of town at night to see the lights and show us all kinds of cool buildings. The Panecillo district sits on top of a hill, almost in the middle of the city, adorned with a Virgin with wings that looks out over the night sky. The company, the dinner and the views were wonderful. Alfredo and Cris seemed like old friends immediately. They were fun, helpful and interesting, and we hope to be able to see them again.
We also used our time in Quito to plan the next stage of our trip, the leg into Peru. The permit for Peru was started about two weeks before we planned to enter the country. We thought that it would be enough lead time, but no, they decided that we needed to submit this or that extra document again and again. The final straw was when they decided that I must have a first class pilot medical certificate to go along with my commercial license. The FAA allows a commercial (and/or ATP) pilot to operate with a first or second class medical, depending on the type of operation. I tried to explain to the Department of Civil Aviation in Peru that I was acting as a private pilot and flying my own plane through the country unpaid. But no, they weren’t going for it. So a last minute scramble ensued and luckily Alfredo knew the only doctor in Quito who can issue FAA medical certificates.
After a frantic round of communications in broken Spanish and English, an appointment was secured and I was bouncing through the city in the back of a taxi headed to the Ecuadoran civil aviation authority’s aeromedical division.
Now this medical exam was a little different than the usual ones I get back home. Some aspects were way more intense and others were neglected completely. For example, no one took my pulse or my blood pressure. I wasn’t weighed or measured for height as is usually the case. The hearing test was like I was applying for a slot with NASA on the space station. The lady explained to me that I was to sit in a soundproof booth and listen for various sounds in a set of head phones and to press the button when I heard them. At least that’s what I thought she said, I missed the button pressing part and I just sat there, listing to all the sounds and chimes. Well after a while she thought I was deaf and she burst into the booth to see if I was ok or just plain dumb. Once I figured out I was to push the button, we tried it again. This time I was determined to prove that I could hear the slightest sound and pressed the button whenever I heard the faintest sound. Looking at the lady through the window, I realized that I could see her activate the sound with the sight of her finger moving up and down on the keyboard. So I turned this into a vision test too and responded to the most indiscernible sounds known to man. She was impressed, I passed the hearing test.
The vision test was next. This is where it got interesting since I barely speak Spanish and the folks I was dealing with didn’t speak any English. The vision test is a standard cover one eye and read the letters affair. That’s if you know how to pronounce the letters in Spanish in the first place. So for the first few lines the lady either thought I was blind or that I just couldn’t read! Together we figured out that it was a language thing and that my vision was indeed just fine. With the hard part out of the way, or so I thought, all that remained was to print the certificate and be on my way. Not so fast Señor, the computer was having none of it. The FAA’s system won’t allow the printing of a second medical certificate within 90 days of the previous one, which I got before leaving Colorado in September, so I was stuck without one to send to Peru. I had successfully bluffed my way through hearing and vision tests only to be thwarted by a computer.
I hung my head in defeat and made my way back to the hostel. After a while I decided to call the FAA, late in the afternoon, from a funky internet cafe, from another country far away. Luck had come my way, a human had answered the phone and was prepared to help me. My hearing, however, really was put to the test since the 1970’s landline handset was way beyond its serviceable life and I couldn’t hear much over the crackling static and the call was cutting out. Eventually I figured out that they could email me the medical certificate and that I could print it out and send it to Peru. Success at last!
Since we thought that we might be granted the permit for Peru in a few days, it was time to head back to Guayaquil and return to Emcinco. We don’t like leaving the plane for so long and we wanted to make sure everything was still ok. Also, a guy from a local aviation magazine had contacted me for an interview. Once we settled into our place in Guayaquil, I met them at the airport, we chatted about the trip, took some pictures and hung out for a while. It’s good to see some folks are still out there with a passion for aviation, especially in other countries where aviation is not as developed as in the US.
After numerous emails and even a phone call or two, the permit finally came through. We could leave the next day after the usual airport run around and fuel for the plane.
The flight plan was filed, the plane was searched by a customs officer and his dog, I think that the dog smelled all of the previous dogs we’ve had sniffing around the plane instead of looking for drugs! We fired up and took off for Peru!
Miles to date: still 4110 NM flown, about 1200 miles driven.