Monday, October 31, 2005

Hotel Maria Gracia, Quito, Ecuador

The town of Tangua, Colombia is about 7,500 feet in elevation. Cultivated land rises another 2 to 3,000 feet. (I was a little hesitant to take this photo, as there was a school just below me, with many small children out playing. I heard a story of a tourist being assaulted in a small town for taking pictures of children. Supposedly, the townspeople feared foreigners would kidnap their children.)

9:00 p.m.

The daylight was just fading at 6:00, when I arrived on the outskirts of Quito. I thought I’d be smart this time and hire a taxi to lead me to a hotel. I told him “no five star, maybe three, tranquilo y con una vista (quiet and a view)." I felt a bit better when he got lost. We spent 15 or 20 minutes circling neighborhoods, asking pedestrians, trying to find a hotel he knew.

It was a bit isolated (I have no idea what neighborhood I’m in), but it is quiet, secluded, and has a view of city lights rising up the slopes of Pichinchan Volcano to the west. After checking in ($25, breakfast included), I asked about dinner and the proprietor, though she was tired, consented to cook something up for me.

This part of the city is at 8,800 feet, and I noticed it just climbing two flights with my bags: my lungs tight and working harder. I was feeling worn too from riding in chilly air the latter part of the day.

After I sat down to dinner, ten other fellows joined me in the small dining room. I couldn’t understand anything they were saying, though I’m pretty sure it was Spanish.


Back in Pasto this morning, the city came to life before 6:00. I was amazed how busy and noisy the streets became in just a very short time. (I had awakened about 3:00 a.m. and it was virtually silent outside.) Many people walking by my street-level window, kids off to school very early. I felt a slight guilt (but only slight) lying in bed a bit longer. It was raining. I wasn't thrilled at the prospect of riding out of here in the rain. Hopefully, if I waited long enough, it would stop. I knew I had to go higher into the mountains today. I had no idea if I could potentially run into snow.

My room smelled of exhaust as I slowly packed everything up again. The owner offered me coffee. It was black, very weak, and had too much sugar, but it was a nice gesture, and served in a porcelain cup and saucer!

Loading up the bike on the sidewalk out front, I was drawn into many conversations with pedestrians who stopped to inquire about my travels. It took until 9:00 to actually get on the road.

Up a long ridge to the south and over the top, the green flanks of Volcan Galeras rose up to my right. On the south side of the range, I stopped in Tangua, another small city in a dramatic mountain setting. It's bright goldenrod-colored cathedral contrasted with the gray morning.

I became aware that the spot I had chosen for a photo was right above a school playground. I looked around to see if any townspeople were watching me. (That's all I needed: for them to think I was looking to kidnap a child.) A mother came down the street, carrying her child, who was wearing a cow costume for Halloween. Pretty cute.

It's Halloween in Colombia too!

This cutie deserved two spots in the blog.

Colombia is my kind of place! These "moto" lanes allow free passage past toll booths for bicycles and motorcycles. Note two other features typical of this region: the truck belching smoke and the car broken down at the toll booth.

At a quiet spot in the country, I pulled over to organize my documents for the border crossing. North of Ipiales, I came upon a bonsai nursery. Though in a hurry to get to the border, I stopped to browse the gardens. A school class was touring the grounds. With thousands of potted trees and catalogued gardens, this represented a real labor of love.

Doing laundry on a mountainside

Just north of Ipiales near the Colombia-Ecuador border, there is little ground that is not being put to use. This high country is 5 to 10,000 feet in elevation.

In Ipiales, I drove to the city center to change money. It was here I learned that Ecuador uses dollars. That's a relief! Filled up on gas to use up some of my remaining pesos.

At the Colombia-Ecuador border, I arrived, as some traveler had suggested, just before noon. It’s clean, organized and painless passing through Colombian immigration and customs. I arrived on the Ecuador side just as their aduana office closed for a two-hour lunch. "Crap." I was watching the clouds gather and anticipating the accustomed late afternoon rain. "Nothing I can do about it, I’ll just have to pull out the rain gear if that happens."

Talked with soldiers who stood looking over the parked motorcycle. These were military, but there were also immigration police and national police at the border. Lots of uniforms.

Also waiting outside customs, I noticed a surfer sitting against a wall, backpacks and two covered surfboards next to him.

“Are you American?”


“Where are you from?

“San Francisco.”

“Santa Rosa.”

“Matt” introduced himself. He and his girlfriend (I never learned her name) started in El Salvador and have been heading south, following the surf. She is en route to Quito to do volunteer work, and he hoped to surf Central and South America for a year. But her pack, including passport, camera, and ATM card, had just been stolen. They were riding a bus down to the border, and at a service stop, a young boy who had been riding with them, grabbed the bag and took off. I told Matt I'd check back with them before I left.

At 2:00, offices opened and people crowded to the service windows. I was told to follow a customs officer. I got on the bike and followed him in his pick-up. I figured we were just going a short distance, 100 yards or so. But he led me about five miles into downtown Tulcan. There they have a large aduana office. I have no idea why this couldn’t have been done at the border. The three hour process of getting a motorcycle permit really "threw a wrench into the spokes." From then on, I was focused on just making up time. I didn’t want to give up the goal of reaching Quito today.

From damp 10,000-foot-high mountain valleys to arid, wind-swept canyons, the highway passes through an incredibly varied landscape. Simply awesome. Up and down, from chilly mountain air and communities where people are wearing winter clothes to warm dry valleys, where people wear almost nothing. A day of contrasts.

No toll exemption for motorcycles in Ecuador, but the toll is only 20 cents at each booth, a total of $1.00 for the ride to Quito.

The highways are the best I've seen since the U.S. I got up to 70 mph for many stretches. Riding through the mountains was especially fun because the roads were so good. There were no slides, little debris and well-engineered curves. Only a few surprises, and these came mostly in towns.

I’ve seen almost everything now: On a four lane highway, stopped at a signal. I was in the left lane. When the light turned green the guy in the right lane did a u-turn, crossing right in front of me. Fortunately, I hadn't made my usual rabbit start.

By late afternoon, I was pushing hard to make Quito before nightfall. But it's hard when you're passing through some of the most extraordinary landscape. The urge to stop was ever present. Approaching Quito, the highway climbs thousands of feet to a plateau. This city has to be in the most dramatic setting of any city I’ve seen.

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