Bananas, cycle protests and pedalling over the Andes again: Huaquillas to Riobamba
“EC-UA-DOR, ESCHUCAME”. We crossed into Ecuador to the sound of Sash booming on our I-pods. This was a moment we had imagined since planning the trip, but with its friendly atmosphere and stunning scenery, our eighth country of the trip is more than living up to expectations.
The border crossing was quiet, quick and easy. We had our passports electronically stamped in the fancy immigration post across the bridge separating Peru and Ecuador, which signs told us had been funded by the European Community. This crossing adds to an existing one, which is operative directly into the town of Huaquillas and is more popular with locals.
We stayed in Huaquillas for a few days’ rest. It’s only a kilometres from Peru, but we immediately noticed differences. Gone were the tuk-tuks, replaced by smart, yellow taxis with drivers less keen on their horns, but with a fondness for the gas pedal. We were now using the US Dollar, the official currency of Ecuador since 2000, and there was a greater USA influence, with water from the States being sold by the gallon. Finally, it was hotter with the Pacific breeze gone and we were sweltering in the heat and humidity.
So, we continued our early starts in an attempt to finish each day before the sun got too hot. Our route took us through fruit plantations, belonging to Del Monte and others, Ecuador being the World’s largest exporter of bananas. Blissfully, these companies keep their crops hydrated with water cannons, and a few misdirected ones gave us cooling showers as we cycled along.
There was also the occasional rain shower to help out, and we were enjoying one when we cycled into the small town of Pasaje, on a detour to avoid the traffic in Machala. It was a great decision, as we inadvertently rode into the middle of a cycle demonstration promoting cycle use and better environmental policies. The event had been organised by local teachers and hundreds of school children were taking part. Enthused, we joined in and chatted to one of the teachers and his students. At the end of the route, we were treated like celebrities as we posed for photographs with the children and Paddy practised his Spanish by giving a short interview to a news crew about our trip.
The friendliness of Ecuadorians has been constant. Every time we stop we are approached by locals keen to know where we are going and what we are doing. The hospitality doesn’t stop when we pedalling about either.
Leaving the town of Bucay, at the start of a 100km climb back into the Andes, we were ushered off our bikes into the house of a grandmother who gave us coffee and biscuits. When we asked for a photograph with her she ushered us into her private chapel attached to her house. It included its own alter and rows of pews and was decorated for Christmas with a tree and a nativity scene. This was a total surprise to us, and reminded us that meeting locals is one of the best parts of the trip. Going by bike we feel we understand more of the places we visit, but every time we spend time with somebody who lives in the country we learn so much more.
The coffee and biscuits set us up for a long day of climbing to Pallatanga. Southern Ecuador is infamous amongst cycle tourists for the steep gradients of the roads, but you don’t believe it until you see it. Peru has some long climbs, but they are at a manageable gradient. Road builders in Ecuador though seem to build a road in a straight line from the bottom of a hill to the top.
It was an exhausting day, but the weather was cooler and we enjoyed the different terrain, including a dizzying ride over a very high iron bridge with very low barriers. This was one of those tough days made better on seeing gringos travelling by bus watching, unbelieving, as they drive past you. However much a day of grinding uphill hurts, it always beats a day in a hot bus on hairpin roads.
I wish we’d remembered that the next day. After a night in a grotty hostel in Pallatanga, we were on the road and set for a 50km climb before a downhill towards Riobama. I had slept terribly. The people in the next room had stayed up talking until 3am and at 4am the roosters who were sleeping with them woke up and started crowing. In reality I needed a day’s rest before tackling the climb, but we were so desperate to leave we pushed on.
5km up from the town my body cracked and it was obvious I wasn’t going anywhere. Going back to the hotel wasn’t an option (we have since discovered there is a nicer place near to the police station, where we would have taken a rest day) and our attempts to hitch a lift failed. So we rolled down into town, where we were delighted to be offered a lift to the top of the pass by the local police force. We threw the bikes into the back of the pick-up and minutes later we were off.
I won’t dwell on this part of the journey. Anybody who thinks we were ‘cheating’, I can only say we were punished severely in the fact that the driving was so bad, we were both convinced we were going to die.
We got out at the top shaking with terror but also from the cold as the weather had changed drastically since we left the coast and our long forgotten down jackets came back into use. We had a nice downhill most of the way to Riobamba, navigating our way into the city by following the disused railway line.
Here we had a nice day off and finally we were able to get our stinking clothes washed, the first place we’d found in Ecuador. Riobamba was a nice city, with pretty colonial buildings and great food. We enjoyed a pizza in a packed local restaurant, where customers were watching the Ecuadorian team Liga in the South American equivalent of the European Champions League Final. The match was so popular that every window of the restaurant had faces glued to the outside, eager to get a view of the TV set.
It was a lovely place to spend our first few days off in Ecuador, a country that we like better and better the more we get to know it. Now back on the Panamerican Highway it is time to head towards Quito and start thinking about our Ecuadorian Christmas.