Welcome to Ecuador, country number 13.
Discovering new cultures and places to visit is always exciting. Many travellers seem to rush through Ecuador on their way to Peru. We won’t do the same.
Initially, a few things are immediately different here. The currency: Ecuador adopted the US dollar as its official currency in 2000. Motorcycles: where have they all gone? Colombia is full of small motorcycles and the thousands of small businesses that make a living from them. In comparison, there are very few motorcycles here. Petrol (gas) is CHEAP. Super unleaded is the equivalent of £0.28 GBP per litre ($1.50 USD per US gallon). Diesel is even cheaper at £0.19 GBP per litre ($1.03 USD per US gallon). The panaderias (bakeries) don’t offer anywhere to sit and eat. Panaderias in Colombia offer not only baked goods but drinks, breakfasts, full lunches and beer. They’re a bit more like restaurants than anything else and we used them frequently. Here, at best, there’s maybe one table and a couple of chairs, no lunches or beers, just baked goods. Patriotism: There are lots of billboards advocating the purchase of local goods.
Tulcan and its topiary garden
Tulcan is the closest town to the border we’d just crossed, a colossal five miles away. Ordinarily, border towns are to be avoided as they have very little to offer. However, Tulcan has something worth stopping for, a cemetery! Nowhere near as creepy as it sounds, the municipal cemetery is rightly famous for its topiary. Many catholic cemeteries are known for their fantastic shrines and graves. Here, cypress bushes have been trimmed over several decades into elaborate and ornate shapes.
The cemetery was founded in 1932. The head of municipal parks, José María Franco Guerrero, exploited the favourable conditions for growing cypress and started to prune each tree into various shapes. Some are quite geometric, others represent pre-Colombian and other ancient figures. There are about 300 “sculptures” in total covering a large proportion of the cemetery. José died in 1985 and today his five sons continue to maintain the garden. Luis in Costa Rica had first alerted us to the existence of this place, we’re glad he did.
Being later in the day we’d taken the decision to spend the night in Tulcan. After visiting the cemetery there was no way we’d make it to Ibarra, our next stop, in daylight. Finding a place with secure parking for Tigger was a little challenging but we eventually settled for the Hotel Internacional Mina Del Oro (catchy name) which let me park Tigger in reception. Cool 🙂
Our first morning in Ecuador was slightly odd. Hungry, we set out to find some breakfast at about 08:30. It’s a Thursday but pretty much everywhere is closed. Restaurants and cafes which proudly boast breakfast menus don’t start serving until 10:00. We wonder if this is normal. Maybe people go to bed late and get up late here. Eventually we found an open cafe selling humitas, a sweet steamed corn dish.
Finca Sommerwind – Ibarra
Our next port of call was Finca Sommerwind situated on tranquil lake Yahuarcocha and overlooked by volcano Imbabura. The ride from Tulcan is along the Pan-American highway, or E35 as its designated here. A well paved road with little traffic. Progress is good.
Finca Sommerwind is well known amongst the overlanders community. It’s location makes it an ideal stop off point before or after crossing the Colombia/Ecuador border (click to read our experience of crossing the border). Hans, the owner, tells me that only about two percent of the overlanders he sees come by motorcycle. The majority come by “truck”, some of which are huge. Hans and Patricia do a great job of running the campground. Facilities are good with hot showers, clean toilets, laundry facilities and a kitchen. The fridge is well stocked with cold beer and at weekends Hans and Patricia open up the cafe. Patricia makes some great desserts including lemon cheesecake and apple cake. For various reasons, we’d return to Finca Sommerwind a number of times.
Adjacent to Finca Sommerwind, somewhat surprisingly, there’s a racetrack. Normally it’s quiet but on the weekend we arrived there was a six hour endurance car race. Practice went on well into the early hours. We really enjoyed it. It reminded us very much of our visits to the Le Mans 24 hour endurance race in France but on a much smaller scale. The track is also used for an annual horse event, the Caceria del Zorro (translates as fox hunting). The event starts with a parade of the horses in the centre of Ibarra. Participants wear traditional dress which adds additional colour to proceedings. Everyone eventually makes their way to the racetrack for the races. A lead horse, with a fox tail attached, is chased by the “fox hunters” and the first rider to catch the lead horse is deemed the winner. The event definitely had an air of exclusivity about it. Many of the riders represented stables and were turned out in matching riding gear, slicked back hair and expensive sunglasses. They certainly looked the part. It’s an extremely popular event with about 5,000 attendees and Hans did a roaring trade at the cafe selling German sausage and chips.
The Finca turned out to be a great base for exploring the area.
Volcano Imbabura overlooks the town of Ibarra, lake Yahuarcocha and Finca Sommerwind. It has an altitude of 15,190 feet, or 4,984 metres and although it hasn’t erupted for at least 14,000 years, is not considered to be extinct! Whenever it’s clear of cloud it appears quite threatening. Previous eruptions are evidenced by fertile soil which means there is abundant produce in the local markets. Everything from potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, beans and corn through to tomatoes, wheat and apricots are grown here.
The road circling the volcano is surprisingly good. The map shows a minor white road which we assumed would be dirt. However, we’re presented with a two lane paved road that would put many of the roads in the UK to shame. We pass fields of crops, small settlements and farmers out returning their flocks to shelter for the night. Local dress has changed. Women here wear A-line skirts, blouses, ponchos and hats. The men are less traditional in the way they dress.
Thermal springs at Chachimbiro
We like thermal springs. Our preference is for natural places with very little/no development but these are a little harder to find. The springs at Chachimbiro are well developed. A number of thermal pool establishments have sprung up to take advantage of the volcanically heated water. Arco Iris pools were recommended and we spent a relaxing few hours in the invigorating waters. Being mid week, we virtually had the place to ourselves, which was nice.
The pools are perfectly situated amongst verdant mountains and are alleged to be the most healing in the whole of Ecuador. Varying in temperature, it was fun to sit in the hot pools until we could stand the heat no longer and then cool off in something less extreme. Furthermore, for the more adventurous, there’s the polar pool at a temperature between four and five degrees Celsius.
Chachimbiro in Quechua, the local language, means strength. I’m not sure the iron, copper and iodine rich hot water made us feel any stronger but we were certainly invigorated by them.
Lake Yahuarcocha – the blood lake
Adjacent to Finca Sommerwind is lake Yahuarcocha. The lake gets its name from a battle between the local chiefdom and the Incas. The locals fiercely defended their territory until finally being defeated. As punishment for their resistance, the Incan emperor ordered the massacre of the local male population on the shores of the lake which from that point on was known as Yahuarcocha or blood lake.
Thankfully, things are a little more tranquil these days. In fact, we didn’t witness any massacres during our time here. Yahuarcocha is a popular destination with Ecuadorians, especially at weekends when whole families come to fish, picnic or take a ride on the “caterpillar”. It’s an extremely pleasant 10km, just over six miles, walk all the way around. Early evening brings hundreds of white egrets to roost in the reeds, their whiteness perfectly reflected in the still water.
The elusive Oso Andino
A forty five mile ride from Finca Sommerwind there’s a small project in the mountains dedicated to monitoring and protecting the Andean Bear. Oso Andino in Spanish. Hans knows a guy that knows the guy that runs the project and over several days is able to arrange for us to visit. Being a lover of bears, Janette is especially excited. We get the distinct impression though that very few foreigners visit Mirador Del Oso.
Andres, the project biologist, suggests that we meet in the plaza of Pimampiro. Apparently Mirador Del Oso is a little difficult to find. Hans stresses upon Andres that we should meet at 12:00 English time and definitely not at 12:00 Ecuadorian time which could be between 12:00 and who knows when. Andres clearly got the message, arriving in his 4×4 about 15 minutes early 🙂
Once we left Pimampiro we clearly understood why it was best to follow Andres on the bike rather than try to find the place ourselves. We soon headed into the mountains and onto the via del vertigo, a dirt road that wasn’t even on the GPS! We climbed until finally reaching Mirador Del Oso at about 7,700 feet or 2,347 metres. Here we were introduced to Danilo, the administrator/photographer and his wife Mirai. We would be guests in their humble mountain home.
After waiting a while for the weather to clear we were ready. Well, almost. Danilo took one look at our hiking shoes and declared them totally unsuitable. Instead, he provided us with wellington boots. Not the best for hiking in but they should keep our feet dry. The plan was to walk down into the ravine, cross the river and climb the bank the other side where bears were known to frequent. The descent to the river was extremely steep, this is not for the feint hearted. On reaching the river it soon became apparent that our wellingtons were far shorter than the river was deep. So much for keeping our feet dry. There was clear evidence of bear activity. After clambering up a steep bank, Andres sometimes literally hauling Janette up, we came to a tree with bear “nests”. These looked like large birds nests. In the gathering gloom they were impossible to photograph. Andres collected an SD card from a camera trap and announced that we should really go back before it got dark. Disappointingly, we didn’t see any bears. Wildlife can be so inconsiderate at times 🙂
Returning to the Mirador Danilo showed us photos and videos of the bears and explained a bit more about their project whilst Mirai cooked dinner. We had potato, rice, sweetcorn and cheese with ají sauce (spicy sauce with tomatoes, coriander, ají pepper, onions, and water). For the meat eaters there was also meat, of some kind!
We retired to our basic but comfortable room for the night.
The following morning dawned clear and bright and we set off in the 4×4 in search of bears. Even with the aid of tracking equipment we had no success. Silvestre, one of the males, has a collar but in these mountainous regions there is limited range. On our return to the Mirador we stopped off at a trout farm to buy lunch which was delicious.
Thinking that our visit here was over we prepared to leave. Danilo, however had a surprise. He’d built a swing over the ravine which looked totally crazy to me. Janette, on the other hand, was keen to have a go. It’s multiple hundreds of feet from the swing to the river at the bottom of the ravine. It’s difficult to describe the sick feeling I got in the pit of my stomach just watching. Janette loved it 🙂
We’d only spent a short time with Danilo and his wife but they made us feel extremely welcome. To briefly experience their way of life high in the Andes mountains was a privilege. The search for the elusive Oso Andino continues.
Our time in Ecuador had started really well. Contrary to what we’d heard from other travellers, in our experience, the people here are friendly and hospitable. I think we’re going to like it here.