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Sept 25 – Oct 25, 2006

Huaquillas – Guayaquil – Salinas – Manta – Portoviejo – San Clemente – Pedernales – Santo Domingo – La Independencia – Mindo – Quito

Ecuador, straddling the equator, right in the 
centre of the world was our next stop. About the size of the UK, it 
is one of the smaller South American countries, but has pretty much 
everything its larger neighbours have to offer. There are two 
seasons here: summer (cool and dry) and winter (hot and wet). We 
arrived towards the end of the cool, summer season and temperatures 
between 25 and 35 degrees Celsius were well hot enough! 

 

The border crossing from Peru to Ecuador brought 
us through 4 km of busy market stalls and then onto quieter roads 
with courteous drivers. Gone were the hooting of horns and gringo
dame plata shouts. It was thumbs up from the truckers and a lot of non-verbal communication from the roadside.

We had left the dry desert of Tumbes behind and entered very organised and lush banana and cocoa plantations. All of a sudden, those Bonita bananas Darina knew so well as a kid in Ireland came to life. With Dole and Del Monte just across the road, it was inevitable that in our first 3-course lunch in Ecuador, bananas feature thrice!

Banana plantation

Foremost on our minds were the white sand beaches 
on the Pacific, but to get there we had to cross our first 
significant city since La Paz, Bolivia. Guayaquil, with a population of almost 3 million, earned itself a bad reputation in the past as a dangerous port town. 

Malecon 2000

However, recent development efforts have left two brand new 
waterfront promenades with tropical gardens, cinema complexes, 
museums, shopping malls, playgrounds and a yacht club. What a 
perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle that this big city 
thrives on.

Governement buildings, downtown Guayaquil

Police are on every street corner guiding the few tourists around through designated safe areas. One of these is Las Peñas, on Cerro Santa Ana where a lot of money had been pumped into restoration and paint, making it a gaily coloured mix of Valparaiso, Chile and La Boca, Buenos Aires.

Las Peñas
Here's looking at you baby!

Strolling round we happened upon a real Jurassic Park right down town opposite the cathedral. Hundreds of iguanas were climbing the trees, scuttling across the path, lying on the hedges, relaxing in the shade and generally populating this little park. Tread with care under the trees as iguana droppings are sizeable and not particularly fashionable.

The cathedral, Guayaquil

We were very lucky to receive first hand local information from Roberto, who we met shivering in a restaurant way back in Uyuni, Bolivia. He whizzed us round to the best bike shop in town and kindly shared with us a load of his amazing music collection. Super nice guy.

Roberto
From Guayaquil to the coast

Being the dry season, the road to the coast was quite unattractive and grey in colour. The sky was constantly overcast and the vegetation in a dull hibernation.

This is when a silver car pulled up ahead, and out jumped César who opened his trunk and invited us to slaughter a huge papaya with him. Hale and hearty at 70 years of age, he puts his good health down to zero alcohol, two cigarettes a day and loads of local fruit.

César
Salinas beach

Our 500km route along the Pacific coast took in the Guayas and Manabí provinces on the Ruta del Sol. Clear turquoise water lapped deserted white sand beaches, but unfortunately in the Guayas area, the skies continued to be grey. However, it didn’t stop us from dipping and enjoying the fresh water to cool off in the 30 degree heat.

Prawns, shellfish, octopus, squid and sea fish 
dishes did not disappoint either. Ceviche, the local answer 
to Sashimi, is a tart refreshing seafood dish served with banana 
crackers and delicious at any time of day.

Ceviche and banana chips
Ceviche for breakfast
Montañita

Montañita is a surfers’ paradise with loads of bamboo accommodation nestled around a couple of streets off the beach. We hit it on a full moon long weekend party and it rocked all night with a lively crowd from Guayaquil and the rest of the world.

Leaving Montañita, we were pleasantly surprised 
when the road went out of its way to show us some green jungle 
scenery. There was a climb involved; a price we gladly paid for a 
wonderful ride and great views.

Road out of Montañita
Pumpkin surprise!

Along the coast there are numerous eco lodges 
where camping on the beach is affordable. We enjoyed first class 
meals at the award-winning Alandaluz Lodge

 …while 
watching pelicans nose dive from impressive heights to swoop up 
their prey.

I see you!
Puerto Lopez

Puerto Lopez is where the sun came out and with a blue sky backdrop it was as if people also came to life. This was the beginning of the Manabí province with a friendly, relaxed atmosphere and smiles all round.

Early each morning there’s a fascinating fish market on the beachselling everything from stingrays to hammer sharks.

"Three for twenty!"
Now, that's a fish!

It’s certainly a place to while away an hour or so observing the sale of 
these gigantic catches.

We happened to be there for the spectacular 
helicopter entrance of Rafael Correa on his presidential election 
campaign
. He has since made it to the second and final round and is 
running against the multi-millionaire owner of none other than Darina’s 
Bonita bananas!

Rafael Correa
Cheese!

Did you know that the world famous Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador? Well, we pulled up in Monte Christi, the Panama-hat capital, and left exactly like tourists with a couple of straw hats more than we had on entry!

Just before the road turns away from the coast we stopped in San Clemente for a quiet afternoon on the beach. Our hosts Carla, Pedro and Pedro José at the beautiful Peñón del Sol Lodge cooked up a storm and enlightened us on the ins and outs of Ecuador today.

Pedro, Pedro José and Carla
Kurt in all his glory

The next morning, while hitting the water for our daily swim, we were joined by a dozen or so dolphins gracefully surfing the waves and playing Skippy. Darina was so beside herself with excitement, we have no evidence of this delightful encounter!

The best thing about the Ecuadorian coast is that in many places at low tide it’s possible to cycle along the beach.

Not a soul in sight
San Clemente to Bahía

We had a lovely afternoon heading north from San Clemente dodging swarms of red crabs racing between the cliffs and the waves.

Ecuador will never go down in the history books for its accuracy of road signs. This is another excellent argument for cycling along the beach!

Whitch way?
Janet and Luís along the coast

Nevertheless, with friendly folk like Luís & Janet offering advice and information on the road, all is forgiven.

What Ecuador does excel at, is creative warnings about the effects of drink driving and speeding.

"I'm waiting for you"
"If you want to fly, buy yourself an airplane"
En route to the milking parlour

Beef and dairy farming are big in Ecuador as there is no shortage of fodder in this fertile land. One morning we poked our heads out of the tent to find a herd of dairy cattle being mustered along the beach to the parlour for milking.

One of the more exotic trees in this region is the
Ceiba
. Living up to 1,200 years this huge tree produces soft white natural fibres otherwise known as kapok. This was one of Ecuador’s big exports before the invention of synthetic foam. In this season, when the fruit bursts and the fibres are dispersed, the surrounds turn 
into quite the snowy landscape.

Ceiba /kapok) tree

On this trip we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn southbound in Ubatuba, Brazil and northbound in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

On the equator

In Ecuador the chances of crossing the equator are pretty high. After a year in the Southern hemisphere, just outside Pedernales, we came across a white line marking the centre of the world. With a well-thought-through step-aerobic session, it’s possible to work out in the northern and southern hemisphere simultaneously. This we did, no doubt!

A typical meal in Ecuador consists of a substantial soup followed by rice, beans and fish or meat in varying forms. There’s a lot of choice and with a juice thrown in it rarely costs more than one or two US dollars.

A typical soup
Passion fruit by the roadside

The best thing about the local markets is the wide availability of exotic fruit shakes and juices. Fruits include coconut, papaya, pineapple, mango, passion fruit, jack fruit, tree tomatoes and, of course, bananas of all shapes and forms. Every day we encounter a new fruit that just has to be tested. 

As we left the coast and moved inland to the hills, we passed hacienda (farm) after hacienda with palm oil, rubber, passion fruit, sugarcane, pineapple, citrus fruit and yes! You guessed it: banana plantations. The land is so fertile, if you put a broomstick in the ground it would probably sprout! 

Rubber plantation
Road kill ahead!
Passion fruit flower

The hedgerows in between are alive with colour, flowers and parrots. A pleasant aroma of lemon grass-like hierba luisa predominates the air.

Humming birds never cease to amaze us as they hover and dart around backwards and forwards with their characteristic hum.

A still hummingbird
One of the many orchids in Equador

We had a well deserved rest day in beautiful Mindo, situated in a valley surrounded by dense jungle and criss-crossed by a few rivers. There we had a ball checking out orchids. With 4,200 native species in Ecuador there’s always one in sight.

Our route from the coast to Quito zig-zagged the Equator no less than 6 more times. The Equator is such an integral part of Ecuador, we even passed a town called the centre of the world. There, to get that perfect picture of Kurt balancing on the famous line…

Kurt on the Rquator
Darinaerobics!

… Darina appeared nothing short of a contortionist on the pavement!

Climbing from sea level up to Quito at 2,800masl involved crossing the coastal range that brought us from dry forest into bright green grazing pastures.

Cattle grazing in the hills
Cloud forrest

Then it was another climb from the Mindo jungle into cloud forests. Once we crossed the 3,000masl pass in Cacacali the vegetation became very sparse and desert like.

Standard rural fashion accessories consist of wellies and machetes. At all hours of the day we met locals using the road as a catwalk. Initially it was a little unnerving to see so many possible weapons at short range, but on reflection, the humble rubber Wellington boot does tend to soften the threat!

Wellies and machete

Friendly faces on the road

Now safely installed in the capital, Quito, we are looking forward to Darina’s brother Karol’s arrival tonight… so tune in next month for details of the long lad’s adventures far from home!

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