(El) Ecuador

Macará, Ecuador

After a painless border crossing from Colombia, I was in Ecuador! I made haste from the border to Quito, with one important stop: Ecuador’s namesake.

My motorcycle at the equator

Located along the highway heading south to Quito, the Quitsato Sundial is a pretty neat monument marking the equator. This marks my first time in the southern hemisphere, and I’d say I entered it with style. I’m still getting used to the backwards-flushing toilets, though.

Quito is a relatively demure capital city, clocking in with a modest population of around 2 million, and a respectable elevation of 9,350 feet (2,850 m). It seems like a pretty quiet city. Nice historic center, some quaint museums, healthy hipster scene w/ craft beer to suit. I again met up with Jasper and Hanne, and we hung around the city while Jasper fiddled with his carburetor which was struggling with the altitude.


With that sorted, as well as you can expect to get a carburetor on a 32-year-old motorcycle at 10,000 feet sorted, we set off for the Quilotoa loop, a ring of villages broadly encircling a volcano and crater lake of the same name. It’s a popular backpacker destination for backpackers to actually backpack, hiking their way from village to village and spending the night in a hostel at each one. We opted for motorcycles, obviously, eschewing the main paved road for some fun dirt along the way.

A typical and picturesque Quilotoa road Letting the motorcycles rest in some deep sand

We spent a couple nights at a pretty swank hostel in Isinliví, then rode on to check out the main attraction. First stop was the village of Quilotoa, which provided a pretty excellent first (and as it would turn out, only) view.

Laguna Quilotoa

Looking at some maps, we had spied a spot where we could do some wild camping right on the ridge, accessible by a small, steep, sandy dirt road. We set off from the village to check it out. After one particularly sandy patch, we stopped for a moment to catch our breath, but getting back on my motorcycle, I found it unwilling to go. Like, it would start up fine, and rev and all that, but it didn’t seem willing to actually move. It became pretty quickly obvious that I had roasted my clutch while manhandling the bike out of the sandy patch.

This was a problem. And a damn shame, stopping us painfully short of the campsite on the ridge. But a problem, being down a tiny road on the far side of a volcano with a sick motorcycle. Luckily, there was enough clutch left that I could limp it back. I just had to be careful to accelerate very slowly, as just a tad too much power and the clutch would slip away quite dramatically with the engine revving way up making me finesse the throttle back until the clutch caught again.

I said a sad goodbye to J&H on the side of the road and limped back to Quito, luckily just a three hour ride away. The next morning I was at a motorcycle shop, primarily a rental shop offering big adventure bikes to tourists, which was nice because their mechanics knew their way around an Africa Twin. The main struggle was finding a set of clutch plates in Quito, because if there weren’t any (a not-unlikely scenario), it would be up to me to find some and get them to Ecuador, which I was trying hard not to think about. And very luckily I did not need to, with one of the mechanics eventually tracking down a set after several phone calls. (Cheap it was not: this is how I learned Ecuador has a 120% import tax.) So, one long day at the shop later, I had a new clutch and a motorcycle that would go again.

Getting the new clutch

And go it did, halfway back to the hotel, when, stopped at an intersection, I noticed a few wisps of smoke and looked down and saw a large and growing puddle of oil directly underneath my bike.

Generally speaking, when a motorcycle spontaneously pukes out all of its oil, it is a Very Bad Thing. I called up the shop and it was a bit of a tense wait as they came to get me and the bike back to the shop where the mechanic was waiting, having been recalled from dinner. The diagnosis was mercifully benign: a defective seal on the new oil filter they had just installed. A new oil filter, four quarts of oil and one very aggressive test ride later and I was on my way, for good this time.

The next morning I sped back south to Baños to meet back up with J&H. I made it down just in time to join them checking out some nearby waterfalls, followed by dinner in town.

The triplets admiring a waterfall

The next morning I got to say a much better goodbye, this time with me needing to pick up the pace and head to Peru, while they hung back in Ecuador for a bit. We hope to rendezvous again.

It’s been a short 9 days in Ecuador, but they’ve been good ones.

Riding Deep

Ipiales, Colombia

In Salento, I again crossed paths with Jasper and Hanne, the Belgian couple who I first linked up with for Christmas in Panama, and subsequently New Years in Cartagena and my birthday in Bogotá. They are keeping a similar pace and route as me on their way down to Argentina. They’re also awesome people and we get along great.

In the narratives of people doing these long motorcycle overlanding trips, you always hear about these instances of people meeting other moto-travelers on the road, and then proceeding to ride together for a while. This always seemed like it could be nice, but until now the mechanics of this always eluded me. For one thing, I tend to shy away from hostels and more social lodging options where you might run in to such people. But also, like, how does that subject get broached, and how do you figure out where to go together, and what to do, and when to part ways? Intractable questions for the common introvert.

Well, it turns out you say something like “hey, want to ride together,” and then “where do you want to head,” “what do you want to do,” and eventually “I think I might split off tomorrow.” I wish someone would have told me that earlier.

But anyways I met up with Jasper and Hanne again in Salento, and we decided to ride around the area together. We were near the Valle de Cocora, a small valley home to the Quindío wax palm, the tallest palms in the world, which grow up to 200 feet tall. There is an official park, but like most nature parks around, it consists mostly of parking lots with overenthusiastic attendants and chintzy souvenir stalls. We just made a quick stop.

Valle de Cocora wax palms

From there, though, J&H had heard of an epic dirt road nearby, from Salento to Toche, and we decided to give it a spin. And it turned out to be pretty stunning, a 4-ish hour ride studded with beautiful views of the wax-palmed valley, and the road itself, fantastic, a tiny backcountry dirt road, wild enough to be interesting but tame enough not to be tiring.

Riding down the Valle de Cauca

But this I think this bit about the road is important, a key part of “adventure”1 motorcycle travel. We decided to go down that road because it was a fun road to ride. And in the end, it isn’t the road that I will remember, like the sweeps of its turns or the quality of its dirt or whatever. The memorable bits are the valley vistas and fresh air and the glimpse into life in the Colombian countryside. But for all of that we wouldn’t have experienced that if we weren’t searching out a fun ride, and I think that’s unique to motorcycle travel. I don’t think I would be searching out fun roads if I were renting a Camry, and I certainly wouldn’t be searching out fun roads if I were backpacking from town-to-town. So in a way the best parts of “adventure”2 motorcycle travel don’t have much to do with motorcycles, but you couldn’t get at them without one.

TL;DR it was a fun ride.

A view from the ride

The next day we headed a few hours south to a hostel3 that had just opened up and came well-recommended. It’s run by a Colombian guy and a Dutch guy who had met traveling around Colombia by motorcycle and then decided to open a motorcycle-focused hostel to keep the dream alive. It was a fairly laid back couple of days, although I did swap bikes and go on a short ride with the Dutchman so he could try my Africa Twin and I could try his KTM 7904, which, that thing is trouble. We duly dropped each other’s bikes, which is how you know you’ve given a proper test ride.

Hanne and I also tried our hands (wings?) at paragliding, which is a popular activity in the area. Skydiving and bungee jumping are two things that have never appealed to me. Really, they are the opposite of appealing to me and my palms start sweating just thinking about them. But I’ve always wanted to give paragliding a try. No free-fall is a good start, and then it always just seemed so graceful, flying like a bird, coasting on updrafts.

Hanne paragliding

It was pretty cool. Nary a stomach drop to kick things off, and then just gliding around, as promised. One non-obvious factor is that you get nearly instant and pretty heavy motion sickness, enough to make me mildly concerned the whole time that I was going to rain down vomit on some poor unsuspecting sheep below, but luckily I had been advised to skip breakfast that morning. Notwithstanding, I would do it again.

Me paragliding

I split ways with J&H the next morning, as they had a deadline to get the border (expiring insurance). I’ll see them again. Meanwhile, I wanted to check out Cali.

A blue house in Cali

Cali, third most populous city in Colombia (2.2M), best known for being a major center for salsa music. I started my day with a little street food tour. The highlight there was trying like a dozen fruit which I had never even heard of before, the most strange being the borojó which tastes like rhubarb and bleu cheese. There’s also a whole world of different kinds of passionfruit which I was not heretofore privy to.

I didn’t really have it in me to head to a proper salsa club, but I did spend the evening at a viejoteca, which literally translates to something like “old person discotheque,” and the idea is some old guy with a massive salsa collection starts a bar to play people his salsa collection. The collection really is impressive, and he can tell you a story about every record there. That place was my speed.

The viejoteca scene

I find myself now in Ipiales, 7 kilometers north of the Ecuadorian border, which I will cross tomorrow. Colombia has been so good. I don’t know what expectations I had, but it has exceeded them handily. Rich and endlessly varied landscapes, excellent people, charismatic cities, and great adventure.

And, one last treat on my way out: El Santuario de las Lajas, built over the Guáitara River at the site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the face of a cliff.

El Santuario de las Lajas

  1. I always feel compelled to put the “adventure” of “adventure motorcycling” in scare quotes to disavow responsibility for how dorky that term is. 

  2. Ugh. 

  3. It bills itself as an “adventure hostel” but let’s not get into that. 

  4. Specifically, “KTM 790 Adventure R,” and specifically my bike would be the “Africa Twin Adventure Sports” 

...And a Birthday in Bogotá

Salento, Colombia

From Medellín I pointed my motorcycle east, passing through the city of Bucaramanga before arriving at the Cañón del Chicamocha. By some measure it is the second-biggest canyon in the world, 141 miles long, and the highway from Bucaramanga to Bogotá follows it for a good stretch.

A Chicamocha view from the highway

I stopped in at the “national park,” in this case more of a roadside attraction, although it does feature an impressive cable car which descends all the way down one side of the canyon and up the other side, with the trip taking 30 minutes each way. (It also features a water park.)

The Chicamocha cable car

After the cable car, I got back on the bike and took a small road down into the canyon, ending at the tiny village of Cepitá. It’s about 4 blocks by 4 blocks of cobblestone and colonial architecture surrounded by imposing canyon walls on all sides.

A scene from Cepitá

A very nice woman runs a hospedaje (somewhere between a hotel and a hostel) right on the town square and put me up for the night, setting me back about $10. After a very good night’s sleep, I ascended back up the canyon wall and headed a few hours south to Villa de Leyva. It’s another charming colonial town known for being a charming colonial town, this one well-trafficked by Bogotanos escaping the city for a weekend. It also boasts the largest town square in South America, and what can I say: it is a large town square.

A large town square

Another day’s ride and a lot of really awful traffic later, I made it to Bogotá. It’s a massive city by any measure, but riding in, the most notable is area, taking up 613 square miles (1,587 km2). I would not set out to actually exploring the city for a couple days, however, because the order of the weekend was to take part in motorcycle events centered around the presence of the motorcycle guru Bret Tkacs, who you may remember repairing my panniers in Medellín. He was giving an instructional session, followed up by two big group rides organized by a local club, the first day on-road and the second day off.

These were the first big group rides I’ve ever taken part in, and I wouldn’t be terribly disappointed if they were the last as well. They weren’t horrible or anything, but nothing about riding motorcycles gets better by doing it with 150 other motorcycles.

Lunch of the group ride

On the plus side, several of my friends and fellow travelers from the journey on the Stahlratte also showed up, which made for a fun reunion, and I made some new friends as well. The off-road route on Sunday was also really nice, meandering through the countryside and eventually up a volcano. The last few hundred meters of the ride was something of a spectacle as the trail ended with a steep uphill made of clayey soil moistened to ice-slick perfection. I went down three times myself, and after making it to the top I made sure to run back and enjoy the show.

Before... ...and after

That day was, incidentally, my birthday! It was well timed with my boat buddies in town, plus the new friends from the ride. I assembled a crew to venture the 25 kilometers north, to take in the singular experience that is Andrés Carne de Res. It was the near-universal first response when asking where to eat in Bogotá, and it’s not even in Bogotá. In many ways it fits in a class with The Cheesecake Factory, or Señor Frogs, with an incredible amount of kitsch, dancing waiters, and a 75-page, magazine-style menu. But, almost unbelievably, the food manages to be damn good, on top of it all. It’s the perfect place for a birthday dinner.

Haute kitsch The birthday crew

I felt pretty damn lucky to be celebrating my birthday with this crew on a solo trip 10,000 miles from home.

After recovering from the fruit-and-vodka slushies, I had a couple days to poke around Bogotá, mostly in El Chapinero, the hip, upscale neighborhood I was staying in, and La Candelaria, the historic center. I like the city, at least those neighborhoods. It’s a bit more hectic than Medellín, or even Mexico City, but I get the sense that it is a city of hidden gems. Or not so hidden, in the case of the Museum of Gold.

A figure from the Museo de Oro

Yesterday it was time to move on, making my way back to the Zona Cafetera, a rollercoaster ride traversing the cordilleras of the Colombian Andes, going from Bogotá’s 8,600 feet of elevation (2,640 m) down to 1,600 feet (495 m) in Mariquita to 11,700 feet (3,575 m) at Alto de Letras and back down to 6,200 feet (1,895 m) here in Salento. All the while being regularly treated to views like this:

A Zona Cafetera vista

Not bad.