Thursday, September 08, 2011

Part 2 - Ecuador to Colombia in a 1968 Volvo Amazon

South America Road-trip in an old-timer

Ecuador is a nice country to drive through in your own car. After having made it without problems to Loja and on to Cuenca, we were headed to Quito, the capital of the country. In Quito we planned to stop and take a rest, but before that we had to cross 450km along the ‘avenue of volcanoes’, a route that promised some spectacular views.

We wanted to leave Cuenca on time to make sure we’d have enough time to take the drive easy and stop for some picture taking. However, we were confronted with a slight electrical challenge. The car battery was not charging and after checking the fuse-box and wiring we decided it had to be the dynamo/generator. We asked one of the hotel’s drivers to give us a jump-start and for directions before we drove to a near-by garage specializing in car-related electricity issues. The owner took one look at our beautiful Amazon and decided that he would help. It took him about 15 minutes to disconnect and take out the dynamo, another 15 minutes to completely take it apart, clean it up and find a small part being worn out to the bone, for which he of course happened to have an Eastern-European-made generic spare. Putting it all back together whilst charging our battery to the max took another 30 minutes, and the total operation cost us about 15 USD. Even so, we did not leave Cuenca before 1pm and so we prepared for a late arrival in Quito.

The first part of the route was very hilly, full of hairpin bends and in bad condition. On top of that, a thick fog confirmed our feeling that this would become a long day, but after passing the town of Alausi, just like a couple of days before, the mist disappeared as we drove into a wide valley and onto a beautiful 4-lane highway. The odds had changed to our favor. During the last part of the journey we hit the Volcano Avenue, and the landscape was indeed spectacular. We managed to get a glimpse of snow-capped Chimborazo; the highest active volcano in the world, and we saw clouds and gasses rise from the Tunguragua Volcano. Sadly, around these parts the sun sets around 6pm, so we missed the perfectly cone-shaped point of the Cotopaxi. We eventually made it to Hotel Quito at 8pm, which given the hectic ride into the city, wasn’t bad going at all.

Hotel Quito is situated in the La Floresta neighborhood, a nice part of town from where one enjoys a beautiful view over the city. The next day was our allocated resting day, so we took it easy and both decided to visit our local business partners. 

Thursday we made our way toward Colombia, crossing the equator en route. We left at 9am with the sun high in the sky and it promised to be a beautiful drive. From our hotel we made it relatively quickly to the highway, taking us out of town before we knew it. Whilst driving further north and away from Quito the landscape turned dry and rocky around us, completely different to what we had seen before in Ecuador. We passed some of the many rose-nurseries this region of the country is famous for, and in which the Dutch have made some heavy investments, and after about 40km reached the equator. First we made a stop at the ‘previous equator’, initially indicated by the Inca people as the line where the earth is at its widest. However, correct GPS measurements indicate that the ‘real equator’ lies about 30m further north, so we were obliged to make another stop at the official monument placed there a couple of years ago. We did not spend too much time here (I lived in Ecuador for half a year in 1994 and have been to this spot many times before) and drove on. We had a long way to go still and had no idea how much time we would need to get to the Colombian border.

On our way we passed through the towns of Otovalo and Ibarra. Otavalo is famous for its textiles and the huge Saturday market. The indigenous people are proud of their legacy, much stronger than many other indigenous people elsewhere in Latin America. They are happy to demonstrate where they come from through their costumes; this is one of the few places where one still finds men as well as women fully dressed according to the local codes. We drove on and passed a beautiful green valley, a lot lower down and warmer. Sugarcane was the main crop here, planted by the Europeans soon after their arrival. The Europeans brought many African slaves to work the plantations and therefore this still is a mainly black region, which is something one would not expect driving through the Andes with its typical indigenous people. The sun was strong and we enjoyed our trip to the Colombian border, arriving there at around 3pm. Without warning, the 2-lane road we were driving on turned one-way leaving us no way out of an enormous traffic jam; it seems there were other people wanting to get into Colombia…

After about an hour in the queue the weather changed; clouds appeared in the sky and slowly but surely it started to rain harder and harder. At some point it felt like there was no space between the huge drops anymore. For some reason our car was not washed of the road and we slowly crept toward the border facilities where we had to get out of the car and were soaked in a matter of seconds. Paperwork went smooth, helped by the laughs and giggles we caused running from window to window, leaving puddles everywhere we went. Colombians like a good laugh and we realized we would have a good time in this new country.

The Amazon was not prepared for the amount of water we brought back in and her fans did not manage to clear our windscreens, forcing us to drive on while constantly polishing the glass on the inside, with our windows open, allowing more rain in. One of the customs officers, between great outbursts of laughter about our appearance, had given us a golden tip; when your windshield wipers cannot process the amount of water falling out of the sky anymore, put on your darkest sunglasses; for some reason, they break the light filtering through the film of water on your windscreen, creating an almost perfect view again. Sounds odd, but we tried it and it works… kind of. Only do this when nothing else helps and you really have to push forward, and then only at a very low speed, as the images are distorted enough to create accidents, but it helped us get out of that valley and onto dry land back on the road to Pasto.

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