We are currently sat in a motel a few kilometres from the Ecuador/Colombia border. We arrived yesterday evening, cold, wet and feeling pretty fed up. Our waterproofs are next to useless in torrential downpours whilst riding a motorbike. Water has managed to seep into everything, undies, socks, helmet, iPhone (broken and currently in a bag of rice - not sure how I'll survive without Kirsty Young…) and with every gear change, we felt cold water sloshing around in our boots. It doesn't feel safe riding in such heavy rain but according to the forecast there is no letting up and as it's rainy season in Colombia we better get used to it. Going from the boiling hot tropical beaches on the west coast to the high altitude wind and cold in the Andes in a matter of hours was a bit of a shock to the system. On a motorbike there is no hiding from it and even though we are aching and stiff from the cold, travelling this way means we are emersed in our surroundings and the lows that we definitely feel don't seem to last long anymore and serve mainly to accentuate the highs. For example we were over the moon when we got to buy a pair of very stylish huge yellow waterproof ponchos that we've seen all the farmers wearing, hopefully they should do the job...
Before setting of North and hitting the rain we had spent ten days camping under a tin roof on terrace two metres above the beach in a village called Ayampe. Less than an hours ride from Montañita but completely different. Ayampe was a place people travelling seemed to get stuck, there was strong international community which worked well alongside the locals, a testament to this was the diverse village football team that seemed to gather most nights. There were only a few places to stay and eat but all of which were beautiful and welcoming. Some places,like Montañita, we feel a bit embarrassed about how things have changed to accommodate the traveller; nightclubs, souvenirs shops, endless burger bars and loud music wherever you go. Ayampe was actively trying to avoid this and had a strong community making important decisions about its future, so far it feels like it is working. We really hope it manages to keep it's soul as it inevitably develops further; there are already talks of building a paved road right on the beach and bits of land being bought up by rich prospectors from Guayaquil. For now, it was as close to paradise as we have seen so far. All activity centred around the local shop, Maria was the key to the community, holding tabs for (and on) everyone. One night two drunk local lads smashed a car window because a tourist had parked on the beach (not allowed) the village was mortified at their behaviour and Maria proceeded to chase them down the street, hitting them both with bamboo sticks whilst shouting. Most nights we ate at a little place called ‘Artesano’, for a small cost we would get an Arepa, a savoury corn pancake with toppings and share a Torta for desert.
We had meant to stay just three or four days but have increasingly realised on this trip that it’s often better to stay put when you find a piece of paradise, even if it means sacrificing somewhere else. Everything here was working for us, cheap camping, good people, good food and the occasional good surf. Ecuador wasn't really getting the swell it needed to work the way we knew it could and we wanted to stick it out and score rather than just move on. It seems like a pretty fickle country for surf when the south swells hit and unfortunately we had arrived a little late for the north swell season (thanks again Chile!). We did however have a good few days, one perfect glassy evening and I finally got to surf on my forehand. On the first morning we were there the beach break was pretty heavy with some perfect glassy bombs coming through; solid and very shallow. When the swell got too big for the beach to hold we would hop on the bike and search for waves in the north and south through the winding jungle roads. We found a mellow right hand reef, perfect for carving a few turns and so spent a few mornings there in ridiculously warm glassy water, there were a few people out but the atmosphere was good. After ten days and the occasional good surf, the swell dropped and showed no signs of picking up. We were panicking a little about timescales and the task of crossing the gap between Colombia and Panama so we decided that it was time to move on.
Ecuador is such a small country compared to Peru and Chile so we decided that we could make it to Mompiche in a day. It hasn’t happened often but that was another of those times when we miscalculated how long a days ride would take; the combination of patches of rain and the winding roads climbing through mountain and jungle made our 460K journey take a lot longer than it ever did in Peru. It was a double edged sword because as the sun was setting we were of course getting nervous but at the same time we were witnessing a world in the jungle that comes alive with dusk. The sound of our engines was drowned out by the insects, a surround sound chorus that was actually quite eerie. As we passed through small peublos we saw candle lit housed on wooden stilts, fires burning along the roadside preparing to cook the evening asado, men and women returning home from who knows where carry machetes covered in mud, the village football team congregating and card games being laid out with bottles of Plisner. Everyone is outside. Even if they are sat under a tarp, everyone is mingling around, talking, hanging out or pulling out chairs to watch the communal TV. We passed so many of these tiny little pueblos, the smell of smoke following us from one to the other, luckily dusk seemed to hang for ages and the moment we finally reached our destination (after ten hours on the road) total darkness kicked in.
We are struggling to adjust to the shorter days that are the result of being right on the equator. Just two days ago while heading to the border we mis-calculated again, this time is wasn't quite so rosy. Riding parallel to the Colombian border heading west to the only safe crossing things felt a little more shady. The army officials pulled us over to search our bags looking for drugs, asking where we had been and where we were going. Luckily they didn’t ask for the insurance documents we kind of forgot to buy…Here in the far North, the pueblos seemed a lot more run down and for the first time ever in Ecuador the dogs seemed interested in our legs again, luckily a bunch of five year olds came to the rescue and chased them off at one particularly tense stand off. Another miscalculation and dusk felt like it was really kicking in but it was probably more to do with the dark skies causing the torrential downpours; I wasn’t happy but I know we might be in trouble when Tom starts getting stressed and shouting back, we got our heads down and hoped for the best. At the final hour we spotted a sign for a room to stay. Not just any room, as we pulled off the road and negotiated the price through the downpour we had no idea how beautiful the place was and as the clouds cleared and the rain let up we realised we were next to a waterfall high up in the jungle. A silver lining.
As we head further and further north, now in our third country in South America we notice small changes that really do affect everyday life. As soon as we hit Ecuador we noticed how polite everyone seemed to be. When you are walking in the street, eating a meal, heading out for a surf or sat watching the world go by, nobody will pass you without making eye contact and wishing you a good day, a good evening or ‘Buen Provecho’ - Bon appetite, literally no one, from the kids to the adults, the police to the farmers. It has felt such a friendly place. In the north we are seeing huge changes in ethnic make up of the country. Chile had next to no immigration, here in Ecuador we are seeing a real mix and as we move on to Colombia and closer to the Caribbean almost 80 percent of the population is mixed race. Music now seems to permeate the streets, more like what we expected of South America and it’s not Reggaeton thank goodness. The food has a bit more of a kick to it too, each little cafe or truck stop with it’s own version of ‘Aji’ hot sauce and I finally cooked my own plantain, what a treat that food is.
Tomorrow we go to Colombia. Before we embarked on this trip, Colombia was always a bit of a concern for us however the more people we talk to, the more we read the more we discover that this is going to be an amazing country to explore. In the last ten years it’s been trying to shake off the reputation of lawlessness and danger that it has had for so long. We are not naive and know that the country is far from perfect, mass economic disparity and there are still absolute no go areas but we don’t feel stupid anymore for entering the county on motorbikes and we are excited to explore.
Hasta Luego Amigos!