Lows & Highs // Ecuador

From Mindo, we snaked our way into the lush lowlands of costal Ecuador.  Adam drew a surf map from online research; we pulled into the first stop on the map in a small village, peeped the waves, deemed it flat, windy and the dirty beach uninviting, reversed for a 3 point turn and heard an ominous grind…  (the town name we have deleted, because hey- maybe we just were there on an off day).  With a heavy sigh, we pulled over to the side of the narrow dirt road, under the car Adam climbed to investigate and discovered the teeth that hold the gear shift linkage into the transmission had been stripped down and slipped off.   Being late on a Sunday afternoon, we knew no mechanic would be open and reluctantly set up camp for the night.  Like a dedicated orthodontist, Adam spent hours under the van, trying to set the ground down teeth into perfect alignment. Unfortunately there was no such luck.

In the morning we visited the local mechanic so see where we could find the replacement part, who came to the van for a look, and the moment he climbed awkwardly under the wrong end of the van, Adam knew we were not in experienced hands (at least for VW’s).  Senor mecanico wanted us to bring the part to his shop so he could crush it so the teeth would pop up higher- Adam shook his head with a stern NO- we thanked him for his time and sent him packing.  Under the van again, Adam McGuyvered a solution with metal tape, tie-wire and layers of washers.  If we were going to be stuck somewhere waiting for a part, it was going to be somewhere nice…

Driving mostly in third gear to avoid unnecessary shifting, we arrived in fishing village-cum-surf town Mompiche on a rainy afternoon.  We found a chill hostel with courtyard camping, wifi, showers, and beachfront hammocks for $6.  Camped in the shade of, but not under the coconut trees, we popped our top with an excited heave.  It would be nearly impossible, with 3 surfboards & a cargo box full of necessary miscellany, to get the thing up if not for the GoWesty lift assist.  Having just a few days earlier, been at 12,000+ feet the sea level air felt thick and the breathing easy.
Days at the beach somehow pass more quickly than elsewhere… Wake up, look at the surf, surf, make breakfast, watch Colette dig in the sand, wash dishes, go surf again, reapply sunscreen, play in sand more, make & eat lunch, hose sand off Colette, sweep sand out of van, perhaps walk into town for a fresh tropical fruit juice, reapply sunscreen, more surfing, dinner and pina coladas, internets, hose sand off all 3 Harteaus, shake sand off rugs, read stories, bed.   Set between two rivers, Mompiche used to reside behind a mangrove barricade, but most have been cleared, while the jungle at each end of the bay are still thick.  Walking out to the surf point, near sunset, you hear the jungle come alive with an increasing volume that competes with the sound of the sea crashing onto the shore.
So a few days into the easy beach life, having dried off from the wet mountain adventures, Adam set to repairing the gear-shift linkage.  We asked around if we could order a part and have it shipped, but Mompiche does not have mail service.  The locals suggested that we could have delivery via bus- you order the part and someone drops the box off at a bus station, then you meet the bus for your delivery… as Adam felt confident he could repair the part, the bus-delivery system seemed like a last resort.  Behind the hostel was a big workshop where there were lots of tools, where there just happened to be a welder.  After referencing our handy English-Spanish dictionary, we negotiated Adams use of the soldadura.

Precariously holding the face-guard, Adam welded extra metal into the linkage, then set to filing by hand the lumps into new & improved teeth.   Since both components had their teeth ground down, it seemed the homemade solution would be better than a new part, as Adam could file the teeth to match the linkage coming from the transmission, thus creating a more snug fit.  After hours of filing, and resetting the part, with Emily shifting from gear to gear as Adam checked and corrected the placements from under the van, it seemed the sweet spot had been found.  As Emily has said for years “If I have to choose three thing to bring to a desserted island, it will be Adam Harteau and he can choose the other two.”  Hallelujah for Adam’s amazing McGuyver skills!After 3 days of hostal-camping, we relocated to a beach-front swath of sand with unadultered views of the point, south of and upwind from the fishing boats.  Falling asleep and waking to the sound of the ocean reset and centered us in a way that little else can.
Adam relished the easy access to the left hand point break wave that peeled into a long bay providing a playful quarter-mile ride.  On the inside of the bay the sandy bottom, easy rolling and unpopulated wave make this a perfect learning spot, so Emily got out and had a blast.  Not to be left behind in any adventure, Colette went out with Papa for some long belly rides.  We mostly road this 8’2” hybrid single-fin that Adam made for the trip with supplies from our friends at FoamEZ.Every afternoon, the fleet of small fishing boats would return from their day at sea, where the fishermens’ families would meet them at the shore.  With two logs, they would roll the boats up to the high tide line, alternating carrying the logs up to the front of the boat once they had rolled it half the boats length.  From there it was again a community affair to unravel and sort through the days catch.  Two wooden poles were set into the sand with a third laying into grooves carved into the tops of the vertical poles.  The net was then draped over and the contents of the net sorted, fish for market into the hull of the boat, prawns directly into styrofoam coolers, and whatever creatures not suitable for market were tossed to the sand for the circling vultures and frigates to enjoy.  Whilst strolling by the cast offs we saw crabs, seahorse, tiny fish and baby rays- a very sad sight.This here bird is a blue footed booby- they were extensively studied by Darwin, in the Galapagos where half the nesting pairs mate.  They are super clumsy on land, their name booby probably derived from the Spanish word bobo, meaning stupid or fool.  This little lady, you can tell because of her larger pupil (so cool!), was just wandering around the fishing shores like a drunken sailor, fearless of us humans.
One afternoon we ventured to Playa Negra, which is just to the south of Mompiche, reached by a dirt road that is currently being paved.  The black sand radiated the heat of the hot and humid afternoon intensifying the already sweltering conditions, and we eagerly dove into the ocean for a solitary swim.  Sol our Mompiche pal, later told us this glittering in the black sand is titanium, which the town has agreed to have large amounts removed from the sand (and the sand returned)  in trade for a local park and some other nominal kickbacks.  Between 2004- 2005 the cost of titanium doubled, and has since skyrocketed as its use in boats, aircraft, aerospace, watches and most importantly *laptops* has increased its global demand.  
The sun was so intense it seemed capable of turning day to night with its blinding rays.En route back, we encountered a newborn baby brahma, whose velvety fur begged to be pet.  He preferred to lick Colette than have his perfect coifeture tainted by human hands. At magic hour, the town comes alive, as the heat starts to fade.  Miraculously coinciding, low tide reveals a perfect sandy ‘field’ and futbal games overtake the beach and the shoreline is dotted with as many frolicking visitors as tourists.  Having learned our lesson the hard way, at this time of day, we three change into long sleeves, lightweight pants and slather on the bug spray if we are not IN the water.  Although it is uncomfortable to wear extra layers, it is far more comfortable than being eaten by both mosquitos and jejenes/no-seeums/ sandflies… remember our hellish bites from San Blas, Mexico?  We do.

This is Sol & his daughter Chaska.  He has a killer restaurant, Choclo, that he built with his bare hands in Mompiche with native guadua bambo.  If you are in Mompiche GO there- he makes awesome Mexican food (a craving we relished to have filled, see our last post for more on that)- Adam had the fish tacos which he said were the best fish tacos since Baja and Emily a smothered veggie burrito.  He is the cook and his lovely wife Monica waits.   Sol also built his 3 story Swiss family Robinson style house in the jungle with views of the surf and grows all kinds of unique fruits, vegetables and medicinal plants in the lush garden.  As if that wasn’t enough, he also builds all his own surfboards and knows how to ride ’em!  Living a good life close to the land- good on you amigo!

The heat finally got to us and the waves died off, so we headed back inland for more shopping and shipping.  Somehow our  “24 Hour Bazaar”  idea translates into “168 Hour Bazaar” … but the later just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Day 1- a full day scouring the markets, speaking to artisans & photographing items
Day 2- edit photos, arrange pdf, send email- clock starts ticking
Day 3- grocery shop, wash laundry, van chores, answer emails, enter orders- clock stops
Day 4- shop till we drop
Day 5- shop more, sort & pack boxes
Day 6- ship- fill out 8 copies of paperwork for each shipment… by hand
Day 7- finish shipping by bribing the postal staff with cookies, croissants & donuts as they are not accustomed to more than 1 shipment per day.

If you would like to be added to the list for our next curated selection of artisan goods 24 Hour Bazaar, email us your info at contact@ouropenroad.com

Adam spent some time working on some art, staining the hand crafted frames with coffee.
As soon as the last shipment went out, we set off for the monolith Volcan Cotopaxi, where a glacier still clings to the top reaches.  Climbing ever higher into the highlands, the jungle receded and the air felt thin.  The north road in to Cotopaxi forked around dusk, and we veered left to wild camp at a lovely waterfall where the road ended.

Rambling down the road, we all excitedly shouted “llamas!” when we spotted our first free-range friends.  Colette was serendipitously wearing her new llama wool sweater with llama woven pattern and llama wool legwarmers; “I get out and kiss llamas” she cheerfully proclaimed.  Although they declined a kiss from “the ambassador of love & joy”, they did cock their heads sweetly and give us all the once-over.  Having passed their inspection, they went back to grazing on the wild grasses, whilst keeping a watchful eye on us.   Such a majestic experience to see these long-lashed, though domesticated, creatures in the wild.  Up close, you can definitely see their resemblance to camels, their closest relative. Adam cast into the gushing river in hopes of a trucha dinner, but it appears trout in these parts do not like neon powerbait.  It certainly did not help his cause any that he had a certain toddler at his hip, throwing rocks with wild abandon into the water…  We fell asleep to the sound of the rushing waterfall as a few bright stars dazzled through breaks in the swath of clouds in the cold night air.Morning was shrouded clouds as a cool breeze drifted down the river canyon.  We enjoyed exploring the area and the dramatic geography.
Some macadamia nuts we bought on the coast were cracked open to top our oatmeal for breakfast.  These are some tough nuts, so you really gotta smash ’em!As you can see, Colette certainly loves her awesome cheetah tiny Toms boots, almost to death.Departing post-breakfast, we soon entered the north end of Parque National Cotopaxi, which – thank you Ecuador- is free!  We have heard all of Ecuador’s National Parks are free to enter, with the exception of the Galapagos…

The trees and lush plants started to give way as we climbed even higher into the paramo, their golden reeds blowing in the icy gusts that so starkly contrasted the intensely warm rays of sun that would occasionally cut through the clouds.  The stunning Hercules Club Puya plant, with turquoise blooms on the long club bloom, is a cousin of the pineapple.  In the distance, the apex of Cotopaxi looms large at 19,347 feet!Dappled on the rocks were the most stunning lichen patterns that resembled Japanese block prints of clouds. Wild, wild horses…
In the high grasslands, the alpine flowers were many- bushes of chuquiraga jussieui with sunset hued blooms, small yellow daisies that rolled in sheets along the horizon, violet lupines that popped in low clusters, and bright red castilleja fissifolia endemic to Ecuador. The road ends at a parking lot high on the shoulder of Cotopaxi, and as we climbed towards it in first gear, the angle of the road grew steeper and steeper.  Adam kept a steady pace up the switchbacks and we cheered when we arrived at a stellar 15,088 feet!  There is NO way our original VW engine would have been able to carry our heavy load up this far.  Thank you to Mike at SubieTech & our good friend David J. for helping with the Subaru engine swap!Coca leaves seeped in hot water make an herbaceous tea that is particularly effective against altitude sickness and also used as a stimulant to overcome fatigue, hunger, and thirst.  The leaves are vitamin rich containing calcium, protein, B vitamins and fiber; this essential Andean plant has been used for 8,000 years.   The leaves must be highly processed before becoming the famous derivative cocaine.
As the wild winds picked up and the clouds rolled in, Colette snoozed peacefully in the van and Adam set off for a hike to the glacier.At 15,953 Refugio Jose Rivas is a mountaineering base camp for explorations of the glacier and summit attempts to the top.  Expeditions to the summit require departure at midnight from base camp because the glacier is frozen and at its hardest in the cold of night.  Attempting to climb on the glacier in the daylight hours is a dangerous affair while the sun softens the snow and ice, the glacier shifts while dangerous man-swallowing crevases abound.This picture from the shelter shows how the structure was made by man-power.
Passing basecamp Adam climbed higher and higher reaching the snowline on the mighty volcan.
A guided group quickly retreated to lower elevations as the storm was moving in fast.   Hail shot from the sky and an electrical storm lit up all around, the energy of cracking lightening and booming thunder filling the thin air.  Adam hiked on through the piercing cold and hail determined to get a glimpse of the glacier up close.
Alas, the glacier!  Without proper gear and a partner to rope to it would be a suicide mission to venture any further.  This was the end of the of the trail for Adam at approximately 17,000 ft. Adam descended quickly from on the slopes of the inhospitable terrain. While Adam was braving the storm, Colette & Emily were lounging in the van watching “Finding Nemo” on the laptop and had a warm meal of green tea and Asian peanut butter noodles with veggies ready for his safe return from the wilds.  Colette is quite fluent in speaking “whale” (for those of you in the Nemo know).  Our man latched on the chains for the steep and slippery descent down the flanks.
In the valley between Volcans Rumiñahui and Cotopaxi, we set up camp for the evening.  It was an early night, at the elevation of 14,000 feet, Adam was exhausted from his hike and Emily and Coco were just wiped from the elevation.
These beautiful red berries are part of the ephedra rupestris plant, which has been traditionally used for a variety of remedies including asthma and cold for its stimulant and decongestant qualities.  The ephedra family has many varieties all over the world, which have been used for such applications.  We just checked it out because we thought it looked cool.The ground was covered in this sponge-like grey moss, which was lightweight and clung to anything like burrs in a field.
The otherworldly flora, overwhelmingly large mountains and dynamic clouds all created a dreamlike space.  A solitary trio in a valley between two giants, it felt lonely is a good way.
Morning was crisp and clear, and we bundled up for the drive to lower lands.  Of course, CocoNova’s sidekick ‘Bee Baby’ got snuggly too.A roadside cafe charmed us with a gorgeous open kitchen, friendly llamas outside, crackling fireplace inside and tasty traditional breakfast.Crossing over the PanAm in an S-turn, Adam noticed the temperature was reading low so he stopped to investigate.  Accessing the engine, buried under our suitcases, takes only one annoying minute to get to.  He quickly discovered a wire connecting the alternator was dislodged.  If it’s not one thing, it’s another!  A snip and a twist later, we were back in business and on the road on the stunning Quilatoa Loop.
On this gravel rural road, we really felt and saw the country life of central Ecuador, including the freaking adorable wooley baby donkey and just-born baby lamb with umbilical cord still drying.
Quilatoa is a stunning lake at 12,841 feet in the caldera of the once active volcano which last erupted 800 years ago.  The mineral content of the water, including iron, calcium, magnesium and lithium make the water non-potable, but a stunning shade of emerald green.  In the moments where the sun broke through the clouds, the color intensified like a polished gemstone.  We camped on the lip of the rim, which drops 400 meters to the waters edge.
A man and woman were so deeply in love they couldn’t bear the thought of being separated- especially in the afterlife.  They summoned their shaman, who used his magical powers to transform them into mountains.  Now they could rest side-by-side forever, their spirits inhabiting the peaks.  But mighty Cotopaxi, the lonely spirit residing in the intrepid glacier topped volcano across the valley, called to the wife, who began to sneak off at night to visit.  So betrayed by his wife’s infidelity, he cried and cried inconsolably, his might mountain tears filling the crater of Quilotoa.

Or so goes the lore…

We, however, felt the joy of this beautiful place- a mystical cup reflecting the powers of the magic universe and were blessed with a sunset that transformed the sky into a canvas of melted sherbet.