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Loja, Ecuador
August 22, 2004

Crossing Ecuador

Pan Americana winds through the mountains on the road to Cuenca, EcuadorAs I arrive at the Crossroads Hostal following the taxi, the hotel is a reservation that Ricardo has made for me. Likewise, my contact with Bertha Ibarra, the broker who helped guide me through customs.

The Spanish term ďhostalĒ differs from the English term ďhostel,Ē more in usage than in spelling. The Spanish term means small hotel; the English term generally refers to a place where young travelers share dormitory facilities and a kitchen. In the case of Crossroads, of which I jokingly remind Ricardo, it is much more the English usage. In fact, the exterior signage prominently advertises ďhot water - 24 hours a day.Ē It also notes prices from $5 and up. ďQuite a findĒ I think, noting itís a good thing I donít have Jan along. But I have a private room with a bath for less than $15 a night, and great courtyard security for my bike, so I wonít complain.

Ricardo calls late Monday night, apologizes for not being in Quito to help me (he and a partner are organizing a combined automobile and motorcycle show in Guayaquil,) and mentions that a motorcycle-riding friend from Lima, Peru is visiting Quito, and will stop by the next day to help me out in any way he can. Sure enough, as I mount my windshield and Jesse top box in the courtyard Tuesday morning, Ivan Guerrero shows up on his 650cc Honda Transalp to speed the process.

Stopped on a high pass, these fellow travelers admire the BMWIvan leads me through Quitoís maze of sign-less streets and snarled traffic as and we visit Mitad del Mundo (the Equator Monument) later in the day. (As an aside, and with a tip of the hat to both Ricardo and Ivan, donít ever underestimate the value of a bilingual guide in Latin America.)

The ride is fun, but my bike is running very poorly at almost 8,400í, and Ivanís Honda is running worse. My BMW has fuel injection, which at least in theory equalizes the oxygen and gas intake, while Ivanís carburetors have not been re-jetted to accommodate the high altitude. Before he heads to his friendís house for the night, it takes an hour to start Ivanís bike, but we agree to leave for Guayaquil at 7am Wednesday morning, to visit Ricardo at the auto show.

Ivan calls at 6:15am. He is taking the Honda to the mechanic, but will be at Crossroads by noon. At 11:45 the hostel manager knocks on my door and announces that I have guests, and I walk downstairs to meet Peter and Jess, not Ivan as I had expected.

Peter Slarke and Jess Hartridge, from the Lake District in northern England, are riding from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego on a Honda Dominator, although Jess hopes to buy her own bike in Lima. By now you have probably guessed that Ricardo has asked them to greet me. We talk for two hours, sharing notes on riding in Alaska, Central America and Britain, and agree to meet again in Ushuaia, the bottom of the Americaís, at Christmas.

The Honda spends Wednesday with a mechanic, so itís Thursday morning before we ride the 240 miles from Quito to Guayaquil on the Pan Americana, known south of Quito as the Avenue of the Volcanoes. It is a great ride as Ivan guides us through the cities of Latacunga, Ambato and Riobamba, past 20,000í volcanoes, their peaks unfortunately shrouded in clouds and mystery, past indigenous people in brightly colored shawls herding sheep and cattle, and down, down, down to the heat and humidity of Guayaquil.

Ivan leaves for Quito Friday morning, as he is expected at work on Monday, and while I enjoy the auto show, Ricardo and his partner are much too busy, and have way too much invested in this venture, to have me hanging around. So Saturday morning I bid Ricardo farewell and ride through Parque Nacional Cajas on my way to Cuenca.

Cuenca is Ecuadorís third-largest city, and Iíve determined that Iíll spend the night here, so after asking a half-dozen folks if Iím on the right road to the city center, I pull over to consult my map and guidebook.

Top notch bike security in CuencaFact is stranger than fiction, and out of the nearby liquor store, a stout man shouts in animated Spanish and motions that I should park my bike and come inside. A young man in the doorway, sensing that I donít have a clue what was said, immediately translates in English, or I surely move on, for all the obvious reasons. But I dismount the bike and move toward the man, who is now joined by his wife. ďWhere are you from?Ē she asks in fluent, New England-accented English. I mention Seattle. ďAnd where are you going?Ē I reply that Iíve come from Quito and am overland to Buenos Aires via Peru and Bolivia. By this time weíre inside the store, and there, lying on the counter, is a signed copy of Ricardoís book about his motorcycle circumnavigation of South America.

Well, it turns out that Fernando Vidal and Alexandra Velez are friends of Ricardo, and Fernando has just purchased a Honda African Twin from him. Less than a five minutes pass before Fernando is on the phone with Ricardo, and after passing the phone to me, Ricardo congratulates me on my quick ride to Cuenca. Fernando and Alexandra recommend the Cathedral Hostal, and I follow Fernando to the address, where he waits until heís sure that Iím settled. (By the way, Alexandra had lived in Connecticut for eight years as a child.)

So, while Iíve greatly enjoyed the ride through Ecuador, itís the people who have made it special.

On to Loja

Halfway between Cuenca and Loja, on a high mountain pass, the countryside resembles tundra, with some scattered pine trees to add to the effect. Iíve been up since 5am for an early start and havenít eaten, so I stop the bike and wash down my last protein bar with bottled water.

Deserted street in beautiful, colonial Cuenca in the morningA bitter cold wind howls high on this pass, but I gaze at the mountains, and while not snow-covered, surely 12,000 feet, as in my field of vision they march away to the horizon. Dirty-gray, ragged clouds just clear the peaks as they scud low across the sky, but I watch them for a long time. It is very lonely. A car passes occasionally, but save for two horses tethered at the edge of the road some distance away, there is scant reminder of human habitation. Wistfully it reminds me of my late-teenage years in the Interior of Alaska almost four decades ago, and retrieves memories of a spent youth. Before melancholy sets in along with the cold I swing a leg over the Beemer and turn its nose toward Loja.

Effortlessly, I work the clutch and gear shifter and in succession go through the first five gears, to my 60mph cruising speed. The big twin easily moves through the continual curves with little more than a subconscious transfer of weight. Asphalt gives way to gravel, to dirt and worse, and then back to asphalt again. The riding is both exciting and exhausting.

Pull the clutch, up-shift to 5th for a mile at the legal limit, then pull the clutch again and down-shift to 4th, see the broken pavement ahead and down-shift to third, apply front brake to slow the bike, then up on the pegs at 40mph, and continue to stand, keeping the bikeís center of gravity low across 200 yards of rough gravel. Up-shift again to 4th, sit, roll left through a ribbon of perfect asphalt, and hit 5th at over 60mph. And then repeat the process a hundred times and youíll understand the 140 miles of smiles from Cuenca to Loja, as the Pan Americana winds through the worn Andes of the southern Ecuadorian Highlands.

Tomorrow I cross into Peru.