August 22, 2004
As 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 “hostal” differs from the English term “hostel,” 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 “hot water - 24 hours a day.” It also notes prices from $5 and up.
“Quite a find” I think, noting it’s a good thing I don’t 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 won’t 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
Ivan leads me through Quito’s 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, don’t ever
underestimate the value of a bilingual guide in Latin America.)
The ride is fun, but my bike is running very poorly at almost 8,400’, and Ivan’s
Honda is running worse. My BMW has fuel injection, which at least in theory
equalizes the oxygen and gas intake, while Ivan’s carburetors have not been
re-jetted to accommodate the high altitude. Before he heads to his friend’s
house for the night, it takes an hour to start Ivan’s 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
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 America’s, at Christmas.
The Honda spends Wednesday with a mechanic, so it’s 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 20,000’ 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
Cuenca is Ecuador’s third-largest city, and I’ve determined that I’ll spend the
night here, so after asking a half-dozen folks if I’m on the right road to the
city center, I pull over to consult my map and guidebook.
Fact 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 don’t 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. “Where are you from?” she asks in fluent, New
England-accented English. I mention Seattle. “And where are you going?” I reply
that I’ve come from Quito and am overland to Buenos Aires via Peru and Bolivia.
By this time we’re inside the store, and there, lying on the counter, is a
signed copy of Ricardo’s book about his motorcycle circumnavigation of South
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 he’s sure that I’m settled. (By the way,
Alexandra had lived in Connecticut for eight years as a child.)
So, while I’ve greatly enjoyed the ride through Ecuador, it’s 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. I’ve been
up since 5am for an early start and haven’t eaten, so I stop the bike and wash
down my last protein bar with bottled water.
A 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 bike’s 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 you’ll 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.