From the highest mountain on earth to the edge of the driest desert

At the Temple of the Sun, IngapircaDriving south from Quito, there were still thousands of kilometers before dropping back down to sea level and the border with Peru. You are in a land high in the patchy clouds  – crispy air at night like a kind of express autumn as we raced south into the winter. And nestled in valleys on either side of the Pan-American there are too many things to see. A week later the landscape changes to an empty, rocky landscape, a wilderness, like a grand finale before landing in the middle of vast banana plantations. The weather becomes warmer – the sun draws a sweat as we set about collecting over half a tonne of diesel and taking it with us over the Peruvian border. And then you can drive for thousands of miles without really having to climb anything more than a hundred meters at a time. No more endless curves and tortuous contour hugging – just beautifully straight roads through stunning deserts.

High-altitude lake in a volcano

First stop on the road, then, was the Laguna de Quilotoa, a mysterious water filled volcano. The air is thin, this is the highest we’ve climbed – 4ooo m – so far on our journey around the world. Some time before the Incas took over the lands around here, the northernmost point of their empire – this volcano catastrophically erupted, sending destruction across the Andes to the Pacific and covering most of Ecuador in thick black ash. Eight hundred years later, the caldera that was formed has filled with water to form a beautiful lake hidden from the view of the Andean peaks around. The truck struggles to start in the morning – there’s not enough oxygen to burn the diesel. It splutters and there’s a cloud of grey smoke whenever I press on the gas pedal, that doesn’t go until we have coasted back down to Latacunga.

Measured from the center of earth, the highest mountain on earth is Chimborazzo. Being so close to the equator, where the earth bulges out as it spins, means that it is 2 km higher than Mt Everest. Cruising south from Latacunga, through dusty Ambato,  Chimborazzo rises up on the right hand side. Rain and then sun follows us on alpine roads complete with single carriage trains running beside along a narrow gauge rail. We cross dusty, flat zones – looking as hot and thirsty as Mexico for all the altitude that we are. All the while, low clouds, or the cut of the valley, hide the snowy peak that’s the closest place on earth to the sky.  Low clouds lower than high highlands – otherworldly, like the normal got turned upside down.

Wholesale vegetables in the Andes.

We reach Riobamba as darkness appears and stop at a gas station for the night. We have designated Riobamba as the a likely place to begin the first stage of our diesel smuggling operation: We intend to carry 20 odd tanks of Ecuadorean fuel into Peru – a move that will save us hundreds of dollars. A liter of diesel is 25 cent in Ecuador. In Peru it isn’t. We find a big whole sale market in our search for some kind of container but we have faffed around so much that all the plastic tank sellers seem to have gone home and left it to the vegetable people. Lots of pigs whole roasted by the side of the road.

The nostril of the Devil's Nose

Continuing south and hitting the hills again, the road twists and turns past houses clinging to the mountain sides. The narrow valleys open out occasionally, though, and a small town, like Alausi, seem like vast cities. Between Riobamba and here is the Devil’s Nose which is best seen going up and down on the little railway that is still with us after all these miles. Apparently many people visiting Alausi are here to catch such a little train. But I’m still not sure what the Devil’s Nose actually is – a funny shaped mountainside or a more general term for some of the torturous climbs and descents. From the Pan-American, anyway, we spotted lots of candidates ut, you know, the place is not short of rocks.

ingipirca

The most “important” historical site in Ecuador is Ingapirca – the largest known Incan ruins north of Peru – an astronomically aligned collection of foundations, walls and a temple of the sun. The Incas took control of the Cañari people who had already built most of the site. They now give their name to Canar which is the town on the Pan-American where you turn off for Ingapirca. You know, it was the first pre-Hispanic ruin we’d seen since glimpsing the remains of the Mayan Empire in Guatemala – Ingapirca is not that big, nor would it be that impressive if you’d arrived from Peru. But we enjoyed it. But do yourself a favor: Go on a weekday, or at least be there sharp at 9 am on the weekends, and you will see something of the Ingapirca magic. Go when the crowds arrive off the buses and the place gets all too easily swamped. Architecturally, we found the short road to the ruins very interesting: Here there are lots of fancy looking houses – two, three story buildings with curvy tinted windows and elaborate roof terraces – even the odd turret . They reminded us of the those houses that the Romany Gypsy of Romania have built with money sent in from their familial diaspora. In fact, we’re told. they are mostly empty, bare concrete rooms too many for the family remaining – they, too, are funded by their brothers and sisters working abroad. There’s free WIFI in Cañar if you stop opposite the little square towards the south end of town.

Cuenca is, of course, where we find the tanks we need. A bustling city and kind of pleasantly obvious why so many non-natives settle here. And although we didn’t realize it then, Cuenca is your largest and most useful city for a thousand kilometres if you follow the highway down to the coast. Well if you going south on any road too. We found the tanks, after days of sniffing around random scrapyards and motor oil merchants, in a well-stocked plastic tank shop. The plan was to fill up once we down at sea level so as not to trouble the truck with the extra weight across the last bunch of mountains. What we found out was that the “one tank only every time you visit” was completely enforced at the gas stations down to the border. We had to back-track half way to Guayaquil until all 22 of ours were full and stashed away discreetly.

Looking down towards sea level from 2000m

By this time, you are traveling through vast plantations of banana. Long straight roads through a world of banana; occasionally a house or two have managed to elbow their way in between two massive banana farms; occasionally a whole village has done that, although I suspect the dominant life-form around here – the bananas – only allow that to happen because the humans need somewhere to live. Mostly bananas. And banana trucks. So, it’s kind of tropical down here after the alpine Andes – the road between them was incredible, crossing a moon or Mars-like landscape before the banana plants began to increase in number with every meter dropped.

A hundred km along roads like this

But as you cross that man-made line known as an international border, the green field-orchards soon disappear abruptly after the artificial irrigation finally gives way to the unexpected desert of coastal Peru – a desert that hardly stops until northern Chile, including some of the driest places on earth. A truck full of diesel. We’re starting to think we should have brought water with us.

Heading south into a dry zone

  More Ecuador photos – Ecuador Overland Gallery

Equator

The longest line on earth is the equator.

The longest line on earth is the equator.On board LOC Jigsaw*, we are very fond of lines, whether real or imaginary, and so you can imagine our excitement as we found ourselves crossing the equator. Fortunately we are not alone; we pulled off the highway just past a small town called Cayambe, at zero degrees latitude exactly, to find the wonderful monument and project known as Quitsato. There are no demonstrations of water swirling down plug holes, balancing eggs or other fanciful, fake displays here – instead there’s an excellent review of the significance of being precisely at the middle of the earth and why this part of Ecuador is the prime site on the entire planet to appreciate it – for us and for the civilizations that have lived here for thousands of years…
Astronomical explanations using star maps.The discussion is led personally by a member of the Quitsato team – and their enthusiasm certainly matched ours: Our first ever steps into the Southern Hemisphere; equidistant between the poles; the entire night sky visible at once; on average the closest point to the sun and the furthest from our planet’s center – to look up from our earthcircuit and ponder the circuit the earth makes through space. The equator is a bit over 40,000 km long and, because the earth bulges in the middle as it spins on its axis, it is the longest, continuous line that can be described upon the surface of our globe. Forty thousand kilometers (25 000 miles) is also exactly how far we have traveled in our *Low-Orbiting Craft since leaving Europe 3 years ago. Imaginary or not, it is a line like this that blows our mind.
Quitsato, Quito, lots of towns and villages around here called Quit-this or Quit-that – in the old, local language of Tsafiqui, “Qui” means “middle” and “to” means “Earth”. Yes, peoples pre-Hispanic long understood that the planet was round and that this was the middle of it. Sun, Moon and Star worship is/was, of course, very common in Central and South America and, while the Mexicans had their pyramids further north and the Incas had their temples further south, the Andean region in Ecuador is the only place on the Earth’s equator which has enough volcanoes and towering peaks to form a kind of natural astronomical observatory. You only have to climb the nearby mountain of Catequilla to see that you are standing on the equator: on the northern horizon you can see the Pole Star; spin right round and in the southern sky hang all the constellations that were hidden to the Eurasian civilizations and their know-it-all astrologers: climb down from this lofty peak, northwards or south, commit yourself to one of the hemispheres, and you lose that complete cosmovision, that all-seeing space eye. Nowhere else on the equator, neither in the Brazilian Amazon, Africa, nor Indonesia, do you find a good enough vantage point above the rain forest and endless jungle to easily appreciate just where on earth you are.
Indeed, we were told how recent excavations upon that very summit of Catequilla suggest there was a circular site which has the equator running right through it – a summit visible by all the people living for miles around; how there are ancient ruins and, in Quito itself, a few churches (surely built upon pre-Hispanic temples) that are aligned with the movement of the sun and the moments of equinox and solstice; and how this whole region, nestling between two Andean mountain ranges running north to south, could have organized itself with respect to the information provided by this solar clock.

The Quitsado momument to th middle of the earth.
Wiped out and brain aching from all this talk of ancient astronomy and celestial mechanics, the Earthcircuit crew retired back to their craft for some gentle recuperation. It was daylight as we left the monument and, 12 minutes later, darkness had arrived by the time the water had boiled for coffee – twilight shortens as you approach the middle of the earth and here, where the sun sets exactly perpendicular to the horizon, night comes quickest of all latitudes. And thinking of latitudes and longitudes, I remembered reading somewhere that, upon the high seas, the old Dutch, English and American navies performed the ritual of King Neptune whenever their ships crossed the equator. It was a kind of morale-boosting event that involved the experienced sea-farers abusing the novices, dressing up in drag, performing mild torture and other forms of abuse and hazing. I wondered whether there should be an equivalent celebration for overlanders – probably something involving a daft photograph of people jumping in the air. Still reeling from the effects of the longest line on earth, sipping some strong Colombian, maybe even we could swap clothes and slap each other around a bit.

  More Ecuador photos – Ecuador Overland Gallery

Gallery Updates from the Equator

image

Being so close to the equator, and parked up in the middle of nowhere, means we can finally get on with some gallery updates. Eleven hours of darkness, utter stillness outside and starry skies (that usual wilderness fallback) generally obscured by cloud – affords us the opportunity for bothering the laptop and it’s ever-swelling hard drive.

First up is an album from our visit back to London: Five Short Weeks After Three Years Away. For the moment you’re gonna have to visit our public group on Facebook to view it though… EARTHCIRCUIT: London 2013

Driving through Colombia

Driving through Colombia

Driving through ColombiaDriving through Colombia is a pleasure. From the north, the Caribbean coast, the road runs straight south through the greenest, lush, countryside imaginable. To the left, lies a range of mountains that mark the border with Venezuela –  and to the right is another rising cord of hills – both ranges work together to gently lift you towards Medellin and into the Andes proper. Say goodbye to the tropical heat and humidity and hello to an almost perfect climate; so welcome this close to the equator, a few thousand metres above sea level. The next 750 km took us through the Zona Cafetera, threading mountain gorges, winding a thousand hairpin bends and high into cloud forest, until Ecuador.

Colombia seems to be one of the more expensive countries we’ve come to on the way south. Or maybe it just seems that way because they count their pesos in the thousands against the dollar, euro or pound.

Colombian Andes

The first time we filled up, it was 8200 COP a gallon – around $4.5. That dropped to 6300 COP as we approached the Venezuelan border. For a few hundred kilometres, the price climbed along with the terrain until 7500 COP a gallon around Medellin and even to 8500 COP in coffee country; then it drops again, suddenly to 6000 COP as you pass into the last state before the Ecuadorean border. All in all, let’s say an average price of 7000 COP a gallon or about $1 a litre.

The road tolls seem to vary in sync with the price of fuel: for a four-wheeler they were 7000 COP in the north, dropping to 6000 before rising to 9000 in coffee country and then dropping again to 4000 as you near the southern border. For us, with twin sets of wheels on the back axle, we had to pay Category 2 which was only 20% more – not double the price of a car as it was in Mexico. The tolls come every 50km or so. A little more often in, yes you get the picture now, coffee country where we hit five tolls in 200km – each charging us up to 13 000 COP.

And that’s really why Colombia seems expensive. You might hardly ever eat out (typical price is $5 a meal) because, like us, you’ve still got some stores of food on board from cheaper times. You might be full of practically free Venezuelan fuel and driving so hard that you can just about manage to share the one bottle of beer ($1.50) a night before falling asleep – and for that reason, too, you haven’t bothered to trouble a hostel or campsite with your business. But you will still get stung by the tolls which almost double the cost of traveling even if you are buying local diesel and eating out. From the Caribbean to Ecuador we estimate that we paid 250 000 COP or about $140 in road tolls. And there doesn’t seem to be any way to avoid them – unlike Mexico where you can at least use minor highways or sneak on and off the toll roads before and after the booths where you have to pay. In Colombia you have no choice – no one has a choice – and if one of your crew is bitterly moaning about this highway robbery you just have to think, well, that’s just the way it is, at least we can kinda afford it and, if they’re still complaining, thank the gods we don’t have to live here.

In fact, apart from recreational drugs, the only other thing that seemed to us really cheap in comparison with neighboring countries were the mobile data packages that give you internet on your smartphone. We paid 5000 COP for a SIM card and 15 000 for a 1GB, 10 day package. However after 10 days, we still seemed to be connected even though we hadn’t recharged the deal – by the time we left Colombia, after two and half weeks, it was still going strong. This was on the Claro network which isn’t the cheapest advertised but, we were told, has the best coverage outside of the urban zones. And, of all the drugs available, the most comforting we found was the coffee – available pretty much everywhere in small cups served by mobile vendors carrying thermos flasks.

Friendly road workers everywhere

The word is Colombia is a friendly country populated by very friendly people. Put five Colombians in a room together and there’ll be a party, so the saying goes. It is also known, of course, as the center of the cocaine trade and home to a guerrilla/civil war – thus placed high on the list of most dangerous countries in the world. Well, the cocaine is still there, the violence reportedly less so – and their friendliness was demonstrated pretty much everywhere we chose to stop.

After a couple of days playing with the fuel tankers on the lowland highway, we hit the quieter roads west towards Medellin. Immediately it almost seemed like another country.  Now, you might hear repeatedly about the cultural difference between the low and highlanders of Latin America – here we saw it in the neat and tidy villages and towns through which our road twisted and turned. The cool quietness after the hot and humid roar of the jungle below. And the greatest change were the road signs warning drivers about cyclists. In the lowlands they have a remarkably detailed silhouette of a full-suspension mountain bike set on a yellow diamond. In the hills they use an image of a racing bike – and sure enough, one morning (it must have been the weekend), we passed hundreds of them – entire phalanxes of tour pelotons – off their seats, stamping pedals, hung low over the drop-bars and literally eating the serious hillage. I have long known that cycling is popular in Colombia and that they send a large number of contenders to world cycling competitions but I never managed to figure out if there was a reason. Really, it was like being in the Alps, dodging bicycles on their weekend rides.

colombia-bicycle-warning-sign

The first night we stopped at Cisneros at a gas station/car wash at the western end of town. According to Miguel, the car wash owner, plenty of overlanders have come to rest on the green grass and taken advantage of his high-powered water hoses. A quick shower, then, before dark and our first properly cool night after what seemed like an eternity in the tropics.

Medellin suburbs rising with the hills

For the next couple of days in Medellin, we gave ourselves a mission to find someone to do some graffiti on our truck – we succeeded in that and met a load of genuine, friendly people into the bargain. Parked up in the safer, southern suburbs of that city, randomly outside a large town house which belonged to one family (each generation occupied a different floor), we will owe a debt of brief but beautiful memories to the artist and his partner who showed us around and to that random family who offered to do our laundry…

valle-de-corcoran

And if, before Medellin, the landscape and traffic had begun to resemble the Alps, then the euro-feel continues further south into Zona Cafetera. Switzerland turns into something like northern Lombardia as the terrain levels out – posh houses by the side of brand new, four-lane highways with toll prices to match. We broke the journey by stopping at the Valle de Corcoran. This is a beautiful valley, home to a type of palm – the world’s tallest – which gives the hills a very strange look. You can drive right up to the entrance of the National Park, park up and wander off into the forest. We spent two nights there, taking a break from the journey, acclimatizing to the Andean heights and getting lost in the clouds.

Our next stop was Popoyan – a beautiful town that marks the area where you’ll begin to see larger populations of indigenous people. The town was apparently rebuilt 30 years ago after an earthquake but you would never know – the whitewashed buildings are done in the rococo style of Andalucia or even Alentejo. Any southern Portuguese crew members you might have will wander around slightly gobsmacked, teary-eyed and home sick… Again we parked up on the streets, a couple of blocks south of the main square and, again, our nearest neighbor (an office worker from some kind of printing shop) was at our door bearing gifts of water and bathroom access.

Our last couple of days in Colombia were spent winding slowly through the spectacular gorges towards the Ecuadorean border. At first, there is a palpable danger in the twists and turns; the vegetation is still green and lush, the earth itself is red and muddy – but the road surface looks slipped and broken at every corner and there are many delays while construction crews literally pin down the hillsides. This is landslide country – a tension that I swear I could feel – a kind of gloopiness to the landscape. I wanted to be through as quickly as possible while the sun was out and there were no rain clouds: I looked on in wonder, instead waiting in a queue of vehicles, at the local houses clinging to the embankments. Some of their inhabitants were selling diesel for around 30 cent cheaper a gallon than the gas stations and we couldn’t figure out the source of this contraband – surely, we were still too far from Ecuador where diesel is a quarter of the price in Colombia? We moved on; the stop-and-go guy swiveling his sign from ‘Pare’ to ‘Sigue’  and the queue of traffic crept through the anti-landslide mountain-repair zone, past the rumbling excavators and generators and… ah, there’s the mostly source of the cheap diesel – the locals skanking diesel from the very machines that have come to patch up their slippery, sliding world?

The last couple of hundred klicks takes you higher into rockier, grayer country. This is the type of landscape that I always imagined the Andes to contain – real highland country intersected by deep ravines through which the road skirts and threads. After a few hours, reaching the town of Pasto, the clouds rarely break up enough to afford any glimpse of the volcanos that lie close by. In fact it starts raining – and with the indigenous people wrapped up in coats, scarfs and sweaters, and the pot holed roads being replaced with new bridges and underpasses, busy city life swirling around, we feel like we’ve been here before – a town far, far from anywhere – it reminds us of Chita, that distant metropolis rising from the empty Siberian tundra somewhere north of Mongolia… And this was a feeling played out again as we spent the night at a truck stop just short of the Ecuadorean border – in Ipiales where the rain-laden wind whipped across the green-grey hills – that we were truly moving across a continent, high above the world. Sometimes, it even reminded me of Wales.

Colombia, then. From the Caribbean to Mongolia. Moving so quickly really only gave us the chance to compare it to other places we’ve been – that first stage of getting to know a new land and culture.  I hope this has given you a taste of the country, as you are driving through quickly on a mission elsewhere – or, at least, an introduction if you are planning to stay longer than we did. As we crossed the laughably easy southern frontier, I hoped that we would return soon to explore and witness all that we missed.