Big Trip special: Ecuador - Riding our very own private planet Earth
Charity rides are rarely as challenging or rewarding as SOS Adventures’ Ecuador trips, says Richard Fairbairn.
Brrrrr...! Shivering violently in light enduro gear long soaked through by rain and mist, a single-digit chill is on my bones and my body’s convinced it’s a dank British winter’s day.
I can barely feel my fingers, my teeth rattle, and the only heat is my swearing at the elements.
In the gloom this damnably dark visor is a serious liability on our gravelly mountain pass – I’d open it, but I don’t want another faceful of muddy water following SOS Adventures founder Charlie Limon – along which I’m riding aboard a bike which only an hour ago was seized solid. I really am not loving this.
Then, I feel it. Charlie had assured us that in the next hour we’d go from shivering to sweltering, maniacal zig-zag roads to bullet straight, the view from rock-walls-in-your-face to barren flatness, from British winter to south American summer. Yeah right, I thought, impossible.
But slowly, surely, the soaking rain starts warming, like a shower when the hot water comes through. I start giggling as heat envelopes me, our group riding off the mountain to the plain below, down 14,000ft in 30 ear-popping minutes.
Yes, I am in South America, not the Scottish Highlands mid-February. Now I’m loving it.
If 30 minutes can sum up a nation, this ride off one of the towering Andean peaks of Ecuador is crammed with is it. Little bigger than the UK, it bears everywhere the marks of a country still in the making, innumerable snowed and still-growing peaks cradling temperate lakes and humid Amazon forests, the Pacific kept at bay by barren flatlands then lush plains stretching inland, all adorned by numerous active volcanoes.
It’s like four continents sampled for your delectation on one bite-sized chunk of Earth.
At this midpoint of the trip, we – 18 riders in total – are used to change.
We flew into Ecuador’s capital Quito a week ago, landing at over 9000ft into a panorama of mountains surrounding the sprawling city. A night preceded the visit to the SOS Children’s Village orphan beneficiaries, before we finally get hold of our bikes and start the ride.
Our group’s riding experience is as varied as the machinery inveigled from various dealers and owners using contacts, favours, and cash: some are hardcore enduro-ers who routinely strap on a camelpack and disappear into France for days; one has never ridden before, even pillion.
Me? In the middle – a road rider who dabbled in motocross.
At bike bagsying time I choose mine by omission – I’ll take what’s left – and laugh at seeing a sharp-seated KTM520 enduro beast propped threateningly against the wall, perceived ill-suited to 10 days and 1400 miles of rough tarmac, mountain tracks, and Amazon trails.
Electric start? Nah. Would I grow to love that bike? Damn right.
We start through Quito under burning sun, bags in mechanic Juan’s support truck, Charlie’s partner Gaby Eisinger leading the way, medics Carla and Lorenna tailing us as they will each day.
Globally, ‘rush hour’ has two varieties – tortuously slow, painfully regulated, and sleep inducing, or, a sort of motorised freestyle speed jazz: randomly unpredictable, messy, and something you hope to endure in one piece. Quito has the latter – he who beeps most wins.
The bosses of Ecuador’s roads are buses, which meander across lanes as the drivers see fit, and stop without warning for passengers. We use them as battering rams through the traffic, doing our best to avoid the billowing black exhaust smoke.
We go south to one of the world’s highest active volcanoes, Cotopaxi, and its surrounding national park. Imposing from miles away with its glacier-belted cone soaring skyward, our first off-roading will be there.
Its slopes yield rich aggregates and soil, which means countless mining tracks and cuttings to explore and isolated farming villages ever higher up its sides.
We stop at around 16,500ft just below the cloud to breathtaking views, the snow-capped peak towering 3000ft more above our group of Charlie, Paul Blowers, ex-police Chief Paul Taylor and I.
Altitude makes bikes and riders lethargic, and over enthusiasm for hard riding drains as shortness of breath promotes sensibility.
Yet, we notch our first big crash on the fast downslopes ex-White Helmet Gareth Ford chases his group through dust clouds to discover the road flicked right just as he ploughs straight over a lip into natural crash barriers – stiff scrub bushes.
Gareth and his DR-Z350 take out two bushes before he’s pitched over the bars by the third and attacked by the bike. Fortunately, he escapes with “a right good kicking”, but his split lid and suspicions of a broken collarbone attest to how much pain he’s in while riding on.
Overnighting near Quito, the next day sees an epic 240-mile run over mixed surfaces south east to Banos which reinforces the feel Ecuador is at civil war with its own geology.
Early smooth roads plucked from Europe with safety barriers and wondrous green valley views soon give way to pot-holed atrocities, around mountains and down into forests, and eventually to red mud tracks hacked through Amazon landslips where van-sized boulders dot the way ahead.
We split into self-regulating sects and I tag along with riding god Austin Wren and Swedish ex-pat Mikael
On Amazon mud and crushed rock tracks, we are soon lost for hours until by fluke we see signs for Banos. A stop at the stunning Puerto de l’Amazonas affords phenomenal views of part of the gigantic Amazon river network, seen stretching 20 or 30 miles into the distance.
Reaching our stop cold, wet and physically beaten, we quickly realise Charlie has pulled an ace: welcomed by hot orange and rum, our Luna Runtun spa hotel is one of the best in South America, perched in a world heritage sight on a volcano above sweeping lush valleys.
From its infinity pool Banos is seen near-vertically below, and after congratulating ourselves for getting there first (aka getting lost), the next step was of course a reviving sauna, massage and mud bath.
The following rest day saw exploration of the mighty 16,500ft Tungurahua volcano to which our hotel clung. Bill Hanley and Helen Carricker, engaged on SOS Ecuador 2006 and sharing a comfy-looking KLR650, explained how booming explosions and alien glows from within the volcano caldera peppered the night last year.
Lava rivers snaking into the valley – still there, blackened – prompted Banos’ evacuation, until fed-up locals rioted to be let back. Ecuadorians: hard as nails.
Our next day took us along dirt and cobbled sections of the old Pan-American Highway, an ancient A1 spining up from Argentina to Alaska which despite being superseded is often still a route for goat herders and dog-killing local traffic.
Over the equatorial line dodging herds of cows, this was arguably the most challenging day, following rapid Austin into relentless chill mists on a 350km slog – via famed 1000-year-old Inca ruins at Ingapirca – to Cuenca, Ecuador’s richest city.
After shanty huts and abject poverty en route, to find our hotel hosting a film premiere was a bit of a shock. For note, Ecuador’s Jonathan Ross is considerably better looking, and female.
Our next monster arched over chill Andean heights to the warm plains below and Ecuador’s biggest city, Guayacil.
Once a near-lawless enclave with gun justice, at the first petrol stop we all clocked the attendant wore a bulletproof vest, a gas pump in one hand, and a pump-action shotgun in the other while he poured. It’s not lawless now but conspicuous wealth isn’t clever.
A rough day was capped when the aforementioned seized-then-freed Kawasaki blew its head off, leaving Charlie, Bernard Staunton and I as evening mosquito bait waiting for the truck.
By now evening routines were settled: get to the hotel, wait in the bar for the luggage, cheer its arrival, upstairs to shower, eat, drink, dry clothing on heaters, collapse into bed shattered yet jubilant. But the next day was somewhat different.
The plains west to the Pacific were the antithesis of the Andean and Amazon sections, long baked roads under crushing sun towards Puerto Lopez, the archetypal sleepy Latino beach town.
After obligatory rides in Pacific waves, it was to the pool to chill as the sun disappeared into the sea and plan the next rest day: go riding, go diving, or pork out on cuy, cooked guinea pig? (‘Cuy!’ - the noise they make when despatched.)
I went diving with Steve Moore around the local nature reserve Isla de la Plata (Silver Island, so-coloured by aeons of caked bird lime coating its cliff shores) 15 miles off land, where his extensive dive experience steadied my novice nerve as I watched suspiciously for hungry nasties.
A mini Galapagos, giant turtles contentedly surrounded our boat for handfeeding at our guide’s approval.
Until now most of the bikes fared OK, but the next day’s parched run north then inland proved formidable.
My KTM lost its fork seals and rear wheel bearing, Guy Frazer and Brad Sharp’s WR450s blew tyres, Dave Brinkley’s KX250 (yes, a two-stroke) expired noisily, Russ Cosway’s Honda rear shock collapsed, and Steve – whose XR snapped a chain first thing – miraculously escaped with scrapes after being sideswiped by a truck.
None of it stopped us good humouredly arsing around on a ferry crossing before continuing the quest to Santo Domingo, however.
With Bernard and Juan having fettled bikes, the final run back to Quito kicked off in the rain. Winding along smooth(ish) roads we were conscious of nearing the end and spent a little longer than usual with each stop for photos, fuel and food.
As darkness fell, we approached Quito like conquerors from above, streaming triumphantly into its valley.
Overwhelmed at what we’d achieved, we symbolically gathered at the giant globe monument which marks Quito’s Equatorial Museum feeling like we had just done our very own circle of the planet – victors together, tired but happy.