Dona and I woke up at the crack of dawn on Wednesday, 10 October 2012. We were relaxed and ready for a long day of trucking ahead, after a chilled evening in our smelly, yet clean hotel room across from the beautifully perched “Santuaria de La Lajas.” (Catholic Church, overlooking a spectacular ravine which attracts thousands of tourists). We were “chipper” like spring chickens, ready to truck the 6 miles to the border town of Rumichaca and get the hell out of Columbia. Ecuador, here we come…
Easy game we thought (yet again), after reading on a few travel blogs on how easy the Columbian/Ecuadorian border crossing would be. Well, our good moods soon changed. We took two things for granted; don’t take directions from local females, and one can still get easily lost in just 6 miles.
We started our border crossing from La Lajas at 06:30am and got hopelessly lost and couldn’t find the border at Rumichaca. Over an hour later, plus 20 miles of precious gasoline wasted, we were just “gatvol” (fed up). How could we get lost in 6 miles, with supposedly one road on the map, when we had navigated ourselves safely across 12,000 kilometers from California, across three continents? Plus we couldn’t afford to waste time, as we had a hell of a distance to cover that day to get to the city of Quito (pronounced “key-toe”), with day light hours ticking by.
As they say, when it rains, it pours… not only were we lost and running out of gas, I could feel the front brakes were buggered again (second time). When I braked, I could hear and feel the all too familiar metal on metal grinding sound generated by the worn front brake pad callipers grinding against the rotating disks. What a great start to Ecuador, after taking 5 long days trucking through Columbia. Just typical. As soon as we began to take things for granted on this trip again, we got hit with another setback.
We eventually limped into the border crossing, nursing Mafuta (our van’s) front brakes, trying to avoid braking at almost all costs. It was a breath of fresh air when we finally arrived at the border. It was simply superb. The buildings were new and well sign posted in both English and Spanish. It wasn’t crowded, there was secure parking in abundance, plus there wasn’t any unscrupulous opportunists near the border, hustling and soliciting the shit out of us, either. A rather unexpected surprise that was. The border staff were friendly and helpful, professional and efficient. The whole crossing only took an hour, including the temporary vehicle permit. Absolutely unheard of in our prior border crossings, where just the temporary vehicle permit alone would take 2-3 hours. Plus, the cherry on top of the whole experience, was that it was the first border crossed that was completely free…no tourist levy charged, no temporary vehicle permit charged, nor were we required to get national road insurance. That was a first for us. All in all, the border crossing was a pleasant experience and credit should be given.
After the crossing we were blessed. Blessed that we only had 20 kilometers to go, to reach the first city in Ecuador, called Tulcan, so we could get the front brakes much needed attention. A big city in our past travelling experience usually equalled many mechanics. We later found out, that was not quite the case there in Tulcan!
What stood out for me, once we entered into Ecuador was twofold.
Firstly, the national highway was brand new. In fact, road infrastructure throughout Ecuador was absolutely superb. Although only single laned in each direction, there were emergency lanes. Again, credit must be given to the awesome road infrastructure. It was actually a pleasure to drive on. Secondly, the landscape was barren and dry, just like an extension of southern Columbia. However, these barren, rolling hills as far as the eye could see out towards the never ending horizon, were still farmed (unlike parts of Columbia). Neither Dona, nor I, have ever seen sugar cane farmed in mountains, but also on dry, desert soil? How on earth, did they irrigate in sun bleached desert sand? Staggering to see these cane fields, lush green and tall, growing in desert patches.
We arrived in the city of Tulcan without any other issues, although at the time, we did not realize the longer term damage we did to the front brake disks. That was too bad, as we were between a rock and a hard place. We shouldn’t have travelled 30 – 40 kilometers on the damaged brakes, but we had no choice. We also had no choice, literally, in Tulcan…
We arrived mid-morning in Tulcan, with the sun absolutely scorching down. Dryer and hotter than hell. Easily. There were no mechanics in sight, except towards the back end of the city. We were nervous passing through the city. Normally there are loads of mechanic and tire repair shops, littering the streets. Not in Tulcan. We eventually pulled into a mechanic shop, sweating buckets. Dona broke out in his usual fluent Español of course, and we showed the mechanic kid/ teenager our dilemma with a combination of sound language when there were misunderstandings. Well the whole bladdy process was a misunderstanding due to the kid speaking too quickly and his lack of interest in our desperate plea for help. He basically took one quick look and said: “your disk pads are worn. You cannot get them replaced in Tulcan. You are going to have to get a taxi to Quito. This will take three hours. Stay the night there and come back with new brake pads. I will then fit them for you.”
What! You can’t be serious. This whole diagnostic process took the better part of two hours and we were still nowhere, as the kid didn’t seem too interested in helping us. We were stranded, sweating and wilting under the sun, fuelled by anxiety from the situation we found ourselves in. That’s when Dona and I both personally hit rock bottom. I remember seeing the despair on Dona’s face. I said: “I’m over this shit! I’m over non-stop admin and issues. I’m over the van; I’m over all the extra costs. I’m over all this travelling without surfing. Let’s dump the van and get on a plane back to posie (home). I’m done boet.”
We were defeated, “gatvol” and irritable. How could this be? How could we be stranded in a large city and not get brake pads? How is it possible that we need to replace the front disk pads for the second time in just 300 miles of driving? What’s going on, we did 12,000 kilometers without brake issues, now we have to replace the brake pads twice in a matter of days. Is this a sign to give up, why all the bad luck suddenly now?
Well…the Man Upstairs had our backs yet again. Neither he nor Dona would allow defeat and let us wither away in the fierce sun. Panic, nor rash decisions don’t help anyone. With a race against time, Dona made the kid mechanic take the front tires off and actually remove the brake pads. Dona consulted the Español/ English dictionary, added some creative body language into the mix and eventually got the owner of the mechanic shop to call a taxi and take him to a specialized brake pad shop, ten minutes away. Master plan! I stayed behind and car guarded Mafuta and prayed non-stop for a solution. Within 30 minutes, Dona was back with a huge grin on his face (like the stoke he normally gets after a delish ice cream).Basically they couldn’t replace the brake callipers (on which the brake pads are attached). That’s what the mechanic was trying to tell us, taking two hours to do so. However, what this genius specialist did was use our existing callipers and bonded on some adapted truck pads. He said this was not perfect, but would do the trick, “getting you to at least Quito.” The taxi driver that took Dona, even waited outside so he could get him back as soon as possible. Pheeeww, we were so lucky. We were out of there by 2pm, with the total cost of all the mechanic work coming to US $ 15, bargained down to US $ 12 as I threw in a few 600ml Coke buddies.
So off we went, gunning it around lunchtime from Tulcan to Quito. 150 miles took 5 hours. We did nothing but climb through mountains which was a pleasure…not much traffic, world-class road surfaces and climbing meant not much brake wear and tear. Bonus…in fact we were so naïve in actually thinking the second brake repair was it, because as we started approaching Quito, the all familiar up front metal grinding noise and feeling was back. No Man! How can this be…the third time! We were furious, as this was starting to cost a packet, and it was clear that there was something causing the pads to wear out in a matter of hours. This was all too much; especially as coming into Quito around 6ish, we hit chaos traffic with fading light and rain. Manoeuvring Mafuta was a challenge, now in rush hour traffic, with dodgy brakes, just kicked us right back into bad moods again. Plus, Dona’s “genius” plan of following a “laarni” (baller) British Columbian plated Jeep, with all the bells and whistles for serious off road, failed.
We had basically been following this Canadian couple from Tulcan to Quito. They had spare gerri cans of gas, surfboards on the roof, mint condition truck, the whole works. It was actually a fabulous sight to behold as a backpacker. They looked like hardcore travellers, with a budget way bigger than ours. This however didn’t dampen our spirits, as the ever streetwise Saffers, saw this “laarni” off road package as an opportunity for us to take advantage of. “Macky, follow these laarni Canadians and keep it tight son. The road is wet. These folks are going to lead us straight through the “shitshow” traffic, into a cool hostel, I reckon. Save us studying the Lonely Planet guide map and hostel directory for Quito. Bru, this city looks gnarly.” “Ey – Ey Captain,” I thought…
Anyway, we eventually pulled up alongside this impressive Canadian rig. Well, it so turned out that they had been travelling for close on two years. My God, I can’t even imagine the size of their budget, if their rig looked that impressive after 2 years, having travelled down from British Columbia to Ecuador. Anyway, they reckoned we should stop following them (I don’t blame them the way Mafuta looked) as they are not hitting up a hostel, but are rather picking up some “mates and staying the night in a 5 star hotel near the airport!” Well, excuse us sir…
I can confirm, the above was the last of our bad luck. Thank goodness. Once we lost our Canadian ballers on the road, Dona quickly whipped out the good old trusted Lonely Planet Backpackers Guide of South America (a must when travelling the Americas). He whacked the cabin lights on and safely navigated us through the traffic maize to the well documented “new town” of Quito. It is known as “Gringolanderia,” appropriately named “the land of the Gringo” (Americans). Upon arrival, we were greeted with many narrow, one streets which was frustrating as Mafuta has wide hips. The place was buzzing with energy. It was clean and modern, with bright lights and music bringing in the evening. No wonder this was rated as “the place” in Quito. There were endless bars, patio restaurants, coffee shops and nightclubs. It also included all the delicious American fast food outlets such as McDonalds, BK, and Subways etc. It had the vibe of a hip student town, with many young, stylish professionals, both men and women. This was a rad change from the rural, indigenous traditional mountain towns we experienced.
We quickly found a quiet hostel with off-street parking for Mafuta (what a bonus). With the stuffed brakes and a much needed break from driving, we managed to negotiate a good rate, as we would stay for at least two nights. The Manager, a very pleasant local chap, was absolutely taken with Mafuta. We casually told him about all the trouble with the van and that we needed to find a specialized brake mechanic. He reckoned no worries, his mate’s brother-in-law is a mechanic, and he will get him around to help us. We were so knackered and thought nothing of it, that the only thing I cared about was hitting the hay and stoked we made it to Quito, even with the brake issues. At least being up in the mountains, above sea-level, the air was fresh, without the usual humidity. We were actually in jeans and a sweater, a far cry from Central America’s weather.
The next morning, I woke up to Dona excited, entering and exiting the room. It was around 9am. “Macky, you better get up bru. The mechanic has been waiting downstairs since 8am.” “What! No ways cuzzie!” I was as surprised; as stoked. For once somebody had stuck to their word and gone out of their way to help out. A quick couple of Skype calls to my old man, a retired mechanical engineer, and we soon deducted that the front disk brakes were “scored.” This meant grooves had been carved/ worn into the disks from worn brake pads. Hence all that mental on mental grinding when our brake pads had totally disintegrated in the past caused permanent damage. Finally though, some light at the end of the tunnel. After three failed repair attempts, we had finally sorted out the problem and not just the symptoms.
With the help of Google Translate, Dona’s fluent Español and sound language, the mechanic understood the real issue at hand. We told him that the brake disks had to be taken off and the steel machined smooth. He said he knew a friend with a work shop at the other end of the city. Plus he knew where the callipers and pads could be replaced. He reckoned it would take the whole day; he would be back around 6pm that day. We had to trust him and that he needed to drive the van to his mate’s place to get the disks machined as specialized tools were needed.
Dona and I literally shat ourselves at the thought of handing over our keys to Mafuta and letting complete strangers take her away. We both looked at each other and said: “boet, you know this could be the last time we ever see Mafuta again.” Crickey, we went through Mafuta with a fine tooth and comb, taking all valuables out and goods that were of importance to us. The hidden safe was swept clean. We basically had worst case scenario in mind: if she gets stolen, we must still be able to travel alone. So after an hour of negotiating the repairs costs, paying over a US $50 deposit, we handed over the keys and said a silent pray: “O’ please God, may Mafuta return with fully functional brakes. Please do not let these strangers become trespassers and take advantage of our vulnerable situation and beloved vehicle. Amen.”
…After 2 hours went by from the agreed 6pm return time, still no sight of Mafuta, I started fearing the worst. At least during the day we kept ourselves busy from negative thoughts of the van getting stolen, or another botched repair job from poor mechanical diagnosis. We hit the much needed hostel internet, studying maps and border crossings into Peru. We also carried on reading the Magic Seaweed surf forecasts and although extremely disappointed, we were totally vindicated in not going 500 odd kilometers out of our way from Tulcan, to surf the main tourist surf spots of Mompiche and Montanitas. It was a tough call. However, the north swells had not pulled in and the swell was flat. Although we would of loved to have gone out there and checked it out, we didn’t have time to just sit out in the middle of nowhere on the north west coast of Ecuador. World class surf spots…yes, so we have been lead to believe, but we unfortunately were not blessed with the right swell, so we had to keep on moving down towards Peru.
Time was ticking, and the less time wasted waiting for swell, meant we would get more time in our jewel of South America, Peru. Bitter pill to swallow, but we at least had a plan to hit “Playas,” (Beaches), the less famous surf spot, 70 miles south of the port city of Guayaquil. We were told by our mate Juan, from Panama City, that we mustn’t waste our time at Mompiche or Montanitas if the swell is not from the northerly direction. Instead, we should head down to “Playas.” Well, when we looked it up on Google maps satellite, our imagination went wild and we were sold. It is the most magical setup for a natural surfer. It basically is a meandering coastline, moving from one right hand point break, into the next bay with another right hand point break. This continues on for a stretch of about 6 kms, in the middle of nowhere (a true local surfers beach setup), with 14, yes 14, NOT 4; amazing looking right hand point breaks (sand bottom). Dona and I were just frothing with excitement…just imagine getting that firing, all those points, with no other “Gringos”. Too good to be true, right?
Mafuta eventually arrived…3 hours later from the agreed return time. Thank the Pope. They had the usual trouble of course. They broke a few tools, were delayed etc… the usual story to try and get a bit more money out of us. We had none of it. After having a look through the van and the odometer, we realized that the mechanic had not abused Mafuta and been honest. That however, didn’t stop me from negotiating a discount. With Mafuta ready and fixed, we were off the next morning.
Another spot of luck during that day whilst the van was getting fixed was that Dona spotted Tame Air offices, literally a block down from our hostel. Now we had been promised the earth from them that we would get a refund after 3 weeks (when we had to cancel our initial flights from Panama to Ecuador, due to the change in our shipping route of our van across the Darien Gap). Obviously the time had passed and we had received nothing. Just typical I thought, just another Gringo getting ripped off by these third world corrupt systems. So the ever proactive Dona actually went into the offices and gave them a decent “bollocking.” What had actually happened is that we needed to write a letter for our flight refunds, with the copy of our ticket, passport etc. We had done none of that admin, as I was simply told over telephone: “you will get a refund of 60% of the flight, in three weeks’ time, on your credit card.” Yeah right, how naïve I was. If it wasn’t for Dona, we wouldn’t have got our US $ 240 each, owed to us. That’s a ton of cash, when one is on a shoe string budget. Our bad luck had finally turned for the better. Things were looking up.
The next morning, 13 October 2012, im awoken by Dona again. “Hey Macky, the mechanic is waiting for us outside. He has a mate, named Cecil who would like a lift with us to Guayaquil. Apparently, it is a nightmare to get out of Quito and he can help navigate us out. There are no road signs and he will ensure we get on the fastest roads. So I said, cool, no worries.” I was pissed off. I didn’t want another local stranger with us…how could that be safe? Then, I changed my mind when I met the lad. He was friendly and well groomed. He offered gas money, bought us water and snacks. An all-round pleasant chap. Plus, the mechanic and the hostel manager’s brother-in-law were absolutely in love with Mafuta. They thought she was a beauty of an American van. They reckoned she was worth at least US $ 2,000. Plus, another hostel manager down the road was also taken up with her. They reckoned you cannot get massive vans like this down in this end of the world. That was exiting to hear, as we were already starting to think about ways and means to sell Mafuta, as we were coming to the last couple of months of the trip. We would have been stoked with 800 bucks, now we could potentially get 2,000 – 2,500 bucks. Rad!
Well Cecil was right. It was one hell of a climb through what I would call a “ghetto maize” whilst trying to exit Quito. It was interesting to climb up into the poorer homes, flanking the city. Astounding to actually see and feel the culture in these little urban communities. We even pulled into Cecil’s home on the way out.
Well, by that point, that was pretty much the last we saw of mountains and all the climbing. From then on, we hit the most dramatic and intimidating downhill mountain passes of the entire trip. “Noooooo, we would shout”, when Mafuta’s front tires were screeching and crying from the sharp bends and twisty passes. We were flying downhill and the new brakes were getting hammered. Dona and I were kukking off, whilst Cecil just looked on and was laughing. He kept on telling us, the downhills are almost finished. It was fun and Mafuta stuck to the road like she was on tracks, until, we could smell a sharp, burnt smell…”O’ shit boet, the brakes are going again!” More emphasis was applied to reduce braking and change down to lower gears. After three brake pad changes in less than 1,500 kilometres, over US $ 300 later, we feared the worst yet again. Surely we can’t possibly have more break issues. After 2 hours of this, the burnt smell (similar to a burnt out clutch), was so bad, we pulled over into a lay-by with a little restaurant.
The front wheels were smoking the disks were so hot. The mountain air was chilly and damp, which actually helped with the cooling. I personally have never seen front rims so hot. We couldn’t touch them. The heat resistant seals around the wheel bearings were bubbling. A few locals around said this often happens and just let it cool down, whilst we were stressing. We did a few inspections of the front disks and they appeared ok, just red hot. So we decided to go have a black cup of coffee to keep us wired, as we still had a long day ahead of us on the road.
This then actually turned out to be quite an extra ordinary experience. I have never sat down at a local little “restaurante”, had a cup of coffee with a full sized pig, half chopped up, hanging next to the tables. Next to the hanging boar, was a little kid, happily playing alongside it. A couple of family’s were tucking into their seafood, massive crap leg soup with mussels (wait a minute; this was inland up in the mountains)! The local owner also had a massive pot on the fire, stewing all sorts of funky meat. It actually reminded me of a witch’s broil one would read about as a kid. Truly exotic, although it did smell delicious. I reckoned to Dona, what you can’t identify, don’t eat! That was the rule of thumb. I mean, it’s not every day, one can grab a cup of coffee, next to a hanging pig, whilst people are eating seafood and there is a huge pot stewing mountain lizard and goat meat. Right. Unbelievable to a Westerner. I think Dona was struggling to actually swallow his coffee next to the pig. Check out the photos….
We arrived in the port city of Guayaquil that night. Cecil was right in saying that once we had passed the mountain stop (with the hanging pig), the decent would flatten out. It was incredible how the landscape changed once we hit the flats. I guess it was sea-level then, as we began to enter into the, dense tropical jungle canopies. The awesome fresh and chilly mountain breeze was replaced by the suffocating humidity and heat. It was an amazing transition from the mountains. In fact looking back now, that was the last of the inland mountain passes, basically since mid-Columbia. What a relief, as Mafuta had taken an absolute pounding from all the up and downhills. No need to remind you of the endless brake troubles now…
No sooner had the landscape changed to dense, lush tropical vegetation; it was back to barren desert. However, this time it was flat. Howling wind and dust balls. That was the introduction in Guayaquil. A huge, dirty, dusty port on the one side, and then a modern, bumping downtown on the other side. It was a hell of juxtaposition. It was also evident that this was a serious commercial port by the size and development of the down town.
It didn’t take us long to have the downtown part wired. We hooked ourselves up in an affordable hotel room with air conditioning. We managed to leach off the more upmarket hotel next door, and steal their Wi-Fi. We also cruised the streets and dinned from the value for money street vendors. We enjoyed some of the most delicious deep fried chicken, chips and salad for under US $ 2. No surprises that I went back for seconds. We also had some awesome pork rolls and chicken empanadas. This was followed by the usual ice cream treat, and a movie, Taken II. O’ how sophisticated we were! Plus, the city had the most unreal vibe and buzz, as Ecuador played an international friendly against Chile. The streets were packed with supporters, hooting and whistling when a goal was scored. There were groups of people huddled around car radios and any TV set they could find in shops. The downtown had an awesome carnival atmosphere. These South Americans are so passionate about their football.
The next day, we arrived at Playas. It was a 70 mile trip down from Guayaquil. As usual, expect the unexpected. It was completely different to what we had in mind. I thought it would be this cool, westernised surfers/ backpackers spot etc. It was actually the complete opposite. It was hardly developed and looked like a desert, with a small town on the beach. It was completely localized and busy. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon, and there were tons of locals chilling on the beach and drinking and enjoying the little restaurants. The swell was completely flat, with a strong, icy onshore wind…just typical. We planned to surf here for a week, and it was flat and onshore.
So what do we do… do we wait and see if it improves over a week, or stay the night and push off for 4 hours the next day and get across in Peru? Again, we found ourselves between a rock and a hard place. Why, after travelling for close to 10 days, could we not find semi decent surf?
We cruised around in Mafuta, with locals starring at us regularly, like we were aliens. We couldn’t find any hostels or backpackers. So we parked Mafuta up on the main beach front and decided to walk the coastline. We walked up, along 6 mini bays with right hander surfing points, one after the other. The tide was high, so it was quite an adventure to get around to some of the higher point breaks. Some of the properties, by local standards were superb, directly above the points. However, as we explored and hopped over some fences into the properties along the coastline, they were empty. Clearly holiday homes of the wealthy from Guayaquil. It certainly seemed like the weekend escape destination from the city. It was interesting to find an old desolate, somewhat haunted surf camp. There were also hectares of undeveloped beachfront land, albeit desert in nature. It was privately owned though, as we couldn’t get our vehicle along there. There were closed off dirt roads.
We then decided to have a drink at a local restaurant along the main beach at the bottom of all the point breaks. This is when we were flawed! Do you know that 1 gallon of mineral water (3.78 l) cost more than a gallon of gas!!! Tell me, anywhere else in the world, where gas is cheaper than water!? I was absolutely astounded, that we paid US $ 1.50 for a gallon of water, whereas the same amount of gas was only US $ 1.48. To put that into perspective, a same gallon of gas in California would have cost US $ 4.40. Hence gas was three times cheaper in Ecuador than in California. To put that into South African terms, 1 liter of fuel costs R 12. In Ecuador, 1 liter of fuel would cost US $ 0.39, at an exchange rate of 8.8 that is R 3.45 per liter, three and a half times cheaper than South Africa. No wonder Ecuador was such great value for money. You could get the meal of the day (soup starter, main meal and a fruit juice) for US $ 3. A good, full sized plate for dinner would cost between US $ 6 – 8. Incredible value.
It is more often than not, Dona’s vibe to speak and embrace the locals. So after drinking some of our water that was more expensive than gas, we headed over and found the local surf shop. In fact, it was actually a Laundromat which had surfboards and wetsuits for rental. There was also a cool little skate park outside. We met one hell of a friendly bloke, named Ricky. He could speak good English (having backpacked through Europe for a number of years) and really gave us some useful advice. We had a good chat with him for an hour. He hooked us up with all the inside surfing knowledge for Peru (his girlfriend is Peruvian and he has spent many years surfing down there) and Ecuador. He gave us some contact details for accommodation in Peru and invited us to his surf camp in Mompiche. He also gave us a contact at the local hotel down the road to stay the night in Playas.
He basically said that we are two months too early for the surfing season. Ecuador’s season is Dec – April, with the bigger north swells and offshores. At the time we were there, it was onshore the whole time with minimal swell. Ricky reckoned we must cut our losses, don’t wait it out, but rather get into northern Peru (Mancora and Lobitos). There will be waves there. He did however, rub salt into our wounds, by showing us photos from a local magazine of the Playas right hand points, 6-8 feet, barrelling and running perfectly. Again, it was a bitter pill to swallow. By walking up half the points and watching a few grommet kids surfing in the flat onshore waves, we could see the potential, but it is still hard to imagine such perfection when, right in front of us, it was average surf. Getting our feet wet, we also realized that we would be wearing wetsuits soon, unlike in Central America. Playas was certainly a unique place, a true local surfing joint. The western surf backpacker has not yet exploited that surf spot yet…
Overall Ecuador was an awesome experience. Although it didn’t work out surf wise, everything else was a pleasure. It felt safer than Columbia. The road infrastructure was magnificent. I think we only went through about 4 tolls in total, compared to about 15-20 in Columbia. We didn’t experience any extortion and the food was exceptional value for money. They have adopted the US Dollar as their currency, and with nationalized oil production, the country enjoys, like Venezuela, some of the cheapest gas prices in the world. This does wonders for keeping inflation down and keeping the basic human needs affordable, as it was very evident that there was a big socio-economic divide amongst the population. The cheap gas certainly helped our pockets. Ecuador would be an unreal experience to surf I think, if you time the season correctly. We just found ourselves at the right place, at the wrong time.
Macky – February 2013.