Tag Archives: Eurovan

This little piggie went to market

2 May

Chugchilan, Ecuador
[by Paula]

We have become proficient enough at getting ourselves lost without any help from anyone, so we really don’t need someone telling us that when we’re going north we’re actually going sideways.

Equator, Quitsato, Ecuador

Jeremy reacts to seeing the equator by displaying his Ministry of Silly Walks repertoire.

And so it was when we crossed the equator. We pulled into the ‘solar clock’ at exactly 0°, in Quitsato, Ecuador and glimpsed the much-anticipated line on the ground. We’d made it! We straddled it, star-jumped over it and did funny walks across it, because that is what you must do when you encounter that magical point between the earth’s hemispheres.

We were so happy. But by the time we’d finished listening to the guide’s explanation about the solstices, the position of the sun, and the spinny-spinny earth thing that my dad used to demonstrate with apples and oranges, our world had been turned upside down. Or sideways, by about 23°.

I know we should have known this. Science is not our strong point – we prefer words. We decided to move on from the shock news that north is not up, the news that all our lives we have been lied to, and focus on looking for somewhere to camp.

Camping near Quitsato

Miguel’s super-enthusiastic uncle insisted on a farewell photocall. Quitsato, Ecuador.

The Quitsato guide, Miguel, saw we’d arrived in a campervan and asked where we were staying that night. “No idea,” we said. He said his family had some land we could camp in, just a few minutes drive away. Brilliant! We got settled in and spent much of the afternoon and evening talking to various sections of Miguel’s massive extended family, including a particularly enthusiastic uncle who questioned us for hours on every subject imagineable, and giving our Spanish skills a bit of a workout.

They wanted to know what we thought of Ecuador. We were able to report that our first week had been all good. We hadn’t eaten roasted guinea pig yet, but it was on the list. That day we had tried one of the area’s specialities, bizcocho, a sweet melty flaky pastry served with a cup of hot chocolate and a finger of stringy mozzarella-style cheese. I asked the family why they served cheese with hot chocolate. They just looked at me and burst out laughing, as if I was the weird one.

We’d spent the first week in the country in Otavalo, a delightful mountain town with famous animal and crafts markets, and surrounded by volcanoes and lakes.
We settled into a beautiful campsite with volcano views from every angle. When the skies were clear we could see the shining snow-capped peak of Volcan Cayambe from our door.

Volcan Cayambe from Otavalo

Volcan Cayambe from our van door, Otavalo.

On market day we had a rare spree at the craft market – some winter-wear for the van, including an alpaca wool blanket and two woolly hats to brighten up the headrests.

At the animal market we restricted ourselves to spectating only. Loudly protesting pigs were being lead around on strings, chickens carried around underarm like bags of rice, and guinea pigs pulled from sacks and held aloft amid passionate bartering for the price. We definitely haven’t reached the stage where we can face buying our dinner live.

One of the most strikingly obvious differences between Ecuador and its neighbour Colombia is that the former still has a significant indigenous population, some of whom still wear traditional brightly-coloured wool clothing, long plaits and trilby-style Andean hats. The children are often just wearing miniature adults’ clothes, which makes them look so serious. Tiny little girls shuffle about in blouses, shawls and thick woollen skirts like – as we say in Scotland – ‘wee wifies’.

On a less poetic note, the other differences from countries we have previously visited are the shiny new roads and cheaper petrol. The Ecuadorian government, under the popular Rafael Correa, has discovered that if you collect taxes you can do things like build roads. And if you renegotiate your contracts with multinationals so your own country profits from your oil, you can have cheaper fuel and more money for social projects like education and health.

Guinea pigs for sale, Otavalo

Guinea pigs for dinner anyone?, Otavalo.

We marvelled at the smooth drive south from Otavalo, over the equator, and down to the capital city, Quito.

For reasons mentioned in earlier posts, the van was still in need of some TLC, and we took it straight to a mechanic Jeremy had found online. A German former racing driver, who specialised in German cars. Now, surely, if someone could help us he was the man!

We left him to investigate while we spent nearly a week exploring Quito. We had a great feeling about it – after Mexico City, it was the best capital we’d encountered. Its dramatic mountain valley setting, lovely colonial centre, good (if crammed) trolley bus system and endless cheap cafes were a treat. At 2,850m (9,350ft) it’s the second highest capital city in the world. We puffed our way up to some of its higher points to get a spectacular view over the city, and one day I left (vertigo-afflicted) Jeremy behind to take the ear-popping telefériqo (cable car) another 1,000m up to get a vista from cloud level.

We spent an evening in the city’s chi-chi La Ronda area, drinking way too many jugs of canelazo and watching a modern Andean folk band that was so good it made Jeremy realise the panpipes are not something only to be played blandly by ridiculous stripey-trousered poncho-wearing hippies on Britain’s high streets.

Next day we took our hangovers to a Sunday morning football match, between LDU Quito and Macará (1-0) and were entertained by constant singing and drumming throughout. Later we dragged our heavy legs up streets that make San Francisco look like a billiards table, and were rewarded with the magnificent Capilla del Hombre, an impressive and moving space dedicated to the work of Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín, who focused his life’s work on the oppression of indigenous poor of Latin America and the brutality of man, but also on hope for social progress.

It seems a bit shallow to go from that to our campervan woes… but meanwhile at the mechanic…. after a process of elimination, and an ultra-sound clean-up of two dodgy fuel injectors, the mechanic told us one was beyond repair and needed to be replaced. Was this available in Ecuador? If you have ever read this blog, then you will know what the answer is – of course not!

One was swiftly ordered from the US, and we left the van behind and set off southwards by bus to explore the area around the town of Baños while waiting for the part to arrive.

When we got there we met up for a good catch-up with fellow road-trippers Thomas and Sabine – last spotted by us in Nicaragua last June. Who knew you could ‘bake’ apple strudel on a stovetop? Thanks Sabine!

Quito from top of Teleferiqo

The cable car gave me a cloud-level view of Quito.

From a hike high above the town we got an almost-too-close-for-comfort view of the smoking Volcan Tungurahua, which last had a major eruption in 2006 and was recently responsible for local evacuations in December 2012. Eek.

We travelled to nearby Ambato for another footie match, this time a home game for Macará, against fellow bottom of the table-dwellers Deportivo Cuenca. From the stadium, aptly named Bellavista, we got a bullseye view of Tungurahua’s smoking cone. The locals were battered 5-1, and by the language being directed at some of their players and their manager, I think they would have happily tossed them straight into the volcano’s fiery throat.

Baños is – unsurprisingly, given its name and location – centred around its volcanic hot springs and various spin-offs like massages and therapies. This week we walked that fine line between pleasure and pain when we took a ‘health steam bath’ in our hostel. A portly Ecuadorian lady cooked us for several minutes in a steam box that was not unlike being put in the stocks, then removed us and doused us in freezing water, before locking us back in the steam box. After three rounds of that we were blasted with a cold jet hose.

It’s a similar process to the one our fuel injectors have been going through this week but, at just $4 each, we anticipate our own de-tox will turn out to be considerably cheaper.

Days: 539
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: Almost every map ever made is a lie.

—–

HOUSEKEEPING – HOUSEKEEPING – HOUSEKEEPING

Below are some photos of our first couple of weeks in Ecuador.
In other housekeeping news, our Colombia campspots map is now complete.

Also, we’ve been doing a belated catch-up of our Colombia photos on Flickr. If you haven’t been subjected to these several times already, click here for our Flickr collections

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Warm front from the south

9 Jan

Tolú, Colombia
[by Paula]

There’s only one word that can describe the last few weeks. Warm.

Christmas dinner 2012

Caribbean christmas feast. Cheers!

Yes, as it happens we have discovered whole new levels of sweltering as Colombia’s dry season roasts everything in its path, but – much as we love to obsess about the weather – we’re talking about a different kind of warmth. We’d heard about it from many a traveller, but the collective hug of the Colombian people is really starting to reveal itself to us. In recent weeks we have received more good wishes and invitations to the homes of strangers than we have in a lifetime of travelling.

It started with christmas. We were returning to our old favourite, the beach, to see out the festivities in as low key a way as possible. We don’t do xmas in a big way, but there are certain traditions that are just non-negotiable, such as eating and drinking to excess.

We stocked up accordingly a few days before at a supermarket and on the way out popped into the pharmacy to see about an infection on my leg. The pharmacist gave me some ‘very strong’ antibiotics. Alarm bells rang. I examined the package and ask whether I could drink alcohol with them. “No!” she said, “it’s only five days though..”.

“Ah, that’s a shame”, I replied, tucking the pills away til Boxing Day.

We drove to Palomino, a beach on the Caribbean coast we had visited before, and parked up on the sand. Although technically a campsite, we were effectively camped right on the public beach, close to the access path from the village. This being peak season for domestic tourism there was a steady stream of Colombians, mainly from the chillier southern cities, coming on and off the beach and passing by our door.

The van usually attracts quite a bit of interest, but suddenly we felt like the number one attraction. Over the next few days we were inundated with visitors asking about the van and wanting a look around. It’s not the world’s longest tour, but we are always happy to oblige. One woman even offered to buy it. We conducted umpteen tours and at one stage were videoed cooking and being interviewed by a huge family who were holidaying together.

Sunset near San Bernardo del Viento

We appear to be spending a lot of time at the beach.

We explained, as always, that there was a bed in the pop-top, but that it was a bit small for us and was better for children. “But we don’t have children,” I said, pre-empting the inevitable question that seems to fascinate every Latin American (what, no children?!).

“Here, you can have this one!”, laughed the mother, selecting a random child from the bunch. We politely declined.

But what was most astonishing to us was the number of strangers who came by and asked whether we would be visiting their part of the country, then invited us to visit them when we arrived.

It seemed only right to give a Caribbean twist to christmas, and on the day itself we feasted on barbequed jerk chicken, fried plantains, carrots sauteed in Jamaican ginger honey, and potatoes. We even pushed the boat out with one of my (not very Caribbean) banoffee pies.

The festivities over, we faced the inevitable and, after a stop in Santa Marta, set off for the industrial city of Barranquilla to try to sort out a major lingering van-related issue – filling the propane tank, which we’d heard might be impossible in Colombia because of the particular fitting that foreign campers like ours have. We weren’t prepared to give up without a fight, and headed for the main propane plant in the city, our only hope.

Strike protest in Mompox

We came across this strike protest in Mompox – these health workers had been out for 14 months.

We knocked on the gate and the guy came out. We explained our predicament, while he shook his head a lot, saying they didn’t have the right adaptor. We pleaded a little for any solution he could suggest. The next moment he disappeared and came back holding an adaptor. He screwed it onto our tank. Perfect fit, hurray! “Thank god, it fits”, he said, “but we still can’t fill your tank here” (they usually fill lorries, and the position of our tank was impossibly low). He told us to drive to the other side of the highway, pointing to a collection of dusty rudimentary buildings, and wait for him to meet us in his lunch hour. He would borrow the adaptor and see if his brother, who worked at a propane gas bottle shop, could help us.

It all sounded a bit dodgy but we were desperate enough to give it a go. He turned up as promised, and he and several other guys set about trying to fill our tank from a bottle. We spent a hour lurching between hope and dejection, as they struggled to get it to work. The adaptor appeared to fit but was missing a vital element. As with so many occasions on this trip, we were bowled over by their refusal to just give in and send us packing. Eventually a piece of metal was sawn off something else, wedged (rather unsafely, we observed) into the adaptor and shoved in. Gas appeared to be trickling in, and after 20 minutes or so the tank was declared full. To be honest, none of us were totally sure if it had worked as the gauge doesn’t work, but we took their word for it and drove off in a celebratory mood.

By the time we’d sorted out the problem it was late and we decided to just drive out of the city and get as far as possible before dark. We were heading south towards the Unesco world heritage site city of Mompóx for new year, about a 10 hour journey.

As dusk fell, we scanned the roadside for a farm or something that might be happy to allow camping, and pulled in at one to ask. The guy suggested that we instead follow him down the road to a motel that he thought would have space for the van. As we arrived he had already asked the woman working there, and she enthusiastically invited us to pull in. It was a grim looking place, but by this stage we were keen to just stop and were too polite to make our excuses and run.

I asked about toilets and she showed me to one of their rooms. She patted the damp, heavily-stained bed as we walked in, then proceeded to rub two raw cables together to try to get the light bulb to work. There was a toilet for our use, but no running water, and cockroaches were scuttling about in a panic, as if shocked that someone had actually turned up. Hopefully my face did not reveal my thoughts.

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox is tricky to get to but worth the pain.

“Rancid hellspawn” is one of Jeremy’s favourite phrases for describing the worst places we come across on our travels, but it’s a phrase he uses very sparingly. The words did pass his lips that night.
In contrast, the woman working there could not have been nicer. She twice fed us food she had brought from home including the most delicious, anise-infused, arepas we have tasted to date, and quizzed us enthusiastically about our trip.

However we were pleased to pull out early the next morning, and set off through cattle country in bright sunshine.

Mompóx is a gorgeous well-preserved colonial town which can only be reached by river ferry. We pulled in at the ‘dock’ – just a disturbingly steep dusty slope that plunged towards the river – which was packed with trucks and cars, this being the Saturday before new year. After a stiflingly hot 2 hour delay, tempers were starting to fray, especially when those who had been waiting for hours realised there may not be space on the ferry for everyone and some last-minute arrivals had been pushing into the queue.

As we approached they put us to one side so we would be one of the last to board. This provided the biggest audience possible for Jeremy, who had to reverse/slip down onto the ferry and into an impossibly small space between the barrier and another car. At one point two officials were shouting completely contrasting directions at him and several other passengers were chipping in. I nearly throttled the obligatory drunk guy who was leaning in the window and telling us to remain calm. Our tyre screeched off the barrier as we wedged ourselves in, but we were still hanging over the hinge for the pull-up door.

Ferry to Mompox

A fellow passenger helpfully demonstrates he can barely get two fingers between our two cars on the ferry.

“What will happen to the front of the van when the door is closed?”, I asked a fellow passenger. “Oh they don’t close it, they’ll put 7 or 8 motorbikes on there before we leave!” he replied. Silly of me to worry.

After arriving in the dark we free-camped in a riverside park in the centre of Mompóx that night, which was already in pretty festive mood, complete with banging speakers on every corner. We awoke at sunrise the next day to the sounds of the adjacent football pitch being set up for the big Sunday game! As we were parked directly behind the goal, it seemed like a good time to move on, and for a couple of nights we retreated to an edge-of-town camping spot.

It was good to be somewhere with a bit of culture again. Mompóx, formerly a trading post dripping with wealth, now has that isolated old-world feel. We wandered the baking streets by daytime but could only take the temperature for short bursts. Mercifully, there was a pool where we were camping but even this was warm. “Is nothing cold?” asked Jeremy.

It seemed not – there was even a town-wide ice shortage on new year’s eve. Ice is just as commonly sold from people’s houses as from shops here, and I was sent from door to door to door, searching for the cold stuff. ‘None left here! Try the red house on the corner….’ and so it went on til we found the last bolsa in town.

Asado stall, Mompox, Colombia

Waiting for our new year’s eve dinner to come off the grill, Mompox.

Preliminary cold beers dealt with, we headed into town to wander some more and take in the atmosphere. Most families held their house parties out in the street, with their pavement speakers competing in both the size and volume stakes. The town’s many churches were packed, and families spilled out into squares filled with fairy lights. We ate a delicious plate of mixed meats from a street stall and even managed to find a cocktail for midnight.

With the temperatures sizzling, our little 12-volt fan chose this time to stop working. To be honest we were amazed this $12 supermarket fan had lasted 15 months. But would we be able to find a new 12v car fan in Colombia? This episode highlighted one of the big beefs we have with most of the Western world – that when things break we can rarely get them repaired, even if we want to. Here, it is the opposite. Men sit at roadside stalls repairing mobile phones. There are shops for fixing cameras, cookers, food processors, you name it. We took the fan to a little shop and had it repaired in 3 minutes. I told the guy this would be difficult at home. “I heard about that! You just throw things away and buy a new one!” he said, shaking his head.

Chopping a 'bagre de mar' for dinner

Chopping a ‘bagre de mar’ for dinner on the beach.

After a calmer return ferry journey we headed north-west to a coastal area south of Cartagena, mostly visited by Colombians. We’re not sure why the gringos haven’t found this lovely stretch of coast. During two stops near Coveñas and San Bernardo del Viento, we were again on the receiving end of numerous good wishes for the trip and left with our notebook bursting with more addresses, including from one family who have a coffee roasting place near Medellín. Yum!

At the latter spot we wild-camped on a beach that was blissfully quiet following the music fests of Mompóx and Tolú. We flopped on the beach, buying fruit and fish from passing locals, including our first ‘bagre de mar’ (a type of catfish), a new favourite.

We are waiting for our friend Caroline to fly into Cartagena soon and join us for a holiday, after which we will turn south towards Bogotá. It’s about time we hit some mountains and cities, else we are in serious danger of becoming full-time beach bums.

Jeremy cooks up the bagre on the barbie.

Jeremy cooks up the bagre on the barbie.

As the altitude increases we’ll get some fresher weather too, but we feel sure of the warm welcome awaiting us further south.

Days: 426
Miles: 13,544
Things we now know to be wish were true: A quote from Jeremy this week: ‘Why hasn’t someone invented sand that doesn’t stick’?