From the mountains of Cuenca we traveled a few hours to Salinas on the coast of Ecuador. The distance wasn't far, 350 km, but the journey took most of the day. From Cuenca we climbed up further in to the mountains on a narrow, windy road through thick cloud cover and very wet, cold conditions. Our visibility was dangerously low, sitting in 2nd gear with hazard lights and high beams on trying to increase our visibility to other drivers as much as possible. The locals power around those mountains, perhaps they know them like the back of their hands, we certainly didn't and often didn't know if the road was curving to the left or the right until we saw a rock wall in front of our tyre. As you could imagine the descent was a welcome change along with a coffee break and the removal of all our layers as we moved in to warmer coastal climates.
Passing around Guayaquil was also slow and traffic was particularly bad because it happened to be the week that the Pope was visiting. Never mind, we made it to Salinas and met up with our new friends Raquel and Mike who accepted our request for accommodation through Adventure Rider’s Tent Space site (like Couch Surfing for bikers). Mike and Raquel were from the USA and had some really great stories. They had set off on a South American adventure, leaving their jobs and possession behind in the USA, ended up in Salinas, loved it and stayed. They run a real estate office on the Malecon and in our minds really are living the dream. They work hard with their business and renovating homes but they have the Pacific ocean, nightlife of Salinas and two gorgeous dogs, Sadie and Gary, to keep them occupied outside of work. The pace of life is just a little slower and noticeably more relaxes, its easy to understand why they made the move and haven't looked back.
Mike and Raquel put us up in a house they had been renovating and were in the process of putting on the market. We were 200 m from the beach and 1 km from town. The motorbikes were parked up in the yard and it was nice to stretch our legs walking everywhere in the lovely warmth. Stu set himself up every afternoon on a hammock on the front porch. His intention was to do some blogging and other administration tasks on the Mac but more often than not ended up taking a relaxing siesta. Janell and Negrita took every opportunity to head down to the beach. Negrita would tear up and down the sand; it was so lovely to see her happy and running freely. Janell felt at home dipping in the Pacific Ocean, the cleansing cool water washing over skin while looking out to sea and admiring the Pelicans and seagulls soaring over the waters surface.
A small ex-pat community of USA and Canadians live in Salinas. They've fought the 'norm' long enough and moved to Ecuador for a different life away from the hustle and bustle, the grind of work and seeking fortune. No, in Salinas you won't find stressed, grumpy workaholics. Instead you'll find friendly, welcoming people who appreciate a good conversation and time to enjoy life. We felt right at home in Salinas, could even be somewhere we end up living one day.
To say we enjoyed our time in Salinas would be an understatement. We really let lose and partied, something we really hadn't done so far on the journey. The thing is we never set out to go around the world getting drunk. That's something you do when you're 18 -25 years old and the body can cope with abuse, 3 hours sleep and then bike or whatever the next day. We've move out of that demographic and appreciate a decent night sleep so we can make the most of our days. But its still good to party when you find some friends to party with and Mike and Raquel invited us to a couple of parties including Independence Day, a first for both of us and lots of fun.
10 days in Salinas and it was time to keep moving. We needed to get to Colombia, which was a couple of days ride, stopping at some places on our way to the border which Mike and Raquel recommended. Ecuador is not a big country compared to its neighbours and it has good roads. You could plan a good riding holiday just travelling around Ecuador and get a taste of everything South America has to offer from mountains to beaches, from highways to gravel roads and cities to villages with fascinating culture. An advantage of Ecuador for travelers is that their currency is the US Dollar so there is no confusing currency changes and exchange rate to deal with.
We passed through Quito, the capital of Ecuador to have lunch and at least see it but continued on. We have met other riders you took the mountain route through Ecuador. From Quito you head to a town called Banos and then its some challenging riding, particularly on the wet gravel. In Cuenca we had met up with a couple riding on two bikes with their Chihuahua. Shannon and Mike met us through Facebook, they were heading south to Lima and we only had one night to meet up back in Cuenca so found a place for dinner and chatted for a few hours. They talked about taking the mountain route from Quito and it sounded amazing. Obviously the best situation is to have time to travel around the whole country but if you don't, then either the coast or mountain is going to be enjoyable, just in very different ways. I guess its important to remember that we'd been on the road for 18 months by this stage and seen a fair share of gravel road and mountains so the coast and warmth was really appealing to us.
Call us crazy but it doesn't matter how perfect a place is, we want to get back our motorbikes and see more. Many people have suggested to us in conversation that the world must feel like such a small place now that we have seen quite a bit of it. We'd have to strongly disagree, if anything you get a much better perspective on how big it really is and how much there is to see. Everywhere you go, you meet different people and see different things. Some experiences are wonderful and relaxing, others a difficult and stressful but that’s what’s so exciting and interesting about travelling. The 'not knowing' is so addictive. And at the end of the day its fun to reflect on how you ended up where you are, sometimes it makes sense and other times its just mind-blowing.
Speaking of mind-blowing, every rider/traveler should do the Tulcan/Ipiales border crossing between Ecuador and Colombia. At around 3000 m in elevation, we had returned to the Andes mountain range. The mountains are very steep with large rivers flowing through this region. The border crossing, however, isn't the interest in this locality, its Santuario de las Lajas or Las Laja Sanctuary. This church is constructed on a bridge spanning a gorge and it looks like something out of a fairy tale. It certainly doesn't look like something you'd see in the mountains of South America, definitely in Europe but not Colombia. The grey and white brick and mortar facade is striking against the natural green backdrop and it’s kept in pristine condition. Markets line the walk down to the entrance of the bridge so the site is obviously a great tourist attraction and boost for the local economy but you have to wonder why it was necessary to go to such lengths to build a church in such a challenging topography. You can ponder this as you take your time strolling around the site and pausing to admire the surrounding view and Gothic architecture.