Ecuador – Building Resilience 

Travels from July 15 through August 17th, 2022

“In order to grow, you need to be there at the edge of uncertainty.” Frances Mallman

The first roadside attraction after crossing into Ecuador from Colombia was Tulcan Cemetery. The massive property is lined with shrubs manicured into entertaining characters and hosted thousands of deceased. Few, presumably wealthy or famous, were in ornate walk-in mausoleums decorated with elegant, framed photos and flowers. Headstones were also scattered in grassy areas, but most of the caskets were enclosed in expansive enclosures, stories high, as far as the eye could see.  

Once we had our fill of cemetery wandering, we headed to a campground on a lake that is popular with overlanders. Upon arrival we felt like we were in Germany. The campground is owned by a German named Hans. He runs a German restaurant on site, has a fridge full of imported German beer, and hosts several German campers. As Francine entered, we were delighted to see four German friends we had met in Colombia running out to greet us. We had a potluck one night with German sausages and potato salad. Sprechen sie duetsch? Guten appetit!

We spent a few days enjoying the luxuries of hot showers, laundry, wifi, friends, music, hot chips at the restaurant, and jogs around the lake. On a solo run one day, I climbed to the top of a lookout point and met a friendly couple who were in town for the pride festival. They were enjoying the local liquor while they took in the views and insisted that I try a shot. It certainly fuelled me to finish my lap around the lake!

We hadn’t quite had our fill of Germans upon departure, so we followed a couple to stay a night with them at an AirBnB they had rented in Otavalo, famous for its handicraft market. We explored the stalls, town, shared music, and made a great dinner together before continuing our journey to the middle of the world. The next stop was the equator.

The excitement of reaching the equator was dampened by worries about our new brakes. It had been less than a week since they were installed in Colombia, so it was concerning that Francine was pulling hard to the right when Will attempted to stop. Our travels were paused, and the route was altered to drive immediately to another brake mechanic.

We spent two days and nights in the garage of Rapi-Frenos in Cayambe while they attempted to diagnose the problem. It turned out that the brakes we had just purchased in Colombia were of poor quality and not right for our truck. We already needed to replace them. Considering the previous brake mechanic had added a 25% “gringo tax” to our bill and put us in a dangerous situation, we felt disgusted and taken advantage of.  

I tried to get my mind right by doing early morning yoga in the garage and was absolutely smothered by the shop dogs – a loving pug and a howling hound dog. While the pug jumped all over me giving kisses the other ran around barking like mad. So much for Will sleeping in! We tried to focus on positive things, so we spent much of our idle time in the garage searching for last minute deals to visit the Galapagos Islands.

We were relieved to finally have the problem diagnosed and repaired, however upon test driving to ensure the new brakes were good to go, the gears started acting funny. Despite my earlier efforts to calm myself with yoga, this was too much for me. I went for a walk through a desolate part of town to cry in private. I seriously questioned what we were doing and if these were signs that it was time to quit. How much more money were we willing to pour into this travel machine? Aside from two brake replacements in one week, we had just invested in new shocks and tried to diagnose (for the fourth time) why our rear fuel gauge didn’t work. We still had no answer. And what problems were yet to reveal themselves? Our company would place us in jobs if we returned to Australia now. However, if we pushed on and didn’t return by early September we would be off their books and unemployed. And to top it off, I missed my mom. I felt guilty for being so far from her living as a vagabond.

The sweet shop dogs did their best to console me.

And the fridge, that bloody propane guzzling appliance. Ever since Costa Rica when the sensor quit working, we never knew if it was on or off, and if it was going to freeze our food or let it rot. It was so old that the little thing pulled more energy than a full-sized fridge in a family home. Therefore, our solar panels couldn’t get enough power to it so we needed to fill the propane tank every two weeks to keep it running. And do you think it’s easy to fill an American propane tank outside of America? Not a chance! I felt like I spent my days worrying if the fridge would be working when I opened it, if it sucked up all the gas so I couldn’t make coffee in the morning, and if our precious food would go bad. I think I hated the fridge more than anything.

At this moment everything felt uncertain and spinning out of control. Living at that edge felt natural to Will, but terrifying to me. He heard my concerns but was certain that we needed to push on. We drove directly from the brake garage in Cayambe to a mechanic in Quito to address the next problem. Not quick to trust, I looked deep into the eyes of young Alexie, the mechanic Will found through iOverlander. It didn’t take him long to win us over. He was honest and eager to help. He told us we were looking at up to $2500 in repairs and at least 7 days without our truck. Sticker shocked and needing a wine, he told us we could stay in the camper in the corner of his secure garage while the truck was pulled off to service. When he gave us the keys to his garage so that we could come and go as we pleased, we realized the trust went both ways.

We spent a week in Alexie’s garage. I did more yoga on the shop floor and mapped out plans and thoughts on a spreadsheet to regain composure and feel like I had control over something. All these issues made me seriously consider quitting. But as my mind calmed, I remembered the two most important things – health and relationships. Fortunately, no medical issues or injuries had forced us to stop this journey. And despite fighting like we’ve never fought before, we were still together and killer travel companions. We honed the skills of arguing constructively and moving on quickly. Our love is rock solid, and as Will says, “we’ve got it dialed.” Therefore, it seemed like it would be foolish to quit when the two most important things remained intact.

While Francine was out of commission, we checked out Quito . . .

. . . and booked a few nights at a hostel near the epic Cotopaxi mountain.

We were determined to summit the 19,347′ peak, so we did a few treks to acclimatize. I searched for new hiking boots and found that my feet are too big for the country. They don’t carry sizes bigger than woman’s 8 ½ US! We ended up renting boots and climbing gear for Cotopaxi so all was good. I felt mentally focused and ready. I had climbed Kilimanjaro at 19,341’ years before, and Cotopaxi is just 6’ higher. The elevation gain for the summit push was also less, I was taking altitude medication, and it’s all in the head anyway, right? No worries!

Turns out I was definitely over-confident. The hike begins with a short, steep climb to a refugio where we ate dinner and slept for a few hours before being woken for the 12:45 am push to the summit. Cold and excitement were running through our veins as we prepared to take off into the darkness, with a goal of reaching the summit for sunrise around 6 am. I took my mind to happy places, thinking of all my loved ones and reflecting on the past. That worked for about an hour, and then the altitude sickness crept in. A tiny headache was first, and then complete exhaustion. There was no way I was quitting, but I was miserable. As we approached the glacier, we attached our crampons and a rope to connect us to our guide and I was in the middle. When the guide walked too fast, I’d fall. He’d drag me in the snow as I struggled to get up. This happened multiple times despite my request to go slower. Fortunately, Will was behind me encouraging and coaching me along to take one step every few seconds. We made it to the top and the photos do not disguise the way I felt. I collapsed in the snow motionless. It is the closest to death I have ever felt in my life. The views, however, were magnificent and we were lucky to have clear 360-degree views.  

With Will’s help, I made it down the mountain and went straight to a bunk in the refugio to sleep. The guide offered no support, but was happy to eat my lunch and his since I was feeling ill. I told Will this was my last mountain and was adamant there would be no more. But as with any adventure, as time has passed I only remember the good parts and am ready to climb again – only much better acclimatized!

We returned to Alexie’s garage to see how Francine was doing. We were elated to hear that the required repairs were far less extensive than they had anticipated. The total bill was only $600 and we were back on the road exploring with Francine running better than she ever had. Our confidence and enthusiasm were renewed for the long journey south. Alexie will always be remembered as a bright spot in this adventure.     

The time we spent in mechanic garages forced us to skip many places we wanted to see in Ecuador, but the one place we did not want to miss was the Galapagos Islands. Will has talked more about this place than any other since I’ve known him. David Attenborough hooked him years ago documenting the blue footed boobies crashing into the water. With that being our priority, we drove a quick loop toward rainforest regions of Ecuador, slept next to a hot spring and then in the city of Banos before circling back to Quito to leave Francine while we flew to the islands.

I don’t have words to describe this magical paradise. Perhaps other-worldly is the best I can think of. From the moment we landed it was a real-life nature show. There are no natural predators in the Galapagos, so the animals coexist with humans and allow us to observe them up close without fearing us.

On Santa Cruz island we rented bikes to cruise out to nature to closely observe tortoises. They would be waddling along and pull their head in and hiss as we biked past them.

Strolling down docks by the water we had to veer out of the way of marine iguanas and sea lions who ruled the terain. We hopped on the last-minute cruise we had booked and spent four days cruising on a boat to isolated islands, 600 miles from the nearest continent. We snorkeled next to hammerhead sharks, sea lions, sea turtles, octopus, rays, eels, penguins, reef sharks and thousands of colorful fish. The young sea lions loved to tease and twirl around us in the water. I swear one tried to head-butt me. We hiked on islands past red and blue-footed boobies, herons, and frigate birds on their nests. It was mind blowing and a dream come true.

We returned to Francine and were only charged $1/day for the time she was parked near the airport in Quito. Ready to get back to high elevation after a week at sea level, we booked it toward Chimborazo and spent a night in volcano dunes at the base of the mountain, admiring the mighty views and vicunas roaming through the thick fog.

Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador at 20,702’, and given my recent near-death-feeling experience on Cotopaxi we chose not to attempt that summit! Lovely local ladies gave us mountain herbs to make tea to help us sleep at the elevation. 

We continued driving south and spent a few days wandering around the pretty city of Cuenca, taking in the views, lively music, coffee and wine. It is understandably a popular expat town with great weather and a relaxed and happy vibe.

We hiked around lakes and up steep tracks in nearby Cajas National Park before making our way to the border.

We spent our last night parked next to the customs building at the border to Peru. We left the country with so many places yet to explore. I guess you can’t see it all, and it is always good to have reasons to return.  

Our month in Ecuador brought the highest highs and lowest lows. I reflected back on the lessons learned in nine months of life on the road. I felt so much appreciation for things I used to take for granted – a hot shower, the resources to make coffee in the morning, a toilet, a laundromat, etc. I hope I take this with me and don’t get used to expecting that everything should be easy all the time. It’s the challenges and breakdowns that have led us to this appreciation. On the road everything seems tedious. Nothing ever feels completely clean. It’s crowded. Once one problem is addressed another seems to surface. We are constantly sitting at the edge of uncertainty, and I am learning to embrace it. Growth feels good, and as author Jack Kerouac so wisely stated: “The Road is Life.”

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