Yesterday, I spent the morning aboard a 50cc scooter, reacquainting myself with my high school Spanish thanks to a fusillade of street signs, car horns, and shouts that I’m fairly certain were obscene. Today, I’ll have a shower under a waterfall, then lunch with hummingbirds. Tomorrow I’ll take my coffee on la playa, gracias, while listening to the crash of barreling waves. The next day, I’ll be mobbed by a gaggle of sashed and skirted beauty queens who speak zero English but, alas, only want their picture taken with my motorcycle. That evening, my friends and I will practice our improving español while digging into charbroiled cuy with greasy fingers, and later I’ll fight the spins from too much guinea pig and too many Pilseners as I watch towering steeples, pastel facades, and wrought iron balconies whizz past from the bed of a pickup. Before this week is out, I’ll have ridden above clouds, behind waterfalls, and through a herd of cattle; I’ll have watched sinks 8′ apart drain in opposite directions, seen a lamb tethered to the top of a moving bus, and have tiny Andean ladies in native garb further discredit my already wafer-thin machismo. I’ll get as high as I’ve ever been, then try to ignore the yellowish water while soaking in natural hot springs in a place called Baños. Finally, I’ll float down the Amazon on an inner tube. With a dog in my lap.
Welcome to Ecuador, where every day offers a new adventure. Thanks to Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental — and a massive, nationwide highway improvement program, motorcyclists can now discover this diverse, dynamic country in any fashion and at any pace they desire. Leery of foreign travel? Owner Court Rand will be happy to lead you on a guided tour, on-road or off- (or both). Detest riding in a group? Rent a bike and a preprogrammed GPS, and ride at your own tempo. Feel confident in your riding ability, as well as your español? Then get a motorcycle and a GPS, and explore on your own. There’s nothing holding you back; Ecuador’s currency is the US dollar, and the only ardently enforced rule seems to be that you can’t buy beer on Sunday.
Ecuador straddles the equator as well as the Andes, borders the Pacific and the Amazon, and boasts the best of South America without the hassle of crossing international borders. It’s distinct from the rest of Latin America in climate. Equattorial locales don’t have seasons, see, so wherever you are, that’s pretty much how it is year-round; certain months are predictably wetter or drier than others, but the weather is dependent mainly on elevation. In Ecuador it’s common to experience four seasons in one day: you can easily ride from the Pacific Ocean to the highest point on Earth and be in the Amazon in time for dinner.
Court knows all of these regions well. Even better, he knows people, places, sights, and services in all of them. Unlike other moto-tour companies that employ freelance ride captains whose knowledge of a region is limited to tourism pamphlets and Wikipedia entries, Ecuador is where Court lives and works — and he takes his bikes, his tours, and his customers personally. A transplanted New Englander with a gravelly voice and a broad smile, he leads his tours with knowledge, confidence, and (thankfully) fluent Spanish. Last summer, RoadBike had the opportunity to ride with Court around Ecuador and experience the natural splendor, freedom, and adventure that this exquisite land and its people have to offer.
Most international flights to Ecuador land in Quito, where Freedom Bike Rental is headquartered. In 1978, Ecuador’s modern capital city of over 2 million inhabitants, was named the first World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO. Our first morning in Ecuador, Court suggested a scooter ride around Quito, and I’m glad he did; it’s a fun jaunt, beneficial for getting acclimated not only to the street signs and road rules, but also to the elevation (over 9,000′). Its Centro Historical is colorful, exotic, and quaint, with narrow cobblestone streets and plentiful shops and restaurants. And unlike countries where the locals never let you forget you’re a tourist, everywhere we went, Ecuadorians were gracious, polite, and eager to answer questions and offer directions with a smile. Most spoke at least a little English.
Freedom has a stable of rugged ADV bikes for rent (and scooters and mountain bikes), and while off-road capability is nice, you will not need it here. President Rafael Correa has made a priority of promoting tourism by improving Ecuador’s highways, and it shows: seven days of riding and not once did we encounter a surface that a Gold Wing couldn’t handle. Sure, there were some dirt roads, and many town squares were paved in well-worn cobblestone, but most of the roads and all of the highways that we rode had been resurfaced or fully constructed within the last few years. Traffic can be an issue in the cities but (as in most civilized countries), passing and lane-splitting are encouraged. In rural areas, trucks and buses often sidled to the right to give us extra space to get by, as did oncoming vehicles. Trickier are the common Ecuadorian driving practices, on which Court and Sylvain should school you before setting out (including “Why do they keep flashing their lights at me?”).
Most Ecuador Freedom tours begin with a visit to the equator — the actual line of demarcation that separates the northern and southern hemispheres. At the Intiñan Museum just north of Quito, you can stand on a painted red line and try your steady hand at balancing an egg on the head of a nail, or watch sinks drain in opposite directions on either side of the line. Bart joked about that effect in an old Simpsons episode, but to see it is fascinating and bizarre.
From there, Ecuador is your playground. Stay in the mountains and ride to cold and dizzying heights, often to the lips of active volcanoes, or head east and ride down into the basin of the Amazon jungle for a stay at an eco-lodge. Cut west toward the Pacific, as we did, and you’ll likely stay the night in the funky, eclectic town of Mindo, where world-renowned chocolate and coffee is produced. The ride to the coast featured downward-sloping twisties through verdant farmland and sultry cloud forests, where mist hugs the hills and homes perch unsteadily, one hard rain from disaster. Farmers dry batches of cocoa beans on the shoulder of the newly paved highways, and horses, mules, and schoolkids trot along the road. Canoa, a charming surf town not unlike the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, is peopled mainly with European backpackers and American expats in search of the simple life: great surfing and cheap lodging.
South of Canoa, the concrete pavement veers inland above vast flood plains lush with cotton fields before returning to the coast, where boys play futbol on the beach and fishermen peddle their morning catch by the side of the road. Ecuador 1 took us to Guayaquil, the country’s largest city, where tourists stop over on their way to the exotic Galapagos Islands. (It’s also where the fortunate among us find ourselves mobbed by equally exotic candidas latinas.)
From Guayaquil, Ecuador 582 is an epic run through Cajas National Park to colonial Cuenca. Until the nationwide highway rejuvenation, this was a perilous, single-lane dirt trail; now, faultless concrete cuts a gray ribbon across protected highlands dotted with lakes as cerulean and crystalline as the sky above. Boulders punctuate the sand, and the brush grows stunted by the cold wind and brilliant sun. The harsh environment at 14,600′ makes it clear why this area is home to hummingbird, condor, trout (hand-painted roadside signs push muchas truchas), and little else. Best of all, traffic is downright sparse.
Cuenca is a charming town not unlike Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, or the French Quarter of New Orleans: brightly colored stucco buildings with ornate wrought iron, narrow cobblestone streets lined with quaint shops and soaring churches — and abundant bars and cafes. A renowned cultural hub with numerous galleries and theaters, Cuenca’s historic center is also UNESCO- endorsed. And should you find yourself in Cuenca, you’ve simply got to try the cuy.
Ecuador 35 shoots north toward the Andes, climbing golden hills via killer switchbacks. Despite the biting wind and cold temperatures, diminutive Andeans in traditional dress putter tirelessly by the side of the road, oblivious to traffic, weather, and the modernity surrounding them. Little old ladies in traditional bowler hats, bright skirts and shawls, and clunky shoes carry huge bundles of sticks on their backs, donkeys and toddlers in tow, while the just-as-tiny men hammer, shovel, and chisel away on an assortment of projects. It was devastatingly humbling: a modest people, living a life harsh and real, free (there’s that word again) from vain pursuits who paid us no mind as we zoomed past on multithousand dollar machines. Variations on the phrase “God’s country” ran through my mind then, but now those words fall far short of illustrating the dignity and grace of these folks, and the reverence I felt. I tucked my camera inside my jacket.
The temperature plummets on the approach to Chimborazo, the massive inactive volcano that many Ecuadorians claim is the highest point on Earth. Relax, Einstein, I know what you’re thinking, but the Ministerio de Turismo has an amusingly cogent argument here. Because of Earth’s rotation, our planet has a distinct bulge at its equator, so at 20,564′, the summit of Chimborazo, the highest equatorial peak in the world, is actually farther from Earth’s core than Mt. Everest’s. Take that to your next dinner party — that is, after you ride to its base racing vicuñas all the way.
You’ll battle traffic just to reach it and tourists once you arrive, but Banos de Agua Santa is worth the fight. The town sits in a valley in the shadow of Tungurahua (“throat of fire”), a long-thought-dead volcano that violently resurrected in 1999 and continues to rumble to this day. But that doesn’t stop thrill seekers from riding gondolas across nearby gorges, or vacationers from overspilling the hotter-than-ever thermal baths. Restaurants, souvenir shops, luxury hotels, and spas abound. Yet, despite the volcanic menace, the teeming throngs, and the water’s yellowish-brown hue (it’s the minerals, stupid), there are less graceful ways to rinse off a glorious day’s ride than soaking in a natural hot tub under a waterfall.
From Banos, it’s a dazzling spree down the valley, through tunnels and alongside them, behind waterfalls and over bridges, into the heart of the Amazon jungle. Descending into the sweltering rain forest, the juxtaposition was as striking as it was on Day One: here we were, riding on newly paved roads replete with gutters, lines, and streetlights, past windowless homes, ramshackle schools, and crumbling municipalities. After seven days, it was impossible not to wonder how the government had managed to pay for all of these beautiful highways. But that’s another article for another publication.
Our last day in Ecuador summed up our trip perfectly. It began deep in the jungle at an eco-lodge on the Napo River. After a panga ride upriver and a swim under a waterfall, we floated the mile or so back to our hotel on inner tubes. Fortunately, the Napo, a tributary of the Amazon, runs far too briskly and cold to support the more perilous forms of life for which the former river is famous. Back at the hotel, we were shocked to realize it was past noon; we were already at least two hours behind schedule to make our midnight flight. Quickly we showered, geared up, and gunned it up Ecuador 28 toward Quito. Traffic was largely commercial, big delivery trucks rumbling their way back to the city; in the lead, Court did his best to make time by exploiting every holeshot.
We climbed out of the jungle and into the mountains as evening approached, stopping briefly at the summit to appreciate the marked difference between the lush green jungle behind and the misty green farmland ahead, pastures and hills that could well have been imported from Ireland. The blue sky was fading and the temperature dropping as we continued to gain elevation. We were making decent time — but in an instant, everything went gray and cold as we shot into the clouds. No time to stop to bundle up; we charged higher and higher, our headlights valiantly trying to penetrate the fog as the road twisted up the side of Volcan Antisana. Court continued to dart confidently past the lumbering giants, but those of us behind had no such guts. The landscape, bluish in the gloaming, was eerie and barren; beyond the inky mist I could make out nothing but black volcanic rocks and sand dunes. There was no telling what time it was. Court continued to rush, increasing my anxiety about the hour; surely, I thought, if he’s in such a hurry then we must be pushing our luck. We finally crested the 18,714′ summit, still in the fog; still rushing past trucks and buses, we began our descent. Suddenly, we dropped below the fog. The air warmed immediately and the twinkling lights of Quito beckoned below a long, orange horizontal line — the last vestiges of sunset. I exhaled. Up front, Court raised a thumbs-up. What a kaleidoscopic ride; what a marvelous trip. Court insisted on picking up one last meal, a steak dinner in Quito, before giving us a ride to the airport.
As they say, freedom isn’t free, but a motorcycle tour with Ecuador Freedom Rentals is all inclusive: the only reason you’ll dig out your wallet is for beers and souvenirs. Freedom takes care of every expense, from meals and hotels to activities and attractions to gasoline and the occasional helado. Prices range from $1,190 for a four-day off-road tour on a small dual-sport bike to $8,450 for the 16-day Intimate Ecuador excursion aboard the same BMW R 1200 GS I was riding. (The tour described in this story costs around $4,500.) Self-guided GPS tours — all meals and lodging included — run the gamut from overnight jaunts to full-blown, 12-day immersion tours. And the best part is that all Ecuador Freedom rentals come with insurance, helmet, gloves, lock, roadside service — plus a programmed GPS (if applicable) — and unlimited mileage. Now that’s freedom.
So next time you’re thinking of signing on for an international tour with a company of 10, 20, or 30 riders, where the nuisance of keeping the group intact and staying on schedule precludes fun, consider instead a week on the bike in Ecuador with no timetables, no rules, and no restrictions — except, of course, on Sunday. RB
Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental, 603/617-2499 (US or Canada), FreedomBikeRental.com
Story By Jon Langston
Photos by Jon Langston and Matt Kopec