We didn’t have much planned for the city of Cuenca. We had a few shopping items that we needed to chase down, we visited the Pumapungo Museum, where we saw, among other things, a display of shrunken heads, we walked around the historical centre…..
We decided to head back inland. Surprisingly, given that we were at sea level and not very far from the equator, it was cool in Puerto Lopez (the cold humboldt current from the south moderates the coastal temperature), and we were anxious to get back to the mountains. We headed towards MtChimborazo.
We had decided in Quito, after much discussion, that we would not make the side trip out to the Galapagos Islands. Friends we had met on the road had offered to watch Piper for us if we went, but we decided that if we did go we wanted to do it on a 7 or 8 day cruise, plus maybe spend some time on one of the islands, and that it could quickly become a 10 or 12 day trip. That’s a long time to leave Piper, and we would have to find a place to stash the truck. In addition, the trip would easily cost or $8,000 Canadian dollars, and when Derek calculated how many kilometres we could drive for that much money (a lot!), we decided that the Galapagos would have to wait.
We knew we wouldn’t make it all the way to Puerto Lopez after leaving Laguna Quilotoa, but we headed west to see how far we could get before dark. We drove downhill almost all the way, through winding, mountain highway, rainforest on either side and views for miles. We started high above the clouds, drove through a layer of cloudy mist to great views under overcast skies, then through one more layer of cloud as we neared the coast.
The Quilotoa Loop is a 3 or 4 day backpack that you can do, partly on trails, partly on roads, that takes you through small indigenous towns and stunning mountain scenery. Backpackers generally do the loop staying at hostels found all along the way. We decided that instead of stashing the truck somewhere, renting gear, and trying to find places that would accept us with the dog, that we would drive the loop with our truck and camper.
Leaving Mindo we took a slightly longer route to avoid driving through Quito again. We were not sure what we would be getting into, as we were going to be off main highways. As it turned out, the roads were paved, nice and wide and had a decent shoulder. This made for an easy, enjoyable driving day. On average, the main roads in Ecuador have probably been the best we have experienced in all of Latin America.
Mindo is 2.5 hours from Quito but a world away in terms of the environment. In 268 kilometres of winding road we dropped about 1,500 metres in elevation. Gone were the volcano peaks and bare mountains, replaced by lush tropical forest and gorges. Gone were the high rises, traffic and urban dwellers, replaced by palms trees, people on horseback and children playing in the stream while their mothers hand washed clothes and lay them on the rocks to dry.
We had been a bit anxious about crossing the border from Colombia into Ecuador. We had read that there could be line ups of thousands of Venezuelan refugees at the border, having walked, hitch hiked, and stowed away on vehicles across Colombia, hoping to land somewhere where they could restart their lives. We had read accounts of it taking 8 or 10 hours to get across the border….a small inconvenience for us in light of what the Venezuelans are facing, but a daunting prospect, none the less.
We were heading up a hill, when suddenly Derek took his foot off of the gas and the truck responded, instantly slowing to a crawl. I looked at Derek, I looked to the road immediately ahead, and then back at Derek. There was no animal, no debris, no tope in the road. “What’s up?”, I asked. “I have no steering”, Derek said.
Tierradentro, meaning “inner land”, is known for its underground tombs built by a civilization that was at its height from about 600 – 900 AD. Little is known about the people who built the tombs and many of the sites were subject to looting before the area became protected. This part of Colombia was rarely visited by tourists for many years due to guerrilla activity and poor roads, however it is now considered quite safe to visit.