Following a muddy mountain trail somewhere in the Ecuadorian Andes, we’re slowly starting to realize we’re not going to get anywhere. It’s past seven PM, pitch-black dark, and the notorious Andean fog is so thick the visibility is almost zero; the next bigger village is a mere forty miles away, but, crawling along in second gear, it’ll take us hours. Already fatigued, soaking wet, and freezing, we push on regardless: having emerged from the dense, verdant green cloud forest with its narrow, washed-out dirt trails, we’ve come across a town we hoped we’d find a place to stay.
We’re dead wrong; Facundo Vela is a small village rather than a town, relying on sugar cane – and not much else – for survival. There are no hotels or places to stay here, and we figure we’d try to make it to Salinas de Guaranda, a village near Mount Chimborazo where there’s hot food and shelter.
My friend Jurga, Lennart, and I have gloriously miscalculated the distance vs terrain ratio. Having been on the road for the better part of the last seven years, I tell myself I know better than to disregard terrain – and yet, here we are. The off-road trails on the Western slopes of the Andes are ridiculously awesome, winding through the lush green forest, climbing higher and higher, twisting around the mountain face, and revealing secluded little valleys, gorges, and tiny indigenous villages and settlements along the way.
We’ve had some bad luck with the weather, though, mud and rain slowing us down; somewhere mid-way, we came across a massive landslide, and it took us a while to get the bikes over a mess of rocks and fresh earth blocking the trail. We’re only forty miles short of our destination, and we could, if truly pressed, make it to the next village, even with me riding blind – but, in the end, we think better of it and turn back to Facundo Vela. The fog is getting thicker and colder, and we don’t know whether there may be more landslides ahead, or whether we’re even on the right track: out here, Google Maps are useless, and we only have general direction, not the route.
Rolling back into Facundo Vela on our mud-splattered bikes, we try our luck again. There’s a woman grilling chicken on the curbside; she seems to run an eatery with several plastic chairs and tables inside and a small coal burner out in the street. I ask her if there’s a hotel, a hostal, a guesthouse, anything… She giggles. The village is simply too small; she tells us to knock on the door of the green house across the square – the owner may have a room he’d be willing to rent – but when we locate the proprietor of the Green House, it turns out the gentleman in question is already somewhat tipsy on local sugarcane aguardiente, and he’s not much interested in renting anything to anyone, let alone three weird gringos on motorbikes.
Fair enough. Having rented the bikes and planned a week-long ride, nothing more, we don’t have our camping gear; so far, we’ve had no trouble finding places to stay.
Sheepishly, we return to the woman and her grilled chicken. We ask her if she knows of anything or anyone else; she doesn’t, but she seems to take pity on us. Conferring with another woman at the back of the kitchen, she tells us she may find a few mattresses she could lay down for us in the building next door. The building is only half-finished, the windows still awaiting glass panes, and the room we’re offered has no locks – or beds, for that matter; it’s just bare cement floor occupied by a couple of large cockroaches entirely unperturbed by our presence, and two scrawny mattresses. We gratefully accept – it’s either this or doing forty miles in the dark, foggy Andean night.
We dump our mud-covered luggage in our suite, huddle the bikes together on the curbside, peel our wet gear off, and head back out into the street. Facundo Vela is quiet at night; gigantic moths flock to the village’s only street lamp, kids play football in the square, and our landlady is still busy with her grilled chicken. We order some; Jurga fishes a bottle of rum out of her duffel bag, we find some Coca Cola, and before we know it, it’s a feast of chicken and improvised Cuba Libres by candlelight. Our landlady brings us a shot of the local sugarcane liquor; it burns, but she tells us it keeps “La Corona” away. Facundo Vela hasn’t seen any COVID cases because of it, she ensures us. Picking at the chicken bones and sipping our drinks, we watch the kids kick the half-deflated ball around the square, the moths congregate at the street lamp, and the deep, thick, velvety darkness engulfing the village, almost swallowing it out of existence.
It’s the night after the New Year, 2021.
Despite our spectacular route miscalculations, our wet gear, and our six-legged roommates, I feel like this year is starting with serious promise.