Another week of riding Ecuador: what’s it like in the Andes and the Amazon right now?
A small town of Baños, Ecuador’s adventure capital nestled in the Eastern slopes of the Andes, is bustling with people. Sitting outside, we sip our hot canelazo and watch the world go by on a warm evening; the main street of Baños is the place to see and be seen. People cruise by in old Honda Preludes and Hyundai Gallopers kitted out with colorful neon lights, spoilers, rainbow exhausts, and stickers, loud music booming out of the car windows; outside bar and restaurant seating is full, and there are people milling about buying kids cotton candy and sugar cane juice. The main plaza is overrun by a local MC club astride small, 300cc choppers with Harley-Davidson logos on the tanks; street sellers offer anything and everything from handmade bracelets to face masks, little old ladies are frying corn and guinea pigs on coals, and at first glance, it seems like Baños is back to its usual busy self. There’s only one tiny difference: all the people enjoying a holiday in town are local Ecuadorians, and there’s hardly a foreigner in sight.
This has been our experience riding Ecuador so far. Everywhere we went – from the Pacific Coast, over the Andes, and into the Amazon basin – it appears the locals are reclaiming and rediscovering their own country. Wealthy Ecuadorians are taking to the road exploring local tourist spots, jungle lodges, and resorts; while hoteliers and tour guides say business is nowhere near back to normal, it seems locals are traveling more than ever before. We met an Ecuadorian family on a road trip around Volcano Chimborazo, had lunch with local mountain bikers exploring Cuenca, and chatted with several Ecuadorian families and groups of friends driving their cars across the country for a holiday trip. It’s an amazing feeling to be connecting with local travelers instead of swapping the same stories with Westerners; while we’ve seen some foreigners here and there, the majority of travelers in Ecuador are now definitely Ecuadorians themselves.
Despite the absence of the usual tourist crowds, we felt welcomed in the smaller Andean communities and towns in the Amazon basin. Riding one of the backroads south of Cuenca, we got invited to visit a local guitar maker’s workshop and see their handmade guitars; here in Baños, where we’re having a rest day and repairing a pinched tire tube, we got an invitation to spend the New Year’s with the locals. All in all, whether passing through smaller mountain villages, stopping at roadside eateries, or riding into bigger towns and staying for a day or two, the South American hospitality hasn’t diminished – quite the contrary.
In terms of safety, Ecuadorians are very diligent in wearing masks. Even when it’s not mandatory, people wear masks everywhere across the country, not just in the capital Quito. Indoor crowds aren’t an issue when the country has a climate of eternal spring and most restaurants, bars, and markets are outside, in the open air; add fresh food and plenty of sunlight, and Ecuador seems like a pretty healthy place to be.
As we continue riding Ecuador, we keep getting questions from friends back home about whether it’s safe; for me, the strangest part is how, in a sense, we’ve gone back in time when it comes to perceiving different countries and cultures around the world. True, Ecuador is a developing country, but it actually has a healthcare system that’s ranked exceptionally well in the world (in fact, it’s a popular destination for medical tourism as Ecuadorian doctors are frequently trained in North America and the facilities in Quito or Cuenca are top-notch), and they have dealt with the pandemic with much stricter measures that lasted much longer than in Europe. Yet back home, people have gone back to perceiving Ecuador and other South American countries as some unsafe, uncharted regions where there’s nothing but chaos.
It couldn’t be further from the truth, and it feels odd to me that during this year, we’ve gone back to old prejudices and fears which accessible international travel appeared to have lessened somewhat. Of course, we do live in a world with a global pandemic that has not been defeated yet; of course, we need to travel legally, safely, and responsibly, and only to places that have officially opened up. But while the pandemic has certainly touched every country around the globe, it has not transformed them as drastically as people seem to imagine. Frankly, riding Ecuador right now feels pretty much normal, and the only difference is the masks, the temperature measuring, and the hand sanitizers offered at every shop, eatery, or gas station.
After finishing our bike trip, we’re thinking of holing up somewhere near the River Napo for a quiet month of solitary rainforest hikes, work, and research, and if December doesn’t bring new restrictions or lockdowns, we’re hoping to do another lap of Ecuador on dirt. What 2021 will bring is anyone’s guess.