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Unforgettable Ecuador

Note: This is 11 Pages of exciting good times. Print it out on some scratch paper in draft mode and enjoy it slowly.

Greetings from Cali, Colombia! Cali is the salsa dancing capital of South America and a charming city hard to leave. We’re dancing every night, filming live musicians, exploring the culture and planning our adventures in Colombia. As of now we’re heading out this weekend on a 500km ride to Medillin then flying to the Colombian island paradise of San Andres for our last adventure in South America.

Sooooo, back to Ecuador! I have broken the one-month adventure into three adventures, each with their own photo album. Enjoy the ride!

Exciting Photos: Just click the link below. Big thanks to Panasonic for the cameras:

Part 1: Ecuadorian Banana Belt. http://picasaweb.google.com/peacepedalers/PeacePedalinEcuadorianLowlands?feat=directlink
Part 2: Up the Coast: http://picasaweb.google.com/peacepedalers/EcuadorPart2TheCoast?feat=directlink
Part 3: Quito and the Amazon: http://picasaweb.google.com/peacepedalers/EcuadorAdventuresQuitoAmazon?feat=directlink

Part 1: Ecuadorian Banana Belt

Cristina and I arrived at the border of Ecuador prepared to face what Lonely Planet and several other guide books called “the worst border crossing in South America”. As the border grew closer the traffic, dust and chaos indeed increased as it always does. We locked up all our extra items like water bottles, speedometer and anything that could easily be snagged by wandering hands. We put on our game face for the big battle. But it never came.

If I had a dollar for every “crazy place” I was warned about that turned out to be pleasant and fun I’d be buying some pimpin’ gifts for the family this holiday season. We rolled up, our bikes were guarded by smiling police officers, no bribes were requested, no hassles encountered and within seconds we were in Ecuador.

Back in Peru we got lost following the wrong road and were several hours behind schedule trying to meet our first Ecuadorian Couchsurfing host Juan Angel for a ride. We originally planned to catch a bus to move north faster but Cristina’s female intuition kicked in at lunch and she suggested I ask for a life from a posh pickup truck full of four Ecuadorian chaps and their surfboards. Within 60 seconds we had a lift in an air conditioned truck with Pachi and his family. Ecuador was off to a stellar start indeed.

We met up with Juan Angel and rode together into his home town of Machala, well off the tourist track. There was not a gringo in sight, and it was just how I like it. We stocked up for a few days food at the market and arrived Juan Angel’s humble house around sunset. We were his first Couchsurfing guests and he and his mother Cecilia were very excited to have us. Many traveling couchsurfers had contacted Juan Angel but they all canceled their plans to visit this very ordinary, but extremely genuine Ecuadorian city.

Cristina and I felt at home and part of the family right away. We stayed Juan Angel’s brother’s bedroom who is away at college and it was a treat to see all the remnants of his presence amongst our living space—posters, trinkets, photos and all the stuff you normally leave behind when you go away to school.

For the next three days we melded into life in Machala. Cecilia cooked up traditional dishes of food and Cristina returned the favor with Spanish tortillas. We hit the town, worked, played, chatted for hours, fixed up the bikes, washed stinky clothes and got ourselves ready for our expedition in Ecuador. We were even able to find our first two guest riders for the trip! Both Cecilia and Juan Angel would accompany us north towards Guayaquil!

Cecilia was the first rider and her short ride was to the newspaper office where we ran the cameras and she shared her passion for the arts, environment and powerful messages to the viewers of the show. After our interview with the papers Juan Angel took over and we were off and pedaling into the rich green banana fields typical in this fertile region of the country. We stopped to see the fascinating process of harvesting and preparing hundreds of boxes of bananas for export to the USA and Europe. The workers make about $15 a day but still work with a big smile.
The Pan American highway was chaos. This highway is the main artery of South America and Ecuador’s section of it was loaded with fast moving trucks, buses and stinky cars. After a few hours of loud touring Jaun Angel recommended we escape the PanAm for a quiet dirt road up to a tranquil waterfall. Within seconds were climbing gently up a dirt road with cacao, coffee, bananas, flowers, birds, rivers, views of cloud covered pristine forests and air so fresh you wanted to bottle it up! We passed adorable small villages of smiling farmers in colorful houses and finally arrived at an unmarked “secret waterfall” Juan Angel’s father used to take him to as a boy. The lush green path from the road led to a dreamy stream and flowing waterfall perfect for skinny dippin’, chillin’, chattin’ and life was good in Ecuador!

We retuned back to the wild PanAm and ran the cameras for a loud but very real filmed experience of touring. In between gusts of noise and wind from trucks passing Juan Angel shared his heart with the world. I loved his message that we are all human, no matter where you go in the world, we all share the same human needs and desires. We arrived in Ponce Enriquez as the sun was setting and this was where Juan Angel needed to catch his bus back home. Juan Angel is still in college and had big projects to get back to in Machala. We shared our last meal together and celebrated a truly unforgettable adventure both in Machala and on the road, and gave a strong hug when the sad moment finally arrived when we had to say “until next time…”. I will see Juan Angel again, no doubt.

Across from the ice cream store, where I frequent regularly while on tour, was a new hotel run by an Ecuadorian who lived nine years in Florida. He set us up with a posh room for only 5 bucks each to get a good night’s sleep for the next day’s adventures. We woke up to the first rain I have had to ride in for many months but spirits were high. We hit the road north with trucks spitting up dirt and water as we both cranked our Ipods to maintain some serenity during the morning ride.

The rain finally stopped about midday and I spotted a young boy waiting for a bus home from school. He accepted the invitation to ride in a heartbeat, I strapped his plastic bag with shoes and clothes on the bike and Pedro Pablo and Jamie were off and pedaling with a smile. In Ecuador it is common for people to have and use two names. Like Juan Angel, Pedro Pablo, Juan Carlos this was the way it would be in Ecuador and I like it. Pedro Pablo is 12 years old and shared his dream to become president of Ecuador when he gets older. We rode about 10 kilometers together before finally reaching his home. We met his father, mother and 6 brothers and sisters who live in an adorable country home with a view of cloud covered green forests to die for.

Just outside of Narajal we stopped to film a scene and met a smiling man named Genaro. Genaro was walking to his job at the bus company with a big bin of sandwiches he sells to the passengers. He happily accepted the lift and shared his passion for his wife and two kids who he looks forward to returning to each day. “Dios, mi esposa y mis hijos es todo que necicito”...”God, my wife and children is all I need”. He lives in a bamboo house without electricity or water and is slowly, like most Latino Americanos, saving to build his house one bit at a time, paycheck after paycheck.

The sun was beginning to go down and Cristina and I were both in the mood for a home stay in the countryside, or “campo”, so we began to keep our eyes open after we left the notoriously dodgy down of Naranjal. I had a vision of the kind of home stay I was personally looking for and it took a few attempts to find just the right one, including a stop at a former military turned housing complex, then a cute group of houses that seemed ideal but the owner just did not get what we were quite after. The third attempt turned out to be worth the persistence and patience.

The sun was setting through a colorful garden of bright pink flowers, palms, cactus and more in front of an old yet charming house. I pulled the huge tandem into the front yard as the dogs greeted us with loud barking. We were greeted first by Bella who calmed the dogs and returned my smile and greeting. I knew right away that we found our home for the night. Within a few minutes of small talk I explained that we wanted to pitch our tent next to their house, cook a meal together and experience a slice of life in the countryside of Ecuador. She replied “claro que si”…” of course.

We then met her mother Ernestina whose house had the super colorful garden and cocao drying in the setting sun, who was just as charming and welcoming. I offloaded most of my weight then offered to take 9 year old Christian with me into town to buy supplies for the evening meal. Our mission was chicken, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and drinks. We rode around adorable village of Villa Nueva strapping on bags of goodies in various shops as Christian smiled and giggled passing his friends and family in town as the sun was setting. Life is good.

By the time dinner was served we had grown quite close to these families. Bella and Jose invited us to stay in their home with them on a spare mattress instead of setting up our tent outside. We were the first guests they have ad in their home and they were truly enjoying the opportunity to host us, including the engineering feat of setting up the mosquito net over our mattress, which became an international team effort ending in success—not a single big all night and there were plenty hungry buggers wanting a suck of new gringo blood.

The next morning was classic since both families chose to cook us a big breakfast. First we ate a huge meal at Bella and Jose’s house, followed by an entire second meal by Ernestina and Beartiz in the other house. Needless to say, we were property fueled up for our 80km ride to Guayaquil. We did some filming around the farm to share how cocoa is produced, snapped our farewell photo, printed out a few for the families, gave our hugs “till next time” and were off and pedaling with huge smiles of gratitude on our faces.

The day started out with a pretty stiff headwind but Cristina and I took turned hammering in front. Cristina actually likes riding the front and can keep a much faster average speed than I can so she rocked us into the wind at about 20km/hour as we watched the lovely scenery pass by. Everywhere we stopped we met friendly, outgoing locals eager to get to know us and wish us luck on our journey. At about the 60km mark I saw a man waiting for a bus and he happily accepted the invitation to ride to his truck that was just outside Guayaquil. His name was Sergio and he’s a father of three grown children and was quite a character. We ended up doing a long filmed interview on the bike that you’re gonna love when it finally come out. We had some deep conversations about drugs after I asked him what he was most proud of in Ecuador and he answered the Cocaine produced here. Yikes! But besides this he had awakening opinions about the vast corruption in Ecuador and all of Lain America.

We bid farewell to Sergio and finally made the last valiant push into Guayaquil. In all honesty, if you are ever cycle touring to this city either DON’T or make sure you REALLY know how to ride. It’s total madness. We first had to cross two horribly busy bridges with no cycle lane or shoulder. One wrong move and you are either run over or tossed into the water. Seriously. Then, once you cross the bridges you then have dozens of other zero-shoulder bridges and tight merges to do that will put hair on your chest or grind away layers of your teeth, or both. But we made it to the center of Guayaquil where we would await our second Couchsurfing host Alejandra to come fetch us to ride to her place.

We landed in Bolivar Park where dozens of huge iguanas roam free to play with and families come for a brief slice of peace from the total madness that surrounds. Alejandra took over 90 minutes to arrive from her place in bus so I anticipated a long ride back to her pad but nothing could prepare us for what we would have to endure. For the next hour and a half Cristina, Jamie and Alejandra were part of Guyaquil’s rush hour madness combined with pre-holiday traffic. Yep, we chose to ride almost 20km dodging buses, trucks, taxis, waiting in lines of stinky traffic with pollution that rivaled anything I have been in since Nairobi, Kenya. Add to this the fact that it was getting darker by the minute and we were at the 100km mark of tough riding and you can imagine the relief we felt when Alejandra finally said “ya estamos…we’re here”. Nice! Pictures are worth a thousand words…check out the grime on my legs in the photo. This is mostly from the diesel pollution!

Alejandra was like an angel. She showed us to our own room, took our grimy clothes directly to be cleaned, brought up fresh papaya, bananas and ice cold juice, and off to the showers we went. We were exhausted but after a shower, food, cold beer and fresh clothes we were all ready to hit the town on a festive Friday night in Guayaquil. We met up with Pachi, the smiling chap who gave us a lift from the border, and spent the rest of the night enjoying great conversations, historical explanations and dancing until 4AM. Life is good indeed!

The next morning Alejandra’s mom cooked up a huge feast of "bolones", which are balls of plantain bananas with fresh farm cheese, with eggs, fresh fruit, coffee, hand squeezed orange juice. Wow, her father is a true gentleman and we enjoyed some nice conversations as his busy wife passed back and forth running her busy restaurant just next door.

Part 2: Coastal Adventures

Alejandra had plans for the holiday weekend and we were invited to spend it with our next Couchsurfing host Jose Rubio in Santa Elena so we found a pickup truck to take us out towards the beach. We were warned to stay off the road from Saturday to Tuesday due to the large amount of drunk drivers on the road during this major 4-day holiday. By the time we hit the road I knew exactly what they meant—the roads were utter chaos as thousands of Guayaquillenos packed up their families and cases of beer to hit the coast. Two lanes became three then four as everyone raced to get out of town. Insanity.

We arrived in Santa Elena and met our smiling host Jose Rubio, his wife Maritza and their adorable 2 year old daughter in the plaza. The plaza had live music, cotton candy, kids playing, food cooking and it was officially holiday time in Ecuador indeed! We followed Jose’s directions to his mom Rosario’s house outside of town and finally reaching our holiday destination where we would park the bikes and join the family fun.

Rosario’s house, like many houses during holidays, was full of family. Rosario’s brother Alexis and his wife Daisy were visiting with their lovely daughters Camila and Joyce. Her 75 year old father was there in full force, her son Daniel and now Jamie and Cristina. There was no spare room to host us so we ended up setting up our tent in the living room without even a hiccup of concern from anyone. It was a classic site and we felt immediately accepted and part of this warm, loving Ecuadorian family.

Halloween was about as tame as it comes as we opted to stay away from the madness of Salinas and chill in Santa Elena. Santa Elena, like Machala, is far from a tourist destination. You wont’ find it in the guide books. And this is how I like it. It is a real Ecuadorian pueblo, without gringos or obnoxious Guayaquilleno holiday makers. But during this holiday it was just perfect with kids playing, young families strolling, teenagers sipping beers with their friends, barbeques cooking up fresh fish n zesty chicken. Just right.

The next day the kids were amped up for hitting the beach. But before that it was all about a BBQ Jose was so excited to share with us of fresh red snapper and patacones. Patacones is a traditional staple food made from fried plantain bananas that are cut then smashed into circular chips—delicious!

The adventure to the beach in true Latin American style. Alexis and his family don’t own a car so we shared a taxi for 7 of us and an inflatable raft to boot! We chose San Pedro for the outing, an unpretentious family beach with warm water, cold beers, tons of kids and endless laughs. For Cristina and me it was a blissful cultural experience and for the family an important time to catch fresh air away from Guayaquil with the ones they love. A priceless day in the sun!

The next day was all about cooking as a family. The feast would include fresh crabs that arrived alive and were killed, cleaned and prepared on the spot at the house. The entire process took hours and a case of ice cold Club beers to prepare and eat. The final product was stuffed crab and an incredibly perfect crab soup served with Cristina’s guacamole. We followed this up with rides with all the kids, most of them who now call me “Tio Jamie” or Uncle Jamie, around the neighborhood giggling and having a ball. Life was good!

The next day was the final day of the 4-day holiday and we had originally intended to get on the bike and start pedaling. But we were told the roads would be full of traffic and easily talked into going to San Vincente where hot springs, mud baths and massages were a far better option. It also allowed us to get some quality time with Cecilia away from the kitchen and watching her sister Rachel’s 3 year old son Rai Edwardo. Rachel, like all too many of the mothers in Ecuador and Latin America, is raising Rai Edwardo herself and had to work all weekend.

The day finally arrived to pack up our home inside the home tent and bid farewell to our Santa Elena family. We pedaled over to Jose Rubio’s house where he had a delicious breakfast ready to prepare with us. Jose Rubio is just starting to build up his own house and it’s pretty rustic at this point. If you travel to Latin America you’ll see dozens of houses that look incomplete and even abandoned. That’s because bank financing is very difficult to come by and the average person will build their house brick by brick, paycheck by paycheck, often over the course of decades! Jose Rubio’s place had just one room complete for living, cooking, working and no running water. This is the reason her preferred for us to stay with his mother, whose house is far more along in the process yet still lacking the planned 2nd story.

Jose Rubio told us that he was unable to ride with us north to Montanita so we did most of our filming and an interview at his house. But by the time we were ready to roll out he suddenly decided he just had to ride with us that day! So you can imagine how excited I was to spend the entire afternoon on a coastal ride 65km to a world class surf break with my good buddy!

The ride was divine with excellent conversations, a friendly tail wind, lovely coastal views and cool people who greeted us in every direction. Jose knew someone in almost every town so it was like riding with a celebrity. The sunny skies and tail winds slowly changed to rain as we moved closer to Montanita and Jose explained to me that I this region it rains a ton during November and the surf is usually bad. We arrived in great spirits in spite of the grey rain and ugly waves and met a sweet woman Cecilia who gave us a great deal for an oceanfront room.

We had planned to head out the next day but we ended up meeting a lovely couple Santiago and Chela who invited us to lunch and encouraged us to suck in the town. I decided to grab a surf the next day and did score a few great rides in spite of the stormy conditions. The rain continued to fall and the forecast was for many days of the same. But Santiago told us that north about 200km near the equator we would find warmer weather and sunshine. So instead of spending three days in rain we decided to teleport ourselves via bus to the balmy, sun-drenched Esmeraldas region where we had several Couchsurfers awaiting. And my Surf Angles are still following me as a perfect swell was due for Cristina’s birthday weekend and guys had surfboards, a car and an adventure to the country’s best surf spot Mompiche in store for us. Nice!

We were greeted by our smiling host Eduardo and his dreadlocked buddy Jorge. Jorge hopped on the tandem for a steamy ride to Eduardo’s place where his girlfriend Julia had lunch cooking and the boys were beyond excited to get the boards and gear packed up for the trip to Mompiche. We managed to pack in 7 people, 5 boards & camping gear into Eduardo’s pad. Life is good!

Looking back on the 7.5 years of my life on the road I now realize that the tandem bike element of my trip is not so much a representation of my passion for biking as much as it is a vehicle share outdoor, athletic adventures while learning about the cultures. Sure, I love biking, but I love rich cultural experiences even more, especially when I can surf, camp and connect in a precious place like Mompiche. We spent two unforgettable days riding the perfect left hand point break, eating, laughing, hammocking, sharing and having a blast on the Ecuadorian coast.

Back in Esmeraldas Eduardo and Julia had their studies to attend to so Jorge took us out to fix a broken bike rack, helmet camera cable and slew of other tasks in town. While riding with Jorge it became clear that he has a huge passion for the environment and is very upset about the current state of Ecuador. Eduardo was in the same place and I grew inspired to help them put their passion into action.

Over the next few days Cristina and I grew part of this lovely community in Esmeraldas. We explored the local music, dance, food and especially the nature. They shared a beautiful waterfall in the jungle and it was there that we formed the next Peace Pedalers sponsored charity project Ecuatopia (www.ecuatopia.org). The name came to me at the spot and I shared the idea of starting a grassroots environmental group to educate, inform and run worthwhile projects to move Ecuador closer to the Utopia is has the potential to become. They loved it, especially since the word Utopia is the same in both English and Spanish. We sat by the waterfall chatting, filming and sharing our vision for the next generation of Ecuador. It was truly rewarding.

Part 3: Quito & the Amazon

The day finally came for Cristina and I to make our way to Quito and onwards to the Amazon. During our weeks in Ecuador we had heard so many horrifying stories about the contamination in the Amazon that we had to go there and do some shooting, riding and connecting before we made our way to Colombia. So our last night together was filming our neighbor Erick’s band in the evening and putting our plan together for Ecuadopia in the evening.

Cristina and I committed to get the first version of the website for Ecuatopia up ready for the team to get started building their dream. We hopped a bus to Quito and arrived just in time for a lovely sunset over the city and a live performance of traditional Andean folk music for dinner. After the show I offered to film and record the guys in a scenic location and hook them up with a free CD and DVD in return for the rights to show their performance on my show. We were all excited about the win-win agreement and the guys got prepared for the next evenings sunset show.

After a full day of admin work getting a FedEx package with parts, fixing bikes & camera equipment, offloading footage, charging batteries, etc we were ready for the show. The guys showed up just on time with tons of sound equipment and we managed to film a stunning performance on a hill overlooking the historic city center at sunset.

For the next few days Cristina and I decided to give ourselves a few days off from cameras and equipment. So we ripped out the first version of the website (www.ecuatopia.org) and our DVD/CD sets for the artists in Esmeraldas and Quito and locked up our kit to focus on ourselves. We hit the town two nights in a row for salsa dancing, eating delicious meals, napping, chomping sweets and sucking in beautiful town of Quito, Ecuador. We even got to pamper ourselves at the Plaza Sucre Hotel thanks to their generous discount. Our four days in Quito were just what we needed to prepare for our last Ecuadorian adventure in the Amazon.

We left the cool mountainous region of Quito and seven hours later our bus dropped us off in the steamy Amazon oil town of Lago Agrio. Lago is one of the main towns in a massive oil network placed in the Ecuadorian Amazon. This network meant roads, people, communities and interesting stories that we could discover by bike. Most of the Amazon is only discoverable by boat, trails or bushwhacking. We had no idea what to expect but knew we would find interesting, soulful people as we always do.

We hit the road pedaling towards our first planned destination of Limoncocha as the late morning sun brought scorching temperatures and high humidity. Within a few kilometers we were dripping in sweat heat to toe as the hilly terrain and exposed sun beat down on us. It was like being in a steam room but, but with big oil trucks, dump trucks, reckless buses and oil workers moving about. It was a rude awakening to the Ecuadorian Amazon. After about 30km or so we crossed a huge river and decided enough was enough and we needed to cool our overheated bodies down.

We pulled the bikes into a home turned makeshift business of a middle aged African-Ecuadorian man named Segunda. He welcome us in out of the sun and we parked our rides in the middle of his house while we prepared to hit the river. Segunda shared some words for the cameras about the oil, trash and pollution he’s seen flow down the river. Down at the river we floated down the cool river as remnants of old oil network infrastructure littered the riverbed. We were so hot we ignored the inherent health hazards in lieu finally cooling down. We were soon joined by Mariana and her 2 year old daughter Marianita and her father in law Franco.

It’s funny, as we were setting out on our journey I filmed a clip saying that I was going to explore the region with an open mind and with objective curiosity. I shared that I wanted to document the effect the oil companies have had on the communities to Franco and his eyes lit up. He and his family are from San Carlos, reputably the most contaminated town in the Amazon. The town and it’s inhabitants have been featured in several international news pieces and a multimillion dollar lawsuit against Texaco and Chevron. And here we were, sitting in the river with folks living right in the guts of it.

Cristina has a magical way of connecting with strangers in a very short period of time. I thought I was good, but she is the guru. After a few minutes of chatting with this family we were soon invited to stay with them in San Carlos and offered the chance to meet several key people to share their stories! I was in awe how easily we were led to just the right people to get some great stuff for my show, but also how genuine and friendly they were as human beings.

Cristina and I wanted to do more cycling after our cool down so we made our way towards San Carlos. The plan was for Franco and his family to catch up to us and load the bikes in his truck to take us the final kilometers to his house. We got several more kilometers of sweaty cycling in, passing dozens of new homes being carved into the forest and endless oil lines that hug the roads. It’s an awakening experience indeed. Just as we pulled out of a rest stop Franco’s huge truck came rolling up with about a dozen of his cousins, nieces, nephews, kids, grand kids and more. We piled the bikes in the back and grabbed a seat on top with a perfect view, smiling faces and good vibrations.

Franco and his family were beyond excited to have us as guests at their house. Franco’s back yard had recently been transformed into a cock-fighting arena and we set up our tent right next to ring. We hit the local river with the kids and, although it was beautiful, we were soon told by the locals that it was highly polluted, especially after it rains. A few local teenagers shared that over 50% of upper aged population had cancer and their family will be moving away to avoid getting sick and dying young. I tried to ignore these facts and the dozen oil lines above the river as we jumped off giggling with the kids of the village.

For the next few days we made San Carlos our basecamp for local adventures, powerful interviews, trips to the local rivers, karaoke sessions, home cooked meals by Yolanda and plenty of naps to beat the brutal heat in midday. We became part of the family, waking up to see the kids off to school, greeting them and Franco when they returned home, playing, working and just being. It was lovely.

We were sad to leave but the road was calling us to explore the Limoncocha region, known for its rich indigenous population and unique history. Just as the heavy rains stopped we rolled off towards Shushufindi in the early afternoon. Often when I leave a family I’ve grown close to I sort of close up and “turn off” so to speak. In this case, all I wanted to do after our goodbyes was put on my Ipod and hammer the pedals. Plenty of opportunities to ride with the locals were around but I rode onwards solo. We rolled into Shushufindi as the sun was setting into a gentle afternoon thunderstorm, bringing out rich rainbows in every direction and lifting my spirits immediately. We found a super funky hotel room called the Master Suites that looked more like a horror house than hotel, but was just what the doctor ordered after two nights in the tent.

The next day was a short but sweet day to Limoncoche. A broken rack on the way out of town delayed us several hours and meant midday riding in the Amazon steam room. But the brutal heat and humidity was tolerable after we picked up a guest rider named Fernando. Fernando is an 18 year old chap from Colombia who is working to save money for a moto taxi in Ecuador for a few years. He had a some inspiring things to say about the current state of Columbia, including guerilla movements, cocaine production and more.

While in Shushufindi we met a man Jose who gave us the name Mario Cerda to look up when we made it to Limoncoche. We rolled into town with body temperatures in the red zone and hit the first river we could find. A group of locals were washing clothes and we struck up a conversation with them. As our Angels would have it, a man named Tito we were talking to just happened to be the son-in-law of Mario himself! We were chatting with Mario’s grandkids right there in the river!

Tito led us to Mario’s house where we met charming wife Mercedes. Mercedes, like Mario, is pure blood Quechua. The Quechua tribe is one of the largest in South America, prevalent in Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and even Colombia. Mario moved from Tena as a young boy and was one of the first indigenous people to live in the village. He lived there with his older brother as part of an evangelic religious community of about 30 families who moved there from the United States of all places. He lived there happily, found his wife, began his family and was learning several important trades from the American community. But then it all changed.

All of the sudden his close friends and community members in Limoncocha were expelled from the country of Ecuador by the government in Quito. There was no good explanation given. But less than one year later, in came the oil companies to begin drilling and building their huge petroleum network.

We sat in front of Mercedes and Mario’s house for a few hours and as the sun was setting we shared our desire to live amongst the local people. We had no idea what the future had in store for us but slowly we were slowly building friendships with this huge family. Turns out that they just happened to have a new spare room, bed, mosquito net and sheets that were unused and ready to be broken in! We were invited to stay as long as we liked with the family and we felt blessed to christen their new room.

Mario’s house was our basecamp to explore the surrounding region with a few dozen riders from the village. Cristina gave several acupuncture and massage treatments to Mercedes who, at only 60 years old, is having problems with her back and can only stand for a few minutes at time. We filled the next few days meeting the locals, doing some interviews, riding, playing soccer, playing with the kids, reading, laying in the hammock and cooling off in the lagoon.

We could have stayed for weeks with this lovely family. They did not want us to leave and were talking about events and festivals coming up in December and January to share with us. We did not want to leave either but we only had about three weeks left before we both head back to see our families in USA and Spain so we had to make our way to Colombia.

Our last day in the area we rode off to explore the Saturday market, which turned out to be far less traditional than we had hoped. We had hoped to see the surrounding indigenous tribes coming out of the jungle to trade but it was mostly full of “Mixtos” from the bigger cities selling Chinese pots, pans, blankets and serving national dishes of food. Between the sadness of knowing we were leaving and the let down of the market due to having my expectations too high my energy level was pretty low by the time we had to go. Luckily I was at least able to see folks eating BBQ bugs and had a nice jungle pedal with some local kids on the way back to Mario’s pad to cheer me up.

We decided to teleport ourselves out of the jungle to the salsa dancing capital of South America in Cali, Colombia. Tears fell from the eyes of Mercedes & Cristina, who had grown very close from all the chats and treatments. We gave our hugs, waves and smiles to our huge Amazon family and began our 30-hour, 4-bus journey through the jungle, up to the highlands, across the boarder by bike and through the mountains of southern Colombia to Cali. We arrived totally exhausted but thrilled to start our next and final adventures together in South America in Colombia.

Ecuador is a truly marvelous country. It’s diversity in natural wonders, people, landscapes, food and cultures are enough to keep a traveler busy for months or even years. We only scratched the surface of what there is to explore in this spectacular country. I hope you get a chance to explore and experience this slice of paradise!

We’re heading out to salsa lessons and off to do some filming here in Cali before our mission north to Medellin then to the tropical Colombian islands of San Andres & Providencia. Life is good!

Live Big. Give Big. Love Big.
Jamie

 

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