Spinning South: La Maná to Puerto Cayo
Flat, good roads, give me the opportunity to think, reflect and wonder while biking. You maybe think you have all the time thinking while biking but if speeding downhill you need all your concentration to make it down as fast and safe as possible.
If going uphill I need to concentrate on biking and counting pedal strokes helps. If I start to think I notice I slow down too much. If biking challenging dirt roads you need to find the easiest route so no time to think about other things.
You maybe think that travelling together gives you all the time in the world to talk but it often happens that the only things you say during the day is: watch out, pothole, look special bird/animal/flower/tree, time for snack/toilet/lunch, lets look for a place to sleep; and a day has gone again.
While we found a cute hostel outside town, away from traffic, we could still hear the distant drumming of a party until 5:00 in the morning. Have to say that the singers still needed to take some lessons.
We decide to not bike past the 7 waterfalls again, as it is Sunday so it will be crowded and loud with awful music. Following a different route via Valencia, following a very wide asphalt road with sparse Sunday morning traffic, joined by a group of riders for quite some kilometers, chatting away on what we are doing.
One of the men spoke perfect English as he has lived in USA for 25 years. Fun to talk and bike. Kilometers flying by. After the photo shoot, while the police stops traffic so the support-van lady can take a photo, they continue straight to Quevedo while we turn left into more banana and cacao fields.
What a joy to ride. Also here sparse Sunday morning traffic. Potholes reducing the speed of the few buses and taxis.
We stop at the cacao & tilapia farm of Celia Paz. For harvesting cacao they first remove the wet seeds from the heavy fruit and let it ferment 3-4 days in a bucket (in the past this would be in wooden caskets but they are too expensive now). The sun-dried cacao has a richer taste than the one of last week (machine dried).
Drying on the floor for 2-4 hours depending on the sun. Now we understand where the typical smell comes from. We see people turning the seed with a rake or their feet, walking through it (they didn’t want to have photos taken from this).
Ecuador is 7th in the cacao world production. In the lowlands it is mainly production of the fast growing, high volume, lower quality brown fruits and in the highlands you mainly have the Nacional, green/yellow with an even stronger taste.
Celia also farms red and black tilapia that create some extra income.
When you bike you experience even more the impact of farming on the environment. We bike now already two days through endless fields of bananas and cacao. The only way the banana’s can grow is because they are irrigated from the river. You see the water level decreasing the further downriver we are. More than 300 different kinds of bananas and platanos are farmed here. All of them are harvested when they are green. Platanos are used as a vegetable and are more robust. Can stand pretty rough handling too.
Landscape is slowly changing to corn (maiz), old fields are burnt, nobody cares about the air pollution.
We also pass some vast areas of mature palm trees where we spot an anteater (Northern Tamandua) in the top of a palm tree. Walking from one top to the next, searching for ants.
New fields are still prepared where a watering system is also installed. Not only bananas but also cacao and palm trees need to be watered.
Late afternoon arriving in hot Mocache, nested beside the shallow Quevedo river. The river is a refreshing Sunday spot for the locals but I will not try it as we know how much chemicals are used and which dirty side rivers enter this stream. The only hotel in town still has a room and to our surprise it is better and cleaner than we expected.
Evening dinner is BBQ meat, rice and beans. Missing green vegetables!
Early start to beat the heat and to our surprise the morning is quite cool and misty.
Here we enter again endless banana fields. Today they are working, removing the banana flower so all power goes to the bananas.
Harvesting bananas. We see the banana train in action! Hanging system created through the fields where 20-30 banana bunches are pulled to the factory by a man.
Passing the packaging facility of Dole bananas, all for export to USA, we can’t resist and have a look inside.
We can walk through it and take photos. So much fun! This is a well maintained, clean, worker friendly environment with an environmental approach to recycling plastic.
Once we past the banana fields everything turns dusty and brown, so also the road with bumpy gravel.
Everything is bananas, cacao, meadows and palms and everything needs water. As we are following a back road there are still not many camping possibilities. And we don’t feel confident enough to wild camp in an area with very poor villages and a lot of people hanging around, I had seen a great place on google maps, in the middle of nowhere with some cabañas. We first pass through Vinces, perfect spot to fix a suddenly flat tire while I do grocery shopping.
What a disappointment when we arrive. Photos were from 10 years ago when it was built and not much happened after this. They are expensive but it is late and we don’t find anything else close by. Lucky we stocked up on food in Vinces as the kitchen is already closed, so we cook next to the swimming pool. Strange place this “El señor de los caballos” in Antonio Sotamayor.
Even if it is not the cleanest place, after an excellent breakfast we decide to stay and other night. It is quiet, no other people, the whole place for ourselves, no music, no noise and no need to pack and leave again. We don’t understand this place: while everything screams for maintenance the guard only cleans the pool and does nothing else the whole day. When checking out Frank shows to the administrator (who we only meet now) how dirty the floor and bathroom is. Wondering if they will improve. Again Ecuador could get some cleaning lessons…I designed a route on mapOut to Salitre which brings us over some bumpy roads.
Finally we can cross the river over a wobbly bamboo bridge and after chatting with the locals we can continue our route over a busy asphalt road.
I know what I prefer, but Frank can’t stand Ecuadorian off-road anymore. During our winter stop Frank will change his bike to front suspension, hope this will work so we can continue dirt roads.
Bananas change to rice fields and we have never have seen so many birds of prey as here. They are snail kites, who feed on apple snails that are a pest in rice fields all over the world. But what Asian farmers do not have, the Ecuadorians do; Rostrhamus sociabilis.
Just before Nobel there is a cultural park where they allow us to camp for the normal entrance fee. We have the whole place to ourselves. Even toilets! Great to be camping again. Several swimming pools and slides but a bit run down and I don’t trust the chlorine levels in these pools. Lots of dogs that steal one of my slippers, sweet to get an other one of one of the guards.
As we suddenly are ahead of schedule we decide to not spend too much time at one place but discover the coast and do an extra loop of +400 km. First 90 km is along a busy road towards to coast, luckily with a good shoulder. Long day with 1000 m up and 650 m down, limited places to stock-up food or water. Wondering why we are doing this boring road as it is only 7 days before flying to the Galapagos. Are we filling time? Or do we really want to discover this part of Ecuador?
In a tiny shop just before the tiny place of San Pedro we check if the auberge we see on MapOut is really there. He says only possibility if Jipijape (a place where I would love to live just for the name). Lucky a few moto-taxi drivers down the road confirm that there would be a place to sleep. We follow a small road and find the community centre. No sign but they do have a clean room with even a shower with warm water! So lucky the two ladies were preparing the place for a few visitors in a few days. Frank has been carrying a freeze dried emergency meal and dried mashed potatoes and we find this the perfect location to consume this meal. Kids come and check us out and have a chat. Frank reads while I entertain. Again we have the full place to ourselves, no guard, no other people but nested in a small community it feels more than safe.
In the morning one of the ladies who maintains the place has cooked breakfast at her place. Sleep 10$, breakfast 3$ (for both of us). Would have loved to have found a few more places like this!
Before reaching the coast we need to pass a 500m high ridge which is covered in clouds, rain and is chilly. Suddenly biking in the middle of a rain forest. Then speeding down to Puerto Cayo. Suddenly everything is again supper dry. Seeing the Pacific after such a long time is emotional, or is everything emotional lately?
We opt for the hostel of Samuel, no TV, no music, calm, nice garden and a kitchen. Samuel lives already 9 years here and has built the hostel with camper and camping possibilities. His Ecuadorian wife lives in his home country, Switzerland, with their two daughters. They visit on a regular base but prefer the smooth way of living and the possibility to earn good money compared to the remote living here. I must say this are would also be too remote for me. And dry! Seems that in this valley it only rains maybe once a year, even if it is now clouded and you expect it to rain every minute, the clouds will shed their precious load closer to the mountains.
As there is a kitchen we are happy to be able to buy a lot of greens from a lady at the corner of the road! A quiet night with the sound a rolling waves, the kitchen and the good sailor stories of Samuel make us stay a night longer. But doing nothing on a Saturday is not possible and after posting our blog we take a taxi to Aqua Blanca, an indigenous community that lives next to the sulfur baths which I want to visit. Dreaming of a great natural pool with hot thermal water is shredded as the water is not warm and due to the overcast it is even cold outside. Sweet of Frank to join me but he leaves trying the water to me. Too cold for him. Sweet small museum, no nice crafts to take home.