The Journal  

14 January 2006


Author: Jeremiah

Photographer: Holly


Quito , Ecuador

January 2-5

When I flushed the toilet in Quito , Ecuador , the water swirled counter-clockwise, a fact that is significant because when I flushed the previous day in Pasto , Colombia , the water disappeared in a clockwise motion. The question raised by this discrepancy in bathroom physics is answered by a large, concrete statue of the globe that sits just off the Pan-American 30 miles north of Quito . The monument marks the equator, which runs through the upper third of Ecuador . As we stopped for pictures we encountered a group of bicyclists, who had just made the same amazing journey that we had through the mountains from Bogotá and were crossing from the northern to the southern hemisphere with us.


We stopped for a few minutes at the equator line where a small globe statue lies to the right of the Pan-American Highway in Ecuador.


A large group of Colombian cyclists were stopped at the equator as well and many came over to ask about our travels.

The Colombia/Ecuador border crossing was the simplest and most frustrating of our trip so far. We left Pasto at 5:45 a.m., our path lit by streetlights as the sky was slowly turning red with the sunrise. The 50 mile journey to the border at Rumichaca took us through more spectacular mountain roads, draped in the morning mist and plied by cattle-herders and indigenous people carrying bundles of breakfast fire wood on their backs. Ipiales is the last town in Colombia before the border and we became lost in its streets, wasting 45 minutes before we found our way back onto the Pan-American for the final mile and a half to the border. It was 7:45 by the time we got there.


Winding the twisting roads, passing slower vehicles like this passenger truck.

The Colombian customs officials didn't know what had to be done so that our motorcycle could legally leave the country. “We're new,” the agents said with a shrug, as I waited half an hour while they made phone calls and walked to other offices for advice. Unlike Central American countries, where the motorcycle is stamped into your passport so that border guards make sure you leave the country riding the bike you entered on, Colombia only issues a temporary importation permit. I was tempted just to run the border without approval. Eventually, they pulled out a very official looking stamp that consisted simply of a changeable date, marked my papers, and I was on my way. Well, kind of…

As I walked into the immigration office with both Holly and my passports I could see a line of 50 people already formed. I'm not sure if it was post-holiday rush or simply a normal Monday morning at the border, but the line in front of me ran to a window that held a single, aduana agent. Over the next two and a half hours, I watched the line creep forward. There were six agents total in the office behind the glass. The other five were huddled in a circle talking. Occasionally, one would break from the group, walk over to the agent stamping papers, offer what were presumably words of encouragement, and then slap the lone stamper on the back before returning to their loafing co-workers.

Verbal fights broke out as wealthy travelers in their fur-lined coats and Hollywood sunglasses tried to butt in line. The police arrived, making the wait egalitarian and sending the privileged packing to the end of the line. Every half hour or so, an immigration agent would wander in front of a vacant window and a riot would erupt as people jumped line to get in front of what they thought was another opening window. But a second window never opened. By the time I got our passports stamped, there were nearly 100 people behind me in a line that continued to grow. Neither passport nor motorcycle papers were checked as we crossed the border into Ecuador .

At the Ecuadorian immigration office we found the same situation, a long line leading to a single agent. When we finally made it to the window I got my passport stamped and the agent was entering Holly's information into the computer when the electricity flashed off. It took nearly half-an-hour for the officials to get the computers restarted and back on line so that Holly could get her passport stamped.


The immigration line at the Ecuadorian border kept growing and growing, where we spent hours waiting for our paperwork to get processed.

The Ecuadorian customs office is not located at the border, but three miles south in the town of Tulcán . We were led there by a customs agent, whose car we followed. When we arrived, a sign on the office door said importation papers were processed from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. My watch read 11:59 as I ran up the stairs. I met a customs agent as she was walking out of her office door, who was nice enough to stay and process my paperwork. “This will only take ten minutes,” she promised as I closed my eyes in anticipation of the worst. Nine minutes later, I was walking down the stairs that led out of the office, my importation papers in hand and the agent a few steps behind me on her way to lunch. Crossing the border from Colombia to Ecuador cost us nothing but four hours of daylight.

When we stopped to refuel in Tulcán we found gas that cost only $1.50 a gallon. The Andean mountains that greeted us as we headed south towards Quito were arid, eroded and bare, but no less spectacular than their Colombian counterparts, as we passed indigenous people in their wool ponchos and felt fedora hats. The distance from the border is only 80 miles, as the crow flies, but the Pan-American snakes for 150 miles to the Ecuadorian capital as it winds across mountains, skirts ravines and circumvents volcanoes, the road changing in elevation as much as 3,000 feet in distances of less than five miles.

We traveled from the border to Quito in under five hours, including our stop at the equator. Quito is harbored in an Andean valley nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. It was raining as we headed into a mass of cars and trolley buses, passing through graveyard-like suburbs composed of row after row of concrete houses. It took nearly an hour and a half to find our hotel in the historic and colonial Old Town neighborhood. We parked the bike in the hotel's dungeon-like basement garage and unpacked before wandering down a side street to a dinner of rice, chicken, French fries and coleslaw, followed by a dessert of sweet rolls and coffee, all of which cost less than $5 for both of us.


The Guzzi gets locked away in the dungeon/garage of our hotel.

You could feel the cobblestone streets of Quito 's Old Town quake when a truck would drive by and we were awaken the next morning by the rumbling noises and exhaust fumes that were coming in our window that was open to the street. We spent our stay in Quito in the Old Town section, taking time to rest and catch up on journals that had piled up after three days of hard riding. The remainder of our time was spent walking the narrow cobblestone streets, with even narrower sidewalks that led from plaza to plaza and cathedral to cathedral.


A man carrying a guitar talks on a cell phone in Quito as he takes a second glance at a businessman's suitcase-on-wheels.


A woman carries lottery tickets to sell on the street as a child rushes past her.


Our hotel room in Old Town offered a good view of the street below.


A female beggar bundles up from a chilly rain.

On the evening before we left, we made our way to the Basilica, an unfinished cathedral that is a 100-year-old work in progress. The Gothic structure was a fascinating mess of piles of cut stones, exposed reinforcing bar and propped up architecture, where decay seems like it will overtake and surpass the construction progress. A rickety, wooden walkway crossed the top of the concrete sanctuary roof and to the cathedral tower. The church has twin clock towers, the right one accessible by a network of steps and construction platforms that continue to become sparser as you climb higher, until they finally end in the cathedral's belfry, where the floor is made of wide-gauged wire stretched over a metal frame. From the belfry we viewed a city that spread out along its north-south axis, contained only by the mountains, which, though houses and streets crawled up their slopes, were topped in green, nature's last stand against the encroaching civilization.


Two school girls walk around the base of the Basilica.


One of many stained glass windows.


A small wooden walkway stretches across the ceiling supports of the sanctuary, leading to a climbable tower in the rear. Photo by Jeremiah.


The twin bell towers of the unfinished Basilica are open to the public to climb inside them.


Jeremiah towers over Quito.


Rickety stairs led up to the tops of towers via the outside of the unfinished structure at the Basilica, stairs that I wasn't too sure of. Photo by Jeremiah.


A view of Old Town Quito from the Basilica.



All photographs © Holly Marcus / Page design by Robin Marcus