When I first visited Ecuador in 2013 I was completely charmed and promised myself I would return one day. It was exciting to be back and rediscover it from a different perspective. Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, a small touristic village next to Quito that marks the Equator, the invisible line that divides the earth in two hemispheres was one of our priorities in the country. But in order to get there we had to face a huge influx of Venezuelan refugees at the border of Ecuador with Colombia. We witnessed a humanitarian crisis and that was heartbreaking.
Our first stop at Finca Sommerwind was exactly what we needed, a well-rounded campsite near the border where we could regroup before walking the equatorial line and balancing the egg at the zero degrees latitude.
Great to see you again Ecuador!
Crossing the border with Ecuador
We were not expecting what we came across with at the border between Colombia and Ecuador. We knew there was a considerable rush of Venezuelans into the country, but when we arrived there we could not believe the amount the people queueing to leave Colombia. The lines were so large. We could not identify which one to take. The custom’s building was isolated by police and it was challenging even to get near them for any information. From where we were we couldn’t see nor identify where the customs office nor the immigration was located. Eventually, we got some tips here and there and managed to find the customs office where we canceled the TIP (temporary importation paper) for Brutus. Most of the Venezuelans were leaving Colombia by bus, thus the biggest challenge was to get an exit stamp in our passports.
We first tried to reach the gates through the crowds to speak to the police officers. There were hundreds of people waiting in queue and lots of others trying to talk to the officers too. I had seen these scenes only on TV but never experienced. I could see the despair in people’s eyes. There were ladies asking for mercy to get through, ladies with kids, pregnant ladies. They were simply begging to get in front of the line. It was cruel. Amongst all that agony there we were, trying to make our point too. I went forward and told one of the immigration officers that we were tourists from Romania and Brazil who just needed a stamp to leave Colombia. Initially, the officer did not care and told us to queue with the Venezuelans. I looked back at the line and realized it would go all around the building for a couple times. There were hundreds, if not thousands in line. We would have to stay there for hours, if not days. I tried again, explaining our story that we are traveling through the Americas and that I was pregnant. When I told him about my pregnancy he finally reacted and asked for my documents and pregnancy test. I showed him my prenatal exams on my phone. He then spoke to another officer and they finally allowed us to take the queue exclusive for Colombians. That was a huge relief. Our new queue looked like it would take about an hour. We were soon inside the immigration gates and felt relieved we would not get caught up in the middle of the crisis. Our passports got stamped, and whilst we were happy to get going we felt really sorry for the thousands of Venezuelans having to wait in rough conditions in order to leave Colombia.
We proceeded towards the Ecuador side, where we encountered the same crowds trying to get inside the country. However, to our surprise, it was easier. We went straight forward to the officers and as I had learned in Colombia, I immediately mentioned my pregnancy. The lady allowed me in and in less than 15 minutes we had our passports stamped. The next step was the TIP, which I went on to complete because with me being pregnant would had been faster.
In the meantime JP started a conversation with a Venezuelan woman waiting in line. He was curious to understand her situation, what was going on in her country and her opinion about the Maduro's regime. She had no problem explaining that the Venezuelan economy was devastated and that she had no other choice but to leave her primary school teacher job and depart with her two daughters aiming to find a better future in Ecuador. – ‘There was no food for all of us in Venezuela’, and ‘my salary would not last more than a week with the hyperinflation’ – she explained. She left her husband behind to take care of their house because it was not a good time to sell it. It would probably be sold for peanuts with the Venezuelan bólivar seriously devalued and the housing market collapsed. We thought then at all the Venezuelans who did not have the same option. Many had to sell all their belongings to start a new life in a new country and they probably sold them for almost nothing to “friends of the regime" who took advantage of vulnerable, poor, and desperate people.
The temporary importation paper of the truck was processed including the inspection in half an hour. We were ready to go. We felt lucky and thankful to get away that easy. Our little “bean” as we would call our son Luca in his early stage of development was already contributing significantly to our adventure.
Whilst I was happy to continue, looking back at the long queue with so many exhausted Venezuelan families and listening the story of the lady JP was talking to I felt like crying and somehow guilty that we were carrying on without being able to do something to help those Venezuelans. But what could have we done? I was blocked and silent for a long while. It was probably one of my most dramatic moments of a collective reality. I had never seen that level of desperation before.
As we drove inside Ecuador sights of green valleys and high mountains were opening in front of us. The land was often split in small parcels with different cultivations. It seemed like a massive colorful patchwork carpet made of different little square pieces of fabric. It was incredibly picturesque.
The first distinction of Ecuador was its less dense population, it seemed more organized, had better road infrastructure and better waste collection management than the neighboring country, Colombia.
At just 120km from the Colombian border, in Ibarra, Finca Sommerwind had great reviews. It was our target for our first stop in the country. Sommerwind is administrated by a German gentleman called Hans. The estate was built on a relative flat parcel of terrain next to a mountain tip and a beautiful lake. There was asphalt all the way to the main gate and a biking lane around the lake, making it a fantastic place to stroll around. What a great proposition for a bikes ride, we thought.
We were mentally exhausted after the border struggle and finding Hans’ finca was a true blessing. His estate had a grassy and dry area where we parked, a big garden with flowers and fruits, horses, an outside common kitchen area, a restaurant, clean bathrooms and abundant fresh water with hot showers. Furthermore, there we met a lot of interesting people, including some we met before: a French family we came across in Mexico, a German couple and Takesh, the Japanese whom we had met before in Panama City. A friendly scene embraced us at Finca Sommerwind and most importantly, we felt we were in a safe environment to rest. The fact that Hans was preparing fresh sourdough bread every day made everything even better
Yahuarcocha Lake was waiting for us the following morning. After a well-deserved toast bread avocado with Hans’ sourdough bread we departed on a biking tour around the lake. What a great start of the day! The place was gorgeous, surrounded by mountains and a generous nature. Very relaxing and peaceful!
Hans was a special character and knowing him was inspiring. It made me reflect on life balance. His estate was probably worth a fortune, but he opened it for us, overlanders to stay over. The money one can make from camping fees is unlikely to make you rich, but Hans was obviously doing it for fun. As a retired marine engineer, he bought this property and decided to spend the rest of his life working on the estate and receiving guests from all over the world. Since we arrived he made us feel welcomed. Somehow, he had passed on the feeling of being at home.
Hans was not only a great host but a great cook too. Besides the homemade bread, he prepared all sorts of fruit jams and every Saturday he would offer tourists a continental breakfast with fresh pies cooked by himself.
Once he even helped me out to do the laundry and arranged a line to dry our clothes just in front of his terrace. How many people want to see others peoples hanging clothes in front of their own terrace? :)) Hans did not seem to mind. He just wanted to help us out and make us feel comfortable there. I remember when I bought some of his strawberry and blueberry gems and how I indulged myself at one of his special breakfasts with fresh apple pie. And these may well sound very natural to you, but when you are on the road driving through places with different cultures it can be challenging to get a taste of home.
On the day we had to leave he proposed an evening barbecue with all the overlanding families camped at Sommerwind. We wanted to stay longer, but we had to move on. There were so many things ahead of us and so little time left. Thank you Hans for the warm and genuine welcome in Ecuador!
Ciudad Mitad del Mundo
We departed to Ciudad Mitad del Mundo on a Saturday afternoon. The site marking and celebrating the imaginary line of the Equator, the zero-degrees latitude is located at just 20km north of Quito. On our way we were surprised by little towns such as Ibarra and Otavalo, which looked like great communities. Organized, clean, developed, and pleasant. And finding products we were craving for a while, like good pastries in the supermarkets made us incredibly happy. Soon we realized there was a significant European influence in the north part of Ecuador, and that was a breath of fresh air in the Latin America’s rice and beans dominating food culture.
Ciudad Mitad del Mundo was much more than we anticipated. We thought it was only a monument marking the line of the Equator where we could take a nice picture, but we could not be more mistaken. When we arrived, we found a large parking lot next to a proper touristic village with plenty of attractions surrounding the monument. The complex contains the Monument of the Equator, which commemorates the eighteenth century Spanish-French Geodesic Mission that marked the approximate location of zero degrees latitude, the Museo Etnográfico Mitad del Mundo, a museum about the ethnography of Ecuador, several handcraft shops, a cocoa museum, a beer museum, restaurants and areas to walk and relax.
The experience turned out to be quite entertaining. We took some nice shots stepping on the imaginary equatorial line carefully holding our balance :)). Some people believe it’s harder to hold your balance at the Equator, which is a total myth. Not only we had no problem in keeping our balance, but the actual line that marks the Equator is slightly miscalculated.
The Monument of the Equator was built to replace an old monument. The only inadvertence is that the measurements of the old monument were based on calculations that we taken in 1736 following the Spanish-French Geodesic Mission. With nowadays technology and GPS systems people soon realized that the actual line is a bit further, only 240m north though :-))
However this does not impede people to have fun. There is a whole infrastructure built at Ciudad Mitad del Mundo for tourists to enjoy.
As we stepped inside the monument, we found an insightful exhibition about Ecuador, its main regions, indigenous people and culture. It was a good introduction into the country’s pre-Inca and Inca heritage. Ecuador has more pre-Hispanic history than we have imagined. Its resources, the beauty of the Andes, the Amazon basin and the coastal regions were explored and inhabited by people since the last glacial period, before the arrival of the Incas. These people were developing great skills in agriculture, hunting, gathering, and fishing.
There were a lot of other interactive displays and experiments about the Earth, its rotation and orbit around the sun, explanations about the equinox, with a bit of physics. It was educational, well organized, and fun, especially for kids.
We knew that Ecuador is world famous for its cocoa production and delicious chocolate with high percentage of cocoa. Thus at the Cocoa Museum we were looking forward to discover its production secrets but mostly to indulge into the tasting part at the end :))
We found a lot of similarities between the cocoa and the coffee production. Cocoa fruit, just like the coffee bean, grows in countries around the Equator line such as: Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Brazil, Ghana, Ivory Coast (which has actually 40% of the total global production), Indonesia, and Ethiopia. The cocoa production process is somehow like coffee too. The outer shell of the cocoa bean is removed and the fruit extracted. Then, the pulp around the fruit is removed together with the liquid that is on top of it. After this, the cocoa bean is dried, then roasted and then pilled. The pure cocoa seed is squashed manually or by machine to obtain the final powder, which in combination with hot water and sugar makes chocolate. Voila!
Whilst walking inside the museum I spotted a remarkably interesting colonial Spanish recipe for a chocolate beverage. Perhaps you would like to try this out: 700g of powdered cocoa, 56g cinnamon, 14g clove, a handful of anises, musk, amber, blossom, 750g sugar, 14g pepper, 3 vanilla pods, walnuts. Must be a delicious treat!
Chocolate is known to be an aphrodisiac, and because it has caffeine, serotonin, theobromine and phenethylamine it has an invigorating, anti-stress role, helping to reduce fatigue and influencing positively sexual activities. A great excuse to try dark chocolate more often :)))
Another curiosity was that during the Aztec times the cocoa bean was used as a currency. For example, 10 beans of cocoa would value one rabbit, and 300 beans of cocoa would value one slave in good condition. It was brutal to realize that human beings were for sale there too and for such a small value. That was not so long ago.
We could not pass by without trying to balance the egg on a nail at the Equator line. Some people believe that it is easier to balance an egg on a nail head at the zero-degrees latitude due to the Coriolis Effect. Check out how happy JP was when he thought he did something extraordinary :)) The reality is that it’s very difficult to balance an egg, but little did he know that one can do it anywhere and anytime. The only truth is that is hard to balance the egg at any latitude of the Planet. We were not even at the exact line of the Equator :))) Bummer!
Heading towards the exit of the village we were attracted by the indigenous households exhibited. There we gained the understanding about the Inca houses built around the “milk tree”, which was reckoned to bring good energy to the homestead. Other curiosity was that people used to grow guinea pigs inside the house for good energy flow. We soon found out that the guinea pigs were not only used for positive energy, but as well as a source of food. Apparently, they are very nutritious, have low fat and cholesterol and they are high on protein levels.
On our way out we witnessed a traditional preparation of a roasted guinea pig on rolling skews. Although I was very hungry and JP up for the idea of eating the guinea pig, the thought of eating a pet was unimaginable and gross to me.
Instead of the guinea pig treat we hurried back to the truck for our homemade lunch! We still had some of Hans’ sourdough bread, which we paired with some boiled eggs, cheese and veggies. It saved the day :)).
Energized with what we had experienced that far in Ecuador, we moved forward towards Quito, the capital city built on top of an Ancient Inca site. I was looking forward to see it again, while JP was excited for his first encounter with the urban area located at the Andean foothills at almost 3000m altitude.