Understated bike directions, a stoner’s lunch, and my kind of bus rides

I’m catching on that the uber-casual Ecuadorians have a penchant for understatement.

“The road from Banos to Rio Verde is mostly downhill,” said the guide in the bike shop where I rented a mountain bike and took off on a solo 15k “waterfall route” tour. I’d ride through the verdant mountains along a pulsing river and would see a dozen or so stunning waterfalls, he said. I’d have a chance to navigate the “cyclo vias” – narrow, cobblestoned routes carved into the side of the mountains that bypassed a series of motorized vehicles-only tunnels and get some views that motorists don’t see.

What he didn’t bother telling me, however, was that the first waterfall at Chamana was up an impressive incline that only halfway up forced me off my bike and to my feet, pushing my steed up the last half kilometer. Fellow bikers will understand what I mean when I say I was tapped out in my granny gear, wheezing in the thin Ecuadoran atmosphere and bonking, big time.

Translation: I couldn’t turn the pedals, the road was so steep, and I was out of gas, physically. So I walked, huffing and puffing up the hill.

It was worth all the grunting and struggling in the thin Andean air.

Surrounded by lush green vegetation that rises a couple thousand feet to the mountain’s crest, the Chamana falls first appear well down the mountainside and plunge several hundred feet into a series of deep pools. I stood on a small bridge over a large pool; the only one in sight, an occasional barking dog the only audible interruption to the soothing sounds of the gurgling waters.

The guide also told me the ride should take me 2-3 hours, and since Gabi would be taking a bus to meet me, he helped us figure our timing so we could connect at a roadside restaurant around lunch time. I scoffed at the insult. Imagine taking three hours to ride about 10 miles! I could do it twice, I thought, and have time to spare for a coffee before Gabi showed up with the local bus.

Big shot.

I took my time, particularly along the wet cobblestones on the cyclo vias, but when the skies opened up, drenching me in about 15 seconds, I hopped beneath a covered bus stop and waited out the deluge. Soaked, cold and eager to move on to keep my internal thermometer on high, I realized I’d best keep moving. It was by no means a strictly downhill nor a simple ride, but I showed up at the restaurant in Rio Verde where Gabi and I were to meet well before our arranged time. I downed a steaming cup of strong Ecuadorian coffee to warm my innards and waited for her to show up.

Half an hour past our meeting time, thinking she’d bagged the idea of riding the bus in the rain (some local “buses” are pickup trucks with flimsy canopies flung over the top) I caught one of them back to Banos. The friendly driver overcharged me 50 cents ($2 instead of the customary $1.50) and then stopped to load about 30 mountain bikes into the back from a tour that had just finished in Rio Verde.

“Sientate en el cabina,” he told me as I helped load the bikes, nodding to the warmth of the truck cab.

We talked in pidgin Spanish and English on the 20 minute drive, me checking my Spanish translation app for help and him asking rudimentary questions to keep it simple.

***

I’m thinking the Dominican stoner who runs the SativaCafe in Banos ought to back off on the weed during business hours.

SativaCafe served amazing organic vegetarian food grown a few steps from the restaurant’s kitchen, and we had a delightful lunchtime culinary experience that, while delicious, went on for about an hour more than it needed. This was largely due to the amusing wanderings of the guy who ran the place. He’d take an order and disappear, returning with nothing in his hands. He’d pause in the middle of the restaurant, scratch his scraggly beard, and disappear into the kitchen once again before repeating the process.

It was humorous for awhile, but we were hungry. I seriously considered offering to help.

But about the food, which was delicious.

Patagones were smashed plantains pan-fried (as opposed to the traditional treatment of deep frying) dusted with Caribbean spices and served over a salad of mixed greens and flowers. And my veggie burger was the best I’ve had – exploding with grain-based burger, sweet sauce and beets, onions, local cheese and two kinds of lettuce. And all of the produce was grown on-site in the restaurant’s organic garden.

The dreadlocked owner, however, seemed overwhelmed by the specter of multiple customers (six) inhabiting his place simultaneously. When he brought our food he apologized for the delay and explained the rationale behind the restaurant’s plodding process.

“We make our food with love, and anything with love takes time. You can’t rush love, no matter what you’re doing. If you’re making love, you have to go slow, if you’re cooking with love, it takes time….”

OK, sport, and thanks for the insight. How about la quinta so we can pay and vamanos?

“Oh, let’s see,” he began, scrunching up his eyebrows. “You had two meals, so two times $5.50. That’s $11.50….” I set him straight, and he got to work on the price of the drinks. “Two drinks is $6, so that’s….”

I gave him a $20 and told him to keep the change, calling a truce on the war against basic mathematics in the spirit of ending our experience sometime before nightfall.

What a sweetheart, though. He invited us to come back and take a look at the gardens.

“I’m hoping maybe people will come here and then go home and start the same thing at their own restaurants. No one does garden-to-table like us.”

***

It’s great to be back in the world of simple, cheap, albeit somewhat unpredictable domestic travel.

Here, buses show up and leave mostly on time, and get you where you want to go with little fanfare, aside from the relentless Latin music blaring on the PA system. You might have to share space with people like the farmer we saw at the Quito bus station carrying two huge plastic bags full of live chickens, but the rides are otherwise efficient, fascinating and cheap.

Bus rides are priced by the hour in Ecuador, so our three-hour journey from Quito to Banos was  – that’s right – $3 per person. Our two-stage ride from Banos to Rio Bomba and on to Cuenca several days later was a total of $16. For two. On the last five hour leg, we were the only ones in the bus for much of the ride through the foothills of the Andes. Buses are comfortable and roomy, with reclining seats that don’t cause fights when the guy in front of you stretches out for a nap. Then again, I’m not sure Ecuadorians have discovered the Knee Defender.

In one segment, the driver stopped and let 30 or so school children aboard for a ride along a mountain pass from school to their homes. It would have been a heckuva walk for them otherwise.

At another junction, a bunch of local folks climbed aboard, the women sporting traditional woolen shawls and felt fedoras, all with dark chocolate-colored skin, weather beaten faces and sporting enormous smiles. They exuded an oddly comforting odor redolent of smoke, mechanical oil and sweat, mountain dwellers accustomed to the rigors and wild fluctuations of all the Andes has to give.

***

What a polite culture.

I am sitting with coffee in our Cuenca hotel, banging away at the keyboard, and every person who has entered the room for breakfast has stopped by my table to wish me good morning. And they make eye contact when they leave, saying goodbye before hitting the road.

Must remember that. Western brusqueness will be perceived as rude. So smile and respond in kind I will.

 

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