Ecuador and Colombia: The End of the Road
We’re riding north on the Pan-American Highway, passing lush, green meadows and houses with gable roofs and stucco façades. For a moment, the landscape feels strangely European. But we’re quickly reminded we aren’t at home: After four months of motorcycling in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru on our trusty KTMs, we reach the border of Ecuador. My travel partner, Irene, and I cross the middle of the country and meander our way through a dense forest. On either side, the roads are dotted with banana plants and ferns—we’re close to the Amazon. We’re heading toward Villa Ticca in Quito, a childcare center founded by two Dutch women that provides teenage mothers the opportunity to study and/or work.
Traffic, Tena, and Tarantulas
Ecuador has actively invested in infrastructure in recent years. Almost every road is paved, and huge machines are currently working to build a divided highway. Although we don’t see much traffic, it is the most populous country in South America, with 150 inhabitants per square mile (for comparison, the Netherlands has 1,050 people per square mile). I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a Peruvian. “The Netherlands is a very tiny country,” I explained. “Yes, but for sure it can’t be as small as Ecuador, can it?” he wondered. I laughed. The Netherlands could easily fit inside Ecuador six times over.
We arrive in the rainforest when I spot a spider as big as a frog in front of my bike. I stop and wait for Irene to catch up after pausing to take a few photographs. “Look!” I shout. Irene looks at the road ahead with wide eyes, expecting a jaguar, tapir, or at least a monkey—which certainly can be seen on a trip here. But when she finds nothing, she looks back at me. “What?” she asks. “Look!” I try to scream through her earplugs.
I turn and park my bike on the roadside, as the tarantula wandering by is not to be missed. She grabs her camera and lens. “Can you put your hand next to it? To see the contrast?” she asks. I’m not too keen on spiders, but it is beautiful in a way, with a pinkish hue. Coolheaded, I set my hand gently alongside the Brazilian salmon pink birdeater, considered to be the third-largest tarantula in the world.
Later that night, we settle into the Amazonian city of Tena. I’ve been in the Amazon before and stay behind the next morning to prepare for Colombia while Irene heads off deeper into the jungle. It is strange to watch her ride away by herself. She has only a hand-drawn map to guide her to the cabaña in the jungle where she will meet her tour guide. Three days later she returns with stories of caimans and anacondas, exotic birds, and monkeys—but the five-hour ride on her own without a proper map was the most exciting.
The Tense Trek to Colombia
We’ve heard different stories about Colombia. From fellow travelers, nothing but praise, while family and friends at home are concerned about the insurgency groups FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (the National Liberation Army). We look up travel advice from the Dutch Embassy, which frightens us a little. A large swath of Colombia is colored red: DO NOT TRAVEL. Then there are orange areas: TRAVEL ONLY IF NECESSARY. The southern areas we have to pass through from Ecuador are both red and orange. At the border, they advise us not to ride at night.
It’s a different streetscape than Ecuador: There are soldiers in camouflage fatigues carrying big guns and hiding in bunkers. But the road crossing the red area toward the western city of Popayan is in good condition, so the miles fly by. At four o’clock in the afternoon, we have a little more than 120 miles to go. At seven, it gets dark. What should we do? Should we stop now? After 10,000 miles in South America, we’ve learned that distance is not the most reliable measurement, so at the gas station I ask the attendant how much time it will take to reach Popayan. He tells us five hours on a motorcycle. We don’t believe it. The Pan-American is well paved, and according to the map it stays that way. It couldn’t take us more than three hours, could it? We decide to go.