The Americas with Tubby Xplorer: Part 14

Introduction by Paul May of www.equipt1.com 

Jack Stuhler, the founder of Eezi-Awn, is an adventurous man and has spent his entire life exploring the African Continent. After driving from Johannesburg to the UK through the middle east in the early 1999, Jack set his sights on the Americas. He prepared a Toyota Land Cruiser 70 Series Troopy by the name of Tubby for his journey and shipped it to South America. With his significant other, Margaret, their epic journey from Ushuaia to Dead Horse Alaska took over 18 months to complete in 2004/2005. They later returned south to Houston, and shipped Tubby home. Quite impressive for a couple in their 60s. Their adventures are an inspiration for us all. 

Most places of historical interest are in the old city of Quito. Taking a taxi we soon dropped down towards the ‘Plaza de la Indepencia’ dominated by a somewhat grim cathedral on the south side and the ‘Palacio de Gobierno’ along the east side. There was unrest in the City. Folk were milling about the Presidential Offices. They wanted the President removed from office. Police presence was to be seen in all the ‘hoekies and noekies’ of the City centre. Strolling past the Palacio we wandered into one of the most stunning buildings Margaret and I have ever set eyes on – the ‘La Compania de Jesus’. This is a marvellous Jesuit church. It has a most ornate and richly sculptured façade and interior. Inside its multi faceted columns, ten-sided high altar plated with, it is said, two tons of gold foil complimented with gilded balconies.

We ambled along the narrow walkways and streets. Hours went by and it was time to leave back up the hill. A short stop at the ‘Basilica’ on ‘Plaza de la Basilica’ a ginormous structure of granite adorned with many hand hewn gargoyles mostly symbolizing the wildlife of the Galapagos, intricate stained glass windows and fine bas relief bronze doors. Construction was started in 1926 and is still ongoing today. Who says buildings don’t take decades to construct in this day and age?

Having finalised a trip to the Galapagos Islands and the shipment of the Cruiser from Equador to Costa Rica, we set forth again this time north to ‘Mitad del Mundo’. ‘Mitad del Mundo’, you guessed it, ‘The centre of the Earth’ the Equator latitude 0°-0’-0” and long. Occ. 78°-27’-8”. Slipped out of Quito early Saturday morning and drove north to the monument straddling the Equator. Margaret and I could stand on the East/West demarcation line one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and the other on the southern side of the Earth. Not long and we mozeed back to our Cruiser and set forth again south of Quito and after awhile southwest towards the Pacific coast via Santa Domingo, Chone, driving through quaint, rustic villages mostly constructed of timber, bamboo and palm fronds we arrived in Montecristi the heart of the Panama hat industry. Yes!! The Panama hat originates from Ecuador. A top quality finely hand-woven hat can reputedly be rolled up and passed through a man’s ring. These hats are all manufactured from special palm fronds and the more intricately tightly woven hats are totally waterproof and here in Montecristi one hat could set you back as much as a hundred dollars. Can you imagine what it would cost say in New York – an arm and a leg??? Margaret and I weren’t going to lay out such a large wad of money so we settled for a lesser quality to suit our pockets, albeit still a Panama hat ha! ha! ha! Our Sunday treat!!

Monday morning we left Montecristi and hit the Pacific coastline south of Manta, the second most important port of Ecuador and ‘Ruta del Sol’ on the coastline. Potholes – oh!! those potholes, this time made by road gangs who dug out squares or rectangles about 100mm deep ready to be filled with new asphalt in order to repair the damaged road surface. I would not have minded if it was for one, two or even ten kilometres but believe me we had to play dodge-ems for almost 100 kms. Yes, 100 kilometres! The gang squaring off the damaged surface was way ahead of the asphalt team, as a matter of fact not to be seen en route at all. Absolute lunacy, why not repair one section at a time?

All morning we drove along the potholed road hugging the coast, passing through numerous fishing villages. Late afternoon it was time to call it a day and we settled in at a tiny rustic seaside village with a Bohemian setting. We spent two nights in Montanita, re-organised (condensed) our hand luggage, as it was almost time to part with our wheels. All sorted we took off early on Wednesday ever south along the coast ambling through more fishing villages – folk getting ready for their daily chores and activities eventually we reached the turnoff to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest and most populous city. It has a tropical climate and is the main port of Ecuador and is fondly known as the ‘Pacific Pearl’. The city was named after an indigenous chief ‘Guayas’ and his wife ‘Quil’ both of whom chose to die rather than surrender to the Spaniards.

Arriving from the west we found a garage – 30,000kms under the belt in South America it was time for another oil change. Afterwards down the road for an extensive exterior, engine and chassis wash, lastly to fill up fuel. At $1 a US gallon or roughly R1.50 a litre for diesel we could not resist filling both tanks to the hilt.

Thursday morning dawned, the shipping agent arrived and guided us down to the yard which turned out to be a vacant field where the Landcruiser would have to be stripped of its rooftop equipment e.g rooftent, sparewheel, storage pods and side awning. On arrival the helping hands, the container and an enormous crane were waiting ready for action. In no time all the goodies were removed, then the rooftent, protected by the mattress, was stacked up front in the container, Tubby driven in, the other equipment stored under the vehicle at the back. Lastly lashed down with heavy duty cables and turnbuckles to stop the Cruiser from moving around and finally the doors closed and sealed. ‘Adios – Hasta Luego’ the container with the Toyota inside was loaded onto a truck by the crane and the vehicle disappeared out of sight off to the docks. The ship was due to sail on Monday 8th March to arrive in Puerto Limon on Friday 18th March – ten days later. If all goes to plan we should be there to meet it.

In the meantime we flew back to the capital. You won’t believe it . . . as we set foot into the door of our Quito hotel I was called to the phone and informed by the shipper that the authorities had chosen our container at random at the docks for a Drug Examination which meant opening the container, taking the vehicle out etc. and re-packing the whole damn shoot. Just when we thought that it was all plain sailing, the Devil stepped in and spoilt our day. To cut it short I flew back to Guayaquil first thing the following morning – Saturday to meet the ‘Drogas Policia’ at the container in which Tubby was parked and securely fastened as I had no intention of letting some gooks open and close our wheels without being present. Incomprehensible!!!! I was told it was chosen at random. Nonsense!! If I were in the drug-busting industry I would most certainly have chosen the one with a vehicle inside. It’s obvious it is the easiest way to smuggle or convey drugs out of any country, especially if it is transported in a box (container).

Time is of no essence in this part of the world. Arriving at the Port, wandering from office to office, eventually we reached the container to wait a further hour before the smartly dressed officer in a grey camouflage uniform arrived with his dog. I tried to convince him to send the dog inside but to no avail, he wanted the Cruiser out. He was going to show this old bugger how they go about the search for drugs in Ecuador. By now my fuse was starting to burn. It meant that all our work to tirelessly secure the Troopie and its equipment into the container went out of the window. Orders were orders – who was I to argue? – out came the Landcruiser, rooftent, storage boxes etc. He tied the dog to another container then instructed me to open the bonnet, a full check of the engine and chassis numbers, then it was down to business. He opened the air-filter, took the cassette out, smelt it hoping to pick up an odour of drugs – no such luck – he then checked the engine compartment even wanted to know why there were three batteries lest one was filled with forbidden products. Explanation, explanations!!

Then his attention turned to the interior. I had to remove all storage boxes, open drawers, fridge, roofbaskets and on and on it went – a complete strip. It was amazing he didn’t demand that I should take the whole vehicle apart. By now it was 33°C outside and humid as hell and my fuse was burning shorter and shorter and I was perspiring to the Nth degree ( doesn’t pay to be a roly-poly!).

He searched all the boxes meticulously and I had to re-pack which I had done many times en route so it was no ‘problema’ only time consuming and annoying. Eventually all the equipment was out and lying on the ground surrounding the Landcruiser but open. The dog was let loose and coaxed to sniff the open boxes, inside the van- every nook and cranny but to no avail – nada (nothing) zilch was to be found. Well that was that and the drug-enforcement officer called it a day. Thank goodness as my fuse was almost at its end.

All the storage boxes and sundry equipment was returned to the Cruiser, the rooftent stacked back up front in the container and the whole process reversed, the Toyota Landcruiser driven in and re-secured. Lastly the doors closed, seal fitted and labels stuck to the exterior walls by the Policia telling the world that it had been thoroughly searched for drugs and given a clean bill of health and furthermore it was ready to be uplifted and shipped.

Must compliment the official on being so meticulous in his appearance and work. If it were not for people of his calibre we would have ‘mucho, mucho problema’ with drugs worldwide (as if we have not already got such problems). I admire people like this, after all they are often the least paid of our society – their services to be commended – well done!!!

Five hours, yes, five hours later I was out of there and back to the airport, flew back to Quito arrived in pouring rain, miserably cold up in the Andes and back to Margaret and our cosy hotel.

WARNING . . . lest we forget in South America as a whole there are many Gringos sitting in jail because of drug consumption and trafficking. Here in Ecuador the sentence is a minimum of 25 year in jail if caught in possession.

With our reliable wheels finally en route to Costa Rica we decided to visit ‘ Ye Olde Worlde Galapagos Islands!!!’ Flying out of Quito International we took off for the Archipelago Islands of Galapagos astride the Equator 1,000 kms west, offshore of Ecuador albeit a Province of that country. There are 13 islands and 47 rocky outcrops jutting out of an aquamarine ocean. One and three-quarter hours later we landed on Baltra Island which is isolated from the others and in the past an American airbase for many years from which apparently the plane took off for Japan to launch the first nuclear bomb towards the end of the Second World War.

From Baltra Airport, we were met by a guide and taken to a larger island, Santa Cruz and the Galapagos tortoise sanctuary. Our guide out front we soon found ourselves searching for these gigantic animals. Not long and there was a huge, huge tortoise quenching its thirst at the edge of a pond surrounded by water fowl – an absolutely tranquil setting. Couldn’t believe our eyes, the size of these creatures weighing in at a colossal 250kgs and some approximately 260 years old – incredible!!

Late afternoon it was time to wander into town and down to the Marina to join our boat “Encantada” that was to be our home for the next couple of days and nights – our luggage and equipment was already on board when we were ferried from the quayside to the boat in an inflatable to join the rest of the party– a small group of twelve visitors plus six crew manning the ship and a most delightful Afro-Ecuadorian character, our guide for the sojourn. Nineteen people on board as we set forth from the port, sailed all night only to wake up anchored off the Island of Floreana.

Early morning we were ferried across to the Island, a ‘wet landing’ on the beach (shoes, boots or sandals at hand) to be put on once we had cleared the water’s edge and then up a narrow pathway (always clearly demarcated) lest one should stray all over the place and destroy surrounding vegetation and terrain.

Margaret and I were slightly disappointed – I don’t know what we expected on our first visit to one of these islands. On Discovery or National Geographic Channels one always sees literally hundreds of birds, however, once setting foot not much was to be found in the way of seabirds or sea mammals.

Back on board the Capitan started the motors and sailed off. This time the Island of Espanola, a dry landing (a staircase at the edge of the volcanic rock). Today – a bonus day. Numerous sea lions, large (120cms) sea iguanas, blue-footed and masked boobies, frigate birds (commonly known as ‘Men of War’), pelicans, gulls, crabs etc. Too good to be true!! At last!! We were really in our element moving amongst all this wildlife that has no fear of humans whatsoever. At times we either stepped over the creatures or moved around them. This was their island and who were we to intrude on their domain and privacy????

The same afternoon we set off for Isla Gardner to continue our exploration of another island and see its incredible array of wildlife, even got to see an extremely rare Galapagos Hawk. What a privilege, for us to set foot in this paradise, here so far from Home!!!

Our last afternoon was spent on a semi-arid island Santa Fe inundated with tall cactuses and scrub vegetation, this time the domain of the Land Iguana – a reptile when fully grown is almost 120cm in length. Very difficult to spot in its natural habitat especially blending into the vegetation and lava rocks.

On Sunday morning we spent time getting ready to leave this wonderful world which led Charles Darwin to set the tone for his ‘Theory of Evolution’ during his visit to the Archipelago in 1835. Last farewell to our hosts the crew, took leave of our guide and before long airborne back to the mainland and Quito. Happiness is?? Photographs and memories!!!

Aaah!!! All things come to an end, now is the hour to say goodbye!! With a certain sadness we bid farewell to the Continent of South America and the tiny country which has become so dear to our hearts for its friendly and hospitable peoples – Ecuador. Wish that we could have lingered longer but time marches on. Costa Rica – here we come!!!

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Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Chris didn’t receive a real taste of the outdoors until moving to Prescott, Arizona, in 2009. While working on his business degree, he learned to fly and spent his weekends exploring the Arizona desert and high country. It was there that he fell in love with backcountry travel and four-wheel drive vehicles, eventually leading him to Overland Journal and Expedition Portal. After several years of honing his skills in writing, photography, and off-road driving, Chris now works for the company full time as Expedition Portal's Managing Editor.