06-24-2016 – Ecuador & Costa del Sol, El Salvador

After we left our fabulous expedition in the Amazon Basin, we decided it was time to move on. Peru was an amazing place to visit, but we still had quite a ways left to travel before getting back to El Salvador – and we had airline tickets to visit Kathy’s family in Texas in late June. So we headed for the next country north, which is Ecuador. But there was one more spot worth stopping on the way. 🙂

The town of Chachapoyas is situated in another really beautiful area, and the drive included a long stretch in a striking canyon along the Utcabamba River. For several miles, there are sheer cliffs right up against the road and for a few short stretches the road goes through an undercut section of the cliff. Beyond the canyon the road winds up again and the town is actually located up in the mountains with a great view in all directions. It’s the capital of the Amazonas Region, but due to its location off of the highway it feels a lot sleepier than that would imply. It turns out that this region is jam-packed with relatively undeveloped archaeological sites. We heard a story about an archaeologist who came here a few years ago to document the area’s potential, and left two years later having identified over 200 different sites worth investigating! The only site that we visited in the region is the best-known, the fortress-town of Kuelap. Kuelap was built in the 7th century, but little else seems to really be known about it. The culture came to an end as the Incas came to power. The city is built up on a high mountain with a double wall around it. There are dozens of round structures inside, most of which look quite similar and are presumed to be single-family houses. The thinking is that they had storage below (including pens for the guinea pigs that they ate) and tall thatch roofs above. A number of the buildings are decorated with zigzag patterns of flat stone. There is also a section which is enclosed in yet another wall and which has a number of buildings with other purposes, mostly assumed to be religious and governmental. The most distinctive of the buildings has been called “The Inkwell” because of its odd shape. Many theories have been floated about its use, from water storage to prison to religious ritual. Recent thinking is that it was related to astrological time-keeping, because it has the ability to show precisely when the spring and fall equinoxes occur, similar to other structures across the ancient world. We saw lots of orchids and bromeliads growing in the trees, and llamas grazing near the entrance. Oh, and the entrance was really cool! You come from below looking up this very tall and imposing stone wall, and come across a skinny slit about 40′ long which narrows down until it’s just wide enough for one person to get through at a time. For many years this has been assumed to be a way to prevent invaders from coming in, but a recent theory is that the walls have just settled closer together over time. There’s so much more to figure out!

Fortress Town of KuelapEntrance to Kuelap  Kuelap Neghborhood  Decorative Walls

We didn’t stay long because we were looking forward to hooking up with our friends, David and Joan, who have a house in Ecuador. It took us two full days to get there, using 6 different transport vehicles (we went from Chachapoyas to Bagua Grande to Jaen to San Ignacio to La Balsa to Zumba). It was actually pretty humorous! Several of the vehicles we took were collectivos, where cars or minivans line up to take passengers but only leave when enough people have arrived to fill one up. One of the vehicles we took overfilled when the driver stopped to pick up two women who were by the side of the road along with 5 children. There were 11 people altogether for an hour, 3 with a child in their laps! Another driver was driving so quickly and roughly down twisty mountain roads that one of his passengers, a pregnant woman, got car-sick and had to stop to throw up in the bushes. He conveniently had a roll of plastic bags to offer her so that we wouldn’t have to stop the next time. None of these people spoke English, and most didn’t really speak Spanish very well (better than us :-), just not fluently). They were very tiny, dark-skinned, soft-spoken people. We were intrigued but didn’t really make much of a connection with anyone since we were all in transit. The border crossing at La Balsa was very basic, not a frequently used one at all, and when we arrived there seemed to be no one around. A guy sitting on the stoop of a shop across the street came over to tell us that the border guard would be back in the next hour and to just make ourselves at home. It turned out that the local officials were playing volleyball until the next bus came by, and sure enough, he came back sweaty and in workout clothes, just as the transport pulled up! The transport from there was somewhat unusual: a semi tractor pulling a covered trailer, open on the sides, with a dozen wooden benches. We were initially the only ones aboard, but a few more jumped on in each small town we passed through, and by the time we arrived in Zumba just after dark it was pretty full. There was a flurry of activity as everyone paid the driver and gathered their belongings, and then we were on the street looking for a place to spend the night. We easily found a hostel, but when Dan reached for his wallet it wasn’t where he expected it to be. We checked in and immediately went back to where we had exited the vehicle, but the wallet was nowhere to be found. In the morning we went to the bus station early to try to catch the vehicle and/or the driver before they got out on their rounds. We did manage to talk with him, but no one had turned it in. 🙁 (Fortunately no one has tried to use any of the cards.)

Andean Hills

Peru-Ecuador Border  Ecuadorian Transport

We took a bus to Vilcabamba, where there was a hostel/resort that our friends from the Amazon (Alex & Maria, Matthew & Leslie) were staying and we’d heard great things about – including that they offer a free yoga class! We were looking forward to seeing our friends, Joan & David, who we met a year previously in Chiapas, Mexico. They own a catamaran that is in the boatyard there, but now live in a house that they have recently built on a hillside near Vilcabamba. We checked in and started to settle in for a relaxing evening. We had been out of touch for a while, so we each pulled out our tablets to check email, news, etc. Dan found it first: an email from some boating friends back in El Salvador that said Lungta was taking on water and they wanted information about pumps, thru-hulls, etc. Yikes! Our boat was sinking! We franticly responded, and began making arrangements to get back home ASAP. We had dinner with our Amazon friends and explained why we couldn’t stay. We contacted our Ecuador friends and told them that we weren’t going to be visiting them after all, after all the build-up. 🙂 They offered to take us to breakfast, take us to the airport, whatever we needed. We were so touched at their warm-hearted response, and relieved that we would get to spend at least a few hours with them! We arranged to meet up with Joan & David the next morning. We had dinner with our Amazon friends, and were surprised to see that the menu featured German food – our German friends said it was the best spaetzle they’d had in years! We had all been planning to head north into Ecuador, and expected to run into each other several times more, but we had just had a sea change and weren’t on that itinerary anymore. Kathy got up early and enjoyed the sunrise yoga class with our four fellow travellers – the studio was beautiful, and the instructor was really good. Afterwards we all said our goodbyes, and we checked out after only one night. 🙁

David & Joan met us at the hotel reception, and after some long-delayed hugs we all piled into their Land Cruiser. We drove into Vilcabamba, which is much smaller than we’d imagined. It’s a sweet town, but quite a destination for Westerners, so it isn’t as “authentic” (whatever that means) as it used to be. Joan & David also shared with us some of the local politics, which made it more real but also less charming. 🙂 We had a nice breakfast, and visited the post office which also sells airline tickets. We’d been able to research the tickets but not purchase them at such short notice the night before. If we hadn’t been able to purchase them here, then we’d have to take an overnight bus to get to Guayaquil to catch our flight back to San Salvador the next morning. Fortunately the very competent young woman behind the counter was able to get the system to work and produced our tickets with a minimum of difficulty. The bright side to this is that we would be able to spend a few hours with David & Joan and then take a one hour flight to Guayaquil. The ride to their house was more of the same spectacular countryside that we’d been enjoying for the last few days: jungle-covered mountainous terrain with windy roads and sparse human habitation. Their house is perched on a steep lot that wasn’t previously thought to be buildable. 🙂 They managed to come up with a design and then find and organize local workers to build it into (close to) what they had envisioned. It’s a sweet house with an octagonal floorplan, with a loft bedroom upstairs that has a view all the way to Sunday. We spent a couple of delightfully lazy hours sitting on their porch visiting – in lieu of a week’s visit followed by a road trip through some portion of Ecuador! It would have to do. Then they took us to the airport in Loja, another hour or so north. We spent the night in an AirBnB room, and got a red-eye ride to the airport for a 7am flight back home.

Our Friends' Ecuadorian Home

Our friends SaM & Dave met us at the airport two hours later in our car, which they had enjoyed and taken care of in our absence (although they’d had some troubles with the alternator and/or battery – there was a new battery sitting in the back floor, in case the car wouldn’t start while they were out and about!). It was wonderful to see their wide smiles as we got off the plane! We jabbered all the way home, both catching up on our various activities while we’d been gone and learning as much as we could about what had happened with Lungta – who was helping and how, what had been done, observations that might be clues as to what had gone wrong. As soon as we got home, we got to work, and we’ve hardly slowed down since! Well, truthfully, we haven’t been that single-minded. We have been working on the boat quite steadily, but we’ve also been living our lives pretty normally; we eat and sleep, we play chess many days, we check our email and FaceBook accounts regularly. 🙂 Our lives right now are closer to when we had working jobs, in that our days are filled with projects, but we still alternate that with the activities of normal daily life – and some of our projects are boat improvement projects as well.

When we got home, with our expectations set for crisis mode, the boat was oddly peaceful and serene. Just 24 hours earlier, there had been close to a dozen people running all over her pumping out water and looking for leaks, but now the excess water was gone and everything seemed normal – if you didn’t look too hard. 🙂 There had been water up to the floorboards in both the front and back sections of the boat, with the center portion high and dry, which meant that the main bank of batteries (under the kitchen floor) was just fine. The forward section included the watermaker and the aft section includes the main engine. The first project was to make sure that the pumps were functional – the bilge pumps in both sections were not working, and we spent a day or so putting them back in functional order. The main pump turned out to be just fine, except that its batteries were dead; once we switched it to use the main batteries we had a working bilge pump again. We have since replaced those batteries and rewired the pump to use the main batteries instead of the starter batteries. The main batteries are constantly being charged by our solar and wind generators, but the starter batteries are only topped off when we turn on the chargers. When we are home, the chargers are turned on daily whenever we want 110V AC power for anything (like charging our tablets or using the microwave). We’ve also added a second backup pump in the main bilge, so this should never happen again. In the forward section we had to redo some wiring that had corroded away from being immersed in high water (that was salty). By the end of the first day, we had secured the boat and begun to form a theory about what had gone wrong. Although some of the pieces are still a little murky, here’s what we think happened: something (probably in the watermaker) broke and caused a water leak from our big water tanks; the pump that maintains the water pressure for faucets continued to pump water out that leak until the tanks were empty, which moved roughly 500 gallons of water from the tanks in the low center of the boat to somewhat higher up and in the forward area, causing the boat to bow down; this lowered the head (toilet) to below sea-level which pushed water up through the toilet, constantly flowing into the boat; once the forward bilge pump stopped working that process accelerated. The fuzzy sections include what was the original domino in the chain and how long there was a leak before the bilge pumps stopped working. The catastrophe happened because of several relatively minor failures compounding (a very common observation in risk management circles!), none of which would have been much of a problem if we’d been home.

After assuring that the boat was securely floating, we turned our focus on the main engine. It had been flooded with saltwater, which isn’t generally recommended for diesel motors. 🙂 There was oil all over the engine hold and the storage areas under the floorboards (including dozens of oil and fuel filters). Although our bilge is normally pretty oily, this was extreme! When we pumped the oil out of the engine (should have been 7 gallons, but we only got about 3), we also removed 15 gallons of water – not a good thing! We also removed 10 gallons of water from our transmission housing. We filled the engine with 5 gallons of “lightly used” oil donated to us by one of the other boaters who had just recently changed his oil. We surmised that water had gotten into the engine through the opening intended for the dipstick; water would have trickled down that hole as the oil floated out. Yuck! The starter motor was also a mess – it turns out that electric motors don’t like swimming in saltwater either. 🙂 We took that into San Salvador on the first of many trips in to the “big city”, a 90 minute drive that we’ve come to know well! We are so grateful that we have our own car now, rather than depending on the local bus system to get us back and forth! We took our car to a small mechanic shop to have the A/C fixed, and they were able to get the starter going too, by replacing a relay, a simple fix. So we went home again with air conditioning in our car and a step closer to a working engine. This was the first of what turned out to be many short-term successes in a process that has become a bit of a saga! We installed the starter again and were able to start the engine within just a couple of days. If that seems to good to be true, you’re right!

Our plan was to change the oil and start the engine frequently for a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, after a couple of days we got less diligent and the engine sat unused for a few more days. When we tried to start it again, it wouldn’t catch. We noticed that there was more water in the oil so we changed it again. Then we turned to the fuel system, which we had previously thought had been spared because the top of it was above the high water level. After a couple of hours of trying to pump fuel through, we found that there was water in its oil as well. Ugh! The high-pressure fuel pump is one of the integral parts of the main motor that is unreplaceable. It’s more than 40 years old and no longer supported. If we couldn’t get this part working, then we would have to replace the entire engine. It took us a few hours to remove it; there are dozens of connections and many were hard to remove because they hadn’t been touched in more than a decade. We also tried to remove the six injectors, but only got one out that first day. We asked around and got a recommendation for a good diesel lab that might be able to rebuild the pump. We brought it in to the shop the next day and promised to bring in the rest of the injectors as soon as we could get them out. That turned out to be an extremely challenging endeavor! We ultimately brought in not one group of professionals, but two, and crafted a custom tool to help pull them – which needed to be beefed up twice and still ended up bending under the load! Ultimately we got all six of them out and the shop did a great job restoring them and the pump to working order. Slightly more than a week later we came home again with our (60 lb) pump and spent a day getting it installed again. Figuring out how to connect it back to the engine in such a way that the timing will work was quite the endeavor, but I won’t bore you with all of those gory details here. 🙂 The next day we worked on getting the injectors working. The engine would start – hooray! (again 🙂 ) – but there were leaks. We started the engine perhaps 10 times that day before the starter gave up the ghost again. We’ve spent the last week or so trying to get it sorted out so that we can get back to sorting out the fuel system problems. This project is providing lots of fodder for our emotions – in both directions! 🙂 It does appear that we’re now working on “peripheral” issues, and that the engine itself will live to take us further down our journey. (We’ve asked for a quote from the only shop locally that could even possibly remove and replace the engine, but they haven’t yet put it together. We expect that it will be a few tens of thousands of dollars!)

In the gaps between working on the engine, we’ve accomplished a few other things. 🙂 Before we left on our South American adventure, we hired a local man named Reymundo to refinish the cap rail around the boat’s perimeter. Reymundo is a very competent, reliable and pleasant person, and we were thrilled not only with the work he did but also at the chance to get to know him a bit better. We’ve also hired him to clean the bottom of the boat (he’s really thorough, and fast too!), and to keep an eye on Lungta while we were away (he’s the one who sounded the alarm when the “flooding” happened, and saved the day). But I digress. When he was preparing the caprail, he removed the solar panel wires that were secured to the wood to keep them out of sight. Rather than secure them the same way, we decided to install a PVC conduit underneath the shiny caprail. So one of our “bonus” projects this last month has been to install that conduit and run the wiring. It looks so much neater than before! We ended up purchasing quite a bit more PVC than we needed, though, and found another project that used some of it. 🙂 We have built a “corral” to hold our swim ladder, spare gas cans, buckets, etc. This is in the place where we’ve previously kept the motorcycle and then later our bicycles. As with the motorcycle, we decided that we just weren’t making good use of the bicycles – and were spending more time maintaining them than actually using them! We gave them to Reymundo (to thank him for rescuing our boat) and have already repurposed that space. The deck feels more spacious and organized!

Container Corral

Yesterday something unusual happened. We got a call on the radio, inviting us (and all the other boaters that are still in town) to come to the marina and share in a meal made by the participants in a television cooking competition show. The show, Top Chef, starts with 12 participants and runs for twelve weeks, eliminating one cook each week. Each episode is filmed in a different location, and this was the third in this season. We were told to arrive at 2:30, but when we did we found that they were still setting up. There were many dozens of people involved, and at least 8 cameras – one of them on a huge boom perhaps 20 feet long extending out over the water. We hung out with our friends David and SaM for more than 4 hours, talking with some of the judges (all of whom spoke English quite well!), watching the cooks at work out on the docks, speculating on what the rules were, etc. Somewhere around 6:30 the clock ran out and they participants were told to quit cooking. All of the people in the marina were herded towards a large group of tables, but most of the folks in the resort had already left for the day, so the seating was spotty. One of the contestants passed out from the heat, and the cameras rushed in along with the first-aid respondents. 🙂 Just as each team was beginning to portion the food out into 50 plates, a cool gust of wind kicked up many of the light-weight plastic plates – the sort of wind that precedes a real downpour! We jumped out of our chairs and rushed for the dinghy. We hadn’t closed up the boat for the evening, because we had no idea we’d be gone all afternoon. 🙂 We raced home through churned-up water, and arrived with only minutes to spare before the rain began pelting down. There was a good bit of lightning too, but we were safe and sound – and hungry! – back at home after a little adventure. You never know what life will look like when cruising!

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