Travel Around The World; Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands
Ever wondered what a taxi is like in rural Ecuador? Or what you hail at the side of the road in the Galápagos Islands?
A few years ago I went on an adventure of a lifetime. A biological research trip to South America, spanning Quito, Lago Agrio, Cuyabeno, and the Galápagos Archipelago. As a zoologist it was awe-inspiring, fascinating and quite literally blew my mind. But, what does all that have to do with cars? Well, on my travels I kept a field journal, detailing the species spotted, food eaten, and the cars seen. And some of the cars out there were very different to what you'd expect to see in the UK. So what follows are a series of excerpts from my book where I'm wittering on about cars, and not macaws.
We start in Lago Agrio, a small supplies town in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.
"Transport around the world is something that fascinates me. Cars in general are amazingly appealing to me, and finding out about car culture across the world is a great way to get to know the locals. In South Africa, the bakkie is favoured for its cheap practicality and easy to get parts. For the uninitiated, a bakkie (from the Dutch bak for cool or hard car, as well as the Afrikaans bak meaning bowl) is essentially a normal family hatchback or sedan with the back end turned into a pick-up truck allowing work men to load it with scaffolding, tools and rubble, or farmers to load it with pigs. A similar idea to the Australian ute. In Southern Africa the bakkie has a great modified scene with owners turning their little work horses into lowered street racing machines or beefed up safari tackling monsters with push bars and lights hung from every possible point. It seems Ecuador has its own work vehicle modification scene too. The humble taxi, in the UK it is black, in the States it is yellow, and in Ecuador it is extensively modified to look like a cast extra in the Fast and Furious franchise. Buzzing around Lago Agrio, I spotted several of these hopped-up people movers sporting wings that wouldn’t look out of place on a touring car and with exhaust systems that seem have more holes in than a colander. While there apparently was no regulations on what car could be a taxi, it also seemed there was a similarly lax approach to who could be a taxi driver. A driving license seemed to be an optional extra. Combined with some coffee can exhaust system equipped taxis, the dusty roads of Lago Agrio were also filled with huge American style rigs hauling lumber, oil and containers. Giant Kenworth tractor units towering at the height of the squat one story buildings roared up and down the “roads”. This automotive chaos gave Lago Agrio a quirky edge, had we not been on such a tight schedule I would have loved to have investigated this strange jungle outpost, filled with racing taxis, ‘Merican trucks and some of the strangest shopping combinations I have ever seen.
I will admit to spending a great deal of time in motorcycle dealerships looking at shiny machines I cannot afford. I have also spent time in home appliance shops and outlets buying white goods with my mother. Never have those two been mixed. But here in Lago Agrio it seems to be a suitable combination! And I cannot figure out why. In a town this size it is fair to assume you would walk to the motorcycle dealership to buy your new bike, but then should you also purchase a chest freezer you would have no way of getting it home, apart from strapping it haphazardly to your new bike. Perhaps this is why all the taxis have enormous wings. It’s a washing machine mounting point!"
Moving out to the Galápagos Islands now for some more unusual taxis.
"Yet another early start today as we rushed down to the harbour in a series of taxis. Fun fact, the taxis on Santa Cruz are actually pick-up trucks, the indestructible Toyota Hilux, white AN30 series models to be a car bore about it, and because they are for the South American market they were assembled in Argentina where as my European market model back home is made in Durban, South Africa. Anyway, our convoy off taxi trucks dumped us at the docks and we hurriedly rushed through security, yes security to get from one island to the next, the sniffer dog marked all our bags clear and we scrambled on board a small cabin cruiser with just enough room for all of us and some other explorers."
When you think about it, a pick up makes for a good taxi, throw your shopping and kit in the bed, hop in the cab and away you go. To me, that is a practicality on par with the London Black Cab. Next up is a rather malformed bus of sorts, that somehow, I'm surprised I didn't fall out of.
Scream if you want to go faster.
"Today was going to be an active day. We were going for a hike up one of Isabela’s volcanos. Specifically, Sierra Negra. We had breakfast and made pack up sandwiches at the hotel for lunch on the hike. A variety of fillings were laid out with several loaves of sliced bread, we were encouraged by our guides to prepare two sandwiches as it would be a long hike. I made a club sandwich with tuna and cucumber and lettuce (God that sounds like a four-year-old wrote that phrase, but it seems to work?). This time our 8/10ths scale bus simply wasn’t big enough for our group and the pair of Dutch tourists who were joining us for this adventure so an extra “bus” was roped in. I say bus in the loosest of terms, this was a Toyota Hilux 3rd Generation (N40) with the load bay removed, the frame rails extended and what looked like an open, railway carriage bolted to the back. I just had to have a go."
Half an hour of this. HALF AN HOUR!
"We set off for the volcano, my knees jammed against the wooden board at the front of the carriage holding me in the whole thing, two of my fellow adventurers weren’t enjoying it quite as much as I was. We bounced our way out of town and past a large building site, finally passing through the farmlands and lowlands of the island."
If you'd like to read more of my adventures in South America, then head on over to Amazon and please please please please please buy a copy of my book. According to the three people who've read it; "entertaining, and a good read", "reminiscent of a young Attenborough", and "bought out of pity, but turned out to be quite fun, and educational".