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Copa de los Amigos: Hardcore off-road Challenge in Ecuador

Copa de las Amigoes Ecuador 38Anyone who’s read my previous stories knows that I travel a lot and here and there I come across weird and wonderful 4×4 creations and events. In between the Baja 1000, Dakar and King of the Hammers I stopped for a while in Ecuador and rented a house on the side of a mountain with a glacier topped volcano in the distance… The domestic life suited me. For a few weeks. But I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to go to a friend’s farm and see a hard 4×4 event called the Copa de los Amigos (the Cup of Friends)… especially as there was a place for me in one of the race cars. The first non-South American to participate in its 10 year history. How could I say no?

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Monica Teran and her brother Sebastian are the organisers of the event and HQ is in the yard of thier hacienda, a beautiful old building built around a central courtyard with creaky hardwood floors and low doorways. For most of the year the rural quiet is only interrupted by the odd tractor chugging by, but when the Copa crews take over the cobbled yard is packed full of 4x4s. 22 cars lined up, formed into 11 2-car teams for the three day event.

My place was the back seat of one of the Team Tieras Altas Land Cruisers, which was quite a strange place for a winch-challenge, even more so as the loose but sturdy picnic hamper kept whacking me in the ribs. Things are a little different in South America.

Copa de las Amigoes Ecuador 2The big white 4.5L TLC had 35 inch Kumo M/T on nice deep dish American Eagle rims, ARB lockers, Old Man Emu shocks and leaf springs, a self made bumper and an 8274 winch on the front. On the roof our secret weapon was a set of massive bridging ladders. Other teams ran around with planks of wood but ours could have been part of a construction site scaffolding. I think they were made by the driver Chevy because he’s built like a bear and perhaps didn’t give much thought to the limited physical capabilities of his co-drivers!

Both Toyotas were perfect expedition vehicles but in my opinion were a bit big and heavy for competing, especially as one had a winch that might have pulled a Ford Escort out of a snow bank but certainly wasn’t up to pulling itself up a steep bank. Where intricate team work was called for the Latino way is to shout insults and wave arms in angry gestures but it still works as we managed to finish the opening test 3rd out of 11 teams.

The big opening action was a 5km loop around the edges of the farm and we had 4 hours to do as many laps as possible. It didn’t sound too much of a challenge and I briefly wondered if it was going to be more rally-raid style after all. I needn’t have worried. There were 8 really tough sections of varying horrificness, crossing deep drainage ditches with ladders and ground anchors. And once we’d broken the bank of one ditch and the water had poured out the flooded field became a 100m wide bog! Ten years ago I used to race in Russia and any off-roading that reminds me of the Ladoga Trophy or Pro-X Russia means that it is hard.

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Although the hacienda is in some of the highest parts of the Andes to my Welsh eyes the mountains either side of the valley looked a lot like the Clwydian range as you come up from Wrexham to Ruthin. A bit more rugged perhaps… and about 4000m higher… which caused quite an issue. I am not unfit but running around with the winch hook, jumping over streams and especially pulling those bloody bridging ladders along and lifting them back onto the roof seemed to really take it out of me. The lack of oxygen from running around at over 3000m above sea level makes it feel like you suddenly have the lung capacity of a long term chain smoker. Throwing, dragging and lifting the ladders for four hours straight made funny lights in front of my eyes… which was my brain being starved of oxygen. Not such a nice experience. The locals say that aspirin helps by thinning the blood, but I prefer the natural remedy. Cocaine. Well, tea made with coca leaves. It also comes in candy form and the whole packet I chewed really helped me get my face out of the grass.

Somewhere about three hours in I was up to my knees in freezing water, fumbling about for a ladder pressed deep into the earth and feeling pretty miserable and in need of a Snickers bar. But then I looked up. The clouds had cleared and the sun was catching the glacier sitting on the top of Cotopaxi volcano, the largest active volcano in the world. It was breath taking. The snow of the glacier is discoloured grey now because of the covering of ash from the most recent eruption last year. It was the most incredible backdrop for a 4×4 event!

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The biggest river crossing caught us out when Chevy nosed in deep and got water in the electrics. On about 4 or 5 cylinders instead of the usual 6 the Land Cruiser didn’t have enough power to get out and we lost an hour trying to winch and snatch it out with the much less modified yellow one. Still with a bad misfire there was the field that had become a massive bog to get through as well and it was dark before we got out and made camp behind the farm. We hadn’t done too badly. Lots of the others had problems, so we were still 3rd.

Copa de las Amigoes Ecuador 29The best car in the event was a stripped out Suzuki SJ with sprung-over leaves, Super Swamper tyres and a home-made twin motor design on a Warn 8274 winch. Rough-looking but effective. The lightness of the car helped the ground anchor as theirs dug in and pulled the car out whereas ours was mostly just a plough making short furrows in odd patterns. They could also get away with using the flimsy looking ladders that our Toyotas would have bent in half in the first ditch. Vitaras seemed unnaturally popular here when I first arrived, but that’s because they are still made here on licence. It’s quite strange to see brand new Vitaras for sale on dealer forecourts.

The cars here in Ecuador might not look too much but Ecuador has stricter rules than Iran for importing cars and parts. For many years only vehicles less than one year old can be imported, so every classic here has been in the country since it was new and it means that cars are phenomenally expensive. I found a 1983 clapped out Chevy equivalent of a Vauxhall Chevette with 600,000 miles on the clock… going for a song at £3200! So before you dismiss the cars in the photos like they are bangers for a weekend pay and play site everything you see is between 3 and 5 times the price of their European and American equivalents. The 1992 Hi-Lux I drove to the race in… Santiago thinks he got a good deal on it. It cost him $18,000!

Copa de las Amigoes Ecuador 62Saturday was spectator day and the fields were filled with glamour as all of the girlfriends came to sun themselves while watching their men drag their cars through ditches with varying degrees of success. And it was party night as well… and boy do Ecuadorians know how to party. At lunch the next day, as well as the sandwiches and water, the organisers handed out hangover pills. Like I said, they do things a little differently here.

The final stage, worth double points, was a huge trench cut into a field. The far side was a sheer 6 foot high. With spare wheels, ladders, ground anchors and winches I was impressed how easily a couple of the teams managed it. For most though it was total chaos. The whole field would have been disqualified for dozens of health and safety violations if this was in Europe, but everyone got through and got to go home to ther families… apart from Team Tieras Altas who decided to put the yellow TLC in first and tried to get it out with the weak winch. It didn’t work and in the final 2 metres they dropped from 3rd to 5th.

My shins will recover from three days of being bashed by heavy bridging ladders and hopefully I didn’t loose too many brain cells from oxygen depletion. I made some good friends and had an amazing experience. If anyone is in this part of the world at this time of year you need to give Monica a call. You don’t need much Spanish. ‘Winch-in’ is for some reason I never found out is ‘Cobra’ and tree strop is ‘Lavander’. Oh, and cocaine sweets are called bon bon de coca!

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