A Travellerspoint blog

Ecuador: Cuenca to Banos

The Towering Volcano

sunny 27 °C
View John and Jackie Around the World on JohnandJac's travel map.

John:.... Sunday morning in Cuenca. Sunny and hot. We have just eaten a leisurely breakfast at the excellent (and very new) Kookaburra Cafe on Calle Larga, run by two ex pat Aussies Chris and Jenny. We stayed off contencious subjects like rugby and focussed on the important things in life like bacon, eggs, mushrooms, toast and tea. Delightful people, they have been here for a while, the cafe and accomodation open for just 3 weeks. It was interesting talking to them about doing business in Ecuador (uncomplicated) and living in the city of Cuenca (very good quality of life). Whilst not retired, their experience indicates why Cuenca is rapidly becoming one of the premium destinations for ex pat retirees; great climate, low cost of living, low (for us) medical costs and more besides.

After a night punctuated by exploding ordnance and a morning of eating good food and watching brightly coloured, joyfully noisy parades (counted at least 4 already today and it is only lunchtime) we enjoyed walking down to the main square. Past the excellent (and he is fully aware of his 'talent') Jose, an Ecuadorian Billy Bragg with better guitar technique but the same quality of singing, iffy amplification and sense of theatre; past the Indian ladies in their heavy velvet, pencil pleated and embroidered skirts, felt hats, cardigans and woolen shawls selling everything from cut flowers outside one of the churches to cherries from wheelbarrows, plastic toys to lottery tickets, ice cream to milk from big silver churns. The churches, mainly painted in white, gleam and glisten in the sunlight, providing a perfect backdrop for the colours all around.

The square was busy, full of people, many watching dancers and clowns near the bandstand, some out with their children still dressed up from a parade, diminutive caballeros and sparkly angels, shepherds of 2 years old clutching their shepherd's crook in one hand and a slice of fresh pineapple on a stick in the other. The New Cathedral gazing down importantly on the whole scene.

On the previous blog I forgot to mention the Cultural Museum in Calle Larga. A private collection with over 5 000 pieces from pre Spanish occupation there are all sorts of statuettes, bowls and carvings. There is an English language version of a guide book which you can borrow but there isn't a great deal of narrative in it. I took the opportunity to unpack my sketch pad and pencils and draw some of these pieces. For only 2 dollars admission it represents great value for money and combined with a visit to the Banco Centro ethnographic exhibitions a little further down the road makes for a fairly complete study of the local and national pre colonial scene.

On Monday it was time for us to begin our journey back to Quito with a 3 day stopover at Banos (Ban-yos). There can be no difficulty in locating Banos even for the poorest map reader. It is the small town right at the foot of the volcano Tungurahua. Described by the Ecuadorian tourism ministry as ´still in eruption´ you can identify the volcano from miles away not only by its characteristic shape but also by the kilometre or more high plume of grey smoke and occasional rocks and other jetsom emitted from the crater.

We reached here on the Cuenca to Quito coach, getting off two thirds of the way along the Pan American Highway at the town of Ambato. We had been able to see the volcanic emissions for some time before we arrived at Ambato and, on the bus from Ambato to Banos the views became even more dramatic. The volcano is the sole reason for Banos´existence as a tourist town, giving rise to the hot springs and spa pools that give the town its name and the scenery that attracts mountain bikers, trampers and, presumably, volcanologists.

The coach ride of 320 kilometres from Cuenca is a fairly unhurried affair, taking 7 hours to reach Ambato and a further hour from Ambato to Banos. The journey along the Pan American Highway was fascinating. Most people getting on used the coach for fairly short distance travel; people carrying their shopping on to the bus before disembarking 30 minutes later, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We were the only people on the bus to travel all the way to Ambato. The scenery changes every minute, climbing out of Cuenca up into the high sierra. As we left the built up areas behing us the towns gave way to remarkably fertile farmsteads, most work undertaken by Indian people using spades and hoes sometimes in small family or community groups but often working alone. Poncho styles changed along the way, the lighter weight ponchos in the town giving way to much heavier garments up in the high sierra. The towns along the way; Alausi, Riobamba to name but two seem to be the hubs for local communities. Riobamba´s function as a railway centre now over as the line has closed with little immediate prospect of reopening. The town looks over developed with seemingly uncontrolled, poor quality building.

The trip itself was unremarkable except for about 2 hours driven in dense fog. Every time we stopped, for road works, at Terminals Terrestriale or for lunch the bus was boarded by people selling things. They would hop on board with a wicker basket of crisps, cherries, dried bananas, drinks, ice creams. One young woman of 16 or so with small child got up from her seat as soon as the bus set off asking the entire bus full of passengers for money. As soon as she had finished her pitch and collection she got off the bus. Another young man looking very dapper in his suit and tie opened his attache case and distributed a small packet (we think of some digestive aid) to everybody on the bus (except us, the only gringos on board) and then attemted to collect a dollar from everybody he had given a packet to. The front of the bus seemed to be like a small stage and available for anybody who wanted to say something. We seemed to be a captive market and I must say it did help to pass the time away.

Our seats were directly above the luggage locker so we were able to monitor our luggage fairly carefully; nothing lost or missing. As the journey continued we entered the `Avenue of the Volcanoes´. To our left, the giant Chimborazo (6310 metres above sea level) that gives its name to this region of Ecuador and the smaller Carihuarazo (5020 masl). Soon after these two sleeping giants, the dispeptic Tungurahua`s plume of smoke and ash came into view.

For the rest of it the conductor put on the CD player, located in the driving cab, at high volume and then locked the door to the driver´s cab behind him. I thought I saw several people in the coach looking to see if the wires to the speakers could be cut but that might just have been a bit of transference on my part! In all a most agreeable journey and having broken the back of it now we only have a 3 hour run to Quito tomorrow (Thursday). The way to calculate coach fares here is approx 1 dollar US per hour of travel and so for very little we arrived in Banos. In total we will have paid 11 dollars each on the bus from Cuenca to Quito and seen a lot of things we would have missed had we flown.

Banos itself is a tourist town with fairly rich agricultural soil around and, therefore, a thriving community of small holders, communes and cooperatives on the surrounding hillsides. The feature that dominates the town however is the ´still erupting´volcano. On Tuesday I walked part way and got a lift for the rest of the way up the hillside overlooking the town and with a direct view of the volcano. Across the valley I could clearly feel and hear the deep rumbling noises and small explosions accompanied by renewed clouds of ash and smoke. The town itself is relatively protected from lava flows as you can see by the photo in the gallery but I´m not sure how well it would do with a full scale eruption underway. The deep rumbles and explosions make the fire crackers in Cuenca seem really puny by comparison and watching the continuously changing plume of smoke is an almost hypnotic experience.

We have made several visits to the hot pools in the town, Termas de Virgen to give them the full title. Located at the foot of a waterfall, visible from all parts of the town, the pools are great value at only 2 dollars entrance. There are 3 pools. 42 degrees, warm and filled by the waterfall. Built in the late 1950s they are probably due another lick of paint and, like the `Devil´s Nose Train´ it would be reasonable to charge visitors a little more to cover the maintenance before the pools reach the point of needing demolition and rebuilding.

We took a trip last night to one of the local lookouts where, on a clear night, you can see the bright red of the crater and the showers of red hot rocks projected skywards. It wasn`t a clear night and the volcano didn´t deign to come out and be seen. We may try again tonight. I hope we are successful but if not, even seeing the daytime activity has been amazing.

Lots of love to family and friends. The next posting will probably be after our Amazon visit.

Posted by JohnandJac 07:45 Archived in Ecuador Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Ecuador: Cuenca

A very stylish city

semi-overcast 23 °C

John:...Power to the people....well not quite all the time. Cuenca has the problem of a shortage of water in its hydro generating lakes. A combination of no rain for some months, small lakes and power usage have led to frequent power cuts in the days that we have been here. It doesn´t seem to trouble many people although doing any kind of business other than repairing damaged electrical equipment must be a nightmare. If there is a schedule of cuts it is not obvious and different parts of the town are without power at different times of the day. The first indication to the perambulating touristic that there is no power is the sudden appearance of lots of petrol generators on the pavement and policemen at the traffic lights. Of varying sizes the generators appear outside shop doorways, chained to a nearby pillar or hook, and chatter away for an hour or so. Within seconds of the power returning they are turned off and put away, only to return maybe later in the day or the next day but until the rains come there is no doubt that they will return.

Cuenca is a Spanish colonial jewel of a city in the southern Andean region of Ecuador. Calm, pretty, cultured and full of historical and artistic interest and with a fascinating mixture of people, customs and foods. In our time in South America it is the most ´mannered´place we have been. The people are courteous, easy to engage in a greeting and very tolerant. You can cross the road without fearing certain death (the red traffic light, which in Lima is the hint of a suggestion that you could stop if you wanted to, means HALT. NOW. and doesn't require armed police to enforce the rule) This is a city used to incorporating difference and change. In fact it is the fascinating fusion of people, foods, music, art, religions and architecture that make it so interesting.

Once our taxi had negotiated the short route from the airport to our hostal, The Posada del Angel on the Calle Simon Bolivar, we were able to check in. Our hostal is like a signature building for Cuenca. A corner building in the Spanish style with 2 courtyards, now covered over with glass, balconies with ornate stone and woodwork and a mixture of colours, terracotta, blue, and lovely polished creaky floorboards. Beautifully looked after and with outstanding staff this family run business represents great value for money.

A short walk down the cobbled Calle Simon Bolivar, 4 blocks, towards the main plaza takes you past stylish old buildings with pillars and ornately carved doors, Ecuadorian flags flying proudly, shady courtyards just visible through large wrought iron or wooden gates. Local people are quick to nod or offer a buenos dias/buenas tardas. The whole place has a very comfortable, gentle and cultured feel to it.

Cuenca was originally intended, by the Inca rulers, to replicate the centre of their world, the beautiful city now known as Cuzco (see earlier blog) in southern Peru. The Spanish, likewise, after they had conquered the Incas, gave their keenest attention to Cuenca and, for me, achieved even more in Cuenca than they had in Cuzco. The main square has two cathedrals and it seems that every couple of blocks there is another large church.

The role of the Church is fairly central to life here. In the eight days we have been here we have seen processions through the streets, sometimes several in a day. All so far have been related to the celebration of Christmas and the events immediately afterwards, the visit of the Three Kings to Herod and the subsequent slaughter of the innocents was the subject of a huge procession through the town on the 5th Jan. Several marching bands, low loaders made up as carnival floats, children of all ages (some seemingly only a few months old) dressed up as recognisable (Kings, shepherds, Mary and Joseph, sheep, goats etc) characters from the scriptures and others dressed up as characters that didnt make the King James version (cowboys, flamenco dancers, mexicans in large sombreros) that I am familiar with.

These processions have nothing to do with tourism and everything to do with clubs and communities celebrating important events for themselves. The presence of toursits in all of this is of no consequence to those taking part in the parades but for the tourist it does give license to take photographs that otherwise would be difficult for the photographer and embarrasing for the subject.

Some parades are large affairs whilst the one I saw today consisted of two utes, a dozen children dressed up (with assorted parents) and a bloke on a motorbike (who may just have been trying to get through). Each procession and part of the festivities is accompanied by the frequent, irregular setting off of firecrackers of considerable power. In another country these things would have had people running for cover but here life carries on as normal. The firecrackers go off at night and during the daytime.

We are fast approaching our last day here in Cuenca and a fascinating stay it has been. I have mentioned the long Christmas celebrations. We have visited a number of establishments (and as I am writing another small procession is heading to the church next door, in front a car with big speakers playing fairground music and, I have just restarted my heart, an enormous explosion of firecrackers that made me jump out of my skin!) involved in making and selling Panama Hats. Ecuador (not Panama) is the home of the Panama Hat and in 1944-45 money from the export of Panama Hats was its largest earner. The production of these hats is an incredible process with the finest quality hats taking a month to weave and finish. I took the opportunity to replace my poor old Panama Hat, purchased in Parma in 1999 and a fine thing it looks too.

Less successfully on the retail front we visited the studios of a very talented ceramic artist, E. Vega. Having picked out some lovely pieces to buy, rich with illustrations from the Amazon, Cuenca life and other local scenes we discovered that the shipping home would be prohibitive. A real shame but we were lucky to see such beautiful work at his studio. (for those on a ´round the world´ trip like this, our experience has been that the cost of posting things home has been an unexpectedly high budget item. In our case the cost of sending a 120 dollar plate to NZ would have been 280 dollars. It is well worth considering this if working to a tight budget). If interested in his work you can catch a glimpse at the following web site:

http://www.ceramicavega.net

We were fortunate to find two large food markets in the city, one on each side of the main plaza. In one, Jackie discovered a whole floor of hot food being plated up for people working in, and using, the market. We had the best value meal so far, consisting of Hornados (slow roasted pork with the crackling finished off with a blow torch), llapangachos (potato and cheese patties) and white maize with a spicy sauce. Absolutely delicious and no gastric after effects. All this for 3 dollars each. Polished off with a cerveza negra fria for me and fresh from the blender raspberry juice for Jackie.

The fusion of cultures that is evident in the art, architecture, food and religious festivities is also evident in the music. We just had lunch as somebody was belting out My My My Delilah in Spanish on the radio and several musical styles are based on the combination of several influences. Many of these are similar to those we heard in Peru. Criolles music is the combination of Spanish and Ecuadorian influences and Afro Ecuadorian reflects the music brough here by African slaves mixed with the local music of the time, now amplified and modernised. Reggaeton and Bomba are not especially Ecuadorian but are very popular here amongst the younger set. The purer music is the folkloria style played by the Andean Indian people. Salsa, throughout Latin America, is, as its name suggests a mixture of influences R&B, pop, Jazz and is very popular here as dance music.

There are several very fine galleries in the city although the opening times are not well advertised. The Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, towards the top of the Calle Simon Bolivar looks interesting. We inadvertantly invited our way into the opening VIP evening of a new exhibition but as the speeches threatened to go into the early hours before we got to see a painting we left early. The unlovely looking Banco Centro building at the bottom end of Calle Larga has a wonderful presentation of ethnic history, telling the stories of the numerous tribes, pre colonisation and now, that make up the wonderfully diverse population of Ecuador. Together with an extensive exhibition of Guayasamín, one of Ecuador´s leading contemporary painters it was a real treat. Followed by a wonderful meal just up the road at El Maiz (we strongly recomend this delightful family run restaurant with its Ecuadorian menu) and conversation with the owner Eulalia Blandin it made for a wonderful day.

Just before signing off for this posting, I headed up to the town of Alausi yesterday to ride the famous rail line past ´The Devils Nose´. A spectacular route that is now the sole remaining part of the rail link from Quito to Guayacil. Many lives were lost in the building of what is a masterpiece of railway engineering: a zig-zag carved out of the rock, which allows the train, by advancing and backing up, to reach the river valley below.

Alausi is about two hours north of Cuenca on the Pan American Highway, over hills, past the occasional volcano and through fairly thick fog. On arrival we saw yet another multi coloured procession, this time lead by a ute playing Latin jazz, followed by 6 masked dancers dressed in white with bright colours, in turn followed by a person carrying a life sized, dressed wooden model of the Christ child and a crowd of local people dressed in black. No sooner had this passed than we went to ´The Train´. The train now consists of two old Mercedes road buses with the wheels removed and rail bogeys put on. Paintwork is done by an unschooled hand or two using what looks like the sort of paint you might paint your fence with. The result is much better than this description sounds though, quite idiosyncratic. If you were a train enthusiast however you might be rather disappointed to say the least.

Driven like a bus (although the steering wheel is surplus to requirements) by a man in a Casey Jones style hat and red neckerchief along this beautiful route, these vehicles have replaced the old heavy steam train that would, from time to time, come off the rails. Gear change is tricky and when shifting into reverse the guard or one of the passengers has to lift up the gear box cover so that the driver can get a good swing at the gear lever. The cost of this hour and a half trip is a mere 8 dollars and would still be good value at 3 times that cost if the money was re invested in the track and trains. Despite all that well worth doing. (google ´The Devils Nose Ecuador´ if interested in more detail)

The road home took me past numerous road side eating places, each with a whole pig (head still in situ) roasted and hanging outside, to the Inca settlement at Ingapirca. Our guide apologised that the ruins were not as spectacular as Machu Picchu...no need. The site gives a lovely views out towards the west and has been wonderfully restored. Llamas grazing peacefully and the current Indian settlement working around the old ruins, selling goods to tourists when not looking after the small dairy herd makes for a very different experience. The village is surrounded by enormous houses, built by people working in the USA and Spain, sending money home. Often working in low paid jobs overseas their dollars go much further here. Until the owners return these grand looking houses are often used as storage places or, as we were told, shelter for cattle.

I managed to find a good internet place for loading some new photos on to the blog site. I hope you enjoy them. I should also say that I have nearly used up my allocated space for photos (100 allowed) so I will need to start removing some of the earlier ones sadly. This means that some of our friends from Franz Josef will disappear from the site. Apologies but by now the world knows what a great bunch of people you are.

We head north to the town of Banos by bus on Monday before our trip into the Amazon which looks really exciting. Back packs newly waterproofed and lots of 400 asa film to use and then down into Chile. Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.

Posted by JohnandJac 13:32 Archived in Ecuador Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Ecuador: Otavalo market, back to Quito and on to Cuenca

sunny 22 °C

John:....Otavalo switched itself back on early this morning. Our room looked out on to the street leading to the nationaly renowned market, two minutes walk across the main plaza from us. At dawn indigenous people come in to Otavalo from surrounding towns, following mountain trails that ultimately lead to the huge market square and surrounding streets. After the quiet of New Years´Day, we were aware of traffic heading to the market from about 04:00. Advised that the best time to get to the market was early, we breakfasted and went, first of all, to the produce market. The sun was already beating down hard from a clear blue sky, the heat modified by the altitude but the sun burn factor increased markedly for the same reason. As the morning passed we were looking for shade at every opportunity....

The street from the plaza to the produce street market was lined with stalls selling everything from cell phone covers, childrens´shoes, traditional embroidered costumes, football shirts, bootleg DVDs and CDs, cooking pots and much more besides. Even at 08:00 the place was busy; not much noise, even from around the corner where the fruit and veg stalls stretched out for several blocks. The stall holders, ever watchful for a customer, patiently waited while ´support teams´behind each stall shelled peas, peeled the leaves off maize, unpacked boxes of apples and did all sorts of back-up jobs. Evidence of how fertile Ecuador is was all around us. Spring onions nearly the size of small leeks, wapi, numerous varieties of bananas, red, green, yellow, small, large, sweet, savoury, grapes, enormous beans, great piles of herbs. As we rounded one corner we walked into an olfactory wall of spring onions and corriander, the wonderful aromas increasing as the day warmed up. We bought some red bananas, very ripe, sweet and soft. The colours and smells were wonderful and the gentle burble of commerce and conversation, Quechwa, Castellano, a little English and children playing was a lovely sonic back drop. In Peru this would have been punctuated by sirens, car alarms and car horns.

Hot food was on sale all along the street. Vendors selling everything from small chilanos (roadside donuts coated in sugar), chargrilled chicken, soup, rice dishes and llapangachos (little potato and cheese patties). On one street corner a woman tended to a whole (with head and trotters still on) pig that had clearly been slow cooking for hours. All around us tiny Indian people were lifting huge loads. Big sacks of maize or potatoes. Already substantially shorter than me, and I´m not tall, many of the older men and women, faces and hands tanned like old book leather, were stooped over with injuries and years of hard, hard work. As I mentioned before there was an air of quiet, calm purposefulness about the place.

After 3 blocks we turned in to the Mercado Artisanales, a couple of blocks given over to the once weekly market. Kaleidoscopic and very tempting indeed. All manner of local crafts were represented from rug weaving, embroidery, pottery, stone carving, knitting, basket weaving, wooly hat making, painting and printing. We have done reasonably well so far on this trip, buying a few things here and there whilst keeping our luggage and postal bills to the minimum possible but this place was severely tempting. We passed by many lovely things that will have taken days or weeks to make that the craftspeople were selling for just a few dollars.

Some things were easier to pass by than others. I am sure that a poncho wouldn´t look good on me and Jackie had no problem going past some of the stalls selling bonnets...the terracota bird caller, Shigra bag, the small and exquisitely detailed oil painting, the brightly painted wooden bowel plus several other items were a different matter. The density of the market was amazing. Easy to get absorbed into the market and forget the outside. As well as a few touristicos Gringos like us the market was full of people selling their handiwork, complete with families of children, the older ones tasked with looking after the younger ones. We were both struck by how many children there were yet how little we heard children crying or squabbling. They seemed to be very self-sufficient and resilient, playing together and/or learning, from an early age, how to make things and, very importantly, how to sell them. All around the market people were continuing their craft work, waiting for the later arrival of more touristicos. Middle aged women sitting on the kerb side embroidering delicate white traditional blouses, or working lace, spinning wool or knitting; often looking after a few children simultaneously.

There were lots of people selling similar things, brightly coloured bags, beads, ponchos and Panama hats and some of the items on sale were clearly mass produced but in the main the quality of the goods was excellent. The sheer number of things in the market meant that it would have been very easy to get blase about it all but each piece of work was worthy of more time than we had to give it. It was an interesting experience to be so completely surrounded by people who make things.

It would have been very easy to walk away with a wall hanging or rug, a bigger picture (always good to see) or a small guitar (seriously, very tempting) but we settled for a few smaller things, ever conscious that we have yet to visit Chile, South East Asia and India, all of whom will,no doubt, have similarly tempting things. All too soon it was midday, time to check out of our hotel and get the bus back to Quito. The hardest thing was getting change from a 20 dollar note to use on the bus (tip for people travelling here and in Peru is always look out for opportunities to break big notes into smaller denominations. Small shops, taxi drivers rarely carry a lot of change and will have a hard job finding change for big notes. Thankfully, in Ecuador many of the ATMs include some 5 and 10 dollar notes in your money, usually not the case in Peru where 20 dollar notes are the staple fare.)

The bus station in Otavalo is a much smaller version than that in Quito. The buses to Quito seem to leave frequently. They leave when they're full and a lot of people travel this route. At 2 dollars it is fabulous value for money and if you did nothing else but the return journey, pausing in Otavalo for a market bought picnic lunch it would be a bargain. All human life is on the bus, whole families going to/returning from market, people in their very best clothes visiting family and friends, family pets, all kinds of things.

The route itself is beautiful, leaving for Quito with the first snow capped volcano, Cayambe, at 5 790 metres towering over the neighbouring countryside. Behind, to the left, is Cotocachi at a mere 4 944 metres. The E 35 rolls through lush green fields and glacial lakes, small tidy townships, all the time people getting on and off the bus as it takes a short pause. At each stop the conductor shouts out Quito Quito Quito in case anybody wanted to go to....Quito and somehow he fitted another person on. Approaching Quito, Pichincha, the short guy at 4 675. They seem all the more dramatic because they rise out of the ground, unhidden by other mountains and with gleaning white caps in the hazy, smoggy sunlight.

If you're visiting Ecuador on a tight budget do the bus ride, buy your lunch in the market at Otavalo and sit in the Plaza to eat it. If you're lucky there will be some singing in the Cathedral. For less than 10 dollars you will have a great day.

Anyway no rest for us, poor souls that we are, back to La Mariscal, repack and off to the airport to take the short flight to Cuenca. Our taxi driver was playing Salsa music on the stereo and a tune came on that markedly increased his driving speed. I recognised it as a track I have on my ipod and, if you like, you can access El Cuarto De Tula by the Buena Vista Social Club on the internet through You Tube. He had it played by another group but you'll get the sense from this.

To our surprise there was some fluttering about in our humble hostel and lo and behold Patch Adams was staying there too, with his entourage visiting Quito to work in some of the poorer districts. In fact we were the only non Patch Adams people remaining in the hostel. No sign of the famous one in the evening so we settled down and watched The Kite Runner and turned in. This morning, walking up the stairs, I encountered a very tall man dressed in a clown's shirt, floppy shoes a large moustache and other unlikely garments coming the other way. The man himself.

We are now in Cuenca, a lovely town in the Southern Ecuadorial Andes. Our short flight from Quito gave us fabulous views of the magnificent Cotopaxi volcano, glistening in the mid morning sun before begining our descent to Cuenca, a patchwork of lush green fields and terracota roofs, the rooftops gradually eating away at the green fields until we land on another runway surrounded by houses.

More on Cuenca in the next blog. In the meantime lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.

Posted by JohnandJac 13:24 Archived in Ecuador Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Ecuador: Quito and surrounds

sunny 27 °C

John:.....Hot, dry, subdued and a little confused on New Years Day....no not me but the La Mariscal (on arriving there the taxi driver jokingly referred to it as Gringolia) district in Quito where we stayed for the first few nights of our stay in Ecuador. Celebrating the new year began here at least 24 hours in advance of the clock striking midnight on the 31st December. Presumably nervous that they might miss the occasion quite a few of the locals began the celebrations early, yesterday. As we strolled across the Plaza this morning to the ATM and then the taxi to the Estacion Del Autobus the municipal street cleaners were sweeping up the debris of spent fireworks, still smouldering mini bonfires and the usual detritis left over from street parties; bottles, plastic cups, streamers, masks and spent people....more on this later in the posting.

Expecting Ecuador to be similar to Peru but a little warmer (as I did before reading up prior to our travels) is a bit like expecting Germany to be a bit like Greece with fewer olives on the menu. Certainly the similarities are partly exagerated by a shared language but beyond that there are many differences between Peru and Equador. Our ride from the airport to our hotel in La Mariscal gave us quite a few clues to the differences. The cars are better, the roads are a little worse, the driving is better (our taxi driver this morning hit 110 kph going through the centre of town and didn´t use his horn or have to swerve once), the population much smaller. Less litter, fewer slums and quiter, much quieter (except for last night). The whole pace of life seems a lot less driven, people seem to have more time. The demographic seems similar in many respects, lots of children, although there seem to be many more African Ecuadorian people than African Peruvians. This was explained to me by a local person as being an anomalie of the slave trade in the 19th century which I didn´t fully understand but will read more about. We really liked Peru a lot. I suspect we will also really like Ecuador a lot but in a different way.

Helpfully the language is the same. Unhelpfully our Spanish speaking skills are also the same (but by no means the worst we have heard). Many of the indigenous Andean people wear characteristic dress although the hats, colours, dress styles, decoration are all different again as they were in the various regions in Peru. There are, to my ears at least, many musical similarities and the instrumentation used for folk music, salsa, and criolles music broadly similar.

As mentioned in the previous blog posting our first day and a half in Quito was spent establishing our itinerary for the three weeks of our time here. The first fixed point to establish was our trip into the Amazon Basin. Because we wanted to be fully fit and fully protected against malaria we decided to wait until week three of our time here. We have set up a 5 day/4 night trip into the area near, but not too near, the Colombian border. This will allow us time for some treking and canoeing as well as providing us with the opportunity to visit a local village and see some of the local flora and fauna. We get in by small plane from Quito to Largo Agrio followed by several hours in a 4 wheel drive vehicle and a 4 hour canoe trip to the lodge itself.

Before that we have planned some time in Cuenca, once (and by all accounts still) a jewel of architecture of the colonial and pre colonial periods. The first excursion we wanted to establish was for the following day. For this we took a two hour drive out of Quito, heading North. Our driver, Johnnie Darwin Lunar (that is true and I missed his surname) collected us at 06:30 and drove us for 2 hours to a place called Bella Vista up in the cloudforest in the Northern Andes. At 2600 metres above sea level no altitude problems for us, still benefitting from the high altitude time we had in Peru.

The forest here is in cloud or rain for much of the time (although beautifully sunny and warm when we visited) which gives rise to the magnicent range of birds and trees in the area. Because of its altitude it provides a very different kind of habitat to the Amazon Basin rainforest that we will see in a couple of weeks. Greeted warmly by one of the staff, we were introduced straight away to some of the many hummigbirds in the area as they flew right across us on the way to one of the feeders on the site. For me this was one of the extraordinary features of this lovely place. The hummnigbirds were everywhere. Some no bigger than large insects and all beautifully coloured and very close, these delicate little creatures had an ability to get the attention of even the most annoying child (and there was one there. Personally I would have turned him and his father over to the very large vulture that flew overhead...). After half an hour of fruitless attempts to try and capture them on celluloid we headed off to a stiffish 3 hour trek, climbing up up several hundred metres elevation and down a few times, marvelling at the huge number of birds in the reserve and the speed at which brilliant sunlight changes to thick mist and back again. A really good day.

We crossed the Equator so many times yesterday we got quite complacent about the whole thing. There is a monument on the outskirts of Quito, La Mitad del Mundo, where you can straddle the line dividing North from South but as we will be crossing the Equator several more times before we leave Ecuador we will get the obligatory snaps later. Interesting that unlike every other line and border we have crossed so far on our travels, the only papers we have had to show to get from North to South and vice versa are to bus drivers and are those with 1 digit numbers in each corner and a picture of Samuel Jackson and The White House on them.

We joined the population of Quito for the New Years´Eve parade last night. With this event the ´floats´are static and the people parade. We started off from a stage near our hostel where a blistering hot salsa band were cooking up a storm. Three singers with suits, voices and moves to match, pitted their voices against a wicked percussion section and a brass section that boiled and squealed. There was a piano in there somewhere as well. It seemed as if each solo, shimmy and barrage of drumming spurred the others on to even greater heights. Just as you thought the stage might melt they quietened the whole thing down with a ballad before the trumpets, drums, piano and carefully rehearsed and synchronised moves had the crowd going again. A perfect salsa band? I don´t know enough to say but did they hit the spot? without question....we moved on, the crowd following the direction that the traffic would normally take.

As we reached one end of the displays we changed to the other side of the road and followed this towards the city centre centre for 5 or 6 blocks. The road was packed solid with people of all ages; small children on dads´shoulders skilfully blending their candy floss in with their dad´s hair product, disabled people in wheel chairs with no hope of seeing anything else except the bottom in front of them but still feeling part of this great show. Diminutive Indian people mixed with giants (5 foot 7 inches) like me, girls in skyscraper high heels and pour on jeans with leather jacketed cigarette supporting young , and not so young, men. Mostly ordinary people taking time out for a fun evening.

Many people dressed up. With some it was just a gesture (simple masks could be bought at the roadside along with ´light them as you go´fireworks, hot dogs, beer in plastic cups, candy floss, toffee apples and wooly garments) others with a lot of effort (costumes included a ´mummy´, a spaceman and other things that I didn´t recognise). All of the static displays were very clever, consisting of larger than life models, characatures and symbols with messages and quips. Public (Police) and private sectors (mobile phone networks) were represented and now-and-again a music stage would appear. I didn´t understand all the messages but could appreciate the skill of putting them together in what looked like papier mache. We shuffled and were propelled back to the stage where we started from and the band and style of music had changed but the message was still the same....have a great time and Happy New Year.

We planned to get back to our hostel for a quick nap but were woken by huge bursts of fireworks at 00:15 so slept through and missed the magic hour....never mind. We would be up early for our trip today with no hangover and wallets intact.

Our equatorial crossing today was on the number 51 bus from Quito to Otavalo. Even on New Years´Day the buses were plentiful and we began the 2 hour, 2 dollars journey punctually at 08:45. The bus was full when we set off but it was clear within 25 minutes that my idea of full and the guy clipping tickets was very different. Fortunately Jackie and I had the last 2 seats on the bus. We reached 14 standing up before arriving in Otavalo. In amongst all of those people an Indian lady selling ice creams got on at one set of lights, much to the delight of the 2 Indian children plus grandparents and small puppy that were sat across the aisle from us. Having sold them some ice pops she got off at the next lights and waited to catch a bus going back to her base.

At the front of the bus the driver had four large stickers facing us; the Christ Child, the Virgin Mary, Spiderman and Dunlop Tyres. I wondered whether, if he had to invoke one of these to help him out of trouble, which one he would choose....I will never know because the journey was as smooth as can be. By the time we reached Otavalo at least 6 people (we were the only Gringos on the bus) were helping us to get off at the right stop. I had, I thought discreetly, asked the conductor to let us know which stop to get off. Characteristically generous people around us took collective responsibility to ensure that we didn´t get lost on their shift.

The bus took us past snow capped volcanoes, through tidy towns and fertile agricultural areas. Cactus and aloe vera type plants predominant along the roadside and all the time I was struck by how much tidier the place is than Peru. Perhaps we haven´t seen enough of Ecuador to judge but a fairly powerful first impression.

We´re now in Otavalo. A lovely little town in the Northern Andes, the Imbabura region of Ecuador to the North East of Quito. The town is quiet today although the market, which kicks into full gear tomorrow and which is our main reason for being here, is open for fresh fruit and veg, beautiful indigenous costumes of tulle, lace, embroidery, beads and sequins. We had a quick look around to get some lunch but tried not to spoil the surprise for tomorrow.

Also open and working hard, the large church in the Plaza has been very busy with a Christening service running over time causing a little delay to the funeral service scheduled immediately afterwards. The funeral procession complete with coffin bearers and their burden seeking some shade as the younger families of the recently christened spilled out past us into the park for photographs. As the funeral party entered the church youngsters were throwing rose petals over each other, worryingly some sweets were amongst the petals causing some small children to take on the traffic to retrieve their chewy target. In Lima this would have resulted in fatalities but as I said earlier on this is not Peru.

I have put some new photo´s from Peru on to the photo gallery including several from Machupicchu. The next posting will probably be from Cuenca in a couple of days. In the mean time lots of love and best wishes to family and friends for a happy new year. A happy new year also to anybody else reading this blog. If you were in Quito last night I hope you feel better soon.

Posted by JohnandJac 13:02 Archived in Ecuador Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Toronto to Quito via a North Yorkshire Wedding and Christmas

snow -3 °C
View John and Jackie Around the World on JohnandJac's travel map.

John:...3 weeks since the last posting. Apologies for the absence but I can explain... I left you in Toronto a week or so before Christmas. We are now in Quito, Ecuador on New Years´Eve basking in the warmth of the equatorial climate and mild chest infections but more of that later....We headed off to Toronto International Airport on a bitterly cold, rainy evening and headed, with apprehension towards the Air Canada baggage drop area having checked in on line. The Air Canada ´coordinator´ ushered us over to the business class check in, at that time empty barring the soon-to-be-petulant check in chappie who was filing his nails or something similar. His greeting was an angry ¨this desk is only supposed to be for high fliers and people of importance and now they´re sending just anybody across¨. As the opening move in the second half of a game that Air Canada was losing badly it was breathtaking. As if taking his lead the rest of the team throughout the flight was a shambles; stuff didn´t work, food served cold,..fortunately the pilot, surely from a different airline, got the ´plane up and down on time and safely. Air Canada enters the tunnel at the end of the first leg 2-0 down with the return leg to Lima yet to play....

Heathrow impressed with its efficient service again and we were out of the airport 45 minutes from the time we landed. It actually took us longer to sort out the car rental than it did to clear customs and immigration. We joined the procession on the M25, aspiring to the 50 MPH speed limit on the roadworks wracked motorway and failing to hit the magic 70MPH until we got on to the M1. A disrupted sleep on the overnight flight (the reading lights wouldn´t switch off on the ´plane) meant we swapped driving duties each hour, stopping for coffee at the service stations on the way North. The service stations were crowded with people who seemed dazed by the awfulness of the weather (cold, rain, sleet) and the awfulness of the service stations. However much the food has improved (step forward M&S) these places are dreadful but, for us on the day, necessary. People buying things they neither need nor want and children trying to compensate for the slow pace of the journey by climbing aboard virtual cars and motorbikes or else by killing a few aliens on the big screen in the ´amusement´ section.

How one feels about Christmas is dependent on so many things. Whilst I love living in New Zealand enormously, Christmas has never felt quite the same as the Northern hemisphere Christmas´s of years ago. This is the first Christmas in 10 years back in the UK and it all came flooding back. Lights shine brightly because it is dark by 16:00 and the warm snug feeling of being by the fire is important because it is bitterly cold outside. Apart from the obvious religious meaning of Christmas, it comes at a time when it is coldest and darkest. From the top of the Christmas Tree here you can just see the Spring, temporarily forgeting about the remaining two months of Winter. In the Land of the Long White Cloud all the opposites apply...longest day just passed, on the East coast driest and warmest time with several more months of Summer, and the long Summer holiday, stretch out into the distance before Autumn comes along. The big thrill on this visit was that we would be spending Christmas with family. Sadly not everybody b ut as many as we could possibly manage.

Before all that however it was off to Elland Road with Jackie´s brother and nephews to see Leeds Utd vs Southampton (1-0). A bitterly cold day forced me to by a pair of gloves at the Leeds Utd supporters shop.´I bought a pair with the smallest L.U. logo on it that I could find but even then they couldn´t help clapping from time to time. Cold feet and gravy hotter than the core of the Sun makes for interesting temperature gradients somewhere inside but it was good to see some live sport, especially unusual to see live sport like this on a Saturday afternoon....thanks Steve, a good afternoon out (now if you could get some Man Utd tickets next time!). I should also mention the outstanding chippie in Whitkirk, Skyliners, who dished up an outstanding piece of Haddock (16 oz), chips and mushy peas. If these people don´t get 3 Michelin stars something is wrong with the Michelin system and the Michelin people are eating the wrong kind of food!

The main reason for our detour to the UK was to see Jackie´s son Ross get married to Emma at Ripon Cathedral. The wedding and reception were a great success. The detail doesn´t translate well on to a travel blog and neither does the detail of Christmas. Needless to say we were delighted to see as many family and friends as we were able to and sad to miss many others. Thanks to everybody for a wonderful two weeks in England, giving up beds and bedrooms, lending us cars, lots of hugs and presents...

The snow continued to fall and North Yorkshire looked beautiful. The snow stayed around in the North until we headed down to Heathrow for the next leg of our trip. Our first flight was to Toronto with a 3 hour wait for the 2nd leg to Lima...longish flights and both in the hands of Air Canada, 2-0 down and playing away....I was anxious for them. They played a blinder, achieving adequecy all the way through and that´s all we were looking for. They probably did enough to secure a draw after all but only just...I´m not sure that they did enough to earn a replay though. After a 12 hour stopover in Lima we flew on to Quito, capital of Ecuador. We were the lucky recipients of a hotel error as our room in Lima had been double booked so we were upgraded to the functional luxury of ´a suite´ which was very nice indeed.

The short flight north to Quito on LAN Chile was effortlessly and charmingly administered. Not much to see after we left the Peru desert coast behind us as the cloud cover hid the ground below us. As we approached Quito the cloud cleared and we saw the city below. If Lima´s huge bulk sprawls out along the coast of Peru, Quito´s more petite form (and only 1.5 million people) seems to be rather carefully draped over hills and lowlands. At 2 900 metres above sea level it is the 2nd highest administrative capital in the world, beaten in the altitude stakes only by La Paz in Bolivia.

Sadly we are not going to be able to explore Quito as fully as we would like due to our slightly truncated visit. We have spent today planning our 3 weeks. Here at the end of the day it looks very exciting with our final week being spent deep in the Amazon Basin. Tomorrow we´re off to see the hummingbirds and other ornithological treats up in the cloudforest 2 hours north of here. Cameras charged and ready. The markets in Otavalo and the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca await with the famous rail trip at Riobamba climbing down ´the devil´s nose´, a spectacular drop of 800 metres (but not at 32 ft per second per second) on a hairpin rail track.

More of all of this later including some thoughts on Quito. We are advised that the New Years´Eve celebrations are ´vigorous and prolonged´ so will look forward to that. Bizarre experience of the day was waiting in line at the ATM behind two heavily armed (machine guns, pistols etc) police men in camouflage gear (but I could see them) nervously waiting for the ATM to give them some money...I hope they were paid.

Look out for some new photos from Peru coming up soon. In the meantime lots of love and best wishes to family and friends and a Happy New Year to everybody reading this blog.

Posted by JohnandJac 15:20 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

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