The Towering Volcano
10.01.2010 - 13.01.2010 27 °C
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.