I was feeling a little weary after the Galápagos cruise. It was a long journey back into my accommodation in Quito for the briefing on my next tour, which will take me from Quito through to Rio de Janeiro. The length was due in part from the rain but mostly the peak hour of my travel. The traffic in Quito is to date the worst I’ve seen in South America.
The English were featuring strongly in this group with Priscilla, Colin, Shikyna, Rose, Helen, Virginia and Martin from England. Sophie and Rod were from Canada and the rest were from Australia – Judy, Monica and Patrina. All were doing some part of the larger tour I was doing – others would be joining me along the way. Cristina, our Peruvian tour leader, being the only one that would be going the full distance.
Our tour started with a night in Otavalo; reached by public bus. The visit was promised to provide us with an opportunity to walk around Quicocche Volcan (the name linked to the local guinea pigs – a staple for the locals), visit some village artisans and to be there for the Saturday market, well known for its size and diversity of Artisan products for sale.
Not a great start. First we got to the national park just as a thunder storm hit. We aborted the plan for a walk around the lake deciding to head straight to Cotacachi for a look in a leather shop. Just as we walked in the door the lights went out – power outage! With the experience to date, the guide’s offer to then take us to a textile and instrument maker (at Carabuela and Peguche respectively) was not floating the boat of some of our group – they were taken back to Otavalo while the rest of us saw the humour in the situation and continued on. The textile and, particularly, instrument making demonstrations were actually very good so I was glad that I stuck it out.
I enjoyed a nice night out with Cristina, hearing about her life growing up and living as a woman in Peru.
The morning was devoted to shopping at the legendary Otavalo markets. The handicrafts were lovely but I was reluctant to add any weight to my pack so concentrated on enjoying the market food (no doubt adding some weight to me)! From whole deep fried fish to salted green mango, crunchy roasted maize and the doughnuts – delicious.
We arrived back into Quito in the afternoon, affording me just enough time to get a view of La Basílica del Voto Nacional (modelled on Notre-Dame) and to visit the lovely Iglesia San Fransisco (which took over 100 years to build after construction commenced in 1535) and Plaza de la Independencia. This is certainly a city of grand churches with their lovely detailed hand carved facades. Quito was founded in 1534 and was the first city to receive a UNESCO World Heritage listing (1978) which gives you an appreciation of the extent of the colonial city’s preservation and restoration.
It was an early morning bus departure out to the Napo River area for our first venture into the Amazon jungle. The bus ride was an adventure in itself – if we weren’t winding through the mist in the mountains we were belting around the bends at 100 miles an hour. When our 4WD taxis arrived we knew we had reached jungle territory.
Our first excursion in the Napo was into the jungle for a hike. Our guide Sergio (nicknamed Tyson because of his build) gave us a great explanation of how the indigenous communities used the various plants and animals in day to day life. The hike was quite a contrast from those in Patagonia – only 2 hours but we walked in gum boots through streams and amongst dense jungle and we certainly didn’t get to eat lemon ants in Patagonia!
We made the most of the next day with a ride down the Anzo River on truck tyre tubes (the rapids were pretty tame so only a couple of spills) to our destination of the Santa Monica village. Here we received some information on the local community from the kitchen of the first resident of the village – Monica who is now 76. Tyson cooked us a great meal, on the indoor fire pit, of steamed fish in banana leaf along with palmwood worm kebabs (the fat in the worm once busted made it taste like bacon) – felt a little guilty watching it squirm as it was threaded onto the roasting stick.
We tubed further down the river to get our transport back to the lodge; trying to spot the monkeys in the trees.
I broke my one week alcohol fast that night to have a small taste of some mulled wine that the local guys had made – worth revisiting in a few days!
The next day we headed for the river again, this time to take a boat down to Museo Sacha Samay – an indigenous museum where we got to see some of the traps still used today by the indigenous communities when hunting for food. We also got to test out our skills on a blow gun. I didn’t do too bad – hitting the tree on both goes but not the target. I was fascinated by the birthing technique/tools used – a type of swing that the women hold onto while kneeling and then a slice of bamboo to cut the chord and some twine made from the local vines to tie it off. Given 70% of the women chose the community birth over a clinic birth i concluded they could definitely do with some of the Zonta birthing kits!
On the way back we visited Amazoonico, a centre, run entirely by volunteers from South America and around the world, set up by a Swiss woman and Quitan man to assist injured or domesticated jungle animals no longer wanted. The goal is to assimilate the animals back into the wild or to give them a simulated environment in the Centre if they are not likely to survive if released into the wild. The Centre has an area of 1 700 hectares available for its work. Sadly a third of the animals die soon after arrival (too sick or injured) and only a third manage to make it back into the wild. I admired the volunteers who commit time to this cause – it’s long days for them and extremely hot in the dense jungle. I saw some animals I never new existed and I obviously avoided the anaconda cage!
On the way home we saw a number of locals panning for gold and net fishing in the river and we stopped off in Mushualli where it seems the little monkeys have taken over the town. Another stormy night to farewell us from the jungle – thankfully it had been reasonably good weather during the days.
It was then off to Baños; no, not the toilet – the place! Banos is famed for its active volcano, waterfalls, thermal springs and spas….my kind of town! It was small with the neo-gothic style church, Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water – a reference to apparent sightings of her at the nearby waterfall – providing the central point of reference. It is claimed that the Church is the only building to have survived the volcano eruptions that have flattened the rest of the town. The inside of the Church displayed paintings illustrating this ‘miracle’.
Cristina and I went out the first night for a little salsa. We were in luck as the bar was rather empty so two of the bar tenders grabbed us for a dance – wonderful to finally dance salsa in a bar – I was twirled and dipped until I nearly passed out…a lot of fun!
Unfortunately I had to forgo the morning bicycle trip I’d arranged to see the waterfalls – seems ‘baños’ was to have both meanings feature prominently during my stay.
Later in the day I booked myself onto a chivas (open air bus with loud music) for a more relaxed (???) visit to the waterfalls. The chivas stopped along the way at the various waterfalls to give passengers the chance to zip line/cable car across the valleys. I could see the appeal at a very low $10 but chose the sedate cable car option! I did the short walk into the last of the waterfalls at River Verde crossing a suspended bridge and winding down some steps for a spectacular view of the water bursting over the rocks.
Still feeling a little fragile on day two in Baños I felt compelled to book myself in for some spa treatments – wonderful. Finished off the day with a salsa lesson to learn what I should actually be doing during those spins – turns out nothing if you’re with an experienced lead, you just hold on and twirl and twirl!
It had been an interesting town to visit but I must admit I was pleased to say farewell. The rumblings of the active volcano, Tungurahua, directly above us put me on guard constantly. Before going to sleep each night I strategically placed my thongs, wallet and jacket for a quick getaway (not a joke!). The last lava explosion of the volcano had been in December. It’s a small town which is said to take 20 minutes to evacuate (I’ve been in work buildings that have taken longer than that). On our last night it managed a significant blast of ash plume to rise to an elevation of nine kilometres. It lasted almost a minute, needless to say we all reported waking from it and listening out for the evacuation siren and being pleased to know we were leaving it behind.
A long bus trip to Cuenca, another world heritage listed colonial town of Ecuador. I was grateful for the company of The Mountain Goats, Missy, The Medics and Moby – time to move on from ‘m’ me thinks!
Cuenca had cobblestone roads and contained a lovely plaza surrounded by the old and new cathedrals – Catedral Vieja and Catedral Nueva. The construction of the old cathedral commenced in 1557 and used some of the stones from the local inca ruins. The new cathedral is modelled on the baptistery in Florence.
I chose to spend our free day to visit Ingapirca with some of my travel buddies. A two hour journey and we arrived at the largest archeological site of inca ruins in Ecuador – excavated in 1966. The site was originally created by the pre-colombian Cañari people but the Incas arrived around 1470 and sent all of the Cañari men off to Cuzco (Peru) while they integrated with the Cañari women. Hence the site has a mixture of the two architecture and religious characteristics.
What is believed to be an Incan sun temple was the most prominent feature of the relatively small site, which is surrounded by the very cleverly constructed inca wall – a type of pointing of each stone using heat (to expand and contract the stone) and divots enabling the wall to be constructed without the need for any mortar. The stones were volcanic that must have contained some copper given its green tinge.
We negotiate the local buses back to see some more of Cuenca but unfortunately being Sunday (and no doubt partly due to Mother’s Day) the museums were all closed so I just wandered around the town and enjoyed the lovely buildings.
The local Indians are delightful; always beaming a big smile back your way. They’re very short with the women wearing gorgeously bright skirts and blouses and almost always carrying a load in the blanket wrapped around their back – sometimes groceries but more often than not a sleeping toddler. I’m cursing I lost some great photos of them due to incorrect camera setting but they’re locked away in my memory.
So, here I am farewelling Ecuador at the end of week eight. I must say Ecuador is a country taller in stature than its people but just as colourful! I’ve enjoyed a large craft market, the Amazon and inca ruins… all of which are coming on a grander scale as I venture on to Peru and then Bolivia. It has been rather strange being back in a tour group – I kind of miss the exhilaration of finding my own way.