A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about backpacking

Faces and places of Ecuador

The road south

semi-overcast 12 °C

Impressions of this beautiful country of extremes and contrasts are many. I include a few of the images I managed to capture, although they are only pale imitations.

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Kenneth Williams Llama
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'Psst....'
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'Que bonita!'
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Churned up earth, Chimborazo region
I took the famous 'devil's nose' train from Riobamba (the name is a mixture of Castellano and Quechua, from 'Rio', river, and 'bamba', the Quechua word for 'plain'). The ancient train rattled and ground along the slowly ascending track south. It was freezing on board, and the temperature dropped steadily as we climbed higher. We passed Chimborazo, the highest volcano in Ecuador.
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The word 'majestic' seems ordinary in comparison to the awe-inspiring sight of the mountain, whose icy winds sweep down on the town of Riobamba. From my carriage, I saw much of the landscape and the lifestyle of the people unfolded before me. Train travel is a wonderful thing - you feel you are right inside the countryside, that you are privy to secrets the road does not yield. People always stop what they are doing and acknowledge the passing of a train, particularly an old, slow train like this one. Some lean on their tools and just watch; others wave or nod and smile; children always race alongside for as long as they can, hoping for a treat thrown from the window. There was a man on board, selling sweets and lollies for that precise purpose. I was not immune to the pleading little faces, dirt and snot streaked across their mouths and noses, raggedly dressed but full of life and joy. Lollies were purchased, and lollies doled out... P1010739.jpg
Elderly couple, Chimborazo - these people are hardy and healthy - happiness is in their eyes

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This little girl was hanging fiercely onto a lolly I gave her
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This girl mother was no more than 15

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The patchwork land

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A face of character

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No dentists here

The train went by a busy station, set up deliberately as a market for tourists. I stayed on board, preferring to take pictures from my open window than experience further wheedling to buy the local artisans´products. You need a will of iron in order to cruise a line of stalls and not succomb to the selling skills of the indigenous women. To engage at all is fatal - consider it sold. So I stayed where I was and caught some faces in the crowds.
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Three different styles of dress. meaning three different tribes, but they all speak the same language..

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This hat is made of boiled wool, placed on a mould and the damp felt beaten to its bowler shape

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The colours and shapes vary from community to community, but the basics for women are skirts to the knee or long, ornate blouses, heavy wool shawls, fastened in front with a pin, and of course, a felt hat

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The Caparina indian men of the Quichua speaking communities of the Chimborazo region south of Riobamba wear red ponchos and wool hats. They look fantastic

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This stunning baby was being carried on the strong back of his mother, who wasn´t slow to ask for a dollar in return for a picture. The people make a business out of photo opportunities from snap-happy tourists, be it with their babies, a colourfully decked-out llama or even a black lamb. And who can blame them?

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These huts on the high sierra of the Quilotoa loop look like haystacks from behind - the door is on the side most sheltered from the relentless wind

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These children appeared out of nowhere - they seemed to be made of the grass itself. The tiny girl was adorable, like a doll. She smiled hard for the camera, knowing a 'propino' was forthcoming

We stopped in a village, where I visited the oldest church in Ecuador. It had beautifully carved doors, depicting saints and stories, and cloistered gardens with stunning plants. The village itself was an oasis of calm, the evening sun warming the white walls of the houses.
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Finally I left the train and caught a bus further south towards Cuenca, my destination. However, the mountain roads in the Andes are littered with uncertainties...
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An everyday occurence in Ecuador. A large pipe was being laid in the middle of the day - it took an hour and a half to clear the road. We got out and hiked till the driver caught up with us

The following day I found myself in a jeep travelling across the high terrain of the Sierra, that vast area between either side of the double ridge of the Andes, the backbone of South America. Here the wind was bitingly cruel, despite the enticing play of light and shadow on the coloured landscape. I kept asking the driver to stop, so that I could get out and breathe in the astonishing quality of the air, the wind, the light which came and went, changed and played with the undulating land, stretching away into distant shapes. Of all the places I´d been, this was the most moving in a way I can hardly explain - it was a magical place.

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This mountain on the Quilotoa loop is known as the sugar loaf, and is revered by the local people

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Posted by Eleniki 07:20 Archived in Ecuador Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Cañoa

A weekend at the beach

semi-overcast 26 °C

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It was a 7-hour, two-bus ride to the coast, but we had a long weekend, so we left on Thursday after work, and stayed the night in a hell-hole called Pedernales, in a flea-pit called Hotel America. Hotel America, Main Street (only street) Pedernales, north coast of Ecuador. Don't go there.
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On first sight, Cañoa, our destination, didn't look a whole lot more wholesome than Pedernales, but we walked down the main street to the beach, where the Hotel Bambu stands right on the sand. It's a lovely setting, but we were just a tad un-nerved on reading the sign at the entrance.P1010093.jpg
Still, we pressed on and checked in. There was a large group of us, 11 in total, and the rooms reminded us of our semi-outdoor arrangement back at La Hesperia, with beds, windows, doors and wardrobes made of bamboo; no surprise there.
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The bar was a typical beach bar, with tables and chairs in the private, sandy hotel compound. We settled in quickly with some very quaffable lunchtime cocktails. Feeling almost guilty as we realised we had a whole two days of relaxation ahead of us, we just chilled and enjoyed the sea view and the beautiful day.
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The highlight of the trip for me was seeing Frigate birds sailing along the coastline, and even inland a bit. They joined the vultures near dumps, and mingled with the egrets mincing along the shore, swooping and gliding in their distinctive way, like pterodactyls of long ago.
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If seeing Frigate birds is this fantastic, I can't wait to see Blue-footed Boobies on Galapagos. We have to really seek out wildlife in modern Ireland, compared to the raw, everyday phenomenan I've experienced here, without going particularly out of my way.
Some of our group braved the waves, and were pleasantly surprised to find the Pacific warm, even in this off-season time. There are no seasons as we know them here in Ecuador, only wet and dry. Sometimes wet is cooler, but lately this has not been the case, with a very dry October at La Hesperia causing some concern. Usually October is the beginning of the wet season, and the gardens are very dehydrated as a result.

We explored the little town, but it's a small place, and was very quiet at this time.
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There were some stalls and shops still selling tourist items like beaded jewellery and flip-flops, but it was a little dodgy for the women in our group to walk around alone after dark, so we mostly kept to our privileged sandy cage, where there was a security man on duty through the night. This is fairly normal in Ecuador, specially in Quito, where there are armed security men on most street corners and outside cafes and bars in the Mariscal, which is the 'gringo' part of the city.
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Posted by Eleniki 08:01 Archived in Ecuador Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

El Vulcan Tungurahua

Volcano spotting in Run Tun

all seasons in one day 27 °C

The active volcano, Tungurahua, rears majestically above the mountains surrounding the Andean Spa town of Baños. In 1999, the entire area was evacuated, as a major eruption was forecast. For a while, Baños was a ghost town, but during 2000 volcanic activity decreased slowly and steadily, and the inhabitants and visitors began to filter back in.
Because of its location, Tungurahua is usually shrouded in dense cloud and invisible to the many tourists who come hoping for a glimpse of its smoking rim.

As our bus struggled along the steep mountain road, another bend brought a collective gasp from the passengers on the right. Tungurahua appeared in perfect clarity, the only clouds present the hot ash smoke belching from her active cavity, or caldera. This spectacular sight is such a rarity that even the locals on board were pointing and exclaiming excitedly. The bus trundled on and Tungurahua disappeared from view in the vertiginous landscape.

The volcano is not visible from the town itself. A small, bustling resort, Baños is in a valley already at an altitude of c.1,500m. It is surrounded by mountains, with Tungurahua rising behind these to over 5,000m.

The following day, we hiked up to Run Tun, a mountain village which boasts a 'mirador del vulcan'; a viewpoint for Tungurahua. Although at first the weather looked promising, as time went by the sky darkened, and we were less hopeful of a clear sighting up close. The climb was hard work and of course the signs for the mirador changed constantly (friends reading this will remember a certain evasive town in west waterford when the need to arrive there was fairly pressing). Eventually we stopped to have our picnic and to shelter from the rain, now coming down straight from a heavy sky. We had come out onto a deserted road and there we found a strange little bus shelter. We ate simple and delicious local fruit and cheese - they say hunger is the best sauce. When we had finished, and were debating whether to persevere or turn back, there was the sound of an approaching car. This turned out to be a local taxi, dropping a family home from the market in Baños. He came back and we agreed a price for bringing us up to the mirador, and dropping us back into town. Needless to say, the viewpoint was easily another 2 miles, so it was a happy event for us.

As we walked up the final slope to the top of the mountain, some Ecuadorian tourists were coming down. They were disappointed; they told us there was no view to be had, the vulcan was totally obscured. We couldn't understand why this seemingly gentle hill was such a struggle to climb; it was like wading up through mercury. Our by now friend, the taxi driver, explained it was the altitude that caused this problem. We were probably almost back at Quito altitude at this stage, some 2.500m or so. Eventually we reached the top and found ourselves in a pleasant field, where we were greeted by its owner, who had built a wonderful tree house at the edge of the incredibly steep valley opposite Tungurahua.
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The volcano was not to be seen. Undaunted, we climbed the tree anyway, not that it would afford any better a vista even if there were one - the entire field was ideally located for front row seats at Mama Tungurahua's showing (she is affectionately referred to by this name in Ecuador; Cotopaxi is of course 'hombre' and there is an old legend about the two volcanos). We stood and looked at the valley, at the mountains, and as if by magic, the clouds cleared and this is what we saw....
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Words cannot describe the feelings of awe and humility inspired by being so close to a live mountain of this stature.
And well-being..
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So, I won't try. The pictures will give some idea at least.

We were well-rewarded for such persistance and a long hard climb. That night we soaked in the volcanic mineral baths by the waterfall at the edge of the town, soothing our aching limbs and healing our many insect bites. It was an experience I will long remember, floating in the hot pool, surrounded by Ecuadorian families, socialising and hanging out together, before plunging into the cold pool to close the pores.

The following day we cycled the length of the 'ruta de las cascades'; some 20k or so, and visited the famous 'Pailon del Diablo', a fall of extraordinary power in a channel smoothed out from lava.
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Posted by Eleniki 09:31 Archived in Ecuador Tagged backpacking Comments (6)

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