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Whistle stop tour of the Ecuadorian Andes

From Cuenca to Quito with Lecia

semi-overcast 20 °C

When we last left Lecia in Salta, Argentina, we didn't really think we'd see her again until our brief stop-over in LA before flying to Samoa. Her plan was to go to Australia via Easter Island before heading back home to Los Angeles whilst we were going through Brazil and then up north towards Central America. But Lecia changes plans quite easily and likes to go with the flow. So after living a month in Ushuaia, she decided it was a better idea to stick with the Spanish speaking world and head up the Pacific coast across Chile and Peru to join us for a little more travelling together in Ecuador. As ever, I had suggested a few places to visit based on my reading and come up with a route that would take us to Cuenca, Baños, Cotapaxi and finally Quito.

Team Caballos: Lecia, Barbla and Dave near Cotopaxi

Team Caballos: Lecia, Barbla and Dave near Cotopaxi

From Puerto Lopez we first needed to head back to Guayaquil from where we could pick up a bus to Cuenca. This was just as well as we needed to pick up our still broken laptop from the service centre, and whiz through the luxurious shopping mall mentioned in the last posting, to buy a new one. Whilst in Puerto Lopez we had indeed received the sad news that fixing our laptop would cost nearly as much as a brand-new one and take the silly number of 45 days to complete. As a consequence, it was easy to agree on the course of action. We settled on a similarly small and light Acer netbook, which came with a Spanish keyboard and operating system. ¡Naturalmente!

Bus journeys in Ecuador are more interesting than most bus journeys we have experienced so far in South America. They come with challenges such as trying to avoid people vomiting over you or sitting on your shoulder. It is quite common for the bus attendant to distribute plastic bags before the start of the drive and to have a fair amount of people make a discreet usage of them. We're not sure if the Ecuadorians are particularly sensitive to motion sickness or if it's just an effect of the bus snaking along the twisty mountain roads. It reached its zenith for us when an old lady shoved a bag of vomit into our faces, asking politely for it to be thrown out of our open window. Quickly evaluating the options of polluting the road side with plastic or the thing landing on our laps, we shamefully ended up throwing it out. Lecia gave us a lecture until she found out what was in the bag, and we've been picking up litter in national parks as penance since. People sitting on your shoulder is just an effect of picking up too many passengers on the way. It's quite common to have nearly as many standing in the bus as sitting for long stretches of the journey. Basically, nearly everyone travels by bus as they are the cheapest option going (we certainly thought Ecuador had the cheapest fares of all of South America). Otherwise the buses themselves are quite OK, despite the loud martial arts films that often get played. Furthermore, contrary to expectations any chickens, cats or dogs on board are neatly packed in cardboard boxes before being placed on the overhead racks or in the boot.

Renovation with modern touch in Cuenca

Renovation with modern touch in Cuenca

I picked Cuenca because it is one of the best preserved colonial towns in Ecuador (UNESCO world heritage listed) and close to both a national park and the most important pre-Incan ruins of the country at Ingapirca. We got in late so we didn't get to see much on arrival. We only had time to check into our cool little hostel (El Cafecito) and jump across the small square nearby to a restaurant-bar which was still serving dinner. We explored the town on our next day and were quite charmed by the old colonial houses and the many plazas. We were also enjoying the warm sunshine after the two weeks in Puerto Lopez with near-constant cloud cover. The oldest part of Cuenca follows a small river where houses have been built on the short, steep bank and look very picturesque. Behind this area there are lots of shops producing, repairing and selling Panama hats. These are actually an Ecuadorian product contrary to its misleading name. Somehow we all managed to avoid buying one, with a touch of regret, and we didn't know anyone's head size to make it a present. Apart from just strolling around the cobbled streets we visited several churches, the largest of which was the cathedral. You can see its impressive blue-tiled domes from around town. We also liked the colourful flower market with indigenous ladies in traditional dress close by. Towards the end of the afternoon, we enhanced our understanding of Ecuador's various cultures at the ethnographic exhibit of the Museo Del Banco Central Pumapungo. This museum is famous for displaying real, shrunken heads from the Amazonian Shuar tribes, but it holds many other interesting items too. These days, head-shrinking is a forbidden practice, on humans at least!

Beyond just being a pretty town, Cuenca also has a good range of restaurants and lively bars. Our hostel had a relaxed café out front, busy throughout the day and with a good selection of cocktails on offer at happy hour (including Gin & Tonic). One evening we excitedly went in search of a restaurant described as serving Vietnamese food. It transpired that they were out of ingredients for the few Viet dishes on the menu, but they did have a reasonable Thai selection. However, when the band came on we could no longer hear each other and quickly left. Another evening we decided to try cuy, a speciality throughout the Andes. This is guinea pig, usually slowly roasted on a spit over a wood fire. We headed to a restaurant famed for this delicacy which had many spits squeaking away at the back of the restaurant. Whilst the sound could remind you of the original fluffy pets, we promise you that they were all already dead when we arrived and we didn't have to pick one for the fire. We thought cuy tasted a bit like crispy pork skin with a white flesh reminiscent of rabbit, chicken or pork. Since the roasting marinade was well done we enjoyed the flavours, but the guinea pigs really don't come with a lot of meat – it is mostly avoury, glistening skin.

Given that we had recently seen some ancient ruins at Kuélap, we opted for a day-tour of the Cajas national park on our second day instead of the ruins at Ingapirca. The Cajas park sits between 3,100 and 4,200 metres and is mostly páramo, high-altitude moorland. Specific to the park are a high number of tiny lakes and small forests of polylepis trees that are endemic to the area and prosper in sheltered depressions. Our tour started with a walk around a small lake to spot birds. As usual when we go birding we didn't see that many. We then drove to a high point in the park where the watershed between the two oceans lies. This is of geographical interest as rivers flowing to the west only have less than 70 km to go to reach the Pacific, whereas those flowing east go into the Amazon and have over 3,000 km to flow to reach the Atlantic (both straight-line distances). After that we went for a 3 hour walk through the páramo and lakes. The walk went mostly downhill and wasn't that difficult although we did feel the altitude at the beginning. In any case the guide complained, only half-jokingly, that we were all walking too fast. We saw many achupallas (puya puya aequatorialis, also called chupaya by the locals), a type of bromelia that looks more like a cactus and grows a long fluffy stem with tiny blue flowers from its leafy base. The indigenous people burn this stem to encourage rainfall, sometimes causing fires. Our walk ended in a trout restaurant, which seems to be the common lunch dish when you go on a tour in the Andes. Click here for more photos of Cuenca.

One of the many, many lakes of Parque National Cajas

One of the many, many lakes of Parque National Cajas

We left for Baños on an early bus the next day. Baños was of interest to us because it's the emerging adrenaline-sports capital of Ecuador, and there are a few of those activities, in particular rafting and canoying, that we still haven't ticked off our list since we started our sabbatical. Baños is also a friendly little town with thermal baths that sits at the foot of Volcan Tungurahua (recently fuming) in a pretty valley, approximately mid-way between the central Andean plain and the Amazonian jungle. Due to its location, Baños enjoys a relatively warm climate and, at 1,800 metres, was one of the lowest points in Ecuador we visited after Puerto Lopez and Guayaquil.

Volcan Tungurahua remained elusive for most of our time in the area. Lecia and I were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it for 30 minutes one afternoon but otherwise it remained shrouded in clouds. This didn't keep us from having a lot of fun though. During our first walk through town we watched a bunch of crazy people jumping off a bridge over the Rio Pastaza. This made me quite dizzy after a while, whilst Dave started contemplating the thought of giving it a go. He didn't get a chance though as we put our names down to go canyoning shortly thereafter. This turned out to be with the same guys who were helping the people jump off the bridge – a reputable company called Jose and two dogs.

Banos and volcano

Banos and volcano

The canyoning route involved a few jumps, three good abseils besides waterfalls, a rope slide across the canyon, and generally walking, swimming and sliding along the river bed. With the wetsuit, the water temperature was just about tolerable although by the end everyone was feeling chilly. With the exception of one 2-3 metre jump, I did not die of fear and almost managed to enjoy myself! Lecia had a blast and Dave wanted even more drops. That said, to get back to some more familiar ground after the canyoning, we ate a fantastic cheese fondue in a Swiss-owned restaurant (Swiss Bistro) decorated with cows and all of the canton's flags. This was accompanied with mint tea and the traditional bottle of white wine, even though it wasn't Fendant. There was a local innovation which consisted of dunking cherry tomatoes into the hot cheese – quite tasty after my first 'this is not how its supposed to be' reaction.

We tried going to the thermal baths on the edge of town several times but never made it into the water. For reasons we never understood, they emptied the main pool in the evenings when we went along, forcing the a mass of people to cram into the small pool like sardines. As it was more reminiscent of the London Underground on a wet Monday morning than the relaxing baths we hoped for we never went in. To be honest, the baths weren't that nice and I wouldn't recommend going to Baños just for them. Perhaps some of those in the surrounding countryside may have been nicer, but they required taxi rides to reach. You can find more pics of Baños and our canyoning trip here.

All dogs are safely down

All dogs are safely down

Our next destination was a hostel called Secret Garden, just outside of Cotopaxi national park. This place had been praised by a Brit we met in Paraty, Brazil, and I had made a little note of it. Obviously we were also interested to see Cotopaxi itself which is a perfectly shaped, snow-capped volcanic cone, a bit less then two hours south of Quito. It is reputedly the highest active volcano on earth, though it hasn't properly coughed since 1903 and doesn't even smoke. We were picked up by Arturo, Secret Garden's dedicated driver, by the horse statue on the edge of the town of Machachi as planned. He drove us the last 15km to the hostel at the foot of ex-volcano Pasochoa near Cotopaxi national park.

When we arrived, the clouds were just clearing over the volcano and the sun was starting to set. The location of the hostel and the views from it were truly stunning and we immediately fell a little bit in love with the place. Green fields, with cows and horses rolled up to the base of Cotapaxi and several other impressive peaks dotted the horizon. The hostel itself is made up of several houses set in flowery gardens. On top of the hill there's a jacuzzi in a conservatory providing a great vista over the countryside and of the stars at night. Separately, there's an organic toilet that provides similarly inspirational views. Lecia, Dave and I stayed together in a 'honey-moon suite' which is somewhat misnamed, and is really just a simple cabaña. It did, though, have its own wood-burning stove which was much appreciated when jumping into bed at night, once Dave had super-charged it. The owners and staff, including some volunteers, were super friendly and everyone was served the good meals around the one large wooden table, making it feel like an extended family.

View over Cotopaxi from the garden

View over Cotopaxi from the garden

Secret Garden offers a number of activities in the area. We picked horse riding on the first day as I was keen to explore the countryside and Lecia was tempted to get back on a horse after 20-something years of avoiding them following a fall. We had a long ride to the national park entrance, and Dave and I took off galloping through the forest track whilst Lecia and our guide followed at a more sedate pace. Unfortunately Cotopaxi remained covered during most of our outing and we wouldn't have believed it was there if we had not seen it the evening before. It did show itself as we relaxed our bodies in the jacuzzi after the long six-hour ride.

The next day we went back to the national park, this time in a truck. We went all the way up to the car park at 4,500 metres. We then walked 300 further metres up the volcanic sand slope to Refugio Jo Ribas. This was exhausting and I could really feel the altitude. My head was spinning and at one point I felt I was going to vomit, but with Dave's help I slowly made it. After a short break at the refuge we walked up another 200 metres to the snow line and the edge of a glacier. This was a little easier as it was less steep. From up there we had strictly no view as the clouds had descended and it was snowing. However, everyone was thrilled to be at 5,000 metres (higher than Mont Blanc at 4809m) and to see some snow.

At the base of the glacier at 5,000 metres

At the base of the glacier at 5,000 metres

Back at the car park, mountain bikes were unloaded from the truck roofs and those who wanted could ride down to the base of the volcano, onwards to the park entrance and for those still keen to continue, all the remaining 12km back to the hostel. Dave soon disappeared into the mist in a more aggressive decent to the base of the volcano and thought it was one of the most fun things he'd done so far in our travels. As he was waiting for me at the bottom, he did discover that he'd lost a wheel nut in the process and the handle bars had seriously loosened. He later pointed out at the hostel that if they are to rent mountain bikes for a volcano decent they need to start doing some proper maintenance. I went down very slowly and whilst my knuckles froze on both brakes, I realised I should have followed my original instinct of taking the truck down to the bottom of the steep section to start riding from there. We did pedal all the way back to Secret Garden and for the most part enjoyed it, until I got a bit cold and tired on the last few kilometres.

I was glad I could just jump into the jacuzzi with Lecia rather than having to rush off to Quito when we reached the hostel. We had moved our appointment with the Jatun Sacha foundation (for our second volunteering stint) to the following morning to make sure we could fully enjoy our day tour and treat ourselves to another evening of conversation around the big table and fire place. Some may think that Secret Garden is a little bit expensive. It costs between USD32.5 – 44.5 (inc tax), depending on your accommodation choice. But factoring in that all meals are included, you get to hang out in a breathtaking location with amazing views and the atmosphere is really friendly, we thought it was well worth it. [Dave edit: subject to some bike maintenance!]. This link will take you to a few more stunning views of Cotopaxi.

Panoramic from our room at Secret Garden

Panoramic from our room at Secret Garden

In the morning it was time to move on to Quito and say goodbye to Lecia again. She had decided to go straight to Otovalo to be there for the weekend market, whilst we needed to be in Quito for our appointment with Jatun Sacha and a touch of city life before heading to our next voluntary role in a forest reserve. We deposited her back at the horse statue. Like before, we enjoyed seeing a bit of road with Lecia and we'll miss her companionship in the next few months. She's a very easy person to travel with and always seems to be content about my many travel plans. Better than that... I can happily inflict all of my travel advice upon on her without her complaining. She's even appreciative and often ends up following the advice I provided. We are looking forward to telling her of the rest of our South American stories when we briefly stop at her place in LA in November.

Posted by barbla 08:28 Archived in Ecuador

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Looks almost as cold as it was at home in August!
Ann

by Ann Lonsdale

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