Amazing Amazon and Good-bye

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Our last adventure of the trip, and the only one we planned before leaving home — 4 nights in the Amazon. We left our homey hotel in Quito after one night, at 6:30 a.m. for our 9:15 flight to Lago Agria on the edge of the enormous (60,000 hectares) Cuyabeno Nature Reserve. After a 45 minute flight we landed in the steamy, down at heels jungle town established in the early 1970′s by the oil industry. The entire Amazon area from north to south, what Ecuador calls the Oriente has been severely impacted by the unscrupulous practices of Texaco (now Chevron). Though the oil industry has been taken over by Ecuador itself, a legal battle over reparations has been playing out for 18 years, as you can imagine hotly contested by Texaco/Chevron in spite of numerous rulings that they must pay 18 billion dollars to cover some of the costs of the cleanup.

We were met at the airport by the young guide from Cuyabeno Lodge, Diego, and also met the two young Irish Canadian biologists, Barry and Irene, with whom we were to share our Amazon adventure for 5 days. I am sure their hearts fell just a little when they saw their geriatric travel companions, but they hid it well, and as Diego pointed out we were extraordinarily lucky to be part of such a small group rather than having joined the group of 12 who left as we arrived.

We traveled by road in a small bus for 2 hours, through typically seedy tropical towns, past miles and miles of pipeline running alongside the roads and storage vats of oil. Finally we reached a bridge over the Rio Cuyabeno where me met our indigenous boatman Luis, who was waiting in a motorized dugout canoe accompanied by his wife and 1 year old daughter. The river journey took 3 hours during which time Diego pointed out a stupendous variety of wildlife as Luis negotiated the twists and turns of the meandering river with numerous hidden deadheads and partially submerged branches. The level of the river rises and falls tremendously between the rainy and dry seasons, with daily fluctuations according to rainfall, so the route taken by the boats depends on the current level. November is the ideal month to visit as the river is high enough to negotiate but not so high as to be dangerous.

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Diego had spooky hawk eyes like Andrew, spotting birds and animals in the canopy overhead, flora on the river bank, even evidence of fish and reptiles in the water. On this first trip we saw four species of monkeys, ranging in size from tiny squirrel monkeys travelling in large groups behind smaller groups of capuchin monkeys with their oddly white capped square faces. The wooly monkeys were indeed wooly, looking like large fluffy cats as they prowled the branches of the overhead trees. Woolier still, with rather evil looking frowning faces the saki monkeys (aka devil monkeys) are the only ones with no prehensile tail and are aggressive and prone to attack if challenged. They were easy to spot as they are able to eat unripe fruit but have to spend a lot of time lying around digesting as a result! We also heard a fifth group, the red howlers, whose booming cries resounded through the jungle — no wonder the early explorers were sure there were huge roaring lions just beyond their range of vision. They did not show themselves and are rarely seen, unlike the black howlers we saw and heard on the coast. From the lodge we saw two more species of the nine species resident in the reserve — the cute tiny tamarinds that try to steal fruit from the lodge, and the even smaller but extraordinarily vocal titis whose wiry black bodies belied their ability to growl and howl at a deafening pitch which they liked to do early each morning. So we saw 7 of the 9 species in the reserve, not bad considering one of the remaining ones is smaller than a man’s hand and lives 40 meters up in the canopy so is rarely seen.

ImageDoug and Irene went crazy trying to snap all the species of birds we were seeing. One quite prehistoric looking one, the Hoatzin, about the size of a large slender chicken, had a spiked crown on its head, a rather mad looking blue ringed eye, with feathers in a herringbone pattern of brown, orange, gold and white, spent its time snorting in an explosive sound rather like the brakes of our buses as they went down hill while sitting on low branches over the water, suddenly taking flight in the most ungainly fashion, seemingly completely incompetent, but judging by their numbers not so.

We were fascinated by the enormous hanging nests we saw everywhere, and the photographers were frustrated by the difficulty of snapping the eye catching male birds with their glossy black and brilliant yellow feathers as they dipped in and out of the nests, ululating with a kind of glottal click, apparently in an effort to attract the females who had built the nests to mate. Diego told them not to worry — “You will see many, many of these Oro pendula nests in the trees around the lodge and at 5 a.m. you will not enjoy their sound…” and he was right, but we never stopped being transfixed watching them. At the lodge they shared their trees with the similarly vivid but smaller Casiques, whose nests were like smaller versions of the Oro pendulas, but who were much more restrained in their vocalizations.

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After 3 hours and many more bird sightings, we left the cafe au lait waters of the river and arrived at the glossy black waters on the Laguna Grande where our lodge was situated. It was sheer good fortune that I chose one of the 3 lodges on the lagoon, as the setting was much nicer and the activities better than being on the river. For instance, we were able to paddle ourselves rather than taking the motor out into the middle of the lagoon each evening for a swim before the gorgeous daily sunset. Diego told us about all the dangerous things in the lagoon on our last morning at breakfast (though we did see the massive anaconda in the tree near the lodge on the second day) as he said guests get put off swimming if they know too much. We saw baby caimans near the shore one evening on one of our night paddles, but no large vicious black ones, and we didn’t need to know about the pirañas, the high voltage electric eels, the manta rays… As Diego said, we never swam near the shore, just in the very midpoint of the lagoon!

Every day was filled from morning til night. The first morning was a jungle hike for 3 hours to see medicinal and other plants, insects, reptiles, spectacular spiders (thought of you Rachel) dozing bats, and many more birds. Fortunately the lodge supplied gumboots and we brought the DEET, though we sweated it all off before the hike was over. A short rest after lunch and then off in the canoe for bird spotting, the evenings were swimming, sunset viewing, and then after dinner paddling or hiking in the dark with our headlamps to see nocturnal animals and insects. Plenty of bats, including in the lodge, we chose a slightly higher priced room in a tower for the views and ours was at least all screened so we didn’t have bats in the room, but Barry & Irene’s cabin certainly did.

One morning we went to a Siona village (there are 5 indigenous groups in the park, the Siona are the most welcoming to strangers) up another river. The indigenous generally do not group together in settlements, but this group of 100 people had decided to do so to avail themselves of solar power that a European foundation had installed. The village was as neat as a pin, something we have observed in many countries in indigenous villages, and they had already built a lighted futbol (soccer) pitch, though they were still in need of a school and a health clinic…there are priorities after all! A village woman showed us how they harvest yucca tubers, and prepare them by grating them and squeezing out the liquid to make flatbread on a fire. We have been eating yucca in many forms so it was interesting to see how she did the flatbread. She was a wonder with a machete, after we counted her fingers, Diego laughed and asked her when she learned to prepare the yucca this way, she said all little girls learn from early childhood and 8 year olds can use machetes. Razor sharp it was too. The flatbread is their dietary staple.

It is impossible to list (well I could but you don’t want me to) all the species of birds, and plants we saw. Diego provided so much interesting information on how the plant species have adapted to the extreme fluctuations in the height of the water in the lagoon. At the height of the rainy season, only the topmost branches of the large ceiba trees poke above the water, they have a system whereby their roots stretch 1 kilometre inland so they can survive. For a week at the height of the dry season, the lagoon is completely devoid of water, and the guests take their hikes through waving grasses on the lagoon bottom. They find scores of pairs of sunglasses, binoculars, cameras, and so on at that time, and can’t use the boats to bring in supplies, an enormous inconvenience needless to say. As the water starts to come up, the lagoon is full of sea cows and other animals feeding on the grasses. Dolphins breed in the lagoon — we just saw them jumping — and at that time they take on a pink colour, a sight to behold I guess!

At any rate we were sorry to see the end of our adventure and especially to say good-bye to Diego. The national park guides we have had in this country have been extremely well trained and comprehensive in their knowledge. It is very impressive the way Ecuador’s park system is managed, for such a small country they have set aside a very large amount of land as nature preserves, and the parks are very well protected. People here take great pride in them too. We have never been anywhere in our travels with cleaner parks and natural attractions.

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We returned happily to our “home in Quito”, the quaint and friendly Hostel de Rabida. A lovely way to end our holiday with a roaring fire each evening, and such helpful owners and staff. We have spent a couple of days buying a few presents for Christmas (we did no shopping en route as carrying things is too difficult) and spent a last morning roaming the Old City with its magnificent churches and picturesque heritage building. Our plane leaves at 1 a.m. for the tedious home journey.
For anyone thinking of a South American trip we heartily recommend Ecuador. The diversity of terrain and peoples we have experienced is huge. Apart from the chill, we loved the Andean highlands with the multiplicity of indigenous groups. The historic cities of Quito and Cuenca were super interesting and very user friendly. The seedy coastline towns with their beautiful beaches were so in contrast to the highland ares. The cloud forest around Mindo is like a different world, and then the true jungle of the Amazonia area…and we never took more than a 4 hour bus ride to access all this variety.

Such easy travelling too, with cheap, relatively comfortable buses, good guesthouses, very adequate food, and good hygiene standards. But most important, we have never in 10 weeks had a hotel where the owners and staff didn’t go out of their way to be helpful and make us comfortable. Ecuadorians are extremely courteous, exchanging greetings with everyone they meet even on the street that they even slightly know, often stopping in their cars to hail an acquaintance on the sidewalk. You never enter a shop with hearing “buenas dias”, and I love their habit of exchanging a peck on the cheek whenever they meet someone they know wherever they are. And no other country besides our own apologizes to people for bumping into them when it is the other person’s fault! Made us feel right at home. Learning more Spanish has been a bonus and has enhanced the experience so much. All in all, a wonderful country and a great trip for us. See you all soon.

 

Odd Birds

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Mindo is another completely different experience and an entirely different ecosystem. A rather ramshackle town, though in a charming way, it is set at about 3500 feet above sea level in what is termed the Cloud Forest. The forest is beautiful as the thick canopy of growth marches over the hills, with at certain times of the day, wisps of cloud clinging to the tree tops. The climate is lovely, warm and sunny in the day time, clouding in by afternoon but not cold and damp as one would expect. Of course this is not very high, less that half the height of Quito so the nights are much warmer.

The Cloud Forest is a bird watcher’s paradise, but for interested but incompetent amateurs like ourselves, the birds are hard to spot. This is not like Sri Lanka where, armed with a decent bird book, we could identify birds every day as they sat on wires and warbled in trees with moderate vegetation or pranced on our lawn or at the water’s edge. Here we are surrounded by bird song from morning til night but the vegetation is so thick that we have trouble spotting them among the leaves. Therefore it is important to hire a bird guide.

The Dragonfly Inn where we are staying helped us contact Marcelo, one of the most established bird guides here. He came over to talk to us, and explained that if we wanted to see the cocks-of-the-rock do their famous mating dance we would have to set off at 5 a.m. the next morning. Knowing that Cheryl and Scott had tried and failed to see these birds, I expressed some reservation about the 5 a.m. start, but the regular bird walk starts at 6 a.m. so it seemed worthwhile to take a chance on seeing the cock-of-the-rock.

These oddly shaped bright red male birds perform a sort of mating dance each morning from just before dawn until the light is starting to brighten – ie from 5:45 to 6:45 each day. They only do it in certain spots called leks, and there are 3 leks around Mindo, each on private land so a special fee is levied for admission. The crazy thing is that these nutty birds perform this dance every single day, but the females only attend to choose a mate from June to August. The rest of the year is just posturing and practising.

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We crept out of the hotel at 5 and set off with Marcelo in his beat up truck to a spot 15 minutes away from which we walked in the darkness up a steep jungle path to a spot overlooking the lek, Marcelo lugging a large spotting telescope on a tripod. I expected that the birds would at least perform this dance out in the open to please the tourists, but no, they perch on branches in thick trees, and just when you have one in your sights, they move! Marcelo seemed to spot birds mainly by following the sound, and he told us he could hear 5 cocks there, we were lucky to get a fairly good view of 3 of them. They are a puffy bird, with a kind of pouf of feathers on their heads, and their eyes are extremely low set so at first it is hard to figure out their facial configuration. The dance consists of bobbing up and down and jerking their black tails around as far as we could see, though Marcelo said that when hens were actually present they get much wilder and jump in the air to attract attention. At that time there could be 10 or 12 males together but only 3 or so females as males outnumber females by a large margin. The hens build the nests and care for the young, and do all the work, and the cocks spend their lives perfecting their dance for their one chance of the year. Nothing like the sea birds with their cooperative rearing of the young.

After our success there, we went back down the trail and continued in another area for the general bird watching. Marcelo called the birds and had an amazing ability to spot the bird, plant the tripod, get it focussed and call us over to look. Our binoculars were not nearly so effective, without the scope we would not have seen much at all. It was really hard to distinguish who was tweeting, Marcelo or the bird as they would call and answer each other. He attracted 4 or 5 varieties of toucans that way, they are rather different from the Asian ones.

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At one point he spotted a tiny tanager in a tree, very bright blue, and began to make his bird calls. Gradually more and more varieties of tanagers showed up, all different colours, which he named with great precision. I thought he was making the tanagers’ call but actually he was making the sound of the Cloud Forest Pygmy Owl which is their predator. Since they thought one was near, they banded together in the tree to try to fight it off! Marcelo was quite proud of this trick as he assured us that the other guides didn’t know how to do it. We saw lots of different species of birds but they were very frustrating for Doug to photograph as they all perch in these very thickly leaved trees. Altogether a fun morning. By noon we had been birding for 7 hours and that was plenty for us!

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The next day we impersonated the birds by trying zip lining for the first time. Lots of fun and very well done with all the safety features. We did 10 lines of various speeds and the 2 young guides took very good care of us. We both tried the “Superman/woman” pose, and sadly since Doug cannot arch his back or neck he looked a bit like a corpse being brought in, my pictures were marred by the fact that I kept tipping over with my arms out and would clutch the legs of the guide who went tandem with us for this pose, thus spoiling the shot. We declined the Mariposa (butterfly) pose which involves hanging upside down.

On the way back we went to a mariposa breeding and educational centre. The most gorgeous butterflies flew in clouds around us, including the incredibly brilliant Blue Morpheus, but they flit so quickly and shut their wings when they alight, that again the photographer was stymied. It was quite magical to sit among them as they flitted from flower to flower, alighting on those whose colour blended with theirs. They showed us how they collect the eggs and grow the larvae and the pupae until they hatch. They release most of them and keep a selection for display in their garden.

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Our room has a small balcony opening beside a tree hung with a couple of hummingbird feeders and the most amazing variety of hummers appear and quickly alight, then flit off, taking violent exception to others who try to horn in on the feeder — it seems that they are very feisty. They range from tiny, tiny, to surprisingly large, perhaps the size of a slim chickadee. I am going to study ours at home with more interest next summer. The cutest thing was the first afternoon when it poured torrentially, and as we watched from our balcony they took turns perching on a branch, spreading their wings, and having a bird shower! Only one did it at a time, no showering together apparently, but that was clearly what they were up to. They abound here, as do the flowering plants and vines that they sip nectar from. The plants here could take up a whole other blog, so varied and colourful.

Tomorrow we are back to Quito for one night and to leave our luggage, then off to the Amazon by plane to Rio Lagria, then by canoe to the jungle lodge where we will spend 4 nights. Last big adventure before we return to Quito to await our flight home. Time certainly flies!

 

Boobies and Beaches

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Guayaquil is Ecuador’s biggest, most commercial, and formerly most crime ridden city. Sweltering at sea level at the mouth of the Rio Guyas it presents an immediate contrast to elegant, colonial Cuenca with its slower pace and immaculate streets. During the last 10 years the current mayor has conducted an urban renewal program designed to get a handle on the rampant crime that caused the city to be under nightly curfew for some years. It is still a city where tourists and locals alike take taxis rather than walk after dark, but the streets are quite safe during the day now, and the waterfront vastly refurbished.

The main project is a long pedestrian walkway running 3 or 4 kilometres down the length of the downtown waterfront. Known as the Malecon, it is filled with trees, botanical gardens, historical monuments, a children’s park, restaurants, contemporary sculpture, etc etc. Enclosed by iron grillwork, it is patrolled heavily by police and locked up at midnight. It makes a very pleasant place to walk, and it took us most of one day to completely traverse it and Las Penas which is at the north end.

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Las Penas is a kind of gentrified barrio, separated from its original neighbours by iron gates which are locked at night and also heavily patrolled (I am talking 4 policemen every 100 metres). The city has built a staircase through it — the barrio beside has the original snaking dirt trails — and there are 444 of these steps. Your geriatric correspondents were amazed at how easily they sprang up those 444 steps after training at high altitudes for 6 weeks! The project is very interesting, as “before” photos are posted on each house. Most of them are now small bars, as the whole thing is lighted at night, until they close the gates at midnight. We could see that most of the gentrification is the immaculately maintained steps and the gardens beside them — the insides of the houses seem about as they were, and the city paints the outsides in bright colours every 3 years. Just the facades are changed. Great view from the top.

I decided we should stay in a hotel which was at the foot of Las Penas, an elegant old mansion from 1920, refurbished as a hotel and furnished with antiques of that period of the Ecuadorian upper class by the on site owner. Just 10 rooms spread over 4 floors, our room was on the first floor, actually up 3 steep flights of steps from street level and had a tiny balcony overlooking the river. Our taxi had to negotiate 2 police checkpoints to get us in there! Amazing house, and our room was gorgeous, but the saddest thing was that the owner was clearly one of those creative individuals who can’t see dirt. Our room was well cleaned, but the beautiful salon with its ceilings painted with Renaissance type figures and festooned with enormous crystal chandeliers hadn’t been cleaned in the 3 years the place has been open. Huge crystal vases and bowls were thick with grime, no one swept the graceful curving staircase. The magnificent terrace on the 3rd floor was even worse. Over the unused and disheveled bar hung one of those hanging wine glass holders with cut glass antique champagne glasses, they were so black with dirt they were no longer transparent! And on and on. Maria the owner was extremely charming, full of suggestions for where we should eat, what we should see, endlessly helpful, but clearly had no clue about housekeeping! And this was an expensive and classy establishment charging top dollar. Fortunately we loved our room for the 2 nights we were there — 20 foot ceiling with its own chandelier, immense brass bed, filmy white curtains blowing at the double French doors opening onto the little white balcony with the sun glinting on the river…and perfect location.

On we went to Puerto Lopez, a small fishing village about 4 hours by bus up the coast. What a contrast the coast is to the tidy mountain villages we have been visiting. As soon as we left the mountains for the flat lands leading to Guayaquil it was a different world. Rickety houses on stilts, garbage strewn everywhere, bananas, pineapples, sugar cane, and even rice fields beside the road — much more familiar scenery to these Asian travellers. However the coastal fishing villages take their relaxed attitude to sanitation to an extreme. In a country where we have been impressed with efforts to recycle and separate refuse into organics and inorganics, it was a shock to see things thrown down on the street again, even dead animals left at the side of the road for the black vultures to feast on. Puerto Lopez was definitely of that ilk, but somewhat more prepossessing than all the little towns the bus stopped at on the way there, because of its tourism industry.

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Off the coast sits a small island called Isla de la Plata, dubbed “the poor man’s Galapagos” because of its collection of nesting sea birds like three kinds of boobies — blue footed, red footed, and Naszca, frigate birds, and albatrosses. We took a boat trip there, funnily enough our companions were 2 Canadian expats living in Cuenca and their two friends from Edmonton. The crossing was very rough with kind of a side wallow as well as waves we were hitting head on. Of course I immediately began to feel foul, and as the talk turned to the unlikelyhood of seeing the humpbacked whales for which this area is known (their dates of transit are June to September) I started praying that we wouldn’t be “lucky” and actually spot some. If there is anything worse than rocking about in a boat that is moving, it is stopping to observe wildlife and sitting still while the boat wallows from side to side. Wouldn’t you know it we had the amazing good fortune to see 2 pods, a total of 9 whales including babies, which breeched and spouted — sending the Edmontonians and our other companions, 4 Belgians, into ecstasies, while I sat and counted off the interminable minutes, enduring as best I could, until thankfully they all dived and we could at least move again. Never, never am I going on a whale watching expedition!

Things improved markedly when we reached the craggy dry island where we did a 3 hour guided hike, skipping around nesting blue boobies as we went. These feckless birds lay their eggs on the footpath as they like the heat, demarcating their area by defecating around it. Their feet are blue because of their diet, in this area a type of sardine. The red footed ones nest on the sides of the cliffs which ring the island so it is harder to spot their red feet which are due to their shrimp diet, and the Nazsca ones who have green feet and eat various types of fish had not yet laid their eggs yet. The bluer the feet, the more attractive males and females are to each other, as they are basically an indicator of maturity and good health. They lay 3 eggs at 3 day intervals, with the poor 3rd one doomed to provide emergency food rations for the other two chicks as they get bigger.

Frigate birds are the oddest group — they are huge and soar constantly up and down this coast. The soaring is due to the fact that they are terrible landers — we watched them coming in to perch beside their dishevelled nests in trees and they would often need more than one attempt as they tumbled off the branch in a graceless heap. They also can’t swim, and if their feathers get wet they sink like a stone. What kind of sense does that make for birds with a diet of fish? They eat by stealing from other birds and finish off with flying fish if they encounter a school. Just can’t see how that would lead to a successful future for them, but they abound here. Albatrosses on this island are endangered so their nesting area was off limits when we were there. Lots of other small birds and reptiles so all in all a successful hike before we had to get back in the boat for another hour and a half of hellish pitching, even rougher this time but thankfully without the wallow.

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We did some other lovely exploring, including one of the prettiest and cleanest white sand beaches we’ve ever seen, Los Frailes, where Doug stripped off and plunged in as we were the only people there. Just in the nick of time was stepping back into his shorts as a tour bus of Germans drove up and they all marched out and across the beach in full hiking gear. And luckily we had the most lovely guesthouse, with Italian/Swiss German owners — the place ran like a top due to the Swiss German wife, and had the most artistic woodwork and carving I’ve ever seen due to the Italian. Perfecto, as they say here.

This time we opted for a long distance taxi to our next destination as we realized we would have to change buses twice and it would take at least 6 hours. We made it in less than 3 in the taxi. We went to stay with an American expat couple just outside Canoa, another grubby little town, but with a stupendous beach as long as the eye can see. They have built a gorgeous home, extremely tasteful in adobe style which fits the colours of the landscape beautifully. They built it in stages, so we are happily staying in the “Studio” which was stage one, their son who is visiting from the enormous yacht he crews on is in the “Casita”, and they live in the “Casa” which was the final stage. We got in contact with them via some Americans we met in Banos, and the prospect of staying in a home, away from a village and cooking for ourselves for a few days intrigued us.

I have mentioned this expat life a few times now, we have met quite a few as Ecuador has a reputation as a cheap and comfortable place to retire. This couple is originally from Texas, and while living in Washington got into sailing. They decided to retire early and go sailing so they saved up, sold everything and went off sailing for 3 years, eventually ending up anchored near here. They found a plot of land and kind of fell into building, when it was finished they sold the boat and are land bound now. The house is beautiful, the view from the front patio of miles and miles of surf and beach with not a soul in sight, is gorgeous, but… The whole place is ringed by high walls, brick at the back and sides and wrought iron grill work at the front so they can at least see the beach. Not only that, all their doors and windows are grilled and they have grill work across the lovely front deck — so the view is obscured by not one but two layers of iron grill. They have an old guy who sleeps here every night, in a hammock in the yard and supposedly tours the property with his light at intervals. The place is ringed with high poles with huge lights on them — we have to hang our beach towels over our windows at night as it is broad daylight inside the room! And did I mention the two pit bulls? Not my idea of quality of life, despite the beauty of the setting and the lovely house. I can’t decide if they have overreacted to an admittedly very frightening episode about 2 years ago or whether this level of vigilance is justified. Not for me anyway.

The funniest episode occurred the day after we arrived. Cheryl came to our door in the morning to say that the police were coming to check the place over because a young man had come to their front iron gate that morning and tried to speak to her. She couldn’t really understand him, but the gist was that he wanted money. She immediately went into a panic, got Scott out of bed to take his picture with the iPhone, and called the police. That night when the geriatric guard arrived he had with him a rifle, which he proceeded to sit down and polish. We were having drinks with them at their outside kitchen and Scott told us the guard was going to “fire a shot” so not to be alarmed. Sure enough the old geezer fired off 2 rounds and then came and gave the empty cartridges to Scott. No evidence that anyone was around, or that there was any danger, in fact the teenager had practically posed for his picture and the police knew who he was. Then the old gaffer climbed into his hammock and went off to sleep as far as I could see.

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Cheryl and Scott are wonderful hosts and she particularly loves to plan and organize so we have had a couple of great outings from here. Yesterday we visited a “dry rain forest” where we were surrounded by 20 howler monkeys, a great stroke of luck according to Cheryl who has been there 3 times and was glad to see 2 or 3. They make such odd noises, quite incongruous for such small animals, and when they howl you could be sure a pack of lions was overhead! Our guide was an indigenous guy from the Amazon and had some wonderful stories of his childhood as well as lots of nature lore. Our Spanish must be improving, we can pretty much follow a description like that, and also a guided tour of a nearby tiny museum of pre Columbian artifacts which abound here. Scott has a huge collection of ones he has actually found on the beach after the river floods. Sadly we don’t “hablar” as well as we “escuchar” — we have the greatest difficulty spitting out the words.

It’s been great fun here on the coast, and so very different from the inland areas in so many ways. We are off next to Mindo in the Cloud Forest not too far from Quito for birds and butterflies. We mis-planned, thinking we would loop around the country and see Mindo on our return, not having realized that to get from here to Mindo would take us two days by bus due to road connections. So we are taking a 50 minute flight from Manta just south of here instead. Will keep you posted, the trip is nearing its close, just the Amazon to go and then we will have seen all the climatic zones.

 

Cuenca: an Antique City

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We whisked through the narrow cobbled streets of elegant colonial Cuenca in a taxi from the bus depot and arrived at the obscure front door of our hotel, Casa Ordonez which we had booked on the advice of an American expat we’d met in Banos.

What a gorgeous old house, the perfect place to live in an antique city. The owner, Alberto, was there to meet us when we arrived, and told us that since we were staying a week we needed a large room by the lounge so we could relax. Our room was huge, with an impressive bouquet of roses on the ledge of the window opening into the central courtyard below. The house is 123 years old, and the Ordonez family has been in Cuenca since the early 1500′s. All 10 rooms are named after sisters of the last generation (ours is called Eugenia.) As in all these Spanish style houses, you have no idea what lies behind the heavy wooden street door which opens into a passageway with 2 more doors, and finally into a tiled central courtyard which formerly was open to the sky. All the upstairs rooms are ranged around a narrow balcony overlooking the central area. The courtyard is now glassed over to allow a dry area for the breakfast tables.

Alberto’s story is interesting — when he finished high school in 1990 Ecuador was in a financial mess, rife with corruption, and he had no money to bribe himself into university. Through a connection he got a visitors visa for the U.S. and ended up spending the next 17 years there, eventually enlisting in the U.S. navy having achieved permanent residency by marrying a Columbian-American woman. When his contract ended he returned to Ecuador in 2007 for Christmas. His elderly aunt, the last remaining member of her family died while he was home, and left her ancient family home to Alberto and his two sisters. It was a complete mess, she had rented out the main floor for shops, and was living in one of the rooms with the 7 or 8 remaining ancient servants living in the kitchen area. Alberto and his sisters decided to restore it as it had been, a stately family home. After extensive repairs and the addition of bathrooms to the bedrooms, it has become a most comfortable though not at all fancy, place to stay. The staff are all related to the family in some way, and they treat the guests like relatives too, so relaxing and welcoming. My initial impression was that it was like staying in the home of an elderly maiden aunt, but cleaner — and that was pretty close to the truth.

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We had planned to have a week here, doing some touring in the surrounding area but mainly exploring the elegant colonial churches, monasteries, museums, and other historic buildings. However Alberto told us that Cuenca’s famous annual festival was to take place the following weekend so we added 3 more days to our stay. There is a large expat community here, apparently numbering 6 or 7000 people, mainly American, so this is the first place so far where English is sometimes spoken in restaurants and so forth. Quite strange, these expats all know each other, and congregate in certain restaurants. There is a rather ghastly area of brick high rises which the locals call Gringolandia where many of them live. We obviously fit the demographic, as people ask us constantly if we live here, and I must have a doppleganger as American women keep greeting me cheerily as if they know me. Simply can’t see the appeal of such a life, but I think it is mainly that it is possible to live very cheaply here, in a country that is clean, has good health care, and is very friendly and accommodating. Many of them don’t even seem to bother to learn Spanish and have little interest in touring this lovely country.

For the first couple of days we roamed the city’s cobbled streets, checking out all the churches as we passed by. Most of them, though originally built in the mid 1500′s, have been refurbished more recently as various earthquakes disrupted the area. Embellishments are varied, with building materials ranging from warm flesh coloured marble to ornately painted wood. Large portraits and statues of religious figures fill every inch of wall space. Before I visit another South American country I am going to bone up on the lives of the many, many saints, and Catholic theology. Fortunately we do know our Bible stories from our youthful attendance at Sunday School but the United Church does not have any saints carrying eyeballs on a plate, or wielding silver brooms or self flagellation devices. The lore is all quite fascinating, so I strain to read the Spanish plaques under the life size, and I have to say, sometimes very gory statues.

As in Riobamba there is a large convent here, still partially inhabited by cloistered nuns, which has a very interesting display of religious and secular items from the convent’s history. Interestingly, the enormous building, right in the centre of the old city, was given to the church in 1546 by one of Alberto’s ancestors, Senora Ordonez, who gifted it as a dowry for 3 of her daughters when they entered the convent. In those days, when girls, some of whom were only 12, entered a convent they brought with them dowries as if they were brides — which in their minds they were, the brides of Christ. It is rather sad to see the toys and dolls that some of them brought, and the replicas of the very austere cells in which they lived. They still use a revolving shelf arrangement whereby gifts can be passed through the wall of the convent without the giver seeing the recipient cloistered nun.

Several other interesting museums display ethnographic tableaus, indigenous artisans’ work, religious regalia, fine art and so on, and there are no end of interesting buildings to check out. Since it is a town so popular with tourists, both Ecuadorean and foreign, there are plenty of places to eat in the evening which makes a nice change from some of the previous places we’ve been.

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One day we took a bus back up the Pan American towards Quito but turned in at Canar for Ingapirca, Ecuador’s main Incan ruins. Small compared to those in Peru, but blessed with a glorious vista and well worth the trip. The Inca conquered and then co-existed with the native Canari people, whose present day appearance provided yet another hat type for our photo collection. The men look particularly impressive in white shirts, pants, and sandals worn with a black poncho and a large flat white hat with pompoms dangling from the brim. Lovely scenery on the trip, and yet another spectacular storm with thunder, lightning, hail and torrential rain on the way back.

Next we went out to visit Cajas National Park, a short ride west part way along the highway to Guayaquil at the coast. We went with a park guide who was really good, with extensive knowledge of plants and birds particularly. We knew it was much higher so dressed warmly but wore our Tevas as we have no other hiking shoes, however took along our wool socks. The first two hours we hiked around a lovely marshy lake where we struggled to see the birds he pointed out, but found the plant life very interesting. He showed us a lot of medicinal plants and talked about their uses, and also the water conserving properties of the indigenous mosses and other similar plants. One tree that grows in this area is called the quinua (not to be confused with quinoa, a grain) and grows at higher altitudes than any other tree in the world. Some shrub sized specimens he pointed out are estimated to be over 600 years old. The bark peels like the arbutus.

Then we drove to the highest point in the park – 4000 meters or 13000 feet – to view this very unusual alpine landscape. On the way up it first began to rain, then quickly to snow and hail. Inches built up quickly — we began to be a bit nervous, but our guide was ecstatic and took pictures to show his kids this unusual occurrence. Walking up the small rise to the viewpoint was a bit slow in the thin air, and bare feet in Tevas hardly the footwear of choice. The trail to the slightly lower lakeside area we intended to hike was clearly impassibly slippery, even if we had had proper boots, as some of the disappointed hikers standing at the trail head also decided. We ate a trout (from the lake) lunch overlooking the view and repaired to the car and a warmer altitude. Quite the fun day.

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The famous Cuenca festival, which combines Ancestors’ Day – somewhat like but less macabre than the Day of the Dead in Mexico – with Independence Day, started on the Thursday as a huge artisans’ market began to rise in a series of 50 or so tents on the bank of the river. Craftspeople came from all the surrounding countries and the standard of crafts was extremely high, so not cheap, but very interesting to peruse. Bands started playing in the town squares, and a number of concerts were staged here and there throughout the new and old town. People began streaming in from towns around and from Guayaquil and Quito. Quite the opportunity to observe the Ecuadorian upper class who are much taller, slimmer, and fairer than either mestizos or indigenous people. Lots of those too of course.

Today we viewed a large military and cultural parade and then watched an honour guard at the government buildings usher the Vice President into his car amid a great deal of chanting and pounding of pots. One thing about even our limited Spanish – I was able to ask a couple watching the kerfuffle what was going on and ascertain that it was a friendly demonstration even though there was some small protest about bank rates happening. This is one of those countries where it is not advisable to be an interested observer at a demonstration. We have, however, observed one by doctors and all medical related personnel to protest a new law which imposes a mandatory three year jail sentence on any medical person whose “error” leads to a death. All the medical people came out in their lab coats and greens and various uniforms and held placards saying – “We are medicos not criminals…” Not everyone loves this president as much as the owner of our hotel!

We will tear ourselves away from our comfortable life here and forge on towards the coast tomorrow, stopping briefly in Guayaquil before heading north. Our first time at a lower altitude, we are hoping for warmth!

Las Gorras (hats) of Guamote

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After regaining our luggage at the Hotel Endamo, we picked up the bus to Riobamba on the Pan American outside Latacunga. The wonderful Enrique dropped us at the right place to stand to hail it. Riobamba was good for a day no more, but we had an extra half day to wander the streets of this pleasant but not exciting city. Our hostel, the Oasis, was highly eccentric, but comfortable — it was kind of like living in someone’s backyard, someone with a penchant for collecting oddments and leaving them lying around. Our room was $3 more than standard, at $29, as the first one we looked at was going to have a hard time accommodating us and our rolling packs. So, being senior, we were offered the “suite”, two brilliantly painted rooms, one a rudimentary kitchen which I am sure no one has ever used. Good place to leave the packs though.

We had breakfast across the street and up a flight of stairs in the tiny apartment shared by the daughter of the house, her husband and their cute 1 year old daughter. We sat at their kitchen table while they rustled up whatever we wanted in the way of breakfast. An eclectic collection of oddments like an ancient telephone, a treadle sewing machine, an old trunk, sundry old time chairs, and vases of dried flowers filled the lobby of the hostel — and I must mention the 3, yes I mean 3, different huge locks that had to be opened and shut every time we came or went – and if it was after 7 we had to ring for admission as the metal roller had been pulled down over the inner doors! Actually this sort of security is not unusual here, so different from our Asian experiences, it makes us feel uncomfortable at times. These hostels are fun though as we always meet other travellers and find their stories amusing.

The reason for the extra night in Riobamba was our plan to go the huge and authentic indigenous market in a small town called Guamote, about a third of the way down the highway to Cuenca, our next stop. Guamote is, as one man told us, 95% indigenous, 5% mestizo, and on Thursdays people come from far and wide to sell everything under the sun at the market which sprawls randomly to cover the whole village. This is our 4th market and by far the most varied in terms of clothing and headgear worn, and the most comprehensive animal market so far.

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You will have to look at Doug’s pictures to imagine the vastly varied hats and clothes. We have rarely travelled anywhere cold before (Guamote is about 3300 metres) and so have never seen people who so rarely wash themselves or their clothes. We figure the men’s ponchos are put on at adolescence and probably they are buried in them. Not to blame them, at that altitude and those temperatures and in such a dry climate, warm baths are not an option. Just very different from the frequently bathed Asians we are used to!! Especially when crammed into a bus, I am thankful for our desensitizing experience with Mrs Day!

A new to us hat was a white bowl shaped, almost brimless model, decorated with two coloured wool pompoms hanging at eye level. White straw fedoras (on the women) also began to show up, while the brimless white bowls were sometimes made of a felted material and sometimes a thick cotton. The skirts here were of the velveteen type with embroidery at the edges. The thing to do is to layer both skirts and shawls. Many women appeared to be wearing 3 or 4 skirts one on top of the other, and at least as many shawls. They pin the shawls together with kilt pins, large trays of which are always on offer in the markets. Some older ladies, apparently feeling the chill, wrap a large woollen blanket around their entire outfit and secure it with yet another pin. Since these ladies are very short and stocky to begin with, the net effect is to make them look quite globular. Both men and women keep their hair in long braids, oddly suitable for the headgear.

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We stayed at a lovely hostel run by a Belgian foundation which was set up to assist people in the community with preschool education and work training for women and girls. They built the 10 room hostel to provide funds for the projects and it is wholly run by residents of the village with the addition of a couple of young Belgian volunteers who speak enough languages to make the bookings and explain some of the operation. Very new and very Scandinavian in design — a bevy of village women cook all the meals, very tipico in style and delicious. It seems they have been discovered by the European small tour groups and they were packed the night we stayed (Wednesday being the most popular night before the Thursday market) and they do a booming business in lunches for groups who just want to look at the village and the program on their way through to Cuenca. A different way to travel for sure.

One young Belgian volunteer had the most transfixing Rasta locks I have ever seen (and we’ve seen a few). She was tiny and red haired with piercing ice blue eyes, very pale, must stick out like a sore thumb in Guamote, but very energetic and helpful. Even with some of the enormous tails of hair wrapped around her head, she could still sit on the ends of the matted locks that hung down. It looked like she would topple over backwards from the weight. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

We loved the market. We went early to the large animals area — loaded with cattle, sheep, pigs, not so many llamas as in Sasiquili and Zumbahua, horses, and burros. The fun part is watching them all being led around on strings by old ladies, carried away shrieking (the pigs) in bags, and generally observing the intense buying and selling that goes on, and trying to figure out how much money is changing hands.

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Then we started walking back through the tiny town which we had explored thoroughly the afternoon before when we arrived. Everyone must know that the vegetables are in one part, the fruit in another, the household goods somewhere else, the shawls and ponchos in their own place along with the embroidered skirts and needlework belts. I really loved the shawls the women wear on which they make elaborate fringes, but the quality of the fabric is not suitable for foreign buyers — in fact there is really nothing for visitors to buy, the spectacle is what is interesting for us. Everywhere meals are on offer — the pig’s heads announce the pork meals such as we had in the Otavalo market, then there are the spits of chickens, tons of variations of cooked corn, beans, and then the rather off putting stews of everything under the sun, which Doug strongly suspects of being offal and organs, neither of which he will allow to pass his lips. We restricted our gastronomic experiments to the hostel, this was not as sanitary as Otavalo!

At noon we hailed a cambionetta (a truck) to take us down to the Pan American Highway where we stood until a bus heading for Cuenca came along and picked us up. Four and a half hours later we arrived at the busy terminal and uneventfully got a taxi to our hostal (as distinct from a hostel), a beautiful old antique house — another story in itself which I will take up in the next instalment. Thanks for reading – bye for now!

Living Under the Volcano

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What a momentous birthday!! Not only did I become an OAPer, a volcano erupted over our heads!

We arrived in Banos on the afternoon of October 16 after a 3 hour bus ride from Latacunga. The small hotel we picked from our trusty Rough Guide, Las Florestras, was lovely with rooms arranged in two floors around an inner courtyard garden. Doug immediately found a Provencal restaurant a block away in which to have my birthday feast. Fabulous meal, with flaming Crepes Suzette for dessert in lieu of birthday candles.

Banos, named for its medicinal hot pools, is a tourist town for both Ecuadoreans and foreigners, so after Latacunga with its 5 or so restaurants open for dinner, we are absolutely spoiled for choice. The surroundings are just gorgeous, with mountains including the active volcano, Tungurahua,  rising directly from the edges of the city, which though nondescript is pleasant and peaceful. People come here to hike and do a range of active outdoor pursuits in addition to soaking themselves in hot pools.

Anyway, back to the birthday – after a satisfying meal punctuated by exploding fireworks, (practising for Halloween? we wondered) we retired to bed, only to be wakened with a jolt about 3 a.m. by the most enormous explosion which set our door and windows rattling and shook the whole hotel. I did wonder if it was something volcanic, but since no sirens sounded we did not feel the need to evacuate.

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The next morning we heard a loudspeaker truck going by at about 6 am, slightly worrisome but it did not sound especially dire, of course we couldn’t make out the words. When we left our room, I remarked to Doug that I hadn’t noticed that the chairs in the courtyard garden were silver not white, then I wondered why the cars in the parking lot were so dusty — we have hardly been over an unpaved road in Ecuador so it seemed odd. Reaching the breakfast room we heard from an American nun who comes to Banos regularly to check on an aid project she is involved with, that the volcano had erupted during the night and had blanketed the town in ash. The loudspeaker was telling the kids to stay home from school and help sweep!

An American couple who were there suggested we take a taxi to a viewpoint high on an opposite hill to see if we could see what was coming out of the volcano. Billowing black smoke — very impressive to see — but no flames, however they went back after dark and the whole thing was glowing red. The taxi driver told us that it is completely normal to have it erupt, what wasn’t as usual was the direction of the wind which had carried the ash and deposited it on Banos. The prevailing winds take the ash away from the town. The volcano erupted in a much more vigorous way in 1998 and the town was evacuated for 3 months. His wife refused to leave, so they put the taxi in the garage and stayed inside the house while rocks of various sizes rained down, but fortunately no lava!

It was amazing to see the town sweep — absolutely everyone was out sweeping up piles of ash which they put into plastic bags and set at the curb, the garbage truck went round and round picking up the bags. It took all day Thursday and all day Friday to get ahead of it, as of course, the trees were filled with it and the wind was blowing it everywhere. The hotel gave us masks of the hardware store variety to wear while we were out, but nearly everyone had their own much more industrial strength ones. Even with your mouth covered the blowing dust got into the eyes terribly, and when we went back to the hotel and showered before dinner, the shower stall was just black. I was relieved when they finally started hosing down the beautiful gardens in the courtyard, filthy lilies are just too sad to look at.

All this time, the fireworks, including booming cannons kept going off, starting at 5 am each morning. Also what seemed odd, was that the entire town seemed full of marching bands. Every man in Banos must own either a brass instrument or a drum, as well as a suit and pair of shoes to match his fellow band members. Even the police got into the act. Again we appealed to the American nun who went into the kitchen and, with her fluent Spanish, got the story. The sort of patron saint of Banos is called Senora del Rosario de Agua Santa and is credited with many miracles saving Banos from disaster, starting with saving one of the founding fathers as he rode over a bridge on his horse and somehow fell over the edge — he called on the saint for help on the way down and lo and behold, he snagged on a rock, the horse was not so fortunate. The central cathedral houses 20 or so huge paintings of these various miraculous interventions.

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For the whole month of October, Banos honours this saint. All the barrios and all the unions of workers take charge of half a day to put on their celebration, it is quite the competition who can have the loudest fireworks and the largest marching bands. They process through the streets carrying flowers, and some of them carry glass cases holding images of the saint. These images look like large china dolls with real hair and glass eyes, and are dressed in 16th century Spanish style clothes, holding a baby which looks like a miniature adult. People touch the image and then cross themselves with the hand that touched her. The priest from the cathedral has a device with which he sprinkles holy water on the crowds, who hold their babies up for an extra splash. The most elaborate of these processions featured a vigorous dance routine which Doug photographed. Quite fascinating, hasn’t been a dull moment since we arrived!

In our spare moments we have taken a couple of good hikes — it being a mere 1850 metres here (a little more than 6000 feet for the metrically challenged) we feel quite peppy on the hills. There are some lovely cascadas, or water falls, just outside the town and we rode a local bus to climb up to them. Ecuador is probably the first country we’ve visited in all our travels which keeps its parks clean, wonderful. The trail to the waterfall was steep and finished off with a precipitate scramble through a 3 foot high passage in the rock — you could see out so I managed to do it — then a chute you had to haul yourself up, and finally you were right under the waterfall and could get soaking wet. I stopped at the chute and Doug kept going until it got really wet as he was trying to save his camera. It was Saturday so lots of intrepid Ecuadorean teenagers scrambled up and competed in wet Tshirt contests. This is not one of the more modest countries we’ve visited!

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We also decided we had to try the famous medicinal baths so we went out of town to some that seemed a bit more like hot pools and a bit less like institutional swimming pools. The other people there were elderly Ecuadoreans all wearing their own bathing caps and seemingly regulars. We had to buy shower caps for 25 cents each, despite having no intention of ducking under the cafe au lait coloured water. The hottest one had boiling water bubbling up from its pebbly bottom. At the end of the pool was a sign: Danger, deep water – 1.2 metres! You probably think we are exaggerating about how short the people are, but most of them had to hang onto the bar as the water was over their noses at that point — one of the employees kept shouting at them to go back. It reminded me somewhat of the communal baths in Japan, the height of the women was similar, but the girth was something else. These ladies were exactly the shape of beach balls encased in black, skirted bathing costumes. Quite fascinating to see what they looked like devoid of clothing.

We have ended up spending an extra day here as we were so elated to be warm again after the polar temperatures at 3800 metres. It does get chilly in the evenings though, we are still at quite the altitude. Off tomorrow by bus to Riobamba for a couple of nights, then on to a small indigenous village called Guamote for one night so we can rise at the crack of dawn to see their muy autentico market. Cuenca follows. Thanks for reading and viewing the photos!

The Quilotoa Loop

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As we prepared to depart our friendly hotel in Latacunga, Enrique, the owner, and Enrique Jr, who had come home from university in Quito for the national holiday weekend, were so afraid we’d get on the wrong bus to Tigua, our first stop on the Quilotoa Loop that they insisted on driving us to the bus station and then scouring the lineup of waiting buses for the correct one for us. Enrique somehow managed to commandeer 2 seats, which was wonderful as the bus was packed Sri Lankan style and the road very winding, I’d have been in someone’s lap before we got half way.

Our first stop was Posada de Tigua, near the tiny village of Tigua. We asked the ticket boy on the bus to let us off at the road sign to the Posada, fortunately he knew what we were talking about. Our Rough Guide described the posada as a working dairy farm which takes in paying guests. The reality far surpassed that description, what a cozy welcoming family home!

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The farmhouse was built in 1900 by the present owner’s great grandfather and has been in the family for 4 generations. Marco and Margerita welcomed us enthusiastically in (fortunately) a mixture of Spanish and English, more Spanish than English but every bit helps. Our bedroom was rustic but comfortable, with at least 6 heavy blankets on the bed. Original rooms right down to the two foot thick walls and wooden shutters covering the windows but thankfully good bathrooms. No fireplace in the room but a constant fire in the iron stove in the foyer where we sat to read and warm up in hundred year old leather chairs, quite decrepit but charming. The daily rate included breakfast and dinner, and they made us a bowl of soup for lunch each day.

Marco gave us yet another perspective on the current government. He is a childhood friend of the president but despises what he calls his socialist policies. For one thing he has had a law passed that says that if Marco hires a worker for 3 days when they need help on the hacienda, they have to pay a month’s wages. The farm lands have also been vastly depleted from his great-grandfather’s time by the government seizing the land to grant to the indigenous people. The hacienda is still huge but much smaller than it was originally. And like farmers everywhere, he laments the low prices for milk and beef, also due to government subsidies. Consequently when the present government came into power about 12 years ago and replaced the sucre as a currency (one of those where you pay in the thousands for everything, like in many Asian countries) with the U.S. dollar, they got the idea of opening their home to paying guests to get some hard currency. Their enterprise has grown amazingly, particularly with tour groups who come in for the mid day meal and a tour of the place, but they have a steady stream of independent travellers and those who travel in cars with guides, who stay the night. Margarita is an amazing dynamo of 50 who having raised 4 sons, seems unfazed by anything.

The day we arrived they were feeding a group of college students taking tourism — 36 in all — who planned to camp in tents on the property but wanted lunch, dinner, and breakfast in comfort. They had 11 staying in the rooms, so they fed 47 people for dinner and breakfast. All she had in the kitchen is one helper, their youngest son was home for a few days, and the 4 of them ran like maniacs serving these huge meals to 47 people. Never a dull moment as she never really knows who will just turn up and want a room. They have no internet and minimal cell phone coverage so every day is a surprise.

We asked if they could find us someone to drive us to the Saturday market at Zumbahua the next morning, and sure enough a young man turned up in a truck the next day. He wanted a goodly sum to take us, and supplemented his income by picking up 18 more passengers on the way to the market. I ended up sharing the back seat with a family of 4 plus a glamorous young woman in high heels, fedora hat, and the rest of the outfit, quite the manicure she had too. The rest piled in the back. To give him credit he did ask. On the way back, he restricted the passengers and their market bags to the back of the truck.

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The market was great fun — muy autentico as they say here. We got up early to make the animal market, lots of the usual suspects, but more llamas than usual. Amazing to see how they stack the backs of their trucks rows deep with sheep, pigs, and goats they have purchased, shoving boards into the slats on the sides of the trucks to make sort of a bunk arrangement, and watching the llamas loaded was quite fascinating. Two of them would heave the llama’s front legs onto the truck, taking care of the bucking and leaping that ensued, then they would fold their lower legs under them, which is how llamas seem to sit on the ground, one at a time, and then tie their legs and bodies together, much as the camel handlers did in Jordan. That seemed to pretty much immobilize them, so they were able to hoist them around so that they were staring out the back of the truck in a neat row. Next they loaded on top the smaller llamas. Never would have believed they could get so many llamas in such small trucks.

The rest of the market — household goods, used clothes, vegetables and fruit, the usual necessities, spread over the rest of the town. Always good for a ramble. At one edge of the market, a number of old men used treadle sewing machines to mend and alter clothes — including cutting inches off the bottoms of the used jeans on offer to suit them to the very short men waiting their turn. That’s what will happen to my Otavalo jeans when I leave them behind in Quito when I leave! I thought we had seen all of the North American thrift store rejects in markets in Asia but apparently they make their way here too.

Back at the posada we walked in the hills and read by the stove, conversed with other guests when we could. On Saturday evening the twin sons and their families came for dinner and the night — I am afraid the rapid fire Spanish was too much for us, but fortunately one relative spoke reasonable English and took pity on us, translating from time to time. We enjoyed the atmosphere so much we decided to stay an extra day, and took a five hour walk in the surrounding countryside the next day. We must be acclimatizing as the altitude there is just a couple of hundred metres short of Lhasa, where we took Diomox to keep breathing. The countryside was stunning, hills reminiscent of those outside Ashcroft, but completely cultivated. Deep canyons divide the terrain, rugged and beautiful. Along the way we passed women and girls dressed traditionally including incongruously kitten heeled shoes in which their feet pronated terribly as they staggered along the rough roads herding flocks of sheep, goats, and cows. Tiny adobe block houses perched on the hillsides, these people must be so aerobically fit! When we reached a tiny village after about 2 1/2 hours, where a funeral was taking place in the cemetery, black clouds threatened and we turned home. Later that night it rained heavily, which as Marco said was very good for him, not so good for us.

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Each evening we peeked into the filthy cow barn to view milking time. Normally they do use a milking machine but as it was out of commission they milked by hand. They have 78 cows and were currently milking 38 of them. Most of the milk goes to Latacunga to be pasteurized and sold, but they retain a lot for their own use in the posada, and make their own yoghurt, cheese, and a sort of caramel boiled milk that they use instead of jam. The milkers were a mother and four girls — her daughters and nieces. The youngest at age 6 milked like a fiend. That poor kid worked so hard, my heart really went out to her. She had to chase errant cows when they ran madly off in all directions while being brought in for the night. She ran miles on her skinny little legs, switching them with her cowherding stick, but the worst was trying to convince the baby lambs to go out in the morning with the group that included their mother. She basically had to wrestle them out of the pen, they fought and struggled, it was painful to watch, finally she managed to sling one of them over her shoulder holding it by the tail and carry it to where the flock was streaming down the road, where it discovered it really did want to go with its mother and ran off. I couldn’t believe a 6 year old could begin to do it, all the while her sister was standing watching, in her high heeled pumps, waiting for her to get the flock together so she could amble off with them like some sort of sheepherding diva.

On we went next morning with our avaricious driver, Nelson, this time with orders from Margarita that he was not to pick up passengers. We took along a young Swiss girl who was going part of the way. Of course Nelson could not pass up money just lying on the roadside and before long the back of the truck was full again. The road to the famous “bottomless” Laguna Quilotoa was paved, and though the clouds were very low the landscape was gorgeous. When we arrived at the Laguna we hurried to the rim of the crater to see if we would be fortunate enough to get a view of the impossibly turquoise lake. Just in the nick of time, we looked at it for 5 minutes, contemplated taking the hour long trek to the shore, then clouds rolled in and in minutes the lake was invisible. Two minutes later a torrential downpour hit and we ran for cover in a shop selling warm hats, gloves, and scarves. I’m sure they do a booming business — by then I was wearing wool long underwear, another wool shirt, jeans, wool socks, my padded jacket and my windbreaker — not too balmy at these altitudes even without a blinding downpour. We left the Swiss girl at a hostel there, she hoped for clearing but alas .. it was not to be.

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Our destination was Chugchillan, a tiny, windswept, bleak village with a beautiful hostel — Mama Hilda’s — run by a friendly family. If it is not setting precipitation records the area is famous for its glorious hiking on mountain paths. The rain did not let up, in fact it only became worse, and though we were quite comfortable by the stove in the common room, and they even lit a fire in our room in the evening, we decided after one night with no let up in sight to carry on back to Latacunga rather than stay the next two nights as planned. Even if it had stopped raining, by this time the paths were so muddy and slippery that it seemed foolhardy to attempt to hike — visions of compound fractures in this remote and impoverished place danced in our heads. One of the brothers of the house offered his “camionetta” or truck (for a fair price) to take us to where the paved road started again at the village of Sigchos where we could get a bus. The views on the journey were absolutely stunning and the road not nearly as plagued with landslides as I had feared, much less so than the previous day. When it rains here the banks fall, and I think these little villages can be cut off for days.

When we reached Sigchos it transpired that the next bus was 3 hours off — not such good news in blinding rain, so we asked if he would continue on another 2 1/2 hours to Latacunga which he was delighted to do (for a price). Back to the Endamo Hostel where Enrique greeted us enthusiastically despite not expecting us for another 2 days and where we discovered that his poor wife, who was so sweet to us, had fallen and sustained a Colles fracture.

One night here and on to Banos, where apparently it is also pouring — all over Ecuador we are told. Might as well be in Maple Ridge — just kidding. To be continued.