Ecuador was quite different from Colombia, much more arid countryside. Whereas Colombia had been predominantly green rolling hills, farms, pasture and crops, Ecuador was cactus, bare hillsides, deep river gorges and soaring peaks, here we were on the equator and the heat was quite intense unless at a high altitude. We had to be careful of the sun as the UV factor was off the scale and skin burned in minutes, despite our deep tans.
The Ecuadorian people were much more Indian and less Spanish in their origin than Colombians, the women dressed in their brightly coloured dresses topped by a felt hat. The men too were often dressed in traditional costume or sometimes in Stetson, jeans and high heeled boots. As a people they weren’t as friendly to us westerners as the Colombians had been and you had the feeling in visiting the country of a much more distant culture,
At 10.30 in the morning we arrived at the Ecuadorian border and took a taxi to border immigration which was 15 minutes ride away, after a quick clearance out of Colombia we then stood in line for half an hour to be stamped in to Ecuador. After we had cleared in we took another taxi to Tucan, the first town over the border, where we caught a very slow bus to the market town of Otavalo, passing through very arid mountains, lots of cactus, some flowering.
We stayed in the Flying Donkey hostel (The flying donkey in Ecuador is the UK equivalent to the flying pig in UK) that evening we shopped and in the evening cooked spaghetti bolognese while chatting to the other inmates, some French people and a couple of Brit guys, Tom and Jake who were touring South America after a spell of teaching in China.
The next day Gill wanted to stay over to see the famous market in Otovalo, reputed to be the largest in South America, which turned out to be a big disappointment and nothing very special. I bought a Panama hat, ironically the real ones are made in Ecuador, to protect my ears, baseball caps are great but they don’t protect the ears and mine were getting a bit crispy.
The following morning we left Otavalo for Quito and a 2 hr bus ride. On arriving in Quito we were lucky to meet a local couple in the main bus terminal who showed us how to get across town on the metro bus to our Hostal Juana D’Arc in Santo Domingo Square. The Hostal had a rather grand entrance hall panelled in wood with a sweeping open wooden staircase rising two floors to where our room was. It was quite a hike up with heavy bags and then back down to the kitchen where we prepared our meals. The shower in the room we were first shown must qualify as the world’s smallest, it was much smaller than a telephone box and I couldn’t get in it. The second room we were shown had the world’s second smallest shower but I could get into it by squeezing in sideways. This had nothing to do with my size as I’m quite slim these days but rather the need to squeeze the shower into what had previously been a wardrobe.
Quito is a vast city lying between high mountain peaks and runs along the valley floor at an altitude of 10,000 feet. It also has a very complicated bus service run by many different operators, it took us a few days to get the hang of who went where. We took a City Bus Tour on our first day which included the Panicillio a large hill overlooking Quito and the 100ft monument of the Virgin de Quito towering over the city. We climbed up the monument to the top and enjoyed great views over Quito.
The next morning we took a walking tour recommended in the guide book, we bought lunch at the Cafe De Teatro for $3 which consisted of soup, prawns and pudding and a drink of fresh juice. Eating out in Quito certainly wasn’t going to break the bank! We also wanted to go to Mitad del Mundo (centre of the earth) a monument which lies right on the Equator and about 2 hours bus ride out of town. Disaster struck though, in the crush Gill got on the bus but I was slowed by an old lady in front of me and the doors shut in my face so I had to catch the next bus hoping Gill would be at the next stop. She wasn’t so I stayed on the bus to the Northern terminus hoping she might be there but again she wasn’t. I assumed she had gone on to Mitag Del Mundo and so caught another bus for the hours journey there. By now it was 5pm and it was obvious that Gill wasn’t in Mitad Del Mundo either so I caught a bus back to Quito getting back at 7pm. Gill was very upset and worried about my late arrival, it got dark at 6.00pm and Quito is not the town to be wandering around in the dark. As it happened Gill had gone all the way to the north terminal and waited for me to arrive but somehow we had missed each other in the crowds.
We had a friendly bunch of Venezuelans staying in the Hostal with us who lived on a diet of hamburgers, tommy k, mayonnaise and crisps or fried spam rolls or frankfurters in French bread. We competed for space in the kitchen with them, us eating our normally healthy option and them with their fast food one but it was interesting to learn about their country and its issues.
The next day we went to the famous Campania de Jesus to see the fantastic gold work in the church, almost every surface is covered in gold leaf, it’s a stunning and a beautiful sight. When it was built in the 16th century of course gold was in plentiful supply in Ecuador but the cost must have been quite something even then.
We then caught a bus to the museum of culture and I had my pocket picked on the way, I lost $30, my debit card and driving licence, we had been warned about thieves on the buses and I should have remembered to put it in my rucksack after paying our fares. Fortunately Gill had some cash with her to get us back to the hostel but it was nevertheless a disturbing experience and one that made me much more careful for the rest of our journey. In the museum they had put on an exhibition of modern art which was much better than other modern art exhibitions we’ve seen. A man in his 50’s came up to us while we were meandering around the gallery and asked us if we liked the paintings. Fortunately we said we did as he turned out to be the artist! He explained he had studied Goya and Velazquez at the Prada in Madrid who were his main influences it was interesting talking to him however we beat a hasty retreat when he tried to sell us some of his work. We excused ourselves by explaining we lived on a boat and had no space for paintings!
We both liked Quito despite the light fingered nature of some of its inhabitants, there is a lot to see and do there although it is very noisy and busy some might say vibrant, but definitely an assault on the senses.
The next day we set off for the relative peace of Banos, Ecuador’s gateway to the Amazon jungle. The bus station in Quito was heaving, it was a special holiday, Night of the Dead (all saints day)! Gill after trying several bus companies and much queueing for tickets managed to get us on a bus to Banos in 2 hours time while I guarded the luggage. It was a 3 hour journey passing Cotapaxi Volcano smoking away peacefully and on last part of the journey spectacular views of the deep valley and river on the road into Banos. We stayed at Hostal Balcones overlooking the riverine the outskirts of Banos for 3 days and discovered that Jake and Tom who we had met in Otavalo were also staying there. Manuel, the owner gave us a lift into town into town and we climbed the 1000 or so steps up to the Virgin Mary Statue high on the hill overlooking the town. On returning to the Hostal we found out that Jake and Tom had been hired by Manuel to work for him, which delighted the guys and covered the cost of their accommodation.
There is a famous railway journey up here in the Andes called Nariz de Diablo which we wanted to ride to enjoy the spectacular scenery along the route. The train left from the town of Alausi, a bit of a one horse town, with a Main Street that looked like something from a spaghetti western. The views on the trip to Simbala were as spectacular as promised and we rode some pretty steep slopes with deep ravines alongside.
The next day we booked on the bus to El Tambo on the way to the famous Inca site of Ingapirka, amazingly the bus conductor came to our hotel to collect our baggage and took it off to load on to the bus. I don’t think it’s a service offered by National Express in England! In El Tambo we hired a pick-up truck taxi on to Ingapirka to stay in the Hospedaje El Castillo with Elsa and Gonzalo the delightful owners. In the afternoon we walked around an inca trail and saw the Sun Rock, an intricate stone calendar used by the Incas over 700 years ago, a rock carved in the shape of a turtle, another with the face of an Inca and a seat for viewing the universe, all Inca or Canari natural monuments. The next morning we visited the temple ruins ruins. The site had originally been used by Canari Indians from 2000 years ago before the Inca invaded from the south. The Inca were very impressed with the Canary and shared power rather than wiping them out. The temple lies on lei lines between the surrounding mountains, judged to be a unique site by both Canari and Inca who then set about building there own temple over the original Canari one and added an extensive supporting infrastructure around about. In the afternoon we explained the concept of the Lonely Planet Guide and booking.com to Gonzalo to put El Castillo on the map and increase their bookings as they operated without any form of advertising. Gill applied to Lonely Planet and I to booking.com and we received an email a month later from Gonzales saying they had been accepted by both and offered his profuse thanks. While we were waiting for Elsa to cook us a dinner of roast Guinea pig Gill taught Jimmy, their son English for an hour and he picked it up very quickly, a very bright boy. The nights up here are very cold at an altitude of 3150m and we find we get puffed climbing hills or steps and notice the degenerating effect of the thinner air. Coming from Panama with its high temperatures and sweaty humidity it a shock to be wearing sweaters and long trousers and be covered by thick blankets at night while right on the equator.
Our next stop was Cuenca about two hours away by bus, but with all the walking we had done over the last few days my ankle mended with plate and screws was badly swollen so I was using a walking stick to get about. We arrived at Chorita’s house by taxi and the next morning we took an open topped city tour bus and we did a complete circuit of the town. At Tuni, a village on a high hill just outside Cuenca everyone got off to take in the views over the city and I stayed on rather than put more strain on my ankle. The bus suddenly took off back down the hill with only me on board upstairs. Gill was left behind and I had her rucksack with all her money etc. Thinking the driver had finished for the day and was on his way home I hobbled downstairs to tell him I was still on board. Fortunately he said we were off to get some fuel and would return in about an hour. Gill worried when she saw the bus leave without a word of what was happening but all was well in the end. The following morning our landlady Chorito drove us to the hospital to get my ankle X-rayed it turned out to be ok and I was just told to rest it, Afterwards Chorito drove us to the bus station and we caught the 11.30 to the next major town going south, Loja which proved of little interest. This was where we split up Gill going to Villacamba and me to Puria in Peru. The plan was I would make my way down the Amazon to Iquitos and take a boat 300 miles down the Amazon to Letitia in Colombia from where I would fly back to Bogotá where I would meet up with Gill. Meantime she travelled back up through Ecuador and Colombia to visit places we missed on the way down. Gill had already boated down the Amazon and wasn’t interested in doing it again. For me it was a great experience and I went off to explore the river and jungle for a few days with some local Indians, sleeping in the open on their canoe. They knew where to find medicinal plants,sacred trees, snakes, mammals, birds, and we fished for and caught and ate piranha and went on a night hunt for alligators. It was the experience of a lifetime, short but intensely interesting in such a remote area so different from anything I had ever experienced. I then took the fast ferry down from Iquitos to Letitia in Colombia. While there I walked over the border into Brazil just go have a look, it was that easy, no customs or immigration, I just ambled over the border had a look and walked back to Colombia. The next day I flew up to Bogotá to rejoin Gill and then we both flew back to Panama and the boat.