Articles tagged with "ecuador"



Quito was a strange place. We found a hostel in what seemed like a slightly rough part of town, but then more or less all of Quito felt like a rough part of town. Most people in the hostel said they had either been robbed here, or knew someone who had been. I really didn’t want to end my trip by getting mugged and so I felt slightly edgy and paranoid whenever we were out and about.

Three months previously I’d been at the very southern tip of the continent, four thousand miles to the south. Now we were just a few miles south of the equator, and we decided to go north for a day, to the markets at Otovalo. The bus from Quito took us through spectacular Andean scenery, and somewhere along the way we crossed the legendary line. I felt like there should have been some kind of ceremony, or at least an announcement, but I suppose there is little novelty in crossing the equator for an Ecuadorian. We spent a few hours in the northern hemisphere, shopping for souvenirs. It was pleasant enough, but I didn’t think Otovalo really compared to Chichicastenango in Guatemala, where I’d spent an amazing day five years previously buying rugs, pottery, blankets and bags. Chichicastenango was all hustle and bustle with an intense atmosphere of bargaining that meant coming away empty-handed was very unlikely; Otovalo seemed very tranquil in comparison.

The next day was my last in South America. After four months on the road I was tiring, and although I was hugely sad that this mighty journey was coming to an end, I was looking forward to seeing family and friends again. We spent the day at the Museo del Banco Central, which had some impressive pre-Spanish artefacts and some good contemporary art, and then after a trip to a supermarket to buy as much dulce de leche as I could carry, we went back to the hostel. We cooked up a celebratory feast, and then spent a great couple of hours sitting on the roof, looking out over the lights of Quito and the dark shape of the volcano Pichincha silhoutted against them in the distance. Before the trip, I’d been working at the Home Office, and when I left my colleagues gave me 75 US dollars and a huge cigar – perfect for a trip to South America. I’d spent the dollars long ago in Paraguay and Brazil, but I’d been saving the cigar until now. I smoked myself into a blissful mellow haze and thought back to landing in Buenos Aires back in October the previous year. It seemed like a very, very long time ago.

One last volcano

One last volcano

Our plan had been to go to Alausí to get the train to Riobamba, via the Nariz del Diablo switchbacks. But time was now so short, and the train schedules so inconvenient, that we had to skip this. We headed instead to Cuenca, where we only had time to visit the studios of Argentinian artist Ariel Dawi, and the awesomely named German-owned pub, WunderBar. After Cuenca, our target was Baños but we had to spend a night in Ambato on the way after thick fog delayed our bus by a few hours.

The reason we’d come to Baños was to see if we could see the eruptions of Tungurahua. Baños was evacuated in 1999 after a big eruption, but when activity stabilised, the people returned, and the town now thrives on the tourism generated by the volcano, and the geothermal pools which give the town its name. The pools were a good place to spend a couple of hours while a cool drizzle fell. In the evening, we took a trip up to a nearby viewpoint, which we’d been told has good views of the volcano. But we spend most of the time in thick cloud, unable to see even the lights of Baños below us, let alone the glow of lava from above. We met some locals there who were going to a club later on, and they invited us to join them. We had a fun night out at Club Leprechaun, which the locals pronounced ‘lepre-chown’

The next day the weather seemed to be changing for the better. We went for a walk in the hills behind town and saw a spectacular rainbow arc over the valley. With the sun threatening to break through, we decided to hike back up to the mirador and see if we could see the volcano. We had a chat on the way to a friendly guy called Carmelo, who had lived in Europe for a few years. He told us about the evacuation of Baños, and said that people moved back not because activity was really declining but just because they couldn’t stay away from their livelihoods indefinitely.

Once we reached the mirador we found ourselves in thick cloud. Everything was wet and we couldn’t see more than ten feet. But I had a feeling we might have some luck, and so we hung around. Occasional breaks in the mist gave us hope, even though the few other people who came to see what they could see had left pretty quickly. Gradually, it seemed to us that we could see more of the mountain, and eventually we were sure we could see the summit. What looked like black smoke appeared to be billowing from the top, but it was hard to tell whether it was rain cloud or volcanic ash. But a few minutes more and there was no doubt – we could clearly see the volcano, and it was clearly erupting. For me it was quite impressive, but Dave had never seen an erupting volcano before and felt that he hadn’t really seen the full show.

Sadly we couldn’t hang around. I had two days left in South America, and so that night we got a late bus to Quito. After almost four months and eight thousand miles on the road, I was almost at my final destination. Ever since Christmas in Bolivia I’d been feeling like the trip was almost over, and now that it really was I could hardly believe it.

Trapped in Loja

Trapped in Loja

Loja seemed quite nice when we first arrived. We were tired after an overnight bus ride and so spent our first day not doing very much. In hindsight this was a mistake. On our second day we went to Parque Nacional Podocarpus, not far outside Loja to the south. When I planned my South American travels this was not even close to being one of my most anticipated destinations but it turned out to be one of the most memorable places I visited.

We got a bus heading for Vilcabamba, and got off at a road junction more or less in the middle of nowhere. We set off walking to the national park, a five mile uphill walk, hoping we might be able to hitchhike up. A couple of cars passed us leaving the park but nothing seemed to be going up. After three quarters of an hour we were beginning to resign ourselves to walking all the way when suddenly a truck appeared, carrying three park rangers. They told us to jump on the back, and we drove up to the park. The scenery which had seemed OK while walking looked spectacular from the back of the truck with the wind whistling by, and after half an hour of chugging up the track with stunning views over the green rugged mountains we were grinning like fools.

Under threatening skies, we set off for a bit of hiking, which began with a gentle ascent up through the forest from about 2500m to over 3000m above sea level. We walked through the dripping cool humid jungle, and as we got higher, the mist became fog and the air became cooler, and by the time we reached the tree line the fog had become cloud and it began to rain. We were now pretty exposed, and the hike became a bit of an ordeal as the rain began to lash down. The trail took us along a narrow ridge, and the visibility was so low that the ridge looked to us like a sort of elevated walkway in the clouds.

Eventually we reached a turn-off in the trail that would lead us back off the ridge and into the forest. As we got there, the cloud seemed to be thinning, and in just a few minutes the rain had stopped and it looked like the sun might come out. The cloud was lifting, and far below we could see the hut at the start of the trail, and the road in the valley. As a few sunbeams broke through the cloud, we got astonishing views of the Andes beneath the clouds.

The day was wearing on, and we headed back down the trail to the hut. We’d taken a stove and some food with us, but the weather had been so vile on the trail that we hadn’t been able to use it, so we were starving. As the sun neared the horizon we cooked up some soup and pasta and restored ourselves. The park rangers had gone back down to the park entrance, so we had to walk the five miles back down to the main road, and by the time we had eaten it was almost dark. Luckily we had torches, and we had a great walk down the track, with some good views of the lights of towns and villages in the valley. We got to the road at eight o’clock and jumped on a bus heading back to Loja.

After a great day in the national park, we were ready to get back on the road. But we’d made a huge tactical error by dropping some clothes off at a launderette before we went hiking. We didn’t make it back in time to collect them, and the next day the launderette was closed. It was a Sunday, and in a pious mountain town where there’s not a huge amount to do during the rest of the week, Sunday is a very slow day indeed. Every shop and almost every cafe was closed, except for one that was over-priced and unfriendly. Luckily, the town museum, situated in the old town gates, was open, and we spent as long as we could there, enjoying a small art exhibition and some views of the town from the clock tower. I was beginning to feel slightly claustrophobic in Loja, and was reminded of a similar experience in a town by the Zambezi called Lukulu, which had also been much easier to arrive at than to leave.

The next day we got up early, finally collected our laundry, jumped in a taxi and headed for the bus station and more exciting places than Loja. But what a disaster doing laundry in Loja was turning out to be – as we arrived at the bus station there was a lively picket line across the entrance, and it was clear that no buses were leaving. “Ah! I forgot!”, said the despicable taxi driver. “There’s a bus strike today!”. Unfortunately there were no other taxi drivers around and we didn’t feel like walking for three miles so we were forced to get the man to drive us back into town. Here we received the shattering news that there was an indefinite bus strike on, but the word was that ‘indefinite’ in this case would probably mean ‘until some time tomorrow’. We fervently hoped that this was right.

The next morning we were up before dawn in our eagerness to get the hell out of Loja. As soon as it opened we asked at the tourist information office and almost wept with relief when they told us the strike was indeed over. We made great haste for the bus station, only to find that in a brief show of solidarity with the drivers, the ticket sellers had had a quick walkout. Luckily they came back before too long, and just after midday we found ourselves on a bus heading north to Cuenca. I now had only five days left to see the rest of Ecuador but happy that I would at least not have to spend them in Loja.

Journey to Ecuador

Journey to Ecuador

Having seen Kuelap, we decided it was time to head for Ecuador. To do this we could either retrace our steps back to Chiclayo and then get a bus along the coast road, or take an extremely off-the-beaten-track route through the mountains. We decided we were in the mood for beating new tracks, and so the next day we set off on a multi-stage odyssey. The day saw us getting collectivos from Chachapoyas to the villages of Pedro Ruiz and Bagua Grande, and then from Bagua Grande we got a lift in a combi van heading for Jaén. Jaén was quite a large place but it clearly doesn’t see many foreigners. We were besieged at the bus station by moto-taxi drivers and felt a certain unfriendly vibe about the place. It was late when we arrived, so we stayed the night.

In the morning we got a collectivo to San Ignacio, close to the Ecuadorian border. We had planned a brief stop, but we proved to be a huge attraction for the kids here, and we ended up spending a couple of hours being the centre of attention, a situation which Dave exacerbated hugely by letting the children use his digital camera. I thought I might as well hand mine out as well, and the kids raced off around the village taking random pictures. Eventually we decided it was time to go, and we got our cameras back. In this muddy village in the middle of nowhere in rural Peru, it came as quite a surprise when the kids gave us their e-mail addresses, and asked us to send them the photos.

We got another collectivo to La Balsa, the border post. Our driver on this leg was a bit over-enthusiastic on the rough roads and picked up a puncture, which delayed us for a while. His spare tyre was also punctured, so in the end we walked to the next village while he gently free-wheeled, and by the time we got there after half an hour or so, he’d found another tyre and was ready to go again. We got to the border shortly before it closed for the day, and crossed a bridge over the river to Ecuador. On the other side we got a fantastic open-sided wooden bus to Zumba, which took us through some incredible scenery and bounced around so much I had to hold on tightly to avoid being thrown out the side. From Zumba we got on the final stage of the journey with an overnight bus to Loja.