Journal 25; Ecuador
January 17 - February 22, 2010
As per our last update, we are still at Puerto Amistad, Bahia de Caráques, Ecuador. Our plan was to wait to do our inland travels around Carnival, so we passed the time having $10 massages at a rustic “resort” with beautiful grounds that included peacocks and numerous other animals. We watched the surfers and beachgoers on the weekends and spent a lot of our time on board fending off the huge islands of grass that would swamp our boat as the tide swept it out to sea.
Hanging out on the coast and traveling the highlands.
Finally we boarded an “Executive Class” bus for Quito, a nine hour trip, US$8pp. Several passengers were not allowed to carry-on their packages that contained fresh cheese and shrimp. They were told, “This is an Executive Class bus, you cannot stink up the bus.”
We were frisked before boarding; there is a problem with bandits holding up buses, especially at night. The bus was air conditioned, comfortable and played movies. We started at sea level and we could see huge shrimp farms located within Bahia de Caráques. The shrimp farms, mainly for export, are controversial since they are big water polluters. When almost at the top of the mountain range the bus engine overheated. After pulling over, the driver did as any American bus driver (?). He opened the hood, determined the problem was a busted hose, got his tool bag and a spare hose from a locker, changed the hose and then re-filled the radiator from a mountain stream. Within 30 minutes we were back on the road!
Ecuador gets its name by being centered over the equator. Half of Ecuador is north of the equator, half south of the equator. Ecuador is a very poor country and like most Latin American governments, Ecuadorian politicians over-promise and under-deliver. Ecuador has large oil deposits but government borrowing has cancelled much of its benefits and has left the oil rich area of the Ecuador Amazons spoiled by oil pollution. Of the 12 million populations about 40% live below world poverty standards. About 2 million live abroad, mainly in the U.S. followed by Spain and Italy. Remittances sent home sustain a large portion of the population. In the late 90’s to avoid a financial collapse Ecuador devalued its currency and adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency.
Ecuador is an extremely inexpensive place to visit. A three course lunch (almuerzo) cost from $1.50 to $2.50. For this you get a large bowl of soup, meat (roasted pork is a favorite), salad (many times it includes ½ of an avocado), fried potatoes, a glass of fresh juice (pineapple, tree tomato, blackberry, etc.) and a small desert. Considering JoDon and I share a plate, it makes for an inexpensive lunch! A dinner bill at a no-frills Chinese restaurant (chicken, shrimp and beef): $3.30 for two persons. Bus rides cost about $1 per hour.
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is home to 1.5 million, making it the second largest city in the country (the seaport city of Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador). By the time the Spaniards arrived in 1526, Quito was a major Inca city. Rather than allowing the city to fall into Spanish hands, the Incas destroyed the city. The present capital was founded atop the ruins and there are many colonial-era buildings in the Old Town.
When we arrived Quito JoDon was trying to get over a cold and the altitude didn't help. She got a headache the first day, probably altitude sickness (not a hang-over).
She was a trooper and we carried on visiting many of the sights in Old Town. Then we took a tram to overlook the city. It stopped at 13,500 feet, and we were breathing hard as we hiked further on up the mountain. It was as cold as it was invigorating but the veiws were breathtaking...or was that the altitude?
On Saturdays there is a big market located in the indigenous center of Ecuador, Otavalo. There are about 3.5 million indigenous in Ecuador and Otavalo urges its people to retain their traditional dress. Octavaleños are part of the Quichua, the largest indigenous group of Ecuador. They say you can tell the region and group by their dress and we have tried to display a small part of what we saw here. Before the “tourist market” we visited the local Saturday morning animal market. It was a hoot!
Traditionally men do not cut their hair. In Otavalo men wore white cotton pants and white slippers. Women wear long skirts, slippers and with simply a blanket tied under the babies bottom carry them on thier back. Both men and women wear felt Fedora hats of many colors. A peacock feather inserted into the hat band is a popular accessory.
This was a welcome change after weeks in Bahia. Along the warm Ecuador coast there seems to be an obsession about stomachs. It is very common to see men talking with each other with their tee-shirts pulled up to expose their protruding tummies. They stand and talk while rubbing their bellies acting like a Happy Buddha. Women wear skin tight pants and blouses that allow their ‘Pillsbury Doughboy’ figures to protrude. All in all it’s weird and we were happy to see the traditional clothing.
In Otavalo we enjoyed hiking in the surrounding hills. The mountain views were spectacular and there’s no substitute for trekking to get a feel of local lifestyles and ambiance.
After Otavalo we traveled by bus to Riobamba (Rio = Spanish word for river, bamba = Quichua word for valley) to ride on top of a steam train through the Andes. The train was closed for repairs so we went with a small group up to Mt. Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest peak (20,500 feet) and the world’s tallest mountain when measured from the center of the earth (further from the center of the earth than the Himalayas). We began to climb at 4,800 meters and climbed 200 meters to 5,000 meters (16,400 ft.). Along the way there were memorials, some very recent, of individuals that had died while climbing Mt. Chimborazo. It was a little scary but they all had died toward the top of the mountain and many had been climbing alone. After a breathtaking hike we rode bicycles all the way down the mountain. It was downhill the whole way so we only pedaled a few times. Along the way we spotted many vicuña herds. These herds run wild, their respiratory systems are such that they cannot live below 4,000 meters (13,000 ft.).
From Riobamba we traveled by bus two hours to Baños, our favorite city of Ecuador. The literal translation of baños is baths (not bathrooms). Baños gets its name from the thermal baths that are located throughout the city. There are many reasons we liked Baños. First, it is a clean city that is located 6000’ above sea level, which makes for pleasant weather. There is a large ex-pat community so restaurants are very good (and very inexpensive). Finally, there are plenty of outdoor activities: hiking, biking, river rafting, bridge swinging (sort of like bungee jumping), 4-wheeling, horseback riding, etc. We did several hikes up the surrounding mountains around an active volcano. It was awesome to hear the mountain roar, the earth slightly tremble and witness the steam escaping from the peak. At our highest point we trekked in fields full of lava debris that had spewed out of the volcano. JoDon tried to video the eruption roar but we lacked patience and/or the perfect timing. But, while she attempted the perfect video, I got a terrific nap in a pasture overlooking Baños.
Bike ride down Chimborazo and flowers from hikes in Baños.
When atop the mountain we drank a few beers at a hostel while watching one family load corn stalks onto their trucks. Since everything is handpicked, they plant their corn and beans together. The corn stalks provide a natural lattice for the beans. After the corn and beans are harvested they cut the stalks and feed them to their cattle and cuy (guinea pigs that are raised for meat). When I finished paying for the beers I waved down the only car that we had seen all day that was going down the mountain and the driver gave us a lift. My knees were sore after ascending 4,000’ up the mountain and the car ride down was terrific.
The active volcano Tungurahua.
With the ride down we were able to arrive just before Baños’ Carnival parade. It was a real hometown parade with schools and civic organizations participating. The unique local event was the oxen parade. Their Carnival night tradition is for oxen to haul dead trees and brush through town and then make a bonfire toward the outskirts.
Despite a rainy day we mounted bikes for an all day bike ride on “La Ruta de las Cascadas’ (Highway of Waterfalls). The ride was mainly downhill but we did have to pedal uphill a bit. Someone had warned us about the tunnels in advance. For bicycles there are loops around the long mountain tunnels except for the first tunnel. About half way through the tunnel it was pitch black and you could not see your handlebars much less the road ahead. But, we made it just fine and we enjoyed some great scenery along the way. There were several waterfalls including the spectacular waterfall, Pailón del Diablo. At the end of our ride the plan was to catch a bus back to Baños and put the bikes either on the roof or in the storage compartment below the bus. Our plan did not include the fact that it was a holiday weekend (Carnival) and none of the buses were picking up passengers since they were already filled up. Luckily we flagged down a truck and the driver took us and our bikes back to Baños. We considered using these pack mules.
We would highly recommend the trip to Baños if you’re looking for an inexpensive, outdoor vacation. If for some reason we leave the boat, we would consider moving to Baños. It truly is a unique destination.
On our bus trip from Baños to Quilotoa we witnessed another unusual Carnival tradition in Ecuador. This is to throw water and spray foam on each other. Young people do it amongst friends but they also attack “innocents”. While walking beneath a two story building during a bus transfer someone threw a pail of water on my head. I was not happy, but there was no need to get pissed off since there was no evil intent. Many of our non air-conditioned buses were pelted with water balloons when driving through towns. It was best to pull your windows closed. Everyone else who got hit by water or the spray foam found it amusing, we did not.
In Baños, and throughout Ecuador, the vegetable markets were plentiful, inexpensive and somewhat exotic. One small example is their popular tree tomatoes. The tree tomato grows on trees that produce fruit for about three years. The tomatoes are somewhat bitter on the outside and sweet in the center so they are a popular juice drink. Another exotic food found in many markets is cuy, or guinea pig. These furry creatures are grown for their meat but to see their teeth protruding on a grill is a little unsettling. They are tasty, but strange to see.
Our final destination was Quilotoa where there is a volcanic-crater lake, Laguna Quilotoa. We hiked around the lake in 4 ½ hours. The hike was quite exhausting going up and down the dragon backed rim but the scenery was spectacular. One of the highlights was listening to a sheepherder playing their flute somewhere in the valley below. Because it was so quiet and peaceful, the pleasant music carried for miles.
At Quilotoa it was cool during the day and cold at night. Our room was not heated so we warmed ourselves around the fire inside the lodge. The local couple that ran the lodge were good about keeping the fire going. After a ten hour bus ride down the mountains we were back on El Regalo, sweating, but glad to be home.
We will now start our preparations to leave for Galápagos and the South Pacific.