A Travellerspoint blog

Ecuador

On the Other Side of The Andes

sunny 33 °C

From the summit of Cajas National Park at 13,000 feet it’s downhill all the way to the Pacific coastal plain and after a week of constantly climbing into the high Andes we were expecting an easy run with spectacular views. Someone in the sky had other plans and we spent two hours driving through the thickest cloud imaginable. We saw nothing besides the dim rear lights of a huge truck as we twisted and turned down an invisible helter-skelter until we emerged from the fog and found that the light, cool, mountain air had been replaced with a heavy, hot and humid atmosphere. We had slipped into another world. Gone were the clean streets and sophisticated plazas of Cuenca. Gone were the neat tiled houses; the proud indigenous people in their trilby hats and ponchos; the fancy hotels and excellent restaurants. Gone too were the spectacular mountain views with llamas and cattle grazing the alpine pastures. In their place we found visions of a third world that we thought we had left behind in Ghana, Myanmar and India…
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On the swampy plain that lies between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean we found community after community of shanty-like hovels; The roadsides were littered with broken down and damaged trucks, and the ditches strewn with garbage. Some of the vehicles came straight from the breaker’s yard…
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We drove three hundred kilometres mostly on excellent highways, but the road fell apart whenever we reached a town. In one community the superb, and obviously expensive, sidewalks bordered washboard gravel roads full of axle-breaking potholes…
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In most communities the only buildings of any quality were the church, the cemetery and the gas station. Entire towns consisted of rudimentary concrete block buildings with corrugated iron roofs or flimsy hovels on stilts set into the mud or roadside ditches…
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Ecuador’s coastal plain is a tropical hotbed for greengrocers and supermarkets in colder climes and our entire three hundred kilometre drive was hedged by plantations of bananas, (and their cousins plantains) punctuated by forests of sugar cane and cocoa, and fields of rice and corn. Bananas rule in this part of Ecuador, but the banana industry consumes more agrochemicals than any other crop in the world, except cotton – two products that most westerners think of as being ‘natural’ and good for us!
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Each banana plant only produces one huge bunch in its lifetime but each bunch can weigh a whopping sixty pounds or more. We thought we might buy a couple of pounds for lunch and stopped at one of the dozens of roadside stalls to get a price. Four dollars seemed a little excessive and we were readying to haggle when we realised that was the price for the whole lot – all 60 lbs!.
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We had planned to stop in the city of Quevedo in the Andean foothills but, unusually, had not been able to find a suitable hotel online. The reason became clear as soon as we saw the appalling state of the city. However, by luck, we stumbled upon an excellent hotel set amid rice paddies and cornfields just a few miles outside the city. It even had two fabulous swimming pools…
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Posted by Hawkson 15:26 Archived in Ecuador Comments (2)

Nearing Death in Cuenca

sunny 25 °C

For the past five years Ecuador has been rated as the world’s best place for retirement and now we are here we can see why. Cuenca is the Ecuadorean city chosen by most ex-pats in their golden years. The city is relatively small and is one of the cleanest and most pedestrian friendly cities anywhere. Most streets are one way only, (not always understood by motorcyclists and taxi drivers), and all have wide pavements. The city has numerous tree filled plazas – each with at least one church…
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Cuenca has more catholic churches per capita than almost anywhere else on earth, (an absolute must for wobbly seniors preparing to fall off the cliff and needing absolution). This is the old cathedral which was completed in 1567…
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However, on the opposite side of the main plaza is the ‘new’ cathedral…
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This magnificent building was started over a hundred years ago and is only half finished.
The cupolas may look magnificent but the building’s rough brick walls are a touch unsightly…
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Nevertheless, the church hasn’t stinted when it comes to gilding the altar or installing huge boom-boxes and a massive flat screen television on every pillar so that aging ex-pats in the rear pews have no excuse to doze through lengthy Spanish sermons. Unfortunately, and unusually, the cathedral is locked except during services when no photos are allowed. Fortunately, in addition to the churches, Cuenca has a wealth of beautiful historic buildings that we could visit including this bank cum art gallery…
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When it rains oldies can stroll the numerous colonnades in the dry…
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More active retirees can hike the nearby Cajas National Park. The high point, at some 13,000 feet above sea level, is at the continental divide…
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All the rivers from this point flow into the Amazon from the east while those on the west flow into the Pacific. These high peaks will, quite literally, take you breath away. But if your heart doesn't quit you can always stop for a breather and a coffee in this authentic, and incredibly rustic, mountain lodge…
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Or you can have a spitting contest with this handsome fella...…
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Perhaps the best reason for retiring to Cuenca is the cost of living. A hundred thousand dollars will get you a brand new 2 bed apartment, while for just $9.99 you can buy a Black Forest gateau large enough to clog the arteries of your twenty best friends. However, don't rush to put your place on the market. Speaking to a local guide we learned that foreign residents are not exactly flavour of the year in this tight-knit community high in the Andes. Even Cuencans who have left to seek their fortune elsewhere are not welcomed back with open arms. We, on the other hand, spent a delightful long weekend in Cuenca and never once felt slighted - though we're not planning this as our final resting place.

Posted by Hawkson 13:13 Archived in Ecuador Comments (4)

Stop Me and Buy One in Cuenca

semi-overcast 23 °C

While most Ecuadorians seem to be quite well heeled many earn a meagre living as street traders. There are, of course, numerous markets where women in traditional dress sell all manner of goods as they have done for generations. But Ecuador is famous for its blooms and the flower market in Cuenca is a picture of floral displays…
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…in addition to the colourful women who operate the stalls…
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When it comes to colour, few can outshine these indigenous street musicians playing panpipes…
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Aside from the established markets there are legions of freelancers offering all kinds of foodstuffs. Freshly fried papas fritas (potato chips) can be bought on many street corners along with such unusual items as hardboiled quails’ eggs…
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And uncooked meringue which is piled into cones and looks like ice-cream…
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Ice-creams seem to be the Ecuadorians’ favourite treat and almost every street has a heladeria (Ice-cream parlour). However, a multitude of ice-cream vendors prowl the streets, often with no more than a cooler full of icy treats. The more prosperous have bicycles from which to peddle their wares…
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We often come upon novel moneymaking schemes. For instance in Bogota we witnessed a young man with a bike who did an amazing juggling act while standing on the handlebars as he did figures of eight in front of four lanes of traffic stopped at traffic lights. In just 50 seconds he did his act, leapt off his bike and collected money from the first 8 motorists. The street entertainers of Cuenca seem less energetic and in the cathedral plaza photographers have an alluring set of cuddly animals to entice kids to bug their parents to let them have a ride – for a fee…
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We enjoy watching street vendors and entertainers and sometimes reward them with a purchase or a gift. We bought a CD from the indigenous musicians and some cherries from this sweet woman…
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However, it is not always amusing to watch people struggling to make a buck on the street and sometimes we are torn. For example: In the affluent city of Cuenca a small army of sad-faced shoeshine boys, some as young as six or seven, work the streets and we feel guilty because, not wanting to encourage child labour, we refuse to let them clean our shoes. But then we feel guilty for not letting them earn a dollar or two – sometimes everyone loses.

Posted by Hawkson 18:05 Archived in Ecuador Comments (4)

Our View of the Andes

overcast 18 °C

The Andes stretch the full length of South America and we have yet to reach the higher elevations. However, for the past few days we’ve been on a rollercoaster ride through some spectacular mountain scenery. Unfortunately, photographs simply fail to convey the sheer scale and beauty of the terrain as it unfolded beneath us, but this old guy could tell you how steep it is…
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And this llama, (or is it a vicuna), knows how to keep a grip on the high pastures…
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As we sailed across the mountain tops we would glimpse farming communities far below us in the sub-tropical valleys. This small town was dominated by the most enormous statue of Christ…
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For much of the time on the switchback road we were above the clouds, ascending and descending peak after peak and coasting across high barren plateaus…
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… and crossing valleys on vertigo inducing bridges…
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At other times we had zero visibility as we dropped precipitously through dense layers of cloud to arrive in some barely visible village. Without our faithful GPS we would never have found our hotel in the town of Chunchi and it wasn’t until the clouds cleared in the morning that we saw that we had been perched on a ledge several thousand feet above a steep gorge…
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Between Chunchi and our next stop – the ancient city of Cuenca – the mountains took on new heights and it was here that we had our first encounter with the Inca empire in the ancient ruins at Ingapirca. The mountaintop settlement of Ingapirca, the most extensive Inca ruins in Ecuador,was decimated by the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century as they sought to ‘educate’ the savages in the ways of the Bible and this is all that remains today…
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Ingapirca was actually built by the Canari – a local tribe defeated by the Incas in the 13th century as they spread their territory from Peru across modern day Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile as well as parts of Colombia, Brazil and Argentina. Following the Spanish invasion little was left of the Ingapirca settlement apart from this fortress-like tower- The Temple of the Sun..
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We will be exploring many more Inca settlements in the next few weeks, but our next stop, the pretty city of Cuenca, owes its architecture solely to the Spanish colonists.

Posted by Hawkson 16:12 Archived in Ecuador Comments (6)

Tungurahua - Lost in the Clouds?

overcast 20 °C

Following our lonely ‘expedition’ deep into the Amazon jungle we have climbed a tortuous route back into the high Andes and we realise that anyone reading this sentence might think that our travels are both dangerous and exhausting. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although the Amazon rainforest is classified as the most deadly place on earth because of giant anacondas, ferocious jaguars, piranhas and dozens of poisonous snakes, insects and frogs, we came away completely unscathed with some fabulous photos of the flora and fauna…
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Once we had left the steamy jungle we quickly rose into the clouds and saw little of the mountains until we arrived at our hotel in the hot spring resort of Banos. This touristy town lies in the shadow of an active volcano, Mount Tungurahua, and is a backpacker’s paradise; offering canyon zip-lining, bungee jumping, whitewater rafting and waterfall climbing among the numerous scary activities that we were unlikely to enjoy. However we did enjoy the sights, especially the numerous waterfalls…
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and the street where every shop is a confectionary. Hand made sweets of every kind are on sale along with glasses of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice…
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But we are sticking to our diets so we just admired the many laden fruit trees in the gardens of our expansive hotel….
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There were lemons, oranges, pomelos and avocados just ripe for picking, and we liked the fact that this time we were not alone – there were two other guests (we were told), although we never saw them. Tungurahua volcano proved equally elusive, with its head in the clouds all day. However, we are beginning to believe that there is a god of lucky travellers because, just before sunset, the clouds evaporated and gave us a grandstand view of the vapour plume spewing from the caldera…
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Tungurahua, is considered the most dangerous volcano in the world because of its unpredictability and the huge numbers of people who live within its striking distance. So, with that photo in the bag, we quickly set off higher into the Andes, and although many of the high passes took us into the clouds there were times when we could see for miles…

There is an astounding amount of production in the high mountains because of the temperate climate. Farmer’s fields stretch right to the peaks on near vertical slopes and have to be worked entirely by hand…
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Small towns and villages nestle in almost every cranny and from our lofty highway we could see them in miniature thousands of feet below us…
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Like its neighbour, Colombia, there is much in Ecuador that is familiar to anyone from Europe or North America, but occasionally we find ourselves thrown back a century or two by the sight of a laden donkey or an ox-plough. While young Ecuadorians would not seem out of place in Vancouver or London, the older country folk still wear traditional garb…
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Perhaps the most striking feature of the locals is their diminutive size – we are giants in this lofty land.

Posted by Hawkson 15:27 Archived in Ecuador Comments (3)

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