Archive | December, 2010

When Mum came to Quito…

31 Dec

In November Mum made the very long journey from Sydney to Quito. The trip was a very last minute affair and a short one; Mum had only a week for a South American adventure in between leaving an old job and starting a new one. We managed to see and do a lot in this time together.

The flight to Quito was long and indirect. Mum had to fly from Sydney to LA, then from LA to Houston, and then from Houston to Quito. She was so exhausted when she arrived in Quito at 11pm that she cried when she saw me. It was good to have a hug after so many months apart.

Mum arrived in Ecuador equipped with gifts of things that I have been missing from home: vegemite, bonds underpants, tampons, and a current edition of The Monthly and the Australian Financial Review. After a midnight snack of tea, some empanadas and cookies, we all went to sleep.

We spent much of the next few days wandering the historical centre of Quito. We visited some beautiful churches, art museums, parades, and lots of shops. Mum found some very nice hand-made leather shoes in a cobbler’s store near our hotel. One evening we saw a performance by the national modern dance troupe in one the city’s oldest theatres (Bolivar) which has just undergone renovations. We also enjoyed some very decent meals.

Sadly the coffee that was served with breakfast in our hotel was awful. It was presented to us concentrated in tiny little jug, along with three cups of water or reconstituted milk, which we then mixed ourselves into a coffee. Luckily we discovered a wonderful little cafe called Tianguéz in the Plaza San Francisco that served very decent cappuccinos which we drank under the warm morning sun while taking in the pretty domed roofs of the old town and the goings on in the Plaza.

A must-do during anyone’s stay in Quito is a visit the Inti Nan Museum at the Equator. Here an English-speaking guide told us all about the Equator and invited us to partake in some very fun experiments to improve our understanding of the Coriolois effect, which included watching the strange impact of these forces of nature on falling water, balancing an egg (which should be easier at the equator) and walking along a straight line with your eyes closed. Sadly, none of us managed to balance the egg this time. Of course we also had a great photo opp here, standing at latitude 00’00.

We took public transport to Mitad del Mundo (the centre of the earth) which gave Mum a chance to see a little more of the ‘real’ Ecuador, that thing all of us gringos are chasing on our travels.

We spent one night out of Quito in the town of Otavalo, about two hours north of the City. Otavalo is known for hosting one of the biggest markets in South America; every Saturday the town’s main streets are closed to traffic the entire town is turned into a huge market place, so big in fact that the market is actually somewhat overwhelming. A lot of the stalls here that target the tourist dollar sell the same things; wollen hats, jumpers, woven table cloths and other products, jewelery, paintings and other art works. We picked up some nice things for ourselves and our friends. Mum liked Otavalo because it was more tranquil than Quito, and because of its small size felt safe.

The rest of the Photos from Mum’s trip to Quito are available for viewing at our picassa album.

The Quilotoa Loop – part 2

31 Dec

Day 3: La Laguna and Chugchilan

Thank God the sun was shining and there were few clouds in the sky when we woke up on Thursday morning at El Quilotoa. At 7.30am we met Ramiro, his sister in law Veronica, and their three horses which we had hired for our visit to the crater lake ($8.00 per horse). Actually Ramiro and Veronica showed up with a mule and two donkeys, which I thought was as good as three horses. But feeling that he had been ripped off, Alex had the shits and told me that I should argue for a discount. I didn’t. The lake was stunning in this perfect weather and Alex overcame his initial disappointment in our means of transport.

La laguna: at times like this I wish I had a more expensive camera with a wide lens...

The hike down into the crater to the shore of the laguna and back up again wasn’t as difficult as we had anticipated, so we didn’t really need the horses (or donkeys). However as we were planning to spend the afternoon walking at least part of the way to Chugchilan, we decided to conserve our energy and take advantage of the easy ride.

It was about 10.00am when we got back to our hostel in El Quilotoa. We didn’t want to wait for the bus that runs from El Quilotoa to Chugchilan at 2.00pm every day, so we started walking along the main road in the direction of Chugchilan. Soon after leaving the Pueblo we ran into a guide traveling with two German tourists on horseback coming from Chugchilan. The guide told us that walking along the road would take several hours longer than the four hour trek through the valley to Chugchilan, which could be seen on the horizon. We decided to stick to the road as we had no guide or reliable directions for the valley path, and we also wanted to have the option of hitch-hiking or jumping on the 2.00pm bus if the weather turned bad or we became too tired. This proved to be a good decision as after about 2 hours of walking heavy clouds and a thick fog set in. We flagged down a passing truck and climbed into the back with the 6 or so agricultural workers who were on their way to Chugchilan. We arrived in town at about 2.30pm.

There are three big hostels in Chugchilan. First we looked at wasMama Hilda’s where we had lunch. This place seemed very cosy and charged $16.00 per person per night for a room with shared bathroom, dinner and breakfast. The Cloud Forrest next door charged only $10.00 a night for the same deal, and they had a fireplace in the room while Mama Hilda’s did not, so we decided to stay here.

The Black Sheep Inn is also in Chugchilan. We had a look at this very professional North-American owned operation, but decided that it was not worth the $33.00 per person per night for a dorm room. Private rooms with board are priced at $70 per person. Ouch! So why does it cost so much extra to stay here? In addition to being gringo-owned the Black Sheep Inn is eco-friendly with composting toilets and recycled water, and it also boasts a natural sauna and free yoga classes. I suppose it would be a good option if you are in Ecuador for a short visit and have money to spend.

We were happy that we chose to stay at the Cloud Forrest as quite a few travelers joined us by dinner time. We dined that night with a German couple, a South African couple, and a couple from the USA, and a Swiss German and French girl both traveling solo. Dinner was simple but filling.

Day 4: The return to Latacunga

Over dinner we had made plans to walk to Isinvili and spend a night there before walking to Sigchos the following day from where we would take a bus to Latacunga. However bad weather prompted a change of plans. We didn’t have proper rain equipment or a desire to trudge in wet clothes through the mud for 6 hours, so at about 9.30am we negotiated a ride in the back of a soft-drink delivery truck straight to Sigchos.

The door into the cola truck

Riding in the cola truck

We had lunch in Sigchos with a young Ecuadorian couple from Ambato who want to open a hostel somewhere on the Quilotoa Loop. At 1.30pm we caught the bus back to Latacunga, which took about 2 hours.

The Quilotoa Loop – part 1

19 Dec

Map of the Quilotoa Loop

Keen hikers and travelers who want a detour off the gringo trail in Ecuador are doing the Quilotoa Loop; moving along the paths that join the small towns that are dotted around the crater lake Quilotoa.

Traveling the Loop is a little bit of an adventure as bus services operating between pueblos are limited, and run at ridiculous hours (ie the bus from Chugchilan to Latacunga departs at 3am…). Certainly the Loop is more exciting if you take some time to walk between pueblos and hitch-hike at least one leg of the journey. If you aren’t a fan of walking or catching a ride on the milk-truck, the Quilotoa Loop probably isn’t for you.

Most guide books are still short on the details that backpackers need to do the Loop. The best source of up-to-date information on transport and accommodation on the Loop are hostels, specifically Hostel Tiana in Latacunga and the Black Sheep Inn and Chugchian.

Hostel Tiana will provide photocopied maps and detailed directions to guests. The Black Sheep Inn has a great website with printable maps and good information about transport around the Loop. I also found reading other travel blogs useful which is part of the reason I am writing this blog entry. The Loop is beautiful, exciting, and not too difficult a feat. It is truly one of the best experiences that Ecuador has to offer visitors.

Day 1: Folk art and and a dairy farm at Tigua

Our adventure started on a warm sunny Tuesday morning in Latacunga, a small city south of Quito (about two hours by bus). In Latacunga we walked from our little hotel in the centre of town to the regional bus station. If you are trying to find this bus terminal you need to cross the bridge that you most likely used to enter town, cross the busy Pan American highway, and walk 100 metres to your left. The terminal is next to the new yellow supermarket which is also a good place to stock up on snacks for the trip. There are plenty of buses that can drop you off at Zumbuhua from where you can walk or hitchhike to El Quilotoa, a small pueblo that sits right above the crater lake. We paid $2.00 each to catch a bus that was headed to Quevedo with plans to jump off in Tigua.

After leaving Latacunga we were quickly driving along a dirt road that wound up into the Andes. Sitting on the left side of the bus we had clear views of Volcano Tungurahua, which can easily be identified by the giant plumes of ash it continues to spew into the sky. Soon we were surrounded by green hills and farm land on both sides of the bus. Our friend Lisa shared her seat with a little old man who kept falling asleep on her shoulder. She complained to us later that he smelt bad and had no respect for her personal space which Alex and I found amusing. Then again, we weren’t the ones with a slightly smelly old man leaning on us.

The manager at Hostel Tiana suggested that if we could afford to take our time traveling the Quilotoa Loop, we should spend our first night at the Posada del Tigua located in, you guessed it, Tigua. We thought we would at least check it out and asked our bus driver to let us off at Tigua. He happily obliged. Two hours after leaving Latacunga our bus pulled over in the middle of a hilly paddock and the ayudante told us that we had arrived in Tigua. A little sign pointed us in the direction of the Posada that sat about 1km off the main road.

Yep, in the middle of nowhere

Margarita who owns and managers the Posada de Tigua alongside her husband Marco warmly welcomed us into her home. She served us coffee which we drank while deciding whether we should stay in Tigua for a night or try to get to El Quilotoa before dark. At $20 per person, a stay at the Posada was a bit pricey for our backpacker budget, but we decided to treat ourselves and spend the night. As this rate includes dinner and breakfast it worked out being very good value.

Throughout Ecuador Tigua is known for its artists. Three or four folk-art galleries sit high on the hill above the Posada. We spent a good hour climbing up through paddocks to pay the galleries a visit. Up hill climbs are hard at high altitude (and I am probably not as fit as I should be), though we enjoyed the exercise.

As Alex and I are in the last phase of our holiday, we have started to buy presents and souvenirs. We bought a great painting of a noche buena fiesta that we’ll hang proudly on a wall in whatever house in whatever city we finally settle into. In addition to really liking this particular piece of art, we were also seduced into a purchase by the fact that we could watch the artist paint and have a chat with him. He was very happy to explain the scenes in his paintings which are inspired by everyday life in this part of the Andes as well as by the artist’s dreams.

Because I grew up in the suburbs of a big city, I was as impressed by the Posada de Tigua’s animals as I was by the art Tigua has to offer. The Posada is located on a working dairy farm and is home to seventy-eight cows that are milked twice daily. I was interested to watch the late afternoon milking, as the only other time I had observed a cow being milked was at school a visit to a kiddy zoo when I was about ten years old.

The Posada is also home to a family of alpacas and we had the chance to ride and hug a friendly alpaca called Paco!

Riding Paco

Alex & Paco

Llama love

Dinner at the Posada was great, but breakfast the next day was even better, featuring fresh home-made yoghurt, cheese, milk and dulce de leche (yummy caramel stuff). Another couple staying at the Posada were from Belgium. I think they were the first Belgians I have met on the road. The man was a computer programmer and the woman was a public servant. When I told them that they were like the Belgian version of Alex and I, they told us that they were brother and sister… Still.

Day 2: to El Quilotoa

After a warm shower and breakfast at the Posada, Alex, Lisa and I trudged up the path from the posada to the main road we were to wait for a bus to Zumbahua, from where we planned to take another bus to El Quilotoa. We were told the buses come by hourly. After about 10 minutes of waiting a ute came along and we asked for a lift to Zumbahua, and were welcomed on board the tray by the couple already riding in the back.

After we shared water and cookies the inevitable conversation about the relative cost of assorted stuff in Ecuador and Australia commenced. When an Ecuadorian passenger asked how much money I paid for my pants were I told him “$10.00” because I didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention to the obvious gap in our means. The guy responded proudly that his pants cost $25.00. I commented that they were probably of much better quality than my inferior pants.

Then the guy showed me his charming gold teeth and asked me how much gold teeth cost in my country? I know that gold is expensive, as are visits to the dentist, but I honestly have no idea how much gold teeth cost. So I shared that going to the dentist is always expensive in my country but that we usually have other metals or plastics in our mouths instead of gold. He was astounded. Really?
Yes Really! The guy then told me that his own gold teeth were worth $400 USD a pop. Well I was surprised that the campesino could afford such a luxury. Shows how much I know about the Ecuadorian economy.

We arrived close to El Quilotoa after 40 minutes riding in the ute. It was chilly riding in the tray so I was happy to walk for a while. We followed a young couple for the final 4km walk into town. We arrived at small settlement of El Quilotoa just before a heavy rainfall that would last all night started pouring down. We checked in to the Cabanas El Quilotoa. This was a much more basic set-up then the Posada de Tigua and cost us $10.00 a night for a very basic room with a fireplace, dinner, breakfast, tea and coffee. It was very cosy inside the Cabanas but rather boring. To minimise weight I opted not to carry a book which proved a big mistake. The only thing to read at the Cabanas was a copy of a Jehova’s Witness book in Spanish, and an old Ecuadorian school almanac that was mostly full of pictures. We entertained ourselves by playing an improvised game – How many X can you list in 1 minute. Topics included African countries, capital cities, Latin American heads of govt, etc. I told you we were bored.

The Cabanas were also home to the Christmas tree from hell. The family who ran the place plugged in the tree at about 5pm, so until 9pm when we retired to our room it flashed coloured lights and belted out loud, off-key parts of well known Christmas carols. Horrible!

Dinner at the Cabanas was filling and tasty consisting of a potato and maize soup, and a plate of rice, vegies and a little beef stew. The family here made an effort to provide us with a breakfast that was to our taste; fruit, granola and yoghurt, served alongside bread and jam. I recommend staying here if you plan to spend a night by the crater lake.

Kushi Wayra

13 Dec

Today Alex and I with our German friend Lisa visited Chilcatotora, a small village situated only 20 km outside of Cuenca where twenty-one women run one of Ecuador’s most successful tourism cooperatives.

We were warmly welcomed by five cooperative members whose turn it was to work when we arrived at the their house in Chilcatotora this morning. We were promptly served a shot of 40 proof alcohol and a warm cup of sweet aromatic tea, along with a maize dish for breakfast.

After we ate were we were invited into the kitchen to learn how to cook cuy (guinea pig) which we were to eat later for lunch. The cuy had already been killed, gutted, skinned and stuffed with garlic before we arrived and all that was left to do was mount the cuy on a large wooden pole, and then roast it over hot coals. Someone needs to sit by the fire and turn the cuy on the pole constantly for the hour that it takes to cook to ensure it does so evenly. It’s hot and heavy work! Our hosts also showed us how to grind quinoa into powder to make tortillas, and how to grind up chilis in a similar fashion to make a sweet sauce.

Soon we we were taken outside into the women’s garden where we were shown a number of plants and learned about their medicinal properties. From here we were led on a walk through the village. Our biology lesson continued alongside a discussion of life in the village. It turns out that a whole lot of men from Chilcatotora, husbands, brothers, and sons, have left the village and Ecuador to work overseas, mainly in the US where the money that can be earned in illegal jobs justifies risking lives crossing into the country from Mexico. The new cement houses that you can see in Chilcatotora are evidence that some of this money is flowing back to the village, but the women don’t seem very happy with the situation. Rendered single mothers in their husband’s absence, the women have to work hard to raise an income and their kids.

We had the chance to visit the cooperative’s cheese factory where we learned something about making cheese, and got to try the amazing Andean cheese which was deliciously strong after being aged for four months and flavoured with oregano.

By now it was about midday and we were brought a pampa mesa, a traditional picnic lunch for us to share. The pampa mesa consisted of a long piece of muslin cloth laid out on the grass. The food that the women prepared; cuy, chicken, maize, beans, potatoes, peas and carrots were served directly on the cloth so that it became a large communal plate. The cuy and everything else was very tasty. Over lunch we learned that the pampa mesa is a traditional means of welcoming guests and also celebrating important occasions in the community including christmas, wedings, and baptisms.

We were a bit worried about the huge quantity of food that was served, because there was no way that we could have eaten it all. Luckily the women were happy to pack away the uneaten food so that their families could enjoy it later for dinner.

After lunch we visited the house of a another family in the village where the women had a lot of fun dressing us up in their traditional clothes. We listened to music, danced a little, and then went outside and sheared a cow. At about three pm our guide returned to collect us. We said our goodbyes and headed back to Cuenca.

The cooperative’s Cuenca HQ is located in the Casa de Mujer (calle General Torres 7-45 y Presidente Córdova, plazoleta de San Francisco). The whole day cost us $33 per person and was definitely worth it. Tourists and the community benefit from this worthwhile project. It was great to feel truly welcome in Chilcatotora.

4800: climbing cotopaxi

3 Dec

A visit to the dormant volcano Cotopaxi is a great day trip from Quito. Because we are far from serious climbers, we decided to go to Cotopaxi on a tour organised by Guliver Expeditions in Quito.

Our tour started in Quito at 7am from the Coffee and Toffee cafe. From here we drove for an hour or so to Papagayo lodge where we drank some warm mint tea and collected mountain bikes to ride later that afternoon. Papagayo is an old homestead that has been tastefully renovated. From our very brief stay it looked like a cosy place to stay for a night or two.

After another hour in the bus we arrived at the entry to Cotopaxi National Park where our bus loaded with mountain bikes on the roof almost took out the roof of the Park ticket office. With the assistance of British tourist James and an unstable ladder, our driver Luis was able to make the necessary repairs without too much of a delay. Alex and I followed our tour guide’s advice and bought some warm woolen gloves from the women who have set up shops at the gate. These proved to be a very good investment.

Our bus driver atttempts to repair roof that he broke minutes before

The road from the ticket office to the carpark at 4500m wound through a beautiful landscape. A lucky break in the fog and mist that hovers over the great volcano gave us the chance to snap some photos of Cotopaxi. It was a shame we didn’t have the time to walk along this path.

As we neared Cotopaxi I grew more and more excited that the volcano was covered in snow that extended all the way to the carpark. I had never seen the stuff up close and personal before.

The walk from the carpark to the Refuge at 4800m was a little bit difficult. The path was steep and slippery in places, and the altitude was a killer. At this height there is just under 60% of the oxygen in the atmosphere that you would find at sea level. In these conditions most people find breathing difficult. It is not uncommon to also suffer other symptoms of altitude sickness including nausea, headaches, and dizziness. We both found it hard to breathe but thankfully were otherwise okay while we were on the mountain.

Once we arrived at the Refuge Alex and I opted to stay there and play in the snow while the majority of our group continued the climb up to 5000m. This is where the glacier starts, though at the moment it is impossible to see under so much fresh snow. We resolved that it was too cold to make a snow man, but proceeded with a snowball fight.

When the enthusiastic members of our group returned from their hike we had lunch in the refuge (hot soup, guacamole, tuna, crackers, potato chips, sweet bread and cheese) before returning to the carpark. I found it easier and more fun to slide down the hill on my bum. Some followed my lead. As a result my pants got a bit wet, but who knows when I will have another opportunity to enjoy something so close to tobogganing again?

Once we reached the carpark we had the option of mountainbiking downhill to the lagoon, or making the trip in the minivan. Largely because I was warm and comfortable in the bus, I chose the lazy option. But other reasons to say no to the bike included low visibility as a heavy fog had descended on Cotopaxi during our decent, the freezing cold, and the questionable safety of the bikes. The breaks didn’t function on a number of bikes and the handle bars were a bit wobbly too. The quality of the bikes is the only aspect of the tour that I am critical of.

From the lagoon we made the two hour return journey to Quito. After such a long day Alex and I decided to enjoy a steak with some new friends who we had met that day. Unfortunately Alex was feeling rather by unwell by this stage in the evening. He went to bed with a migrane after offering up most of his dinner to the toilet, sink and shower in our small bathroom. I guess the altitude got us in the end. Still, a very good day all up