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Archive for July, 2009

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                                                                                                                                                            Cuenca is in Azuay province and has a population of appromately 400,000. I stayed at Hostel El Monesteria, which provides wonderful views of San Francisco market, the famed blue domed cathedral, and the mountains. The view from my window overlooked the monestary’s urban agriculture courtyard and, to my surprise, I saw nuns chasing pigs.

There are many Indigenous people although they seem to be outnumbered by the Mestizo population. Women vendors walk around with large wheelbarrows of fruit and tiny scales. Hats are an essential element of the Indigenous wardrobe and I checked out the hat shops and a museum. Cuenca is home to the Panama hat – yes, they are made in Ecuador. Something else I noticed all over Ecuador is that children wear school uniforms. It seems each school has its own uniform.

The Museo del Banco Central is wonderful. This was the third ethnographic collection I had viewed and makes me want to see more of the country. The museum has several shrunken heads from the Shuar tribe in its collection. The Shuar shrunk the heads of murders – woman, children, and whites/mestizos were considered inferior and not subjected to the practice. By the way, head shrinking is against Ecuadorian law!

I booked a hike to Cajas National Park, which turned out to be one of my most satisfying days in the country. Adrian, our guide, was exceptionally knowledgeable about the plants, flora, trees, and birds in the park – Cajas guides require a special license. First, we stopped at the three crosses where legend and custom dictate that you place a rock on one of crosses for a safe journey. The ancient Canari people crossed through the park to trade on the Pacific and parts of the road are still in existence. We hiked at a leisurely pace at 4200 metres above sea level for a few hours, venturing around a mountain and a couple lakes. There are 232 lakes in the park, mostly small. We went through a forest of amazing trees – they seemed so fluid and organic and possessed a richly coloured, thin, flimsy bark.

Prior to the hike we saw a llama herd in the hills (they were very curious about us) and a couple of llamas near the road. According to Adrian, this is unusual, as was the clear, bright day. After lunch we went for a shorter hike at 3200 metres. The trees, vegetation, and birds at this lower altitude are different. It’s greener and we even spotted an Andean Toucan.

I also spent time soaking up the hottest sulphur spring baths in the country – 24 degrees Celsius, or, 76 degrees Farenheit. Unlike the other Banos, I had to take a bus to reach this town just outside of Cuenca. I went a little too far and had to ask several people for directions – this seems to happen alot when I use local transit.

Cuenca is considered a good place to stay awhile and take  Spanish lessons. There is some degree of affluence. For instance, many Ecuadorians were eating in trendy restaurants. I’ve enjoyed my time here and I’ve also quite gotten used to seeing cows, pigs and chickens in people’s semi-urban yards.

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My reason for heading to Riobamba was to get a ticket for the Devil’s Nose train ride. The tickets were sold out but I was able to purchase a bus ticket to Alusi and board the train there for the infamous switchbacks. We had to stop to clear a boulder from the tracks and while it was being moved there was a small landslide a little further up the track, which also had to be cleared. This is a tourist train and we took turns riding inside and on top of the coach. It was a great ride!

I spent a little time exploring Riobamba as well. It has a more relaxed vibe than Quito. I took in the volcano views from Parque 21 Avril, savoured the taste of  incredible ice-cream and watched the police chase a thief on foot. I chatted with a local who had lived in Britain for five years, married a Polish woman there, but was now back in Ecuador awaiting an immigration hearing. I wish him luck.

Sidenote about bus travel – Even with all the fog, cliff edges and roadside memorials long-distance buses in Ecuador are efficient and an enjoyable way to travel. The country is small and it doesn’t take long to get from one destination to another. Passengers get on and off all along the route, as do people selling food and various items. There’s lively music or mediocre films, the scenery is rural and mountainous – agricultural crops planted patchwork on the hills result in lovely patterns and colours.

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Banos, named for the thermal springs,  is a popular destination for both Ecuadorians and foreigners alike. It’s in close proximity to Tungurahua volcano and the area is known as Volcano Alley. I think this was where I fell in love with Ecuador – or on the way here – the landscape is truly beautiful.

I stayed at Plantas y Blanca hostel – they offer a great rooftop deck, excellent breakfast choices, and a very cold water health bath/spa treatment.

I felt quite at ease here and very much enjoyed roaming around the town and countryside. I watched taffy-pullers at work, tried some great fudge and unusual treats, sampled a variety of restaurants and cafes, found good inexpensive cappuchino, checked out the conveniently located market, toured the Rutas de Cascades to Rio Verde, chatted with a lot of locals, relaxed and enjoyed a wonderful four days here. It’s green, lushcious, mountainous, tranquil, offers adventure and pampering – all in all, a piece of paradise!

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IMG_3289womenIMG_3322coupleOtavalo’s Indigenous population are savvy business people and I went over budget at the famous Saturday market. Their traditional costumes are beautiful, the people look confident and happy, the houses look prosperous, the fields abundant, and just about everyone is walking around with a cellphone. Town and countryside are lovely – even the pavement is a work of art.

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 (January 2009)

Quito is approximately 2800 metres above sea level and even though the altitude isn’t that much higher than Mexico I felt it right away. The historic part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I stayed at a popular hostel in Old Town with great views and food. As usual, I roamed around and explored the area on foot. I was very conscious of being stared at! The city does draw international tourists and the country is touted as a great outdoor and adventure destination, but, I suppose, solitary middle-aged female foreigners are not yet the norm.

My wanderings took me through the Old Town highlights such as Plaza de la Independencia, Plaza San Francisco and museum, Santo Domingo and the very ornate church of the Compania de Jesus. I passed through Parque la Alameda, sort of the divider between old and new town, a couple of times, it’s a nice peaceful green space with an observatory. I visited the excellent Casa de la Cultura anthropology museum in New Town and I took the teleferico up to the top of Pichincha Volanco. The view over Quito at 4100 metres above sea level is incredible!

I opted to do the really touristy thing and visit the equatorial monument. Mitad del Mundo is about 20 kms from Quito and I decided to go by public transit. After flagging down about half a dozen or so buses, none of which would get me to the part of the city where I thought I had to go to get a connecting bus, I took a cab to the intersection mentioned in my book. The Mitad del Mundo monument and equatorial line are actually about 163 metres off the true centre. The small solar museum beside the complex is interesting – they’ve developed a world map showing all the constellations according to the “true” rotation around the sun.

Quito from atop Pichincha Volcano

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