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Posts Tagged ‘hot springs’

(Mid March 2009)

Mendoza has a population of about 112,000. The climate is arid and the pace of life seems a bit slower here. Many of the shops and restaurants shut down for the afternoon siesta. This is wine country although it’s not the main sector. Tourism in the area consists of wineries, obviously, a hot springs retreat, and various day trips to the High Andes. I stayed at the Alamo Hostal – great place!

I never cease to be amazed by mountains and the trip to the High Andes was another encounter with the astonishing majesty of these landscapes. I was dazzled by glaciers, snow-capped peaks, Mount Aconcagua – the highest summit in the Western hemisphere at 6960 metres -, and the soft warm colours and subtle hues which seemed in such contrast to this ruggedness. And, I saw another condor!

Aconcagua is a popular climbing destination and it does claim a number of lives each year.  An international climbers’ cemetery is located nearby. Zig-zag fashion, our bus ascended up Mount Santa Elena to the world’s highest Christ the Redeemer monument at the borderline between Argentina and Chile. It was placed there as a symbol of peace and unity. (Note: when at the top of a mountain don’t leave your jacket in the bus.) Another unusual site was Puente del Inca where a natural stone bridge and the ruins of a spa are stained from the sulphurous thermal springs.

Enjoying a glass of Malbec in Argentina, in the heart of the grape’s growing region, is one of those small slice-of-life moments that I’m truly thrilled to experience. Yerba maté, however, is the Argentine national drink. The leaves are placed into a gourd and the brewed tea is sipped with a bombilla, an elegant straw with a filter attached. Hot water machines for replenishing your thermos are popular at gas stations.

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(Late January 2009)

Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city and also known as the “White City”, is in close proximity to El Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichu volcanoes and it intrigued me during my research. I arrived early in the morning and checked into La Casa de Sillar. I had read about the Cafe Casa Verde, which is run by street kids, and I strolled over there for lunch.

I wandered through the very memorable Monasterio de Santa Catalina. The nuns lived there in seclusion for 391 years before it was opened to the public in 1970. The architecture and design is very impressive. The monastery is like a self-sufficient secluded city within the city. In centuries past this must have been a very good life for the women who inhabited the community. I find it both appealing for its sanctuary and repelling for its isolation.

The next day I visited the Museo Santuarios Andinos. This is where the frozen Inca bodies discovered on Ampato Volcano are housed. Juanita, the best preserved and well-known, is not on display between January and March so instead I viewed the remains of Serita. Serita would have been between 15-17 years of age when she died. The child sacrifice was to appease the gods after a volcano eruption and is believed to have been a very solemn and important undertaking. Children were of noble birth, although Serita’s status is uncertain, and the actual death seems very cruel – a blow to the head. The culture believed in duality and objects accompanying the bodies were found in pairs. The Inca’s recorded their stories with fabric cords and these were found with the bodies. The film re-enactment of the sacrifice ritual is quite interesting and points out the fact the Inca’s would have been expert climbers.

I looked around for a tour to Colca Canyon. I considered the 3 day/2 night adventure in which you go down into the canyon and camp and a similar one but you stay with a family. I think either of these trekking tours would have been a satisfying experience but I was worried about my fitness level and thought getting back out of the canyon could be too difficult a challenge. The tours were also relatively expensive in comparison to the conventional 2 day/1 night tours. So, being a mild-core adventurer on a budget, I opted for the standard tour offering the creature comforts of a hotel room and hot water.

Colca Canyon is stunning. The road is somewhat rough but the landscape is truly breathtaking. We passed through Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca and spotted a few vicunas – they are wild and their wool is  much more expensive than alpaca. We did see an awful lot of domestic llamas and, unlike their Ecuadorian cousins, they were not the least bit curious about us. After an over-priced buffet in Chivay we checked into our hotels then met up again for a splash in the hot springs pools. For dinner we attended a traditional music and dance pena.

Chivay was cold and wet and the following day it was up early to head for Cruz del Condor. We stopped at a couple villages along the way and arrived there around 9:45 am. Much to our awe and satisfaction we spotted several condors and were able to spend some time watching these majestic birds. The Andean Condors live 60-70 years, are about one metre in length and have a wingspan of 2-3 metres. They are simply magnificent! On the way back we stopped at a couple miradors to marvel at the Inca terracing. Shifting our gaze up the mountain beside us, the guide informed us that important Inca’s were buried in the rock.

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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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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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