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Bienvenidos a Ecuador!

Finally we are dragging ourselves away from Máncora. It is a tough call and we did think twice about yet another day. It probably though would end up being one day too many and would spoil our overall enjoyment of this haven. We were slightly slow off the mark though - last lingering elements of travelers tummy still plaguing us. I think they were a bit surprised at Reception we actually did check out rather than doing our "Es posible por una noche mas?"

We had asked over the weekend about buses across the border. It sounded like a convoluted process but we hadn't made it into Máncora to check for ourselves. We simply asked the hotel to call us a taxi to get us into town and planned to play it by ear from there. The taxi driver was very enterprising though and offered a good rate to take us all the way. We were hooked - the prospect of combi to Tumbes, different bus, off and on at various immigration control points did not appeal.

Knowing we were leaving Perú we had used all our local currency at the hotel. The cash point in the village was not working but the taxi driver agreed a bit reluctantly that we could pay part in dollars. We had a quick stop at his house so he could let his family know he would not be home for lunch and the we were off.

The drive along the coast took about an hour and a half. All the way we drove past beautiful, long, sandy beaches and clear blue water sparkling in the sunlight. Every now and again there were small hostals or private houses but it is still a totally unspoilt area. The further north we went the greener it started to become.   

We passed through Tumbes (this would have been our first change of bus if we had gone on public transport) which looked like a lively, bustling town. We then drove on to Aguas Verdes where the taxi pulled in outside the immigration office. We arrived just before a bus load so did not have to wait long. Seeing we were not local, one of the immigration guys took our passports and fast tracked us through.

When we got back to the taxi, the enterprising guy has arranged for us to go by bus from here through to the Ecuadorian side - saved him the hassle but probably also worked out best for us in the long run. The guys on the bus asked how much we had paid the taxi, presumably checking to make sure that they had got a good deal from him. The bus took us through Aguas Verdes, which becomes Huaquillas on the Ecuadorian side. Its one huge market town. Shop after shop selling cheap clothes, tacky stuff generally, and buzzing full of people.

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Fighting cocks in Machala

The bus pulled into a bus station and we were bundled off this one (its going to Guayaquil) and on to the bus to Machala. We do not really want to end up there but have to go there to get a connecting bus out. After about five minutes the Machala bus screeches to a halt for immigration on the Ecuadorian side. The town is almost a no-mans land in between the two immigration posts. After several attempts, we were finally given the right forms to fill in, got our entry stamps and 90 day visas. We had kept an eye on the bus to make sure it did not disappear with our bags on board but without us.

The standard Steven Seagal fare accompanied us to Machala - he looked a bit old and podgy in this one. The scenery and landscape here changed giving way to mile after mile of banana plantations. I have never seen so many in one place before. The stalks are all bagged and ready to go whilst they are still growing. When the crop is ready they simply cut them and box them up.

At Machala we had to change bus companies. Helpfully we were dropped off at the new bus station. Bad news though, the connection to Loja had left about thirty minutes before we got there. That journey is meant to be through beautiful scenery so we did not want to get either the 5pm bus or the night bus. We had no option but to stay in Machala for the night. We checked in to a hotel a few blocks from the bus depot, nothing special but a clean room and comfy bed. It is very hot and sticky here and we both needed to cool down for a while.

We spent a couple of hours selecting photos to upload on to the web and then headed into central Machala. The town has nothing much to it. It has no real feel to it, its simply a commercial centre. Even the main Plaza does not have much going for it. Walking to the plaza we passed an open yard with a padlocked wire gate. Inside were about ten circular wire mesh cages with lids. In each was a cockerel. We are not sure but we think they were fighting cocks for sale. We found an internet cafe and spend a few hours uploading photos and checking mail. We also heard from Mischa and Caz about the bombings in London and checked the BBC's site for the latest information. It seems so unreal that suicide bombers are at work in London. I cannot understand what makes someone do this. We have mailed our friends in London to make sure they are all OK.

We headed back towards our hotel, stopping at a Chifa (chinese restaurant) for a simple meal of rice, meat and veg and then headed for bed.

It was a hot, sticky night and I had not slept well. I woke at 5am, an hour before the alarm went off. It has been a bit of a noisy hotel and we woke to the sound of a truck being revved in the car park just below our window.

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Buses wait for no man

Our aim for today was to get to Loja and then connect on a different bus for Zamora. We changed plans in the morning to head instead for Vilcabamba. All three places are on the edge of a national park which we hope to visit.

The bus to Loja was pretty good, comfy, friendly staff. We had an extra special treat lined up for us though - a six hour journey accompanied by Jackie Chan, another martial arts film, Steven Seagal (of course) all rounded off with Jean Claude van Damme. The bus left Machala at 8am - a bit early for six hours of violence!

We headed back down the coast past the banana plantations before heading inland. I dozed and watched the world go by. The landscape changed as we headed inland and started to climb. It was as if we had traveled through a number of different climates. Bananas gave way to  dense, jungle like vegetation, then came tropical palms and plants. Higher still it looked more alpine and at one point I said to Stef that I expected to see Julie Andrews in full flood with "The hills are alive, with the sound of music .....".

The road climbed steadily upwards. Each time I though we were at the top we would round a corner and the mountains still rolled ahead of us. There were fantastic views down and across the valleys, awash with green vegetation. The houses we passed along the way seemed smarter, larger and generally in better condition than in Perú and Machala. The pace of life seems slower and everything seems more relaxed. The air smells of paprika, hot and dusty reminding us both of smells we had encountered in India. One of the times the bus stopped familiar faces got on board. About an hour earlier and on the other side of the valley many ups and downs away they had got off the bus. How they caught us up was a mystery but they did - they had left a bag on board.

The bus fills and empties. Young children no more than seven or eight get on on their own, travel a few miles and then get off. At noon it fills up with schoolchildren. In the distance they all look really smart with white shirts and navy skirts or trousers. Close up, the whites are grubby and worn and look like they have been handed down through many generations. For young children, some of them have pre-occupied and anxious looks on their faces as if they have the world's problems on their shoulders. One boy carries a plastic bag full of eggs. With the way the bus lurches it is amazing he does not smash them.

People try their luck on the bus and the conductor throws a few off who do not have the money to pay. He also gives an old guy a hard time. He has what must be his grandson with him (the only blond haired person in sight). The child has a seat but a man is standing. The conductor tries to make the child move but gives us with no success.

The people getting on and off tell tales without speaking. Most look like farmers. Their clothes are worn and dirty, probably as much through age as lack of washing, although there were a few who would benefit from a bath. Others are smart, office looking types. One or two have laptop bags with them, a rare sight here but oh so common in London. What is great for us though is that we are the only tourists on the bus, in fact we have seen no other tourists since the immigration control in Ecuador. When we stowed our bags in the luggage compartment a local chap put a box in the compartment. It had ventilation holes in it so that the live chicken inside could breathe!

We arrived in Loja at about 2:30pm, surprised to see a bus terminal that all companies operate from - not what we had seen in Perú or in Machala. Needing cash, to stretch our legs and some lunch we took a taxi into the town centre. The town has a relaxed feel to it and it looks clean and tidy. Unlike Perú there is no litter lining the streets and there is not the feeling of dust and dirt everywhere that we have become used to. People at the bus station were very friendly giving us the information we needed about where to go. We had this in Machala yesterday too. A young chap, seeing us consulting Lonely Planet asked if we needed any help, a genuine offer and not a ploy to get us to buy something or go somewhere.

Refreshed, we headed back to the bus terminal to get a bus to Vilcabamba. This was a little mini van. Our backpacks went onto the roof and we crawled inside. At its peak there were twenty people in the van, a little cosy! It initially crawled through Loja at a snail's pace, knowing there would be people to pick up along the way. Once full, the speed picked up unless there was an uphill stretch when it struggled. Its a little local shuttle between the outlying villages and it stops to pick up and put down more times in an hour than I can remember.

The villages also have a more prosperous than Perú feel. Each has its obligatory central square with people simply sitting and watching the world go by. At Lonely Planet's suggestion we asked to be dropped off just outside Vilcabamba by the entrance to our hotel, Hostal Madre Tierre. It was a short uphill walk along a dirt track to get there - hard work in the humid heat and with a full pack. The hotel is a collection of small bungalows dotted up the hillside. There is a small pool, a bar, billiard table, trampoline and a spa offering different treatments and massages.

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Banana Republic

Our room is really designed for a family having one double and three single beds. It has a separate table and chairs, almost its own private dining area, and a small balcony. The whole place is set in tropical gardens and we have bananas and lemons almost within arms reach of our balcony. Dinner is included in the room rate but unusually for what we have seen so far of South America they stop serving at 8pm. This has been the time we have started to think about going out for something to eat for the last two months!

Hot, sticky and thirsty we went for a drink and dinner. They have a really thirst quenching drink here called horchata. Our dictionary says it is a "cold drink made from tiger nuts and water". Not knowing what tiger nuts are we are none the wiser about what it is but keep drinking it anyway. The hotel is now owned by an American couple, Carol and John, who bought it last September and there was a lot of American English being spoken. We got chatting to a young couple who were friends of Carol's. They are here for five weeks helping to refurbish parts of the hotel. From what they said it sounds like Vilcabamba is a little hive of scientific activity due to the climate here. Even though she has only been here less than a year they also said that Carol apparently knows everyone in town and is a great source of information.

We met Carol at dinner, or rather saw her chatting to her guests (feels like a fair contingent are friends and family) and staff. Just after 9pm she and her husband started to say their farewells and before I knew it I was hugged and given a kiss goodnight. Very tactile and very friendly and very not British!

After a failed attempt at getting on line using the hotels wireless modem we went up to our room, as everyone else already had! Not yet tired enough for bed we both finished catching up on our diaries. A small scorpion was crawling up the wall. Not knowing how nasty it would be if we got stung we played safe and Stef splatted it - he is so brave!

A fair chunk of today was spent trying to get online. Stef tried to get an internet connection again after breakfast but it still did not work. The "technical" person is in Loja and it took an hour for us to realise that they had not yet called him to fix the problem. By the time he came, we felt obliged to sit and update emails etc. and so it was about 3pm before we made it out of the hotel.

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This picture just sums it up

During the morning we chatted to another British couple. They are spending a year traveling through Central America. After a particularly hairy time in Venezuela he popped the question and they have now come back to Vilcabamba to get married, having loved it so much when they first came a few weeks ago. It sounds like  they have had a couple of weeks chasing the relevant paper trail in both Lima and Quito. It will be just the two of them here for the wedding, the party for friends and family when they get back home is already planned.

We decided to amble through town and try to head into the national park. It was still really hot, the heat seems to bounce round the valley, and even through my trousers it felt like the sun was burning my legs. There was little shade and I just got hotter and hotter. It is about a twenty minute walk into the centre of Vilcabamba and the inevitable main square. Here I took refuge in the shade and cooled down before we carried on.

The road our of town was a long, slow, uphill climb in the heat. At the river a family was washing its clothes and themselves. The water looked cool, fresh and inviting. We missed the turn to the national park and carried on down the hill, stopping on the way to buy some lemons to refresh us. The followed round and took us back into town at the other end. On the way we passed a line of donkeys, laden with a crop of sugar cane. They know the routine well and automatically walk up the road, into the right buildings and even turn around so that they are ready to be easily relieved of their load - clever animals!

There is a very quiet and relaxed pace to Vilcabamba. Everyone we saw along the way smiled and we exchanged buenos tardes. The local PR for the valley claims that it is a valley of long life. Whether that is true I am not sure but there were a high percentage (compared to other places) of very old people, still wearing traditional dress.

The valley itself is beautiful. Its ringed by high mountains and is very lush and green. The town in fairly small but seems quite contained, there are no signs of it expanding and growing which should help it to keep its atmosphere. It has a neat and tidy feel to it, different to many of the place we saw in Perú.

We stopped at a cafe on the square for a refreshing drink, to cool down and to rest our feet. Mike, another of the guests at Madre Tierre, was chatting to a British guy named Paul. He eventually came and joined us and we spent an hour or so swapping stories. He reached 53, decided there was more to life than lecturing at a Further Education college and wangled redundancy. He has turned the loft of his house into a studio (he is an artist), has rented out his home and now spends most of the time traveling around, people watching and picking up ideas, scenes, faces and situations for his paintings. He spends most of his time in Europe but is currently also on a round the world ticket.

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Ness tries the local lemons

He is quite a character, loves his lifestyle and has an obvious passion for traveling and meeting people. Like Carlos Páez Vilaró at Casa Pueblo in Punta del Este, Uruguay, he is fascinated by women, I think both socially (!) and as subjects for his work. We chatted about Carol at Madre Tierre, how friendly she is and how it goes against the grain of British reserve to be that openly warm with people you hardly know. Nevertheless, the upshot of the discussion was that in this case British reserve was the wrong element of the mix. British reserve also held us back (yes, even Stef suffers from it too now!) from asking Paul what had happened to his arm (his left arm is prosthetic). So Paul, if you are reading this now please email and let us know if you do not mind (see, it is that British reserve again!).

At seven-ish we headed back to Madre Tierra. Even at this time, and in the dark, it's still very hot and sticky. We were treated to yet another great meal. All the food here is organic and cooked in an open kitchen where you can see what is going on (which I love). They bake their own bread here and it is sublime - thick, moist, with different herbs or garlic or onions. It is great on its own but even better daubed with butter and their homemade humus.

Breakfast and dinner are included in the room rate. All meals are taken on a verandah outside reception. Big wooden tables with brightly coloured locally woven tablecloths and vases of fresh flowers give the place a very cheerful and homely feel. Carol tours the tables ensuring that she has had a quick chat with everyone to see how their day went. She is an interesting person - first female CEO of a space agency and also instrumental in stopping the US Star Wars programme to put weapons into space. When I remember I am going to google her (surname Rosin) to find our more!

We shared a table with a chain smoking Belgian couple. They are here with their two sons, who they adopted in Ecuador. They have come back for a holiday to ensure they boys keep in touch with Ecuador and to visit the orphanage they adopted them from. The conversation inevitably turned to chocolate and a discussion about which is the best make of Belgian chocolate. We raved about Corné, a relatively new discovery that my Mum and Dad adore. The Belgians raved about Galler, a make that neither Stef nor I had heard of before. They have a stash with them and will let us try it if we see them tomorrow. The boys were surprised to hear Stef speaking Dutch after all the Spanish (actually English) we had been speaking. It threw them for a while.

By 9pm, most people had disappeared again and we went back to our room where I was thoroughly beaten at cribbage by Stef. It is not like him to have such a good winning streak - he must be cheating!

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Vilcabamba

Our plan for today is to walk up Mandango, one of the hills overlooking the valley. Paul had recommended that we left early to avoid the heat but it was 9:30am before we made it up and out. The promise of another Madre Tierre breakfast was too great a temptation to resists - large bowl of fruit salad with yoghurt, granola, their own cane syrup, delicious homemade bread and jam (pineapple, papaya and carrot) rounded off with eggs. It was already very hot and by the time we had reached the village Stef needed shade as much as me.

The start of the walk was a little further on out of town. At a small hut you had to pay $1 each to do the walk. The trail then led through the back of a garden and up the hill There was little shade, a few sparse trees at a couple of points and that was all. The high point is only 1.5km away in distance but it is also a 500m climb uphill, hard going in the heat. We climbed quite quickly but after an hour I could no longer cope with the heat. I retreated to the shade and left Stef to carry on up. The views of the valley were fabulous. From here the "uphill" we did yesterday afternoon looked totally flat!

For me the heat here is a real problem. It seems to simply bounce of the mountains, the roads, the houses, amplifying as it goes. Much as I find it hot, the friends of Carol we were talking to a couple of nights ago find it a bit cool - they come from Arizona where is it is normally 110F. Another American chap came bounding up the hill, no signs here that the heat is a problem either. We had spent about three hours out and about and were glad to be back in the shade of the central square. Here we again bumped into Paul, who double checked some of the information we had given him yesterday about Perú and Chile.

We had another hot walk back to the hotel and spent the rest of the day cooling down, chilling out, checking mail and playing cribbage (Stef won again). We both agree that it is time to find a new card game. One of the Belgian boys came and found us and gave us a bar of Galler chocolate and yes, it is better even than Corné. It is also "by appointment" to the Belgian King, apparently a bon viveur, so if it is good enough for him ....

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Adios Madre Tierra!

Today we said our farewells to Madre Tierra. We met John, Carol's husband, an actor who was in Hill Street Blues, Dynasty and Knotts Landing amongst other things. Leaving was a lengthy process. Every time we got close to reception to pay up it seemed like something happened - saying farewell to the Brits getting married tomorrow, then the Belgian family etc etc.

At breakfast we had been joined by an American girl traveling on her own. Her boyfriend in still in Huaraz in Perú climbing and she is here for a while until she meets him in Quito. She was not good company. She almost seemed spaced out and not really there. She is a big fan of GW Bush (he has great domestic policies apparently). She works for Congress which we did not feel boded well for the US government machine, and could not stop herself from name dropping all the places she had been to for work. We got talking about Carol and how she had been involved in space and Star Wars. He reaction was really negative - "I've come across loads of activists like her at work. There seems to be a link with full moon because there are definitely more of them that come out then" she drawled in a whingey high pitched voice. It would have been interesting to see how she reacted to Carol over the next few days.

Finally we made it away and headed back to the main road to get the bus. A caterpillar had crawled onto my day pack and we spent a few minutes taking photos. As the camera was put away the bus turned up and we were on our way back to Loja. Again it was a little mini van and people crammed in at every stop. At Loja we timed it just right. We had time to buy our tickets to Cuenca and the bus left ten minutes later.

Again the bus was full of locals (there was one other "western" traveler) and it was packed. Crammed into the corridor was an elderly couple with two small children, I assumed their grandchildren. The youngest was sitting on the floor so I asked if she wanted to sit on my lap. She fidgeted and looked at me with very suspicious eyes until finally she decided to stand after all. People were standing for most of the way. Cuenca is higher altitude than Loja and Vilcabamba and we climbed and climbed and climbed.

Most of the people on this bus seemed to be farmers from the outlying villages. Sunday must be market day as people were getting on with bags full of food, mainly fresh fruit and vegetables. Here too were signs that people do not have much spare cash. Clothes looked well and truly worn but one man had a small dash of colour, a red button sewn onto the back pocket of his beige trousers. It seemed to have no purpose at all in relation to the pocket so it must have been for decoration!

As we drove through different villages there were slight changes in the local traditional dress. One constant is that pretty much all women have long, black hair tied in a pony tail or plaits. This was the case in most of Perú as well and a couple of times my short hair led to me being called Senor. The journey to Cuenca was smooth enough but, unusually, there was no Steven Seagal or Jean Claude van Damme to keep us company. The TV stayed off all the way, a very welcome change.

At Cuenca we got a taxi from the bus station to our hotel, The Tomebamba. We were surprised to see four stars above the door as it did not look that smart. We were even more surprised when we saw the room - very small and basic. The guy from the hotel sensed we did not like it before we said anything. He apologised that this was the only one they had, the hotel is full of conference people, and gave us a get out if we wanted it. We retrieved our cash as we had had to pay in advance for the first night, something we have had to do a couple of times (some hotels are obviously not very trusting of their guests!) and looked at our options. Carol from Madre Tierre had recommended another hotel, the Posada del Angel ("although the breakfast is not much" she said), which was just a bit further up the same street. As we were hoisting our packs the chap from Tomebamba was, unprompted by us, on the phone to Posada del Angel and he confirmed that they did have a room.

A few blocks up we found Posada del Angel. You have to ring a bell to get in. The hotel opens into an inner courtyard with a glass roof. Rooms are mainly on the next level up, which is surrounded by a wooden balcony. Further back there is a second covered courtyard with more rooms and tables for breakfast. The hotel is busy and they only have two rooms free, a small but cosy double or a larger twin room up three flights of narrow rickety stairs. We opted for the double with a promise that we could change the following day for a larger room.

We headed out to see a bot of Cuenca. As it is Sunday all the shops are closed. The city is very quiet with not many people walking about. At the main square we stopped for a late lunch and then headed back to the hotel to unpack and catch up on diaries. We then realised why this place is probably not in Lonely Planet - it is used by tour groups. First to arrive were a very loud group of Americans and Brits. I think the whole hotel must have heard their decision to eat first and shower later. As we headed round the corner for our free internet time the second group arrived - about ten Dutch girls in their early twenties. They were probably even noisier than the first lot!

The young chap at reception had been very friendly and recommended places we could go to eat (they even have copies of the menus here so you can look before you go). We decided to check out a Lonely Planet option first and if that was no good to go for his recommendation, the Eucalyptus, that he assured us was open even though it is Sunday. Both were closed! Earlier in the day we had talked about another "pizza in front of the telly" type of evening and that is what we opted for. The New York Pizza company was on the way back to the hotel so we stopped off and got a take away.

At the hotel they tried, in a very friendly way, to get us to eat in the breakfast bit but Stef politely said we were eating in our room. They supplied us with plates and cutlery, the latter much needed as the pizza slices were too big to manage with fingers only. I cannot remember what we watched on telly so it could not have been that good!

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If the hat fits...

We decided to see the sights in town today and to go to the nearby national park tomorrow. At breakfast we planned our route to take in hat shops, museums and tourist information and then headed out.

Cuenca is famous for its toquilla straw hats, commonly known around the world as Panama hats as they were worn by the people working on the Panama canal. The straw is grown near the coast then dried, bleached, split and the hats made in the villages around Cuenca. It is hard to imagine that large green leaves can end up as white straw hats but they do!

We passed two old shops filled with hats. The hats last for about six to seven years but need to be reconditioned during that time. Here they are worn as part of the every day national dress. There are different shapes from round-pointed hats, to pork pie hats as well as the "traditional" shape we are familiar with, and most are worn by women. These old shops were lined floor to ceiling with hats, many new others in for a refurb.

Our last hat stop was at a place called Barrasco which, according to Lonely Planet has a small museum. It is very small! Like the others it is a family business that has been handed down through the generations. They export a high proportion of their stock to Europe and the poor summers we have had recently have hit sales quite hard. We had hoped to see the actual process of the hats being woven but this was not the case as this happens in the outlying villages. Here they finish the hats and we did see part of the finishing process. All hats are initially made in the same shape, a simple rounded hat with a large brim. They then use pressure heated moulds to shape the hats into either a trilby, boater, safari or pork pie style hat. It takes less than a minute of pressure at 80C to mould the hats. The next stage in the process is to determine the width of the brim. Generally speaking the taller the person the wider the brim. The men's hats are then finished with a navy or black band on the outside and an adjustable strip on the inside which you can use to tighten the hat for a slightly smaller head.

Because women wear their hair in different styles they are not finished in the same way. The hats are left plain and an elasticated band, or a scarf, is then used to fit the hat to the right size. Both men's and women's hats come in different sizes so it really is just a minor adjustment. The process from start to finish takes one to two days for a low grade (i.e. thick straw) hat and one to two months for the finest hats. The latter are very soft to the touch but because they have more straw in them they are more durable.

We are both now the "proud" owners of our own toquilla "panama" hats. Stef has had a lesson in the correct way to put on and take off his hat - very 1920's - but still needs a little more practice to perfect his technique. I suspect these may be purchases that we regret. Unlike our walking hats we cannot really squash them up and shove them in the bottom of our packs. I sense a parcel being sent back to the UK in the not too distant future!

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Washing clothes in the Rio Tomebamba

With hats in tow we ambled along the river and popped in to a small museum with different masks and dolls from the various tribes in Ecuador, Perú, Chile and Mexico. We then went on to the Museo de las Culturas Aborigónes, a private collection of artefacts spanning the 13,000 years of habitation in the area. It was an interesting collection of pots, bowls, weapons, statues and jewelry. The highlight for me though was some early musical instruments - chime bells. These were unusual because they were large (20 - 30cm long and 5 - 10 cm wide) pieces of rock, but when you struck them they sounded like metal chimes.

What we had thought would take us most of the day had actually only taken a couple of hours so we headed off to Tourist Information where we were supposed to be able to buy a map of the National Park that we want to visit tomorrow. It turns out that they no longer have the maps but they gave us an alternative (to Lonely Planet's suggestion) bus company to go with. I also asked about where I could get something to prevent altitude sickness, or rather to proactively manage the symptoms, because the peak is at 3,900m. Another man in the office, who we think must be a doctor gave me useful information. Simply take drinks and sweets with high glucose or natural sugar content, avoid eggs, cheese, chocolate and anything that will get your liver going (like what, other than alcohol, we thought afterward). The ranger stations are all equipped to deal with altitude sickness but he assures me that I will be OK.

We then headed off in search of information for tours to the Galapagos Islands. We have had a recommendation for a tour agency, Metropolitan Touring, from an American/Irish couple we met in Perú who live in Ecuador. Their local agency confirmed they could get us availability on a motor launch for a weeks trip but we are a bit dubious about the cabin. Our request for a sailing boat rather than a motor boat seemed to fall on deaf ears. She had tried three companies to get the motor launch option she gave us and I got the feeling she simply could not be bothered to look into other options. When we asked who ran the boat she said Metropolitan Touring - a bit odd then that she had had to try three different companies for availability.

Back at the hotel we went to the internet cafe to have a look around ourselves. We must have looked at five or six different agencies, some based in the UK, and a common theme soon emerged - they all place people onto the same boats. We have reserved the spaces with Metropolitan Touring (to be confirmed tomorrow) but I think we were both left with the feeling that we could end up spending a lot of money with them (around £2,500 for one week!) and not be happy with the end result. Instead, we have emailed our contacts at Travelbag (who we used for Argentina, India and to buy our OneWorld tickets for this trip) and Journey Latin America (who we used for Chile), both in the UK, to get information that we both feel confident we can trust.

Having done as much as we could we dashed back to the hotel for a quick change, to grab some cash and then took a taxi to Millenium Plaza - we were off to the cinema. We have been assured that the films at this cinema are in English with Spanish subtitles. Its a multiplex based in what looks like a small but new shopping centre. We bought our tickets for War of the Worlds, confirming again that it was in English. Having successfully negotiated past the popcorn without buying any (neither of us really like it but Stef normally succumbs, it is part of the overall cinema going experience I suppose) took our seats.

With people here generally being short we were both surprised that we had more leg room than in any other cinema we have been to. The film was superb - go and see it if you have not already. I was gripped from start to finish and we will probably go and see it again. It is definitely one for the big screen so do not wait for the DVD. I am not sure though that I would have classified it as a 12 - it was a bit gory and scary in places.

The marketing team for the Plaza know their stuff. The way out of the cinema takes you through the upper floor of the centre which is full of fast food places, KFC and Burger King among them. Rather than heading back into town for dinner with the inevitable restaurant hunt we decided to eat here. We opted for grilled meat and potatoes, very tasty, quick and portions too large for us to finish. A taxi took us back to our hotel and we were in bed before 10pm.

Cuenca has a lovely feel. It is a university town and has a more international perspective than we have come across before. There are beautiful buildings, quiet little squares and people, particularly the older generation, are very friendly and welcoming.

It rained a little yesterday afternoon and is raining again this morning. After a quick check for news about the Galapagos we headed off to the bus company to get our bus to the Cajas National Park. Rather than going from the main terminal, we went with the Occidental bus company who have their offices on the outskirts of town. It's obviously one not many tourists use because the taxi driver had to radio to base to check where it is.

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Doesn't show the sounds or smells!

The bus office was a colourful place. There were two other backpackers there but this is a service for the locals. All sorts of bags, boxes and sacks of vegetables were loaded on board. A couple of women in traditional dress struck up a conversation with us, in the office and later on the bus. They were intrigued by the combination padlocks we have got on our day packs, not needed here but they were in some of the cities and definitely on the night buses. They were telling us that it gets cold and very wet in the park. I think they were concerned we would get cold because we were just sitting in shirtsleeves, our fleeces and waterproofs were in our day packs.

On the way our of Cuenca the bus stopped many times, as usual. We passed through an area of large, well maintained houses, obviously one of the smarter parts of town. Then we started to climb. It was still raining and the clouds were also hanging low around the mountains. We are in for a wet walk around the park and regret not bringing our waterproof trousers as well as our jackets. Our fleeces are our before too long - it quickly got colder the higher up the bus went.

We showed the Lonely Planet map of the park to the conductor indicating where we wanted to get off. He seemed confused and Stef reckons that he has not seen a map like this before. A little while later he came and got the book from us and took it to show the driver. The bus came to a sudden halt and we were ushered off - they had already taken us beyond where we wanted to go. It was a ten minute walk downhill to the nearest ranger station - still not where we wanted to be.

There they admonished us slightly for not yet having paid the park entrance fee, gave us a map and pointed us in the direction of the ranger station we wanted, the one by Lago Toreador. We paid our entrance fee (£10 each for us, $1.50 for Ecuadorians) and discussed options with the ranger. We could either do a two hour circuit of this lake or do a two hour walk through the park, passing lakes along the way, back to the main control/entrance point. We opted for the latter. It was downhill pretty much all the way so I hoped I would be OK with the altitude.

Outside the ranger station there was a large tour bus and a few mini vans. It looks like the "tours" from town drive your here, give you time to walk down to the lake and back up and then they take you back to town again. We are both glad we came here independently but the park rangers did seem a bit surprised that we were not on a tour. Later, reading the back of the map they had given us I understood why, the rangers recommend that you come with a tour!

It is a shame it is so wet and windy because it is beautiful in the park. The ground is very peaty, mossy and rocky and it reminds us of walks we have done in Scotland with Mark and Eliza (check Mark's websites www.scottishwinterroutes.com and www.scottishwintermountaineering.co.uk for some serious Scottish walking). The only difference is that on this walk we have just gone downhill and have not had to do the uphill leg first! We are both cautious of slipping and unusually for me I only had one near miss and no falls. Normally I end up flat on my back at least once every time we go walking.

The path was clear to see for the most part and it was an easy walk. We saw no signs of local fauna other than the droppings they had left behind! At one point we saw a small group ahead of us, and someone camping on the other side of one of the lakes, but otherwise it felt as if we had the park to ourselves. Despite the rain it was good to be out in the fresh air and stretching our legs.

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This bit of Wales looks a lot like Ecuador (or was it the other way round?)

The park must be a stunning sight on a clear day. The whole area is just dotted with lakes and lagoons and you could spend days exploring. Were we not both feeling so soggy (due to lack of waterproof trousers) we would have carried on to do another route. But, not long after we got to the park entrance and Cuenca bound bus came past and we hopped on. We subsequently got a gringo tax on the bus, they charged us double what it had cost to get here. Not much money in the overall scheme of things but we resented being conned in this way.

Rather than heading to the main bus terminal, we hopped off at the end of Gran Colombia and started to walk into the centre. It was a bit of a boring walk, past offices mainly, so we jumped onto a local bus. The conductor looked like he had been in some horrific accident, half of his face was squashed in, but he was very friendly and told us where to get off for the centre. Both hungry we decided to stop for lunch and walking past the Lonely Planet and locally recommended Mexican we stopped. We had a shared plate of DIY tortillas (a la Peking duck) with chicken, beef, mince, cheese, beans and guacamole as fillings. Lonely Planet says the portions are small, we were stuffed and had not finished it all! I had a tamarind juice to drink and will not be repeating the experience!

Still feeling soggy we headed back to the hotel to dry out and catch up on diaries. We we are both a few days behind and it is really hard to remember the essence and atmosphere of what we have seen as well as the "we did this and that".

We asked yesterday at the hotel for information about buses to Riobamba and were told they are mainly night buses but that one company also has buses early in the morning. We both thought that was odd as Riobamba is on the main PanAm towards Quito. We decided to have a slow start and to spend and extra day in Cuenca planning the rest of our stay in Ecuador. The hotel confirmed the room was still available but Stef asked again anyway about buses. The very friendly and helpful lady at reception told us that buses run regularly through the day and she phoned to check times for us. There was one in an hour so we checked out and headed north.

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Behold, the Express Sucre (psst, Stef, the other way...!)

We encountered a new "tax" at Cuenca bus station. You had to pay 10 cents to get through the turnstile from the bus depot to the bus! This trip was with Sucre Express and even Stef had enough legroom (although by the end of the trip he now has a very stiff back). We headed out of Cuenca and on to Azogues, the first and only terminal stop before Riobamba. Our bus and one from another company were racing each other out of the terminal - do not really know why but the other bus won. We followed it up the hill and a few minutes later our driver slammed on the brakes. The bus in front had slowed down to turn into a petrol station and we had almost hit it. We could not see whether it had indicated or not.

The few minutes were quite amusing. Our driver and conductor both got off the bus, leaving the engine running (they like to do this when they fill up with petrol too!) and went over to the other bus. Their conductor was out and there was a heated exchange. Then their driver appeared. Next thing we knew the two drivers were both shouting and taunting each other and, despite the efforts of the petrol station staff and passengers from the other bus, they were soon throwing punches and rolling around on the floor fighting. Our first sight of road rage, which is good for two months of traveling. The downside? Do you really want a fired up, testosterone charged man driving you up winding roads through mountains and valleys for a few hours!

What was meant to be a five hour journey actually turned out to be six. We drove through spectacular scenery, long winding valleys edged by high mountains. Initially the scenery was very reminiscent of mountain countryside in Europe. As we climbed it changed to pampas with hardy grasses and palms. We were spared the usual film fare but the alternatives were pretty trashy. The second one was about a big dog that turned violent and mauled people to death - still pretty horrific. The secondary entertainment (!) was two small children next to us. For most of the journey they were either fighting, whinging or screeching at each other and their mother, who did nothing to keep them quiet. I reckon people with small children must be used to blocking out the noise!

The usual collection of people got on and off the bus. The typical dress of the women changes with the villages but the style is the same in most - knee length pleated skirts (like the ones girls wear to school), knee length socks in a matching colour, blouse, jumper or shawl pinned together with a huge pin (like a big hat pin). Their shawls are multi purpose and are used for carrying shopping or children on their backs as well as for keeping warm. They are adept at sitting on a bus, child strapped to their back without squashing the child.

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Driving through central Ecuador

The stretch from here up to Quito has half the country's population. As yet, the towns and villages here are a long way off merging into a huge urban sprawl but the population density is visibly higher than further south. Its prime agricultural land and fields stretch up the sides of high altitude mountains. Colourful spots in the fields turn out to be women and children planting and reaping their crops. Its all manual labour, not a machine in sight. These are sturdy, robust people.

For the last two hours of the journey we were both bored and twitchy. We finally got to Riobamba a but before 5pm. We had called our preferred hotel, Monte Carlo, this morning. Despite them saying they were fully booked we headed there anyway just in case. They do have a room, but its through the hotel and at the back of a small garden where they dry the laundry. It will certainly do for tonight and they have said we change change room tomorrow. The hotel is a converted old colonial house with a central courtyard. Again, very friendly staff who gave us information about getting up to Volcán Chimborazo tomorrow. It will be just us and a guide and we will take in a local village market too.

We need to think about what else we want to do in Ecuador. The Galapagos Islands looks like its probably not going to happen. We may look again in Quito, if not it will get added in to our next South America trip at some stage in the future.

We were met this morning by Joel and his 4x4 to go to Chimborazo Volcano. Along the way we picked up Joel's friend Nelson, who speaks English and will act as interpreter.

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Pint-sized locals

Chimborazo is 6,310m high. As its near to the Equator, the peak is the point farthest from the centre of the earth. The volcano, one of ten in Ecuador's central valley, is dormant having last erupted over one thousand years ago (give or take a year or two). It is an impressive sight from a distance as it towers above Riobamba and the surrounding countryside. The latter changed as we drove into the Volcano's national park to become altiplano pampas of vast wide, dry open spaces, above the level of the clouds.

In the national park, the road turns to a track and climbs, switching back on itself, to the first refugio. People who climb to the top spend two or three days here first to acclimatise to the altitude. It is a basic place with a few tables, a large fireplace and not too hygienic toilets! Looks like people who stay here simply sleep on the floor.

This first refugio is at 4,800m already pretty high. It is possible to walk to the next refugio, another 200m higher up and about a forty minute walk. Not long after we started I could feel my head starting to pound and turned back down. Stef carried on with Nelson, making it to the second refugio but with his heart beating frantically and many stops to get his breath along the way. This was common to all the people going up that far.

I stayed down by the refugio enjoying the sun (too much as it turned out as I have a nasty blister on my cheek that burst during the night). It was a really clear day and this high up the sun makes it feel lovely and warm despite the cold breeze that also blows. The views of the volcano are superb, as are those of the valley stretching out below us. I tried to get photos of Stef at the second refugio. I have got photos with people in them but whether or not they are Stef I could not tell with my little camera!

Joel's brother, who is also here with tourists (none of the guides seem to actually do the walk with their tour groups) came over to check that I was OK and we chatted for about fifteen minutes in Spanish. It was a basic conversation with an obvious topic, the volcano, but I was chuffed with myself that I had managed to do this. As you look at the volcano from the refugio, the path to climb to the top winds to the left and then along a ridge up to the snow and ice. Its do-able in a day but that day starts at 2:00am. By late morning the sun starts to melt the ice and it is too dangerous to climb. The right side of the volcano is also dangerous as there are many avalanches. People have died on the climb to the top.

Another 4x4 had mountain bikes strapped to the back. A Dutch couple and two English girls got kitted up with knee and elbow protectors and crash helmets and then set off to cycle back down to the bottom. It must have been an impressive, if a little bumpy, ride back down. The 4x4 acts as a support car, ready to fix any punctures and to pick them up again at the bottom to take them into town. We got a Chimborazo stamp in our passports and the headed back down and on to the market at Guamote.

The market was fabulous. We only saw three other non-local people and not a feria artesanale in sight. On the way there we stopped at a mirador to get a birds eye view of the market. It seems to take over the whole town and is a splash of bright colours - reds, yellows, blues. Its even more colourful at ground level. Here there is a total mix of different indigenous groups all in the local costumes of their village. They are sturdy people carrying huge loads on their backs.

At this market you can get pretty much anything you need. Our first stop was livestock. In a big enclosed field people were buying and selling sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, birds, puppies and guinea pigs. With the exception, I think, of the puppies, this was livestock being sold for food. From the bleating of the sheep and squealing of the pigs it was as if they sensed what their destiny was going to be. Throughout the rest of the market we saw people struggling with very resistant animals.

Next to a couple of trucks being loaded were piles of sheep on the ground. I had though they were dead but then they twitched and move their heads. That was all they could move as their legs were bound together. They were picked up as big bundles and hauled up to the tops of the trucks. A common sight on the buses leaving town was sheep standing on the top, tied on so they would not fall off between the market and their destination. Stef haggled and bought himself a sheep, but, as he only paid $1 he had to content himself with a photo rather than the real thing.

Lots of people at the market were wary of having their photo taken and turned away. Even so we managed to get some good shots to try and capture the atmosphere of the place. Here you could buy your national dress, pots and pans, shoes and other household items. In the food section you could buy meat from the carné market, but having seen the market you would not want to eat the meat that came from it! There were loads of stalls selling oranges, apples, pineapples and vegetables (mainly onions, cauliflower, carrots and broccoli). Past, rice and flour came by the 40kg sack or in smaller quantities if you only wanted a bit.

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Buying a sheep at Guamote

You could also eat your way around the market. Stef took a safe bet (mainly so he could get a photo) and bought some fried potatoes with onion and tomato. There were whole pigs roasted and gradually being carved up and sold off. Piles of shredded roasted pig, choclo (sweetcorn, but with white kernels about four times bigger than we are used to) and different types of bread were all on offer.

Nelson was with us in the market and chatted to friends of his that we passed along the way. He was meant to be directing us to where we would meet Joel, who had gone to park the car. For some reason he could not find Joel so we walked around for a while looking to no avail. We headed to the entrance to town to see if he was there but no Joel. Finally, Nelson said he would look again but for us to stay where we were. He came back ten minutes later, oddly from along the main PanAm rather than the village - no Joel. We sent him off again. After about an hour we started contemplating getting the bus. We were in a great spot for watching people leave the market. Each village has its own truck and they came by fully laden and with people hanging off the sides.

As we were almost at the deadline we had set to get the bus Joel turned up in his 4x4, but with no Nelson. He had been looking for us for more than an hour. Nelson was meant to have stayed at the orange market which is where Joel had parked. For some reason the message had not got through (Nelson was not the sharpest knife in the block). We then went back round the market with Joel in the 4x4, not easy as the streets were still crammed with market stalls. We finally found Nelson back where Stef and I had waited on our own.

Joel was not impressed, probably because we had by then decided not to take up his offer of another trip tomorrow, and there was a bit of a heated exchange between him and Nelson. Joel had told us that Nelson has the languages but does not know the sights. I do not think Nelson was familiar with Guamote or with the market.

Back in town we checked to see if we could change rooms as promised yesterday. Seems that other people have decided to stay an extra night so we are still in the back of the garden. Stef was not happy! We decamped again to the hotel cafe and whiled away the evening making plans for the next few days.

By 8pm, fed and watered, we were back in our room. We zapped around looking for something to watch that was not either originally in, or dubbed into, Spanish. Finally I settled on Shakespeare in Love, which I have seen before and really enjoyed. Stef had nodded off but I woke him up every now and again as I chuckled at the film.

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Hotel Llamas, on the hotel football pitch, of course... after a while here, stuff like this doesn't even strike you as odd!

Stef's back is still bad from the bus ride two days ago. Latacunga, our next planned stop, is reported to be two hours away by bus, which probably means three. Adding on the need to lug our bags around bus terminals it does not bode well for his back so we splashed out and got a taxi.

Cesar, our driver, was entertaining and kept up a constant flow of chat as we went. We stopped so he could tell his family he would not be back for lunch, filled up with petrol and then we were off. The road was good, paved and with two lanes ine ach direction for most of the way. He told us that when the Sucre (local currency) was replaced with the US Dollar it hit people here very hard. The exchange rate was 25,000 Sucre to $1. The former was enough to do the weekly shop, the latter buys enough food for just one meal. No doubt the wealthy 40% of the population already held a fair chunk of their assets in dollars. For the other 60% this change must have hit incredibly hard. He was a real fan of Riobamba, explaining how it was the first place to do this, that and the other.

The views changed from those of Chimborazo to those of Cotopaxi, still an active volcano which last erupted just a few years ago. They really are a breathtaking sight to see. Vast cone shaped mountains with crops growing in fields at the base, turning to bare rock and then snow capped summits.

Along the way we looked in the book at hotel options. Rather than staying in Latacunga, we opted for one of the "comfortable" hotels out of town, Hosteria La Cienega. Cesar knows the turning, he drove buses along the PanAm for twelve years and has been a cabbie for five, but I do not think he had ever been to the hotel before. When we arrived, his gasped intake of breath was louder than mine and Stef's combined.

A dirt track leads off the main PanAm through an archway with a sign for the Hosteria. About 1.5km up the road there is the entrance to the Hosteria itself. We later found out that the family who owned it, it only became a hotel in the 1980's, were very influential and owned vast tracts of land in the area. A gateway at the road leads down a tree lined avenue which becomes the driveway to the four hundred year old estancia. The setting is very tranquil and exceedingly romantic. Our room looks out over the gardens at the front of the house. These, and the gardens in the two inner courtyards, are awash with colour and neatly laid out. Trees provide shade and there are fountains and pools providing the sound of running water, itself relaxing.

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Happiness is a warm bum

In one of the courtyards, space has been given to a local family who have set up a feria artesanale. We did not go into the main shop, which seems to have the usual fare, but walked past a table full of paintings of Cotopaxi. The lady there explained that she and her husband paint them, on sheep's skin. Conveniently, they come in all shapes and sizes but they were not to our taste so we politely declined.

We wandered around the grounds of the hosteria. It is very peaceful as it is in the middle of agricultural land. The hosteria itself is extensive with its own private chapel which appears to be still in use for religious ceremonies. There is a swimming pool, tennis court, volleyball court and a field of alpacas. All of this though is dwarfed by the backdrop views of Cotopaxi.

Not knowing how long it would take to get there we had hoped to be able to get to Cotopaxi today. Its not possible so we have had an enforced relaxing afternoon, amblings through the grounds, reading and writing our diaries. There are meant to be thirty people in the hotel tonight, all foreign, and we are both expecting a bit Dutch tour group (seems to be the pattern in Ecuador). So far though it seems to be French people.

We spent a couple of hours in one of the lounge rooms of the hotel in front of an open fire burning wood. This brought out the inevitable Zog (my grandfather) impressions of bottom warming. Stef tended the fire on a regular basis and we made a pretty good dent in the woodpile. Every now and again someone else wandered in to take a look. Unlike all the other places we have been to though none of them smiled and said hello. This continued through dinner and we decided it is a symptom of staying in a more expensive hotel. The more money people have the more snooty they are and the less friendly.

This is a theme we will need to continue to explore. Stef has a hypothesis (which he has now decided to pronounce as high-po-thee-sis) that the landscape has a large influence on the character of the local population. First formed in Uruguay it has been oft quoted but never scientifically proven. I think the money and friendliness connection will be easier to prove!

Over dinner a local folk group came to entertain us with a few songs. There were about eight in the group, all men, with guitars, pan pipes, a drum and surprisingly I thought a violin. The guy playing it was slightly off key all the way. Playing the pan pipes looks much more complex that I have previously thought. There is a double row of pipes, at slightly different heights, and much to-ing and fro-ing between them. I suppose it is a bit like playing the harmonica.