Deprecated: Methods with the same name as their class will not be constructors in a future version of PHP; plgContentembed_google_map has a deprecated constructor in /var/sites/a/aaltenvoogd.com/public_html/plugins/content/embed_google_map/embed_google_map.php on line 21

It is now two calendar months since the mad rush of a Monday when we left our home in Croydon. In some ways it seems much longer. We have seen so much in this time it is hard to remember it all - just as well we are keeping diaries!

20050723_P_00060
Clouds streaming off Cotopaxi

Today we were met by Alex who took us to Cotopaxi. I thought he looked familiar and it turned out that he was the drummer in the band at the hotel yesterday. I reckon he is in his mid to late twenties. He works for a tour company by day and at night plays his music. It cannot leave him much time to spend with his wife and their baby.

About ten minutes up the PanAm Alex was focusing on overtaking a bus. Just as he did, he did a sharp swing to the right, cutting up the bus, onto the dirt track leading up to Cotopaxi. At 5,9897m it is lower than Chimborazo but it is still active, albeit not very. It is surrounded by a national park of high pampas landscapes, vast open spaces with hardy grasses. It is very windy but despite this people are camping.

We had a short wait to get into the park - they had run out of entrance tickets and had gone for more supplies. In that short time a queue of trucks, cars and buses had developed. Some people have come equipped to mountain bike back down but most look as if they are just tackling the 300m walk from the car park to the Refugio, which is at 4,800m. We stopped along the way to take some pictures and Alex pointed out the Refugio. It is a yellow building perched about two thirds of the way up. A steep slope leads down to the left to the car park, only visible because of the sunlight reflecting off the windows of the cars already there.

I do not think I have ever walked on an active volcano before. Before we reached the car park I knew it was going to be a tough walk. At the car park it looked even more daunting - short, but fairly steep uphill and at high altitude. There was also a really strong wind blowing from left to right with gusts powerful enough to make me unsteady on my pins. The air was thin and I found it difficult to get my breath, not helped by the wind whipping around my face.

Stef, being the expert project manager that he is, goaded and tempted me to keep going by setting different milestones - lets just get to that rock or that flat bit and see how we feel. This worked until my stubborn-ness kicked in, I got angry and determined to make it to the refugio. It took us an hour and a half to get up. The ground was volcanic sand and pebble and it was like walking up a huge sand dune. It felt that for every two steps upwards I took I slid back down one step. My calf muscles felt like they were going to cramp up from the lack of oxygen but thankfully the headaches I have had before at high altitude stayed away.

It was definitely worth the effort. The views from the refugio both up the volcano and out across the valley were superb. Some local people had gone a little further onto one of the glaciers and were coming back down with lumps of ice. One girl was sucking it to drink water - I suspect she will not feel too well tonight!

20050723_P_00210
What do you know, it's just another picture perfect volcano

There was a steady stream of people up and down both locals, its school holidays now for two months, and foreign visitors. As expected, foreigners pay five times as much to get into the park. Even though there are a lot of people it is not crowded. In fact I think it actually helped people to get to the refugio. I was not the only one struggling. Going up I saw people and thought I could not give in unless they did. But also the people coming down gave encouragement to keep going, something we did too on our way down.

The sandy ground worked in our favour coming down. It cushioned the impact on the knees and made for a steep but easy descent. It was also quick, taking just half an hour. At a two and a half hour (including a much needed drink at the refugio) round trip it was short, especially compared to the walks we have done in Scotland. In terms of effort, I would rank it along with getting to the top of Goat Fell on the Isle of Arran.

After lunch, we headed to Laguna Limpiopungo and had a very pleasant forty five minute walk around its edge. It was good to be on the flat and to have the opportunity to stretch out and walk at a good pace. No need for re-oxygenating stops here. AT the back of the laguna we were for the first time today sheltered from the wind. Ironically though, a low hill in front of us totally obliterated the views of Cotopaxi. The laguna had a few birds and there were a couple of cows and horses grazing its edges, more evidenced by what they left behind that their actual presence!

Back at the hotel we both felt very dusty and sticky and had a long, hot rejuvenating shower. I snuggled up in bed, despite the warm sunshine its cold in the shade and in our room, and read my book for a few hours. We then decamped back in front of the wood fire for a while before heading off to dinner.

20050724_P_00340
Andean scene

We had a slightly earlier start today and met Alex just after 8am. Our first stop was a small town called Pujili where they have a market on Sundays. Unlike Guamote, where the market takes over the centre of the town, this one is in a purpose built market area.

It was about 9am when we got there. Loads of little eateries had been set up, each with just one or two bench style tables. They were dishing up soup, rice, potatoes and fried fish amongst other things, for us strange things to be eating at that time of day. At the market stalls all of these things were also for sale to take home and cook. They also had less appetising bits - pretty much every part of an animal was available to buy. What looked like round cakes were actually large lumps of pig fat, lard, being sold for cooking fat.

About half of the market was full of fruit and vegetable stalls. Many of the items for sale were familiar to us but there were also some more exotic items available - papaya, tree tomatoes and others I cannot remember! Big piles of what looked like weeds are actually a type of yerba, used to make a tea which is very good for the stomach.

Although interesting, the market was not a patch on Guamote and we were soon off on our way to Quilotoa. What looks like a short distance on the map took two hours to cover. The road climbed and would up hills/mountains and down into valleys. Alex pointed Quilotoa out to us. It did not look far, just across the valley, but was still an hour away. The valley before the village had huge cracks and scars in it, evidence of seismic activity. The breaks were next and looked as if they could simply be stitched back together, if only there was a way to move the earth again!

20050724_P_00440
Quilotoa crater reflected in my shades

Quilotoa itself is a tiny village with about twenty buildings. Its sole purpose seems to be geared around people visiting the lake. The lake itself is inside the crater of Volcan Quilotoa and is 400m down a steep and sandy path. The crater is huge and the views across it are amazing. The water is green due to the high mineral content. You can see six or seven ridges just above the surface showing where the water level used to be.

The local villagers have the usual display of artesanales available for us to buy (we did not). They also do quite a good trade in donkey and horse rides for people who have gone down to the level of the lake and do not want to walk back up. It is high altitude again here and knowing how hard the walk up would be we only went part way down.

For the money we paid, both yesterday's ($70) and today's (£85) tours were expensive for what we got. What we do not know is whether this is the going rate for Latacunga or whether it was a premium rate because we have splashed out and are staying at a bit of a fancy hotel.

We were back at the hotel mid afternoon and had a relaxing few hours in the lounge. A small group of Kiwis and Aussies have checked in. They are on a two weeks trip climbing the mountains in Ecuador. Yesterday they climbed Cotopaxi and made it to 5,400m but then had to turn back. They were all knackered and had spent most of today asleep. They were then followed by a large and noisy group of cloggies! Still no Americans and no Japanese, the latter do not seem to "do" South America.

Stef pipped me to the post at cribbage again, winning by just one point!

20050725_C_00620
Family out on Guayaquil's Malecon

We woke today with no firm plan of where we would end up. If we can we will head out to the coast but the best connections seem to be through Quito. Alex came and dropped us off at the next village on the PanAm so we could get a bus. The first few did not stop but it was only about a ten minute wait until a Patria bus pulled up.

Quito is not far, it was about ninety minutes to the bus station. The road north through the central valley really brought home that this is where the bulk of the population live. Initially still mainly agricultural, roses are a big crop around here, villages were larger and soon merged into a steady stream of habitation. Before we knew it we were in greater Quito.

I am sure the city could rival Rome for the number of hills it is built on. Houses and buildings stretch as far as you can see into the valley and up the mountains. Stef had got talking to a man next to him on the bus who recommended we went to Salinas, Alex had also recommended this place. It is an eight hour bus ride or a thirty minute flight from Quito. The flight won.

Quito airport feels like it is in the middle of the city. I had wondered whether around here there would be enough flat land for an airstrip and there obviously is. There is a small domestic terminal and the next flight south was at 1:00pm, only ninety minutes to wait. The flight was a little bumpy, probably due to air currents off the mountains, but it was smooth enough and over quickly. Quito had felt hot (27C) but it is not a patch on Guayaquil. Here it is not the heat that hits but the humidity.

We took a taxi to our hotel, the Palace, another above budget stay, where we have a large room with all important air conditioning. Having dumped our stuff we then headed down to the Malecon, the new riverfront walkway, for an afternoon stroll. The place was packed, I thought probably just because it was school holidays but having checked Lonely Planet later today is the anniversary of the founding of Guayaquil an yesterday was a fiesta for Bolivar's birthday. No wonder it is heaving.

The Malecon was like Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon without the shopping bags. The people, heat and humidity made for a very sticky stroll. It is great to see what they have done here though. London would have benefited more from something like this than the Millenium Dome. Lets hope they learn for the 2012 Olympics (we were chuffed to hear we had won!).

20050725_C_00680
On El Morgan

We saw an open topped bus that does a tour of the city centre and went to find out more. The next one does not go for about an hour, so we passed on that option and ambled back the way we came. We did, though buy tickets for the El Morgan, a fake pirate ship, for a night time hour long cruise up and down the Rio Guayas. In the meantime we headed back to the luxury of our air conned room to chill out - not only was the weather sticky it had made both of us (me more than Stef) a bit tetchy!

The trip on El Morgan was totally touristy but fun also. We were the only non-Ecuadorians aboard and attracted a fair bit of attention. The boat is decked out to look like an old pirate ship, down to the uniforms of the waiting staff and the Jolly Roger flying from the mast. It just cruises up and down the river, totally lazy. We were at the back by the cocktail bar and got chatting to the waiter. He is an Argentinian from Buenos Aires and has moved to Guayaquil to get work. He did not really seem that keen on the place! As today is a holiday he said he had been really busy and was knackered. If the amount of work he did when we were on board was anything to go by he does not know the meaning of hard work. If he served ten drinks in the hour I would be amazed.

The Malecon was absolutely heaving with people, all out enjoying the slightly cooler night air. We rounded off the day with a trip to a local chifa ("Chinky") for dinner but abandoned it with less than half eaten because the portions were so huge.

We have decided today to head for Salinas, the most westerly part of the Ecuador mainland and the seaside resort that Ecuadorians go to. We took a taxi to the bus depot and I was glad of the help they gave with our bags. It is incredibly hot and humid.

20050726_P_00550
Yeah, it'll do for another day

At Guayaquil there must be over twenty different bus companies. The receptionist at the hotel told us which company to look for but neither of us could remember. The chap carrying our bags asked a few locals at the terminal and then took us to a ticket office. The bus leaves in three minutes - good. Having been told that it was the best company we ewe both surprised it was a bit basic, more like a town centre bus than a long distance coach. The main difference was no on board loo - more of a comfort factor just in case than something either of us want, or so far have had, to use!

The journey took about two hours, driving through pretty unremarkable countryside. We passed some gated and secure housing estates and posh looking (very green) hotels, obviously the haunts of Guayaquil's financial elite. Our "in flight" entertainment was Die Another Day, in English but with the windows open to get the breeze you could not hear much. On reflection, this was probably as violent as the Steven Seagal and Jean Claude van Damme films we have seen on other buses. Somehow the violence in Bond films seems different and more "acceptable".

We have nowhere to stay when we get to Salinas and our book has no map of the town so we had no idea where the hotels were. We were dropped in the centre, next to a whole load of cevicherias (places selling marinated fish for lunch). We shouldered our packs and headed to the sea front to get our bearings. The first hotel we tried wanted a silly amount of money for a crap room. We then walked to the other end of the bay to one of the better hotels that Lonely Planet says does good off peak deals. My suggestion to call first fell on deaf ears and I was not happy when we got there and Stef finally admitted that it was too much, $150 for full board. It was swanky but not what we were after.

I had had enough of walking in the heat with my pack and a taxi stopped and picked us up with a "I tried to pick you up at the other end but you said no" comment. He took us to our next option, again one Lonely Planet says does off peak deals. I stayed in the car with the bags while Stef went to check prices and rooms. By the time he came back ten minutes later I had been subjected to a continual flow of "for $40 I'll take you to Montanita where there are nice hotels and lots of people from Europe and America". I tried to explain that the reason we were in Salinas is because there are only Ecuadorian people here but I think he chose not to understand.

20050726_P_00560
At Salinas

Stef came back victorious. He had bargained hard and we have an apartment (en-suite bedroom, lounge/diner, kitchen with no stuff in it and no cooker) for less than the other hotels and we have great sea views too. He had haggled them down from $100 to $50 a night. By the time we had dumped our stuff it was about 3pm and we headed down onto the beach to enjoy the rest of the day.

As with much of the coast in Perú it is very cloudy and overcast here but it is also still quite bright. Salinas sits in between two bays with a yacht club in the middle. The club is private so you have to go through town to get from one bay to the other. On our side, the road runs along the bay and there are restaurants, hotels and apartments (most people here stay in apartments not hotels). The other bay is a bit smarter, the beach is deeper and the apartments front the beach. At the end of the second bay is a military base and two soldiers are on guard on the beach stopping people from going into the military zone.

We paddled through the water, dodging the funny shells like the ones we had seen in Máncora and the odd crab. Stef went in for a swim (really a float) while I dodged the hawkers on the beach selling jewelry, wooden cars and whale watching trips. It was a lazy way to kill an afternoon. No matter what nationality people are, time spent on the beach is the same the world over - sandcastles, football, paddling, chilling out. There are jet skis here and big inflatables being towed through the sea.

The downside of being somewhere at low season where most people stay in apartments is that there are not many places to choose from for dinner. Most were very quiet and did not look too great. We ended up back at the first hotel we had looked at. Our meal was OK but expensive for hat it was - especially as the seafood was more expensive than the meat!

We asked back at the hotel about bus connections up to Puerto Lopez. This drew a blank stare and then information that was immediately contradicted. Oh for the love of centrally accessible, accurate information!

20050727_P_00130
Hauling the catch at Salinas
20050727_P_00140
Happy on the beach

We had a slow start. I had spent an our or so yesterday typing up diaries and did some more this morning. We had breakfast in our room overlooking the bay while we did more bits to bring the website up to date. There is an internet connection here so we will probably spend today updating the site then move on tomorrow.

Despite this being on the best hotels in town (Casino Calypsso) their internet connection does not work!. We found an internet cafe, our diaries went through OK but the connection was too slow to do pictures. Then disaster struck twice. Firstly our website crashed. Stef tried to check with our web host to see what was up but could get no information. We still do not know what was wrong but after twenty minutes or so it had sorted itself out so it must have been a problem at their end.

The bigger disaster was our flights out of Quito. We checked availability on American Airlines website. Some seats are free but not many. We called to reserve places only to be told that for our OneWorld tickets there is no availability until September! This is not what we had bargained on. Neither of us want to be in Ecuador for another month. We were told that we were put on standby and that all we can do is check with the Quito office, or go to the airport each day to see if there is space. The problem seems to be partly because our itinerary has us making this flight on 1st September (we're early because we did not go to Bolivia) but also because it is a busy route with Americans on holiday. American Airlines only hub through Miami so we cannot even change our flight plans to go a different way. When we called to check the latter Stef spoke to a different person who was more helpful and who thinks we will probably get flights without a problem. They have booked us onto the Miami-Montreal leg so at least we will not get stuck in Miami.

This was a bit of a shock to us, not just because of the immediate problem but also because it has taken away some flexibility. It means that we need to book future legs much further in advance than we want to, neither of us want to time box what we do in each country. My sister Beccie got a running update as this was happening - it was about 4pm UK time when we were online and we we're mailing each other for a while. I finally had to tell her to go and do some work!! It was great to have an online chat though.

We spent the rest of the day lazing on the beach. I was offered the usual collection of local stuff, including the wooden cars (they grow balsa wood near here and make all sorts of household bits). They were also today doing a line in what I reckon must have been dodgy CD's. Stef tested the water again and this time did something that could pass for swimming rather than just floating.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped for a drink and decided to go for cocktails. Our of the four we had between us, none of them tasted as we expected them to. A little squiffy by this time it seemed, as we ambled along the beach, like a good idea  to stop for another drink before we ate. Playing safe with a beer we ordered two and got two plastic cups that I reckon held a litre each and a small glass glass to drink it from. Common sense had well and truly gone by now and most of the beer was drunk. This was one of a very few boozy nights since we left home and neither of us really enjoyed the feeling - we really are getting old!!

20050728_C_00050
Bus to Puerto Lopez

We were up a bit earlier today as we wanted to check mail before heading on to Puerto Lopez. We had mailed Travelbag yesterday to see if they could help with our flights out of Quito - no joy, we are at the mercy of American Airlines.

It was lunchtime before we were ready to move on. As usual we struggled to get information on buses to get us there, the receptionist at our hotel seems particularly not with it. We headed to Libertad in a taxi hoping for a connection. Libertad is a small, dusty town with a small but chaotic Terminal Terrestre, central bus station. There are people selling fruit and drinks and generally lots of people milling around.

When our taxi stopped were were mobbed. People came from everywhere to "help" us. We were told which bus went up the coast but Stef went to check if there were other companies to while I kept watch on our bags. There was only the one bus. It was a chicken bus - the nickname we have given to the clapped out buses used by the locals who usually have live chickens on board with them. Goozing is another new word, invented when the blister on my face in Riobamba was oozing goo!

As we are on the Ruta del Sol, the main coast road, people are again surprised that we are not stopping at Montanita. One guy, with a t-shirt implying he was from a tour company, was particularly pushy and we were suspicious of him. We could not work out which people were from the bus company and which were not. Our bags were locked away, we got on board and were then told, by the tourist guide guy, to get off again to buy tickets. We were both wary and I stayed by the bus fully expecting it to drive off with our bags on board. It did not and for some reason Stef could not buy the tickets at the terminal anyway. We bought them on board having checked with some of the other passengers what the fare should be so that we knew how much Gringo Tax to expect.

We were told by one person that the trip was ninety minutes, another said two hours. In fact it was closer to three hours. For most of the trip we were in view of the pacific. The beaches here are narrow and either the sand is grey or, as in Salinas, they are suffering from pollution on the beaches. When we were walking along the beach in Salinas and the tide was coming in I had to hop onto some dark grey sand. When I walked on I had a lump of oily tar stuck to the bottom of my foot.

Even though we are near the coast the area is still tropical forest. Lush vegetation, with poor people living in bamboo shacks. We passed tiny villages along the way, too small for either Stef's map of Ecuador or for the maps in Lonely Planet. When we passed Montanita we were both glad we had not stayed there. It did look like a typical small fishing village but too typical. It looked very stage managed for the tourists.

Puerto Lopez was slightly bigger but not much. The bus slammed to a halt at the junction near the market and we hopped off. Tourist guide guy was actually helpful here and got us a moto taxi, motorbike rickshaw, to take us to our hotel. From the look on his face the $3 we were charged had a hefty gringo tax included. Our hotel, Hosteria Mandala, was just north of town along the dirt track road along the beach and past the fish market. It is run by a rather strange Swiss (her) and Italian (him) couple who both look like 1970's hippies who have never made it home.

20050729_P_00320
In the jungle (hotel gardens)

It was a bit like Madre Tierra in Vilcabamba and Yacutinga Lodge in Argentina. A main lodge full of wood and rustic charm is the heart of the hotel. They have lush gardens and in those are set a number of bungalows, pretty basic but comfy and functional. The hotel restaurant, which gets good reviews in Lonely Planet, is closed so we knew we would go into the village for dinner. They only have a room for one night and they helped us to make a reservation at the Hotel Pacifico for tomorrow.

We are certainly in the tropics here. It is humid rather than hot. We headed into town along the beach as we need to pay a deposit to secure our room for tomorrow. The beach here has sand that is almost brown. Its quite wide but suffers from the national problem of litter, not much but enough to be noticeable. Crabs scuttle away back into their holes as we walk by.

The Pacifico initially tell us they are full for tomorrow but a different lady came along who knew about our reservation. While we were sorting the room a young Dutch couple came in. They are not staying here but have arrived with little cash not realising there is no cash point in town. They were trying to find somewhere to get a cash advance, they have no travelers cheques either, not that that would have helped here. We helped them out and exchanged some dollars for euros - our good deed for the day! It may also help us in Canada as there are a couple of small islands off the coast that are French so we may need Euros there.

We wrote diaries for a while, Stef won again at cribbage and then we ambled down the bay to find somewhere to eat. Our Lonely Planet first choice, Restaurant Carmita, was full - not sure if this was due to the quality of the food or the fact that it is in the book - so we carried on to the Picanteria Rey Hojas. Here we had a very simply meal, a beer and some water all for the stunning price of $9. Before we left home we have been joking about the cost of an average meal in Ecuador. This one was cheap but it brings the average down to around our expected £10.

20050729_P_0123
Fred, what happened to your head?!

Today we have booked on a tour to go whale watching and to the Isla de la Plata, known as the poor mans Galapagos. We were ready to go at 9am but a sign at the hotel said it was not until 9:30 so we headed back to our room for a while. We were then surprised to see the hotel owner running down to room to tell us the tour was waiting for us.

We jumped into the waiting moto-taxi which took us into town where we paid for the tour and the entrance to the national park. The taxi driver was berated by the tour guide for keeping the tour waiting. We were then rushed down to the beach, shoes off, trousers rolled up, waded through the water (only knee high) to get on the boat, one of several going the same way. As the last on we got stuck near the front with less open space around us for views.

The usual safety preamble was given but disconcertingly they told us not to move about the boat, and when we saw whales not to all go to one side of the boat, as it would affect its stability! There was a mix of people on board - local Ecuadorians, French people, a group of Germans and Americans, one of whom was an attention seeking female who was irritating all day. We later found out that privately we had both hoped she would topple overboard as she leant out the windows without her life jacket on. Unfortunately she did not give us the pleasure.

We did see humpback whales but they were as bit thin on the ground (or in the water!) compared to the expectation that had been set. This is meant to be prime whale watching season. Mostly we got views of flippers, "the arses of whales" Stef kept saying. By the time cameras were ready to go the whales had gone. One did do a full blown arc out of the water running parallel to the side of the boat and only about ten metres away. We also had one pair swim towards the boat then disappear, they must have swum underneath us.

At the island there was time for a quick trip  to the loo, a piece of banana cake and some water before we were off. The hotel had not really explained what would happen on the island, and as we had come for a whale watching tour we had not asked. There are walks here, all accompanied by a guide. The climate is hot and very humid and the pace for the walk was fast. At the end of a steep uphill but the group split into two. We carried on up to the high point of the island from where we had great views

Along the way we passed blue footed boobies (a type of bird for those of you who like me before this trip have not got a clue what they are), so named because their feet are pale blue. The male and female both make odd sounds and they are very territorial birds. They mark their territory with their droppings and are aggressively protective of their space. We saw pairs starting to get pretty angry with each other. They are used to visitors and happily amble around very close to passing feet.

We also saw a couple of albatrosses and a few masked boobies. No sea lions and no lizards (except for one tiny one). I had expected more wildlife but expect the scarcity is why the "poor man's Galapagos" title has stuck. The islands name, which means Silver Island, comes from an old tale that Sir Francis Drake buried treasure here so that his ships would sail faster around South America. No treasure has ever been found. It could just be a tale or it could be that the treasure has been swept away by the strong tidal currents here.

We learnt a bit about humpback whales but I have been slack in keeping my diary up to date. Its Sunday as I write and I cannot really remember what we were told. A very fast and very hot "march" across the island took us back to the boat. We had no idea what the hurry was for. Turned out it was to ensure there was time for people to go snorkeling for twenty minutes if they wanted to. Some did but not many. We were then whizzed back to Puerto Lopez.

It had been quite a long day, we were back at around 5:30pm, and we were both hot and sticky. One the beach we got talking to a British couple who were asking if the tour was worthwhile. We arranged to meet them for a drink later then headed off to get our bags and check into the Hotel Pacifico. This was totally different too Mandala. Madala was rustic charm, no air con. Pacifico was tiled, white, clean and cool with a spacious room, air con and a small pool in the garden. It was a deliciously cool way to end the day.

20050729_P_0163
Hauling the catch at Puerto Lopez

Even though the hotel was smart they had kept true to Ecuadorian building form. Everywhere you look things seem unfinished. Mortar between bricks is just squidged out and not smoothed off, windows do not fit, walls have gaps. Even here where most of the building had been plastered smooth and painted, there was one whole wall running the stretch of the hotel that was left unfinished.

Showered and changed we headed off to meet Martin and Annie. They are from Ilford and are traveling and doing voluntary work for two years, both on sabbaticals from work. They started in Venezuela and have just finished two months at a school in Itacunga teaching (for the first time) English to the local kids. They are then heading down through Perú, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile and may also go to Uruguay and Paraguay.

We spent the evening swapping stories and experiences of where we have been, what we have seen and where we are on to next. We headed to Carmita's for dinner, pretty much the same fare as last night but more expensive.

For us it was a late night. We got back to our hotel at eleven-ish. On the way we passed a house with lots of chairs lined up outside on the road. They had been arranged as if they were in a church and I had half expected to see some sort of religious ceremony underway, especially as the door to the "disco" had now been closed (the flashing lights were still visible) showing that it was church affiliated. It was not a religious ceremony as such. In the front room of the house was a large, ornate coffin decorated with flowers. The people on the road outside were obviously mourners taking part in a night time vigil. It would have made a great photo but I do not think we would have been popular if we had taken one.

20050730_P_0179
Backbone of the Ecuadorian economy

We had an early start today. The alarm went off at 6:00 but I was awake well before then. We are on the 7:0 bus to Quito. Neither of us are really looking forward to it because it is an eleven hour trip but it is a direct bus and the best option. We toyed with breaking the journey at one of the towns we pass along the way but no-one has spoken highly of them so we reckon we have made the right call by just pushing on to Quito.

The hotel has not "woken up" by the time we left at 7:00 so I knew I was in for a morning of Stef saying he was hungry. He had overdosed on the chili sauce last night and has slightly dodgy guts which I had to remind him of when he went in search of food in the local market that was just starting to wake up. Ecuadorian buses have an unusual quirk. The better ones have a loo on board but it is always locked. Usually requests to use them are denied, you have to wait until the bus stops at a station. As such, my policy has been to avoid eating or drinking anything that is not pre-packaged, sealed and hygienic. Stef is not so cautious.

Being a Voogd and following the same trait as my Mum and my sisters we were at the bus office before the bus and thirty minutes before it was due to go. We got chatting to a girl from Scotland. She has been in Ecuador for six weeks on a project and is now at the end of an eight day holiday she tagged on to the end. She is reluctant to go home and no doubt will come back.

The bus arrived and we got on board. Our tickets were checked at the door of the bus and then again on the bus before we could sit down. Why? - no-one knows. There is absolutely no way that anyone could have crept on to the bus without the first ticket person seeing them so it must simply be a job creation scheme.

We would round, down, up and along the coast and up through valleys. At the coast there is dry tropical forest. This changed to humid forest, cloud forest and then finally to pampas as we reached the highland of the Andes. The cloud forest reminded me of Darjeeling, although the clouds here were more dense. The road was clear in front for about twenty metres, then, and looking down into the valley it was just a white wall of cloud.

At the first main town we had to change bus. The first one was not as smart and comfy as we had hoped and it also have a very dodgy sounding clutch. They must have realised it would not make the trip, hence the change. The second bus was better and much more comfy. And of course we had Steven Seagal to keep us company along the way!

After a few hours my neck and shoulders started to get stiff. Bu the end of eleven and a half hours, the time it took to get to Quito, my legs had also seized up. Unlike any other bus we have been on in South America this is the only one where no vendors have been on board selling food and drink. We had water and dry biscuits wit us but by the end of the trip we were both starving and I was also a little light headed. We can both feel the altitude here if we move too quickly.

We took a taxi to our hotel dropping off the Scots girl on the way. Stef had been chatting to a local man on the bus and he helpfully showed us where we were on the map (the bus stopped at its own office rather than the central terminal) and where we needed to go. It was five minutes to where the Scottish girl was staying. It was dark and she was going to walk there. With her backpack marking her out as an obvious foreigner we both thought she was asking for trouble.

Our hotel, The Vieja Cuba, was a bit further on. It is an old converted house. We had a really warm welcome and have a lovely, homely room. Its light and airy, simply decorated and is really comfy. We chilled for a while and then hunger got the better of us. At reception, now manned by a young Cuban guy whose Spanish was so fast even Stef could not follow it, we asked about the Cuban restaurant linked to the hotel. We thought it was on the same site but its two blocks away. We had passed it in the cab and knew where it was but he sent someone with us to show us the way. We thought it was odd but our "guide" was friendly and we chatted away.

Our meal was tasty, very garlicky and rounded off by a scrummy piece of chocolate cake. As we left, one of the waiters ran after us and told us to wait. We were then escorted back to our hotel by a security guard. We thought it was a bit over the top as we could clearly see where we were going, there was lots of traffic and not many people wandering about on the streets.

Rural poverty has brought more country people to the city and with that crime has increased. The new town area where we are staying is a prime area for muggings and tourists are the main targets. If we are out after dark we have been advised that we need to get a cab even for a short distance. Lonely Planet does say this but generally it is written by Americans for Americans and we have found that they over the hype the Dangers  and Annoyances sections of their books. No doubt they are concerned that if the do not warn people not to walk along dark alleys alone at night waving their travelers cheques around they will get sued if people get attacked. Having had this advice from the local people here too though we will take heed.

Knackered, we crashed out.

20050731_P_0205
Conquistadors were here

I woke feeling very stiff. My legs are still resenting yesterday's long bus ride. Our bed, though comfy, is also solid and not helping to ease the aches and pains. We spent the morning catching up on diaries and uploading information onto our website. We have a free, but slow, internet connection in our room. The shower here is the best so far. The water pressure is too high to have it on full pelt. My oohs and aahs prompted Stef to ask me if I had someone in there with me. It is one of those that is so good you could just stand for hours letting the water pound your body.

It was about 2pm before we finally made it out. We headed to the centre of Quito's old town, now protected as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. The earlier cities were destroyed by the Incas before the Spanish got their hands on it so the centre is colonial Spanish in style. As its Sunday, traffic is barred for most of the day so it is easy to amble around. The downside of it being Sunday is that most places are closed so it is really just full of people passing the time of day.

We followed the walking tour in Lonely Planet, taking in the Plaza de la Independencia, home to the Governors Palace and Cathedral, and then went up to Plaza San Francisco. One side of this square is taken up by a church and monastery. The church was very ornate inside, again prompting mutterings from me about the wealth of the Catholic church. We headed down and past the Museo de la Ciudad heading for La Ronda, the oldest colonial street in Quito. Lonely Planet said the area was a bit dodgy but being improved so we though it would be OK, but not so. A security guard from the museum car park told Stef to put his camera away. Another passer by told us not to go into La Ronda so instead we went up onto a bridge to take pictures of it.

As we did this a lady in the street was waving to us and motioning for us to go away. Stef, oblivious, kept preparing his camera shot. Behind us I could also see the security guard watching us and still being wary. We back tracked to the museum, still being told by the security guard that it was dangerous and to put our camera away. He did not leave us until we were back at the museums main entrance. Apparently the area is still not safe and it is common for armed muggings to take place.

I found this disturbing and a bit hard to believe, so did Stef. It looks no more dangerous than Montevideo, Lima, Asuncion or London but obviously not. We were cautioned to only walk on streets where security guards were present which somewhat limits your options. We rejoined the Lonely Planet guided walk (no security in sight!) but it was getting close to 5:00pm and even more places would be closed. We felt it was too early to go back to the hotel and headed back to the main square.

The square was probably more full of people now than it was earlier. Both a bit unsettled by the security warnings we decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel after all. On the way to get a taxi though we saw an empty horse and cart and decided to go for a ride. It was a totally tacky tourist thing to do but it was a laugh, especially when the horse almost took out a policeman. The route pretty much took us around what we had already walked but it was still fun.

Back at the hotel we asked for a recommendation of where to go for dinner. Rincon la Rona serves typical food and is in the book (Lonely Planet). It is two blocks away. We will be escorted there and will have to get a taxi back! We asked if it was really necessary and were told that it was too dangerous for us to walk alone. There are a couple of restaurants opposite and two doors up from our hotel. We reckon we would be escorted there too!

We spent more time trying to get the website up to date and then headed out. A taxi took us to the Rincon but it turned out to be pricey and somewhat more formal than we were after. Stef sneaked a peak in through the door and decided it was not for us. We went back to the hotel to ask for another recommendation. The night cap at reception was not much help. All he kept saying was "its Sunday and lots of places are closed. I do not know where you can go." We ended up back at the Cuban place we went to last night. More garlicky food! My tummy is still rebelling from yesterday's garlic. It was quiet in the restaurant last night (odd for a Saturday) but even quieter tonight. For most of the time we were the only people in there.

We were escorted back to the hotel and crashed.

Gelukkige Verjaardag Mama!

20050801_P_0010-lieve-mama
Gelukkige Verjaardag Mama!

We are hoping that today is our last day in Quito. At breakfast we got chatting to an American/Australian couple. They are travelling for just a few weeks now but are planning a longer trip also. We swapped travel tales and information about Quito and the surrounding area. Our plans for the day were similar and we bumped into them again a couple of times during the day.

Our first stop was the equator. This about 20km north of Quito and they have built a small theme park to mark the spot. El Mitad del Mundo is a bit contrived. You pay $1.50 each to get in. There is a collection of shops and eateries surrounding the main equator monument. Running up to this is a red line painted on the floor which marks the north-south divide. We took a couple of photos before heading for the monument itself.

Here it costs another $3.50 each to get in. You can go up to the top so you can get views down onto the equator. There is not really much else to see at the top and it was also very windy and dusty. The way down takes you through a small museum giving information about different indigenous people in various parts of the country. There are lots, each seeming to inhabit only a very small area. Their traditional lifestyles are changing with the introduction of modern farming techniques and western clothes and culture. No doubt some of the benefits will be offset by the loss of traditional rites, customs and beliefs. We were set to send postcards with an equator post stamp but the post office was closed so there were no stamps and hence no postcards.

We then went on to the Inti Nan museum a couple of hundred metres up the road. This is, by global positioning satellite, the true equator (give or take half a degree or so to keep the US army happy - they do not want people to know the exact position of the equator as they can then accurately target US sites!). They talked a bit about the local people and how they had identified that this was the true equator long before European scientists came on the scene.

Here they did a couple of little experiments to show that this was the true equator. At the equator, water draining from a sink flows straight down. In one hemisphere it spins anticlockwise, in the other it goes clockwise. Only problem is that I cannot remember which way round it is and I cannot be bothered to think it through!! It is all to do with centrifugal forces and gravity. These are strongest at the poles and weakest at the equator. To demonstrate this the guide tried to pull our fingers apart. This was easier to do on the equator than just to either side. I think we both felt he just tried harder when he was not on the equator. The final experiment was to try and balance an egg on a nail. Neither of us could do it but the guide could.

Also at the museum they had a couple of typical houses. Made of bamboo and mud they were more spacious inside than I had expected. Even so they were still not large. Until the age of twelve, children sleep in the same bed as their parents. Twelve is the age at which they become adults. They go through a ceremony where they are given hallucinogenic drugs. This seems to be the process through which they determine what role they will have in the community such as farmer, warrior etc. There was also a little handicrafts shop. For the first time we saw a little demo of them spinning the yarn they use to make cloths and rugs. They also had a loom set up to show the weaving process. No patterns are made, the weaver simply visualises what they will do and gets going.

20050801_P_0049
Looking down onto Quito

Heading back into Quito, we stopped off at the Teleferico and Parque Volcan. It is new, only three months old, so it is not yet in the guide books. There are parts that they are still building. As its name suggests it is built on Volcan Pinchincha. There is a small fair, go karts, lots of places to eat, a few gift shops but the main attraction is the cable car up to the top of the mountain. From being hot in the valley it was cold and windy at the top. We shared a car with one of the staff who pointed out some of the sights of Quito along the way. At the top there are paths to follow and the adventurous can keep going up to the crater.

The views of the city from here were incredible. Quito is a huge sprawling mass. Slap bang in the middle is the airport and we watched the planes take off and land. We thawed out in a cafe at the top looking out across the valley and seeing the clouds below us. When we headed back down we got the Teleferico bus back into the centre. They have really thought this through and have three of four different bus routes to make it easy for people to get to and from the amusement park.

Having had lunch at the Teleferico neither of us wanted a meal so we popped into the local supermarket to get bits for a picnic supper. Tomorrow is a hellishly early start so we wanted to be in bed by 8:00pm. By the time we had packed (it still takes Stef an hour to do his pack - aaarrrggghhh!) and had a sandwich it was already past 9:00pm before we got to bed.

Our last day in Ecuador has been totally touristy but really good fun. Overall we have enjoyed our stay in South America. We have generally met friendly people (both locals and other travellers) along the way and have been to some incredible places. Things I will not miss are men using any street corner as a public urinal, high altitude and having to put your used loo roll into a bin next to the loo rather than flushing it away!!