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Crossing the Andes ... to the Brazilian beaches Nine months through Ecuador, Peru, Chile, bolivia, Argentina and Brazil


ECUADOR | Sunday, 17 December 2006 | Views [1255]

Quito - Old Town

*starting out in the Capital*

Rain.  Lots of rain.  There´s about 4 hours of clear sky in the morning.  On good days.  I take my Spanish classes in the afternoon and wake early to see some sun and leave the hostel ...

I visit the cathedral and climb to the top of the bell towers -  a rope bridge across the ceiling then a vertical climb up fixed stepladders.  Surrounded by nothing.  Health and safety officers would have a field day.  Only there are none.  A great view of the city from the top, including the blue hearts painted on the roads (signifying a fatal accident) and the policia at a ratio of about 1:1.

Mountains surround the city.  I take the cable car up to 4100 for a mini trek in prep for a full day climbing Guagua Pichincha volcano to 4800m.  Proper hard work on the old lungs.  And legs. And everything else.

Given that Quito is right on the equator I figure I should see the official monument, built by the French who miscalculated the precise location (can´t win em all darlin!).  It´s pretty dull and mega touristy. I head up the road to the Quechua museum on true equator line and get myself a bit of culture.  Shrunken heads, blow pipes and alpaca everything.

Bosque Nublando - www.reservaloscedros.org

*10 days volunteering in the cloud forests, research project tracking the endangered brown headed spider monkey*

Woken by fat naked german man going to the bathroom in the hostel in Quito.  Another good reason to leave the capital.  It´s a 4 hour bus ride north to a tiny little town called Chontal that has about 12 houses, a shop selling wellies and other supplies, a small cafe, and a Kareoke bar.   Just the essentials.  Then a 4 hour trek to the reserve.  Mules take my bag but I´m forced to carry myself. 

Arrive in the middle of nowhere, a million miles from civilisation, surrounded by primary forest and ´nature´.  I have my own room that I share with 2 gigantic cockroaches and a couple of moths from one of 900 species in the area (some of which I confuse with birds).  There is a hot/cold shower - 100oC or 0oC - and the toilet reminds me of the drop holes at Glastonbury. A private version.  It´s luxury really.

Spend most days trekking into the forest to look for the elusive monkeys.  Forest is spectacular.  Inadvertently end up falling in rivers and sliding down steep muddy trails comically nicknamed ´Mount Doom´.  I learn not to trust the big stones in rivers even if it means the river ends up in my wellies.  There´s also a bit of real work to do digging ditches and clearing trails.  I don´t think I´m made for manual work.  Our `day off´ includes swimming in the river (freezing) and baking chocolate cookies. Chocolate. Mmmmmmmm.

Spend most evenings watching movies in Spanish and reading my dictionary.  Simultaneously.

No sightings of the spider monkey.  But we do run into an Andean Spectacled bear having lunch in a tree.  I proper cack myself.  Pull out my tiny pink pocket knife to arm myself for defence as Sara aims her camcorder (Canadians are made of sturdy stuff)!  Amazing sight, although when he starts climbing down the tree we leave sharpish.


*Some christmas shopping*

Really cute little town and nice friendly people.  Including the guy playing the bamboo saxophone who lets us take his photo then insists on exchanging e-mail addresses.  Market day is really colourful and not the tourist hell I was expecting.  Get fully into the swing of bargaining down prices and end up with more than will fit in my backpack.  Tempted by hog roast for lunch but it´s a little off-putting with the pig staring me in the face.

My first experience of dancing to tradition live music with local dudes a foot shorter than me.  Drunk dudes.  I excuse myself after being belted across the head once too many times.  We try out the opening of a new club.  I am 10 years older than most people in there.  And stand out like a drag queen.  We leave and are escorted home by one of the local strays (dogs not men).


*Thermal spas in the mountains*

I arrive in the rain (so far Ecuador´s climate is pretty much like Southport).  Spend the afternoon sitting in hot thermal waters chatting to a very beautiful couple from Quito.  Suddenly realise I´m talking in Spanish.  I congratulate myself.  The clouds disappear to reveal the picture postcard around me - lush green mountains and the snowcapped volcano in the distance.

I attempt to spend a day trekking across the mountains to see the lagunas.  There are no marked trails but I´m unphased and the wilderness is stunning.  I end up climbing down steep hillsides, through rivers and across marshland, finding myself face to face (almost) with 2 wild deer who´ve obviously never been shot at with a rifle.  I admit defeat and turn back when my options come down to rock climbing or cliff diving.


*Jungle/river treks*

The ´walk´ through the jungle includes a 20m climb up a waterfall wearing a bikini and wellies, and swimming in plunge pools and lagoons. The mosquitos target my arse - the only part of me not covered in 100% DEET. Cunning little buggers.  Learn a little about the medicinal plants and construct a roof slat using a palm leaf.  I´m ready for anything now.

After a night sleeping in cabañas in the jungle, we have a pleasant day out on the river.  On grade III rapids.  With helmets and life jackets.  I lose count of the number of times I´m thrown out, mainly by the English boys who seem to find much amusement in it (ok, mainly Dave).  


*Angry volcano*

We hire some bikes and take a downhill tour of the waterfalls.  A fairly easy ride bar for the road tunnels without lights which I ride through wearing my sunnies.  Never ride a bike in the dark.  The main waterfall, Pailon Del Diablo, is pretty big and impressive but I´m holding out on awe until I get to Iguazu. 

Trout for lunch.  Which we catch ourselves.  Lolita, Liad and Nir get lucky straight away and then watch the fish take the banana (!) from my line and swim away.  Maybe the fish were making a statement about my vegetarianism.  Which is lost on me.  Loli and I eat fried pig for lunch the next day.

We hire a quad and jumpfrog through the town with my foot on the brake. Attempt to go up the mountain to get a view of Tungurahua volcano but stopped by a road block and then the clouds set in.  I attempt with the boys the next day, via an almost vertical 3 hour scramble to the top.  Stop at the statue of the virgin for a breather and then continue up, rescuing a cow from a ditch on the way.  Still no view.  Head down and treat ourselves to the most expensive hot chocolate in Ecuador as we finally get our view of the volcano spewing ash.

Nariz Del Diablo / Cuenca

*Scenic train ride*

2 hour bus ride to Riobamba, night in overpriced hostel, 2 hour bus ride to Alausi ... then catch the train for a 45 minute round trip in the mountains.  Sit on the roof.  I feel like a proper tourist.  The dutch guy next to me is making an amateur video so I have the pleasure of being able to watch it through his camcorder.  The view is nice but very similar to that from the window of my seat on the bus.  Except there is a sheer drop about 10 inches from the edge of the rails.  Impressive engineering. Or stupid.  I get sunstroke and spend a further 5 hours on a bus to Cuenca.

Nice city.  Bit of a cosmopolitan feel to it.  Catch a Christmas parade of kids dressed as angels and sheep. And 4 sets of Maria y Jose.  The Queen of cuenca leads the parade into one of the big impressive looking churches. She´s about 20 and the most western looking Equadorian I´ve seen.


*time to relax and unwind* 

My first day of relaxation includes a 2 hour guide of the area on horseback led by the local cowboy.  My horse likes to race the others so I get my first experience of cantering. And galloping. 

My second day of relaxation is a 4 hour trek to the highest point in the valley. At times we´re walking along thin trails with bottomless drops to either side.  I develop a mild fear of heights and do a lot of it on my arse.  When we get back to the hostel I learn that 3 people fell to their death on the trail in the last year.  Maybe I am becoming a superhero.

I give it one more shot and start the morning of my third day with a massage.  Decide relaxation isn´t for me so catch the night bus to Peru.

[Whilst in Vilcabamba, I attended a very emotional little benefit concert for a lady who went missing whilst travelling in Baños. Her husband and son both played, and talked about her disappearance.  You can read about Jenny at www.jennypopeappeal.org]

Tags: On the Road


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