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The Inaccessible Andes

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

After Baños, we were ready for a quieter place. Cities and towns of all sizes here are very noisy. So we headed off on what the guidebooks describe as the Quilotoa loop, basically just a series of mountain roads roughly making a circle through some fairly remote regions. Our destination, Chigchulán, was only about 80km away from Baños as the crow flies, but required about 6 hours by bus, not counting the 30 minute delay while they added branches to shore up the mudslide so it could be driven over.

As it’s quiet we wanted, we were not disappointed. We opted to stay at a fairly pricey ecolodge called the Black Sheep Inn (Fairly pricey in our case meaning it cost $65/night for the two of us in a shared room with full board.) It was an amazing setting. The inn was about a kilometre from town, which only houses about 100 people anyway, so it was fantastically quiet, and from everywhere – room, balcony, bathroom, yoga room, outside, etc… – you could see across a lovely canyon and set of plateaus, all green, except two peaks you could see in the distance if it was extraordinarily clear.

Our first day there, we got ambitious and attempted a hike. The directions they gave us described it as about 2-1/2 hours to the cloud forest. It turns out that hiking uphill when your starting point is over 10,000 feet high is tiring. After 3 hours, we were about 2/3 of the way to our goal, and we decided it was time to turn back. No cloud forest on this trip, unfortunately. We did get some rewarding views. We tried coming back by a different route – taking a path up over a ridge the overlooks our inn, which was marked as an easy hike on the map – and managed to get ourselves lost. We could see where we wanted to go, but couldn’t figure out how to get there. A wrong turn took us down onto private property immediately above our hosts’, but the owner was of the opinion that it was his trail and we were not going to cross. So we had to climb back up to the top and try again, ending up on an extraordinarily steep slope that was no good for Kathy’s ankles (and knees, not to mention Neil’s paranoid fear of heights!).

The next day we were not so ambitious. I finished my book, and we walked over to watch the sheep and chickens in the yard.

Getting into Chigchulán is much easier than getting out from it. The busses going there leave from Latacunga at 11:30 and 12 every day, arriving around 3:30-5pm. The busses leaving go at 3am and 4am, and 5am on Wednesdays. We are not morning people. So we splurged and spent the $30 to hire a truck to take us as far as Zimbahua, where there is hourly bus service back to Latacunga, which is on the Panamerican Highway. We also threw in a stop at Laguna Quilotoa, one of the famous things to see in Ecuador. While the view there is also fabulous, I wouldn’t mind sticking to the postcard. The lake is a volcanic crater, and the rim where the hikes start is about 14,000 ft above sea level, and it’s pretty inhospitable up there. Icy cold and windy. So we ended up skipping our intended hike, though two others from our hotel were doing the whole 6-7 hours around the rim, which seems nuts to me. We did, however, buy ourselves some alpaca wool scarves, and a sweater for Kathy.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt guiltier about a purchase. Normally it’s the price that bothers me, but I felt what we paid was fair. But I’m at a loss to understand why touristy places always feature long rows of stalls of maybe 10 or 20 people all selling exactly the same thing. One woman didn’t have a sweater in Kathy’s size and a colour we wanted, and ended up almost begging us to buy something from her. It made me feel terrible, but at the same time, you can’t buy from everybody, so what can you do.

We’re back in Quito now, after yet another long day of transportation. There’s many lovely things about Ecuador, but I have been frustrated that no matter how far apart things are, it seems to take about 6 hours of tiring bus travel to get to where you’re going. From here, we’ll try to do a biking trip to Cotopaxi on Friday, and on Saturday night we fly home.


Adventures in a New City

Monday, January 26th, 2009

We awoke today to pouring rain. Pouring.

The rain stopped around 10, about the time we stepped off the most sardine-packed tram I have ever ridden in my life. But that’s part of the adventure. We wandered around Mariscal Sucre, also known by some as Gringoland, or the tourist district. Travel agencies abound! We were in search of one, though one in particular that had been recommended. We did inquire at the travel agency located in the hostel, but didn’t think the offered deals were really great.

We ended up at the Galasam travel agency, where we booked our Galapagos cruise – 4 days on a first class boat, for $700 USD each. That was a much better deal than others we’d seen, albeit a day shorter than we were hoping for. I think she said regular price for this was $1300. She offered us 8 days, which would have been great, for $2200 each – and that was the last minute deal. Ouch.

So we leave for the Galapagos first thing tomorrow morning, will spend a couple of nights on our own on a couple of the islands (there are local boat ferries between some), then hop on the cruise on Friday morning. Yay! We’ll also get one extra night on the island of San Cristobal at the end, and fly out from there.

We’ve also changed our plan a little bit, in that instead of flying back to Quito afterward, we will instead fly to Guayaquil, then maybe make our way over to Cuenca, which we initially thought we wouldn’t have time for. From there we’ll head north, making our way slowly back to Quito. There is the possibility of a brief jungle excursion, but we haven’t figured that out yet.

After the travel agent, we wandered about Mariscal for a bit – very different from the old town, and more… European. Not nearly as distinct or unique or interesting, not to mention more expensive. Spent some time in a botanical garden. Nice, but nothing special. Ate lunch at the mall – it was close by – the neat little places that are found in the old town are harder to find near Mariscal.

Later in the afternoon, we made our way back to the old town, to try and cash our traveller’s cheques (the cruise deal was cash only – draining our reserves). The one bank that had been recommended wasn’t able to do it, so she told us to go to another bank. 20 minutes in line later, we were told they couldn’t do it – go to the cash exchange. Well, if we’d known the banks couldn’t do it, we would have started there, but we were hoping to get (and were told we could get) a lower change fee. Oh well. All in all, it wasn’t too bad. A lot of people everywhere, but not very pushy. And people are helpful, despite the language barrier. We can understand some of it, and can mostly communicate what we need, but there are still situations where all we can do is look confused.

We took several cab rides today (one sardine experience was enough for me for one day, and we don’t think we can figure out the buses). They are easy to get, and cheap. So far, it’s been a pretty easy experience. Nothing overly challenging, though maybe a bit frustrating.

So we’re off to Galapagos tomorrow! We’re not sure what internet facilities will be like – I know they are plentiful on Santa Cruz, but we’re going to try to get the ferry straight to Isabella, and there I’m not sure.

So basically, if you don’t hear from us for a few days, don’t worry! (though you probably will hear from us)


Kathy has completely neglected to mention much about our wanderings on Sunday. Basically we just went out for a walk in search of lunch, and ended up wandering the old city for most of the afternoon. Eventually our wanderings took us past an irresistable smell. Lunch was extra cheap – $1 each – but the crab soup that Kathy ordered ended up just having half a crab sitting in it staring back at her. I went for the somewhat less adventurous pork chop with rice, and was pleased with that decision.

Sunday is biking day in these parts. I’d heard a lot before about Bogota’s experiment in closing the streets to traffic on Sundays, and Quito has a toned down version of that. There are still some cars out – and of course busses and taxis, naturally – but a lot of the lanes are open only to cyclists. Loads of people participate, making walking almost a little hazardous. There’s watering stations all over the place, and we saw one tent that looked like it was free bike repair.

It’s been great here so far, and we’re sure excited about the islands tomorrow


Oh, yeah – and I bought a coconut from a guy with a wheelbarrow full – I thought I was going to eat it, he’d peeled it and everything, but instead he stuck a straw in it, and I had coconut milk! 😀