Sunday, 31 July 2011

Ecuador: You suck


Back in '94 on my 1st south American odyssey my money ran out in Quito and all i remember of the place was trying to find a cheap flight home (if your interested Aeroflot were the cheapest). The 30 minute taxi ride from a northern bus station to “gringo new town” wasn't jogging any memories.

I had booked an en-suite room at the Posada del Maple for 5 nights but when i got there they only had a room for 2 nights, with a shared bathroom! On Sunday i moved to the Huauki hostel with an en-suite room for $4 less per night. One of the bonuses of the new hostel was that it was just across the road from Finn McCool's Irish pub.

I had a very long ”weekend” in Quito and apart from a two hour walk around the old town and a quick ride on the cable car i think you all know where i was. I could tell you some stories but they're better told propping up a bar!

On Wednesday afternoon i went to the small village of Mindo, a two hour bus ride away. I thought hanging out there till Sunday would be a good break from Finn's.

Even though the bus passed through some epic landscapes i ended up dozing off for 20 minutes or so. After two hours the bus reached Mindo and when i picked up my day-bag it felt wrongly light! My laptop, two cameras, iPod, head torch and $45 in cash had all gone.....and nobody on the bus saw a thing!. The bus company staff didn't give a shit (I’m guessing that to them it's nothing new) and then this Euro trash woman who owns a hostel in Mindo started to give me advice of what i did wrong. My rage was being directed inwards so i didn't turn round to tell her to..........

Two hours later i was still raging on the inside and i walked into this little 1st floor bar. I got a beer, sat down and carried on seething. Then the landlord did something that soothed the raging storm within. By track 3 of ZZTops greatest hits on video i was wearing a rye smile and thinking to myself that after 4 years on the road to have been robbed only once wasn't that bad...mind you it wasn't that great either.

The next morning i had a brainwave, it was time to get back with my baby. Emails were sent and plans made and if all went well i would be holding her in my arms within a week. The place i was staying at had a hammock and a couple of books to read.....

Wednesday 10th of August

I’ve been back in Quito now for 10 days waiting for DHL to deliver my baby (which is a Nikon D200 camera by the way). Its been stuck in customs all this time but hopefully today it will turn up. When it does I will have to pay $144 for the privilege (bloody import tax).

So, it looks like I’ll be “robbed” twice in Ecuador.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Queuing makes me dumb



The bus ride to the border passed through epic scenery but the views ended when I got to the frontier. A short queue at the Colombian immigration resulted in an exit stamp and then I walked across the bridge and into Ecuador.
Once at the Ecuadorian immigration I stopped. Every 10 minutes or so I would shuffle forwards a few feet. 90 minutes later the nice man behind the glass printed a visa in my passport and I was now officially in Ecuador.
I was out of the door and back in the fresh non queuing air. I needed to get my hands on some of the local currency which happens to be US $ these days. Now I don't know about you but after queuing for more than 10 minutes my brain hits the power save button and shuts down. It takes a while to reboot! Anyway, I was changing my pesos for bucks and it came to $35. The man gave me $30 in paper and a $5 coin. I know what you're thinking “there's no such thing as a $5 coin”. The very small part of my brain that was working through the fog of “I've been queuing” was shouting loudly “that's not a $5 coin, it's only worth 50 cents” over and over again.
It wasn't till I was in the minibus several minutes up the road that I heard my inner voice. Queuing for more than 10 minutes never ends well for me....
By the time I had reached the town of Tulcan 3kms up the road it was 1pm and I didn't feel like spending any more time in a bus. Cue cheap hotel next to the bus station. Tulcan is famous for......
The next morning I was up early (I've been doing this for weeks and weeks now and it's starting to really bug me) and following the usual breakfast I was on the 8am bus to Ibarra, 2.5 hours down the road. The reason I was going there was to take a train ride down and up a narrow river valley. 
By midday I had found a fantastic little hotel two blocks from the main square. At the nearby crossroads was the tourist information office, so I headed straight there. The lass behind the counter spoke English and after the usual pleasantries I asked the question “is the train running?” She looked at me with big puppy dog eyes and said “yes but not till September” Noooooooo!!!!!
Oh well, there are still 4 more train rides to take in Ecuador...maybe?
We chatted for a while and it looks like I turned up at the right time after all. This weekend in a nearby village is a big “once a year festival”, the town of Ibarra is celebrating the 188th anniversary of the battle of Ibarra and on Sunday at a nearby race track is a round of the Ecuadorian super bikes.
In the evening I was bimbling around the town wondering what to eat when when I stumbled across the Caribou restaurant. I can personally recommend the smoked pork chops!
The next morning I woke up, looked at the clock....seriously, why??? I mean 05:25 is just such a wrong time. By 9am I had dropped of my laundry and was having breakfast at the Olor CafĂ© in the main square, great coffee and nice ash trays. After breakfast I wandered around a few squares in the centre of town before walking the few kilometres west to a small archaeological museum. The museum is on the site of an Inca sun temple and although small it was worth the walk. Nearby were some old Inca ruins (my 1st since 1994) or as I like to call it “some stones lying on the ground behind a barb wire fence”.
The next day was Saturday and after a 3 cup breakfast I got the bus to the small village of La Esperazna. It was 13kms uphill from Ibarra and it was cobblestones all the way! The small village has one road, a church, a few shops and surprisingly a hostel. The guy that runs it does trekking tours to the nearby mountains and volcanoes.
The festival of Inti Raymi happens once a year in the village and lasts for 3 days. The action didn't kick off till the mid afternoon so I had time to kill. I killed the time by drinking beer and various kinds of local hooch made from fruits, vegetables and other kinds of plants. As one guy said “its best not to sniff the drink, just down it in one”!
This carried on till the party started in the yard next to the church. Music was blaring out, food and drink was being sold and the old people were sitting down watching the children dance. The basic dance was to “shuffle around” in a circle and at various times change direction. So, it was a dance so simple that even I could do it.
As the afternoon progressed more people filled the yard, more empty whiskey and rum bottles filled the bins and then it was time to do the “chicken dance”. Thankfully it wasn't the 80's dance classic but I think the chickens wished it was. The dancers went around in a big circle swirling the chickens as they went. The yard was packed out and everyone was having a good time.
Then from the outside even more dancers came in, singing loudly and waving their chickens in the air “like they just didn't care”. Masked men were whooping and jumping around and as the evening mist rolled in the band went hard core. 
It was at this point a young man shoved a chicken in my face and told me to kiss it! Apparently it's a tradition!!!
My list of “things I've never done and never want to do” just got shorter!
The party carries on late into the night but back in Ibarra they were having a party to celebrate the the 188th anniversary of the Battle of Ibarra. So I counted my chickens and decided to head back to town. 
The taxi dropped me off in the square just in time for the firework display. The town's brass band were playing large, Latin style and in my semi-drunken haze it felt “all right man”
The next day:
My head hurt!!!! 
It took a while to get out of bed but finally my need for coffee came over my lethargy. Four cups later I was able to fully open my blood shot eyes.
I made it to the racetrack 20 minutes before the 1st bike race. The location of the track was fantastic, on the shores of a lake surrounded by mountains, volcanoes in the distance and paragliders in the air.
The bikes went on their warm up lap and it was then I remembered how loud they were. My head still hurt so I decided that even though it was only 11am what I really needed was the hair of the dog.
Mmm beer: the cause and solution to all of my problems.
There were two classes racing, each having 2 races each and by the end of the 2nd race I needed another beer. Damn, it tasted so good!
Eventually the day's competition came to an end and I spent the rest of the day lying on the bed back at the hotel watching tv.
Monday morning came around and as I only had a 30 minute bus ride to the town of Otavalo I took my time. Otavalo is famous for its artesian market, the biggest day of the week being a Saturday, which sells all manner of high quality tourist tat.
The town is small (45000 people) with a couple of shop lined streets linking the two squares, architecturally its not that pretty but it has a good vibe. It also has a least one restaurant that does a “nay to bad” pizza. After the disasters in Colombia it was great to have a meal that contained the 3 basic food groups served in a circular fashion.
The next day I took a taxi ($4) to the Parque Condor 5kms up the side of the nearby mountain. This place is a rescue/rehabilitation centre for various Andean raptures including condors, obviously! In the various enclosures were several examples of the different species found in the South America Andes and they also do a free flight demonstration.. The bloke started out with a little kestrel and ended up with a huge grey hawk.
I was lucky enough to be there when they fed the two condors, food gets in the way of friendship!
Leaving the bird sanctuary I walked downhill enjoying the views of Lake San Pablo. After a while I crossed a small river and decided that as it was going downhill I would follow it. A few kilometres further downstream the river became the tourist attraction of the “Peguche Waterfall”. From there I followed the path along the steep sided valley till I hit tarmac and then walked back into town.
On Wednesday I went to the nearby town of Cotacachi, famous for its leather products. If you ever need a jacket, shirt, waistcoat, boots or a handbag made out of leather then come here! 12Kms from the town is the crater lake of Cuicocha which was the main destination of the day. The pick-up ride uphill to the lake only cost $5 and the entrance to the national park was a bargain at $2.
The crater is at 3000m and was impressive, the lake was big, the water clear and the 3 small islands in the middle an unusual feature. Towering above the lake was the mighty Cotacachi mountain, its snow capped peak reaching up to 4939m. For $2.50 I went on a boat ride on the lake and around the islands, then I walked up the path to the crater rim. At the lookout point the 360 views were great.
I left the lake and started walking back down the road. After about a mile I left the tarmac behind and followed a dirt road that travelled in-between two narrow canyons. A few miles later the dirt was replaced by cobblestones and at this point the road crossed a dried out river bed. You can guess where I walked next.
Following the course the wet season water would take it led into a narrow and twisty canyon. Eucalyptus trees lined the sides and their leaves rustling in the wind was the only sound. Later on I turned a corner to see that the dried up river bed was no longer dry. Water oozed up through the earth and within a few hundred meters the trickling sound of water filled the canyon. The further downstream I went the wider the stream got till at last I had to take off my boots to wade across, then it got quite boggy in places.
Eventually the canyon widen out and became a small valley. The land was fenced off and cows (with testicles) roamed free. I climbed out of the valley and walked along a dirt road to the small village of Quiroga and a bus back to Otavalo.
Today is Thursday 21st and I am a lounging. Tomorrow I'll be back on the road, in a bus heading to Quito.