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Published: April 8th 2008
Caja´s national park
Lakes, mountains and boggy walking give it a very Scottish feel, but at 4,000m altitude.
On to the final country of the trip then and into Ecuador the hard way. From Trujillo, it was 3 separate bus trips, totalling 24 hours, to get the city of Cuenca on the Central highlands route through Ecuador. Unfortunately, bus comfort deterioates into Ecuador so it was no comfortable bus seats to sleep on for us. Instead pretty hard seats, that didn´t recline much, accompanied by that much loved South American synthesiser music and 1970´s Mexican musicals on the TV at full volume. Although all of this was interrupted by a 12:45am border crossing at a mosquito infested river with border guards who really would rather not have been there at 12:45am!
Still, we made it in the end to Cuenca, our first stop in Ecuador. Cuenca
Cuenca is another beautiful colonial city (Do i not say that about every city i have been through in the last month?) in the South of Ecuador. Its got a big spacious square with not one but 2 cathedrals competeing for the title of Cuenca Cathedral. One is huge and a bit like Notre Dame in Paris, while the other is older and smaller, but no less pretty.
general feeling around the city i found to be more relaxed than some of the Peruvian cities. People generally seemed to be really friendly and also very proud to live in their city. Aparently there are about 4 universities in the city too, so people are pretty well educated here compared to most South American cities.
Surrounding the city there are also loads of huge mansions that have been built. This is very different to anywhere else i have seen outside of the big cities. A guide we had told us its because huge numbers of Ecuadorians head off to the land of free (US of A) and live the dream, work hard and send lots of money home. But these are really big houses here......It definitely doesn't just come from working in Starbucks!
Helen and I spent 3 days in Cuenca in total. One of them was spent visiting the nearby Cajas National park. We hired a guide for the day, who turned out to be really excellent and hugely knowledgable. Not just about the area, but about Ecuador and any other random topic we brought up. (He even asked how Gordon Brown has been getting on
Zumbahua Saturday market
I'm just nipping out to pick up a few bananas!
as Prime Minister.....like we would know!)
The park itself is lovely. Very Scottish in feel with big rocky peaks, lots of water filled bogs and a few lakes. Of course, like everything here, its also at some ridiculously high altitude, somewhere nearing 4,000m. The thing we both really like about the park was that we didn't meet anyone else through our whole day walking in the park. The place felt really quiet and isolated. Oh, and the rain stayed off as well.....an added bonus in this part of Ecuador.
We also liked Cuenca a lot because we found a really nice cafe / bar called Cafe Ecualiptus. It was very relaxed, served really great food (From all around the world, including a sushi menu), and had live music both nights we went. It amazing how little things like that can change your impression of somewhere. We are so shallow! Cotopaxi Province
After Cuenca, we hopped on our last long distance South American bus. This was a breeze at a mere 8 hours through the daytime, and it gave us some great views of some of the Ecuadorian volcanoes on the way up through the spine of
Quilotoa crater in the morning
Having spent the night on the edge of a volcanic crater, gives a new urgency to the question "Did the Earth move for you?"
the country. We travelled as far North as Latacunga, a stop to give us a chance to do some walking around the Cotopaxi Volcano.
Cotopaxi is a perfectly shaped cone volcano, with a nice big dollop of snow on top. Depending on what you read, it may or may not be the worlds highest active volcano, and may be the worlds only permanent equatorial glacier (Do you like the way i am nice and accurate with the facts here!)
Whether these were true or not wasn't going to change our desire to go walking on/near it. So we hired a guide, had another early start, and spent the day walking up to the foot of its glacier, at 4,800m. The volcano itself is actually 5,897m high, so we were still well below the summit of the mountain. Like many of our days in Peru and Ecuador, the cloud was back, obscuring our view of the volcano for most of the day. However, for around 20 mins, on the drive up to the start of our walk, the weather did clear, giving a spectacular view of the mountain towering above us.
The walk itself was also a great
The steep side of the crater
With turquoise lake at the bottom, not pit of bubbling molten magma
walk, over the lava field surrounding the base of the volcano. Gradually we would watch the vegetation reduce as we climbed higher, eventually reaching the snow line. The mountain looked so easy to climb right up to the top from there, but we quickly forgot the altitude issues, avalanches, lack of a tent..... Although we are both very keen to have a crack at getting to the top of the mountain next time. Its a 2 or 3 day climb. In the next blog from here, hopefully we will give it a go. Quilotoa Circuit
From here we moved the short distance to travel around some of the Quilotoa circuit. Quilotoa is an ancient volcano caldera that has collapsed in on itself from previous eruptions. All that is left in place of where the volcano was, now, is a huge volcanic crater which is 2.5km in diameter with very steep crater walls falling down 300m to a turquoise lake below. The circuit is a journey that takes around 3 days, taking in some of the villages near to the crater, as well as spending a night at the crater edge itself.
Our first night (Friday night) was
At the base of the Volcano Glacier
Did you know its the worlds only permanent equatorial glacier? Not a lot of people know that.
spent in the village of Zumbahua. This was a 2 hour bus ride into the circuit. Although not an especially exciting village to stop, our main reasons for coming here were two-fold. Firstly, there is a Saturday morning market and we wanted to be in the village to arrive early at the market. Secondly, the guidebook filled us with excitement by stating "In the small village of Zumbahua, Friday nights are for drinking and dancing". What more invitation did we need?
So out we went in our fleecy gladrags, looking for the excitment on offer. Well i have to say, Footprints has let me down yet again. 2 circuits of the main town square revealed 2 small shops with 3 locals in each, drinking and playing cards, a game of equi-volley in the main square, and two dogs humping on the corner of the square.
"Still", we thought "After dinner, it's bound to liven up". We went to one of the two restaurants in town. "What's on offer?" we asked. "Set menu only tonight" we heard. "OK, set menu, so what is it" we thought, what delight could they serve up? A bowl of soup to start and
a main course of boiled rice and tinned spagetti. Washed down with a cup of Nescafe. Now if i could get Gordon Ramsay to go to any kitchen in the world, that one needs to get sorted out. However, how can i complain too much when the bill for 2 of us came to $2.50!
After that filling meal, it was back out to the town sqaure where still no drinking or dancing seemed to be occurring, but the dogs had stopped. Disappointed in our lack of partying, we sloped off to bed at 9.30pm!
I have to say, the market the following morning did live up to expectations. It was full of bright colours, lots of noise, animal slaughter and the other fun things you expect on a Saturday shopping experience (except the charity collectors).
From Zumbahua, we moved on to the village of Quilotoa to spend the second night. This is located right on the rim of the crater, in a really spectacular location. Although being at an altitude of nearly 4,000m, it was also very cold at night. However, the view down into the crater made up for any cold. We walked right down
into the crater to the edge of the lake, and also clambered back out, up the steep sides. The pictures should really give an idea of how amazing this place was.
On our final day of the circuit, we walked for 5 hours to get to Chugchilán. This was through some beautiful valleys, but some punishing uphills towards the end of our walk. It was Easter Sunday and an absolutely beautiful day with the sun beating down on us. As we neared Chugchilán in mid afternoon, we noticed a few more locals around, some of whom looked a little unsteady on their feet. And then, as we came right up to the village, we were met by a man and woman supporting another woman who was so drunk she couldn't even walk.
This continued until we reached the main square of the town, which was total carnage. It seems, in the village of Chugchilán, the way to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus is to get paralytically drunk and stagger around the square, looking for more alcohol. Hallelujah!
Despite what was going on in the main square, we found an absolutely lovely place to stay called
The scenery on the walk from Quilotoa to Chugchilan
Ruptures in the ground caused by the last volcanic eruption of Quilotoa
Mama Hildas. And here we had our first really good food in 3 days, first hot showers and life was good again.
And from there it was back to Quito the following day to spend the last night in South America there, before the early morning flight out to Miami and the final 2 days of the trip.
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