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Published: August 15th 2019
Refugio Carrel (4800m), Mt Chimborazo
Greetings from the Ecuadorian Andes! A small city called Riobamba, to be exact, where I am currently spending two nights before heading to the Ecuadorian capital of Quito tomorrow. I believe I last wrote having just reached the end of my amazing Galapagos adventure, I still feel so touched by these beautiful islands and their natural inhabitants, the spectacular wildlife. Indeed, I think my experience there will stay with me for a while. Since then, I spent one night in Guayaquil again, enjoying the luxuries of a four-star hotel, and in fact what was more welcome, the super-fast Internet connection. I was able to upload all of my photos from the Galapagos Islands (and there were many!) onto my OneDrive cloud, freeing up much-needed storage space again on my laptop for more photos. I had a comfortable night, and on Sunday morning I began my final leg of my South American journey this year, a foray up and along the stunning Andean mountain range of Ecuador towards Quito. I have now been in the Andes mountains in all countries they run through, from Argentina to Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and now Ecuador! They are still glorious here,
and the journey up from Guayaquil to my first port-of-call, Cuenca, was like taking off in a plane – once we were up in the mountains, you could see across the vast plain upon which Guayaquil is situated on, completely covered in stratus clouds, just like you see after rising above the clouds in a plane. It was a lovely introduction to the mountain scenery which has dominated my travels these last few days.
So my first stop was the lovely city of Cuenca, where I stayed three nights with a delightful family in their delightful BnB-style accommodation, although it actually felt more like a homestay. The family was a lovely couple, so helpful, warm and welcoming, and their two grown-up children. I was in one of the bedrooms on the first floor, the two children each had a bedroom either side of me, and the parents were upstairs in the attic. It was really quite a unique and special place to stay, perfectly situated just off one of the banks of Cuenca’s main river, the Tomebamba, which runs right through the centre. It is also a short walk from the city’s historical, old colonial centre, and a short
walk from the more modern delights of a fantastic food court in a nearby shopping centre. This has pretty much been a near-perfect place to stay.
Cuenca is a delightful city of around 350,000 people, situated on a relatively flat plain surrounded by Andean foothills on all sides. There are three small mountain streams which run through the city, all coming together to the east of the centre to flow as the main river of Tomebamba, and the urban area is also dotted with numerous clusters of tall, evergreen trees. The climate is most agreeable, being about 18 degrees during the day, and a welcome relief from the heat of Guayaquil and parts of the Galapagos. It is famous for its colonial centre, founded by the Spanish in the 1540s on the site of a thriving Inca city called Tomebamba, or “Valley of the Sun”. A domed cathedral, numerous churches and plentiful plazas grace its tranquil heart, situated on a bluff of land overlooking the rushing Tomebamba river below. It is quite delightful.
Upon arriving and making myself at home in my lovely room, I spent the rest of Sunday just wandering its colonial heart. However, with Sunday
Me, Laguna Llaviucu
Parque Nacional Cajas
being the day after Independence Day, pretty much everything, including the churches, museums, travel agencies and souvenir shops, were all closed. This was actually a blessing in disguise, as in many parts of the city I had the place to myself, with very little traffic and very few people. I didn’t actually miss being able to visit any of the churches or museums, although I did find it a bit tricky to arrange a tour for my first full day there, on Monday. In the end, I was able to arrange a day trip by WhatsApp-ing with a local tour agency whose offices were closed, but who advertised an out-of-hours number which I contacted, to the nearby, and really quite stunning, Parque Nacional Cajas.
So on Monday I joined a small, quiet Spanish family of three, with a guide and driver, to head west of the city, up and into this high-altitude National Park. Cuenca is around 2500 metres above sea level, and having gone from around 0m in Guayaquil to 2500m so quickly, I did find myself a bit short of breath on Sunday. Our tour took us to 4000m, at a place called the Three Crosses, which
Travelling Up the Andes
View over the plains and Guayaquil below, minibus journey from Guayaquil to Cuenca
is probably a record for me – 0m to 4000m within 24 hours! Despite being a bit short of breath going uphill, and having a slight headache, I think I coped quite well. Our first stop was a comparatively low lake, Laguna Llaviucu, at 3000m. We walked around this stunner of a lake, surrounded by forested mountains, with our guide giving us some interesting information about the flora and fauna of the park, which is home to pumas and bears, amongst other animals. We also came across my first llamas and alpacas on this trip, and I was so excited to see them again – definitely a hallmark of an Andean adventure, and I hadn’t seen them in the wild since my first travels in South America in 2001. After this, we were driven to the highest part of our visit, the afore-mentioned Three Crosses, for a very windy, cold and wet 15 minutes of contemplating what is actually a watershed between rain which will flow west into the Pacific, and rain which will flow east via the Amazon and eventually into the Atlantic. I am so glad now that I had the foresight to pack my thermals back in
London. Having lain dormant in my backpack for four weeks now, and having often questioned myself during this time as to why I had brought them, they were an absolute blessing during this day trip, and I’m sure will continue to help me as I move on to Quito. The temperature, with the wind chill, was around 2 degrees. Our guide told us that the road passing here, linking Cuenca with Guayaquil, and upon which I had unknowingly travelled the day before, was only constructed about 40 years ago, actually on the remains of an Inca trail. Before this, travellers used to travel along the Inca trail and over this pass, praying at three crosses erected there, combining newer Christian beliefs with older Inca beliefs, to represent the underworld, the earth and the heavens. In Inca culture, the underworld is in turn represented by snakes, the earth by cats including jaguars and pumas, and the heavens by birds, including condors. They prayed for a safe passage, although apparently a number of people died of cold on the journey.
After this, we began our final hike, at around 3500 metres, starting at another stunner of a lake, Laguna Toreadora, and
heading across pure “paramo”. At this altitude, trees don’t usually grow, and the vegetation is composed of grasses and all kinds of unique and intriguing alpine plants. I’m not sure that there is a direct translation of the Latin American word “paramo” into English, perhaps similar to “highland” or “moors”, but it refers to a typical Andean highland or plateau area, with sparse vegetation and a cold climate. Our walk through the paramo was stunning, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were not many uphill climbs fortunately, as these left me out of breath very easily, and I took many beautiful photos of the lakes, mountains and sparse vegetation up there. Following this, we were driven to a local eatery, where I enjoyed a delicious pork chop meal accompanied by a sugar-cane based alcoholic drink – very nice! And upon being driven back to Cuenca, thus ended my first amazing full day in the Andes mountains.
Well, actually, not quite. Something which has excited me for a long time now about visiting Cuenca has been the opportunity to purchase my very own Panama Hat. The world-famous white straw “Panama” hat is actually a misnomer, as the headpiece in fact
originates from Ecuador, and is here called a “sombrero de paja toquilla”. The “paja toquilla”, or toquilla palm tree, grows abundantly on the coastal areas of Ecuador around the town of Montecristi in the west. After the straw is painstakingly prepared on the coast, much of it is transported to Cuenca and surrounding areas where it is woven and shaped into the Panama hat many of us are familiar with. The misnomer apparently came from the 19th
century, when Spanish entrepreneurs working on the Panama Canal saw the virtue of these light-weight, easy-to-carry, sun-blocking and waterproof marvels of headwear, and wore them abundantly. Thus, although the hat was famously worn in Panama, it originally comes, and still does, from Ecuador, mainly Cuenca. So upon arriving back in Cuenca after our Cajas tour, I headed straight to the Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla, which was closed the day before, and purchased myself a beautiful, $30 Panama (Montecristi, or sombrero de paja toquilla) hat! I’m so pleased with my purchase :D
On Tuesday I had the opportunity of taking another tour by the same tour agency to nearby Ingapirca, but in the end decided to do it independently and by
public transport. I am so glad I did, as not only did I save a bit of money, I also got to experience another incredible event on this amazing South American journey – a real, indigenous (Inca) ceremony, with just myself and a number of leaders of local indigenous communities, and no other tourists – amazing, and how fortunate!
Ingapirca is Ecuador’s most famous and most intact Inca site, and although not a touch on Machu Picchu, is considered Ecuador’s equivalent. The ruins are two hours away by public transport, and I left the bus terminal at 9am along with a number of other tourists. When we got there, there was a lot of traffic, and the bus couldn’t go all the way – we had to walk the last 500m. There seemed to be some kind of local event on, as there were many groups of “cholos” and “cholas” arriving, the local South American word referring to traditionally dressed indigenous people. It can actually be used as a bad word, like calling someone a “peasant” in English, but it can also be used simply to refer to countryfolk, usually indigenous people. These are men who usually wear a
dark hat, leather jacket, dark trousers and shoes, and the more conspicuous women, who wear bowler and panama hats, brightly coloured shawls, and large, bell-shaped skirts that stop at the knee – they are also almost invariably rather large in size. There were many such people gathering here, and many people waving the Inca Flag – the rainbow-coloured representation of the Inca peoples and their modern-day descendants throughout Andean countries. It seemed as though something was happening. I left the crowds as I planned to first tour the complex, and then return and see what was happening at the main gathering just outside the entrance to the ruins. Upon arriving at Ingapirca’s main attraction, the near-intact Temple of the Sun, I saw the crowds and their flags in the distance approaching, and noticed that on the top of the temple were some people who had constructed an amazing Inca cross out of fruits and flowers, and were seemingly preparing something ceremonious. A man then blew a conch shell, and the crowds continued to head towards us. It seems I had inadvertently stumbled upon a modern-day Inca ceremony – how amazing! When the crowds approached the temple, the police formed a
barrier, and only let certain people in. I decided to stay put, on top of the temple, and consider my amazing fortune of being just in the right place and the right time to witness such an event, there were no other tourists there apart from me. I did check with a couple of people whether I was ok to stay there, and they welcomed me very warmly.
For the next hour or so, I felt so honoured to be able to witness this. It turns out that this was a ceremony to inaugurate the newly-elected president of the government organisation in charge of indigenous communities in Ecuador, nothing less! The newly-elected president himself was there, along with leaders and representatives of around six other indigenous Andean groups. There were also about three shaman-looking people – a gentleman who seemed to be in charge of the music (the conch shell, maracas, and a drum), a lady who seemed to be the main shaman-priestess type of person making offerings, chanting, blessing people and so on, and another lady who spoke in Spanish, perhaps her translator, as I believe the first lady was speaking in Quechua, the Inca lingua franca. After
some drumming, I was amazingly able to video something that really left me astounded, I had never seen anything like this before, it was nigh-on miraculous. The music man was leading the people in prayer to the four cardinal points in turn – after the fourth cardinal point, he pointed upwards, and everyone lifted their hands upwards, and literally, literally, at that moment, the sun appeared from behind the clouds. It was as if the clouds parted to allow the sun to shine through at that very moment. This had hitherto been a very cloudy day, raining with a very strong wind. It was a very serious “wow” moment for me, and I’m so amazed I caught it on video. I’ve tried to upload it onto my Facebook page, but it seems I’m going to need stronger Internet connection to do this, so may have to do it when I’m back home. It is something I think that has to be seen to be believed, I felt like I had witnessed a miracle.
After this, the group leaders were invited to place something that they had brought with them, a staff, a sword, a club and similar things, in
the middle of the Inca cross, after the shaman-priestess had opened a “door” in the outer border of it for them to enter through and leave from. After all items were offered, the lady seemed to bless the objects with water she had chanted over and with for quite a while, and then sprayed it on the people around using long, black feathers. The newly-elected president was then invited into the Inca cross through the door, stripped to the waist, and then beaten with large-fronded leaves, presumably to excel all the bad energy from him. He was then coated with the blessed water, and finally the people threw petals in the air over him and there was much celebration and jubilation. He then went to the edge of the Temple, there were many people watching from below, and there was a great cheer and applause from the crowd. It seemed he had been successfully initiated.
We were then invited to each take a flower and a fruit away with us, from the Inca cross, and offered some kind of maize-fruit drink, which I was offered twice and was asked to drink all that I was offered. Along with a
banana, the flower I chose was a red rose, and I was later told that this symbolises “love”… Another amazing thing was that for much of the ceremony, the sun was out over us, over the Temple, but there were dark clouds all across the rest of the sky towards each horizon, and the rest of the temple complex was covered in shadow. When the ceremony ended at this point, it actually went dark as the clouds covered the sun once more and the wind grew even stronger, blowing all the remaining petals left behind after the people had taken the flowers and fruit of the Inca cross, across and off the temple building. It seemed to happen at exactly the same point that the ceremony ended – I noted this with a gentleman next to me, who quite matter of fact-ly said that the sun had gone as the ceremony was over. Amazing, and again something I think that had to be seen to be believed. After this, everyone walked back to the original starting point, for there to be an afternoon of singing and dancing. However, the time had come for me to take my bus journey back
again, and contemplate just what a unique, special, and really very fortunate experience I had just had.
In addition to the amazing, seemingly-miraculous appearance and disappearance of the sun just at the right time, I also felt really quite touched in being able to notice and feel the sincere camaraderie that the indigenous people appeared to have amongst themselves. I have to be honest, that with my previous travel experiences in South America, and also thus far on this trip, I had always found the “cholos” and “cholas” quite odd, and didn’t quite understand why they would still want to dress in this way, standing out profoundly from those around them, and not wanting to blend in with everyday, modern life. If I’m continuing to be honest, I may also have taken quite a widespread local view which also looks down to some extent on these people. I felt absolutely touched to have seen them from a completely different angle now, so proud of their culture, of themselves, of their dress, their language and their customs. I really believe I felt the very positive energy of these people, and their still-existent connection to the pre-Hispanic ways of life in
this part of the world. What an amazing experience, and what a blessing – I believe I will remember this for years to come.
After a quiet evening back in my delightful “homestay” BnB, and saying goodbye to my lovely hosts, I took a six-hour bus journey the next morning heading north across the Andes range, towards my current stop of Riobamba, where I am currently writing this from. I planned to stay here to not only break up the long ten-hour bus journey between Cuenca and Quito, but also to hopefully catch a glimpse of the nearby mighty Mt Chimborazo. And indeed that I did, and I’ve had a really enjoyable time here in this provincial city.
So after the long six-hour bus journey, which was quite spectacular as it skirted many Andean mountains with huge valleys extending out below, I arrived in Riobamba and checked into a gem of a lodging here – the Mirador de Bellavista. This is a small guesthouse with around six rooms – quiet, peaceful, with some of the most attentive accommodation staff I have ever encountered. The building is quite unique, and filled with solid wood furniture and antiques throughout, and
if the clouds cleared, I believe my room would also have a spectacular view of Chimborazo. After checking in, I took a walk around the centre of town, passing through the provincial outskirts where my lodging is located and noting that this is quite a dusty, provincial, off-the-beaten track town. After Cuenca, which has a number of tourists, this was a relief as I really do love exploring off-the-beaten track places, to see how the people in a country really live. This was definitely the kind of city to do that in. After walking several blocks full of dust, non-descript graffiti-covered walls and many barking dogs, I arrived in the centre of town, with some really very beautiful squares, churches and colonnaded walkways. This was the historic centre of town, founded originally in 1534 by the Spanish to replace an Inca settlement initially established here. It is also famous for being the place where the nation of Ecuador was born, when Ecuador’s first constitution was signed in 1830 and when relations with the Spanish motherland were broken. Despite its importance and beauty, I was just about the only tourist walking its streets, and I enjoyed the walk very much. Amongst
many interesting places, I came across a lovely local market area, and bought myself three typical Andean hats of the same design but different colours, and a local poncho-shawl made of alpaca wool I believe. I then enjoyed a delicious savoury pancake at a local creperie for dinner, and returned to settle in for the night in my lovely guesthouse.
And today has also been quite an exceptional day, another one which I won’t forget for a long time I think. I arranged a day tour with the godson of the lodge’s owner, Daniel, to visit the massive hulk of the nearby Mt Chimborazo, and a short visit to a small, indigenous mountain village nearby called Salinas. After not being able to catch a glimpse of Ecuador’s highest mountain the day before due to cloud cover, the clouds just about broke this morning to allow a magnificent view of this great block of a mountain. Mt Chimborazo is in fact an extinct volcano, with three peaks in total, and standing at 6267 metres, is Ecuador’s highest mountain, although only the 39th
highest mountain in South America! Yet because of its location close to the equator, and due to the
lateral bulge of the earth’s shape, it is actually the closest point on earth to the stars and the sun! I was looking forward to seeing it, and this morning I was able to do just that. Daniel, my guide and my driver, drove us towards the mountain and onto the first refuge up the mountainside called Refugio Carrel, at 4800 metres. Here, we left the car, and hiked a “short” kilometre-long route 200 metres higher up, and onto the Refugio Whymper, at 5000 metres. Back in 2001 on my first South American adventure, I remember experiencing an altitude of 5000 metres in Chile for only a few moments, and found it tricky due to the lack of oxygen at such a height. The mountain hike this time was a real adventure and challenge for me, and although I found it difficult, I was so glad to have reached the Refugio Whymper. Daniel said that most of the travellers he takes there actually don’t end up making it to the top, due to the lack of oxygen up there and related symptoms as a result, such as difficulty in breathing, headaches and dizziness. It was also a very, very windy
day, and Daniel also said he’d never seen it so windy. This meant that the walk up was not only difficult due to lack of oxygen, breathing heavily and taking many breaks on the way up, you also had to fight against the wind to maintain your balance. It was so strong that it could have easily blown me over had I not fought against it, and a couple of times it nearly did. The strong wind also carried large amounts of sharp, mountain dust, which stung the exposed skin, and would have been even more difficult had I not brought my sunglasses. It was really a challenge, and I think I impressed both myself and Daniel when we both made it to the top. Unfortunately the refuge was closed at the top, despite the people at the first refuge telling us that it would be open. When we returned, I noted this observation with the person in charge of the first refuge, who said that someone had gone up an hour earlier to open up – this was clearly not true, as we were there only 15 minutes earlier. Because of his awful attitude, and his implication that I
was a liar, I decided to make a complaint at the park headquarters, and put it all down in writing – I found it very lax of the people to leave the place locked, when people like myself needed somewhere to relax after such a difficult climb – dangerous even. I think I made the right decision to make a formal complaint, and the person on duty actually seemed happy to receive it, as I’m sure he would have also found the situation dangerous for hikers such as myself.
Anyway, it was an amazing experience. Coming back down was easier than going up as the breathing was much easier, but still difficult with the wind behind us this time, making it much easier to slip and fall on the slippery scree. We both made it back down without falling down. It was an amazing experience. And upon arriving back at the first refuge, the mountain literally clouded over at that moment and stayed so for the rest of the day – how fortunate we were! I believe it was Daniel, the guide, as he says he has always been able to view the mountain when taking tourists on this
trip – well done Daniel!
After this, we drove another 50 km or so along the paramo, then down again into a lush, round-hilled valley, and back up to a small, indigenous village called Salinas, spectacularly located at the foot of two steep-sided walls which seemed to create a gorge above the settlement. The town is famous for having become a successful co-operative for the making of locally-produced cheese and chocolate, after an Italian missionary called Antonio Polo visited in 1971, noted the dire poverty of the people living there, and desired and succeeded in changing it through the establishment of this co-operative. We visited the main co-operative shop in town, where we sampled various (delicious) cheeses, hams, and alcoholic drinks. If I could have bought some cheese and taken it safely back to the UK I would have done so, but I don’t think this would have been a good idea. Instead, I bought a small bottle of “Licor Crema de Café” to enjoy at some point back in Croydon, along with my piscos from Peru 😊
After lunch in the village, we journeyed back through the valley, and along the paramo again, this time spotting some
vicunas by the side of the road, and stopping for a short photo opportunity. After this, we drove back to Riobamba, I said goodbye to the fantastic Daniel who was a very interesting person, and a very calm, relaxed guide, which suits me well. I have just had a shower to try to wash off all the mountain dust which accumulated during our mountain hike, although still seem to have some in various places…! I’m currently writing this blog entry up, and am planning to have a very relaxed rest of the afternoon and evening in my lovely room in this fantastic hospedaje.
Tomorrow I take my final bus trip on this journey, four hours further north to Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. I have thoroughly enjoyed my days so far in the Andean mountains, which has added even more variety to this already very varied and adventurous trip. I am booked into a modern hotel in Quito for four nights, to give myself enough time to explore the city and surroundings, but also to have time to start winding down now towards the end of this trip. I plan to write up my next one towards the end of
my time in Quito, in a few days’ time.
So until the next time, thank you for reading (I understand it is a long one), and all the best.
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