News from South America 4. Ecuador 2

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October 30th 2011
Published: October 30th 2011
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The Inca Site
News from South America 4

Ecuador - Cuenca, Quito, The Centre of the Earth and Bellavista Lodge in the Cloudforest

“Where are you off to?” my ever-smiling doctor asked when we went for our jabs before leaving home. “Peru? Wonderful!” she exclaimed. “You must get to see the Cock-of-the-Rock when you’re at Machu Picchu.” We didn’t know she liked our feathery friends until then, but we did know she had a point. The Cock-of-the-Rock is the National bird of Peru; it’s big, the size of a crow and bright orange, but we failed to find it in the rainforest around Machu Picchu though we searched the most likely spots with recent recorded sightings. “They’ve moved up into the hills to breed,” our guide there informed us. Let’s hope we have better luck in the cloud-forests of Ecuador. We’ll be there later in the week.

Just now we are on our way to Cuenca, stopping off en route to see Ecuador’s priceless Inca archaeological site, the elliptical Temple of the Sun at Ingapirca, or Inca’s Wall, 1,200 miles north from Machu Picchu in Peru and built by the Incas when they occupied the area in the 15th Century. Our preconception of the Incas was of an ancient civilisation, the mammoth proportions of their buildings reminiscent of the scale of Roman or Greek architecture, but the Inca rule was indeed both more recent and short-lived, some 300 years, until they were deposed and annihilated by the Spanish in what we know as Tudor times, the times of Mary1, Bloody Mary. There is little other noteworthy evidence of Inca history further north in Ecuador, but this delightful pastoral site is immediately impressive, its elliptical ‘castle’ aligned with the sun dominating the landscape over the remnants of a city in the shape of an iguana. I guess the name, Inca, invokes the same sentiments as would a martyr, and therein lies the enigma. There can be but few civilisations totally lost at the hands of their fellow man. I lagged behind our small group, dreaming a little, picturing the activity surrounding us, that same feeling you get when walking the Roman cart-rutted streets of Pompeii.

And then we arrived in delightful Cuenca, at 2,500m again leaving us breathless. But its spotlessly clean, narrow one-way streets drip with Colonial buildings and Churches, houses with terracotta roof-tiles seen from the look-out at El Turi Church, so reminiscent of that delight of all delights, the view of Italy’s heavenly Florence from David’s statue at the top of the hill. And like our ‘room with a view’ over the Arno in Florence all those years ago, our room on the ‘first floor’ was at the back of the hotel, two floors down from the street level reception, its glass wall overlooking the river - and humming birds a few feet away in the trees. The restaurant, we later discovered, was just above us with the same view and there was just one table for two in the window, a romantic temptation too hard to resist. “Could I please book the window table for two for dinner tonight?” I asked at Reception. “7.30? It’s our wedding anniversary.” (You know, and I know, that’s not quite true. The 8th of August is long gone, but how else do you make sure you get the best table in the house?)

So, who’s this fella strutting his stuff down the sunlit cobbled streets of Cuenca in a Panama hat? It’s that grey haired nomad, David, of course, carrying that Cheshire cat smile of his and proudly displaying his new Homero Ortega, perched nonchalantly on one side. A Panama hat factory visit is a must for any self-respecting gent of a certain age when visiting Cuenca, the acknowledged centre of the toquilla-straw hat making industry here. But why ‘Panama’ hat? Well, it seems the hat business in this area was well under way when building commenced on the Panama Canal not too far away to the north. Canal workers suffered in the tropical heat and the wide-brimmed Panama hat was developed to meet the demand for shade. We won’t go into details just now, but I must also have some shade for the top of my head.

Our pre-breakfast photo-walk took us to Cuenca’s daily market, a honey-pot spot for local colour and character. Smartly uniformed children were off to school at 7am, school-run cars dropping them off under the watchful eye of the local police, and stallholders were busy unloading their heavy loads from vans, cars and carts, staggering under sacks of potatoes in thirty different varieties, bananas in huge bunches, asparagus in boxes and herbs in sacks. Stalls were piled high above our heads with fruit in one hall, vegetables finely displayed

Santo Domingo
in another and meat in all its gory forms beyond. Upstairs were heaps of wild and cultivated herbs, corn and beans in sacks, both fresh and ground, food-stalls with whole pigs and juicy crackling hot on the menu, and ladies administering herbal rubs and flails to the sick. Herbal remedies, it seems, are still extremely important here. Ecuador’s food-basket areas of rich volcanic soil provide an important source of export products after oil; bananas in particular, but also flowers, especially large variety roses, coffee and cacao.

Dinner, later that evening, was topped off with a shared plate of local desserts complete with candle, brought ceremoniously to our table by the window by our waiter. ‘Feliz Aniversario’ it said, in rich chocolate around the edge!

There is very little that could be classed as strictly ‘touristy’ about Ecuador. There are a few hawkers, few beggars, and no indigenous people pestering for hand-outs for taking their picture, as in Peru. Whilst some 25% of the Ecuadorian population can be classed as indigenous, there are but a few noticeable in the cities in their traditional garb. Beyond the city boundaries they blend more naturally into the landscape; the expected, the norm, enhancing the character and warmth of the countryside.

Our guides everywhere have all been excellent, courteous and punctual. All Spanish speaking, their command of the English language has been superb though accents often make it difficult to comprehend, and many also speak Italian, German or Japanese. Education, which tends to be the most reliable escalator out of poverty, is taken very seriously, though I guess there’s a long way to go as yet.

Quito, our next port of call, lives in the shadow of the Cotapaxi volcano and threatening grey cloud. It is crammed with yellow taxis, noisy buses gushing toxic fumes, trolley-buses down the middle of the highway, honking horns and tweeting pedestrian crossings, youngsters in bars and the graffiti of an emerging nation on every imaginable surface except the police station. This is a city of 3million people with contrasting divisions of Old Town and New Town, Western and Colonial, the poor (35% of Ecuador’s population is said to live below the poverty line), the not-so-poor, (it’s difficult to know where to put the 25% of Indigenous origin, some of whom might well live well off the land) and the better off, with their smart cars you can fill to overflowing with petrol for a mere US$20, the local currency, and their modern houses.

We were somewhat nervous in the streets on our arrival. Groups of young men, many, surprisingly, of African origin, (descendents of African survivors of a slave-trading galleon wrecked off the coast in the 17C) were hanging around on street corners as we tramped the backstreets of the New Town looking for a restaurant with local cuisine. Then, on our first visit to the Old Town, we were approached by a young lady." Be careful," she said. "Watch your camera." I showed her the length of steel chain attaching the camera to my belt, purchased in Denmark earlier this year and fit for purpose. We settled in of course, ever watchful of people at our backs as one might be in Barcelona or Girona back in Spain. Reports suggest the same old Spanish tricks here; bird droppings on your back, unreadable messages on scraps of cardboard and all that. Armed guards stand warily outside banks carrying some very impressive weaponry, but most dangerous of all are those yellow taxis, hurtling through the streets at F1 speeds with

La Compania
screeching brakes and mighty swerves as did ours back from the Old Town that evening.

There is everything of Western origin in the New Town; the sort of new malls and shops you might find in any provincial city back home; restaurants, local and Irish bars, gift shops with traditional Ecuadorian products for the tourist and hairdressers galore for some unknown reason, a copy shop on every street corner - but not a charity shop in sight. Youthful performers, students perhaps, congregate at traffic lights; a group of dancers dancing, a fire-eater breathing flames, a clowning clown, white-gloved hand proffered in jest, a little old lady with her tray of sweets, plying her wares in usherette fashion along the line of stationary traffic, an elderly man offering brightly hand-painted trays, pavement-strutting young ladies in over-tight jeans and outrageously high-heels .... The Old Town bustles too, dazzling-white and dusky-grey, crammed with local people, local life and local living on narrow, cobbled streets, hidden-away cafes, street-side snack stalls and news-stands, shuttered shop-fronts side-by-side, a shoeshine in every arcade, great Colonial squares - and magnificent cathedrals and churches as one would expect in a country where 82% are of the Catholic faith.

Plaza San Francisco

It’s only a short drive north, beyond the arid and scruffy fringe of Quito, to the Equator and what is known locally as ‘The Centre of the Earth’. Beyond, beautiful rolling pastures turn to steep hillsides, precipitous tree-cloaked mountains and deep lush valleys swept by drifting cloud, and within two hours we were transported to another world. For two whole days we tramped the steep-sided valleys in misty primary and secondary forest from the Bellavista Lodge, a delightful small retreat for nature lovers, looking for yet more birds and absorbing ourselves in that magnificent cloak of dense green vegetation. With our return to the UK just two days away, the pressure was on to capture a brief glimpse of that pesky bird, the Cock-of-the-Rock. We did see:- tanagers, eleven different humming birds, woodcreepers, tyranulets, parrots, flower-piercers, tyrants, turquoise jays, trogans, spinetails and toucans amongst others. Since arriving in South America five weeks ago we have seen more than 280 new birds - but still no Cock-of-the-Rock!

So, Janice took matters into her own hands. Our guide was bribed to take us down the mountain at 5.00am the next morning. The 4X4 drove slowly down the road for a few miles in pitch darkness before turning through the gates of a small reserve and on to a dirt road, climbing once again, up and up the steep incline, slipping and rocking on the narrow track waist-deep in sodden grass before finally coming to a halt. “That’s as far as we can go by truck,” she said. “You must walk from here.” And walk we did. Up and up on the wet and slippery track into the forest, for twenty minutes, listening for the sound – that soft whistling of swan’s wings, that macaw-like cackle, that squawk, that Cock-of-the-Rock sound. “There – above us!”

This is indeed Ecuadorian birding Utopia! We sat for more than an hour, listening to that magical sound, watching, silently, awestruck, as daylight swept the tree-tops below us, and ten or more magnificent bright-orange, crow-sized male birds displayed, flapped and screeched amongst the branches, dancing and prancing their hearts out - for the right to take the girl! It’s the alpha male who always gets the girl they say, but it seems this gang gets together most mornings to party in this ‘lek’, just for the hell of it. Thank you, Andrea, for taking us, and thank you Ecuador, for this treasured memory.

It’s true you get noticed when you have a Homero Ortega Panama hat. I carried mine in a box onto the plane for our 13 hour flight from Quito to Madrid. As we left the plane at Madrid, a flight steward ran after me. “Sir, where is your hat?” he called. I pointed to the box in Janice’s hand in front of me.

And so we must leave this adventure into Latin America. We have learned so much and enjoyed so many unforgetable moments. The weather has been especially kind to us; sunshine all the way with but a brief shower on our arrival in the Amazon Basin in Peru - and that spectacular thunderstorm whilst on the Manatee in Ecuador. Yellow Fever jabs were not an essential requirement on entry into Ecuador from Peru as was suggested, and the Malaria tablets were unnecessary too - we saw not a single mosquito whilst in the Amazon Basin. But better safe than sorry, as my ever-smiling doctor correctly advised.

David and Janice
The grey haired nomads

A few birdy pictures are shown below for those who may be interested!

With thanks to, UK -, Ecuador - and, Peru.

Additional photos below
Photos: 29, Displayed: 29


At Last!At Last!
At Last!

The Cock-of-the-Rock! (A little distant)

30th October 2011

At last...
...some pictures of birds - and of David in a hat that doesn't make him look like one of the Flowerpot Men! Pleased you're still enjoying sweating your way around South America. You'll notice the difference when you return to autumnal Suffolk.

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