When Ned and I first embarked on our adventure south, we hadn’t given Ecuador a moment’s thought. We had enjoyed a wonderful visit to Peru in 2008, so Mexico, Chile and Argentina were the highlights on our list. But Ecuador? Wasn’t that just a small, third world country to pass through on our way to the exciting ones? Ironically, today is August 18, exactly one month since we crossed the border into this captivating little nation. And we are still here. We do plan to head into Peru in the next few days, but our visit to Ecuador, the “middle of the world,” has been amazing.
From ancient cities and glacier topped volcanoes, to old haciendas and historic train routes, Ecuador has been a country of surprises for us. Add in a very special “Darwin Moment” (see next blog post) and more new global friendships, and I would have to say that this month has seen its share of journey highlights. Read on to share in the adventure…
Our first delightful surprise was the price of gas! Please note that Ecuador uses, as its national currency, the US dollar. Yippeee! Haven’t seen these prices since we were youngsters.
We had absolutely no plans in Ecuador, so simply headed south on the Pan American Highway to see what we might. But, as in Colombia, we gravitated toward, and spent most of our time in mountainous, high elevations. We began to feel as though 9,000ft. (pictured here) were the lowlands!
Unlike in Colombia, we began to see some native attire mixed in with the modern.
This big piggy went to market – in this little truck. We bet he wished he’d stayed home.
This popular brand of condiments seems rather proud of itself.
Several hours south of the border, it suddenly occurred to us that we were about to cross the Equator. Oh yeah, this is Ecuador! We screeched to a halt at this monument to memorialize the moment. We had driven all the way to the southern hemisphere, over 13,000 miles!
We even broadened our knowledge base with a little presentation from an earnest young scholar named Josué. Josué explained how this sun dial and tower align at sunrise and sunset on March 21 and September 23. He also explained many other fascinating astrological snippets, including why the global map should really be oriented vertically, but our knowledge base seems to have been only temporarily broadened, so we can’t share much more than that.
What I do remember, is that Josué told us that it was ok to spend the night in the monument parking lot. We enjoyed the flattest, driest, most perfect temperature camp since Mexico, and didn’t get out of there until noon the next day.
Straddling the globe…literally!
Okay, I know that some of you are wondering about that toilet bowl thing. Does the water swirl clockwise in the Northern hemisphere and counter clockwise in the Southern when you flush? Well, Ned and I wondered too, and actually had a moment of delight, peering anxiously over the nearest toilet, to see that it did flush counter clockwise! Then we got to wondering…had we really noticed what direction it goes at home? No, not really…time for Google. What a disappointment. While something as critical as the earth’s rotation will affect the direction a huge tornado will spin, the puny twirling of a drain or toilet bowl is influenced only by the size and shape of mundane forces like…plumbing.
After the equator, we were ready to get off the Pan Am. We found a tiny road on our cool (and accurate) new navigation App, maps.me (farewell Mr. Garmin!), and headed southeast through Cangahua; our goal, the hot springs at Papallacta. We had no idea what we would find on this road, but it turned out to be yet another amazing “blind corner.”
Incredibly, the first eight miles were cobblestone! Built over 100 years ago, we wondered who the poor souls were who carried and laid all those stones. As lovely and novel as it was, Charlotte was happy to get to merely rough dirt after miles of metal jarring rocks.
The reality of daily life for most people in the world always shines a light of gratitude on my own relatively plush existence.
The road became remote and the scenery stunning. We went about 50 miles at 8-10 mph, climbing to 13,000ft., and we never saw another soul. I began to feel that we were in a land before time. The landscape looked prehistoric, lacking only dinosaurs roaming the misty hills.
The pools at Papallacta were more jarring than the cobblestones. We were back on the beaten path. It was Saturday, and the pools were literally swamped with Ecuadorian weekenders out for a soak. We were in need of a wash anyway, so we took the plunge, enjoying the hot water and unique surroundings. We also partook of another quiet camping night, stealthily lurking in the back parking lot.
Unable to avoid it, we found ourselves back on the Pan American Highway, in order to visit the Capital city of Quito. We found the large colonial town to be beautiful, ancient and lovingly preserved.
Quito has more than its share of gorgeous churches, cathedrals and basilicas. This one, the
Basilica de San Francisco was built in the 1500’s.
A palpable hush of centuries of worshipers hung in the air as we gazed in wonder at the ornate interior.
An interesting depiction of the influenza brought by the Spanish which decimated local populations. Literal translation: “1890 The influenza finally ends because we look upon your eyes with love.”
This Basilica is a mere 100 years old, and is made of concrete rather than the more ancient stone construction. As beautiful as it was, we jokingly called it “skin deep” by comparison.
We were allowed to climb several of these steep ladders that would be deemed too treacherous by United States standards.
The view from the top was gorgeous.
Just another little mountain town at 8,500ft elevation.
Having done a bit of research for once, we found this little haven south of Quito where we stayed and relaxed for a few days.
Hacienda de Alegria (Joy) is a 100 year old, family owned working ranch with beautiful grounds, a dairy…
Ancient rose gardens…
And cool old trees. This is an Araucaria araucana (commonly called the monkey puzzle tree, monkey tail tree, Chilean pine, or pehuén), and it is the national tree of Chile. The plants growing out of the trunk are Bromeliads, commonly found in the Amazon…yes, we are nearing the outskirts of the Amazon Jungle!
Our room was incredibly comfortable and offered us the first good shower (real hot water AND pressure) of the whole trip.
[caption id="attachment_1392" align="alignleft" width="800"] But the real attraction was the horses. The price of “full board” at Hacienda de Alegria included room, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and horseback riding. Not having ridden much in the last 10 years, I can still account for having spent more time riding and working with horses than any other activity in my life. I have ridden and owned some amazing, trail and dressage horses, and I can truly say that these simple little “Caballos Criollos” have become especially dear to me. They are kind, hearty, surefooted, responsive and eager to move. We first experienced them on our ride in Colombia. This one, Caramelo, was only half Criollo, but, at 18 years old, still exhibited all of those wonderful traits. I had a blast, galloping a lot, and feeling like I was riding a cloud.
The young man in the background, Jean Carlos, was the 11 year old nephew of the owners. He accompanied us on our three hour ride, and, in true Latino style, shyly presented me with a lovely white flower along the trail.
Ned, ever the car guy, grudgingly agreed to another horseback ride. He was a trooper and a good rider despite it being more torture than pleasure for him. Dante, a half Percheron was his trusty mount.
I’m pretty sure the Border Collie enjoyed riding Dante more than Ned did.
The Hacienda sat in the heart of the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a 325 km. long valley in the Ecuadorian Andes, boasting 28 massive, snow-covered volcanoes. After horsing around a few days, we set out to explore some of these high altitude beauties.
Our first visit was to Volcán Cayambe. At 18,996 ft., it is the highest point in the world crossed by the Equator and the only point on the Equator with snow cover.
The road to Volcán Cayambe.
As we gained elevation, the road got rougher and was one of only a few times on the trip we needed to use 4 wheel drive.
Our highest point yet, at15, 240ft. and 0.00 degrees latitude!
Rough terrain on foot too. Couldn’t quite make it to the rock before the 10 second timer went off on the camera.
At sundown, we tucked into this bit of shelter from the bitter cold wind to camp.
It was too cold to cook outside, so I sat on the bed and prepared a tasty salad of red cabbage, tomatoes, avocado, hearts of palm, olive oil and vinegar, while Ned heated up some beans on our tiny “countertop.”
The drive down the mountain in the morning was spectacular
Our next stop along the Avenue of the Volcanoes was the famous Cotopaxi, the second highest active volcano in the world at 19,342 ft.
The road up was gorgeous but not nearly as remote. Cotopaxi is a much more popular tourist attraction, with cars and busloads of people arriving daily.
The glacier’s edge.
We parked (along with the throngs of tourists) at 15,300ft, then slogged up steep, loose gravel to 15,995.
Ned and I then continued up to the base of the glacier at 16,500. We were a bit breathless and had to stop a few times to slow our speedy heart rates, but we both recovered quickly and felt perfect. In fact, we were so pumped up that we fantasized (for two and a half minutes) about actually doing the climb to the peak. We went so far as to inquire into guides and equipment rental, but fell short of actually strapping on those crampons and wielding the ice axes.
A drive out into the tundra and off the main road led us to another beautiful night of solitude, this time in the shadow of Cotopaxi. Cooking here, away from bad weather, bugs and prying eyes was a pleasure. Here is what I had ingredients to whip up (in case you want to try it!):
Brown diced onion in olive oil
Add and brown ground beef
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Hot curry powder
Add chopped veggies:
Red bell pepper
Simmer till veggies done
In the morning, the high, open tundra provided a beautiful, lonely setting for a long run and some much needed quiet time.
From all accounts, Quilotoa, a crater Lake at around 12,000ft elevation was supposed to be fantastic and worth the out of the way drive. We had even met a Swiss woman who said it was the most beautiful lake she had ever seen. So off we went, continuing on our Volcanoes tour. First south to the town of Latacunga to stock up on groceries for all of that camping and hiking we were looking forward to.
Unfortunately, it was dark before we reached the lake, so we had to find a hiding place to camp off of the main road. It was difficult, and we were both crabby by the time we wheeled our way up a steep farm track and onto a presumably deserted soccer field. Sleep was just about upon us when we were visited by a pack of broomstick and hoe wielding villagers. We couldn’t understand a word of their local dialect, and it felt like we were in a bad medieval movie. I chickened out, staying in the back, while Ned addressed them, playing the “No comprendo” role yet again. They eventually trundled away harmlessly. An hour later, having just fallen asleep, we were visited by the police, sirens blaring and lights flashing. Evidently the medieval villagers have cell phones. The cops were actually very polite and apologetic. The village was worried that we were the robbers! We were left in peace the rest of the night, but pent up adrenaline kept us awake.
Ditching our camp spot at 7am, we had visions of a nice breakfast and coffee at the lake. What we found instead was that the town was a dump. No eggs, no coffee, no restaurants at all. We went to the lookout to see this wondrous crater lake, but the freezing wind was so strong I had to hold on to the railing to keep from being blown away. The lake was pretty cool, but the whole vibe of the place was down-trodden and inhospitable. We shot this poor photo taken directly into the rising sun and abandoned the plot.
The beautiful way we took back to the PanAm was dirt and offered more spectacular views of huge river canyons and patchwork crops. Our next stop was Baños, a resort town where we could clean up and get some blogging done.
Baños, being a touristy town, was where we finally succumbed to zip-line fever (having forsaken the opportunity in normal places like Costa Rica).
Flying like a bird over converging waterfalls was an unusual treat.
We stayed in Baños for a couple of days, regrouping, but the Crater Lake doldrums followed us here, too. Underwhelmed by the town and tired of the rain forest, we moved on to dryer climes.
Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and landslides keep Ecuadorians on their toes. This highly unstable dirt road led us to the town of Alausi where we planned our next touristy activity.
Alausi was a cute little mountain town where we found a nice hostel that let us camp on their property. The shortcut into town was an adventure all on its own!
Looks like Little Bow Peep and her siblings just couldn’t leave the sheep alone.
Alausi is the starting point for the train ride called Nariz de Diablo. Now a major tourist destination, the route is famous for being one of the most difficult engineering feats to build and was originally constructed to unite Ecuador and facilitate trade in the late 1800’s. The challenge was to drop the railway down a rocky promontory (Devil’s Nose), losing about 800 feet in elevation, onto the valley floor. The treacherous deed was accomplished by constructing two dramatic switchbacks, costing the lives of numerous Jamaican slaves.
The steep drop offs were spooky fun as the first impressive switchback appeared below us.
Nariz de Diablo, Devils Nose behind us. Note the cuts in the rock where the tracks are laid.
Disembarking at the bottom of the Nose, we were greeted by cheerful, local villagers who do a wonderful job promoting tourism. An excellent museum tour, a native snack and colorful dance show awaited us.
It occurred to us that we hadn’t been to the coast since arriving in South America in Cartagena, Colombia, so we took off west and landed in the little beach town of Montañita.
Watching these boys reminded us that the down-to-earth pleasures of simply playing have become overshadowed at home by video games, cell phones and iPads. The challenge here is to wind a string around a top, fling it forward to start it spinning…
…and then dexterously scoop it into your hand and allow it to victoriously spin itself out in the palm of your hand.
Snooping around, checking out the town, we met this delightful Ecuadorian family who were vacationing from their home city of Cuenca. We quickly became friends with Hans, Elizabeth and their twin boys, Stefan and Eric after Hans admired Charlotte as we drove by their place. VW karma prevailed as it turned out Hans was the proud owner of a ’75 bay window Westy, family owned since new. We ended up camping in the driveway of their vacation home, sharing meals and playing Rummikub late into the night.
We even joined them for a day on the beach. It is not our normal style to haunt popular, crowded beaches, but we had a wonderful day with our new friends. The weather could not have been more perfect. We swam, chatted with Hans and Elizabeth, watched the twins play and took in the sights.
Surfside napping, Ecuadorian style…aka, another great use for your wife.
Surfside napping, Ecuadorian style…sans wife.
Surfside napping, Ecuadorian style…angry wife.
Tempting surfside cuisine.
The adorable Stefan and Eric happily sipping out of a coco.
But we held out for surfside Ceviche!
Über fresh shellfish in lime and cilantro…absolutely delicious!
Promising to visit our new friends when we passed through Cuenca, we drove off into the Ecuadorian sunset…and on to our next adventure, “A Darwin Moment.” Can you guess where that was? Stay tuned!