20.10.2007 - 08.11.2007
Phew - its been a pretty busy last 2+ weeks. We left Guyaquill on Saturday for Riobamba. There is this great train journey which originally went from Quito to Guyaquill, but due to floods and El Nino, most of the tracks have been destroyed. However, the most spectacular part is called the Nazir el Diablo (the devil´s nose) and that is still intact so now it just runs as a tourist train for the spectacular views - and you can sit on top of the train.
The train starts from Riobamba and goes to Alausi with the devil´s nose on the way. However, when we got to Riobamba, they said that the train now only runs along the small path which has the devil´s nose. So we took a bus the next day to Alausi, got the ticket for the 2 hr train ride which goes all the way down the valley and then back up and got some more bad news. Apparently, a couple of Japanese tourists were killed a few months previously while standing on top of the train (probably taking pictures) and so now they don´t let people sit on top of the train. So after an hour´s wait, the train started its journey. But almost immediately, it ground to a halt. A freight train in front of us got derailed - apparently that is quite a common feature. It took over 2 hours to get the freight train back on track and it was already 1.00pm by now. We started from Riobamba at 7 in the morning, and were still waiting for the train ride. So again the train started and this time there were no problems. Although the scenery is great, sitting inside the train just doesn´t seem to be worth it as we have seen such scenery on the bus rides. It is a big disappointment, and when the train started back on its way up the valley, it got derailed 3 more times. Thankfully, they managed to put it back up pretty quickly but it was 4pm by the time we finished the ride. We then took a bus and headed for Cuenca - Ecuador´s 3´rd largest city. We got to Cuenca at 10.30pm and after a quick dinner, went straight to bed.
Cuenca is probably the most beautiful city in Ecuador. Its got narrow cobblestone streets and whitewashed red-tiled buildings, beautiful plazas and big domed churches. We spent Monday just walking about town and visited a Panama hat making factory. Now, a fact that people may not know is - Ecuador is where the Panama hat originates from - or more specifically, Montechristi!! The only reason they are called Panama hats is because when the Spanish came to South America, they began shipping the hats back via Panama.
We did a hike around the Loja national park the following day which was quite beautiful and tiring. The hike took 6+ hours and it was through bushes and there was no trail. However we did have a guide. On Wednesday, we went to see some waterfalls near Cuenca and chilled out for the rest of the day.
We made our way to Vilcabamba the next day. This is a small tranquil village set in mountainous surroundings. It is also famous for being called the ´Valley of longevity.´ Inhabitants supposedly live to be 100 years old here, and some as old as 120 years. I could understand why when we got to Vilcabamba. We booked in at a hotel-spa (most places were hotel-spas) situated out of the town centre. It was really peaceful and relaxing. They also provided us with nice big organic breakfasts and dinners and there was a constant supply of thei water with some 20 herbs which were supposed to be good for your body. Well it tasted nice anyhow.
The next day we tried to get up to this mountain which provide great views of the region. However, it was over 35 degrees and an hour into the hike we gave up and made our way back down - it was the hottest day of the year by far. We booked a horse riding trip for the next day which the person there said was a pretty easy day out. Obviously it wasn´t. We spent the first 3 hours getting to the Las Palmas nature reserve. That was the first time eaither of us had done horse riding, and you soon get used to the horse and start enjoying the ride. Once we got there, we did a 2 hour hike down to a waterfall and back again. It was a pretty tough hike, and there was no trail and the gradients going up and down were sometimes very steep - it involved using ropes a couple of times or the strong tree branches to pull yourself up. So much for the easy day out. And then it was a 3 hr horse ride back to Vilcabamba. Needless to say our bodies were shattered after the long day.
We had a well deserved massage the next day and chilled out - frankly neither of us could be asked to do much and we decided to enjoy the spa instead.
We made our way up to Banos the following day where they have natural thermal baths but not much else. Its also a good place to arrange hikes to the jungle, rafting etc... But we were running out of time (yeah - 8 months is definitely not enough) and then headed up to Quito.
Quito is a very old and grand city. We stayed in the old town for the first 2 days and then moved to Mariscal (the touristy area) for the remainder of our stay. The old town is really interesting with its huge churches, plazas, museums etc... We did a walking tour through old town on the first day. In the evening, encouraged by reports that there were indian restaurants in Mariscal, went in search of one. We saw 3 and decided to go to Bombay Palace. It is a pakistani owned restaurant and the food was average. However, after going without Indian food for 2 months, we didn´t really care. It was quite satisfying.
We went up the Teleferico (Quito´s newest and modern tourist attraction) the next morning. Its a multi million dollar sky trap which takes people up a mountain for some views of Quito. They also have an amusement park at the base. The views were ok as you can rarely get a clear day in Quito.
We headed for the famous Otavalo market the next day which is a couple of hours from Quito. Its a huge market, and on Saturdays spills itself on the sidestreets. We went to the Mitad el Mundo (centre of the world) on Sunday which is where the equator crosses and where the Ecuatorians believe to be the centre of the world. It was a very touristy place as you would expect but there was a great museum nearby which explained the geographical significace of the equator and gave some water and energy demonstrations of the gravitational forces on the equator and on either side of it. There was also this balancing an egg on the head of a nail where I was the only one who successfully managed to do it in our group - and I got a certificate for my efforts!! They also showed how people lived centuries ago in their huts, showed us how their ancestors would shrink people´s heads when they died (a pretty gruesome exhibition) and how they hunted - by blowing on poisoned needles through hollow pipes. We had a go at that and i managed to hit the target at 20 metres. Their ancestors would be doing it over 60 metres!!
We had tried to book a tour to do the Quilotoa loop as its a pretty remote place with very few busses servicing the route and thus making it easier to do a 3 day tour. However, the tour agent screwed us up and said that he was busy on the day before the tour, so we decided to do it by ourselves instead. We also met up with a Californian couple who were doing the same thing over thorn tree. It was a 6 hr bus ride from Quito, and we got to Chugchilan in the afternoon. As it rains every afternoon there, we rested for the evening, and organised a taxi (a pickup with benches really) to the Quilotoa logoon for the next day. The lagoon gives out a brilliant emerald colour and is the highlight of the area. We hiked down to the lagoon and came back up in the morning (abit tough as we were doing it a 4000M above sea level) We made our way back to Chugchilan and spent the afternoon relaxing as it was raining. We had to catch the 5 AM bus the next day back to Quito which was quite an interesting experience - thats the bus the locals catch to get to work, and we had sheep and pigs on top of the bus!!
We spent the evening relaxing in Quito and today we have just chilled out, done laundry and updating the blog.
Tomorrow its onto Colombia and we have an 18 hour bus journey to look forward to - starting at 5 am. Great way to spend Diwali.
Ecuador was a great experience - it packs alot of diversity for a small country. Its also a place which has thousands of busses. Every town has a terminal terrestre (kind of like an airport) which is the base for all bus companies. All you have to do is get there, find out on the LCD display which company has the next bus going to your destination and book it. Brilliant!! No need to book ahead or plan your next stop. And at the start of every bus journey, there will be a salesman or a conman pitching to sell a product or asking for money. The snacks vendors bring to sell on the busses are very tasty too. Sad to be leaving Ecuador but looking forward to Colombia - everyone we have met or heard from have said what a great place it is. And I am not only talking about the drugs...or the women!! ;-)