Monthly Archives: October 2007

A Local Quichua Experience

October 14, 2007
Day 746

Picture of guide.

Our guide shows us the agave plant that is fed to the cattle.

Some people from my hostel organized an interesting trip into the local Quichua community today. We took a bus up to a small town of indigenous people and were introduced to one of the locals. At first I saw him in his poncho that covered his western clothing and thought he looked fake, like someone just looking to make a few bucks from the tourists by showing them the remnants of customs that have been long since forgotten. However, the experience turned out to be very authentic and full of learning.

Our guide explained that his was a Quichua community. I had learned a lot about the Quechua people in Peru and assumed that Quichua was just a different pronunciation of the word, but apparently there was a difference. The local people had lost touch of their old traditions since the 1980's when electricity (and therefore television) was introduced to the area, but a few people like our Quichua guide were trying to revive those traditions before they were forgotten completely.

As we walked around, we came across several important sites to the local people, one of which involved throwing old items in a field to get in a symbolic attempt to get rid of the problems they were causing. I was assured that the people didn't just throw their garbage there as it appeared. We were also shown several different natural remedies such as drinking a tea made with a worm to cure an upset stomach.

At the heart of everything we were shown was Christianity, sort of. For example, in the garbage dumping place was a cross, but it was supposed to represent the meeting of two trails rather than a crucifix. Also, there area was purged of its rubbish on December 25th each year, but this had nothing to do with any other celebrations that may have coincidentally taken place on that day.

After the tour, we went to our guide's house for the real treat of the day. He had a room full of the handicrafts that he made, which included belts that took two weeks to make. He sat down for a full demonstration of how he created the belts, one stitching at a time, by separating the different strands of wool to select his pattern. He claimed to be the only one in Ecuador who still used the technique, and I can't say that I've seen anything like it anywhere I've been. I was really skeptical at the beginning of the day, but it ended up being a great way to get a feel for the ancient practices of the local people, however few of them still remained.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Going Down the Devil's Pylon

October 13, 2007
Day 745

Picture of Pailon.

The Pailon del Diablo.

I left Riobamba this morning and took a bus to Baños, a beautiful city located in a valley between the Andes and the Amazon. Near the equator and at only 1800 meters altitude, it was a hot, sunny place with tropical vegetation covering the surrounding hills. Baños was a popular tourist attraction for foreigners and Ecuadorians alike, who went there on weekends to get away from the cold of the mountains of Quito. The town was filled with a great vibe as everyone there was on vacation.

I found a nice hostel and met some other backpackers right away who were on there way to a waterfall. The Pailon del Diablo was only about half an hour away by bus, then a twenty minute walk downhill to an area with a few expensive restaurants and hotels. Crossing a shaky suspension bridge gave us a nice view of the waterfall as it spat its water from the cliff formed with twisted rocks. It was a nice place, but I don't think it lived up to the reputation of "Eighth Wonder of the World," as it was called in a flier I received. But if they ever come up with a "10,000 Wonders of the World" list, I'll be sure to nominate the Devil's Pylon.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Going Up the Devil's Nose

October 12, 2007
Day 744

Picture of tracks.

The tracks behind us.

The advantage of getting to Riobamba two days before the train to the devil's nose left was that I got a ticket in the luxury car at no extra charge because of their first-come-first-serve system. I relaxed in my first class seat and met some of the other passengers, most of whom were in high-end package tours. Vendors constantly paraded past us hawking their junk food and coffee at double the normal price. The train left before any restaurants opened for breakfast, so most people were happy to take the offer.

There was an exciting atmosphere when I first boarded the train. Everyone had smiles on their faces, and the local people waved at us as we passed them. Everywhere I've been, there is an unwritten rule in train etiquette that you have to wave whenever a train passes you. There's something magical about a passenger train, whether you're on it or just a spectator. Too bad trains aren't more common in South America or I'd ride them more often.

We got great views of Chimborazo at the beginning of the trip, but really all of the scenery was great. The train moved slowly through the countryside where we got to view the local farming life in a way that wouldn't be possible on a fast-moving bus. We also made several stops at small towns where all of the locals gathered either to sell stuff to us, or just to watch us. The train stopping must have been the most exciting part of the day for those people.

In the middle of the day, my enthusiasm for train riding dropped as we derailed several times and the engineers had a tough time of getting us back onto the tracks. The old people in the tour groups got bored quickly, but it wasn't such a big deal for me because I didn't have anything else planned for the day and had already dealt with unbelievable stretches of downtime during my trip. We finally reached the devil's nose a few hours late, but I was disappointed when the dramatically-named landmark turned out to be nothing more than a kink in the tracks.

When we backtracked to a small town, we were allowed to sit on top of the roof of the luxury car. People used to be able to ride up there all day, but the rumor was that two Japanese tourists got decapitated recently and it was no longer allowed. A few people complained about the new rule, but we had only been on the roof for one minute when two guys who weren't paying attention got hit on the head by an overhanging pipe. Sometimes, rules are made for a reason.

The trip took a little long, but it was still a great day for seeing the area around the uninspiring city of Riobamba.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Typical Cities With Beautiful Surroundings

October 10-11, 2007
Days 742-743

I took a bus north from Cuenca to Riobamba with the specific intention of buying a ticket for the train to the Nariz del Diablo ("Devil's Nose"), but unfortunately found out that there wouldn't be a train for another day. I say "unfortunately" because it took about half an hour before I had had enough of sightseeing in the town. I got a bit bored and went to nearby Ambato, which was supposed to be the "flowered city," but I saw not one piece of nature as I walked through its streets and discovered that the ironically-nicknamed city made even Riobamba look nice. The only thing these cities had going for them were that they afforded beautiful views of Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador at 6310 meters.

My other option while waiting for the train would have been to go to Chimborazo. It seemed like every time I talked to a local person, he told me he had a friend with a taxi who could take me there. When I asked for more info, I was told that they'd drive me to the second refuge at over 5000 meters and... that's it. I'm sure you'd get a great view of the area from that level, but driving to a mountain didn't seem too appealing after already having climbed a few of them. None of the locals understood this logic, and the offers kept rolling in.

The other thing that I realized in Riobamba was that Ecuador was the worst country in all of South America for receiving change. They use the US dollar here as their official currency, and whenever I take out money from an ATM, it spits out nothing but 20's. When I try to use one of those notes, I get a look that suggests that it might as well be a million dollars. My first trip after an ATM is always inside the bank to change my useless money for smaller bills, but last time the bank didn't even have anything small to give me. But that doesn't really matter because even when I have 5's and 10's, it can be hard to get change. It's a constant battle to get rid of big bills here.

I guess I can understand why someone wouldn't have change for a twenty dollar bill when I buy something for five. The real problem is when I only need to get a small amount of change back and the vendor doesn't have it. I rode a bus once costing $0.40 and paid with a fifty cent piece (which are actually common here), but the guy didn't even have a dime to give me in return. This morning I got a cup of coffee for $0.80 and tried paying with a fiver, but the lady just about had a heart attack. Some guy took my money and ran off with it. He returned a few minutes later with five $1 coins (another common denomination here) and used his good deed to offer me a ride in his friend's taxi to Chimborazo. No, gracias.

Back To Cuenca

October 8-9, 2007
Days 740-741

Picture of Couchsurfers.

The Couchsurfers of Cuenca.

I just had a short walk back to the road this morning, then a bus back to Cuenca. Roy wanted me to take some photos of the city for him, but it was raining all day. The next day was raining too, but at least I was able to walk around a bit and take a few. I found it really hard to leave Cuenca, but eventually the time had come.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Too Short a Walk

October 7, 2007
Day 739

I just went for a short walk around the lagoon where I was camped this morning, but I was already feeling the effects of the altitude because I wasn't acclimatized properly. I spoke to the ranger and asked for a walk of around five hours so I wouldn't have to worry about hiking at over 4000 meters all day. He happily obliged (after taking my money) and showed me the way.

I set out with my full backpack walking along the trail. My first stop was at Tres Cruces, which was the watershed point that split rivers flowing into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. (Useless info of the day: The Tres Cruces point was also the closest watershed to the Pacific in South America.) Next I continued walking past a bunch more lagoons, passing two big Dutch groups along the way. I heard people got lost a lot in the park, but I found the trail easy to follow.

After two and a half hours, I looked at my map and discovered that I had already passed the lagoon I was supposed to stop at for the day, the lagoon that was supposedly five hours from my starting point. It was way too early to camp, but I didn't want to wander off on some other path only to return along the same path tomorrow morning, so I called it a day, set up camp, and got a ton of sleep in the extremely quiet surroundings.

Motivating Myself To Get Moving

October 6, 2007
Day 738

Picture of llama.

A llama at Cajas.

I wanted to go to Cajas National Park today, but I was really low on energy for some reason. Maybe it was my recent atrophy, but for some reason, I just didn't seem to have it in me to leave. Somehow, not making changes in life is always easier than making them.

By mid afternoon, I finally had bought enough food and fuel for the next few days and took off. The bus went right into the mountains at over 4000 meters and dropped me off at Laguna Toreadora, in the northern part of the park. It was a nice place and the friendly ranger showed me a good place to camp, although I was the only one there. I got there a little late because of my sloth, so exploring will have to wait until tomorrow.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Doing Some Regular Stuff

October 1-5, 2007
Days 733-737

Picture of couchsurfers.

The couchsurfing group.

I stayed at a hostel in Cuenca for a couple days and hung out with the other backpackers there. The most interesting one was a guy from Milwaukee who had been traveling for the last four years. He joined the Peace Corps after college and got placed in Vanuatu. He got a small living allowance there, but he lived in a bamboo hut with no electricity, so he had no way of spending his money. When his two years were up, the Peace Corps was going to pay for his flight home, but he took the money instead and has been traveling with it ever since, mainly through India, South East Asia, China, and Australia. It seems like he's been everywhere in the world, but he doesn't see settling down in Milwaukee anywhere in his near future.

Eventually I got in touch with Roy again. He, a Turkish Couchsurfer named Alper, and I hung out around Cuenca together for a few days. I needed a lot of time to work on my blog and photos after the Galapagos, so I didn't do anything too exciting. However, the three of us did get to go a great jazz concert, to a fireworks show kicking off a month of celebrations in Cuenca, and swimming in an Olympic pool. I enjoyed taking it easy and felt like I got to know Cuenca pretty well. It's a nice city that's starting to grow on me.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Back to the Continent

September 30, 2007
Day 732

I headed back to mainland Ecuador this morning. What can I say about the Galapagos that I haven't already said? I think the best way for me to express my gratitude toward the islands is to mention that my visit cracks the top five experiences of my entire trip. In order, here's how they currently stand:

  1. My cruise to Antarctica and the Falkland Islands. (I'll probably never top that one.)
  2. Taking the long route from Santa Cruz to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia (includes Noel Kempff Mercado National Park and canoing down the Itenez River).
  3. Achieving my first mountain summit (Huayna Potosi at 6088 meters).
  4. Walking with Simba the puma through the jungles of Bolivia.
  5. The Galapagos Islands.

My plane landed in Guayaquil, but I had already gotten my fix of that city, so I bussed it to Cuenca, which was right where I left off before heading to the Galapagos. I was going to stay with Roy again, but he was off in his hometown of Machala voting. Another consequence of election day was that alcohol wasn't allowed to be sold anywhere. I got a beer with a few people from my hostel, but we had to keep our bottles on the floor just in case the cops came. Mandatory voting and being sober while voting may seem like strange concepts to Americans, but they are widespread practices in South America.

Walking Through the Tunnels Of Love

September 29, 2007
Day 731

Picture of guy.

An old guy showing off his globe at the lava tunnel entrance.

For my last full day in the Galapagos, I took one more trip up to the highlands of Santa Cruz, this time to the "Tunnels of Love." The tunnels were formed naturally by the lava that flowed through the island when it was formed. I was surprised how big they were, and they added one more impressive site to my Galapagos experience.

In the afternoon I decided to go snorkeling one last time. Santa Cruz has lots of beaches and bays that you can walk to from town for snorkeling and swimming. This time my choice was a place called "Las Grietas." The large crack in the landscape was formed when the freshwater from the highlands combined with the saltwater from the bay to form a warm, perfectly clear pool of brackish water. It was a beautiful place, but I didn't see many animals in the water, despite the great visibility.

So that's how my stay at the Galapagos ended. Tonight I went out one last time with Brian and Kim to reminisce about the islands. They had some fresh stories about their day trip to Bartolome Island, one of the northern islands I didn't get a chance to see. Their big news was that they saw a penguin, the only major Galapagos animal I never saw.

I may have missed seeing penguins on the equator, but I felt like a penguin from all the cold weather. In fact, the owner of my hostel said it's the coldest year he's experienced in forth-nine years of living on the islands. So besides the extreme amount of poaching and the introduced predators, the animals of the Galapagos have a new threat that could wipe them out of existence: climate change.

The photo album for this entry is here.