Friday, 13 November 2015

Traversing Ecuador

Sunday morning in Loja began with us watching a family cycle event set off from the square - the enthusiasm of the toddlers a delight to behold.



The Bomberos were fundraising as well with their immaculate historic fire engine and the huge indoor market was a hive of activity. The surreal City Gate dominated the main avenue as we left town heading south through stunning mountain scenery part of  which contained a large cloud forest national park.



Near Vilacabamba we booked in to very up market accommodation - Madre Tierra (www.madretierra.com.ec) where I chose a brightly coloured room with sunken pebble lined shower and plenty of comfort - it was soon nicknamed the Hobbit House as the others chose more lofty and spacious alternatives. However for me it was more than enough as I am used to far less space whilst in the van, talking of which I am now convinced that one day I will return to South America with my own vehicle for an undetermined and possibly unlimited time. The scenery, people, culture and living costs all appeal - here we are paying 60p a gallon for diesel and no that is not a typo !

We dined well on the terrace that evening which was beautifully decorated and surrounded by sub tropical plants, with water flowing in pools, streams and miniature cascades before we all slept soundly. Franco our motorbiking guide and Horje the driver are good company and enjoy the chance to improve their English whilst Chris and I get by with our limited Spanish. Dave is more or less bilingual having run his business over here for about a decade and was intrigued to hear that the whole resort was on the market as the American owners wished to retire. With a successful sales introduction fee of $10,000 we figured the asking price would be substantial and although judging by the number of other guests turnover was at present limited it had a great deal of potential.

The next day I walked up the valley beneath the mountain of Mandango for a couple of hours before looping back and reaching Vilacabamba itself which had a pleasant square surrounded by small restaurants mostly full of visiting Americans. Apparently locals are renowned for their impressive lifespans and since the 60's various people have settled here in search of the secret to eternal life.
The village is also the starting point for walks and rides in to the cloud forest so will certainly merit a return visit, but this time I was content to return to the tranquility of Madre Tierra and enjoy a chance to catch up with folks back home.


That evening the three gringos walked back in to the village for an excellent meal on the terrace of  a corner bar - the warm air and relaxed atmosphere proving very enjoyable. White crew cab pick ups (with a green side strip) provide the local taxi service and as a soft tropical rain had set in we paid less than $2 to be returned home long after dark - the sun setting here very quickly as we are near to the equator at around 6pm.



We could have lingered longer but on the Wednesday we headed north bypassing Loja and taking the road to Cuenca  stopping at El Hato hacienda located down a steep bumpy half mile track.
Whilst again very well appointed it seemed to be struggling and we later learned that since the owner's wife had had a major stroke  they had been shut for several months and were now also hoping to sell. It also had enormous potential and was in a tremendous spot but being at around 10,000' was quite chilly although the cavernous and quirkily decorated dining area had a roaring fire that we all appreciated.

 Thus we decided to move on again and entered Cuenca where we stopped only briefly to view the impressive cathedral and enjoy the local police who were on a big PR exercise - lots of officers around keen to be photographed and a generally relaxed atmosphere.


I have been surprised both here and in Peru at how many police and security guards are around  in every town and along the roads - it adds to an overall atmosphere of security and against expectation I have never once felt threatened or vulnerable - something I also experienced in Morocco. Chris and I also nipped in to the Panama hat museum as he wanted something to fend off the hot sun - at these altitudes it burns the bonce very quickly and we were both intrigued by the old presses and assorted moulds that combine to create this iconic headwear.



A long afternoon passing through wonderful mountains on well engineered, well maintained and largely empty roads took us towards Quito - the second highest capital city in the world. In one area there were dozens of small wood fired kilns churning out bricks and blocks and in another people were crushing limestone by hand before similar kilns were producing lime for construction and agriculture.

 It will be good to take this area more sedately one day as some side trips up to the even more remote villages would be rewarding. Franco coped well with the night riding as many other vehicles were poorly lit and returning herds of cattle and goats appeared at random out of the blackness with their owners.




Eventually after passing through Riocabamba we reached the best accommodation so far - Hosteria La Andaluza ( www.hosteriaandaluza.com) which had grown out of an old hacienda. A sumptuous dining room and comfy lounging areas were linked by numerous beautifully decorated corridors to the various rooms - we were accommodated in the old part which was a quadrangle of well furnished rooms overlooking a fountain and pond with plump rabbits contentedly grazing the neat lawns. Although it was late we all decided to eat in the restaurant and enjoyed delicious well presented food in a memorable setting. Local musicians were entertaining a large group of Australians in an adjoining area which made for a great atmosphere all round.

After a substantial buffet breakfast today saw a short hop north on a road that seemed full of suicidal maniacs whose overtaking defied belief at times. Slow moving lorries and smaller trucks contained produce, livestock, human passengers and building materials amongst other items, overloaded buses stuck rigidly to the centre lane and we weaved a cautious path as Franco also contended with some very random late decisions by other drivers.

En route we passed Cotopaxi a large and still active volcano and indeed our plans to visit the surrounding National Park were thwarted as it has been erupting gently since September but something more dramatic is expected.

Quito sits in a large valley with the city also running up the surrounding slopes and across various ridges and is the second highest capital city in the world. We were heading for the compact historic centre which sits above the modern sprawl and before long were squeezing the van in to the basement parking of the Plaza Del Teatro hotel. This old building is in the heart of old Quito and will be our base for two nights - however the fixtures and fittings shake whenever a tram passes so I am awake early despite a late finish last night. This was as a result of dining out with two retired Ecuadorian colonels and then heading to a bar for sugar cane punch and local music - all this and much more in the next post.

Photos are here.

Locations are here.

And I am off for breakfast - which usually consists of scrambled eggs served with fruit salad ... ?

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