Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Devil´s Nose and Cuenca

It was an early 6am start from Baños to try and get to the 9:30 Devil´s Nose train but worth getting up early for. Along the route we had a great view of the Tungurahua and Chimborazo volcanos (6,310m). Ecuador has two parallel ranges of the Andes and the area between is known as the ´Avenue of the Volcanos´. Tungurahua was actually blowing out great clouds as we passed.

The Devil´s Nose is so called as the the train twists back and forth down through a tight mountain valley. It was a huge undertaking originally building this main transport route but now it is just used by tourists. At some points it has to go backwards as it zigzags down the mountain side. The best bit is that we got to sit on the roof on the way down which gave us a spectacular view. Really beautiful surrounds.

Cuenca is a lovely colonial city, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. There´s a lot more money in this city than anywhere else we´ve been in Ecuador - some very nice houses and fancy shops. One of the most famous industries in Cuenca is the famous Ecuadorian hat, incorrectly known as a Panama hat! The hats sold as Panama hats are actually all hand-woven in this region. We did a trip around the factory to see how the hats are finished and shaped and styles applied. We then had great fun trying on lots of hats in the shop but were very disappointing customers as there was very little purchasing going on.

The culinary speciality of the region is these attractive creatures to the left - yep, it´s guinea pig. Apologies to anyone who had one as a pet but they are actually quite tasty! The restuarant did cut them into small pieces for us which made it a lot easier - I didn´t fancy having the head staring at me on my plate. We were in one of the most famous guinea pig restaurants in Ecuador, where Ecuadorian vips apparently come for special occasions.

Also in this region we visited Cajas National Park - there are over 235 lakes within the park. Ecuador is such amazing country as it has such diversity in such a small space. There´s something like 32 different eco-systems in the country. So in a single day you can travel from jungle to mountain to highlands.

After a brief overnight back in Quito, we travelled north to stay at a beautiful hacienda ranch for a couple of days. At 400 years old, it´s Ecuador´s oldest hacienda and has had a rich history over the years. Felt very lucky to have the priviledge to stay there.

Just down the road from the hacienda is the ´Middle of the World´ - latitude 000. We went to visit the Equator site where there is a massive sun-dial - at equinox there is no shadow at the equator. The indigenous people here figured this out thousands of years ago and therefore this area has been a sacred place for a long time. (The name Quito actually means Middle Earth). The guy there tried to convince us that all world globes should be side-ways with Ecuador as the centre of the world! I guess it´s all a matter of perspective but not sure it´s going to go global. It´s interesting though that Ecuadorians believe Chimborazo to be the highest mountain in the world - due to the fact that the world is flatter at the poles and fatter at the equator this mountain is further up into the sky than Everest.

We were lucky again with our visit to Cayembe volcano, which is the only place you can find a glacier bang on the equator. It was quite a dramatic drive up to the volcano as myself and two of the others were travelling up in a 37 year-old Land Rover whose back door kept flying open whenever we hit bumps, which we hit a lot of. So Emma and myself were clinging on to the seats to prevent ourselves and our stuff disappearing off down the mountain! We did a short hike to get to the start of the glacier and then climbed up the ice and snow for a bit, just in order to slide our way back down. It was good fun - some of the group went flying down the snow on a big plank which created great video footage.

That afternoon we went out for a horse ride around the local area of the hacienda (no rest for the wicked!). I luckily got the best behaved horse of the group who didn´t want to stop and eat all the green stuff it could find (unlike all the others) and was quite happy to clop along at the back without needing to fight for a position in the line. This area is now one of the largest producers of roses in the world - they even export roses to Holland! So we had a lovely gentle ride through the country-side.

Our final destination on the trip was the market town of Otavalo, which has the largest market in South America. We had a fun last night out with lots of mohitos and salsa dancing but after getting to bed at 3:30 we had to be up at 6:00 to get to the animal market. And I´m so glad I did get up as it was probably one of the funniest mornings of my life. Firstly Dana, one of the guys from the US, bought a piglet! So here was this big gringo walking around the market with a piglet on a string, who was screaching quite a bit (the piglet, not Dana) at being separated from his family. All the locals were just laughing as we walked around. Eventually Dana found a buyer for his piglet - sold at a $4 loss but the entertainment value was priceless. After a wander around the cattle section we were just heading back for breakfast when Edel spotted a lovely little goat which she purchased for $15. And so we headed back across the city with a goat in tow on a string. Everywhere we went there was just a wave of giggling locals at the `gringa with the goat´. We named the goat Little Henry after our tour leader and he was extremely well behaved and bonded well with his new parents. Edel was so attached to Little Henry that she didn´t want to sell the goat to anyone, even though we got some good offers through town. Eventually the restaurant owner, where we were having breakfast gave Little Henry a good home - he owns a hacienda-style hotel where Little Henry could live happily as a lawn-mower!

After the rest of the morning at the craft market we then headed back to Quito for the end of our tour. I´ve really loved this trip and Ecuador has definately been my favourite country on the trip so far. If anyone is thinking of coming to South America and only has a couple of weeks I´d definately recommend coming here as there is just so much diversity and so much to do in a small space. One of the reasons the trip was so good was that we had a brilliant tour leader, Henry, who as a trained ecologist knew so much about the flora and fauna but also about the history and info on all the areas that we visited, that it made the trip so much more interesting. He also had a real enthusiasm for his country that we couldn´t help loving it. Add to this a brilliant group, who were loads of fun and we had a lot of laughs, and it all adds up to an excellent trip! Very sad to say goodbye to everyone ... but next stop Argentina!