Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Quito

On our return from the Amazon we got the chance to explore the capital further. The traffic was still terrible, but taxis were cheap and the city's settling and architecture is pleasant. The city centre is full of old Spanish legacies, particularly religious architecture - superb churches and cathedrals with golden alters, coloured columns, glided balconies and richly sculptured facades. Annoyingly tourists are required to pay a fee to enter these churches, which we didn't agree with, so we didn't go in. The Pope announced that he was to visit Quito on 5 July, which created a visible Pope fever across the city.

Along with our new friends Jessica and Jason, we took a trip up Mt. Pinchincha, an active volcano to get a birds eye view of the once Inca city. Thankfully, a sky tram took us up to the top. From our vantage point at 4100m we saw the city spreading along the high Andean valley in a roughly north- south direction. We took lunch together in the Old Town at San Agustin, a colonial style bakery and restaurant..... I had the ceviche prawns - raw prawns 'cooked' in lime juice and seasoned with herbs and onions, absolutely delicious.

Soaking up the afternoon sun in Plaza Grande was really enjoyable. We were able to watch the passers by; the persistant street vendors, shoe shiners, ambling police pairs, nuns scurrying past and groups of school children with sweet snacks after school - the girls in white pleated skirts with high white socks. We finished off the day with an impromptu karaoke session- such fun!

With many museums to choose from on Friday 19th June we visited the former house, now museum, of Maria Augusta Urrutia. We learned that she was a wealthy lady, part of Quito’s elite, who, following her husband’s death in her early thirties dedicated the rest of her life to caring for the street children of Quito.

Her collection of European furniture was high class and a feast for the eyes. Her bathroom featured two enormous stain glassed windows and followed an Art Neuvau style. Due to her generous charitable work she was awarded many national service medals and gifted many Catholic relics, generally small pieces of bone or hair, carefully presented on a silk backing and denoting the saints name, encased in a finely decorated metal frame.

Later that afternoon we enjoyed walking down the 16th century narrow cobbled streets of colonial architecture. La Ronda is a recently renewed area consisting of a small street now lined with artisanal shops and restaurants. Visiting a chocolatier we received a personal presentation of how chocolate is made from the cocoa bean to the final product - with samples! The local ceramics were jolly, but we doubted we would get them home in one piece. We consoled ourselves with some handmade sorbet, and felt like real tourists wandering the lanes with cornet in hand. We passed whitewashed walls with red tilled roofs, heavy wooden doors and peaked inside to see fountained courtyards, with stone pillars propping up the open galleries, reminiscent of the Moorish styles of North Africa and Southern Spain.

The view over Quito from the cable car as you ascend Mt. Pinchincha

Plaza Grande could be taken straight from Southern Spain or North Africa


 La Ronda is a gem, housing fantastic artisan workshops, artists and family run restaurants

The wonderfully OTT Art Nouveau bathroom of Maria Augusta Urrutia (borrowed from internet)

The fabulous Moorish style central courtyard

Opulence abound, in this room she would entertain her most important guests including presidents and travelling dignitaries from all over the world

Monday, 13 July 2015

Amazon Adventures

The EcuadorIan Amazon is located in the eastern side of the country, in an area called El Oriente. We travelled by bus from Quito for eight hours to the frontier town of Lago Agrio, (which is 40 miles from the Columbian boarder). This area, like much of the Ecuadorian Amazon provides the majority of Ecuador's export revenue in the form of oil. We sat around waiting for the next bus for three hours, watching the rain.



From Lago Agrio we took another bus for a further three hours. The further away we got from town, the more trees and less agriculture we saw. Occasionally we would see a 'Se Vende' (for sale) sign on a patch of cleared land, surrounded by recently dug ditches to reduce water logging. 

At the riverside village of Parador Oriental a couple of houses lined the concrete slipway. A fat pig was teathered under a bush, lying in the shady side. I sat down on a makeshift bench next to a local guy, he got out his phone and played the song that goes 'take my breath away' from Top Gun. I'm not sure if he played it for me, being an English spoken song, or he just like the tune. A woman was doing her families clothes wash in a couple of large buckets on the waters edge, she used powder from two packets then threw the empty plastic wrappers in the river. A man with a huge belly, and his tshirt rolled up into a crop top was talking to her. He might have had a herdener. Another woman was in a canopy area next to the slipway, grilling plantain and chicken legs on her BBQ. It smelt really good. I figured the oil workers were here target customers, as the ramp was industrial sized compared to this sleepy hamlet. 

Then travelling by boat down the Rio Aguarico (a tributary of the Amazon) for a further three hours we saw families living by subsistence farming, reaping coffee beans, cassava, cocoa and breeding cows and pigs. They had cleared the forest around their stilted houses. In some areas secondary tree growth had come through. One thing was evident though, colonisation is increasing. We passed large container-like boats carrying oil tankers and machinery on the river. Apparently the oil companies are now undertaking directional drilling, so the drill is orientated to an oil reserve, and open cast mining (which is more destructive) is minimised. I didn't easily accept the no-environmental impact line which was fed to us, I guess old age has made me cynical. 

We turned up the Rio Cuyabeno into the Cuyabeno Reserve. Our fibreglass boat was about 8m in lenght and wide enough to sit two across, powered by an outboard engine. We were told later that these long fibreglass boats are now more popular than canoes made of tree trunks. Here the forest was much thicker, with some green giants still standing. We were now at an elevation of approximately 210m. Half of an hour later we were please to finally see our camp, just off the river situated in a lagoon. Our 17 hour transit was over. We were in a group of 13, which were divided into two groups each with a guide. There were 8 English speaking in our group and 5 in the Spanish speaking group. We soon got chatting with the other guests and had a very good time together. 



That night, and each night in the jungle, the sound of the crickets, grasshoppers and creatures of the night chirping away was overpowering and yet, comforting. We were miles away from another habitation and I found the blackness very peaceful.  

The water was everywhere. When I previously thought of the Amazon it would be off one large meandering river cutting through swathes of forest. Here it was more swamp, that is numerous braids of rivers threading through the jungle. It was wet under foot. The earthen floor was less than half a metre thick which meant that a badly placed foot soon sank into the underlying clay strata. At times we hopped from root to tufted hassock to prevent being stuck in the quagmire. Did it rain in the rainforest? Why yes, everyday. The rain was warm and by the end of our trip we just embraced it and let it coat our bodies, knowing the sun would steam clean us in the next hour.

Home sweet home

Over the five days at the lodge our schedule generally consisted of a 6am boat ride along the Rio Cuyabeno or own of its tributaries, followed by three to four hour walk, a second boat trip or walk and then a night walk. It was a heavy schedule, which we were pleased about. We took a siesta or sometimes I just sat on the edge of the lagoon watching the turtles sunbath and the Hoatzin birds (or Stinky Turkeys) poorly balance on branches across the water. 

We did spot a range of animals, and they were expert (as you might expect) at using the jungle as camouflage. Being in a reserve we saw wall to wall green. Tall trees lined the riverbanks, dressed in vines. The creepers and leaniers tie the trees together, forming a highway for the mammals, reptiles and insects. 



Our guide was good identifying birds, which were often the size of a chaffinch and up a huge tree; "See the branch next to the branch with the lighter colour leaves, third tree to the right from the hanging vine". But neithertheless, we did tally up an good list of fauna, which I've listed below (omitting many of the jungle birds). Each evening we consulted the (laminated due to the humidity) identification books with our travelling companions. I made some notes to improve my memory and soon learnt how to distinguish between a squirrel, saki, howler and woolly monkey. 

Two howler monkeys - for those of you who need assistance


As I mentioned in an earlier post our camera is bust, and we missed its' zoom function greatly, so I'm afraid we don't have many animal snaps. We did put out our camera trap at night in three different locations, and one night, much to our delight, we caught a shot of an nocturnal animal. 


Short video of a Capybara captured by our camera trap - apologies the shot is a little overexposed


One day we visited a local house, harvested some cassava (a tubular) and made pancakes. The whole process was labour intensive but the end dish, cooked on a clay plate on an open fire in a wooden house, was plaitible. What stuck in my mind the most was the immaceated pigs and dogs. 

I would have like to have stayed for much longer because the Amazon is my favourite place in South America (so far that is!). I really enjoyed the lush scenery, nature, sunshine and humidity. I often get asked if I would live in any of the places we have visited, and I sure would think about living here. 





List of fauna spotted (but unfortunately not photographed):

Plumbeous Kite, Great Black Hawk, White Throated Toucan, Masked Crimson Tanager, Black Headed Vulture, Chestnut Fronted Macaw, Channel Billed Toucan, Yellow Crowned and Orange Cheeked Parrots, Crimson Crested Woodpecker, Black and Yellow Macaw, Swallows, Kingfishers, Parquets, Jay, Stinky Turkey (Hoatzin), Social Fly Catcher, Large Billed Tern, Common Squirrel Monkey, Monk Saki, Red Howler Monkey, Three Toed Sloth, Common Woolly Monkey, Black Mantled Tamarin, Kinkajou, Yellow Handed Titi Monkey, Yellow Spotted Turtled, Fishing Bat, Toads, Frogs, Stick Insects, Tarantulas, Pink River Dolphins, White Faced Capuchin, Tayra, Capybara, Bush Master Snake, Scorpion Spider, Anaconda, Armadillo and probably a few more!

A few downloaded images of some of the more unusual animals from the list above:

Stinky Turkey

White Throated Toucan

Kinkajou

Monk Saki

Yellow Handed Titi Monkey

Friday, 10 July 2015

All you need is Ecuador

Ecuador is located on the west coast of South America, and as it's name alludes too, is smack bang on the Equator. Its neighbours are Columbia to the north and Peru to the south and east.

 A map just to help you out


The country can be divided into four geographical regions. The first geographic region we would visit would be La Sierra, framed by the majestic Andes, with volcanic peaks topping 20000ft. Running the length of Ecuador from Columbia to Peru, two volcanic ranges are separated by the 35 mile wide Central Valley (termed the "Avenue of the Volcanoes") in which Quito is situated. To the west of the Andes is the coastal region, La Costa, which is lowland and agricultural area. To the east is El Oriente, the upper Amazon region with its tropical rain forests. Finally, separated from the continent by 600 miles of ocean are the Galápagos Islands, made famous by the observations of Charles Darwin on his 1835 trip aboard The Beagle.

The diversity of these four distinct regions, and their associated wildlife I'm sure influenced their tourist board to create its slogan "All you need is Ecuador". It is our intention to visit each of these distinct geographical areas, if our dwindling funds will stretch to that, of course.

Travelling north we landed in Quito, the capital of Ecuador on Monday 8th June 2015. Our flight route took us over the Andes.

 Snow capped volcanic peaks near Quito


On leaving Peru Chris was suffering badly from breathing difficulties and man-flu. We spent the first few days holed up in our Quito hotel, which was exclusively decorated in an 'Inca' style. The 1940s Inca design, with a lift straight out of 'The Grand Hotel Budapest' was most quaint. We actually fell in love with the fake stone walls, Inca tributes and ornaments which would be more at home in an Indiana Jones film.

 A wonderful Inca style fireplace

A hammered bronze effect mural in the lobby

Even the plasterwork is made to look like carved stone



This temporary grounding did give us the opportunity to book a trip to the Amazon. One disaster we suffered was the malfunction of our trustworthy Cannon camera. We found a Cannon specialist but the findings confirmed our fears, and our faithful friend was consigned to the bottom of the rucksack. We therefore apologise for the drop in photo quality henceforth!

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Cusco and the Sacred Valley

A long and uncomfortable (too hot, too cold, manic driver) overnight bus journey brought us to Cusco at 7am. We were now at an elevation of 3300m and our breathing was laboured. We checked into our hostel on the main square. The room felt damp and unpleasant. We set about familiarising ourselves with the town. Due to the effects of the altitude we didn't walk too far.

In the old town the thickset walls and foundation stonework were immediately apparent. Much of the neater, rounded blockwork was part of the original Inca capital that was destroyed and rebuilt by the Spanish in the 15th century.

Cusco and the other archaeological sites of the Urubamba Valley (Ollantautaybo, Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupamarca, Huiñay Huayna, Intipucu etc) bear unique testimony to the Inca civilisation.

A few days later we took a taxi through the Urubamba (Scared) Valley, stopping at the town of Pisac, about 35km north east of Cusco. We visited the Inca citadel, which towered above this sleepy village along cliff-hanging footpaths. It was built built between the 10th and 11th centuries. We admired this Inca architecture due to the technique used to build its enormous walls, palaces and turrets with stone blocks, all done without any type of cement or adhesive.

Water is still channelled through the fully functional irrigation systems. Furthermore, the terraces that encircle the mountain were very impressive. When following a hanging footpath we went through a tunnel cut into the hill, about 15m in length. The site afforded marvellous views of the valley, and we could hear a children's party in full swing hundreds of metres below.

In the town of Ollantaytambo we saw a temple made of massive monoliths, and a fortress. What was interesting about this site was that at some point, for reasons unknown, work mysteriously stopped and the buildings were never completed. You can see blocks just left lying on the ground, and trace the ramp and road where along which they travelled from the quarry on the other site of the valley. 


The surrounding valleys have been cultivated continuously for well over 1,000 years. The farmers still grow potatoes and maize, but now use chemicals, and like many underdeveloped country's the control and effect of these substances are poorly understood by the masses. The natural vegetation is scrubby subtropical region ferns and palms. We spotted many eucalyptus trees, obviously an invasive species, but how they got here we don't know.


Cusco's central Plaza


Typical colonial style cloisters surround the plaza. Built in the early 1500s on the original foundations of the Inca city


Guinea Pig anyone?


Fraser and Sarah out exploring Pisac's ruins


The steep terraces of Pisac's fields that supported the Inca fortress


Sarah tied to the old hinges in the stone doorway




Beautiful stonework - no mortar required


Family outing in Olantaytambo




The ruins at Olantaytambo overlook the small fortified town




The prominent bulges on these stones are believed to have been used to help fix the ropes to the stones for moving them from the quarry, on the other side of the valley, to the site. The blocks would then have been ground off once the blocks were in position. As the site was never finished these bumps remain providing clues into the construction methods used.


The straight road on the edge of the fields leads to the quarry where the majority of the large stones came from


The original aqueducts and channels still function perfectly even 600 years later