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The middle of the world

Ecuador introduction


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Mitad del Mundo monument

The name “Ecuador” means Equator, which this small but very varied country straddles. Indeed, there is a monument near the capital, Quito, which marks “El Mitad del Mundo” – the Middle of the World.

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On El Panecillo

We came here primarily because we wanted to see the Galápagos Islands, but it is too interesting a country not to see something of the mainland as well, so that is what we decided to do. And we were not sorry, as we found so much to like and enjoy here in the middle of the world.

While the Galápagos were, as we’d hoped they would be, the highlight of our trip, we had a wonderful time on the mainland too. We started (and finished) our trip in Quito, which I grew to really like – a slightly mad, bustling city surrounded by volcanoes and with a lovely old colonial heart.

From here we made various trips out of the city – to the famous market at Otavalo, to the hot springs of Papallacta, and to Cotopaxi to the south.

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On Plaza Sur

After about ten days in and around Quito we flew south to Cuenca, a city with which we soon fell in love. I can see why so many Americans choose to retire here. A likeable mix of historic architecture, good restaurants, lively bars and a welcoming atmosphere left us wishing we had allowed more time for our visit to this very likeable city.

But the Galápagos Islands were calling us, as they had been for some years. We were originally due to visit them in January 2009, but when Chris’s father fell ill we had to cancel the trip. Since then various events had conspired against us rescheduling the holiday, but finally, in November 2012, we were able to fulfil our dream.

Like us, you will get there eventually if you follow this blog, but meanwhile some general points about our trip.

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At sea on the Angelito

It was my original intention to put the trip together myself, booking our Galápagos cruise on our chosen boat, the Angelito, through their Quito-based agents, Cometa Travel, and arranging time in Quito either side of it, from where we would have done tours to various parts of Ecuador in the north. But out of curiosity I also contacted a UK company, Real Ecuador (now Real World Holidays), to find out what they would charge if they were to put together a package for us – not a group tour, but to book the accommodation, internal flights etc. Their quote was of course dearer but not as much so as I had expected, and it included a couple of overnight tours from Quito, as well as a flight to and few nights in Cuenca in the south, which I really wanted to see. So we decided it was worth the extra to book with them, and I was very satisfied with everything, especially their flexibility. The original quote had included things like a guided tour of colonial Quito, which we didn’t want as we preferred to explore on our own, and a hotel in the city’s Mariscal district, whereas we wanted to stay in the old colonial area, and there were no problems changing things around to suit us. In the end I reckon the costs worked out only a fraction higher this way than if we had done exactly the same things but made the arrangements ourselves!

The only major thing I did arrange separately was our flights from London to Quito and back. We also chose to do our own sightseeing in Quito, as I said, and were able to spend two of our days there with the parents of a London friend who introduced us to some of the well known, and less visited, sights of their city. Meanwhile the arrangements made on our behalf by Real Ecuador for the other elements of our stay worked out very well and we were very happy with the decision we had made.

Here is a brief overview of the main places we visited – much more detailed entries will follow in due course:

Quito

We spent four nights in Quito at the start of our holiday, a couple more between tours to various places in the north, and two more at the end of the trip.

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View of the city and church of Santo Domingo from our Quito hotel

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El Panecillo

I grew to really like the city – the contrast between its traffic-filled, somewhat manic newer areas and the colonial quarter at its heart, and its situation in a cleft between the Andean volcanoes. This situation has resulted in the city developing in an unusually thin and long shape – only 5 km at its widest east-west point, but about 40 km from north to south. It is also unusually high – at 2,800 metres above sea level, the highest capital city in the world (La Paz in Bolivia is often cited as such, and is certainly higher, but is not the official capital of that country – Sucre is the legal capital despite most government functions being in La Paz). Anyway, whether highest or second highest, Quito is certainly high, and if you arrive from sea level you will notice it perhaps in some shortness of breath when climbing one of its many hills.

The old colonial quarter is near Quito’s centre, at the foot of the small hill known as El Panecillo, from where the Virgin of Quito watches over the city. The modern city stretches both north and south from here, with the northern part being more affluent and containing the museums, shops, hotels, bars and restaurants most likely to attract visitors. Most choose to stay here, but we opted for a hotel in the colonial old town, which, though lacking the vibrant nightlife of the Mariscal district to its north, had a charm that appealed to us much more.

We spent most of our time here in the city’s colonial heart, which was one of the first two places in the world to be listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site (the other was Krakow in Poland). We visited many of its churches, people-watched in its attractive plazas, wandered its streets and ate in its restaurants at night.

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Cathedral and El Sagrario at night

But we did venture further afield at times. We were lucky enough to have friends in the city, or rather, the parents of a London friend, who had offered to spend time with us and introduce us to some parts of the city that they especially thought we would like. So with Betty and Marcelo we enjoyed the views from El Panecillo and the Parque Itchimbia, visited the Basilica del Voto Nacional and the Fundacion Guayasamin, ate in a couple of very good restaurants in the Mariscal, shopped in the market and toured some of the outlying districts such as Guapulo and Nayon.

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Church in Guapulo and stella at the Fundacion Guayasamin

We also had some tours outside the city with a guide, Jose Luiz, which we had arranged prior to departure from England as part of our tour package with Real Ecuador and their Ecuadorean partners, Surtrek. One was a day trip to Otavalo, famous for its market and to the Mitad del Mundo monument which marks the line of the Equator (although in practice it is slightly off the line as its location was based on a scientific survey carried out before the accurate measurements later made possible with GPS). Another was an overnight tour to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa, and we also spent a night at the lovely Termes de Papallacta.

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In Otavalo market, and Chuquiragua flowers on Cotopaxi

Cuenca

When we first decided to visit Ecuador, Cuenca was high on my list of must-sees. This beautiful colonial city in the south of the country has apparently become a favourite place to retire for Americans, and I can see why. It has lovely architecture, a temperate climate, friendly atmosphere, good restaurants and of course the cost of living is low by US (and UK) standards. But it’s also a great place to include on a holiday itinerary for all the same reasons!

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Cathedral in Cuenca

The old colonial centre, where we stayed and where we spent most of our time, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for good reason. At its heart is the main square, the Parque Calderon, with two cathedrals (old and new), and in the surrounding streets are more churches, attractive old houses, interesting museums and some great bars and cafés for the essential activity of people-watching. We were fortunate enough to be here at a weekend when two festivals were taking place – the nationally-celebrated Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) and the local celebrations that mark the anniversary of the city’s independence from Spain on 3rd November 1820. We had a great couple of days here, and I left wishing it could have been longer.

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Independence Day parade

Galápagos Islands

For many years, I have wanted to visit the Galápagos: to walk on these remote islands where unique species thrive, where Darwin first developed the ideas that would change our understanding of nature, and where animals have never learned to fear humankind. Fortunately, the experience more than lived up to my expectations! A week of discovery, with each day surprising us with something new, something special.

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One day, a giant manta ray languidly turning in the waves beneath the cliffs where we stood.

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Another, an albatross chick, already enormous, sitting watching us as we sat and watched him.

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On one memorable morning, we were spellbound by a group of young Galápagos hawks who clustered around a new-born sea lion pup and his mother, one of them eventually swooping in to grab the placenta which all then eagerly devoured.

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And on another, we swam and snorkelled with a group of lively sea lions, patrolled by the watchful alpha male who tolerated our intrusion but disdained to join the fun.

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Fabian, our Galápagos guide

We spent our week travelling the islands on board the Angelito, one of the older established boats available for tourist cruises, and one of the best value. Its itineraries and guiding are recognised as first class, but the boat itself is less than luxurious, though it has all that you need for a wonderful week at sea.

No fancy cabins or leisure facilities, but a friendly and super-helpful crew, great meals conjured up in a tiny galley, a knowledgeable guide (Fabian) considerate of everyone’s needs, and enough space in which to chill and appreciate your surroundings between island visits. We were fortunate too to have a great set of travelling companions (important when living in such close quarters) and overall couldn’t have asked for more from our Galápagos experience.

Join me in my following entries to share our Ecuador adventure ...

Posted by ToonSarah 22:39 Archived in Ecuador Tagged tour galapagos quito ecuador cuenca Comments (13)

A city among volcanoes

Ecuador day one


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Quito

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View of the city from El Panecillo

Quito for me will forever be defined by its dramatic location. Squeezed between two volcanic Andean ranges, its streets continually wind up and dip down, leaving you giddy at times. Or maybe that giddiness is due to the altitude - at 2,800 metres above sea level, Quito can claim to be the highest capital city in the world (La Paz in Bolivia is often cited as such, and is certainly higher, but is not the official capital of that country – Sucre is the legal capital despite most government functions being in La Paz). Anyway, whether highest or second highest, Quito is certainly high, and if you arrive from sea level you will notice it perhaps in some shortness of breath when climbing one of its many hills.

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Quito from Volcan Pichincha

The narrow shape also poses some interesting challenges for residents and the city authorities, especially as car ownership has grown so quickly in recent years. The north-south routes through the city easily become bottle-necks as almost everyone has to travel in those directions to reach their destination. The solution has been to impose a one day driving ban on all residents apart from taxi drivers, based on their car’s registration number. For instance, our friend Marcello cannot drive in the city during peak times on a Monday, and our guide Jose Luiz cannot do so on a Wednesday – not even for work purposes. [When we returned from Quilotoa on a Wednesday evening he had to get his dad, also a tour guide, to help out by meeting us just outside the boundary, on the ring road, so that we could transfer to his car to drive into the city centre.] Of course, for the rich there is always a solution to such inconveniences, and many have simply bought a second car with a different number! Nevertheless, Marcello did tell us that he believes the regulation has had some positive impact on pollution levels.

The old colonial quarter is near Quito’s centre, at the foot of the small hill known as El Panecillo, from where the Virgin of Quito watches over the city. The modern city stretches both north and south from here, with the northern part being more affluent and containing the museums, shops, hotels, bars and restaurants most likely to attract visitors. Most choose to stay here, but we opted for a hotel in the colonial old town, which, though lacking the vibrant nightlife of the Mariscal district to its north, had a charm that appealed to us much more.

Flying to Quito

We had originally booked our flights to Quito through Opodo, flying out via Miami with Delta and returning via the same hub with American. Miami isn’t exactly my favourite airport, and I’m no fan of American Airlines either, but this was the best value I could get on the dates we wanted to travel. But about six weeks before the trip both airlines changed their schedules and the connections in Miami would no longer work. Opodo proposed instead that we flew both ways with Delta, and via Atlanta. The outward option looked good to us, with a reasonable connection time and arriving in Quito only five minutes later than we had planned. But the return flight looked tough – a late night departure, overnight to Atlanta, the best part of the day there and another overnight flight to Heathrow.

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Building detail, Quito

However, the person I spoke to at Opodo offered to look for alternatives, and came up with a great one, proposing to book us on a flight with KLM (one of my favourite airlines) to Amsterdam and a short hop to Heathrow from there. What is more, they didn’t charge us any extra for what I am sure would have been a dearer flight had we booked it from the start!

In the end we had a mixed outward journey and a very smooth return. Going out, we left Heathrow on time and arrived in Atlanta 30 minutes ahead of schedule after a reasonable flight – OK food, good in-flight entertainment, nothing to complain about! Atlanta Airport impressed us – clean, bright, not too busy, and possibly our fastest ever experience at US immigration!

We got a coffee and settled down to wait through the three hour lay-over. But three hours became four, and eventually five, as our flight to Quito was delayed by the late arrival in Atlanta of 50 connecting passengers coming from Tokyo. We therefore arrived in Quito almost two hours late, around midnight local time (5.00 AM London time!), and it took a further 1.5 hours to get through immigration and customs there (mostly spent queuing for the former – we had thought that arriving so late would mean shorter queues but another flight had got in just before ours and staff seemed unable to cope with two late flights).

Eventually we were through and out into the Quito night where Jose Luiz, who was to be our guide on our trips to Otovalo and Cotopaxi later in the week, was there to meet us, and to whisk us to our hotel through the mercifully deserted street. We finally arrived there just after 2.00 AM local time, 7.00 AM London time – 24 hours after we had got up that morning!

Hotel San Francisco de Quito

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Hotel courtyard

We used the Hotel San Francisco as our base for all of our time in Quito –the longer stay of four nights at the start of our trip, a couple of one night stopovers between tours, and a couple of nights right at the end of trip, when we returned from the Galápagos. We slept in three different rooms, of varied quality, during these visits, and found it to be on the whole a pleasant and convenient option if you’re looking for a mid-range hotel in the colonial part of town.

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Entrance to room #22

The hotel has lots of character, having been built in the early 18th century and retaining lots of its colonial features. The rooms open onto the terraces that run around the courtyard or onto the corridors that lead off it. They seem to vary considerably, even within the same price category, and although I can’t be sure as we never asked for a specific room, I have a feeling that it’s the luck of the draw whether you get a better or less good room for your money. To be sure of getting plenty of space you could pay for a suite, but note that these are on upper floors and there is no lift. The highest floors are four or five stories, and the stairs are steep. I know because we went up one day to the viewing terrace on the roof of the top floor, which is well worth doing for the great views of the city, but which would be quite a climb with heavy luggage, especially at these altitudes which can leave you breathless in any case!

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Room #22

The first room we had, for our initial four nights (and on one other night too) was unfortunately the least good of the three we stayed in here. This was number 22. It had the advantage of being a little tucked away on the second floor and very quiet, although we could hear the distinctive sound of the passing trolley buses. But it was very small and almost monastic in its plainness, with no window, although the skylight lit it pretty well. There was a small en suite with a shower, a wardrobe, wall-mounted TV (we never tried to use this or any other here so I can’t say how well they worked) and a tiny desk. The bed though was very comfortable and we slept well here.

On subsequent stays we were to be allocated nicer rooms as you will no doubt see if you follow this blog for long enough!

Our first day in Quito

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Breakfast room

Although we had arrived so late the previous night we were up in time for breakfast, keen to start exploring the city. Breakfast at the San Francisco is served in the basement restaurant, located in what was once a prison! You need to collect a voucher from reception on your way downstairs. But I found the breakfast decidedly disappointing – weak coffee, watered down juice drink and rolls with jam. The rolls were pretty good but the rest very poor. I really couldn’t fathom how, in a country famed for its high-quality coffee and delicious fruit juices, they could make quite such a disastrous attempt at both! You can pay for extra items if you want them, such as bacon and fresh fruit, but we never did so as I wasn’t confident they would be any better than the free stuff on offer, although had they offered proper coffee on that menu I would have been willing to pay for it perhaps.

Leaving the hotel we decided to stroll uphill (slowly – we were still getting used to the altitude!) to the nearby Plaza San Francisco, which was to become one of my favourite spots in the city and which offered plenty of sightseeing for this first morning. But on the way we detoured into the stunning church of La Compania.

Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús

The Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús, often abbreviated to just La Compañia, is a must-see in Quito, even if you are not normally keen to visit lots of churches! You will rarely if ever have seen such a richly adorned church, and in fact, La Compañía is considered one of the most significant works of Spanish Baroque architecture in the whole of South America.

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Detail and door

From the outside it looks interesting but no more so than many another church. It was built from grey volcanic stone over a lengthy period of time, between 1605 and 1765, to serve as the base for the Society of Jesus in Ecuador. Originally it had a bell tower, the tallest in colonial Quito, but this was destroyed by an earthquake in 1859, and although rebuilt, destroyed again in 1868. After that they seem to have given up, as it was never replaced. The facade is symmetrical in design and features Solomonic columns, which are symbolic of the Catholic doctrine that life’s journey starts at the bottom (on earth), but by following the holy path, it ends at heaven.

But it is the interior that will take your breath away! Not only is it ornately carved throughout, but almost every surface is covered with gold. I have read variously that there is almost half a ton of gold, and that there is nearly seven tons – but whatever the weight, it is almost overwhelming in places. You need to take the time to adjust and to start to see through the richness of the surfaces to the detail of the plasterwork itself, and to take in the paintings and other treasures.

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At the centre of the main altar is a statue of the local saint, Mariana de Jesús, whose remains are entombed at its foot. Look out for the paintings by Nicolás Javier Goribar of prophets from Old Testament on 16 of the pillars, and for the symbol of the sun on the main door and on the ceiling. The sun was an important symbol for the Inca, and the Spanish thought that if they decorated the entry with such a symbol, it might encourage local people to join the church. Another thing to note is the absence of figurative designs in the plasterwork, reflecting the Moorish influence – only geometrical shapes are used.

Photography is unfortunately not allowed inside (I would happily have paid extra to do so, as is the case elsewhere, but that option doesn’t seem to be offered in Quito). However there are some photos on the church’s website La Compania, and I confess to sneaking just one quick shot of part of the ceiling.

Tianguez and the Plaza San Francisco

Arriving on the Plaza San Francisco I declared myself in need of caffeine, after the disappointing beverage that had been on offer at breakfast time, and the conveniently located Tianguez beckoned us. We grabbed one of the outside tables, perused the extensive drinks menu and made our choices - double espresso for me (of course!) and for Chris a hot chocolate, served the traditional way with cubes of mild white cheese.

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Plaza San Francisco

This small café on the Plaza San Francisco became my favourite spot in Quito, for its excellent coffee and the great views over the activity on the plaza. The Plaza San Francisco is one of the oldest in the city, constructed on the site where the palace of the Inca ruler Atahualpa´s son, Auqui Francisco Tupatauchi, once stood. It was used for centuries by indigenous groups as a trading center, or tianguez – hence the name of the café and also the shop which now occupies the arches under the church. The plaza is cobbled and built on a slope, with the result that from the upper side, by the church and Tianguez café, you get some excellent views – of the life of the square, of the surrounding Quito rooftops (including the domes of La Compañia) and of El Panecillo and other hills of the city.

And there is plenty of life to be seen here, as you sit over a coffee or on the steps of the church. Young shoe-shine boys tout for business; women in traditional dress try to sell their colourful scarves; local workers hurry to their offices; children play in the fountain; tourists wander, cameras at the ready; and the tourist police watch over it all. If like me you regard people-watching as one of the essential pleasures of a city-based holiday, you will be very happy to spend time here.

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Scarf sellers in the plaza

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Shoe shine

We came to Tianguez several times during our stay as it was just a few blocks from our hotel and the coffee was the perfect antidote to the weak stuff on offer at breakfast there – here in contrast I could get excellent Ecuadorean coffee in my favourite plaza!

Iglesia de San Francisco and Museo Fray Pedro Gocial

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Iglesia de San Francisco

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Lovebirds

The Plaza San Francisco is dominated by the church of the same name, whose convent houses a museum of colonial religious art. Although we weren’t sure how interested we would be in the collection we decided to visit as we knew that doing so gives you access to the lovely and peaceful convent cloisters and to the choir loft of the church. The monastery is the oldest and largest in the country, taking up two city blocks. It was founded in 1546 but took 70 years to build.

The art works here include paintings, altar pieces and processional statues, displayed very nicely along the outer and inner cloisters. No photos are allowed in the inner one but you can take any pictures you want in the outer one, both of the works on display and the cloister itself. In one corner, we found some pretty birds – finches, lovebirds etc. I’m not a fan of keeping pet birds but at least these weren’t caged (though I assume their wings had been clipped to keep them here) and the lovebirds in particular were so sweet that we found them an added attraction to the museum.

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The outer cloisters

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17th century altarpiece

The altarpiece in my photo depicts Saint Barbara and is by an anonymous artist of the 17th century. This is in the outer cloister, which was why I was able to take the photo, and is typical of the works on display there.

But the highlight for me was a series of processional statues depicting the Passion on display in the inner cloister. These are typical of the Quito school in their vivid, if not gory, portrayal of the sufferings of Christ and the other saints. It is generally said that this goriness is a reference to the suffering that the indigenous people had undergone at the hands of their Spanish conquerors. Perhaps they found those who had suffered for this faith that had been imposed on them, to be the element of it with which they themselves could most easily identify? Whatever the explanation, these are powerful works, whether or not you share the beliefs that inspired them.

When you have finished looking at the art, and maybe sat a while in the peaceful cloister, you can climb a flight of stone stairs to the left of the museum entrance which lead you to the choir loft of the church. From here you have an excellent view of the church (although again no photos allowed).

The loft itself is also worth seeing, for the intricately carved choir stalls and the dramatic crucifix by Manuel Chile Caspicara, which dates back to 1650-70. It is said that Caspicara tied a model to a cross to examine how best to represent Christ's facial and body expressions as realistically as possible.

Plaza de la Independencia

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When we emerged from the museum, we decided to walk over to the city’s main square, the Plaza de la Independencia. Also known as the Plaza Grande, this is an attractive green space with the memorial to independence at its centre, plenty of benches for resting and people-watching, and is surrounded on three of its four sides by attractive old buildings. These are:

~ On the southwest side, the cathedral
~ On the northwest, the Palacio de Carondelet, the President’s Palace and seat of government for the republic
~ On the northeast, the Archbishop's Palace and the Palacio Hidalgo, built as a private residence (the only one of these that still remains on the plaza) for Juan Diaz de Hidalgo and now the Hotel Plaza Grande

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Palacio de Carondelet

On the remaining southeast side are municipal offices, including the police headquarters. The corners of the square also hold some interesting and attractive buildings, including the church of the Immaculate Conception and the Centro Cultural Metropolitano. Only the rather ugly 1970s building on the southeast side of the square spoils its harmony. This was built as a replacement for an earlier city hall, presumably because the functions of the council of this rapidly growing city had become too numerous for the facilities available in the old structure, but it is a shame that this happened during a period so little renowned both for its respect for historic architecture and for its ability to create memorable modern buildings.

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Monument to Independence

The plaza itself, as a public square, dates back to 1612. The first significant buildings to be constructed here were those built by the powerful Catholic Church – the cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace. Later, private homes followed – the Palacio Hidalgo next door to the Archbishop’s Palace, and more on the northwest side. These latter were damaged in the earthquake of 1627 and the site then occupied by the Palacio de Carondelet. In the eighteenth century, the square was further developed to act as a sort of garden for the latter, whose steps (since demolished to allow traffic to pass along this side of the square) led down into it. There was a fountain at the centre, but this was replaced in 1906 by a newly commissioned monument to commemorate the centenary of the country’s independence from Spain. This monument depicts the victory over the Spanish colonial troops through a triumphant condor holding a broken chain in his beak, and a fleeing Iberian lion which is limping away, dragging its cannons and standards as it goes.

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Monument to Independence

Any tourist who spends much time in colonial Quito is likely to pass through this square several times. We found it a pleasant haven when we wanted to rest during sightseeing walks (there always seemed to be a bench available) and particularly liked it at night, on our way to and from dinner at a nearby restaurant perhaps, when the surrounding buildings are nicely illuminated.

Now however, lunch beckoned – but this entry is becoming alarmingly long so I will continue in another one …

Posted by ToonSarah 15:52 Archived in Ecuador Tagged churches hotel city quito ecuador Comments (6)

At the crater's edge

Ecuador day seven


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

After a good night’s sleep in our cosy room in the Hacienda la Cienega we woke to dry weather and, I was pleased to note, my headache of the previous day had cleared. We had breakfast in the same restaurant which was more of a success than the dinner had been – fresh fruit (melon, pineapple and banana), fresh juice (babaco – related to papaya and very refreshing), scrambled eggs and bacon, and reasonable coffee.

Overall, we had really liked our short stay here, because of the special atmosphere and history of the place, but if you go, take a warm jumper and ask to order your dinner from the main menu (see previous entry)!

Pujili

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Pujili market

We were heading for Quilotoa, the westernmost of the volcanoes in Ecuador’s Andean range (the country of course has volcanoes further west, on some of the islands in the Galápagos), but on the way stopped first in the small town of Pujili to visit the market. As we had been in Otavalo a few days before, I wondered whether this would be similar, but it was an altogether more local and authentic affair. Market days here are Wednesday and Sunday (we were here on a Wednesday) and are a major event for the local people, as the jammed streets around the town testified. Farmers from all the villages in the surrounding area head here to sell their wares and to buy what they need themselves. But this is more than simply a place to shop; going to the market is an important social activity, and locals dress up and take time to mingle, to greet their friends and to catch up on the gossip.

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Shoppers at the market

There were no tourist handicrafts here, though one woman was selling the local felt hats. Instead, it was all about food! Live chickens, fresh fruits (many that I didn’t recognise but whose juices we realised we had been drinking once we heard their names from Jose Luiz), herbs and vegetables and more.

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Fruit for sale, and very fresh chickens

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Guagua de pan

We also saw several stalls selling the traditional Day of the Dead breads, guagua de pan. Most of the customers were locals (in fact, I don’t believe I saw any other tourists apart from ourselves) and were mainly intent on their shopping, though on one side of the square a small crowd had gathered around a girl who was singing and selling her CDs, and a nearby food stall was doing great business.

This was a fantastic place for people watching (and photographing) and for getting a good introduction to local produce, including several of the fruits we had been enjoying as juices but not seen “whole” before. I can definitely recommend a stop here if you’re in the area on market day.

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Stall holders

The drive to Quilotoa

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Returning to the car after our enjoyable photography session in the market we headed towards Quilatoa through some lovely scenery. One thing that amazed and impressed me was just how much of this highland environment was under cultivation. The local people have farmed these lands for centuries of course, and are experienced at getting the best out of them, using traditional terracing and irrigation techniques. Crops grown here include potatoes, maize, beans and other vegetables.

We also stopped at one point near a house built in the typical indigenous style of wood, wattle and daub, with a steep over-hanging straw roof to protect it from the often harsh weather conditions at this altitude (we were around 3,800 metres at this point).

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Traditional house

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Progress was slow however, owing to extensive roadworks along this road. It seemed that every couple of miles along this road, part of it was being dug up. As I commented at the time, “I’m sure it’s going to be lovely when it’s finished!”

The worst road-works, or at least for anyone in a hurry, involved a narrow stretch of road on a tight bend on a steep hill. To widen the road they were using dynamite, which seems to be a popular “tool” here, and this involved closing the road totally (in both directions) for lengthy periods while they set off a blast and then cleared the resulting rubble. Although not the busiest road in the country this is the only route into and out of the Quilotoa area, so this caused considerable jams.

We were stuck in the waiting queue here for at least thirty minutes, but at least this is a scenic spot and we were able to use the time to get out of the car and stretch our legs, enjoy the views of the surrounding countryside and take a few photos.

Quilotoa

This delay, combined with the stop in Pujili, meant that it was late morning when we arrived at our destination. Later the day was to get very rainy, even stormy, but for now it was dry but with low cloud. Although I had hoped to see the lake in sunshine, I have to say that the gloomy light made it very atmospheric and brought out the green colours very effectively.

We parked in a large car park just below the rim, in the small but sprawling village that relies on tourist income generated by the lake. A short flight of steps led us up to the viewpoint. The previous day I had struggled with a headache that owed much in its intensity to the high altitudes we were at, but today thankfully the only symptom was a certain breathlessness as I hurried to reach the famous view! But soon we were there, perched high above the deep green-blue waters, with the lowering clouds reflected dramatically in them. The sight did not disappoint!

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Quilotoa is the westernmost of the volcanoes in Ecuador’s Andean range (the country of course has volcanoes further west, on some of the islands in the Galápagos) and lies at 3,914 metres. Its large caldera, three kilometres in width, is filled with a beautiful green lake, 250 metres deep. The colour of the lake is due to the various minerals that have dissolved in its waters.

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The lake lies about 400 metres below the rim, and a path winds its way down. But partly because of the weather, partly because of my dodgy knee, and partly because we were later than we’d planned (thanks to those roadworks) and it became a choice between a walk or lunch, we opted not to go down. Instead we just took a shorter walk part of the way along the path round the rim (the full circuit would take the best part of a day). If you do decide to go down it’s about a 30 minute hike, and a good hour or more to climb back up, although it’s also possible to hire mules to bring you up.

Lunch at Kirutwa

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Chris and Jose Luiz at lunch by the fire

We ate our lunch in this friendly café which is perched right on the crater’s edge near to the viewpoint. Jose Luiz explained that he likes to patronise this restaurant because it is community-run. Local people take turns at the cooking and serving and the profits are shared among them.

We took a table by the fireplace and one of the women came over to stoke it, as it was a chilly day. We were amused to see that they were burning all sorts of pieces of wood, including an old broom handle and several bits of old furniture, some of which stuck out into the room rather alarmingly. No UK Health & Safety inspector would have passed the arrangement, but it certainly made for a great blaze!

We started our lunch with a bowl of tasty lentil soup which was accompanied by yucca chips (a nice change from the more usual banana) and a hot aji sauce. The main course was pork chops, as it had been the day before in Tambopaxi. Unused to large lunches I opted to skip this course, but Chris had one and said it was very good. Dessert was pineapple, which I love, although it was a shame that it was served in a rather sweet syrup. The accompanying juices were very refreshing however, and we enjoyed our cosy meal here.

One thing I loved about Quilotoa was the way the light kept changing, because of all those clouds. While we were having lunch a thick fog had descended, which totally hid both the lake and the houses of the small village from view, but by the time we finished eating and climbed back to the viewpoint for a final look, the clouds lifted again briefly to reveal the lake below.

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On our way back to where the car was parked we stopped in the nearby crafts cooperative where local people have stalls to sell their handiwork. This is a new initiative and it felt like it too – very pristine and soulless – a bit like a church hall! But I’m sure it will mellow and bring real benefits to the community.

When we visited only some of the small stalls were open and the place was pretty quiet. Some women were knitting and chatting, and we had a quick look round at the various crafts being sold – mostly textiles and paintings. We wanted to support the initiative so we bought a small Tigua painting from a one of the youngest sellers for $5 (we didn’t haggle as the price was so reasonable and the girl so young).

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In the craft cooperative - our young seller on the right

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Our little painting

Tigua is a collection of small Andean communities in this area, whose artists have become renowned for their paintings of colourful rural scenes. Traditionally they painted on drums and masks, but in the 1970s a Quito art dealer persuaded one of the artists to paint on a flat surface, a sheep hide stretched over a wooden frame. This changed the art-form completely, and today most Tigua artists produce only flat paintings, still on the stretched sheepskin.

Paintings are usually quite small, limited by the size of the hide (ours though is very small!) The subject matter is always a rural scene, and favourite motifs include Cotopaxi and other Andean scenery, village life, working in the fields, condors, llamas and more. Our little picture features several of these elements, which is why we chose it. I was really pleased to have this small example of this traditional folk art, which now hangs in our kitchen and brightens our breakfasts on dull winter mornings.

Cañon del Río Toachi

Time now though to head back to the city. About half way between Quilotoa and the main road, Jose Luiz pulled over and led us across the road and past a small grove of pine trees to a viewpoint over this dramatic gorge which you wouldn’t even realise was here if not “in the know”. The scenery down in its depths is quite a contrast to the farmland around it – you really get a sense of a scar cut through the landscape by the fast-flowing river, the Toachi, some 2,600 metres below where you stand. A great little photo stop – thank Jose Luiz!

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Cañon del Río Toachi

Storm over the Andes

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The journey back to Quito was to provide one of the most unforgettable sights of our time in Ecuador – one that was totally unplanned, and which arose out of what might have been seen as a problem. We were stuck again in the same traffic jam that had held us up on our way to the lake, and it was sheer bad luck, or so we thought, that we should be returning through this spot at the same time as they again blasted through the hillside and closed it to traffic while clearing the rubble – not a quick undertaking. There was nothing to do but wait. I passed a little time updating my journal, while keeping an eye open out of the window for anything interesting to happen on the road or in the fields below where we sat. As I did so I noticed that the clouds were descending and swirling around, and the sky growing darker. There were some dramatic flashes of lightening and loud claps of thunder as the storm circled around the valley. Despite the rain I just had to get out of the car and get a few shots.

When the storm and the road block cleared, at about the same time, we were able to drive on, through the still-falling rain. It was easy to see why the fields here seem so fertile and green, as rain in these mountains must be a common occurrence at certain times of year at least. I loved these soft green landscapes, with patchwork fields dotted with small houses and occasional workers, children herding sheep and seemingly suicidal dogs darting out into the passing traffic.

Back “home” in Quito

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Room #21

As we approached the city Jose Luiz explained that as it was Wednesday he would be unable to drive us to the hotel. As I explained in an earlier entry in this blog, the city had imposed a one day driving ban on all residents apart from taxi drivers, based on their car’s registration number, to help manage the heavy congestion on its roads, and Wednesday was Jose Luiz’s “no entry” day! The solution was to call his father, also a tour guide but with a restriction on a different day of the week, and get him to meet us just outside the limit of the central zone. The transfer went smoothly and we were soon back at our base, the Hotel San Francisco, where we collected our luggage from storage and found ourselves allocated a much nicer room than on the two previous stays. This was room #21, just down the corridor from our previous one but worlds away in terms of space and character! It had a beautiful vaulted brick ceiling, a large en suite, lots of storage including some antique trunks, and even an in-room Jacuzzi tub! What a shame that we were only here for a few hours though!

Vista Hermosa

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View from the terrace

Jose Luiz had recommended this restaurant to us, so we decided to check it out that evening. It is located just a stone’s throw from the Plaza de la Independencia, on the top floor of a fairly tall (for colonial Quito) building and enjoys wonderful views from both the inside restaurant and the roof terrace above. It is accessed via an old-fashioned lift complete with equally old-fashioned lift attendant. When you emerge from the lift you have the choice of climbing a short flight of steps to the roof or eating inside. We chose the latter, as winter / rainy season evenings in Quito can be a bit chilly as well as damp, but I imagine in fine weather the roof terrace is a fantastic location for an evening drink or two. Even at this time of year, with the heaters provided, it would be OK just for drinking, but less suited to eating in our opinion, though we did go up to admire the view and take some photos.

Inside, we were lucky enough to secure a window table so could admire the view throughout our meal. We started with a shared bowl of corn chips with guacamole – there were plenty of chips (too many really) but the portion of guacamole was a little stingy we thought. We then shared a pizza; we had been going to order one each, fooled by the reasonable prices into thinking they would be quite small, but luckily the helpful waitress told us that one would be enough, and she was right. It had a good ham and mushroom topping, and Chris, a real pizza fan, gave it his seal of approval although personally I prefer a less crispy base. We had a large Pilsner beer each to wash it down, and very much enjoyed what would be our last evening in Quito for a while.

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Interior

Back at the hotel we had plenty to do to sort our bags, as we were going to store one here for our return at the end of the trip. No need to cart around dirty laundry or our clean “travelling home” outfits, when space on our Galápagos cruise boat would be so limited.

But before that we were off to Cuenca, a rather special city …

Posted by ToonSarah 06:17 Archived in Ecuador Tagged mountains lakes volcanoes market quito ecuador crafts Comments (4)

Walking the city

Ecuador day nine


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Cuenca

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Another view from our room

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At breakfast

After a good night’s sleep in our lovely room at the Hotel Victoria we sought out the included breakfast which was served in the large restaurant, Le Jardin, which as its name suggests overlooks the pretty garden and was very good. We sat at a table with a hummingbird visiting the feeder just by our window and enjoyed fresh fruit, papaya juice, a choice of bacon or ham with eggs cooked to order, rolls and much better coffee than we had become used to at our Quito hotel.

City tour with Terra Diversa

When planning our trip to Ecuador I was conscious that we were only going to have very limited time in Cuenca so when our travel company (Simply Ecuador) suggested pre-booking a half-day tour of the city I acquiesced, thinking it would be a good way to see a lot in a short time. But when we arrived, and I realised how compact the city was, I wondered if we would regret that decision as it seemed quite possible to cover a lot of ground even in the couple of days we had available. However, I have to say that the guide we had, Wilson from local company Terra Diversa, was absolutely excellent, with the result that we were very pleased to have secured his services. What made it so good a tour was the variety of places he took us, his flexibility in listening to our preferences (and adjusting to the fact that I couldn’t walk as far as I would have liked with my still-dodgy knee), and the wealth of interesting information he imparted. Terra Diversa offer lots of tours and I wouldn’t hesitate to book with them again, directly – and would certainly ask for Wilson by name!

Our tour started when Wilson collected us from our hotel at 9.00 and should have lasted four hours, but he was as happy as we were to over-run a bit and in the end we spent nearly five hours exploring the city with him.

"Panama" hats

In many accounts I read of visits to Cuenca a trip to a “Panama” hat factory was mentioned, so I was quite pleased that one was included in our tour with Wilson, despite being concerned that it might prove to be little more than a sales pitch aimed at persuading us to buy one. As it turned out it was a very informative visit and with only a little pressure to buy – which we resisted, more or less!

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Unfinished hats

The factory we visited was one of the most respected in the city, Homero Ortega & Sons. The visit started with some history, and an explanation of the name, Panama hat. Everyone in Ecuador will tell you that the hats come not from that Central American country, but from Ecuador – and a specific part of the country, near the coast, where the toquilla plant, from whose straw they are made, grows. The reason for the misleading name comes from the fact that, like many other 19th and early 20th century goods from South America, the hats were shipped via Panama to be exported to Europe, America and even as far as Asia. They were popularised by President Roosevelt who wore one when he visited the Panama Canal during its construction – thus probably also contributing to the adoption of the name, Panama, for the hats.

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Mock-up of hat maker's village home

Wilson told us all this and more as we studied the photos in the first of the three rooms at the factory that make up what they slightly grandly call “The Magic of the Hat” Museum. In the second room we learned about the process of making a hat, only part of which happens here at the factory. The hats are first woven by local women, working at home in the villages outside the city. They are delivered to the factory where they are examined and graded.

Homero Ortega buy only the best of the examples sent to them, so those that don’t make the grade will be sold instead in local shops at rather lower prices. Those that are selected are graded according to the weave (more strands of straw to the inch gives a finer quality hat) and sent back out of the factory, this time to specialist hat-shapers, usually men, who trim and neaten the edges and shape the hat on a mould. When they come back to the factory for the second time they are bleached, dyed, reshaped and given their final trim. They are then ready to be sold – here in the factory’s shop, through specialist outlets or sent all over the world. The best hats fetch huge sums – some over $1,000! We were shown photos of many famous people wearing Homero Ortega hats, including film stars, politicians and pop singers.

From the little museum, we went into the working part of the factory, but unfortunately as it was a holiday weekend very few people were at work and we could only see the machinery (very simple and unchanged for generations) and have an explanation of how things were done.

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Trying on a hat

Naturally the factory has a shop, and naturally our tour of the factory ended there. But I have to say that there was minimal “hard sell”. We were persuaded to try on a few hats (and I at least was happy to do so, as some were gorgeous!) but no one forced the issue when we said we didn’t want to buy. Had we wanted to do so, the price range was considerable – from $25 for the simplest men’s ones, made from the coarsest straw, up to around $1,000 for a couple of special ones displayed in locked glass cabinets. Wilson explained that, sadly, making these ultra-fine hats is a dying art, with only a handful of people known to be producing them. They sell through agents, and even the factory owners don’t know where these skilled workers live, or anything about them. It is assumed though that they are by now fairly old, and that when they die there will be no more hats of this quality, so these are usually bought as an investment. Not an investment we chose to make however!

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Our little tile

In a room that led off the hat shop was another shop, selling a good range of high-quality souvenirs including Tigua paintings, jewellery, organic coffee and chocolate and more. Here we did spend some money, buying a small ceramic tile with a picture of a blue footed booby that caught Chris’s eye (in anticipation of seeing the birds very soon in the flesh) and a packet of my favourite chocolate-covered coffee beans so that I could get my caffeine fix “on the move”. Then it was on to our next stop with Wilson

Mirador de Turi

I had read about and wanted to visit this viewpoint to the south of the city, so I was pleased when Wilson told us that we would be going there on the tour. It is a popular spot because it affords such a good panorama of the city, including the historic colonial part. You can pick out the blue domes of the new cathedral and from there orient yourself and find other landmarks such as the Parque Calderón. From this spot it is easy to appreciate the grid layout of the early city planners, and also see how the rivers wind through the city throw that plan out in places.

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Mirador views

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Iglesia de Turi

Next to the viewpoint is the Iglesia de Turi, which dates from 1835. We didn’t have time to go inside on this tour so were unable to see on the main altar the sculpture of the Virgin of Mercy, patron saint of the parish (made in Spain, about 80 years old), and on a side altar the Calvary with the image of the Lord in Bethlehem. This latter is also commemorated in a grotto a short climb above the church.

According to a local legend, the Christ Child appeared to a Cañari shepherd boy on this hill, and since then the Cañari people have had a special devotion to him, coming to the grotto and to the church to leave offerings such as bird feathers, animal feed and small model animals at his feet, thereby ensuring that throughout the year their animals, their livestock, their crops and products are blessed.

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Horno

From the Mirador we drove through an area to the south west of the city famous locally for its restaurants and street-food, and in particular for its horno or roast pig. The smell (to a non-vegetarian) was delicious! And we were interested to see how the pigs had been decorated with flags to mark the independence celebrations that weekend.

Once back in the colonial city Wilson parked the car and the rest of our tour continued on foot.

Plaza San Sebastián

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In the Plaza San Sebastian

I thought this was one of the loveliest and most peaceful spots in Cuenca, although there is a gory piece of history attached to it. It was constructed in the 17th century to serve as an open marketplace for the western part of the city. The church (which was unfortunately closed when we visited) is recently restored and has a carved wooden door, single tower and octagonal raised dome. In front of the church is the Cross of San Sebastián which marked the western limit of the city.

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Iglesia San Sebastian

As we strolled around with Wilson he told us the tale of a member of the French Geodesic Expedition, the surgeon Juan Seniergues, who had come to measure the Equator and later settled in Cuenca. He was by all accounts a bit of a womaniser, but made the mistake of turning his attentions to the former girlfriend of a local dignitary and became embroiled in a dispute between the dignitary and the girl’s father. At that time (1739) the plaza was the venue for bull fights, but one evening at one of these a fight of a different nature broke out here, between the surgeon and some local “heavies”, and he was murdered. It had the appearance of an unfortunate accident, but it is generally accepted, according to Wilson at least, that his murder was ordered and planned.

Today this is such a peaceful scene that it is hard to imagine that it was the location for such an occurrence. And on the south side of the plaza is a great little museum.

Museo de Arte Moderno

This museum is worth visiting even if you have little interest in modern art, because of the lovely building in which is located, but even better if you do have such an interest because of the manageable size of the collection and exhibitions, and the way in which they are presented.

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Museo de Arte Moderno

The building is the former Casa de la Temperancia (House of Temperance), built in 1876 to house people with drinking problems. It later became a convent and then an orphanage before being restored in late 1970s and opening as a museum in 1981. The building has been very sensitively adapted for this new role and provides a somewhat unique setting for the art, which is for the most part displayed in the series of very small rooms (some no larger than cells and housing a single sculpture) which open off the pretty courtyards. You could spend a very pleasant hour wandering from room to room and then relaxing in the greenery of one of those courtyards.

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Exhibits outdoors and in

The exhibits are a mix of those from the small permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. When we were there the latter included some intriguing sculptures as well as paintings exploring how modern technology is changing who we are as humans (or so I believe from the limited amount of Spanish labelling that I could guess at, and the works themselves).

The chapel of the Temperance House has been restored to its former appearance and is used as a venue for talks etc. If not in use, you can pop inside to see the lovely painted ceiling and friezes.

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Chapel ceiling

A traditional craftsman

Next to some art of a different and far more traditional nature. Leaving the Plaza San Sebastián by its south-eastern corner Wilson led us down a street of small traditional houses, far less grand than most of those nearer the centre of the old city around the Parque Calderón. This is Coronel Guillermo Talbot and in one of the houses on the west side a traditional craftsman, working in tin, has his workshop. Wilson took us in to meet him. It was a fascinating place, the walls covered with examples of his craft and his tools laid out on the small table where he worked – tools he has clearly been using for decades. He proudly showed us his newspaper cuttings with several articles from local papers in which he has featured. Wilson acted as translator as he explained that sadly his son, like most younger people, has no interest in following in his footsteps and the craft of engraving in tin as he does it is dying out.

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Tin craftsman

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Engraving the tin

Of course all his work is for sale, but I’m sure you could come and visit just to see the work. Probably though, like us, you will feel that you want to make at least a small purchase to acknowledge his time and support him – and as a memento of the visit. We bought two of the pretty tin stars that he makes, to give as Christmas tree ornaments to my family. If you want something more than this there are photo frames, larger ornaments and pictures, many (but not all) of a religious theme. We paid $6 for each of our stars, which is at the lower end of the prices. If buying a more expensive item I reckon it would be possible to haggle but we didn’t as we were mainly buying to thank him so haggling seemed to go against that somewhat!

Plaza del Cruz del Vado

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Cruz del Vado

Continuing our walk, we came to this little square perched on a ledge above the Rio Tomebamba on the southern edge of the colonial city. There are good views from here over the more modern city on the other side of the river. Its main feature is a cross, called the Cruz del Vado, which is protected by a six-sided structure. This cross was erected as a symbol of protection for travellers who had to cross the waters of Tomebamba.

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Greasy pole sculpture

Next to the cross is an interesting modern sculpture depicting the Ecuadorean version of the traditional greasy pole contest. Women in local dress watch as two young men try to climb up to where a selection of pots, pans and other household objects dangle above their heads – such very practical prizes!

This square is located in one of the most traditional neighbourhoods of the city. Houses near here are for the most part less ornate than near the centre and some are run down and in need of restoration. Others though have been smartened up, and several have the traditional roof tile decorations to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. It’s an interesting area to explore and I was pleased Wilson had brought us here as it wasn’t a part of the city I’d read about at all.

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Traditional roof decorations

And nearby was an even more intriguing place. Wilson asked if we were easily offended, which seemed an odd question, but we assured him that we were not, so he proposed stopping for coffee in a rather different sort of café.

Prohibido Centro Cultural

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In Prohibido Centro Cultural

In one of the old houses on La Condamine, which are gradually being restored, a local artist with a bizarre but very creative mind has undertaken a restoration very different in style. Yes, the old house (dating from 1810) has retained its traditional layout, with small rooms leading off open courtyards. But the décor in those rooms would I am sure shock the original inhabitants, although if you go with an open mind you will be intrigued and entertained.

You must knock for entry (apart from when one of the regular music events is going on) and will be charged just 50 cents. Believe me, it’s worth it! The whole house is an intriguing shrine to the macabre. There are skulls, coffins and tombstones; religious imagery with more than a twist; designs inspired by tattoos, heavy metal music and black magic; even a guillotine! And if you want to use the bathroom facilities (and you must!) you will find yourself washing your hands in water that flows from the “private parts” of an appropriate sculpture – a goddess for the men and an impish creature for the women.

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Light-fitting

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Typical of the art here

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Hand-washing and guillotine

As you can imagine we spent quite some time looking around and taking photos, but after a while took our seats with Wilson in the small open courtyard where we had a coffee. The artist’s wife sat with us and was stringing flowers as she chatted, preparing them for their afternoon visit to the family graves as part of the Day of the Dead celebrations. We wanted to treat Wilson to coffee but she said his was on the house, so we paid $3 for our own two. This is definitely something worth doing when in Cuenca if you want a change from the more conventional sights – and if, as Wilson put it, you are not easily offended!

We finished our tour with Wilson by walking some more interesting streets, peering into a few shops and ending up, a lot later than intended (by mutual agreement!) in the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, which we had already seen and which I have already described in a previous entry.

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Locra de papa

Having said our goodbyes (and tipped generously as was deserved), Chris and I headed for a late lunch at nearby Raymipampa, where we had enjoyed our fruit juices the previous morning. We had a short wait for a table, but only a matter of minutes. I had the traditional soup, locra de papa, which was very good (one of the best I had on the trip) and a sparkling water, while Chris had a toasted cheese sandwich and a Coke.

After lunch we spent a bit of time relaxing in the Parque Calderón and enjoying some of the festivities there and in the surrounding streets, before heading back to the hotel. There we went down to explore the garden and enjoyed meeting the resident cats. There are some chairs set out here for guests to relax in, and you can access the hotel directly from the river through this garden.

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One of the cats

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Cheers

Before dinner that evening we decided to try out the offerings at La Compañia Microcerveceria. It claims to be the first micro-brewery in Cuenca and when we saw the sign we decided we just had to go in and sample its beers. We liked the rather higgledy-piggledy arrangement, with tables on different levels and a friendly buzz, but were less impressed with the beers themselves – which were sort of the point! My Irish Red was OK, if rather cloudy, but Chris’s Golden Ale somehow managed to be both watery and a little acidic in flavour.

It was good to see that local entrepreneurs want to produce local beers, but we concluded that they would have to get better at it than this to really make an impression on the ubiquitous Club / Pilsner duopoly in Ecuador. Although having said that, the bar was busy enough when we went and many people were sinking back large glasses, mainly of the stout, so maybe that is a better beer than the ones we tried?

Las Monjas

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On our first evening in Cuenca we had eaten at the restaurant rated number one in the city, and the only way to follow that seemed to be to try the one rated as number two, Las Monjas. And to be honest, based on just one visit to each, I would give this one the edge. The only surprising thing is that it isn’t busier. This was a Friday evening and we were amazed to find only two other tables taken as we had worried that we might not get in, having not got round to making a reservation. This really deserves to be better known!

In contrast to the traditional décor of Tiesto’s, the atmosphere here is cool and modern. It looks expensive, but while you can certainly eat more cheaply in Ecuador, the prices here are not really much higher than many a less-good restaurant and we thought it was excellent value for the quality of the food.

They describe the cooking here as “New Andean” – a kind of Andes/European fusion. That may sound odd, but judging by what we ate, it works! The cover (which like everywhere we went in Ecuador was complimentary) was garlic bread with four delicious sauces – two with chilli and two we couldn’t identify. We then shared a mixed starter platter (one of two on the menu) which consisted of my favourite Ecuadorean treat of llapingachos (cheese-filled potato patties), cheesy empanadas (sprinkled with sugar as is quite common here), a stuffed green chilli and slice of pork in an apple sauce.

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Garlic bread & dips, and starter platter

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Corvina, and chicken

My main dish certainly reflected the fusion theme – corvina (sea bass) in a quinoa crust with an olive sauce, served on a bed of nicely al dente fettuccini (Ecuador meets Italy!). Chris chose one of several chicken dishes which had pieces of chicken, peppers and other vegetables in a sauce flavoured with tree tomato and accompanied with rice. We had no room for dessert despite a rather tempting menu.

On the way back to the hotel somehow our feet took a detour and we ended up back in the Wunderbar for a night-cap – a margarita for me and beer again for Chris.

Our time in Cuenca was drawing to a close, although we would have the following morning to take in just a few more sights …

Posted by ToonSarah 06:27 Archived in Ecuador Tagged art views restaurants city museum tour ecuador crafts cuenca Comments (6)

The adventure begins!

Ecuador day ten


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

A world apart

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The Angelito seen from the beach of Sombrero Chino

For many years I wanted to visit the Galápagos: to walk on these remote islands where unique species thrive, where Darwin first developed the ideas that would change our understanding of nature, and where animals have never learned to fear humankind. And in 2012 I realised my dream. And fortunately, it more than lived up to my expectations!

A week of discovery, with each day surprising us with something new, something special. One day, a giant manta ray languidly turning in the waves beneath the cliffs where we stood. Another, an albatross chick, already enormous, sitting watching us as we sat and watched him. On one memorable morning, we were spellbound by a group of young Galápagos hawks who clustered around a new-born sea lion pup and his mother, one of them eventually swooping in to grab the placenta which all then eagerly devoured. And on another, we swam and snorkelled with a group of lively sea lions, patrolled by the watchful alpha male who tolerated our intrusion but disdained to join the fun.

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Galápagos wildlife

We spent our week travelling the islands on board the Angelito, one of the older established boats available for tourist cruises, and one of the best value. Its itineraries and guiding are recognised as first class, but the boat itself is less than luxurious, though it has all that you need for a wonderful week at sea. No fancy cabins or leisure facilities, but a friendly and super-helpful crew, great meals conjured up in a tiny galley, a knowledgeable guide (Fabian) considerate of everyone’s needs, and enough space in which to chill and appreciate your surroundings between island visits. What more could we have asked?

We were also fortunate to find ourselves travelling with a super group of fellow explorers. Drawn from six nationalities, and spanning several decades in age, everyone nevertheless got on incredibly well, helped by a shared passion for what we were seeing and a respect for each other’s right to enjoy (and photograph!) it as much as we were.

In this and the following entries I want to share these experiences of our trip of a lifetime with you. So let’s go!

Galápagos day one

After our overnight stay at the Grand Hotel in Guayaquil we were up early (very excited!) We had breakfast in the same coffee shop where we’d eaten dinner – this was a much better meal than that had been, with a selection of hot and cold items served buffet style along with fresh fruit, a wide selection of rolls and pastries, and decent coffee.

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At the airport

After breakfast we were picked up for our transfer to Guayaquil’s modern airport, José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport. The airport is only four miles from the city centre and as it was a Sunday traffic was light and we were there very quickly. The airport terminal is very new (at the time it was the newest in the country, since superseded by Quito’s new airport). It was opened in 2006 and the old terminal turned into a convention centre.

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Coming in to land

This is the nearest airport to the Galápagos and many flights from Quito stop here to pick up passengers. We found it to be relatively quiet and well-organised for the additional complications of a Galápagos flight – buying our INGALA transit control cards (INGALA is the agency that regulates travel to the islands), and having our luggage inspected to meet quarantine regulations. Both these operations went smoothly and we had time for a coffee in the bright and comfortable departures area (with good free wifi) before boarding our plane. Only 15 hours after arriving in Guayaquil, we were leaving already.

The flight lasted 1 hour 45 minutes, but because the Galápagos Islands are an hour behind mainland Ecuador, we arrived well before lunch-time. Our first views of the islands, from the air, were enough to raise the excitement levels further. Our dream holiday was about to begin!

But first, there were some more formalities to get through. Everyone visiting the Galápagos has to pay a $100 national park fee, and as this can’t be paid in advance, it must be done on arrival at the airport and in cash. I was pleased that in addition to the attractive souvenir ticket I also got my passport stamped.

Baggage claim consisted of all luggage being piled up in a hall to one side of the arrivals area, and once we’d retrieved ours we were able to exit to the main part of the airport where Fabian our guide was waiting for us all to escort us to the Angelito.

Transfer to the boat

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Crossing from the jetty to the Angelito

The airport at Baltra is just a five minute drive away from the small port where the cruise boats moor, and the journey is undertaken on a fleet of elderly buses whose comings and goings are controlled by the military who own the airport. Fabian directed us to the right bus, on arrival at the port, organised the transfer to the Angelito. Even the smaller boats, judging by our experience, aren’t able to moor directly at the dock, so the 16 of us crossed to the boat in one of its two small dinghies, in two groups, while the other was used for our luggage.

We were very soon all on board and looking round eagerly at our home for the next week – and at each other, our travelling companions. It would have been good to have known already at that point that we would quickly become a tight-knit group and would thoroughly enjoy each other’s company as well as the trip itself.

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Our group

The Angelito

Since our trip in 2012 the Angelito has been modernised, so our experiences of it won’t be quite the same as anyone travelling on it now, but I doubt they could be better! We were very happy indeed with our choice of this boat for our Galápagos cruise, as were all the others in our group it seemed. She isn’t a luxury vessel, but she is solidly built (entirely from wood), owned (and crewed) by locals, and provides a friendly, comfortable setting that we believed helped our group to gel and absolutely fitted the unique atmosphere of this special part of the world.

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Moored off North Seymour

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Some of the crew

The Angelito accommodates 16 passengers in 8 cabins, all of which (at that time) had bunk beds. This was one factor keeping the price of her cruises lower than it might otherwise be. But what matters most on a Galápagos cruise is not the comfort of the vessel (imho) but the quality of the guiding and the interest-level of the itinerary. The Angelito offered guides qualified to the top level (level three) and, with a great little engine, the capacity to travel to some of the further flung islands (such as, in our case, Genovesa).

Almost as important, the service we received on board was of a similarly high standard, with plenty of tasty food served by a super-friendly chef and a helpful and ever-smiling crew. The shared public areas were more than adequate for the sixteen of us, with a lounge space inside and seating on a covered aft deck and open foredeck. There was a bar with an honesty system for drinks, including a ready supply of beer, and a small reference library of wildlife guides and other reading material.

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Bunk beds

In November 2012 when we stayed on her, the Angelito’s eight cabins were split between four on the lower deck and four on the upper, with the lounge, dining area, bar and galley on the main deck in between. Cabins couldn’t be pre-booked but were allocated on arrival on board. We were given one on the lower deck, #2. In some ways, I was disappointed not to have the large window of an upper deck cabin (we had only two small portholes) but that was the only disadvantage, and on the plus side, these lower cabins are considered to be more stable during a heavy swell. Chris quickly claimed the upper bunk, which I was glad to agree to. We found we had just enough storage space for our belongings, and soon settled into the space. The cabin was compact but of course we didn’t spend a lot of time in here, other than when sleeping, and the public areas were generous enough that I could always find somewhere to sit on the rare occasions when on board and not eating or socialising. My favourite spot to relax and catch up with my diary or read became the aft deck, where the loungers were shaded and the view of frigate birds and others following our wake always enticing.

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On deck

Although on the basic side, all cabins had a small bathroom with toilet, washbasin and shower, and hot water was plentiful at all times. Sheets were changed once during our stay, and towels were plentiful, both in the cabins and when needed after snorkelling or swimming. This was no luxury cruise, but for a friendly welcome, top-notch guiding and a genuine Galápagos experience, it’s hard to think that we could have done any better than the Angelito.

Because we spent a whole week on the boat and I don’t want to keep repeating myself in these entries, I’ll say a bit more here about life on board.

Meals on the Angelito

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Chef and assistant

To say that meals on the Angelito are generous is an understatement! And not just meals – every time we returned on board after an island visit or a snorkelling session, a treat would be waiting for us. And with two visits each day, and snorkelling on most days, that’s a lot of treats! All meals are included in the cost of the cruise, apart from drinks other than water, tea and coffee, and also apart from those treats and the delicious fruit juices at breakfast time. So with everything already paid for, it would be a shame not to eat it, wouldn’t it?!

A typical day’s eating and drinking would be something like this:

Breakfast, usually served early (somewhere between 6.00 and 7.00, depending on the plans for the day) -
Fruit juice (as fresh and wonderful as everywhere in Ecuador), fresh fruit, bread or toast, jams, cheese and ham, and some sort of eggs – one day scrambled, another a tortilla, and so on. Some days there were extras – one morning we had pancakes with maple syrup, for instance, and another there were little sausages.

After our first landing (usually about 10.30), as we climbed back on board –
Snack, such as more fruit juice and mini empanadas, or biscuits
If we snorkelled after this, we would be greeted on our return with a hot drink – chocolate or a herbal tea.

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Ceviche

Lunch, usually around midday –
Soup, meat or fish with rice, sometimes potato too, and vegetables, and a platter of fresh fruit.

After the afternoon landing, another snack, similar to the morning but never the same. One day we had mini hot-dogs, on another there were slices of excellent pizza.

Dinner, which might be served before or after the evening briefing depending on where and when we were sailing –
Meat or fish with rice, sometimes potato, vegetables and salad, and a dessert such as a mousse or crème caramel. On two special occasions, the dessert was a celebration cake – once for Brian’s birthday which fell on the Thursday of the cruise, and on the final night, when dinner was a buffet with a spectacular fish dish as its centre-piece.

With all this to eat, is it any surprise that despite all the walking and swimming, I put on weight during the week?!

Our itinerary

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Our guide, Fabian

Regulations prohibit any boat from revisiting any island within a fortnight, so all the boats cruising the Galápagos offer two different one-week itineraries, which they alternate. The plus side of this is that anyone with the time, money and enthusiasm who wants to, can book both and have a two week cruise! For the rest of us, short on the first two of these ingredients, there is the difficulty of choosing which to do. Every boat’s schedule is different, although of course with only so many islands to include, there is plenty of overlap.

I studied the options for ages, trying to make up my mind! I’d identified a number of islands I’d particularly like to see, but no boat (in our price range at least) covered all of them in a single week. But the Angelito had been strongly recommended, and its itinerary A covered all but one of my priority islands (Genovesa for the birds, Bartolomé for the views, Española for the albatrosses – only Fernandina was missing). So that was our final choice, and a great one too! I have read that like us, everyone agonises over their choice of itinerary, and everyone has a wonderful time regardless of where they decide to go – there are NO bad itineraries when it comes to Galápagos cruises!

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Our captain

Anyway, the A itinerary of the Angelito which we experienced was (in 2012):

1. Sunday: Baltra – North Seymour

2. Monday: Sombrero Chino – Bartolomé

3. Tuesday: Genovesa: Darwin Bay and Prince Phillips Steps

4. Wednesday: Santiago (Puerto Egas) – Rabida

5. Thursday: Santa Cruz: Darwin Station, Puerto Ayora and Highlands

6. Friday: Española: Playa Gardner and Punta Suarez

7. Saturday: Santa Fe – South Plaza

8. Sunday: Black Turtle Cove (Santa Cruz) – Baltra

Of all the islands we visited, my favourites proved to be two of those I had especially aimed to see (Genovesa and Española) and one that I had not (Santiago), although it was Santa Fe that gave me two of my most memorable experiences – snorkelling with sea lions, and a close encounter with Galápagos hawks.

My following entries will cover all the wonderful places we went and sights we saw, but again to avoid too much repetition, I will start with one describing some of the wildlife we encountered on the islands …

Posted by ToonSarah 00:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals islands boat wildlife cruise galapagos ecuador Comments (7)

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