A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about mountains

History and art in Taos

New Mexico day eleven


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

6029748-Chris_in_the_breakfast_room_Taos.jpg
Chris in the breakfast room

Our B&B in Taos, La Doña Luz, fell short of some of the other bed & breakfast places we’ve been to in the US in one respect – the breakfast part. There was absolutely nothing wrong with what we got, but it was self-service from a counter and didn’t offer much more than we had got in some of the chain hotels where we stayed on the trip, except that the waffles were made for us by the young girl in attendance.

However, it was served in a lovely room hung with some of the owner’s eclectic collection of art works, and there was fresh fruit to go with the waffles (though I discovered you had to move quickly to get some, as there wasn’t quite enough, unfortunately, to go around all the guests).

Taos Pueblo

large_5920870-_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
North House (Hlauuma), Taos Pueblo

After breakfast we picked up our car from its spot at the end of the road and drove the short distance north of town to Taos Pueblo. This is an incredible place, and a must-see when you are in the area in my opinion. It’s the only living Native American community to have been designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. Its multi-storied adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years and are considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the USA.

6017693-Walking_tour_map_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
Walking tour map - Taos Pueblo

We arrived soon after nine to find the pueblo just opening for business. We were directed to a parking place and went to pay our admission fee at the ticket booth to the left of the gate. When we visited (October 2011) the fee was $10 for adults, and we also paid a further $6 each to use our cameras. Unlike at Acoma, you can take video here as well as still images, but you have to pay for each camera you plan to use, including your mobile phone if using the camera on it. I decided one was enough!

Also unlike Acoma, you are free to wander around on your own, following the map you’ll be given when you pay, although some areas are off-limits to tourists. But we decided to take a tour (free, although tips are of course welcome) and were very pleased that we had done so. Our young guide was excellent and shared more about the culture here than we had learned at Acoma, although she was still a little guarded on the subject of traditional beliefs. We heard lots about the way of life here in the Pueblo and elsewhere on Taos tribal lands, and about her own life growing up here. A university student, she was paying her way through college by working here as a guide over the weekends and in college holidays, but it was clear from how she spoke about her home that she also sees this work as her way of giving something back to the community – she would not dream of taking work outside the Pueblo.

She also told us something about her hopes for the future, about the balance between traditional and Catholic beliefs, and about relationships (and marriages) between different tribes. I really felt I got to know so much more about the people here than at Acoma and the place came alive for me as a consequence, rather than seeming to be mainly a historic curiosity.

San Geronimo Church

large_5920876-_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
San Geronimo

Our tour of Taos Pueblo started here, at the church that sits in the heart of the village. And isn’t it a stunner, with that combination of adobe and white against the blue sky? I could have photographed it for hours! Only the exterior though, as photographing the interior is strictly forbidden.

This church, the third in the pueblo to be dedicated to Saint Jerome (I have also read four in some sources), was built in 1850 to replace the previous church which was destroyed by the U.S. Army in 1847 in the War with Mexico. That church, whose evocative ruins still stand near the entrance to the Pueblo, was first built in 1619, but destroyed in the Spanish Revolt of 1680 and rebuilt on the same site.

DSCF0710.jpg5920887-San_Geronimo_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
San Geronimo

St. Jerome is the patron saint of Taos Pueblo and a santo of him can be seen in the church, as well as one of the Virgin. It is the custom to change the clothing of the santos several times a year, according to the seasons and festivals. When we were there Mary was dressed in a gold-coloured cloth, for the autumn and harvest.

5920909-_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
San Geronimo

The church has the traditional heavy viga ceiling and is very much in use as a place of worship. About 90% of the Pueblo Indians describe themselves as Catholic, although the majority of these practise that religion alongside their traditional beliefs. Our young guide explained that they saw no contradiction in doing so and that the two belief systems were quite complimentary in their eyes.

The old church and cemetery

large_6029943-Old_San_Geronimo_Taos.jpg
Old church and cemetery

As the Spanish conquered the area now known as New Mexico, they brought with them their religion, which they imposed on the defeated inhabitants. Thus the first Spanish-Franciscan mission was built here in Taos Pueblo by Spanish priests using Indian labour in about 1619, and was dedicated to St. Jerome – San Geronimo. It did not last long. Worsening relations between conquerors and conquered gave rise to the Pueblo Revolt. This uprising was co-ordinated by several different pueblo communities, through a series of secret meetings held here at Taos Pueblo and covert communications between tribes. In August 1680 more than 8,000 Pueblo warriors attacked a number of Spanish settlements, killing 21 Franciscan friars and over other 400 Spaniards, and they drove around 1,000 settlers out of the region. During this uprising, the San Geronimo church at the pueblo was also destroyed. Some accounts also tell of a previous uprising, in 1637, when an even earlier church was destroyed, but the official Taos Pueblo website only mentions the 1680 one.

5920936-_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
The old church

Twelve years later, in 1692, the Spanish re-colonized the province. There were on-going skirmishes with the inhabitants of Taos Pueblo, who were repeatedly attacked for refusing to provide corn for starving settlers in Santa Fe. However by 1706 things had settled down enough for the San Geronimo Mission to be rebuilt. This is the church whose ruins can be seen here today. So why is it too now in ruins? We have another revolt to blame for that – one which our young guide talked about still with bitterness in her voice.

In 1846 the United States conquered this territory, which at that point still formed part of Mexico, and installed a governor, Charles Bent. The Mexican loyalists plotted to oust the conquerors, and enlisted the support of pueblo peoples. In early 1847 the uprising began, centred on Taos and led by a Mexican, Pablo Montoya, and a Taos Puebloan, Tomas Romero. The latter led a group of Native Americans who broke into the home of Governor Bent, shot and scalped him in front of his family. Further attacks followed in the area, and the US army retaliated. They moved up from Santa Fe and pushed the insurgents back as far as Taos Pueblo, where they barricaded themselves into the church, thinking that its thick adobe walls would offer sufficient protection. During the battle that followed however, the US military breached a wall of the church and fired cannons into it, killing about 150 rebels and wounding many more. As our guide told it, women and children were also taking shelter there and were killed in the fighting, although other accounts that I’ve read don’t mention this. The US also captured 400 more men, while only seven of their own troops died in the battle. The next day they tried some of these captives in a very one-sided trial and hung those convicted of murder and treason on the Taos Plaza. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the fighting, it seems clear there was some questionable use of violence of both sides.

large_5920949-_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
The old church bell-tower

The ruined bell tower and walls of the church still stand, as a reminder of that bloody battle, and around them lies the burial ground that holds the remains of those died in it. It is thought in fact that this cemetery dates right back to the very first church, and as at Acoma it holds several layers of graves. Unlike Acoma, there are no restrictions on photographing the cemetery, but you are not allowed to enter it, nor to climb on the crumbling walls that surround it. Our guide explained that even the Pueblo residents only enter twice a year – once on the Day of the Dead, and once on the anniversary of their loved one’s death. On these occasions they go to visit the grave, not to mourn but to celebrate a life well lived.

Multi-storey living

The most distinctive structures in Taos Pueblo, and the ones you will see in every photo, are the multi-storied, multi-home North House (Hlauuma in the native Tiwa) and South House (Hlaukwima). These are considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the USA and are really an early example of an apartment block, though built in this manner as a form of defence.

large_5920874-North_House_Hlauuma_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
The North House (Hlauuma)

The North House consist of five storeys and the South of four. They are built entirely of adobe, with walls several feet thick in places. These walls are regularly re-plastered with mud to keep the structure sound. Originally, the buildings had no doors or windows and entry could be gained only from the top of the buildings by means of ladders, but gradually openings have been added over time as the need for defence declined and the need to have easier access took over.

large_6018539-North_House_Hlauuma_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
The North House

The UNESCO World Heritage listing states that the:
‘Pueblo de Taos is a remarkable example of a traditional type of architectural ensemble from the pre-Hispanic period of the Americas unique to this region and one which, because of the living culture of its community, has successfully retained most of its traditional forms up to the present day. ... The multi-tiered adobe dwellings still retain their original form and outline, but details have changed. Doors, which traditionally were mostly used to interconnect rooms, are now common as exterior access to the ground floors and to the roof tops on upper stories. Windows, which traditionally were small and incorporated into walls very sparingly, are now common features. The proliferation of doors and windows through time at Taos reflects the acculturation of European traits and the relaxing of needs for defensive structures. In addition to ovens located outdoors, fireplaces have been built inside the living quarters.’

My photos are all of the North House, by the way, because the South was in shade and harder to capture.

Red Willow Creek

6018537-Red_Willow_Creek_Taos_Pueblo.jpg

6018536-Red_Willow_Creek_Taos_Pueblo.jpg

Red Willow Creek

A small stream runs through the heart of the Pueblo, known variously as Red Willow Creek or Rio Pueblo de Taos. The stream begins high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, at the tribe’s sacred lake, Blue Lake. A traditional belief among the Taos Pueblo people is that their ancestors originated from the waters of this lake. The land that surrounds it had been taken from them to create the Carson National Forest early in the 20th century but was restored to them by President Nixon in 1970. They regard this restoration as the most important event in their recent history, so clearly Nixon got some things right!

It flows gently through the Pueblo, providing the water essential for life here – for drinking, cooking, bathing and for religious activities. Even in the depths of winter, which is harsh at this height above sea level, it never completely freezes. Because the water is the main source of drinking water visitors are asked not to paddle in it – but clearly nobody told the dog in my photo that the stream was off limits!

Pueblo homes

large_6018538-Street_in_Taos_Pueblo_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
A pueblo street

As well as the multi-storey homes of the two main houses, there are several streets of smaller individual ones. These are also built from adobe, in the traditional style. Many still have mica windows instead of glass, as you can see in some of my photos. In some you can also clearly see the viga beams that support the roof jutting out through the adobe wall.

5920985-_Taos_Pueblo.jpg5920996-_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
Traditional ladders

6018535-Mica_window_Taos_Pueblo.jpg5921017-In_Taos_Pueblo_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
Mica window, and chillies drying

Although all these houses are owned and cared for by a Pueblo family, only a few are inhabited full-time, with most being used more as holiday homes for festivals and special family occasions. The small number who do live here permanently live as their ancestors would have done, without electricity or plumbing. Those that live elsewhere will have ‘all mod cons’ in those properties. The rationale for not doing so here is to preserve a traditional way of life in this sacred spot, not through a more general aversion to modernisation such as that practiced, for instance, by religious groups such as the Amish.

Traditional ovens

After our visit to Acoma we were quick to recognise these ovens shaped like beehives which sit outside most homes here too.

5920969-_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
House with horno

Known as horno, they were introduced by the Spanish, who in turn had adopted them from the Moors – so if they look like something you have seen in North Africa it is not surprising. They are used for cooking the traditional bread. A fire is built in the oven and left until the walls are red hot. The fire is then raked out, rounds of dough stuck to the oven walls, and the small hole at the front is sealed with mud until the bread is cooked.

Traditional crafts

Several of the homes in the Pueblo have been adapted to serve as small shops, selling a variety of traditional crafts. Even though we didn’t especially want to buy anything we did go inside a few for the opportunity to see inside the ancient dwellings.

5921039-Morning_Talk_Taos_Pueblo.jpg6018540-Inside_a_shop_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
Pueblo shops

large_5921007-Drum_shop_Taos_Pueblo.jpg
Outside the Morning Talk shop

We particularly liked the Morning Talk shop, which had an interesting mix of pottery, drums, dream-catchers, jewellery and more. And I also enjoyed talking to the owner of the Summer Rain Gift Shop where the jewellery looked especially good. We didn’t buy anything at the Pueblo (I was sort-of all shopped out at this point) but I was tempted by the ‘smudges’ – small bundles of cedar and sage bound with grasses that are traditionally burned in ceremonial cleansings. They have a lovely scent and would be wonderful to toss on a fire at Christmas, or simply to leave in a bowl like pot-pourri. I did afterwards rather regret not buying a couple, especially as they only cost a few dollars.

La Hacienda de los Martinez

large_f3c1cd10-1cba-11e9-8728-d75ab1e756cf.JPG
La Hacienda de los Martinez

I had read about another out of town sight that sounded interesting, La Hacienda de los Martinez, so before returning our car to its parking place we detoured to visit it. This is an historic house from the late Spanish Colonial period, dating from 1804, and was the home of Severino Matinez and his wife Maria who raised six children here. Their eldest son was Padre Antonio Martinez, a forward-thinking priest and educationalist who argued for Native education, founded the town’s first newspaper, and resisted the attempts of Bishop Lamy to enforce Western European principles on Hispanic New Mexicans.

5921063-_Taos.jpg
At the hacienda

Touring the hacienda’s twenty one rooms is said to ‘provide the visitor with a rare glimpse of the rugged frontier life and times of the early 1800s’. Note I say ‘is said …’ – on arriving here we found that contrary to the information in our Moon Handbook it was closed on a Sunday morning. And although we considered returning later in the day, as it turned out we found more than enough to occupy us in the centre of town and never did so. I had to be content with a few photos of the exterior and surroundings, before we drove back into the centre to park and look for a late-morning coffee.

DSCF0745.jpg
In the grounds of the hacienda

World Cup Coffee

5921071-Display_in_World_Cup_Coffee_Taos.jpg
Display in World Cup Coffee

You couldn’t get a better location in Taos than this for a friendly local coffee shop, and it would be hard to find a better selection of coffee drinks too, so the only thing this place really lacks is space. There are just a few seats on a bench outside, and a few more at a counter inside, and if we hadn’t been able to secure one of the latter we would have had to opt for ‘coffee to go’ – although with the Plaza just a few steps away that wouldn’t have been too bad an option. But we managed to grab a couple of those inside seats and enjoyed a relaxing brew – an iced latte for me and a cappuccino for Chris – while watching the world go by.

The Kit Carson House

large_6029903-Kit_Carson_House_Taos.jpg
The Kit Carson House

We hadn’t been able to go inside the Hacienda de los Martinez, but in town there was an historic house that was open on a Sunday morning, the Kit Carson House. I confess that I didn’t know a lot about Kit Carson before visiting his house, and our motivation for doing so was not so much to find out more about him as to have an opportunity to see inside a historic Taos home, but we did also learn quite a bit, and enjoyed the various displays here.

DSCF0752.jpg
In the Kit Carson House

Our visit started with a video about Carson’s life, which I thought was well-made and carried just the right amount of information. In fact, this video was described as ‘award winning’ (I don’t know what award!) and was made for the History Channel, so was of broadcast quality. From it we learned that Carson lived in this house for 25 years, having bought it as a wedding present for his bride, Josefa Jaramillo. His work as an army scout, Indian Agent and army officer kept him away from home a lot of the time – the period of time that Kit he actually lived in this house was during the time he served as Ute Indian Agent from January 1854, to June 1861, when he had his Agency headquarters in Taos. Meanwhile Josefa raised the family here – seven children born to her and Carson, and several more Indian children adopted by them after he had freed them from captors.

Carson was a member of the Masons, and it is they who purchased the by-then dilapidated house in the early part of the twentieth century, restored it and now open it as a public attraction. This gives the presentation of the family history a slight slant perhaps, as naturally they put more emphasis on Carson’s activities as Mason than you might expect, but on the whole I thought it provided an interesting insight into life in a frontier town in the mid nineteenth century.

I especially liked seeing the kitchen, which is sparsely furnished with objects of the period. Each room had an informative notice detailing how it would have been used in Kit and Josefa’s time here, and inviting visitors to imagine the activity around them – with so many children, and regular visits from many of the important men of those times (including Generals and Congressmen), it must have been a lively household.

large_5921066-Kitchen_of_Kit_Carson_House_Taos.jpg
In the kitchen of the Kit Carson House

Doc Martin's

When we left the Kit Carson House we were ready for lunch and decided on a return to the Taos Inn where we had eaten last night, mainly because we liked the look of the little patio at the front of the building.

982086356029739-Grilled_appl..salad_Taos.jpg
Grilled apple & blue cheese salad

But we discovered that only the limited bistro menu was being served here, and as we were looking for salads which only appeared on the main brunch menu, we were directed to the restaurant, Doc Martin’s. This is quite a formal place by Taos standards, and more so than we would usually choose for lunch, but we’d been on the go all morning and were ready for the break it offered.

The brunch menu was extensive and with larger appetites I think we’d have found it difficult to choose. But we rarely eat a large lunch, so we focused on the salads. I opted for the grilled apple and blue cheese salad, which was a good plateful and pretty tasty, while Chris chose the Cobb salad, which was OK though nothing special.

Taos gallery hopping

Some of our greatest day-time pleasure in the town of Taos itself was in simply strolling the streets, people-watching in the Plaza, and visiting some of the numerous shops and galleries.

6029910-Taos_weaver_Taos.jpg
A Taos weaver

Of the latter, the one that impressed us the most was Lenny Foster’s Living Light Studio. Lenny is an incredible photographer (you can see for yourself on his website) and we were lucky enough to meet him in the gallery and enjoy a long chat – about his work, his general approach to photography and the possibility of him exhibiting in London one day (which we strongly encouraged, although I am not sure that he has yet done so).

6029752-Lenny_Taos.jpg
Lenny's calendar

I especially liked his images of New Mexico, while both of us were moved by his ‘Healing Hands’ series. After our chat he kindly gave us a copy of his 2011 calendar, which, although it had only a few months left to run, made a lovely memento of our visit. Sadly however, the prints themselves were a little outside our budget for holiday souvenirs.

In the Plaza

large_6029740-Plaza_bench_Taos.jpg
Plaza bench

We spent the last part of the afternoon in and around the Plaza. Perhaps surprisingly, it would be easy to drive straight through Taos and miss this, as it is tucked away to the west of the main north-south artery, Paseo Del Pueblo. But to do so would be a real shame. The Plaza was intended by the Spanish settlers who created Taos to be the heart of their community, and such it remains today.

Guadalupe Plaza, to give it its proper name, is surrounded by shops and galleries, with its south side dominated by the historic Hotel la Fonda de Taos. We popped in here briefly hoping to see the collection of D H Lawrence’s so-called ‘Forbidden Art’ – paintings by the author which were considered obscene and banned in England, and under threat of destruction until Lawrence removed them from the country and brought them here to New Mexico. Unfortunately a private function in the room where the paintings are displayed prevented us from seeing them, but it was worth going in to see this Taos landmark.

large_6029907-Martinez_statue_Taos.jpg
Statue of Martinez

In the centre of the Plaza is a gazebo which was donated to the town by heiress and long-time resident Mabel Dodge Luhan, a famous patroness of the arts scene here (it was she who encouraged Lawrence to move here). On its south side, in front of La Fonda, is a large bronze statue of local hero Padre Antonio José Martinez, the son of Severino Matinez whose hacienda we had been unable to tour this morning.

Much of the Plaza was taken up by a craft fair (I don’t know if that’s usual at the weekend or if it was a special occasion). We enjoyed browsing the stalls, even though we didn’t buy anything here. But we did shop for ice creams in a shop just next to La Fonda (part of the same building, in fact) which we enjoyed sitting on one of the many benches in the Plaza while people-watching.

large_6029743-Shopping_for_art_Taos.jpg
Plaza craft stall

In the south east corner, we found an interesting shop selling Native American crafts, clothing etc. which was well worth a browse. And down the little alley to the right of this we discovered a surprisingly good view of the hills that surround the town.

large_DSCF0768b.jpg
The mountains around Taos

Eske's Brew Pub

Eske’s came well recommended by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, and was also just across the parking lot from our bed and breakfast, so it was a natural choice for an evening out, and a great one! This is a casual spot that seemed popular with locals as well as visitors to Taos, and with good reason, as both food and beer were very good. There are a couple of linked rooms, and the only tables available when we arrived were in the first room, so that’s where we settled. There are also tables outside, but October evenings in Taos are too chilly for us to have contemplated that option!

We shared some good hot salsa and chips to start with, while we sampled our first beer (the Artist Ale for both of us) and perused the menu. The beer was fresh-tasting and went well with the spicy flavour – a good meal accompaniment. From the tempting menu I chose the Green Chilli Burrito, which was stuffed with beans and cheese and smothered with a vegetable and green chilli stew – yummy! Chris was pleased to see a German favourite so went for the bratwurst with sauerkraut and mash, which he also really enjoyed.

6029749-Green_Chilli_Burrito_Taos.jpg6029750-Bratwurst_with_Sauerkraut_Taos.jpg
My burrito, and Chris's Bratwurst with Sauerkraut

We had no room for dessert, but of course hung around to sample more of their beers. After a taster of the Green Chilli Lager I decided that this was surprisingly good, so had a full one – and another! Meanwhile Chris was drinking, and enjoying, the Seco Stout – described as ‘Irish style’. A super evening to end our too-brief stay in Taos.

6029751-Eskes_at_night_Taos.jpg
Eske's at night

Posted by ToonSarah 04:11 Archived in USA Tagged mountains churches art culture history statue restaurants houses museum photography new_mexico taos customs Comments (5)

Ain’t no mountain high enough ...

Ecuador day six


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

Cotapaxi

large_6468739-Cotapaxi_Ecuador.jpg

DSCF4454.jpg
Overlooking Quito

Up early today as we were off again for another overnight trip out of the city, this time heading south to the area around Cotopaxi. I love mountain scenery, so this had been a must-see on my list when planning our trip to Ecuador. And the mountain did not disappoint, although for several reasons I was not at my best that day to appreciate it in all its glory.

We left Quito quite early in hazy sun and drove south with Jose Luiz, our guide from Surtrek, along the Panamerican Highway. We stopped briefly at a viewpoint overlooking the city to get a different perspective of its unusual shape, squeezed between the mountains.

large_DSCF4453.jpg

To the south of Quito this stretch of that famous road is known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes because it passes between the eastern and western ridges of the Andes with several active and inactive volcanoes, of which the highest and most famous is Cotopaxi. Some of the volcanoes were very clearly visible, but others were disappointingly shrouded in cloud which seemed to build up the further south we travelled, including Cotopaxi itself.

A visit to a rose farm

569301876468902-Visit_a_flow..e_Cotopaxi.jpg

Jose Luiz suggested that we delay our drive up the mountain as he thought the weather might improve in a bit, and proposed that we detour to visit the rose farm belong to the hacienda where we were to stay later in the day. I was more interested in seeing the mountains than in roses, but as we couldn’t see any mountains just then, it seemed a good idea.

There are a lot of these rose farms in the area, but only a few can be visited. The one we went to is only open to those staying at the Hacienda la Cienega and security was tight, with Jose Luiz having to sign us in and accompany us everywhere while on the farm.

Rose-growing is an important part of the Ecuador economy and has increased dramatically in the last ten years. Many people in this region work on the farms. Jose Luiz explained that most of the roses grown here are exported to the USA, Russia and Indonesia. We saw the many varieties being grown here, under plastic to protect them from the cool nights. The climate here in the equatorial highlands, especially the consistent year-round hours of sunlight, means that the bushes produce a crop every six to eight weeks, making this a lucrative business for the growers and an important one for the country.

Fairly unusually for Ecuador, it seems, this is an organic farm – one of only four in the country. It switched from using the pesticides that are common here (including, or so I have read, some that are banned in more developed countries) and now prides itself on using only natural pest-control methods, including growing herbs to deter them near the entrances of the greenhouses and putting little bags over the most vulnerable blooms.

6468903-Roses_growing_Provincia_de_Cotopaxi.jpg
Jose Luiz and Chris among the rose bushes

272343866468905-Artificially..e_Cotopaxi.jpg

We then went into the packing area where we could see how carefully the flowers are graded. The least good (that is, the smallest or those with too short stems) are kept back for the domestic market where they are sold very cheaply – you can get a large bunch (25 flowers) for the price of a single rose in the UK or US. The rest are packed in bunches of 12 and exported in refrigerated containers from a local airport.

In one corner of the packing room we saw some very unusually-coloured blooms. These are specially produced for the Far East market and are dyed with food colourings just as I used to do to carnations as a child!

127982876468904-Grading_the_..e_Cotopaxi.jpg
Grading the flowers

418481696468736-Ready_for_ex..e_Cotopaxi.jpg
And packing them

To Cotapaxi

After leaving the rose farm it was time to head for the mountains – well, for Cotopaxi specifically, the main object of our trip. We drove back north a little, and turned off the main road to enter the National Park that surrounds and protects the mountain, although on these lowest slopes the land is nevertheless used for timber and shows too many signs of human interference. The road through this lower part of the park was a bit of a mess, undergoing a lot of work that is intended eventually to improve access but in the short term has made it bumpy going! Jose Luiz explained that the previous Easter the President of Ecuador had come here for a camping holiday with his family and was so horrified by the state of the gravel road that he immediately ordered that it be tarred.

large_DSCF4478.jpg
Scenery around Cotopaxi

The road wound up through the pines until we reached the official entrance to the park. Beyond here we were above the tree-line and the scenery grew more wild and dramatic, although Cotopaxi itself remained stubbornly hidden from view. It was dull and a little drizzly in the low cloud, and we wondered if we would get any sight of the peak of the mountain, but our companion was optimistic that on the other side the weather would be better. It was quite usual, he said, for this side to be in cloud but for the far side, where we were headed, to be much clearer. And he was right. As we climbed, we rounded the mountain, and the peak of the volcano was revealed.

But we were still some way below it, down on the altiplano, or paramo as it is known in Ecuador, at around 3,800 metres. The road continued upwards across a barren stony terrain until we reached the parking lot. By now we were at 4,300 metres.

large_450527686468740-How_high_wil..e_Cotopaxi.jpg
Cars parked below Cotopaxi

From here it is possible to walk up to the refuge near the snow line (at 4,800 metres). But the altitude made my headache almost unmanageable, and my bad knee was another reason not to attempt the climb. So we contented ourselves with taking photos from this point, and even so, I soon had to return to the car and beg Jose Luiz to drive down a little!

DSCF4476.jpgDSCF4474.jpg
45AD01F1B7E948C0CDAA12B31E1B152B.jpg6468738-Cotapaxi_Ecuador.jpg
Clouds swirling around Cotopaxi

6468921-On_Cotapaxi_Ecuador.jpg
Trying to pretend I feel OK!

It is relatively unusual for me to suffer like this at altitude. We had already been in Ecuador for nearly a week, spending our time in and around Quito. The city lies at 2,800 metres, which can be high enough to cause shortness of breath and making climbing its many hills a challenge (altitude sickness is generally thought to be possible anywhere above 2,400 metres). But we had both found that we didn’t really notice the altitude too much, apart from a slight breathlessness on the hotel stairs at times, and I had been hopeful that Cotopaxi would not be a problem either. But I think the problem was that I had woken up with a slight headache and the altitude turned that into a pounding one somewhat spoiling what would have been a super day. Even the local remedy of coca tea, which we bought at a little café and gift-shop inside the park made no difference, unfortunately. [On our second day in this area, when we went nearly as high, I had no problems, thankfully.]

It had nevertheless been a special experience to see this magnificent mountain. Whether you admire it from the plains below, drive up to the parking lot, walk up to the refuge or even climb to the summit (5,900 metres), a visit to Cotopaxi is a must when in Ecuador!

Cotopaxi means “Smooth Neck of the Moon” and the indigenous people have revered the mountain for centuries. The mountain was the bringer of both good rains and good crops. Pre-Incan civilizations believed god dwelled at the top of the mountain. But the mountain is also potentially the bringer of disaster. A still-active volcano (it last erupted about 70 years ago), an eruption today would cause the ice in its glacier to melt and to flood the valley below, bringing destruction to nearby Latacunga and as far north as the southern suburbs of Quito. Latacunga indeed has already been twice destroyed by such an eruption, in 1744 and 1768. The last major eruption was in 1903/04; does that mean that one is overdue?!!

6468741-Chuquiragua_Ecuador.jpg

On our way down from Cotopaxi ’s parking area we stopped to take a short walk and see some of the hardy plants that grow in this altiplano or paramo landscape. Here we saw the chuquiragua plant, which Jose Luiz told us is the national flower of Ecuador. This is a low shrub which grows only in this country and neighbouring Peru. It has yellow/orange flowers which the hummingbirds like to visit for their nectar – indeed we saw an Ecuadorean Hillstar Hummingbird here, which is the highest-living hummingbird in the world. I didn’t manage to get a photo of the bird (though I was able to later in the day, as you will see), so am using Chris’s photo here, with his permission!

Other plants that grow in this tough environment include valerian and lupine. I took a photo of the latter and of a pretty yellow flower, which fellow blogger aussirose has suggested is probably a hawkweed - thank you Ann!

6507069-Lupine_Provincia_de_Cotopaxi.jpg424394026507070-Unidentified..e_Cotopaxi.jpg

651639216507068-Ecuadorean_H..e_Cotopaxi.jpg
Ecuadorean Hillstar Hummingbird

Tambopaxi Lodge

When we were back “down” (at 3,800 metres!) on the paramo Jose Luiz drove us to another area of the park with a bleak but to me very appealing landscape. Here we had a good lunch at Tambopaxi Lodge, sitting in the cosy dining room with views from the window (when the clouds permitted) of not only Cotopaxi but also another volcano, Rumiñahui (4,721 m). We were also pleased to get another look at an Ecuadorean Hillstar Hummingbird, this time a female, who visited the feeder outside our window several times during the meal.

6468906-Hummingbird_Provincia_de_Cotopaxi.jpg
Female Hillstar Hummingbird

Our meal started with a really tasty and warming pumpkin soup. This was followed by pork chops, which needed the excellent spicy sauce, aji, to liven them up. We had mango mousse for dessert, and a choice of fruit juices – I chose the very good mango juice.

6468907-Tambopaxi_Lodge_Provincia_de_Cotopaxi.jpg
Tambopaxi Lodge

Laguna Limpiopungo

After our lunch we retraced our route back past the turnoff to Cotopaxi and stopped a little further along the road at the Laguna Limpiopungo. This is a beautiful and tranquil spot, and an oasis of sorts in the paramo for all sorts of birds.

large_320330166507081-Laguna_Limpi..e_Cotopaxi.jpg
Laguna Limpiopungo

A short walk from the car park brings you to a viewing platform where a notice board helps with identification. We saw a number of these, including Baird’s Sandpiper, Andean Teal, Andean Coot (so much bigger than the Coot we have here in England!), Andean Gull and nearby an Andean Lapwing. Other birds that can be seen here, according to the notice board, include the Caracara and Solitary Sandpiper, but we didn’t spot either of these.

234582836507057-Laguna_Limpi..e_Cotopaxi.jpg489958686507054-Laguna_Limpi..e_Cotopaxi.jpg
Laguna Limpiopungo

From the platform the path continues right round the lake, a circuit of just over a mile (just under two kilometres). We considered taking it, but it had started to rain, and the path was fairly uninviting as a group of construction workers was relaying it. So we decided to abandon the idea and instead just spent a little time with our binoculars, enjoying the bird activity.

We also had more good views of Rumiñahui from here. Unlike Cotopaxi this volcano is dormant and sits just below the snowline. It is named after an Incan general who fought against the Spanish conquerors, leading the resistance against them in this part of the country. Defeated by them in a battle near another volcano, Chimborazo, he had Quito burned to the ground rather than let it be captured by the invaders.

large_160329806507059-Ruminahui_fr..e_Cotopaxi.jpg
Rumiñahui from Tambopaxi

As we drove away the rain got heavier, and we saw another aspect of the landscape here – bleak and rather forbidding but at the same time eerily beautiful. I have read that Limpiopungo is at risk of disappearing because the waters that feed it are being diverted for irrigation purposes. It would be a real shame if this lovely spot is lost, not only for those of us that visit the park but also for the many birds that come here.

Hacienda la Cienega

273611216468746-Hacienda_la_..e_Cotopaxi.jpg
Hacienda la Cienega

Leaving the Cotopaxi National Park in the rain we headed for our base for the night, the Hacienda La Cienega, arriving here in the middle of a storm. We received a friendly welcome and were shown to our room, having arranged to meet up with Jose Luiz later for dinner.

The room, number 31, was on the far side of this historic property and was a good size, with a large and comfortable bed, and was nicely decorated. We were pleased to see that it had a heater as well as a fireplace, as the day was chilly at these heights (over 3,000 metres above sea level I believe) and the fire not lit – although later it was lit for us, and very cosy it was too!

6468910-Our_room_Provincia_de_Cotopaxi.jpg586699686468911-Steeped_in_h..e_Cotopaxi.jpg
Our bedroom at the hacienda

888176406468912-Corridor_in_..e_Cotopaxi.jpg
One of the corridors

We went to the small bar to see if we could get a coffee but the friendly manager immediately proposed that we sat in the then-empty restaurant (it was only about 4.30 pm) as there was a good fire going. He brought us a cafetière of excellent coffee and even lit some candles! Later in the afternoon we went to sit in one of the hallways to take advantage of the free wifi (which didn’t work in our bedroom) and again staff hurried to make us comfortable, stoking up the fire in the wood-burning stove. Later the rain stopped and I took a brief walk in the courtyard garden, its lush tropical trees and bushes dripping and birds starting to sing after their soaking.

large_6468744-The_hacienda_Provincia_de_Cotopaxi.jpg
In the garden

The hacienda is packed with history! It dates from the early part of the 18th century, and was so well built that it survived the 1744 eruption of Cotopaxi. It has played host to numerous famous people, including Charles Marie de la Condamine, a French scientist who participated in the 1736-44 Geodesic Mission that determined the true shape of the earth (and identified the location of the equator just north of Quito) and to Alexander von Humboldt, the German geographer/naturalist who studied Cotopaxi’s volcanic activity in 1802, and who is best known for proposing the theory that the lands bordering the Atlantic were once joined (and for having an ocean current named for him!), as well as many of Ecuador’s former presidents.

On one side of the courtyard is the small but beautiful Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary. It can apparently be used for weddings, and Jose Luiz told us later that on some visits his tourist guests have been accommodated for dinner in one part of the dining room while the wedding party celebrated in the other. The chapel doors stood open when I was exploring the garden, as they did the next morning, so I was able to have a look inside at the lovely wooden altarpiece, unusual reed ceiling and several old paintings.

6468745-In_the_chapel_Provincia_de_Cotopaxi.jpg
Inside the chapel

6468940-The_restaurant_Provincia_de_Cotopaxi.jpg
In the restaurant

In the evening we had dinner in the hacienda’s atmospheric restaurant, along with the only other people who appeared to be staying here, another couple and their guide. I had read good reviews of the food here, and seen an extensive menu, and as it was my birthday I was looking forward to a bit of a feast! But we discovered from Jose Luiz that our dinner was included in our tour and was a set menu. No matter – it would still be good, I thought. With hindsight though I wish we had asked if we could pay the extra to choose from the menu, as the meal proved to be rather disappointing. The vegetable soup was OK, but the chicken curry poor (we are used to good curries here in England) and served with pallid, floppy potato chips! They did however make a bit of a fuss about my birthday. I had not mentioned it at all to Jose Luiz, nor he to us, but Surtrek had clearly noted my date of birth and when the time came for dessert I was brought a slice of chocolate cake with a candle in it. Chris and Jose Luiz meanwhile were served a slice of something called “fruit cheese” – a sort of blancmange or mousse-like concoction. Chris and I decided to split our two different desserts and I was pleased that we did, as the fruit cheese was much nicer than my birthday chocolate cake, which seemed dry and stale. So altogether not an especially good meal and a somewhat unsatisfactory end to our day.

But overall it had been a good day: the clouds had cleared for us, we had seen Cotopaxi and the other volcanoes, and the fire was lit in our cosy room.

And tomorrow there would be more wonderful scenery – and no headache!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:52 Archived in Ecuador Tagged mountains birds volcanoes national_park cotopaxi 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

DSCF4558.jpg
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.

355098416508725-Pujili_on_th..a_Quilotoa.jpg216987996508724-Pujili_on_th..a_Quilotoa.jpg
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.

334313926508722-Pujili_on_th..a_Quilotoa.jpgDSCF4530.jpg6508726-Fresh_very_chickens_Laguna_Quilotoa.jpg
Fruit for sale, and very fresh chickens

6468913-Guaguas_de_pan_Ecuador.jpg
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.

DSCF4554.jpgDSCF4534.jpg
Stall holders

The drive to Quilotoa

6508647-Farming_the_highlands_Laguna_Quilotoa.jpg

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).

6468914-Traditional_home_Laguna_Quilotoa.jpg
Traditional house

large_6468754-Landscape_near_Quilotoa_Ecuador.jpg

6468916-Road_block_near_Quilotoa_Ecuador.jpg

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!

large_6508728-The_emerald_mirror_Laguna_Quilotoa.jpg

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.

large_6508714-Laguna_Quilotoa_Laguna_Quilotoa.jpg

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

6508683-In_Kirutwa_Laguna_Quilotoa.jpg
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.

large_181587856508733-Clouds_desce..a_Quilotoa.jpg

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).

6508661-In_the_cooperative_Laguna_Quilotoa.jpg
6508662-In_the_cooperative_Laguna_Quilotoa.jpg6508659-Our_seller_Laguna_Quilotoa.jpg
In the craft cooperative - our young seller on the right

6508671-Our_Tigua_painting_Laguna_Quilotoa.jpg
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!

DSCF4616.jpgDSCF4615.jpg
Cañon del Río Toachi

Storm over the Andes

6508649-Storm_clouds_Laguna_Quilotoa.jpg

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

658242946469041-Rooms_at_the..isco_Quito.jpg
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

209851206469096-View_from_th..mosa_Quito.jpg
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.

6469097-In_Vista_Hermosa_Quito.jpg6469100-Wacky_decor_in_Vista_Hermosa_Quito.jpg
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)

A full and fabulous day!

Japan day five


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Making the most of the Hakone Free Pass

large_6892898-Owakudani_Hot_Springs_Hakone.jpg
At Owakudani Hot Springs

6892826-Our_bedroom_Hakone.jpg
Our bedroom

I slept well on my futon in the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse – a little to my surprise as I had expected the floor to seem hard. Most of us were up early, eager to see what Hakone had to offer and with most of the group opting to join Andrew on a full day out in the region. The shared bathroom facilities meant a bit of polite juggling but we were all soon at breakfast which was served in the adjacent house just a few steps away. Although this is a traditional guest-house, the breakfast was Western in style, with fresh fruit (pineapple and banana), bread for toasting with a selection of jams, yoghurt, cereals, tea, coffee and orange juice.

The plan for the day was to make the most of our Hakone Free Pass and, guided by Andrew, take in some of the major sights using a variety of means of transport. The element that could not be planned was to see Mount Fuji. Fujiyama is a fickle lady and too often shrouded in cloud, but today the sun was shining and we hoped for the best!

6892870-Funicular_from_Gora_to_Sounzan_Hakone.jpg
On the funicular
from Gora to Sounzan

We took the bus from Sengokuhara to the small town of Gora, where we changed to the funicular to Sounzan. Confusingly the Japanese call this a cable car, and what I would call a cable car they term a ‘ropeway’! But whatever you call it, this is a useful little service that links Gora, one of the main transport hubs in Hakone, with Sounzan where you can catch the ropeway / cable car proper to Owakudani and onwards to Lake Ashi.

The journey from Gora to Sounzan only took us about ten minutes, with brief stops at a number of stations – one serving a hotel while others seemed to be used by a few locals and walkers.

6892871-Funicular_from_Gora_to_Sounzan_Hakone.jpg
Funicular from Gora to Sounzan

In Sounzan we changed to the rope way. This is a cable car system that links Gora to some of the main sights of the region, including Owakudani Hot Springs and Togendai on Lake Ashi. I love travelling in cable cars but a few of our group were less enthusiastic, especially one who had a fear of heights. We were able to reassure her, and all piled into a car for the eight minute ride up the mountain.

6892873-On_the_way_up_Hakone.jpg
On the way up to Owakudani

There were some lovely views as we went (though there would be better ones still on the way down, as you will see) and we were soon alighting at Owakudani. Here we found ourselves in a rather incongruous modern building with shops and cafės, but a quick look outside the picture window showed us a very different scene.

Owakudani

large_6892895-Owakudani_Hot_Springs_Hakone.jpg
Owakudani Hot Springs

Beyond the modern cable car station we were in a landscape that seemed to be from another world. The earth is steaming; this is truly the ‘Great Boiling Valley’ that the name, Owakudani, declares it to be. It also lives up to a previous name, O-jigoku, meaning Great Hell.

We started to climb the path towards the hot springs, but before reaching them we were stopped in our tracks by another sight. There is no more recognised symbol of Japan than Mount Fuji, and every visitor to the country hopes to see this iconic volcano, so perfectly conical in shape, just as a child would draw one. But the weather in this region (indeed in most of Japan) is not especially reliable, and on many days Fuji is shrouded in cloud. For several days before our visit here the talk in our group often turned to this topic - would we see Fuji? And now, suddenly, there she was – completely clear and also, unusually, devoid of snow. Andrew was very surprised by this latter sight as he had never before seen Fuji snow-free.

large_951654956898537-Theres_more_..uji_Hakone.jpg
First view of Mount Fuji

large_P1000841.jpg
Mount Fuji from the path to the hot springs

Andrew promised us an even better view later in the day, when we would, he said, be able to photograph the volcano with Lake Ashi and one of its red torii gates in the foreground. But as I have said, Fuji is elusive and does not reveal herself willingly. By the time we were to reach this spot, however, the clouds would have descended and Fujiyama be hidden from view. But no matter – we had seen what all visitors dream of seeing, a dream that only some are able to realise.

I am getting ahead of myself. For now, after taking loads of photos of the mountain, we continued up the path. As we climbed the steam rose and swirled around us, and there was a strong smell of sulphur in the air.

6892897-Owakudani_Hot_Springs_Hakone.jpg90_P1000846.jpg
P1000848.jpg6892886-Owakudani_Hot_Springs_Hakone.jpg
Owakudani Hot Springs

The trail leads up and loops around several of the pools, but there are many more on the hillside above. This eerie landscape was created when Mount Kamiyama erupted around 3,000 years ago. Standing here you are in fact in its crater – no wonder the ground hisses and boils beneath your feet. As a visitor to Japan you will have been aware that it is a seismologically active country, with earthquakes a fact of life; here you can really appreciate what that means.

6892892-Kuro_tamago_black_eggs_Hakone.jpg
Kuro-tamago: black eggs

At the point where the path divides to make a loop around the geysers there is a small hut and in one of the hot pools nearby a man was boiling eggs. Eating one of these eggs is said to add seven years to your life! They look black but are just ordinary chicken eggs – the shell turns black due to being boiled in the hot sulphur spring. You can buy them in bags of five but it isn’t advised to eat more than two, however desperate you are for those extra years! However one guy in our group ate three and didn’t seem to suffer any ill effects, although whether he was successful in adding 21 years to his life remains to be seen!

6892889-Kuro_tamago_black_eggs_Hakone.jpg
The egg man

Once you can get over the blackness of the shell I found these really don’t taste much different to regularly boiled eggs. The bags have sachets of salt in them if you want to add it, but the eggs seemed to me to be already a little salty from the chemicals in the water. If you really don’t fancy the eggs, or want something sweet to take the taste away afterwards, the hut also sells chocolate-covered almonds – presumably because their pale interior and dark coating mimic the eggs.

After walking the loop path round the springs it was time to head back to the cable car station and continue on our journey. Rather than return to Sonzan we continued in the same direction along the rope way, with our car ascending further before dropping down to Lake Ashi. Andrew warned us to have our cameras ready as the descent started and we soon saw why, as again we saw Mount Fuji dominating the horizon. Drifting almost silently above the mountains with that distant view of Fuji is something I’ll remember for a long while.

large_P1000870.jpg
Descending from Owakudani on the cable car

Cruise on a pirate ship!

large_6892910-Cruise_on_a_pirate_ship_Hakone.jpg
Pirate ship on Lake Ashi

The cable car took us to Togendai on the lake shore, and here we changed to yet another form of transport, the most unusual of them all. When I heard we were to travel on a pirate ship I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I don’t think it was this! The ships are really just regular lake boats ‘in disguise’, with masts added, and with sails and even ropes moulded from plastic. The pirates are equally artificial, being just models (I think I had expected that the crew would be dressed up!) Apparently the ships are modelled on medieval sailing vessels, but once on board they are fairly indistinguishable from any modern boat.

Nevertheless this was a fun ride and the scenery around Lake Ashi is wonderful. We got one more view of Mount Fuji from here, while around the shore are wooded mountains and some brightly coloured torii. On our busy day this was a relaxing and scenic way to travel.

6892914-Shrine_with_pirate_ship_Hakone.jpg
Pirate ship and torii on Lake Ashi

851948396892905-Pirate_ship_..ond_Hakone.jpg
Pirate ship with Mount Fuji behind

6892902-Lakeside_hotel_and_pirate_ship_Hakone.jpg
Lakeside hotel and pirate ship

This beautiful lake, also known as Ashinoko, lies about 720 metres above sea level and has an area of seven square kilometres, making it the largest lake in this area. It is a crater lake lying along the southwest wall of the caldera of Mount Hakone and was formed after the volcano's last eruption 3,000 years ago.

This is the place to come for views of Japan’s most famous mountain, although by the time we were crossing the lake on our ‘pirate ship’ the clouds were just starting to creep in, and were soon to cover her completely and hide her from view.

large_6892916-Lake_Ashi_Hakone.jpg
6892833-Lake_Ashi_Hakone.jpg
Lake Ashi

The name 'Ashinoko' means lake of reeds (ashi is reed and ko means lake). According to legend Lake Ashi is home to a nine-headed dragon, and to appease this it is presented with an offering of traditional red rice at the Hakone Shrine Lake Ashi Festival on July 31st each year. But no dragon made an appearance to disrupt our journey, which was pleasant but uneventful.

Hakone-Machi

6892879-Soba_noodles_Hakone.jpg
Soba noodles, Meihika

We got off the boat in Hakone-Machi, a small town on the shore with several hotels and restaurants catering to visitors. Andrew recommended one of the restaurants, Meihika, so most of us went there together for lunch. There was a good selection of dishes and the menu was thankfully in English and with illustrations. Many of the dishes were noodle ones and I chose one of these – soba noodles in a soup with seaweed. Chris had the curry rice, a popular Japanese take on that Indian staple with a simple curry sauce over the rice. Both were tasty, though my soup was so generous a portion that I didn't finish it. Another dish that proved popular with our group included the raw tuna with rice. The service was friendly and when we paid at the till on leaving we were all given a small gift of an origami fish to thank us for our custom.

Hakone secret boxes

6892907-Craftsman_Hakone.jpg
Craftsman making secret boxes

After lunch Andrew suggested that we visit a shop where a craftsman would demonstrate how Hakone’s famous secret boxes are made. As we approached the shop and entered I was anticipating the all too common ‘quick demo then hard sell to the gullible tourists’ that we have experienced in some other places, but this was much more than that – we saw a real craftsman at work.

The traditional craft of the Himitsu-Bako, or Secret Box, is over 100 years old. The boxes are made in various complexities, and require a precise series of small moves to open them. The difficulty of opening a box goes up as the number of sliding panels involved increases. They must be manipulated in the correct sequence, and there can be as few as two moves needed, or (so I have read) as many as 1,500! But most usual are boxes ranging from five to around 60 moves. The number of moves is one factor in determining the price; the size and (most important) quality of craftsmanship are the others.

However, the craftsman we met is not a maker of secret boxes, yet his work is just as skilful, just as traditional and an important element in the intrigue of a secret box. Many of these are covered in intricate inlaid patterns that mask the secret panels that are the key to eventually opening the box. The technique used to make these patterns is known as Yosegi Zaiku and it originated in the late Edo Period. The Hakone Mountains are noted for their great variety of trees and the local craftsmen make the most of the various natural colours of woods to create these intricate designs. The one we met also made beautiful marquetry pictures known as Japanese inlay work or Zougan, but it was the Yosegi Zaiku techniques that he demonstrated to us. The patterns are created by assembling together thin sticks of wood in different colours and then shaving very thin layers off the assembly across the grain to reveal the design. By using the wide variety of tree species and colours available here, he can create complex and surprisingly vivid designs. The thin layers can be applied not only to the secret boxes but to many other items, from coasters to furniture.

965101796892908-The_sheets_o..rns_Hakone.jpg
The sheets of shaved wood patterns

6892906-Tools_of_the_trade_Hakone.jpg
Tools of the secret box trade

6898488-Our_little_secret_box_Hakone.jpg
Our little secret box

As we watched the demonstration the man shaved off and passed round a number of strips, enough for us each to have one as a souvenir. He also showed us how the secret boxes worked. There was absolutely no pressure to buy, but of course we were all intrigued by the boxes and we all browsed around the shop, with several of us succumbing to temptation, including us – we bought a small seven move box for which we paid about 1,500¥ (just over £9 or $14). It still sits on a shelf in our front room but unfortunately I have lost the slip of paper illustrating the moves, or possibly (and stupidly) left it inside the box when I last opened it. Either way, for now the box is sealed to me as I can’t get past the second move!

Hakone Checkpoint

Leaving the secret box shop we walked along the street to this reconstruction of a checkpoint on the Tokaido Way, the old highway which linked Tokyo with Kyoto during the feudal Edo Period. This was the most important of the highways, and connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. At intervals there were checkpoints like this one, known as sekisho, where travellers had to show the permits that were necessary to allow them to travel the route.

6898484-Entrance_to_the_check_point_Hakone.jpg
Entrance to Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint

The sekisho had two main purposes: to control ‘incoming guns and outgoing women’, i.e. to prevent weapons from being brought into Edo and to prevent the wives and children of feudal lords from fleeing from Edo. At Hakone the second purpose is thought to have been by far the more significant. I found this dramatic story on a website which brings to life the harsh reality of the purpose of the checkpoints:

6892912-In_the_officers_quarters_Hakone.jpg
In the officers' quarters

In February of 1702, a young girl was captured by authorities in the mountain area behind the Hakone Check Point (barrier station). She didn’t have legal permission to pass through the gate and so she tried to secretly cut across the mountain. After being detained in prison for about two months she was executed, and her head put on display in public. The poor girl’s name was Otama. She had wanted to go back to her parents’ home in Izu, leaving her place of employment in Edo without permission. If she had finished her apprenticeship, she could have gotten a legal pass. But she hated working there and ran away. She was accused of breaking through the barrier – a very serious felony at that time.

The checkpoints were removed soon after the Meiji Restoration, which saw the end of the feudal period. But in recent years this one has been restored exactly as it would have been, thanks to the discovery of some old records which showed every detail of the buildings here. This has the somewhat disconcerting effect of the various structures looking incongruously new. But a visit is worthwhile as the work has been very carefully done and the role of the checkpoint cleverly brought to life. We visited the reconstructed officers’ quarters and the much less spacious ones allocated to the lower ranks. Shadowy grey figures have been used effectively to show the activity that would have taken place in each part of the buildings – sleeping, cooking, checking permits and even inspecting the long hair of female travellers for hidden weapons. Apparently researchers were not able to discover enough details about the colour or design of their clothing, so the models were created like this, but I also found it rather evocative – almost as of the ghosts of the past officials still linger here.

6892881-Checking_papers_Hakone.jpg
Checking papers

6892880-Officers_Hakone.jpg
Officers

In the open area between the two sets of quarters the tools used to catch criminals (those trying to evade the checkpoint by passing around it) are displayed, and they look pretty effective. I didn’t take a photo but you can see one on the website – nasty!

After visiting these quarters we climbed a hill to the lookout tower. It was a bit of an effort on rather large steps, but we were rewarded with a good view of Lake Ashi (but not Mount Fuji). From here the soldiers would keep watch over the lake as it was prohibited to cross it my ship and thus evade the checkpoints. We also went in the small museum which has displays about the checkpoint and about the Tokaido, but unfortunately no English signage whatsoever, so many of these were lost on me. I did however find the video of the restoration work quite interesting.

large_6892837-View_from_the_lookout_point_Hakone.jpg
View from the lookout point - Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint

The Tokaido Way

6892882-Path_through_the_cedars_Hakone.jpg
Path through the cedars on the Tokaido Way

Just north of the checkpoint we were able to walk along a short stretch of the Tokaido Way. This was the most important of the Five Routes or highways during the Edo period, and connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. Tokaido means East Sea Road – this was a coastal route along the sea coast of eastern Honshū (there was also a less well-travelled inland route).

The name lives on today in the Shinkansen (bullet train) line linking Tokyo with Kyoto and Osaka, and the highway itself can still be found in a few places. Here in Hakone-Machi the path runs for about 500 metres, to Moto-Hakone, the next settlement on the lake. The path (which was an easy walk but a little muddy in places) lies between rows of ancient cedar trees, some as much as 400 years old. They were planted by the Edo government to provide travellers with shelter from winter snow and summer heat, and approximately 420 of them remain to this day. The trees reach up to 30 metres high, and some have a girth of over four metres. Walking here you are following the route taken centuries before by travellers to Edo. Most would have been on foot, as we were, though some higher-class people would have been able to afford to travel in a kago, a form of litter or sedan chair carried by a team of men.

At one point on the path you can apparently get the classic view of Mount Fuji, with the red of the Hakone shrine in the foreground, Lake Ashi beyond, and the mountain rising majestically above them both. I say ‘apparently’ because, having been blessed with great good fortune earlier and some fantastic views of Fujiyama, by now our luck had turned and she was hidden in the clouds. But we had nothing to complain of, and did not. We knew that many come here to Hakone and never see her at all, so we were all simply grateful that we had been honoured.

6892913-Shrine_seen_from_the_path_Hakone.jpg
Torii seen from the path

At the end of this stretch of path we walked down to the boat landing in Moto-Hakone. There we caught another pirate boat back to Togendai where we caught a bus to Sengokuhara and to our guest-house there.

Koto music and kimonos

When we got back to the guest-house our hostess there announced that she had been able to arrange a treat for us. She had invited a local woman, a retired teacher who has been playing the koto for a number of years, to give us a demonstration. This is a traditional stringed instrument, played horizontally on the floor. The 13 strings sit on moveable bridges which can be adjusted to change the pitch.

6877353-Koto_music_Japan.jpg
The musician

6877352-Koto_music_Japan.jpg
Koto detail

The musician had set up a small area in the lounge with a screen as backdrop and fabrics to create a sort of stage. She started by explaining something about the instrument and the different styles of playing, both traditional and more modern – she herself plays in a traditional style. She then told us the story of the song she would perform – a cheery piece about a general who kills a young boy fighting on the opposing side despite realising how much he reminds him of his own son, and afterwards feels such remorse that he renounces warfare and becomes a monk. Then she played and sang.

I think you maybe need to have grown up listening to traditional Japanese music, or to have had your ear trained over many years, as to most of us it seemed very strange, even discordant. If you want to hear what I mean, check out my short video. It certainly didn't have the haunting quality of the koto music we had heard a few days previously at the Edo-Tokyo Museum -maybe that was the more modern style, although that seems unlikely in a museum devoted to history.

But the performance was certainly interesting, and the musician couldn't have been more charming. As well as singing and playing for us she had brought gifts for each of us of origami figures, little dolls which she asked that we take with us on our journey and remember her as we travelled. I have carried mine ever since in my travel wallet!

She also brought some kimonos and with the help of the guest house owner and one of the staff offered to dress a few of us up in them so we could find out for ourselves what it was like to wear one. I volunteered and loved the experience of wearing such a beautiful garment, though it was a revelation to see how much binding, padding and clipping goes into the dressing process.

6877839-At_the_Fuji_Hakone_Guesthouse_Japan.jpg
Group photo, with some of us dressed up

6892894-Zen_garden_Hakone.jpg
Zen garden, Hoshino An

After the performance it was time for dinner. There were no restaurants within an easy walk of the guest-house so as on the previous evening we all agreed to Andrew’s suggestion that we go with him to one of his favourites, this time Hoshino An, some way out of Sengokuhara. Because of this isolation the restaurant arranges pick-ups from local hotels if pre-booked, so we piled into the cars that had come to collect us and set off.

The setting of the restaurant was lovely, with a pretty Zen garden. We ate in the first floor area, where the seating was that perfect compromise between traditional and modern – low tables but with a well for your feet so no need to sit cross-legged.

There was an English menu, with photos. Most of the dishes came as part of a set meal with soup, pickles and an oddly salty egg custard dessert. The soup was a DIY affair; we were all brought a bowl with a few small mushrooms and spring onions, and a larger one over a flame with steaming miso soup. We waited till this was hot enough, then ladled it into the bowl of vegetables and tucked in!

The main course dish I chose was of salmon with steamed rice, while Chris had a similar one but with chicken. Also in the dish were a few vegetables - carrot, peas, radish, and a large tasty mushroom. I rather enjoyed my salmon dish though some of our group who aren't keen on fish were a little disconcerted to find that even the non-fish dishes tasted fishy (we think because the rice here may be cooked in fish stock). And as mentioned, the dessert was weird!

6892899-Dinner_set_Hakone.jpg6892896-Entrance_Hakone.jpg
DIY soup and chopsticks, Hoshino An

Still, all in all this was a good experience. The service was friendly, the beer cold and the meal tasty enough and reasonable value. Afterwards it was all back to the guest-house and over the road to stock up on evening treats (plum wine in my case!) at Lawson’s before relaxing in the cosy lounge and later in the outdoor onsen, as on the previous evening.

It had been a long but fabulous day!

Posted by ToonSarah 07:10 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains lakes boats restaurant japan history hot_springs cable_car funicular crafts hakone Comments (4)

In the Japanese Alps

Japan day twelve


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Kamikochi

large_6877837-Japanese_tourists_in_Kamikochi_Japan.jpg
Japanese tourists in Kamikochi

Kamikochi is a high plateau, surrounded by mountains, through which the Azusa River flows. It is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park and, because of the climate, only open to visitors from around mid April to mid November each year. When we visited in mid October the foliage was beautifully tinted with reds, golds and greens and the park, always popular with Japanese visitors, was busy even in the rain. And in the rain is how, for the most part, we saw it!

We had been enjoying great weather on our trip through Japan, but in Kamikochi our luck finally ran out. Rain is not at all unusual here, but we got more than just rain – we got one of Japan's autumnal typhoons!

Travelling to Kamikochi

But I am running ahead of myself – first, we had to get here from Takayama where we had spent the previous two days. We had arrived there by train but when we left a few days later it was by bus. The bus station is just next to and north of the train station and has a small waiting area with the ubiquitous vending machines – very useful for stocking up on provisions for the journey or an extra morning coffee. There’s plenty of seating and you can take advantage of free wifi if you’re going to be here any length of time.

Our bus arrived exactly on schedule to take us from Takayama to Hirayu, the first leg of our two bus journey. These are just local buses, not designed for tourists on lengthy visits to Japan, so we had used the excellent Japan Rail luggage forwarding service to send most of our luggage to Tokyo, where we were heading after Kamikochi, and took only small overnight bags on this trip. The buses were quite full, and we were very glad we didn’t have more bags to accommodate.

6932287-Seen_from_the_bus_Kamikochi.jpg

6932288-Seen_from_the_bus_Kamikochi.jpg
Seen from the bus

6932280-Kamikochi_traffic_jam_Kamikochi.jpg
Kamikochi traffic jam

The journey to Hirayu took about an hour. There we changed buses, with a wait of about 15 minutes, for one bound for Kamikochi. No private vehicles are allowed beyond the entrance to the long Kappa tunnel that leads to Kamikochi; the only access is by bus or taxi and when you get on the road you see why. It is very narrow and winding and even with those restrictions in place seems to struggle to cope with the traffic. We were stuck for a while behind a bus that was manoeuvring inexpertly to allow another coming in the opposite direction to pass.

The views throughout our journey from Takayama were great, but on this last stretch spectacular – despite (or arguably because of) the very low cloud and rain. I was glad I had secured a window seat and could capture these first impressions of the Japanese Alps with my camera.

large_6877292-Near_Kamikochi_Japan.jpg
Nearing Kamikochi

large_4eac0540-20a1-11e8-bb60-f3e03f64f1b3.jpg
Rainy Kamikochi from the bus

6932282-Soba_in_hot_soup_Kamikochi.jpg#
Soba in hot soup

The bus deposited us at the terminal near the centre of the park, Kappa-bashi. Although it was a bit early for lunch Andrew suggested that we ate in the restaurant there (above the gift shop) as we wouldn’t be able to get anything at the hotel at this time. The wet weather had, it seemed, prompted everyone to have a similar idea, as although the restaurant here is large we had to wait a while for a table and our group broke into twos and fours to secure spaces.

Once seated we enjoyed our warming meal. visit I had soba noodles in a hot soup, which was described as being with ‘edible' (thankfully!) plants, and Chris the katsu (pork cutlet).

Kappa-bashi Bridge

After lunch we regrouped and headed for our hotel. This was right by the river on the far side of, and just a few metres from, the Kappa-bashi Bridge. This wooden suspension bridge is 36.6 metres long and just over three metres wide. It is something of a symbol for Kamikochi and is also the busiest point in the park as almost everyone crosses it at some point in their visit. By the way, bashi means bridge, but most English translations add the tautological 'bridge' to the name.

6932361-Kappa_bashi_in_the_rain_Kamikochi.jpg
Kappa-bashi in the rain

The bridge is named for a mythical creature, the Kappa, a name meaning ‘river child’. The Kappa is a trickster, as found in many mythologies, but a pretty malevolent one. They are said to lure people into the water to drown, to kidnap children and even to drink the blood of their victims in order to capture their soul. Even today you may see a sign warning of the presence of a Kappa by some bodies of water in more remote Japanese towns and villages. According to Wikipedia:

‘Kappa have been used to warn children of the dangers lurking in rivers and lakes, as kappa have been often said to try to lure people to water and pull them in.

‘Kappa legends are said to be based on the Japanese giant salamander or hanzaki, an aggressive salamander that grabs its prey with its powerful jaws. Other theories suggest they are based on historical sightings of the now extinct Japanese river otter as seen from a distance, otters have been known to stand upright and a drunk, frightened or hallucinating person may think they are seeing a humanoid entity and not a wild animal.

‘The kappa is typically depicted as roughly humanoid in form and about the size of a child. Its scaly reptilian skin ranges in colour from green to yellow or blue.'

The bridge is surrounded by a number of mountains including Nishihotakadake, Okuhotakadake and Myojindake, which are all over 3,000 metres above sea level. But on this first afternoon in the park mountain views were in short supply, so we simply crossed the bridge and made the short walk to the hotel, Nishi-itoya Sanso, a good-sized guesthouse with traditional Japanese accommodation.

Nishi-itoya Sanso

943892536932284-Exterior_our.._Kamikochi.jpg
Exterior of Nishi-itoya Sanso - our room is bottom right

Our ground floor room here was probably the largest we had during our trip to Japan. We had a wash basin, but other facilities were communal - toilets in the corridor nearby, and a public onsen (separate men's and women's) on the second floor.

6932285-Our_room_Kamikochi.jpg
Our room at Nishi-itoya Sanso

6877812-Yukuta_set_Kamikochi_Japan.jpg
Yukuta set

Sleeping is traditional style, on futons, which the staff laid out for us each evening while we were at dinner. But a welcome Western touch was the provision of a small table and chairs in the window alcove, from where we had a good view of the surrounding trees and a footpath traversed not only by human visitors to the park but also occasionally by the resident macaques!

Once we’d settled in we went for a walk in the immediate area, and despite the rain enjoyed taking photos of the trees, with the autumn leaves just turning, and the low clouds drifting through the wooded hillsides.

large_6932305-More_photos_of_Kamikochi_Kamikochi.jpg
Kamikochi in the rain

6932309-Autumn_colours_Kamikochi.jpg
6932317-Autumn_colours_Kamikochi.jpg
Autumn colours

6932307-More_photos_of_Kamikochi_Kamikochi.jpg00355260-20a4-11e8-a9cb-87168fdd4417.jpg
Rainy day details

But having been warned not to be out after mid afternoon because of the approaching typhoon, we quite soon returned to our room to enjoy the views of the rather damp trees and equally damp passing macaques.

The macaques of Kamikochi

One of the delights of a visit to Kamikochi is the opportunity to observe the resident macaques, who are not too timid to venture into the ‘populated’ area around the hotels. From our limited two days’ experience, it seemed they would put in an experience mid to late afternoon, with a troop making its way along the path in front of our hotel and others taking a short cut across the staff car park behind. It was so much fun to observe their antics, especially those with little babies in tow or (very cute) riding on their backs.

6927718-Red_faced_macaque_Kamikochi_Takayama.jpg
Bedraggled macaque with baby

The Japanese macaque is the most northerly-living primate (apart from humans, obviously!) and is sometimes called the ‘snow monkey’ because it is happy to live even where snow regularly covers the ground in winter. But you’re unlikely to get the opportunity to see it in the snow in Kamikochi because the park is closed during the winter months. However, we found that soggy-furred monkeys are almost as cute as snow-covered ones!

The macaques have a distinctive red face which makes them look permanently a little cross. They have thick brown or greyish fur which grows thicker in cold weather. They live in large groups or troops with males, females and infants all living, feeding and travelling together. The babies spend their first four weeks hanging from their mother’s belly before being transferred to her back where they spend most of their first year.

The macaques move quite quickly (or at least, they do when it rains) so you need to have your camera at the ready. I have a lot of very blurred photos to show for my efforts, and more than a few of bushes where, a fraction of a second before I pressed the shutter, a monkey was passing! The photo above was my only successful effort on this first afternoon, although I was to do better the following day.

After a relaxing couple of hours watching their antics, reading and catching up on my journal notes, it was time for dinner, which Andrew had promised us would be quite an experience – and it was!

A Japanese feast

IMG_0281.jpg
Table set for dinner

Stays at Nishi-itoya are on a half board basis and the dinners served are amazing, classic Japanese feasts, with multiple courses (albeit all served at once in the Japanese way). The table as we walked in to our group's private dining room on the first evening had us all gasping, and even so this was only part of our meal, as various hot items were added soon after we took our seats.

6932294-My_place_setting_Kamikochi.jpg
An individual place-setting

Even with a printed menu sheet in English, some of the items remained hard to identify, and some of us found some of them a little hard to stomach, but really there was nothing here to deter anyone other than the ultra-squeamish (no odd parts of animals or insects, for instance!) and most of us sampled most things, though the non-fish eaters struggled a little at times. But everyone, whether they cleared their plates or simply grazed, found this an experience to remember.

The menu on that first night was (taken verbatim from the printed sheet provided):

6932299-Walnut_tofu_Kamikochi.jpg
Walnut tofu

9c21beb0-20a5-11e8-9fd5-cd7f179d4ff8.jpg
Assorted samplers

6932296-Char_Kamikochi.jpg
Grilled char

Appetiser: walnut tofu

Assorted samplers
~ burdock rolled with sea bream
~ boiled prawn
~ chestnut
~ cheese with citron

Sashimi: local salmon and char

Grilled char with salt

Sweet bun of lily root

Roast beef and salad

Fried salmon with eggplant
Fried potato with shrimp

Clear soup with mushroom paste

Rice with vegetable pickles

Fruit [grapes]

Wow! Of course, some dishes appealed to each of us more than others. My own favourites were the walnut tofu (I normally don't much care for tofu but this was a revelation), the sashimi and the fried potato with shrimp - a sort of Japanese fishcake. I also rather liked the lily root bun, which had the texture of mashed potato and a fairly mild flavour. The char was good too, though I found it a challenge to eat with chopsticks! Chris is not a big fan of fish so I traded some of my beef (which was his favourite) for his sashimi, and I noticed that around the table others were engaged in similar negotiations – one of the advantages of eating with a group ;)

After dinner we sat in the coffee shop for a while with Andrew and another couple from the group, Sue and Jim from Australia, with whom we were becoming friendly. We could buy sake here, tea and coffee, water and beer, although as the coffee shop closes at 21.00 we didn’t stay up late but headed back to our room to snuggle down in our futons and hope for better weather tomorrow.

6877840-Andrew_Jim_Sue_in_Kamikochi_Japan.jpg
Andrew, Jim and Sue in the coffee shop

Posted by ToonSarah 10:05 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains trees monkeys food rain japan weather national_park kamikochi Comments (7)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 7) Page [1] 2 » Next