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Snow in the desert?

New Mexico day sixteen


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

White Sands National Monument

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Early morning shadows on the White Sands

It was the White Sands in part at least that brought us to New Mexico, and they did not disappoint. After seeing the wonderful photos taken here by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, I was really keen to see these scenes for myself, and that was one of the triggers for planning a holiday in this incredible state.

As we were staying in Alamogordo rather than in the park itself (where the only accommodation option is back-country camping), we made an early start that day, skipping breakfast in favour of juice and muffins which we had stocked up on the previous day ready to picnic later in the park.

We were at the gates soon after the 7.00 am opening time. I knew that the best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but for non-campers like ourselves arriving at opening time is the next best option. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

We paid the $3 per person fee at the gates, skipping the visitor centre which was still closed at that time (and which in any case was much less of a priority for us than seeing the actual dunes), and entered the park. At first the landscape was much like that of the rest of this part of New Mexico, flat scrubland. But we could see the white dunes ahead of us as we drove and were soon among them.

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Driving through White Sands National Monument

Imagine a desert with dunes that stretch to the horizon, dotted with a few hardy plants and baking under a hot sun. Now imagine that the sand in this desert is not yellow, but as white as snow, and you will have some idea of what it is like here.

But despite the name, this is not sand! The white crystals are in fact gypsum, and in this part of New Mexico the dunes cover 275 square miles of desert creating the world's largest gypsum dunefield. Not all of this though is part of the National Monument, as much of it is off-limits on the White Sands Missile Range – these wide open spaces are ideal for such activities it seems. But thankfully the National Monument does preserve a large portion of the dunefield and makes it accessible for us all to enjoy.

Interdune Boardwalk

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View from the Interdune Boardwalk

Our first stop, which I had planned carefully in advance, was at the Interdune Boardwalk. This offers a short easy walk with interpretive boards describing the plant life on the dunes etc. It was just right for a pre-breakfast stroll and got us in among the dunes while the light was still good.

The Interdune Boardwalk is an easy elevated trail of about 600 metres (there and back). It led us through a fragile interdune area to a scenic view at the top of a dune. Interdune areas are where all plant life in the dunefield starts. The interpretive boards here described the various plants that manage to grow in this harsh environment and also explained how they get their first footholds and gradually colonise the desert. It was an interesting introduction to this fascinating environment, and the plants themselves made interesting subjects for photography, although because of them the area lacks the other-worldliness of the deeper reaches of the park.

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Plant life near the Interdune Boardwalk

Back at the car we ate our simple breakfast picnic and then it was time to explore further. There are no restrictions on where you can walk here, as long as you pull off the road when you stop, so having found the Interdunes Walk just a little busier than we had expected at that early hour, we stopped again just a short distance up the road and scrambled up a small dune to get an overview of the scene around us.

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Panorama by the road side

Only a few yards from the road we found ourselves alone, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine how it might feel to be lost in this wilderness, or how the desert would have looked in the days before any roads were laid through it or visitor facilities provided. I also got some of my most striking photos here, proving that it is well worth taking the time and trouble to get just a little off the beaten path if at all possible.

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Lone grasses

Alkali Flat Trail

We then followed the road to the far end of the loop drive. There were several marked picnic areas here with grills, tables and seats, and these slightly surreal-looking space-age shelters to provide protection from the harsh midday sun in summer. It was still fairly early in the morning and the place was pretty deserted. I am sure it gets busier later, especially at the height of the season, but we rather enjoyed having it to ourselves as the shelters made great subjects for some rather different White Sands photos. At that time of day in October we didn’t really need their protection, but it was a fun place to relax for a short while and refresh ourselves with a drink, and we were also glad of the (primitive) restrooms provided here.

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Picnic shelters

Then we set out on our walk. The Alkali Flat Trail is the only trail of any real length in the park, at 4.6 miles round trip. This trail should not be undertaken without proper preparation, as there is no shade in this harsh environment, and walking on these shifting sands is not always easy.

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Trail marker

But even if you don’t feel you can walk the full length (and we didn’t), just ten minutes’ walk along here was enough to get us into a different world – the crowds were left behind and we had the dunes to ourselves.

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Panoramas of the Alkali Flat Trail

There are far fewer plants here, and the landscape is even more strange and striking. The Alkali Flat itself lies at the end of the trail. This is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, a lake that filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered 1,600 square miles. We didn’t make it that far, but nevertheless the trail gave us plenty of opportunities, as the park brochure had suggested it would, to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

And despite the fact that sun had climbed a little higher by the time we got here (about 9.30 I think), the photo opportunities were still excellent. The white sand stretches for miles, and beyond the dunes we could just see the mauve-grey hues of the Organ Mountains, which we were to pass later in the day on our way to Los Cruces.

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Lone plant on Alkali Flat

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On the Alkali Flat Trail
- Organ Mountains on the horizon

After about half an hour or so of exploring and photography we made our way back to the parking lot. By now it was mid-morning, and we were surprised to see how much fuller the parking area had become. A large coach had just drawn up, disgorging its passengers, and most of them looked as if they would be content to admire the dunes from just where they stood – certainly few of them had the footwear for hiking on soft shifting sands. For them the White Sands would be all about the views to be had from the road-side, which thankfully are pretty great. But I was amazed that some of them did set off on the trail despite being dressed very inappropriately – I even saw one woman in high-heeled sandals! I suspect she didn’t get far, though we didn’t stick around to see

There were also quite a few family groups arriving and setting up for a day on the sands, just as if they were on a beach with deck-chairs to sit on and children playing in the sand! – although with no cooling water in which to take a dip, and no shelter (in this part of the park) from the sun’s heat, this would not be my idea of fun even in relatively cool October!

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Family enjoying the dunes

Visitor Centre

When we had arrived the Visitor Centre was as I mentioned still shut. Besides, we were too keen to get to the sands themselves to stop here even if it had been open. But we did stop on our way out, to use the rest-rooms, see the displays and check out the shopping opportunities.

The exhibition area wasn’t very extensive but I was interested in the information about how these gypsum dunes formed and developed, the wildlife that (perhaps surprisingly) thrives in this harsh environment, and also about man’s interaction with these wide open spaces, including the space programme and other scientific use, not all of it necessarily to be commended; the Trinity Site where the first nuclear device was detonated in July 1945 is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.

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White Sands plant life

I was also impressed by the shopping here – there were plenty of high quality gifts and souvenirs including Native American crafts, jewellery, and very good photos of the dunes. We didn’t buy any of the latter as we had been so busy taking our own! But I was pleased with the delicately painted Christmas tree ornaments that I bought as presents for family. We also got some cold drinks and snacks to enjoy at the picnic tables outside before heading south to Las Cruces.

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Footprint in the sand

Before leaving the subject of the White Sands altogether I want to share some thoughts about photography here that I first pulled together for Virtual Tourist, which I hope will be helpful if any of my readers get to visit this amazing place. This place is truly a photographer’s paradise – but also a photographer’s great challenge. The best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but if, like us, you don’t want to camp out, you will want to make an early start to be here when the gates open at 7.00. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

So you’re here at the right time. What next? Well, firstly if you want the dunes to look as white in your pictures as they do in real life, disable auto-exposure on your camera if you can, or over-ride it to over-expose slightly. This is just like photographing snow, and left to itself your camera will adjust to darken the scene, making the sand look more light grey than white. Of course if you are lucky enough to be there so early or late that the dunes are reflecting a sunrise or sunset, this doesn’t apply – the last thing you will want is white!

Next, look for something to break up all that whiteness. It could be an interesting plant, a footprint as in my photo, or simply the patterns made by the ripples in the sand. I made a point of taking a mix of images – some of the details, some of the wide open spaces. I also enjoyed using the panorama facility on my camera as it seemed the ideal way to capture the scale of this vast dune field.

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Exploring the White Sands

Lastly, don’t forget the human aspect. Seeing how people interact with the dunes adds a different element to the story your pictures tell, and as always in landscape photography, people give the viewer a good sense of scale. That small black mark near the top of the dune in my photo above is Chris!

Nearing journey's end

Leaving the White Sands behind us we drove southwest across the flat plain, with the ridge of the Organ Mountains ahead of us. These mountains derived their name, Sierra de los Organos, from the early Spanish settlers, for whom the pinnacles resembled the pipes of the great organs in the cathedrals of Europe. Today they are a National Monument, with a visitor centre and marked trails to explore, but we were coming to the end of our New Mexican adventure and still had a bit further to drive before spending our last night right in the south of the state, handy for tomorrow’s flight home.

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The Organ Mountains near Las Cruces

Mesilla

Our last night in New Mexico was spent right in the south of the state, in Mesilla. Mesilla is really a suburb of Las Cruces, but with a very separate identity and character. Its cluster of streets are arranged in a grid patter around the central Plaza and lined with buildings that date back to the colonial Spanish era. Of all the southern New Mexico towns we visited, it was the one that came closest to the historical identity of more northern Santa Fe and Taos, albeit much smaller. It made a lovely base for our last few hours in the state.

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Hanging out in Mesilla!

Mesilla was founded in the mid 19th century and for a part of its history lay in a sort of no man’s land between Mexico and the United States. But in 1854 the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location on the cross-roads of two stagecoach routes. But the town chose not to have the railroad routed through the community, so it went ‘next-door’ to Las Cruces instead. The result was major growth for that city, while Mesilla remained small and retained much of its charm and character.

Today Mesilla is a little pocket of colonial Spain on the outskirts of more modern Las Cruces. There are only a few ‘sights’ (an attractive church, a small museum). Rather, it is a place to wander around and seek the serendipity of a pretty building here, an interesting shop there ...

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Emilia's

We arrived too early to check in to our hotel, but not too early for lunch! So we parked near the plaza and went in search of somewhere to eat. There are a number of good restaurants in the historical buildings in and around the Plaza, but some only seemed to offer more substantial meals than we like at this time of day. But Emilia’s (now renamed as Café Don Felix) looked promising, with several salads and sandwiches on the menu. There were also tables available in the pretty little paved area at the front, and the chance to have lunch outside on our last day sealed the deal!

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Avocado & Swiss sandwich

Our friendly waiter brought chips and salsa to accompany our fruit juices – so much for the light meal! Chris had ordered a salad with chicken and bacon (which was good), while I had the avocado and Swiss cheese sandwich which came with a small side salad. I found my sandwich a little dull (too much lettuce, too little cheese and avocado) but the blue cheese dressing that came with my salad was excellent and also served to brighten up the sandwich.

Mesilla’s Plaza

After lunch we explored the plaza and surrounding streets of the Historic District. At the time Mesilla was founded, the population of the town was concentrated around the Plaza for defence against Apache Raiders who were a constant threat to the settlement. In November 1854 the Plaza was the site for a major historical event, when the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location. It became an important stop on two stagecoach, mail and trade routes – the El Camino Real, from Chihuahua to Santa Fe, and the Butterfield stage route, from San Antonio to San Diego.

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Gazebo in the Plaza

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Paper flowers on the gazebo

Thanks to its major role in the history of the state and of the US, the Mesilla Plaza was declared a New Mexico state monument on September 10th 1957. It was listed on the National Register in January 1982, as a National Historic landmark, and the entire Historic district added in February 1985.

The Plaza and the gazebo at its centre were refurbished in 1978 to suit the growing status of the town as a tourist destination. It is the focal point for any celebration in the town such as Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Los Muertos. It is also home to a Farmers Market on Thursdays and Sundays, but we were only here on a Friday-Saturday so missed that.

However we did come across a couple of local musicians playing very enthusiastically by the gazebo – we weren’t sure if they were there officially to entertain the tourists or were busking. I was also not quite sure of the reason for the paper flowers which decorated part of the gazebo; maybe they are always there, or maybe they were left over from some special celebration? Either way, they were rather pretty!

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Musicians on the Plaza

Basilica of San Albino

The north side of the Plaza is dominated by the Basilica of San Albino. The first church in the town had been a small log and mud construction on the south side, but when the town was transferred from Mexico to the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase, it began to grow, and a new church was needed. This church was built in adobe in 1855, but soon acquired a more European style, thanks no doubt to the influence of Bishop Lamy who was so averse to adobe architecture, as I explained in my blog entry about Santa Fe: Fanta Se.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The church was completely rebuilt in its present form in 1906 and dedicated in 1908. It did however keep its old bells, cast in the latter half of the 19th century. These include two, named Sagrado Corazon de Jesus and Maria Albina, which were cast in 1886 and the largest of them all, Campana Grande, cast a year later. The church’s website says that, ‘In keeping with Catholic tradition the bells, including Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, were christened and given godparents to care for them’. I have never heard of that tradition elsewhere, but it sounds a lovely one.

In November 2008 the church was granted minor basilica status by the Vatican, an event commemorated by a plaque on the wall outside.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The basilica was advertised as being open from 1.00-3.00 pm daily, but unfortunately was closed when I tried to get in – a shame, as it appears to have some lovely stained glass windows. It was also hard to get a good photo of the church as it faces south and there were cars parked immediately in front of it.

Historic district

Strolling the streets around the Plaza is the number one activity here. Many of the adobe buildings built during the colonial era remain today, and most have been converted into interesting shops, galleries and restaurants, but the district retains a lot of its character and although popular with tourists seemed to us much less busy than somewhat similar (though larger) Santa Fe and Taos.

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Shop sign, Mesilla

We browsed a few of the shops, even though we really had bought enough by this point of the trip! There was some interesting folk art in one, work by more contemporary artists in another. In Scentchips (now closed down) you could mix your own combination of scented wax chips to use as potpourri or in a burner; the owner was most informative and even gave me a small free sample!

We also rather enjoyed the Billy the Kid Gift Shop on the south east corner of the Plaza. Although we found the items on sale to be not really to our taste, the building itself is worth seeing. It was the former capitol of Arizona and New Mexico and later became the courthouse in which Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang. It still has the old viga ceilings and original 18 inch adobe walls.

We got a free leaflet here which detailed the Kid’s connections to Mesilla. This was to be the last of our several encounters with him on this trip; one on which he had seemed to be with us for much of our journey through the state where he grew up, lived his short and ignominious life, and was shot.

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Mesilla building details

Our last night in New Mexico

We had hoped to be able to stay in one of the few bed and breakfast places in the heart of old Mesilla, but one was fully booked by the time we came to make arrangements and the other very expensive. The Meson de Mesilla seemed from my research to be the next best option, and I think that proved to be the case, being a smallish hotel within walking distance of the Plaza, so that we could leave the car behind and both enjoy a few drinks on our final evening. But this hotel seems to have gone through some upheavals since our visit, to say the least!

At the time of our stay I wrote the following in my Virtual Tourist review:

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The Meson de Mesilla

It would be churlish to complain about the comfortable stay we had here, were it not for the exaggerated claims made by the hotel itself on its website. This is not a ‘boutique hotel’, nor is it any sort of bed and breakfast, let alone the ‘finest Bed and Breakfast in Mesilla’ – breakfast is not even included in the room rates. What it is, in fact, is simply a mid-range mid-priced hotel with some nice design features in its rather small bedrooms.

I had read some reviews that referred to the smallness of the rooms, and as it was our last night and I knew we would want to unpack and repack, difficult in a small space, I chose to pay extra for the middle of three room options, the Veranda Queen room. But it was still definitely on the small side. The queen bed was very comfortable, though bizarrely high from the floor. The bathroom was stylish and had lovely thick towels, but there were few toiletries provided, such as one would have expected from a real boutique hotel. We had a small TV, but no fridge or mini-bar.

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Our room and bathroom


That was in 2011. In 2014 Gordon Ramsey featured the hotel, which was struggling by then, in his ‘Hotel Hell’ TV series (see https://www.realitytvrevisited.com/2014/08/season-2-meson-de-mesilla.html). From what I can read in some rather conflicting reports, the owner appears to have accepted some of his changes and reversed others, and more recently has refurbished again and brought in someone else to run the restaurant, to largely positive reviews. Maybe the Meson de Mesilla has life in it yet! And as I said, its location certainly suited us, giving us an easy stroll back to the Plaza for our last night out in the state.

Peppers

We were keen to find somewhere nice in Mesilla for our final meal of the trip, and at first tried La Posta which got good reviews. But not only would we have had to wait for a table, we were also put off by the rather over-touristy, over-gimicky décor, and I objected to the caged birds in the entrance area (cruel and unnecessary – what’s New Mexican about macaws?) So we looked elsewhere. The equally-historic Double Eagle seemed to be more expensive and fancier than we usually look for in a holiday meal (special occasions excepted) but then I remembered reading that it had a cheaper more informal section, so we went to check that out. The menu for this part, Peppers, wasn’t posted outside but as soon as we went in and asked to see it, our decision was made – and what a good one it turned out to be!

Peppers may be the cheaper end of the Double Eagle, but we wouldn’t have known it to look at it. The tables were set out in an atrium area with lush plants and plenty of dark wood, in keeping with the décor elsewhere in the building. The rather small but very attractive bar opened off one side and was lively with drinkers, while the restaurant area was busy enough with both locals and tourists to make us feel comfortable but not crowded. Our waiter was friendly (and patience personified with the moaning group on the next-door table, who twice changed their order while claiming it was his error!)

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In Peppers

The menu was extensive, and while the steaks were perhaps a little pricey, the rest lived up to the ‘good value’ billing. Starters were a New Mexican take on tapas, and a selection of these would have made a great lunch. But we decided sharing just one would be enough, given the usual size of portions around here. So we opted for the ‘Green Chile Cheese Wontons with Pineapple-Jalapeno Salsa’ which were delicious, especially the unusual but very successful salsa. My only complaint was that there were five of them – either four or six would have made sharing easier! We also had a complimentary serving of chips and salsa, as we had had almost everywhere we had been, and the salsa was great too.

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Carne Asada Tacos

For my main course I chose the Carne Asada Tacos. The beef was excellent – very juicy and with a good amount of spicy heat. There were so many accompaniments that when I later wrote my VT review I had to cut and paste from the menu on the website:
‘Grilled, marinated and seasoned beef morsels with sweet onions, three soft corn tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, tomato and crumbles of Chihuahua style queso fresco cheese. Choice of black beans or refried.’

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Traditional margarita

Chris meanwhile opted for the simple Old-fashioned Burger, which he also enjoyed. He had a couple of beers – one with the meal and one for desert. I did likewise but with margaritas! My first choice was the house margarita, which was fine but nothing special. For my second I took our waiter’s advice and ordered a ‘Traditional’. He was right – it was well worth the extra $1 it cost, as it was stronger, made with freshly-squeezed lime juice, and was strained into a martini glass rather than being served on the rocks, meaning that it retained its full flavour right to the last drop!

Our total bill although not cheap, was, we felt, a very good price to pay for a delicious meal in a lovely historic setting and with attentive service. A great way to round off our trip!

Time to go home

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Chris plus muffin plus coffee

The Meson de Mesilla, despite calling itself a ‘bed and breakfast’ in some of its publicity, charged extra for breakfast in its restaurant. Besides, when travelling in the US I am always on the lookout for a good cup of coffee, especially at this time of day, and that isn’t always the case with restaurant breakfasts. I had spotted The Bean in our Moon New Mexico Handbook and was pleased to see that it was just down the road from the hotel.

It sounded like just our sort of place, and it proved to be exactly that – warm (it was a chilly morning), friendly and inviting, with excellent coffee and great baked goods. They roast and grind their own beans too, so there was a wonderful smell lingering about the place. And on a Saturday morning it was very busy with a steady stream of locals – some getting take-out but many obviously using it as their regular Saturday morning hang-out.

The building that houses the Bean is an old gas station. It wasn’t fancy but it was nicely decorated with modern art and had lots of character. There was a small dining area in front of the service counter, where we managed to get a good table, and a larger one to the side, which seemed to us to have a bit less cosy an atmosphere. There were also a few tables outside, but it was a very chilly October morning – Mesilla is quite high above sea level, so nights are pretty nippy here by this time in the year!

We enjoyed our good mugs of coffee and large muffins, and would have loved to have lingered over a second cup but sadly we had a plane to catch ...

So we drove the short distance south back over the border into Texas and to the airport in El Paso. We handed in the hire car that had served us so well, checked in and were soon on our way – firstly on a domestic flight to Charlotte NC and then across the Atlantic to London Heathrow.

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Our plane at El Paso Airport

It was at Heathrow that things got, briefly, ‘interesting’. We stood at the luggage carousel watching all the bags from our flight arrive and be taken by their owners. As time passed I began to get that feeling, familiar I’m sure to all regular flyers, that ours were not going to appear. This had happened many times before (and has happened many times since), and the cases had always turned up, but not today. Luggage stopped coming down the chute, we waited in case there were more bags to come and gradually realised that this time our luck had run out. I went to the desk to report the bags’ non-arrival, handed over the necessary ID slips, and a helpful lady looked them up on her computer, quickly identifying the problem. There had been two flights leaving El Paso around the same time, both connecting with a London flight – one via Charlotte, and another via LA. It seemed that while we had flown on the first of these our bags might have been on the second. I was a bit taken aback at this information, as I’ve always understood that planes won’t take off carrying luggage that isn’t clearly the possession of someone on board. The lady at the desk confirmed this and said it was quite likely that our bags had been taken off the flight before it took off from LA, but if we cared to wait that flight was due to land in less than an hour and we could at least see if the bags came with it before filing a missing baggage report.

Although tired from our overnight journey we decided to do this and sure enough an hour later there were our suitcases, tumbling out of the chute onto the carousel with all the other bags from LA. We weren’t sure whether to be relieved to see them or disconcerted to learn that sometimes planes do take off with unaccompanied luggage in their holds. But relief won the day and we headed off home on the Tube, bags in hand. It had been a fantastic trip and a few worries over delayed baggage weren’t going to change that!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:05 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture desert road_trip history church square shopping restaurants photography national_park new_mexico Comments (13)

Ain’t no mountain high enough ...

Ecuador day six


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

Cotapaxi

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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.

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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

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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.

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Jose Luiz and Chris among the rose bushes

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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!

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Grading the flowers

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Clouds swirling around Cotopaxi

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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?!!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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Our bedroom at the hacienda

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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.

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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.

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Inside the chapel

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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 (8)

Farewell to Cuenca

Ecuador day ten


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

Museo de Las Conceptas

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On our last morning in Cuenca we had plenty of time before our drive to Guayaquil to do a bit more sightseeing, so we headed for a museum not far from our hotel which we hadn’t had time for the previous day, the Museo de Las Conceptas. This is located in the former infirmary of the convent of Las Conceptas, the oldest religious cloister in Cuenca, built only two years after the Spanish founded the city. The building was restored in 1980 and provides an attractive setting for this interesting collection. Even if you’re not especially interested in religious art a visit here gives you an opportunity to see inside one of Cuenca’s loveliest old buildings.

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Little statue

The collection is spread over a series of rooms opening off the cloisters, on two levels, and the rooms are numbered – visitors are asked to follow the numbers, and not to take photos of any of the art in the rooms, although pictures taken out in the open, of the cloister itself, are permitted. I bent the rules a little and took one photo of a small statue in a niche on an outside staircase.

A couple of the rooms contain one big piece (the pride of the collection appeared to be a beautiful altar in the small central chapel of the old infirmary) while others are themed, e.g. statues of the Holy Family, nativities, crucifixes or saints. I found this more interesting than a purely historical arrangement as you could see how the ways of representing a particular scene or individual changed over time (the collection covers the period from the 17th – 19th centuries).

As well as the religious art, there are rooms containing various items brought to the convent by the nuns as part of their dowries – some mere trinkets, brought by those from poor families, and some rather beautiful – ornaments, religious figures and china, for instance. A few rooms towards the end of the series have been used to recreate a typical nun’s cell and show what the kitchen would have looked like, and there are displays about life in the convent, with photos of nuns carrying out their daily chores. The embroidery of priests’ robes was a particular skill cultivated by the nuns here and there are some examples on display.

In addition to the exhibition rooms you can see the courtyard that was used by the nuns as an outdoor kitchen, with the old oven still in place, and the “indoor cemetery” with the walls lined with rows of (empty) cubby holes for burials. We spent much longer here than we had expected, as there was so much to see and the building itself so lovely!

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The Museo de Las Conceptas

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Eiskaffee

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When we left the museum, coffee called. I usually like to eat and drink mainly local treats when travelling, but I can’t resist a good cup of coffee, so the presence in Cuenca of a supposedly Viennese-style coffee-house was enough to tempt me to break that admittedly very flexible rule! When we got to the Café Austria I felt that it was in practice more like a French bistro in style than an Austrian coffee-house, but it was no less pleasant for that, and the coffee was as good as I’d hoped.

This is the sort of place you can sit over a drink or a snack for a while. The décor is pleasant, there are newspapers to read from around the world, and free wifi. I have read mixed reviews of the food (though people around us were tucking into late breakfasts very happily) but the coffee is widely praised and with good reason. I really enjoyed my Eiskaffee and Chris his cappuccino, and we thought the prices were reasonable. The service was perhaps a little slow, but this probably isn’t somewhere you would come if in a hurry.

Although we had spent a fair amount of time in and around the Parque Calderón over the previous few days, we hadn’t got around to visiting the city’s old cathedral, which stands on the east side of the square facing its replacement. So we settled on that as our final “sight” in Cuenca.

Iglesia del Sagrario

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This is the city’s original cathedral, built in 1557 using stones from the ruins of nearby Inca Tomebamba, and restored in both 19th and 20th centuries. It was the main focus for worship in the city for the Spanish during colonial times and became a cathedral in 1787.

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It is no longer consecrated as a place of worship however, having been superseded by the newer Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, built in 1880 when this one became too small to hold the city’s entire population, and is now a museum of religious art and a venue for occasional concerts.

Visiting here I got a strong sense of it being neither one thing nor another – neither church nor museum. It retains so much of its ecclesiastical structure and features that you are left in doubt as to its original purpose, but has an emptiness of soul that is no less obvious than its lack of pews for being invisible. But that is not to say that it is not worth seeing. It is an impressive building, and it is hard to imagine that it was ever considered too small, as its present day emptiness makes it seem vast. There are three naves with central altar, in front which are life-size statues of Jesus and apostles arranged as if at the Last Supper.

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To either side of the naves are chapels with some beautiful altarpieces, religious statuary, and in one some wonderful illuminated manuscripts. Labelling though is all in Spanish so I wasn’t always sure what I was looking at – but it was still mostly very lovely. The ceiling of the main structure is also noteworthy, ornamented with paintings of flowers and leaves as well as religious symbols and saints.

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In the Iglesia del Sagrario

We were charged just $1 to go in although signs said $2 for foreigners – we didn’t question the unexpected discount, naturally, but I wondered afterwards whether it was a special price for the Independence holiday (surely we can’t have been taken for locals?!). The ticket seller told us we could take photos if we didn’t use flash, so I did, despite the several signs inside indicating otherwise. Most people in fact were doing so, and many of them even using flash.

By now it was time for lunch and it made sense to have this near our hotel as we would need to be back there soon afterwards for our transfer to Guayaquil. So we headed back to the Coffee Tree café where we had enjoyed breakfast on our first morning. Given that it was the Saturday of the holiday weekend we were very lucky to again get an outside table and enjoy the buzz on the street and the live music playing nearby. I enjoyed a spinach and cheese crepe and a fresh passionfruit juice, and Chris had the “pitta Arabe” topped with chicken, olives, peppers and cheese. A tasty finale to our wonderful few days in Cuenca!

Journey to Guayaquil

We had originally planned to fly from Cuenca to Guayaquil and to connect there with our flight to the Galápagos. But when Tame altered their schedules we had to change our plans to include an overnight stay in the city, meaning an afternoon departure from Cuenca. We were sorry to have leave early a city we had quickly grown to love, but we would have been even more sorry to miss that flight to the Galápagos! And the bonus was the journey there by car rather than plane – how much better to be driven through the countryside than fly over it! And what wonderful countryside ...

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On the road to Guayquil

We started our journey a little late, as our driver got caught up in the festivities marking Cuenca’s anniversary weekend, and also had to park some distance from our hotel for the same reason – there was a fun run going on outside. We drove out of the city through a western suburb where we were told a lot of expat Americans have settled – so much so that locals call it “little America”! We were soon in El Cajas National Park, an incredibly scenic if rather bleak area, with a large number of lakes set in a rather stark landscape of paramo, and rocky outcrops. Cajas means boxes in Spanish, and one explanation that is given for the name of the park is that it refers to this distinctive landscape, sometimes called knob and kettle geomorphology, where the outcrops alternate with lakes. Another possible explanation for the name is linked to the Quichua word "cassa" meaning "gateway to the snowy mountains”. The highest point in the park is Cerro Arquitectos, at 4,450 metres, although the highest point on the road was just over 4,000 metres. We only stopped briefly for photos but if you have more time there are lots of hiking routes. It would make a wonderful day out from Cuenca.

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In Cajas National Park

A striking feature of the road from Cuenca to Guayaquil is the dramatic change in height along a relatively short stretch of road. Cuenca lies at around 2,500 metres above sea level, while Guayaquil, being on the coast, is naturally at sea level. This is a considerable drop in just a couple of hours, and it leads to some very varied landscapes and a mini-lesson in climatic zones. When we left the national park, we were on the western fringes of the Andes, and below us was cloud forest. At this height we could look down onto the clouds that filled all the valleys, almost as if they were flooded. We stopped again for photos, and to use the toilet at a little snack bar.

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Looking down at the cloud forest

Then we plunged down into the clouds! The road twisted and turned, and the landscape around us (or what we could see of it – we were now in a thick fog) became lush with plants and trees, their branches dripping in the damp air. Every now and then the cloud would break and we would see that we were still pretty high – and hope that our driver knew the road as well as he seemed to, since there was quite a drop on one side!

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Cloud forest scenery

After a while we emerged fully from the cloud, dropping down below it to reach the plains. The mountains we had left so recently were totally invisible as the thick blanket hid them from view. And again the landscape changed, now becoming intensely arable in nature. We drove between fields of bananas, sugar-cane and rice paddies. In the small villages stalls were piled high with fruits and dusk was falling (it was now about 6.00 pm). Local people were riding their bikes, stopping to chat to friends, buy a few provisions for the evening meal or have a beer at a roadside bar. The air was warm and had that unmistakable tropical dampness. It was such a different world to highland Cuenca, yet only three hours away!

By the time we reached the outskirts of Guayaquil it was dark. Although not the capital, this is the largest city in the country and it was a bit of a culture shock – neon lights shone above US-style shopping malls that lined the road as we approached, and the traffic was heavy. By the time we reached our hotel in the centre we had been driving for about 3.5 hours and plans to do a little sightseeing while searching for dinner were abandoned in favour of a quiet night in the hotel. The sights of Guayaquil would have to wait for another visit!

The Grand Hotel

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In the hotel grounds

When a night in Guayaquil became unavoidably added to our itinerary Surtrek reserved a room for us at the Grand Hotel. This is as the name suggests a large hotel, very well located near the city’s cathedral – so near in fact that the wall of the apse forms the outer wall of the hotel’s small pool area (which is also watched over by a colourful giant sculpture of an iguana).

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Our bedroom

The lobby here sets the tone for the hotel – large, bustling, and rather lacking in character. You could be anywhere in the world. But that’s not a criticism – Guayaquil is a very different city from, say, Quito or Cuenca, and it’s not surprising to find a more international style of hotel perhaps (though I’m sure there are places with character to be found as well). As we were only here one night it suited us just fine, and we had a comfortable night’s sleep in our large room, with its queen-size bed, lots of storage and some comfortable seats. There was a TV too, and the bathroom was also a generous size with a tub / shower combination, hairdryer and plenty of towels. Everything we needed for a quiet night before the big Galápagos adventure would begin the next day!

There are two places to eat in the hotel, the smart 1822 Restaurant and the more casual La Pepa de Oro coffee shop. We had decided to eat in the former but when we went to check it out it was deserted so we opted for the friendly buzz in the coffee shop. We had expected that this might have a limited dinner-time menu but in fact there was plenty to choose from.

Our waitress was, to be polite, not “in the first flush of youth” and seemed to find managing the orders a bit of a challenge but she was so eager to please and agreeable that we didn’t mind. Unfortunately though the food was a little disappointing, but served in very generous portions. We shared empanadas to start with but these were not as good as those we’d had elsewhere, lacking flavour and being a little greasy. My main course of fajitas suffered from the same problem, although Chris’s club sandwich was better. We were too full for dessert, so finished the evening in the hotel’s cosy bar instead, which had a very good selection of drinks at reasonable prices.

Tomorrow our Galápagos adventure would begin …

Posted by ToonSarah 05:41 Archived in Ecuador Tagged landscapes churches art road_trip museum cathedral national_park cuenca guayquil Comments (10)

In the Japanese Alps

Japan day twelve


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Kamikochi

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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.

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Seen from the bus

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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.

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Nearing Kamikochi

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Rainy Kamikochi from the bus

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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.

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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

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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.

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Our room at Nishi-itoya Sanso

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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.

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Kamikochi in the rain

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Autumn colours

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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 appearance 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.

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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

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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.

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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):

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Walnut tofu

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Assorted samplers

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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.

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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 (9)

Kamikochi in the rain

Japan day thirteen


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

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Rain over Kamikochi

After yesterday’s typhoon and associated rain, we awoke today hoping for better weather. Well, it was slightly better, in that the typhoon had passed and there was nothing to stop us getting outside, but the rain was still falling and not forecast to stop before the evening. Clearly we would not be getting mountain views today, but we were still keen to get out and see something of Kamikochi.

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Breakfast at Nishi-itoya Sanso

Over the Japanese style breakfast (salmon, pickles, miso soup, rice and tea) Andrew proposed leading a group on a walk to the Myojin area of the park, east of our hotel. The shrine that is located at the Myojin Pond is a popular sight and sounded lovely, but Chris and I decided we would rather do our own thing today. So after supplementing the breakfast with the free coffee available in the coffee shop, we got ready to face the elements. Chris’s umbrella had given up the battle with these in yesterday’s wind, so it was good that the hotel provided them for any guest needing one. While we had waterproof clothing, I find an umbrella invaluable in protecting not just me but my camera – most of the photos on this page were taken juggling camera and umbrella!

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Chris with hotel umbrella

Our riverside walk

Leaving the hotel we turned right, having decided to explore in the opposite direction to the main group. Kamikochi is a park for walkers and hikers (there isn’t much else to do here) and there are paths to suit everyone, from an easy stroll by the river to a challenging hike up one of the mountains. In this weather however the riverside routes are the only practical ones (even the best walkers in our group stuck to these) and the area around the hotels and Kappi-bashi was busy with visitors. But many don’t go very far from the hotels and bus terminal and we knew we would soon leave the bulk of them behind.

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The path by the river

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Information sign

The trails are easy to follow and clearly marked, and helpful little maps are available, small enough to slip in a jacket pocket. I had picked up one of these at the hotel, where they are free, but you can also buy them for 100¥ from the tourist information office at the bus terminal and from various shops. There are also signs along the way describing the landscape, trees, bird life etc. These are in Japanese and English, and are very informative – although it was somewhat frustrating to see on some of them the pictures of the stunning mountain range that was totally hidden from our view by a blanket of low cloud!

Following the park rules (naturally!)

Kamikochi is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park and, like national parks everywhere, there are various regulations in force to ensure the protection of the wildlife here. These include specific protection for certain animals, the rock ptarmigan, antelope and char, which are designated as ‘Precious Natural Animals’ in Japan. A voluntary group called ‘Kamikochi Preservation’ was established by the local community in 1965 to support conservation activities in the area. They promote three regulations that visitors are asked to observe in order to preserve Kamikochi for future generations:

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Tree with moss

1. Don't Feed & Disturb!
Do not disturb or feed birds, insects, fish or other wild animals.

2. Don't Harm!
Do not harm or damage wild flowers and plants.

3. Don't Dump!
Carry all your garbage home with your splendid memories.

With these in mind, and cameras and umbrellas at the ready, we started our explorations!

The Weston Relief

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The Weston Relief

This is the shorthand name given locally to the Reverend Weston Memorial Plaque, which we came to after a short walk from Kappa-bashi. It commemorates the Reverend Walter Weston, an English clergyman and missionary of the Church of England during the late 19th / early 20th centuries. He first visited Japan at the age of 27 and was captivated by its mountain regions which he introduced to the world through his book, ‘Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps’ (1896). It is he who is credited with spreading the popular name for this region, the ‘Japanese Alps’, around the world. He was influential in establishing the Japanese Alpine Club in 1906 and was its first honorary member.

In 1937, Emperor Hirohito conferred on him the Japanese ‘Order of the Sacred Treasures (fourth class)’, and the Japanese Alpine Club erected a bronze plaque in his honour here at Kamikochi. Today’s plaque is a 1965 reproduction of that earlier one which had got badly damaged over time.

From here we continued along the riverside path.

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The Azusa River near the Weston Relief

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Colours of Kamikochi

Tashiro Bridge

About a kilometre from Kappa-bashi the path, which at first follows the northern bank of the Azusa River, crosses it via the Tashiro Bridge. The river views on and near the bridge are great, and the water so clear as it runs over the pebbles, even on a wet day. On the far side of the bridge is a small shelter with some interesting information displays about the park’s wildlife. From here you could walk straight ahead to reach the main road and bus stop, but we turned right to continue along the trail.

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Kamikochi streams

Soon after this point the path divides and you have the choice of following a route near the river or one that runs among the trees. We chose the former, and followed the path as it crossed a couple of smaller streams that feed the Azusa near here, before arriving at the beautiful Tashiro-Ike.

Tashiro-Ike

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Tashiro-Ike

This was easily my favourite spot of those we visited in Kamikochi. We had been walking in the rain for some time, enjoying the soft light and changing colours, when suddenly the path through the trees emerged into a more open area, filled with rust-tinted reeds and edged with larch and other trees. This was Tashiro Marsh, which is gradually being formed by the silting up of Tashiro Pond through many years of accumulated dead leaves. A raised path crosses the marsh and leads to the edge of the pond itself, Tashiro-Ike. Its clear waters reflect, on a bright day, the surrounding mountains but today, in the soft Kamikochi rain, they glowed deep and green, reflecting only the nearby trees. In this busy park, and only minutes from its most popular trail, we had this spot almost to ourselves; many visitors, it seems, don’t bother to make the 100 metre or so detour to see this pond. They are missing a treat!

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At Tashiro-Ike

Tashiro is from all accounts lovely whatever the season. In late spring and summer it is surrounded by flowers, including Japanese azalea, and later the autumn colours that we enjoyed appear. In winter Kamikochi is closed to visitors, but if you were able to visit Tashiro you would find the waters still flowing, as it is fed by an underground spring and never completely freezes over.

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At Tashiro-Ike

From here we retraced our steps to the main path and continued in the direction we had been walking.

Taisho-Ike

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Taisho-Ike

This trail ends at the Taisho Pond, one of Kamikochi’s most popular and photographed spots. The pond is a relatively recent addition to the landscape here, having been formed in 1915 by the volcanic activity of nearby Yakedake. On June 6th that year an eruption caused an avalanche of mud which blocked the Azusa River and led to the creation of Taisho-Ike. The trees drowned when the river was dammed still stand, withered but upright, and make for an eerie sight, especially in the grey misty light of a rainy day. By contrast, a clear day will reveal reflections of Yakedake and Mount Hotaka in the pond’s still waters (we were to get a glimpse of this from the bus the next morning as we left the park).

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Taisho-Ike

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Reflections, Taisho-Ike

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Taisho-Ike

To reach the water’s edge we scrambled over the rocky foreshore to take some photos. We then climbed a short path up to the hotel that sits here, which in fine weather has great views of the reflections in the pond, and is consequently often crowded, I believe. But today it was quiet here and it was easy to get good photos from both foreshore and above.

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Taisho-Ike

Once we’d seen and photographed all we wanted to, we climbed up the short path to the hotel where we were able to use the toilets. We also went in the café here to get a hot cup of coffee to warm us up after the rainy walk. The café also has lovely views of the pond so there were more photos to be taken of course!

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On Taisho-Ike - taken from the hotel above

A relaxing afternoon

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Salmon and meat patty set

The only walking route back to Kappa-bashi from here is to retrace your steps along the same path, but we decided we had had enough rain for one day. So instead we caught the bus from a stop just outside the hotel. This took us to the bus terminal from where it is just a short walk to the bridge and hotels on the far side. But by now we were hungry so we went back to the restaurant above the gift shop where we had eaten on our arrival in Kamikochi the previous day. Again it was busy with visitors escaping the wet weather but we didn’t have to wait too long for a table. I had a ‘set’ with a small piece of salmon in crispy crumb, a meat patty cooked the same way, salad, rice, miso soup and pickles. It was more than I wanted but I fancied having salmon, so I ate that, the salad, a little rice and the soup. Chris had the meat patty along with his ‘curry rice’ - the Japanese take on curry which consists of a rich meaty curry sauce with very little actual meat! While this meal too was fine, I have to say I had preferred my soba dish of the previous day.

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Bedraggled Macaque

After this late lunch we crossed Kappa-bashi back to the hotel where we relaxed in our room for a bit. Later we visited the coffee shop for cake and coffee, and sat at a counter with a great view of the path outside that was favourite route for passing macaques. I loved watching their antics, especially the young ones, and managed to capture a few more photos than on the previous afternoon. I also made a little video of a couple of them, although unfortunately the window frame kept getting in the way, so you only get short glimpses of each as it passes.

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Macaque with baby on board

Dinner that evening was as much of a feast as on the previous day and served in the same traditional style, with all courses beautifully presented and served individually to each place-setting at the same time. This time the menu was:

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Assorted samplers
including river crab

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Sashimi

Assorted samplers
~ grilled saury [a fish] with citron flavour
- river crab
- chestnut
~ persimmon jelly
~ pumpkin millefeuille

Sashimi: local salmon and maraena white fish

Grilled sweetfish with salt

Hot buckwheat noodle

Beef steak and salad

Fried buckwheat noodle rolled with laver
Fried ginkgo nuts

Clear soup with mushroom paste

Rice and vegetable pickles

Fruit [apple slices]

Again, a fabulous spread! I loved the sashimi again and also enjoyed the buckwheat noodles both fried and served in their hot sauce. The river crab was really too tiny though to have any significant flavour or meat to it. But as on the previous evening we all came away from the table feeling very full and rather pampered by the whole experience.

When the skies cleared

Later that evening, at around 9.00 PM, we were sitting in the inn’s coffee shop, drinking beers and sake with some of the group, when the guy who was on reception came hurrying in. In his limited English he explained that if we came outside we would see the full moon and ‘white mountain’. So we left our drinks and hurried out, to find that at last the skies had cleared and we could indeed see the nearest mountain glowing palely in the light of the moon. It was bitterly cold, so we didn’t linger long, but that tantalising glimpse made us eager for the next morning.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:27 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains trees monkeys rain water wildlife monument river weather national_park kamikochi Comments (5)

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