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Going around in Enchanted Circles

New Mexico day twelve


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

After breakfast this morning we checked out of La Doña Luz Inn and hit the road again, travelling north. Our destination for the night was Cimarron and once again we had decided to follow a roundabout route on one of the state’s designated scenic byways, the Enchanted Circle. This is a popular day-trip from Taos, following Highways 522, 38 and 64, and for the most part driving is fairly easy though the road climbs pretty high in places – in the winter this is popular skiing country. By driving the byway in a clockwise direction we were able to take in most of the circle, and by adding a detour before turning off to Cimarron we saw most of the more notable sights along the route.

We were only a few miles out of Taos, however, when we took our first detour from the route to visit a couple of sights that intrigued us.

Rio Grande Gorge

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The Rio Grande Gorge

Driving north and then west from Taos on Highway 64 we found ourselves driving across an apparently flat plain. But appearances can be deceiving. After a few miles a dark line could be seen ahead of us, and a large parking lot on our right. We parked, among a number of stalls set up by opportunistic Native traders, and walked a few yards further in the direction in which we had been driving. The dark line opened up and revealed itself as the dramatic gorge of the Rio Grande, at this point crossed by Highway 64 on an elegant and somewhat unnervingly delicate-looking steel bridge.

I had seen photos of the Rio Grande Gorge online when planning this trip, but Chris had not, so he was especially struck by the sudden change in the landscape. We walked out along the pedestrian walkway either side of the highway (not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights!) to stand in one of the small areas that jut out over the river and look directly down into the gorge 650 feet below.

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The Rio Grande Gorge, looking south from the bridge

While it may not have the scale and grandeur of the Grand Canyon, this is a remarkable sight nevertheless. The gorge has been carved over the millennia not just by the rushing waters of the river but also by seismic activity, and the black volcanic rocks are starkly beautiful. I found them quite hard to photograph however. This is one place where the usual rule of photography, that the light is more attractive early and late in the day, doesn’t necessarily apply, as you need the sun to be fairly high if it’s to light both sides of the gorge. But the deep shadows that we experienced at about 10.00 am brought out the drama of the scene, even while being more challenging to photograph.

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The Rio Grande Gorge, looking north from the bridge

The views from both sides of the road are similarly dramatic, and the highway quiet enough for us to cross quite easily between them. But when a vehicle did pass, especially a large truck, I could feel the vibrations as the bridge moved beneath my feet – not for the faint-hearted! I saw at least one nervous woman cling to her companion, and another turn back just a short distance onto the bridge, but it really isn’t that bad – I soon got used to the wobbles and I suspect it’s a deliberate piece of engineering on the part of the bridge builders. This is by the way the second-highest bridge in the US (the highest is in Colorado) and was given the Most Beautiful Span award in 1966 by the American Institute of Steel Construction.

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The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

When we had had our fill of the views from the bridge, we continued to the parking lot on the far (west) side. From here a trail led across the surrounding flat scrubby plain to the edge of the gorge, giving us great views of the bridge and a different angle on the gorge itself. For us this was a great little leg-stretcher of about a kilometre, but you’re warned to look out for snakes, and I would also caution against doing it with small children as there is no fence separating you from the drop to the river far below.

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The Rio Grande Gorge from the western side

Greater World Earthship Development

Before returning to the Enchanted Circle route there was one more sight we wanted to visit in this area, so we carried on along Highway 64 for another mile and a half to the Greater World Earthship Development, today known as the Greater World Earthship Community. This is a cluster of self-sufficient ‘green’ houses built using mostly recycled materials – used tires packed with earth form the walls, while bottles stacked with cement and crushed aluminium cans make colourful peepholes. The resulting homes look perhaps more suited to hobbits than humans, but several hundred people live here and in similar houses in the vicinity. They produce their own energy, reuse grey water, manufacture their own bio-diesel fuel and grow much of their own food. All very admirable, although I couldn’t help wondering whether living in such a relatively remote location would mean a less than green reliance on motor vehicles.

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Earthships

For $5 we could have done a self-guided tour of a model Earthship and watched a video about the building process and the thinking behind the designs, but that would have taken an hour which we couldn’t really spare, so we just had a quick look around and took a few photos. For rather more dollars it’s possible to rent one for a night or a week, or even buy one for yourself! The group behind the development, Earthship Biostructure, also offer guidance to anyone wanting to build their own earthship elsewhere, but I note on their website that tours of the community now need to be pre-booked, presumably to provide some privacy for the growing number of residents.

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Earthships

Once we had taken our photos we returned along Highway 64 to rejoin Highway 522 just north of Taos Pueblo and continue on our ‘long way round’ drive to Cimarron.

The Enchanted Circle

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Autumn colour on the Enchanted Circle

This route took us over higher ground than we had driven for the most part on this trip and as a consequence the aspens were especially colourful, even though today the mostly great weather we had enjoyed so far deserted us and we drove part of the route in rain. We stopped several times on this first stretch to take photos, as the mostly green shades turned to yellow and orange as we climbed.

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Aspens on the Enchanted Circle

At Questa we reached the furthest point north on today’s drive, only a few miles from the border with Colorado. Although we were to be slightly further north on the following day, I guess you could regard this as something of a halfway point on our round trip from El Paso, although in terms of days we were already over the halfway mark. We turned east on Highway 38, passing through Red River (a slightly incongruous-looking ski town with a seeming passion for the Swiss chalet style of architecture), where we stopped briefly for a coffee and on round the circle.

The next stretch of road seemed to me to be the most scenic of all, despite the fast approaching rain clouds. The highway climbs steeply out of Red River, reaching 9,854 feet at the top of Bobcat Pass. In places the scenery reminded us of Scotland or Wales, perhaps more so because of the weather, but the views of the golden aspens on the mountain slopes were pure New Mexico. Luckily there were a few pull-outs where we could stop for photos, and simply to admire this awesome landscape.

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View near Red River

Elizabethtown

We had already visited several ‘ghost towns’ in New Mexico by the time we came to Elizabethtown, and while they were all interesting in their various ways, and all very photogenic, and while some of them had relatively few residents, none of them really loved up to the image that the name conjured in our minds. That is, none of them seemed truly to be inhabited only by ghosts. Until we came to Elizabethtown.

We arrived here in the rain, and parked up to eat a snack lunch while the worst of the bad weather passed over. A couple of horses stared at us mournfully from the shelter of an overhanging eave on a nearby hut. A solitary car pulled off the main road, passed us where we sat, and then turned back. Otherwise, we were alone.

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Old chapel, Elizabethtown

Once we’d finished eating, and the worst of the rain had abated, we drove on into the ‘town’, which is really just a cluster of buildings. One is a museum, only open between June-August, so we were unable to see its collection which, according to our Moon Handbook, ‘details Elizabethtown’s brief but lively history, from the discovery of gold in 1866 through assorted gunfights to the town’s slow fade after a dredge-mining project failed in 1903.’ As well as the museum you can see the stone ruins of the Mutz Hotel, around which the social life of the town would have revolved.

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Museum and stables

The museum may have been closed, but both it and the other structures, and a few rusting vehicles, made great subject matter for our cameras, the more so as the still-falling rain added an air of desolation.

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In Elizabethtown

Like most of New Mexico’s ghost towns, Elizabethtown owes its existence to the gold rush. It was the first incorporated village in the state, and at its peak was home to more than 7,000 people – almost impossible to believe if you visit it today. It was named for the daughter of its founder, a Captain William H. Moore, who came here looking for copper, led here by friendly Indian traders. As well as copper, he and his men found gold, and in the ensuing rush, a town was born.

Returning to the main road and continuing south, in a few miles we came to Eagle Nest. Here at a T-junction the Enchanted Circle route picks up Highway 64 again. To reach Cimarron we needed to turn left, but we had time for another detour so instead turned to the right, travelling a short distance back towards Taos.

Vietnam Veterans' Memorial

Our detour took us to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, which back then was a New Mexico State Park but I understand has since been transferred to the Department of Veteran Services. This Memorial is a labour of love constructed by the parents of one soldier, David Westphall, who was sadly killed in an ambush on May 22, 1968, during a battle near Con Thien, South Vietnam, in which 17 men lost their lives.

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Vietnam Veterans' Memorial State Park: the Chapel

And in building this memorial to their son, Jeanne and Victor Westphall also created a memorial to all victims of that controversial war. It has now become a place of pilgrimage for the many other families who lost loved ones there. For anyone old enough, as I am, to remember that time, a visit here is a moving experience even if you have no personal connection to it. For me, this is a memorial too to all those who protested against this war and whose efforts dominated the news footage, and the songs, of my formative years.

The Chapel

At the heart of the memorial is the chapel. Its elegant design, resembling a sail, inevitably draws the eye, and will draw your footsteps too. The chapel was originally known as the Peace and Brotherhood Chapel and is the focal point around which the rest of the memorial was developed.

It is never locked – one of the conditions imposed by the Westphall family on passing the memorial over to be run as a state park (another was that there should be no charge made to visitors, which made it the only free state park in New Mexico). The reason for this ‘always open’ policy is simple. When Victor Westphall was first building the chapel, he used always to lock the doors at night. One morning when he returned he found a note that had been scrawled on a piece of scrap plywood, which read, ‘Why did you lock the doors when I needed to come in?’ Since then the doors have never been locked.

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The chapel, outside and in

Inside the chapel is a small auditorium with a few rows of seats looking down to an elegant candle stick caught in a shaft of light. The impact that the chapel makes on visiting bereaved families was evident to me in the strategically placed boxes of paper tissues dotted around the benches.

Photographs of thirteen Vietnam War dead are on display in the Chapel. The photographs are rotated every month, alphabetically by state. The one of David Westphall remains on display permanently.

The Visitor Centre

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In the grounds

The Visitor Centre was built in the 1980s, largely underground so as not to detract from the flowing lines of the chapel. Its collections cover the creation of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial and also the Vietnam War itself. There are lots of old news photos and news footage of the period, as well as displays about the experiences of those fighting the war, and of the local people who became caught up in the bloodshed. It is naturally a disquieting museum – a place to inform rather that to entertain. But I found it an effective reminder of what happened for those of us who lived through that dark period of US history, and an introduction for anyone who did not.

It is all too easy to forget the impact of this war on individual lives among all the political and moral debates about whether it should ever have been fought. The displays here are a salutary reminder of this, although personally I found that they were a little too US-centric in their view of the world at times. For instance, they talked about the good work done by troops in giving the local people ‘real toilets’. I was sure that those locals thought that what they had was real, and felt that the reference would be better made to ‘improvements in sanitation’ perhaps – annotations like this and a few similar ones felt a little patronising, even ‘colonial’, to me.

Huey Helicopter

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The Huey Helicopter

In the grounds of the memorial we saw this Bell Iroquois UH-1 Helicopter, popularly known as the Huey. These helicopters are the most widely used in the world, and it was during the Vietnam War that they evolved into an essential resource on the battlefield. They were used for troop transport, ferrying cargo, air assault and medical evacuation, helping to overcome the challenges of warfare in the dense jungles. A Huey made it possible for a wounded soldier to be in a hospital within one hour, dramatically increasing survival rates.

This particular Huey, named ‘Viking Surprise’, was involved in a difficult and dangerous rescue mission in March 1967. It laid down smoke cover while other helicopters saw to the evacuation of troops. In its 13 passes over the area it was hit by 135 bullets, six of them through the pilot’s compartment. After repairs it went back into service and was brought here to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park by the New Mexico National Guard in May 1999.

‘Dear Mom and Dad’

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'Dear Mom and Dad'

Elsewhere in the grounds of the memorial is this moving sculpture by Taos artist Doug Scott, depicting a soldier struggling to compose a letter home to his parents. An inscription by the sculptor reads:

‘The words “Dear mom and dad”
are written ... now what?
He can’t tell them what he is seeing.
He can’t tell them what he is doing.
His eyes see a foreign land.
His heart sees the other side of the world.’

This may be a memorial to one particular war, but surely those words, and that dilemma, must ring true to any soldier, anywhere. For me this was the most moving thing at the memorial, as it emphasises the gulf between those who have fought, and are fighting, and the rest of us, who can only guess at (and only half-comprehend) a fraction of what they must experience.

After visiting the memorial we retraced our route back to the road junction in Eagle Nest. It was time to leave the Enchanted Circle and head further east.

Cimarron Canyon State Park

Highway 64 passes directly through this pretty state park, giving us a very scenic stretch of road for the last part of today’s drive. But this is a narrow, winding road so we made sure to stop briefly once or twice, so that Chris, as driver, would also have a chance to appreciate the scenery.

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The Cimarron River

Several pull-outs gave us the opportunity to stretch our legs with short strolls that in one case brought us to the banks of the Cimarron River that carved this small gorge. It was by now quite late on this rather damp, dull afternoon, so it was hard to capture the scenery adequately on camera, although the dark clouds gave the canyon a moody atmosphere that suited the landscape well. Steep granite cliffs overhang the tumbling river here, adding to the drama of the scene, and the rich October colours of the leaves were an additional bonus.

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Cimarron Canyon

The geology of this gorge is apparently especially complex and interesting as nearly two billion years of complex geologic history is exposed here. The Cimarron River is the only water course sufficiently powerful to have cut through the Cimarron Range. I’m sure a student of such things would want to spend time exploring the many features of this landscape, but for us, simply to marvel at the rock formations and the mountains that loomed above us was enough.

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Flowers in Cimarron Canyon State Park

New Mexico typically charges for day use of its state parks (the fee in 2011 was $5), but we couldn’t see anywhere to make our payment. I found out afterwards that some of the short trails off this road are designated for ‘free access’, so it seems that in fact there was no need to pay.

Cimarron

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Schwenks Hall in old Cimarron

To be honest, there’s not an awful lot to see in this part of New Mexico, but sometimes that’s how we like it. This north east corner of the state has none of the big draws – no arty Santa Fe or Taos, no Indian Pueblos, no striking Spanish colonial architecture. But it does have wide open skies and a spirit evocative of the Wild West days that here seem like only yesterday. And Cimarron seemed to us likely to be worth driving a little off the usual tourist routes in New Mexico, which indeed it proved to be.

While modern-day Cimarron straddles Highway 64, the old centre lies a few blocks to the south. In the 1800s, few towns had such a reputation for gun-play and violence as this – indeed, its very name, Cimarron, means ‘wild and unruly’. Today it is a peaceful backwater with enough of that history remaining to lure anyone intrigued by the ‘Wild West’, as we are.

When we arrived in Cimarron we headed straight to the Visitor Centre which is right on Highway 64 as I’d read that it provided a good free walking tour leaflet. Unfortunately, though, the office had closed for the afternoon (in October they were already on their winter timetable). So we gave up and drove over to our hotel to check in.

The St James Hotel

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The St James Hotel

As soon as I read about the St James Hotel in Cimarron, I knew I wanted to stay here, and indeed one of our main reasons for including this corner of New Mexico in our route was in order to do so. The hotel boasts an incredible history for anyone who has ever been even slightly excited by tales of the Wild West. If you grew up watching cowboy films, whether old John Wayne Westerns or, like me, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you would be as fascinated as we were by the real-life events that took place here at the St James.

It was opened by a French chef, Henri Lambert, in 1872, and soon became the place to stay in Cimarron. Given the nature of the town, it is unsurprising that many of its guests were famous or even notorious. The Earp brothers and their wives stopped here on their way to Tombstone. Buffalo Bill Cody was a friend of the Lamberts and stayed here often, as did Annie Oakley. Author Zane Grey began writing his novel Fighting Caravans while visiting the hotel, and various outlaws, including Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Black Jack Ketchum, also stayed here.

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The Lobby

The hotel offers a choice of historic rooms in the main building or more modern ones in the adjacent annexe. My choice would have been for the former, but Chris (less enamoured of history than I am) had opted for the creature comforts and lower prices of the latter, and on this (rare!) occasion, his choice won out over mine. Our room was large, with a king-size bed and all mod cons, and what it lacked in atmosphere it gained on size and price – in fact it was the bargain of the trip! When I’d called some weeks before to reserve a room (there were no online reservations back then) I was told it would be $80 plus tax, but on checking in we were informed that there was an off season deal for mid-week reservations and it would cost only half that!

We did get a chance to see a few of the historic rooms, as on the ground floor of the main building the corridor is lined with old photos and framed press clippings, and you can also view any unoccupied rooms. In my eyes the one we popped into looked lovely – but Chris was keen to point out the much smaller size of both room and bed!

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Corridor in the main building, and an historic bedroom
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Our bedroom, by way of contrast

A walk around Old Cimarron

Having checked in, we found a copy of the free walking tour leaflet we had been hoping to get from the visitor centre provided in our room. So we donned our waterproofs (it was a drizzly afternoon) and set off for a stroll around the immediate area. I didn’t take many photos on this walk – partly because of the rain and partly because many of the historic buildings are nowadays used as private residences

The first place we came to, behind the St James’ Hotel, was the old Plaza, now simply a grassy field with a 1960s replica of the original gazebo in the centre. The gazebo covers an old well, dug in 1871 and used by freighters hauling goods from the Kansas Territory to Fort Union. A branch of the Santa Fe Trail passed through Cimarron just by here, and the Plaza was used as an overnight campground for those on the Trail, while the well provided water for their horses and oxen. But in 1880 the arrival of the railroad in Santa Fe led to the decline of the Trail, and of Cimarron.

To the left (north side) of the Plaza is the Dold Brothers’ Warehouse, now a private residence. It was built in 1848 as a depot to serve stage lines operating on the Santa Fe Trail, and later became first an Indian Trading Post and later a General Store, before being used as the offices of the newly-launched Cimarron News and Press in 1875. Since 1908 it has been the home of one family.

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The Dold Brothers Warehouse

To the south and west of the Plaza, behind the St James Hotel, we came to the old National Hotel (1858, now a private residence) and the 1872 Carey Building, which was built to house a hardware store and livery stable, and is also now a private home.

But for me the more photogenic buildings were those lying just to the south of the St James, in particular the Barlow, Sanderson & Company Stage Office, which was built in 1870 according to the leaflet, but 1863 according to the sign on its gable. This had lots of colourful details, having apparently been in recent use as a gallery. It was built to serve the Stage route between Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe, which operated monthly and carried passengers and baggage for a one-way summer fare of $100 for the three-and-a-half week trip. Hard to imagine travel so slow in these days of fast cars and planes! But the mail and stage route closed in 1880 with the coming of the railroad to Springer, 25 miles to the east. The building was then used as a Wells Fargo Office and later converted into a store in the early 1900s.

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Stage Office details

There were more colourful details on the building opposite the Stage Office, known as Schwenk’s Hall. This was built in 1854 as a brewery, but bought by Henry Schwenk in 1875 and turned into a gambling house and saloon.

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Schwenks Hall window

At this point the rain defeated us, as it was getting harder to take decent photos without getting the cameras too wet – and besides, the welcoming and historic bar of the St James was calling us loudly. So we decided to continue our walk the next morning.

Where the West was won (well, fought over at least)

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In the dining room

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Cimarron Chicken

We started our evening at the St James with dinner in its historic restaurant. we started with a shared appetiser of ‘Cimarron Toothpicks’, which were battered deep-fried jalapeños pepper strips served with a ranch dressing. These were fine, though nothing special. But my main course was excellent. I had been eating (and enjoying) mainly New Mexican staples such as burritos etc, but decided it was time for a change. I opted for the interesting-sounding ‘Cimarron Chicken’ which was described as ‘Plump marinated chicken breast grilled to perfection, topped with a gourmet raspberry sauce, inspired by the Salman Raspberry Ranch in Mora County, then sprinkled with pecans.’ This was accompanied by a baked potato (I could also have had mashed potato, fries or sweet potato), mixed vegetables and a helping from the salad bar. The meat was tender, and the sauce worked well, so I was very happy with my choice.

Chris too decided on a break from New Mexican dishes as his favourite food, pizza, was heavily featured on the menu. He chose the Veggie, with green peppers, onions, mushrooms, black olives, mozzarella cheese, and jalapenos on request (he requested!). This was a good size and he enjoyed it, but as it had no accompaniment, he was glad to share my salad.

After dinner we headed to the adjoining bar area, where the sense of history weighs even more heavily. Cimarron was a wild place, and fights at ‘Lambert's place’, as the saloon became known, were commonplace. Everyone carried a gun, and wasn’t slow to use it. The ceiling of the bar is pockmarked with bullet holes, bearing testament to the 26 people killed here during those fights.

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Sign in the bar, and detail of decor

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The bar

The bar itself is gorgeous – all dark wood, highly polished and well-mirrored, with a wonderful old cash register as a centre-piece. We got chatting to the barman over our Jack Daniels, and learned that this bar is however not the original, but was imported by the hotel’s owner a few years ago from a nearby town. However the old photos on the wall show that it is very similar to the one that would have witnessed those fights and at which such famous characters as Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill would have drunk – and that was good enough for us!

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The old cash register

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Chris at the bar

Posted by ToonSarah 03:28 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes trees food architecture road_trip restaurant monument history views hotel new_mexico war_and_peace Comments (8)

A day out with friends

Ecuador day two


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

In and around Quito

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With Marcello and Betty on El Panecillo

When we told a friend in London, originally from Quito, that we planned to visit the city, she immediately suggested that her Quiteño parents might like to meet up with us. An exchange of emails followed and it was all decided – we would spend our second day in the city with Marcelo and Betty. They arranged to pick us up at our hotel after breakfast, which they duly did, and what followed was a very enjoyable day with two excellent companions. Marcello speaks reasonable English, while Betty’s is rather more limited (as is our Spanish) so it fell to him to act as translator as well as chauffeur and guide, and he performed all three roles with charm.

He and Betty proposed a programme for the morning and then lunch, during which we could discuss our afternoon plans, and as all sounded good to us, off we went …

El Panecillo

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El Panecillo

We had already seen from below the hill known as El Panecillo, topped by its statue of the Virgen de Quito who watches over and protects the city. Although not high in comparison with the volcanoes among which the city nestles, it dominates the skyline when you look south down any of colonial Quito’s avenidas. And just as there are great views of it, so there are wonderful ones from it, so a visit to the top is a must if you can manage it. Best not to walk up though, as the steps that lead here are notoriously bad for crime and tourist muggings, so we were very happy that Betty and Marcello suggested this as our first stop of the morning.

El Panecillo means “the little bread loaf”, because of its shape. The hill was a sacred site for the Quechua, who had a temple to the Sun god (Yavirac) here and called the hill Shungoloma, meaning “hill of the heart".

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On El Panecillo

There are two reasons to come here – the statue, and the view. Starting with the former, it is 41 metres tall and was made of seven thousand pieces of aluminium. It was designed by the Spanish artist Agustín de la Herrán Matorras, engineered and erected by Anibal Lopez of Quito, and inaugurated on March 28, 1976, by the then archbishop of Quito, Pablo Muñoz Vega. The Virgin is standing on top of a globe and stepping on a serpent, which is a traditionally symbolic way to portray the Madonna. Less traditional are the wing – indeed, locals claim that she is the only one in the world with wings like an angel. The monument was inspired by the famous "Virgen de Quito" sculpted by Bernardo de Legarda in 1734, which adorns the main altar of the Church of San Francesco. It is full of movement – she might almost be dancing – very different to the usual static statues of the saint. The interior of the pedestal holds a small chapel. It is possible to climb to an observation terrace around the globe but we didn’t bother – according to Marcello the views are not that different from those you get at the foot of the pedestal, and we were more than happy with those.

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Cotopaxi from El Panecillo

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Views of the city

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The Olla del Panecillo

Yes, the views – spectacular, on a clear morning such as we were blessed with! You can see the city spread out beneath you (we spent some time picking out the landmarks while Marcello told us something about many of Quito’s sights that we should see on our visit) and beyond it the volcanoes. As well as snow-covered Cotapaxi to the south we saw Cayambe, also snow-covered, to the north along with Imbabura, Corazon and others. Do come here quite early in your day’s sightseeing though, as the clouds are likely to descend and hide the mountains from view by afternoon, especially in the rainy season.

Just below the feet of the Virgin is another sight, the so-called Olla del Panecillo. This large cistern is traditionally said to be of Inca origin, but recent tests have dated it to after the Spanish conquest. Marcello told us a story about a previous family visit here which should act as a warning. He decided he would like to get a photo of the family in front of the Olla del Panecillo, so he set the camera’s self-timer, rested it on the roof of his car parked just across the road and ran over to join the rest of the family posing for the shot. As the shutter fired a passer-by grabbed the camera and legged it – no family photo, and no family camera any more either :-(

Basilica del Voto Nacional

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In the Basilica del Voto Nacional

When we stood on El Panecillo, looking north, Marcello pointed out to us the Basilica del Voto Nacional, unusual in being of neo-Gothic design in predominantly Baroque Spanish colonial old Quito. And when we descended the hill this was the next place we visited. The Basilica is the largest neo-Gothic church in all of the New World – 140 metres long and 35 metres wide; 74 metres high in the transept, and 115 metres the height of its two front towers. It took almost 100 years to build, from the laying of the first stone in 1892 until its inauguration in 1988 – although technically it is considered unfinished, as a local legend says that when the Basílica is completed, the world will end.

It dominates this part of the city, and can be seen from all over town. Growing up in northern Europe, where Gothic (both original and neo-) is a commonly seen architectural style, I was less impressed by the Basilica than I felt I was expected to be by our lovely hosts for the day, for whom this must be an unusual and impressive building. It was interesting though to see how the exterior, though European in appearance, had borrowed elements from the country’s natural wealth, with gargoyles inspired by iguanas, monkeys, armadillos, pumas and Galápagos tortoises.

Inside I was more impressed. Although the grey stone interior is plain, even sombre, when compared with the ornate Baroque of, say, La Compañia, it is lit by some marvellous stained glass windows. I especially loved the kaleidoscope-like rose windows above the north and south transepts. Behind the main altar was another treasure – a small, much more colourful chapel dedicated to the Virgin and reserved for prayer (so no photos are allowed here, unlike the main church).

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Stained glass in the basilica

I knew from my research that it is possible to climb to the top of one of the Basilica’s tallest towers and, despite the dodgy knee that was slightly hampering my sightseeing, I would have liked to have given this a go, or at least taken the lift to the first level of the climb. But Marcello was keen to show us more of his city in the one day we had available to spend with them, so I had to be content with looking around at ground level.

So soon it was back to the car and on to our next stop.

Capilla del Hombre

The Fundacion Guayasamin currently operate two “museums” (for want of a better word) dedicated to the work of the great Ecuadorean artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín.

Guayasamin was born in Quito in 1919, and was a contemporary and admirer of Picasso. I knew very little about him before our trip and was perhaps all the more bowled over by this place as a result. His work was heavily influenced by his perceptions of the suffering of the disadvantaged in society, inspired by his own mixed-race heritage and the oppression of the indigenous people of his country. War, famine, torture and other 20th century ills are all reflected in his creations – and yet strangely, I found his work uplifting.

Many of his pieces are currently exhibited in the Museo Guayasamín, which we didn’t visit. But a few blocks away, here at the Capilla del Hombre, exhibits and the building that contain them are one. This stark monument-cum-museum was designed by Guayasamin himself as a tribute to humankind, to the suffering of the indigenous poor and to the undying hope of man for something better. He planned to open it on the first day of the new 21st century, but died in 1999 before the work was quite completed, and in the event it did not open until November 2002. The building is intended to be a non-sectarian place of worship, a “chapel of man”, and incorporates elements of Inca and indigenous design motifs. At its heart is an eternal flame, dedicated to those who died defending human rights. Around this the works of art are arranged on three floors, descending down to the flame, with some smaller works in the main entrance area and some huge murals lower down. I was especially taken by a series of paintings of a woman’s face, and by a dramatic mural showing a bull and a condor, which we thought must represent the struggle between conquering Spain (the bull) and the indigenous people (the condor). Unfortunately, although I have read that tours are available in English and Marcello asked for one for us, we were told that they weren’t being offered that day, (though a tour in Spanish was in progress during our visit).

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On hoardings in the grounds

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In the grounds

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Copán stella

No photos are allowed inside, so we bought a postcard of one of the “face” paintings in the small but very nice gift-shop on the middle level. This also had some good quality reproductions. Photos are allowed outside, so I took a couple of the hoarding that divided off an area where work was being carried out, as this was decorated with copies of paintings by the artist. Marcello explained that the work here would eventually allow the Foundation to move the contents of the nearby museum to this site, so that all of Guayasamin’s works in Quito could be displayed in the one place.

Also in the grounds were a number of artefacts, gifts from other Latin American countries. The one in my photo is a stella from Copán, Honduras. Above this spot is a tree, planted by Guaysamin himself, under which he is buried; it has been named El Arbol de la Vida (The Tree of Life).

If you want to see what the inside does look like, there are a couple of photos on the Capilla del Hombre website.

By now we were all getting hungry so Chris and I proposed treating our hosts to lunch.

Mama Clorinda

Betty and Marcello brought us to this great little restaurant in La Mariscal district, which they said was one of their favourites for Ecuadorean dishes. We had to agree that it was an excellent choice for our lunch together. The atmosphere, even by day, is cosy, helped by the division of an already quite small space into even smaller ones. And the décor is cheerful, with bright walls and checked table-cloths.

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In Mama Clorinda

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Chorizo and llapingachos

We were brought a plate of four empanadas to have with our drinks while waiting for the meal. One each – except that as Betty is largely vegetarian and these had a meat filling, Chris and I got to split the extra one! They were excellent, as was the hot aji sauce to dip them in.

For my main course I followed a recommendation by Marcello that the fish here was usually good, and chose corvina or sea bass. It was served dusted with seasoned flour and fried and was very good, if a little salty. I also liked the accompanying menestra, a traditional bean stew, and it also came with boiled rice and fried plantain. Chris also really enjoyed his dish of chorizo sausages and llapingachos (potato patties stuffed with cheese) which also included a fried egg, avocado and salad. Marcello ate corvino like me and Betty a vegetable llapingachos dish. Between us we drank four Club beers, one bottle of water and three espresso coffees. The bill for the four of us came to $54 which I thought was good value for this tasty food served in such pleasant surroundings.

Over lunch we discussed the afternoon’s programme and decided to drive slightly further from the city centre to see an area Chris and I would otherwise be unlikely to visit.

Santuria de El Guápulo

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The Santuria de El Guápulo

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In Guápulo

Over the hill from La Mariscal lies the historic neighbourhood of Guápulo, reached by driving down the winding valley on a long cobbled street. At the bottom of the road we came to the impressive Santuria de El Guápulo, a striking church dating from the latter part of the 17th century (although restored in the 1930s) and one of Quito’s real treasures.

We were very fortunate to find it open, as the hours are apparently somewhat erratic. And we were so pleased that we were able to go inside, as it is truly beautiful I loved the ornate wooden pulpit (the work of Juan Bautista Manacho in 1716) and especially the sweet-looking little dog carved waiting at the bottom of the steps – such a nice touch! The altar-piece is also stunning, and there are some important paintings from the Quito school by Miguel de Santiago and Nicolás Javier de Goríbar.

There was a lone local woman praying near the front of the church so we walked around very quietly. Suddenly she broke into song – totally unselfconsciously and I am sure not for our benefit but for her own – or rather, for that of the one to whom she prayed. Ave Maria sung so beautifully in this otherwise empty church – how magical!

No photos are allowed inside, but I asked an attendant who was hovering in the porch if I could take some there of the interesting wall-paintings, and was told that I might. I haven’t been able to find any mention of these paintings, perhaps because the treasures inside are so noteworthy.

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In the porch, and statue of Orellana on the plaza

Outside the church on the other side of the plaza is a statue of the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, gazing out over the land he “discovered”. There is a story, possibly true, that the name of this part of the city is derived from Guadalupe – that here the Spanish planned their sanctuary and dedicated it to the Virgin of Guadalupe. But the local Indians weren't able to pronounce the name and it became corrupted as Guápulo.

Nayon

After our visit to Guápulo, Marcello was keen to show us more of Quito’s outskirts, so we drove to Nayon on a winding road in the northeast suburbs. The fertile valleys around Quito are ideal for growing flowering plants, and Nayon is the place that locals go to buy them. The road is lined with small nurseries, each with a beautiful display of plants for sale. We parked about halfway along and had a good wander around one of them. My eye was especially drawn to the wide variety of hibiscus, one of my favourite flowers, and to the bougainvilleas. It surprised me that with such a temperate climate it was possible to grow what to us are exotic blooms – but of course the growers take good care to protect their plants from the chilly nights at these altitudes.

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In Nayon

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When we had finished looking around (we didn’t buy anything, naturally, as these are not the most transportable of souvenirs!) we went across the road to one of Betty and Marcello’s favourite heladerias. I had been disappointed the previous day with my first taste of Helado de Paila, the traditional northern Ecuador version of ice cream, so I wasn’t sure about having it again here. But I have to say that it was much nicer than the one I’d eaten at the famed Heladeria San Agustin. I chose taxo flavour (a form of passionfruit) and really enjoyed its refreshing sharpness. It was also cheaper than the Heladeria San Agustin, at just $1.50 for a large cone.

After our ices we headed back to the city centre and to our hotel. Before dropping us off Betty and Marcello proposed meeting up again on our return to the city at the end of our trip when we would have a lot to tell them about our adventures in the Galápagos in particular – a suggestion we were happy to agree to.

That evening, still full from our large and quite late lunch, we decided against having dinner but headed to the street known as La Ronda in search of just a drink or two.

La Ronda

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La Ronda on a Friday evening

If you’re looking for lively bars and lots of late-night action, the colonial part of Quito is not where you should be staying! Although these days generally considered safe at night (and we certainly didn’t experience or observe anything to worry us), it is quiet and definitely low-key. A pleasant dinner, a stroll through its attractive streets, and a relatively early night are probably the norm for most people who choose to stay here. But there is one street, La Ronda, which can be considerably livelier, especially at weekends.

La Ronda (also known as Calle Morales) is a narrow street on the south side of the old town, and has become known for its relatively lively nightlife. We found though that this varied very much according to when we visited. On this first visit, a Friday, the street was packed with both locals and tourists, and the atmosphere was great, although we were to find it much quieter when visiting on a “school night”.

The street is really little more than a pedestrianised lane, lined with old colonial buildings from 16th century onwards. On some of these there are informative illustrated boards, describing the history of the area and some of the artists and writers who once lived there. Today the old buildings have been turned into restaurants (some smart and upmarket, others cheap and cheerful), bars and shops. On a busy evening there are street traders selling gimmicky items such as light sabres and whirling helicopter toys, which seemed to be aimed more at the local market than tourists, but some of the shops have some nice craft items and paintings if you’re looking for something more special. But really this is a place to come and wander, soak up the atmosphere, eat and drink ...

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Soldiers on La Ronda

The street is one of the oldest in the city, dating back to pre-colonial times, when the indigenous inhabitants used it as a path to the Pichincha River, where they went to fish, bathe and wash clothing. Later it developed as the route to the San Juan de Dios Hospital, then the home to all types of artists, and later still became a street notorious for crime – theft, muggings and worse. Today however, like much of the colonial quarter, it has cleaned up its act and is regularly patrolled by tourist police who ensure that you need have no fears about visiting here.

We also saw the smartly uniformed soldiers in my photo here, who were happy to pose for my photo (and for many others!) But I have no idea, and no one could tell me, whether they were here on duty or for pleasure.

After strolling up and down we found a tiny bar near the Santo Domingo end of the street and settled down for a couple of beers at a table near the door from where we could watch the action. This was a pleasant low-key end to what had been a very busy day.

Tomorrow we would be heading further out of town …

Posted by ToonSarah 07:57 Archived in Ecuador Tagged churches art views restaurants city museum quito Comments (6)

Walking the city

Ecuador day nine


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

Cuenca

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Another view from our room

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At breakfast

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

City tour with Terra Diversa

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

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

"Panama" hats

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

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Unfinished hats

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

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Mock-up of hat maker's village home

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

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

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

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Trying on a hat

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

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Our little tile

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

Mirador de Turi

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

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Mirador views

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Iglesia de Turi

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

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

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Horno

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

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

Plaza San Sebastián

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In the Plaza San Sebastian

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

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Iglesia San Sebastian

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

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

Museo de Arte Moderno

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

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Museo de Arte Moderno

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

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Exhibits outdoors and in

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

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

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Chapel ceiling

A traditional craftsman

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

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Tin craftsman

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Engraving the tin

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

Plaza del Cruz del Vado

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Cruz del Vado

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

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Greasy pole sculpture

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

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

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Traditional roof decorations

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

Prohibido Centro Cultural

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In Prohibido Centro Cultural

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

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

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Light-fitting

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Typical of the art here

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Hand-washing and guillotine

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

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

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Locra de papa

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

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

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One of the cats

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Cheers

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

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

Las Monjas

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

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

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

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Garlic bread & dips, and starter platter

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Corvina, and chicken

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

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

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

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

Travelling to the Sine-Saloum Delta

Senegal day five


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Waterbuck mother and baby visiting the waterhole

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At breakfast today we were treated to the sight of a couple of waterbucks, mother and baby, who came to drink at the waterhole and lingered for some time. A lovely ending to our short stay at Fathala.

Our journey to Fimela

After spending three nights at Fathala we left to travel further into Senegal. We drove (or I should say, were driven) north on what was at first a good road but which soon deteriorated into a dusty red sand track, made worse by the fact that work was in progress (February 2016) to surface it properly.

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Roadworks

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Scenery on the road

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Passing through a local village

But after 25 kilometres of bumping along through a string of very traditional-looking villages, each with a number of the family compounds so typical of rural Africa, we turned west, and back on to a properly surfaced road. Our driver explained that rather than travel through Kaolack, as we had expected, he planned to take the ferry from Foundiougne, cutting off a corner of the journey and avoiding another long stretch of unmade-up road. We might have to wait for the boat, he said, but that would still be preferable to the much longer alternative by road. This suited us, as the boat ride would break up the journey and sounded more interesting.

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The Saloum from the road

This better road led across salt flats and along causeways lined with mangroves to the town of Foundiougne, from where we were to catch the ferry across the Saloum. The queue of vehicles was too long to allow of us crossing on the ferry that was then loading, so we had to hang around for about 45 minutes while it crossed and returned.

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The ferry in Foundiougne
- this is the one that was too full to take us!

This unscheduled break gave us time to stroll around and take lots of photos, as well as to try to converse a little, in our sometimes inadequate French, with the local market traders etc. They were naturally keen that we shopped at their stalls (we didn't) but less keen on our cameras, although most tolerated them.

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Locals in Foundiougne

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Drums for sale in the market

The favoured local transport option of a horse or donkey and cart was much in evidence, carrying both goods and passengers.

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Local transport in Foundiougne

I rather liked the design of the building housing the port offices here - very 1930s, it seemed to me!

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Port building

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Decorated bike waiting for the ferry

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Ferry approaching Foundiougne

When the ferry returned we paid the foot passenger fee of 50 CFA francs each while our driver drove on separately (no passengers are allowed in vehicles). Life jackets were much in evidence, but thankfully not needed!

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Leaving Foundiougne

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On the ferry
- a white-breasted cormorant, I think, and two gulls

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Approaching Ndakhonga on the far bank

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Disembarking from the ferry in Ndakhonga

The crossing took only about 15 minutes, and once on the far side it was an easy drive of around an hour via the small town of Fatick and on to Souimanga Lodge near the township of Fimela.

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On the road to Fatick

Souimanga Lodge

When I booked our stay at this fairly remote small hotel in the Sine Saloum I opted to pay a little extra for what they term a ‘lagoon’ rather than ‘garden’ bungalow, as these face directly on the water and have their own private boardwalk and shaded jetty overlooking the water. But when we arrived it was to discover that for some reason we had been upgraded to a suite. These (there are just two) have the same lovely waterside setting as the lagoon bungalows, but the extra bonus of a small private plunge pool and a separate inside seating area. What a treat!

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Seating area

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Bedroom area


The room was beautifully decorated with interesting art pieces and lighting. It had plenty of facilities including air conditioning, mini bar, espresso coffee machine and a TV with French channels. The bathroom was very attractive with a monsoon shower.

At the end of our boardwalk was a deck with large beanbags and some shade, perfect for bird-watching. After a quick dip in the rather chilly plunge pool we spent what remained of the afternoon relaxing there and taking photos of the many birds who live among the mangroves.

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View from the deck, with next door's hide, and the boardwalk to our private hide

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Our suite from the hide

The Sine Saloum Delta is known for its bird-life. While I wouldn’t describe myself as a keen birdwatcher, as a photographer I am drawn to them and the challenge of capturing the beauty of something that hardly ever keeps still for long enough!

I also like to know what it is that I am photographing, something I found slightly frustrating here. The local guides here seemed much less knowledgeable about the names of the bird species than those in Gambia, and naturally when they could name them, they did so in French. A comprehensive guide to the birds of West Africa on the bookshelf in the bar area was also in French, so I resorted to Google and to sharing photos with well-informed Facebook friends! All bird photos labelled in this blog therefore come with a disclaimer – I am pretty sure I have the names correct but not 100% so. I’d be grateful to readers who can correct any errors, either on this page or the following ones!

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Bird-life among the mangroves

Today we saw herons, egrets and more, including several pelicans swimming among the mangroves.

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Pelican

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Black-winged Stilt

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Cormorants
- too far away for me to be sure which kind!

Back on the deck we saw a few more birds who came to drink from our plunge pool. There were Senegal Doves, also known as Laughing Doves, and also a Red-Eyed Dove.

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Senegal or Laughing Doves

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Red-Eyed Dove

We also saw several Common Bulbuls and a Weaver – either Village or Little, I wasn’t able to determine which.

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Common Bulbul
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Little (or Village?) Weaver

We were to see many more of the same species during the week we spent here, and more besides, so expect to see lots more bird photos in my following entries too!

Evenings at Souimanga

In the evening we had dinner on the decking by the main building. This is on several levels with only a few tables on each, and you have the feeling of eating in a tree-house – wonderful!

Dinner was a set menu but with a choice of two main courses, which seemed almost always to be either beef (served as a steak or brochette) or fish, again served either as a single piece or a mix of fishes on a brochette. One of the kitchen staff came to seek us out each afternoon to ask for our choice and also at what time we wanted to eat. Before our choice of mains, there was always an amuse bouche and an entree, and after it a dessert. There was no choice of these, but generally we found them tasty and they were thankfully much more varied than the main courses. We also really enjoyed both our pre-dinner drinks each evening (a beer for Chris and a cocktail for me, which came with what we still talk about as the best olives we have tasted anywhere in the world!

Posted by ToonSarah 07:15 Archived in Senegal Tagged landscapes animals birds boats views hotel river roads africa seabirds senegal street_photography Comments (8)

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