South America Day 61 – Quito
10th March 2019
Another interrupted night due to:
1 am – old man returning from his trip.
4 am – text from daughter number one. Both my daughters have A level maths but neither seem able to calculate time zones.
2.30-6.30 am – getting up to check on daughter number two’s progress on Barcelona Marathon App.
Regular intervals all night – neighbours using the hairdryer. Either they have some weird hairdressing fetish or they’re holding it under the smoke detector so they can smoke in bed without evacuating the hotel (again).
In the morning, we head for the airport for our flight to Quito; the world’s second highest capital. We’re going 800 miles further north and 2850 metres higher in altitude.
Once checked in, I attempt to go souvenir shopping, until I realise they want £10 for a fridge magnet. I’m tempted to ask if the decimal points are in the right places on the price tags, but then I accidentally knock a rather nice nativity set on the floor, breaking its intricately carved doors. So it’s time to beat a hasty retreat. I try to log onto the Wifi but it sends me an access code to my email, which I can’t access without Wifi. And that about sums up our trip to Peru; more patience is required than I possess. Time to move on to Ecuador.
It’s our 9th LATAM flight and for the 9th time, it lands bang on time. Someone from LATAM needs to come to the UK and give the likes of British Airways and EasyJet a few lessons.
We get a taxi to our hotel in the old town. The hotel; Casa Montero is OK, but the surrounding area is a bit rough. It’s on the edge of Plaza de Santa Domingo. The area in general and the hotel steps in particular appear to be a meeting place for winos.
In the evening, we take a walk along la Ronda; a cobbled street with colourful 17th century houses, and find somewhere for dinner.
The food at Casa de los Geranios is very good, if a bit pretentious. I have chicken in orange and teriyaki sauce with a chocolate glaze (with chips of course). The old man has steak followed by a flambeed ice cream dessert which looks like it will burn for ever. Then we return to our hotel and lock ourselves in for the night.
South America Day 62 – Quito
11th March 2019
Today, we’re going sightseeing in Quito – primarily churches as most other tourist attractions are shut on Mondays. By now, we’ve been to umpteen Colonial South American town centre, whose layouts are so formulaic I could walk them in my sleep; main plaza with cathedral and government palace. On either side, plazas containing the churches of San Francisco and Santo Domingo. And somewhere in the middle, the Jesuits, who took a vow of poverty but coated their churches liberally with gold.
After breakfast, we set off for the main square but there is a demonstration underway. The square is completely blocked off and circled by riot police. More and more people are arriving and most are wearing surgical masks. And I don’t think they’re doctors….
We bypass the square and head for the enormous Basilica del Voto Nacional. The old man decides to climb the tower. I opt to sit in the café with a Coke. I have a bad neck from sleeping weirdly last night and can do without the extra exertion. I visit the interior of the Basilica instead. Some of the stained glass is being renovated, so the statues in the nave have been wrapped in a dark fabric. It looks like the church has been overrun by Dementors.
Next, we go to the Iglesia de San Francisco. It has an excellent museum in the monastery full of religious art. I try to buy some post cards, but they have run out, so offer me posters for the same price of $0.25 each. It sounds like a bargain but I’m not sure what I’m going to do with these posters – answers on a postcard (obviously not a postcard of San Francisco church).
We pass the rear of the Cathedral, but it is still closed due to the demonstration. Next we consider the Jesuit Church, until we realise entry is $5 each.
We round off our morning in the Iglesia de Santo Domingo; highlight – a colour changing virgin. It’s safe to say we are all churched out, so we return to our hotel to pack for tomorrow’s trip to the Amazon.
In the evening we go from one culinary extreme to the other. After yesterday’s fancy meal, we go to a tiny three table shack where a lovely lady whips up a Mexican feast for £20, including four beers.
South America Day 63 – Cuyabeno Reserve
12th March 2019
Today, we are going to the Amazon. I have a phobia of travelling remote places, so the old man has booked a hotel only accessible by canoe. This morning we have an hour flight to Lago Agrio, followed by a two hour bus trip to Cuyabeno Bridge then a two hour canoe ride to our ‘hotel’. I say hotel. In my world, a hotel has electricity. And Wifi. And walls. All things I’m going to have do without for the next four days.
We check in for our flight and I buy my last Diet Coke for four days – I’m about to go cold turkey. At $4 a bottle, it’s probably just as well. One last login to the airport Wifi – more cold turkey.
The plane has propellers. I’m a firm believer that one shouldn’t fly in anything that doesn’t have jet engines (preferably manufactured by Rolls Royce). The old man man is worried it will be the last straw and I will refuse to board, but the flight is only 35 minutes, so I manage to hold it together.
The bus journey is less scenic than I’d expected. We’re in an oil producing area and the pipeline runs alongside the road. After two hours, we reach Cuyabeno Bridge. We are met by our guide, have lunch and set off in our motorised canoe. It takes longer than two hours as we do a few 360 degree turns along way to spot wildlife.
En route we see howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, sloths, an anaconda, anhingas, kingfishers, macaws, weaver birds, flycatchers and loads of butterflies.
We reach Cuyabeno Lodge, and are shown our room. Usually, the old man panics if he’s made to sleep with the window open and reaches for the A/C control at the first sight of a mosquito, so it’s going to be an interesting few nights. He seems upset that the door has no lock, despite the fact that room has no wall on one side and windows with no glass on two more sides.
On a more positive note, the guide has brought a case of beer from town and it’s $4 for a 750 ml bottle, which should make things a bit more manageable.
After an hour to settle in, we go out for an evening canoe ride. This time we see giant guinea pigs and pink river dolphin (except they’re babies so they’re grey, not pink). Then we are given an opportunity to swim. In water we have already ascertained contains snakes, caiman and piranha. The old man decides to go in. Getting him out again is another matter and requires rather a lot of assistance. Needless to say I’m on hand – with my camera.
We have dinner then retire to bed and try to sleep through the cacophony of crickets, birds and frogs (and the occasional scream of a Canadian schoolchild that’s spotted a bug). I lie under my mosquito net thinking about my lovely house in Bournemouth with its mod cons and wonder how I got coerced into spending four days in a damp shed in the jungle?
South America Day 64 – Cuyabeno Reserve
13th March 2019
Today, we are going to a local village where we will pay an indigenous family to show us how they live. Inflation in the village is obviously rife, as the price has gone up 25% since we booked.
After breakfast and a cold shower, we set off in our canoe again. It takes two hours to reach the village. On the way we see dolphins, sloths, four species of monkeys, bats, parrots, toucan, hawks and hummingbirds.
Once in the village, we are taught to make yucca bread. First, we go into the jungle to dig up the tubers, then we grate them into a mini canoe, dry, sieve and cook the resulting ‘flour’ like a pancake. Our guide has brought a tuna salad to eat it with. There’s also fried yucca, plantain and a selection of fruits I’ve never seen before.
Then it’s back to the lodge in our canoe. On the way we see stinky turkeys, vultures and falcons. I say ‘we’ – the old man has consumed his body weight in yucca bread and sleeps for much of the journey.
After lunch, another canoe ride is scheduled. I decide seven hours in two days is my canoe quota and opt out, spending the afternoon with a book on the balcony instead. After sunset, I try to read on my bed. The room has two small lamps, so is quite dark. I have the cunning idea of rotating the lamps so they both face my bed. This has an advantage (I can read) and a disadvantage (they attract dozens of insects and soon my mosquito net has filled with flying ants).
The groups return, we have dinner and try to go to bed. It takes a while to settle due to a drama downstairs; a Canadian has a cockroach in his room which causes a major meltdown. We have to listen to the drama in the dark – a second disadvantage of reading by lamplight is that it’s emptied the solar powered battery.
South America Day 65 – Cuyabeno Reserve
14th March 2019
Today’s schedule consists of a 6.30 am birdwatching session on the observation tower (basically our bedroom roof), a jungle walk and a canoe trip which combines swimming and caiman spotting. Why anyone would want to do any of these things is beyond me. It’s going to be a long day.
We go to the roof at 6.30, as scheduled to look for birds. In 90 minutes we spot 7 vultures, 6 parrots and 5 toucans. The old man is so excited, he plays bridge on his tablet while the rest of the group look for birds, then goes off in search of coffee.
After breakfast, it’s time for the jungle walk. I decide it’s not for me and spend the morning with my book on the balcony again. I’ve definitely made the right call; 40 minutes after the group leave, the heavens open and give a demonstration of why it’s called the ‘rain forest’.
A man (Herman) comes to clean the room. He’s from one of the local villages. All the staff (lodge staff, tour guides, canoe drivers) come from the villages on a rotational basis, staying between 5 and 22 days, then go home to their families and a replacement comes. After their days off, they return to work at one of the 12 lodges. It sounds like a very fair way to distribute the income generated through tourism. A few minutes later, Herman calls me to go to the observation tower. A huge group of squirrel monkeys are passing by, so close I can almost touch them. They are followed by black tamarins, capuchin and finally titi monkeys.
As if four species of monkeys isn’t enough excitement (all without leaving my bedroom), then the army turn up to perform a search. We’re right on the border with Colombia in prime drug smuggling territory. The rest of the group return. During my exciting morning, they have walked through a swamp in the rain looking at native plants.
The afternoon’s activity, following two hours of torrential rain, is another canoe ride, finishing after dark so we can look for caiman, which are easier to spot at night when their eyes reflect in torch light. A few metres from the lodge, we spot a three metre long caiman. Then we spot several sloths hanging in the trees to dry.
At dusk, we return to the lake where we saw the caiman and are offered an opportunity to swim. Funnily enough, no one takes up the offer. We watch the sunset, then skirt the lake looking for caiman. Our torches attract hundreds of insects, which in turn attract dozens of bats, swarming around the boat feasting on the insects.
Finally, we spot a caiman; two red spots glowing in the undergrowth. When we pull over, we can see piranhas swimming in the shallows round the boat. Two white lights glowing in a tree overhead indicate a tree boa observing with interest. Then we return to the lodge for our final night in the Amazon.
South America Day 66 – Cuyabeno to Quito
15th March 2019
Today we are returning to civilisation. But first we have to endure:
- 2 hour canoe ride
- 2 hour bus ride
- 4 hour wait at airport
- 1 hour flight
- 1 hour taxi ride
Things I’m looking forward to this evening:
- Phone coverage to speak to my girls
- Wifi to find out what’s been happening in the outside world
- Electric lights
- Power sockets
- Hot shower
- Dry towels
- Proximity to shops
- Clean running water
- Being allowed to use shampoo/conditioner
- Being able to eat/drink what and when I want
- Clean sheets
- Far fewer insects
- Not stinking of insect repellent
- No animals in the bedroom
- Much less rain
To add to an already long day, we have a 6.30 am start for an additional canoe ride. In four days in the jungle I have spent 13 hours in a canoe (having skipped two canoe trips).
At 6 am it’s raining, as it has been all night, which makes the idea of getting up and going on a canoe even less inviting. This time the whole group opts out. After breakfast, we set off on the journey back to Quito. The canoe takes a while to pack. It’s the lodge’s only link with civilisation, so is loaded with dirty laundry and empty cool boxes and beer crates to replenish supplies.
One last thing; our packed lunch. The staff have found the old man highly amusing. Even though we were given three x three course meals a day, he was constantly going to the kitchen to ask for more. Every time he entered the dining room, they greeted him with ‘Mas pan?’ Herman hands out a packed lunch to everyone, then gives the old man two, which causes all the staff to crack up. It’s a joke, the second lunch is actually mine. The old man looks terribly disappointed when he realises he doesn’t really have two packed lunches.
Thankfully it’s stopped raining. The driver puts the hammer down and we speed our way to Cuyabeno Bridge, stopping only once to observe a large group of monkeys crossing the river, swinging across branches directly overhead.
At Cuyabeno Bridge, the big changeover takes place. Off the canoes come old passengers and empty bottles and boxes. From the buses emerge new passengers and supplies.
We take our bus to Lago Agrio, arriving with four hours to spare. We could go for an explore but Lonely Planet cautions against this, saying it’s not a place to visit unless you’re an oil worker/prostitute/drug runner. So we spend the afternoon at the airport. I don’t care as they have Coke, crisps and Wifi, so that’s all my cravings dealt with (apart from decent cheese, which doesn’t exist in South America).
The flight to Quito is quite spectacular as we skirt a volcano at sunset. Then a taxi into Quito, where we will spend the final five nights of our ten week South American adventure. The old man is already fretting about spending such a large amount of time in one place.
South America Day 67 – Quito
16th March 2019
Today we are sightseeing in Quito and swapping hotels. There is an important reason for this change, but the old man can’t remember what it is. Our new hotel is 1 km away. The old man is too tight to pay for a taxi ($1.25), but worried it isn’t walkable with luggage, so we are to do a ‘trial run’.
After staking out our hotel, we head for the Plaza Grande, which is no longer barricaded off. We want to tour the Palacio de Gobierno, but you have to book in advance.
Next, we visit the Museo de la Ciudad. This is housed in a 17th century hospital and gives (theoretically) a chronological history of Quito. The old man gets impatient and bypasses a group of school kids, so we are going backwards through history, witnessing the fight for independence prior to colonisation, which is all rather confusing.
In the final gallery is a temporary exhibit. There’s no indication of what this exhibit might be until we arrive. It turns out to be the history of Quito’s markets, so an anticlimax.
In the afternoon, after the real journey to our new hotel, lugging our luggage up the hill to Kinde House, we set forth for more sightseeing. We walk through Parque la Alameda, past the National Assembly with its colourful collection of hummingbird sculptures.
On to the Casa de la Cultura. This huge, round glass building houses the Museo Nacional (MuNa) which takes you through the history of Ecuadorean art. There’s some great stuff here. My favourite is a collection of sculptures called La Carga, which depict Ecuadorean women going about their daily business.
There’s also a great ‘play area’ where you can interact with the art and even climb inside a painting.
The MuNa also has temporary exhibit; the work of artist Hernán Illescas, which is for sale. The old man determines to win the lottery, come back and buy ‘La Migración sueño en la Memoria’, a snip at $20,000.
The three of us walk the two miles back to our hotel (we appear to have adopted a dog), stopping for dinner at a trendy microbrewery called Bandido Brewing. We are the oldest in there by a good 30 years. We are served by a girl with green hair and multiple piercings and feel terribly out of place. Craft beer is wasted on me, I return to the hotel for a bottle of cheap lager, then another early night before tomorrow’s train trip.
South America Day 68 – Cotopaxi
17th March 2019
Today, we are going on the Tren de los Volcanes. This tourist train follows a 50 mile route to El Boliche which, it claims, gives you the opportunity to see 15 volcanoes (in good weather).
There aren’t any passenger trains in Ecuador; the taxi driver doesn’t even know where the station is, and tries to drop us at the offices of Tren Ecuador. Luckily, a passing motor cyclist explains his error, we get back in the taxi and follow the motorcyclist to Chimbacalle Station.
After 45 minutes, we reach the outskirts of Quito and pass our first volcano, the active volcano of Atacazo. Next, through a large eucalyptus forest, then into a valley past Pasochoa, a horseshoe shaped volcano which has erupted sideways.
We board our train and set off, flanked by a team of motor cycle outriders to keep the tracks clear. We have only been able to book two aisle seats; Ecuadorean families have booked all the window seats (a group of seven have booked six window seats). However, once the train is underway, the families move to sit together and a pair of seats frees up.
We stop for 30 minutes in the village of Tambillo for no discernible reason other than to bring tourism to the area. I show willing by buying a train fridge magnet.
After three hours, we reach our destination, El Boliche, where we have two hours of ‘activities’. We are taken on a guided tour by an eco warrior who loves the sound of his own voice. It takes over an hour to follow a 320 metre trail. I zone out of what he’s saying, but basically he loves nettles and hates cow poo. He stings himself a few times to prove the point. Once we reach the end of the trail; a sacred tree, it’s a case of ‘exit through the gift shop’. For an hour.
We are disappointed to discover that on the ‘Volcano Train’ (which advertises itself with pictures of Cotopaxi and takes you to the foot of Cotopaxi) you don’t actually see Cotopaxi – which was the point of the trip. I have been robbed of $78 and a day of my life by Tren Ecuador. However, unlike PeruRail, they haven’t cloned our credit card (yet)!
On the return journey, it rains and cloud descends so visibility is minimal. Now our ‘volcano experience’ is reduced to sitting on a retired Spanish commuter train crawling towards Quito with nothing to do except write my blog and watch the outriders struggle on the wet cobbles.
We stop for two hours at Machachi station in the middle of nowhere. There’s the station, a café and a fancy ranch. It’s pouring with rain, soaking the poor dancers who are there to greet us. We have some lunch at the station, which leaves over an hour to kill aimlessly wandering round by the train, which finally departs 20 minutes behind schedule.
We return to Quito station and get a taxi. I show the driver the address of the hotel and he nods and drives into town. It becomes apparent he has no idea where he’s going when he starts asking ‘aquí?’ every few hundred metres. The old man loses patience and we get out of the taxi and walk the final mile, find somewhere to eat that’s open on a Sunday (harder than it sounds), return to our hotel, swap rooms (it’s a long story) and go to bed with no alarm set for the first time in ages.
South America Day 69 – Mitad del Mundo
18th March 2019
Today, we are going to the equator and Mitad del Mundo; a kind of equator based theme park. It’s difficult to reach on public transport, so we have booked a tour. On the way there, it rains so heavily it’s difficult to tell if we’re driving down a road or a river. Rubbish floats past the windows when we stop at traffic lights. Luckily, it eases off before we arrive.
First stop is the Intiñan Museum, which claims to be on the GPS equator. Here, we are given a guided tour which includes such activities as balancing an egg on a nail and trying to walk along the equator in a straight line. This is followed by a very lengthy chocolate making demonstration, for no particular reason other than to try and flog chocolate. I get frustrated, time is passing, and we still haven’t reached Mitad del Mundo, which is what we came to see.
Finally, we continue to the Mitad del Mondo, which claims to be on the geographical equator. We only have 28 minutes here and in addition to a plethora of equator based photo ops, there are also more hummingbird sculptures. So we devise a strategic photography plan and split up, run round our allocated segments and get back to the bus a mere two minutes behind schedule.
There was supposed to be a third stop at the cable car, but we have run out of time. The driver offers to drop us there, but we will have to make our own way back to town (which was kind of the point of booking a tour). As we can’t see the mountain for cloud, we decline and return to Quito.
At dinner a serious disappointment; we go to a chicken shop and order pollo y papas (chicken and potatoes) and get served chicken and boiled potato! Who even heard of serving chicken without chips?
In the evening, more torrential rain so we retire to the hotel and spend a glamorous evening sitting in the foyer by the Wifi router as it’s the only way to get a signal.
South America Day 70 – Quito
19th March 2019
Today, we are doing something we rarely do; taking the Hop on Hop off Bus. We start at the spectacular San Francisco church, an exercise in how much gold can be squeezed into one building. It’s apparently the biggest church in South America. (The Ecuadoreans have a creative way of measuring things to ensure their stuff is bigger and better. For example, Cotopaxi is higher than Everest if you measure from the centre of the earth, rather than sea level.)
The bus heads up El Panecillo; a small hill with an aluminium statue of the Virgin Mary on top. It’s an interesting journey in a double decker, navigating the narrow, winding streets and low hanging electric cables.
The Virgin, which is taller than Christ the Redeemer (obviously) sits atop a dragon on a globe. You can climb to a viewing platform around the globe for a 360 degree view of the city and surrounding volcanoes.
We reboard our bus and travel through the old city to La Carolina Park. It’s a large park with sports pitches, a running track, a lake and our destination – the Botanical Gardens.
We spend a long time in the Botanical Gardens; the best bits are the carnivore and bonsai collections.
We catch the bus again with the intention of getting off at some other stops but it starts raining and we’re weary. So we return to the beginning and have a late lunch in a colonial courtyard in the old city, where I order a salchipan (sausage sandwich) and the old man goes, as always, for the biggest thing on the menu. Then it’s back to the hotel, narrowly missing the torrential downpour, to pack for tomorrow’s return flights. It’s been a blast but I’m ready to go home.
South America Day 71 – Quito to London
20th March 2019
It’s finally here, the last day of our trip. We don’t leave for the airport until 3 pm, so this morning we are visiting the Palacio de Gobierno, which I have finally managed to obtain tickets for. The tour is free, but needs to be reserved by email (in Spanish) so I’m quite proud of my achievement.
First, a weirdly disjointed breakfast; scrambled egg, a cheese toastie, an empanada, onion chutney, butter and jam. What are we supposed to do with the butter and jam? Dip the empanada in it? Spread it on the cheese toastie? Or maybe mix it with the scrambled egg?
We head for the Main Plaza and the Palace security post. Our names are on the list – a triumph. We get a guided tour of the museum, which focuses on the political history of Ecuador and finishes with a collection of presidential gifts.
Then past some rather cool murals by Guayasamin depicting the first European navigation of the Amazon. Finishing with visits to the enormous Banquet Room with its own chapel and the Yellow Room which houses portraits of past presidents.
We return to the hotel, stopping to buy last minute gifts (mainly Ecuadorean chocolate) and stock up on supplies for the (hopefully) 22 hour Journey home. Then it’s time to haul our arses up that damn hill for the last time. We try to buy lunch but one restaurant is closed and the other is open, but appears to have no food. So it’s back down the hill to the bakery and then up the hill for definitely the last time. Then a taxi to the airport and an overnight flight to Madrid. Then just one more flight and we’re back in England. Time to see my gorgeous girlies and start planning another adventure…