Monday, 2 February 2009

Ecuador Road Trip. Jan/Feb ´09

Dear Friends,

I´ve been meaning to write an update for over a week now but have not been near any internet cafe and so am going to have to catch up now.. will try and be brief as possible..

Galapagos Islands - truly stunning. Family, family friends, beautiful boat, uninhabited islands, snorkling with hammer head sharks - yes - I was quite terrified to see them 6 meters below me, hundreds of turtles, sea lions, blue and red foopted boobies, giant tortoises, and many very colourful fish.

Now - I am on a road trip with my elder sister, Sarah, which is a lot of fun. Yes, I only passed my driving test the day before I left UK, and yes, it isn´t exactly advised to drive on the roads here, but we both decided it was worth taking the risk, and are still in one piece now, day 8. The rewards have been great.

DAY 1 - Destination - Volcano Cotopaxi - Andes.

Found Humphrey at Budget Cars in Quito.. both horribly hungover after a night´s partying with some Ecuadorian gentlemen who we´d become aquainted with before going to the Galapagos at a cocktail party. Bleary eyed, but never-the-less determined, we agreed Humphry was perfect. He´s sort of like a jeep - called a chevrolet or something... he´s maroon coloured, has four wheel drive and apart from the occasional burp, is very polite indeed. After getting directions out of Quito from a kind american guy who ran a bookshop in the center of town, we set off towards the Pan-American highway. Sarah only admitted to me yesterday that she was absolutely terrified as we sped along the busiest highway of South America. She did a very good job of hiding it at the time, as buses and trucks overtook us on both sides and hooted aggresively while doing so. If you´re wondering why on earth she let me drive on these god forsaken roads having just passed my test, she didn´t have a choice. She cannot drive a manual, so if we were going to do this road trip - i HAD to pass my test; hence quite the enthusiasm I expressed in last blog about passing...

Anyhow, after a few hours we tailed off the highway, and headed steeply up hill towards our volcano. After passing through a charming little town called Machachi, the road became a narrow mess of lots of large stones all piled on top of each other. It was getting dark and pouring with rain as we wiggled our way for about 1.5 hours up to the top, where a watchman let us into Cotopaxi National Park. Ten minutes later we{d found our lodge, but it was pitch black by this time so had no idea what around us. Were greeted with warm smiles and a delicious soup followed by chicken and rice. Went to bed shattered.


Woke up to see a snow capped volcano standing proudly outside our window. Surrounding it was a Devon/moor like landscape. It was a clear morning and we were told we were lucky to be able to see the whole of the top of the volcano. We walked for an hour and a half to the bottom of it, where there was a lake. We lay down and both expressed that our heads felt like they were about to explode. My eyes hurt and I felt a bit dizzy. We walked back to the lodge, and relieved to be able to lie down we decided to check what our guide books said about Altitude sickness: "....can cause coma and even death." I lay on my bed head pounding, thinking I was about to die for about 15 minutes. Sarah asked a guide that was with a climbing group if this was the case. He laughed and told us we were fine at this height, 3500 meters, and gave us some spare pills he had to help with the pain. Bit silly of us not to have throught about this minor detail of altitude problems... ah well.. you live you learn!
That afternoon we went on a little tour with Humphrey through the beautiful surrounding landscape. We saw wild horses and visited a hacienda.

Day 3 - Destination Quilatoa.

We set off early towards Saquisili, a lovely town south of Cotopaxi which was having its market day. We wondered round the cobbled streets and got stared at by indigenous tribe people who{d never see two such tall girls in their lives. My blond hair makes us even less conspicuous. Quite funny. Bought some Alpaca ponchos and rugs and continuerd our journey. The road now was getting deep into the mountains, which meant it wound round and round a lot, and there were lots of blind bends the edge of which were very long drops to flat land. Humphrey and I took it very slowly, being sure to hoot before every bend in the road. There were hardly any other vehicles, thankfully, but if something did come up behind us we would politely pull over and let it pass. Feeling rushed on roads like that would have been dangerous... so we were sure not to let that be the case. We also had an extra pair of eyes peeled on the road, and all in all the three of us were a good team.

We were getting quite tired about 20km before Quilatoa, so stopped for the night instead at a lovely family run hacienda along the way, near a town called La Tigua. Mario and Marionetta had 76 cows, 50 sheep, four lamas, pigs, horses, chickens, and several dogs one of which was a Saint Bernard who welcomed us with sloppery licks inside the house. We chatted away to Mario that evening. I was amazed by how much I could understand - my A level spanish is coming back little by little. They cooked us potato soup and chicken, rice and veggies for dinner, very proud that it was all organic and home grown. It was delious I must say... the best part though was "dulche leche" at breakfast the next morning... sort of caramel like spread to put on bread.. delicious...

Day 4 - Destination: village on the "Quilatoa Loop" called Chugchilian.

Marionetta insisted we rode their lamas up the hill and back before leaving, so we obliged -it was very unfortable and quite hilarious.

We missed our turning to Chugchilian and so drove in the wrong direction for about 45 mins, through a cloud, until we sensed something wasn{t quite rioght and found someone to ask. Back we went, and finally found our track to Chugchilian. The guide book warns of a bumpy ride and it wasn{t kidding. The dirt track winding through the mountians that leads to Chugchilian from Quilatoa (which we decided we{d visit on the way back from Chugchilian)is the worst bit of road of the whole of the "Quilatoa Loop," a route that passes through various indigenous villages in the mountains, of which we were doing half, and then going back on ourselves in order to keep going south. (Sorry - you´d probably need to look at a map to understand what the hell I{m talking about). Humphrey went into four wheel drive, and we splashed through deep muddy puddles, down down down, bending round and round and round, dodging massive muddy potholes and trying not to get stuck in mini ditches along the way. We passed many brightly clothed indegenous people along the way, and gave lifts to the ones carrying heavy sacks of corn on their backs. They smiled and waved, again, utterly bemused to see what the hell was driving passed them! They all wear trilby hats which look so cool - as with many a tribes people around the whole - they got style.

We arrived, head spinning from tricky drive, at about 3pm. We walked through the village and to the top of the hill from where we looked down into the Rio Taochi canyon - quite a vision - an expanse of green meddows, forest and clouds beneath us.
Slept the night in a lovely family run lodge which had a wood burner in our bed room. We were very grateful for this having had permanently cold feet for the last couple of days. There were eight other travelers staying here, who we sat around a table with at dinner while the family cooked us all a delicious meal of potato soup, pork with a delicios peanuty sauce, salad, and amazingly - pizza! We made a plan with an older american couple and two young swedish girls to go to Quilatoa the following day. We were going to spend a day in Chugchilian horse riding and hiking, but once we consulted our diaries and maps we realized if we wanted to get to the beach - where we are now, and have time to enjoy it, we´d better get a move on with our journey west to the coast. Not sure if we made the right decision here....

DAY 5. Destination La Mana, stopping at Quilatoa Lake along the way.

Again, Humphrey did a very good job of not getting stuck in the mud on the strenous, very muddy, very bendy drive back up the track towards Quilatoa. We started early in the morning, and gave the swedish girls a lift, meeting the americans at the top of the crater in which lies Quilatoa. The view from the top was very impressive... a massive turquiose blue lake sat calmly at the bottom flanked by the steep walls of the crater. It was formed by a volcano 300 years ago. It took us half an hour to walk down, and an hour and a half to walk back up... we were offered mules but resisted the temptation, just, arriving at the top sweaty, red faced and panting like dogs.

After lunch we set off west. The road from Quilatoa to La Mana is one less traveled (most people keep heading south throuigh the mountains and gradually get to the coast that way, but that would have added four extra days.. our way took 2), downhill all the way, unpaved and goes through a ´"cloud forest" which is pretty much what it sounds. If our parents could have seen the road we were negotiating for three hours, they may have had a minor heart attack. It poured with rain and visibility was at best 30 meters, at worst 10. Headlights on, four wheel drive, windscreen wipers going at full speed, Sarah, Humphrey and I cautiously wiggled our way down and out of the Andes, through thick forests which seemed to trap any cloud that came its way. Finally the air cleared a little, pot holes became fewer and further between, and we were able to see the sub tropical lanscape that now surrounded us. Greener than green hills of tall trees flanked the road, the air became thick, humid and warm, and the colourful clothes and trilby hats disappeared. Two hours later we were in La Mana, a town not even given a mention in Lonely Planet, but apparently a safer alternative to Quilatoa, the bigger, Chinese industrial town about 30km north, notorious for its thieves, we were told.

DAY 6. Destination - Puerto Lopez on the coast.

A whole day of driving through various different landscapes and towns brought us finally to the coast. As we drove through Quilatoa and then Pinchicha (another town warned about) we were careful to keep windows shut and doors locked, and asked only policemen for directions.

We listened to Faithless, Simon and Garfunkel, Killers, and the Stones as we sped along now relatively good roads through stunning green green landscapes. As men who sat on the side of the roads saw us driving passed, their expression went from ones of sleepy abandon to dumfounded at the sight of us... two girls, one very blond, driving a car through their towns - you could literally see them thinking - what was that?!! Either that or they wistled, and I have to admit to feeling a little like I was in a film, I´m Thelma and Sarah´s Louise.

We stopped in Monticristi for icecream and to buy high quality panama hats... and about half an hour after that the glistening Pacific ocean shone ahead of us. My god were we happy to see it!

We spent that eveing and night in the charming fishing town of Puerto Lopez.

TODAY - DAY 8 - Destination - Montanita, where little sis Charlotte has been since Quito.

Got here yesterday afternoon. Its like Disney World. Everything is built with bamboo and catered for the tourist. The average age is 20. The beach is packed with hippies and Sarah and I feel old. Its party party at night time with lots of drunk sweaty fools trying to chat us up. Charlotte has made two friends, who are both very entertaining. One is a Columbian who is constantly stoned and doesn´t know any english apart from "No problem".. - how he and Charlotte, who doesn´t speak any spanish, have become friends is quite amazing to observe. She chats away using a series of frenetic sign language.. he says no problem, and somehow they have formed an incredible bond, and do everything together. Darrel is a Canadian comedian who finds the surroundings about as terrifying as I do, but last night made me see the funny side. I was very grateful to him. Charlotte is loving it all, and says she is more relaxed than ever. Sarah and I, while we see the attraction, are not quite so attracted, and so will leave tomorrow morning.

I am loving the freedom of driving.. love the way we can get up and go, or stop, whenever we want. Road trips, now I have my license, are the way forward.. honestly not sure I´ll be able to go back to buses and trains after this experience! Sarah and I make a good travel team. She has been concentrating on the road as much as I have, and Humphrey and I are very grateful.

We have to be back in Quito on the 10th, so will head north along the coast now and hopefully find some more adventures along the way....

To be continued...


No comments: