Saturday, 8 February 2020

Hot springs and spiders.

I dragged myself away from Cuenca, and spent a few days in the spa town of Banos. Oh those spas! There are thermal baths on every corner (not quite, but you get the picture). Banos is built on the side of a volcano - an active volcano. About once every five years residents evacuate the town by wading crossing the river (or queuing for the bridge) and running up the opposite mountainside. Which makes it a bonkers place to build a town - except rumour has it that the Virgin has blessed a waterfall and nearby thermal baths (heated by magma bubbling not so far below). Local people travel for miles for the delights of sitting in warm water until they look like crones. 

Did I join in? Of course. I can’t say I felt touched by any blessing from a Virgin, but flopping about in warm water (even with raindrops prickling my face at one point) was fun. And sorry, I didn’t take my camera into the pools - though did see someone drop her phone in the water while trying to take a selfie.

But I do have photos of the waterfalls. This is just one of them (I think the Virgin left this one alone, but it’s still spectacular).

From Banos I had one day in Quito before heading for Mindo and the Cloud Forest. I’ve not been there before and so the main road to my lodge was a bit of a surprise. 

Once safely on dry land I could begin to enjoy just how different this environment is. It’s high (high enough to be in the clouds) but because it’s so close to the equator the forest is dense and lush. It’s hard to photograph, given all that green, but this will give you an idea.

I had four days (and a birthday) here. It’s bird-heaven - from tiny fluorescent hummingbirds to huge turkey vultures. There are yellow birds and turquoise birds and scarlet birds - and you don’t even need to trudge miles to see them (I spent one morning in a hammock, watching the birds in one tree - and lots count of the numbers I saw). 

And not just birds. There are orchids - huge rude orchids and tiny orchids with a huge smell. Leaf-cutter ants parade across pathways; soldier ants march for miles. And, one evening, on the way back to my cabana, a tarantula stood guard on the path. Should I take a photograph and risk upsetting it with the flash? I decided against, gave it a wide berth, and made sure the door to my cabana was firmly shut!

It’s all gone so fast! By the end of next week I’ll be home - but not before a visit to the huge market it Otavalo. I’m not a shopper, but even I’m tempted by stalls like this!

Saturday, 1 February 2020

And so to the cities.

I couldn’t flop about watching crabs forever. And so I packed my bags and headed to a big city for a couple of days. Guayaquil has a history of piracy and general skullduggery, and so the relative safety the Malecon (the waterfront) is a significant achievement. I say ‘relative’ - there is a metal fence between the Malecon and the street that Trump would be proud of, and security bids at every turn. Even so I saw a pickpocket try his luck (and fail) with a woman’s handbag. Which might explain why this fellow was taking any chances

Two days was long enough for Guayaquil. Besides, I wanted, more than anything, to be reminded of why I love Cuenca. It was quite a drive - the views through the mountains are stunning (they would have been even more stunning if we weren’t in cloud for much of the way). I’ve stayed in Cuenca before; it’s a significant city, but the historical centre is compact and easy to explore on foot. This is the heart of the old colonial city and it’s extravagant and full of stories and crumbling in places:

But it’s much more than that. The Pumapungo museum is home to a succession of tableaux celebrating the cultures of indigenous peoples who were here long before the Spanish. I love it - it’s where Ecuadorians step aside from all things Spanish and recognise those who came before. As a museum it’s crude in places, but succeeds in exploring the ethnic diversities of Ecuador without being patronising. (Nor, being honest, does it recognise that indigenous peoples still have a tougher time here than those of Spanish descent. But that’s a complicated story that I am ill-equipped to tell).

There’s no photography allowed in the Pumapungo museum, sadly. However, I also dropped by a private collection of artefacts going back 15,000 years - much of it evidence that informs current anthropological research here. Among them was this huge pot (it’s about 1500 years old, and I have no idea why it has an extra face. But it made me smile!):

And then there’s Ingapirca, a bus ride away. This is an Inca settlement constructed on top of an older Cañari site. This photograph doesn’t do justice to the significance of this site (and anyone who has been to Machu Picchu - I haven’t - might scoff at it) but, from Ecuador’s perspective, it’s the most impressive evidence they have of the might of the Incas here. And the llamas seem happy

All very interesting and educational. It was time to saunter through hot streets and remind myself of why of its Spanish magnificence. And to decide if I should have an ice cream ... Maybe not from here

I have no idea how this is kept cold on a hot afternoon in Cuenca. Ecuadorians innards may be immune to any bugs that have made merry in the sunshine. Better for retreat to a pavement cafe for a cup of tea

Friday, 24 January 2020

Pottering on the beach can be hard work

Ecuador - it’s a country of contrasts. I chugged back down a river for hours to get out of the rainforest, and then a half hour plane trip took me back over the mountains to Quito. Then I didn’t even have time to wash my smalls before heading west for the coast. I needed some pottering time.

Sometimes pottering needs focus. And so I sloshed through the waves to the far end of the beach - about three miles of beach - to sit on a rock and watch these crabs. To give you some idea of scale - they are about 6-7cm across.

There are hundreds of them. As the tide turns they scrabble out of little burrows. To begin with they appear to simply run around on the beach - maybe their little eyes are getting used to the sunshine. Then they line up along the tide line. I can only assume that the sea dumps something tasty at the turn of each wave. But they are at their funniest when threatened - if I stood up and tiptoed towards them every single one scuttled as fast as its tiny legs would take it away from the sea. It must be a vibration of some sort that they feel - if I stayed completely still they came quite close. And they gave no response to sound when I tried talking to them (there was no one else around!).

Time to saunter back. Past this chap - a turkey vulture. 

He’s not huge, as vultures go, but is a bully, with no manners. I watched him eat so much of this fish I can’t see how he could ever have got off the ground. Meanwhile four black-headed vultures, who found the fish first, lurked a safe distance away. I told him he reminded me of a politician or two, but it made no difference.

At the other end of the beach, the fishermen (they are all men) were unloading the night’s catch, supervised by a skyful of frigatebirds.

This picture doesn’t do justice to the size of them - they have a wingspan of over two metres. I’ve seen them in the Galapagos - there they fish for themselves. Here in Puerto Lopez they have learned that it is much easier to allow men to do it for them and to scavenge and steal what they can. Which makes sense when fishermen throw the tiddlers away anyway.

So you see, I had quite a busy time, pottering about. So as the sun when down I sat to watch the beach volleyball, with a beer.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Ecuador and its choruses.

I had forgotten what noisy city Quito is. I knew there would be endless traffic, of course: buses belching diesel fumes, taxis, trucks, cars - all nose-to-tail and inching a path through the narrow streets of the old city. And, as Quito is built on a mountainside some of these streets are seriously steep, so there is the obligatory roar as buses and trucks change gear. 

Then there is music, just too loud to be considered ‘background’ - every cafe, restaurant and shop plays music. And if there should be a corner where this music cannot reach there are buskers. There might have been respite in corner cafe in the Plaza de San Sebastián, if it weren’t for the renovations of the building on the corner: machines roar long into the night. Maybe the Plaza Major should be quieter - but even there the chatter is punctuated by whistles from the security guard each time a child begins to climb on the central statue. 

And somehow the street traders make themselves heard: women on street corners selling fruit, or edging through crowds with trays of cigarettes. A man presses me to buy bright shoe-laces. There are hats, necklaces, lottery tickets, knickers, smokey plantain, ice cream, popcorn, cake, pashminas ... each trader’s cry is shriller than the next.

It’s wonderful, but it is noisy. It was time to head for the rainforest. I might find silence there?

Howler monkeys howl when they are upset. They are frequently upset.

Toucans toot. Hoatzin squabble. Parrots squawk (has anyone measured the decibels of a flock of squawking parrots?). Kiskadee chirrup and once started don’t know how to stop. Screech owls - you can guess.

Just as the light is fading and you think the birds might sleep, the cricket and cicadas join in - they’ve been mumbling all day but scream at sunset.

They have stiff competition from this little chap (not a great photo, but hard to photograph in forest light):

This is a small, sleeping tree frog. As the sun sets his one thought is to attract a lady frog. Apparently endless barking - a bark that echoes through the trees and bounces off the water - is attractive to lady frogs. It is a deafening cacophony of frogs. Most have sorted themselves out by about ten; the deed is done and they can enjoy the secondary pleasure of eating bugs. But sometimes one lonely frog is left barking his heart out until sunrise. You’d have thought he’d have got the message by then and gone home to put his feet up with Netflix and a beer ...

I’m back in Quito. I love the rainforest, and I love its orchestras. But on Monday I’m off to the coast. Maybe the shushing of waves will lull me to sleep there.