Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Deeper into Ecuador's Andean Highlands; Chimborazo and the Quilotoa Loop

The majestic peak of Chimborazo.
Whilst staying in Guaranda we decided to do a day trip to Mount Chimborazo, only some 50 kilometres away. Whilst it had been thought to be extinct, new studies show that it is actually active, having erupted at least seven times during the last 10 000 years; nothing on record however. The mountain was once considered the highest on the planet, but was dethroned by the Himalayan and Peruvian peaks. According to the Earth's geometry, however, the summit of Chimborazo is considered to be the farthest from the Earth's centre.  This huge mountain is the highest point in Ecuador and has the highest peak near the equator at 6268 metres.

One of the many vicunas that share the plains.

We didn't do the 'full monty' overnight-reach-the-summit hike, but decided to do a day hike instead. We took the bus from Guaranda and were dropped off approximately an hour later at the Chimborazo (Reserva de Produccion Faunistica) entrance.  Our approximately 8-hour return trip would begin at 4370 metres. We were off!

As we walked and breathed in the progressively thinning air, we were rewarded with blow-your-socks off views, and believe me, the wind was already doing a pretty good job at that! The terrain leaves you  with your mouth wide open and the views of the volcano are nothing short of spectacular. Add to that the multitude of grazing vicunas along the way, it really made for a jaw-dropping sight.

Those last 100 metres were a tough gig!
By the time we reached the second refuge at around 5000 metres, I could definitely feel the altitude, whilst Alex's body, being from Quito (second highest capital on Earth), seemed to be going into cellular memory recall. We stopped and had a hot chocolate and some sweets before setting off to reach the lagoon, only 100 metres further uphill.

Only another 100 metres uphill! Well, I must say, they were some of the hardest metres I have ever
walked. I could really feel the altitude, and I know that I was getting slight altitude sickness, as I felt not so much short of breath, but a tad queasy.  Nothing too serious, I was determined to get to the top. After trudging, stopping every few metres and Alex constantly urging me on, we made it to the top! It was never going to be any other way with me, was it?

The 'accepted limit' on this walk; we are standing behind!
After some fun at the top and some obligatory, 'I made it to the top shots', we were on the way back down. Again though, as being at an altitude of 5100 had taken its toll, the first 200 metres going  back down weren't exactly easy either.  After that, with downhill all the way, it was really quite pleasant with yet more breathtaking views. We jumped on a Guaranda-bound bus soon after, and according to Alex's shoulder, I had a great ride back. Zonked, exhausted, wiped out ... but oh so very worth it! Quite possibly had one of the best sleeps of my life that night!

The lagoon at the top.

Ah, what a beautiful world!

The Quilotoa Lake rim as seen from the township of Quilotoa.
After Guaranda, it was on to do the infamous Quilotoa Loop.  Again, it's one of those things that despite several trips to Ecuador since I met Alex in 1999, I have never got around to doing. It's been on my bucket list forever! The Loop is a bumpy, roughly round-shaped road which meanders into the backcountry of Chimborazo province, high up in the Andes Mountains. You can walk or hike parts or go by transportation, although infrequent.  We did the former, well, we did a part of it anyway. We used transport where we had to but did a couple of spectacular day hikes between villages, ending up there for the night to sleep. Some people take guides, but most of the local hostales (places to sleep) have maps for independent travellers.


Walking around the Quilotoa rim.

Saquisili basket market.
Starting off in Latacunga, only an hour and a half from the capital, we began our four day journey that would take us through windswept plains, colourful indigenous markets, a crystal-blue lake which locals believe has no bottom, past, but not through) Tigua (a town and community of painters who are preserving the legends of the Andes with their intricately painted scenarios on sheep skin hides) and finally ending in Saquisili.  This market starts early, very early, and is one of the country's largest and most colourful indigenous markets. Every Thursday hundreds of indigenous people from the surrounding areas come to sell and barter their wares, selling everything from pots and pans to pigs and goats. It is indeed very well known for its animal market.  Animal lovers beware!  The whole scene can be quite confronting!

On the rim, sunset at Quilotoa.
We spent our first night in the windswept town of Quilotoa, right near the rim of the spectacular lake. We not only walked down to the bottom, but around the rim as well.  Next, was hiking on to Chugchilan, and finally on to Isinlivi. I want to make a special mention of the outstanding Taita Cristobal Guest House we stayed at; well priced, great food and warm owners. Each day of our hike involved several hours of walking, but not without spectacular views.  Below is the blog of a guy called Steve (nope, I don't know him personally, just found him on the internet) who outlines his entire walk around the Loop.  If you are interested in doing it (which I think if you are in Ecuador you should!) it's a great read:  Backpacker Report Quilotoa Loop


Quilotoa Lake.

On the way to Isinlivi.
Saquisili animal market.
The loop definitely constitutes the road less travelled and its isolation brings you into contact with lots of Quechua (Kichwa) speaking indigenous people, their old customs and way of life.  These people could not possibly live a more different life than the modern day inhabitants of the capital and other big cities in Ecuador. We lived, we laughed, we learned and we shared. This is the beauty of travel ... always!

And so, we were on our way to Quito ... finally, to see our Ecuadorian family!

Ombi

Next: An overview of what we've been doing (still!) on the road for the last year or so.


Vicunas on the plains around Chimborazo.


Almost at the lagoon, walking up Chimborazo.



Our starting point for the Chimborazo walk.





Along the road on our hike to Chimborazo.

Met these fun-loving Ecuadorians on the way back down from our walk.

Breathtaking all the way!

Made it back down ... exhausted!

Chimborazo and surrounds.

Chimborazo plains.




Indigenous people on Chimborazo.


The Quilotoa Loop.

Saquisili market.

With the lovely owner and excellent cook at Taita Cristobal, Isinlivi.

Saquisili market; the locals love (to eat!) a good guinea pig.

With some locals at Isinlivi.




Isinlivi town.


The hike to Isinlivi.

Stopping at a woodwork factory, on the way to Sigchos.



With the owners of Mama Hilda, the hostel we stayed at in Chugchilan.

Chugchilan street art.


Leaving Quilotoa to continue our walk around the Loop.
On the way to Quilotoa; arriving by bus (we would start our walk from here).



Highland animals.


This little piggy didn't go to market!




Friday, June 10, 2016

Exploring Ecuador's central highlands; Baños, Alausi, Guaranda, Salinas de Guaranda

Swinging at the end of the world!
Soon enough we were off to Baños de Agua Santa, or Baños, as it's more commonly known. The area around the small town has to be the jewel in Ecuador's jewel-encrusted crown! This tourist-happy town is the gateway to the Amazon. The town itself isn't a bomb of excitement, and in peak season it can feel garish and overcrowded with backpackers and tour operators trying to lure you into the den of mountain-biking, rafting, hiking, bungee jumping and partying. Having said that, nobody leaves without some great stories and a big whopping smile across their face! Luckily for us, it was low season, and we were able to hang out and do our thing. You can sometimes see the nearby Volcan Tungurahua erupting.  Saw it erupting in 1999, no such luck this time!

Around Baños.
We had seen and done so much in the last few months that all we wanted to do was chill out! We found a great place to stay called Hostal Leon.  It was super-clean, run by friendly people, close to the market and had a little kitchen upstairs on the balcony overlooking the town.  What more could we ask for? We enjoyed a lovely few days here relaxing, cooking, eating, going for walks and visiting natural  hot water pools.  The infamous swing at the end of the world at the 'Treehouse' was, although touristy, a spectacle to behold! Close to the centre of town and overlooking the beautiful area of Baños it truly makes you feel like you are on top of the world. We'd done most of the 'tourist stuff' over the years, so this time it was all about rest and relaxation.

Yep, the place that marks the 'marriage proposal' spot!
Banos holds a very special place in my heart. It was July 1999, and I had only just met Alex. A week later he took me to Banos where he asked me to marry him.  The gal who was supposedly never going to get married turned around and said, "I will, one day!" That day came in April of 2002, and I have never looked back!




We were most definitely getting closer to Quito, but we still had a couple of things to do and tick off the bucket list! Next was Alausi. A small town in Chimborazo province in Ecuador's Andes. Apart from its quaint architecture and old colonial houses, its real
Alausi.
claim to fame is that it's the starting-off point for the Nariz del Diablo, or Devil's Nose train ride. The engineering work is amongst the most audacious of projects realised in the Andean mountain range, and the switchbacks are mind boggling! Sadly, the Devil's Nose was the tomb of many Jamaican slaves contracted to dynamite the mountain. This would be my fourth attempt at riding this train since 1999; mudslides, broken engines and the likes had always stopped me.  On our last attempt in 2007 (and my first with Alex) we even got to sit on the roof-top, and the train actually took off ... only to have to turn around half an hour later due to both a landslide and a damaged engine!

Finally, fourth time lucky!
These days there are no rides on the top!  It's all closed up and it's a very formal and safety conscious affair. The ride, although spectacular, I must admit was a little anti-climactic. Not sure if it was because we had seen and done so much in the last months or if taking out that 'rough and rugged' wind blowing through my hair option on the roof top took the edge off for me.  Alack and alas, impressive it was.

A visit to the Alausi archives.

We also met some great people in this tiny town, and Isabel ended up inviting us to where she worked, a place where they kept all the
archives and history of the town.  This was
really amazing, and a golden opportunity. Alex and I sat in a small room and flicked through archives and photos that were hundreds of years old.


Guaranda Carnaval procession.

We'd heard about another place called Guaranda, in the central Ecuadorian Andes, known for having one of the best Carnavals in Ecuador. We were a tad early for the big event, but got to see a lot of the pre-Carnaval stuff, including amazing parades, street parties, outdoor concerts and people bombing each other with water.  We got to meet the Taita (Father) Carnaval and the Mayor, who welcomed the 'gringos' with open arms.  The vibe was great and it was fun to be a part of the hubbub.

There isn't a Carnaval without a devil, or two or three!
Ticket to ride!
We found a cosy colonial place to stay, close to the town centre, Hostal de las Flores.  It had great staff, a kitchen, a local market around the corner and a huge open outdoor market  (which sold just about everything!) just up the hill. We went for walks in the spectacular countryside surrounding the town, made friends with the locals and generally had a fantastic time.  We did not want to leave!



Chilli flavoured chocolate!
It was in Guaranda that we heard about Salinas de Guaranda only 30 kilometres away. Beautiful, quaint, small, gorgeous windswept Salinas, as its called by the locals. It's only a short ride away from Guaranda on the back of a pick up, and oh what views.  We stayed at a cosy place called La Minga Hostal, and spent the next few days chilling out and sampling its country famous chocolates and cheeses. In fact, what makes this place so special is its all-embracing community spirit and the creativity and productivity of the several cooperative businesses which call the little town home.


Ombi



Note : Veryitchyfeet has been on the road now for almost 22 months, and in the last year I have not been writing on this blog nearly as much as I would like to. If you are interested in seeing where we have been and what we have been up to, please take a look at our public page on Facebook.  As it is a public page you do not have to have an account with FB to view it.  If you do have an account with FB, however, and you would like to continue to follow us, just 'like it'!




Next: Watch this space!


Banos.


Alausi.
 

The humans and animals of Alausi.

Romanesco broccoli, a cross between broccoli and cauliflower.

The famous bridge at Baños.

Bungee jumping off  Baños  bridge.


The thermal waters of Baños.


Baños street art.


Baños train... the most difficult in the world?

Ecuador is life! Alausi.



On the Baños train.



Vicente the Ecuadorian who speaks excellent 'Strayan!  He lived in Perth!

It's time for Carnaval, Guaranda.

'Cuys' (guinea pigs) for sale at the market in Guaranda ... to eat!

'Ecuador, land of traditions'. Guaranda.

The mayor gets soaked as part of Carnaval festivities.

Alex with some of the Guaranda boys.

Carnaval procession in Guaranda.

With the mayor (L) and Father Carnaval (R) during celebrations, Guaranda.


Alausi train ride.


Central square, Salinas de Guaranda.


Salinas de Guaranda.

The landscape around Salinas de Guaranda.

The church in the central square of Salinas de Guaranda.

The landscape around Salinas de Guaranda.