The final countdown ...

By Ombi and Alex - May 19, 2013

With Papa Jacinto, Alex's Grandpa.
In the first week of January we spent a bit of time catching up with various members of the family. Time was flying by and some we had not yet seen. We caught up with Alex’s Auntie Bebita, who played an instrumental part in Alex’s life when he was growing up. She obviously holds a very special place in his heart. And of course we saw Papa Jacinto, Alex’s Grandpa. Every time he sees me his eyes light up as he hugs me tightly and says, “Hola mi gringuita” (hello my little foreigner), which is a term of endearment. I grew very fond of Papa Jacinto when I lived in Ecuador in 1999/2000 and he too holds a very special place in my heart.

With Dad and Alex, Cafe Mosaico, Itchimbiya
One night we took Alex’s sister Karen and family to Café Mosaico in Itchimbiya, very close to the historical centre. The café really does have spectacular views over both the city and surrounding mountains. We had been there a little over a year prior with our friends Mel and Dan. The Greek food is reasonable, but then it’s not for the food that one goes. Dad was gob smacked. How many amazing views from one city can one have? When the city is in a valley cradled by the Andes mountains and volcanoes, an amazingly high number!

Jean Pierre, Axel and Johnny, El Panecillo
After a lovely meal, and lots of laughs, we went to El Panecillo, which literally means small loaf of bread.  Not far from the historical centre, and not unlike Itchimbiya, at 3016 metres above sea level, it offers another spectacular vantage point for viewing Quito. Atop sits the famous Virgen de Quito (Virgin of Quito); it's possible to climb up and through her and get even more amazing views.  I must say, as far as spectacular views go, Quito would have to be up there in my top five.  It's like constantly being at the top of the Eureka Tower on a good day!

Ready for the train ride to El Boliche
We also took a one day train ride to El Boliche Reserve, which sits at the base of the towering and Cotopaxi volcano. By some accounts the 5897 metre volcano is the highest active volcano in the world. The Ferrocarriles Del Ecuador or Federal Railway of Ecuador fell into disrepair in the last half of the 20th century and has recently been renovated. There are a number of different trips that one can take, several from Quito, and the line cuts across some of South America's most scenic landscapes. For engineers, it is a marvel of innovation that starts at sea level in Guayaquil and rises to more than 9000 feet as it nears the Andean plateau. Thankfully, in the past few years, the government has invested time and money in refurbishing the railway, making for a relaxing journey with (yet more!) spectacular views.
perfectly symmetrical

A train with a view!
The Quito-El Boliche run covers about 110 miles there and back. On a clear day you can see Cotopaxi looming in the distance from the moment you leave Quito. Unfortunately, it was not our lucky day! The ride does, however, cover 33 000 hectares of craggy green countryside showcasing the spectacular Ecuadorian Andes. So, we sat back and enjoyed! We got off at El Boliche where the train stops for a couple of hours before turning around and going back to Quito. It was lovely to go for a short exploratory walk and breathe in the fresh air!

Jungle living
There was still one more thing that we needed to do but hadn’t gotten around to it yet due to one thing or another … a trip to El Oriente, which is the rainforest area that occupies the lowlands of the Ecuadorian Amazon basin. It is a land of many different indigenous tribes and where nature and wildlife abounds. We would do a three night/ four day trip with Alex’s Uncle Gustavo, his Auntie Marcia and cousin Valeria. Along with Dad, Alex, Jean Pierre and myself it would be a nice little group. We were all looking forward to it, and I think Dad was secretly excited, especially as it would be at a much lower altitude than Quito.

Indigenous lady from Misahualli
We set off early one morning and made our way to Tena, which is is the quintessential South American jungle town and is renowned as a jungle transport hub. Whilst it’s only 115 kilometres from Quito, the winding roads make it a five or six hour ride, descending from the Andes into jungle lowlands. Not only is it easier to breathe due to the lower altitude, but it’s also much warmer (bring it on!). It’s also very laid back compared to Quito and feels like the kind of place you would expect to run in to Indiana Jones stocking up on supplies before setting out in search of a lost city! Let the adventure begin! We stopped for a bite to eat and then made our way to Misahualli, which sits at the confluence of the Misahualli and Coca Rivers.

A tribe on the River Coco in Misahualli dance for us
No sooner had we dumped our bags in our quaint little hostel, than we were at the sandy riverbank, within walking distance, organising a boat ride along the river. It truly was an excellent ‘expedition’ and I must admit to feeling a little like I actually was in an Indiana Jones movie! We all threw on some life jackets and in no time we were zooming up the river with the wind blowing through our hair. The highlight was a stop at an indigenous community. We pulled up at the bank and walked up a muddy slope to firstly be taken through a museum of their ways and customs, and then we watched a traditional dance. We were even shown an area where herbal remedies were prepared.  It is here that we bought some sangre de drago, or dragon's blood,  a medicinal blood-like latex/ sap, which comes from the rainforests of the Upper Amazon.  It has an amazing array of medicinal properties, including helping heal cuts and stings. Don't let the secret out though, the pharmaceuticals will go broke!


Treehouse near Shell
Over the next couple of days we would eat well, sleep well (to the sounds of chirping birds and whispering trees) and see lots and lots of things. So many, in fact, that I struggle to recount them all We passed through Puyo, but our second night was spent in Shell, in a lovely hostel that had a lovely warm spa ... and a cold pool!  Alex also spent a lot of his childhood here as his Auntie Paty spent many years here as a teacher. We visited a very artistic and funky place set in the jungle near Shell that was all done up in mosaics; caves, pools and murals. It had a very mystical feel and the property included some amazing tree houses, where upon climbing to the top, you could literally see over the top of the rainforest canopy. Some more wow moments!  And Ecuador certainly has many! Word of mouth also took us to a site where indigenous soldiers train (the turf out here is quite different to the highland Andes). On that site is an amazing outdoor museum which takes you on a walking tour of the jungle, which has intermittent descriptions of and examples of huts from the different Amazonian jungle tribes. At the end there is a large open space where you can see a range of animals, including monkeys, jaguars and a variety of tropical birds ... all set amongst lush rainforest.

Cable car Ecuadorian style!
Our last night was spent in Banos, back in the Andean Highlands, which sits just under the Tunguraghua volcano  (which I'd seen spit out ash in 1999), between lush mountains and cascading waterfalls. Its name is derived from Quichua (Kichwa), the native language of Andean indigenous Ecuadorians, and means throat of fire. A pretty apt name considering that volcanic activity started again in 1999 after a very long lull.  Banos means baths and its name is derived from the famous hydrothermal springs in the area.  It is known as the adventure capital of Ecuador and as we entered the small town, I could see why. Its wide and steep gorges with raging waterfalls and running rivers (the Pastaza River cuts right through the town) below are spectacular, and cable cars run across from many points. It's also the place to mountain-bike, hike, raft and party ... not on this trip! We did have a couple of goes on the open-air cable cars (tarabitas) though.  Exhilarating as it was, it would NEVER have passed an OH&S check in Australia; the open cage barely came up to our waists! We also managed to visit the local fresh produce market as well as walk around the main square at night; two prime people-watching places.

The Devil's Cauldron, Banos
On our last day we did a double-decker bus tour around Banos, which mainly took us to a number of exceptional waterfalls. The two most impressive ones were the Manto de la novia (the Bride's veil) and the Pailon del Diablo (the Devil's cauldron). Unlike the Bride's veil, where you can simply stare in awe, or get a little closer on a cable car, in order to get up close and personal with the Cauldron, you have to go on a bit of a hike, including bobbing down and walking hunched over through low and cramped spaces ... but the view from virtually inside the Cauldron is ... impresionante! We also got to see some 'puenting' or bridging, a type of low-cost, low safety bridge jumping. I shook my head in horror!  I tried to convince myself that I'd bungee jumped over the Victoria Falls on the Zambia/ Zimbabwe border in 1995, so I didn't need to 'go there' anymore. I have done some crazy things in my life.  Am I  getting too old for this stuff or has age has taught me something about the value of my life?!

Tunguraghua Volcano
We made our way back to Quito amidst continuous beautiful landscapes. We were all tired but it had been so worth it. We knew we were approaching Quito when the traffic started to get heavy and at points grinded to a halt. All we wanted was a bed and some sleep. By the time we got dropped off, we were exhausted.  It had certainly been a fun-filled and adventure-packed four days.

Desert ... the final touch to Dad's favourite meal
There were only days to go and we would be flying back to Melbourne. On reflection, we had done so much, and I think Dad had been able to see and experience enough of the culture and people to gain a decent understanding of the country that I call my second home. In the days prior to leaving we caught up with various members of the extended family. We also went to dinner at Alex's Dad and step mother Nancy's house.  Nancy, my dad thought your food was the best he'd had in his entire stay in Ecuador! (Nancy, mi papi dijo que tu comida era la mejor que habia provado entre todo el tiempo que paso en Ecuador).

Last night in Ecuador
It's always sad when we leave Ecuador, because we are leaving behind the family and friends that we love and will miss so much. The night before we left many people came around to say goodbye; it's bitter-sweet to have them all around, especially when you know your time's up! Dad had seen and experienced so much, and we were so glad that he had been able to share this, our life, with us. I looked at little Thomas and Isabella and wondered how much of their lives and growing up I would miss because we lived so far. It transported me back to 1999 when Denisse  was only six years old (now 19 years old) and she bawled her eyes out when she found out that Alex got his visa to go to Australia. Her uncle was leaving her and going to live far away!

Sons 'n' daughters
What followed next was business as usual. We got up and ready, nice and early, and Karen and Boli (Christian's father) took us to the airport, where we were also met by Alex's Dad, brother and step-mum Nancy. It was time to say goodbye ... hugs and tears all around.  I knew we would be back again!  It's just the way my life ius now! Although Dad may not ever come back, this trip had been a real eye-opener for him. He would come home a changed person and we will be forever grateful that he had been able to have this experience.  It had also meant the world to Alex!

Tunguraghua volcano, near Banos
With no stop-overs (as we did on the way over), it was a looooooooong flight home.  Our first flight changeover was in Miami. OMG!!! What a nightmare! One hour and forty minutes JUST to get through passport control ... eye scan, finger scan, thumb scan.  Just when we thought we were over the line, so to speak, and picking up our baggage, we saw the line to go through to customs ... OMGGGGGG!  I looked at Alex and told him in Spanish that we were going to lose our flight to LA, as I did not want to stress Dad out. Problem was that if we lost that flight, we would also miss the connecting flight to Melbourne.  Had it been just Alex and I ...whatever ... but with Dad there, it just was not going to happen! Big breath ... I hadn't done drama at university for nothing!  I used my gift of the gab and spoke to someone about 'our situation'. He helped us to skip the line very discreetly. But ... yes ... there's more ... we finally had to go through the scanners, but it was take off your shoes, socks, jocks etc etc etc and we just happened to get a person with some serious attitude!  I was tired, headachy and stressed. She had picked the wrong person on the wrong day!  So, I proceeded to tell her, quite frankly, that she had an attitude problem, and then I told her supervisor too. Dad came up and gently tried to pull me away as I was rather irate, to say the least.  I think he thought that they were going to lock me up!

Goodbye Ecuador, until next time ...
The flight to LA was fine but I had, by this stage unfortunately, developed a migraine. I did sleep for most of the flight and by the time we reached LA I felt shocking.  I slept on the floor, on my sarong, as we waited for our next flight. We finally boarded for Melbourne and  I slept most of the way, albeit with a migraine.  Although it dissipated, somewhat, I felt totally washed out and drained upon our Sunday morning arrival in Melbourne.  We collected our bags and came home.  All I wanted to do was sleep! We had taken a taxi home as my brother was camping and not around to do the 'usual pick up', so Alex and I got dropped off first and then Dad. We dumped our bags on the floor and went straight to sleep. I set the alarm to wake up a few hours later at 3.00pm, but actually slept until 3.00am the next morning! Of course I couldn't get back to sleep!

Another trip bites the dust ... but there will be many, many more!

Ombi

"Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened" – Dr Seuss

Next: Our two weeks in Vanuatu over Easter.
Egg seller, Banos

Alex with some friends
Restaurant with a jungle view, near Shell
Faces ... Banos market

Downtown Banos
The many faces of the marketplace, Banos


Alex with his two Dads, Dino (L) and Hugo
Eatint ar a restaurant near Shell

The kitchen at the restaurant near Shell
Crossing the gorge, Banos

Alex and his Dad, Hugo
With Uncle Paparazzi (Gustavo)
Vegetable market, Banos

Alex with his friends
Dad with Carola
Bride's Veil waterfall, Banos

Breathtakingly beautiful Banos


Devil's Cauldron, Banos
 Devil's Cauldron, Banos

Fresh sugar cane juice, Banos


Ecuadorian bird life

Ocelot

With my family in the jungle near Shell



A (tree) house with a view, Ecuadorian jungle


Valeria and Jean Pierre inside the mosaic cave near Shell
Indiana Jones country


Coca River, Misahualli

Nature, Misahualli



Guinea pigs ('cuy') ... pets here, but often dinner in Ecuador! 

Birds of the jungle


Alex with Uncle Paparazzi in the jungle


Flowers of the Ecuadorian jungle
Ecuador ... loves life!

The train master
View from the train
Pit stop on the train to El Boliche
Train to El Boliche




Thomas, our nephew, El Panecillo
View of Quito from El Panecillo
Good times ... Dad and I in Ecuador
The south part of Quito, just as we leave from railway station

Princess Isabella
Alex with Jean Pierre and Dad at the railway station, Quito.

Johnny, Jean Pierre and Axel, atop La Virgen
Cafe Mosaico, Itchimbiya, Quito

Fun times at Cafe Mosaico
The Virgin of Quito

L to R: Cousins Salome and Andrea, Ombi, Papa Jacinto

La Virgen de Quito, El Panecillo
Alex with his siblings and some of the Benavides cousins

Magical Quito by night, Cafe Mosaico, Itchimbiya, Quito
Dad with Papa Jacinto

Alex with Papa Jacinto

With father-in-law Hugo and Denisse in Quito

With Hugo




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