10th November 1999: Bogota to Quito, Ecuador (day 112)
The pleasure of First Class for our flight from Bogota! Definitely the most luxury we had yet enjoyed after 4 months in South America! It all stemmed from when we volunteered to give up our seats from the over-booked flight from New York to Rio de Janeiro and as gratitude for our hardship, Continental had given us each a single use voucher for up to $400 and we’d chosen this short flight to cash in.
My original goal when planning this South America adventure was to circumnavigate the continent at ground level. We had so far covered about 10,000 kilometres by bus, boat, taxi, rickshaw or foot but Bogota was the end of the line for now. From our flat in Bogota, we had heard the gunshots from the opposition fighters in the south of the city just a couple of miles away. The news spoke of the entire south of the country now being in the hands of the paramilitaries – FARC or AUC or some other group – and they were fighting the Colombian Armed Forces.
Since the election of the new president last year and some brutal fighting in July, the situation had been escalating and parts of the country were now getting very dangerous. We had travelled down from the north coast port of Cartagena to the central city of Medellin from where late Pablo Escobar had run the most powerful of the drug cartels. Advice was to avoid travelling by night and so far, our brushes with the paramilitaries and or the Colombian Armed Forces (it was hard to tell when they all dressed the same) had been relatively civil.
Our bus south had been stopped several times by soldiers but we weren’t sure who they were with. On each occasion, heavily armed men had bordered the bus and ordered everyone off to line up on the side of the road while people were questioned and our papers where checked. On one occasion, a large soldier carrying what looked like a multi-barrelled grenade launcher was looking through my passport and I felt like we were about to be marched off to be ransomed. He just flicked slowly through the pages, looked at me without smiling for a moment, handed it back and motioned the whole group back on the bus.
From Medellin, we had explored further afield to the picturesque town of Santa Fe de Antioquia which was very off the beaten track but quite lovely. Unfortunately, we learned that five tourists had been kidnapped from Medellin whilst we were in Santa Fe, so we decided not to hang around and headed down to Bogota. Here we met up with Englishmen John and Ken – the teachers who we had become friends with over a few days and beers in Tayrona National Park and who had invited us to stay. John and Pilar (his beautiful Colombian girlfriend) put us up in their spare room and we had enjoyed a lovely few days with them but now we needed to get to Quito where my best friend Irinia was due to join us after travelling down from her trip through central America.
So with our journey through south Colombia by any other means than flying blocked by the paramilitaries – the use of our vouchers earned a few months ago seemed like fate.
On board the Continental flight, we were the only ones in the small first class cabin. It was only a short flight but we had a steward each to look after us and we quickly made friends as they served us a nice meal along with a few glasses of gin and orange juice. We were all a little tipsy by the time we landed which was probably not the best state to be entering a new country but we didn’t care!
Reflecting on Colombia, we’d spent four weeks here having been so nervous about coming in the first place and we’d had a fabulous time. I loved everything about the place from the history to the people to the food to the lifestyle. The danger certainly added a different dimension but this was a beautiful country in so many ways and we were so happy we’d taken the decision to come.
Crossing the equator for the third time on this holiday, the plane descended into Quito airport. Ecuador was one of the first countries I’d pinned to my ‘Must Go’ list during the planning and it was approximately half way around the continent from our starting point in Rio so it felt like a bit of a significant milestone. Although I’d heard from other travellers and from reading books that there were so many amazing things to do in Ecuador, we were unsure what the situation would be because only a month or so back, the Guagua Pichincha volcano just east of Quito had started erupting and we’d heard that Quito and half the county in covered in ash.
It was midnight when we landed and our First Class status seemed to help with a fast pass through customs. A taxi took us to the old town for $3.30 where got a room in the Grand Hotel. It was a nice place although it seemed to have an empty feel about it (although it was after midnight to be fair) but the rooms were clean, spacious and we had hot water all for 105,00 sucres (about $7) for all of us! The currency is very strange with at about 15,000 to £1 today – but it varies considerably. The drive through Quito revealed a pleasant looking city with no thick covering of ash, no molten lava pouring through the streets or the other stories we’d heard. The statues had been wrapped in big sheets of plastic but otherwise, the city seemed untouched with elegant colonial buildings, clean streets and hardly any traffic. It looked like Ecuador was open for adventure!
11th November 1999: Quito, Ecuador (day 113 overall)
Jono and I had read different guide books about Quito yet come up with almost the same suggested itinerary for the day. Our combined route took us for a walk in and out of the various sights of the old town and slowly up to the new town. By midday, the character of Quito was quite different than the quiet morning with hundreds of people bustling back and forth. The huge majority seemed to be Indians who generally dressed in their traditional regalia of wide hats and colourful jackets complete with tails. Both the women and the men looked strangely similar in the wide brimmed hats and I was also surprised at how short most of them were (even compared to people from the other South American countries). Mark suggested we’d arrived in Hobbit-land and with their refined way of dressing as well as many people walking barefoot – we joked that we were next expecting Gandalf to appear!
At some places where we could see a bit further, we made out the Guagua Pichincha volcano but it was covered in thick cloud.
There was not the pushiness of hawkers and beggars that I’d expected in such a large tourist destination and everyone we spoke with was helpful and friendly. One kind lady who we had asked for directions to a cash machine showed us the way personally en-route telling us about her love of The Beatles and her visit to their ‘founders cafe’ in Liverpool. With the exchange rate, the cash machine made us millionaires and we carried on our walk into the new town. Here it was almost embarrassing how many tourists there were – almost every other person – mostly travellers with a few who looked like they were here for a shorter stay. We found an internet cafe and did a bit of catching up and generally wandered in and around the various tour places and bookshops gathering ideas about what was open and routes we might take.
The tour places were strange because they seemed so laid back in acquiring our custom in comparison to previous experiences. In one, we asked about tours to the Galapagos Islands. Instead of telling us what we might be doing, the lady immediately launched into a negotiation on price. I asked her what we might actually see there and she just handed me a small pack of rather tatty and boring looking photos. This was typical of many of the tour places we went to which made it difficult to work out the options – perhaps that was the intent.
A nice surprise came when we went to a cafe for a late lunch, we ordered the simply named ‘hamburger’ from the menu for $1 each. Instead of the usual bit of meat in a roll we were expecting, we were served a full plate of salad, a generous portion of chips and a big and very tasty burger! This was certainly the cheapest country so far and we needed it! We discussed whether to stay in Quito until Irinia arrived or take a trip out to explore the north of Ecuador but there was no rush to decide.
Back at the hotel, it was still very quiet except for an Australian couple who we got chatting to. They had just come back from the east coast and said they’d had a good time there. We played ping pong in the hotel games room and put off trying to answer these ‘hard decisions’ for tomorrow.
12th November 1999: Quito to Otavalo, Ecuador (day 114 overall)
After much debate as to what to do (not wanting to do the best stuff before Irinia arrived), we settled on heading north to the town of Otavalo to check out a market which we had heard was interesting. Conveniently, there was no need to try our luck with the usual game of local-bus-roulette (never knowing quite where you are going to end up), as the main terminal turned out to be only a few hundred meters from the hotel and from there we could get a slightly more reliable inter-town bus to Otavalo.
On our way, the clouds had cleared and we could see the large statue of cerro panecillo perched on top of a nearby hill and framed against a bright blue sky. It is an unusual statue of an angel with wings spread, its body twisted and bending down and one of its hand raised and generally looked to be in the act of blowing a kiss to the city. I’m not sure that is what the intent was but it looked like that to us. We had read it was too dangerous to climb up to the statue due to reports of rape and thievery so we were fine to admire the statue at a distance.
At the terminal, there were lots of the usual street hawkers we’d seen in bus terminals everywhere else – but these shared the same relaxed way about them that people in town did, without any of usual hustling and shouting. Even the bus ticket sellers were the same – none of the ticket book waving and shouting of destinations at every passer-by; or their runners to drag you off to one of the sea of little ticket booths to get their cut if you bought from their chosen booth. It made a nice change but it did mean for a moment – I didn’t know what to do! After the unusual step of actually having to ask someone where I could buy a ticket, we found the right place where we were quoted tickets for only £2 each, which I thought was quite reasonable. I did try to determine whether it was cheaper to buy a return as opposed to a single later – but he didn’t understand me and instead just reduced the price to £1.60 perhaps thinking I was driving a hard bargain. Note to self to ask for returns more often!
The journey was spectacular as we travelled through hills and mountains with deep canyons and cliffs and over high passes. They were rather barren which gave the place a dramatic feel but that was topped by the brooding presence of the Cayambe volcano to the east, its high peak hidden by the clouds. Much of what we could see was covered in snow giving an indication to its height as the third highest mountain in Ecuador.
As we approached Otavalo, it seemed to be surrounded by a cluster of smaller volcanoes like guards and a large lake provided a more gentle contrast. The bus dropped us by the side of the main road and the driver gave us a friendly pointer as to where we should head before carrying on his journey north. Everyone here seemed to be a Quechua Indian and even shorter than those we’d seen in Quito and with the market in full swing and our elevated position – the town was a continuous stream of wide brown hats bobbing this way and that. Here we did find that begging was more ubiquitous and we were approached often and in a fairly pushy manner. On one occasion I held a door open for an elderly couple but they then cornered me asking for money ignoring my refusals and I had to push my way through. Mark has a more unusual technique: “Fuck off you wench” and I hoped none of them spoke English.
We found a little hotel and the owner David was surely a Quechua cousin of the Thunderbirds’ brothers. He had a very odd way of walking, lifting his knees a little too high accompanied by the same with his arm movements as he showed us around the hotel. With our negotiations concluded, I resisted the temptation to reply “F.A.B.” and we retired to our hobbit sized dungeon of a room with short beds and no lights. However, we weren’t here for fancy hotels – we wanted to see the market so we dumped out bags and headed out.
The busy and touristy markets were notorious for pickpockets, bag snatchers and razor blade thefts – the method whereby a gang of assailants will collectively use razor blades to slash at your clothes and bags in the hope of exposing a wallet or other valuable. As well as losing whatever valuables, clothes and bags you might have, the victims are often left badly hurt. Before entering a large plaza with market stands everywhere, we reccied the place making plans to stick together, have escape routes and generally stay alert. As it turned out, nothing happened and after browsing the strange and wonderful collections of stuff on offer – we found a pie shop where Mark and Jono ordered one each and I, not liking pies, opted for a chicken sandwich.
It was interesting just to meander around the town and enjoy the general buzz of the markets before finally returning to the hotel. After a shower and a shave – we decided we were hungry again and headed out to find something tasty to eat. The ‘pizza economica‘ at a nearby restaurant lived up to its name and left us wanting more – but we did meet three rather attractive Swedish girls. Jessica seemed to take a liking to me and Mark and Jono got on well with the others so we had a fun evening. Matt (a good friend from home) has a unique expression which came to mind: “Go for Swedish and Danish girls since they fuck like rabbits” but we would not be testing this theory tonight as they were all leaving early in the morning so opted for an early night (washing their hair?) leaving us to our own devices. Jessica did suggest the idea of me getting a job in the bar where she was working in Quito. I’ve had plenty of experience working behind a bar and it might fun for a few days so I might check that out when we get back.
13th November 1999: Otavalo, Ecuador (day 115 overall)
Thunderbirds’ David served up breakfast which included our first piece of toast since leaving England – oh how the little things can bring so much pleasure! He stayed with us as we ate trying to sell us some tacky bookmarks which none of us wanted which was a bit random. I tried to distract him from the doomed bookmark sale by asking him about Quechuan culture and how I might say “Good day”. This was a mistake since he then proceeded with an attempt to teach us the entire Quechuan language for half an hour without success (not even the words for “Good day”) and then reverted to his task of trying to flog us the dog-eared bookmarks. Time to hit the markets again.
It was Saturday – the busiest day for the market. Outside, all of the streets were full of the colourful market stalls complete with their dressed-up proprietors. There were different sections which focused on different things like food, animals, llama products and general bits and pieces. The animal market had finished early and the only remnants were various farmers dragging off squealing pigs and the like to their new homes. Although there seemed to be an immense amount of stuff for sale, most of it was all pretty similar but it seemed like good quality and very buy-able.
The day was spent just wandering through the stalls, buying a few bits and pieces – mostly little presents to send home and a souvenir leather necklace. I was quite pleased with my negotiation skills mainly managing to reduce stuff by about 40% from the initial price. I couldn’t achieve the same with some of the rugs, walking away each time to try again elsewhere but never managing to actually close on one at the price I wanted. I enjoyed the banter of negotiation and the marketeers were all very pleasant, not pushy and seemed to enjoy the back and forth as much as I did. It was also interesting to watch Gringo day trippers also wandering around – speaking English at loud volumes to the Indians in the thought this would help them understand their words better than spoken at normal volumes; and getting generally ripped off with every purchase.
By mid-afternoon, we had our fill of the market and were quite exhausted in a satisfying way. What shall we do tomorrow? We discussed this topic over a beer exploring options such as mountain biking to a volcano’s crater lake; perhaps head into south Colombia for a look at a rather special church we’d heard about; or head back to Quito and become a bar-man? We put off the decision until morning and opted for another pizza – but avoided the ‘economica‘ this time.
14th November 1999: Otavalo to Quito, Ecuador (day 116 overall)
After further discussion over breakfast, we opted for Quito. No one was really up for a long and dusty ride to the crater lake and I was feeling quite ill. It was another day in the long line of days in which I’d been feeling slowly but steadily worse. Nothing more than migraines, sore throats and a general lack of energy but it was irritating when I wanted to be enjoying every day we had in South America and I hated the thought of possibly slowing the others down. I knew I would not be able to get a mountain bike up a volcano however and I was quietly pleased when the others stated a preference to jump back on a bus to Quito.
Although it was lifeless place, we checked back into the Hotel Grand since they’d stored our bags for free whist we were in Otavalo. We opted for a cheaper ‘no bathroom’ room since we were the only ones in the hotel and therefore using the communal one anyway. We headed out to explore and found ourselves in a more obscure part of town. Entering a few local eateries reminded me of a scene from “American Werewolf in London” where the foreigners enter a Devonshire pub to the unfriendly welcome of the locals. As we walked in, an array of faces stopped chewing and stared at us with unfriendly eyes until we left, whereupon they just resumed their eating and slurping. Perhaps this was an area where locals could escape from Gringos like us.
Back at the hotel, Jono and I played a marathon session of ping pong whilst Mark rifled the book exchange. The idea is to swap books but Mark hit upon the much better idea of just taking a few, and then swapping them at a nearby “2 for 1” bookshop which had a much better selection. With Jono and I in double figures each of games won and Mark returned with a new reading selection, it was time for bed.
15th November 1999: Quito, Ecuador (day 117 overall)
There is no point in spending money if we are not enjoying ourselves and this was the reason we decided to move to the ‘twice as expensive but twice as fun’ part of Quito in the new town!
Our usual taxi technique worked wonders. Our well-honed procedure involved flagging down a victim, opening all the car doors and boot whilst ensuring the taxi is blocking as much of a busy road as possible. We would be negotiating a fixed price with the driver at the same time and if he didn’t agree to our suggestion (which we knew was still above the rate that locals would pay), we would walk off muttering “Caro, Caro!” and “Estafa!” which we hoped meant something like “Listen here my young friend, this is really very expensive, a bit of a rip off and you won’t be taking us for fools!“. With the hoots of waiting traffic behind him and the prospect of having to run around closing all his doors whilst losing customers paying still over the odds – he would usually succumb pretty fast.
On this occasion, we successfully achieved our aim and piled into the taxi. However, it was quickly clear that he was heading in completely the wrong direction after I’d not only repeated the name of the hotel and road several times – but pointed it out on the map which he studied for several minutes (driving at the same time I might add) exclaiming “no problemo” as he went. He got most distressed when I had to show him on the map where we’d got to which was by now a good two miles further away then we started. We finally arrived and when I gave him only the agreed price (~£1) he got more angry suggesting I’d misled him with the old “pointing at the map” trick. We ignored his protests and moved on.
‘El Centro del Mundo‘ was a friendly hostel with a good backpacker kind of atmosphere. We found beds in the dormitory at $2.50 per night and this included a free coffee with breakfast: woo-hoo! The beds creaked like anything; to get the showers hot, you had to reduce the pressure to a mere dribble; and the toilets were more often blocked than not; but it was still a fun place to be and we immediately preferred it to the Grand Hotel. You could wander around and chat to an interesting selection of people all travelling in their various unique styles and directions. Soon after we arrived, a large group of us relaxing in the communal area sharing friendly chats about life’s important topics: whether or not it was a goal in ’66; how to pronounce Steve Guttenberg; why everyone takes the piss out of American travellers; apologising to the American couple who were unknowingly in the group; and ‘yes, technically it might have been a goal but the referee’s decision is always final’. We became better friends with a couple of English girls – Debbie and Katie as well as an English guy called Chris. Debbie had spent six months travelling on a similar route to ours but going the opposite way around having started in Caracas so we spent a lot of time swapping stories of shared experiences and tips on where to go. Chris had studied Spanish and was spending a while living in Quito so was great for information on what to do around Ecuador.
That evening, we went out with another couple of Norwegian guys called Phil and Janni to a local club. Janni was gay and unfortunately I ended up having to fend off his rather forward come-ons. Apart from his unwanted advances, they were both good fun to hang out with and the rum was cheap at $1 a bottle!
16th November 1999: Quito, Ecuador (day 118 overall)
While Mark and Jono went further afield, I had opted to stay close to the hotel today since I was vomiting every couple of hours and was limited to short periods of being out and about before feeling exhausted. So I explored options for language courses thinking it would be nice to be able to have longer conversations but similar to Colombia – they all seemed to be spread over several weeks as opposed to the more intense approach we would need in our limited time.
I wandered around some local streets of the new town and got my bearings whilst fending off the weird assortment of products being forced upon me. Little women in white blouses, coloured shawls and pork pie hats carried pictures, rugs, padlocks, volcano photos, jumpers, ponchos and much more. “No” seems to be an interesting word. In England, it usually means: “Not today thank you” but here it seems to be a form of encouragement for the other person to carry on trying ever harder to sell you something. I had a two-minute conversation with a shoe shine boy trying to explain why my canvas, well used walking boots did not need to be subjected to his offer of a glossy black finish: “No”. “Una mille?”. “No”. “Oh senor, me hungry!”. “No”. “500 for you?”. “No”. “I have ninos!” “No – go away”. “Just give me money then?”. “No”. And so on. Once I did test what would happen if I did give some money and gave the equivalent of 50p – a large amount here. He complained that it wasn’t enough and I should give him $5. I took back the tip and carried on with my test confirmed.
Money changers were everywhere in a desperate attempt to get dollars since the economy was in free fall as a result of the eruptions. When we arrived, the rate was 15,000 sucres to the dollar. It was 17,000 now and was rising by the day. By evening and after multiple mini-jaunts, I was too tired for anything more and slumped exhausted back into bed. By 10pm, I had severe migraine and couldn’t stop coughing which continued into the night. I felt guilty about waking everyone up each time I coughed so relocated my bed-sheet down to the living room and curled up on the settee. After fighting with the dog for a while (it was probably his sleeping quarters), I gave up and it slept next to me. I coughed all night and clutched at my head in pain as I tried to get a wink of sleep but to no avail.
17th November 1999: Quito, Ecuador (day 119 overall)
If all things went to plan, by the end of today we’d have a fourth member of our group. Today, Irinia would be flying in and I’d meet her at the airport. It is difficult to describe how much I was looking forward to seeing her. Over the last few years, we’d become very good friends – one of the few friends you could talk with about anything and not feel that either you or they are being judged. But apart from that, we always had a good time together and had spent a lot of time in each other’s company during the 4 years of studies. I missed her more than I missed most of my friends.
As to ‘how’ it would work with four people in the group, I had every confidence that Irinia would fit in. Well, no she wouldn’t. ‘Fitting in’ isn’t quite right because I think rather the group would fit in with her too – everyone would make the effort. Personally, I think she brings two qualities that we are probably lacking in at the moment. Firstly, it is a team work thing. I think she is very good at making the group thing work with a mixture of charm and sensitivity. More importantly, she has a great sense of fun. Whether it is going out, mucking around or just in conversation, Irinia is always fun to be with – and even when she’s not, it is still funny! If you know what I mean?! Maybe you don’t but never mind.
Anyway, we were due to be climbing a volcano today which was just south of Quito. My headache had lasted most of the night and by morning, I felt like death and being told I looked like death too which at least matched the former. So the others set off without me and I lay on my bunk bed back in the dormitory. Eventually I got up and pottered around doing very little – some reading and the odd game of chess and spoke a fair bit with Katie who was also having a rest day.
Katie and I went to pick up Debbie from her bar and together we explored around the market in the old town which was an area I was familiar with. The market had the usual collection of colourful textiles and other oddities and whilst we were there, it began to rain. Actually it was snow. No – it wasn’t snow – because it wasn’t melting? It was as if someone with a really bad dandruff problem was busily scratching their head up wind of us. People around us produced face masks and wore them as if this was normal. And apparently it was. We found out that the Pichincha volcano had chosen this moment for another small eruption and this was the ash falling all over the city. It wasn’t too bad – we kept having to shake our clothes and it did give us pretty sore eyes and throats but otherwise it seemed to affect the day to day life of the city very little …. except for the rather crucial fact that the airport was now closed and Irinia was due to be flying in.
A check of my emails at a nearby internet cafe had no word from Irinia so there was little I could do about it. So instead, I went for a Mexican with Debbie and Katie. By the time we got back to the hotel, the others arrived back. They’d had a great time although they were now very wet and smelly!
While Mark and Jono went to get cleaned up, I headed off to the airport, which had just reopened, to try and get news of Irinia’s flight. I understood more French than Spanish so was trying to relay the problem to a helpful French tourist. He also spoke no Spanish but was of course fluent in French and described the issue to a Spanish schoolgirl who spoke some French. She then passed this on in Spanish to the by now completely confused airline agent. After 20 minutes of this “Spenchlish” and much confusion – the airline agent suggested the lady next to her might be able to help – and she did – speaking fluent English (why didn’t they suggest that at the beginning!?) she told me that Irinia’s plane had been diverted to Guayacil – 9 hours drive away. What now? I assumed if she’d made her way through all Central America, then she could sort this one out as well so I emailed our hotel address and said we wouldn’t leave without her.
By the time I got back to the hotel, it was 1am and I was beginning to feel pretty shit again with my headaches returning. I took my place on the settee with the dog and tried to get some more sleep.
18th November 1999: Quito, Ecuador (day 120 overall)
Nearby the hotel was a small reptile museum so a small group of us headed off to see snakes, crocodiles, lizards and frogs. Okay, so frogs aren’t reptiles – but they are still slimy! Yes, okay okay, reptiles aren’t actually slimy – but they look it!! It was quite good and had a large selection including King Cobras, Boa’s, Pythons and many others. There was information in English and the whole thing was only 30 pence.
I strolled back towards the hotel and checked my email – but no new messages.
But when I reached the hotel, sitting in a small cafe opposite and with a cup of hot chocolate in front of her sat Irinia! I hadn’t expected to see her for a day or two but there she was! We hugged hello and launched into a long conversation of events and activities over the last few months for both of us. As for Guayacil, she said after the plane landed, she got together with some other passengers, hired a van and driver between them and spent 9 hours driving straight here. It was really great to see her again. To celebrate welcoming Irinia to the group – we went out for a Thai meal which was expensive – but extremely tasty. We even had pudding which was something we never do!
I went back with Irinia to the hotel she had checked into (since ours was full) and we chatted for a long while. She said I looked a wreck, which was nice. She looked tanned and healthy in comparison! Before long, both our previous night’s sleep deprivations forced us to say good night until tomorrow.
Our group was now four and I am looking forward to the next few months together exploring the rest of South America!