20th November 1999: Quito and Mitad del Mundo (day 122 overall)
There is an imaginary line around the and every day, a host of visitors arrive to have their picture taken with a leg on either side. Why? It is the equator of course after which Ecuador is named and that is where we were heading today.
We decided against the offer of a $30 tour and took a $0.10 bus heading north which took about an hour. At this point on the equator, there is a huge monument 30 meters high with a globe – 4 meters in diameter, representing the world. There are flags, statues, landscaped gardens and cafes around and a large memorial to the French bloke who, three hundred years ago calculated exactly where the equatorial line ran and a long painted yellow stripe indicated the outcome of his work. It was all very impressive except for one little fact: he got it wrong. In fact it was out by about 200 meters but the tourist industry ignores that fact as it would cost them a lot of money to move all their flags, statues, cafes and stuff.
Now you might say that 200 meters compared to the world’s diameter (~13,000,000 meters) is not a lot (<0.002%), there is apparently an easy way to find where it is.
After the ‘I’m straddling a painted yellow line that happens to be about 200m from the equator photo‘, we went off in search of the real thing. Up the road, a little sign post pointed up a dirt track and we found a museum where two pretty girls were waiting to show us around. One of them looked a bit like a shorter, slightly fatter Catherine Zeta Jones so we were happy to pay the s/10,000 cost of entry and their guided tour. ‘Catherine’ translating for the other one who spoke only Spanish. Apart from a few mud models (odd), it was all very interesting but the best part was the sink full of water. A plastic bowl of water was placed on the exact line of the equator and the plug blocking a little hole in the bottom removed and the water poured into a bucket underneath. Before you can say “Oh wow!” in a sarcastic and derisory tone, the water did not form the usual whirlpool as it drained. Instead, the water just lowered in level until the sink was empty. Yet upon repeating the experiment just one-meter north of the equator – a little anticlockwise and fully formed whirlpool started almost immediately. One meter south of the equator, the whirlpool turned clockwise. So, if the French geezer had bothered to take a few baths on his search for the equator, he might have been 200 meters more accurate!
The museum didn’t stop there though. We tasted corn wine and wished that we hadn’t; took pictures of a giant tortoise which was over 150 years old and still munching its cabbage; saw a real shrunken head; took turns trying to blow darts from a blow pipe (I hit the cactus target each time I might add; but then so did everyone else!); and met a man obsessed with killing animals. This last chap seemed to delight in designing gruesome traps – not just one or two but dozens, each with their own way of squashing, maiming, decapitating, strangling or whatever other nasty means he could think of to trap and kill animals. Despite their purpose, I did appreciate the cleverness in their design, but I was left with distinct impression that this man needed mental help.
By the end of the tour, it was beginning to rain. We said goodbye to ‘Catherine’ and enjoyed a hot chocolate in a nearby cafe but there wasn’t anything to do in this village except for the equator related stuff – so we jumped on a bus back to Quito. In the evening, being Saturday, we decided to head out for some fun in town. We dressed up in our usual travel gear (we didn’t own anything else!) and found a club called Mr Frogs. The music was pretty good and before long, we were all dancing. Lots of people – mostly girls – were dancing on top of the bar so ordering a beer was done through the middle of their legs which was interesting. We also danced and I was having a great time until another headache set it and I had to make a quiet getaway. Annoying party pooper.
21st November 1999: Quito (day 123 overall)
Today we had intended to set off south as early as possible but the launderette in which Irinia had the majority of her clothes had annoying decided to close several hours early. We didn’t really mind since we were all tired from the previous night’s festivities and we quite fancied some go-karting which we’d noticed a little way up the road.
It took a while to leave the hostel as on Sunday’s it had a tasty full breakfast on offer and everyone wanted one which took ages. However, finally the four of us along with another chap we’d met called Chris, set off to find the place and a few negotiations later – we had the whole place to play with for only £3 for 30 minutes. We thought at first, from watching other people have a go before us, that the cars were not very fast. As it turned out, those people were obviously not flooring the accelerator and we got them to get much fast – perhaps at the cost of any real control! By the end of the first session, we’d crashed all over the place and Jono had already broken his car’s steering column or something. It was a big track and had plenty of room for handbrake turns and other hoodlum activities. We booked a second session since no one else had arrived and on this one, Jono managed to crash into Chris on the first lap and for the rest of the session, he car emitting a constant stream of black smoke until he got back to the pits and swapped for his third car of the day.
Meanwhile, with Mark attempting a move to get around the outside of me on a corner, I just took my turn a little wider forcing him to either break or go smashing into some barriers. He opted for the latter and from then on, his car only went at half speed. In numerous attempts to catch up, he tried to take a short cut by heading across a grassy area – but it was actually a muddy bog and he ended up having to pull his car out and getting covered in mud in the process.
All in all, it was superb fun although I’m not too sure the owners will be too pleased to see us back having wrecked three of their cars!
Back at the hotel, Debbie and Katie returned from a day of white-water rafting. They said it was brilliant except that Debbie had fallen out in the most difficult rapid and had nearly drowned from being sucked under. Health and safety is not an appreciated concept amongst the operators here!
After wandering around in search of a restaurant, we finally succumbed for a shawarma kebab from the Taj Mahal place opposite the hotel. They must have been good as they were tasty even though we weren’t drunk (and everyone knows that normally, being drunk is the only time when a kebab tastes good!). The rest of the evening was spent lazily, watching trashy films on the hostel television.
22nd November 1999: Quito to Latacunga to Riobamba (day 124 overall)
Having retrieved Irinia’s washing, packed out bags and say goodbye to all the friends we’d made at the hostel, we set off on the journey south. We’d spent a week in Quito and certainly moving from the old town to the new town was a good move and we’d ended up having a lot of fun despite the volcano’s contribution! However, we head a new deadline – to get to Lima in time to meet Mum and Dad who would be joining us for a section of our route especially to do the Inca Trail and see Machu Picchu.
Our sunny spirits were dampened with the immediate onslaught of a thunderstorm as soon as we stepped outside but we managed to catch our bus just as it was leaving the terminal. We bought our tickets on board which also saved us the departure tax of 5p!
Ecuador’s countryside is quite spectacular with lakes, mountains and huge volcanoes. The largest of the volcanoes (and one of the highest in the world) is Cotopaxi at nearly 6,000 meters. But today the rain and low cloud meant the views of Cotopaxi were almost non-existent as our bus slowly trundled its way south. Every now and then, the rain lifted and we could see snow-capped mountains stretching into the distance with terraced fields filling all the land in between and up their lower slopes. Hundreds of fir trees had also been planted – we learned in an attempt to bring back the forests although strangely, firs are not native to South America.
The bus took about two hours to reach the town of Latacunga where we planned to spend a night or two in the nearby Cotopaxi National Park. We managed to miss our stop for the centre of Latacunga and ended up having to get the bus driver to stop outside of town. He kindly dumped us with our bags on a deserted intersection and we debated what to do next. Before we’d made a decision, a jeep pulled up and offered us a lift into town. The guy who picked us up ran tours into the park and said he knew a cheap hotel where we could shack up. We went with the flow (not having any particular alternative ideas) and before we knew it, the jeep was heading back out of Latacunga and off to a little village called Sasquilli.
The cheap hotel was run by a German guy who we all took a dislike to for no obvious reason. His ‘cheap’ rooms started at $8 pp and that didn’t even include breakfast – so we quickly declined. We also found out it was $10 each just to enter the park and in addition, our jeep man was offering $30 each for what was really only about an hour’s ride into the park and the rent of a tent. This was far too expensive for what was effectively a night camping. We deferred the decision until tomorrow and the jeep guy gave us a lift back into Latacunga (we were pleased since there was no other obvious means to return and he didn’t ask for any money!) and agreed to talk to him again tomorrow about the park.
A rather disgusting lunch of chicken soup and stale rice perhaps sealed our decision that we didn’t really want to spend any more time in Latacunga and would give Cotopaxi N.P. a miss. We walked back to the bus terminal we’d missed on the way in and jumped on the first bus south to town of Riobamba. Buses are really cheap here costing about s/10,000 (30p) per hour of travel and it only took a couple of hours to reach the town. We found a reasonable place to dump our bags – the hotel Imperial – and headed out for dinner only to find nearly everywhere was closed. After a bit of searching, we ended up in a ‘Chifa’ (a Chinese restaurant) eating some less-than-tasty noodles and watching ‘The Saint’ on their small tv, chatting about the day and feeling a little guilty about the jeep guy we’d left in Latacunga. The town was dead, so we had nothing else to do after dinner except head to bed.
23rd November 1999: Riobamba and Tungurahu Volcano (day 125 overall)
From Riobamba, we considered taking a trip into the area of two more volcanes – Tungurahua and Chimborazu. Chimborazu is the highest active volcano in the world and interestingly, its peak is also the point at which the land surface is highest from the centre of the earth as a result of the equatorial bulge. Routes to visit Chimborazu seemed a bit complex but we found a taxi driver who was willing to take us up to a place where he thought we could get a good view of Tungurahu. This volcano was currently one of the several that were erupting across Ecuador and much of the surrounding area had been evacuated but he said he knew some back roads to get around the road-blocks although it meant we had to go after it got dark.
Most of the middle of the day was spent on a few admin chores since it was Jono’s turn to feel ill and he had stayed in bed. We had got a little tired of restaurant food in Quito which was generally bit greasy and unhealthy – so we found a market shop and picked up some cans of tuna and salad bits. We also picked up a couple of bottles of Rum, marshmallows, bananas and chocolate with which we hoped to create a very unhealthy feast over a camp fire that evening!
The town had livened up today after its apparent shutdown last night and we searched for what tours were on offer to see the erupting volcano or get up Chimborazu (which so far hadn’t decided to join the volcano eruption party). No where we found was cheaper than our taxi driver except for renting a rent, taking a couple of local buses and doing a walk the rest of the way – but we didn’t have the time since we wanted to take the train tomorrow to Cuenca since else we’d have to wait until Friday. Our taxi man was only asking for $4 each which seemed a fair price considering it was a 30km drive whilst avoiding the road-blocks, a long wait, and then a long drive back all in the middle of the night.
At 5:30pm we set off towards Tungurahua – its triangular shape clearly seen ahead of us with a large plume of smoke and ash spewing from its apex and spilling onto the hills around. It was a little cloudy but it seemed like it would be a good night for viewing.
Our car worked its way through a maze of tiny winding roads, slowly getting higher into the mountains and closer towards the volcano. We weren’t going to try and get up the volcano itself since firstly, we hoped to see views of the lava eruptions we would be unable to see those from so close on the side of the mountain; and secondly – it would probably be suicide. As we got closer and higher, we were disappointed that the cloud cover got significantly heavier and our views were limited to about 20 yards from the car. Our driver reached a spot which he said was about as close as we could get with the volcano opposite us and across the valley (apparently since it was just thick cloud everywhere in every direction). We could hear and feel the volcano’s presence – the eruptions were accompanied with a deep rumbling sound similar to thunder and we could feel tremors through the ground. The clouds would light up in soft orange and red hues and then peace would return for a few minutes until the next one.
We had set up camp on the front lawn of someone’s house who our driver seemed to know and the owner’s family came and joined us as we got a fire going. We had a great time mixing the marshmallows, bananas and chocolate into little tin-foil wraps and roasting them over the fire and we shared them with the family who seemed quite pleased with our cooking attempts! The bottles of Rum were passed around and I noticed our driver had no concerns in taking huge gulps.
At one point in the evening, the clouds separated and the huge scale of the steep-sides of Tungurahua appeared before us – the snowy sides lit up by the full moon. The top was still heavily covered by the continuous plume of ash and smoke but we were excited when two loud explosions lit the base of this plume up in a bright orange and red – although we couldn’t see the erupting lava itself. After only a few minutes, the clouds returned and nothing more could be seen.
At midnight, slightly disappointed we hadn’t been able to see more of the volcano but having enjoyed a very fun evening around the fire with the local family – we piled back into the taxi. Despite his contribution to finishing both our Rum bottles, our driver made it safely back to the hotel.
24th November 1999: Riobamba to Cuenca (day 126 overall)
The alarm went off at 5am and I resorted to annoying everyone with my singing until they got out of bed. We headed to the station which was just across the road from the hotel, where we bought tickets for the train at 6am, grabbed a quick breakfast and then went to find our spot on the train.
The train was very much a tourist train. In fact, without the inflated prices paid for by tourists, it wouldn’t be able to run anymore. As tourists, our tickets cost us $15 whereas locals only needed to pay about $2. The journey would take us down to Alausi and then descend over 1km in height through amazing canyons to the village of Sibambe before then returning back again to Alausi. It was recommended by many books and people as one of the best train rides in South America and quite apart from the fantastic scenery, the unique experience on this train was that the tourists clambered for space to sit on the roof to experience the views, while the locals (who on other trains often sit on the roofs), sat inside the carriages.
Our bags were locked in one of the carriages so we didn’t have to take them on the roof. We then climbed the iron rungs up the side of one of the carriages and settled on top of the roof with all the other tourists. The insides of the carriages were virtually empty apart from a handful of locals and one pair of tourists we’d noticed who were perhaps dubious about the appeal of sitting on a corrugated iron roof for three hours!
Once the tourists were settled, sitting side by side with their bags and nothing more than the lip of the roof to keep them from sliding right off, the train was ready to leave. Right on time at 7am, with a few blasts from the horn and a few onlookers waving us off – the train slowly chuffed its way out of the station. The sun came out and the clouds melted away – ahead of us, the imposing volcano of Chimbarazu was clearly seen and further away, we could see Tangurahua still smoking heavily.
I stood up on the roof moving train to take a dramatic picture of my fellow roof passengers in front of Chimbarazu. In the picture view finders, I noticed everyone starting to lay flat on the roof but couldn’t see a reason why. I took the camera away and the reason became immediately clear as I noticed a thin wire strung between to telephone poles straddling our trains path and coming towards me at below head height! I flung myself to the roof just in time as it passed above me!
The train followed an adjacent road out of Riobamba and then diverted into remote picturesque valleys. Here, small farms with neat little fields dotted the landscape, each with one or two cows, a few sheep and several hens roaming around. The farm hands worked with hand-ploughs and scythes to tend the fields but stopped their work to wave as we went past.
We climbed up through narrow gorges and the track ran adjacent to high cliffs and then ran down over hills and into valleys. The scenery and the whole experience of riding on the roof was quite exhilarating and definitely a highlight of the trip! We stopped in Alausi were more people climbed on before we then set off for the next phase of the journey called ‘The Devil’s Nose’. This was the most spectacular section where the train descended steeply down to Sibambe via a series of switchbacks through a rocky gorge. At the bottom, the train paused and then turned around making its way back to Alausi.
When the train pulled into the station at Alausi, there was a mad scramble as most of our fellow passengers ran off to grab buses to wherever they were going next, but we were more interested in getting a bite to eat. Whilst we chomped on a plate of chips, we watched the buses packed to the brim with tourists heading off leaving the town deserted, wondering when perhaps the next bus might be. Or ‘if’ there was a next bus?
I forgot to mention the story about getting our rucksacks back from out of the secure carriage. We’d been told that locking the bags up safely was all included as part of the ticket price – but when we tried to get them back, the guard had asked for s/5,000 each (about 30p). Although it was small, we weren’t willing to pay on principle after paying $15 for the ticket with this already included. The guard was standing at the only entrance to the carriage and people were coming in, finding their bags and he was asking for money before letting them out. I picked up Jono’s bag and started remonstrating with the guard by the door saying things like “I’m not paying $5,000!“, “Where’s your identification” and other nonsense gibberish. Meanwhile, Mark was busy unloading the rest of our bags out through an open window to the waiting Jono and Irinia who hid them around the corner. The guard turned to find Mark shoving the last bag through the window. I left one way with Jono’s bag and Mark went the other!
Anyway, back to our chips. Things have a way of working themselves out. We walked along the road to where a few people seemed to be congregating as if waiting for something to come along. Only a few minutes later, one of the local buses came down the road with plenty of space, we confirmed the destination as the town of Cuenca and all jumped aboard!
The four-hour ride to Cuenca was uneventful and the earlier clear views of the countryside were now replaced with low clouds, so we managed to catch up on a little sleep following our earlier start. At the bus terminal, we intended to take another local bus to get into the centre of town but a nearby taxi man was trying to convince me there were none and that we must come with him instead. I pointed to the front of a nearby bus which had a big sign reading ‘Centro‘ that looked about ready to go and queried if he was sure there were no buses. He then changed tack and said that tourists were not allowed to take buses. I don’t know the Spanish translation for “Do you think I’m a monkey?” but I’m sure my facial expression did the job for me. However, it did get me thinking that perhaps four of us in a taxi wasn’t any more expensive than the bus for this short hop so we did end up jumping in a taxi – but not his one, in our small retribution for his fibs!
The first four hotels we tried were either full or too expensive but we eventually found Hotel Pinchincha. The room was basic but suited us fine and we unloaded before heading out to explore. The centre of Cuenca was filled with beautiful colonial buildings and it was generally a very pleasant city to walk around. It was getting late and both Jono and I were feeling unwell again so grabbed a quick bite at a small cafe before collapsing into bed and reminiscing over a great day.
25th November 1999: Cuenca (day 127 overall)
Unfortunately, Jono and I had both felt very ill during the night as a result of which we had had almost no sleep and that meant a slow start. Jono had a tummy problem and I’d had another migraine which was leaving me dizzy and feeling nauseous and both of our feelings continued into the day.
Mark, Irinia and I headed to get some breakfast at around 10am. There was no shortage of good-looking cafes around Cuenca and we settled for when next to the Hotel Milan. Breakfast is always pretty standard – for about s/10,000 (30p), you get a coffee, a juice, a roll and two eggs which is not bad (except the coffee is usually rank!). We needed to get some more cash and were disappointed to see the exchange rate had dropped to s/16,100 to the dollar today after reaching about s/19,000 yesterday!
Irinia and I took a walk around the shop since she needed to buy some new clothes items and then afterwards, Mark joined us and we headed off to a museum. The guide book had recommended it and although it also said it was free, the entry price was s/20,000. The museum was a bit lame. The ground floor contained only a few silly pictures and some Inca pots and downstairs in the basement was a paper mache collection of different Ecuadorian cows which we found more hilarious than educational! We took the piss for about an hour before ambling along the banks of a nearby river and finding a rather trending bar where we had coffees.
Over dinner that evening, Jono and I were feeling pretty poorly so we barely ate anything and decided to head back half way feeling generally sorry for ourselves whilst Mark and Irinia went out to enjoy the night life of Cuenca!
26th November 1999: Cuenca to Loja (day 128 overall)
After a slightly better night where I’d thrown up only a couple of times, we all headed down to breakfast but I could only manage a small milk drink. We packed and headed off to the bus station and jumped on a bus to Loja – it would be a 6 hour journey and the ticket was a slightly pricier than normal at $2!
Moments after we set out, the queasiness I’d felt over breakfast returned before quickly turning into a deep pain. My head span, my stomach hurt and my body ached all over – I didn’t know what was happening but I it felt like it was getting out of control. I tried to mediate myself out of it but had to give up as the pain worsened. For five hours, I felt like I slipped in and out of consciousness not really aware of anything except pain.
For the last hour of the journey, I began to recover enough to just stare out of the window, not really wanting to move any part of my aching body. The road we have been following since Quito is part of the ‘Pan American Highway’ which stretches from Alaska to the southern tip of Chile. It is not really a single highway but just the route along a collection of roads that will take you all the way except for a short interlude at the ‘Dorian Gap’ in Panama. Before coming to South American, for me this grand sounding name had conjured up images of motorways, tarmac, service stations and classic cars and the like. But the road outside was a single track, gravel and dirt track winding its lonely way through a vista of barren hills and mountains. Beside us, the rather steep cliff edge that met the road was crumbling sometimes eating into the track leaving the bus having to manoeuvre around. The mountain range of the Andes stretched as far as I could see looking untouched, beautiful and peaceful. The light clouds floated in the valleys between their snow covered tops and forests lined their flanks. Although we were close to the equator, the sun could have been any distance feeling both near and far at the same time and its light seemed clear and yet somehow eerie as if something was going to happen. There was no movement across the land as if it was frozen into a picture and waiting for change. Maybe it was the virginity of the untouched landscape around us and the knowledge that so much of the rest of the world has been scarred and shaped by humanity and that this was a last fading echo of a time before man.
The bus pulled into Loja but I couldn’t move. Mark grabbed my bags whilst Irinia and Jono helped me off the bus to where I could sit down again. I couldn’t think straight and my body seemed to have given up so we took a taxi to the hospital. I spent about 2 hours there being examined by many different doctors who tested my blood, injected my arse, poked my stomach and the only thing I really remember was that there was a rather pretty nurse who just sat holding my head and stroking my hair. Or perhaps that was just a dream in my semi-delirious state. The one doctor who seemed to speak English suggested it was food poisoning and prescribed a host of different drugs. We thanked him and the others and I remember Mark carrying me into another taxi which took us off to a hotel. That evening, I was able to stand again and we took a walk out to find a drug store. Even in my semi-awake state, I still remembered to question the prices of the drugs which were all reasonably cheap except for one at which we balked at the $70 cost. None of us had many sucres left so we bought the cheap ones and I said I would see how I felt tomorrow before we could commit to the rest.
I can’t write anything about the hotel or Loja since it passed in a blur but I think I was mostly just lying in bed or in the bathroom, vomiting or worse and trying to make sense of what was happening.
I won’t try to write about the next few days since they are of no interest other than to say we reached a place called Vilcabamba where we checked into a hotel and I didn’t really move further than between my bed and the bathroom. There were many lovely walks around Vilcabamba which the others enjoyed but my body felt broken. I am not sure the doctor was correct in food poisoning since my Loja episode was really just the lowest point in about 2 months of illness and going slowly downhill. Perhaps my body had finally said ‘enough’ or perhaps I’d caught some strange tropical disease. I will never know but Vilcabamba was a beautiful place to stay and begin my recovery.