Mitad del Mundo
Just a few km north of Quito and a an hour and half on the buses is the equator. I headed up to the widely plugged Mitad del Mundo, home of the equator monument. It's a tourist tat fest to rival Niagara, had I looked hard enough I'm sure I'd have found a Ripley's Believe or Not. There didn't seem anywhere near enough punters for all the shopfolk to make a living; there is of course a limit to the money making opportunities presented by an imaginary line. Naturally painting it helps people's understanding.
El Condora Passa drifted over the cafes, stalls and t-shirts. I've heard it a few times and the other day I heard the Ecuadorians getting even/repaying the compliment with a pan pipe/Andean version of 'The Boxer'.
The monument's nature is quite appropriate
telling you with flowers which hemisphere is which. Good as all this was, the absolute best thing about the Mitad, its shops, its line and its rather large monument is it's in the wrong place. And it's a Frenchman's fault.
For the actual GPS verified equator you have to go 200m round the corner to the Museo Inti Nan, which oddly combines equator stuff with a lot of Amazon tribal exhibits.
They had a real shrunken head and an explanation of the process. And we got to have a go on a blowpipe
Our target was a cactus, which I managed to hit first time. It was a touch closer than the targets these are used for in the jungle.
Then of course there's the equator, where a surprising amount of freaky stuff happens. Our guide was tiny and about 2 strides from the line tried to test our strength. She tried to prise apart our fingers and pull down our arms that we'd raised above our head. She made little impression; on the line you could really feel the difference and she moved my arms a lot more. Something to do with centrifugal force. Although the water down the plughole had some encouragement in the hemispheres, it really did shoot straight down on the line. Egg balancing is easier on the equator
I got a certificate for that and then headed for the actual equator
It was a lot of fun.
I've done some museum hopping the past few days-Museo de la Ciudad, Etnographico de Artesania de Ecuador and Amazonico. All had their moments, but in all honesty nothing was too outstanding.
I've no idea what's being said about Harry Potter, but I thought it was bloody brilliant. Hope she's had another idea.
Met up with the jungle massif gang today and it's a top bunch of folk. We had a spin round the Museo del Banco Central museum, which had more tribal and jungle culture as well as a top little art gallery. We headed across town to the Teleferiqo, grabbed a pizza and took the cable car up to the views at 4,100m. It was Guaga Pichincha I'd climbed previously-the Teleferiqo left you able to climb another Pichincha peak-we passed. As no one else had been to the old town, I did a bit of tour guide Barbie round some of the highlights.
So, off to the jungle tomorrow. Wonder what to call the next post.......
In the Jungle
I need a map. I think there's one in the bar. Right now I have very little idea where we are. We flew from Quito to Coca-flight time 25 mins! Then a bus to the dock; 2 hours on a motor canoe; 15 minute walk across to a slow river and finally a 15 minute paddle canoe to the lodge.
The executive backpacker touch seems to be asserting itself again: after checking in at Quito, we were escorted to the VIP lounge. I passed on the vodka and orange after a fairly late night, but there was no avoiding the rummy welcome cocktail at La Selva-our jungle lodge. This place is really impressive
and we have a hammock on our porch. Looking at the linen in the dining room for dinner, it seems we may be in another luxury option. Plan of campaign appears to be early starts, long hike, lunch and siesta, another hike/canoe, dinner and night hike. Should be good. It was damn hot until the rain started.
Clad in wellie boots, just as my Glasto blisters were easing, we headed off to check out some jungle. It was a lot drier under the canopy and Marco, our English speaking naturalist guide, gave us a sound introduction to some quite muddy rainforest. I was unaware that in Gondwana the Nile and Amazon ran in together. Marco is assisted by Bolivar, who is a local guide. He knows the area (I have no idea how he navigates) and he regularly points out flora and fauna. Wielding his machete, Bolivar is also a one man deforestation programme as he clears the path for overbalancing tourists. We are essentially on a track, but the pesky plants will insist on growing over and onto the path, just inviting a swish from Bolivar's big knife. Photography is a bit tricky, which I think must be due to the low levels of light on the forest floor.
After the obligatory 3 course dinner we headed off for a night walk, spotting spiders, frogs and various insects. No snakes, wahey.
Definitely this is high end stuff: there were a lot of Americans at dinner last night; at the airport we were offered the choice between a wooden toucan or butterfly badges-this was so the lodge staff could identify us, even though we were travelling with 2 guides; everyone I'd spoken to about the jungle said we'd return stinking, with everything wet-we've a hot en suite shower in our cabin.
I slept really well, I find the jungle noise of insects, birds and the odd monkey strangely soothing.
Today was a single long trip with packed lunch. We boated across to the national park, where we headed through some much thicker jungle. Given the wellies, hills and mud, Laura's Bambi on ice performance was understandable, but falling forwards into the mud is always funny. As is someone splitting their trousers-that was me. Think I tucked them too tightly into my wellies.
The walk was very botanic and my memory and absorption of that is a fraction of what it is with animals. We got Dragon's Blood to treat bites-tree sap. The leaf cutter ants had their own highway as they tottered under their loads.
Mainly I saw butterflies, which were numerous and beautiful. We saw many more birds, including toucans, when we were in a clearing or on the boat: practically every bird I've seen has been at the very top of a tall tree, making itself tremendously difficult to see in the jungle. Today just spending 5 or 6 hours slipping and sweating round the jungle was the real experience. The one sad note was that we may have caused a nest to be abandoned; unaware of a nesting bird we paused while the others looked at a spider. Suddenly there was a great flapping of wings and this was left behind
It's unlikely mum will return. We then had a 'cultural experience' when Bolivar painted everyone's face with a native plant.
No one could explain what the designs meant. Looking at the pics again, I think this one of Laura makes it slightly clearer
More food, then it was time for a night boat ride to go Caiman spotting. I believe they're small and crocodile like. I didn't see a body, but the eyes glow an evil red in the torchlight-very atmospheric, especially when the water's reflection gives them 4 glowing red eyes of evil.
And then it rained. Hard. For hours. I got pretty wet running back from the bar. Manuel and I were in the third cabin out, so it wasn't so bad-stuff still damp come morning. Others weren't so lucky-Holly was wringing. Come morning the only indicators were a couple of small puddles and a freshness in the air.
We spent the morning exploring a black (tannin coloured) lagoon by boat. The ride couldn't be described as incident packed-we saw a few birds and insect nests, but it was enchanting to glide round the waterways, seeing the jungle from a different angle in shifting light.
The lodge has a butterfly breeding programme housed in a couple of greenhouses. As we headed there from the jetty, we crossed the jungle and got some real monkey action. Again they were high up in the canopy, but you got a real sense of their movement and we had a faller, who crashed through a few branches before getting a fresh hold.
We pottered round the butterfly farm, seeing the 4 stages from egg to caterpillar through pupa before the metamorphosis to butterfly-we even saw a couple emerging. In essence the butterflies were beautiful and friendly
After lunch we spent an hour in the tower. The tower winds round a large Kapok tree, ending in a platform at the forest roof. I was very up for this as the birds and animals we'd seen had always been up top. My animal magnetism has been a little weakened this week, so we only saw a woodpecker, vulture and oro pendala. Still, it was wonderful just to be up looking over the forest and Marco said we may see monkeys from the boat this afternoon.
I left the others to the decidedly unvegetarian activity of piranha fishing. I sat on the dock during the yells of 'they eat it so quickly', 'someone's nibbling mine' and 'mine's not big enough'. The dock is like many of the walkways round here: slats of wood 2 inches by about 2 feet form a raised walkway. The odd one rots away and breaks. There's one in the forest where 3 broken slats have left a gaping hole. I'm just happy I haven't broken through anywhere and ended up suspended by my armpits. Rich has caught one. Brett's got one big enough to eat. Final tally: tourists 4 piranha of eating size and a few more chucked back in the water-piranhas countless screams, but no blood drawn.
I was finally distracted from the slaughter by the arrival of a posse of squirrel monkeys in the trees on the water's edge. It was impossible to count them, but they were everywhere running, jumping, swinging, eating and fighting. They really brought the trees to life as they posed.
With about three quarters of an hour of light left, I'd given up on the boat trip and handed the group's tip to Bolivar, but then we were off for more monkey magic. Bolivar edged the boat around for some aquatic monkey magic.
Overall the wildlife-fest has been in the lagoon around the lodge, but the walks in the jungle have held their own magic. Three very long and enjoyable days.
Tomorrow is basically going to be a travelling day, with the probability of Saturday night out at its end. We're heading to Banos and it's going to take paddle canoe, walk, motor canoe, bus, plane, bus to Quito hotel to pick up luggage and lunch and finally bus to Banos. So with that in mind, we played a bit of cards and had a few last night drinks ending up in the staff quarters with some guides and twins from New York.
Now on the Banos bus, struggling to stay awake. Laura's got a 2 year old fan, who looks like he's going to stare at her all the way to Banos, where it seems hot springs, mountain biking and volcano hiking are the big attractions. Inevitably when we reached the dock at Coca, there was a bunch of monkeys playing around-one ran off with a coconut, looking very guilty.
It's Peruvian independence day. Party tonight then.
It would be fair to say that Peruvian independence was celebrated with substantial gusto. Dinner was followed by a dodgy cocktail bar, then onto the Leprecaun, less Irish bar, more sweaty local club with shamrocks on the wall.
There was salsa, cheesey Europop and some decent tunes too. The crowd was pretty diverse and it took the genius of the Jovi to really unite them: Living on a Prayer was belted out in a remarkable range of accents. Everyone was half way there. As I was drinking Long Island Ice Teas, I may have been slightly more than half way. Earlier there had been flaming drinks-Ecuadorians appear to expect you to consume these with a straw; I eschewed the local custom and licked the palm of my hand in the traditional manner.
Happily I was persuaded to leave in time for 4 hours sleep before hiking up the Tungurahua volcano.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that we got our timings awry the next morning; oddly everyone was ready too early. A good 45 minutes sleep went begging.
Let's face it 8 hours sleep in 2 nights, insufficient hydration and buckets of booze is no way to acclimatise for hiking up a rumbling volcano at altitude. Still, the soloing genius of John Fogarty on the truck's stereo gave me an unwarranted level of optimism about my physical condition. We parked up at Granny's, where I excitedly translated Se vende quesos into her being a cheese merchant.
The night before may have contributed to the general shambles early on: while Manuel was heading up like a mountain goat, Laura's backpack leaked all her water out, Brett went off too fast, Vanessa threw up twice and my legs were heavy after just 5 minutes (must have been all the dancing). Oh, and naturally enough, Laura fell over.
We walked up the road until we turned up into a field, where the local horses did their best to eat our backpacks. They pursued us for a while, but the fields soon gave way to the real track.
Make no mistake this was hard going, although the walk was only about 5km each way we started at 2,500m and finished at 3,800, where we lunched at the refuge. 2 or 3 times we heard the volcano having a little eruption. It blew properly last year, villages were evacuated, and has been chucking out crap on a pretty regular basis. The Lonely Planet describes heading to the top as suicidal. As we neared our top (over a 1,000m below the rim), we saw volcano billowing. This wasn't some cloud being blown by the wind, but a living entity growing and changing shape like a mushroom cloud. Sadly everyone assumed we'd get a better view at the top, but the rain clouds closed in, so the photo op was lost. We made it though
The paths made the way down horrid; we needed Bolivar and his machete to attack the branches and vegetation that intruded and threatened to scratch and poke you in the eye. This removed my customary weight advantage on downhill sections, and I had to work to hold myself back. Much of the path was closer to a trench; it was as if a stream had cut its way through, then dried up leaving banks either side. In places the trench was barely a boot wide and the banks could be above knee height. I found that frustrating, but enjoyed the walk as a whole.
We ended up walking about 4 hours up and 2 hours down. The girls had never planned to bike down afterwards, but the three bikes we had brought were loaded into the back of the truck-we'd had enough.
Banos is named and famed for its thermal baths. Naturally, I have never been to anything like it before-all a bit too like grooming products for me. Still, after the girls told me it involved sitting in hot water, my tired limbs told me to give it a go-even my arms ached. Obviously I am keen that this doesn't mark the start of a slippery slope towards white dressing gowns and spa weekends. It was damn hot at first, but seemed to do the trick although it left me quite spaced out. There was no way I was going in the cold water plunge pool afterwards, that's just bloody silly.
Despite a lightweight day's eating I couldn't finish my veggie spaghetti, which at least made me feel a lot better than the awful I felt when I sat down to eat. I was not alone in my nausea. A proper night's sleep will fix that-lights were off in our room before 10.
Well it's bus day, we go to Riobamba for a couple of hours, then 7 to Cuenca. However, I'm already wary of timings and expecting a longer trip. From the bus to Riobamba we got a proper view of the billowing volcano and the picture I missed yesterday