Cuando en Cuenca…

 

In my previous post, I said that the journey by road was the best I’d ever experienced. I lied, forgive me. The journey from Chugchilán to Cuenca has usurped the number one position on that particular chart, and I have a feeling it might be something that happens regularly over the next few months.  The journey took 11 hours on the truck, but it really didn’t feel like it at all. I was so transfixed by the journey that I forgot to take many photos.

20171030_113200633262486.jpgThe journey took us past the dormant volcano Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador. The summit of Mount Everest is the highest point on the Earth above sea level, while the summit of Chimborazo is the farthest place on the surface of the Earth from its exact center, due to the fact that the Earth is not a perfect sphere but instead bulges out at its equator. Chimborazo is only one degree south of the equator, while Everest is 28 degrees north. Chimborazo’s summit is therefore 2.1 kilometers farther from the Earth’s center than Everest. And here endeth today’s geography lesson.

We drove along the Quilotoa Loop and I was constantly amazed by the little towns which seemed to be plonked at random on the mountainside. At one point, we saw a village which was completely engulfed in clouds, something I’d never seen before. It was very cool.

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After eleven hours we arrived in Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city and from my limited foray in the country, its most beautiful. The colonial buildings made me feel like I was in Madrid at times and it is by far the cleanest city I’ve visited in Ecuador. We stayed in a nice hotel in the city centre and I was glad to be put in a room with Ian and Matt, the two guys I’ve bonded with the most so far. The next day I took a sightseeing bus around the city, having not been inspired by Matt’s suggestion of a run along the river (he doesn’t know me very well obviously). It was a great way to see most of the city as we only had one full day in Cuenca which, surprisingly, is home to the Panama hat. The name originated from the fact the hats were first sent to Panama before sailing for  destinations around the globe and, therefore, acquiring a name that reflected their point of international sale rather than their place of fabrication. Gosh, I’m full of facts today. It’s almost as if I listened to the bus guide.

Here’s another one for you: the city of Cuenca has 52 churches so you can observe Sunday worship in a different church every week for a year, if you are so inclined. I’m not. There’s no denying the beauty and imposing nature of the buildings though and they fit in effortlessly with the surrounding architecture.

The bus took me to a viewpoint above the city that afforded a great view of the sprawl which is not really felt at street level. You won’t be surprised to hear that the best part of the whole day was the glorious Alaskan Malamute that I spotted during a coffee break. He was so chilled and very affectionate so naturally I left the viewpoint and spent the next twenty minutes petting him. I wonder if I can persuade my boyfriend to get a malamute when I get home in February. LOOK AT HIM!!

I also managed to find a hoody to replace the one I lost, although I’m still on the hunt for a pair of flip-flops which appear to be ever more elusive the further I travel in this continent. Who’d a thunk it?

Today is my last day in Ecuador and it’s been a great introduction to South America. I definitely want to come back and explore other areas, including the Galapagos which I wasn’t able to fit in this trip. Likes? Definitely the variety of amazing landscapes, from the towering Andes in all different hues of green and brown, to the varied cities and villages, to the biodiversity of the jungle. The people are smiley and friendly and the food has been delicious. Dislikes? Well, overtaking on the roads is a potential Olympic sport, and there were too many close calls for my liking. The absence of toilet roll in most bathrooms is also something I’ll never get used to, no matter how many reminders I’m given.

Calamities (yes, plural) in Chugchilán….

I’m never a fan of a 5am wake up call, especially when it’s followed by cooking breakfast for 22 people and packing up a tent, but thankfully, help was at hand for both tasks. Once completed, we set off on the seven hour drive to altitudinous Chugchilán, a small village on the slopes of the Rio Toachi Canyon. The drive along the Quilotoa Loop was like no other; the winding roads climb ever upwards and the views of the patchwork verdancy were truly spectacular. I lost count of the number of times I heard a fellow passenger utter superlatives. We were soon brought back to reality, however, when we saw the road ahead of us:

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You don’t need me to tell you how terrifying that sight was, especially given our previous encounter with a truck that ran off the road and over the mountainside. Thankfully our tour leaders, James and Jas, negotiated the collapsed road via a gravel path off to the side and my heart rate returned to normal. I was thankful that we wouldn’t have to see that section of road again (although it turned out we would indeed cross it twice more over the coming days).

Arriving at our digs, I was greeted by the best sight imaginable: a pooch who soon calmed my nerves. Hostel Cloud Forest is definitely the best of the trip so far: I had my own room with a double bed; two hammocks outside the room; a lounge and games room with two pool tables and ping pong; and very friendly staff. Feeling tired, both physically and emotionally, I allowed myself a wee siesta before dinner and plonked my bags down before burrowing under the five provided blankets, a rather ominous sign of the impending plummeting temperature.

I awoke before my alarm and for a moment my befuddled mind couldn’t work out why. Thankfully, my olfactory organs kicked into gear, identifying the rather acrid smell of burning plastic. It seemed the incongruous looking water pipe that ran through the ceiling and floor was in fact a chimney, and had been steadily heating up thanks to the fire in the lounge room below. I grabbed my backpack from where it had been leaning against the chimney, and discovered that not only had one of the clasps been completely melted, and a side pocket burned, but the handles on my day knapsack, which had been stored in the aforementioned pocket, had also been completely burned through, rendering it useless. I also realised that I had also lost my favourite hoody somewhere between Baños and Chugchilán. All in all, not the best day ever.

There were several catalysts for me to take this sabbatical: approaching the age my father was when he died; being off work and unwell for seven weeks last summer; and the tragic passing of my good friend Tom after multiple battles with cancer. Tom was one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met: driven, kind, funny, an amazing husband and father, with the ability to talk to anyone. His greatest gift however was making you feel special. Tom, and his wife Taffy, were two of my coaches when I played netball for the England national team, but more importantly, amazing friends.

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Despite being a giant softy away from the court, Tom was a demon on it, always pushing us to be the best we could be. Tom once told me that it doesn’t matter whether you play an amazing match or if you perform badly. What matters is that at the final whistle, you walk off the court knowing that you gave everything possible until you had nothing left. It was rather fitting therefore that on the one year anniversary of Tom’s death, it was his voice ringing in my ear in South America when I undertook the biggest physical challenge of my life to date.

Now, it sounds rather silly once I tell you that this ‘challenge’ was a 10km hike. However, trekking up and down the ridges of Lake Quilotoa, for nearly seven hours at an altitude of 3,600m above sea level, was like nothing else I’ve experienced. Thankfully, the incredible views made it all worth it, and I loved having Tom there with me, even if only in spirit (and his whining voice making fun of me), to help me through the last 90 minutes which were the toughest.

Tom, it doesn’t matter where I am in the world, you’ll always be with me, encouraging me, annoying me and making me laugh at inappropriate moments. I love you buddy.

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Raising the heart rate in Baños…

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Leaving the jungle behind was tough, but I soon cheered up when I started reading about the next stop: Baños. Driving through the Ecuadorian highlands, we arrived just outside in a village called Rio Verde near the Tungurahua volcano. The mountain views from the campsite are pretty special but they’re not the best thing about our accommodation for the next three nights. That honour goes to camp doggies Bambu and Rita who are both tickle monsters.

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My new bestie, Astrid, and I decided to break the tour company rule of single sexed tent sharing for solo travellers and I’m so glad we did as she wakes me up with a cuppa every morning. I needed it too after discovering that my water bottle had leaked during the night leaving me with only one set of dry clothes.

Baños is an adventure junkie’s paradise so naturally on the first day I decided to treat myself to a 90 minute full body massage. The accompanying pan pipe music lost most of its soothing effect given that the front door to the salon was wide open meaning the soundtrack was punctuated with the sound of traffic and trucks reversing. The massage wasn’t entirely relaxing. After being instructed to turn onto my back, the massage therapist proceeded to blindfold me before wafting something under my nose. Anticipating that I was about to lose consciousness and be robbed, I started to get up before realising that it was in fact lavender oil and not rohypnol.

Feeling invigorated, I signed up to go rock climbing up one of the many cliffs in the canyon with three of the guys on my trip; they’re from the UK, Germany and Australia. Sebastian from Germany squirreled up the first course, something I can safely say wasn’t replicated by the rest of us. The start of the climb was really difficult as the footholds were really far apart and my little legs struggled. After four failed attempts, I had a rest and instead took over the support ropes for the others. Meda, our instructor, encouraged me to have one final attempt and somehow I made it to the summit. Abseiling down, I wore the biggest grin and felt such a sense of achievement. Ian, who has a fear of heights, decided to try again too after only previously making it halfway, and soon reached the top. It was great to see his elation at conquering a fear, and we’re all planning to go again when we reach Huarez in a couple of weeks.

On our second day in Baños, a few of us decided to try canyoning which is where you hike up a waterfall before abseiling down through the cascading water. We were in for a nasty surprise at the last waterfall however:

After such an exhilarating day, I decided to treat myself to coffee, cake and wifi. There’s a great cafe which enables you to buy food for homeless dogs, so I gave them enough for one week’s worth. It felt good to be able to help, even just a little. It’s Ken and mine’s one year anniversary today and he sent me pictures of himself reenacting our first date. Alone. It’s probably the first time since coming away that I’ve had pangs of homesickness. Thankfully lots of others in the group are in similar situations when wifi enables news from home, and they are happy to chat things through. The other climber, Matt, got engaged two weeks before he left on his six month adventure!!

Tomorrow we have a long drive day to Chugchilán via the spectacular highland scenery along the Quilotoa Loop, where we will embark upon one of the ‘most beautiful day treks in the whole of South America’. Until then….

In this jungle, this mighty jungle….

 

20171022_1058591233701945.jpgToday we left sprawling Quito to experience the even greater sprawl of the Amazon rainforest.  I have conflicting emotions about the upcoming four days: on the one hand, I’m very excited to be in a place filled with incredible and unique flora and fauna, a place that I’ve longed to visit ever since my grandparents introduced me to the wonder that is David Attenborough and the BBC’s wonderful Natural History unit; on the other hand, I have a very real fear of spiders and my nervousness in this regard grew stronger as the bus wound it’s way down the mountain.

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My thoughts however were soon elsewhere when our truck came to a sudden halt. Unfortunately, a lorry had crashed over the side of the mountain. It was horrific to see the mangled cab being winched back up to the road, and everyone in the group was rather shell shocked when we realised that the driver hadn’t made it out alive. It was a chastening moment and a reminder of how important it is to live life to the full and in the present. 

 

Naturally we were delayed for quite a while and the call of nature soon arrived. Having seen several Ecuadorians relieving themselves off the side of the mountain, I decided to do the same. I hadn’t anticipated, however, being a human shield while two ladies, to whom I’d spoken to for the first time only hours before, did the same. Yet here we were. I have to admit it was probably the best view I’ve ever had peeing and a good bonding moment. 

I’ve become besties with a 60-something Australian lady called Astrid who calls me GaryPatrick. She is fascinating and educating in equal measure and I’m already dreading saying goodbye to her when she leaves us in Santiago. She has left her husband at home on their farm while she travels alone for six months. I hope when I’m in my 60s, I have a similar continued thirst for travel. 

We drove deeper into the jungle and after six bumpy hours, we arrived at our eco-lodge. We were allocated bungalows and had time to change before embarking on a wee hike before dinner. I started to feel like I was in heaven, when in fact it seemed we were in hell: two of my fellow travellers appeared to tell us that there was a tarantula on their porch. Despite being nowhere near it (well 100ft away), a shudder went through my body. It took a little longer than usual to get to sleep that night.

Over the next couple of days we trekked through the jungle, guided by Miguel whose knowledge and sense of humour contributed to making it an amazingly interactive experience. We went spelunking in jungle caves in which whip scorpions (which looked like giant, hand-sized spiders) and bats had taken up residence. It wasn’t so bad at first, but once the roof height decreased to 1.2m, they were a little too close for comfort. It didn’t help when this happened either: 

I loved seeing leaf-cutter ants go about their business. They’re so industrious and strong and as far as ants go, pretty cute. I got a thrill seeing birds of paradise plants in the wild, rather than in a vase at home. I also spotted a furry version which I’d never seen before, but Miguel pointed out that it was actually dying due to a fungus infestation.

We boated down the Napo River, where I truly felt like we were in the heart of the jungle, to visit an animal sanctuary whose main aim was to rehabilitate the animals  in order for them to return to the wild. Some of the stories of abuse and neglect were horrifying. My partner and I have often spoken of our dream to one day run an animal shelter and the experience here has just made my desire in that regard grow ever stronger. 

Tomorrow we begin the drive out of the jungle. I actually can’t remember what’s next on the itinerary and I’ve lost track of what day it is; bliss. I just hope we get to sit on top of the truck as we did today. 

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Quito-oh-oh-oh…..

 

Anyone who knows me well will tell you I’m not a morning person. However, thanks to jetlag, I was awake early enough to witness an amazing sunrise in Quito. Unfortunately, I was a little non compos mentis at this hour and didn’t think to take some snaps in time, although the short video above should give you an idea.

I decided to get up and explore the city while it was still relatively cool. Unfortunately, I’m something of a sweater – as my friends who celebrated my recent birthday will attest to, and unlike my friend, Steffen, who can dance for hours without producing nary a bead of sweat – and it took all of forty minutes before the combination of the Old Town’s steep inclines and the altitude persuaded me to take it easy for the rest of the day. Thankfully, Ecuadorian Netflix has season three of How to Get Away with Murder (take note Netherlands) and I was happy to spend the evening in the company of the wonderful Viola Davis.

I awoke the next morning feeling much better, and by that I mean it no longer felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest, so I decided to go for a hike in the surrounding mountains. I took a cab to the TelefériQo, a cable car which takes you a further 4,000 feet higher (the second highest cable car in the world no less), and to the starting point for the walk. Coming from Amsterdam where taxi fares are the 6th most expensive in the world, I struggled to keep the shock from my expression when the driver charged me the grand sum of $3.

I’d read online that the queues for the cable car can be up to an hour long, but due to my early arrival I was the only one in my carriage and was whisked straight to the top. Many reviews online commented on how the increase in altitude can be tough, so I spent some time sitting down while looking at the incredible views of the sprawling city and surrounding volcanos from this vantage point of 13,500ft, but after 10 minutes I felt no worse and decided to explore a bit further afield. During the next two hours spent hiking on the mountain, I only saw four other people. One guy was determined to get to the top but I wasn’t confident I had the required four hours of additional hiking in me so I descended.

I spent the afternoon relaxing (read: gulping in air) before heading out to try some Ecuadorian food for the first time. One of the things I had been most looking forward to on this trip was trying a range of cuisines of which I didn’t have much experience. So I bypassed the restaurant offering burgers for $1 and ended up at La Purisima which wasn’t too far from the apartment. After negotiating the una mesa para uno por favor, I was excited to see a menu filled with local dishes. I plumped for an appetizer of bonitisimas, a traditional savoury Ecuadorian dish of black corn encasing a potato and cream cheese filling, followed by Chancho ahumado como en Quinindé. That’s smoked oven roasted brisket to you and me. The pork was served in a potato, egg and mint ‘sauce’ which at first I was a bit wary of, but it was pretty nice. Egg and mint, who knew?! I decided to walk the meal off back to the apartment, although some streets seemed a little sketchy in the dark so I quickened my pace up the hills. Not my best idea given that I spent the next 20 minutes gasping for breath on the stairwell before heading to bed. 

Today is my last day in Quito and I’ve really enjoyed the past few days, despite the altitude headaches. Everyone I’ve interacted with has been friendly and accommodating of my appalling Spanish. A smile never seems far from their lips either. I’ve also liked feeling tall for a change, something that never happens back home in the Netherlands where the average male stands at 6ft / 184cm.

This evening I met with my fellow tour group travellers and it’s the first night of room sharing. Fingers crossed I don’t snore. Check in was slightly bizarre in that not only was I given a key (attached to a maraca naturally) but also a remote control for the TV. We set off early doors tomorrow to drive into the Amazon for some jungle trekking. I have a great fear of spiders having been subjected to the film Arachnophobia in my formative years, and generally enquire of men on a first date if they can handle the eight-legged nightmares on my behalf should we ever end up living together.  Needless to say, I didn’t get second dates very often. Fingers crossed we don’t come across any tarantulas in the next four days, or if we do, that someone in the group doesn’t mind a strange British man grabbing onto them for dear life!

Tres, dos, uno….ya!

The day has finally arrived! My South American adventure starts here, although it very nearly didn’t thanks to Amsterdam’s public transport, but that’s a story for another day.  I waved goodbye to my teary partner at Schiphol – who got even more teary once he’d returned home to discover that I’d left him a box containing a note for every day I’m away – and boarded my KLM flight to Quito, where I’d spend the next 11 hours feeling queasy from the boozy fumes emanating from the Russian man I was seated next to who was quaffing multiple cans of Heineken like it was Sprite.  I guess this isn’t surprising given that beer was classified as a soft drink in Russia until 2013. No really, look it up.

I usually sleep on planes but I found myself enthralled by a Dutch movie called Brasserie Valentijn. The whole movie takes place in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day and is a very clever observation on relationships. It’s styling and quirkiness reminded me of the French film Huit Femmes (Eight Women). I highly recommend both. I struck out early on the Dutch movie front however as the next two I viewed weren’t quite so good: Mannen Harten (Manly Hearts) is a watchable comedy with a Love Actually-esque  feel about it; Broers (Brothers) was not so watchable and I switched off at halfway. I also watched Snatched, a comedy starring Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn in which they get kidnapped. In Ecuador. Good choice Gary.

Towards the end of the flight, we were rewarded with stunning views of the Andes. I was somewhat surprised when we touched down as I hadn’t anticipated landing on top of a mountain! From disembarking the plane to getting in a taxi took all of 15 minutes. The immigration staff were welcoming and friendly with big smiles – take note United States – and I exited the airport sporting a similarly wide grin. The drive to Quito was spectacular, although I was somewhat perturbed when we turned off the smooth highway to continue on a broken, narrow road up the mountainside. After a suspension-testing five minutes, I was thinking that it’s a good job buses don’t use this route given the limited width of the road, when I looked up to see that hurtling towards us was in fact a big green bus. My taxi driver coped admirably and was also very friendly, pointing things out to me in Spanish to which I dutifully nodded while confidently saying ‘vale, vale‘.

Given that over the next few months I will be mainly camping in the wild, camping in campsites or staying in hostels, I decided to treat myself to a nice apartment for the first few days while I acclimatise. I arrived at my AirBnB digs and upon entering I vowed never to leave.  To be greeted with a jacuzzi bath and an incredible view of Quito after the long journey from Amsterdam nearly made me cry. The owner actually lives in Brussels but the security guard, Segundo – which I subsequently learned means ‘second’ in Spanish  – showed me around and was obviously used to dealing with overly emotional gringos, handling my wonderment with barely concealed bemusement. Segundo doesn’t speak English, but with a combination of hand gestures, my French language ability and the smattering of Spanish I know from warbling along to Josh Groban and J-Lo songs, we managed to communicate adequately. 

Having settled in I walked to the local supermercado to stock the kitchen for the next few days, but I hadn’t quite bargained for how steep the streets are in the Old Town. It made sense given the view I’d been afforded, but my brain wasn’t working too well at this point.  Quito is 9,350 feet above sea level, while Amsterdam is 6 feet below sea level, and the difference it makes is astonishing. After just two hours, I developed a headache and was struggling to take in enough oxygen, so I decided to drink in the view rather than another cerveza and get an early night.

My plan was, however, scuppered by the neighbourhood perros who are not only numerous, but very vocal. I love dogs and have managed to persuade my partner to allow us to have one upon my return from this trip (no takesies-backsies Ken!) but this cacophonous canine choir was not conducive to sleep. Thus, I sought out the amazing earplugs I recently bought in Amsterdam having discovered them when I needed something to combat the noise from my new upstairs neighbours who, shortly after moving in, were enthusiastically christening every room at very frequent intervals. Anyway, after ten minutes of searching, the sad realisation dawned on me that I had left the silicon silencers in my bathroom at home. Thankfully, jetlag welcomed me into her embrace and I fell into a much needed nine-hour slumber, feeling excited and nervous about what the next 102 days have in store for me.

Gary the gringo goes forth…..

In a few weeks’ time, I shall be heading to South America for nearly four months as I take a sabbatical from my job for what I hope to be an adventurous and enlightening experience.

I considered organising the trip myself, but after a couple of days of trying to put together an itinerary and already breaking out in a sweat from the stress, I decided to look online for help. It appeared in the form of STA Travel’s January sale! There was a trip from Quito in Ecuador to Buenos Aires in Argentina, taking in several other wondrous* countries along the 94 day journey which at first glance looked expensive, but with the post-Christmas discount applied it actually was comparable to organising the trip myself, so I put down the deposit and started dreaming of Patagonia, a part of the world I’ve always wanted to see given my interest in animals and nature.

*I thought it was spelled incorrectly too and missing an ‘e’, but apparently not.

BabyG

My interest in natural history stems from spending school holidays with my wonderful grandparents who let me stay up to watch every nature documentary on TV. It’s no secret that David Attenborough is my ideal man. I also got my love of sport from Pops and Nanny Dot, who, whenever a sporting event clashed with a documentary, would wheel in the small television from the back room and plonk it on top of the main box in the lounge. We watched both programmes at the same time, with the sport commentary muted until the documentary had finished. Oh the youth of today have it so easy with their on-demand viewing.

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