Friday, 8 August 2008, Vilcabamba
With our time in Ecuador almost over, we are now looking to Peru and the possibilities that country holds for us. But before we get ahead of ourselves we should share our experiences south of Quito, including 3 weeks in Cuenca, a city we grew to love more each day - if it wasn't just a bit too cool due to its altitude (2,600 mts), we would call it a very liveable city.
Our first stop after leaving Quito was a cold night on the outskirts of the Cotopaxi National Park. Fortunately we had a very nice view of the volcano on our way down the Pan Americana, when the clouds disappeared from its top for long enough to find a place to pull over and get the camera out. This part of the highway south of Quito is called the Avenue of the Volcanoes - this year's extra long rain season meant that the clear view of Cotopaxi was the exception, since we didn't really see any of the others clearly along this route. When we woke the next morning in the National Park, the whole area was covered in dense fog which hadn't lifted by the time we drove out of the park. Admittedly this was at 7:30 am, which is particularly early for us, but the place we had parked to spend the night was next to a road used by trucks hauling either rocks or timber. The first truck rumbled in at 4:30, making sure we were wide awake!
Early rising was ultimately to our advantage because we wanted to begin the Quilotoa Circuit that day and, being a Saturday, was the perfect day to visit the market in Zumbahua - according to our guide book. We turned off the highway at Latacunga and, as promised, the scenery along this route is beautiful. More patchwork fields stretching right up the mountains as high as possible - or even, from our point of view, impossible - local indigenes in colourful garments watching their animals (including our first view of domesticated llamas), and steep rocky peaks, some shrouded in low cloud. From a misty morning it turned into quite a clear, if cold and windy, day.
We arrived at Zumbahua soon after 10:00 and spent a pleasant hour wandering in the small village. It is not a market for tourists, although a few find their way there, but rather for the locals to sell and buy their wares. It was certainly colourful and afforded lots of opportunities to observe, and sometimes photograph, the curious and fascinating sights to be seen - sheep being loaded onto the top of a bus to be transported home by their new owner; a man mending felt hats, even though they appeared to be past their 'use by' date; a pick-up truck loaded with people and the chickens hanging on the outside; but most of all the interesting faces of the local people, dressed in their finest for the most important day in the week. As we were leaving we were most excited to spot 2 other camping vehicles parked near the market. We stopped to chat and discovered 2 French couples who were on their way north. Unfortunately the conversation was quite short since they didn't have much English, our French is almost totally lacking and Spanish was also a bit patchy on both sides.
From Zumbahua we drove on to Lake Quilotoa - the crater lake after which this scenic route is named. Outside of Zumbahua we were awed by a system of very deep canyons, which we had the opportunity to view from both above and inside, as the road passed by and through them. The crater lake with its green water is beautiful. For the 5 minutes that we looked at it we were most impressed! Unfortunately it was one of the coldest and windiest places we have experienced so far in Latin America (3-4 degrees) and we just couldn't stay there any longer to admire its beauty. Perhaps a foretaste of things to come - we have heard that it gets very windy down in Chile and Argentina!
The rest of the day was spent travelling from Lake Quilotoa to Chugchilán, where we would spend the night. The scenery continued to be spectacular - mountains going on forever, barren-looking in places, but lots of foliage in others - bottomless canyons - and patchwork everywhere. We were pleasantly surprised by the road which, although unpaved, was mostly sandy dirt and didn't produce too many hard, bumpy bits. In Chugchilán we were made welcome at the Cloud Forest Hostal, where we shared the evening with an interesting group of English teenagers on a school trip. The owners were very hospitable and we had the cheapest trout meal we have ever eaten - $2 for a dinner which included soup and dessert!
In the morning we watched while the English kids learnt how to load their backpacks onto donkeys for the 3-day hike up to Lake Quilotoa, and then happily drove onwards in our truck camper to eventually arrive back at Latacunga. We had heard the road to Sigchos was slightly worse than the previous day's drive - wrong, it was much worse! The scenery was still great but it was a very bumpy ride, most of the way to Toacaso - a mixture of dirt, cobblestones and paved road in very bad condition. It improved through to Saquisilí, and then was fine back towards the 'Pan Am'. It felt great, as always, to be back on a good road.
We continued on the 'Pan Am' from Latacunga to Ambato, then turned off towards Baños. It was very interesting to see the results up close of a still active volcano. The Tungurahua crater is only 8 km from the town and its last eruption occurred in 1999-2000 after 80 years of inactivity. The results of this are clearly evident as one drives into the town. Baños itself didn't strike us as very interesting - a typical tourist town - so we drove through and eventually stopped in the town of Rio Verde for the night. This had us in a good position to visit the Cascada del Pailón del Diablo (the Devil's Cauldron) on the river Verde, which is right next to the town. It is a walk of more than a km downhill and then the same back up, but it is really worth it - we only wished we had worn better walking shoes and taken our hiking sticks with us. The walk is through rainforest, so the steep path is inclined to be wet and slick in places. The waterfall produces beautiful rainbows in the spray, which are best seen near where it falls, so it can be a bit damp. There is also a suspension bridge over the Rio Verde and the view of the entire waterfall from the other side is spectacular.
After 2 fairly long and sometimes difficult driving days around the Quilotoa Circuit we were both pretty exhausted, so we decided to drive back into Baños and spend the night, before venturing further south. The road, which we had driven in a bit of a daze the previous evening, follows the course of Rio Verde and has a series of waterfalls along its length. We stopped at a couple of these, but none of them was as spectacular as the Devil's Cauldron. Our maps showed a road which runs directly from Baños to Riobamba, but we had heard that it had been closed after the volcano eruption. So we visited the tourist office for up to date information and found it was still so. Road repairs are a long, slow process in this country, as we had already discovered, and were to continue to experience.
We had thought to spend the night next at Baños de la Virgen, thermal baths beside a waterfall of the same name, but we talked to a policeman who suggested it would be safer to park 2 blocks up next to a suburban park/playground. When we also realised that the baths open for business at around 4:30 am, we decided he was probably right. Before moving though, we went for a bath in the very hot water - the place is so popular that it was literally 'standing room only'.
The next morning we drove back towards the Pan Americana and headed south. We were pleased to discover a gas plant along the way but not so pleased when it took us over an hour to convince them they should fill our cylinder, have the cylinder filled and then to pay for it. Bureaucracy at its best! It also cost us almost $10 because gas is heavily subsidised in this country for the locals' use, and they decided we would have to pay an unsubsidised amount. This differed greatly to our experience in Cuenca where we had 2 bottles filled on separate occasions at a cost of $1 each!
Our aim was to reach Ingapirca (a small Inca ruin site to the east of the highway) for the night. In kilometre terms it seemed very possible, but the road was by turns very good, rough with lots of potholes, dirt needing some attention, and road works, where we had to wait while they were making the road so that we could drive on it. Coupled with the long time spent at the gas plant, we didn't reach the ruins until almost 6:30, just as it was getting dark. Another exhausting day of driving. I know that we are supposed to be 'on holiday' and life should just be relaxing, yet some days feel like they are anything but!
It rained most of the night and on and off all morning. At around 9:30, during a semi-dry spell, we walked through the ruins. The sun was trying to shine, but it was really cold, due to a terribly cold wind. Even so, the site was interesting and I think we were both happy that we had made the effort to leave the highway to visit it. The road back to the highway was quite good and had nice mountainous scenery, although it was very built up with lots of new houses. We found out in Cuenca from a local, that the houses are funded by family members who go to the United States to work, and although they look like they are straight from Florida or Beverly Hills on the outside, the plumbing, electricity and the finish inside don't reach the same standards. On the way to Cuenca we wondered once again at the fact that the road we followed is called the Pan American "Highway", because the state of it did not really agree with the images that word evokes. Fortunately it wasn't far to Cuenca and we arrived early in the afternoon. It then took us 2 hours of driving around to find the place we planned to stay - Cabañas Yanuncay - with no decent city map, and only rough directions and the GPS coordinates to go by. The owner, Umberto, was welcoming and helpful, and we settled in to relax a bit. (Unfortunately we discovered that relaxing wasn't really possible at Umberto's, due to the presence of a number or free-ranging roosters who liked to greet the dawn anytime after about 3:00 am - usually right outside the camper.) But we stayed there on and off over the 3 week period, and his free-range eggs were really good!
Continuation on > Page 2 > !