I was sad to be leaving Colombia where I had experienced such warmth and hospitality and had discovered some of its many treasures. Having left on the high of a ceasefire, it was with sadness that I read of the people’s vote against ratification of the treaty. I hope this won’t result in more conflicts, which will inevitably make the country less safe for travellers. Certainly the young Colombians I have met since, are all frustrated by the regressive vote.
I had a ‘Smiley’ style rendezvous on the Colombia/Ecuador border. My mission was to meet Gaby, a young Ecuadorian who I had met on a long train ride in Myanmar back in January, in a famous ice cream parlour in Ipiales main square so that she could cross the border with me into Tulcan where her parents live.
I sat for an hour nursing my not-so-incredible ice cream and then a tall dark stranger approached me, said he was Gustavo, Gaby’s father, that she was held up in Quito and that he had therefore come to collect me. I duly followed and was to spend 3 restful days in Gustavo (one day my junior) and his delightful wife Sonia’s home. Sonia’s 90 year old mother lives with them and she was a happy reminder of my dear mum; frail but totally compus mentis, passing the day sitting in a chair by the window, a long silver grey plait trailing down her back, watching the world go by.
Sonia and I shopped in the market and she showed my how to prepared the famous dishes of sopa de papas (potatoes, spinach and avocado) and cerviche de camarones (prawns in onion, tomato, lime and herbs) served with frijoles, fried corn, popcorn and banana chips. I reckon she would give Martin Morales of Cerviche Soho fame a run for his money.
Tulcan is renowned for its unique cemetery, which was designed by Gustavo’s uncle. Another uncle was responsible for carving the statue in the main square, so clearly an important family in the community. The feature of the 3-acre cemetery is the topiary, which is the most elaborate in the world, with enormous designs depicting Ecuador’s aboriginals, wildlife etc. It’s a surreal place equally beautiful at night as during the day.
Gaby arrived from Quito carrying 4-weeks worth of dirty laundry. I bit my lip, but really, a 29 year old traveling in a bus for 5 hours with her washing which her mother insists on doing so that it can dry outside, rather than in a laundrette dryer in the capital!
My next destination was the market town of Otavalo. Gustavo kindly agreed to drive me there so we all piled into the car (Gustavo, Sonia, Gaby, me……and the still slightly damp washing). We drove through stunning countryside to the Andean Reserva Ecológica El Ángel which is home to the rare frailejones plant, boasting distinctive creamy flowers, fuzzy rabbit-ear leaves and a thick trunk. Stretching for miles, they look like weird sentinels.
What I love about travelling is discovering new, unique things. Many of the countries I’ve visited and plan to visit have similar things (historic town centres, markets, lakes, mountains, volcanos, forests) and so it’s a question of doing one’s homework to decide which are the most spectacular or unusual examples.
I hadn’t done enough homework on Ecuador before taking day trips from Quito to Quilotoa lake and Cotopaxi mountain. Both are beautiful and I was proud of climbing 4800m to the glacier and cycling back down (scary), but neither are as jaw-droppingly stunning as those in the Cordillera Blanca (of which more when I write my Peru blog).
Likewise the Amazonian area of Cuyabena (an interminable spine-crunching, butt-numbing journey), where I spent an okay, but not outstanding, 5 days looking for wildlife. Because of dense, lush jungle it’s difficult to spot animals, and there are too many boats with noisy engines and noisy tourists, plus I think I had been spoiled by my incredible experiences in the jungles of Borneo. However, I did see several species of monkey including the cute squirrel monkey, a couple of sloth (sleeping of course), endangered pink river dolphins, nocturnal caiman and lots of creepy crawlies like giant scorpion, tarantulas, shoe string boas and tree frogs. Apart from a beautiful eagle, the bird life was the biggest disappointment but this was made up for by a couple of magical dawn and dusk canoe trips and by being constantly surrounded by thousands of butterflies.
Shockingly, the current President has sold all of Ecuador’s oil to China for the next 20 years. The result is that the biodiverse Yasuni National Park, is being destroyed at an alarmingly rapid and apparently unregulated pace.
After that slight detour, back to Otavalo, which is one of Ecuador’s best-loved towns. I was very lucky that the evening I arrived was the first of a 10-(yes TEN) night fiesta. The streets were thronged with families watching a wonderful procession of floats with beauty queens throwing roses and musicians, dancers and acrobats in traditional costume following behind, each representing a different Ecuadorian region or town. There must have been 100 or more floats affording hours of entertainment. I managed to squeeze close to the front railings and had a great time chatting to locals and enjoying the kaleidoscopic parade, followed by thousands of dollars worth of fireworks. Otavalo is famous for its food, which I unashamedly tucked into and it’s huge Saturday market which engulfs the whole town. There’s a traditional arts and crafts market selling gorgeous clothes, jewellery, pottery etc. And it washere that I made my first purchase for my granddaughter Tilly.
Best of all is the animal market selling, cattle, pigs, chickens, rabbits and sackfuls of guinea pigs at $5 a pop! Buyers and sellers alike laughed when I told them that in the west guinea pigs are pets. They helpfully told me that a bit of salt and pepper and 30 minutes on the spit makes for a nutritious meal. Vive la difference!
Otavalan men, like most S Americans they’re not very tall but they’re charming and elegant – especially with their long plaits. I spent a memorable night in a bar with an Otavalan band and after a couple of lethal glasses of moonshine, joined in by shaking the maracas-like bulls nails whilst the locals danced on the tables!
After Quito, followed by Guayaquil (my jumping off point for the Galapagos Islands), Cuenca comes in third. Think cobbled streets, colonial squares, grand churches, a fast-flowing river and the immaculate ruins of Tumbaba, a little-visited Inca city and you have a perfect 2-3 day retreat. Oh yes, and it is the home of the Panama hat, which, contrary to popular belief is not from Panama but received its name as the canal was the route to export to the USA. It takes about 30 minutes to tour the museum but I found myself holed up there for 2 hours waiting out the most torrential downpour, so there is very little I don’t know about how to make the perfect hat.
Finally, sprawling, polluted, over-crowded Quito. I was fortunate to be staying with Gaby and her brother in a nice neighbourhood but can’t say I warmed to the city. Sure the historic centre has some impressive squares, buildings, churches and museums, the best being the San Francisco monastery, the Alabado Museum (full of incredible ceramics dating back to 2000B.C) and S America’s foremost 20th century artist, Oswalde Guayasamin’s stunning house and gallery, but it doesn’t seem to have a soul. It also frustrated me because I couldn’t change my dollar travellers cheques or find more contact lenses or get my camera mended or post a parcel to the UK. Grrr.
Ecuador is three times the size of Colombia but with just 15m people, is a third of the population. The difference between the haves and the have nots is marked. There are the elite who’ve got rich through oil and mining and then there are people who live in extreme poverty. I met some Andean families living in shacks with no electricity or running water with guinea pigs living inside to ward off evil spirits. They told me that the community supports each other but that they get little help from the government. There is no social security, free health care is available for minor illnesses (assuming you can get to a hospital) but not for terminal ones, nor is there dental care. Girls often leave school at 15 to get married and start a family. Boys will move to the nearest town or city for their education and typically never return. If you can afford a car, petrol is $2 a gallon but with $ currency everything else is about 4 times as expensive as in Colombia. I really don’t know how most people make ends meet.
The Galapagos Islands are something else altogether.
600 miles off the coast there are 19 volcanic islands, 5 of which are inhabited by people and animals, the remaining 14 being inhabited solely by animals!
The whole of Galapagos has UNESCO status. The waters are protected from fishing and the land is protected from development. This means that the flora, fauna and marine life are the star players and, because the islands were never attached to the mainland, 40% of everything is endemic to Galapagos. The islands are not without their problems. Several plants and animals have become endangered by blackberry bushes, feral pigs, donkeys and goats introduced by the first settlers and more recently by a fly which has all but killed off the marsh finch. Encouragingly, there is significant government investment in eradication of these intruders and in breeding programmes so the future is looking pretty positive.
I spent an incredible two weeks visiting most of the islands, both on day excursions and on a fabulous 5 days cruise with a group of really lovely 30-40 year olds from across the globe, and a brilliant guide whose impersonation of courting blue-footed boobies was worthy of an Oscar. I also did a few dives but the visibility was poor and the waters were cold, and whilst I did see hammerhead sharks, most of the other marine life I equally saw snorkelling. This included swimming with penguins, sea lions, turtles, reef sharks and iguanas.
What’s so interesting is that each island has its own specific wildlife, which has evolved over time into species best suited to their environment. On all the islands I was literally tripping over animals on land, crashing into them in the sea and ducking for cover from them in the sky.
Every lunchtime on the cruise we were treated to a different marine show: whale sharks one day, humpback whales the next, a school of dolphins the next and rarest of all a couple of massive sword fish which sent the captain into a state of ecstacy such that he left the wheel to take photos!
If you’re thinking of going to Galapagos there’s no rush. In fact the more successful the breeding programmes become, the more wildlife there’ll be to enjoy but start saving your pennies now because it sure ain’t cheap. Also choose your time of year depending on what you want to see.
I didn’t know when I’d be in Galapagos until a few days before. I booked a flight and just turned up with no clue what I was going to see. Considering it was ‘low season’, I absolutely lucked out. Nowhere was crowded, the weather was kind , everyone I met super-friendly and it was lobster season! One memorable night I danced in Santa Cruz main square with a sweet little girl who wouldnt let me sit down for about half an hour, another night I watched five aside football on the beach whilst eating lobster and one more I drank wine froma plastic cup in the port, watching sharks circle below me whilst listening to two young local men tell me about their recent divorces and how bereft they were. I think the bottle of wine and my mothly advice helped easy the pain!
I decided to make a list of every creature I encountered during my Galapagos odyssey. Here it is together with lots of photos, which I hope you enjoy.
Albatross + chicks
Blue-foot boobies and chicks
Swallow tailed gulls
Long beak ground finches
Great blue heron
Black neck stilts
Black tipped reef sharks
White tipped reef sharks
Common dolphins (not common!)
Tiger Snake eels
Shoals of Salema
Many fish inc Emperor angel, parrot, box, puffer, stone, scorpion, surgeon, frog
Land & Sea:
Sea lions, juveniles and pups
Giant Galapagos turtles
Juvenile & baby turtles
To see the pics bigger click on each one.
Phew, I think that covers everything!
Next up Peru……..