Wednesday, 19 November 2008

The jungle, train roofs and balancing eggs on nails

No rest for the exhausted, as when we got down from from Cotopaxi we headed straight for Baños. Flagged a bus down on the Panamericana. We put our bags in the storage area under the bus and got on, but at no point did the bus stop! Having climbed a mountain, the thing I needed most was to spend two hours standing up on a bus. The one time I did get a seat a woman carrying a baby got on so stood up again. Couldn´t stand up straight either not surprisingly!

We´d heard that the FCO were advising against travel to Baños because the volcano might erupt, which we actually thought might make the trip more interesting! Apparently though there is always some risk of an eruption so the web site is just being cautious. The FCO said this:

"We advise against all but essential travel within six miles of the volcano in all directions, including Baños, due to the current possibility of further eruptions. If you are travelling through Baños, we would advise you to do this as quickly as possible in order to minimise the risk"

Baños - the Ecuadorean equivalent of Bath - was nice, and next day we hired bikes to see how far we could get of the 61km to Puyo. It was a really nice ride as it was almost all downhill through a valley, and there were a load of waterfalls en route. At one point we had to go through a tunnel and there were no lights. The only thing we had to be visible was the red light on my head torch attached to the back of my cycle helmet. You couldn´t see the road either but by following the light at the end of tunnel (literally) we made it out in one piece. There were plenty of other tunnels that were not lit which would have been certain death because you couldn't see the other side but fortunately there were cycle routes round the side instead of through the mountain.

We made it as far as Rio Negro before having a beer and turning back. Its uphill all the way back so the guide book says put your bikes on the roof or a bus. We saw very few buses on the way with roof racks and one we tried to flag down just ignored us, so we eventually hitched back in the back of some dude´s pick up truck. Half way up another family jumped in with us so was a bit of a squeeze. This was good fun though and definitely felt like an authentic way to travel!

Next day we headed on a three day jungle trip. On the way we stopped at a sanctuary for rescued animals. There were lots of very tame monkeys running around who spent all their time either fighting each other or trying to climb up the tourists. They weren´t climbing up me though, because, thats right, I ran away! I was surrounded at one point, but managed to escape. Just not a fan of animals climbing up me. I blame my parents as I never had a pet as a kid. Probably a good thing though as it means I am quite willing to eat family pets as evidenced by the guinea pig in Peru last year. Must also find out where they serve dog if I´m ever in Hanoi again!

Over the three days we did various hikes to waterfalls or lookout points. Leonardo, our guide for the trip, knew the jungle like the back of his hand...unfortunately he didn´t know the back of his hand too well, as on several occasions I´m sure he was lost. Actually thats not fair, he was only lost once, it just lasted three days. We got to everywhere in the end though and the waterfalls were pretty good, and we got to swim in the pools which was nice.
All these treks were done in wellies because we had to negotiate streams and lots of mud, but top tip is don´t hike in wellies if you can avoid it. They offer no grip, support, or stability; just not comfortable.

During the first night we got woken up by a cockerel and a parrot having a shouting competition at 4am. My first words when we got up were "has anyone got a gun, there´s a cockerel that needs to die." From speaking to the other people on the tour, it would be form an orderly queue.

After the first night we transferred to a different village in wooden canoes made from tree trunks. The guys driving didn´t fill you with confidence that they knew what they were doing or that they had done it before, as we seemed to be going backwards through rapids and getting stuck on rocks. We even almost tipped once, but we made it to the next village in one piece and not too wet.

Leonardo wasn´t the most enthusiastic guide but was friendly. But we were sitting around waiting for further instruction and he wasn´t around, but we found him in a hut which was a bar! Three Brits, two Germans and a Canadian and he doesn´t tell us about a bar. (Obviously despite being in the jungle we weren´t too far from civilization if the indigenous villages have bars!)

There was a bar game on offer far better than Jenga, Connect 4 and anything else you find in the UK – fire arrows through a blowpipe at a wooden monkey! This was good fun. I´d love to see that in Wetherspoons.

We tried to go see some Caimans that night but we got attacked my ants which were climbing up our shoes and legs. So ants join the ever growing list of animals that have got the better of me this holiday!

Next day we went to see a Shaman in a nearby village. We waited patiently for him to arrive in the shop selling all the local handicrafts – there is a credit crunch going you know, even Shaman have to make a living – but he just shook our hands when he showed up. No spiritual enlightenment, no fancy rituals, nothing, not even a rendition of Ebenezer Goode (apologies to those who are too old or young for that one). No suggestion of any money changing hands either even though we were told when we booked the trip that meeting the Shaman was an extra $10. He was actually the same bloke we´d seen with our guide when we entered the village, but he had to go put on a necklace and a feathery headdress to get that authentic Shaman look. We did give him a lift to town though. Perhaps there was a Shaman conference going on and he was in a rush.

Back from the jungle we went to the hot springs in Baños but soon turned round when we saw the pools were rammed and were standing room only. I can stand in people´s armpits at home on the Northern Line. So we went back first thing next morning and it was far more civilized.

Instead we went on a night volcano tour. It was clear it was going to be lame when the person we booked it through couldn´t keep a straight face! But we were bored and for $3 why not! And lame it was…but it was also comedy. We got driven to some hill overlooking Baños which you could also just see the top of the volcano from. We then got served some local moonshine by some 12 year olds; the booze was pretty potent at 60% and not that nice. I think if you drink too much you'd probably lose the power of sight for a while. Then said 12 year olds lit a fire using mostly petrol, adding more petrol when it looked to be going out. So night volcano tours are mildly entertaining but for all the wrong reasons.

After the hot springs we hiked up some hills overlooking Baños. The hike was either 12km or 16km depending on which distance signed you choose to believe. Have noticed this a few times and in Costa Rica also, you get distance signs a few metres away from each other that differ by up to 5km. Anyway, after that it was a bus to Riobamba.

The main attraction in Riobamba is the Devils Nose train ride, El Nariz del Diablo. This basically entails turning up at 6am, paying a bloke a dollar to hire a cushion and spending the next x number of hours on the roof of the train admiring the scenery as the train eventually negotiates the very steep rock known as the Devils Nose. How long it actually takes is in part dependent on how many times you derail; we derailed twice! Completely normal though apparently.

It was really good fun though, the views were good, and its really impressive how a train around 100 years old can still be running like this. Its impressive too how they can get it down such a steep mountain, and get the thing back on the rails when it falls off, although its normally only a couple of wheels of one carriage rather than the whole train that come off. Never ones to miss a money making opportunity, there are also a couple pf food and drink sellers who walk up and down the roof the whole way! Something of a monopoly going on there.

Would definitely recommend it but some tips
- don´t stand up because there are low powerlines in places and getting decapitated spoils everyones fun
- hire two cushions as its gets pretty uncomfortable up there especially for the nine hours we were up there for!

Back to Riobamba on the bus after the train. Went to some of the local markets, craft and food next day. The craft market wasn´t massive but it did give me chance to practice my Spanish as I tried to explain to a little old lady that I´d been instructed by my ex-flatmates to get them alpaca wool fingerless gloves with a flap over the top. I will confess to some hand gestures too though! The food market was manic, but did have some nice fresh pork and a drink which involved cutting a hole out the skin and drinking the juice through a straw directly from the fruit.

My Spanish then got put to the test when I had to book accommodation for that night back in Quito. But we got to Quito and it was exactly what I had booked! He shoots, he scores! Was pleased with that. We stayed in Quito New Town that night, and had drinks in various bars and it was ok, but it could have been anywhere in the world as it was all very modern and swish.

On Sunday we visited Ecuador´s busiest attraction, El Mitad del Mundo, the city in the middle of the world - the equator. Its basically a load of cafes and gift shops with a painted line running through it. Cheesy but fun. Its not actually the real equator though as the calculations were done many years ago by a Frenchman (I dunno, you give them one thing to do) and GPS has since shown it to be 240m down the road. You should see all the losers having the photo taken playing on the wrong equator. And yep, I was one of them!

Luckily someone put together an exhibition on the real equator, which is much better. You can see water draining down different ways different sides of the equator, balance an egg on a nail (no centrifugal forces apparently), and other fun experiments. Its all a scam but it is fun. I managed to balance an egg on a nail, for which I got a certificate. Its probably my greatest achievement!

Went to the Basilica in Quito old town in the afternoon. Climbed all the way to the top of one of the towers up some fairly rickety steps and walkways. This definitely wouldn't be open to the public in the UK, but it did offer some good views over the city.

On Monday Guy went home. Was really good having him out here for two weeks, so cheers mate. I just tried to sort stuff out the rest of the day, including laundry - rock and indeed roll. I also got a haircut, very exciting. Found a barbers near the hostel and ran my hand over my head while making a "zzzzzz" noise to ask if they had clippers. The answer was "si" so there was little else for me to say but "numero dos por favor!" I assumed clippers use a universal numbering system and they do. Was worried about a power cut here half way through as I had a ridiculous mohican for a while! Was a touch concerned when the cut throat razor appeared but he did a fine job, at least as fine as anyone can with me hair. And at $1.50 its trumped Mr Toppers on price too!

Otovalo is famous for its Saturday crafts market, so what better day to go than Tuesday! Well I´m not around on a Saturday am I. I had failed to secure a trip mountain biking down Cotopaxi as nobody else in Quito wanted to do it apparently and there is a minimum group size. So rather than bumming around in Quito again I spent two and half hours each way travelling to spend two hours in Otavalo.

The journey there passed quickly though because there was a TV and they were showing a Steven Seagal movie. As suspected you lose nothing in plot through a Spanish translation! Unfortunately although Steven Seagal is one of the finest actors of our generation and it is criminal he has been overlooked at the Oscars, Half Past Dead isn´t his finest hour and a half. I don´t know what film they played on the way back but it was deafeningly loud.

Otavalo was nice and the market is seven days, other days just aren´t as busy and lack the atmosphere of Saturdays. It also means that because there are less tourists you are targeted by the sellers, so there was plenty of "no gracias." Not sure I can fit a 10 foot alapaca rug in my bag. I also met an American called Randy who had a massive moustache and beer belly. Honestly, you couldn't script it. Nice chap though.

And so today, my blog is pretty much up to date for the first time! Went up the TeleferiQo, which is a cable car in Quito. It just takes you up a mountain where you´ve got city views, and there is a hike too which we did. Went up there with Yvonne, and Irish expat now living in Oz who was also staying in the hostel.

Off to Galapagos tomorrow for 8 days and 7 nights on a boat checking out some wildlife. In keeping with the rest of my trip, no doubt I'll be bullied by various animals. I also fully expect to spend most of the time hanging over the side being sick. But have stocked up on seasickness tablets, so hopefully be ok. I managed to order them in Spanish so didn´t need to draw a picture of a boat and make a being sick gesture. The pharmacist doesn´t realise how lucky she was.

Charles Darwin came up with his theory of evolution while on Galapagos, and so I have been asked to report back on why I haven´t evolved. This coming from Jamie is a bit cheeky given evolution hasn´t exactly treated him kindly, but nevertheless watch this space and I´ll report when I´m back on the mainland.

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