Basílica del Voto Nacional, Quito

The Basílica del Voto Nacional, in Quito, is the largest neo-Gothic church in the Americas. Building work began in 1892 and to this day it is still technically unfinished.

I loved the gargoyles, designed to look like Ecuadorian animals.

You can climb both the two clock towers and the spire above the transept, and it’s here where you can see the building isn’t completed yet.

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It also involves some slightly hair-raising ascents up very steep and very narrow metal ladders, which leave you suspended in mid-air while you wait for other people to descend the narrow steps.

But the views at the top are absolutely worth it.

The Basilica is open 9am-5pm and entry costs $2 per person.

 

Rain in Rurrenabaque

Our flight from La Paz to Rurrenabaque had been delayed due to a storm and when we arrived in the tropical, river-side town, the clouds still hung low and the streets were slick with run-off water. The next morning we piled into a jeep and began driving along a flat, dirt road to the village of Santa Teresa (where we would get on a boat and spend three days on the Yacuma river). Wedged into the front seat between Jon and the driver, I watched the half submerged landscape as we drove through sporadic showers and the windows slowly steamed up from our perspiration.

We passed huge holes and ruts dug deep into the road surface which had been softened by the rain (this is one of the main trade routes to Brazil). Lorries tried to manoeuvre around them but were sometimes forced to drive through. We saw more than one that was stuck – the front cabs easily sunk 6 feet deep into chasms of shiny, sucking mud and the trailers sticking out the back like giant discarded lego bricks. And then there were cows.

So many cows! It had to be thousands, as we sat there waiting quite a while for the bovine river to pass us. And then we continued on, reaching Santa Teresa just as the rain stopped.

On the way back, the weather was scorching. The water had dried up. The holes in the road were being filled with big stones and wooden planks. The water meadows that were visible before had receded (although not completely). And the mosquitoes had come out.

We stopped at a gas station to use the toilets, which consisted of concrete cubicles with occasional doors. They were across a paved courtyard and as we began to walk towards them, a cow appeared from no-where. Three stray dogs also appeared and began chasing it, snapping at it’s heels and growling with hackles up. The cow ran back the way it had come, but the dogs were riled up and chased us instead. We didn’t make it to the toilets. For the guys this wasn’t a problem; they just peed on the side of the road. Us girls had to get back in the jeep and endure another bumpy, thirty-minute ride before we spotted a track leading off to the side that was somewhat sheltered by bushes. As I waited my turn, clouds of mosquitoes swarmed around my face and the girl ahead of me in the bushes yelped and cursed as her exposed parts were bitten by the little blood-suckers. Needless to say, I tried to do my business as quickly as possible.

Agua Blanca

I found out about Agua Blanca when searching information about Puerto Lopes where we wanted to go whale watching. Described in some sources as a ‘commune’, in others as a ‘private community’, Agua Blanca has an archaeological site, small museum and a natural sulphur pool. I couldn’t really ask for more!

From the entrance off the main road, the village itself is another 5km. You can walk along the dusty path through tropical dry forest, or get your mototaxi to take you all the way to the village.

You’ll find yourself at the museum where you pay your entrance fee. The museum shows artefacts from the Manteña culture (800 to 1532 AD) as well as specimens of local flora and fauna.

Local guides (our lovely young man was called Stalin!) will show you around the exhibits and then lead you on a walk around the village to see more of the archaeological sites as well as pointing out interesting animals and plants. You could walk around by yourself, but without the guides’ explanations and sharp eyes, I think you’d miss out on a lot (such as the sleepy owl below).

These special termites make their nests in trees and build ‘covered’ pathways to protect themselves as they travel around.

The surrounding land is natural tropical dry forest, but some is also used for agriculture.

Whilst the little micro-climate here was really hot and dry, we could see the rainclouds over in Puerto Lopes.

After an easy stroll through the village and up to a viewpoint, we ended up at the natural sulphur lagoon. It actually didn’t smell bad at all and was a fun way to cool off.

The murky water is full of rich sediments which are periodically dredged from the bottom and set out for visitors to use as a natural cleansing skin mask.

After applying, drying and then basking in the pool, you can take a shower with fresh water in the changing rooms built alongside the lagoon.

Agua Blanca was definitely worth the trip and it’s nice to know that the $5 entrance fee goes directly to support the community.

A mototaxi from Puerto Lopes cost us $6. On the way back we decided to walk to the entrance at the main road and hope to pick up something cheaper. As luck would have it, a villager was driving by and offered us a ride all the way back for just $2!

Have you ever visited a commune or other form of private community? As a tourist, what did you think of it?

Intriguing tour sign

We saw this sign in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador. Not only is it odd that a tour company is named ‘Wiston Churchil’, but the French underneath is just bizarre. I had to check Google translate because it just didn’t make any sense. And it still doesn’t make sense: all had hair and free for girls, I like jogging naked on the beach.

Alas, we should have called the number to find out more…

Los Imperdonables

Here’s a wonderful video form Amapola Media Studio.

“Developed in La Paz, Bolivia. Unforgiven, 50 places in La Paz you can not miss. Landscapes, typical food, extreme sports, nightlife, its people and its culture. A video from La Paz to La Paz, so that people can re-fall in love with their city and re-discover those places that had lost their sense of wonder.

Proyecto desarrollado en La Paz, Bolivia. Los Imperdonables, 50 lugares de La Paz que no te puedes perder. Paisajes, comida típica, deportes extremos, vida nocturna, su gente y su cultura. Un video de La Paz para La Paz, para que la gente pueda re-enamorarse de su ciudad y re-descubrir esos lugares que habían perdido su capacidad de asombro.”

I think I have just re-fallen in love with La Paz.

Peru to Ecuador: La Balsa border crossing

We’d heard travellers’ tales and internet forums warning of dodgy happenings at the border between Peru and Ecuador and I was a little nervous (I even started planning how to hide cash in my shoes!). In the end though, as our journey took us to Chachapoyas, we crossed the border at La Balsa, the one place we’d heard was safe. It was an uneventful two days, if a little surreal.

la balsaJose at Chachapoyas Backpackers drew us this map and outlined the route we should take. Using a combination of combi (minibus), taxi, mototaxi (rickshaw), ranchera (truck-bus hybrid) and bus. we travelled from Chachapoyas to Bagua Grande to Jaen to San Ignacia. We stayed the night in a cheap hotel and the next day travelled to the border, crossed, and continued on to Zumba and finally Vilcabamba.

Here are some things that stuck in my head about the trip.

  • In Peru it was dusty and hot. In Ecuador it was humid and hot.
  • None of the bus stations are located anywhere vaguely useful. That is to say, if you don’t bring food with you, you will be stuck with whatever you can buy at the bus stations (which was not good) because there are no restaurants or shops nearby.
  • On the plus side, transfers between buses are fairly easy because the bus stations are close to each other. Or, there are mototaxis waiting to drive you from one station to another. Buses also run frequently so there isn’t much time spent waiting around.
  • Not having much time to wait around means finding a bathroom is tough. Once you’ve found a bathroom, depending on how clean it is, you may not want to use it.
  • There were roadworks all the way from Bagua Grande to the border (August 2013). For future travellers this is great. It means the road surfaces will be improved and the roads will be wider, making the journey quicker. For us it made the journey much, much slower. And dustier. Did I mention Peru was dusty?
  • It’s disorienting to turn up in San Ignacio and not know where anything is and have to ask a taxi driver to take you to a cheap hotel. It’s also confusing to try and find something to eat after dark because wherever we ended up was kind of deserted. It was even weirder to finally sit down to dinner only to be told all dishes with beef were off the menu. It was bone-crunchingly bizarre to order fried rice and find pieces of chicken diced up but still on the bone. I don’t recommend doing anything in San Ignacio except getting the hell out of there.
  • But to San Ignacio’s credit, it has at least one very cheery and helpful mototaxi driver who was the only person on the streets at 4 am.
  • You don’t need to be at the bus station in San Ignacio by 5am. You probably don’t even need to be there by 6am. Nobody started to do anything until the sun rose. And then they put your luggage in a taxi and wait for more people to join you so they can get the full fare.
  • The border doesn’t open until 9am. Or rather, the official who has to stamp your passport on leaving Peru doesn’t start to cook his breakfast until 9am. He will communicate with you through a closed door and tell you he’ll open up in half an hour.
  • While you’re waiting, there is a restaurant where you can eat breakfast. You should do this while you have the chance because on the other side of the border they are eve more ‘relaxed’ and you will be stuck because nothing else is open.
  • You can exchange money too, but you might be lucky and find a pair of Australian cyclists who are crossing over from Ecuador and willing to exchange their dollars for your soles, without charging commission.
  • You need to get a policeman to fill out some kind of form and stamp it before you can go though Peruvian immigration. The police station is a little way back up the road form immigration, and down a slight slope towards the river.
  • After crossing the bridge you find the Ecuadorian immigration official who cheerily gives you your entry stamp.
  • Then you wait. Despite a restaurant being open and taking your order of ‘chicken’ (which is the only thing they say they are serving), you wait until midday without said chicken materialising, only to finally jump on a ranchera which is the first transport you’ve seen on this side of the border.
  • The ride is scenic, if bumpy. You also have to squash you bags in between yourself and whoever’s seated next to you and their luggage (which could be a live chicken in a bag or a giant sack of produce). You also have to get off and show your passport at a police checkpoint. Try not to bang your head on the hard roof of the ranchera as you climb in and out. If you sit on the outside of the ranchera, you’ll be able to get in and out easily, but you’ll also get much wetter when it rains.
  • The station at Zumba is pleasantly modern and with luck you’ll be able to transfer straight onto a waiting bus (with air-conditioning, no less) and head to Vilcabamba. You’ll be exhausted and hungry when you arrive, but you will be in a familiar hippie-traveller environment and getting food and a place to sleep for the night will be easy.

Have you been to La Balsa? Or have you had a memorable experience crossing a border somewhere else?

 

Museum-hopping in Cuenca

Cuenca has a lot of museums. Over the course of a day and a half, we visited five. Our choices of which to visit were based mostly on the route we planned to stroll through town. Secondary considerations were price and novelty value.

Museo de las Culturas Aborígenes

Pottery. There’s a lot of it here. Arranged in chronological sequences and by the different cultures of Ecuador, the museum galleries are like an archaeologist’s textbook come to life. My favourites are the anthropomorphic pots. Whilst some are only hinted at, others have faces and other body parts clearly shown, like cute little thousands-of-year-old cartoon characters.

Address: Calle Larga 5-24

Admission: adult $2, student discount available

Centro Interaméricano de Artes Populares

Weavings, musical instruments and traditional costumes; the galleries are small but modern, with video/audio displays as well as hands-on objects. I appreciate being able to see the the details of the textiles up close and view the intricate stitching. The museum shop is big and laid out like on of the galleries, but too expensive for me.

Image from museos.gob.ec

Address: corner Noviembre & La Escalinata

Admission: free

Casa Paredes Roldan Hat museum and Factory

Machines clack noisily at the back of this shop and hats of many colours and designs are spread out before your eyes to try and buy. There are some old machines and tools used for hat-making in the past, as well as a pretty amazing dress woven of the reeds that make the hats. I’m tempted to buy, but the cheapest is $60. Also, none of them fit Jon’s abnormally large head and we don’t feel like custom ordering one.

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Address: Calle Larga 10-41 between Padre Aguirre y General Torres

Admission: free

Prohibido Museo de Arte Extremo

A man with one arm and a leather waistcoat answers the door. He refuses eye contact but takes our money and leaves us to look around this house-nightclub hybrid that is also open as a museum. I realise that ‘extreme’ means metal/goth album covers and demons having sex with naked women. Occasionally there’s a dead baby. It’s all pretty cheesy. Perhaps it’s more impressive at night with a live band playing and low lighting?

It can’t all be bones and devil’s horns. Sometimes a boring old plastic dish rack is the best item for the job.

Address: La Condamine 12-102

Admission: $2

Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno

I love the cool and quiet inside this place. The bare white walls and colonnades of this historic building contrast with bizarre spiked hearts, cyborgs and mirrored eyes. It’s just my kind of thing. Plus there’s a great temporary exhibit too.

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Address: corner of Mariscal Sucre & Talbot

Admission: free

What are your favourite types of museums?

The best food in Ecuador (and possibly South America too)

We’d been in Ecuador just a few days and were enjoying ourselves museum-hopping and cafe-living in Cuenca. We decided to visit a few small nearby towns – Gualaceo, Chordeleg and Zigzig – which were recommended in our guide book, but which were ultimately a little disappointing (unless you want to go souvenir shopping). But the trip was worth it because of this…

Although it had only been about an hour since we’d had breakfast, when we saw (and smelt) that pig, we couldn’t resist ordering a plate. The meat was so tender that it could just be pulled off the bone. It was served on top of potato fritters (confusingly called tortillas), mote and a chopped salad of onions, tomatoes and lettuce, along with some of the crackling. The juices from the cooking were poured over the top like a gravy, and a spicy, tangy sauce was served on the side. So simple and so, so delicious!

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The best thing about this dish? We found it everywhere in Ecuador! The food halls in mercados became our go-to place for lunch and although there were lots of delicious dishes available, I couldn’t stop myself from ordering this pulled pork every time.

This is supposed to be a smile but I was so hungry that this was the best I could do.

He’s sad because this was the last day before we left the country for Colombia.

Hornados might be my favourite dish in all of South America. There I said it. But come on guys, pulled pork! Always served by super smiley ladies in aprons.

Also, if you have several days for marinating, you can make it yourself following this recipe.

Isla de la Plata

We already visited one ‘poor man’s Galapagos’ in Peru, when we took a boat trip to Islas Ballestas, but in Ecuador we had the chance to visit another: Isla de la Plata. The 5km2 island lies off the west coast, near to the town of Puerto Lopez. Many of the same species in the Galapagos are also found here (but sadly not iguanas), including my most favourite sea bird ever; the blue-footed boobie!

Take a look at that fabulous colour scheme!

The females are actually the ones with brighter feet, and they’re also a little larger, with bigger pupils too.

We were able to get really close to them as they were unafraid and trying to stake out their terrritory for breeding.

The island is part of Machalilla National Park, and in order to protect the wildlife, you’re not allowed to go wandering around by yourself. The boat trip took about an hour and once on the island you’re split into groups and taken down different pathways whilst a guide points out different animals and plants.

We were led down Sendero de las Fragatas – Frigate Bird Trail. And boy did we see a lot of frigate birds!

It was both fascinating and repulsive to watch the big, noisy, stinking creatures splay themselves out in the flimsy-looking branches of their roost. I remembered from watching David Attenborough programs that frigate birds don’t have waterproof feathers, so I guess they were drying themselves out in the sun. I also remembered that they attack other birds and steal the fish they’ve just caught. With this thought in my head, I couldn’t help thinking that their sharp beaks and beady eyes looked rather evil.

We also got to see pelicans, another of my favourite birds, that I’d become familiar with in Valdivia, Chile.

I watched a group of them fishing together, which I had never seen before. The noise when they hit the water was really loud! It was interesting to see their strategy of scaring the fish into moving in one direction, making them easier to scoop up.

When we first arrived, we spotted at least five turtles popping up to the surface very close to the boat. It really seemed like they were greeting us, and made me smile a lot as I’d never seen them in the wild before.

After walking around the island, we got back on the boats for lunch and then went snorkeling. There weren’t any turtles around, but I did see forests of seaweed and some big fish. Since this was only the second time I’d ever been snorkelling, I was pretty excited. Although the ocean was calm, I still felt a bit nervous as the water was so deep and every time I lifted my head I was a lot further from the boat than I expected.

I’m really pleased that we made the trip to Isla de la Plata as our budget didn’t allow us to go to the Galapagos. But it was on the way back to the mainland that we experienced the real reason I had wanted to make this trip.

Humpback whales come to these waters to mate and give birth. We were here at the perfect time of year to observe their displays of fin- and tail-slapping.

It was really hard to take pictures as the boat was rocking quite a bit. When one whale jumped completely out of the water, my hand went flying, but I did get a few shots using the sports setting.

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The trip cost $45 pp, including snorkel gear, boat, guide, lunch, snacks and drinks. There are lots of tour agencies in Puerto Lopez, but they aren’t all that helpful. We finally went with one on the Malecon (near the Ruta del Sol hotel) because it was the only place which could actually tell us what time the boat was leaving the following day.

What’s your favourite marine animal?

Clean water and cultural survival in the Amazon

In 2007, oil was found under Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. In order to protect this biological and cultural reserve, Ecuador asked the world to pay to keep the oil in the ground. Some viewed it as ecological blackmail. Others saw it as a a wake-up call that we are all responsible for our planet; responsibility shouldn’t be restricted by arbitrary borders drawn by man.

The plan failed. Not enough money was raised and Ecuador decided it had to exploit the lucrative resource that could provide one tenth of it’s gross domestic product*. In August 2013, when the decision was made, we were in Quito and saw demonstrations outside the government buildings in Plaza de la Independencia. The demonstrators counted as a few hundred. Riot police seemed to be present in similar numbers. It was pretty quiet as demonstrations go. Somehow I remember seeing more news articles hailing the brilliant plan to save Yasuni than those reporting it had failed. Perhaps the fact that only one percent of the park will be affected makes it seem not so bad. But oil exploitation in Ecuador’s Amazon has been going on for decades and the consequences are only being thought about now.

Now, I didn’t start writing this to depress everyone. Instead, I wanted to share something hopeful, something inspiring. ClearWater is an organisation working to provide water filtration systems to indigenous households in regions that have been damaged by the oil industry. In their own words:

“ClearWater believes that building an indigenous-led movement for clean water is the first step towards building a broader movement for health, cultural survival, and rainforest protection.  In addition to the construction of rainwater catchment systems, ClearWater is working to train community technicians in water quality and environmental monitoring. We are empowering communities to administer large projects, including budget management and accountability. We are providing indigenous youth with the tools and web-based platforms to share their own photo-journalism stories about their tribes, territories and concerns. Our commitment is to lasting, holistic, community-led solutions, which can provide indigenous peoples with the strength and tools to navigate the borders of wilderness and the west on their own terms.”

I absolutely recommend taking a look at their Project Map, which links stories and photography to a beautiful satellite view of the region. We can see the location of oil wells and pipelines, roads and rivers, and the communities where water catchment systems have been built. The thing I love the most is that each project is named after the peole who live there; when we see a picture of a water tank, we know it belongs to Telmo & Edemira, or Alfonso & Patricia. We see the faces of people directly involved with this struggle against environmental damage.

I hope you take time to explore ClearWater’s website and maybe even get involved by donating. Here are some of my personal favourite stories from their blog:

  • ClearWater’s New Map and the Mad Genius Behind it: “Most of the time, Gregor was far from electricity or wifi, though he did call in from a satellite phone a couple times, and sometimes sat up overnight in a remote Amazon village, writing lines of code for the map on his laptop plugged into the community’s one generator.”
  • Huangana: Bounty of the Forest: “In Waorani culture, the hunter never carries the animal he has killed. This leaves much of the heavy lifting to the tough-as-nails Waorani women. Obe gently cradles her baby with one hand with the heavy peccary slung over her shoulder.”
  • Going to School in Secoya Territory: “There is not enough gas for Miguel to take them in his motorized canoe, so the kids must paddle upriver about 40 minutes in a small dugout canoe.”
  • Delivering Materials for Rain Catchment Systems in the Amazon: “The whole time Emergildo moved from group to group, organizing the canoes, counting tanks, and directing the traffic. Emergildo was beaming. He was in his element: the conductor of a symphony of Cofán canoes. It was an unforgettable day on the river.”
  • A Song of Oil in the Amazon: “Marina has asked me to share with the world a song that she has been carrying within her for these last 50 years. Marina is one of the last Cofán women who remember how to sing in the way of her ancestors. This is her song.”

What other inspiring organisations do you know that are giving a voice to indigenous communities?

*You can read a nice summary of the situation in this article.