Sunday, February 7
Sad to leave Runi Hausi. Said our farewells, packed our bags down to the river and caught a boat to Puerto Barantilla. There we sat by the roadside talking with a local man who was catching a bus in the opposite direction. Although our Spanish is still very rudimentary we are actually managing conversations which really helps connect with people.
The bus was crowded with folks going to wherever the Carnaval action was occurring that day. Although it was pouring rain the atmosphere in the bus was a bit festive. We pulled into Tena and walked to the main bus terminal where we waited an hour for our bus to Baños. I sketched the passing crowd. We had a comfy big bus for the ride to Baños, retracing our steps from the week before.
In Baños we easily found the Hostal Princes Maria, where we were greeted by our super friendly host and shown around. After settling in we wandered into the town centre and found Cafe Hood, a restaurant owned by an expat that serves an international menu. After our huge, and delicious meals, we wandered and I purchased two cans of espuma, the foamy spray used in the Carnaval celebrations. Soon we were both covered in a layer of foam. It was wild and crazy fun!
Monday, February 8
Another rainy day. After breakfast and picking up our clean laundry (nice, dry, fresh clothing!) we decided to go for a walk to the western edge of town and visit one of the local hot springs: El Salado. We walked up hill, then down and across a river in a small canyon coming down from the mountain behind Baños. Then up the other side and up a road on which we passed more and more parked cars. A holiday in Baños and the hot springs were crowded. We paid our fees, rented bathing caps, changed, showered and entered the second hottest pool. Lots of kids splashing and the temperature was quite moderate. Eventually we decided to brave the crowds in the hottest pool and crammed ourselves in. I could feel the hot water bubbling up from the bottom and there was a slight smell although we couldn’t decide if it was sulphurous or not. We returned to the medium pool and finally decided we’d had enough of the crowds.
Later we returned downtown to see if I could sneak some photos of the Carnaval spray action. I got a few photos but then a girl spotted me and nailed me and my camera with a heavy shot of spray. Then another girl got me from a passing car. We retreated to a local brew pub, The Stray Dog. A corner location with a good view of the action.
Tuesday, February 9
Last day of Carnaval. We bought tickets for an open tour bus that visited several of the local waterfalls. We had a few minutes until departure so popped into the main cathedral. Services were under way, including singing and guitar music. We left the main nave and went along a side alley to view the famous statue of the Virgin, which local legend has it has saved Baños from the volcano. While there we chatted with a visiting family; their son spoke very good English. Although Ecuadorians may seem reserved at first we’ve met many who start conversations with us and by the time we part it’s handshakes, hugs and fond farewells.
Back to the tourist agency and onto the bus. We were the only non-Ecuadorians on the bus. One large family group sat in front of us and as we left town and the music pumped through the speakers they were singing along and hand dancing. As we passed through the long tunnels everyone screamed and hollered. Sue and I were laughing along and having a great time. Once again the rain poured down but the bus had a cover and other than the occasional shot of espuma or water bomb (and once a firehose) from the side of the highway we stayed kind of, sort of, dry.
At the first waterfalls, located on the far side of the river valley, we took a cable car across. Everyone screamed. It was an incredible view. At the second falls there was a zip line; we declined but instead had tea and watched the action. By now we were talking with our fellow bus passengers, including one woman who spoke excellent English.
The next falls, Diablo at Rio Verde, we all disembarked and walked down a trail, over a suspension bridge and down, down, down steps along side the falls. They were roaring with a huge volume of water shooting down a sheer cliff. As we progressed we could see other paths with wee people in the distance along the falls.
The bus headed back to Baños, more singing and screaming in the tunnels. Once we re-entered Baños the spray started flying. I got hit by a water-balloon in the elbow but luckily my camera stayed relatively dry. By the time we got off the bus we were ready for more spray and emptied our cans as we walked back to our hostel.
For diiner we decided on a less expensive option and went to a vegetarian restaurant by the local market. An excellent meal and we managed to get there and back with a minimum of spray.
Wednesday, February 10
We walked down by the bus terminal for breakfast at a 24 hour restaurant we’d visited on our first visit to Baños. Great fast service and good value. Then we walked to the church so I could get some photos while it was quiet. We then picked up our bags and walked to the road where a bus from Tena picked us up for our ride to Ambato.
Although it was still raining (!) the views coming out of the mountains were great. Couldn’t see the peaks for the clouds and mist but the views down into the valley were stunning. We got off at the terminal in Ambato and immediately boarded another bus for Guaranda.
Up, up, up into the Western Andes. First dry grasslands, then wet grasslands and numerous farms, then grasslands again and then an arid desert landscape. We drove in and out of the clouds and mist. Winding, winding, winding our way up along the edge of Volcan Chimborazo. Unfortunately due to the clouds we could not see the volcano at all, but only the desolate landscape by the highway. We started down and soon reached Guaranda where we were let off on a side street. Luckily a local pointed out the small, local trucks that would take us to Salinas.
We rode in the back of the truck with a few locals and their supplies. The road wound through small villages and past many valleys filled with farms. We arrived in Salinas about half and hour later. Someone ran and found our hostel host who drove us just up the road to our huge hostel, El Refugio. We were the only guests in a grand, albeit slightly run down, space. Our room had a great view over the town, a hot shower and a comfy bed. The town itself was very peaceful with many of the shops and cafes closed (perhaps for Ash Wednesday). We bought some cheese (Salinas is famous for its cheese, chocolate, salt and wool goods), explored the few open shops (I was very tempted by a wool fedora) and had coffee at a deli, where we talked with a family from Cayambe, north of Quito. Later we watched the mist move around the hills from our balcony and snacked on cheese, crackers and beers.
Thursday, February 11
Breakfast in the blazing sunlit sunroom at the hostel. We’re so happy to see some sunshine again!
We spent the early part of the day visiting some of the local sights.
We walked up to a viewpoint and then along a beautiful canyon surrounded by the high, rugged bluffs above the town.
Then we visited the chocolate factory where we bought a selection of their goodies.
Next a stroll through the salt gathering hillside above the river. Salt has been gathered here for hundreds of years. The Ecuadorians actually considered salt more valuable than gold when the Spanish first arrived and were puzzled by the Spaniards’ value system.
Then onto the cheese factory where we could view the workers stirring the cheese in huge vats and wrapping the big wheel of cheese.
We walked back to town and had street food: corn and chicken on a stick plus Sue sampled a salad with fries and meat. Next siesta time and booking our next room in Riobamba for Friday night so we could be there for a Saturday morning market.
Late in the evening we heard the arrival of a school tour. All night long it seemed doors slammed, people ran in the hallways and voices called out.
Friday, February 12
We ate breakfast by the fireplace as the school teens had completely taken over the dining room. They looked a lot less frightening by the light of day. Friendly even.
We took a last walk into town so that I could get a few photos I’d missed and found a few spots we’d missed earlier. We walked around the eastern edge of town and discovered some new views plus a couple of textile shops we’d been unaware of. First a shop that specializing in local spun wools and then another featuring the finished products.
After our morning walk we gathered our things, hopped aboard a collectivo and rode back to Guaranda where we boarded a bus for Riobamba. Our bus seemed to backtrack on our journey in from Ambato and we were wondering if we’d made a mistake and were going to have to go all the way back rather than complete a loop.
However, we got back to the desolate landscape near the volcano, Chimborazo, and I was just thinking I spied a massive bulk in the mist when the highway split and we swung east. In the mist (thankfully no rain) it seemed we were on an alien world. Out of the mist we started seeing vicuña, a wild South American camelid and relative of the llama. The mist swirled around the barren landscape then suddenly the sun broke through and there were the lower reaches of Chimborazo and then there was more and more of it. We never did see it completely exposed but we did manage glimpses all the way to the peak, 6268 meters (20,564 feet) above sea level, the closest the earth gets to the sun (due to the bulge). Seeing even glimpses of it, even from a bus, was astounding.
We arrived in Riobamba around mid-afternoon and took a taxi from the bus terminal to the Hotel Estation, located by the completely refurbished train station. Sadly trains in Ecuador are now only for tourist excursions and cost appropriately. But our hotel was a marvel: old style with air shafts, lots of polished wood and decorated with the owner’s collection of antiques including many radios (I’m a fan).
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the neighbourhood, the colonial centre of the city with its many churches, plazas and cobblestone streets. In the evening we ventured forth again and stopped for a treat: two frozen yogurts with lots of trimmings (all for $3).
Saturday, February 13
We were up early to make the most of our morning. The breakfast buffet at the hotel was the best we’d had yet (bar the Lulu Llama which was rather special). An assortment of cakes and pancakes, fruit, breads, coffee; many made by our hosts.
We walked to the Parque de la Concepción, a concrete plaza, where regional craftspeople displayed their wares. I bought myself an alpaca sweater and Sue an embroidered belt. I really wanted to get a hat as mine is wearing thin but could not find one my size (much to everyone’s amusement). I did get a photo of the folks that sold me my sweater but as most of the sellers were indigenous peoples they were not too accepting of being photographed (which I totally respect. I should point out that in Ecuador I always ask permission to photograph people if they are going to be recognizable; the exception being crowd scenes).
We returned to our hotel and caught a taxi to the bus terminal for our five hour trip to Cuenca.Five hours is a long time on a luxury style bus that has no opening windows and the air vents don’t seem to work. Especially on up and down winding roads. And much of the trip in the mist.
We finally arrived and found our hostal. After the long ride we desperately needed air and refreshments. We were only a block from riverfront so headed that way and quickly found a little burger joint with cold beers. I have to say it was the first time I’ve eaten a hamburger in probably 20 years and I loved every bite. And the dark Club beer, flavoured with cacao went down well too!
After dinner we walked along the waterfront promenade and back along the busy street, thronged with young lovers out for a Valentine’s Saturday night party. I did find a really nice hat in a shop but at $45 was worried how it might endure the rest of our travels. There’s got to be a reasonably priced hat my size out there! (stay tuned…)