This is the third at last part of my trip to South America.
I almost missed my ride to the Peru-Ecuador border. A taxi from San Ignacio drove me to the border which was in La Balsa (or La Balza according to Google maps). In the passport control office I interrupted the Peruvian inspector while he was talking to friends. He led me to his office, where his wife sat on a beach chair with short clothes, and his daughter was playing on his computer. He sent me to the police station. All the cops were in the middle of a football game on a field in front of the building. Inside the building, in an open living room, I found a policeman on duty. He rose from his bed, put on his uniform and signed my passport. All very lazily - I guess passing tourists here disrupts their daily routine.
I ran with my backpack on the bridge, which ended with a foreign flag - not the Peruvian red-white-red as I was used to. The hour was 5:30 pm, and I knew the last bus to Ecuador should leave any moment - if in Ecuador they're more accurate. Indeed, all the passengers were already on this bus/truck, and they were stalled by me. I had to sign again at the police, stating in front of a "doctor" that I don't have any kind of flu, and changed the rest of the Peruvian money to American Dollars, with a very bad exchange rate (as if I had a choice) with some old lady in the grocery shop.
Sweaty, from all this running around, I got up to the bus and we left.
This part of the border was not different than the Peruvian side. Yet, something in the shades of green, the shape of the mountains, amazed me in its beauty. I knew I reached a new country, and it filled me with optimism.
The bus reached a town called Zumba in which there's nothing to do except take the bus to your next stop. It can be Vilcabamba, a resort town in which many travelers get stuck because of its horses, hot springs, and good hostels; it can be Loja in which there's supposed to be an interesting nature park; or it could be Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador, which has many things to offer. This is were I got off at the end of the night on the bus, skipping the other two who sounded too plowed by other tourists to me.
When I drove through the streets of Cuenca towards the historic center of town, It reminded me of Cusco, exactly due to their huge difference: "New Cusco" was stacks of cans and mud, while Cuenca is a city - crowded and tall in the right extent, industrial and motorized. All the taxis are painted yellow, so you can tell the difference between them and the rest of the cars, and realize there are much more of them then in Cusco. Cuenca is a city with money, something I couldn't tell with any city I'd seen in Peru.
The hostel I chose, Hogar Cuencano is managed by a nice Seniora named Martha. It's in the city's historic center, in the cross section of Hermano Miguel and Larga, but still far enough from the Plaza de Armas to be a bargain ($6 per a night for a very nice room; shared kitchen and toilet).
Indeed I was weary from the night, but conversation with Martha had charged me with energy, and I found the strength to drive to Chordeleg, a very nice town filled with art shops, and nice streets to hang around in. This town is well known for its unique straw hats and leather products - if you need a hat or a belt for the rest of the trip, or to find a place to by useful souvenirs - do it here.
The next morning I went to visit Cajas National Park (Cajas means boxes) which is close by, together with a couple of french teachers and a swiss lady who lived in Quito to learn Spanish.
Martha's brother guided us through the maze of public transportation in town - in the buses running in the city, there's an automatic cashier, the only the option to buy ticket, so prepare your change - he parted us when we took the bus to Cajas at the city entrance.
Cajas has a huge number of lagoons, small and large and various landscapes changing abruptly. You can select your trek from several suggested options, the longest trek lasts for two days and requires carrying with all the equipment for camping with you. The maps you receive at the park entrance information stand, will help you choose the right trek for you, according to your time limits, and preferences. Since it was a gray rainy day, and visibility was far from being ideal, we chose the easiest trek - circular, 5km, 4 hour trek. As Martha promised, we were alone - only us and nature. The water was steel colored, and plants around us were a mixture of yellow, green and fresh flowers. There were parts of mud which disrupted the roads, and forced us to create detours, we hoped it would lead us in the right way. There were times we got lost, and didn't see any trek signs in the distance. But our motto was - it's a circular trek, there's a limit to how much you can get lost.
To sum it up - Cajas is an impressive and amazing park you can't afford to miss, however, if you're not pressed for time, it's better to wait for a bright sunny day, and then your enjoyment, will be perfect. These days, however, are scarce in Ecuador, which has cloudy and humid weather all day long. Equator. One season. This is how it is.
On the way back to Cuenca we hitchhiked on a Kamyonet, pick up truck. It's very common in Ecuador to hitchhike on a pickup truck bed. The speed and the wind in your face in an experience on its own.
In the evening I met with fellows from the trip, in a coffee shop called Cafe Austria, very close to the plaza. They didn't have Lomo Saltado as in Peru, but they had Goulash and Strudel which were exactly like in the land of Mozart. It's a great place to eat at - even to come alone, sit with the company of maps and books, and with a great coffee, which I missed a lot in Peru. The historic center of Cuenca looks like a colonial formation, and accordingly, most of the pubs and restaurants are completely western, eases the home sickness.
My European friends retired to bed after dinner, and escaped a similar fate thanks to Martha's (devastatingly hot) son, who took me to a Salsa club, with no tourists (something rare in this town). I saw how around me people of all ages dance, amateurs and pros, with music and steps embedded in them from birth. Ecuadorians dance with love, and make you feel as if you belong, all the people there embraced me and affirmed we're very alike. It was one of the best nights of the whole trip, but looking at the calendar, reminded me I don't have time to get stuck. The next day I packed my backpack and drove to Banos.
I stayed at Hostal Transilvania (http://www.hostal-transilvania.com/) owned by Itay and his Ecuadorian wife Janet. The hostel is very nice and not expensive ($7 for a dorm room, toilet and shower in the room, including breakfast) and since it appeared in MiniHostels site, it attracts people from various countries. I shared a room with an Irish lady, an American lady, and an English man.
On my first day I went for a bike ride along the waterfalls - attraction full of views and waterfalls and isn't too hard, perfect for getting to know the landscape of the area. Don't miss riding back and forth on the cable train across the river - breathtaking, in more than one way.
The next day I went paragliding. The height and the view are unthinkable, and for 20 minutes you have wings. You can arrange everything in tourist agencies in Banos (just ask in the hostel where), and driving to the site takes 3 hours. Pay attention to tourists agencies recommendation if the weather condition is adequate for gliding, so you won't waste $60.
Don't feel uncomfortable "get stuck" in Banos, because the attractions around it are endless. There're plenty of volcano mountains you can climb to their peak, if you're in good shape, have very good socks (critical, or your toes will turn black) and the funds - $100 per day.
I scheduled with Daniel, who went pro climbing, to go to Quilotoa lagoon if he gets back in time. I got up early, ready to leave without him, and suddenly he showed up at the hostel door. "Coming?" he asked. Apparently, the climb went wrong (cause he didn't have warm socks, thus the warning), and he got up early after staying awake all night.
So we drove from Banos to Latacunga and from there Zumbahua. The bus, filled with local women in their everyday colorful cloths, brought us to Quilotoa vilage which didn't have any houses, but two hotels, a mini-market, a cashier for the lagoon, and several souvenirs stands.
This lagoon is a rain water-filled caldera, and it's the largest lagoon in the world. I't also the biggest lagoon I've eve seen. We descended into it down a winding path, and sat on the cliff edge above it.
Sun was up, water was blue and shiny, and I couldn't frame its size in a single frame. A small boat rowed somewhere below.
If you have the time (meaning if you choose to sleep at Quilotoa or Zumbahua you can descend to the water, encircle the lagoon by foot, or sail within. For the rest, only getting here and back wastes an entire day. But for this wonder it's worth it- just need someone to entertain you all these hours on the bus.
The next day I ordered a trip to the Galapagos via the hostel. I withdrew freaking $1000 - a month's labor - for five days in paradise. At the beginning they told me the vouchers would arrive on the same day. Later they told me not to worry - the company is a bit messy - so I started worrying.
Eventually, it turned out there's a place in a cruise but there's no flight. So I decided to be innovative and ordered a flight online via expedia.com.
And then the real problems started - Itay, the hostel manager, told me that the agency sold my place on the cruise to a guy who booked in Quito and paid a little more. For a moment I thought I was lost - what do you do in Galapagos without a cruise? But people in the hostel encouraged me, and told me there's plenty to do. When I met Daniel again, from all that day's dramas, I had only a funny story to tell him.
The same night we caught the bus to Guayaquil from which we split - his for Montanita and me to my flight to the unknown. Since our flights home were a day difference, we scheduled to meet when we're back, and finish the trip together.
Because of all the horror stories I heard about Guayaquil I caught a taxi directly to the terminal, were I fell asleep in front of the huge windows in the terminal until they called my name at the speaker.
The plane was huge, and more annoyingly, there were plenty of vacant seats. At that moment I understood the Ecuadorian love money at least as much as the Peruvians, if not more, and will do anything for several extra dollars.
The airport we landed at in Baltra was small. All the passengers had to walk from the place to the arrivals terminal. The terminal was small and like a bee hive from all the tourists standing in the endless snake like queues. It seems that everyone came in groups besides me. It was hot, no A/C or ventilators, and dark because the only light came from outside. I began to think I made a huge mistake. But in the information booth they reassured me - all I needed to do was get to Porto-Ayura, the main town in the main island Santa Cruz, where there're agencies, hostels, and everything you need. A bit like any touristic city.
A bus, ferry, and another bus took me from Baltra sun, on a long straight asphalt road, through ground level clouds that would escort me until I leave. The plantation on the road side was green and moist, and you could see 2 meters through it, on good cases. There were odd looking trees, which suggested I'm not in a regular Slava on the mainland. Maybe the fact that Baltra is desert and Santa Cruz is a jungle should have hinted me something. On the bus I met another group, who didn't have plans like me, and I realized I'm not a lone, but part of a movement.
Wandering around the streets of Puerto with my backpack on my back, I didn't feel it anymore. I grew strong. I moved from agency to agency, and when I gave up finding a cruise I started inquiring about dailies, and there are plenty, and their far from cheap. But this is what I had, and I had to burn some time until the flight.
I chose an agency managed by a husband and wife who struck me as honest people - she made business while breast feeding her baby, and he was a slow speaker and genial. For a substantial discount I signed with them a plan for all four days I had. I chose to start with a two day trip to Isabela, mainly because it solved my accommodation issue for half of the trip. After a quick lunch in $3 restaurant (the Ecuadorian counterpart for 3 Sol, the cheapest you've got even if you're local), I gave my backpack to the agency owner and lead the way to the Marina. It was all a big mess - plenty of boats, plenty of people, in each boat more people than places. On mine I found a seat only on the bench outside, which means very wet sail. For two hours and a half the boat jumped on iron waves, under old asphalt colored sky. I didn't throw up like the others but I'd be lying if I told you I felt good at the end.
So what do you have in Isabela? Little penguins, all kinds of odd birds, a lots of iguanas (turtles are for the weak), camera enthusiasts, seals, and a volcano named Sierra Negra with interesting landscaping around it - the abrupt change between rain forest and a desert is very impressive, and also the variety of volcanic rocks colors, which depends on the time of eruption. A lot of organized tours to Isabela are doing Sierra Negra on horses, but watch out - if the road is muddy, and untrained horses may fall and you with them. My personal experience with horses was horrible, and at the end of the trip I asked and received a refund on that part.
Next thing I did was Totuga Bay, which included more cool iguanas than turtles - they crowded in big areas of moving hissing blacks, probably to warm each other. Their domesticity and their human facial expressions will melt hearts even in those of you who don't like reptiles. The bay you visit has a deep crevice in which you can see a mixture of sea and ground water - very recommended and refreshing experience.
The next day I did the last tour to the northern Seymour island. The island was very small - in the tour you walk all of it - and packed with the famous lue Foot Boobies. The iguanas there are large and yellow - it turns out that each island in Galapagos has it's own unique iguana species.
You also reach a white magical beach in which you can snorkel and see interesting fish - I guess it doesn't get close to what you see in a cruise to the farther islands, but still it's pretty.
If Darwin would have seen these islands, maybe he'd also wonder what the big deal was. The Galapagos are tired from over tourism lasting too many years. Indeed the animal voices are unheard, or not understandable, but if the Ecuadorian authorities will continue to ignore it, it will loose in a few years its greatest asset. I hope there's truth in the rumor they want to shut the islands for tourist for 10 days, and who ever gets there afterward, will see something closer to what inspired the creation tale of the modern world.
Back to the main land. From Guayaquil, I caught a bus to Puerto Lopez, whose famous for whales coming to it's shores from Antarctica to mate. On the bus I met another familiar face - young french photographer named Vincent, who was already in Cuenca and I was impressed with his Hebrew so much I was sure he was Israeli (this is how it is when you have a father in Tel Aviv). While we drove, he let me peek in the treasures he had on his insane camera's memory card, which was heavy like my backpack. The window beside me was open.
When the bus started rolling after one of the stops, i caught a glimpse of en eye someone outside running toward the window, jumping and touching my hand with his finger tips. It took me some time to realize he was grabbing for the camera. But he stayed behind, and the camera with me - Vincent had good reflexes and moved it on time. I would have felt so bad if it turned out otherwise. This is the closest thing I got close to to a robbery, and from then on I was more careful.
The drive was fun - Vincent's iphone played us music and we joined it singing loudly. When we got to Puerto Lopez Vincent had an innovative idea - go to the fanciest hotel in town, and offer them professional commercial photography (his courtesy) in exchange for free stay for his crew (me and the friend who accompanied him). So when the fanciest hotel didn't work, we found the cheapest hostel where we stayed, and it got us a dollar discount.
Those two french guys made me and the waitress laugh throughout dinner, from there we continued to one of the pubs spread around the beach, and drank Mojitos with our legs in the sand. On a wooden deck there were skilled Gringas who danced salsa with dark and more skilled men.
After it got empty, I got up to the deck and did some ballet moves, something the Ecuadorians got very curious about, and I made them try it, and of course they volunteered to teach me some Salsa steps. Vincent was shooting endlessly until we got tired. If you read between the lines you probably guessed the biggest attraction in Puerto Lopez was the people. But sill some whales....
On the main street there are plenty of agencies offering whales tours, which usually came combined with snorkeling - it's up to the weather and your mood. A tourist guy will take you from the agency to the beach - walking distance - and there you my be shocked. The beach is packed with everyday routine life of the city, which is first, a fishermen city. They bring from the sea all kinds of odd fish, including huge swords fish, and many birds flying in packs above to catch the small fish the kids are throwing to the air. In all this mess, there are loose dogs and fruit peddlers with packs of watermelon and pineapples on their head. The professional photographer was shooting like mad there, and so did I.
Eventually, it was time to fold the pants and disembark. The moment we could we settled on the boat's roof, and it was an experience on it's own - the amazing speed, the jumps of the waves, the cold spray of water, and of course we could see the whales without anyone to block our sight.
We saw them from a distance - random fins waving hi above the gray water, or half a heavy body just showing up with a pink belly turned upward and immediately disappearing in the abyss. Every time the captain wanted to go back to shore, another show started - these are of course male whales trying to make a point to the females.
The same night Vincent escorted me to the bus. I had a drive to Quito. Daniel was waiting for me there. Sleepless nights were a small price to pay because this is how I saved another night in hostel, which is time and money, especially when dollars are flying from your pockets like paper airplanes on the land of equator.
Field Note: In the fishermen town, you don't have to act like fisherman. One that hates fish, will live on squid.
I arrived Quito at 6 am, and caught a taxi to Galapagos hostel. The gate was locked, and to the sleepy Seniora who showed up I told I was looking for Daniel. By the time he arrived, I managed to meet in the hostel half of the people I knew in the Galapagos islands. After a good breakfast we went on our way.
We went to terminal terestro (land terminal), looking for a bus to take us to Puerto Quito. Around it there's an organic cocoa farm which offers weekends of recreation. You can organize through any agency in the historic center. We booked through Guliver - a great agency with a well connected Israeli owner. Erica, his assistant, is something else. This is for the girl power.
The bus drove three hours on a shattered road, in landscapes which favorably reminded me of north Peru - green, humid, very alive. There were many signs directing to other ecological farms than ours, and I started to imagine our farm as as a country club packed with rasta haired backpackers, smoking organic weed.
We got down in a normal looking town, where nobody was waiting for us with a sign. We called Biacto agency, and in minutes a shabby car with a smiling driver showed up. It was Gabrial, the guy who managed and maintained the farm for his boss in Quito. We drove on another dirt road, seeing through the spider web like shattered window, how the city disappears, and the forest replaces it.
Pink Bromeliads bushes were edging the driveway to the farm. When the vehicle finally stopped, we didn't hear any other vehicles. With exception, a group of Englishmen who were about to leave for a trek, it was only us. Somehow I didn't envy them in that heat. Gabriel showed us our room, in a huge residential building made of dark wood.
Without thinking twice I changed into a bathing suit and dragged Daniel to swim in the river flowing below our window. It was freezing, but a group of kids played in it like it was a warm bath. I naively splashed water on one of them, and immediately all hell broke loose, with an all-in-all water fight.
I passed the afternoon in the farm "lobby" with a book on a hammock. Instead of reading I talked to Gabriel most of the time. I learned that most of the kids I saw in the river were his. These little "moglis" wore clothes mainly from the tourists.
His pleasant and smiling wife cooked and served us. That night Gabriel taught us to make organic chocolate - from cocoa to the addictive liquid chocolate where we dipped fruits and fingers. After Gabriel and his wife retired to bed, we stayed alone in the entire compound. And we, weird people as we are, went down to the frozen river. Full moon, cold water, crickets, and night birds. Besides that - stillness.
The day after Gabriel took us to his fruit plantation, and we saw unbelievable things -Lychee with pinkish soft glowing thorns, huge mandarins, enormous kinds of bananas, and fruits we didn't have words for, so you'll have to see (and taste) for your selves.
After the noon siesta, we drove to a nearby waterfall with Gabriel's family, and even had the pleasure of driving his clunker car (I drove 70 km/h on first gear because I didn't remember how to shift them). The waterfall was nice, but what made it so different and special from the many waterfalls I saw on this trip, was, again, the company. Although we stuffed all the farm attractions to two days instead of three, we had plenty of time to snooze and do what we really wanted - true shanti.
From Otavalo we arrived to Quito to book one last trip for the day after, our last day in Ecuador. Daniel opened his bag to take his wallet and found out his mobile phone and passports were gone. We realized immediately that something happen in Otavalo - the market was crowded, and the bag wasn't locked. For a few minutes we felt lost, but with the agencies people assistant we were encouraged and started doing what we needed to help our selves (well, mainly Daniel; paranoid yours truly locked her bag).
I filed a complaint on behalf of him in the tourist police (thanks Peru in which I learned Spanish more than you need), he canceled his flight tickets, and since the next day was Sunday and embassies were closed, we decided not to give up our last trip and went to Cotopaxi volcano, exhausted but still determined to enjoy every minute we had left in Ecuador.
The bus took us on a long and clouded road, as usual in Ecuador. When the clouds parted and the snowy peak of Cotopaxi was exposed, everyone went down to shoot it. The bus finally dropped us half way to the peak height, from there we climbed with no trails following the rest of the hikers, sinking in every step inside the gray dry volcano ash. I managed to cope with the breathing difficulties caused by a climb at this height, but here there was another challenge now - snow. The wind thrust it into our faces on the naked mountain, and it brutally stabbed us in the face. What a relief it was to get to the refugio. As easy as it seemed from below (3800m, piece of cake!) it was hard at least in the Santa Cruz pass.
Inside the refugio there was ski chalet atmosphere - many people were crowded around wooden tables, grabbing with their gloves and hot chocolate in plastic cups. The heat and the rest inside were addictive, but we couldn't forget we arrived here to see the glacier - the top of the ice cap of the mountain, which was in walking distance. We put our strength back to work and started walking. Unfortunately, the wind and snow hit us again and made us give up.
Descending was faster, of course, easier and quicker (after lunch in the refugio), and half of it we did on bikes - not a simple task in these steep slopes and in this weather. Riding later, on flat land, was fun and easy, mostly when the sun decides to show up.
We passed the next day in Idleness, me and Daniel, until my flight. It was the Ecuadorian independence day so all offices were closed. Daniel was beyond the stress stage, and realized that with avbit of patience, all embassies will be open and eventually he'll managed to leave.
We parted in the evening without knowing when and to where he'll continue from Quito but we knew we'd meet again.
In Heathrow duty free, half way home, everything felt like a long dream. Only my overly full backpack hinted I'm not like the rest of the fashionable travelers going back from exotic vacations or on their way to it, equipped with a fake tan that England excelled at.
What's left of that dream? Few bleeding bites, who will turn into little stubborn scar tissues, several authentic jewelry pieces, countless landscape pictures, to which always life pushed with it's fierceness - Senioras, fishermen and kids. Is tourism degenerate life there and preventing them the motivation to progress, or does it save them from terminal fatal poverty? It's hard for me to determine.
Western man will say motivation is a matter of education. I rather know to think in terms of "Peruvian mentality" of laziness, although the Spanish occupation and oppression, which dictated people how to live their lives and didn't leave room for initiatives and decisions, it's a legacy you cannot simply ignore.
You meet in South America plenty of desperate initiatives - beggars, food peddlers, speakers and even thieves - but its initiative who's intention it is to allow existence, not to progress.
Instead of flooding the free public universities, people whine on their lower standard of education, and rather become a TukTuk driver. They have become a nation from slaves to a nation who serves, with the thought that it will be easier to get money this way.
Us, the tourists, are only seen as a bottomless wallet filled with cash money. They think we'll pay every price they ask, because all looks cheap in comparison. Well, perhaps it's true for a couple coming for two weeks of vacation, but when it comes to backpackers, thriftiness and suspicion rules.
But although their green is quite transparent, I'm more in favor of them than judge them. It's obvious to me they need a revolution so time and education will have values there, so that efficiency and thoroughness will replace uncertainty and improvisation.
Will then the magic of Machu Picchu, Santa Cruz and Galapagos fade? For this questions as to to many other questions in life, these people have prepared an excellent answer which is also my last Field Note: Todo possible, nada seguro. If you understood, you've probably been there, If not, when you get there, you'll understand.