El Conquistqdor Francisco de Orellana

El Conquistqdor Francisco de Orellana
The Conquistador who put the Amazaon baisn "on the map"....Francisco Orellana

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Easy gateway to South America


There are no blue-footed boobies. No tropical penguins or lizards that swim. You're more likely to see llamas, maybe a spectacled bear. This is mainland Ecuador, the quieter but no less attractive sister of the much-lauded Galapagos Islands, which often reduce the rest of the country to a mere stopover on the way to wildlife wonders.

But there are plenty of reasons to linger in this small nation perched on South America's north-west coast between Colombia and Peru. For one thing, it's less boisterous than some countries with their carnivals, Inca trails and Gold Coast-like beaches, making it a great place to ease your way into South America.

For its size, Ecuador is also enormously varied. You can climb snow-capped mountains on the equator, lose yourself in Spanish cities, surf Pacific beaches and go bird-watching in the Amazon, all in the space of a few days.

I confess, the Galapagos had brought me to Ecuador but the rest of the country entices me to stay and join a four-day Spirit of the Andes tour, which starts with one of the most scenic drives in the Americas: the Avenue of Volcanoes, a 300-kilometre stretch of road flanked by 59 volcanoes. At least, it would be scenic if it wasn't raining.

"There are only two seasons in Ecuador: when it rains a lot [October-May] and when it rains less [June-September]," says our guide, Sylvia, not very reassuringly. But there are hundreds of microclimates, she adds, so you never know what the weather will do. "We say in Ecuador that you have to dress as an onion: with layers and layers."

Our first stop is Cotopaxi National Park, an hour south of Quito, the capital. Rain turns to sleet as we browse rickety souvenir stalls selling alpaca jumpers and sip coca-leaf tea, which relieves headaches caused by altitude - our highest point today is 3800 metres. Cotopaxi, one of the highest volcanoes in the world at 5897 metres, is above us, somewhere, in the clouds.

One of the highlights of the highlands is its Spanish-mission estates called "haciendas". Hacienda San Agustin de Callo, where we stop for lunch that first day, within sight (some days) of Cotopaxi, is an oasis of Ecuadorean hospitality: bright orange walls, terracotta roof tiles, geraniums spilling out of pots and a cobbled square where we hand-feed some of the resident llamas with carrots from a basket. If you were a farmer here you'd probably grow roses - and plenty of them; the volcanic soils are fertile, the equatorial climate means even temperatures year-round and the altitude keeps the insects away. Roses are one of Ecuador's top three exports, in fact.

We wake on the morning of day two to more rain. But that doesn't dampen our next stop: Banos ("bath" in Spanish). Its location on the side of Mount Tungurahua (5016 metres), one of the most active volcanoes in Ecuador (it last erupted in April 2011), has made Banos an adventure hub but we bypass the mountain biking, hiking and rafting and go directly to the outdoor thermal baths, where we soak, in the rain, in our swimsuits and shower caps (mandatory for "gringitas", as female gringos are endearingly called).

There's an upside to all this water falling from the sky: super-sized waterfalls. Cruising along part of the Waterfall Route, hugging the cliff edge when we're not plunging through dark, single-lane rock tunnels, we pass a dozen thundering waterfalls on the Pastaza River. At some of them, you can pile into a metal basket for a cable ride across a bottomless gorge; not very tempting but, at $1.50 a person, a cheap way to risk your life at least.

We almost get too close to one waterfall as it is, just south of Banos and at the end of a slippery track through dripping rainforest. Some days you can swim at the base of the Devil's Cauldron. Not today; you'd be dashed to pieces. Even standing on the "viewing" platform right next to it, we can't see the top or the bottom of the falls because there's so much water and we have to shout to be heard over the booming sound and drenching spray. Remarkably, all this water is on its way to the Amazon and, eventually, the Atlantic, 5000 kilometres to the east - despite the Pacific being only 250 kilometres west of here.

"One thing that's special about our country," says Sylvia back on the bus, while we all change into dry clothes, "is that you can drive for 20 minutes and the vegetation, the landscape, even the people, are completely different." Right on cue, we reach Chimborazo province, home to the highest mountain in Ecuador and what was once believed to be the highest mountain in the world.

Some still believe it is. Because of its equatorial position and the fact the earth bulges slightly at the equator, Chimborazo's summit (at 6268 metres) is 6384 kilometres from the centre of the earth, about two kilometres further than the top of Everest. Either way, we can't see it, despite driving around it at an altitude of 4500 metres. But we do see vicunas in the mist. This is the only place in Ecuador you can find these llama-like animals.

On day three, at San Pedro de Alausi, we leave the bus and climb aboard the Ferrocarriles del Ecuador for a two-hour trip on the most dramatic section of a railway that once went all the way from the coast to Quito. Riding on the roof used to be allowed; you could even rent a cushion for a dollar. Now tourists must confine themselves to the inside of the recently restored carriages, which are nevertheless charming with their timber panelling and rattling windows.

It's said to be the steepest railway in the world. That's hard to believe - until we reach the Devil's Nose, a 765-metre promontory of rock the train has to negotiate by going forward on to a dead-end piece of track, reversing down to the next section, going forward again, then back, then forward, until it reaches the river below.

One of the most interesting parts of this road trip is seeing Ecuador's indigenous mountain people - Salasaca men in black ponchos, Canari women in full skirts, everyone in felt hats. It was the ancestors of the Canari who worshipped the sun and moon circa 900BC at what's now the country's best-preserved archaeological site, Ingapirca.

We see ancient aqueducts (the Incas being the Romans of the Americas), mortarless stone walls, even pits where sacrificial virgins were kept, and walk around the Temple of the Sun in the drizzle. At least here, we don't feel we're missing out. The sun shines into the temple just twice a year: at sunset on the summer and winter solstices.

After winding through lush hill country with a patchwork of farms, we reach the end of the road on day four: Cuenca, Ecuador's third-largest city (after Quito and Guayaquil on the coast). It's quiet, peaceful, historic. We see the old cathedral, built in 1557, with its German organ that took two months to transport on horseback from Guayaquil, and the "new" cathedral, with its three blue domes and statues of the Virgin Mary wearing a shawl and Jesus in a poncho.

But all this is just a prelude to Cuenca's main event. At the Central Bank Museum, in a darkened room, there are five glass cases and five shrunken human heads. Each has its eyes and mouth sewn shut. Some have mops of black hair, some have moustaches; all have eyebrows and eyelashes. It's as eerie as it is compelling, particularly when you learn that ritual head-shrinking was performed by Ecuador's Shuar people as recently as the 1960s. The heads of friends and foes were shrunk to rescue the soul, or absorb a man's strength.

Shrunken heads, roses and railways, haciendas and waterfalls, and active volcanoes. Rain or shine, even the blue-footed boobies are no match for Ecuador's highlands.

That hat

You can't come to Ecuador and not visit a panama hat factory; there are six at Cuenca. These straw "toquilla" hats originated in southern Ecuador in the 1860s and were called panama hats because Panama Canal workers often wore them.

At Homero Ortega, a fifth-generation hat business, we see how panama hats are still handmade and come in all different shapes, sizes and colours, some of which have graced famous heads; their "wall of fame" includes Winston Churchill, Madonna, Sean Connery, Pavarotti, even Bruce Willis.

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