4.30 am start. A miserable time. Cold and bleak and the city sleeps. Breakfast en-route to Madrid. Change plane and then 11 hours of nothing except food and sleep. Iberia does both well. We are exhausted on arrival, 7:00 PM local Ecuador time. 2:00 AM for us, we dodder straight to bed.
We set out to see the city but must first search for an ATM machine, as I have not a single dollar. Yes, ATM's are, as our tour guide told us, on every corner, but only for the use of Ecuadorian nationals. But a local bank, heavily guarded by toy soldiers in fancy uniforms and sprinkled with real guns, obliges. Money belt momentarily stuffed.
Walk to the old town. A LONG way. Quito unravels itself to be rather like an old fashioned eastern European city: the jungle of car repair yards, shops packed with electrical goods falling out of boxes onto the pavement. Bootleg DVD's, videos and CDs, all the newest sights and sounds housed in decrepit concrete blocks tied together with cat’s cradles of electric cables. A few attempts at ‘modern’ architecture are grubby and crumbling.
the air is full of damp. Even when we got up this morning our clothes, even in our room, were damp, towels and knickers, socks and T-shirts. Childhood memories of Snowdonia and its soddeness were very close.
However the people of Quito look marvelous; trilby hats, both men and women, brilliant shawls, swirling skirts and faces full of life. Smiles and resignation, not screwed up with jealousy European style. Gorgeous children, slim and slight and shy and everyone strutting their stuff. Probably a lot of the stuff all made in China…
But the pall of dampness remains and the altitude makes us want to sit down. Nowhere to sit. Streets full of people but not a café to be found. We visit huge monasteries with vast gilt glazed churches attached. Churches looking as though hewn from solid gold. Amazing how the Spanish totally asset-stripped South America, I suppose some sort of guilt made them leave a little spread over the walls of their religious institutions. Most of the grand rooms of the monasteries are now museums of a sort. Largely closed for ‘repairs’. Repairs that no one has been able to afford before but organisations such as World Heritage now fund. All great except while the funding is sorted and spent everything is shut. However the rooms that are open all contain vast dark and gloomy Spanish religious paintings by unknown artists. At least unknown to me. Canvases start around 4 metres high and move upward in size, which is eventually checked by, enormous carved gold frames. Pictures you could never get in or out of any door. Pictures to put you in your place and make you feel small. Pictures painted by the m2 or rather squared hectare. It would be interesting to find out who worked these monstrous canvases. Were they painted single-handed or by a team? Did they make the colours locally or import them by the barrel from Spain? Are the agonised Madonna's and angels and thunderous Saints portraits of local Spanish ex-pats? Perhaps, when every other school of paintings has had a PH.D written about it, someone will give these works the attention their sheer size and darkness deserves.
the big public squares of Quito are grand and spacious enough to muster a division. there are plenty of soldiers guarding the buildings, though these soldiers look like toy ones in their pretty frogged uniforms and glistening boots. Drum majorettes march and fat policemen hold the crowds back whilst the bands march past trying to control their anaconda-like tubas. All the martial music sounds like tangos, which makes a jolly change from other military bands.
We trawl some markets but this year’s feature of leaping deer knitted into all the pullovers keeps our dollars in our pockets. Greek key patterns are also popular around hems and wrists. I wonder where the original of these designs actually came from? Someone has told them that deer and Greek key pattern are just what the gringos are looking for. All a bit of a pity.
At 12.000 ft we have so far held up well, even managing several miles of tramping, though eventually giving in to the idea of a taxi back to our hotel. Good enough dinner, but wine is expensive, and then instant sleep.
Terrible night, Sally doing her greatest act, basso profundo. She could make another fortune in an opera house being able to project her roars enough to make the rafters quake. the room across the yard from us are telling each other their life stories in loud New Yorkese. And there is the rain beating on the window, like all the toy soldiers shooting off their rifles together. I could stand the noise no longer so got up at 4am and had a very long hot shower. Sally is furious because I wake her. Cursing me she sleeps again and when the alarm rings turns over, turns it off and plunges yet again into dreams. Five minutes before our taxi is due she wakes, dresses and is ready. I am impressed, needing as I do an hour for ablutions. Café Cultura even has coffee ready for us at 5am and Daniel and the car arrive on the dot to take us to the airport.
Quito domestic terminal must really win the grand prize for the worst airport in the world, though to give them their due they do seem to have borrowed some of those signs from museums telling that repairs are in progress. At this predawn hour the place is already swarming and when we are summoned to our plane find ourselves walking right out onto the runway where two planes are filling up with people. Dilemma, do we like the blue plane or the one with green stripes best? Getting closer we see the blue plane has a crooked sign hanging on the steps saying ‘CUENCA’.
Up and out through the damp and grey and we are in a magic land of puffy white clouds through which poke the snouts of snowy topped volcanoes. I think perhaps we have strayed into a Lord of the Rings set. Our noses pressed to the windows we are enchanted. A mere hour later, after a large and nasty bump we have landed. the sun shines, the air doesn’t taste of petrol and we’ve left the rain behind and Felipe is there to greet us.
Off to explore. Cuenca is more or less a 19th century town built on a grid pattern. First to find another ATM machine as the first dollars seemed to have dripped away. that’s the nature of travel. But no ATM works here either. On the further side of town we are directed to a Cash Advance sign. Yes, as much as we want on our credit cards, but it costs 20%. Ow! Seems like there is a fine business to be opened here. Two pretty girls run the place, one takes my passport details and the other opens the safe. the money belts are once again stuffed.
It is almost, to within a few feet, as high here as in Quito, so walking is hard. Also the sun being vertically overhead is dizzy making. We head for the river, why is water such a draw? the Cuenca river is more a large mountain brook and on its flanks the Bank of Ecuador has built itself an Inca style concrete fortress, (plenty of guards with guns outside,) and next to the actual bank, a museum. A rather smaller Inca fortress. It is open! that makes a change. Inside there are almost no visitors but it is dark and cool and a refuge from the torrid street. the ground floor has a wonderful collection of 19th century portraits of local worthies painted by artists of Ecuador. One can see the itinerant artists unloading their colours off their llamas and painting the local dignitaries packed into their best clothes. Naïve and delightful, and very real. Life here could never have been easy despite all that gold being dug out. Some fearsome carved and painted wooden portrait busts in glass case and a series of rooms of the Madonna of Mercy pictures. the most kitsch pictures I’ve ever seen, right over the top with simpering girls and pink children and butterflies and flowers and tinsel. I fear only I could enjoy such sentiment.
Upstairs a run through of tribal settlements of Ecuador, straw huts with natives, (plaster ones) cooking in pots over fake fires. Always good to see how a country looks at its own ethic people. Here definitely they are kept at the back on the top floor.
Outside in the straight streets we tower above the locals, small persons with wide smiles, mostly Indian looks but often well mixed with Spanish, especially the girls in tight jeans and stilettos. the real locals, the market women are as wide as they are high. I mean that, no exaggeration.
From the cool dark bank we walk out along the river/ditch. It is broiling and somehow I still have woolly tights on. Why? We try a couple more museums after hauling ourselves up a vertical flight of steps panting at each one. We feel the altitude. Horrible. It can’t just be old age. Both museums closed for repairs and looking like they’ll be closed for the next decade.
Our trusty guidebook tells us of a hippie café in the vicinity. Oh bliss. the best refreshment of Ecuador is the fruit juice. Extravagant and exotic juices, or rather thick fruit soups. Everyone has a whizzer and you just choose what fruit you want piled into it. Half a litre of the stuff for a dollar appears to be pretty standard. My favourite is mountain blackberry, a sort of huge raspberry with colour somewhat relating to a blackberry. Totally delicious served as a fresh mush. Sally likes the banana concoctions, or the weird tree tomato. It maybe a relation of the tomato but a rather distant one and impossible to tell if you want it as a sweet drink or part of a salad. But the hippie café is fresh out of everything except watermelon, a boring fruit but again fine if whizzed and seeds removed.
We find it so curious that there is no café life at all here in Cuenca. Yet the climate is perfect for it. the pretty town squares call for tables and chairs under the shady trees. the lawns beside the river are perfect for sitting around on, preferably at a table with an umbrella. But nothing. Even in the capital, Quito, there was no café life. Perhaps there are dark underground bars where citizens congregate and plot? We know nobody to ask. So the hippie café is a find. A few single gringos sitting at separate tables and looking intense with well-worn paperbacks in their hands. the style of such young travelers hasn’t changed in fifty years. We can feel their sneers so down our juice, pay our dollars, and, speaking Greek to each other, to confuse the clientele slip away.
are essential fare for tourists whose feet ache and need rest and whose
eyes bulge from too much looking. Ecuador is missing out on real money-spinners.
In the precinct of the cathedral there are shops which only sell outfits for Baby Jesuses and sweet Madonnas. Tiny shops packed with bejewelled dressing gowns for dolls. these shops are doing a roaring trade as Christmas approaches and there are many Nativitys to dress, apart from all the local saints little family creche needing party clothes for the coming festivities.
We find a restaurant, a sort of Cuenca brasserie where the local chaps of substance, with pointed and shiny shoes, curious suits and cheap brief cases, appear to be having a set lunch. As are a couple of nuns, and a group of youngsters. they are all eating the same; soup, a ghastly looking piece of meat with rice and, something unseen since childhood for pud, red jelly. We go for the soup, the usual Ecuadorian soup, potato. It is good, and seems to be made with maize flour thickened stock, coloured and flavoured with turmeric and then are added lots of potatoes cut quite small, lumps of white cheese and slices of avocado floating in it. We wash this down with a jug of fresh lime juice and finish off with a good espresso. At last, good coffee! Ecuador grows the best coffee in the world and brews the worst.
Our postcard pile grows. Am addicted to buying postcards. For one, they show you things that the guide book my have forgotten to mention, and secondly, they tell me what the natives of a place think important about their country.
then Sally heaves a deep sigh as I have just found the shop that sells the magnificent woollen skirts the women here wear. Somewhat on the lines of a dirndl but of wool and fuller about the hem, which is scalloped, a great wreath of embroidered flowers tangle. Red, pink, yellow and green are the colours, with the occasional black. Neon bright and bums everywhere display these gorgeous clothes. the skirts tie on the side with stripey ribbons. the skirts are worn as everyday garments though often covered, at least in front, by a check pinny. Irresistible purchases for me. I have half the shop out before deciding on a black one with pin tucks round the hem. A severe matronly affair, apart from the gaudy bows. It is far, far too big, as I’ve said before, the women here are barrel shaped. All of them. Everyone laughs as the skirts fall to my ankles. I buy anyway and will no doubt find a way of lopping some of the width off.
Back at the hotel, our loot bag is already bursting. Sally has made the greatest plumbing discovery. Yes, we do indeed have a bath, but there are no bath taps so the only way to fill the bath is from the dribble of water coming out of the fixed shower-head. Truly a design first.
A nasty dinner, which is better left untouched. And so to bed.
is pretty horrid in our hotel. Which is unusual as the breakfasts are
mostly sumptuous buffets with everything from muesli through porridge
to eggs and croissants. though as always the fruit juice is fine. this
hotel is newly done over and recently opened and everything is dinky:
the bath towels are tied with ribbon and the end of the loo paper folded
just so. Wee pots of dried flowers balanced on all horizontal surfaces
and not a light to read by any where in our room. Bottles of shower
glop in the bathroom but no plug for the basin. It is as though the
owner has read a travel mag but no one has told him that the plumbing
has to link up to something. thankfully I travel with a universal plug
so we can at least wash our smalls.
We set off at full speed down what we are told is the Pan American Highway. What a huge mind boggling idea, a highway from Terra Del Fuego to Alaska! I have a vision of a broad, beautifully engineered road, curving its way down the Americas and full of huge Mac trucks purring across continents laden with trade goods. the reality is a pot-holed two track dusty class B road packed tight with decrepit old lorries spewing out vast clouds of venomous black smoke.
Happily after 20 or 30 km's we turn off and bump our way to Azoques, the capital of the next province to Cuenca. As ramshackle and decrepit as everywhere is. Innocently I expected Ecuador to be full of quaint Spanish style villages and towns with plazas and cafes and iron bandstands and lots of balconies and people walking about arm in arm enjoying the evening breeze as in Mexico. But no, hardly a building of merit anywhere, the continuous earthquakes have knocked them all down. Cuenca of course is a World heritage site, difficult to see quite why except that it does have many 19th century buildings which have survived the ravages of earthquakes, landslides and El Nino. You build it up and God blows it down seems to be the usual opinion.
Azoques has the distinction of having built a huge monastery in 1947 in the Spanish colonial style climbing up the front of what might have once been a small volcano. A gothic façade with a vertical flight of steps, hundreds of them, leading up to the main church, the interior of which is wide and shallow, clinging as it does to the face of a cliff. Sally and I hardly make it up the steps. Altitude again. It is hard to remember that this green and rolling landscape looking extremely like Derbyshire is mostly around 12.000 ft high. Little wonder we pant.
We find a lot of churches built in the decade after WW2. Not a great time for church building in Europe, only the Corbusier chapels come to mind and they are a bit later. I wonder why the sudden enthusiasm for big new churches in Ecuador? And where did all the money come from then? Surely not Nazis hiding themselves! the churches are mostly grand and as ever full of carved and painted saints though no huge black paintings line the walls any longer.
One village, well, strip of shacks, we pass through is entirely devoted to roasting whole porkers with blow-torches. the wretched animals, looking still alive, (don’t worry, they aren’t) are standing on tables along the side of the main road as their butchers seer their hides with blow-torches large enough to weld tanks with. We are told that the black is eventually scraped off and the blow torched crackling is the best ever. We taste. Delicious.
the object of today’s expedition is Ingapica, an Inca temple, or the remains thereof. Not much left except foundations and the oval centre part of the Sun Temple. Curiously the whole place was only built about the time of Shakespeare yet looks as though it dates from a few thousand B.C, very Mycenaean in style. Beautifully cut and dressed stone with almost invisible joints, each block slightly domed. the remaining walls make impressive ruins.
has done his homework on the foundations and is full of information
regarding virgins and beheadings, but alas he delivers his chat in flat
guide-book phrases. Sally is a much better listener than I am and manages
to look interested. I find it hard to people foundations with excited
life, so wander away to look at llamas and wild flowers and watch the
huge oxen plough an almost vertical hillside with a wooden plough. I
can’t understand why none of this fertile land has been terraced,
perhaps potatoes, the pasta of the Andes, help hold the earth on the
We eat a nice lunch, the usual potato soup followed by fresh trout. the Spanish imported such fish in the 19th century to augment the peasant food of maize and potatoes. Trout took to the streams and rives with gusto and can be found everywhere in their wild state. Custard for pudding and tree tomato juice to drink. At the end a purple herb tea, no one can find a translation for the name, but it is delicious.
to leave such a pretty and peaceful retreat Felipe herds us into the
car threatening us with darkness and bandits. We start to climb even
higher but now every kilometre or so have to stop as Carlos our driver
forgot to put the lid on the water tank at the Posada and now it all
runs out. Progress is slow, as there are few water sources up here.
Carlos also forgot to bring some spare bottles of water. We move upwards
from shack to shack. San Pedro, the so-called village, at the summit
is amazing. Acres of electric wiring looped back and forth across the
road in a complicated cat’s cradle. Everywhere, but everywhere
has the electrics. Apparently every single house in Ecuador has electricity,
which is impressive considering the small population and vast area.
Four of the Ecuadorian ‘Special’ villas, each in a different
style and colouring, stand shoulder to shoulder along the highway and
constitute the village, apart from a mile of tarmac road in the dusty
wilderness. Opposite the villas, a huge bright pink church braces itself
against the wind. No shops. No school. No nothing except a bus stop.
Felipe explains what a special village this is as it has a church. When
I tell him that every village in Europe has at least one church he is
dumbfounded. Makes me look with new respect on all our churches that
we just take for granted. In a staunchly R.C country I would have expected
the place to be littered with monasteries, churches, chapels and shrines.
For mile after mile we climb and descend over the Parambo until eventually dropping, in early evening, back down to the crowded Pan American Highway. I feel sick and sick and sick. Food? Diesel? Altitude? Or just travel.
we aren’t going to go anywhere, just mooch about. Isn’t that what travel is for? Mooching and watching and looking and listening.
Off to market after having looked at rather than partaken of another revolting breakfast. the market is just as we expected and better. Ladies from out of town in their billowing skirts sitting behind piles of luscious produce. All those vegetables that you can't find in any restaurant. Everything you can think of from avocados to zucchini. Alas we find ourselves in the animal part of the market. I want to buy everything, baskets of puppies, boxes of kittens, crates of guinea pigs, chickens, geese, donkeys. Sally rightly won’t let me buy a creature; she can see the problems of getting it/they home. the guinea pigs are the most painful to watch as would-be purchasers pick them up and pinch them to see if they are fat enough for the pot. the tiny creatures, if deemed ready, are carried off by the scruff of their necks. Four shaggy mutts look at me mournfully but Sally drags me away and I try to focus on the rows of plaster Baby Jesuses, Marys and Wise Men. I buy a plaster llama with baby and an alpaca with baby, a plastic moke and a brace of string sheep for the Christmas tree. But those mutts eyes stay with me.
We retreat back to our brassiere for coffee and then wander to the flower market, which perks Sally up a lot. the plastic donkey I bought was really too much for her. She buys an assortment of bulbs, the vendor calls them ‘flowers,’ but when pressed further admits they could possibly be gladioli, though she isn’t sure. It will be interesting to see what eventually sprouts in Sally’s Oxford garden.
the loot bag with Christmas presents is still a pressing need. Hats
are good, as are shawls. Woven belts are pretty and Ecuadorian men’s
shirts are nice, if ones without Greek key pattern can be found. Handicrafts
are not overwhelming here as they are in Mexico, and the jewellery is
pretty nasty. But then no one I know wears any. there are strange things
one might expect in Ecuador but they don’t happen. People are
very quiet. As is traffic. I never saw anyone smoke anywhere, or drink
booze, and, as always, no café life. Maybe everyone is high on
cocoa leaves? But I didn’t see any of those either. Or maybe the
altitude is so thin everyone only has energy for essentials and none
left for chat.
Sally finds a posh restaurant in a lovely old house from the guidebook. We get there so early the owner is still sweeping the floor in his tracksuit. He sits us on a sofa and goes and puts on his DJ. We don’t mind waiting as we did margaritas in the hippie bar on the way. Cuenca is just right for size; maximum ten minutes walk takes you to the edge. Lovely consommé, veal and artichokes, bits of this and bits of that and a bottle of tinto.
Later at night Montezuma’s revenge hits me and Sally finds she has lost her credit card…
Awful night of no sleep and the trots but morning arrives eventually. Big push to find Sally’s lost credit card. Try and fax the USA to cancel it but fax system wont work. Sally is rightly worried. Telephoning doesn’t work either.
Felipe picks us up again for another expedition. No ancient culture on offer today, which might be a boon. We head east and again climb the hills and ride along the tops of them, never going below 3000 metres. Terrific views and broom growing everywhere. Spanish import and said to be good for abortions.
I am so nosy that I ask if I can go into the house. Perfect. Very simple, spotlessly clean, a great carved bed like a pair of nesting herons, more half finished guitars lining the walls, two metal chairs, a table, an ornate clock and family photographs in gilt frames. I could live here, but alas don’t know how to make guitars. this family has made them for hundreds of years. I just hope nothing will stop them.
the house, or rather collections of shacks, drops down the hill. Below the grand bedroom is the kitchen where a vast black pot is bubbling away on a bottled gas ring. Round the walls of the kitchen are pens full of guinea pigs and out the back are the women of the family skinning them… Not nice, but one must either be a vegetarian or put up with the horror. Some life for the little buggers; though they look cheerful enough in their pens.
More shopping for local stuff. Best, most interesting buy, are pools of pure chocolate straight from the tree. Well the pools have hardened to look like brown lava. the stuff is inedible without the added sugar we are used to. I will try this real chocolate in gravies and meat sauces, that’s what it was originally used for.
On to another market, this time out of doors, where we are promised a view of shamans at work. these turn out to be a band of jolly Indian women in the usual frilly aprons. their clinic, if that is the word, is held under an awning at the edge of the market and next to the football pitch. Four women appear to be lashing their clients with bundles of grass. they are said to be cleansing people of ‘bad humours.’ I ask to be cleansed and hand over two dollars, where upon a portly granny, whose head comes just above my waist, grabs a fresh bundle of herbs and flowers and starts to bash me. Lovely smells. I notice no bundle of greenery is used twice and beyond the shamans are a row of younger women sorting flowers and herbs and making up the bundles. After a through going over an egg is called for. this is then rolled all over me, face, arms, knees, groin etc. then the egg is broken into a paper cup and the auguries read. I am of nervous disposition and not a very peaceful character, or so the egg says. It is good to know. And the shaman women all smile with delight having shriven a gringo. But Sally says I don’t look any different.
to a posada outside town. Not nice like the last one. this one is trying
to be smart and has a swimming pool and the menu is in french. Touristy
food. I fear we are going to see a lot of this sort of thing. Over decorated,
twenty different dishes all tasting the same, that is to say, no taste.
Usually some sort of chicken and bowls of dreadful salads. Not actually
poisonous, just bland gunge. If you get away from trout and potatoes
in upland Ecuador there isn’t much in the way of local cooking.
the bread is awful; rice being more of the culture as a filler, but
it is rarely served. the potato cakes found on market stalls, are delicious.
Mashed spud with egg added and pieces of white cheese then moulded into
patties about the size of our fish cakes and fried on either side. Too
peasant to be served in such a grand place. Oh well, we won’t
then we are exposed to the Ikat weaving down the road. At least it isn’t tie dying, that scourge of the tourist industry, but here almost as horrible. Impossible to buy, impossible to explain why. I would have to stay at least a month, and speak good Spanish, to explain.
leaves us at the airport. It has been good to see a whole swatch of
Ecuador and be the only foreigners. Felipe has been a wonderful guide
and shown us things we would never have found for ourselves without
being a year in the country. We are grateful and tip him well.
No one meets us at Quito. Black mark though it is no big deal getting a cab to the Hilton. We have to stay at the Hilton now as we are joining the rest of our group and we have to be herded. We meet the rest of our party at dinner. All serious and pleasant folk I am sure. Dinner is horrible, tourist pap again, so I quit after the soup and go and sleep. Tomorrow we have to leave at 6.30am.
Tweeters and woofers, a thousand years or thereabouts our ages must add up to. If we happened one after the other we could make a line back to the first millennium.
We are up at 5am and down for breakfast by half-past. the Hilton breakfast room is buzzing and music blasting. We seriously tuck in; our next rations may be days away. I am amazed the way the crumblies can consume eggs and bacon and muesli and croissants and coffee and jam. Not to mention Ecuadorian things bubbling away under silver lids. Is this what holidays are about, breakfast?
We gather to wait for our bus, backpacks and cameras, water bottles and binoculars. Everyone except me in new trainers. Male plumage brighter than female, (yes, everyone is a bird watcher…) Christ, we all look awful, so ancient and worn. How did any of this lot ever mate? Lady Bountiful sweetly welcomes Sally and myself to the party and her dear husband, a twinkle in his eye, smokes a cheroot as we wait in the chill pre-dawn on the Hilton forecourt.
Again the landscape is like Derbyshire. It is the highest I’ve ever been, excepting planes of course. Scrub and more scrub, we are above the tree line. We turn off the main road and bump across this moon landscape, ever climbing. Ahead sprouts Cotopaxi, a snowed crowned volcano around whose feet a national Park has been declared. there is a low building of stone, which we are told is a museum. Someone unlocks the door. It does have a loo, which is useful as well as an extremely botchy stuffed condor. the native bird of Ecuador, except there are only 70 left and little chance of seeing one. A poster next to the condor showing what to do in case of an eruption holds my attention. Mostly it seems to say RUN. Our guide Christian, breaks into full song again. His voice is unbearable so I sit outside listening to the wind whistling among the rocks. What a barren and gloomy place and the sun vertically overhead is fierce. But lovely silence.
Ten minutes later
I notice everyone has left to head further up the mountain to a lake.
I walk fast and scramble up a bank to catch them up. WHAM…My
head is suddenly attacked by a pain worse than anything I’ve
ever had before. Imagine a mediaeval torture machine, a metal crown
with spikes on the inside, poking into your skull with someone tightening
the metal band up with a spanner... Nausea rises and the world tips.
I can hardly breathe, am falling… One of our party is a retired
G.P and rescues me. I want to scream. I find a wee patch of shade
and throw down some Nurofen… Jane is a dear and refuses to leave
me, even though I tell her I am going to die and there is nothing
she can do. All I want is to get down the bloody mountain but the
bus driver will not take me, it isn’t on his agenda, neither
does he have a mobile phone, or any oxygen or even a bottle of water.
or four hours of misery then the others come back and we drop down a
few thousand feet. the headache remains but below the screaming level.
We drive to an old hacienda where a grand lady takes in guests. A rather
lovely conglomeration of buildings all built from blocks of solid black
lava. Family dogs ran out to meet us. Nice. the dining room where we
lunch has lava walls, no plaster and lovely Victorian mahogany furniture.
Gloomy and magnificent. Dear little Indian maids wait on us and the
lunch is nice, simple and homemade. Potato soup of course, trout with
rice and pudding is some disgusting local fruit that looks like tripe
and chews like tripe but tastes of hair oil.
the hacienda is only 8 acres, though I think Christian means hectares. Still pretty small considering the vastness of the landscape. there was no information as to who built the place and why so little land now. Am feeling too sick to bother to find out.
Everyone is very, very kind to me. I am amazed. they are a good crowd and I must quickly learn to sort them all out. this is only the first day. Bankers and lawyers, scientists and teachers. A clever lot. Makes me feel British society is pretty all right.
Long bus ride back to the Hilton. the head throbs horribly so go straight to bed. Sea level tomorrow Hurrah!
like a log, but the altitude headache is still there A hotel minion
was sent up last night to ask if I wanted oxygen or cocoa tea. I said
yes to both but neither arrived. So much for Hilton service.
we are all packed onto a plane and are going downhill. Oh the
bliss when they open the plane doors at Guayaquil. Sea level
pressure. Ten minutes later my headache has gone. Whoopee! Dear
Lord I am alive again. From now on I stop at 10.000 feet.
St Cristobal town is a ramshackle pile of scruffy houses. Nothing to buy thankfully and of course no ATM machines that work. We are going to be very skint if we have anything to drink.
What a place this must have been in 1534 when it was ‘discovered’ by a Spaniard. It is amazing that anything is still left after centuries of pillage, there not being anything to rape. the Twitchers are ecstatic at all the bird life. I can identify pelicans. A procession comes along the waterfront carrying arches of scarlet flowers. What for? Nobody knows. But it is pretty, as are the island people a mixture from all over the Pacific. Pacific Rim Peoples one might say. there is nothing for anyone to do here except service the tourists, for the entire archipelago is a National Park. the islands are almost a thousand Kilometres off the Ecuadorian mainland and not on any particular shipping route. It is amazing anyone ever got here and, having got here, one ever left.the first sight of sea lions. Not one, not two, but hundreds. Lying on the wooden jetties, sunbathing on the foredecks of boats at anchor, like tarts laid out on speedboats in the Med. the beasts are swimming among the dinghies and posing on the rocks. they are everywhere, and barking their heads off. However their breath is terrible and their poop, which is all over the rocks, stinks even worse. But cheerful beasts. I look forward to knowing them better.
We are taken out to our boats. Happily, Sally and I are lucky and are on the three masted schooner, Alta. the others are on the gin palace Flamingo. 14 people on each boat. Better thus, maybe we can get to know each other now? the Alta is gorgeous as a ship. Built in the 50's of the last century in Norway. Recently done over to suit rich Americans. Of course the décor is awful, all dark stained wood and fitted carpets. Bit like the Edwardian Hotel at Heathrow. However our cabin is fine and the saloon spacious and the deck space huge. Pity that tomorrow we get decanted into a hotel.
Of course on board it is freezing. It takes time to persuade the crew that we don’t need air-con. None of us have brought enough pullovers to survive it. Do Yankees take fur coats on summer holidays? Yes, we are on the Equator, but it isn’t hot. A SouthWesterly wind blows 12 months of the year and air-conditions the islands perfectly.
tells us of the excitements we will encounter on the morrow, he is a
dishy chap and knows a lot and really answers questions. Chris our lecturer
is with the grandees on the other boat tonight. Jane buys the drinks.
She is generous for they are Hilton prices.
the chat gets round to birds of course and when I admit to only knowing Big Birds from Small Birds there is a silence. Oh dear.
Alta’s engines stop while it is still dark and we hear the anchor rattle to the bottom. We are landed on an empty beach by 7 am. We are on Hood Island. Pale yellow sand, black lava rocks. Amazing combination.
As soon as we have paddled through the surf, our shoes in our backpacks, we are immediately surrounded by sea lions. We are in the middle of a wild life soap opera; aggressive barking by the huge males and whimpering by lost babies. Family turmoil on all sides. the males each have their own harem and jealously guard it, there are separate family groups all along the beach. the sea lions are very loving to each other and flop in the sand, heads on each other’s tummies or play in groups in the sea. the babies have their own kindergarten separate to the grown-ups.
Mocking birds try to con water from us, they know about visitors water bottles, but Roberto says it is forbidden to give them water, it will disturb the ecology. I suppose he is right but it seems tough on the mocking birds.
the wondrousness of tame wildlife. the creatures quite simply have no fear. there are no predators. Each species here doesn’t threaten another. A lizard will lie on a sea lion. Or a sea lion will let an iguana walk over it. As for us, we can walk as close as we like but are not allowed to touch. We swim with the sea lions and walk up to nesting birds and photograph them. 14 gawking twitchers flash and the birds do not even blink.
wild life supposedly traveled from Ecuador to here on logs a few million
years ago. How come no predators hitched a lift at the same time?
Once this thought is in my head I just can’t get rid of it.
We walk overland to some cliffs. then the most lucky break. Two Albatrosses do their courting dance. I watch for an hour. It is riveting, perfect co-ordinated choreography. Skillfull understanding of the rules. What I cannot discover is if the dance is always the same or if the different steps are performed in a different order at other performances. Roberto, nor Chris later, know the answer to this. And I didn’t bring a video camera.
She curtsies, he bows. He raises a wing, she follows. they lower their beaks and rattle them together and both lift their heads and open their jaws wide. He lifts a leg, she lifts a leg. they hop and turn their backs, then suddenly whip round and kiss, rattle and snap and stretch the wings. the birds are about three-foot high, and in perfect condition. I could watch for weeks but group therapy has to continue. We are a school outing on a field trip.
Back to the boats for coffee and bix and we chunter round to the other side of the island. Magnificent clouds pile up in the sky, thunderous dark grey, white sand, bright blue sea and near the beach black lava rocks. It does look like the brochure. Swimming is fine, but the water is cold. Sally gets caught in the tentacles of a huge octopus; it tries to throttle her. But she is tough and fights it off but has a thin red line round her throat for the rest of the day. And everywhere the smell of old fish, it is the sea lion poo. they don’t tell you about the pong in the brochure.
then Stephen dies. Nice sweet kind and clever Stephen. He goes for a swim and is spotted swimming face down just off the beach. Jane, the retired G.P is called and agrees; he is quite dead. Poor Winifred his wife, but she is fantastic and remains tall and grand and in charge. Of course neither of our boats has a stretcher to carry Stephen on. A tabletop is found from the top deck of Flamingo. Everyone is very quiet as Stephen is carried away on the panga.
Death swims in where so ere he will. Stephen was a nice upmarket gent and a famous judge. He asked me everyday how I was and didn’t behave like a naughty schoolboy, which the others are inclined to. A good way to die having a dip in the Pacific this morning Stephen said it was the best holiday he had ever had and how he was enjoying every minute.
A rather sombre party returns to the Hotel Finch, our headquarters from now on. At least the three accidents have happened, Stephen’s death. Eva’s fall in the airport, she had to be stitched up on arrival at St Cristobal, and my altitude sickness. Perhaps the Gods will spare us further mishaps.
Eggs cooked for us to choice. Very nice because the scrambled stuff isn’t made with butter and sits around being kept warm for hours. Off at 7am again. Pelicans on the pier diving. Lots of them. Big brown pelicans, cheerful and social birds but not as gorgeous as our big white Mediterranean ones.
A two hour chunter on Alta to South Plaza. the ship rolls gently and I sit on the wonderful shelf under the prow on the foredeck. Well padded with cushions and well protected from any waves that breaks over the prow. But very hot and glarey. this vertical sun is so intense. there is no escaping it and as my big hat has blown overboard protection is hard. Sunstroke could knock us out. thought I could take any amount of sun but not here, for it seems we are so close to the burning fire as to feel I am in a Blake painting of Purgatory.
South Plaza is a mere 13 hectares. Bleak or even bleaker than anywhere we’ve been before. these landscapes are so grim, sort of grey lichens or grassy stuff poured over the lava. Chumbas, well that’s what they were called all those years ago in Spain, giant cacti of the flat-plate-with-spikes variety grow as trees here. Not big trees, fruit tree size. A single thick trunk with a bundle of green plates atop it. Prehistoric stuff. Yes, we are in a T.V film about the beginning of the world. It makes me ever more aware of the greatness of man. 5th century B.C Athens, Piero della Francesca, J.S Bach, Isambard Brunel and so on. Of course we are responsible for plenty of horrors man has made are here to stay, or even destroy us, but this untouched-by-man landscape is scary. As are the animals inhabiting it. Iguanas are beautiful and, interesting yes, amazing, yes. But only tolerable because I am so much bigger than they are. Not sweet and cuddly as today's animals are supposed to be. And over the desolation hangs the stink of sea lion poo. there is no avoiding it. these pooping beasts lumber everywhere, they even climb, or rather wriggle, to the top of the island for a bit of peace and quiet to sleep and they defecate over the edge of the rocks. Or is it their widdle that stinks so badly? Which ever it is this stink pervades every nook and cranny. there is no avoiding it.
the cliffs overhanging the sea are jet black. We watch an iguana make his way up the vertical slabs of lava from his morning dip in the foaming sea below.
On the end of the cliffs there is a colony of bachelor sea lions. they live alone and unloved, either because they are too old or have been forced away from their harems by younger males, or are young and have not yet managed to win a harem for themselves. All rather sad and very real.
I am a time traveler from millennia ago. Everything concerning these islands is so weird. We are suspended in the middle of nowhere. And together, with other theme park visitors, somehow makes the whole expedition even weirder.
Lunch back on board Alta. Quite good in that bounteous international buffet style. At least we don’t get sick so I am thankful for the bland dining provided. Always too much food, I think I am blowing up to become like a sea lion.
Fé island after lunch. A so called ‘wet landing’
which means we paddle ashore. Except we don’t because the beach
is being patrolled by two sharks a few feet off shore in the shallows.
A huge male sea lion is barking his head off urging the pups back to
the nursery and his women out of the water and back up the beach. the
great male is heroic and responsible the way he is defending his family.
the only creature of note here is a marine iguana unique to Santa Fé. He looks much the same as all the others except his paint splodges are yellower. However swimming iguanas do amaze me. I suppose they had to swim to get here from the mainland, even if they were hanging onto a log for a lot of the way.
Musing about giant swimming lizards I walk in a sea lion poo up to the ankles Ug. Am surrounded with the stink and it follows me about. the others keep well away from me. As Roberto lectures I scrape away at the poo stuck in the caterpillar tracks of my sandals, but not until I can scrub with sand, when we get back to the beach, can I remove the stink.
We return to Alta and some brave souls swim off the stern from a clever little shelf that is let down. Having seen sharks in the vicinity nothing would get me in the water, though it is good to see Roberto dive off the deck. A young brown body with perfect thighs makes a pleasure to look at after seeing the rest of us oldies flap around in our blotchy skins.
We are now all so good and well trained that we line up and put our life jackets on unasked. Nor do we take our shoes indoors. We eat when we are told, take our turn buying a round of drinks. We are as regimented in our behaviour patterns as any beast on these bleak islands.
Last night was full moon. Hopefully there will be an even better sighting tonight. Except no one can stay awake long enough to enjoy it.
course a breeding program is most necessary, as several varieties of
the giant tortoises are almost extinct. the Darwin Centre is all very
well done. Serious science and people from all over the world working
in the project. there are incubators for eggs and pens and houses for
every age of tortoise. Trails through the undergrowth and large bushes
leading from one pen of tortoises to another. Carefully marked paths
and lots of signage. All very municipal but somehow a reality which
the wild does not have with its marked trials and concrete paths.
We invade the shop and, as tourist shops go, it is pretty good. Well designed graphics on the T-shirts and some excellent books. the kiddie stuff is bad. Children like good drawing as well as grown ups and do not have to be fobbed off with cartoon characters. Long before we’ve reached the limit on our credit cards we are herded back onto the bus.
the rain is still falling. It is warm and moist. We drive up and up to the centre of Santa Cruz, the island both at the centre of the Galapagos and the centre of our expedition. the landscape is very different, it is called the Highlands, but is thankfully only 500 m at its highest. I am safe from altitude sickness! the Highlands are permanently under a rain cloud and if not actually raining it is always damp. After days of torrid sun the dampness is a delight. Ferns and moss and lush undergrowth, most surely full of reptiles. So long as they have legs all will be well.
We are shown three sinkholes, which are just holes. Vast ones a few hundred metres across and perfectly round. Very odd. Something from the beginning of the world? Our guide doesn’t know.
then we amble down the tarmac, (yes there is a tarmac road crossing Santa Cruz.) We are looking for some small red bird, which is very elusive. I thought we had plenty of small birds in Britain but these are something special. I am sure, if only one knows enough, that looking for small red birds in the rain on a main road is thrilling.
are taken to a farm, a real farm, growing stuff, and there, just wandering
about like huge brown boulders, as slow as Bob Wilson’s boulders
moved in his recent Aida, are the tortoises. they graze and lumber and
stretch their necks and behave like any old pet tortoise on a vicarage
lawn but are just so huge. Some of them may have met Darwin himself,
as they are reputedly between a hundred and two hundred years old. Moving
at half a kilometre per hour they certainly haven’t worn themselves
out with over exertion.
the jungle drips and the moss drapes itself in long messy curtains of lace over everything. Sort of green Father Christmas beards. We find a pair of mating tortoises. What a bang they bonk with. Our guide, Edison, says it takes up to six hours to reach bliss. But even tortoises in the wild are seen from a marked trail. Disney World wins.
We wander for an hour. It rains a lot. Finally having watched the tortoises achieve no ecstasy we pile our wellies up in the farm shed and climb back in the bus and home to our resort hotel where we descend as a ravening horde on the poolside buffet.
the Hotel is at Porto Aroya, the main town of the Galapagos; a honky-tonk kind of place mostly devoted to servicing the tourist trade. Of course it is the town for the locals, but the locals are here for the tourists. there is little else for them to do. these islands were ‘discovered’ in the 16th century but as they are so far off main shipping routes and have little water and nothing useful to eat grows, it meant that the wild life somehow managed to survive the various landings of foreigners who took away as much as they could in the form of turtles and tortoises. thankfully there is no gold or anything else of much intrinsic valued. It saved them. But the wildlife now is much threatened by the imports over the years from the mainland. there are said to be 200.000 wild goats, which must be, removed for they upset the ecology and eat the iguana’s lichens. But the removal of so many goats is an enormous undertaking and though some of the smaller islands have been cleared there are still these 200.000 to deal with. Sounds like a project for Speer.
Leave 7am. Raining. Panga to our bus. Once again across Santa Cruz. the mist is down and we drive slowly. Alta’s panga collects us; she is anchored at least two miles out beyond the reef. It is all madness this commuting back and forth to islands instead of staying on the boat. Nothing we can do except enjoy what is provided with a good grace. But it takes up to ten hours a day going back and forth to different places. We arrive at the island of Rabina at noon. A mars red beach, gritty shingle really, as it is painful on the feet. the usual sea lions watching us arrive. We are getting blasé about these animals now. Beyond the beach is a lagoon. Two flamingos looking a bit lost but Roberto tells us we are lucky to see any. Climb up a headland and look down into wonderful deep blue sea full of turtles. Mediterranean blue with white sand on its bottom. I feel homesick.
Back to the beach. I feel awful, nauseous and headachy. It can’t be the altitude here? I try and swim but feel even worse so curl up in a shallow cave with the baby sea lions, who are cross because they rightly tell me it is their spot. the others snorkel, sharks, stingrays, multi-coloured fish, but everyone returns with all their limbs. the water is very cold and two or three of our group have wet suits. Lunch back on board and I feel even more awful so go to our cabin and sleep. three hours! I think a minor kind of sunstroke is to blame. Cruise back to the big island and panga to the shore. Pile into the bus, and as we drive we have to watch a video of the Galapagos! Too awful, but there is no way of turning it off. I don’t travel half way around the world to have to watch an old Beeb programme on a grotty television. thankfully after a bit the sound breaks down. An hour later we roll into Porto Aroya, which is blinking with Christmas lights and cheerful shops. Two large cocktails and I crash in my bed. Almost as boring a day as one of Darwin’s. I read his books on the Alta and enjoy his comments. At least our accommodation is comfortable which Darwin’s certainly wasn’t.
Today we head for the mangrove swamps. those romantic sounding places, I expect alligators, but of course it is the wrong continent. We are told instead to expect black turtles, rays, pelicans and boobies. Two rubber dinghies full of red-breasted tourists slip away from our ship into the mysterious swamps to slowly poke about. It is quiet and the water muddy. the mangroves hold tight in the mud with extraordinary roots and do not look welcoming. A tangle of grey legs with green hair, they look like just arrived aliens. Kayaks are offered and Sally pushes off enthusiastically. the mangrove swamps are like a series of large intercommunicating rooms with narrow doorways. Very easy to get lost in, but I doubt Roberto will loose us with tips due tomorrow.
Strange spotted flat fish, rays drift around our boat. Herons stand on one leg watching us. the curious thing is the silence. Nothing here seems to have a voice. the oddest of shapes and forms but they have nothing to say. the world is silent as we slowly paddle though the swamp. It does not look inviting to swim in the murk. A curious and very hot experience, but not much to see. Lunch back on the boat. All at a big table on deck. So much nicer than the tables for four inside. Less jostling for position. Everyone is getting tired from the relentless activity. that’s the joke: there really isn’t anything to see. Sure, tame sea lions are terrific. So are iguanas and lizards and the giant tortoises are certainly an eyeful, but all much less impressive than I imagined. I think, as I write yet again, it is the marked out paths and the zoo-like quality that destroys any mystery. Except there are no labels. We have zillion times more things to look at on our own archipelago, but then squirrels and otters and badgers and foxes seem ordinary to us. Lunch again, a moment of peace as the Ecuadorian grub weighs us down.
A so called dry landing in the afternoon on Seymour. We are almost thrown into the flippers of the sea lions. We cruise along under the cliffs looking for real fur seals and see some lurking in dark crevices. then a walk across a wind blown landscape to visit the nesting frigate birds. they are rather wonderful with their party balloons arrayed on their chests. Big red balloons, which they blow up, it takes them more than half an hour to fully inflate them. Such scarlet bags are sexy to lady frigate birds so the chaps just sit there waiting for a girl to come and chose them. then they mate and lay their eggs on the silliest of nests made from a few twigs, often balanced in a bush and often collapsing and breaking the precious single egg. It’s all daft but hugely enjoyable to watch. One might have thought that over the millennia they would have worked out a better way of constructing their nests. the chicks, a single one each, are fluffy and white with huge surprised eyes. that’s the fine part of being here, nothing minds us prying into its most private life. No fear, no embarrassment.
great swell is breaking on the lava and the sea lions are surfing joyfully
on it. I feel it is we photographing the birds, which is the curiosity,
not the birds. the birds are so very tolerant. But what a place to live;
the wind always blows from the west, the sea is always pounding near
the nests, the sun is always directly over head. On and on for millions
of years and all that changes is the beaks on the finches.
Suddenly everything is so ugly. the landscape, the indifference to a cow, the vile video and us old and ugly group. No one young. the only solace is Roberto our guide. Male Ecuadorian, full of charm and intelligence. Dark skin, a few grey hairs, maybe about forty. Muscular body, perhaps a bit too long. Excellent thighs, gorgeous teeth. A mouthful none of us can touch. No, I don’t want to touch him, but he is a spark of young blossoming life in this foetid place. Ageing is a sad and miserable process and I dislike it intensely.
Eventually we get back to the hotel. A very large drink is vital. then oh blessed bed!
Up at 5am, leave at 6am, it is just getting light. Our last day, there is half an hour of fantastic light at dawn and the same again at sundown. the landscape takes on shapes and reveals itself delicately minute by minute as the animals awake. Otherwise the light is an almost shadowless situation, a fierce unrelenting overhead light burning us.
the bus to Baltra again and this time we have a plywood ferry to take us to Alta as the pangas have either sunk or fallen apart. Flat calm, almost good enough to be the Mediterranean. Oh the thought of the Med. how I would much rather be there even with water skiers pounding down on me.
We see two pairs of mating tortoises and creep up on them enjoying their bliss on a golden morning. How rotten intruding on their privacy. But then this is a pretty sexless expedition. We are a horde of pensioners devoted to drink and feeble jokes having given up the real thing. We really are an ugly and unsexy group! Nice people, friendly and clever people, but goodness as a group we are plain.
We are taken for walk over the lava; it looks like poured chocolate that has gone white from being left in the sun too long. Not a place to break a leg, but then we all have seriously good shoes. the lava might have been poured this morning as nothing mars its surface in the way of sea lion poo or wind blown grass. I don’t feel closer to God in this landscape, it seems more a place he forgot to redesign as he went on making the world. Deserts never appear to be half made, nor the Alps or Himalayas. I am sure it is centuries of human activity that have left traces of their souls in the sand and the snows. Here in the Galapagos it is a forgotten corner recently tidied up for tourist use and no previous human vibrations left in the stones.
the last lunch. Fifteen of us round the table on deck. Soup and the week’s leftovers. Nice leftovers, nothing against them. Ditto the salads and ditto the fruit. A great dangling arm of bananas has been hanging outside the galley all the week. Such delicious small ones, we can pick one as we pass. Beats Sainsbury’s yellow giants.
the tip box is out on the table in the saloon complete with sign saying ‘Crew Only.’ What is this tipping game? Once upon a time people were not paid for being waiters and horse holders and had to earn their living from tips. Now everyone is paid. And if the crew on Alta aren’t paid enough our tour company should boycott the boat for we certainly are paying sufficiently to support the crew handsomely. I don’t like it. Am not mean but find it condescending to tip people who serve. We all serve in one way or another, our clients, our bosses, our students. What’s wrong with that? To serve well is to do our jobs well. But I am too much of a whimp to stand out against the system so shove my dollars in the box.
one can sleep late any longer. We are all in the hotel pool by 6am.
I am the first in the pool and there is a heron on the steps who doesn’t
move as I slide down into the water past him. On the edge of the pool
there is a row of Galapagos gulls and on the water swims a family of
ducks. None of the birds take the slightest notice of me as I dog paddle
among them. this is what the whole expedition is about, being in the
Garden of Eden with no snakes to upset the gentle peace of the just
Crowds throng the airport and some of us queue to get Galapagos stamps in our passport. On the flight to Guayaquil we are subjected to another video on screens over our heads. No avoiding the grisly commentary. No way to switch the bloody thing off. Just clouds beneath us, and they don’t absorb the noise.
Guayaquil airport takes the biscuit for shambles. But by some magic my loot bag has arrived from Quito so all the Christmas presents are in tact! Someone knows how to untangle the shambles.
We are loaded onto a smart bus again and once more subjected to the tour guide’s chat. I suppose hell is someone with a microphone telling one all about the tortures one is about to encounter. We are taken to the Hilton for a pit stop. Only worth mentioning for a couple of big three-dimensional coloured murals from, I suspect the 1940s. It is so interesting to see anything from this decade when our side of the world was busy knocking everything within sight down. What’s more these works have been incorporated into a building of the late 50s so must have been valued.
is amazing for the mayor decided to clean the entire centre up. And
all done in a brief two years. Only a Latin American dictator-style
mayor could do that. Guayaquil, or so I have been told, was the most
broken down decaying slum and centre of the entire South American drug
trade. that trade may well continue for all I know but the mayor has
done what he said he would.
Polly Hope © 2003