We have become proficient enough at getting ourselves lost without any help from anyone, so we really don’t need someone telling us that when we’re going north we’re actually going sideways.
And so it was when we crossed the equator. We pulled into the ‘solar clock’ at exactly 0°, in Quitsato, Ecuador and glimpsed the much-anticipated line on the ground. We’d made it! We straddled it, star-jumped over it and did funny walks across it, because that is what you must do when you encounter that magical point between the earth’s hemispheres.
We were so happy. But by the time we’d finished listening to the guide’s explanation about the solstices, the position of the sun, and the spinny-spinny earth thing that my dad used to demonstrate with apples and oranges, our world had been turned upside down. Or sideways, by about 23°.
I know we should have known this. Science is not our strong point – we prefer words. We decided to move on from the shock news that north is not up, the news that all our lives we have been lied to, and focus on looking for somewhere to camp.
The Quitsato guide, Miguel, saw we’d arrived in a campervan and asked where we were staying that night. “No idea,” we said. He said his family had some land we could camp in, just a few minutes drive away. Brilliant! We got settled in and spent much of the afternoon and evening talking to various sections of Miguel’s massive extended family, including a particularly enthusiastic uncle who questioned us for hours on every subject imagineable, and giving our Spanish skills a bit of a workout.
They wanted to know what we thought of Ecuador. We were able to report that our first week had been all good. We hadn’t eaten roasted guinea pig yet, but it was on the list. That day we had tried one of the area’s specialities, bizcocho, a sweet melty flaky pastry served with a cup of hot chocolate and a finger of stringy mozzarella-style cheese. I asked the family why they served cheese with hot chocolate. They just looked at me and burst out laughing, as if I was the weird one.
We’d spent the first week in the country in Otavalo, a delightful mountain town with famous animal and crafts markets, and surrounded by volcanoes and lakes.
We settled into a beautiful campsite with volcano views from every angle. When the skies were clear we could see the shining snow-capped peak of Volcan Cayambe from our door.
On market day we had a rare spree at the craft market – some winter-wear for the van, including an alpaca wool blanket and two woolly hats to brighten up the headrests.
At the animal market we restricted ourselves to spectating only. Loudly protesting pigs were being lead around on strings, chickens carried around underarm like bags of rice, and guinea pigs pulled from sacks and held aloft amid passionate bartering for the price. We definitely haven’t reached the stage where we can face buying our dinner live.
One of the most strikingly obvious differences between Ecuador and its neighbour Colombia is that the former still has a significant indigenous population, some of whom still wear traditional brightly-coloured wool clothing, long plaits and trilby-style Andean hats. The children are often just wearing miniature adults’ clothes, which makes them look so serious. Tiny little girls shuffle about in blouses, shawls and thick woollen skirts like – as we say in Scotland – ‘wee wifies’.
On a less poetic note, the other differences from countries we have previously visited are the shiny new roads and cheaper petrol. The Ecuadorian government, under the popular Rafael Correa, has discovered that if you collect taxes you can do things like build roads. And if you renegotiate your contracts with multinationals so your own country profits from your oil, you can have cheaper fuel and more money for social projects like education and health.
We marvelled at the smooth drive south from Otavalo, over the equator, and down to the capital city, Quito.
For reasons mentioned in earlier posts, the van was still in need of some TLC, and we took it straight to a mechanic Jeremy had found online. A German former racing driver, who specialised in German cars. Now, surely, if someone could help us he was the man!
We left him to investigate while we spent nearly a week exploring Quito. We had a great feeling about it – after Mexico City, it was the best capital we’d encountered. Its dramatic mountain valley setting, lovely colonial centre, good (if crammed) trolley bus system and endless cheap cafes were a treat. At 2,850m (9,350ft) it’s the second highest capital city in the world. We puffed our way up to some of its higher points to get a spectacular view over the city, and one day I left (vertigo-afflicted) Jeremy behind to take the ear-popping telefériqo (cable car) another 1,000m up to get a vista from cloud level.
We spent an evening in the city’s chi-chi La Ronda area, drinking way too many jugs of canelazo and watching a modern Andean folk band that was so good it made Jeremy realise the panpipes are not something only to be played blandly by ridiculous stripey-trousered poncho-wearing hippies on Britain’s high streets.
Next day we took our hangovers to a Sunday morning football match, between LDU Quito and Macará (1-0) and were entertained by constant singing and drumming throughout. Later we dragged our heavy legs up streets that make San Francisco look like a billiards table, and were rewarded with the magnificent Capilla del Hombre, an impressive and moving space dedicated to the work of Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín, who focused his life’s work on the oppression of indigenous poor of Latin America and the brutality of man, but also on hope for social progress.
It seems a bit shallow to go from that to our campervan woes… but meanwhile at the mechanic…. after a process of elimination, and an ultra-sound clean-up of two dodgy fuel injectors, the mechanic told us one was beyond repair and needed to be replaced. Was this available in Ecuador? If you have ever read this blog, then you will know what the answer is – of course not!
One was swiftly ordered from the US, and we left the van behind and set off southwards by bus to explore the area around the town of Baños while waiting for the part to arrive.
When we got there we met up for a good catch-up with fellow road-trippers Thomas and Sabine – last spotted by us in Nicaragua last June. Who knew you could ‘bake’ apple strudel on a stovetop? Thanks Sabine!
From a hike high above the town we got an almost-too-close-for-comfort view of the smoking Volcan Tungurahua, which last had a major eruption in 2006 and was recently responsible for local evacuations in December 2012. Eek.
We travelled to nearby Ambato for another footie match, this time a home game for Macará, against fellow bottom of the table-dwellers Deportivo Cuenca. From the stadium, aptly named Bellavista, we got a bullseye view of Tungurahua’s smoking cone. The locals were battered 5-1, and by the language being directed at some of their players and their manager, I think they would have happily tossed them straight into the volcano’s fiery throat.
Baños is – unsurprisingly, given its name and location – centred around its volcanic hot springs and various spin-offs like massages and therapies. This week we walked that fine line between pleasure and pain when we took a ‘health steam bath’ in our hostel. A portly Ecuadorian lady cooked us for several minutes in a steam box that was not unlike being put in the stocks, then removed us and doused us in freezing water, before locking us back in the steam box. After three rounds of that we were blasted with a cold jet hose.
It’s a similar process to the one our fuel injectors have been going through this week but, at just $4 each, we anticipate our own de-tox will turn out to be considerably cheaper.
Things we now know to be true: Almost every map ever made is a lie.
HOUSEKEEPING – HOUSEKEEPING – HOUSEKEEPING
Below are some photos of our first couple of weeks in Ecuador.
In other housekeeping news, our Colombia campspots map is now complete.
Also, we’ve been doing a belated catch-up of our Colombia photos on Flickr. If you haven’t been subjected to these several times already, click here for our Flickr collections