Thursday, August 31, 2017

16 south of the Equator – of bogs and lakes and Butoh in Cajas

The next part of our hike after the Polylepis forest (see my previous post) took us past more beautiful landscapes, starting with the the Lagunas Unidas area

Again, because of the rain and the fog and the sheer density of the vegetation at some point we lost sight of the trail. Fortunately, I gathered enough courage to peek through the clearing you see below (courage? why courage? because I was sure any steps outside the trail would land me in another mud sinkhole!) and see a tiny plank bridge over a stream – our connection to the rest of the trail according to a map I had downloaded! Lucky not just for us that I spotted that (though it did take some searching to find a way to it through the forest), but for a poor couple that had been unsuccessfully looking for the rest of the trail for quite a while! 

After finding the trail again, we soon reached the stunning area of Laguna Totoras. What a delight to hike in this place.

We took a break. Sat down on the stone covered with yellow moss. Marvelled at the lake, the reeds, the calm, the moving fog, the vastness... And then the habibi felt the impulse to do Butoh once more. The stark contrast of his bright red fan against the background, the wind and drizzle, his improvisation... stunning.

Afterwards, we remained somewhat longer, just taking it all in. We still had about a third of the way to go, but we had no intention of rushing...

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

16 south of the Equator – the otherworldly forests of Cajas

Cajas National Park... I mean, Cotopaxi National Park was amazing and I enjoyed it way way more than I could have possibly imagined. But Cajas? I was dying to hike there! I somehow felt the rough mountainous geography of the park, its famous fog and bogs and lakes, was more akin to my personality. 

It's a ridiculously short ride from Cuenca, just 40 minutes or so. The bus drops you off at one of the entrances, by a lodge where you register and can look at maps. When we arrived, the weather was as predicted – cold, foggy, wet. It wasn't raining, but it did drizzle a bit now and then. I had planned for a number of possible hikes but, once at the lodge and after receiving some orientation, we decided on a loop that should take some four hours. Given the weather, we figured that loop was a wise choice, especially since a small group of us (some 10 people) had arrived at the lodge at about the same time and though we wouldn't hike together, it was safer knowing that you'd cross paths with someone sooner or later in case something happened (because people do get lost and accidents do happen here).

So, we stepped out, and full of excitement we began the hike! So excited, in fact, we left the lodge way before anybody else in the group! LOL. Here I'm just presenting a first stretch, from the lodge to Laguna Toreadora and then onwards toward Lagunas Unidas. It was such a beautiful hike I thought I had to split it into different posts so I could share just enough photos!

The hike was not without incident, though. Like I said, it was very wet. The trails were really muddy. At some point, it was impossible to make out the trail, so we decided to just go ahead through a small muddy clearing – you could sort of see the trail continuing ahead. I tread carefully, worrying I could slip. But then, all of a sudden, after a step forward, my foot sank. Down to my ankle. Then down to my calf. All the way mid-thigh! My other leg fared just a bit better – it sank only to my knee. It was so sudden I didn't have that much time to get really scared – my feet reached bottom before I could conjure up anything really terrifying. The habibi, as surprised as me, yelled "run!". LOL

Fortunately it seems I had hit the deepest part and my next steps did take me out, with help from the habibi, who had found the missing part of the trail – hidden behind some deep growth – and was already ahead ready to assist. I tried to clean my trousers and boots and backpack as well as I could. I was lucky the pockets where I carried my passport, wallet and smartphone, though placed mid-thigh, had flaps and buttons! They remained mud-free! Whew! My camera did get splashed with a bit of mud, but nothing you couldn't easily clean. So, no biggie. But man, ending up like this so early in the hike? And don't you just love this picture the habibi took of my boots?

Of course, I was not going to let that bit of unexpected "adventure" ruin the hike, right? So we just kept going, with the only difference that now I was maybe just a tad too afraid of the muddier parts of the trail? But the stunning views completely made up for any excess worry:

We then reached a Polylepis Forest. I was ecstatic! I was dying to get to it, and I was actually afraid the loop we were taking would make us miss it. And there it was! Orange-tinged twisted trees with bark that constantly peels off! A whole forest of this! on the hill of the mountain! This was really magical, so fairy-tale-like! One of the highlights of the hike, for sure! And, of course, the habibi got inspired there and did a Butoh improvisation as well. How not to?

And this was just but one part of the hike. You just wait for the next two posts!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

16 south of the Equator – quaint Cuenca

So, Cuenca! Our last stop before our anniversary trip ended, and a very intense experience! After our amazing bus ride from Guayaquil through Cajas National Park (see me previous post) we arrived at this nice, colonial city in Azuay province (actually, the province's capital), founded in 1557 (though the area had been inhabited for some 9500 years before that!).

Our arrival at the bus station gave us a nice broad view of the historic centre, including the famous New Cathedral with its signature blue domes... 

The habibi located a fantastic Airbnb right in the historic centre – a beautiful house designed with local architecture in mind, and with very warm and friendly hosts. And that prime location meant we could head out to eat right away – we were starving after our early rise and long bus ride! We ended up at a restaurant next door, which the habibi had wrongly assumed was Ecuadorian, but which in fact was Colombian! Well, at least we got to try authentic Colombian coffee and a real Bandeja Paisa!

We spent the rest of the day just exploring the town. Like Guayaquil, it offered its own peculiar architectural quirks, like curious frieze-like painted (?) decorations gracing the top of buildings and framing windows. This is considered the most European-looking city in Ecuador. And it was just so enjoyable to walk around aimlessly and enjoy it!

The New Cathedral (Catedral Nueva or Catedral Metropolitana de la Inmaculada Concepción) stood out, as it should, with its combination of Romanesque and Neo-Gothic and its domes showing up here and there from many different angles...

The markets, the small squares, the domes and spires of so many churches (the Iglesia del Carmen de la Asunción by the flower market, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo with my favourite domes in the city, and the blue-spired Iglesia de San Alfonso, in order, below) suddenly appearing after you turned a corner... Like, really, so pretty! 

It was cold. Unusually cold, we were told. But ice-cream parlours with impossibly tempting flavours and combinations were open and busy around the Parque Calderón (a pleasant park in front of the New Cathedral) and we couldn't help but grab a small table and have some! 

Before sunset, strolling around, we happened across a hat shop. But of course, this being Cuenca, this was no ordinary hat shop – it was a paja toquilla hat shop! The friendly attendant gave us a fantastic introduction to what people mistakenly call Panama hats, which are in fact produced in Ecuador with a kind of palm fiber that only grows here and is mostly crafted in Azuay province. They were called Panama hats because many workers at the Panama canal wore them. But seeing the incredible amount of work that goes into any of these, it does seem rather insulting to keep calling them Panama hats! So toquilla straw hat it is! 

We ended the day by the Plaza de la Cruz del Vado, a square overlooking Tomebamba River (it was too dark to see it then) with a most peculiar cross in a sort of kiosk with a rather Moorish-looking design... Beautiful. 

What a nice introduction to Cuenca! We would have wanted to keep exploring the city at a slow pace the next day, but the weather forecast for Cajas National Park didn't look too good for the coming days, and the "least worst" forecast was for next day. Plus we had to keep Sunday for visiting a Sunday market at some nearby indigenous community. So many things ahead!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

16 south of the Equator – through the ocean-sky and faerie roads to Cuenca

My last post was a bit long-ish, so this one will be a short one! Cuenca is just some 4 hours from Guayaquil by bus, and that's where we were planning to spend the last part of our trip. The city is famous for its colonial architecture, for its surrounding towns with market days, and for its nature nearby, so we definitely wanted to spend a few days there! But that will be the subject of my next few posts. Here, I just wanted to show you some pics of the road from Guayaquil to Cuenca.

Since you go from low-lying Guayaquil to over 2500 metres in Cuenca, the road at some point enters the mountains – including through Cajas National park! – and you're treated to a smorgasbord of stunning views! Fog-shrouded forests, deep valleys filled with clouds as if they were airy oceans, tiny lakes nestled in misty bogs... It made you want to just get off the bus and start hiking right away! Alas, that would have to wait, but it certainly did wet my appetite (more like it made me obsess over hiking there?).  

A wonderful ride. And a window into what was in store for us.

Friday, August 25, 2017

16 south of the Equator – Guayaquil

Guayaquil. Why Guayaquil? Funny thing, this was at first more of an involuntary stop on our way to our next hot destination (Cuenca). Originally, we wanted to travel by land from Cotopaxi to the city of Cuenca, in the south, stopping along the way at a number of fantastic places with lots of nature and culture and whatnot. But when planning the trip, we realized that there was no way we could properly fit that overland trip, do everything we wanted to do, and still spend a reasonable time in Cuenca... It was a tough decision, but we decided instead to fly to Guayaquil for a couple of days, and then take a bus to Cuenca. It was the only way to spend any decent amount of time anywhere.

Now, most people seem to travel to Guayaquil for one and one purpose only – to fly and visit the Galapagos islands from there. That presented two additional problems for us – not enough time, and not enough money! So we were some of the rare souls that actually visited Guayaquil, and stayed there! And in the end, I'm glad we did! It was a short, but fun, two day visit:

We had gorgeous views from our Airbnb on the 23rd floor of a building in the centre of town and, since we arrived the very same night of Guayaquil's foundation anniversary (it was founded in 1535!) we got to see the fireworks from the best vantage point! Because believe me we tried going down to the famous Malecón (the waterfront promenade), but it was so packed with people! Sure, it was great for people watching (such a different ethnic mix from up north!), but not only was it terribly crowded, but the Malecón was not an open space – it was separated from the street by gates, and that made us anxious about what would happen with the masses and so few unclear exits if there was an emergency... So 23rd floor for the fireworks it was! 

Our Airbnb hosts gave us a super useful list of recommendations, including places for typical Guayaquil food, like a bowl of rice and banana and meat and sauces and I can't remember what else. Or incredible ceviche from a place called Picantería la Culata. We tried ceviche both fresh and in a soup-like form (encebollado) that mixed both fresh and cooked seafood! The ceviche and huge bottles of local beer was such a find!

We got to explore the city's architecture, a very curious mix of styles with details that didn't quite seem to match the time they must have built in or sometimes even the style of the rest of the building itself! One very curious and ubiquitous feature? The colonnades under the buildings, offering welcome respite from the sun! Very interesting all of it. Very! 

We had breakfast at a traditional place called Dulcería la Palma, serving Guayaquil locals since 1908! It's so much fun sitting at these old cafés, which often serve their unique pastries (like their locally famous "borrachitos", a small and very moist cone-shaped pastry) yet they are definitely not high-end (oh, like not at all, this place was so cheap!). Loved it.

We experienced the peculiar, like Parque Seminario, which is full of (urban?) iguanas! No, really, like totally full! I'm just posting a photo of one of them surrounded by doves. But there were dozens lying all over at this quaint park in the middle of the city!

Before we visited the cemetery (which is another unusual site to visit, a veritable necropolis on the sides of a hill), we also took a break at Parque Centenario (Centennial Park), with a column honouring the heroes of Guayaquil's 1820 independence from Spain. Huge park, surrounded by plenty of the city's unusual architecture, and with some strange trees with a mix of green and red leaves (similar to some I had seen in Rio).

Oh! And we also had time to visit the Anthropological Museum of Contemporary Art (MAAC)! This was very eye-opening, you know? This was our first exposure to pre-Hispanic indigenous cultures! We tried in Quito, but the National Museum was closed for renovations. Here, at the MAAC, we saw local Venus figurines with really peculiar details, like what seemed either wigs/headdresses or real luxuriant hair shaved through the middle. And they also seemed to show some tattooing... Anyhow, very unusual for us! 

Since this was becoming a very long post with too many photos, I had to leave out some other pieces. But really, the indigenous cultures had some fine art! And very different from ours up north in Mexico. Some figures had so much movement, others had rather outstanding and detailed genitalia, some had patterns any tribal enthusiast would die to have tattooed on...

Plus, there was a contemporary section. Small, but very cool as well. Nice surprise, MAAC! 

And the MAAC just happened to be on the way to Las Peñas, at the northern end of the Malecón. Las Peñas is a historic district, full of colourful houses covering a hill, at the top of which sits a lighthouse with great views of the city around. It's a bit of a hike up, especially in hot weather. And it's full of bars too – I can't imagine how hordes of drunk people fare on those hundreds of steps! LOL. By the way, that third picture of Las Peñas was obviously not taken from Las Peñas, but from our Airbnb at sunset.

And finally, on the Malecón stands a monument to the Conference of Guayaquil of 1822, with a statue of José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar, where the future of Spanish-rule-free South America was discussed by these two giants in the history of South America's independence. 

So glad we made a stop in this city! Eye-opening. I like that! But we had one final stop awaiting us... Cuenca!