Banos, again…and the last of Ecuador

Banos, again…and the last of Ecuador

Strange how my last post started with me leaving Banos and this one starts with me arriving again. We had come to collect Ed’s guitar. A group of us chipped in some money towards getting him a guitar out here and Ed made up the rest. We ended up finding an amazing handmade guitar shop in Banos where the owner was 3rd generation guitar maker in the original shop. After some negotiating and him understanding Ed’s requirements through part-English, part-Spanish conversation, we agreed a decent price. The guitar’s a fine piece of work and Ed’s been performing on beaches, in hostels and in a restaurant in Cuenca, Ecuador. Before we headed there though, we actually went north again first. We definitely weren’t taking the most direct route through Ecuador but we wanted to see Laguna Quilotoa, a mountain crater lake I had seen a photo of on Rob’s computer, years before.

Ed with Jacinto and his wife who does the finishing touches on the guitars.

 

Me operating the foot saw in the shop. All the work is done by hand and with machines without electricity.

 

We spent the night in a hostel which had a log fire, it was needed as it was freezing up there at almost 4000m. The next morning Ed and I, along with Laura, from Argentina, walked down to the bottom of the crater amid incredible views. On the way back up torrential rain started and we had parts of the flooded path washing away back down the mountain next to us. We made the decision not to walk all the way round the edge of the crater though. Cold and wet, we warmed up for a few hours, caught the bus back to Latacunga and then caught our night bus to Cuenca.

 

 

 

 

We arrived into Cuenca in the early hours and woke up the hostel owner at 5am. This became a recurring theme over the weekend. We arrived on the Friday, went to a restaurant and immediately got Ed a gig for that night, no messing about. The Bar Manager said it was ‘algo nuevo’ which translates to ‘something new’. It was a good start and we had a good night with the first of three English couples we met recently. The hostel owner was woken up at about 5am again…

We explored Cuenca the next day, in my opinion it was the nicest city in Ecuador. Cuenca’s nickname is Ciudad de Arboles, city of trees. We took a taxi to the top of a nearby hill and realised the nickname was suitable. My favourite way to see a city is looking down on it from the highest point, normally not actually being in the city itself. A bit ironic. We took in the rest of the sights, visited a cathedral and after three days jumped on a bus to Loja.

 

Street art in Cuenca

 

 

 

Ciudad del Arboles

 

 

While in Cuenca we visited some ancient ruins.

 

 

 

Loja wasn’t really much of a tourist city but still clean park squares and it offered a few places for a decent bite to eat. We managed to get Ed’s guitar fine-tuned while we were there as well. On the last day we wanted to see the botanical gardens, apparently we’re cultured now. As we pored over a map of the city, a chap stopped and offered us some help. He offered to take us to a different park and dressed in a suit with a nice car, we decided it would be okay. He is a couchsurfing.com host as well as being a lawyer. Leo offered us his house to stay in along with promising us a good night out. It didn’t work out but his generosity is a good example at the friendliness of some of the people here.

Ed with his new ‘family’ in the park we ended up at

 

 

 

 

From there we headed down to Vilcabamba which was our last stop before crossing into Peru. It was in the mountains and was a beautiful place. The night we arrived happened to coincide with the first full moon of 2014, luckily there was a full moon party happening just outside the town. There was a huge bonfire, loud, loud techno music and after a great night, we walked back to our hostel through the mountains enjoying some crazy views and good company. Some of our plans got cancelled, after the old man that I am put my back out, so we changed mountain biking to massages and put the biking on ice…for now…It was a lazy few days in an incredible hostel where we paid only $8.50 per night. We had double beds in a dormitory; there was a pool, bar, pool table and most importantly a ping pong table. It’s been our choice of sport since Canoa and I think we’re now amongst the finest players in South America.

 

 

 

 

 

We had booked a night bus from Loja to take us across the border, into Peru and on to Piura. Begrudgingly we left out double beds and luxuries of the hostel and took a bus back to Loja. It was a rather interesting journey and the time flew by. We killed the final couple of hours in Loja and boarded our last bus in Ecuador. It was close to 4am when we arrived at the border. Sleepily, we got off the bus and filled in the Ecuador forms, getting our exit stamp. It was a 400m walk to the Peru office, we crossed a bridge over the river, filled in the same forms in Peru and got our entry stamp. I’ve heard of people getting an exit stamp and then not regaining an entry stamp, effectively being ‘off the radar’. We didn’t do this as the choice between clambering through the woods at the border or a comfy, cool bus was an easy one. So we got back on and back to sleep. We were now in Peru, this country has so much to offer and I’m very excited about it! Hopefully we won’t have any party beach towns where we get ‘stuck’ like we did in Canoa, Ecuador. So, our first stop in Peru was Mancora, a beach town renowned for its night life, oh…oops.

Paradise on the Ecuadorian Coast

Paradise on the Ecuadorian Coast

We returned from Banos just in time to enjoy the start of the five year anniversary since the start of the Comuna de Rhiannon. The setting was unreal, an outside stage in the mountains, clear skies, bright stars and happy people. Ed was the first act to play and naturally wowed the community with his guitar, beat boxing and singing combination. He played several times over the weekend and was accompanied by an acroyoga performance which was just as astounding. Imagine yoga but two people, one lifting the other, involving various positions I couldn’t conceive doing on the ground. The night continued with more music, drinking and dancing and was a fine way to commence the festival.

Ed helping to get the festival underway

 

Ed gigging accompanied by acroyoga

 

The house that Rob built

 

The little wooden structure is a toilet. One of the best views whilst doing your business…

 

Inside Rob’s house. My bed was built the week before I arrived and was on a pulley system to raise it to the ceiling. Only Rob…

 

Yoga platforms, looking across Rhiannon

 

The ceremony at the building site

 

This is Val, one of several dogs at the farm. She jumped in to cool off but couldn’t get out. Her other hobby is digging a hole and barking at the ground relentlessly.

Over the duration of the weekend we were treated to delicious meals, more music, of course more drinking and great company. The festival came to an end with a traditional ceremony at the building site. I should explain a little more about the farm and why I was there. Rob, a very good friend from England, left Birmingham around the same time as me to return to the farm where he had spent close to a year before. The first time he was there he built a house, generally when I have asked how he knew how, he replies with ‘I just googled it’. Knowing Rob I believe him and with the house still standing he did enough to impress Helen and Nicky, the owners, who have asked him to manage the construction of a new building at the farm. The farm is working  towards becoming completely sustainable, growing their own foods, buying local produce where necessary, making their own compost and generating their electricity through solar panels amongst many other initiatives. Ed and I stopped at the farm for a few more days and helped out on the building site which at the moment is mainly filling bags with soil and some cement. We left the farm for a day or two to visit Otavalo, a market town not far from the farm. We embraced the culture and got our haggling hats on, buying several bits and bobs. Otavalo was a nice town although we didn’t spend a great deal of time there. Just outside Otavalo was Cascada de Peguche, a waterfall set in picturesque surroundings with some great view points. We also took a mini-tour through some old caves that were apparently used for Shamanic ceremonies. None of us were totally convinced by the guide but it was a fun little trip nonetheless.

A bit of the Otavalo market

 

A park in Otavalo

 

Cascada de Peguche
A smaller fall at the top of Cascade de Peguche
Inside a ‘Shamanic Cave’

After returning to the farm we took a day to explore the mountains around the farm with Rob and a few others. Great day, great views and great people but eventually it was time for us to move on. We took the bus back to Quito and then tried to work out how to get to Canoa. We had missed the morning bus and the night bus wasn’t for hours so after an hour or two of trying to get to the right bus station we headed towards Santo Domingo.

Rob photographing at ‘The Edge of the World’ near to the farm
Cactus flower

 

It was getting late as we arrived into Santo Domingo although there was still an outside chance of us making it to Canoa that night. We spoke to a man who told us the way we could do it, I thought he was lying and that he just wanted us to buy tickets from his company but we risked it anyway. It was no surprise when we arrived into the town of Chone to find there was no bus to Canoa that night. We didn’t have much choice but to spend the night in Chone so we eventually found a hostel. I can’t say a great deal about Chone but I think Ed summarised it perfectly by saying it would be like a tourist visiting England and staying the night in Slough. It did have an interesting market which I took a walk around and witnessed the last moments for several chickens and fish still jumping around on some stalls. Everybody was so blasé about it although it was a little shocking at times. After two more buses which took us completely through the middle of nowhere, we arrived into Canoa amid sunshine. Canoa is a small beach town and we immediately liked it. We picked the first restaurant we saw and ate like kings for $3. Shrimp soup and fresh fish with rice and salad and a glass of delicious juice. Almuerzo is the typical lunch and generally doesn’t cost more than $3-$4. We’re becoming a little obsessed with it and have started a league table. ‘Rate my Almuerzo’ could be the next big thing to hit the internet…

The hostel we were staying at, The Sundown Inn, was a couple of kilometres out of town which meant it was a bit of a pain walking back into Canoa. On the plus side we basically had a private beach. The hostel was fantastic, hammocks, outside eating areas, kitchen and a table tennis table where we spent far too much time. We had four days of Spanish lessons with a break on Wednesday which was Christmas Day. Naturally, we went out on Christmas Eve which turned out to be the first of many nights out in what has to be, my favourite place in Ecuador. We decided to extend our stay into the New Year and what a great decision it was. New Year’s Eve was a great night, we drank, danced, sat on the beach, enjoyed some of the many bars that reside along the beach and met some great people. The night culminated with a dip in the sea at about 6am and as I stumbled back to the hostel (leaving Ed and Rob asleep on the beach somewhere) I don’t think we could have welcomed 2014 in a better way. I can’t really say we did a lot in Canoa, just what anybody would do at the beach. Swim, sleep, eat, drink, party, repeat. I didn’t even take many photos but here are some from our time there.

View from the bedroom at The Sundown Inn…can you spot Ed?

   

Christmas Day Barbecue

Sunset in Canoa as we supped beers at one of the beach bars

 

Once the sun disappeared, the sky turned red

  Over the next few days Ed, Adam, a guy from Colorado, and I met up with some new Colombian friends we had made. It was great Spanish practice, they were lovely people and it beat just talking to other western tourists. I still don’t understand why so many travellers only talk to other tourists but each to their own I guess. Anyway, we made some good friends in Canoa which made it that little bit harder to leave. Eventually though, after over two weeks in paradise costing $8 a night, we packed our bags, said our goodbyes and left for Puerto Lopez. Typically, we chose a Sunday to do this and didn’t leave until early afternoon. After a few hours of not getting particularly far we cut our losses and stayed the night in a hostel in Portoviejo. We sat outside the hostel watching the cars go by and the dirty polluted streets and it felt a million miles from the idyllic scene we had just left. Still, another place that’s not on the general tourist trail and a bit more of real Ecuador. The next morning we were on to Puerto Lopez, another beach town which is where tours run to Isla de la Plata, also known as the poor man’s Galapagos. Another beach town! Although not as nice as Canoa, Puerto Lopez was a nice small town. We got a tour arranged for early the following day and spent the evening relaxing in hammocks.

The tour to Isla de la Plata has to be the worst tour I’ve been on in South America, probably ever. We had asked to go early which in hindsight was a big mistake. Rather than the swish looking boat that took the other tourists out, we were ushered into more of a fisherman’s boat with just one other person who it turned out, wasn’t paying anything for the trip. We were excited to see some great wildlife like the infamous blue footed boobies and turtles. To our disappointment we didn’t get very close to the birds and didn’t see any turtles at all. We arrived at Isla de la Plata and the ‘tour guide’ gave us some snorkels and left us to our own devices. It wasn’t awful but it was definitely the worst snorkelling I’ve ever done. The lunch and kayaks we had been promised didn’t appear and after a quick trip to the beach where we watched a group of birds eating the carcass of another bird we returned to shore. If you ever go to Puerto Lopez, don’t trust a man called Rolando and definitely don’t go on a tour which he sells you. After tracking down Rolando and negotiating some ‘free’ food we left Puerto Lopez for Manta and then to return to Banos on a night bus. Ed’s guitar was ready so we were off to collect it before continuing our journey south and eventually on to Peru.

Ed on the boat with the ‘tour guide’

 

 

 

If you zoom in you can see they have blue feet. This is the closest we got…

 

 

Probably the most interesting find of the day

 

Banos & the World of Waterfalls

Banos & the World of Waterfalls

If you’ve seen any of my other posts you’ll have learnt I’ve visited lots of churches and taken many cable cars or teleferico’s in the major cities so far. Quito was no change. We visited two churches, firstly La Basilica which is a huge building with great views across the city. It has an English look about it. The second church was smaller but more impressive as it is almost completely decorated in gold inside. You’re not allowed to take photos of the inside unfortunately but there’s a picture below from the internet to give you an idea.

La Basilica
Inside La Basilica
Views across Quito from La Basilica
Views across Quito from La Basilica

 

La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus

Inside La Iglesia Compania
Photo courtesy of adventure-trader.com

The Teleferico was a little different to most of the others as it wasn’t a public transport method, purely for sightseeing or for people who want to climb Pichincha, the volcano overlooking Quito. It took over 15 minutes to get up there and at just over 4000m above sea level, it was the highest of all of the cable cars so far. Unsurprisingly we were greeted with great views of the city and once again the size of it was staggering. Quito is in a valley and it stretched further than we could see. After some token jumping photos we made our way back down into the city and explored a little more. Rob took us to his favourite place in Quito and I think his favourite place in the world. It was a market full of tons of random things like clothes, motors, tools, materials and countless other items.

Some of Quito

Rob, Joe, Ed. Our album cover photo.

 

The next evening Ed and I made our way to Banos. We arrived late in the evening when it was dark. I’ve decided I like arriving to new places in the dark and waking up the following morning to a surprise in what I can see. I definitely wasn’t disappointed when I strolled around Banos the following morning. There were mountains in every direction with lush green forests on the steep hills. The town itself was also very picturesque and for a reason unknown to me at the time, there were hundreds of people cleaning the street as well as a marching band playing their way through most of the streets. In the afternoon there was a parade, they were celebrating the Independence of Banos and most of the town’s businesses and social groups were taking part. This explained the morning’s intense street cleaning.                 .

One day we hired bikes and set off on La Ruta de las Cascadas, ‘Route of the Waterfalls’. Luckily, the way there was almost completely downhill and before long we stopped to enjoy the first of the falls. We must have seen close to ten waterfalls that day and they got progressively more impressive as we travelled further from Banos. The final two falls of the day, Cascada El Pailon del Diablo and Cascade de Machay were the biggest and the best. As we explored Cascada de Machay, we were the only ones there. It was getting late plus we didn’t want to cycle the 20km back up the hill so we managed to flag down a bus which took us and the bikes back to Banos. Lots of photos of waterfalls below…

 

Ed being extreme

 

Me being even more extreme

   

Cascada El Pailon del Diablo from above
Not too easy to tell from the photo but this bridge was really steep, hence the rope to pull yourself up

   

Cascada de Machay

 

This is my travelling partner for the next few months…
At the bottom of Cascada de Machay

     

 

The next day we had a packed day of canyoning and rafting planned. Sadly, that night was not a good one and either the local water, the fish I ate in the bus station, or something else did not agree with me. Without giving the details I wasn’t able to go so Ed went off canyoning while I spent most of the day in bed. We had found a great hostel in Banos and spent the evenings sitting on the roof terrace with some great company. It turned out half of the hostel seemed to be talented musicians so I was entertained with guitar, beat boxing, singing and the best harmonica I’ve ever seen/heard. Banos is Ecuador’s capital of adventure sports so before we left we crammed in a bit more fun. One day we hired a quad bike and ventured up to Casa del Arbol. There’s a tree house there with a swing that goes straight off the mountain. It’s been made famous by being on the ’27 Surreal Places to Visit Before You Die’ post on buzzfeed. I have now ticked off 2 out of 27 as Mount Roraima also made the list. Again, the views on top of the mountain were stunning with Mount Tungurahua, one of South America’s most active volcanoes, appearing and disappearing amongst the clouds. We raced back down the mountains like a cross between Sebastian Vettel and Colin McRae.

 

Another photo of ‘Extreme Ed’

 

Swinging off the mountain at Casa del Arbol

 

 

Tungaruhua in the distance partly covered by clouds

 

 

Another day we decided to hike up a mountain but within 2 minutes it started to rain. We flipped a coin and the result was that we carried on. It didn’t take long to regret that decision so we hitch hiked up to the top in the back of a truck. The reason we chose this particular mountain was that the restaurant had been recommended to us, as it turned out it was closed anyway so rather than hiking back down, we chose to hitch hike again. Easily the laziest hike I’ve ever been on.

Before we left Banos we just had time for one more activity. We decided jumping off a bridge head first would be best so went along with Patrick and Colleen, two American’s to do the jump. I had done a skydive before but this was a little different because you can see the ground when you jump. Not quite the same as a bungee jump but similar, we dived off then flipped before swinging under the bridge. It was around a 45 metre fall and a swing of about 80 metres. Not bad, but definitely beatable…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still alive and pretty happy about it

We spent nearly a week in Banos in total and both thought it was a great little town, however, it was definitely time to move on. I decided it would be more interesting to go a different way back to Quito so we headed towards Tena and then caught another bus to a tiny little place called Misahualli. It was recommended to us by the owner of the hostel in Banos and we wouldn’t have found it otherwise. We arrived in the night (again) to a place called Banana Lodge and instantly felt the heat in comparison to the mountains. We were now on the edge of the Amazon and when we awoke the next morning we realised we had discovered paradise. The hostel was almost completely empty, we had our own private cabin and the garden had hammocks, a fire and best of all, was built on the edge of a river. We quickly decided to change our plan and spent an extra day there. Although we did very little, time really flew by and before long we had to make our way back to Quito. We begrudgingly left Misahualli and because we took so long we ended up spending another night in Quito rather than at Rhiannon. We eventually made it back to Rhiannon just before their 5-year reunion/festival began…Next post to follow soon.

The river at Banana Lodge, Misahualli

 

Where we woke up

 

 

A little bit of calm, before the storm, before more calm