St Patty’s in Machala

 

Our final day in Ecuador, and our last day traveling with Diane, happened to be St. Patrick’s Day! Not that we’ve needed a reason to party on this trip, but if we did, this was as good an excuse as ever! 
We ended up in Machala on the recommendation of a local Ecuadorean girl we hung out with in Quito. She said the islands just off the coast were her favourite part of Ecuador. At this time of year they have excellent ceviche and giant prawns caught fresh daily that are to die for. On top of that, there are apparently giant sea turtles swimming around the area (which we sadly didn’t see).

 

So we set out in the morning to Puerto Bolivar to catch a boat over to Jambeli beach on an island 20 minutes off the coast. Jambeli is a favourite beach for locals in the summertime, and the day we went was cloudless and gorgeous.
  On our boat ride over, we met a Canadian guy named Steven. He was in Machala for a couple of days by himself; he had been traveling with his wife around Ecuador for a couple months and she was still inland while he visited some friends on the coast. He seemed like a really nice guy, and we invited him to have a drink and join us on the beach. When he’d spoken to us for a bit, the story came out why his wife hadn’t joined him to Machala. She was in the hospital recovering from some injuries. Apparently, 8 days earlier, the two of them had been hiking through one of the mountains inland. During the hike, three men attacked them and captured Steven’s wife. They took her hostage, and told him he had 2 hours to get them $3000 or they would kill her. So he ran back to the town they were staying at to get some money, he contacted the police, but they said even if he gave the men the money they wanted, the ending wouldn’t be pleasant. Either way, they came along to help him out. Meanwhile, his wife dealt with the three men in the mountains. Apparently, after one of the men tried to molest her, she fought back against them. They repeatedly punched her in the face until she grabbed their machete and started slashing them. When that didn’t stop them, she decided she’d rather die than be captured by them. So she hurled herself off a 50m cliff and fractured her skull and broke her pelvis in a few places: that’s where the police found her. Luckily, she is doing okay. She won’t be able to walk for a month, but she is in good spirits! The Ecuadorean government is helping as much as they can. They have paid for every medical expense, flown in her family, and have promised a free trip to the Galapagos for them when she recovers. They are also supposed to have lunch with the president in the next little while. It’s amazing the people you meet while you’re traveling isn’t it? I’m sure the government wants to keep this hush hush, but star magazine already has already released articles written about it in Toronto and Vancouver, on top of the several web articles and the news channels here in Ecuador.

 

So the four of us spent the afternoon drinking beers on the beach. The beach was lined with little restaurants selling food and drinks. Lawn chairs and umbrellas and tents (to change in) were set up all along the surf. The water was bath temperature and incredibly refreshing on such a hot day. Even I, who am usually such a wimp with ocean water, walked in without hesitation. We shared some seafood for lunch, which was unreal, and had a pretty incredible afternoon! Can’t say I’ve done any of these things on St Patricks day before!

We headed back on the evening boat, then grabbed some more drinks before we headed out on the town that night. 
Apparently Machala has a pretty fun nightlife, and the zona rosa district is the place to be on a Saturday night. What the Internet failed to inform us was that Machala is not touristy, and eeeeeveryone partying in the zona rosa is a local. The first busy place we walked into was a small pub full of locals. We got less than accommodating glares from the people inside and immediately felt unwelcome. Some guy threw a drink at us, and everyone else just stared. Needless to say, we left after one drink. We found a quieter bar/hookah joint a couple places down that was a little quieter. We ended up spending the rest of the night there, watching some couple dance salsa, chatting with the bartenders and enjoying cheap pitchers. It was a great way of spending our last night with Diane.

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The Devil’s Nose

 

Riobomba is a small and fairly uneventful town, smack in the middle of Ecuador.  It is, however, an absolute haven for trekking. Every second shop is a mountaineering store for all the equipment needed to survive Ecuador’s terrain! One of the most popular excursions is to a nearby volcano that reaches up to 5000m in altitude. Unfortunately for us, we have very limited time to get to Cusco for the Inca Trail hike and so, a three day hike in Riobomba is not on our itinerary.

We chose Riobomba because of its supposedly amazing train ride down to Aluasi! The most beautiful scenery in Ecuador is just South of Alausi on a stretch called “La Nariz del Diablo” (The Devil’s Nose). So we spent the evening in Riobomba hanging out in our hotel room (that’s right, hotel, moving up in the world from 24 person dorms!) and having a couple bottles of wine with some tunes. The three of us were pretty stoked to have a place to ourselves to kick back in, and as an added bonus there was even a very random fireworks display that went on right outside our window. Lovely evening!

 

The next morning we went to check out the train to Alausi. Turns out they’ve changed their policy since Lonely planet was there last, and the train ONLY does a round trip route from Riobomba to Alausi and back and skips the Devil’s nose stretch entirely. If we wanted to see the Devil’s nose, we had to bus the two hours south and catch the train from there. Oh well…

So we explored Riobomba first: that took a total of 45 minutes and all we saw were a couple churches and a giant cooked pig. Riobomba is not a very interesting city as far as tourist sites go.

 

So we hopped in a bus and set of for Alausi.
  Alausi is even smaller than Riobomba. The town has a mere 8000 residents, and is only a couple city blocks long. The town sits in a deep valley, which made for a beautiful drive in. As we descended the mountain towards Alausi, we were above the clouds. The mountaintops were like steep islands floating in the air, and the clouds below like waves. But once you made it far enough down the valley, the city was veiled in a low hanging fog that I kept saying felt “magical”. There was a giant statue of San Pedro that loomed above the town on a small hill, and the thing looked eerie and mystical covered in the clouds’ mist. I am almost always a fan of small towns over big cities when I travel, but it does mean there’s not much activity going on in the evening. So we spent the night telling stories and playing cards and had a great time! We tried out some strange Ecuadorean liquor that was peach flavored, and it was quite tasty, even though the bottle looked 50 years old and was covered in dust when we picked it up from the corner store.

For dinner we ate our favorite: street food! A lady was selling fresh made French fries with fried chicken in a bag. It was laid on a thin layer of shredded lettuce and topped with mayo, ketchup and a liquid mix of tomatoes, red onion, cilantro and light vinegar. Say what you will about eating food on the side of the street, but the bags were a $1.25 a piece, delicious, and filled us up for the evening!

At 6:45 in the morning, the alarm went off. Time to head out on our train ride! We bought tickets and grabbed a snack from the bakery then headed out. The train was one of those “old school choo choo trains” (as we described it). It slowly trucked along the tracks between 12 and 15km/hour and into the countryside. Diane and I had seats on the left side of the train, and not 2 minutes into our trip the announcer said, “to let you know, 95% of the scenery will be seen from the right side of the train…” Fabulous. Good thing Adam is the better photographer and took hundreds of shots of the scenery.

The place was beautiful though! I can see why it’s so popular. The morning sky was nothing like the previous nights’ and was cloudless and blue! This region of Ecuador is much more mountainous, and this area in particular had steep mountainsides and deep valley’s that ended with the small Alausi river winding through the bottom. I instantly decided that I love valleys. They are beautiful to look at, great to take photos of and fun to train through! I have no better reason than that.

The devil’s nose mountain really does look like a giant nose. From an aerial photograph we saw in the museum later, the whole mountain looks like a crocodile, with two eyes, a long snout and the train tracks act as a mouth. It is named the Devil’s nose after all the local folklore that surrounds the area. It was believed that satanic spirits haunted the mountain.  The spirits did not want a railway track built there. Locals claim that goats blocking the tracks turned into devilish imps to chase away the workers. Others claim to have seen a man standing at the end of the nose with a red cape and glowing red eyes. During the making of the track, there was a collapse in part of the mountain that killed thousands of migrant workers from Jamaica: another bad omen. But whatever the case, the mountain is STUNNING!! Our whole tour was just a short couple hours, with an hour break to check out the museum and have a sandwich for breakfast.

Once we got back to Alausi, we immediately booked a ticket to Machala, a town on the south-west border of Ecuador. 
 The two buses we took were less than appealing to say the least. The first bus was 4 hours of sickening curves and stomach-turning lurches. I had to take a gravol within the first half hour or I wouldn’t have made it without vomiting (did I mention Ecuadorian buses don’t have bathrooms?). We had to switch buses in Guayaquil, which was way out of our way. Diane and I kept trying to find a faster way to get there, by jumping off in a small town and waving down a bus going the other direction. Our bus attendant must have hated us, because even though he explained to us several times that this was the only route to Machala, we kept coming up to him with the map to ask about other possibilities. Anything to not have 5 hours of backtracking!!

We ended up in Guayaquil after all… 
The bus station was massive and we were tired and lost. One thing we did figured out though, is that if you stand still in a bus station anywhere in South America long enough, looking like a dumb gringo and staring around with a dazed expression, someone will help you. Almost immediately a guy came up to us, asked where we were going, showed us to the proper desk and then took us right to the bus (and it’s a good thing he did, because our bus left in 3 minutes).

Our second bus took twice as long as it should have. It was hot, muggy, crowded and 6 hours long. Once all the seats were full, the bus driver started loading up the isle full of people. We were seated in the back of the bus and there was a mom and three children standing in the isle next to us. I was so exhausted, but felt so bad for the kids who after a half hour standing looked tired. I offered my lap for one of the little girls to sit on, then Diane did the same. For the next couple hours it was smoldering heat, way overcrowded, both our legs went numb with the kids sitting on them and the roads were old and neglected. At one point we were stuck in an hour-long traffic jam in a small town that happened to have a parade route going down the center of it. I think the three of us were delighted when we finally arrived in rainy Machala and checked into our room.

The Middle of The World

On our next day in Quito we decided to visit the Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World) just a quick 50 minute bus ride outside of Quito. Christian, the guy who worked at our hostel, agreed to take us out to see the equatorial monument and show us the area as our “personal tour guide”. This was VERY kind of him, considering he gave up his entire day to tour us around the city for free. In total there were 5 of us and we were all very excited!

 

There are actually two places to see the equator; and if you are a good tourist, one man explained to us, you should see both! The first is the GPS located line; the true center discovered only a short 15 years ago. The second, is only 200 meters away, where the French estimated where the equatorial line SHOULD be a couple hundred years ago. Pretty amazing feat to get it so close if I do say so myself!

We started with the GPS located line, and got a tour of the surrounding museum which was wonderful.
  The museum was laid out as if it was a traditional native village. Little bamboo huts, grave sites, and dirt paths were all set up to explore. Some of the huts sold hand-made trinkets and woven Ecuadorean blankets, while other huts were more educational. We went into the first and saw all sorts of preserved animals. A giant, 40 ft anaconda skin hung on the wall, tarantulas larger than my spread out hand were in glass boxes, and two massive boa constrictors sat in a tank below. In another display case there was an actual, real life, shrunken head! Apparently only tribes from Ecuador truly practice the shrunken head technique, and they managed to have one on display. It was the head of a child who had died in a tragic accident, the head was smaller than my fist, and all it’s orifices were sewn shut. It was apparently a little over 150 years old, and, to be honest, it was super creepy! It is a tradition with native tribes of Ecuador to shrink the heads of captured enemies, or of people who should be revered in the village. Beside the head, we found a a detailed 12 step process to head shrinking, which I won’t go into, but believe me, it’s gruesome! And if you put your own hand into a fist, that is the size your own head would be if it was shrunk!

We learned several fun facts about the Wuaorani tribe during the tour.  We heard of their traditional hunting techniques (poison dart blowers and double ended spears) and customary dress code (nothing at all). Their burial ceremonies were the most interesting I thought. When a man died, it was expected for him to be buried with all his worldly possessions, that way, he was prepared for the afterlife. However, a man’s wife was also considered his possession; and so, when a man died, his wife was buried alive next to him (that’s love). When a CHIEF died, his wife, his servants, and all his children (apart from the eldest son who would carry on the chiefdom) were buried with him. The bodies were folded up and placed in giant pots to be buried in. In this sense, it is as if a person is being brought both in and out of the mortal world in a dark womb.
  How gruesome!

 

Next we took a look at the equator itself. A big red line was painted along the ground to outline exactly where it ran. I had no idea there would be so many cool things associated with the Equator, and I still have no idea how so many of them work. 
First off, we all know how excited I was to flush a toilet in the Southern Hemisphere and see if the water really drained in the other direction (which it did). So I was particularly excited to see what happened right AT the equator. From the moment we arrived I was scoping out the banos in hopes to test my theory; however, no need, because the guide did a demonstration for us! For those who are interested, DIRECTLY over the equator, water runs PERFECTLY downward. It doesn’t spin in either direction at all! Only a step to the South, the water flows clockwise, and a step to the North it spins counter clockwise! I was so excited about this it’s lame. Apparently, the further from the equator you go, the larger the spins become. That is why tornadoes and hurricanes (which will circle clockwise or counterclockwise depending on the hemisphere) never occur along the equator, but are much stronger as they move away from the center of the earth!

Another interesting experiment we tried was balancing an egg on its point, on top of a nail, right on the line. Almost impossible to do so in either hemisphere, balancing an egg on its tip is relatively easy on the equator!! Contrastingly however, if a PERSON closes their eyes and tries to walk a straight line with their arms out (as if for a drunk test) they will immediately fall over. Tried and tested, believe me, it is difficult!

 

Perhaps the most exciting for me was the last test! This entire trip Adam and I have been joking about how weak I am. For all my friends out there who have seen me try to open a water bottle and fail, you can attest to this: I’m not very strong. HOWEVER (and I’m going to brag about this point for the rest of my life, sorry Adam) directly over the equator, I am stronger than Adam!!! Don’t worry; I have unbelievable video proof of this feat to show you all! We tried an experiment where Adam put his hands together, fingers clasped in one giant fist and arms in front of him. I used both hands to try to pull his fists down, while he pushed up toward the sky. Two steps off the equator line I was literally hanging like an idiot off Adam’s outstretched arms in an attempt to pull them down. Fail. We then took one step over to the red line, and did the same thing. I used one arm only, and very easily pulled both his fists down while Adam pushed up with all his strength, veins literally popping out of his neck with the struggle! UNBELIEVABLE! I didn’t even believe it myself! But I watch the video every time I feel insignificant!

 

When we’d finished at the equator it was time for lunch! Christian knew this great little restaurant just a block or two away that sold guinea pig as one of it’s specialties (This was something we’d been searching for since we arrived in Ecuador)! The lady who ran the place opened the restaurant just for us, and started cooking up a storm! We ordered one giant guinea pig between the 5 of us and it was more than enough food! We started with toasted corn with garlic and onion and chilled lima beans (delicious). After, there were the trimmings of a wonderful avocado and tomato salad, boiled potatoes, and some toasted chickpeas. Then came the guinea pig! It was huge, filling an entire platter, and came all put together, looking just like it would have alive, except it had no hair and was a little more still. Apparently the traditional way to eat guinea pig, is to just rip the meat apart with your bare hands… So that’s what we did! It was surprisingly very tasty! The texture was similar to chicken, but with fattier parts like rabbit meat. The skin was tough but crispy and the taste was unlike any other meat I’ve ever eaten. I don’t even know how to describe it. It wasn’t gamy, it wasn’t the most delicious meat I’ve ever had, but it was tasty!! Trying to eat around its little rib cage proved to be a bit tedious, but we ended up eating almost all of it. We left the head, mostly because looking at the thing’s burnt face and big teeth was a little off-putting. Also, I couldn’t eat the paw, because it was way too life-like and I felt bad as it looked like it was trying to climb off my plate with its tiny claws… Excuse me for being so descriptive. All in all the meal was great, we successfully tried another strange animal in a foreign country and no one had to slurp back a beating heart this time!

After lunch we went to the second, and original equatorial line. There were a bunch of touristy museums to poke around in, and we checked out some strange insect museum with all sorts of bugs I’d never want to run into in the wild! There is also a massive monument right over the supposed equator line that is a favorite for touristy pictures! We snapped some shots, tried to pet some wandering llamas, and carried on our way!

 

Christian then took us on an amazing, whirlwind tour of Quito’s old town. This was the first time we really explored the city, and it was absolutely breathtaking!! I knew the city was beautiful, but I absolutely did not expect it to be so wonderful. Adam was like a kid in a candy shop photo bombing every plaza, church and statue in the city center. Obviously his favourite city architecturally, and I agree. The city had a very European feel to it. The architecture was intricate, and much of it dated as far back at the mid 18th Century. A couple of the churches took up to 160 years to complete, and on the inside were completely covered in gold adornments of detailed design. The main church of the city, which took 120 years to complete under the order of Ecuador’s president, was the most impressive by far. It had an almost gothic feel to it with large pointed turrets that stood high above the city. It looked like a building that should sit in the old center of Edinburgh or Bruges. The building was so detailed in it’s design; it was difficult to choose where to focus. However, what made the building so unique was that, instead of gargoyles as figurines on the side of the building, there were statues of animals that are specifically local to the Galapagos Islands! Big iguanas, sea turtles, birds, the church was covered in these local touches that made it so perfect!

Not only were the plazas and the churches so amazing (as like most places here in South America) but the streets themselves were colourful and fun! Many of the buildings were perfectly painted in pastel colours with white trim. Almost every home had a second floor balcony with a quaint little gate around an area just a few square feet total. Apparently, years ago, it was common for young men to woo their lady-interests by serenading them from the streets below! The women would then walk out the door, on to the little balcony, and the two could talk. It is a very Shakespearean idea, and the balconies all looked like they were out of a Romeo and Juliet production! How cute!

I was a little surprised at how much history and legend each area of the city had. Canada, and in particular the West coast, just doesn’t have the same history. It is newly settled in the big scheme of things, and so churches dating back several hundred years are non-existent. I assumed South America was more recently influenced by European culture as well, yet, cities like Quito have the same amount of history as the best of the European cities!! (and it doesn’t come with the European prices, what a bonus). For those of you interested in seeing beautiful, European architecture but can’t afford the Euro, I highly recommend Quito!

We ended up back at the hostel around 6:45 and refreshed ourselves from the long day. Then we recruited half our hostel and went out on our own mini pub crawl. We started at a lively Irish pub across the street from our hostel, and ended up at an adorable little salsa club with entirely locals. The place was so small, with a little bar and red brick walls. There were only a handful of people in the place, but we all grabbed partners and got out on the floor to learn salsa! There was a couple dancing when we arrived that was out of this world! Clearly professionals in the dance, they were fascinating to watch! Diane even got a chance to dance with the man and his leading was so perfect she said she felt like the best dancer on earth. And she looked like it too! It definitely makes a difference when at least one person in the pair knows what they’re doing!
  So after another long night out, we were up early for check out. We decided last minute where we were going to go, and after a hearty breakfast, we set out for a small town called Riobomba a few hours South of Quito!

Otavalo and Cotacachi: Ecuadorean Market Towns

Ecuador is obviously different from Colombia in many ways. The landscape immediately changed after the border from mountainous terrain to rolling hills. The climate is a lot drier, and thus browner, and there’s less sprawling coffee plantations and more farmland. Sheep, cattle, llamas, pigs, all sorts of wildlife with more flat land and sparser forests. Women stand in lines tilling the fields by hand or carrying bundles of sticks along the side of the road.
  Even though the currency of Ecuador is the US dollar, the dress is much less influenced by North American apparel. Many locals wear the traditional clothing of brightly coloured ponchos or capes, dark pants (long thick skirts for the women) and fedora hats. The women carry their children in swaddled blankets on their backs, and are almost always adorned with thick necklaces of gold and silver chains.

At nearly every stop the bus made, people selling cheap food or trinkets climbed on to sell their goods. Homemade potato chips, apples, chicken, nuts, water, icecream, you name it. The venders walk up and down the isle calling out the names of their goods in rapid succession. “helado helado helado helado!!” “papas papas papas!!!” “un dollar por seis; veinte cinco centavos!” The men or women stay on for a stop or two, then tell the driver to stop so they can jump onto another bus. You will never find yourself hungry on an Ecuadorean bus, that’s for sure!

On our first day in Quito we did very little. We grabbed lunch at a bar in the main square, checked out a park and ventured back to our hostel to wait for Diane to join us! Now that Hilary had gone home to Toronto, Diane agreed to join us for our trip around Ecuador and we were very excited! The three of us went for delicious Mexican food for dinner, then called it a night early to get ready for a long day trip to Otavalo in the morning.

Otavalo is a market town about 2 hours North of Quito. It is a wonderful little town with a plethora of street venders selling food and a beautiful craft market full of traditional Ecuadorean wares. The three of us got up early to start our day. We watched a very entertaining Jackie Chan movie in Spanish on the bus ride out and arrived in Otavalo by the early afternoon. Buses in Ecuador are incredibly cheap: about $1 for every hour of the trip. Such a far cry from Brazil, which are between 8 and 10 times the price!! So we were all happy to reach the town for the cost of a toonie!

The market was quiet on the Monday that we went, but had some great deals! There were tonnes of intricate, hand-carved silver pendants and earrings, wood carvings of native animals, hand held pipes, thick alpaca sweaters, brightly coloured paintings, and traditional blankets and scarves. We had a great time walking from stall to stall bargaining for the best price and checking out the handicrafts. In the end, Diane and I both bought sweaters and Adam got an alpaca blanket that was gorgeous! When we’d properly explored the market, we ventured back to the bus station to catch a bus to Cotacachi. I never would have known that this place existed had it not been for Cathy, who told me about the leather bags she had bought from there. Only 40 minutes and 20 cents from Otavalo, Cotacachi is even more quaint and beautiful! From what we saw, it was only several blocks squared: the bus station went only 2 places, there was one plaza with a church… and a million leather shops! The place smelled amazing, with real leather scents coming out of the stores. Jackets, purses, wallets, shoes! Each place had handmade leather wares for super cheap and many of the shop owners made their products right there in the store. We spent a good hour at least walking up and down two city blocks checking out all the leather in each store along the way. We got some great deals in the end and then made our three hour trek back to Otavalo and finally Quito. We had cheap eats at a local Ecuadorean restaurant of rice, chicken and lentils for $2.75 then back to our hostel for a few beers and games of pool.  Not a bad first day in Ecuador!