09 July 2008

Adventures down the central highlands

We are just returning from an exhilarating week of Ecuadorian adventures down the central highlands. The school is on vacation for the week so Melissa and I packed up and jumped on the first bus leaving Mindo. We started out Thursday afternoon passing through Quito and continued down 2 hours south to a small sierra city, Latacunga. Not too much to talk about besides the fact that they have a huge market with everything you could ever desire (veggies to toilet paper) and way too many Chinese (or Chifa as they say here) restaurants for one town. But it's the closest jump off point to visit the Quilotoa lake as well as where a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer lives. Friday morning we were off at 6am to catch a 2 hour bus and then found a truck to take us the rest of the 45 mins to the lake. Quilotoa is an extinct volcano with bright turquoise water caused by dissolved minerals. The lake has such a high mineral content the water can't be purified and reaches 250 meters at its deepest point. Arriving in the small town (if you can even call it that) of Quilotoa it felt like an eerie ghost town with no sign of life being that we were there during a non-tourist time and it's only existence is based upon tourism to the lake. With an elevation of 3854m, it's freezing cold and the breathing is heavy. Melissa and I set out on the impossible mission to find a cup of coffee to defrost ourselves before the hike and finally found a small house that claimed it was a hostel, but walking in we realized that in order to reach the "hostel/dining area" we had to walk across the rustic dirt floor and through the family's bedroom. After the memorable syrup like instant coffee we were off hiking up the dirt hill which seemed like we had come to the middle of nowhere to see just that but reaching the lookout point it almost takes your breathe away to see such a pure, vibrant, and exotic landscape. The lake is the most intense turquoise blue against the lush green mountains. At the lake there is two options to explore, one being the long route of around the edge of the lake taking about 5 hours and the other being walking down to the lake on a steep gravely path that takes about an hour to get down and 3 hours to climb up or if tired just hop on donkey for a small fare. Melissa and I were trudging down the hillside at a respectable pace when a woman in her mid-60's speed past us walking her donkey down, and our egos were deflated yet a little more. How do the Ecuadorians do this at high altitude? Kayaking is even possible in the lake, which are in the plans for my next visit.

After that we were off to our next stop 3 hours further south to the quaint little Sierra city of Riobamba with a colonial charm full with lovely churches, beautiful architecture, and a constant flow of gringos being the take off point for the "Nariz del Diablo" train ride as well as hiking the chimborazo volcano which is the highest peak in Ecuador. We rolled in Saturday night to buy our tickets for "El Nariz del Diablo" (The Devil's Nose) train ride. It was Ecuador's first railway that was built in 1899 and was to open up travel from Quito (the capital) all the way to Guayaquil (the big costal city).The train actually was utilized up until 1997 when El Nino ruined a large portion of the tracks. It now only runs from Riobamba to Sibambe. But when Melissa and I showed up to buy the tickets we were informed that they train wasn't running from Riobamba because of maintenance so we had to instead take a bus from Riobamba down to Alausi and then the train to Sibambe (a 1 hour ride). So being the good Americans we are we showed up at 5:50am anticipating the 6am bus that didn't arrive until 7am, but we were kept company by what seemed like millions of gringos, a woman selling instant coffee and bananas, and a man that somehow fit a whole artisan market into one garbage bag (gloves, hats, sweaters, scarves, ponchos, sunglasses, etc). When the bus finally arrived we piled about 100 people into a 50 seat bus. Good times. And after some more waiting we finally had our tickets and thanks to our strategic smiles and strong elbow moves we were able to land a spot on top of the train. It was a beautiful and exciting ride creaking and rocking down the jagged hillside.

We finally ended our journey in the 3rd largest city in Ecuador, Cuenca. One of, if not my favorite city in Ecuador because of it's graceful Renaissance feel full of intricate churches, cobblestone streets, art museums, cute hacienda, and real coffee!

Until the next adventure…

Enjoy the pictures!

Much love to you always.


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