Luke's South American Diary
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August 1994

10 August 1994

A relatively long gap in a diary suggests that either nothing worth reporting has happened in the intervening time, or that so much has happened that there has been no time in which to report it all. Happily, the latter applies here, although I have to say that not all of the happenings were entirely welcome. First, my sister Doreen arrived for a two-week visit, a distinctly happy event as I am sure we would all agree. She was our first real visitor here, and I was all set with my list of activities and trips all planned out in detail, in my rôle as tourist guide which I perfected during our three years in Canada. However on her second day here we experienced what was probably the unhappiest event of our entire stay to date, which was rather unfortunate from the point of view of Doreen's holiday, but which we are trying to see in a positive manner as a salutary and sobering reminder not to become too complacent here.

We were "doing" the old colonial part of Caracas, and I suggested that we walk up into a small park called El Calvario, which overlooks the old town and which none of us had been to before. I had read that, as it backs onto one of the largest and roughest barrios in Caracas, the park used to be basically off-limits to tourists (and to most locals with any sense too). But I had also read that more recently it had been cleaned up, and was now considered relatively safe. It was that "relatively" which proved our undoing.

Clearly we should have erred more on the side of caution because, while sitting in the park looking at the view and watching the hummingbirds at play, three youths, including one with a stick and one with a broken bottle, decided we were fair (foreign) game, and made off with our bags. It all happened in a flash, and although Julie was quick enough to try and wrench her bag back, I yelled at her to let go when I saw the broken bottle. Doreen suffered minor bruises from being pulled backwards over the seat, but I had been standing further away from my bag, and hence did not even notice until it was too late. The youths, clearly panicky themselves, headed off into the labyrinthine barrio of 23 de Enero, and the other people in the park, quite sensibly I suppose, turned away and professed to have seen nothing.

Our immediate, and even subsequent reaction, was anger, as they had taken all three of our bags, containing two cameras, cash, credit cards, Julie's passport and various smaller items. Probably all they would keep would be the camera and the cash, the rest being more or less valueless to them, although quite valuable to us. We reported it all to the police, when we eventually found them, and they were surprisingly concerned and helpful, but completely ineffectual.

A French couple had also been attacked just seconds before us, almost certainly by the same three youths, and they had been less lucky, having lost almost everything (money, passports, tickets, cameras) on the very first day of their holiday, and the woman had been quite severely beaten with the stick, even though she had been putting up no resistance. So we spent the rest of Sunday searching fruitlessly for abandoned bags (despite being armed, the police had no intentions of going into the barrio, which even they considered a no-go area), and then making reports at the police station. We were all reasonably calm by that time, and wise enough to feel lucky that it had not been worse, although the French woman did break down later due to delayed shock and the realization that their holiday plans had been severely curtailed.

Having made all the reports, we took the French couple back to our apartment for a cup of tea and a shower, and the use of a telephone to arrange new passports, cancel credit cards, etc. We lent them some dollars and bolívares to tide them over until they had sorted themselves out a bit, for which they were embarrassingly grateful. The next day was spent replacing many of the things stolen, although as we could not find a replacement for Doreen's camera, she shared my replacement for the rest of the holiday. We talked out all the recriminations and "what-if" scenarios, and tried reasonably successfully to out it all behind us, so that Doreen could get on with enjoying the remainder of her holiday, and we with living our lives in a city which we had always known had a reputation for violence and theft. We all felt older, wiser and a little sadder.

To relate our adventures during the rest of Doreen's stay will no doubt sound more like a travelogue than a diary of impressions, but I will "go with the flow" as they say, and plough on regardless. There is after all a limit to the number of first impressions one can have of a country, and after a while it is the impressions of the new places visited which become uppermost in one's mind. Thus this diary was always bound to change in character after a while.

Henri Pittier National Park, Venezuela (Cata, Cuyagua)
One day was spent, Julie having taken a day off work, driving out west along the excellent autopista towards the uninspiring city of Maracay (as opposed to Maracaibo, much further west). From there we headed north up into the coastal range of mountains, and the wet miserable weather which had accompanied the boring part of the journey miraculously improved as we approached the more interesting part. This area of the mountains, is designated Henri Pittier National Park, and although totally undeveloped as regards facilities, trails, etc, it is at the very least a beautiful drive up into the lush cloud forest. The air was very humid and reverberated with the rattle of cicadas, crickets and frogs, as well as some very English-sounding bird-song, which seemed quite out of place in those very un-English surroundings. The forest was dotted with scarlet heliconia, brightly-coloured flowering trees, and verges of bright bizzy-lizzies at higher elevations.

Down the coastward slope, we passed through the dusty, vaguely colonial town of Ocumare de la Costa (where, on the way back, we had to make our embarrassed way through a funeral for which the whole town seemed to have turned out), and eventually three-and-a-half hours from Caracas, the Caribbean-blue bay of Cata appeared below us, its beautiful crescent of white sand unfortunately marred, although not completely ruined, by two ugly concrete high-rise hotels. It is an idyllic beach and not overly busy (at mid-week at any rate), and after a picnic, sunbathe and swim, it was hot enough for us to elect for the air-conditioned car for a while, and to continue a bit further along the coast to the end of the road at Cuyagua. The book described the drive over the headland to Cuyagua as "not for the nervous" (one could ask, however, where is in Venezuela?), and it certainly rewarded us with great cliff-top views along the coast.

Cuyagua itself is another sandy bay, backed by the remains of a coconut plantation, and throughly charming. The last section of the road was blocked by a fallen tree, so we walked the last kilometre of so along the bamboo-shaded river to the picture-postcard beach. We had a dirt-cheap ice-cold beer at the lone beach bar along with a few locals, feeling quite pleased with ourselves for "discovering" this isolated and idyllic spot. Later, returning through the National Park, the cloud had descended further making the jungle even more eerie and atmospheric, and we would stop the car from time to time just to listen to the authentic jungle sounds around us. On descending, the clouds lifted again in time to give us a wonderful view over Lago de Valencia on the plain below us.

Guatopo National Park, Venezuela (first visit)
Yet another day-trip was a drive south on the Fila de Mariches ridge, down the Guaire valley, stopping off at the pretty colonial church at Santa Lucia, and on to Guatopo National Park. This is another area of protected cloud forest, if anything even lusher than those in the coastal mountains, and with a little more in the way of picnic areas and official trails, although the trail we attempted was so slippery due to the constant moisture and high rainfall there, and the heat and humidity so great, that it felt more like hard work than an enjoyable stroll. Another trail mentioned in the book had obviously been abandoned completely due to the constant work needed to clear away the invading vegetation, literally every few days.

Another day out, to which we had all been looking forward, was to have been to Los Roques National Park, an archipelago of Robinson Crusoe- type islands half-an-hour's flight off the coast, where snorkelling and scuba-diving on the coral reefs was to have been in prospect. We had even spent some time practising snorkelling in our swimming pool, much to the amusement of passers-by. However, having arrived at the airport with our tickets, we were rather taken aback at being told that we could not go without our passports, despite the islands being in Venezuelan territory (apparently some obscure consequence of the recent suspension of civil liberties in the country). So, after some slightly acrimonious negotiations with the airline and our travel agents (who should, after all, have informed us of the requirements), we will have to delay that particular trip until later in the year, which unfortunately means that Doreen will miss out on it.

This was just another example of the kind of Venezuelan bureaucracy which can be really infuriating unless one adopts the only possible way of dealing with it, which is just to shrug it off and pretend that nothing happened. Luckily, Doreen is blessed with natural sang-froid and did not let any of this spoil her holiday. Instead, we spent that day on a private beach in the more accessible part of El Litoral, courtesy of a very thoughtful invitation from Julie's secretary, whose family has a membership there. (In theory, all beaches in Venezuela have been public since the 1960's, but in practice you would never be able to argue your way through the security of what are de facto private clubs. The vast majoity of the beaches are actually publicly accessible, although not necessariily as salubrious as the private ones).

Canaima National Park, Venezuela (Laguna de Canaima, Salto Sapo, Kavac, Salto Angel)
In between all this, however, came the big trip, our first major excursion into the great wild interior of Venezuela. It was not exactly a voyage into Conan Doyle's "Lost World", being at least slightly sanitized and vaguely organized, but it was nonetheless pretty wild and thoroughly enjoyable. Canaima National Park, takes up a good part of the huge area of south-eastern Venezuela known as the Gran Sabana (as opposed to Sabana Grande, which is a shopping street in Caracas!), and apparently qualifies as the sixth largest national park in the world. It is an area between about 6º and 1º north of the Equator, characterized by tropical forest, rolling savannah grasslands, and it is dotted with huge flat-topped table mountains called tepuyes. It is truly grand scenery, and there are rivers, streams and waterfalls everywhere, as we were to find out.

The only way of getting there is to fly into Canaima's tiny airport, with its quaint thatched terminal, as it is hundreds of kilometres to the nearest road connected with anything approaching civilization. Accommodation is in basic little thatched wooden huts in one of two camps, and we had chosen the smaller of the camps, usually known as Jungle Rudy's after the original owner and founder. With just eight rooms, and located a fifteen minute jeep ride and a further five minute boat ride further up the Río Carrao from the Laguna de Canaima, it is more remote, quieter, friendlier and cheaper than the main Avensa Camp, although it does lack the picturesque views over the lagoon, waterfalls and trio of tepuyes beyond, and the pink sand beaches and other facilities of the Avensa camp.

We felt ourselves a select bunch: we three, a pleasant enough Venezuelan couple with a spoilt brat of a teenager, a very nice elderly Spanish couple (whom I could understand and converse with quite well, which boosted my confidence in my Spanish until I returned to Caracas), and a couple of very loud Venezuelan soldiers, who professed to know everything about everything and had always had the most amazing experiences of anyone. The camp guide, Hector, was actually Colombian, and so relatively easy to understand, and clearly very much into his job, and he earned a good tip from us. In addition, the camp boasted two massive, smelly and distinctly unhealthy old dogs, various Indian cooks, waiters, cleaners and boat-drivers, and a head chef who provided us with much amusement.

"The Swedish Chef" as we called him was tall, had a limp, and usually a kind of glazed expression. Hector assured us that he was a four-star chef (whatever that means), although his opening gambit of tinned mixed veg for us vegetarians did not impress. He had a rather disconcerting habit of changing the T-shirt and baseball cap which he always wore in the kitchen for a chef's coat and hat, and parading proudly around the four tables inquiring as to whether the food had been satisfactory ("Did you like the cheese omelette? It was vegetarian!") as though he had seen it done in some film and wanted to play the part to the hilt. The food was mediocre to put it politely, even for the meat-eaters, most of it having to be flown in dried or canned. For starters it was always canned soup (although usually with added garlic for that four-star touch), and the dessert was invariably canned fruit ("How was your dessert, sir?"). But after all we were not there for the food (just as well), and we were usually sufficiently tired after our day's activities to eat anything which was put in front of us, have a welcome cold-water shower, and hit the sack.

Hector seemed desperate to fill every minute of our time there, and most things seemed to involve getting wet. On the afternoon we arrived we made a short excursion by boat and on foot to Salto Sapo, a huge sheet of white water, positively thunderous in July, well into the rainy season. It was only when we arrived at the falls that we realized that the walk continued right underneath the falls. My sister, Doreen, for whom the trip had started badly when her luggage (including her swim-suit) had been delayed in Caracas, had to strip down to borrowed T-shirt and knickers while everyone else reverted to bathing suits. The going was quite tough over wet slippery rocks, often blinded by the spray, sometimes with a rope to hold onto, sometimes not. Somehow some beautiful red flowers and luxurient ferns were growing down there, right underneath the curtain of water. At the end, it became plain that we were expected to walk right through the falls, which was how I imagine it feels to be sand-blasted, and not a little scary, clambering over the slimy wet rocks.Certainly Wet'n'Wild will never be the same We did not know then but there was better (or worse depending on one's point of view) to come the next day.

The next day we had signed up for a trip to Auyantepuy, the largest of the tepuyes and the source of, among many others, Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall. Despite the cloudy weather, which seems to be almost permanant due to the topography of the area, the craggy, near-vertical walls of the mesa, with literally hundreds of unnamed waterfalls leaping down from the mysterious flat top, and the dense jungle and surrounding savannah below, was a memorable and spectacular sight from our little plane. We landed at Kavac, a Pemon Indian village, authentic enough in some ways, although apparently constructed specifically to cater for the tourists, as our Pemon guides (from the real Indian village 10km away) happily informed us.

A group of us walked from the village which nestled at the foot of the dramatic cliffs of the tepuy, down the valley of a tea-coloured river into one of the many canyons cut into the tepuy, which gradually narrowed the further we progressed up it into a gorge with a series of waterfalls and pools. We could swim through the foot of one waterfall into the natural jacuzzi behind, although the strength of the current made it very difficult, even with the help of our guides, who seemed more at home in the water than out. Doreen, whose luggage was supposedly arriving at our camp while we were away on the trip, declined soaking her only dry T-shirt. Further up the canyon, our Indian guides impressed us by diving into a deep pool off a high rock, and then appearing, as if by magic, halfway up a waterfall (this an even larger one than the last) – suffice to say no-one else of our group followed suit. We were less impressed with their trick of appearing floating face-down as if drowned.

Still further up the canyon, and were told to leave all our dry clothes and cameras in a bag, which we realized meant that the serious stuff was just beginning. We then had to swim further up the river, against the current, in places with a rope to help us along. Doreen could not resist and got another T-shirt wet. It was a strange feeling swimming through what looked like cold tea, although we were assured that the colour was due to minerals in the water, which was actually completely pure, harbouring no bacteria at all, and therefore no aquatic plants or fish – the water we drank in the camp was direct from the river and we suffered no ill effects from it.

As the gorge narrowed still further, Doreen lost her sandals several times in the swift current, and we eventually came to what appeared to be a dead-end. But hidden around the corner was a huge and powerful waterfall, which anywhere else would have been a major tourist attraction in itself, but here it was just one of hundreds. The force of the falls in the restricted space of the canyon caused a constant spray-laden wind, and it was impossible to approach the falls because of the force of the water (one cocky Venezuelan did try to go a short way around the edge, and had to be rescued from drowning by one of the guides in an impressive display of aquatic power). By this time we were almost overwhelmed by the experiences, and we trudged back to the village for lunch largely in silence.

The return flight around the north side of Auyantepuy revealed even more rugged and spectacular scenery than the flight out, the clouds (and us) often being way below the top of the sheer, pink, castellated cliffs of the tepuy, with waterfalls gushing seemingly out of the side of solid rock. And there at last was Angel Falls, all 907m of it, although by this stage we had lost all idea of scale, and maybe the falls, which were supposed to be the highlight of the trip, lost some of their poignancy for that reason. We followed the meandering Río Carrao backed to Canaima, cowed into silence, and the spectacular aerial overview of the Laguna de Canaima and its waterfalls were all but wasted on us.

The next day we had kept relatively free for a rest, which was just as well as our minds were still reeling from the images of the previous day. We took a leisurely boat trip up a small tributary river, visited a couple of real Indian villages, played with the tame parrots, and bought a few souvenirs at inflated prices. In the afternoon, we just strolled out into the savannah, and spent some time sun-bathing on the pink sand by the tea-brown lagoon. It was all we were fit for by this time. The next day saw the flight back to bustling Caracas, whose only saving grace at that point was the absence of the small biting sand-flies, known as puri-puri, which infest Canaima. All in all, it had been a wonderful trip, and one to remember.

And so, back in Caracas, normal life resumed: the garden fountain was still not fixed (no great surprise), and we still had no elevator key or alarm control as had been promised. Three men from the organization from which we rent the apartment appeared to count the plants, (believe it or believe it not), as we had told them that we were not able to verify the contents of the garden which appeared in great detail on our original inventory (believe it or believe it not). It was something of a circus, and I had to control myself from laughter as they debated between themselves whether the purple plants were "setcrecia" or "nandina", and the list eventually included "2x Philodendron Cara de caballo – muerte" for the two dead stumps all but covered in creepers ("corculigo" creepers as it happens), and a banana tree - also "muerte" - which they had carted away as supposedly unsafe two weeks earlier. Ah, you gotta love 'em, sometimes.

I continued my constant search for bookshelves and blinds, still largely without success. It can take all day to locate five stores out of the Yellow Pages, mainly because of the strange, vague system of address in use in Caracas (or rather lack of a system), and when you do ind it the choice is usually so limited that you wonder why you bothered, or it turns out to be just a factory in some unsalubrious barrio with no retail outlet. Either that, or you find the perfect article and because it is imported it costs some totally inappropriate amount so that you have to check whether the number of noughts on the price tag is correct. Ah, the pleasures of ex-pat living!

The second largest Venezuelan bank was nationalized overnight recently due to a liquidity crisis (the largest bank went bankrupt just before we arrived, after a huge corruption scandal). The finance minister continues to insist that there is no banking crisis, although Julie's bosses in Canada, and most of the Venezuelan population, are by no means convinced. Supplies in the stores continue to run down because, although imports (on which the country relies to an unhealthy extent) are now technically possible again, it is apparently almost impossible to obtain the correct form to obtain the dollars, and so many importers are in grave danger of going down the tubes in the meantime. If the supermarket shelves empty too much, there is presumably also a danger of riots, crackdowns and coup attempts. Ah, the pleasures of ex-pat life!

With all this it seemed to us to be a good time to be getting out of the country, especially with my birthday coming up, and my passport stamp due to expire any time soon. So, have we booked a flight to somewhere safe, civilized and rich, where everything works and the trains run on time? Well, how about Ecuador? But we are looking forward to it, and Julie gets to use up some of her rapidly accumulating untaken leave. The adventure continues...

19 August 1994Back to top

Quito, Ecuador
And a very interesting adventure it was too. Ecuador is maybe not the prettiest country in the world – the Andean highlands, which contain most of the population and attract most of the tourists, are arid, dusty and quite barren-looking – but it is certainly impressive, and its real saving grace is its people, who are the friendliest and pleasantest I have enountered, and a breath of fresh air after the surly Venezuelans.

We flew into the capital, Quito, which for a city with a population pressing 2 million has a pleasantly small-town atmosphere, and at 22kn south of the Equator and 2,850m above sea level a gloriously cool climate. After about a day, the altitude began to make itself felt in the form of breathlessness, headaches and slight nausea, although only for a day or two. We decided to stay in the New Town as the hotels are apparently a little more salubrious, the restaurants more varied, and the risks of being robbed or mugged lower. It is not a violent city (compared to, say, Caracas or Bogotá), but petty theft is common in the narrow crowded streets of the Old Town, and we were still being ultra-cautious after our recent experiences in Caracas. In fact we were positively mouse-like walking around the Old Town on our first day, camera hidden, money clutched, and not venturing too close to the poorer districts around El Panecillo hill.

Old Town Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its relatively unadulterated concentration of colonial churches and white-washed, red-tiled houses and shops. It is certainly a fascinating place to amble around, even if not as immediately picturesque as we had envisaged, notwithstanding the pretty Plaza de la Independencia and the impressive Monasterio de San Francisco dripping with over-the-top rococo gold-leaf.

We left the Old Town that afternoon feeling a little disappointed, and with something of a sense of relief from a (largely-imagined, I am sure) feeling of oppression and tension. We returned again, though, on the last day of the holiday, much more relaxed, thoroughly in love with the country, and with the sun shining, and it somehow seemed an altogether more pleasant place, and we were much more taken with the architecture, even if some of it is admittedly quite dillapidated. That first afternoon, we also signed up with the South American Explorer's Club in Quito (an American-run organization, but very useful for maps, resources, advice, etc), and planned a couple of forays out of Quito.

But we were also already discovering some of the unlooked-for advantages of Ecuador. For instance, there seems to be an absolute glut of vegetarian restaurants, both in Quito, and as we found later also in small provincial towns – a totally unexpected bonus for us. The food quality is not gourmet, but it is adequate, and a three-course set meal of the day, which usually features wheat gluten in some form of other, set us back as little as $1.50. It was strange to find wheat gluten (still quite exotic, even in trendy England) as almost a staple food, and soya and tofu were also widely available. Apparently, it is all a reasonably recent development due to health education and broad-minded tastes, and nothing to do with traditional diets as I had at first guessed. I was getting a little bored with wheat gluten by the end of the week, but as it is not available anywhere in Venezuela, we felt justified in having it at every opportunity.

I should probably also mention at this juncture that by the third or fourth day I had developed a reasonably bad case of stomach ache and diarrhoea, which only let up on the last day, so maybe I should play down the merits of the veggie food. I was rather miffed at this as I normally pride myself on having a cast-iron stomach, and have almost never contracted food-poisoning while travelling (although apparently just the change in atmosphere and in the bottled water can bring it on).

The other major discovery was the people of Ecuador, and that certainly had no unfortunate side-effects. They are genuinely friendly, easy-going people, almost to a fault, always ready to smile and chat and help. We had to ask directions on many occasions, and were almost always met with willing helpfulness, whether from young lads or from toothless old men or from brightly-dressed Indian women. One man we asked, for instance, was just about to take a taxi at least part of the way in our direction, and he insisted that we follow, stopping the taxi to point out exactly which road we were to take, and enumerating each subsequent turn needed. Another time, at ten o'clock at night, we were stopped in someone's driveway poring over the map, when two ladies (obviously aged mother and middle-aged daughter), appeared from the house and tentatively edged their way towards us in the dark, and then realizing that we were just lost foreigners took great pleasure in directing us, even down to describing how it would have looked had it been light!

Another day, we were sitting in the main square of a small isolated mountain town, eating our sandwiches (as foreigners do), and a passing lady wished us buen provecho which we though quite friendly. She then returned and introduced herself, calling over her colleagues from the town health centre to meet us, and the three of them stayed for some time chatting about Ecuador, England and the rest of the world. They seemed genuinely interested to meet people from different walks of life, (obviously not having much opportunity), and were hungry for information on minumum wages, health care, exchange rates, marriage trends and any other subject you would care to mention. We left the town feeling like old friends, and sold forever on the Eduadorian people.

Otavalo, Ecuador (Indian market, Cotacachi Ecological Reserve)
One of our day-trips from Quito was northwards through huge valleys and desolate brown mountains, and then through a slightly more prosperous-looking area of farmland with ploughed fields creeping up the precipitous sides of extinct volcanoes. Our main destination was the famous Indian market at Otavalo, which is firmly on the tourist trail as the best place to go for your Euadorian presents and souvenirs, but for all that still a wonderful cultural experience not to be missed. On a Saturday, the whole town turns into one big market as the Indians from nearby villages flood in to sell their food, clothes, rugs and handicrafts to locals and tourists alike. The local women and girls look quite striking in their white embroidered blouses, shawls and characteristic folded head-cloths, and the men wear ponchos and felt hats over their long plaited pig-tails.

Many of the fruits and vegetables laid out on the cloths and in baskets in front of the vendors I had never seen before, and many that I had seen before looked quite different, like the huge creamy sweet corn kernels, the over-sized red chilis, and a bewildering variety of potatoes. The handicrafts ranged from tacky knick-knacks to beautiful hand-knitted llama-wool sweaters, finely-woven wall-hangings of Indian village scenes, thick woollen blankets (very useful at that altitude where the nights can be down-right cold), and cotton hold-alls with intricate geometric designs. The only draw-back (for me at any rate) was that bargaining and haggling over the price was clearly mandatory, and short-cuts were not allowed, so that the whole routine of "30!", "18!", "29!", "19!", "28!", etc has to be performed before arriving at the "24!" which everyone knew would be the final price.The initial price and the qualifying "But I could give a discount" are given in the same breath, and I must confess that to me it all seems very inefficient and unnecessary, but luckily Julie quite enjoyed all the bargaining – it must bring out the banker in her.

A short detour from Otavalo took us into Cotacachi Ecological Reserve, and to an extinct volcanic crater filled with a beautiful deep-blue rain-filled lake, and sprinkled with wooded islands. We managed to miss both boat trips on the lake, and could not locate the trail round the crater, but it still provided us with a peaceful alpine setting from which to watch the sunset, and for a mediocre coffee on the hill overlooking the lake. We managed to find our way back to Otavalo on the bumpy old Spanish cobbled road, although more by luck than judgement.

Central Ecuador (Volcán Cotopaxi, Volcán Chimborazo, Baños)
Our main trip south from Quito followed the Panamerican Highway, (which varies from three lanes each way to less than one in places), through Ecuador's broad central valley, flanked by mountains and volcanoes throughout. The first detour to Saquisili was a bit of a disappointment – it was a dusty run-down place with many more mangy dogs than people, and little else to recommend itself (I imagine it probably livens up on market day).

However, just across the valley was Cotopaxi National Park, which protects the forest and páramo or tundra around Ecuador's highest potentially active volcano. Volcán Cotopaxi itself, at 5,897m above sea level, is permanently snow-capped despite its equatorial location. Although at first we could see very little for the clouds which always gather around the volcanic peaks even when the rest of the sky is a clear bright blue, the closer we approached the clearer it became until, when we went for a short breathless walk on the páramo at around 4,000m, it "came out" in all its glacier-capped glory. The páramo is dry and dusty and at first glance barren, but in fact at closer quarters an amazing variety of tiny alpine flowers carpet the ground, including some stalkless dandelions and some delicate purple bell-like flowers. If it had not been so dusty, windy and cold, we could have spent a long time sitting among the flowers gazing at the text-book symmetrical cone of the volcano. On our return to the main valley we also saw our first herd of grazing, frolicking llamas.

Yet, despite the deteriorating weather, the climax of the day was yet to come. Again rather by luck than judgement (the whole of Ecuador being marked by an absolute lack of sign-posts), we found our way out of tatty, dusty Ambato towards Guaranda, a paved road which winds up and around Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest volcano (6,310m). We just could not believe that the road could continue climbing for so long, nor could we believe some of the sights to which we were treated. The views down towards the central valley became ever more dramatic the higher we climbed, despite the weather (a mountain of that size seems to generate its own personal weather). The steep valley sides, surely in excess of 45º, were still somehow covered in a patchwork of fields planted with unknown crops (at least unknown to me), and some of the patches must have taken hours to reach by mule before any work could even begin. There were hardly any cars on the road, just a few cooperativas, the heavily-laden open-topped pick-up trucks which serve as buses throughout Ecuador.

The higher we went, the greater was the proportion of people in traditional Indian dress, especially the grizzled old women in their pork-pie hats and brightly-coloured shawls – the bright blues, greens, purples and reds were a welcome splash of colour in the otherwise drab surroundings. The land seemed so barren and poor on the volcanic páramo at 4,000m that we were amazed it could support any life at all, but even right on the inhospitable flanks of the volcano itself were scattered dwellings of mud and thatch, with their scrubby little gardens and the ubiquitous tied-up pig, burro or llama. The snow-capped volcano itself rose up hugely into the clouds, even from our vantage point on the road at well over 4,000m, and it even favoured us by shedding at least some its cloud cover as we made our way round it. As we started to descend towards Guaranda, huge vistas started to open up once more, as mountain range after mountain range seemed to fade into the distance, while behind us the volcano glowed almost menacingly in the setting sun, and continued glowing while everything else around us was sunk in deep shadow.

Unfortunately, Guaranda was not our destination for the night, far from it. Everything had taken much longer than expected, plus we had got lost in almost every town we had passed through due to a complete absence of sign-posts or logical town-planning. We had become wary enough to ask for directions at almost every potential road juntion, but it had still proved a very time-consuming process. Darkness had fallen completely by the time we found the right road out of Guaranda, and we still had about 50km of dirt road before Riobamba, and then another paved 50km to our hotel in Baños.

From what I could see of it, which was actually very little, the dirt road out of Guaranda would probably have been absolutely spectacular in daylight, hugging the side of deep narrow valley up into some convoluted volcanic mountains, and past isolated farms. At one point the ghostly shape of Chimborazo suddenly loomed up over us, still eerily glowing despite the fact that it had been dark for some time. In retrospect it may have been for the best that we could not see the massive sheer drops the road was obviously skirting – the road was described in the guide-book as "not for the faint-hearted", and I was tackling it at night after along day's drive (it was one of the few occasion when I have asked Julie to try and keep me awake).

It was gone 10pm by the time we reached our hotel in Baños, and it turned out to be far from what we had imagined. It was not a luxurious spa hotel in a pretty Apline-style mountain town as the description had led us to believe. It was a dark, badly-maintained, 1960's-style motel in an undistinguished town in a very wet, although admittedly very green valley. We were tired, it was damp and quite cold even at less than 2,000m, and there was no heating or hot water for a shower - we were not happy campers, and camping was just what it felt like. However, as we found in the morning, our room did at least look out over a very pretty waterfall and over one of Baños' thermal pools, albeit unfortunately accommodated in an ugly, garish 1950's-style open-air swimming pool, for which reason alone we decided to give it a miss.

However, I spent a happy couple of hours sitting on the window casement just watching the street-life outside:

All in all quite a bizarre little town.

However, as we had read that Baños was good walking country (most of Ecuador not being at all geared up for hiking), we located an impressive-looking (although as it turned out not particularly accurate) map of the town and the local trails, and headed off – uphill of course. Surprisingly, at only 1,800m above sea level, we had more problems with the altitude than we had had in Quito at 2,850m, and so as the trails were steep we took it very steadily, eventually arriving at a small village at about 2,600m. The valley in which Baños is located is much greener than most of highland Ecuador, and the trail took us through lush vegetation and a huge variety of flowers, and the views over the town and the semi-cultivated surrounding mountains were certainly splendid. We arrived back in Baños mid-afternoon, a little more reconciled to the place after a fine walk, and especially after another choice of vegetarian restaurants, and even (after much remonstrating and threats of moving hotel, etc) hot water.

After the experience of the drive out, we returned to Quito by a more direct route, through a pretty rural valley and with only minor problems of navigation. We ended up our visit with a more relaxed and leisurely time in Quito, staying in an (American-owned and American-orientated, but nevertheless very pretty and pleasant) hotel we had discovered previously, and we rounded it all off by an excellent three-course vegetarian set meal for somewhat less than $1.50. We left feeling quite attached to Ecuador, and vowing to return.

In the airport, we befriended and helped an elderly English-woman who had been holidaying in Ecuador, with similar positive impressions to ours, but who was now struggling with airport bureaucracy and looking rather lost. She was returning, via Caracas, to the Caribbean island of St Vincent where she was (apparently totally unsuccessfully) working for the VSO teaching English at a poor isolated community on the island. She was clearly dreading returning for another year of the racial abuse, cultural deprivation and spartan life-style which was her lot there, and I think she appreciated both the help and the conversation. She had (rashly) not booked any overnight accommodation in Caracas and was understandably panicking somewhat about that, so we invited her to stay with us for the night, throwing in a brief tour of Caracas and help at the airport the following day, for all of which she was almost tearfully grateful. After her description of the island, I think we will think twice before taking up her offer of a visit there.

26 August 1994Back to top

So we arrived back in Caracas to the news (sic! what news?) that Venezuela's economy had not improved a great deal (although to be fair not deteriorated that much either, which is at least something), that our goods from England had still not arrived (no great surprise there either), and that my father had just gone blind in one eye while I was off galavanting around Ecuador. But, nothing daunted, I continued with the seemingly never-ending search for curtains, blinds and shelf-units, all of which, if they exist at all in Caracas, seem to be evading me quite successfully. Some of the simplest things, which we take so much for granted in places like England and Canada, can take forever here, and one forgets just how much consumer choice there is in those countries until ones sees the dearth here, in what is still after all a relatively civilized country. Oh, for an IKEA!

We were treated, if that is the right word, to the biggest and best storm of the season yesterday. I was sitting in the garden reading, on a reasonably unexceptional-looking day, when almost without warning (the clouds had obviously built up behind me while I was toasting my back) the rain started and gradually increased in intensity. Then the wind picked up, as it often does before and during a rainstorm, but this time it just continued picking up and picking up until the rain was slamming horizontally against the picture windows. By now water was coming down in sheets and gusts as though someone upstairs was constantly pouring down huge buckets of water (which would not have unduly surprised me), and still the wind continued to build until the bushes in next door's garden were lying flat in the gusts, only daring to straighten a little in the lulls. Next door's garden furniture started to be thrown around, and our deck-chairs hit the window, luckily with little damage. A palm tree was uprooted next door and threatened to blow over the wall into our garden.

I was by now furiously bailing out and mopping where the water was coming through the window joints and underneath their tracks, and desperately hoping that the windows would hold as they were bowing alarmingly under the pressure of the wind. The storm raged for the best part of an hour, and the next day the flooded streets, fallen tress and broken windows made me glad I had not been caught out in it, frightening as it was in the relative saftey of our home.

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