Luke's South American Diary
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January 1999

6 January 1999

I cannot believe that I could do such a thing, but I managed to erase the whole month's entries, and have had to recreate it from my (increasingly bad) memory. I really hope it is worth it.

Cuenca, Ecuador (Ingapirca, Cajas National Park, Chordeleg, Baños)
From what I remember, after a quiet Christmas we had decided to spend New Year away, not with the intention of it being any less quiet, but mainly to meet up with a couple of old friends of ours from Scotland who were spending Christmas and New Year in Ecuador. It seemed like as good an excuse as any to return to a country which we had enjoyed so much the last time we were there, several years ago. We flew via Quito, where we had a long stop-over, and, instead of going off and exploring new worlds and new civilizations as we would once have done at such an opportunity, we meekly accompanied Elena to the nearest playground.

But we later continued our journey to the city of Cuenca in Southern
Photo: Main square, Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
Main square, Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
Ecuador, arriving in a humdinger of a rainstorm. We sloshed our way to our hotel, where after some more or less vitriolic exchanges regarding the water dripping through the ceiling of the first room they offered us, and the tropical heat in the second (which we had no choice but accept in the end), we finally slumped gratefully into bed. It was maybe not the hotel we would have chosen ourselves (we would have preferred something older, smaller, friendlier and cheaper), but as that was where our friends would be staying it made a good deal of sense at the time.

Cuenca is situated at 2,530m above sea level, surrounded by brooding cloud-covered mountains. It is also a very old city, founded by the Spaniards in
Photo: Centre of Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
Centre of Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
1557 on the old Inca and pre-Inca settlement of Tomebamba. There are still a few remnants of the old Inca city, which was apparently the Incas' main administrative centre in Ecuador, but they are by no means impressive. However, it does have a huge number of colonial churches, and a sort of vaguely colonial atmosphere, although colonial architecture is really limited to a few streets with balconied houses. It was not as immediately attractive as we had anticipated, but we found it nevertheless a pleasant place to stroll around, and there were little market places, colourful Indian women in the squares and a pretty tree-lined river to keep us amused.

But as our friends were not arriving until the next day, we decided to make the best use of our time by taking a taxi to Ecuador's most important
Photo: Two types of Inca walls, Ingapirca, near Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
Two types of Inca walls, Ingapirca, near Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
and impressive Inca ruins, two hours north at Ingapirca. Despite the unprepossessing weather, the scenery en route was splendid, and having climbed inexorably up to a high pass we then proceeded to drop down (back down to 3,160m!) into the isolated valley where the ruins were to be found. The complex of ruins is dominated by the main structure which looks something like a beached ship perched on the hill top, faced in fine Inca masonry. It looks like a fortress of some sort, although it was more likely a solar observatory. Although unimpressive by Peruvian standards, it was nevertheless an interesting place to potter around, and we complemented it with a rather breathless stroll along a trail down near the river, past the ubiquitous "Face of the Inca" rock formations, and a few other archaeological remnants.

Our friends, Phil and Verna, arrived in Cuenca that night (apparently after having visited the Ingapirca site just a few hours after us in a deluge of rain), and were rather taken aback that we were not able to stay up all night catching up on about ten years of gossip - when we knew them, we did not a have a tired and irritable small child. But over the next few days we had plenty of time to do the catching up, and as they were with an organized trip of British ramblers and their itinerary in the area closely resembled our own, we managed (as we had hoped, even relied on) to muscle in on their tour. Although the people were very pleasant and friendly (apart from the obligatory grumpy old lady and the retired-colonel-type tour leader), it nevertheless reminded us why we normally try to avoid such organised trips - we found the level of regulation and discipline (admittedly necessary with a largish group) too inflexible and stifling - but we were nonetheless very grateful for being allowed to tag along.

Photo: Panama hats, Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
Panama hats, Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
We spent the next day or so pottering around the town, and also on short trips to a Panama hat factory (something we would almost certainly never have done on our own, but actually surprisingly interesting) and to a private anthropological museum (where Julie tried to stay interested in the ramblings of the rather over-enthusiastic owner, while I tried to keep a restless Elena as far away as possible. On the following day, the group was bussed out through some fine scenery to a couple of nearby attractions, which rather disappointed us (we realized that we somewhat spoilt by the pretty towns of Colombia). Gualaceo had little to recommend itself other than a vaguely interesting market, and Chordeleg
Photo: Scenery, near Gualaceo, near Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
Scenery, near Gualaceo, near Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
was even less appealing, despite (or possibly because of) store after store selling the local speciality of filigree silverwork. However, it was nice being able to walk between the two villages, without having to walk back the same way. Even the visit to an orchid nursery did not have quite the same attraction for us as for the others - we have seen so many orchids in South America that the novelty has worn off a little, and anyway some of the orchids for sale there are common road-side flowers around Bogotá.

All of the above took us to New Years Eve, and we started to see the local customs being enacted. We had seen piles of life-sized sawdust-filled
Photo: Cañari girls, Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
Cañari girls, Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
figures for sale on street corners, along with masks of local and national politicians (mingled bizarrely with cartoon characters), and as darkness started to fall on the last day of the year, these manikins, known as "el hombre viejo" and representing the old year, started to go up in flames on the streets. It was rather disconcerting to see people wandering around the streets with a potentially disastrous mixture of gasoline, fireworks, alcohol and matches, and although the shenanigans were all quite good-natured at this point (even the impromptu roadblocks on the streets demanding more or less compulsory contributions), we could imagine the scene later in the night become a little more wild and a little more intimidating. Call us middle aged, but by 9pm we were all tucked up in bed, and only the increased volume of fireworks signalled the New Year for us. Early the next morning, as Elena and I wandered through the town, the remains of the old year were still smouldering in the streets, although we were almost the only beings moving at that time.

Photo: Pasada del Niño Viajero, Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
"Pasada del Niño Viajero", Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
We also caught glimpses at least of another Christmas and New Year tradition of the area, the "Pasada del Niño Viajero", where large family groups form parades on foot and on decorated floats, and the kids dress up to represent Christmas and other Biblical scenes (and also other scenes depending on what dressing up clothes are available!). Sequins and glitter are to the fore, and in conjunction with the other local tradition of dressing up horses and donkeys with all manner of symbols of abundance (fruits, bottles of booze, sweets, etc), the little Indian kids made a colourful and lively display. Apparently the parades go on for most of December and January these days.

When the New Year hangovers had worn off a little, our final (and, for me at least, the best) trip out with group, was to nearby Cajas National Park,
Photo: Cajas National Park, near Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
Cajas National Park, near Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
situated 3,500-4,500m up on the high páramo, just an hour or so from Cuenca. Once again the approach was spectacular, through huge valleys, and past rock-crowned mountains. Our main goal was Laguna Torreadora, one of over 230 lakes scattered throughout the park, but on the way we stopped off for a short walk to acclimatize ourselves to the altitude a little. It served as a good introduction to the vegetation of the páramo, which as always looks stark and barren from a distance, but close up is bejeweled with a huge variety of tiny alpine flowers. By the time we had reached a small black lake, some of the group (whose average age was well above our own) had decided that maybe the longer walk was not for them, not at that altitude.

Among those electing not to walk were Elena and a long-suffering Julie, and they apparently spent their time pottering around near the lake and
Photo: Cajas National Park, near Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
Cajas National Park, near Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
playing Pooh Sticks in the mountain streams. The rest of us set off from the lake at 3,850m above sea level and, after rounding the lake and climbing a little to a pass, headed down the valley before joining up with the old road to Cuenca. The going was not actually that difficult and few people had problems with the altitude. As well as taking us past viewpoints over the surrounding peaks and strings of gloomy-looking lakes, the trail went through a couple of isolated groves of miniature gnarled old trees, which the literature insisted on calling "enchanted forests" or "fairy glades" (actually because of the contorted shapes of the trees and the undergrowth of spongy bright-green moss and lichens, there was something quite magical about it, especially surrounded by such harsh and austere scenery). After four hours easy walking we arrived back to a grubby but contented Elena

On the way back we stopped off at one of the many shrines scattered throughout South America which purport to celebrate miracles or visions. Elena showed us what a good Catholic she is becoming by insisting on laying flowers on the Virgen María (as she insists on calling her), and impressing the locals by singing some appropriate songs. By virtue of her rather devout school, she is actually being brought up in the faith despite our best efforts to the contrary.

Our last night was disturbed to say the least. On the way to our favourite Mexican restaurant (one of the few which seemed to have been willing to open over the New Year period), we were swinging Elena between us, it being almost the only way to get her from A to B after she had decided that she had done quite enough walking for one holiday. Suddenly, she howled in pain, and we spent the rest of the evening treating her delicately, but still not quite sure whether she was in pain or not, and if so how much. We gave her half a Tylenol to help her sleep and hoped that things would be better in the morning.

When she woke in the middle of the night, obviously still in a lot of pain, we did what we should probably have done in the first place, that is, call a hospital. So, with siren wailing through the deserted streets, we arrived at the hospital, where a bone specialist was duly called out of bed, and informed us that she had completely dislocated her elbow. The treatment was quick and apparently painless, and after paying the embarrassingly small fee (about $50 for X-ray, expert and drugs), and we left rather more quietly than we had arrived and feeling suitably sheepish.

On our last morning, our friends having departed for the rest of their tour, we booked another taxi to take us to some other local attractions
Photo: Market, Girón, near Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
Market, Girón, near Cuenca, Ecuador. Jan 99.
rather than sitting around in Cuenca waiting for our flight back home. We headed for Girón which, if not as picturesque as the guide book had led us to believe, was at least a very typical, unspoilt mountain town, with its market, and beautiful green countryside, and we felt that not too many tourists make it there, which still has a certain frisson. On the way back to Cuenca, we stopped off at Baños (not the big Baños we had visited several years before, but a small town in the hills above Cuenca), which boasts a lovely blue wedding cake of a church, with a rather arresting painted marble interior, and a couple of pretty resort hotels using the 75°C waters of the hot springs of the area.

All in all, the trip had been enjoyable even if not extraordinary. Elena had been thoroughly spoilt once again, although she had acquitted herself generally well, and had trudged many kilometres around the town with us without too much complaining. We had parted company with our tour group like old friends, and even the retired colonel (actually he had never been in the military, although I think he may have missed his vocation) had a good word to say about Elena.

31 January 1999 Back to top

After Ecuador, Julie had lots of travelling to catch up with and I was back on Elena duties, especially as Chirle was off sick for a week. After a short-lived and unconvincing phase of timidity, Elena was back to her normal gregarious approach to life. In fact, we were almost coming to rely on her thrusting herself shamelessly at other girls in order to get through parties, weddings and the like without too much angst. If a "big girl" agrees to play with her she is clearly in seventh heaven, and if they do not she will just stand there beaming at them until they relent. Remembering how closed and painfully shy I was as a child, I am all for this approach. She is much more reticent with boys, and I approve of this too, knowing how obnoxious boys are in general. Her return to school did not magically check her tantrums, but with a few well-chosen chastisements, we managed to muddle through.

Tenza Valley, Colombia (Tenza, Embalse de Chivor, Páramo de Guasca)
In fact, I did even manage a very pleasant day-trip with her. Provided one is willing to keep up a sufficient level of idle banter and Disney-based role-playing, Elena is actually quite happy to sit in a car, even for quite long periods. On this understanding we drove off northwards one day,
Photo: Scenery, near Guateque, Boyacá, Colombia. Jan 99.
Scenery, near Guateque, Boyacá, Colombia. Jan 99.
breakfasted at our favourite little country restaurant by the pretty Embalse de Sisga, and then turned off eastwards into new territory. With stops at pretty well every village playground we passed, and some strategic dangling of carrots ("We can fly the kite when we reach the lake", etc), we deeper headed into the splendid mountain scenery we had so often seen from the main road on our trips up to Boyacá. Through deep valleys and past jagged uplifted (and uplifting) mountains, a relatively good road took us to Guateque on the Cundinamarca-Boyacá border, and then the landscapes opened up still further, and little white and terracotta villages could be seen dotted around the grassy slopes of the mountainsides, dwarfed by the sheer scale of the hills.

Photo: Tenza, Boyacá, Colombia. Jan 99.
Tenza, Boyacá, Colombia. Jan 99.
Although Guateque was nothing special, a bumpy stony road took us down to Tenza, at a balmy 1,540m above sea level. Tenza proved to be a little hidden gem, well off the tourist trail. Its steep streets were lined with pretty white and green houses with pantiled roofs, and the main square was a riot of color. The majority of the locals wore traditional dress, although the ruana (the short local version of the poncho) was generally to be seen folded and carried over the shoulder, as the midday sun was fiercely hot.

Photo: Embalse de Chivor, Boyacá, Colombia. Jan 99.
Embalse de Chivor, Boyacá, Colombia. Jan 99.
After a short detour to uninteresting Garagoa, we descended back into the main valley and the impressive Embalse de Chivor to fly that kite. The surrounding hills here were steep and rocky, and the long narrow reservoir in its deep gorge made a dramatic location for some less-than-successful kite-flying. We drove a little way along the lake, through a couple of rocky tunnels, before heading back along the deep Somondoco valley towards Guateque. After a roadside stop for freshly-baked arepas, Elena was still in fine fettle, so I decided to push the boat out a little and take a little-used back-road back in the general direction of Bogotá. By this time clouds were starting to roll in, after the beautifully clear weather of the morning, and
Photo: Manta, Boyacá, Colombia. Jan 99.
Manta, Boyacá, Colombia. Jan 99.
after passing through the pretty little village of Manta, we were soon climbing way up into those clouds, and the dramatic views were lost in cloud, mist and drizzle.

Cresting the Páramo de Guasca, on a very bad rocky road on which Elena somehow managed to fall asleep (I had to wedge her head in her car-seat with sweaters to stop it flopping around as the car yawed and bumped its way through the ruts and craters!), we dropped down once more to relative civilization at Gachetá. I could see that the views were vast, but it was now too misty and cloudy to make out just what the views were. From Gachetá to Guasca, which could be considered real civilization, (Gachetá had the distinct feel of an isolated mountain town - Guasca, just an hour away, is very much part of the Sabana of Bogotá), we passed through thick fog with about 5m of visibility, and yet more beautiful mountain scenery, before the home strait back into Bogotá itself. Elena seemed to have quite enjoyed herself, and at the same time she had allowed me to visit a beautiful and quite isolated part of the country. I am sure that a year, or even just a few months, ago she would never have done so, and I was suitably appreciative.

Villa de Leiva, Colombia (Cañon de Iguaque)
We also made yet another trip to Villa de Leiva with a Canadian friend who was visiting, and it seems that however many times we go there we never tire
Photo: Cañon de Iguaque, Boyacá, Colombia. Jan 99.
Cañon de Iguaque, Boyacá, Colombia. Jan 99.
of its peaceful atmosphere, and there is always something new to explore in its vicinities. This time for instance, (as well as the standard tour of El Fossil, El Infiernito and Monasterio Ecce Homo), we drove down a little side track to the edges of the Santuario de Iguaque which looms up behind the town, parts of which I had visited with my sister a year ago. From there we walked up a rocky path which led along the pretty Cañon de Iguaque, through shady glades and miniature grassy meadows, and between the much more arid rocky mountains towering on either side. We did not walk for long, (Elena in particular found clambering over the large rocks and rough, irregular steps understandably tiring - she is only half our size after all), but it was a lovely spot to take a little fresh air, and to witness the lovely views higher up.

On the way back we also stopped off at a local winery to taste the product.
Photo: Doorway, Villa de Leiva, Boyacá, Colombia. Jan 99.
Doorway, Villa de Leiva, Boyacá, Colombia. Jan 99.
We had tried it before and knew that it was not a great wine (to put it politely!), but the people were so pleasant and made us so welcome that we actually thoroughly enjoyed sitting in their tranquil garden for an hour or so, and seeing the owner's new machinery and storage facilities, of which he was obviously so proud. So at home had we felt in Villa de Leiva once again that we even discussed the practicalities of setting up a bed and breakfast operation there, although I am still not sure just how seriously we were talking about it.

All news in Colombia has taken second place to the recent disaster in and around Armenia in the Zona Cafetera, where I had been travelling with Chris just a year ago. A 6+ earthquake flattened the city, and over 700 were killed and most of the rest either injured or made homeless. The national and worldwide rescue and aid efforts which were announced within hours of the tremor have predictably been running into obstacles, the coffee crop is at best uncertain, and rioting and looting is the order of the day as I write - just another kick in the teeth that Colombia can ill afford in these already troubled times. Julie, who was on the ground floor at the time of the earthquake, said she felt it quite strongly 150km away here in Bogotá. I was up on the 8th floor, and did not even notice it! Again! Either I have a good sense of balance, or I am just plain unobservant and insensitive. Our thanks to the many who e-mailed us to check on our welfare.

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