Quito; Chugchilán; Guayaquil
15.03.2015 - 22.03.2015
Don't worry - I am still alive. I've been quite busy recently and in areas with no wifi hence the delay in posting.
My last entry described my last days in Colombia. I arrived at the Ecuador border crossing at the same time as a load of Triumph Spitfires being driven by middle-aged English people. Each car had a list of the countries they had visited emblazoned on its wing, and based on this some of them had been doing nothing but driving around for a very long time - not a bad way to spend your retirement.
From my first few hours in Ecuador, it was clear that they love Jean-Claude van Damme. After being subjected to three of his ridiculous films one after the other on the bus down to the capital, Quito, I went to a restaurant after checking into my hostel to find another one on their telly.
I'd been to Quito before, briefly, and not been overly impressed. It seemed slightly better this time; I walked round the 'old town' area for a couple of hours - nice enough but grubbier and busier than other old towns I'd seen. There were a few photogenic buildings but one day in the city was enough for me, especially given the clock was ticking and I had a lot of miles to cover before reaching my final destination of Trinidad.
During my amble around, a local fellow approached me and started speaking English. After casually explaining he'd lived in Bristol and Liverpool for a few years he quickly became insistent on giving me an unwanted hour-long tour of the city. I told him at least ten times that I didn't want one before he got bored and gave up, calling me 'tight' as he left.
Back at the hostel I had a few beers with Dan & Tara who had coincidentally ended up at the same hostel as me for the second time since Salento. Tara used to represent Lithuania at the high jump and we had a highly competitive few games of table football. On this occasion, English long-ball tactics and steely determination narrowly triumphed over Eastern European technical skill and the ability to leap over high objects.
I was keen to get down to Bolivia so didn't spend much time in Ecuador - about a week as it happened. Before we left Quito, the Lithuanians and I went to visit an Equator landmark an hour or so's trolley bus ride away called Mitad del Mundo. Here were various statues and science/cultural museums, and the world's most disappointing planetarium, but the centrepiece was a 30-metre tall monument straddling a long yellow line that marked the line of zero latitude. Or at least, where they thought it was at the time; modern measurement techniques have shown that the actual equator lay 240m away. This meant that the gimmicky exhibits such as an egg that can supposedly balance on the head of a nail without falling one way or the other not only didn't work but were rather pointless.
The next day we took a bus to a small village a few hours south of the capital called Chugchilán, a popular base for visiting the nearby volcanic lake of Quilotoa. Our hostel served good food and had a games room with table tennis and pool tables, but its common area was hotter than the surface of the sun thanks to its over-zealous wood-burning stove, and you were liable to get hypothermia everywhere else.
Having survived the temperature extremes of our hostel we got a lift over to Quilotoa and took a look round. The lake is about a 280m descent into a 2-mile wide caldera, and it took us an hour or so to get down at a leisurely pace. We got lucky with the weather as it was cloudy before and after we reached the lake, and as we climbed back up to the rim the people we passed would hardly have been able to see it.
We could have taken a bus back but decided to hike back to Chugchilán for five hours, the first part of which involved walking around the rim to the other side of the caldera in such miserable conditions that we couldn't see more than a few metres in front of us. We encountered a local who was happy to guide us part the way (for a small fee, of course).
After a while we passed through a village where we encountered some boisterous children who were clearly very excited to see us, not least because they expected to be given presents. They were fascinated by pictures of themselves on Dan's fancy camera equipment, but found just as much fun in the more simplistic act of yanking the elastic cord on the bottom of my coat and refusing to let go.
As the area is a long way above sea level, it was misty, wet and cold for a large part of our hike, and a lot of it was uphill (including having to climb down and up the other side of the below valley) so it was good to finally get back to our freezing/boiling hostel.
After a well-earned rest we were up at 3.30am to take a series of buses to our next destinations - in my case Guayaquil, in Dan & Tara's the beach resort of Montañita. Unlike me, they are keen water sports enthusiasts (steady), and as well as his photography paraphernalia Dan was carting around 40kg-worth of kitesurfing equipment.
Guayaquil is the largest and most populous city in Ecuador. In my hostel I met a few Argentinian lads who gave me a beer and asked me about Jeremy Clarkson, and a French girl called Melanie with whom I went out for a wander and a couple of drinks in the evening.
One of the most-visited part of Guayaquil is the Malecón 2000 - an area overlooking the Guayas River that as recently as the early 1990s was unsafe and a haven for low-lifes. It has since been regenerated and nowadays it is a very pleasant stroll down its boardwalks past plazas with gardens and sculptures.
At one end of the Malecón is the neighbourhood of Las Peñas. One reason for going there is to climb the 444 numbered steps up the similarly once-dodgy, now regenerated, Cerro Santa Ana - a hard slog in high temperatures. The ascent takes you past various bars and shops and ends at the Plaza de Honores, a square containing a chapel and lighthouse that gives great views over the city.
Closer to my hostel was the pretty Seminario Park, a small square home to a Simon Bolívar statue and dozens of iguanas that are free to roam about as they please.
My objective now was to get down to Bolivia as quickly as possible. The one problem with this was that it meant travelling through Peru, the third biggest country in South America, to get there. I spent an awful lot of time on buses in the next week or so, but I'm still going to tell you all about it... in the next thrilling instalment.