Category Archives: Ecuador

Scene from Sigsig

Years ago I spent an afternoon in a small town called Sigsig, about 60 km from Cuenca, in Ecuador. You could read a little about that experience in my blog post here. At that time of writing, I was on the road and didn’t have the chance to upload this photo, which to me perfectly captured the mood of that afternoon: a lady in a white bowler hat, a little shop with a signage that reminded me of of the name of a friend who was 10,000 miles away, and the slanted afternoon sun.

Sisig Photo

Funny isn’t it, that our memories can be carved in a particular standstill of a moment even though what we had experienced was really much more fluid.

Last year, I decided to take up oil painting. That scene has now been transported on to canvas in July!

Sisig Painting

 

A Contented Traveller (part 2)

Top Experiences

Many people have asked me which is my favourite place on this trip, and believe me it is very difficult to pinpoint one! The emotions, encounters and weather at that place at a particular time or season also affects the entire experience. So how about I give it a go with “Great Experiences” instead? And this time, with photos.

In no particular order:

1. The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

There may be a bit of bias with this choice since the Galapagos had been my dream islands for years. But many people whom I later met and who had also been there couldn’t get enough of it either, so I really don’t think I’m over-hyping this. Apart from being pampered on a relaxing cruise and visiting pristine islands where animals frolick about in their daily activities oblivious to the snap-happy human visitors, the climate was another surprising factor: not too hot and not too cold in July. The scenery was also more beautiful than I had expected.

It would be a mistake just to use mainland Ecuador as a hop-over point to the Galapagos: Ecuador is a beautiful country with warm & friendly people and relatively good infrastructure. As a visitor, the biggest observation is how family-oriented Ecuadorians are. I did not encounter any difficulty at all travelling solo in Ecuador.

 

Isla Santa Fe, Galapagos

Galapagos wildlife. From bottom left (clockwise):Galapagos penguin, land iguana, blue-footed boobies, sea lion, giant tortoise

 

Foreground: tiquila cacti. Background: Volcan la Cumbre. At Punta Espinosa, Isla Fernandina


2. San Pedro de Atacama & around, Chile

The Atacama Desert is one of the driest in the world and is prime spot for star gazing, both for professional astronomers and amateurs. You could see the Desert from the bus on the way from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama (San Pedro). I loved how San Pedro itself does not have paved roads, preserves the older adobe houses made of mud & cactus branch with little roofing and only minimal street lights at night. During the day, the town itself is a base for venturing into the outlying natural wonders and those that I’ve visited include: Valle de la Luna, Valle de Muerte, Piedra del Coyote, the Altiplano lagoons, Salar de Atacama and El Tatio Geyser. At night, just lift up your head and you are treated to more spectacular wonders even with just the naked eye: the cloudless night sky is the perfect canvas for the milky way and the planets of the solar system.

Although San Pedro and the outlying sights are very popular with tourists, the town itself is still very laid-back and a nice place to relax and chill. One simply could not say the same of other popular tourists sites.

 

 

Top: Laguna Chaxa Bottom: Salar de Atacama

Top: Volcano Putana Bottom: church at Macucha Village

 

3. Salar de Uyuni & Reserva Fauna Andina Eduardo, Bolivia

This region is one of the most visited places in Bolivia, and with good reason too. I went during dry season and the expanse of the salt flat’s whiteness stretches far beyond the horizon. You would think it is a snow-covered desert, except that if you lick the ground you will know it is not.  This region is also rather close to Calama and San Pedro de Atacama of Chile, so there are some similarities in landscape, but there are simply no two identical lagoons, geysers, mountains or salt flats; both regions are rugged and dramatic in their own way. A lot of the sights on the Bolivian side are on higher altitude and are not accessible by paved roads, so travel by land-rovers/jeeps are absolutely necessary. Expect an adventure when in Bolivia; you won’t be disappointed.

Sadly too, the Bolivian side lacks proper management and the environment runs the risk of being overburdened. The social atmosphere of the region in the two countries is also very different and if you have the time to spare, you should still try to visit both. Money should no longer be an issue as you would have expended so much just to get this part of the world that in fact, it makes more sense to visit both. Border crossing by land from Bolivia to Chile and vice versa in this region is possible and can usually be done within half/1 day.

 

Photo taken on Isla Incahuasi. In the background, the Uyuni salt flats.

Near Laguna Canapa

 

4.Flying above the Andes in South America

Secondary school level Geography hardly serves any practical purpose in most people’s adult life. But stripped of all the dry facts that one is forced to commit to memory for exams are glimpses into age-old, far-flung, exotic places that are nature’s greatest gifts.  Even though Geography text books then hardly came with much photos, learning about the Andean range left a deep imprint in this ex-school girl’s mind.

While it is a lot cheaper to travel in South America by bus (especially if you have the time to spare), I would certainly recommend flying some legs. Conveniently, my round-the-world ticket allowed me to fly quite a few segments in South America, and the domestic flights in some countries are very reasonably-priced. The view over the jagged peaks of the Andes – the spine of South America that stretches from the south in Chile all the way to the north in Columbia & Venezuela – evokes a sense of humbled awe, high-spirited imagination or just simply more wonderful day dreams.

 

Chilean Andes

Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador

 


5. Scotland, UK

Scotland itself has so much to offer, so justifiably I should have a sub-category of “great experiences”! It is one of the few places on this trip that I would like to visit again, not least because it is closer (more or less 13 hours flight), but also because there are other parts of Scotland that I’ve yet to explore.

On this trip, I would say some of the best moments are:

(1) Walking through glens and along the lochs and simply just enjoying the fresh air & scents from trees & flowers.

 

Top: Glencoe Lochan Bottom: Glenfinnan

 

(2) Rocky boat ride to Islet of Staffa – Fingal’s Cave. It was costly to travel to Staffa, but the sight of the hexagonal basalt columns rising vertically out of the emerald waters is worth it. And dolphins somehow never fail to cheer people up even in bad weather. Would have loved to spend more time on the islet if the weather had permitted. Not the season for puffins-sighting, but was already very contented with the visit.

 

Walking on islet of Staffa

 

Hexagonal basalt columns rising out of emerald waters to form this Fingal's Cave.

(3) Driving around & exploring Isle of Skye. Skye is rated by National Geographic as one of the best islands in the world for sustainable tourism. Do not expect resorts a la Banyan Tree style – this does not Skye maketh. Instead, look forward to rugged dramatic natural beauty.

 

and last but not least,

(4) Chatting with friendly down-to-earth Scots!

 

Thistle, national flower of Scotland

Of course, this list of “Great Experiences” is non-exhaustive. The list of wonderful places that I have been to on this 4-month trip goes on, including the Great Ocean Road in Australia, Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, Lake Titicaca in both Peru & Bolivia, the great Machu Picchu as well as all the people I’ve met who made up the entire experience.

Till the next trip. Right now, my heart is warm & contented.

May I wish everyone of you find and pursue your dream adventures. Happy travels!

09.08.10 – Leaving the land of the Andes

Happy birthday, Singapore!

Oh by the way, today I flew from Antofagasta to Santiago, where I now wait for the flight to Madrid.

Outside the embarkation lounge, the pink hues of the setting sun is reflecting brilliantly off the snow-capped mountains.

Fare thee well, oh mighty Andes, I had the pleasure of seeing your many faces, ranging through four different countries. Hope to see you again, soon.

A tale of travel

Watched a quirky Ecuadorean movie titled Que tan lejos, or “How much further”. The story is about 2 girls who meet on a bus that was travelling from Quito to Cuenca. Half way through, the bus journey was cut short due to a strike and road block, and the girls had to find alternative ways of continuing on to Cuenca. On the way, they meet interesting characters.

Although I managed to avoid roadblocks during my travels in South America, and my experiences were somewhat different from the heroines’, still, the movie’s dialogue – at times funny, at times brilliant – struck a chord with me. Like how one of the heroines mentioned that she carries her guide book only for security, so that if she is lost, she can always look into it for directions. And how she always carries tampons in her bag because what with the weather and emotions, one really never knows.

And watching the sceneries of Ecuador on film brought back memories of my own trip!

16.07-17.07.10 – Quito-Lima-Cusco; around Cusco – Sacred Valley

Caught a flight out of Quito to Cusco with a connection in Lima.

First impression I got was: how come so many people speak English to me? I want to practise Spanish!

Another first impression of Cuzco was how dry and ungreen it was during winter with the mercernary feel in the air; maybe there are just too many shops catered to tourists. Anyhow, I spent the good remaining part of daylight shopping around for the upcoming days’ excursions. There are countless tour agencies in Cusco so you can always reach here and shop around.

While planning for this Andean dream trip, I had purposefully avoided the Inti Raymi on 24 June – the ancient tradition of celebrating the winter solstice – just so I can avoid the hordes of tourists. But Cusco – used to be called Cosco which means “centre” in kwichua – today thrives on tourists. Coming from Quito old town where nothing much happens at night, Cusco may seem like a night owl’s paradise in comparison.

By nightfall, Cusco’s old town looked a lot prettier with lights-shone historic buildings and bustling energy.

The next day, I joined a tour to the Valle Sagrada (Sacred Valley), so called for the Incan’s reverance for astronomy and how the landscape correlates to the milky way. I’m not a fan of tours, but it was really cheap and covered the main sites that I wanted to go, which would have cost me a lot more in terms of transport and traveling time if I went on my own. As the bus winds up the slopes out of Cusco city, I caught a glimpse of the ruins at Sacsahuaman against the densely populated city of Cusco.

And once on the road I started to appreciate the dry stark beauty of the highlands in this part of the world in this season. The three main sites we went to were Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Chincero.

At Pisac, the main attraction that differs from any other sites is the Incan cementery, which are crevices on rocky overhangs that look like pigeon holes in the mountain from afar. Mummified bodies were carried up there to be “buried”, although I can’t seem to see a trail. Apart from that, Pisac is spectacular for its terraces and ruins of what used to be a temple. It is not a difficult climb to the top of the ruins from where you can get a good view, but coming down on a healing ankle was quite a chore, although a good samaritan kindly stayed close to me.

Whilst leaving Pisac, saw a local festival with people wearing their traditional costumes and masks. Could did this be the Fiesta Virgen del Carmen that I read about?

Lunch was at Urubamba, and from there more winding road journey to Ollantaytambo. But don’t nap on the bus because the view on the way is gorgeous.

The Ollantaytambo ruins is interesting and the climb up is worth it for the views. If you have time, spend it too in the village that is the last Incan town to be conquered by the Spaniards, who were oblivious to the existence of Macchu Picchu.

Thereafter, it was an hour’s drive to Chincero, and the view along the way – partly because it was close to sunset – is nothing short of incredible. The tour ended with a stop in the old town Chincero and its church, where you get to see the fusion of catholicism and the local quechuan culture.

15.07.10 – Cuenca to Quito

Spent the morning in Cuenca, checking out the morning market and a medicine history museum, which is right next to a hospital.

Thereafter took a taxi up to the Mirador al Turi for a panaromic view of Cuenca, which looked a lot denser than from down there on the streets.

Grabbed lunch and went to the Cuenca airport. In the midst of the last ditch attempt to shop, I became the last person to board the plane!

Bidded farewell to Cuenca and its laidback, pretty atmosphere and pleasant weather.

13.07 – 14.07.10 – day trips out of Cuenca: Ingapirca ruins, Gualaceo, Chordeleg, Sisig

On my second and third day in Cuenca, I took buses out to some nearby towns. The views along the way are pastoral and lovely, with picturesque villages and patchwork-like fields dotting across the green Andean range, rivers cradling the Azuay region, catching a glimpse of a young child dragging a pig one and a half times’ his size, and women weaving the sombreros that are so ubiquitous in this part of the world.

(I)

The first place I went to was the Ingapirca ruins of one of the Incan empires. The ruins are about 2 hours by bus from Cuenca and easily accessible by bus run by Canar at fixed times (US$2.50 each way), so there is really no need to buy a day tour. Wasn’t expecting to be wowed since most of the ancient Incan ruins in Ecuador have already been destroyed due to Incan civil wars. But given the entrance fee (US$6 for foreigners) I’d expected better signages to explain what the sites were, and believe me it is really difficult to tell from the present-day archaelogical remains. Although guides were available, guides’ explanations are given in groups and it is the luck of the draw of whether the group at any given time is Spanish or English-speaking. Nonetheless, I had a good time just strolling around, picking up bits and pieces of explanations here and there, and taking in the sights with a giant leap of imagination of what the place might have been like. Maybe it is the beautiful sceneries surrounding such archaeological sites (so far have been to two in and around Cuenca), but I can’t help but believe that perhaps the Incans really knew how to choose a fengshui spot for their important sites. Hope to learn more when I’m in Peru.

The trip to Ingapirca took almost the whole day even though the archaelogical site itself isn’t that big, partly because the bus leaves at fixed times. Had a late lunch cum dinner when I got back to Cuenca, and more photo-taking of the historic centre of this UNESCO world heritage site city.

In the evening, I caught a Donizetti opera – L’elisir d’amor – produced by the faculty of arts of the University of Cuenca. The libretti are in French and the subtitles are in Spanish, but comic is universal. Also, the young leads were pretty good, especially the soprano and one of the baritones.

Walked back to the hostal at 10.30 in the rain as the old city glistens beautifully under the night lights.

(II)

The next day, I took a bus, first to Gualaceo. Nothing particularly interesting in this town, although it somehow reminds me of those towns in the old Western movies. Saw an indigeneous woman barbecueing guinea pigs, but skipped that and went to the restaurant further down for a US$2 three-course set lunch.

And as I travelled further on to Chordeleg, the old Western feel just further cemented itself: dry and a bit dusty, with shopfronts supported by wooden porches. Most of the shops around the main plaza are joyerias, or jewellery shop, selling silver pieces which the town is supposedly famous for. There is also a couple of interesting handicrafts shops. Was looking for a spondylus seashell piece for keepsake, but didn’t find anything that could make me commit. Still, window shopping just around the plaza itself (which is not big) took a good 2 hours. I trust female readers would understand.

Thereafter, I caught the bus and went further south to yet another town called Sisig. Somehow found this town more interesting than the first two and had a good time strolling around even though I didn’t have much chance to interact with the local indigenous people, who carried on with their lives, oblivious (?) to the odd snap-happy tourist. Sat by a roadside stall for an afternoon empanada snack and watched the laidback town go by.

By the time I finished my excursion of the day and got back to Cuenca, it was almost 7pm. Again, it was raining in the evening. Discovered an upmarket restaurant that served a very yummy seafood rice at a very reasonable price. Felt very contented with my day.