Travels in Ecuador & the Galapagos




 We traveled throughout Ecuador by bus, which is cheap, but somewhat hair-raising. Ecuadorean bus drivers are nerveless and dedicated to the proposition that there is only one rule of the road - might makes right. They pass on all blind bends, preferably on mountain roads with 1000' precipices the only alternative route. The cost is about a dollar an hour. Apart from the very rich, everybody travels by bus. It takes about nine hours to get from the largest city, Guayaquil, on the southern coastal plain, to the capitol, Quito, high in the Andes.



Though much of Quito is like any modern capitol, the historic centre is a world heritage site with lots of well preserved examples of colonial Spanish architecture. Refreshingly, though the historic buildings are a tourist attraction, there are virtually no shops selling souvenirs or bric-a-brac, just ordinary shops of all kinds, being patronised by ordinary Ecuadoreans. Many of the buildings are still used by the Church, others have become museums, but many others were still in use both for commercial and residential purposes. There are a lot of tourists in Ecuador and it is an important source of foreign exchange for the country, but we found that the kind of tourism and perhaps the kind of tourist have not had the overwhelming impact that you see in places like Mexico. What's more, even in Quito, it is possible to live cheaply. A simple double room with shower cost $14 a night, dinner for two, $12. Though there were the usual tales of tourist muggings, the streets of the central area felt quite safe, at least during the day and in the early evenings.


Further into the Andes, about two hours by bus from Quito, is Otovalo. The area is renowned for the crafts produced by the local indigenous people. In this case, these people have turned what was ruthless exploitation during the colonial period to their advantage. Originally the population were used as workers spinning and weaving the local wool from both sheep and alpaca. The tradition of these crafts has now earned the local Indians a world-wide reputation for their fabrics and garments. As well as making the town one of the most prosperous Indian communities in the South America. The huge market in the town attracts large numbers of tourists and others. Most of the women who work in the market wear traditional dress, though the girls sometimes augment this with walkman earphones to pass the time between customers and others work at computers in the internet café - still in their traditional clothes. True to this contrast, while Vicky bought examples of local crafts, Tom couldn't resist buying a handcrafted Casio programable calculator, which he'd been unable to find in Quito.


Vicky was determined that we should climb Cotopaxi - or at least a little bit of it. In fact, we drove most of the way up in a 4x4 to about 4,500 metres. We then walked or crawled the last 300 metres of altitude to the glacier line, huffing and puffing very slowly all the way. As Cotopaxi is a volcano the surface is mostly sand and ash, so it is a bit like climbing a very steep beach. For the equator it is also cold and windy. The proper climbers, who actually go to the top, do so at night because the ice is too dangerous to climb during the much warmer days.


From Quito we went on to Banos, a small town perched on the cliff edge of a gorge running through spectacular scenery among volcanoes, mostly passive, but one active. There are waterfalls and mini-gorges everywhere. In Banos we hired mountain bikes and rode the 60 kms. to Puyo, which is on the western edge of Amazonia. During the ride you lose about 1000 metres of altitude - but the trip is by no means all down hill! The road skirts the gorge, alarmingly at times, where they are building tunnels, but the gravel road still runs along cuts in the cliff face. It was fascinating to see the changes in ecology between the Andes and Amazonia in such a short distance. We also discovered that Sunstone's fame has even spread to the Amazon basin! Fortunately for us, we could throw the bikes on the top of a bus for the trip back to Banos.




The next stop was Riobamba, where we caught one of the few trains left in Ecuador. It only carries tourists, because it doesn't really go anywhere, but the ride is spectacular, which is why most people ride on the roof. With the very narrow gauge, we couldn't help but wonder what angle of heel would take the little train beyond its angle of vanishing stability. 'Maintenance' is not a word for which it is easy to find an equivalent in an Ecuadorean dictionary. Buses run until they break down and railways run until the tracks fall apart. At one point the track makes its way down a cliff face, the Devil's Nose, which is so steep that the train has to go back and forth through a series of switchbacks to reach the bottom.




Our visit to Cuenca was a peaceful interlude amongst all this adventuring. It is a pretty town with some beautiful buildings. Though there are some tourists, you get the feeling that the town gives a more accurate picture of Ecuadorean metropolitan life than Quito. Its markets are clearly orientated to local needs and interests, but in many ways were more varied and colourful than those we had seen elsewhere.

Puerto Lucia YC

Our base for over two months was the Puerto Lucia Yacht Club Marina in Salinas. Like most such places in Central and South America, it is something of a gilded cage, divorced from the normal life of the community that surrounds it. Security men outnumber the boats, the facilities were good and we got a lot of work done on the boat, in preparation for our trip to the far south of Chile. The boat next to Sunstone is White Haze, a Robert Clark design, owned by Akko and Ada, a Dutch couple who arrived from Easter Island, southern Chile and Antarctica. We exchanged info with them as they were heading to Alaska. It was appropriate that we should meet at the equator.




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