Still overwhelmed by the rainforest and the Huaoranis, we started early in the morning from Quito to go south. We rented a car and a driver without any guide. Our planned itinerary included the Quilotoa loop, Baños, Riobamba, Guamote, Alausí and finally Cuenca. Then we would take the plane back to Quito and spend one more day in Otavalo, before returning back to Athens.
The Quilotoa loop is defined by a road that circles the Quilotoa crater. It takes about three hours from Quito on the Panamericana to reach Pujili, the point where we diverted and started ascending the Quilotoa volcano. We entered a traditional Andean rural house – really not more than a hut – build of clay, where we took a glimpse at the – not so distanced – past of the everyday life on the Andes. I assume that the house was there for the family to raise some income from passing tourists, although they assured us that grandpa and grandma lived there for most of the time. The hut was really small, one small room, with a small bed, a kitchen bench and a wood stove, no windows and about 200 resident guinea pigs used for heating (!) and food. I bet that this setup was common on the mountains some thirty-forty years ago.
Next stop in Tigua, a small town on the mountain, famous for its painters and artists. The Ecuadorian rural economy seems to be organized around towns that specialize in one thing. Tigua makes art, Otavalo makes textiles, Pelileo makes jeans, there are towns that specialize in leather clothing, ice creams, flowers and so on. I have not seen this pattern to such extend anywhere.
After one-hour drive, in rainy and foggy weather we reached the top of the Quilotoa crater. The view is truly spectacular. The 3-kilometre wide caldera and lake was formed by the collapse of the volcano about 800 years ago. It is one of the rare occasions that I wish I was shooting under a bright sun, as I believe that the muted colors would pop up and offer a unique landscape. Descending to the lake was not easy, as the slope is steep and the ground slippery, so it took about 30 minutes. There was no way we would climb back the slope without a long rest, so we decided to hire four mules to ride back to the top. It felt really weird that the 60-something year old owner of the mules, escorted us to the top, a 20 min challenging climb, while running most of the time. I assume that he does this at least five times per day.
We continued to Baños, a four-hour drive from the top of the loop listening form most of the time to the radio broadcast of the Venezuela-Ecuador world cup qualifier, with Ecuador winning by a landslide. Both our driver and the game speakers were hyper throughout the whole game. If you ever listened to a radio broadcast of Latin American football, you will immediately get the picture.
The hotel in Baños, was clearly below our expectations, the night walk in the town proved a bit boring and the Mexican food we had indifferent. It seemed that Baños does not have much to offer to visitors. The next morning, we received a call from the travel agency that arranged for the car rental that our driver had been beaten and robbed the night before. This was really strange, as the city seemed to be pretty safe. They would send another car to pick us up and drive us to Riobamba, so we spent the whole morning in Baños. By daylight, the town seems to be a lot better. It has some interesting cafes, colorful buildings, a beautiful cathedral, an impressively tall waterfall and a hipster ambience. Frankly, I would not stay here another day, but I could understand why some people spend a whole week here.
It took us about three hours to reach Riobamba and settle in the wonderful Mansion Santa Isabella, in the center. Riobamba is a major city in Ecuador, much larger than Baños, with a beautiful city center and indifferent, if not ugly, surrounding areas. We went out to dinner in a nearby restaurant with Ecuadorian cuisine, which was very well cooked but not something extraordinary. Nights on the Andes are chilly and Riobamba was no exception., with the temperature going down to 5°C. You need the right clothing to feel comfortable and fortunately we were well equipped, but walking in the night streets of Riobamba did not seem like a lot of fun that night. In the early morning we took the rural road to Guamote. After Cajabamba, we stopped to visit Iglesia de Balbanera, the first Catholic church in Ecuador, founded in 1534.
Guamote (pop. 2000) hosts the largest weekly market in all of rural Ecuador, attracting a lot of locals from the whole region that come to buy and sell textiles and clothes, agricultural produce, animals and even electronics or furniture. The people are all dressed in their traditional clothes, colorful dresses, hats and blankets for the cold, a paradise for the visiting photographer. One has to be careful though, because the locals are not particularly thrilled to have their photos taken and they can get under certain circumstances unpleasant. I did not have any problem but they rarely broke a smile and I observed some tension when I was pointing the camera at them.
We continued to Alausí, a beautiful small town further south, where we jumped on the Naris del Diablo train. Alausí is picturesque and very colorful, with well preserved building painted in bright and bold colors.
The Nose of the Devil line is allegedly the most difficult train line in the world and took its name by the hill close to the Sibambe. Around 2’000 slaves that were brought by the Spanish to build the rain line lost their lives here. The half hour train ride from Alausí to Sibambe is essentially tourist trap. The views are beautiful but not spectacular and there are many more locations on the Andes where you can see the same views, without being surrounded by one hundred fellow tourists. I’d skip if I knew better.
Another three hours drive and we reached Cuenca. It was already dark and we were tired so we settled in Hotel Victoria, overlooking the river and had an indifferent dinner in the otherwise beautiful hotel restaurant.
We spent the following day wondering around the streets of Cuenca with an exotic ambiance, a mix between colonial and European. Cozy modern cafés neighbor beautiful 16th century buildings, students on custom bikes blend nicely with women wearing traditional Andean clothes, modern galleries and colonial time museums.
Among the highlights, our visit in the amazing Casa del Sombrero, the tiny but famous shop of Alberto Pulla, the famous panama hatter that covered the heads of presidents and celebrities. Alberto passed away in 2010, but his family still operate the shop. The shopping experience is on a class of its own. Check this blog for more on Alberto’s shop.
Next: Quito & Otavalo