Sunday, January 9, 2011

Banos to Puyo 2 - drenched...

I started off early again because I knew I had 35 to 36 kms to cover to Puyo and several long hikes. The main trail covered a series of 8 waterfalls. The first 7 you had to scramble over rocks, through lush green forests with barely existent trails to get to them. The last waterfall was more built up, and had a fairly developed trail of ladders and walkways down the mountain to get its base. The waterfall itself was amazing. It had two levels pouring into dark green pools of water at its base. I found a place to sit and eat some snacks.

After finishing the trail, my main bike ride began. I switched on some Rammstein and Pantera for the energy in the challenging uphill ride ahead, my leg still hurting from yesterdays accident. About an hour into the trail, it started raining. I kept going. In a few hours, I found a place to eat in the tiny town of Rio Negro. The sun had broken the rain for a bit, and it seemed like it was clearing up. I forgot that I was leaving the highlands and heading towards the rainforest. After Rio Negro, it started raining... harder, and then pouring. For the next two hours, rains slashed down the trail and road reducing visibility. I took shelter under trees for a bit before realizing it wasnt really helping, and just plowed through, climbing hills and racing down mountains, the lush countryside obscured by thick fog. Finally, the rain broke and made it the last 12 kms to Puyo, dripping with rain and sweat.

The trail was done, and as for me, I feel like another adventure... after a nap.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Banos to Puyo 1 - What a day...

Today I covered 25 kms on bike, 10 kms on foot (up and down mountains). I´m sunburnt, bruised, bleeding, and sleeping in a hotel that´s still under construction. Man, backpacking is awesome.

The day started out early. I got up around 7 am to start hiking and headed to the trail to Bellavista Mirador, up one of the mountains overlooking the tourist trap of Banos (but jumping off point for some off-trial adventures). At the overlook, you see an incredible view of Banos, sheltered by lush green hills and a snow-capped volcano in the distance. I continued up the trail to the small village of Runtun. On the way down, there was several large groups of school children heading up for a special English class. A few of the teachers stopped to ask me directions, laughing that they were asking directions from the sunburnt gringo on the trail. The long lines of kids would have give me high fives (or rather low-fives since they were so short) as they passed me. There were also several groups of stragglers, kids around 9 or 10, lagging behind on the long, hot trek up the mountain. They also stopped to ask me how to the get to the school, and for a few precious moments, we chatted in Spanish about their English class and I gave them directions up the trail. It was probably the first and only time I will ever be asked for directions from Ecuadorians, in Ecuador.

I made my way down the rest of the trail to the Virgin Mary overlook, and then returned to Banos to prep for my bike trip. I grabbed a quick lunch of cuy or guinea pig from a local stall. Stacks of the guinea pigs lay on the grill, including several on sticks. It never ceases to amaze me how, even in a tourist trap like Banos, you can quickly leave the beaten path and find local stores and vendors, which offer more authentic experience for less money (and with better food).

Finally, I was ready to set off on the Banos to Puyo bike trail. It would take too long to describe everything on the trail, but here are a few highlights.

At Mano de Novia, a gorgeous double waterfall, I took a small, rickety cable car to the top of the waterfalls and a small village. They had a tiny fishing pond, and two local women caught one of the fish for my second lunch. I took it to go, and then hiked down to the bottom of the waterfall, eating my food as the power of the falls sprayed water in my direction.

Continuing the trial, I found another waterfall, name El Placer, which is rarely visited by tourists. I went off wandering the back trails, locals pointed me to a path to the cascade, and I found a spot halfway down, water streaming down both sides of me, and the water plunging over the precipice just a few steps from where I sat.

The next major waterfall was Pailon del Diabolo. After a long hike down, you climb through a narrow cave system to get right below the waterfall, its raw power drenching you with the cold, refreshing water. After that, you can continue the hike to a small rickety bridge giving you a clear view of both levels of the falls.

At this time it was getting rather late, so I needed to hike back up and look for a place to sleep in Rio Verde, a small town surrounded by lush green hills and a roaring river. I asked around for a hostel, and locals only mentioned one to me, which I visited but was overpriced. I knew there were supposed to be other hostels further down the road, so I decided to set off and see if I could find them. In my haste, I got distracted waving to a couple kids, crashed my bike and skinned one of the my knees. Now limping and bruised, I continued biking the next 2.5 kms up the hill only to find both hostels closed. One of the owners mentioned that he thought there might be two hostels in Rio Verde (I had only seen one).

I headed back as light was beginning to fade. I asked again about a hostel, and the locals I talked to pointed me to the same one. I began wandering around town, and noticed a building that looked kinda like a hostel but without a sign. There was a man washing his car in front of the building and I asked him about it. Turns out he was just working on building a new hostel, and he had one room that was sort of ready. He showed me the room, dirty floor, mattress without sheets, windows covered with construction plastic. They quickly cleaned the room and gave me some 101 dalmatians bedsheets. It was perfect.

And so my day ended, 25 kms on bike, 10 kms on foot, 4 waterfalls, bruised, bleeding and exhausted, I would sleep in a barely constructed hostel in Rio Verde.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


I heard a pig screaming today.

I was at the traditional animal market in Saqsili. Every Thursday locals from the countryside flock to the Saqsili market to sell an assortment of animals - sheep, cows, pigs, llamas, alpacas. The market only takes place in the morning, so to get there, I caught a 3 am bus from the quaint mountain village of Chugchilan. Saqsili itself is a sprawling town. Small in our eyes, but large for the countryside. Sheltered by mountains and fields, the animal market takes place in a parking lot, crowded with vans and flatbed pickup trucks.

The air was rich with the sounds of sheep and cows and pigs. Lone lambs would call out for the rest of their herds. In Quilotoa, I watched lambs find their herd, their calls echoing throughout the gorgeous volcanic lake until they found eachother, the lamb gracefully bounding down the mountain to return to its home. At the market, pigs would cry out as they tried to escape - their legs tied to posts or vans, or when they forced into a new truck for transportation to their buyer's village.

I had a quick breakfast at one of the vendors - cows, sheep, and llamas streaming by as I ate, and one of the vendors protested when a cow took a dump in front of her stall and the new owner just continued on by (someone came by to scoop it up in a little while). After breakfast, I walked around some more, making my way through the crowd of people and animals.

I heard an especially loud cry, and saw a pig with it's legs propped up and tied against a truck. Several people were gathered around. One of the locals had a knife and began to castrate the pig. At the end, you can see the blood smeared on their bands. But it was really the cry, the scream - piercing, shrill, and filled with feeling - that sticks with you. If you had any doubt before that pigs - known to be as intelligent as dogs - feel pain and emotion, you wouldn't now.

When I was in Sierra Leone, my security guard's dog, whom I came to see as my own, was "neutered" with a hot knife and iron. Doggie Doggie's cries reverberated throughout my house, and when he came out, he limped forward, head down, tail between his legs, blood staining his fur. I fed him some chicken to try to cheer him up.

As they led off the pig, it had a similar limp. He was lightly whipped by a rope to keep him moving, to who knows where.

Dogs are pets. Pigs are food. What a cruel twist of fate.

Monday, January 3, 2011

On familiarity

The road has a familiar feel to it. Almost every country I go to, the same motifs repeat themselves. Wandering around old colonial cities, finding hole-in-the-wall restaurants to break bread with locals, avoiding the tourist and gringo hotspots. The long, smelly bus rides to local attractions. The hikes through cloud forests like Mindo, the chats with locals, and the beaming faces of kids when you juggle for them. The poverty seems the same as well. Rolling hills covered with shacks, the dirty hands and faces of street children begging for handouts, the indigenous women selling various trinkets and their young children playing around them in the cold crisp night air. The elderly men and women wearing age with deep, beautiful wrinkles that we fight so passionately in the West.

Today, I left Quito and headed to Latacunga, a small-city and gateway to some of the hiking and mountain biking in the Andes. Sheltered by nearby volcanoes, the town hosts a sprawling, dirty local market. Various games of street volley ball take place, with crowds gathering when old, hardened veterans take up a game, or when fresh, untalented gringos like myself join in. Unlike many markets, Latacunga's isn't built for tourists but locals, and during my time there, I didn't see another white face. Being a stranger in this world, felt familiar to me.

In Quito, after visiting the Old City, I spent my first night wandering around the Mariscal Sucre, or the new town part of Quito. Tourists throng around the area of La Mera and Reina Victoria with glitsy bars, Western music and restaurants. I watch a local vendor in the middle of the plaza. Her young child runs in circles around her, dancing to the pop and hip-hop tunes blasting from the nearby bar.

It's odd how people travel so far to surround themselves with the same scenery as back at home. In the quest for the exotic, we reveal how wedded we are to the familiar.

But I suppose I'm doing the same. Perhaps it's stranger in my case, that being alone on the road, that being an outsider feels the most familiar of all.

Tomorrow I head to Quilotoa for three days of hiking around a volcanic lake and to remote, mountain villages. Tomorrow, I take a familiar path.

On dogs and children

I ate today at Latacunga's local market at a line of street vendors. Two empanadas, one tostadas, carne, pollo y roz feast for $1.70. A variety of disheveled dogs wander around the market searching for food. It's a common sight in the developing world. Packs of dogs in Sierra Leone would mill around at night, sometimes forcing you to chase them away when they became too aggressive. Sometimes simply begging for morsels to eat - their dirty, unkept look a stark contrast to their well-groomed counterparts back at home. Sometimes you see abandoned puppies wandering the streets or beaches alone, and devouring the scraps of fish and chicken you would toss their way. Before resting at your feet, their tiny bellies bulging from the unusually generous meal.

In Latacunga, one skinny black dog stood out. His hair clung together in the chilly downpour. His worn ears, hanging like rags, dripping with the cold water trickling down from the heavens. His broken leg dragging precariously behind him as if it was about to fall off and join the rest of trash strewn throughout the marketplace.

I cut off a piece a piece of meat and tossed it to him when he came close. He eagerly gobbled down the meat and the remaining bones from my plate.

It took me only a few moments to remember the children going hungry nearby. Wandering the market with a similar purpose.