Ecuadorian highlands

Friday 22 to Sunday 24 December

We made a lunch time stop at a village called Salasaka, which is a craft village with a strong cultural tie to Bolivia. The residents here were exiled because of their rebellion to the Incas rule. They celebrate the cosmos, moon phases, solstices and equinoxes and have a strong relationship with the land and the way they prepare it for planting.

It was then a long drive to Chimborazo which, at 6263m, is the highest volcano in Ecuador. Its last eruption is believed to have been around 550AD.

At this massive elevation we started to see Vicuñas, a camelid which lives in high alpine areas of the Andes. It is a relative of the llama and believed to be a wild ancestor of the domesticated alpaca.

The clouds rolled in as we drove into the visitor’s centre which is at an elevation of 4,350m. This was the highest we had been to date. There is an interesting hike from here, but we had to abandon it as we couldn’t even see just a couple of metres in front of us. Instead we had a warm drink in the visitors centre where we met some Swedes who had taken photos in the morning of the amazing scenery.

As we sat there we watched the vicuñas disappear into the moving cloud – which didn’t seem to bother them at all. They are elegant animals with the prettiest face and lovely inquisitive eyes.

The scenery on this high mountain was spectacular – dry and arid and cold and colourful soils.

On the way down the mountain, in the village of San Juan, we came across a group of people dressed up for a Christmas parade. Here it seemed there was a mix of old costumes and Christianity.

As we drove into yet another cloud we came across a truck emblazoned with small characters that were smoking, above the brake lights, and a massive Jesus watching over the world.

We arrived in Alausí and wandered around looking for somewhere to eat – this rather poverty struck town had little on offer and we had to settle for a barbeque in a shop that was no more than 3 metres wide. What struck us here was the box in the street with one sign alumeo barriguitas llenas and another sign su colaboracion aqui beside a coin slot. At the bottom was a tray that dispensed dog food and beside it a bowl of fresh water. Stray dogs are everywhere in South America. We were learning that the dogs have freedom to roam as they wish – this box was dog food provided from donations by the community.

Our accommodation in Alausí was austere – a basic room full of beds, which would have accommodated a half dozen people. We were also experiencing problems with our credit cards – they weren’t always accepted. Ecuador uses US dollars as their currency and we were sometimes forced to pay cash for our accommodation.

Alausí was the stepping off point for the Bariloche del Diablo or Devil’s Nose train ride. The Ferrocarriles del Ecuador, a once busy train system in Ecuador originally linked the capital Quito with the coastal city of Guayquil. This section of the railway, built in 1901, dropped 500m from the central plateau to the coastal plains through the Condor’s Aerie.

Our guide on the train was Gabriella and she managed to provide both an English and a Spanish commentary.

Alausí, at the start of our journey is 2346m elevation. The train ride of 12km was about an hour long. It took us down the valley to the riverbed and a tiny station called Simbabe at 1823m, through two major sets of switchbacks. Here there loomed a rather tall mountain, which, because of its shape and the poor working conditions, became known as the Devil’s Nose.

Four thousand people from Jamaica, Honduras and the Dominican Republic were brought in to work on the project. Two thousand five hundred of the workers died. The major causes of death were accidents involving dynamite, snake bites, malaria and yellow fever. No wonder that mountain is called the Devil’s Nose.

At Simbabe there was a visitor’s centre which provided an overview of the indigenous people of the Nizag area their lifestyle. They farm a diverse group of crops, using irrigation at the middle stories and taking advantage of the high humidity to grow sugar cane, white maize, potatoes below 1900m. They graze their animals and grow more hardy crops such as barley, wheat and broad beans in the upper stories between 2,300m and 3,200m.

One of the young people answering questions was Angelo. He had gone to the USA seeking work, however he was deported 5 months ago for driving without a licence, and has returned to his village. Here he got a job as a guide because of his good English. Angelo told us about his four year old son that he had to leave in the USA, and he hopes to get a visa so he can return to be with him. He blames Trump for his deportation, and wonders how the USA will manage without the South and Central Americans, as he said, “White Americans are lazy, they don’t work.”

The villagers put on a dance show for us. It was a bright affair with lots of twirling dresses and ribbons winding up and down a maypole. Bruce and other tourists were invited to join in. It wasn’t quite the rock ‘n’ roll we are used to, but a lot of fun.

Back in Alausí, I was amused to see two older locals sitting in the street, in their local costume, and a young man beside them playing a game on his phone – such diverse cultures.

One hundred kilometres south and back above 3000m we came to Ingapirca where the largest known Inca ruins in Ecuador are found. The area had previously been settled by the Cañari people. As the Inca empire expanded into southern Ecuador they encountered the Cañari tribe, who proved difficult to conquer. The two tribes eventually decided to settle their differences and live peacefully but agreed to keep their own customs.

An astronomical observatory was built under the Inca emperor Huayna Capa. The castle complex was used as a fortress and storehouse to resupply Inca troops en route to northern Ecuador. A complex aqueduct system provided water to the entire compound.

One of the houses in the complex was the House of the Chosen, where the virgins stayed.

The most significant building in the complex is the Temple of the Sun, an elliptically shaped tower built on top of an ancient ceremonial Cañari rock. It is constructed so that sunlight falls through the doorway of a small chamber at the top of the temple on the solstices. It was a place of ritual celebrations, built in a high place to be as close to their gods as possible.

After Jose had shown us through the ruins we took the Sun Valley walk. There were information signs along the way, to help us understand the meaning.

First was the Inca game, a kind of reservoir carved into the rock, which the Incas used for water-related cults. From there we had a very good view of the Temple of the Sun. A stone had been carved as a turtle, a significant animal for the Incas. There were other images etched into the rocks on the route, including a sun face and an Inca face.

We were fascinated by the way the animals are grazed – they are tethered, and the local people move the tethers so the animals work their way through the grassy paddock. I assume that when they get to one side of the paddock grass has grown on the other side.

We stayed in a rather luxurious resort that night, and were given hot water bottles as we went to bed. The meal served was fantastic as was breakfast, but sadly we were the only guests in the resort. It was after all just two days before Christmas.

And so after more difficulties making credit card payments, we set off for our next destination, Cuenca, where we would spend two nights and hopefully find a little Christmas celebration for a couple of foreigners.

We passed outdoor barbeques where pork and guinea pig were being roasted on spits. Guinea pig is a national and much loved dish of the Andes. The guinea pigs are kept in small buildings beside the houses – we never saw any of them growing up. They are very rich and fatty to eat, certainly beyond our digestive ability.

Our first stop for the day was to the Santuario de la Virgin del Rocío Virgin of the Rock Church in Biblán. It is set high on a hill – a spectacular white Gothic-style building with a blue roof. In 1893 there was a serious drought. The local parish priest, Father Daniel Muñoz placed an image of the virgin on the hill called Zhalao. Little by little rain came. The locals started to visit the Virgen del Rocío, and as more pilgrims came the temple was expanded in 1895 and again in 1924. Now it is declared a Cultural Heritage of Ecuador. The church offered amazing view over the city of Biblán. While we wandered around the church, Jose was clearly moved by its importance.

From there we journeyed to Azogues to see the Catedral San Francisco. Mass was in progress when we visited, and the 407 steps that leads up to the entrance was well occupied by local beggars. It was Christmas Eve, so there were a great number of groups parading in their nativity costumes. This was a quick visit as Jose had a surprise up his sleeve for us.

As we entered the town of Gualaceo we stopped off to see some embroidery, spinning and weaving. Unfortunately we couldn’t buy anything, but the shoes covered in died fabrics were rather spectacular.

We also stopped at Ecuagenera, an orchid farm that claims to be leaders in Ecuador and around the world in the discovery, conservation and propagation of species and new hybrids. They had a lovely display of orchids from many parts of the world. Strangely, they wouldn’t allow their flowers to be photographed.

From there we went to the market in Gulaceo. The market is a popular eating place – families share food and dogs wander around picking up the dropped bits. There were rows of stalls cooking a wide range of treats, but the greatest treat was the roast pork. Each lady had a tiny stand with just enough space for her and her roasted pork. One particular lady, Mamá Suca, has found fame and been given awards for the best tasting pork.

As it turned out, this was Jose’s home town and he delighted in showing us around and introducing his foreign visitors to many of his friends.

After the finger licking good lunch we were taken a little way out of town to watch the Christmas parade. It was hot, but we stood in the sun, entranced by the long parade which told the story of the bible – all of it, from Adam and Eve through to Moses, through to the birth of Christ and his life. Each float was decorated by a different group of people and their interpretation of dress varied from bare bodies dressed in fig leaves through to elaborate modern costumes. The floats were interspersed with characters on horses, musicians and dancers – with a lot of swinging and twirling.

It was a short stop at Chordeleg, which means “gold waterfall”. The early people of Ecuador were master metalworkers and this town is well known for its gold and silver workmanship, especially filigree jewellery, with yet more spending opportunities. There was a rather lovely church and a clown having fun in the small town square.