15 January 2015.
On our way to Ibarra, a northern town situated in the highlands of Ecuador. I am hitching a ride with ESPOL and their students who are attending a workshop at Yachay University, also known as the “City of Knowledge’ because of the government building a top level university aimed at science and engineering.
That is how we all got to meet at Las Peñas, the lower campus of ESPOL that is situated two blocks away from the Malecon, on the evening of Wednesday, 14 January 2015 with our bus scheduled to leave at 9pm. At around 8:45 the bus arrived whereupon we all made our way onboard and waited for a couple of stragglers to arrive. Unfortunately we never got off to the best of starts because the driver informed us that he had a minor accident on his way to the pickup point that resulted in the loss of a side mirror. Therefore instead of us starting on our 9 hour journey, we had to make a detour via the main campus, around thirty minutes across town, in order to find a replacement. Fortunately, this was done fairly rapidly and with the assistance of a couple of the students, the driver managed to bolt a new window on to the bus. At least I thought that was it until the driver pulled a disappearing act by running off in the direction of the main building, only to return 5 minutes later with what looked like a 2litre bottle of oil… not the best way to start a long cross country trip… and when Catalina told me that he had been involved in a rather nasty accident a few years back, it did little to inspire any confidence.
Things seemed to get better after that and we set off to Ibarra without any further mishaps, stopping along the way to freshen up at a truckstop in the middle of nowhere in Luz de America, around four hours outside of Guayaquil. Along the way we came across a number of other university busses who all seemed to be heading in the same general direction. Sure enough, all the universities were invited to take part in the conference that happened to coincide with the eighth anniversary of the president (Correa) being in power. Catalina telephoned one of her friends in government who confirmed that the President was planning a surprise visit and that he would in fact open the conference.
The hours seemed to role on by and pretty soon it was dawn, and of course we discovered that we were lost! How this is possible on a straight road and with almost everyone on board the bus equipped with a GPS on their phone I still don’t know. I would like to hazard a guess, but I may be called sexist, I may also be single and homeless, so I shall desist from offering my views. We stopped a couple of times and all the people told us to just keep going straight, and yet our intrepid navigator and driver managed to turn a nine hour journey into a twelve hour one. We eventually offered someone a ride who was going to the same town as us, Ibarra, and that settled the issue once and for all as he managed to guide us – all along the straight road – safely to our destination.
Ibarra is in a valley, surrounded by three volcanoes, which makes it a rather spectacular city to enter coming in from the upper slopes with the snowcapped peaks staring down on you. The town was abuzz with police who were preparing for the presidents convoy which made the roads a bit of a mess, but we navigated our bus through the organized chaos to the hotel where the students were staying.
While they were booking in to the Hotel Conquistador, situated on the banks of a rather spectacular lake, Catalina called a taxi who would take us to Chachimbiro around 40 minutes away where we had booked in to the Hosteria Pantavi. We were both so tired by now that we completely forgot the cardinal rule of travelling by taxi in Ecuador, that of agreeing to the fee before departure, which cost us quite dearly, because an eight dollar journey ended up costing us TWENTY dollars! At least our hacienda at was worth the price we paid ($56 p/n), and our room, small though it was, was clean and comfortable with a good WiFi connection, which is really all that one needs to keep you happy.
Catalina was planning to go to the conference which left me free for the rest of the afternoon and I planned to have a hike around the hills and farms to explore our surroundings a bit more, but first it was time for a shower and a short nap!!
At around 2pm, after a nap of around one hour, I packed some water and snacks and made my way to the reception area where I had earlier spied some maps. I took a couple of them which were marked in various colors and chose to take the blue route, which was the shortest at around two hours. The route seemed to go through a farm and into the nearby village of Tumbabiro. I started off on my trek, which lead me on a rather dusty path through a farm and a swarm of mosquitoes which had a feast on my unprotected arms and I cursed myself for not bringing along any Detan. After around thirty minutes into my hike and just after passing a few cows idly strolling along the same path, Catalina called and told me that she was returning to the hacienda. I made my way along the dusty path into the nearby village, bought a couple of cokes for $1 and strolled downhill along the tarred road. Once Catalina arrived we ordered a couple of drinks and spent the evening in the Jacuzzi which was followed by a great dinner in the restaurant.
16 January 2015.
Today we decided to take a longer hike to the local hot springs. After a very good breakfast consisting of an omelet, toast, and fruit salad, complimented by some good, strong coffee, we started on our hike, taking the tarred road in the direction of Tumbabiro. The walk towards the village was approximately 15 minutes (1 km) during which time we were faced with a full frontal assault of all the mosquitoes. Fortunately the shop at which I bought the two soft drinks the previous day was open and we purchased a bottle of insect repellent, good old Detan. This had the desired effect and after taking a few pictures of the town, we followed the road towards the hot springs. Even though we had a map of the route, we were so wrapped up in the beauty that we missed the first turn off, but fortunately we had road signs along the way therefore we were not too worried about getting lost.
Along the way we passed a couple of vultures who were feasting on a dead piglet that had fallen off a rather steep embankment. There was also a rather distressed cow who went chasing after a couple of dogs and a very friendly llama who came begging for scraps of food. After passing a small village of San Francisco, we rounded a bend and discovered that our short hike would be around ten km long. However we were troopers and in spite of the steep two km uphill climb near the end, we eventually trudged along towards the summit and our final destination at Chachimbiro.
The first thing we did when arriving at the hot springs was order a cold cervesa, at $1.50. We soon discovered that there were two sets of hot springs with the one costing $5 while the other, more expensive option was $10. We opted to go with the more expensive option, which proved to be a good choice because the facilities were amazing.
We started off by buying a swimming cap for Catalina ($1), apparently people with hair needs these sort of things. We were then given a set of keys to a locker in which to store our clothes which was in front of changing rooms. The place is undergoing plenty of upgrades, no doubt due to the large influx of Argentinian tourists who make the four hour drive annually, therefore the changing room was a bit of a mess due to the upgrades taking place.
After spending the afternoon at the hot baths during which we enjoyed three different pools, a cold mini waterfall in hot water, and a rather stifling sauna, we had a quick snack at one of the local restaurants before boarding the bus ($1.50) for Ibarra at 3:30pm. The bus went through a number of villages, picking up people along the way and pretty soon our fairly empty 50 seater bus was packed from front to back as people were making their way back home. We arrived in Ibarra at around 5, just in time to purchase our bus tickets back to Guayaquil at the Terminal Terrestri, at a cost of $22. We also purchased tickets back to our hacienda (75c) which was due to depart at 6:30. This left us precious little time to find something to eat and to purchase some snacks for the ride home. We made our way outside the terminal terrestri in search of food and came across a mall where we bought the required snacks. Outside was a local KFC. Don’t judge, desperate times calls for desperate measures… at least the meal was filling…
We then ran back to the bus stop just in time to board the bus. The ride back was as eventful as the one that brought us to Ibarra earlier and along the way it was completely taken over by school children who substantially added to the noise levels in the bus. After around an hour on the bus, we disembarked at Tumbabiro and took the 15 minute walk back in total darkness although there was never any fear, on the contrary, the clear overhead skies and balmy temperatures resulted in quite a pleasant walk back.
Once we arrived at the hacienda at around 19:45, Catalina made arrangements for a taxi to take us back to Ibarra in time for us to get our bus that was due to leave for Guayaquil at 21:30. This left us with around 25 minutes in which to pack and freshen up before our departure. The taxi arrived at 20:10 and as for after making agreeing on the fair $15, we went back to Ibarra. We arrived at the terminal terrestri at around 21:20 after visiting the local park, which had been recently built where the airport had been. Although it was blanketed by a dense layer of fog, I could see that it was a really impressive park with basketball courts, football fields, running tracks and play areas for younger children stretching over 5km.
As with most things in Ecuador, things are either ridiculously strict or hopelessly lax. On my previous trips around the country I had used the public bus services and the same rule applied there. On this occasion our bus to Guayaquil was due to leave at 21:30 but fifteen minutes after it was due to leave it had still not arrived. We were becoming increasingly restless and just as we were about to protest the bus finally made its long awaited appearance much to the relief of all present. After about ten minutes of offloading and loading, we were on our way to Guayaquil, leaving at around 10:00pm. After a short stop at the petrol station in order to fill up and almost leaving behind Catalina, we made a rather rapid trip back and arrived without another stop along the way back in Guayaquil shortly after 8am on the morning of the 17th. Along the way we came across one accident where a seemingly empty bus had overturned, but luckily no one seemed to be injured.
17 January 2015.
In Guayaquil we arrived at the local terminal terrestri via a short stop in Duran and Cata and I jumped onto a city bus just outside the terminal. We were meant to pay the fare of 25c each, but the driver was in a rush and ushered us through. We figured that we would pay on the way out, but as luck would have it, when we alighted, it was in the middle of a rather busy intersection and we never had the chance.
From there we hailed a taxi, paid the $2 fare and five minutes later we were back at home, just in time for our baby to wish her mom a happy birthday!!
Overall it was a really good trip, something that I would recommend, but be wary of the many people ready rip off unsuspecting tourists in this part of Ecuador. They really seemed to have mastered the art of getting money out of tourists, especially the local taxi drivers!!