Travelling Hopefully

14 February

A long travel day.

My flight to Amsterdam, where I was due to change planes to go to Quito, was scheduled to depart from Heathrow at 6.30am. So I went down to the area the night before to stay in an airport hotel. This still meant rising at 3am for a 4am taxi so I could drop off my bag at 4.30am. Urgh!

I was concerned about the short time to change planes at Amsterdam, namely just over an hour. However, I didn’t have to go through security again, and my arrival gate was only a ten minute walk from the departure gate. So I arrived in plenty of time.

Sonja, my travel companion for the trip, had flown to Amsterdam from Switzerland, and we met at the gate. She had the window seat and I the aisle seat in the same row, which meant that there was someone sitting between us. The person between us took out antiseptic wipes before the flight and cleanly everything thoroughly before settling into her seat.

The flight was just under twelve hours. I amused myself by watching a couple of movies and reading books on my iPhone. I find it hard to sleep on planes, so I didn’t even try.

We arrived at 4pm Ecuadorian time, which is five hours behind British time.  Immigration and customs were easy, and we met up with our guide at arrivals. As it was rush hour, the journey to our hotel took nearly an hour. On the plus side, a large coach turned up as our vehicle for the holiday. With only fifteen people in the group, there was ample space for all of us.

The hotel was a charming place, old colonial with balconies and a small courtyard. We all met up for a trip briefing. A number of people went out for a meal. Sonja and I went to our room to snack and to crash into bed at 9pm.

15 February

I woke up around 4am and found it hard to go back to sleep again. Breakfast was at 7.30am, and consisted of coffee, muesli, sliced banana and sliced watermelon, toast, and eggs cooked to order. 

Our bags were loaded into the coach, and we went on a tour of the old town part of Quito. Our first stop was at the top of El Panecillo hill, where we stood at the foot of a large statue of the Virgin Mary and admired the views over the old town. Then we drove back down to visit Basilica del Voto Nacional, which features native animals instead of gargoyles on its façade. A short drive further on brought us to the centre of the old town. We visited Plaza de la Independencia, then walked up to Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco, visiting inside the church before the coach picked us up again.

After a lunch stop, we drove over a mountain pass to the cloud forest. The weather changed from sunny spells with high clouds to overcast, and the dry hills of Quito were replaced with the wet plant life of the cloud forest. The drive to our lodge took around two hours. The last eight kilometres were particularly slow, as the coach navigated up a rough, muddy road.

The lodge itself was lovely. Sonja and I had a family room, with a double bed and a single bed in the main room, and two more single beds under the rafters. We had a table and chairs, and a balcony looking out through the trees of the cloud forest.

But we didn’t spend much time in our room. Hummingbirds called to us. The lodge’s feeders were very popular with a variety of species, and the birds seemed unconcerned if we stood close to them. The light was very poor, but even so, the birds’ feathers still flashed as they flew past and turned their heads. I adored the ones with puffy white feathers on their legs.

We had time to spend in our room with a cup of tea before dinner. Dinner was carrot soup, then an option of either chicken or spinach cannoli, followed by coffee cake or banana. Sonja and I each had a glass of Chilean wine. I enjoyed a mug of peppermint tea afterwards. 

16 February

An early rise after a rather cold night. We took a hike in the cloud forest, starting at 6.30am. The hope was to catch good weather and to see birds. The path was listed as ‘easy’, but for some of us going steadily uphill, with occasionally steep steps, for nearly two kilometres isn’t quite that easy. Throw in mud and an altitude of 2200 metres and although I kept up with everyone, I did find my lungs working hard. Probably doesn’t help that I’m currently suffering from anaemia.

The sun came out whilst we climbed. At the top of the trail, we emerged on to the road, which we followed back down to our lodge. Sadly, very little bird life greeted us. Instead, all the action seemed to be back at the lodge. A black squirrel climbed through the trees, the hummingbirds were busy at the feeders, and as we ate breakfast various birds appeared outside. 

We didn’t leave until 10am, so I had time to photograph birds and have a shower before packing up my bag. We then went back down the bumpy road. 

We headed back to Quito, leaving behind the wet forest for dry hillsides. Then we turned north. The countryside changed several times, from dry to green, to agricultural areas. Fields ran down the hillsides, and polytunnels clung to the slopes. 

Our lunch, rather late at 1.40pm, was at a monument built on the equator. I had to take a bit longer than everyone else at the toilets, and when I emerged, the group was nowhere to be seen. I knew that a picnic lunch was planned, but where had they gone? Fortunately, someone else at the monument worked out that I belonged to the group of (mostly) Europeans, and pointed the way to me. I found my group, but did feel a bit hurt that no one had thought to look for me!

We sat down in a grassy area to eat rice and fruit before going to the monument for an explanation about the ways in which the Incas had noted the equator with buildings sited on various mountains. We walked on the large sundial, marked out with stones, which shows where the sun’s path will take at various dates in the year such as equinoxes.

Then on to our next destination. Again we chugged up and down high passes, the clouds casting shadows on the mountains and valleys. I did my best to take photos through the bus window. 

Our lodge for two nights is owned by an artist and decorated with his rather interesting paintings. All modern art, not entirely to my taste. Sonja thought it made the lodge ‘look like a mausoleum.’ We had an interesting discussion about why she thought that as it made little sense to me.

We met in the bar and were served complimentary drinks, made of juice and ‘moonshine’. It was green and strong, and I only drank half of mine. Although we were now at only 2200 feet, for some reason the altitude was affecting me more than previously. We had dinner was in the hotel restaurant, with yet more modern art filling the walls. 

17 February

A later start of 7.30am for breakfast and an 8.30am departure from our accommodation. We headed down into the valley, then up again to an altitude of 2800 metres. 

Today’s activity was to visit a community of Andeans who welcome outsiders in order to show them local traditions. Our coach chugged us past stone and wood houses, separated by crops and pasture. Cows, pigs, sheep, and alpacas were tethered in fields or under trees. 

Our hosts for the morning greeted us at their set of lovely buildings. Their house and nearby holiday cottages had electricity and flushing toilets. Their black Labrador added his own greetings before he slumped into the shade to snooze.

We first helped to make tortillas, which were cooked on a large metal pan. Honey from the family’s own beehives added sweetness to the cooked bread. After our snack, we were taken to a spiral of stones, where we were told about the traditional beliefs about life and the afterlife. After a fun interlude in which a number of people fed salt to over-eager llamas, we moved on to another stone structure to be told about the calendar of the year. We were shown traditional costumes used for main celebrations, and one of our number was brave enough to try one on and attempt a dance.

Next we were taken down to an orchard of fruit trees and bushes. The family has been exploring which soft fruit can grow on their farm. Peaches and plums are doing well, but not apples. We were encouraged to pick and eat whatever was ripe, and it was all organic. I ate a couple of small plums and some blackberries. The peaches were not yet ripe.

We then plunged into a 30 minute walk up and down the hillside, passing various medicinal plants and ducking and in out of close woven thickets of bamboo. A small ladder had to be conquered at the end of the journey. The dog came with us, but I don’t know how he navigated the ladder or whether he knew a short cut.

We visited the pen which housed the small food animals, namely rabbits, chickens, and guinea pigs. Fresh grass was put down, and the rabbits were happy to come out to eat it. The guinea pigs seemed more cautious, particularly as the dog stood just outside the enclosure.

The welcome news that lunch was ready greeted our return to the main buildings. Vegetable soup, chicken, salad, several various potato dishes, avocado, corn on the cob, corn nuts, and pitchers of home made blackberry juice made for a wonderful meal. We sat on wooden benches or stones to consume our meal.

After expressing our thanks to the family, we walked down the steep drive, then back up to the church, which we simply passed by before stopping to let the coach collect us. 

Once back at the lodge, most of the group decided to go on to the thermal baths. I elected to remain at our accommodation. I treated myself to a small beer, and sat outside to work on photos. A hummingbird feeder attracted some varieties which were new to me. 

After a couple of hours, I decided I’d had enough of swatting away insects and headed into my room. Sonja returned soon later. We had a snack dinner in our room. Lunch had been too filling to contemplate another meal out.

In the meantime, concern about sickness has struck the group. One of our number, who thought he was at the tail end of a cold as he flew out to Ecuador, has been laid flat by a fever and a bad cough. We’re all a bit nervous that the illness might spread through our party…

18 February

It was good to have two nights in the same place, but it was time to move on. We  headed off to visit Cuicocha Crater Lake, formed by a volcanic eruption around 3000 years ago. A freshwater lake has filled the crater, and a walking path leads all the way around.

The plan had been to arrive at 10.30am for a 2 ½ hour walk. However, this was thwarted when the road we were on came to section closed at a small bridge. A sign warned of a $400 fine for trying to drive over the mound of earth blocking the way. Our driver had to back up for quite a distance before we could turn around and find another way to the crater. 

We arrived 45 minutes later than planned. After visiting the very quiet visitors’ centre to use the facilities, we headed out. The intention was to walk just part of the way around, taking in the views. Wind gusted across the lake, creating patterns in the water, and threatening to blow hats off our heads. I opted out of going with the group up a steep section. Instead, I had a lovely hour to myself to take photos, smile at a hummingbird which landed on flowers nearby, and enjoy some time on my own.

Everyone was back down at the coach just after 1pm. We headed to Otavalo, which is known for its handicraft market. Sonja and I had some snacks for our lunch, and decided to just have a coffee before looking at the market. 

It must be said, I felt we were visiting in the off season. The market is clearly set up for tourists, and there were very few of us about. On the whole, stall owners didn’t bother us too much, allowing us to look at items in our own time. I managed to do some present shopping, although my bargaining skills must be a bit rusty. I was only able to negotiate prices down around 15 percent.

Our guide gave us some challenging news as we headed to our overnight stay. The road we had to take to the Amazon was under repair, due to a large landslide,  and therefore only open to traffic between 6 – 8am and 4 – 6pm. We would have to leave at 4am to ensure that we managed to pass through at the morning opening times. 

So we only briefly saw the 400 year old hacienda which was our accommodation. Shame, as it appeared to have many interesting features. We ate dinner in a long room. I did feel that the price, US$24.00, was a bit much for tomato soap, somewhat undercooked sea bream with vegetables and mashed potato, and a tree tomato in sauce for the pudding.

The next day we were to take motorized canoes to our lodge in the Amazon, so we had to pack a small bag with enough for the two days. Once Sonja and I had sorted that out, we went to bed and tried to have an early night. 

19 February

My digestive system needs at least an hour in the morning, and prefers ninety minutes. So I rose at 2.30am, managing to get up before my alarm in order to leave Sonja sleeping. I had a shower and did bits of quiet repacking before turning the light on at 3.15am.

The hacienda staff had put on coffee for us, as well as putting out some fruit and rolls. Just after 4am we headed out. I dozed and also noted with concern the thick fog through which we were driving. The temperature was rather cold, 9C, so I shivered a little when we made our pit stop.

We joined the traffic queue around 7.30am. It wasn’t moving. I left the coach to relieve myself. There was no bush or tree to shelter behind, but people on the coach told me that the men standing nearby politely turned their backs as I did what I had to do.

Finally we started moving. The mud slide was quite spectacular to see, and we drove past carefully when it was our turn. Then we could pick up speed.

Our guide had us pull into the car park of a tourist lodge. He popped inside, and arranged for us to have a late breakfast. As we ate, a troop of squirrel monkeys entertained us. I’d left my camera backpack on the coach, so I took some video with my iPhone.

Onwards into the Amazon. We arrived at the embarkation area for the canoes, and carried our belongings down the boat. The trip only took around 20 minutes. At the lodge, we were assigned our cabins and given our keys. Only two cabins have electricity, so like most of the others, Sonja and I had candles in our rooms to use at night. 

Bad news. Another member of our party was ill, also fever and cough. We looked nervously around at each other, wondering if the cold would spread further. 

We ate lunch, and then went out on the canoes for a trip down the river. Only about ten minutes in, the heavens opened and rain slashed down. I managed to lower my wildlife camera and big lens into a small drysack, and I put the raincover over the backpack. Over both, I spread my waterproof jacket, more concerned to keep my equipment dry than myself.

I was all for heading back, but when the rain slackened for a few minutes about 15 minutes in, several people shouted that we should continue. So we did. And the rain came back even worse than before. The canoe did have a small canopy, but rain still sliced in sideways and splashed down from the canopy. I huddled down and resigned myself to being miserable.

We continued on in this weather, heading upriver, becoming more and more wet as the hour went by. I haven’t a clue why our driver didn’t simply take us back to the lodge. The bottom of the canoe filled with several inches of water. One of our group found a small canister and bailed it out. 

The last twenty minutes or so were without rain, but again we simply travelled very slowly. We saw a few birds, but not much else in terms of wildlife. 

Finally we were back to the lodge. I headed to our cabin, hanging out all my wet stuff once I’d assured myself that the camera equipment was okay. I took a shower and put on dry clothing. At one point, I’d dropped my waterproof jacket onto the canoe floor, into the water, so it was wet inside and out.

I joined the others for a beer in the patio/eating area. Our guide told us his sad news. His mother had gone to the hospital for tests, and it turned out that she has advanced bone cancer. So our guide was leaving us, as he had to go home to join up with his brother and help their mother make some major decisions. A new guide would be coming by overnight bus to join us in the morning. I quickly went around everyone to suggest that I collect any tips people wanted to offer. 

After dinner, we went for a night walk, wearing the Wellington boots lent to us by the lodge. We saw frogs, spiders, and a variety of insects. Then back to the cabin with the hope of sleeping, despite the warmth and humidity. We used our candles in the bedroom and bathroom. The latter offered a flushing toilet and a hot water shower, so we had some mod cons. I also had a head torch with me for use during the night. 

20 February

I actually slept the best I’ve done all holiday. The sounds of the insects and frogs filled the night, but if I laid on my right side, the tinnitus in my left ear cuts out all of the noise. 

Breakfast was at the civilized hour of 8am. I gave the envelope of tips to our guide, and we greeted his successor, who did look a bit tired from his overnight bus trip from Quito.

Most of the group went on a ramble through the forest, making their way to a wildlife rescue centre. Some of us stayed at the lodge, and were later taken by canoe to join the others for the tour of the centre.

The wildlife centre is sent animals which have either been seized from animal traffickers or which were pets and were no longer wanted. Whenever possible, the animals are released back into the wild. Some of the creatures we saw have suffered badly at the hands of humans. Two macaws had had their wings broken, and therefore live on the ground. (They are a bonded pair, so at least they have each other.) A coati had its teeth pulled out so that it couldn’t bite. One monkey has been so traumatised that he cannot be housed with any of his kind, as he will attack them on sight.

But there were also good stories. A small troop of monkeys was about ready to be released. The parrots which were once pets are let free as soon as they stop saying any human words (because the wild parrots will attack those speaking a human language). 

We returned for lunch, then had an hour to relax before heading by canoe to a nearby island to see the small community living there. Along the way, we first stopped to watch some Howler monkeys near the river. As we arrived, a young boy swung out over the river on a rope, evidently showing off for us visitors. We followed a guide into the forest, where he showed us the mixed crop system which sustains the families. We also saw some bird life, including hoatzin, and several caiman. 

Afterwards, one of the local women demonstrated how an local alcoholic drink is made from sweet potatoes. A bowl of the liquid was passed around, but I declined a drink.

We had a short trip by canoe in the area before going back the lodge. The final event of the day was a visit by a local shaman and his apprentice, his sixteen year old son. The shaman dressed up in traditional costume (although the underwear he wore under the grass skirt might be a modern addition) and performed a cleansing ceremony on each of us. This involved having tobacco smoke blown on our heads, and a special collection of leaves shaken around our heads and shoulders whilst he whistled a special tune. One person volunteered for a healing ceremony, although we were told that this would only be superficial as the shaman hadn’t taken his hallucinogens. 

After dinner, we headed to our cabins. Our guide asked us to pack before breakfast. As all we brought with us were overnight bags, we all felt that that wouldn’t take very long. 


21 February 

A much warmer night made it difficult for me to fall asleep. At least we didn’t have an early rise, with breakfast yet again at the civilized time of 8am. We left in the canoes shortly thereafter, enjoying a dry trip back to our coach.

A long driving day. We left the Amazon behind and headed back up into the highlands. We followed ‘the Route of the Waterfalls’, enjoying the views of the tree-covered mountains and the rivers and streams. Lunch was at a restaurant our guide knows well. I had an excellent piece of trout. 

Afterwards, we visited ‘the Devil’s Cauldron’. A path beside the river led to the long drop waterfall. By going over a steep swing bridge, one can access paths which lead down to the drop. I decided not to go and get wet, but did manage to go down and then back up the swing bridge.

Our next stop was at a cable car. Our guide had explained that, before bridges had been built, cable cars had been the means by which people and goods travelled from one side of the rivers to another. We boarded the metal cage, and clung to the sides as it swooped down towards a waterfall. One of our party let out a series of expletives. After a moment at the other side, we swung back again. It was all rather strange but fun!

We stopped in the town of Banos. Our guide took us onto a bridge where a couple of men had set up a bungee jumping platform and ropes. The set up looked very amateur to me, but they seemed to have a steady stream of customers and I couldn’t see any sign of bodies below. 

A walk into the lively town brought us to a supermarket, where we were urged to buy supplies for tomorrow’s picnic lunch. I also bought a small painting off a man selling them outside. 

The country was gearing up for carnival, namely several days of fun and celebration before Ash Wednesday and Lent. A small procession of children dressed up in exotic costumes was taking place through the main street. Alongside many tourist shops were businesses offering bungee jumping, zip lining, and various similar activities. 

A brief visit to the main church ended our stay in Banos. The outside looked nice enough. Inside, however, the area behind the altar was filled with plastic looking statues. Paintings lined the walls, showing people being thrown from horses or running from burning buildings. Our guide explained that the paintings celebrated miracles, as all of those people survived.

Our hacienda for the night was another charming old building. Each room had a log-burning fireplace to provide heat. The fires had already been set up for us, and plenty of logs were in the room to keep the fire going. Sonja and I washed a couple of shirts each with the hope that they’d dry out by morning. 

22 February

Hurrah, clothes dry by morning. I’d had a rather sleepless night, however. I am pretty tired now of life at high altitude. Not only has it sent my bladder into overdrive, I’ve also been suffering from HAFE—high altitude flatus expulsion. (Yes, this is real thing.) Beyond the embarrassment, it’s been very uncomfortable. 

Again we had a civilized departure time, at 9am, after a lovely breakfast which included crisp bacon. I saw a hummingbird, which made me very happy. 

Today was our maximum altitude day. The coach climbed up past fields set in the steep hillsides in very overcast conditions. Although it was a Saturday, people were hard at work. It was the time of year when carrots are harvested, and we passed communal wash stations where the vegetables were cleaned before being packaged in large plastic bags. 

We made two stops along the way. The first was at a fruit and vegetable market, something definitely not accustomed to tourists. The locals looked surprised to see us walking through, admiring the piles of fresh produce. Dogs wandered around freely, as indeed they seem to do throughout Ecuador. (Our guide told us he sends his dog out in the morning and tells him to come back home when he’s hungry.) 

Our second stop was in a town which specializes in manufacturing blue jeans. Shop after shop offered cheap jeans and similar clothing. 

Then our coach concentrated on climbing higher and higher into the Chimborazo National Park. As it was near lunch time, small braziers had been set up at the side of the road and people sold roasted corn on the cob. 

Much higher, past the tree line, we passed vicunas grazing on the treeless plateaus. Mist came and went as the clouds thickened overhead.

Our coach chugged up the steep road to the foot of the climb up Chimborazo. The mountain is an extinct volcano, and the summit is at 6263 metres. The summit is the point on the Earth’s surface which is the farthest from the Earth’s centre, as it’s located on the planet’s equatorial bulge. 

We parked at the trail head. By now, rain had started to slice down. I put on my waterproof trousers and coat, and decided to only take my small camera with me. 

At a very slow pace, as we were feeling the effects of an altitude of 4800 metres, we followed our guide to the visitor centre. Most of us took his advice and had a cup of coca leaf tea. Then we slowly walked up to a pyramid structure and had a group photo taken. The nearby graveyard for those who had died on the mountain was a bit sobering. 

The intention had been to walk down a bit of distance. But as the rain increased, and visibility decreased, we turned around and went back to the coach. Then it was a trip down to the nearby town and to our overnight accommodation. 

Our room looked lovely. Large, with a corner fireplace, two double beds, a table and chairs. However, the only heating was the fireplace and we were supposed to set it up ourselves. Both Sonja and I were willing to give it a go, but a lack of kindling made this impossible. 

23 February

We left at 8am for the drive to the Devil’s Nose Train. Our guide told us regularly ‘We have a train to catch’, but he still found time to take us on a quick walk through a produce market. He explained that the markets travel around the area, appearing in a different town on a set day each week. 

The streets were also busy with people celebrating carnival. Children sprayed people with either water or foam from colourful canisters. People dressed up and roasted guinea pig (a delicacy which, traditionally, was only served on special occasions) was on offer at street-side grills.

We reached the town of Alausi at 10.30am. However, streets down to the train station were closed due to carnival. We left the coach and followed the train tracks down to the station. Our group was in one carriage, and although we had assigned seats these took no account of couples. So some seat negotiation took place before everyone was settled. The two members of the party who had been ill had more or less recovered, so all of us were on the train. 

At 11.05am, the train set off. A black diesel engine took us down the switch backs past mountain scenery. Unfortunately, all of our group was seated on the side which had fewer of the good views. 

We stopped at the bottom of the track to exit the train and admire the mountain formation for which the train is named.  Then we went to the end station, which offered a café and dancers who performed traditional songs and dances. A few stalls sold handicrafts, and a museum nearby showed what sort of buildings the locals used to live in.

The return journey went along the same track. We discovered that the seats moved, enabling us to face forwards for the trip back up. There was some confusion in the group once we’d disembarked around 1.30pm. Our guide seemed more interested in taking photos of the carnival than telling us what was happening next. Several people disappeared to use the toilets, others drifted off to take photos. Finally our guide rounded us up and we headed back long the train tracks to our coach.

A long drive commenced. We drove up into the clouds, and the temperature dropped. Our goal was to visit the Inca ruins at Ingapirca , but the weather conditions affected our progress. We didn’t enter the site until 5pm. Our guide showed us around, and we admired the brickwork and the solar observatory. 

At 6pm we headed off to our next destination, Cuenca. Just before 8pm we arrived at our city centre hotel, a rather interesting design with all the rooms facing a central courtyard. A late dinner, and then off to bed.  But not much sleep early on. People came to the hotel around midnight, perhaps worse for drink. They talked and laughed, and there was a loud crash. The downside of having rooms facing a courtyard…

24 February

Finally slept well. Maybe I’m becoming accustomed to high altitudes (we’re now at 2400 metres). 

After breakfast, we went on a walking tour of Cuenca. After all the excitement of carnival yesterday, today was a national holiday, and almost everything in the city was shut. Including the cathedral. We wandered the strangely empty streets, admiring the colonial architecture. The local market was also shut, so people had set up their stalls on the pavements. 

After a couple of hours, our coach met us and we went to a local Panama hat factory. The museum informed us that Panama hats are made in Ecuador, but became popular amongst the workers building the Panama canal. Hence the hats came to be called ‘Panama’ hats.

The museum showed the process from plant to weaving to shaping. There were no workers at the factory, but our guide showed us around the equipment. The shop was open, with plenty of hats to choose from. A couple of people did make purchases. The owner turned up to speak with us, and insisted on using my camera to take a photo of me holding a Panama hat. Which I did not buy…

The coach chugged us up and out of town. We visited a pottery shop, then walked up to a viewpoint over the city. The coach collected us, and then there was a hunt for a place to have lunch. Our guide had been assured that one place in particular would be open, but it was not. We found a restaurant back in the old town, which took us in reluctantly as most of their kitchen staff had the day off.

I chose to return to the hotel after lunch rather than wander streets of closed shops. To my delight, I managed to sign in to the BBC website, and caught up on the two episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ which I’d missed. Sonja and I went down to the central courtyard afterwards, where we had a glass of wine whilst she read and I worked on photos. 

25 February

Most relaxed morning yet, breakfast at 8.30am and out at 9.30am. 

The weather had improved overnight, and we walked in sunshine through the streets of Cuenca. The city still seemed to be asleep, as people continued to enjoy some time off. We walked alongside a river, admired old houses and artistic graffiti, then visited a museum to see displays of different indigenous lifestyles. A collection of shrunken heads completed the tour. No photography was allowed, and security guards kept an eye on us.

We were collected by our coach, and drove up to Cajas National Park. The landscape changed yet again, to glacial valleys, mountains, and lakes. Some of the land is privately owned, and plantations of pine trees form regimented rows up the hillsides. Our guide explained that the pine trees are actually bad for the soil, as they are the wrong type of plant for the area.

A local guide joined us. We had a quick lunch, then started our walk at the elevation of 4000 metres. It was mostly downhill, with regular stops to spot birds and look at native plants. The temperature was a bit colder than we’ve been used to, and we took rain gear as the forecast had threatened showers. On the whole, however, we walked in sunshine, and when we were out of the wind it was quite warm.

Not many birds graced us with their presence, but then we were a group of fifteen people which might have scared them off. Some parts of the path were rather steep, with loose gravel, so I took my time and I was grateful for my walking pole. Clouds gave the land a covering of light and shadow. I was also rather excited when we were shown a large meteorite which rested on the side of the path. 

We were back at the road and our coach about two hours later. An American woman asked for a lift down to our hotel (which was nearby). She’s been travelling the world for four years now, living out of a backpack and making money by working on farms or teaching English. She was staying in Cuenca, and the local guide was returning there, so she happily accepted his offer of a lift back to the city.

Rain began to fall as we made the ten minute trip down to our hotel for the night. The hotel was part of a complex which includes a chocolate and cake shop, opportunities for horse riding and mountain biking, and several restaurants. Sonja and I visited a café to have hot chocolates and to split a chocolate cheesecake between us.

The restaurant menu for the evening was mainly trout, cooked in a variety of ways. We were told that trout are in the local lakes, released there some time ago. I had smoked trout, very nice, with a small glass of red wine.

26 February

The morning was chilly as we boarded the coach for the drive down to the coast. We had a brief break at a viewpoint before settling in for the two hour trip. We dropped down through cloud forest and down to sea level. The temperatures rose from barely double figures to 26C. 

We visited the Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve, walking through a corridor of mosquitoes before boarding our motorized canoe. We’d collected a local guide, who proved useless on spotting wildlife. Two of us started calling out when we’d seen something and the direction in which to look. 

Numerous ospreys put in an appearance, as well as ibis, spoonbills, and an iguana. 

The sloping walkway we’d used to go down to the canoe had become steeper during our trip along the river, moving perhaps with the rising of the tide. It was very tricky to climb back up, and I was glad of a helping hand for the last bit. Several people slipped, but no damage was done to person or property.

A bumpy ride back to the main road, then a bumpy ride off main road to a cacao plantation. Lunch was provided, a starter of a type of corn cake, main course chicken with rice, then a pudding with freshly ground chocolate.

After lunch, the local guide showed us how chocolate is made. We all sampled the sweet flesh on the outside of a cacao bean. Some beans which had been fermented and dried earlier were then roasted over a flame. Those beans were liberated from their coats, and run through a grinder. A thick, chocolate liquid was the result. Our local guide made us hot chocolate from the liquid, adding in lemon grass to take away some of the bitterness.

We headed back to the main road, and on to Guayaquil. Kingfishers and various birds of prey sat on electricity lines near the ponds which we passed. We crossed over the river and into the city proper, where we checked into a modern hotel with the bliss of air conditioning.

The intention had been to go for a walk, and find a local restaurant. But the heavens opened while we were in the hotel bar, so we ate at the hotel instead. The guide and driver were given our thanks and presented with an envelope of tips. I’d organised their tips, but I asked on of the others to present them. He did such a good speech that our driver thought the man had done the work to collect the tips, and came up to thank him profusely afterwards! I kept my mouth shut. 

Sonja and I went to our room and worked on our packing for the flights home. 

27 February

I found the room too hot to sleep well--Sonja had said she wouldn’t be able to sleep with the noise of the air conditioner so we turned it off when we went to bed. I also kept finding new mosquito bites. The nasty things had somehow found a way through even my thick trousers. 

As most of us weren’t flying back home until the evening, our guide took us on a 90 minute walk through Guayaquil. All of us were charmed to find that iguanas live in one of the city’s parks. We went to the riverfront, passing a tree of conures on the way. I thought it ironic that I didn't see any parrots in the Amazon, but did so in the middle of a city! We also enjoyed seeing the tree iguanas which lived in a local park. 

The morning was already quite warm, so I was pleased to have time to take a shower before finishing up my packing. Sonja and I had to leave our room at 1pm. We joined the others in the bar, where I worked on photos until we were collected by our airport shuttle at 4pm.

Our flight was 8pm Ecuadorian time, and took nearly twelve hours. 

28 February

As ever, I couldn’t sleep on the plane. I finished working on the last of my photos and watched some movies. 

Our two hour wait at Amsterdam was extended by a 40 minute wait on the plane, due to bad weather conditions at Heathrow. We arrived 5pm UK time, and then I took the underground to Euston Train Station. The sandwich wrap the airline had served on the flight to London didn’t agree with me, but I managed to hold everything together until I was in the toilets at Euston. 

Somehow I managed not to fall asleep on the train from Euston to Northampton. By the time I’d taken a taxi home, it was 9pm and I’d not had any sleep for nearly thirty-four hours. I dumped my bags in the hallway, brushed my teeth, changed into my pyjamas, and went straight to bed! 

If you’ve enjoyed reading my travel accounts, you might enjoy reading my books! The first novel in my ‘Penny White’ fantasy series is only 99p for Kindle, free on Kindle Unlimited, and also available in paperback. Click on the image below to be taken to Amazon to buy your copy. My author website can be accessed by clicking here.