Monday, February 27, 2017

ECUADOR - Quito (January 26 -28, 2017)

We arrived at Quito's new airport in the late morning. The airport is a long drive - 18km - from the centre of the city and the services connecting the two are not yet straightforward. The airport shuttle we took dropped us at a bus terminal where we had to get a taxi for the remainder of the journey. A taxi directly from the airport to the city centre would have been cheaper and more convenient.

Although Quito is very close to the equator, its location 2,850 metres above sea level means that the air is cool. During our stay the weather was quite changeable: sometimes dark and cloudy with an occasional rain shower, sometimes bright and sunny. 
Our hotel, in a historic building adjoining a pedestrian street, had a lovely central courtyard festooned with greenery.

However, only a few of the rooms opened onto this space. Ours opened off a corridor that ran around the outside wall of the building. This corridor had lovely casement windows overlooking the street, but the room only had a skylight and high transom windows opening onto the corridor. The room itself had a high ceiling and was spacious and comfortable, but the lack of a view out, even if only into a light well, was a drawback.

The location was excellent for walking around the inner city and we were impressed by the number of streets in this area that have been turned into pedestrian thoroughfares.

 The wide avenues provided lots of space for vendors of various goods - like flowers,

... fruit,

... grilled plantains

...and particularly soft icecream, which seemed to be a local favourite.

A one-man band attracted much less attention.

The old centre of the city has its share of beautiful colonial buildings.

This last one faced a square full of pigeons, which also made it a popular place for young children.

We visited the museum, housed in a lovely old mansion with a tranquil courtyard.

From the terrace of its very modern addition, we had good views of the densely-populated hillsides.

Among the most impressive exhibits inside were a couple of unusual parquet floors (hard to photograph because of the slanting light.)

Not all the interesting art was in the museum. This mosaic, high on a wall above a bus stop was easy to miss, but it caught my eye.

So did this giant monkey-puzzle tree (Araucaria verticillata) in one of the many plazas.

In many modern cities in North America the art of window-dressing seems to have died out. Not so in Quito where colourful fabrics in particular were artistically displayed.

On one of the warmest days we visited the botanic garden, where one of the first things we saw was a young man teaching his little son how to water the plants.

There was lots of lush foliage to admire,

... and some fascinating flowers.

An interesting detail was the use of decaying water hyacinths as a mulch around a bed of roses.

But the highlight was their orchid collection. I took a lot of photos but restricted myself to just a few for this blog.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

PERU: Paracas and the Coast (January 24-25, 2017)

Arriving in the tropical heat and humidity of Paracas after the stark, cold beauty of the Andes was like switching from black-and-white to full colour. Bright flowers like Hibiscus were everywhere.

 In the town's small square, bougainvilleas were rioting over a pergola.

Along the seafront cheery little boats were floating on the blue water.

The heat and humidity drew a few locals to the beach, although few were swimming.

Most people preferred to seek the shade in one of various cafes along the Malecon,

... where they were serenaded by an assortment of buskers.

Seagulls and a lone black pelican hung about, hoping for scraps. A couple of enterprising characters with a bucket of small fish had lured the pelican and were doing a good trade charging for photos.

We spent a couple of days enjoying the laid-back vibe and watching the parade of locals, backpackers and well-heeled city folk before catching a bus for the two-hour run back to Lima.

The route was along a four-lane divided highway, another contrast with the narrow, winding roads of the mountains. Although it was a sunny day, the bus's tinted windows made everything greyer than in reality. On the ocean side we passed huge sand dunes,

... and small beaches, often lined by gated communities or a roadside strip of restaurants and bars.

We were returning to the lovely Hostal El Patio for our final night in Peru, and that evening took the opportunity to visit Amazonia, a nearby shop selling crafts from the interior villages.

Travelling with only a carry-on bag each prevents our buying souvenirs like these attractive little paintings.

 However, we did find room for a hand-embroidered runner that now adorns our old pine coffee table.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

PERU: Huancavelica to the Coast (January 23,2017)

Our plan was to find our way from Huancavelica to Paracas on the coast and from there eventually back to Lima. Guidebooks and internet searches had turned up nothing to indicate that we could do this, but since the alternative was to go back the way we'd come, we were determined to check out all possibilities.

We found out that Perubus and one other company ran buses on this route, but both left in the late evening and arrived very early in the morning. Since we wanted to make the trip by daylight, we checked with a couple of local collectivo/taxi companies and were able to book a ride leaving at 10:00 am. The journey had its minor discomforts and some hair-raising moments, but the jaw-dropping scenery was more than worth it.
We set off in a Kia sedan with Michael in the front seat and me squeezed into the back with two other passengers. The route wound back and forth across the mountainsides, at first through treeless, terraced grasslands

 ... and later through snowy wastes.

We were relieved to have a sensible middle-aged driver who navigated the difficult route with great caution, honking the horn as he approached the many blind corners.
 Occasionally we passed herds of alpacas or vicunas, sometimes accompanied by a shepherd.

 Once or twice we saw deserted buildings, perhaps shelter for shepherds in the drier months.

But mostly we travelled through an empty, silent, dazzlingly beautiful landscape.

It really did feel like the top of the world, especially at Lake Choclocotcha, 4700 metres above sea level. A website called dangerousroads describes the area this way: "With such a high summit altitude, the road can be closed anytime due to snowfalls. The zone is prone to heavy mist and can be dangerous in low visibility conditions.  Avalanches, heavy snowfalls and landslides can occur anytime, being extremely dangerous due to frequent patches of ice." We did become enveloped in fog for several kilometres, and several times had to squeeze past enormous boulders that had fallen on the road, but other potential dangers didn't arise.

Descending from Choclacocha, we negotiated even more switchbacks. This clip from Google maps shows just a small section:

 Eventually we arrived in a small town called Castrovirreyna, where our taxi driver pulled up and indicated that we should disembark. We understood that this was as far as he was coming and we'd be continuing in another vehicle. We sheltered from the fog and drizzle in the depot, a small, pale green concrete building while we waited to begin the next leg.

After about half an hour a minivan arrived and we boarded, along with one of our previous travelling companions and several newcomers making the rest of the journey to the coast. We had a younger driver, with two young women sharing the front seat with him. One of these talked incessantly, sometimes distracting his attention from the road, which didn't make us too happy. Since the van was not full, we now stopped at assorted little settlements along the way to pick up or set down passengers.

Somewhat to our dismay, we had to backtrack all the way up to Lake Choclacocha to connect with the road going west. Although this was better-paved and slightly wider, we still had to negotiate various rockfalls and once passed a group of men levering a boulder off the road with several crowbars. The heart-in-mouth moment, however, was crossing a washout that heavy rain higher up had unleashed onto our road and over the cliff edge beyond. We watched as a semi-trailer ahead of us picked its way cautiously across, up to its axles in rushing water.

Then it was our turn. Encouraged by some men on the other side, our driver followed the semi. Looking out my side window, I could see the whitewater rushing under us.

After that, nothing seemed risky. As we gradually wound our way down, the terrain became gentler and more cultivated, and the weather milder. It was getting on for dark by the time we arrived at San Clemente, just inland from Pisco, where we transferred to a minicab to cover the final 20 km to our destination in Paracas.