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Ecuador – Living near the Center of the Earth

Introduction

The first word that Ecuador should evoke in everybody’s mind should be Equator. Ecuador is one of the countries through which Equator passes. That in itself is an attraction of this place. Add to that the diverse geographic regions including the Galapagos Islands where Charles Darwin solved the mystery of human evolution and one cannot resist and opportunity to visit this land.

The Government and Political Environment

Ecuador is a democratically governed country although it has had its share of trouble. In September of 2010 there was an attempt to overthrow the present government by the police of the country. They held the president for a few days before the army rescued the President and restored normalcy once again. The country has had a volatile history including lynching of one of the Ex-Presidents by the country’s populace.
Political power centers are Quito which is the capital and Guayaquil which is the biggest city along the coast and there has always been a power struggle between the two sides.

The People and General Culture

The language spoken in Ecuador is Spanish. Very few people speak or understand English. The people are very friendly at a personal level. There are essentially two sections of people; the first are the people who are of Spanish origin; and the second is set of people belonging to the native tribes. The former are the descendents of the Spanish rulers who came to this continent and established their colony in the Latin American countries. The native population has its own languages although most of it is dying and most of them speak Spanish.
The education is primarily in Spanish. There is a smattering of private schools which are bi-lingual and teach English alongside Spanish. But these are only within the reach of the elite and so only a very small portion of the populace is able to take advantage of this.
The people are in general Catholic Christians.
The gentlemen greet each other by shaking their hands like in other countries. It takes a while before they start addressing each other by first names. The ladies greet all others by touching their right cheek.
Their greetings is elaborate and irrespective of the urgency of the work they go through the elaborate greeting sequence before getting down to business. Their greetings go as follows:
1st person: Good Morning.
2nd Person: Good Morning. How are you?
1st Person: I am fine. Thank you. How are you?
2nd Person: I am fine. Thank you.
And after this exchange the business can start. In case of ladies the touching of cheeks happen along with the greetings. If this is a meeting which involves multiple people then this greeting is exchanged with practically everybody in a meeting before business starts.
When boarding a taxi one is expected to greet the driver in the above fashion, or atleast exchange a “Good Morning” or “Good Afternoon” as the case may be and then request the driver to take you to your destination with a please.
When sending email the ladies like to be addressed as dears and it is good to use “please” before we ask them to do something. The name changes when one addresses them as dear. E.g. a lady called Laura become Laurita, a Susana becomes Susy and a Consuela becomes Consuelita. The word for please is “por favor”. This is a word that one will hear and speak numerous times in a day.

The Economic Situation

Although the per capita income is about 7500 USD which is much above the Indian per capita income, it is not a rich country. The gap between the poor and the rich is very wide, probably wider than it is in India. The Economic policies in Ecuador is similar to the Indian policy before the liberalisation. It is a closed economy with all protection for the local industries. The import duties are high to discourage buying of foreign goods and services. They do not have their own currency but use US Dollars as their currency. This was a change introduced about a decade ago as their economy was in a state of collapse and their currency was sinking. Despite this the ruling government, today, has a leaning towards Hugo Chavez of Venezuela who is anti-american.
Ecuador is one of the biggest exporters of Cocoa. Crude export is another trade that sustains the economy. Thankfully they have not opened up the Amazonian forests for oil exploration like other other countries in the region, especially Brazil. The crude is mined only from the coastal region.

The Work Culture

The work culture is like the one in the Indian Governmental Organization and/or Public Sector undertakings. The laws of the land are labour centric and the union mentality prevails. The people are laid back and work only during the office hours. One will find hardly few souls working late hours.
The work will get done only if the manager instructs the work to be done. They do not feel obligated to do the work if it comes from somebody other than one’s manager.

The Travels

Ecuador has three distinct geographic regions; the Amazonian Forests; the Andes; the Coast. In addition it has the Galapagos Islands. One has a lot of diversity to experience in this country. The Equator is about 21 Kms north from center of Quito. One would expect a hot and humid tropical climate because of this fact. But one would be surprised to find that the maximum temperature in Quito is only 24 degrees Celsius and the temperature can fall to as low as 8 to 9 degrees Celsius every night. This is because it is situated at a height of about 2800 meters above the sealevel. This is higher than many of the hill stations that we have in India. Quito has many attractions, the main one being the Equator. The place where the Equator passes through is called “Mitad del Mundo” (The Center of the Earth). There is a monument erected there in memory of the pioneers who explored and reached that place. There is also a museum where one can see some interesting facts like the Coriolis effect. This is the effect which explains why the cyclones/hurricanes rotate in the clockwise direction in the Southern Hemisphere and rotate in the anti-clockwise direction in the Northern Hemisphere. If one drains the water from a sink at home one can see that the water always goes in the anti-clockwise direction when left to itself because we are in the northern hemisphere. If we go to the southern hemisphere we will see the water draining in a clockwise direction. At the equator one can see the water draining within a circular motion.
Quito also has a collection of churches which have interesting stories to tell and have an interesting architecture. The city has a lot of parks where one can enjoy a day of picnic. The main ones are the Metropolitana which would qualify to be a small woods on its own, then one has the Carolina Park and the El Ejido and many others. One also has the Teleferiqo or the Cable car which takes one up to a height of 4100 meters above sealevel close to the crater Pichincha. From here one can trek upto the mouth of the crater which is at a hieght of about 4650 meters above sea-level. In the Andes one can easily get the feeling of being literally in the clouds as from the top of these mountains one can see the clouds wafting below in the valleys.
Ecuador is a country known for its volcanoes. The major ones are Cotopaxi, Tungurahua, and Antisana. The Tungurahua is an active volcano from which one can see fire and smoke coming every once in a few months. One can also here the rumbling if one is close to the mountain. Some craters, like the one at Cuicocha, are not active and are filled with water now forming a lake. It is difficult to describe the beauty of the place and one has to see it and experience it to understand it.
The Amazon forests have their own beauty. The greenery, needless to say, is abundant in this region and one has perpetual rains in this region. There are very few wild animals and it is difficult to spot birds unless one goes with a person who knows the locale. And since as a tourist one does not venture into the real dense forests one does not see snakes either. But it an experience staying in the Jungle, far away from the madding crowd and hustle bustle of the city. The only sounds that one can here are either the insects chirping away to glory or the river water gurgling nearby.
The border between the Andes and the Amazonian forests has numerous cascades and each one is a treat to see.
The coast has its own beauty to offer. Aquamarine waters and clean sand and equatorial sun. The ideal place to get a tan. One needs to be careful too as one can get sun burnt if one does not take the necessary precaution.
One has adventure sports at most of these locations not limited to kayaking, bungee jumping, canopying, riding the rapids, para gliding, rappelling the cascades. If one likes trekking this is one of the places that one would enjoy the most. It is a wonderful place for trekking and one can trek for hours together without seeing another human soul.

The Travails

Despite the beauty Ecuador has its dark side, especially Quito. Since Ecuador has an open border, i.e. one does not need a visa to enter Ecuador as a tourist; one can get a three month visa on arrival; one can encounter violent muggings in the streets. This is limited to the big cities of Quito and Guayaquil and few others. One cannot safely move around with expensive equipment like laptop or camera or even a mid range phone. One can get robbed of these at gun point. It is always better to move about in groups and stay away from lonely place especially during the time between 7:00 PM and 10:00 PM to avoid unsavoury incidents. The local police does not help much in tracing these crimes.

After a night’s rest at Vrindavan we decided to try out luck to see if we could get a chance to enter one of the hot springs. But it was not to be as, it was Easter Sunday there were many devotees who were more keen than us to get into the springs. So we gave that up and went back to Vrindavan.

On the way back we stopped at one of the waterfalls along the route of waterfalls. This waterfalls had a cable car that took people across the valley and adventurous ones could also canopy back across the valley. So we took the cable car and about seven of us decided to canopy back.

The waterfalls.

The cable car ride

The panorama around the waterfalls.

After that we returned back to Vrindavan. Here some of us decided to take a bath in the waterfalls that was nearby and two of trekked with the ISCKONites along the hills beyond the waterfalls. It was quite some hike. It started raining and so we could not capture any photographs of the trail that we took. To say that least some parts were quite treacherous. But it was fun nevertheless. We came down the hill and went to the river that flows behind Vrindavan. Here we had our bath in practically freezing cold water. It was a pleasant experience.
Got to see a spider in its web at the entrance of Vrindavan and saw a stick insect crawling its way under the idol of Lord Shiva.

The spider that posed for me

The willing spider

One of the croton that were abundant in the area

The waterfalls where some people had their bath

The Stick Insect

One way back to Quito, after a late lunch, we had another glimpse of fuming Tungurahua.

The Tungurahua

A week after our visit Tungurahua was in full flow and was gurgling and regurgitating boulders from its mouth and it spewed ash clouds to a height of 10 KM.

Vridavan
At Vrindavan we rested a bit and then towards the evening we left for the city of Banos to see the Church.
Some flora at Vrindavan to get an idea of the beauty of the place.

A waterfalls in front of Vrindavan

The only place in Ecuador where one can find an idol of Lord Shiva, just outside Vrindavan.

Lord Shiva at Vrindavan

A stick insect.

Vridavan is situated amidst the Amazonian forest, albeit in the outskirts. It has a river running behind and one can hear the sound of the water flowing through the night. It is a very pleasant sound.
The Church
The Church is situated at the heart of the town. And this is the view at night.

The Roof of the Church

After visiting the Church we retired for the day to Vrindavan.

Banos is a small town south of Quito. It borders the Andean and the Amazonian regions within Ecuador. Nearby to this town is the peak of Tungarahua which is one of the angry volcanoes in Ecuador and keeps spewing smoke and fire every once in a while.

Banos in Spanish means bathroom and this place is called so because of the presence of Hot water springs in the town. The actual name is Banos de Agua Santa, mean bathroom of Holy Water.

On the way one cannot miss the angry Tungarahua. The story local goes that Cotopaxi is a male volcano and Tungurahua is a female. Once Tungurahua proposed to Cotopaxi and the proposal was rejected. From them on Tungurahua is angry and keeps spewing smoke and ash every once in a while.

The day we reached was one of those days when Tungurahua had decided to vent her anger. It was raining ash dust and the vehicles were caked with this fine dust. This dust is tricky and if one breathes too much of it, it can lead to respiratory problems.

Tungurahua in action

Tungurahua in action T

Some flora on the way to Banos

The first stop was Pailón Del Diablo, the Devil’s Cauldron. This is a waterfalls which falls from a height into a gorge. The name is apt for the waterfalls. The water falls with a great force and the water splashes in the gorge with great force.

The Waterfalls

The Swirling Waters in the Gorge

A panorama of Devil’s Cauldron

There are three terraces that have been constructed in front of the waterfalls for people to watch the action. At the lowermost balcony one can hardly avoid getting wet. Also there is a tunnel that has been dug alongside the hill through which one can walk close to the top of the falls and here if one wishes one can have a nice drenching bath.
Some videos of the waterfalls.

A sign that greeted us as we entered the winding trail that leads to the Waterfalls read “Be prepared to see sights which will make you believe God exists”.
And one does get this feeling as one walks along the trail leading to the Waterfalls.
Here are some sights that one comes across along the trail.

Peeled sweetlimes.

Peeled Sweet Limes, although they are more sour than sweet.

See how these sweet limes are peeled.

A tour bus that goes through the waterfalls route. All along the route one can see one waterfalls after another and it ends in the Devil’s Cauldron.

A cartoon on a tour bus.

The Caption reads, “This is Life”

This was taken through the window of our bus and if you notice you can see the ash deposited on the glass from the rain water.

After the visit to the Devil’s Cauldron we retired to our hotel called Vrindavan which is run by the ISKCON in Ecuador.

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Cotopaxi is one of the most loved volcanoes in Ecuador. People love to see it majestically stand heads about the plains around it. The Cotopaxi national park that surrounds this majestic peak has its own charm in the form lakes and different landscapes which one would normally need to travel miles to savour.

Some sights on the way to the mountain.

Panecillo

A panorama of city of Quito on the way to Cotopaxi

We left for the peak early in the morning and enjoyed the vistas offered by Ecuador’s countryside. The entrance to the park is a steep 10 dollars if you are not a Ecuadorian citizen and do not have the national card. For the Ecuadorian nationals and the ones with Ecuadorian national card the entrance is 2 USD.
At the entrance to the park, where one buys the ticket one has the skull of a few herbivores mounted on poles. Not sure why it has been kept there.

One of the skulls at the entrance

One of the skulls at the entrance

After the entrance begins the long climb, fortunately one can still go in a vehicle, to the parking lot at 4500 meters. Quito is at about 2800 meters above sea level so that is a climb of 1700 meters and it takes as expected quite some. One starts with coniferous trees and one ends up with a bleak landscape as one moves up ahead. If one is lucky one can get a glimpse of peak as one goes up the mountains. But we were not fortunate enough. There was enough of clouds swarming around the peak to deny us a good view of the peak.

Finally we reached the parking lot at 4500 meters after a traversing a winding road. Here we got off and started walking up to the refugee camp which is at a height of 4800 meters. It looked like a easy hike, but it took us all of 50 minutes to scale that hike. But it was nice hauling oneself up the steep slope. There were enough people trying to reach the refugee camp. There were also children as young as 4 – 5 years doing the climb and smaller ones were being carried by the parents.

One of the real Young ones climbing

All covered up and on the way to the top

Some children climbing the Cotopaxi
Some others puffing their way up.

The Refugee camp in the backdrop on the way up

Successful Rajesh at 4810 meters

That one can see birds at this height is really surprising. But here it is.

The snow capped Cotopaxi

The snow above the Refugee camp

The boy celebrating his fourth birthday at the refugee camp. What a birthday gift!!

At the refugee camp they have a small restaurant which serves hot soup and hot chocolate and has a little provisions of biscuits and chocolates. The former were very much required after climbing up the incline and we helped ourselves to hot chocolate and soup based on preference.

After a brief rest we went to explore a little above the refugee camp but we sorely lacked the ability to make any substantial progress. It was freezing cold. So after going up a few meters we went back to the refugee camp and had one more round of soup and hot chocolate and then we started the descent to the parking lot.

When we reached the parking lot we realized that our driver was hungry and so we shared some food that we had brought with us and after partially satisfying his hunger and to some extent ours we headed back to the plains.

On the way stopped at a Lake which offers a spectacle of the surrounding peaks reflected in it. Also there are birds which add to the beauty of the place.

The bird at the Lake Limpiopungo

The Peaks reflected in the waters of the lake

View near the lake

The view at the Lake Limpiopungo

The Lake Cuicocha is located in an now Extinct crater. Even as I say extinct there is some activity happening as the lake bubbles in different parts and one can see the bubbles that come up from the depths of the lake every once in a while.
There is a boat ride in the lake. One can see many ducks and storks along the bank of the lake and one the lake as one goes on the boat ride. The place is quite chilly, more chilly then one would find along the banks and so it will be better to be prepared with some good thick woolen clothing. It can rain so be prepared to safeguard your camera.
Here are some of the snaps.

The lake Cuicocha

The water

The boat on the lake

Duck on the lake

The peak Cotacachi which is an active volcano

A panorama of the lake Cuicocha

At the end of the boat ride they also give a hot herbal tea and believe me you will need one at the end of the ride.

A few kilometers off Otavalo there is this Parque de Condors which as the name suggests is a Park of Condors. Condor is the National bird of Ecuador and they are becoming extinct. This park was established to take care of the birds that are rescued from threatening environments.

The plaque at the entrance of the park

A plaque at the entrance of the park states that birds are not captured from its natural environment to be brought to this park, but only rescued birds are brought to this place.
They have a good collection of Owls, Eagles, Kites and the centerpiece of this park is a pair of Andean Condors. The condors were in a mood the day we went, not sure if it the same or better other days and they gave us an demo of their dance.
Could not capture it very well. But there are some pictures of them giving us a demo of their dance.

Posing for us.

Showing off how wide he is.

Showing off again

Here are some snaps of other birds of prey in the park.

A spectacled owl

Another owl

One more owl

Another owl

A snow owl

Another

A bald eagle screaming his head off

Looking ahead

A bird of prey

A trainer with the bird of prey

A close up of a bird of prey

And to top it the view in and from the park is fantastic.

The auditorium where the trainers show off the birds


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