Tuesday, 11 August 2009

¿Y que tal le parece Perú?

(Monday, 10 August 2009)

Every taxi driver. The hostel receptionist. The police in the street you ask directions to. The young couple from Lima in beach vacations by the northern coast. The old couple who owns the random store you get into for a grocery purchase. All ask you how you’ve been finding your experience in their country so far. Eager that you’ve been liking it. Willing to recommend places to go, things to do, see, eat.

I was missing that friendliness – since Colombia, I guess. That easy smile on the face. That easiness to initiate a conversation, proactively. That curiosity in knowing where you’re from, how’s life like in your home country.

Yes, I had missed that…

Don’t take me wrong: I met very nice people in Ecuador too… The guy who worked at a mountaineering shop who provided me all the information and help he could possibly give me in order to guide me through my exploration of a volcano, spending precious hours offering me explanations, tips and hints in exchange for nothing, while other store owners closed their doors on my face once they found out I would not contract them any tour and thus pay them any money. He, who lent me his own high-tech, brand new alpine mountaineering tent just because the store had none available – to me, who he had just met, and could easily come back with the equipment damaged or not return at all. Or the old man who saw me come back from the volcano, half-dead and with a big backpack, and kindly and proactively offered me a ride on his truck.

Yes, I met very nice people in Ecuador. There are nice and unpleasant people everywhere – a country’s people doesn’t adhere rigidly to an average archetype; it follows more of a bell-shaped curve, right? I just found, on average, Ecuadorians a bit more reserved, less talkative, less curious and proactively welcoming of visitors, that’s all.

Yes, I missed it: “¿Y como la ten pasado en Colombia?”, “¿Y que tal le parece Perú?”

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Naming and advertising, made in Peru

(Friday, 7 August 2009)

In Trujillo...

Really?! Wouldn't most men say the same?

It's the way shops advertise the need for new (female) employees. It's also the naming of some of the very numerous casinos around: "Tragamonedas". "Tragamonedas"?! Why not add the tagline "We suck your wealth to the bone"?! What kind of starting confidence do you want to give to your prospective gambling clients?
There is one I like though: "locutorios". That's how they call the telecom shops where you can make phone calls from a booth. "Locutorio". I like it...

The winners take the spoils

(Thursday-Saturday, 6-8 August 2009)

Google map: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=pt-PT&geocode=&q=trujillo+peru&sll=53.800651,-4.064941&sspn=12.739664,28.168945&ie=UTF8&ll=-5.922045,-79.233398&spn=5.352645,11.206055&z=7

Interesting to know what the Inca managed to do in not much more than a century…

First, it was news to me how short-lived their conquer of the Andes, in Peru and beyond, was – not much longer than 100 years since the beginning of their expansionism to their defeat at the hands of the Spanish. Second, it was also news to me how similar their attitude towards the civilisations their conquered was to the one the Roman Empire had in its time: crush the opponents militarily, then crush them again with a heavy tax burden, but at the same time let them continue with their local government, traditions and culture. To minimise the risk of revolts, I guess… Third, it was again news to me (but also a bit inconsistent with the previous point?) how condescending they were towards those same civilisations when time came to narrate to the Spanish what other cultures had predeceased them – “no-one, just savages who did nothing but wonder around naked”.

Not quite... I guess the winners take the spoils and are entitled to write history as they wish to. And it's even easier to "write" it in the way you want when none of the civilisations before you (not even yours as matter of fact!) had a written language. You just need to open your mouth and say whatever comes to mind - what historical papers will be found to prove you wrong?

It’s actually incredible the variety and richness of pre-Inca cultures that lived in Peru. I've just been having a taste of it in the northern coast. I visited Chan-Chan, the mega capital of the Chimú (who ruled between 850-1470 d.C.) and apparently the biggest adobe city in the world, and the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna, the big temples of the Moche, who predeceased the Chimú in more or less the same region, around 200 a.C.-850d.C.

These are very deteriorated sites, because of the materials used for their construction, their old age, and the harshness of the conditions that the El Niño imposes every once in a while on this coast. But they are still very impressive. Imagining these cultures built all this without even the advent of the wheel... How on earth did they manage that?

By the way, I can recommend Trujillo, the big city just by the ruins. It has very nice colonial architecture, even if only strictly limited to the city centre – the old quarter. Everything else about the city is just vast (very vast, actually) and uncharacteristic construction surrounded by the rocky desert. Not much to write home about there, with the exception of a couple of interesting bars and restaurants, and a very trendy sushi lounge. Not that I tried the sushi…


Trujillo's old quarter (all of the above)

Chan-Chan: a mega adobe city, of which only a very small portion is visible today. By the way, they have taken "reconstruction" a bit too literally here...

The Huaca del Sol y de la Luna is perfectly located vis-à-vis its natural surroundings. The temples, which were constructed one on top of the other, generation after generation, until they reached a pyramid-like shape, resemble closely this majestic mountain. Perfectly shaped, surrounded by the lowlands of the desert. Just perfect, just beautiful

Rich carvings and the surrounding ruins of the old urban area seen from Huaca de la Luna. Huaca del Sol is seen at far - it's not being visited currently as it's pretty much all covered in desert sand; the archaeologists are waiting for funding to continue with the research. Why is there never money for this kind of stuff?!

The first of the last stops

(Monday-Wednesday, 3-5 August 2009)

Google map: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=pt-PT&geocode=&q=los+organos+peru&sll=38.831513,-96.338612&sspn=33.371539,56.337891&ie=UTF8&ll=-3.658705,-80.406189&spn=1.343052,2.801514&z=9

Here I am, in Peru. Which will be the last destination in my 7-month wondering around LatAm. So, I guess this is the first of the last stops…

This is the beach of Los Organos, in the (truly!) desert coast of northern Peru. It’s just half hour, but a million miles, away form Máncora, probably the most popular beach hangout in Peru.

After running away from Máncora, scared by an overdeveloped and uninteresting offer of restaurants, bars and internet cafes mostly targeted at foreign tourists, I found a quiet settlement, which feels local and where the fishermen come to you just for a nice talk.

Once again on this trip I realise you often don’t need to walk that far to run away from the tourist traps of this world…

The road from Máncora to Los Organos. True rock & sand desert around here...

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Chili con carne

(Saturday-Monday, 1-3 August 2009)

Google map: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=pt-PT&geocode=&q=cuenca+ecuador&sll=-2.918868,-79.098644&sspn=0.16801,0.350189&ie=UTF8&ll=-2.893667,-79.021397&spn=2.687972,5.603027&z=8

There are strange “urban myths” that become associated with countries, places. Take “chili con carne”, for instance. Typical Mexican food, right? Well, did you know it’s virtually impossible to find it in Mexico (so have fellow travellers told me!) because… Mexicans don’t actually eat it, traditionally?!

I guess it’s a bit like the association of barbequed chicken with Portugal… How often have I heard something along the lines of “Oh, you’re from Portugal? I’m so into your traditional food – I just love your BBQ chicken!”. Since when did BBQ chicken become a traditional Portuguese dish?! OK, we may order it on Sundays when no-one in the house has patience to cook… But, that’s it!

Thanks to fast-food like Nando’s – a very popular BBQ restaurant chain in the UK, owned by a Portuguese emigrant in South Africa, that advertises it as “traditional Portuguese food” side-by-side with a “galo de Barcelos” – our country has been associated in the British mind with the damn food. Apparently there is another so-called traditional Portuguese BBQ restaurant chain in Australia. Now, who will convince the British and the Australians otherwise?

I think a similar myth has been created around Cuenca, a “magical city rich in colonial architectural heritage”. One that rivals the beauty of Quito’s old quarter, they say.

Bollocks! Quito's old quarter is magical; Cuenca is... just not special! Just a few churches and less than a hand-full of genuinely interesting villas, surrounded by the normally dull and uncharacteristic constructions of the 20th century. The colonial-to-modern buildings ratio in the “historical centre” so low that I had to check several times in the map (and ask around) if I was actually visiting the right areas of Cuenca.

But now go convince people about it... I think it’d be easier to tell them BBQ chicken is not so Portuguese after all!


Cuenca's main plaza

Some of Cuenca's most interesting buildings. I looked around for them and tried hard, OK?

Knock, knock, knocking on the Amazon’s door

(Wednesday-Friday, 29-31 July 2009)

Google map: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=pt-PT&geocode=&q=puyo+ecuador&sll=-2.893667,-79.021397&sspn=2.687972,5.603027&ie=UTF8&ll=-1.454159,-78.126526&spn=0.672692,1.400757&t=h&z=10

Baños (check on the left of the Google map) is a small village surrounded by stunning Andes scenery. Probably one the locations with the most impressive natural setting I’ve ever seen. Imagine the cliffs that surround Andorra becoming even steeper, surrounding the city 360º, and getting lush green. It’s something like that…

It must have been an idyllic place years, perhaps decades ago. But now it has been taken over by tourism. The bad type of tourism. It’s a Mecca of cheap forms of adrenaline-rush activities, ranging from rafting to mountain biking. The proximity of the still very active volcano Tungurahua adds to the mix. Dozens and dozens of low quality tourist agencies all offering the same type of standardised and uninteresting tours. Oh!, how I looooooove those bloody agencies!! Zero differentiation in their offering, all targeting the same type of traveller, with the same type of pre-packaged experiences. To hell with you!!!

I arrived to Baños still half-dead from my climbing experience to Chimborazo, got quickly amazed by the beautiful scenery and even quicker depressed by the touristy feel of the town. Decided to leave early the following day. And so I did.

But then decided to go back… Only because I did the Baños-Puyo road on a bus, and was deeply impressed by the stunning beauty of the ride. I had to do it on my own, by bike, I though! And so I did. Got the bus from Puyo back to Baños, time for another night in the tourist getto, a good football match with the locals in the late afternoon, and a 44km bike ride the following day, repeating the Baños-Puyo road that I had done the day before. With all the back & forwards counted, I did that journey 5 times!! Every time was worth it…

I don’t think the pictures capture the beauty of the place properly. The road navigates a valley that goes from deep Andean mountains all the way to the beginning of the Amazon plateau. The valley opens up gently, and the gorge surrounded by lush green cliffs gives way bit by bit to more tropical landscape, of gentler shapes.

There is something magical about seeing this transition from the Andes mountain range to the world’s biggest tropical forest just in front of your eyes, just below your feet. I don't know... I was just blown away by it...

I did that journey 5 times, right? I would have done it 10 times, if needed be…


Please forget the stupid helmet - focus on the surroundings! :-D

Steep cliffs, narrow valley, beautiful scenery


Waterfalls everywhere, including on the road...

Lush, lush, lush green...

And here it is, the valley opening up gently, welcoming the Amazon, just in from of me...

The Amazon's door

Don't aim too high

(Tuesday-Wednesday, 28-29 July 2009)

Google map:

After my solo hike around volcano Cotopaxi – see 3 posts below – I saved my first experience with crampons and ice axe for volcano Chimborazo’s summit. At 6,268 meters, is the highest mountain in Ecuador, and due to the Earth’s bulge at the equator, it's also the closest you can get to the stars while with your feet on the ground. I couldn’t resist the temptation of climbing up to the Earth’s closest point to the sun, could I?

Well… I shouldn’t have aimed so high, I guess: I only managed to do half the climb, giving up at 5,700 meters, at 2h45 in the morning, after more than 3 hours going up, up, up. Always up.

I thought I was in pretty good shape. I thought I was more or less acclimatized to the high altitude, after my walks in Quilotoa and Cotopaxi. Actually I was. Just not enough!

The climb up is very, very tiring. You start around 23h30 (yes, at night, when the snow is harder and thus easier to navigate) from the last mountain refuge, at 5,000 meters, and you are expected to climb up for the next 7 hours all the way to the summit, and then around 3 other hours down, back to the base.

The lack of oxygen is punishing. For instance, it was hard to fall asleep at the mountain refuge the night before. Whenever, almost with my eyes closed and an inch away from the arms of Morpheus, I’d forget to take slow and deep breaths, I’d be suddenly awaken by the need to inhale deeper, with my heart beating faster than normal. Then, I would inhale profoundly, only for the scene to repeat itself a few scarce minutes later. Now imagine what the lack of oxygen does to you when you’re climbing up the mountain, hitting the snow hard with your crampons for hours, and using the axe to help you navigate a 45º ice slope…

The best views of the mountain I managed to get were actually from… the day before and the day after the climb! Going up during the night with only a flashlight in your forehead iluminating a few scarce meters around you means you don’t see much beyond rock, ice, snow and stars. Plenty of stars!

So yes, the recollections I have from the experience are most of the hard physical effort I had to pull. Oh yes – and of the unforgettable sound that sometimes the ice platforms make when you step on them with your crampons, cracking loudly, making you think someone must be firing a weapon right on your back.

From the refuge, the summit seems just there. At your arms’ reach. It’s hard to believe you need 7 long hours to get there. But you do. First, your eyes trick you and things are of a much larger scale than what they seem: when, in the next morning I was back down at the refuge and saw a couple of climbers in the mountain, I couldn’t believe how small and insignificant they were against the massive landscape around them. Second, some of the slopes are quite steep, and making the same repetitive effort of kicking the snow the all time to fix well your crampons, in an environment poor in oxygen, just tires up your lunges and muscles completely.

I thought of giving up 3 or 4 times before I eventually did. I tried to push my resistance further and further, but the thought of having yet another 3 good hours to reach the summit just felt overwhelming. And my mountain guide was starting to feel worried I would be no longer in good conditions to walk my way down on my own if I continued to push any further. If climbing up is a huge effort for your thighs and lungs, walking down really pushes for your knees, as you need to keep fixing your crampons tight on the ice in order not to slip…

When I finally arrived back at the refuge, well after 4h30 in the morning, I was happy I had made the decision to go back when I did: I was more tired than I had ever been in my life. And if half of me was thinking I might had made it to the summit if I had pushed a bit further, the other half was thinking how beyond overwhelming the way down would have been if I had decided that way…

I made a few mistakes. I was thinking the all time how much more I would have to walk to reach the top, instead of cooling down and thinking of a step at a time, for instance. Also, we were walking too fast the first hour, when I was feeling great and should have saved some energy for later. Last but surely not least, I should have climbed a few lower summits to learn better how to use the ice gear and get better acclimatized. Even very experienced mountaineers spend a good week doing so around other mountains in Ecuador before attempting Chimborazo, but I didn’t. Who the hell did I think I was?!

I have to say I came back from this experience with a sour taste in my mouth. From only seeing darkness during my climbing attempt, instead of an unforgettable sunrise from high up, at the summit. From having tried and failed.

But stupid me, I made the biggest of the mistakes well earlier I even set my feet on the mountain: I aimed too high.

Well, that’s a learning which should prove useful not only in future mountaineering attempts but also in general. I know so damn well how often I incurred in that very same mistake in my professional and personal life…

I should think about it for my round 2 with alpine mountaineering. I know there will be one soon enough – I’ve just developed too strong of a taste for high altitude mountains not to do it again.

Yep, I’m starting to dream of my next vacations in the Alps…

View of Chimborazo from the road that gives access to the lower mountain refuge, at 4,800 meters

Getting started on the use of crampons and ice axe, in the afternoon before the climb

Taking it easy at the last mountain refuge, at 5,000 meters

Yep, that's the best view I had of the bloody mountain! By the way, the very top is hidden behind this first summit. It takes around 45 minutes from there to reach it

5,700 metes at 2h45 in the morning. Time to throw the towel. My face looks like this because of the camera's flash, but that's exactly how I was feeling - too damn tired!

Tasting sour in my mouth. Early morning of the following day, back at the mountain refuge at 5,000 meters. Next time, dude. Next time! Better prepared...

I'm a local

(Sunday, 26 July 2009)

Google map: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=pt-PT&geocode=&q=riobamba+ecuador&sll=53.800651,-4.042969&sspn=12.739664,28.168945&ie=UTF8&ll=-1.524173,-78.700562&spn=2.690448,5.603027&z=8

Not sure if the graffiti author is also the store owner, but seems like my name is popular around here. In Riobamba, Ecuador.