September 17, 2011
It is barely past the noon hour when our vehicle enters the impressively clean and nicely gardened city of Loja, capital of the southernmost province of Ecuador’s Andean Region. Our four wheel drive makes its way to the pretty country-style Hostel, a boutique-school Hotel located on a residential area of the middle-sized city of Loja and less than ten minutes away from the colonial center of this beautiful city. Marcelo, Eulalia, Jose and I get ourselves settled into our comfortable rooms and have a few minutes to enjoy the beautiful gardens and tall trees, an oasis amidst a provincial capital city.
Our local hosts have invited us to a typical “lojano” luncheon, featuring the traditional “repe”, a delicious tasting thick soup with mashed green plantain, green peas and herb spices. The main course is a bountiful platter of roasted guinea-pig, with its share of crackling skin bits, hot “aji” pepper sauce and huge cooked potatoes smeared with a Creole sauce. A selection of local sweets and freshly brewed coffee from southern Ecuador complement the superb meal. This culinary introduction passes on the message that, as a growing trend, tourism these days is closely associated with the local and international gastronomy.
In the afternoon we tour Loja’s colonial centre with its nicely preserved cobble-stoned streets, pretty plazas, courtyards and monuments; while the towers and domes of a dozen colonial churches, over four hundred years in age, are some of the city’s main attractions. The architecture downtown shows nicely restored colonial houses with their typical balconies, interior courtyards with a central fountain and the overall charm of the Spanish-Andean architectonic style. Loja is traversed by the Malacatos River and this provides for a well designed lineal Park covering the length of the river as it crosses the city, and the venue for pleasant walks, biking lanes and park spaces with abundant willow trees. If there is a single word to accurately describe Loja, it is “charming”. The Villonaco Hill, an old volcano, provides a dramatic backdrop for the city, which regards the mountain as its natural guardian.
On a wide esplanade on the newer part of the city is the Jipiro Park, complete with sporting facilities, children’s games and a host of cultural and open-door activities. Lojanos are famous musicians and we are invited to a practice session of the local symphonic orchestra, playing traditional Ecuadorian music. The event is complemented with a session of informal singing and guitar playing (Loja has provided Ecuador with famous composers, poets and writers). For the evening we are treated to the famed Lojano tamales, aromatic coffee brought from nearby Zaruma, an area of high quality coffee; and, as a downer, a local spirit made of sugar cane. The night drive back to our Hotel shows us a beautiful Loja with its churches, convents and monuments ornamentally illuminated, a nice view to close a busy yet fascinating day.
The next morning we continue our journey, this time, south west of Loja, descending to the sub-tropical valley of Catamayo. The drive, as usual, is magnificently scenic as we drop more than one thousand feet on a well paved winding road. Catamayo is a hub for the sugar cane industry and we stop to visit one of its most renowned plantations, hundreds of acres of the plant, which nowadays is not only cherished as the raw material for producing sugar, liquors and other elements for human consumption; but also one of the basis for the production of ethanol, an alternative clean fuel. We continue our voyage, now heading west, towards the famous Sanctuary of Our Lady of El Cisne. The almost one hour ride takes us along a narrow road, winding along a deep gorge, the evidence of ancient geological activity. A brief stop at the quaint village of San Pedro de la Bendita to taste its famous bread, precedes our arrival to El Cisne town and its Sanctuary, located atop an amazing cliff, standing almost in the air, an impacting view from afar…. The local history claims that it is the exact location where the Virgin Mary appeared to some humble shepherds many decades ago. The huge neo-gothic Basilica, built entirely in solid granite rock from the nearby mountains, is one of the biggest in Ecuador and every year it congregates thousands of worshipers for a five day long procession with the precious image of Our Lady of El Cisne, warmly called “La Churona” by the faithful, due to the fact that the colonial sculpture presents an unusual Maddona, with very curly hair. The procession is one of Ecuador most impressive religious massive acts in the year’s calendar, while our local hosts remind us that there is an identified segment of tourism, precisely oriented to religious events and locations……
September 2, 2011
The morning has progressed and the sun continues to move higher towards the zenith of a blue sky, framed by the appalling greenery of the rainforest…. It is hot and humid, but we are more than happy as we are experiencing the memorable sights, sounds and smells of one the most pristine corners of Ecuador’s Amazon Rainforest, the great Yasuni National Park..
At the sandy shore of the Tiputini River, our dugout canoe is waiting for us. It has a retractile canvas roof and seats with rustic cushions. Alfredo is the boat driver, a native of the area whom he had met the day before. He greets us cheerfully. Willy, our native guide confers with him to discuss the route to be followed in the next hours. Juan, Sofia and I organize our day-packs; pick up extra water flasks and keep our video and photo equipments ready. Alfredo starts the engine and we start navigating the Tiputini, downstream. As we pick up speed, a pleasant breeze hits us directly from the canoe’s bow and makes us hang-on tightly to our hats so they don’t fly away in the river. Sailing these Amazonian rivers takes a whole lot of knowledge that only the experienced local boatmen can have: they can “read” by color and surface motion of the water, which are the right river “lanes” with sufficient depth to move forward at good speed, without getting stranded on a hidden sandbar.
The view of the rainforest from the middle of the river is awesome…. It looks like a never ending, humongous mesh of green vegetation. The huge canopy trees, like the legendary kapoks, stand up above the green mass. Flocks of parrots and colorful macaws noisily cross back and forth from one bank to the other. Two unidentified falcon-type raptors fly high over the forest. We check them with our binoculars hoping to get, even if a distant view of the mythical harpy eagle.
After a forty five minutes ride the canoe heads on directly to a small sandy beach at the southern shore of the Tiputini River. A few feet beyond the beach, a reddish and seemingly muddy cliff forms a natural wall. The coloration indicates the presence of iron minerals and thus, a mineral rich soil. It doesn’t take much for us to realize we are in front a salt lick, where, precisely the high mineral concentration attracts hundreds of birds that cling along the muddy cliff converting it into a multi-colored mural, where the reds, greens, yellows, bright blues and oranges, particularly of the hundreds of macaws, provide and unforgettable view, which we frantically catch on film and then let the scene tape into our eyes and minds, not to be forgotten again…
With regret we leave the awesome scene, not without checking out one more natural marvel along the sandy river banks: hundreds of lemon-green and sulfur-yellow butterflies, local relatives of the famous “monarch” butterflies, also congregate in large masses over portions of the sandy shores, providing new exclamations of surprise and marvel…. But the Yasuni is a natural paradise and one of the planet’s “hot spots” of biodiversity, so we still have more surprises to live on this brilliant day in the rainforest. Back to the dugout canoe, we move on another thirty minutes to enter a fascinating maze of narrow waterways and hidden mini-lakes. At the entrance, Alfredo reduces the speed and stops the engine. Now we quietly drift for a while and then he and Willy, with our occasional help, use the paddles. We must tread quietly here because yes… this is the realm of the secretive and shy, yet sometimes playful fresh-water or “pink” dolphins….. And of course, there they are: their pinkish bodies and dorsal fins emerging on and off from the water surface…. Their movements may indicate either feeding or courting behaviors. Or perhaps, they are just happy to see us… We are lucky to capture some great pictures and video footage of these magic, prehistoric freshwater mammals, landlocked since eons ago on the immensity of the Amazonian rainforest. They don’t seem bothered and we can get now some really spectacular views of these relatively small but rare and unique animals…..
It is well over the noon hour and, with the occasional splashes of river dolphins, the views of the thin and snake-shaped long necks and bodies of the anhinga birds taking flight from water runways and Willy telling us fascinating stories of how the native indigenous groups live in such remote yet paradisiacal isolation, we munch on our packed lunches and sip fruit juices as time seems to be halted for centuries on this magic natural kingdom in the remoteness of Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park…..
The sun shines more intensely now, as we start descending from San Juan Hill, after a breathtaking view of Quito. We soon enter the narrow and steep streets, lined up with Spanish style colonial houses. The traditional balconies are a trademark of this architectonic style and many of them are adorned with flower pots, featuring geraniums and other colorful flowers. The artistic street lamps complete postcard picture views everywhere…
Luis, the guide, points out several stone doors, skillfully carved into real pieces or art. We are reaching the heart of the Historic Centre of Quito, the largest in surface and best preserved of its kind in Latin America. No wonder this magic city was the first in the world to receive from UNESCO, the honorary title of World Cultural Heritage Site. Amidst the maze of narrow streets, scores of white towers and domes start dominating the scene… these are the numerous and centenary churches, convents and cloisters which cover much of the Colonial quarter of Quito….
We disembark at Independence Square, the heart of Ecuador’s history. The magnificent square is flanked by the 17th century Presidential Palace; the city’s Metropolitan Cathedral with its green domes; the Archbishop’s Palace and the City Hall. In the center is the column and statue to the heroes of Ecuador’s Independence, the first revolt staged against the Spanish dominion, sparked precisely in Quito, in 1809 and triggered the process which freed the South American countries from the Spanish domain. Luis explains in detail the statue’s multi-symbols and makes the actual stone and marble monument become alive with the symbolism and peculiar characteristics it bears. He also takes us to the main doors of the Cathedral, to observe close-by the superbly carved wooden sculptures of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Some pictures with the Presidential guard, wearing their picturesque 18th century uniforms, make us more happy… Diana keeps on observing and finding a million curiosities while I hold my breath, take a good naked-eye look at every angle, every scene and then start clicking the camera away…..
Next is the extraordinary Jesuit church of La Compañia, with its superbly stone carved façade and its interior, glittering with tons of gold panned altars, columns and ceilings. This is the masterpiece of the renowned Quito School of Art, developed during the early colonial years when Spanish and Flemish friars and architects mixed efforts, visions and skills with the native Indians, to produce some of the most spectacular works of religious art on earth… The view is just startling, awesome…. We learn more about the 1605 building, its construction and artistic features. No photos allowed here….
Then we walk for a block, admiring the little local shops, selling any and everything, from mouth watering ice cream cones to textiles or working tools. The ambiance is festive, friendly, most lively… And we emerge into the immense San Francisco Square, presided by the namesake church, an imposing temple built in 1535, over the ashes of what is claimed to had been the Palace of the last of the Inca Rulers, Atahualpa. The square teems with people, street actors, music shows, preachers, busy by passers and hundreds of pigeons…. Luis tells us a fascinating story about how the devil participated in the actual building of this enormous and historic stone square… From everywhere we look, the towers, domes and monuments, rising high, seem to actually pierce the blue sky…. Again that sensation of being on a city that is closer to the sky, it often seems as if we could actually touch it with our own hands…. And the story is still to be continued……