Sunday, June 30, 2013

Journey To The Centre Of The Earth

Although Guayaquil is the biggest and richest city in Ecuador, the cultural heart of the country lies inland, in the mountains. The country is split down the middle by two parallel mountain ranges about 80km apart and peppered with still-active volcanoes, creating a long, high valley nicknamed the Avenida de los Volcanos (Volcano Alley). It is this valley that is home to the iconic peaks of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo (the latter's peak being the furthest point from the centre of the earth thanks to the equatorial bulge) as well as the cultural poles of Quito in the north and Cuenca in the south. The Incas also mainly stayed there when they came conquering through*, as they were not big fans of the lowlands.

The iconic domes of Cuenca's cathedral dominate the city's skyline.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Banana Republic

I had imagined Ecuador to be little more than an extension of Peru in terms of landscape and culture with a strong, Andean-indigenous influence; instead the balance between European, indigenous and even black are quite balanced. I entered the country along the main coastal road, the Panamerican Highway, that snakes down the west side of the continent all the way to Tierra del Fuego. As it was a Sunday getting across the border involved some closed offices, hitching, getting taken the wrong way and some more hitching before I finally got my entry stamp and could continue on my way. The desert that defines Peru's coast had by now petered out and had given way to verdant, tropical fields. Not that it wasn't any more tedious on the eye: vast expanses of sand were replaced by vast plantations of banana monoculture that stretch as far as the eye can see. Not surprising considering that this small country is the world's largest exporter of bananas. But surprising given how large a part of the coastal diet is taken up by the yellow funny-fruit. Not a single meal is complete without a helping of verde (unripe) or maduro (ripe banana). Although that is an over-simplification as they can be fried, mashed into flour, baked and steamed. Plus there are far more different varieties than the boring Cavendish banana that we are swamped with in the West.

Grilled maduro street snacks.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Eye Of The Beholder

Ever since entering Paraguay the ethnic composition of people on the street has changed dramatically. In Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil diversity is the name of the game, with a heady, heterogeneous mix of black, white and brown and every shade in between. Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru are predominantly indigenous or mestizo (mix of indigenous and white) with only the odd white face to be seen on the streets - usually in the classier upmarket districts of the bigger cities*. Perfectly normal given the more populous and advanced cultures that thrived in these regions before the arrival of the Europeans. Whatever the actual statistics, it's fair to say that white people are a minority.

"They all look the same to me..." You're not likely to see many Caucasian features in the Andes.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Ignore The Inca

Peru has, undeniably, the richest history of any country in the New World. Everyone has heard of the Incas, of Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, and they are (quite rightly) very popular destinations for visitors to Europe. And although the Incan heritage is interesting, I don't find it that special. Many of their technologies had already been developed by previous Andean cultures and the Inca did little more than refine them a little. The reason for its lasting impression in the popular consciousness is that it was the final, large, South American civilisation and the one that the newly-arrived Europeans had to contend with. But it had only been in existence as a larger empire for a mere hundred years and was conquered by a mere 168 conquistadors. Not really all that impressive, especially considering its global contemporaries:  the Ming dynasty was building the city walls of Nanjing and reinforcing the Great Wall north of Beijing; the Sistine Chapel was being painted in Rome; the Ottoman empire was at its zenith; the Duomo of Florence had been completed; and Granada's Alhambra palace was already old. For all Cusco's fancy stonework (and it is remarkable) and Machu Picchu's mystique, the Inca's had already fallen way behind the civilisation race. It wasn't always so.

The obligatory photo of Machu Picchu taken when I was last in Peru, back in 2004 (and I still had a crappy little 35mm film camera).

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Coming Up Blanca

When people ask me where I wish to go, I often reply "wherever I haven't been yet". I'm always curious about what is over the horizon, around the next corner, or on the other side of the hill. This is why, having already visited the south of Peru back in 2004 (can it have been that long ago?), I sped from the border straight to Lima, with only a brief stop in Arequipa to reacquaint myself with its pretty colonial heart. In Lima I had work to do though, and so stayed a little longer. When travelling for a long time things, inevitably, begin to fall apart. And so it was with me: in the few days following my departure from La Paz my watch strap broke, a drawstring on my backpack snapped, the zips on my daypack and camera bag gave up the ghost, one of the holes in my trousers expanded to embarrassing (and perhaps arrestable) proportions and, more importantly, the buckle on my backpack's belt snapped. The latter widget is one of the most important parts of a backpack as it transfers the load away from your shoulders to you hips and legs. Without it carrying your backpack for any length of time becomes agony and an unholy proposition.*

As you can see my the two outer tines of my buckle have snapped, rendering it useless. My boots have also taken some punishment, but will hopefully see me through to the end of the year (I just hope it doesn't rain much where I'll be going).