Monday, 17 March 2014

Ecuador, February 2014

Ecuador, Land of Diversity

Ecuador, Land of Diversity From the frozen, majestic heights of Cotopaxi to the tropical shores of the Galapagos and the dense jungles of the Amazonia, Ecuador can certainly be considered a diverse country. 

However, not only is the landscape a wonder, but the people of Ecuador are, in my experience so open, kind and also pretty religious. You are never without a friend in Ecuador. This was a little unsettling at first for the famously understated British traveller but I've found that as long as you keep an eye on your valuables you're alright. For example, at Tonsupa beach in the Northern region of Esmeraldas we met up with a group of people who had set up camp next us, sharing food, drink and songs together - accompanied by guitar playing until after the sun had set. 

But it seems that the attitude of the people is pretty much the only constant. Ecuador may be a tiny country, but it's diversity and richness cannot be denied. It is actually considered the most diverse country in the world per unit area. President Correa (now in his second term) has drastically changed the country for the better, and from what I am told, Ecuador is now much safer and developed country. Correa has overhauled the transport, education and health care systems and despite his criticism for being too extreme, he has obtained investment from world superpower China to further improve the lives of Ecuatorian people. Especially in Guayaquil (the largest city in terms of population, which stood at 2 million in 2010), the country increasingly resembles the United States. This was evident even from the traffic lights and road layouts to the restaurant chains that dominated parts of the city centre, like Pizza Hut and Subway - also found in most of Ecuador. 

That is not to say that these chain restaurants have taken over the local cuisine. Rice and beans reign over each meal, for example 'seco de pollo' and 'carne asada con menestra y arroz', the latter typically found in Guayaquil. The national dish is 'ceviche', a kind of seafood soup usually served at breakfast time. I found the flavours of onion, prawn, salt, lemon mixed with a generous helping of herbs and tomatoes quite overwhelming, even more so first thing in the morning. Safe to say, I didn't enjoy ceviche - much to the disappointment of my hosts. Another of the more ferocious national delicacies is 'cuy', in other words that little fluffy guinea pigs that many children in the UK keep as pets in ridiculously expensive hutches. Instead, I found myself tucking into guinea pig with a side order of chips. Much to my surprise (and shame) I did enjoy it. Like a sort of mustardy chicken really. It pains me to say it, but it did taste good - and at the sour price of €20 per skinny little rat-like guinea pig. Other gastronomic highlights include 'empanadas' (a bit like a Cornish Pasty) and 'Tripe' - otherwise known as barbecued animal innards. 

My favourite place in Ecuador (besides the Galapagos islands which deserve separate attention) was Cuenca, without a doubt. Although it is the third largest city in Ecuador in terms of both size and economically, it feels like a small countryside town. Rivers flow right through the city, and it is a popular retirement home for people from around the world - far from the pollution and traffic of the Capital, Quito. The centre of Cuenca is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site, between the river Tomebamba and the street Gran Colombia. 

Highlights included the New Cathedral, which in spite of an immense architectural error in terms of sticking to the original design of much higher towers, it stands proudly over the Park Calderon below. The park is full of exotic plants and people conversing on the park benches whilst enjoying a spectacular view of the Cathedral's three domes. At first, I thought that these formed part of another building because they are so strikingly different, but it seems that the German born architect Juan Baustista Stiehle was just feeling super creative the day he decided to design the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception! The domes of the Cathedral have become a symbol of the city, in fact when it was first built, 9,000 of Cuenca's 10,000 inhabitants could fit inside the building. 

Another religious building, the Basilica Del Voto Nacional, was a highlight for me in Quito.  It left me almost speechless due to its enormously complex design and immense size. A stunning neo-Gothic style that exuded elegance and majesty. Upon climbing the towers, it boasts amazing views stretching over most of Quito. Towards the south of the city, there is an area called 'La Ronda'. Having maintained the essence of the colonial style it is best enjoyed at night. This is when the cobbled streets (well lit, and full of police) are filled with the aromas of local delicacies, and live music flows from the windows of the historical buildings found all along the streets. Locals bring handicrafts, freshly made empanadas and their delightful charm to this enchanting part of the city. 

However, the county was conquered by another empire, long before the Spaniards arrived. The largest remains of the Incan empire in Ecuador are found in Ingapirca, in the Cañar province, near Cuenca. It is actually more of an Inca-Cañari site as it was originally inhabited by the Cañari people before the arrival of the Incas. Complex systems of underground aqueous and an intricate calibration of the complex's religious buildings with the constellations of the night sky demonstrate the astonishing sophistication and intelligence of the Inca/Cañari people, leaving me hungry for mor!e Incan treasure on my upcoming trip to Peru. 

In short, Ecuador is a paradise for beach lovers, mountain trekkers and jungle explorers alike. It is simply bursting with life and standing testament to both the Incan and Spanish empires. Ecuador promises itself a bright future, striving for greater independence and stability. An increasingly modern country, with a lot to offer not only for tourists but also for its inhabitants. A delight and a treasure for my first stop in South America.

Thank you so much to everyone who made this trip possible for me. I was staying with friends the whole time in Ecuador, and this meant so much to me. I have met new friends, and caught up with old friends. Thank you so much for making it happen.

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