Ecuador 2016

The hilly streets of Quito.

I knew Quito nestled in the high Andes. And yet the steep streets still surprised me. I was prepared to wobble a bit with the altitude (Quito is the second highest capital city in the world) but puffing up and down these hills the minute I arrived was a bit of a challenge.

Who, in their right minds, builds a capital city up here? Where the communications across the mountains are a challenge; finding flat land to build is impossible?

The aboriginal people had a settlement here. And then the Incas came and built temples to celebrate being on the equator. When the Spanish arrived they found a flourishing Inca site and so built bigger and more lavish churches to prove their superiority. If visiting dignitaries came, they were brought here.

Sunrise in the rainforest.

And now? The old city is beautiful, with narrow streets opening into green plazas. The new city sprawls along a valley. And I loved it, in spite of the puffing.

But I was not in Quito for long - I had a few days at the end of my trip to explore the city thoroughly. First, I was off to the rainforest.

I stayed in a lodge, in the heart of the jungle. The sunrise stains everything pink. The only sounds: the screech of parrots, the howl of monkeys, the occasional splash from the water as a caiman pounces on its prey.

The endangered Amazon otters.

Or - for the very, very lucky, the snuffle of these endangered Amazon river otters. They were hard to photograph, as they played alongside the canoe with the enthusiasm of children. And, like children, they gasped when they came up for air, gave us a look that seemed to say, 'What are you doing in that stupid boat when you could have so much more fun in the water?'. Then they took another noisy breath and dived back into the river.

It was a privilege to see them. And worth noting that there is oil beneath these trees and rivers. So who knows how long their protected status can stand against the pressure of the oil men?

Waterfall near Banos.

I could have stayed forever. But visits to the rainforest are tightly controlled. Besides, there is much, much more to see. I headed south though the mountains, stopping for a few days in the spa town of Baños. This is where the young people come to frighten themselves. They can throw themselves off bridges, climb up waterfalls, swing on zip wires.

I cheered them on. Though I did take one of these cable cars to reach a waterfall.

What cable car? If you look closely at this picture you might see an orange dot in the middle of the waterfall. That is a metal cage (with no roof), that swings across the valley. It's quite fun when you stop noticing the frayed cables or the fact that there is no door.

Tungurahua.

While some people were jumping off bridges, I climbed up Tunguragua, one of the volcanoes that looms over Baños.

I passed emergency routes, and one solid building designed to shelter those unable to escape across the valley should the volcano erupt. It was steaming, but that was normal, surely? Besides, I walked past established trees, small farms that flourished on the mountainside. And I so savoured the view across the valley and then strolled back to my hotel for a beer.

Two weeks after I arrived back home, this volcano erupted, throwing ash 2,500m into the air.

Ingapirca.

Onwards and southwards, through the mountains. And a stop to look at the Inca ruins at Ingapirca.

There are, I'm told, bigger and more impressive Inca sites in Peru. I've not been there. I can only say that this site is hugely significant here in Ecuador.

It's importance lies as much in its Cuñari foundations (they were here long before the Incas) as in its Inca walls and temple. For it is clear that the Cuñari must have understood strategic importance and astrological significance. I could see for miles, in all directions. And, had I been here for a solstice or equinox, I'd have seen the sun shine directly though the doorway and into the gold of the temple.

The site was plundered by the Spanish, and for centuries its secrets were forgotten. But now Ecuadorians,increasingly interested in their heritage and identity, are celebrating the significance of this site.

Street art in Cuenca.

I visited Ingapirca when I was on my way to Cuenca. It is a city, high in the mountains - and that was all I knew about it. I had also been travelling for about three weeks and needed to rest, and so had planned to stay for several days.

I had no idea what to expect. Cities can be big and busy and smelly. They can be compact, even confining. They can cherish their history, or neglect it.

I gave up trying to work out why I loved Cuenca. I walked the streets of the old city, drifted in and out of churches and museums and cafes, mused on its history and the easy-going people.

And I took photographs of the street art. There is street art everywhere in Ecuador, but it is most striking here, in Cuenca. There are huge murals, and there are tiny paintings. This wall, with its painted buildings, is typical. How could anyone not love a city with street art as accomplished as this?

High in the Atlas Mountains

I had to leave Cuenca eventually. But, before facing the mayhem of Guayaquil, I had a day high in the Atlas Mountains.

For 360 days of the year it is thick cloud up here. Only the slightly bonkers walk for hours at this height, barely able to see the path in front of them.

But luck was on my side that day. The mountains are stark, the vegetation nothing but scrubby grass and brave little flowers, the occasional paper bark tree. Tiny birds flit from plant to twig. A thousand small lakes nestle in dips in the rock. This is condor country.

Frigate birds at Puerto Lopez.

It is stunningly beautiful.

I didn't stay long in Guayaquil. It was time to head for the coast.

I stayed in Puerto Lopez, a small fishing village with a growing number of hotels and guesthouses, making the most of the two kilometre beach.

I flopped about on the beach for a while, but couldn't resist exploring the town. I arrived (fortuitously) just as the fishing boats were coming in - with their entourage of frigate birds.

Nobody seemed particularly bothered by these birds - although they are much bigger than any gull and have a vicious hook on the end of their beaks. It seems that the fishermen (they were all men) have grown accustomed to sharing their catch with the birds. Or simply the birds were too intimidating for anyone to dare try to wave them away.

Wool in the market at Otavalo.

I had one more stop before heading back to Quito. The market at Otavalo.

Much of this market is aimed at tourists these days. There are the bags and scarves and hammocks, the necklaces and pan pipes and wooden turtles.

But local people use it too. And this stall - selling wool in every possible bright colour - is where the local people come to source their knitting.

I'll leave you to imagine the children, running round the playgrounds, wearing cardigans in these colours.

So that was Ecuador - but my trip was not over. It was time to head for the Galapagos. And as that was so extraordinary, I've given it a page all to itself. You can find it here.