In this journal:
Someone spits alcohol on me;
a group of local men touched me using giant sticks;
and the same group of men demanded payment for touching me.
warning: this journal contains awesome content and numerous pictures, if the page fails to load pictures, please refresh.
I was welcomed by Erick in the airport, if you do not recall, I met him and his sister Cristina during our journey earlier in Bolivia. I must had a salad made of 4-leaf clover or something, as the first Ecuadorian I met actually works in the airport! (reminds me of Anna, the first Swede that I got to know, actually works in an Ikea…)We had a pleasant lunch and I headed for Erick’s home. Cristina was busy working in a hostel, but the next day, she asked me if I wanted to join her for a rock climbing session. Sure, I thought to myself, since I quite like the rock walls we had in the school gym back during my university days.
welcome to Quito!
However, I had no idea what Cristina meant was actually death. She took me around the corner of a nearby neighborhood, and by an abandoned highway stood two giant rock towers that was smooth as silk. That was not what I had in mind. I always knew Crisitina is a very sporty person, but I was unaware how much I would be traumatized in the next few hours. Cristina demonstrated how to climb up the cliff, and before I could see what was going on, she was already at the top. I am 90% sure her hands and feet were made of glue.
Cristina on her way up
My core strength, after this many years of barbeque and fries, was as nonexistent as my ability to make correct decisions. I could not grab onto those tiny ledges and transfer my center of mass without my legs giving out. Additionally, Quito is the second highest capital in the world, sitting at over 2800m/9300ft over sea level. After an hour of self-doubting, I finally decided to use all my strength, and put every muscle fiber into maximum overdrive. I huffed and puffed, but then I realized I was barely half a meter off the ground…
the only thing that consoles me: food
I went back downtown, having torn couple muscles and lost some flesh on my fingers. This is what sitting in planes for hundreds of hours gets you. I eventually found a nice local place that offered 2-dollar set menu almuerzos, and I devoured it all. The main course was a strange stew of churrasco (prok skin), potato and avocado, but I couldn’t care less since I was starving.
The afternoon was spent exploring the center part of Quito. The historical center of Quito is one of the very few places in Americas that still is perfectly preserved. No natural disaster or human conflict has reached this place, so this is almost what the conquistadors would have seen 400 years ago. Gdańsk and Quito were the only two city centers to go on the UNESCO world heritage list on the first batch of nominations.
Plaza Grande/Independence Square
Quito is not only the second highest capital of the world, but also the capital closest to the equator. It does not take a genius to explain why the country’s name is Ecuador, meaning equator in Spanish. In fact, as you would later see, the metropolitan Quito urban sprawl gets as close as 1 km away from the 0° latitude!
Iglesia de San Francisco, over 400 years old
Plaza de Teatro
It is astounding how many churches and cathedrals they can cram into a small area. I spent two full days exploring an area smaller than 15 blocks by 15 blocks, encountering almost a dozen churches that are fully decked out and considered “must-see”. Then you add in plazas, old houses, museums, libraries, monasteries, and theaters, it becomes overwhelming. There is no denying that Quito went for the overkill when they applied for UNESCO World Heritage.
Iglesia de Santo Domingo
children playing volleyball, the most popular sport here, in the streets
There are so, so many churches to see, and to be honest, anyone who is not deeply religious would get bored quite quickly. All ornaments are made of real gold, and the carvings are extremely detailed, yet not looking carefully would usually lead one to conclude that all look the same.
Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus
Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus interior
However, one church that I have to feature is Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus, a tiny church right next to the Independence Plaza. Its facade is so stunningly intricate, and the interior so eye-blindingly dazzling. It was partially destroyed by a fire, but the Getty Foundation could not resist its beauty either, and paid for its restoration. No wonder it is considered the most beautiful church in Americas.
Basilica del Voto Nacional
on top of the Basilica
Then there is the Basilica del Voto Nacional, largest Gothic basilica in the Americas. An absolute masterpiece of neo-Gothic structure, this building stands tall on a little hill, overlooking the entire city. A gruesome climb leads to the top, where the view is unrivaled.
looking at the clocktower
San Agustin Heladería
For an afternoon, I went to San Agustin Heladería, the oldest sweet shop in the country. Classic, handmade salpicones has been served on these tables for over 150 years. I, of course, had to take a break here with an all-time classic naranjilla flavor salpicon, while watching the people walk by. Slow down, understand the culture, savor its history; this is how I travel.
Young struggling on a classic Quito food, empanada de viento
Additionally, I had to pay the famous Calle la Ronda a visit. It is as popular with locals as with tourists. Street performers, artists, singers playing guitars that lost an octave, all congregated to this historical cobble street, where it has remained unchanged for the last 500 years. I got myself a bowl of cebichocho, a mix of fried pork, grains and corn, and washed it down with a glass of canelazo, a classic sugarcane and cinnamon alcohol drink served hot. The last famous dish to go was the notoriously quiteño food: empanada de viento(wind bun), an empanada so big that even I could not finish. The filling is usually cheese, and the name comes from the air that is blown into the dough.
Chinese food, Ecuador style
Crisitna and I, along with Gordon, a guy from Bosnia who I would later accidentally run into in Chile during C.A.T. 17/18 trip, had a brilliant dinner in a Chifa. Chifa is the Bolivian, Peruvian and Ecuadorian way of saying a Chinese restaurant, except the fact that their concept of Chinese food is drastically different from what I am used to. Here, the food is very saucy, while in Bolivia, it is simply fried chicken for god knows why.
triple carriage bus
Quito also has a rather bizarre public transport system. Since the topography is uneven, metro lines are almost impossible to build, so the city opted for carriage buses using special lanes, just like Bogota. However, since the city is very large and the population distribution is extremely uneven, most buses need to have very high capacities, so almost all lines have these buses that are like trains.
amazon tribe house
cuy/guinea pig, a traditional food source
For a day trip, I went to the must-see Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world) site, located just on the northern edge of the town. An ethnography museum depicting the numerous Ecuadorian indigenous groups was also there. The amazonian tribes had their houses on stilts, which interested me the most, and I guess that was partially the reason that I would later go on to visit the Peruvian amazons for a look into how people survived in flooded jungles.
an old man getting a cigarette, ready to tell a long story
middle of the world monument
The prominent monument here is used to commemorate the famous French Geodesic Mission of 1736, during which the scientists tried to prove the Earth was oblate (flatter near the poles) by measuring the change of distance of 1° latitude here and compare that measured in Sweden. It was a successful experiment, yet the group actually was 240m off the actual equator.
Young in middle of the world (actually the line is 240m off to the north)
To recharge, I had a classic Ecuadorian soup called cebollado de pescado, a kind of thick fish broth topped with half a raw onion, and even more cilantro. Here, it is customary to serve little dried dishes along with any offering of food, so here in the picture you can see dried bananas and popcorn.
view of Cotopaxi from my window in Cristina’s home
After 4 days in Quito, I decided to head south for more adventures. I booked a tour with Erick that eventually would take me to the famous Cotopaxi volcano. I followed the morning rush crowd and entered city center early in the morning, and then met up with a bunch of interesting people from all around the world, including Cheryl and Lauren, two fellow Canadians.
baby calf says mooooooo~!
Cotopaxi looming in the distance
We had a pleasant breakfast in a tiny town, and continued up towards the top of Cotopaxi volcano. Due to a recent eruption, the volcano had been closed for almost 2 years, and by the time we stopped at the end of the road, we were almost 4500 meters above sea level. The last 300 meters to the Refugio, where nobody was permitted to pass, had to be done on foot. Alas, it was no difficulty for me, someone who had conquered both Everest Base and Kilimanjaro!
selfie with llama~!
staring at the mountain from a distance
While I was still feeling giddy about my past experience, Cheryl and Lauren sped past me as if I was a tractor on the highway. I tried my best but still could not catch up to them; it seemed like those business class flights and good food around the world had considerably fattened me. Coupled with the traumatic experience I had with Christina just a few days past, I finished the climb in tears. Oh, my waning youth! Young is getting old and fat!
above the heavens
Unfortunately, a giant slab of clouds covered our view of the peak as we ascended to the Refugio platform, 4864m above sea level. Then Cheryl told me it was her first alpine experience. I just got smoked by a first-timer!? I brought shame to my village, and my cow. After a nice chat with the gang, we began our descent, which was much easier.
Cheryl and Lauren descending
To get back down to the foothills, we opted for the quick descent via bikes. I have already had my insane experience with downhill biking on the Death Road, so it was a piece of cake. As a result, it will not be featured here. Do not assume it was boring though, since it was my favorite part of the tour!
wild horses by a lake
We eventually ended back in the town for lunch, where the welcoming lady served a devilishly good juice. I quietly asked the lady for a bit more, yet the rest of the gang still found out the possibility of refilling. Quickly, 4 gallons of juice was down the belly.
people love popcorn here, even in soups! also the best juice I have had in my life
The group separated after the lunch, since the others were following the bus back to Quito to finish the trip, while I wanted to continue south. Along with me were Denis and Sandra, a young German couple who were on their adventure together. As I stated in Panambia journal almost 2 years ago, I hate travelling with couples, since that usually means I am left out all the time, and I would rather travel alone. However, Denis and Sandra were different. They would always speak English in front of me, and constantly asked for my opinion. Most importantly, they kept their public demonstration of intimacy to the minimum so I would not get hurt, thanks guys!
on our way to Latacunga!
My original plan was to head straight for Quilotoa lake, and spend a few nights there, but Denis and Sandra told me there was a festival going on in Latacunga, a town on the way, so I decided to stay with them in a hostel in Latacunga instead. We waved down a southbound bus on the Panamerican highway, since this is the way to travel in Ecuador. The bus driver looked at the three of us, and told us there were no space except the front. The front? We would LOVE to take the front!
Latacunga at dusk
We arrived just in time to check out the city. After a few rounds around the rather plain downtown, we headed back for a drink after dinner. What woke us up the next morning, however, was not our alarms. Ear-piercing music started blasting just past 9, and we were all shocked that the festival would begin this early, and would later be even more shocked that it would go on for over 12 hours.
This Latacunga-only festival is called La Fiesta de la Mama Negra, literally meaning “Festival of the Black Mother”. This celebration is a perfect example of how diverse South America is. When Cotopaxi was about to erupt in 1742, a lot of the locals, already a mix of mestizo, indigenous and African slaves, pleaded to the Virgen de la Merced for protection. Quickly, the volcano eruption died down, and thus an annual celebration was due every year around September 23-24.
praying in front of Virgen de la Merced
The origin of the Virgin shown nowadays is likely a mix of Catholic and African, which would sound out of place for people who do not know how diverse South America is. A very popular theory is that the locals took the black slaves arriving as a sign of Virgin’s mercy, hence the “black mother” name. The doll she holds symbolizes her children. During the lengthy parade, a person would dress up in the costume and ride a horse up and down the parade, spraying every parade-goer milk as a form of blessing. Yeah, bizarre as traditions go.
Another extremely intriguing part of the celebration was the numerous characters portrayed in the parade. It is simply impossible to detail the 15+ types of characters involved in this 12-hour-long line of performers, but I will do my very best, since this is one of the most local, most culturally mysterious, and most exciting experiences I have had during my travels. This is a truly unique experience that I doubt many travelers have experienced.
First up is ashangeros. These men, usually the strongest a group can find, have to carry the large ashanga all the way with the parade, all day long. What is an ashanga, you ask? Well, imagine a flower arrangement, and now substitute all flowers with one or multiple roasted entire pigs, half a dozen roasted guinea pigs, chicken, as well as rabbits. Then add couple boxes of cigarettes, and do not forget various alcohol by the bottles. Next up are some onions, oranges, pineapples, peppers, and if you have the mental energy, an entire fucking altar of the Virgin, complete with the effigy. Finally, top it off with some colorful flags, preferably a dozen each for Ecuador and Latacunga. Now you have a perfect image of an ashanga! What? You can’t picture it? Fine, here are some pictures.
As one may deduce, these things are heavy, like, very heavy. One ashangero told me his was over 150kg! Thus, only the strongest men are allowed to carry these crazy arrangements; nobody wants a bottle of whisky destroyed because a roasted pig fell onto it, right? Another strategy these men employ is that they rotate out every 50 meters or so, by having a stool that can rest the ashanga while the person is being changed out.
These men are imitating what is called Tatia Negro, husband of Mama Negro. So a lot of them paint their faces black. The food they carry will eventually be distributed to the bystanders near the end of the festival.
a baby ashangero!
What was hilariously cute were those little boys who dressed up as ashangeros. Since they were mostly for fun, the ashanga in the back were made of chicken and pig dolls, and the alcohol in the back were swapped out for cool-aid and coke.
sometimes, I secretly wish I can be this cool
Next group I want to detail are the strange huacos. These are men dressed up as a mind-boggling blend of pre-Colombian shamans and turtles(?), holding a deer skeleton as well as a stick, and wearing a mask, while wearing plain white. The color scheme of the paint they bear is red-blue-yellow, Ecuador’s national colors. Along with them are ocultos, which literally means “the hidden”. All of them have a very different dancing repetition scheme from other characters.
Their backs are covered by a large plate, usually with a lot of shiny objects. It is called atampa, but I have no idea what it means or symbolizes. This word does not exist in Spanish, and even Cristina does not know what it means!
toy tanks, mirrors, coins… what???
Additionally, these huacos and ocultos perform very special ceremonies. During their dancing loop, they would secretly decide someone amongst the audience to “harass”. Suddenly all of them would rush towards that person, and then form a circle, after that, one would start chanting:
(these are the tallest volcanoes around Latacunga)
While the rest of the crew run their sticks up and down the poor individual, while crying aloud:
Para que no seas mujeriego! (for you will not be a fuckboy!)
Para que ya no seas mandarina! (for you will not be a house-husband!)
Para que no tengas amantes! (for you will not go look for a mistress!)
I was initially extremely confused about why they say you will not be a mandarina, which means tangerine. What the fuck do they mean I will not be a citrus fruit??? It took me a while to find out mandarina is an Ecuadorian slang for house-husband, something they look down upon.
baby huacos in the front!
After the chanting is done, the ocultos will then surround the individual, who has likely begun crying by the time. They would take a big gulp of a special home-made alcohol, and spew it on the person, thus completing the cleansing ritual. And then…. they would demand a payment for the service. Yep, I could barely believe it myself when I had to take out my wallet.
huacos taking a pledge of some sort
Since Sandra was likely the only white girl in the entire 50-mile radius, she was “assulted” by multiple groups of huacos. To avoid being murdered by Sandra in my sleep, I would not post the video of her being spewed alcohol by three groups of men while I was laughing uncontrollably.
awwww, baby marching band member!
The next group I want to explain are the champuseros. These are men who dress up in silky capes and scream “champús!!!” while hopping along the parade. They smudge their faces black and always wear a military cap (do not ask me why for only god knows). They also carry a tank full of champús, a kind of special drink made of maize flower and orange leaves, and feed it to the crowds using a spoon (not the most hygienic thing I have seen). They also serve a practical purpose, as they would push the crowds back so that the other performers would have enough space.
champuseros with a camisona
In the above picture, it also shows a camisona, a grown adult man wearing leggings and a see-through dress. (man, these roles keep getting more and more bizarre!) They always sport a messy wig and red lipstick, trying to imitate a woman. They are a relatively new addition to the festival, and are supposedly a salute to those women whose husbands are off to war. They also help keep the crowds from encroaching the parade territory.
negro loero force-feeding Denis
The last group I will detail are the negro loeros. They are jesters of the groups, dancing hysterically while chanting very convoluted couplets, which I do not understand at all. They also paint their faces black, and carry a bottle of some kind of strong alcohol. They randomly select targets and then “force-feed” the poor victim directly from the bottle. Because I was the only chino around, I was half drunk by the time we stumbled away from the parade. The alcohol was very very pungent, and the colors seemed to come from various kinds of fruits they put into the bottle during the fermentation process.
walking along with the parade
There are of course, many, many other kinds of characters that I do not have the chance to introduce, such as the payaso, a clown leading the parade, or the caparichi, curiquingue, yumbada, etc., etc. This is likely the best festival I have ever witnessed, and should be on every traveler’s radar. Unlike some others that are just held for the sake of money and tourism, Fiesta de la Mama Negra is truly authentic, for the people of Latacunga were truly grateful and immersed in the celebration.
little children ofrenderos
By noon-time, all of us were exhausted. It was not just the sheer excitement that burned couple fuses in my brain, but also the free alcohol we were being forced to chuck down, as well as Sandra being surrounded a good half-dozen times, by loeros, huacos and ocultos alike. The locals were so passionate and ecstatic that we could barely stand, so we had to take a break. In the afternoon, we headed towards Quilotoa lake, one of the most amazing sights in the Andes. An easy bus ride took us up the windy road, all the way to near 4000m above sea level.
we got addicted to sitting in the front!
After being dropped off at the tiny village of Quilotoa, we had to walk about 400 meters to the crater of the ancient volcano. We had no expectations, partially due to the fact that we were all slightly hangover. However, when I reached the edge, my jaw dropped, and I stopped talking mid-sentence. Denis kept asking “hey Young why do you stop talking?” since he was a few meters behind me. But by the time he stood beside me, he fell silent as well.
It was breathtaking, somewhat literally since we were so high above sea level. Then we hiked down to the bottom of the crater and back up, since we like torturing ourselves. The amazing part was that the lake was tucked away on a hole so perfect that one who does not know its existence would easily fall down the cliff since there is no sign of a 3-km wide lake whatsoever on the horizon.
admiring the view
After Quilotoa, we started heading back. However, there were no buses in sight. After asking around, I found out the last bus had departed. The only way to catch it was to get on a privately-run truck-modified people mover, and meet it in the town of Zumbahua. While riding down the hills of Ecuadorian Andes, the wind brushed against my face, completely washing out the hangover sensation from the morning. Denis laughed and screamed the entire way, a telling sign of how much fun he was having while riding down a truck speeding 100km/h on a highland road.
down the hill we go!
I separated from Denis and Sandra on Panamerican highway, hailed a bus southbound, and continued towards Riobamba, and then the tiny town of Alausí, where I hoped to catch the famous Nariz del Diablo train since it was on my bucket list.
Alausí train station
However, luck had never been on my side, and there were no availability for the train whatsoever. I thus had to head back; the ride had to wait for next time I am around!
A bus ride hailed me back to Riobamba, and I caught another bus towards Baños, a town famous for thrills and fun. Last stop in Ecuador, let’s make it count!
First stop, of course, was Casa del Arbol, a place that had become a classic clickbait picture for many travel sites. Despite its internet popularity, it still only charged for one dollar for the entrance. What made it famous, you ask? Well, they have this swing that overhangs a cliff, so those blogs started calling it the swing to the end of the world…
I also met a German girl Melanie on the site, and she was noticeably concerned. It turned out that she had to board a bus from Baños to the amazon at 5, and there were no transportation method to go back to town. I am never a person who would leave a damsel in distress, so I offered to help. I told her we still have time if we charter a taxi back, so we continued exploring.
Young balancing his life choices
While I failed the balance log at the edge of the cliff, Melanie could do it with her eyes closed. This was the third time in Ecuador that I was reminded of my lack of physical health, for that I put all the blame on the cheap airplane tickets I can find. It is absolutely not my fault for not being able to resist them.
“PUT.ME.DOWN,HOOMAN. Mr. Pebbles is NOT amused!”
After petting some random stranger’s cute puppy, we went out of the park looking for taxis. However, it turned out that the hill had no taxis whatsoever. The clock was ticking, and we had to do something. I proposed that we hitchhike back to town, and started putting my thumbs up, since Melanie did not speak Spanish. After a while, nothing happened, so Melanie said she would give it a try. Within seconds, a car pulled up next to us, and rolled down the window offering help. Sometimes I wish I am a blond white girl so my travels could be so much easier!
selfie on the way back to town!
It turned out that was a family of six on a weekend trip from Guayaquil, and they were on their way back home. The car was already stuffed, but beggars can’t be choosers, so we squeezed in. The 30-minute ride back was extremely fun, as 3 cultures were sardine-canned into a tiny space, there were bound to be some fun exchanging ideas. I helped Melanie translate, and she taught the little kids German, while they tried to teach her Spanish. The real, authentic experiences are always not planned, and random.
water is falling!
After bidding Melanie goodbye in the bus station, I decided I would ride a bike down the highway to see waterfall the next day. And another German girl I met in the hostel, Eveline, who I encountered earlier in Latacunga, said she would gladly join. Then couple people she met also wanted in, and even more friends of their friends opted for it. Before I knew, we were 10-men strong.
Manto de la Novia waterfall on the other side
It was a pleasant ride down the hill, filled with numerous waterfalls along the way. I kept riding, and riding, and riding, since Bolivia’s Death Road trained me very well. However, since I have been alone for so long, I forgot that this time I had friends. Before long, I completely lost track of the rest of the group, so I went inside a tiny house by the road which appeared to be abandoned, hoping that they would catch up.
guava sugar factory
It turned out that house was a guava sugar factory, and was not abandoned. I talked with the young man working the factory, and we quickly became friends. He showed me how the sugar was made, and showed me around the premise before giving me a few bites for free. The sugar was excellent, a beautiful balance of tart, sweet, sour, and juicy taste, and I bought a few bags immediately. Guava sugar is a very traditional dulce(sweet) in Ecuador, especially those shaped into hearts with words made of frosting, which are a staple for holiday gifting.
climbing up to waterfall El Pailón del Diablo
The group was a pleasant mix of countries. There were 2 girls from Denmark, an American dude, Eveline, Melanie but this one is from London, Madhu from India, and me. We eventually arrived at the famous El Pailón del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron). It is so fierce and vehement that the water appeared to be boiling, hence the name. The climb up to the source was extremely gruesome, since the route was barely a walkway. It was basically a hole in the rock wall.
you have to drop down/boost up this hole on the way
The 50m “trail” was barely 1 meter tall, so I had to crawl my way along the wet surface, scraping my knee along the way, and leaving my head to the mercy of the rock gods. By the time I reached the top, I was barely alive. The water was so loud that Eveline and I could barely communicate.
getting soaked in the back of the waterfall! (thanks Madhu for the jacket!)
hello from the other side
By the time the entire squad escaped Devil’s Cauldron, every single one of us was soaked inside out. After a quick lunch, we put our bikes on a truck, and rode our way back to town. This was one hell of a day, with so much fun and adventure, and with such good company, I will never forget it.
selfie time! (the bad photo quality is entirely the photographer Melanie’s fault, not because my phone was soaked through the motherboard 😉 )
The squad split up after our arrival in town, but the laughter we shared lingers in my mind till this day. Thank you, friends, for reminding me being alone only means you can meet more people along the way.
Onward, to Nicaragua
Finally, it was time. I boarded a bus heading back to Quito, and collected my belongings in Cristina’s, Erick’s, and now, my house. I hugged Cristina and Erick goodbye, barely containing my tears. I boarded the flight to Mexico City, and during the climb out of the valley of volcanoes, a realization stuck my head: I have seen most of these majestic mountains during this journey. Now I must carry on, and the next stop would be Amsterdam, but solely as a transit on my way to Nicaragua. Only a frequent flyer would do this kind of insane thing, but hey, if you have not caught on, I am crazy!
on the Ecuadorian road
If it is not obvious, then let me say it aloud: I love Ecuador. This country is absolutely stunning on all levels. Not only does it have culture that can rival even those of the most enriched nations, but it also possesses some of the best natural beauties I have seen. It is cheap, yet it is very safe. The people are overwhelmingly passionate, and the transportation is outrageously convenient. There is not a single thing I do not love about this beautiful country, and I have not even touched its amazon or coastal parts! I guess that is why the slogan of Ecuador is Ama La Vida: love the life, because in this stunning country, it is hard not to!
A special thanks to Erick and Cristina, who gave me a family in Ecuador. I would also like to thank all the friends I made during this trip, including the energetic Cheryl and Lauren, considerate Denis and Sandra, Melanie who definitely needed my help 😀 , the entire squad that rode with me down Baños, including Eveline, Melanie whose photography skills need improvement, and Madhu.