Friday, January 31, 2014

Monkey dentist gives dog a check-up

A playful schnauzer dog got more than he bargained for when he stumbled across a baby monkey in Misahualli.
Monkey dentist and the dog 1/9
"You look like fun."
Monkey dentist and the dog 2/9
Reinforcements... "ATTACK!"
Monkey dentist and the dog 3/9
"If you could just relax, please"
Monkey dentist and the dog 4/9
The Schauzer's moustache whiskers make great monkey handles
Monkey dentist and the dog 5/9
"Are you sure you're a trained dentist?"
"Yes," the monkey lied
Monkey dentist and the dog 6/9
"Open wide"
Monkey dentist and the dog 7/9
Up to the elbow in dog
Monkey dentist and the dog 8/9
Are you sure this is entirely necessary?
Monkey dentist and the dog 9/9
"Ugh! Dog slobber"

Misahualli is a town in Ecuador's Napo province, in the Amazon region. The monkeys rule the town and live openly in the main square as a rowdy gang.

Naturally tourists love to lark around with the monkeys, but they'd better keep a close eye on their possessions.

When I was taking these photos I left my motorcycle jacket unguarded and returned to find a monkey trying to drag it away. Luckily it was too heavy but the monkey was persistent. I tried to shoo him away but he unfurled his lips like Dracula and showed me his terrifying fangs. Surely he won't bite me, I reasoned (with no logic whatsoever) and shooed him again. This time he tried to bite me. A local Kichwa man who'd watched the situation unfold picked  up a rock and lobbed it at the thieving mono. "Would be haven bitten me?" I asked. "Claro," he said.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The day I saw a monster in the jungle

I stared into the terrifying eyes of a monster in the jungle and lived to tell the tale.

Better than that, I photographed the hell beast.
The snarling jaws of death
Well that's the short of it, here's the long.

I was hiking through the rain forest outside Ayampe on the Pacific Coast. It was muggy, muddy and a million shades of green. From the palms and peace of the Pacific, the hills rise steeply crowned with impenetrable forests.

Cloud forest in Ayampe, Ecuador
Rambling in the rainforest
Everywhere is noise – fruit falling from trees, monkeys screeching, the song of rare birds, and more mysterious sounds besides. The heat and humidity were stifling. I was on my own and, with the motivating logic of the first character to die in a horror film, I decided to turn off the path and venture deeper into the jungle.

It was quite exciting at first, if I didn't think about the oppressive isolation. I imagined what I'd do if I got lost and darkness fell. How I would build a camp, where I would find water. With my mud-caked boots and beard, I started to fancy myself as a grisly mountain man with eyes of chipped granite. Of course, I was just a stupid Englishman lost in the rainforest.

I came across a curious sign pointing down towards a steep valley. In Spanish it read: “Descanso de las Hadas” (that's 'Fairies Rest' in English.)

'How fun,' I thought. 'I'll take a photo.' So I did.

After I'd taken the photo I saw a pair of eyes staring back at me. I wasn't alone. Spiky heckles, razor claws and a Gorgon's stare. What was I facing?

Picture the scene, smell the fear
Obviously I didn't stick around to find out. I legged it like Brave, Brave Sir Robin in the Holy Grail when he nearly stood up to the vicious chicken of Bristol.

Back safe and sound in Ayampe and armed with evidence of our monstrous neighbour, I showed the photograph to wiser eyes than my own. Firstly, I showed it to the Colombian who ran walking tours through the forest. Then I showed it to our taciturn handyman Jose. The jury was out, but both agreed I was lucky to escape with my life. Some thought I'd faced a gato de monté, others reasoned I'd made a miraculous escape from the Qarqacha (more about him later).

Of course, I can now settle this debate quite easily. I met a biologist when I was filming at Mashpi Lodge who is an expert on life in the rainforest. He volunteered to identify my monster... So all I need to do now is send him the photo. be continued

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sick on the Pacific and Keatsian Fantasies

The sun was shining; my beach house was so close to the Pacific I could hear the waves perpetual churn; the morning mist was beginning to burn away from the cloud forest and I was in the bathroom with my head down the toilet wanting to die.
The Pacific ocean at night, Ecuador, Ayampe
A Poorly Poet in Paradise 
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so Newton would have us believe. In my case, I ate guacamole made by a hippie (who was more concerned about the colour and energy of her food than washing her hands) and got dysentery.

It's said the only things you can be certain of in this world are death and taxes, but in South America you can throw food poisoning into the adage. In my first two months in Ecuador I had no fewer than three separate doses, ranging from good, old-fashioned e-coli to the more exotic parasitic sicknesses of amoebic dysentery.

Of course, my latest illness was just another dose of dysentery but my fevered-imagination cooked-up a direr diagnosis. I was in Ayampe, on the sweltering equatorial coast, where dengue fever and malaria can thrive. In fact, the Kiwi surf-dude who lived next door was just recovering from a nasty dose of dengue, AKA break-bone fever, so-called because your muscles spasm so tightly it feels as if your bones might shatter under the strain.

Strange, dark thoughts went through my mind in the crisis of illness. I've always had a romantic inclination, and after three days without food and only tepid water to sip I was beginning to construct a little Keatsian fantasy, propped-up in my Roman deathbed, vainly fighting the final throes of tuberculosis. In fact, I even composed a little poem in my head which I jotted down when I felt better.

With nothing but my imagination for company, I became convinced of its merit. Naturally, when I had recovered and read the poem back with a saner mind it was toe-curlingly pretentious. I was going to destroy it, but that would have been vainglorious – besides, it's hilarious.

Life Through a Mosquito Net

Beyond this stately pleasure dome,
A thousand hungry creatures creep,
Barbarians at the gates of Rome,
Come haunt my fitful sleep.

Swat bloated, bloody bodies red,
To end their blind vampiric thirst,
I'm told from sweat-soaked fever bed,
“You're almost through the worst.”

The net throws smoky shimmers,
To weave the world anew.
In the sun it almost glimmers,
In the night so white it's blue.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Ecuador vs Peru: Which is country is best?

The observant will notice I've recently written a few posts about Peru. Sacrilege on a blog about Ecuador! The two countries have certainly had a turbulent history, with war in the recent past and a neighbourly rivalry that straddles the fine line of friendship. 

A flippant comment on my blog (posted after I'd extolled the beauties of Peru's Amazonas region) asked why anybody would want to go to Ecuador? Well, it got me thinking.

With the World Cup in Brazil just months away (which Peru didn't qualify for, and Ecuador did) I've devised a thrilling football-themed eight round contest (including beaches, food, music, wildlife and archaeological sites) to find out once and for all who is the top Andean country... sorry Bolivia, Chile, and Colombia, I'm sure you're nice too.

The English referee Tom Rayner blows the whistle to start the match.

Coast and beaches: The Ecuadorian coast is lush, backed by cloud forests and forests of palo santo (the fragrant holy wood). The beach of Los Frailes in Manabi is the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. The ocean in Ecuador is also warmer than Peru, benefiting from a current of warm water. The beaches in Peru are more often than not surrounded by featureless, sandy desert and dunes. I spent Christmas on a Peruvian beach in sun-soaked Mancora and it was idyllic... it just wasn't Los Frailes.

Ecuador takes a shock early lead, Peru are stunned 1:0
Ayampe beach, Ecuador
Ayampe beach in Ecuador
Food: When it comes to cooking Peru blows Ecuador out of the water. Two of the best meals I've ever eaten have been in Peru. Peruvian chefs take real pride in their cuisine and it is now rightly recognised around the world. Here's a snapshot of the global reach of Peruvian cuisine (vs Ecuadorian). When we were looking for South American restaurants in London, Peru has Soho'strendy Ceviche or VirgilioMartinez's Michelin-starred Lima. The best Ecuadorian restaurant is El Rincon Quiteno on the Holloway Road, where Lucy refused to eat. Peruvian tiradito (raw tuna with a caramel, ginger and lemon sauce) mixes the art of Japanese fish preparation with the intense flavours of Latin America. The tiradito at La Sirena de Juan in Mancora was mind-blowing and La Fiesta in Chiclayo might be the best restaurant I've ever eaten in. Of course, Ecuador has a few delicious regional dishes – such as corviche, bolones (plantain and cheese balls), and locro (potato, cheese and avocado soup) but generally, Ecuadorian cuisine is plainer and less adventurous.

Peru equalises 1:1
Ceviche Mixto
Ceviche mixto in Quito
Drink: Peru has the Pisco Sour cocktail, Ecuador has shots of neat trago. Pisco is a Peruvian take on Italian grappa, a strong spirit produced from grapes and the delicious Pisco Sour is made with lemon, egg white and bitters. Trago, on the other hand, is a much cruder sugar cane spirit that can be added to the Ecuadorian winter wamer canelazo, a spicy brew made from the narnajilla fruit. Beer-wise Peru has Cusquena compared to Ecuador's has Pilsner and Club. Cusquena's rubia (blonde) variety beats its Ecuadorian cousins, but I prefer Club Negra to Cusquena's dark efforts (which is far too sweet). Peru also has Pilsen and Cristal, but I prefer Cusquena. Peru produces mostly bad wine, but imported bottles of Chilean and Argentinian wine are nearly half the price than in Ecuador.

It's a close call but I'll award it to Peru on the strength of the Pisco Sour and cheaper wine 1:2

Archaeological sites: You can't walk down the street in Peru without stumbling across an artefact of astounding archaeological significance. There's such an abundance of archaeological sites in Peru that many have yet to be investigated. Only a tiny portion of Kuelap has been excavated and when we went to Sican, of the 38 huacas (pyramids) in the national park only four had been explored. Then there are the breath-taking cliff-top mummies of the Chachapoyas. Ecuador has its own archaeological sites and its own important Incan heritage, but Machu Picchu they are not.

Peru is pulling away, this could be a humiliating thrashing for poor Ecuador 1:3

Sarcophagus de Karajia, Luya province, Peru

Nature: Ecuador is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world. What Peru is to archaeologists Ecuador is to ornithologists. Despite its size Ecuador has over 1,600 bird species (the coolest of all being the mighty condor) and over 4,000 varieties of wild orchid. I haven't even mentioned Ecuador's Galapagos islands, home to the giant tortoise (among other residents). Sure Peru has the hairless dog, which is good for a quick gawk and a giggle but it's hardly a giant tortoise. Until Peru comes up with something to match the giant tortoise (like a giant hairless dog) then it's an easy victory for Ecuador.

Ecuador pulls a goal back just before half-time, that's a life line 2:3

Dog breeders of Peru... make me one of these the size of a hippopotamus and you beat Ecuador
Getting around: Ecuador's relatively tiny size compared to Peru (the 19th largest country in the world) is a boon for travellers. In a day it's possible to visit volcanic Andean highlands, Amazonic rainforest and Pacific coast. Getting anywhere in Peru takes a long time and a lot of effort, a short journey of just 30 miles in the remote Chachapoyas region nearly defeated me. The roads in Ecuador are in much better condition and have fewer unpaved surfaces and potholes. Petrol in oil-rich Ecuador is also a fraction of the price than in Peru, so taxis and buses can pass on this saving to their passengers. Ecuadorian taxis are much more likely to have a meter – it doesn't mean the prices are fairer, but at least they're more transparent. In Peru you need to negotiate a price before stepping into the cab. Of course, to negotiate a fair price you need to know what a fair price is... unsurprisingly the taxi driver rarely loses. Also Ecuador has a train service (of sorts). The old railway travels from Quito, high in the Andes, all the way down to Guayaquil (the busy port in the south).

Ecuador packs Peru's geographic diversity into a bite-sized morsel, it also has cheap petrol, and its own railway... 3:3 it's squeaky bum time
The only train in Ecuador
Ecuador's train service in Alausi
Fiestas: Ecuador is the official fiesta capital of the world. The parties are loud, drunken and last for days, sometimes weeks. Time and time again I've arrived into an Ecuadorian town or village to discover some festival or other is either brewing or in full-swing. From the UNESCO-recognisedDiablada Pillarena, to smaller fiestas like El Tingo's Virgen deMerced, or Salango's Balsa Mantena, there's a fiesta happening somewhere in Ecuador. Of course, Peru loves to party as much as Ecuador and every town has its own fiesta patronal – honouring the town's patron. These can also last for long drunken days where the drinking is interspersed by dancing and fireworks. However, Ecuador's fiestas tend to have more of a theme and an identity... such as Latacunga's fiesta de Mama Negra.

It's a close-run thing and I've certainly been a lot more exposed to Ecuador's fiesta culture than Peru's but I think I have to award this one to Ecuador 4:3 (what a comeback from the little country with a big heart)
Lighting a firework at the Fiesta
A skilled pyro-technician sets off the firework display at a fiesta with fag
Capitals: Lima vs Quito. I don't feel qualified to answer this satisfactorily so I'm calling in Lucy who has lived in Lima for six years, and in Quito for 15 years. She's lived in Quito for longer, but is a self-confessed Lima-phile (and definitely not a llama-phile, that's something very different)
“The two cities couldn't be more different. Quito is high in the clouds in the centre of the world, at 2,800 metres and under the shadows of towering volcanoes. Lima sprawls along the coast – a conglomeration of many smaller towns, merged into one greater, and not always united, mass.
“I love Lima, I love its chaos, its dirty identity. The adventure on every street and the surprises it throws up. The food is amazing and not just in the top restaurants, even smaller, unknown venues serve incredible dishes. Artists' neighbourhoods like Baranco are vibrant and fun with views out across the sea.
“Quito has the most beautiful colonial centre of any city in Latin America. The architecture is incredible and the churches of San Francisco and the Iglesia Compania de Jesus are stunning and stand up to some of the best in the world.
“The inequality in Lima is more striking than Quito. Sure, Quito is divided between north and south, but at least the poorer communities in the south have breeze-block housing with running water and sewage. The shanty towns around Lima exist on the desert dunes in shacks made from estera. The rich live in neighbourhoods, like Miraflores, and are surrounded and serviced by neighbourhoods in poverty, like Surquillo. Of course the rich and poor areas are separated by busy roads. The inequality and social exclusion is even worse in the towns to the south of Lima, like Asia, where rich Limenos have their second-homes on the beach. There the maids are not allowed out during certain times and when they do it must be in uniform.
“For a tourist Quito has the most immediate and obvious attractions from the colonial centre to the mountain backdrop. In three days it's easier to explore and get a feel for Quito. But obviously, it's a lot smaller than Lima with a much smaller population. If you're spending longer, then Lima has more to teach and offer than Quito and will make a more lasting social impression.
“And of course, there's the weather... The weather in Lima is disgusting. For six months of the year the sky looks like Brussels, it is dark and grey and threatens to rain. Of course, you get three months of summer which is lovely, and three months of transitional period. Quito is perpetual spring, never too hot, never too cold – when it rains, it rains heavily and is soon over, and the sun surely follows.”

It's a bit of a stalemate on this one – the two capitals are so different it is impossible to compare them and it really depends of what and when you are looking for... it's still 4:3 and heading into injury time

Music: I've chosen two musical genres – closely associated with Peru and Ecuador – to represent the respective countries. For Peru I've chosen Chica and Festejo. Representing Ecuador is San Juanito and Pasillo.

Chicha was born in Peru but its popularity swept across the Andean countries. It's also popular in Argentina, where they call it Cumbia Villera. Chicha arrived in the 1960s when Lima received massive immigration from the Andes, mixing tropical music with highland-folk. Chicha relies on an electric guitar, instead of an acoustic guitar. In the last ten years it has become trendy with young Peruvians, shaking off its working class roots and arriving in the discos and student bars of Barranco. Chicha is classic dance and drinking music. My very favourite Chicha song (and in fact, Latin American song) is Te Vas, Te Vas by Grupo 5.

Festejo is an Afro-Peruvian rhythm. There is debate over the authenticity of Festejo, some critics claim it is a relatively modern reinvention to give the black population of Peru an identity. Festejo uses donkey jaws as a rattling, percussion instrument. My favourite Festejo song is Eva Ayllon's Saca la Mano.

San Juanito is fun Andean folk music from Ecuador and always gets an airing at a fiesta. It even derives its name from the fiesta de San Juan, with which it is closely associated. It is upbeat and danced with handkerchiefs (like English Morris dancing). The festival of San Juan shares pagan roots with the Incan festival of Inti Raymi, celebrating the sun God on June 24. The best San Juanito song is Jatari's Chimbalito, sung in Quechua (that's how tr00 it is).

Pasillo is mournful, drinking music from Ecuador. The songs are melancholy and the lyrics are dramatic and over-the-top. There is a European undertone to the music, particularly the Viennese Waltz. There's a pasillo song called Diseccion where the singer imagines his own death and being sliced up on the autopsy table while he remembers his true love, pretty gruesome stuff for non-death metal audiences. Until the 1950s amorous young men would hire a pasillo band to serenade their sweethearts under the window. If the girl accepted her lover's overtures she would appear at the window, if the gesture was rebuffed she would remain in bed.
Trombone player at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced
I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down
FINAL SCORE: I love pasillo for mournful drinking sessions and there's nothing like San Juanito for getting the fiesta started... but then Te Vas, Te Vas is my favourite Latin song of all time... so it has to go to Peru... and the final whistle blows... a thrilling 4-4 draw. Both sets of fans can go home happy after this stunning performance. Perhaps, a special thank you to our English referee Tom Rayner?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Gocta Waterfall and its sexy mermaid monster

Is this the most amazing swimming pool in the world?
Infinity pool at Gocta Lodge hotel, Peru
The infinity pool at Gocta Lodge hotel
This is the infinity pool at the Gocta Lodge hotel in Cocachimba, Peru. The pool looks out across the stunning mountains of Amazonas and the Gocta waterfall – which may, or may not, be the third highest waterfall in the world, depending on who you listen to.

Until 2005 the Gocta Cataracts were unknown to the outside world. Of course, the locals knew about it but were afraid to reveal the secret because they were afraid of a beautiful mermaid who haunted the plunge pool.

This corking, blonde siren could enchant locals with just a flutter of her eye-lashes. This was the fate of unlucky, local villager Juan Mendoza, from Cocachimba, who fell in love with the mermaid. As he strode lustfully into the icy water, unfastening his belt as he went, the mermaid turned him into stone.

An unlikely tale, perhaps? Well I thought so too, but I actually saw the petrified rock of Mendoza with my own eyes – which goes to show, sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction.

Sexy gold fish! The petrifying mermaid of Gocta (not, in fact, Daryl Hannah from Splash)
Petrification is not her only power... the watery tart is also guarded by a vicious serpent. I couldn't find out much information about her snakey sidekick which is a shame because I really warmed to him, a much more likeable character in my opinion.

Anyway, in 2005 a German explorer – with the wonderfully Teutonic name of Stefan Ziemendorff – called a press conference to announce the discovery of Gocta. Unfortunately for Stefan he enlisted the help of the Peruvian (rather than the German) government to help him measure the height and categorise the falls. They made a complete hash of it and poor Stefan was left with egg on his face after proclaiming it the third highest waterfall in the world.

It wasn't long before some eminent geographer performed a Wikipedia search and discovered the Gocta falls were actually way down in 18th place on the list of highest waterfalls in the world.

In fairness, the list is a bit of a con. In the top spot is a boring borehole the Russians drilled to find out how deep it was possible to penetrate the earth's crust (well, that's their story anyway). And in second place is an underwater waterfall in the Denmark Strait, caused by a change in ocean temperature. 

Gocta waterfall Peru
Gocta Cataracts
Wherever it sits on the chart, the Gocta Cataracts are 771 metres tall – which is not to be sniffed at.

You can walk to the Gocta falls from two villages. The route from Cocachimba takes you to the bottom of the waterfall. The route from San Pedro takes you to the midway point.

I walked both on consecutive days – each takes about six hours (providing for an hour or so to enjoy the views and drink a flask of tea). The route from Cocachimba is steeper and more challenging. The route from San Pedro probably has the most spectacular views, because of its elevation, and is also more level.

The mountains around Gocta look like the computer-generated planet in Avatar. They rise out of the clouds with sheer vertical sides and are crowned with dense jungle. The skies are filled with flocks of screeching, green parrots. Hummingbirds and llamas complete the picture. This part of the Andes is known as the ceja de montana – or the eyebrow of the mountains.

The altitude is around 2,000 metres, so the air is humid and the sun (in December) is merciless. The walk from Cocachimba passes through sugarcane fields, and traverses narrow rope bridges (to fulfill all your Indiana Jones fantasies).

Like with so many of the other stunning sites in this remote part of northeastern Peru, there are hardly any other tourists to spoil your day.

Friday, January 10, 2014

On the Buses in Ecuador

I have a squawking chicken under my chair, the family behind me are tucking into their main meal of the day, I'm watching a brutal gang rape on the television and a heavily made-up Jesus is staring back at me. I can only be on an Ecuadorian bus.

The first time I saw a bus in Ecuador I couldn't quite believe it. They are bold, bright and have colour-schemes inspired by a Formula1 racing team. In fact it's quite common for the drivers to plaster their vehicles with the logos of their "sponsors". It really adds a glamorous and sporty touch to a knackered, 25-year-old, diesel-chugging coach.

Colorful Buses in Ecuador
Photo courtesy of Costa Rica Bill -
The buses are old and not very hygienic. Bizarrely, live chickens are welcomed but "mascotas" (meaning pets) are not. The chickens are generally well-behaved unless the bus goes around a corner, or slows down, or accelerates for that matter... oh, and they go bat-shit if the bus goes over a pot-hole or a speed-bump. So most of the time it's a squawking, thrashing, flapping talon-of-death with whom you share your ride.

On the coast, chickens are replaced by fish. In Puerto Lopez people shop in the market and bring their fresh catch on board and lay the unwrapped fish on the floor of the bus. Needless to say, it hums. For my part, I put the 5lb tuna I bought inside two plastic bags for the bus journey. This still wasn't enough to stop it dripping brine and blood over my fellow passengers when I got off the bus at Ayampe.

Bus-stops do not exist in Ecuador, so the buses stop to drop-off/pick-up whenever there's a potential passenger at the roadside. This is great when you want to catch a bus, not so good when you're the passenger and in a hurry to get somewhere.

Luckily, all the buses play the latest Hollywood films to stop their passengers getting bored. The most popular films are ones with car chases, explosions and killings. It doesn't matter what time of day or how many children are on board, the buses show the goriest action films the local pirate DVD seller has to offer.

For example, I watched the latest Rambo film on a night bus last month. In this film, Rambo shoots a man through the brain with an arrow, tears out the throat of an evil general and witnesses the gang rape of captured female prisoners by the Burmese Tatmadaw army. Most incredibly, the old Indian couple sat opposite me watched unblinking and engrossed as the orgy of death and sex unfolded before them.
Trust me when I say Rambo isn't giving this guy a lovely cuddle
Of course with every film you need food and luckily there's an army of vendors waiting to board and flog their delicious grub. You can buy everything from rice and chicken meals, pan de yuca, ice-creams, biscuits, tostado, roasted habas beans, and avena polaca (a sort of thick vanilla drink).

The sex and violence on TV is accompanied by a curious contradiction. The gentle face of Jesus Christ watching over the bus.

At the front, by the driver, there is always some veneration to the Catholic faith. Often, it's a favourite Virgin (Virgen de Merced and Guadaloupe are the most popular). Sometimes it's a prayer. Sometimes it's a bold declaration that "we are all good Catholics of the same true faith." But my favourite is always Jesus. He is portrayed in heavy make-up with lippie, rouge and eye-shadow. I suppose it makes him look more angelic, but to me he looks like a drag queen.

It's funny, as the bus you're travelling in overtakes a lorry on a blind bend with its tyres screeching and chickens squawking, it's a strange comfort to have Jesus watching over you (in drag or otherwise).

Jesus, looking good
There is no centralised public transport network in Ecuador so you are at the mercy of the local, private bus companies, but they're generally pretty fair with their pricing. A journey costs roughly 50 cents for half an hour's travel - this is affordable for most of the population. Children and the elderly pay half-fare without question or having to apply for travel cards. So I can't really complain.

About Me

My name is Tom.

I'm a 32-year-old English journalist, writer and photographer. I worked for the Associated Press in London and Brussels, and before that the Press Association.

Me in Itchimbia, Quito
Here I am looking happy and staring into the middle-distance
I'm always on the lookout for new stories and fresh adventures.

In my short time in Ecuador I've already danced as a devil in Pillaro, discovered an illegal trago distillery in the jungle, leapt burning effigies of Barney the Dinosaur, and twerked at a beach festival in front of thousands.

My passions are food, drink and fiestas - preferably all three at the same time. Luckily Ecuador is the unofficial world capital of fiestas so I'm going to be writing a lot about these wild parties.

Walking through Quito

South America has a rich and mysterious history but without a written language much of this history has to be retold by archaeologists from clues found in pottery and burial chambers. I will be travelling Peru and Ecuador and writing about these pre-Colombian sites.

I love photography and video - shooting with a Canon 5D and using 70-200mm f2.8 IS; 24-105mm f4 IS, and 50mm 1.4. You can see my photos here. I will also discuss the pros-and-cons of photography in the middle of the world.

When I'm not blogging I'm editing my first novel - the story of a journalist sent to Cornwall to investigate mysterious dolphin beachings along the coast. The London hack finds himself in a strange and hostile fishing village surrounded by furtive locals. Only the help of an alcoholic Icelandic fisherman and the magnetic Colonel Mortain will help him land front page news. But will the scoop cost him his life? There's something dark beneath the waters.

Of course, South America can be a daunting place with its idiosyncrasies, especially when you're still learning the language. At every step I am guided by Quito's own Lucy Rojas, an anthropologist and lover of ancient, dusty things buried under the soil. In my blog when things get too confusing (and they often do) I call on Lucy for a local interpretation.
Lucy in Kuelap
Lovely local lass Lucy

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tear gas and beer: A typical night-out in Quito

I cried hot, salty tears, my nose ran raw, and my throat itched. "You've just inhaled tear gas," the red-eyed waiter breezily informed me.

I knew something was wrong the second I entered the bar and saw everybody had scarves tied around their faces. I was in Cherusker, Quito's only German micro-brewery bar but the gassing had put me right off my foaming stein of cerveza rubia.

“There was a man on drugs,” the waiter said. “He got violent and refused to leave so the doorman had to set off the tear gas.”

He had to? Sounds a bit extreme to me and besides, who thought it was a good idea to give the bouncer a can of tear gas anyway? These aren't diplomatic people, if you gave a bouncer a bazooka he'd fire it at the first poor bastard to fail an ID check.

Oh well, I shouldn't grumble too much about being unwittingly subjected to chemical warfare. Nobody else in the bar seemed too bothered and a litre stein of their delicious, micro-brewed beer only costs five dollars. I stiffened my upper-lip and supped the beer with the grim stoicism of a Flanders' trench.

A night out in Ecuador rarely passes without incident... and that's what's so fun about it. I used to go to pubs in London at least twice a week for seven years and not once did I get gassed, or chased down the street by a topless taxi driver swinging a belt.

A night-out in Quito typically means a night-out in Mariscal, home to hundreds of bars, nightclubs, restaurants and hostals. It's lively, vibrant and neon and rammed with drunk backpackers.
All got a bit too much - Borracho sleeping at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced
The borracho is a romantic figure in Ecuador
But it's not confined to Quito. I was in a rock bar in Ambato the previous week and Lucy and I were cornered by a swaying piss-head. In England this guy have been turfed out into the street about four beers earlier but drunks are tolerated much more in Ecuador. In fact, the stumbling, slurring borracho is almost a romantic figure bringing warmth and joy to the heart – a bit how we see Father Christmas.

This drunk borracho was excited because he had tickets to see Metallica in Quito. I quickly learned it was the first time Metallica will play in Ecuador. He then proceeded to tell me all the other rock bands who have never played in Ecuador. It turns out Ecuador isn't really on the metal touring circuit and there are a lot of bands who have never played here. Iron Maiden, Kiss, Slayer, ZZ Top, Black Sabbath... the list felt endless. But Metallica are playing in Ecuador, he reminded me. Then he told me all the bands who have played in Ecuador... there were a lot of them too, although I'd never heard of most of them. And Metallica, he added for emphasis, are playing in Ecuador for “la primera vez”. I nodded politely for the 98th time. Then he told me all the bands who haven't played in Ecuador... it was a long night.

The best thing about the night was when Lucy couldn't remember the name for the pub and called it "the beer shop". From now on every pub shall be called "the beer shop". 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Winter warmers: making Canelazo

Despite living on the equator, it's been a cold, wet week in Quito. But what better excuse to brew up a steaming mug of canelazo to warm the cockles?

Canelazo is a hot, sugary drink with cinnamon and naranjilla fruit. It's an Andean take on German Gluhwein – or perhaps more closely, the hot cider they drink in the USA. It can get pretty chilly at night when you're living at 3,000 metres above sea-level so when the sun sets we swap the cerveza for canelazo.

Here is a recipe for the perfect canelazo.
  1. Boil two large sticks of cinnamon in one litre of water for 10 minutes until the water starts to take on their colour
  2. Peel four naranjilla * fruits and blend with a splash of the cinnamon water to the consistency of a road kill toad. Sieve the thick sauce to remove the seeds
  3. Add the naranjilla fruit to the boiling cinnamon water and stir thoroughly.
  4. Add half a cup of sugar to the canelazo – (or to taste)
  5. Add one shot of cana Manabita ** per person
  6. Serve steaming hot in mugs, preferably on a cold winter's night
* If you're living outside South America you'll be lucky to find naranjilla in your local Tesco so oranges can be used as a substitute. 
** Cana Manabita is the sugar cane spirit of Manabi but any good, white rum will work as a substitute. 

Naranjilla fruit
Naranjilla - good luck finding these in your local Tesco
Cana Manabita
Cana Manabita - the sugar cane spirit of the Ecuadorian coast
I served this recipe recently with positive feedback. It was at a beach party at a hippy house in Ayampe - everybody at the multinational gathering enjoyed it, including Ecuadorians, Colombians, Argentinians, Peruvians, a pair of Yanks and a sleepy French woman who was trying to kip on a hammock but the street dogs kept licking her face.

I gave the hippies delicious canelazo, they gave me guacamole and amoebic dysentery.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Sarcofagi of Karajia: Trials, toils and tribulations to see the lofty mummies

I woke up at sunrise and counted my mosquito bites. Four, five, six - that's not too bad. The combination of net, palo santo, repellent cream (which we've christened Stinker Pinker) and a Raid plug-in vaporiser seemed to do the trick.

Breakfast at Casa Andina Hotel in Chachapoyas was papaya juice (which would taste like orange juice, if orange juice was horrible and had no flavour), trusty heuvos fritos, cake and coffee.

We had no clean clothes - or more accurately, we had an entire bag of clean clothes in a launderette 20 miles away, this being the launderette where the owner's dog had shat all over the floor. When the launderette owner clocked my horrified face at the piles of poo he summoned his young daughter to clean it up. She neatly laid sheets of A4 paper over the stinking mounds. There was also a dead rat outside the shop which Lucy nearly stepped on - how she screamed! I've since burnt all my clothes that passed through his doors.
Sarcophagus de Karajia, Luya province, Peru
The plan was simple. To see the Sarcofagi of Karajia
The plan for the day was simple: to see Sarcofagi of Karajia, a set of mummies placed high in the cliffs by the Chachapoyas people over 500 years ago. On the map it looked simple, the mummies were only 30 miles from our hotel. Reality was going to taste very different from expectation. This is Peru - a benighted land of chaos, a non-existant public transport network, mortal danger at every turn and, as it happens, just about one of the best countries in the whole world.

From the hotel we hiked up the steep chaquinan (footpath) through a chirimoya (deliciously aromatic Peruvian fruit) farm. We reached the road and waited at the local tienda (corner shop) for a collectivo (shared mini-bus taxi) to pass. Lessons over. We waited about an hour and a half.

The small police station opposite was being given a lick of paint. One of the Keystone cops managed to get fresh, white paint all over his trousers. He spent the entire hour and a half rubbing it with dry leaves. In my professional opinion he wanted turpentine, hot water and a clean cloth... but what do I know.

It's only a small police station but it's staffed by at least six officers (or chapas as the Ecuadorians would say). They sit around idly on plastic chairs in the sun and occasionally pull over unlucky motorists to check their papers (if you know what I mean).

Eventually a pick-up truck pulled over to ask for directions. It was a family of day trippers from the other side of Peru. We assured them "their way was our way" and they agreed to let us hop in the back.

Our fellow passenger in the back of the trailer was a young boy whose face had turned an unholy glaucous hue. He wasn't a 'good traveller' we'd been pre-warned and he had been vomiting steadily all the way from Chiclayo (about 200 miles away). The poor lad looked very sorry for himself but Lucy and I had more pressing concerns: i.e - avoiding the slithering sick that snaked like the great, grey, green, greasy Limpopo river about the trailer.

We soon turned off the main road and headed up the rough mountain track to Lamud. A rare signpost revealed it was a journey of 16 kilometres. We braced ourselves for the pain in the rear of this crude truck. The road was steep and rutted and every shock jarred our spines and rattled our bones. It was agony. I was trying to count down the kilometres in my head, promising my body the pain would soon be at an end.

I guessed we had traveled about 10km when our truck suddenly pulled to a halt. "This is where they murder us," I half-joked. But it was a fate worse than death. The tank was running dangerously low on petrol so, with fuel stations few and far between, we had to u-turn and freewheel back down the painful road. 'Should we walk the last six kilometres?' I wondered. But the midday sun was scorching and neither of us were entirely certain of where we were.

We bounced back to the bottom of the hill, waved goodbye to the family who headed off in search of petrol and sat down on the hot road to wait for another lift. Nothing much passed along this sleepy road and it was an hour before another truck let us jump into the trailer. Neither of us relished repeating the journey after the agony of the last trip but if we wanted to see those bloody mummies we were just going to have to soak up the pain and think of England.

Fortunately, this truck was a brand new Toyota Hilux with state-of-the-art suspension. I can almost say I enjoyed the ride, basking like a lizard on a rock under the strength of the sun. The scenery north of Chachapoyas is stunning. Rapid rivers snake and churn through deep valleys and the mountains rise like stately domes, covered in lush trees bearing wild, and exotic fruits.

When we reached the town of Luya we dismounted and shook aches from our battered bones. We found a taxi driver who agreed to take us to the closest village to the mummies (Cruzpata), wait for us, and return us to town. We negotiated a price and hopped in.

The village of Cruzpata is tiny. There are no gift shops, no restaurants, in fact, the only clue that one of the most incredible archaeological sites of northern Peru lay just over the horizon was a battered sign pointing down a rough farm track. It promised mummies were just a kilometre away, although I'd guess it's at least twice that distance.

The remote countryside around Cruzpata is a paradise. Wild flowers grow rich, blooming blue, crimson and a pastel, ecclesiastical purple. In the surrounding fields ploughs are still pulled by a pair of oxen and local boys spray dangerous pesticides from hand pumps without masks.

After a couple of kilometres down the track, the fertile farm land drops away into a steep valley met by sheer cliffs. A narrow footpath hacked into the rock hugs the cliff wall. It winds tightly about the mountainside so at first you don't see the mummies... but then you do and it makes you want to cry.

High in the seemingly unassailable rocks, 200 metres above the base of the gorge, are seven white figures standing 10-feet tall. Their large, expressionless, anthropomorphous faces are striking even from a distance and eerie human skulls have been balanced atop their heads. These are the faces of icons and they have stared out across this abandoned valley with the same unblinking eyes for over 500 years. Nobody is around. There are no tourists, no farmers, no signs of civilisation. It was just myself, Lucy and the Chachapoyan mummies.
Sarcophagus de Karajia, Luya province, Peru
The narrow path carved into the cliff below the mummies
An eighth mummy had once stood with his comrades but an earthquake in the 1920s shook him from his perch. The damage allowed daring archaeologists to scale the cliffs and investigate. They found a mummy wrapped in funeral cloths and seated on animal skins. About the body were ceramics and other objects of value.

The Sarcofagi of Karajia (or sometimes Carajia) are still a mystery. The certainty of modern technology places them around 1470s - the height of the Incan Empire's ascendancy and just a decade before the Spanish ships landed on the coast of the New World. But modern technology can tell us little about the myths and cosmo-vision of this strange, cloud people from the high-Andes.

Presumably the sarcofagi contained the bodies of revered and respected Chachapoyan leaders - you would have to consider somebody pretty special to go to this much effort and danger with their entombment. But it was only their inaccessibility that spared them from grave robbers. I could not believe such an ancient and incredible site was still standing in the cliff-face, bearing against the elements, the earthquakes and the ravages of human civilisation.

For a spark of a second I wondered if they should be saved before some natural disaster or other befalls them, before they rot away or topple over the cliff-edge like unlucky number eight. But no sooner had the thought occurred to me than I discarded it. Hermetically sealed behind glass, grease-stained from the pressed-noses, and lit by the museum's somber lighting and warning signs of "no flash photography" would have stripped the mummies of all solemnity and dignity - just another exhibit collecting dust.

Sarcophagus de Karajia, Luya province, Peru
This is where you first see the mummies, 200 metres above the valley floor
We had promised our taxi driver we would only be 90 minutes. We'd got lost in the mummies and had left just 15 minutes for the return journey. The thought of getting stranded in the remote village of Cruspatra wasn't particularly appealing so we both braced our backs for the uphill trudge. By now the sun was unbearable so I wrapped my scarf around me like Lawrence of Arabia, much to the amusement of the local farmers.

The taxi driver was in no hurry to leave so I felt a bit foolish (and English) arriving red-faced, breathless and bang on 15:30 as promised.

On the way back to town we picked up an old Indian woman who looked about 98-years-old. Ten minutes later we stopped for another two Indian women who were both carrying enormous bags of corn. So then there were six of us in a knackered, old taxi. The Indians were sat on each other's laps and asked Lucy lots of questions. It was about then our taxi broke down for the first time, apparently some sort of electrical problem. The driver was no stranger to the fault - I suspect he probably has to fix it several times a day. Minutes later the engine cut out again and required another tinkering before we could continue.

The Indians with the corn got out at a farming village near Luya. As they clambered out of the taxi their enormous bag split and dried corn covered the rear seats and road. Lucy spotted the cheeky, 98-year-old Indian sneaking a handful into her pocket. I helped the women pick it up, grain-by-bloody-grain. Hoovering the corn off the road was at least 15 per cent grit - I wouldn't fancy crunching through their tostado later.

Back in town we had some time before the collectivo left for Chachapoyas so Lucy struck upon the idea of finding a local chicheria to buy some fresh chicha - the corn-brewed booze of the Incas. Chicha is shockingly cheap, we paid two soles for two litres - that's about 25 pence. A bargain perhaps, but it did come in a filthy Sprite bottle and had bits floating in it. Later that night we took our filthy, plastic bottle of chicha to the elegant riverside restaurant in our hotel and poured it out like a bottle of vintage Margaux.

It took a long time for the collectivo to pull out of Luya because two female passengers were having a noisy argument about paying an electricity bill. The run down the mountain was terrifying in the rattly, old minibus but the driver didn't seem too concerned about the gravelly road, the hairpin bends and the 500ft sheer drops. At one point we overtook a police car on a blind bend, wheels spinning for traction and our bus under-steering towards the valley below.

Safely back at the chirimoya farm I stopped for a couple of calming, cold beers from the tienda. There was some confusion and I ended up paying ten soles too little and walking off. Lucy was chatting to the policemen when I returned with the shop owner in hot pursuit. The police only laughed as I swigged from an open alcohol bottle in front of them. Another one of Peru's less enforced laws, I learned (luckily).

We stopped on the walk back down the steep valley path to the hotel under the shade of a chirimoya tree and drank the cold beer as the sun set. It was the first time I'd had to reflect during a hectic day. The journey to see the mummies had been challenging and at moments it almost defeated us. We were sunburned, dehydrated, dusty and sore but the Sarcophagus de Karajia are like nothing I've ever seen before and worth every ounce of pain.

Monday, January 6, 2014

How I became the first English Diablo at the Diablada Pillareña

I was the first English Diablo de Pillaro... and conspicuously so. I was a foot taller than all of the other devils and the long blonde hair was a dead give-away. As a result I was a magnet for the trago shots (sugar cane spirit) and had half a bottle poured down my throat before the parade had even begun. At first I was nervous and a shot of Dutch courage was welcome, but soon my stomach was on fire and it was a relief to finally don the devil mask to escape the trago.

Ready to dance
The Diablada Pillareña is the annual festival of the devil in the high-Andean town of Pillaro. Its roots are a protest by the indigenous communities against Spanish rule and the Church. The devil was their symbol of union and shocking rebellion – the masks ensured anonymity from their corpulent hacienda owners. All of the communities danced into town and took over the main square in an annual act of defiance and solidarity. Any colonial Spaniard who had forgotten the festival and popped into Pillaro for some chorizo and Rioja was guaranteed a bad time.

Now, in a strange twist  – I am dancing alongside the Indians in a festival that has become more about fun, drinking and friendship than protest. All the same: “Bloody Spanish.”

The weight of the mask was impressive, forcing chin into chest. The tiny slits for the eyes were like keyholes, and I could see less in the periphery than a blinkered horse; there would be more than a few collisions to come. In my right hand I carried a stuffed zorillo (an Andean skunk whose territorial pissing smells exactly like weed) with which to torment and terrify children, girls and drunks lining the streets. I had a heavy sheepskin wig tied tightly around my head to secure the mask. The rest of my outfit was a red silk suit, flesh-coloured stockings and a pair of pumps one size too small, because size 46 and beyond does not exist in Ecuador.

Edison makes the final adjustments to my mask while my neck snaps under the strain
Lucy was worried I'd get lost in the chaos so volunteered to dress as a Guarricha to keep an eye on me. The Guarricha is traditionally a cross-dressing man in colourful women's clothing, and a creepy mask; they carry a baby and a bottle of trago. Like the diablos, their job is to cause maximum mischief and spread the drunkenness.

Lucy the guarricha with her baby and bottle of booze like an ASBO mum
The diablos have to dance with wild pelvic thrusts and adopting a mock drunken stagger (the latter I'd mastered expertly). The zorro is punched high in the air in time with the thumping bass drum from the marching brass band.

The hardest thing about the parade is getting enough air to stay alive. Dancing at 3,000 metres is breathtaking at the best of times but dancing at 3,000 metres with a belly-full of booze combined with the weight of the mask and its three pinprick air holes for the mouth was the equivalent of going for a jog during an asthma attack. It's forbidden for the devils to remove their mask during the parade so all I could do was relax, regulate and enjoy the dizzy highs of asphyxiation.

We danced twice around the main square in Pillaro before coming to rest in a social centre where I could finally remove my mask. Somebody handed me a bottle of water, it was a welcome sight in the heat and I glugged greedily. Something was wrong! I realised I'd just chugged listerine, the paint-strippingly strong distillation that Ecuadorians like to knock back when a party is in full-swing.

I was dancing with a group from Guangibana led by Edison Guachamin who runs Andean Arte – a dance school and traditional clothing hire shop. I'd filmed Edisonmaking the masks for the Diablada Pillareña a few months earlier and had wheedled my way into the collective like a cheeky stray-cat. Edison also loaned me the diablo outfit and mask.
(left to right) Me, Lucy and Edison posing before the parade
The Guangibana group always occupy the rooftop terrace of the social centre – I'd been drinking with them there two days earlier and that was where the idea of me dancing was first suggested. From the terrace we could see hundreds of devils and guarrichas drinking. The band were sitting sulking in the corner because nobody had bought them any beer or trago to drink and there was no way they were dipping their hands in their pockets. Luckily they were soon oiled up and playing again.

In Ecuador nobody has their own drink, everything is communal. We bought a 24 pack of Pilsner and it is one person's duty to pour the beer and hand the glass around the circle. This responsibility always seemed to land on poor, old Gato for some reason. With the crate polished off it was time for the second round of dancing. All of the group were tight after the beer and trago and there is nothing more devilish than a drunk diablo.

In the second parade it was less about the dancing and more about winding-up the audience with my zorillo. The best trick was to ask girls to stroke the zorillo and attack them with it when they did, brazen tourist photographers were another reliable target. Lucy and I had even worked out a little routine whereby I chased her with the zorillo and got it to bite her bum. The zorillo had its revenge though, I managed to slice open my finger with its razor claws. I was so drunk I barely felt it but was shocked to see the blood pooled in my palm – but the show must go on.

Lots of the crowd wanted photographs with me and it's probably the closest I will ever come to celebrity. As the sun sank behind the mountains the dancing was coming to an end but I was still hungry for more so sneaked back for a final fling.

Not enough room to swing a zorillo
After the parade we all headed to Edison's house for another crate of beer and trago. On the winding mountain road back to Ambato I'm sorry to say I felt quite sick. I'm such a show-off I can't just take a tiny swig from the bottle and am easily inflated by applause. This surreal day ended with the sudden realisation I'd lost my shoes, which is always the mark of a good night.

I've seen some festivals but nothing comes close to the Diablada. The colour, the music, the dancing, the active volcano of Tungurahua as backdrop and the booze make a chaotic and kaleidoscopic cocktail. I've honestly never had so much fun in my life.

Friday, January 3, 2014

New Year's Eve in Ecuador

A rope across the road stopped our car and out of the darkness leapt four men wearing wigs, miniskirts, and fishnet tights – it was highway robbery, of a sort. The men danced, twerked and exposed their giant plastic breasts, they wouldn't let us pass until we'd handed over money. These are the viudas (widows) and this is Ecuador on New Year's Eve.

Viudas dancing on New Year's Eve in Ambato
Our car was stopped at least 40 times on the short drive into Ambato centre. The widows rule the road and resistance is futile. Apparently Ecuadorian men are no different from English men - any opportunity to cross dress and they seize it with a raw passion that betrays a little too much eagerness.

If you want to drive anywhere in Ecuador on New Year's Eve then you need pockets full of shrapnel. Failure to pay results in a hefty and humiliating sexual molestation by the viudas.

A friend from Pillaro dressed as a viuda with his mates and occupied a prime spot on the busy road into town. In a single night of transvestite mischief they made 350 dollars (about the average monthly salary in Ecuador). The best part is they spent everything they had earned on booze that same night.

The other main event ofNew Year's Eve is the burning of the ano viejo dummy. I'd made a grand plan to create and burn a Rolf Harris doll, but in the end it all came to naught. Instead I bought Barney the Dinosaur for five dollars from a roadside seller. It was getting late in the evening and all the best dolls had already been sold, so my choices were Barney, the donkey from Shrek, and (rather bizarrely) a sabre-tooth tiger – it was a no-brainer.

Lucy's young cousin Darya bought a more impressive Snow White ano viejo for 12 dollars. Unfortunately she grew rather attached to Blanca Nieve and at the stroke of midnight refused to burn her.

Before the midnight bonfires begin first you must write a will containing all of the events of the past year and gift them to friends and family. Another tradition dictates that you must wear yellow underwear and a bra to see in the New Year. I have no idea what the significance of this is.

I'd bought a bag of lethal fireworks in town and was itching to set them off. The first one was basically just a stick of dynamite. I lit it far too close to my only spectator (Lucy) and blew her eardrums out – my own shell-shock was unfairly ignored, I felt.

Miraculously, by midnight I still had all of my limbs and my ears had finally stopped ringing... it was time for Barney the Dinosaur to meet his maker. I stamped on his head and stuffed it full of firecrackers before striking the match. He went up like he'd been thoroughly pre-soaked in lighter fluid – in fact, he had.

With the bonfires blazing it is time to leap over the burning effigy to symbolise putting the past year behind you. It was only in mid-flight that I remembered the fireworks I'd foolishly placed in Barney's head and nearly lost my foot at the ankle. Even in his charred death throes that camp, purple dinosaur had the last laugh.

Across Ecuador the roads are filled with burning dolls and the tarmac bleeds rivers of black oil. The air is thick with acrid smoke and weapons-grade Chinese rockets whizz by your head singeing eyebrows.

This is how I welcomed 2014. I didn't think things could get any crazier but the next day I was heading to the festival of the devils in Pillaro and I was about to be proven spectacularly wrong – but more about that later.

Unfortunately there are no photos because my iPhone was stolen the next day. My only record of the night is this single photo of me and Barney in happier times.  

Me and Barney... best of friends until I stamped on his head and burnt him