Friday, February 14, 2014

Ecuadorian Music Videos: the Seventh Circle of Hell

There's no point sugaring the pill, Ecuadorian pop music is bad... but the accompanying music videos occupy a circle of hell deeper still... most probably that one with red hot pokers, arses and eternity.

Just so we're on the same wave length, watch this video before continuing. It's by the indigenous pop singer Delfin Quishpe. The song is called 'Torres Gemelas' which means 'The Twin Towers' in English. Alarm bells should be starting to ring, but let's give our man Delfin the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he can pull off that rare feat of singing about a sensitive and traumatic subject with dignity and genuine emotion.

Ok, so he couldn't. But at least we're all on the same page now.

When I first saw the work of Delfin Quishpe on YouTube I thought it must be a joke, so far beyond the realms of parody did it exist. But this was before I'd moved to Ecuador, back then I was watching it with my cynical (and I'm ashamed to say, elitist) European eyes.

For this reason, I was in two minds about writing this blog - which is essentially a piss-take of all that Ecuadorians, and to no small extent Latin America, holds dear.

After all, am I saying multi-million dollar, slick and vacuous music videos of Miley Cyrus and One Direction are better? With their inherent sexism (made all the more sickening by that knowing wink at irony) and their unashamed steam-rollering towards a mindless, bland consumerism.

To make things more complicated still, there's the stream of subtle racism that runs through all Andean life. The indigenous community is marginalised by the mestizos and sometimes even openly ridiculed in popular culture. In Peru, for example, a favourite comedy is Paisana Jacinta (perhaps Bumpkin Josie in English, or Red-neck Jane in American). It features a mestizo woman who has darkened her skin, wears ragged clothes and sports a set of comedy, crooked teeth. That's right, she's impersonating a stupid Indian - like it was 1960... in Johannesburg... under Nazi rule.

Therefore, if I'm laughing at an indigenous singer like Delfin, am I not as bad as the mestizos with their belly-laughs at Paisana Jacinta? After all, poor, old Delfin is trying his hardest. He's not a natural actor, he probably received no formal training, but he's doing his best and that's all we can ask. He's not even a natural singer... oh no, I'm laughing at him again! What to do?

Well, luckily for me the mestizo music videos are just as bad. In fact, all the more so because whereas Delfin is just doing what he thinks is nice in his own unique way, the mestizo singers are ambitiously trying to replicate elements from the Western pop canon.

I've been fortunate enough to stumble across the making of two pop videos in Ecuador. For some reason their most popular filming location is by the side of a road. I suppose it's convenient at least.

Geovanna Jara - Ecuador's Lady Gaga, freezing to death in Chimborazo
When I driving down from Chimborazo, at 4,000 metres across the windswept paramo, I saw some magic happening. The female cumbia singer, Geovanna Jara was shooting her latest music video.

Ok so this is Geovanna Jara with Muero de Frio (I'm Dying of Cold) shot on location in New York, no less. It features Geovanna jigging about on 5th Avenue as bemused New Yorkers jostle unsympathetically past. It also features a bit of CGI and that wobbly voice effect first used by Cher when she repeatedly asked us if we believed in life after love.

The production values of her latest shoot didn't quite stretch to a plane ticket to New York, so instead she was freezing her tits off at the foot of Chimborazo. In fact, this would have made a much more authentic video for 'I'm Dying of Cold' as her goose-bumped flesh turned a shade of purple blue.

Her director, producer, DoP and camera operator were a condensed two-man team consisting of an old bloke with an antique camcorder and his ten-year-old son.

Geovanna was very nice to me, she posed for pictures and even took my name so she could add me on Facebook (by the way, I'm still waiting for my friend request, Geovanna). She wasn't at all how I imagined a famous pop diva to be. I can't imagine Britney Spears pausing midway through her latest video shoot to pose for photos for a bemused Englishman who kept calling her Batney... a reference to me mistakenly calling Geovanna, Joanna throughout.

In the markets across Ecuador, the pirate CD sellers show these videos on small, crackly TVs. They always attract a large and appreciative audience. So who am I to say what's right or wrong? There's not so much money in the Latin music industry, so the budgets for their videos are necessarily a lot slimmer. So what am I doing? Laughing at people who are poorer than I am? That doesn't feel good. And besides, the singers are only giving their fan base what they want, so who am I to scoff at their best efforts? Erm, except for the awkward fact I just have.

Anyway, here's my man Delfin wading into another sensitive subject - this time the Middle East question - to sing us out with Israel.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Mama Tungurahua erupts

It's funny how quickly the human brain can adapt to the idea of instant destruction.

As I drove into Ambato a billowing mushroom cloud - red against the evening sun - cast an apocalyptic shadow over the city. Tungurahua, Ecuador's monstrous, active volcano, was feeling fiery. The name in Quechua means 'Throat of Fire'... so I can't say I wasn't warned. The horizon from Ambato looked more like Bikini Atoll.

Mama Tungurahua is Ecuador's fiercest volcano and standing at 5,023 metres she's no shrinking violet.
Mama Tungurahua over Ambato
All of the mountains in Ecuador have rich legends associated with them. They all have sexes and personalities and are part of an extended family group. For example, Mama Tungurahua was the wife of Tayta (father in Quechua) Chimborazo, the daddy of all volcanoes.

Anyway, here's the goss. Slutty Tungurahua was having it off behind Chimborazo's back with the youthful mountain Carihuayrazo. One thing I can tell you about Chimborazo is he doesn't take kindly to other blokes banging his bird. Some grass tipped him off about his wife's assignations and he exacted a fitting revenge. He bashed Carihayrazo so hard on the head it smashed into three separate peaks.

I know it all sounds a bit unlikely, but I was skeptical too until I saw the broken peaks of Carihuayrazo with my own eyes, so it must be true.

Most of Tungurahua's friends and family shot their ultimate lava load many thousands of years ago. And thankfully so! When nearby Quilotoa went pop it was estimated with a force of 12 times the strength of the most powerful nuclear bomb ever detonated.

After a day under the shadow of dark volcanic ash which blotted the horizon and I was itching to get closer with my camera to take photos.

It's been a year or so since Tungurahua erupted with this much anger and I'd already missed her most violent eruption a few days earlier.

To take a decent photo of an erupting volcano the stars need to align. Tungurahua is often shrouded in cloud so I needed a rare, clear day. To make things tougher, it needs to be clear between 6-9am or 4-6pm otherwise the light is bleaching and flat. Finally, I needed her to erupt.

The first day was so cloudy I wrote it off and went to photograph vicunas at Chimborazo instead. However, yesterday was beautifully clear at 4pm so I jumped into a cab and headed for the lofty mirador that overlooks Ambato. High in the blue sky the white face of the moon was already shining and the late afternoon sun was beginning to cast a magical shadow over the city.

Panorama of Ambato, Ecuador and Volcano Tungurahua
A panorama of Ambato under the shadow of an active volcano (spot the moon, top left)
Unfortunately Tungurahua was only coughing relatively small plumes of ash compared to two days earlier when ash ascended 32,000 feet into the atmosphere. Every five minutes she blew another lungful of ash like a wheezy, old smoker. It's amazing the speed the ash rises into the air, as though the volcano was exhaling. The ash cloud is much thicker than a classic cumulonimbus and has a slightly amber hue.

Ash from the volcano is already falling onto the south of Quito, over 100km away. When I rode my motorbike from Ambato to Banos last week the road was coated with Tungurahua's ash nearly a foot deep in places. It forms thick clouds as the 4x4s race over it and makes for treacherous travel.

It sounds odd, but watching the erupting volcano on such a perfectly clear day I couldn't help wishing for that ultimate, cataclysmic eruption. I had the perfect view, the light was ideal and my camera was poised to capture (what would almost certainly have become) the final moments of quarter of a million people. I'm worried this sounds a bit psychotic.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Shooting Vicuñas

Next week I am heading to Chimborazo - the highest mountain in Ecuador and the closest point on the planet to the Sun, with thanks to the Earth's Equatorial bulge.

My plan is to shoot vicuñas, a wild relative of the llama, with more than a touch of the deer about it. They are slender, slight and very graceful.

Perhaps for this reason the vicuña was a protected species by Incan law, and is still protected today. Just as well because in the 1970s their numbers dipped to around 6,000. Conservation efforts have boosted the population to around 350,000.

The closest I could get to a vicuña
The vicuña has an extremely warm, soft and fine wool. It is much more expensive than alpaca or llama wool because the vicuñas live wild and must first be caught, not an easy task. To add to its exclusivity, the vicuña can only be shaved once every three years.

But the vicuñas need their warm jackets. During the day the sun keeps them toasty but at night, at 4,500 metres above sea-level, temperatures drop below freezing and the winds whip wild across the Andes.

It's not going to be easy shooting vicuñas. They are very shy and even with a 200mm lens, I need to get close to fill a frame.

I discovered on a practice shoot yesterday how difficult it's going to be. Tracking the vicuñas at this altitude with a heavy camera and a bag full of lenses had me gasping for air. I was at 4,500 metres (according to my Sat-Nav) so it's little wonder. To put this into perspective the highest elevation of the Sochi ski-resort where the Winter Olympics are being held is 2,320 metres.

The vicuña is happy to chew the tough grasses of the paramo with one eye on me... as soon as I reach within 30 metres they scarper up the slop another 100 metres and the whole sorry saga begins once more.

This was the best shot I managed... hopefully next week I'll get more luck.

Wild vicuna at the base of Chimborazo, Ecuador
Wild vicuñas with Chimborazo in the background
It's a bare and brutal landscape at this altitude. Very little grows and at times it can resemble the dead surface of an alien moon.

However, I'm always amazed at how life can thrive in the most hostile climates and discovered a pretty purple flower in bloom.

Volcano Chimborazo with purple flower, Ecuador
Life against the odds at 4,500 metres

Monday, February 10, 2014

Into the Amazon Rainforest, Ecuador

The Amazon rainforest; there's even something magical about the name.

Since childhood I have had the Amazon rainforest rammed down my throat. It was heralded as the last bastion of earthly paradise, encroached from every side by oil-spewing industrial evil. A haven for the wild and wonderful and a region of such rich biodiversity that miracle cures sprout like mushrooms from the forest's ferny floor and six-headed, tree frogs dance mystical jigs at the command of fairy princesses (or was that just in FernGully).

It seemed like every week at primary school I would be arrive with a can of tinned peaches or beans for yet another Bring-and-Buy sale. The idea was to buy acres of the rainforest so it couldn't be sold to the wicked oil companies who probably want to build twisted, singing pollution monsters (or was that just FernGully again).

The bottom line, I had been well and truly indoctrinated into the Amazon myth. So, at the age of 32, and entering the Amazon rainforest for the first time, it felt like meeting my favourite celebrity from childhood. Although in my case that would be Timmy Mallet... which somewhat destroys my simile because going to rainforest felt nothing like meeting Timmy Mallet, I know because I met Timmy Mallet.

I rode into the Amazon on a motorbike. My sat-nav told me I had descended 4,000 metres that day. The crisp Andean air was replaced with the stiflingly hot fug of the rainforest. The cultivated valleys had given way to the sort of impenetrably dark forest where wild, red eyes might blink into life.
Lucy outside our cabin in Cotococha lodge
We stayed at Cotococha lodge overlooking the Napo River... at over 1,000km in length this is one the Amazon's most important sources. The Napo takes its water from the enormous Cotopaxi, Antisana and Tungurahua volcanoes.

Our lodge had no electricity and, after dinner, we had to make our way back to our cabin by candlelight. We were thick in the jungle and at night the forest really comes alive. I wondered how I would sleep with the heat and the crescendo of wild noises, but I did.

The next morning we took a motor boat along the river. It hadn't rained for a few weeks and the water level was low, in some places just over a metre deep and this created choppy, fast-flowing rapids over the stony floor.

Entering the Heart of Darkness (or Aguirre Wrath of God, Herzog fans)
The banks rise high and steep, with great slabs of stone of such perfect geometry they looked man-made. The forest overtakes every inch of land, thick and impenetrable. I was living my Heart of Darkness fantasy (or more accurately my Aguirre Wrath of God fantasy, but it's a more obscure reference - unless my blog is read by fans of West German new wave Herzogian cinema).

The banks of the Rio Napo
I'd waited 32-years to visit the Amazon region and a week later I was back again. Lucy's mum and sister Emilia had the week off work/school and we decided to take a short break on the Quijos river.

We'd found the Rio Quijos Eco-lodge and hopped on a bus out of Quito. I was sat next to a sleepy Indian girl. She was on her own and I felt sorry for her so I gave her my chocolate bar. In exchange she told me all about the legend of Siete Cabezas (Seven Heads) who haunts the lake by her village. Apparently old Siete Cabezas is a type of snake and the villagers had to summon a wizard to kill it. My memory is a bit foggy because the bus flew over a humpbacked bridge so fast that I hit my head on the roof.

The Eco-lodge was beautiful and the sun was shining. Hummingbirds were thick in the air and an albino rabbit hopped along like Wonderland.

Bunny in Wonderland
Rabbit in the Amazon
Lucy hit on one of her schemes and decided she wanted to catch a trout and barbecue it. Emilia also thought this sounded like fun. Neither of them had ever fished before and were unsure where to start.

"It's easy," I lied (for some reason).

"The trout is a tricky customer but I'll show you how to catch one," I lied again, irrecoverably.

Annoyingly the eco-lodge had three fishing rods and plenty of bait so I had no excuses, I was going to have to lead the fishing expedition.

Five minutes later and I'd got the line so twisted and tangled around my rod that it needed to be cut free by Antonio (the teenager who worked at the lodge).

Antonio showed us where to fish, how to bait the hook and how to cast off.

"Ah, you're using the old double-ratchet reel," I lied. "I usually fish with the Smithsonian Squire method."

He nodded politely in bemusement.

Fortunately I was something of a natural at casting and even Antonio was impressed, which helped to salvage some pride (pride that would shortly be trampled into the muddy banks of the Rio Quijos once more). I gave the girls a few pointers about casting techniques - keep it smooth, flick the wrist.

After ten minutes Emilia got bored and went off kayaking with Antonio.

My line twitched, I gave the rod a tug. There was something on the hook, I'd landed a trout the size of Siete Cabezas. Slowly, slowly I reeled him in. My rod was almost bent double from the strain. I had rescued my manhood from the brink of irretrievable collapse. Tonight we would fatten ourselves on fresh trout. How would I cook it? A simple barbecue, or perhaps a beast this size deserves something more special, I wondered. A delicious garlic sauce... or we could stuff it and roast it?
Rio Quijos, Rainforest, Ecuador
Trout fishing on the Rio Quijos

Are you ready for the punchline that you've already guessed? I'd caught a big stick. Lucy was very kind about it all. Instead we ate wood-fired pizzas at a remote restaurant run by a Dutch expat.

We also had to leave the eco-lodge. Beautiful as it was, there was no water (due to a burst pipe) and we all wanted a hot shower.

We ascended the mountain and found Hacienda Cumanda perched like a lofty eerie overlooking a stunning valley. Swallows (or swifts, if you're as pedantic as Eric Rayner) circled high above the river, casting flickering silhouettes against the snow-capped volcano of Antisana. We were out of the rainforest and back in fresh mountain air, the smells were incredible... but better than that, there was a table tennis table where I managed to lose to Lucy's mum.

The hacienda owner lit a roaring fire and we all drank cold Pilseners as the sun set through the evening mists. Lucy's mum got matey with the owner and his pal and they all starting fagging it. Lucy's face when she saw her mum smoking was a picture. She told her off in a strange role reversal and sent her outside in shame.

During the trip I was taking photos. Two of which made it onto Flickr's Explore. There are 60 million photos uploaded to Flickr everyday and only the 500 most interesting make it onto Explore, it's like winning the lottery - twice - in the space of a week. Here they are:


Swallows and the Amazon, Ecuador
Swallows and Amazon

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Riding a Llama

Here I am riding a llama like it's the most natural thing in the world.

Me riding a llama
The smile can't disguise the fact I'm clinging on for dear life
Of course it was the least natural thing in the world. The poor, old llama was very kind about it all but that did little to assuage my guilt as his back creaked under the strain.

The llama (pronounced Jah-mah not as in Dalai Lama) is the animal most closely associated with the Andes - more so than the condor. It is not to be confused with its woollier cousin, the alpaca.

An alpaca... completely different from a llama
The first lesson you learn about the llama is it spits like a camel. Plenty of tourists have had themselves and their cameras covered in llama gob as they've attempted to frame that perfect portrait.

Indians still use llamas as important pack animals. An adult llama can carry about a quarter of its body weight for up to 12 miles. Not bad going considering the steep chaquinans (footpaths) in the oxygen-starved Andean highlands.

I weigh 75kg and the llama didn't seem too bothered lugging me about the farm. Riding on his back, I could feel all of his bones moving and sensed just how strong he was. My biggest problem was my height and at 6' 4" (195cm) my feet dragged ungainly along the ground. Of course, my height is a constant talking point over here, people even stop me in the street to ask how tall I am. Living in Ecuador, I feel like Gandalf when he visited the Shire - they're all hobbits to my eyes.

Llamas aren't just pack animals, they're also harvested for their wool to make toasty ponchos, perfect for cold nights on the paramo. You can even eat their meat... of course, I'm vegetarian and would never eat a llamita but I can't imagine it's a tender steak (old boots spring to mind).

Lucy also rode a llama and with hilarious consequences.

The hacienda we were staying at in Tigua had an enormous St Bernard dog called Benjamin, who was half-bear on his mother's side. Benjamin was young, boisterous and it's fair to say he never really clicked with the llama. As Lucy spent her first nervous moments adjusting herself on the llama's back, Benjamin launched his attack. He bit the llama on the bum and ran off with a poncho's worth of arse wool in his jaws. Naturally, the llama went bat-shit mental and only the calming presence of the experienced farmer stopped the poor beast bolting for the hills with Lucy clinging to its neck for dear life.

All smiles now, but just a moment later Benjamin launched his attack
I should have written this blog all about the adventures of Benjamin... it's obvious to me now he's the best character.

There were hundreds of chickens on the hacienda with free range to roam. I asked Benjamin's owner if his dog had ever eaten a chicken (I had my old, chicken-slaying, Springer Spaniel Gravel in mind).

"No, of course not," he said. "But he's eaten a few lambs before... and a calf once."

Que monstruo!
Nervous sheep and cows
If you're ever on a tour of the Quilotoa Loop I couldn't recommend a night at Posada de Tigua highly enough. This working hacienda has rooms for guests, but it's more like stopping over with old friends and, what's more, it's got Benjamin the cow-guzzling dog monster. Just make sure you lock your door at night in case he's feeling peckish.

Indian milk girl
A young Indian milk maid at Posada de Tigua

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Photography in Ecuador

Ecuador is a stunning country for a photographer. The landscapes are breathtaking, the wildlife is diverse, and the people are colourful and fun.
Laguna Quilotoa
Lake Quilotoa, the volcanic lake with sparkling water
Diablo de Pillaro
Diablo mask in Pillaro
I spend my life taking photos - sometimes professionally, sometimes just to scratch the itch of addiction. The prospect of moving from England (and recently Belgium) to Ecuador - the land of sun - was exciting. I'm forever chasing light, and light is usually a lot quicker than I am.

Shadow lily
A lily in the morning sun


In England the sun might show its face for a few hours a day (if you're lucky) and when it does it's rarely at the perfect time. In the Andean highlands the sun is much more consistent. I am guaranteed at least five hours a day, even on a comparatively overcast day. Also, I get three or four sunny mornings a week - that means sunshine at 7am. Afternoons are more likely to become overcast, but I will still get one or two clear afternoons a week.

You'll notice I obsess about sunny mornings and sunny afternoons - otherwise known as the "magic hour". This is when the low sun allows colours to appear at their richest and shadows stretch long and low across the frame. Sometimes it's impossible to take a bad photo when the light is so perfect... of course, plenty of ham-fisted snappers could prove me wrong.

Living on the equator the magic hour is more critical than ever, but a lot more reliable. There is precisely 12 hours of sun everyday in Quito. It rises at 6am and it sets at 6pm... you can set your watch by it.... or your sundial. Unlike winters in Northern Europe, where the sun appears for a few bare hours and barely pops its cool head low above the horizon, the sun in Ecuador reaches the highest point in the sky all year round. Of course the low winter sun in Europe can produce some beautiful images... just don't hold your breath waiting for it.
Vilcabamba valley in the final rays of evening sun
The depth and power of magic hour
The sun rises at 6am and offers the best light at 7am. By 9am it is rising so quickly you can almost see the shadows shrinking away before your eyes. If you're a landscape photographer your camera will almost certainly be back in the bag by now. At 10am the light is becoming very extreme and will bleach and burn your images.


From 11am to 1pm the sun is at its apex and unless your subject is levitating there will be no shadow beneath their feet. It is so extreme that street photography becomes impossible. Faces are shadowed and the streets, exposed under the sun's full glare, become a snowy white (like a Lowry painting).

The midday sun in Ecuador will bleach your ground white if you want to perfectly expose your subjects... like this painting by LS Lowry
No chance of rain - old man and woman sheltering from the sun at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced
Ecuadorians do everything they can to avoid the glare of the midday sun... not good for a photographer
Unsurprisingly most Ecuadorians wear large rimmed hats to escape the midday sun. Good for preventing melanomas but disastrous for photography. It's impossible to correctly expose these midday photos. Faces become black impenetrable shadow. However, if you can encourage the subject to tilt their heads to face the sun, just ever so slightly, the difference is remarkable. Compare the effect in the two photos below of an Ecuadorian army parade, taken seconds apart.

Ecuadorian army soldier with radio
I highlighted his eyes in Photoshop, the shadow is severe
Ecuadorian Army on parade in Tisaseo
This soldier tilts his head to the sun
The sunlight conundrum is made all the more difficult because most fiestas in Ecuador get underway at about 11am. On several occasions I've been sat in position, camera in hand, at 9am waiting for the fiesta to begin at its advertised time. So very English am I. Instead I have to watch sorrowfully as the sun ascends and my best laid schemes gang aft agley.

I recently shot an outdoor wedding in Quito under a burning midday sun. It was one of the hardest shoots I've ever done. To make things even more difficult the guests sat outside and the vows were exchanged in a shadow-casting pagoda. Luckily the wedding shoot was a success, thanks to one tool in my little arsenal. The flash.
Tania and Christian's wedding
Without a flash this photo would have been impossible, the bride and groom are in shadow but the guests in the background are sat under the midday sun. You need a powerful flash to resolve this dilemma

If you want to take photos in Ecuador an off-camera flash in essential. I only speak Canon, so a 430EX is the minimum requirement, but two (or more) will make life easier still. Naturally a powerful flash is daunting for subjects if you're shooting street photography. You will lose any element of surprise after the first frame. Subjects instantly turn towards the blinding light that's just fried their corneas. As a result, many of my street/fiesta photos have the subject looking straight down the lens - because my preferred frame was the second or third.


There's another interesting thing about shooting street photography in Ecuador, compared to Europe. Europeans will become suddenly very shy when the spot a camera and turn their heads away. In Ecuador the people tend to freeze, as though the camera was a loaded gun, and stare directly down the lens. The phenomenon is even more marked when shooting children. I was on an assignment in a remote jungle province and the children in the community would stand for several minutes looking directly down the barrel. They don't speak, they don't smile, they don't blink, instead they return a patient, faraway gaze until you tell them you've finished. Of course, they're desperate to see their photos on the LCD screen afterwards.

Nino in Ecuador - view full screen
Eyes fixed down the lens - he stood like a statue
Boy waiting to see the dentist
Nina outside school
Nino with hands up

School's out
The children wait patiently while you shoot

Perhaps a rather obvious problem with shooting in the Andes is you are surrounded by mountains. Before planning any crack of dawn photo shoots it's always worth scouting the location first. I wanted a panoramic photograph of Quito at dawn from a viewpoint (or mirador) I'd found the week before. I was so excited by the location I hadn't considered the presence of the towering mountain nearby. I arrived bleary-eyed at 6am, but it was 7am before the sun had finally crested the summit behind me. Sunsets are equally problematic for the same reason.

Quito lies north to south, so in theory the evening sun should cast some gorgeous shadows across its most famous landmarks. Unfortunately Quito also sits under the base of the enormous Pichincha volcano (in the west). The evening sun sinks behind Pichincha before the most spectacular effects can be cast over the city. However, from 4:30pm to 5pm there are some stunning scenes to be had.
Looking out over Quito in the morning
Reflections over Pichincha in the morning light
Cotopaxi from Quito
This is an example of how quickly Quito loses the evening light. The volcano Cotopaxi (in the centre) is still catching the evening sun but the city of Quito is silhouetted in shadow in the foreground. It can be very frustrating when the sky is as beautiful as this

There are five other great miradors I've found in Quito, here are their locations on Google maps:

1) Cima de La Libertad y Museo Templo de la Patria - this afternoon viewpoint commemorates the battle of liberty against Spanish oppression on the banks of Pichincha.

2) Guapolo - the artists quarter is a part of the city for street photography. It has some cool bars and coffee shops, cobbled-streets and stunning views out across the valleys.

3) Parque Itchimbia - I took my first photo-stitch panorama of Quito from here and even though the light was poor, the location is ideal.

Quito panorama, Ecuador
Photo-stitch panorama of Quito from Parque Itchimbia
4) Parque Metropolitano - a modern urban park with plenty of clearly sign-posted viewpoints. In the summer heat its a tinderbox for forest fires.

5) El Panecillo - perhaps the statue of the Virgin, which dominates central Quito, is the most obvious mirador and the most instantly recognisable. However, be careful if you're walking here with your camera gear, the steps up are notorious for robberies so always take a taxi. It's perfectly safe at the summit.


The Pacific coast will give consistent light (except for November when it's largely overcast). Most evenings on the coast you're treated to blood red suns bleeding into the western ocean. I foolishly only packed a 100mm lens for the trip, so my sunsets were spoiled. I needed (at a minimum) my 200mm lens, but 300-400mm would have been preferable. All these figures are for a full-frame 5D camera; so crop sensor users should apply the x1.6 factor.

Red sun over the Pacific
Sunset over the Pacific. Taken at 105mm... I needed 300-400mm lens to make this short work

The sub-tropical area of Ecuador is a treat to shoot. The sun is less consistent than the coast but moody mists sweep across the cloud forests; the rich green trees are packed with brightly coloured, exotic fruits, the earth is a deep red colour and the people are equally colourful and will always oblige for a photo if you're polite and respectful. I took a series of photos of children at rural schools in the jungles here... not to mention the illegal trago distillery I stumbled across.


The Amazon region in theory should be one of the most enjoyable. The wildlife is rich, the lazy rivers are a joy and the there's a certain magic in the very name "Amazonic rainforest" that adds an extra five per cent to any photos you take. However, I've never really had much success here. The weather is generally overcast, the rains are heavier than a power shower and can wreck camera gear, the humidity and the heat is unpleasant and the famished mosquitoes will make long waits in the forest gloom deeply unpleasant. However, just because I've been unlucky so far hasn't dissuaded me of its potential. The sunsets over the river Napo are legendary and I hope to return to this remote region for a second crack.

Lights over the Rio Napo at night
The light was so flat (bad) when I was in the Amazon that I had to resort to shooting at night

Lots of people come to Ecuador to photograph the birds. It's a twitcher's paradise and even though I know nothing about birds, I couldn't resist shooting the hummingbirds. There are over 130 different species of hummingbird in Ecuador and they are beautiful. You hear the hum of their wings and, before you know it, they've whizzed past your ear like a bullet. The time to catch them is when they're sucking nectar from a flower. I spent three days by a banana flower in Vilcabamba with my flash rigged, my camera hidden and my breath held... mostly to no avail. The birds were too suspicious of me. I took the photo below at a hummingbird reserve at Mashpi Lodge where the birds are fed sugary nectar and have no fear of humans. On this occasion I didn't have my flash so had to up the ISO to 1600. To freeze a hummingbird's wing requires a shutter speed no slower than 1/2500... but preferably faster. This is why the flash is so important.

Hummingbird at Mashpi Lodge, Ecuador
Hummingbirds are a joy to shoot, but tricky too


There always seems to be a surprise waiting around every corner in Ecuador... much more so than in Europe. Perhaps it's just because the country is still relatively new for me? However, I can't leave the house without my camera and at least two different lenses. If I hadn't had my camera ready then I would have missed these three photographs.
Horses having a scrap
Horses fighting in Vilcabamba

Lighting a firework at the Fiesta
Ecuadorian health and safety at fiestas
Paragliding over Quito
Leaping off the side of a mountain in Quito

Monkey dentist and the dog 9/9
The monkey dentist of Misahaulli

Shooting RAW has saved me innumerable times in Ecuador - even more so than in Europe, where I'm more used to the tricks of the light. If your camera can shoot RAW, then do so. I have saved so many photos from an instant delete with the hidden information contained within a RAW image. There's just so much more flexibility and the ability to balance the light levels in a scene by several exposure shots is an absolute necessity.