Above is the video from our time in the gangster’s paradise that is Bogota and the (perceived to be safer) town of Cali, Colombia. You can read about our experiences and the reason behind the soundtrack here. Also included is the few seconds of footage that I gathered from our journey from Cali to Ecuador via Ipiales and Tulcan – this was a testing journey, find out why here. And of course, our time spent in the beautiful country of Ecuador; where you’ll find words below:
Las Palmas: Loic’s whole reason for travelling is to surf the entire west coast of South America, top to bottom; starting in Panama and ending in Chile. It was largely his call to head to Esmeraldas, and after recovering from an almost jetlagged state after the journey to Ecuador, we started walking from Hostel Andres to Las Palmas, a small beach town 5km north. It was 34◦C (according to Snapchat), and both Loic and James got severely burnt on the walk: I was protected by a t-shirt compared to my companion’s choices of tank top. Once we arrived, we cooled down in the Pacific; somewhat murky due to the muddy river that flows into the sea just a few metres to the north. James was stung repeatedly by a jellyfish and quickly returned to land. The waves were disappointing, it looked more like Lake Nicaragua than the oceans of California, but a surf shack on the sand hinted that perhaps the waves are sometimes good enough to surf – we just hadn’t picked a good day. We hydrated ourselves with a local beer instead. On the Sunday, it seemed the whole millennial population of Esmeraldas visited the beach to play football after church; however, we were more concerned with the lack of waves on our final day in this surf town. Loic’s surfboard remained dry and under wraps in his room.
Partido de Fútbol: I didn’t join in with the beach football as I didn’t want to desert Loic (who vocally stated his dislike for the sport), and the local 5-a-side pitch that resided next to our hostel was closed when I poked my head round early Sunday morning; but I must have worn an expression that said “Gringo seeks football”, because an Ecuadorian lad named Playa was walking around our hostel late Sunday evening looking for me. His team were a player short, and the owner of the pitch was sure that someone in our hostel was wearing a football shirt, and so Playa had started his search. We played for an hour, with the Ecuadorians delighted to have a foreigner on their team (I was made to swap teams at half time so that both teams had a ‘go’) and me delighted to practice my conversational Spanish. I later learned how many of the Ecuadorian national players have been from Esmeraldas, and I was grateful for a chance to play in the home of Ecuadorian football. I returned to the hostel exhausted, sweaty and thinking about how much I miss my twice-weekly ritual of 5-a-side back at home. I’m excited for Rio and the opportunity to play beach football with locals and other travellers on the world-renowned Copacabana beach.
Old town: We didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to Loic as his conductor rushed him onto his bus, which would take him a few hours south down the coast; we headed east to Quito. I might bump into him in Peru or Chile. Upon arriving in Ecuador’s capital, Carlos (James’ Ecuadorian uncle) met us and escorted us to his house, where we would be staying for a week – I adore the couch-surfing lifestyle. We got changed from our tracksuits and headed out on a ‘guided tour of Quito by car’, stopping off for a quick dinner of pork and rice first. First stop: the mountains on the east side of the city, overlooking the whole of north and south Quito (which is an unfathomably big city!). Carlos pointed out his house, the bus terminal from where he picked us up, and a strange dark circle in the middle of the town, with three ominous circles of light shining through the fog. This would be our second stop: a gigantic statue of an angel which overlooks the city, having been donated by France a few decades ago. The base of the statue was hollow, and had a spirally stairway clinging to the inner walls. Next to the angel was a Christmas market, reminiscent of the traditional German ones that have now spread all over Europe; we picked up a mulled-cider mixed with a spirit deduced from sugar cane to warm ourselves up. Finally, we parked in the old town, which was so full of Spanish influence I could have been in Madrid; with tall doorways, pristine white arches and cobbled streets. I loved it and it was clear that the locals do to, as it was immaculate. “Everything is recycled here,” Carlos said proudly in perfect English as we watched a family collecting cardboard, cans and bottles from the street corners, “Families can support themselves by selling the rubbish to be recycled.” It’s a system that surely should be adopted by every city plagued by litter. My first impression of Quito added to my preconceived thoughts of Ecuador as a safe, happy and environmentally-friendly country.
Garcia Moreno prison: Any long-term followers of the blog will know of my attraction to prison culture and criminal underworld, full of corruption, codes and tattoos; and how I was defeated in my attempts to explore Alcatraz Island in San Francisco at such short notice. Carlos came up trumps on our second day in Quito when he told me of a disused prison in his city; we parked up outside and tagged along to a guided tour, with Carlos translating for us. The rooms would have been suited to a shoestring hostel dorm, two people paying $4 each would have been fair: however in the prison (in use until 2013), 20 prisoners were kept inside the 6’x8’ room. This sparked an interesting discussion between me and James, he considers it due punishment for murder, whereas I adopt the “How are we going to rehabilitate them back into society if they are kept like animals?” approach.
Carlos informed us that until recent reforms in the government, a convict was sentenced to 16 years for murder whether one person had been killed or a hundred. Thus, a ‘hitman culture’ was established in the prison, and murderer convicts would (for a price, of course) ‘take care of’ another prisoner’s enemy, knowing they wouldn’t get any more time added to their sentence. The exercise yard had a football pitch in it, and bets were regularly placed on the teams that played. If you lost however, you could expect to be killed in your sleep by someone who had lost money on your team.
There was a clear contrast between cell blocks for corrupt governors, white/Hispanic convicts and black inmates. The former could afford their own private cell, with whisky, television and a microwave (a governor would fork out $50,000 for this privilege) and the latter would be bundled in to a cell with two dozen other people. “Money moves mountains,” said our unofficial tour guide; but I was more occupied wondering if the racial divide still exists in the city – the prison has only been closed for three years.
The final shock of the tour came as Carlos talked about his friend who spent time in Garcia Moreno for killing his friend while drunk-driving; and the intimidation that came with being a free man walking amongst the incarcerated during a visit to his friend. Inmates would beg him for money (so they could buy alcohol, drugs and cigarettes to numb their suffering), his shoes or clothes. Odd that poverty-stricken inmates would live only a few metres away from some of the richest ‘narcotraficos’ in the country, but “I would rather be poor and free than rich and in there”, Carlos said.
Cabin fever: I don’t like being inside for long periods of time; so when we woke up late one day and realised that Carlo’s family had all left the house for the day, forgetting to leave us a key and locking us in, it was a mental test for me. (The following day, we were ‘rained in’, meaning nearly 36 hours without fresh air). I tested my Spanish by watching TV (I think I racked up 6 football matches in one day, thanks ESPN), listened to endless albums from the prime indie-rock era of 2006 much to James’ annoyance, and spent a few hours sat doodling tattoo ideas and ‘still life’ paintings on Microsoft Paint. I was delighted when Carlos returned and ‘allowed us out’/the relentless rain stopped and the sun reappeared.
Accidentally got locked inside my couchsurfing host's compound yesterday. Spent the afternoon drawing his Tornado on MS Paint waiting to be let out . . . #paint #photoshop #jimllpaintit #chrissimpsonsartist @chrissimpsonsartist #motorcross #Motorsports #ecuador #couchsurfing #honda #tornado #250cc #southamerica
Motorbikes: My impending death by imploding boredom/fascination with the motorbike must have been obvious because the next morning, Victor (Carlos’ brother) offered to take us out on the bikes. With only two bikes (both 250cc Honda Tornados), one of us would have to play passenger behind Victor, and we’d take turns on the white bike that I’d drawn yesterday. Apart from the colourway – I fancy a red and black number – it’s the exact bike I want to buy once back in England, so I was delighted for the chance of a ‘test drive’. It turned out to be the best way to get through the congested Quito traffic, as we got braver and braver squeezing through the tight gaps between buses, taxis and other cars. Victor took us to a museum about the struggle for Ecuadorian independence from the Spanish; an interactive one about the water in the city (all 3 of us regressed into children when we entered the ‘Bubble room’); and a physical ‘black market’ where you can buy “Anything you need, as long as it’s stolen”. Victor left us to find snacks whilst he negotiated the price of a ‘second hand’ Samsung with a dodgy wheeler-dealer. After a quick tub of fruit and yoghurt, we took the bikes up to the northern sector of the city, up to the incredible viewpoints; before the weather turned on us again and we were forced to return.
Latitude 0-0-0: On a particularly bipolar day in terms of weather, Carlos had to spend a full day at work, but his mother (a quirky, likeable lady; desperate to speak English despite not really understanding it, and even more desperate to show off her countries foodstuffs) wanted to show us the equator line that lies north of the city in a town aptly named Mitad de Mundo (Middle of World). We waited patiently for her to finish her ‘morning jobs’ (pottering around the house muttering “Busy, busy, busy!” and scrubbing pans) before we boarded the bus that would take us to the interactive museum that sits upon the imaginary line. We paid our entry fees and were taken firstly around a taxidermy room of stuffed Amazonian animals, before our guide Cesar showed us the line. Balancing an egg on a nail proved to be difficult but possible (the liquid yolk inside the egg is pulled towards the centre of the earth rather than the poles); taking the plug out of a sink on each hemisphere (the water spins clockwise/anti-clockwise depending on what hemisphere you’re stood in, and just straight down when the sink is placed on the equator line); and walking along the equator line, arms outstretched and eyes closed (both the hemispherical pulls battle to pull you off the equatorial line). Really interesting stuff, if you believe me you can watch the video (aimed at Year 5’s) here.
Ecuador is one of those countries that I could spend years in and still find things to do. Carlos suggested a months worth of trips but with our time dictated by James’ flight to Australia on the 14th, we couldn’t fit in the beautiful lakes that adorn the north of the country; and with my shoestring budget, I couldn’t afford to fly to the Galapagos once I was on my own. I assured Carlos (and Hannah) that we will return to visit the maze of archipelagos that inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution, as well as heading to the far east border of Ecuador to spend time in the Amazon, hopefully spending time with the indigenous people who still live in the jungle. This country’s position has been firmly cemented on my list of ‘Places I will come back to’.
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