Christ’s Knees and the Devil’s Nose

By Anne Dean

As a lone female in her 60s with a deep-set love of all things South American (and with many previous visits to this fantastic continent already under her belt), I made a decision to do something really special. So, a few years back, I arranged to journey across Ecuador by car and plane using private, local guides on a tailor-made trip to all the best bits of the country; it was an utterly wonderful thing to do.  I wanted to experience Ecuadorian culture in detail, photograph its incredibly photogenic people, and travel widely enough to understand something of its landscapes, and its unique wildlife….what’s not to like?

On this visit, I stayed in beautiful, historic Haciendas in some of the best locations in the country, ate superb vegetarian food (always surprising, original and unexpected, though I’ve always found wonderful meat-free food throughout this continent), drove on the Pan American Highway (one of the longest roads in the world), traversed the Avenue of the Volcanoes, listened to Andean pipe versions of Hey Jude and Dancing Queen, and crossed flimsy-looking rope bridges to reach fantastic and wild torrents spilling wildly into the Devil’s Cauldron, a vast waterfall.   

I fed llamas and alpacas by hand, watched ladies in Panama hats packing the most splendid roses, stayed high up in the Mindo cloud forest, and felt so privileged to see so much of its unspoilt, natural world, so vivid with life.  I’ve stood surrounded by the whirring buzz of countless, iridescent hummingbirds as they flashed to and from nectar feeders, glimpsing these tiny birds of deep sea green, lilac, scarlet, lapis blue and the duskiest of pinks, not quite believing where I was, and how I was able to partake of such perfection.

I stayed in a Hacienda with Inca walls, and another with a bathroom fantastically decorated with devils and sprites.  I rode on a tarabita (a little metal cage with open sides and top…) across a huge gorge at Baños, near the Ecuadorian Amazon and pondered whether zip-lining along this gorge was for me.  I decided against it.

One day, I visited the famous artisan market in Otavalo – the gorgeously woven fabrics on display certainly were wonderful, but the beauty and style of the Otavalenos was even more eye-catching.  Pony-tails and ponchos; so much embroidered beauty. When I was in Cuenca, I indulged in a couple of Rodillas de Cristo: Knees of Christ…I couldn’t believe that the deliciously warm, sweet buns I was eating had such a name – but they did!  They’re a local specialty, and quite delectable.  By the time I got to Riobamba, I couldn’t miss the equally bizarrely named Devil’s Nose ultra-scenic train journey from Alausi to Sibambe; a trans-Andean trip down virtually perpendicular mountain switch-backs.   On arrival, we were met by a group of local dancers whose grace was matched by their skill and musicality.  As they performed their lovely, traditional dances, everything seemed timeless.

I’d previously seen a shimmer of Cotopaxi’s snow-covered volcanic peak from the runway at Quito airport, but on this trip I wanted to actually GO there…and I also had my sights set on the other great Ecuadorian volcano, Chimborazo.  A vague memory of a couple of lines from W J Turner’s poem, Romance, filled my mind as I travelled toward them:

Chimborazo, Cotopaxi,

Had stolen me away.

How true; even before I saw the volcanoes, they’d enchanted me.   At such altitudes it’s not unusual to feel a little light-headed, but I can’t put the bliss I felt on actually seeing them down to a mere medical phenomenon – this was absolute pleasure, pure and simple.  On arrival into the park, Cotopaxi’s upper slopes were catching the sun.  We were alone that morning, my guide and I, except for a few Andean gulls, some Indian Paintbrush and Chuquiragua flowers and a small group of wild horses with their foals.  Magic.

Later in the trip, I stayed in yet another beautiful Hacienda, literally in the shadow of Chimborazo; my bedroom had a painting of the volcano erupting above the headboard…possibly not conducive to sleep, but certainly quite arresting.  Having arrived late, I had to wait until the following morning to see it: utterly immense, with mist curling from its upper reaches while some yellow and black Tanagers flew past, trailing above the tall trees in the bright morning. 

Ecuador is a place of endless surprises and unmatched beauty.  For such a small country, it is as though an entire world has been squeezed within its small shape.  I long to go back.

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