Ecuador (and incredible Alausi)

Banos Alausi + Fiesta San Pedro Riobamba Pasto

Photos from left to right: Baños, Alausi, Riobamba and Pasto

As I left Colombia to continue the journey south, I felt somewhat travel weary. The effect of ten months on the road, missing family and friends (two of whom had just visited) and thinking the final two months would simply be more of the same.

Like any holiday, when it nears the end your thinking begins to switch towards the return to normality. This in turn, tempers your mood during the remaining period. I remember thinking, if there were a good reason to end the trip in Colombia I wouldn’t be too disappointed.

How glad I am this call went unanswered as my time in Ecuador turned out to be one of the unexpected highlights of my entire trip. Which in turn provided the well timed motivational horse-power to carry on with gusto.

Before leaving Colombia I made two decisions which combined with some good luck resulted in my having a fantastic time in Ecuador. Firstly, I decided to avoid big cities and towns as I wanted break having spent time in Panama City, Cartagena, Medellin and Cali. The second was to take a break from the coastal route and drive south through the Andes on smaller roads.

This decision took me through some wonderful mountainous terrain. Climbing peaks and turning deeply left and right through narrow twists in the road. Numerous times I was slowed by dense mist on the mountain top or reduced to a crawl as I jockeyed behind a chain of slow trucks as they grinded along. There are some amazing photos if you check out my flicker account (see above). Even without these impediments my moving average was no more than 60km/ph as extreme caution is necessary as I snaked up and down mountains over 4,000m high.

Before arriving at the Ecuadorian border I stopped along the way in a couple of small towns: Pereira, Popayan and Pasto. Each stop was only a night or two just to rest up and plenty of time to take in a small town. Another benefit of my decision to stay in small towns was a dramatic reduction in my accommodation costs. I never paid more than USD20pn (the greenback is the unofficial national currency).

This price tag was often the high end of what was available; probably equivalent to a decent three star hotel back home. I could have found cheaper digs but I fancied a bit of comfort, some English speaking TV channels and most important secure parking for my motorbike.

Pereira was the biggest of the cities I visited (population of 350K, hotel cost USD18pn). The items of note included the disjointed and chaotic road system. Manic traffic was enough reason to use the place as a one night stop over. The town didn’t seem to have a bus network, so people were served by thousands of motorbike taxis and tuk-tuks. Each street junction had a flotilla of motorbikes waiting to jettison with a pillion passenger. Of course no one wore helmets.

That evening I ate with the locals on a busy square having purchased a beef empanada and tamales from a street vendor. While I enjoyed the local delicacies I was struck by the lack of hygiene and unfamiliar food preparation: raw meat next to cooked meat, swarming flies, dirty aprons and the absence of cleaning products. Nonetheless, as I devoured this street cuisine, a certain irony struck me. At the exact same time, there was a huge e-coli scare across in mainland Europe which tragically killed 19 people. The Germans caused a diplomatic controversy by initially blaming the Spaniards for some dodgy cucumbers. I don’t recall if the true source of the out break was ever identified. So much for the difference in food hygiene standards.

The next stop on the road south was Popayán (population 150K, hotel – USD15pn). I stayed here for two nights as I arrived at 6.30pm and wanted to tour the town the following day. Popayán is on the tourist map as it’s a large and beautifully maintained colonial town. Parallels are rightly drawn to Cartagena on Colombia’s north east coast. However, as an inland town there is no sea and unlike Cartagena all the buildings in the old town are painted white. Carrying a map is an absolute requirement to find your way home in the evening as all the buildings look alike.

On one of the two nights I went to the local pool hall as is often my routine when at a loose end. It was a pretty big hall with more than 20 tables. Only a few of which were in use, one of the tables had an audience of 12-15 people. Serious stuff it seemed. Not wanting to interrupt the proceedings, I asked the manager if any of the locals wanted to play the Gringo. With the additional inducement being that I’d pay for the table.

As there were no takers I practised alone for about 10 minutes, until a young lad of about 18-20 came in and took up the challenge. After two games, five of the nearby onlookers came to watch. Guess the other match was less interesting. In the end, I was disappointed to lose three games to five.

One was my own doing, as I bottled a couple of shots I’d normally sink and the other owing to the rules of Colombian (and Latam) pool. In this version of the game, you play for points instead of spots or strips. On the last game I potted far more balls while my adversary potted the last two which have a far higher numerical value. Seems fundamentally wrong, hence the reason I don’t like this version of the game.

Nonetheless, being the good sportsmen that I am, I shook on the result. At this point I learned that he (cannot remember his name) only came in to collect his father (one of the onlookers). Hope Daddy was doubly proud of his son. Firstly for winning the match, and, secondly for having the balls to take on the Gringo. Not that I am a sore loser or anything.

Pasto was the next town on the road south and the last before the Ecuadorian boarder. I hadn’t planned to stop here but as it was 5.00pm and with only 90 minutes of daylight left I decided to postpone the border crossing until the following morning.

As I looped the main square in search of accommodation, a Honda Civic honked its horn on noticing my bike and foreign plates. The driver, in great English albeit with a Cockney (London) accent asked if I needed help. After shooting the breeze with the occupants for a couple of minutes, they led me to the nearby Hotel Barcelona. A new boutique hotel which cost only USD25pm (inclusive of dinner and breakfast). We all agreed to meet up later in the evening for a couple of beers.

Good lads. All college students in their early to mid-twenties. Stephen (Delgado, the Civic driver) had recently returned to Colombia having spent a year and a half in London and was hoping to return on completing his studies. We ended up drinking one metre funnels of beer until late. Another good nights sport which resulted in a later than normal start the following day. Actually the hotel staff were pretty nice too. All three receptionists came out to wave me off and also give me the hotel’s souvenir scarf as a memento. I realised again that my bike is a fantastic attention grabber and ice-breaker.

It’s a rare enough machine in Europe but even more so in Latam. I barely park up before getting a few approving nods, questions about bike which in turn leads to tips for places to see (or avoid) and often leads to invitations to hangout. As it happens, not just an awesome mode of transport but a good talking point that has served me well throughout the trip.

Within 30 minutes of leaving Pasto I arrived at the Colombia-Ecuadorian border. I was not looking forward to the Colombia border exit; as I’d overstayed my visa by four days. The penalty if noticed was USD150 and probably lots of additional bureaucracy. Those who’ve read my previous blogs, will remember that the border crossings are the part of the trip that I dread.

The unknown quantity: will it be time consuming, bureaucratic, unclear, expensive, and or corrupt. Will I be swarmed by facilitators offering language or fast track assistance. I am pleased to say that my exit from Colombia and entry into Ecuador was by far the smoothest and most efficient throughout my trip. Both sides had nice new buildings with marked lines indicating the queue which would impress any Brit. In addition, street vendors and “facilitators” were prohibited from the compounds.

I received my Colombian tourist and Customs (for the bike) stamp within 10 minutes. I need not have worried about the overstay, the official diverted me to his supervisor, who then took me to an ante room. He kindly offered to reduce the fine to USD50 cash which would allow me to circumvent the more expensive and time consuming official process. Terribly obliging.

The Ecuadorian side was equally efficient, hassle free and free of charge. All in all, this crossing took a mere 41 minutes. A full hour shorter than the previous fastest crossing. There are a number of countries in the region who could learn a lesson here. Which, if implemented could have delayed the onset of a couple of grey hairs. Something I entirely blame on the border crossings of this trip (see Honduras blog for the worst crossing).

A positive first impression that improved within an hour. I tanked up for only USD8 (19 litres, 4 gallons). And here began my Ecuadorian experience.

I have to admit that prior to this trip, my knowledge of Ecuador was limited to its geographical location on the global map; its ownership of the Galapagos Islands and it being a major coffee producing nation. I would have struggled to name its capital – Quito. So it was with open mind that I travelled through this country and with a general idea of the places I intended to visit. Such ideas coming from other travellers I’d met along the way and about three hours suffering the net.

The first small town was Ibarra (population 120K, hotel USD16pn). A nice quaint colonial town with more churches than any other town I’ve come across, Ireland included. I stayed at the Hotel Madrid, a nice place however the internet connection was poor but at that price it’s hard to complain.

When visiting these smaller towns you find yourself struck by paradox of opinion. On the one hand it’s endearing to see local owner operated stores, be it clothing, groceries, cafés, restaurants etc. The main street is not yet made indecipherable by the usual global retail chains which effectively homogenise most towns and cities. While on the contrary, I would have murdered a Starbucks coffee (and enjoyed the free wifi too).

I stumbled upon a small French café. I met the owner who was about my own age. He went to France for a year to study French, stayed for eight years and returned to his home town with enough cash to open a café (and purchase a share in a local bar). Coincidently, while in Paris he worked for six years in my favoured chain – The Hard Rock Café. Good to see a success story and pretty good coffee and crepes (aka a posh man’s pancake) too.

Next stop was a town called Baños (population 13K). Like most foreigners, I found it amusing that a town might be named after a toilet. On further understanding of the town and word you quickly realise it is far from a toilet. The literal translation of banos is not toilet but bath. The exact converse of how in English we ask for the bathroom when really we mean the toilet. And the full name of the town is Baños de Agua Santa.

As the town was on my route map south I’d planned to see its waterfalls, spring baths and its five famous volcanoes. On arriving, I did two slow laps of the town within 15 minutes. A reconnoitre to check out accommodations, eateries and bars etc.

It really was a small town and immediately obvious that it is high on the Lonely Planet list of places to visit – full of pack backers. Not too surprising as it is a beautiful place and my upmarket accommodation cost USD18pn. First night I didn’t do too much, being tired from the drive and I felt the onset of a head cold.

After a long and powerful sleep I skipped the hotel breakfast and headed for an early morning tour of the town. It’s always nice to take in a place during the serenity before it gives way to the hustle of daily life. I took breakfast at in an indoor market which turned into a real treat.

The familiar type of food market in this region – purveyors of fruit, vegetables, meats, household stuff etc all under an enclosed roof. In the structure, there is an area reserved for eating. No fancy cafes or restaurants. More like kitchenette sized cooking areas with a dozen or so plastic chairs and tables at each stall. The food itself was easily forgotten but I did eat with a Mayan family at the communal table.

Three generations of the same clan in town for market day. Having sold their farm produce, they stopped for breakfast before purchasing their provisions. Forget their English as I don’t believe the older folk even spoke Spanish. My first encounter with this indigenous group and the photos of us are amongst my favourite of the entire trip.

It’s remarkable how short the Mayans are and how noticeably different they dress from the rest of the population. They often wear blankets and both men and women wear the same traditional hats. However, women decorate their’s with feathers. But always industrious, from the grandpa with his makeshift cart, to the woman carrying a stack of wood half her own height to an older woman selling candles outside a church. Really quite adorable folks and in fact they reminded me of Oompa Loompas. I got to meet many more as I travelled further south through Ecuador.

Later on I hired a dirt bike and took to the mountainous volcanoes. Although the bike was only a 125cc it still had plenty of poke to race my way through the narrow dirt paths. It was good fun for about an hour. Where the fun was curtailed as a dense mist enveloped the higher ground making the volcanoes invisible. Pity as the view of the five volcanoes is supposed to be incredible.

In the afternoon I did my usual online session and later skyped with my good buddy Ian back home. Based in London, Ian was on a sabbatical of his own. And, here started another chance meeting. In more of an eatery than a cafe, I was the lone nerd talking into his laptop. I didn’t realise a group, a couple of tables over, were taking the piss until they came over and joined the skype conversation. Ian got to use his little Spanish too. When we finished up the call I ended up hanging out with my new pals for a couple of days.

Sergio, Pricilla, Carlos and Pedro came from Ecuador’s southern city of Guayaquil and were on a weeks holiday in the area. In fact, they were only in Banos for the day. They’d hired a cab to show them around and bring them back to Riobamba; my next port of call. They invited me to join their cab tour and there began an afternoon a good fun, adventure and many beers. Once we’d had a few of bottles Brahma we headed for the more adventurous actives in Banos.

First Bungee Jumping. An activity which never appealed to me previously. After a few beers it sounded like a natural next thing to do. A coin flip decided I, not Sergio, should jump first. No problem, taking the harness I manned up and climbed over the bridge railing. Then I made a school boy error, of doing the exact opposite of the guide’s instruction. While on the plank (a two foot by two foot square block) I looked down instead of out to the horizon.

At 150m above the craves, all bravado instantly disappeared. However, at that point it’s too late to turn back. After a firm shove, I dangled like an infant’s toy mobile. Great rush. Once we all had a go, it was off to the Devil Cable. This is a taught cable which spans between two mountains. Another great thrill but not as close as the bungee jump. After these escapades we called it a day but agreed to meet up again in Riobamba.

I didn’t do too much that evening as various bars including the Irish Pub was crammed with foreign backpackers. By now I try to hang out with the locals. So I skipped it for an early start the following day.

Riobamba was the next stop on the road south. A small town whose major claim to fame is being one of only three towns which serve the world’s highest train route – De Naris de Diablo (The Devils Nose) train. This train line use to serve the whole country but like many train routes the world over it was reduced as road transportation took over. Now it only serves as a pleasant tourist route. My plan was initially scuppered.

One problem with using Google (or guide books for that matter) is that their content is not always up to date. On arrival I found that the train hadn’t started at Riobamba for six months as the tracks were being relayed. I decided to stay all the same for a day or two. Glad I did.

In this town of 140K people, the one and only decent cafe was owned an Ecuadorian-American brother and sister – Chris and Michelle. They grew up in San Diego and only returned to Riobamba a year previously.

For the three days I stayed in Riobamba I was a regular in the café and had the good fortune to meet many great folks. In fact, the owners were interesting themselves. Chris is primarily an artist and painted the massive mural on the bullring stadium. I’m raging I didn’t stop to take a photograph as I passed it on the bike. One of those, I’ll take it tomorrow moments and of course the day I left, I completely forgot. Michelle returned with her pretty young daughter and taught English in the local primary school.

Both convinced me to stay an extra night for the summer festival. A fun night all round. Where the street carnival consists of bonfires, street performers and free snaps is served by the local retailers. I probably meet half the spectators on our block and enjoyed meeting Yamina and Damien. The latter being the first of my three Irish encounters in Ecuador.

Yamina studied arts in the local College. Her warm smile belied an unassuming confidence which thankfully was devoid of that aloofness or artistic off handedness associated with many a creative type. I was particularly impressed with her headdress (not of the religious type). As only those with character can pull off a hat/headdress well. Anyway, we’d a good laugh and I was glad to give her a birthday kiss.

Then I met Damien. Like most nationalities, the Irish can spot their own abroad, even without a word spoken. Not only was he Irish but also from Dublin. As if that wasn’t impressive enough he was only 16 years old and in Ecuador for four weeks. The result of a first prize in a writing competition. I wasn’t even allowed into Dublin city centre when I was that age. However his host mother was present to keep him in check. A good kid who flew the flag well and I even got a mention in his travel blog (http://www.eilireland.org/community/members/damien-thomsondthomson-4li/blog/30/june/2011/el-dia-de-san-pedro).

To add to the evening, my mates from Banos joined us at the café. The height of the excitement was to run through the bonfire. Obviously I waited for a few of locals to try it first before giving it a go. As the fires fanned out we continued the party at a nearby Karaoke bar. Where I belted out an add-libed version of “One Night in Bangkok” replacing it with “One Night in Quito” much to the amusement of all. One of those fantastic nights which you couldn’t plan. Top drawer stuff.

On my final morning I took a 10km ride out to see the Chimborazo volcano. I navigated some very narrow dirt tracks for which my bike was certainly not made. It was a glorious blue sky morning that served as a great backdrop for the snowcapped volcano. Strangely I did manage to get a little sunburned. The photo in front of this volcano (see attached) is certainly FB profile material.

Having missed the train ride in Riobamba, I moved on to Alausi (population 14k, hotel – USD20pn) the second of the three towns where I’d confirmed it was running on schedule. My plan was to spend one night in the town. However I ended up staying for five days and had without doubt the best weekend of my entire trip. From start to finish each day was packed with new and unexpected highlights. And when I thought one day hit the pinnacle it was surpassed by the following day’s events.

The good news all started as I arrived into town. As I rode down the main street in search of a hotel, I noticed the car driver next to me was admiring the bike. After his approving nod I asked him to recommend a hotel. Once again, I was led down the street to what turned out to be the best hotel in town.

Daniel introduced me to the owners and told me I must stay for the festival that weekend. I thanked him for his help and made a mental note to check out the agenda. Over the next 24 hours everyone I met insisted that I stay to celebrate the Fiesta San Pedro. What a weekend. I’ve had the good fortune to celebrate Queens’s Day in Amsterdam, Carnival in Maastricht, New Years in Rio etc but this was incredible.

As the celebrations began on Friday night, I passed Thursday evening watching my first entire game of basketball. The Alausi high school girls played in the regional final. I’m glad to say they won comfortably in front of a packed hall. Two of their side were clearly the best on the court and by a long shot too. However I did find it strange that a dozen policemen were on security detail. It didn’t seem like a rowdy bunch. Anyway.

The first night of the fiesta kicked off with a ball and a street concert. The former was more of a “society” event as the USD20 entry fee would be considered extremely expensive by local standards. While it wasn’t a black tie event, the dress code was suited and booted. Fortunately I’d brought a smart shirt and tie with me so I wasn’t worried on that front.

Although the event began at 9.00pm, I decided to go a bit later as I didn’t fancy joining a random table and speaking SpanEnglish with polite strangers. So I had a disco nap before entering the ball at around 11.30pm. Perfect timing as the party was well under way with people mingling between tables and dancing. However my good impression was momentarily interrupted by a horrible woman serving at the bar. As I went to buy a drink, I could see from the poster menu that the only alcohol on sale were bottles of whiskey.

I am not averse to drinking whiskey but this irked me as poor organisation. As it alienates those who don’t like whiskey or like me are alone and don’t want a full bottle. Then the killer, the cheapest bottle was USD45. More than two night’s accommodation cost. In a region where a litre of local beer costs less than a dollar, I fully expected to finish the night with plenty of change from the USD40 in my wallet. On collecting the coins in my pocket I had the grand sum of USD44.50.

I should have known from the gnarl this woman wore on her face that I’d be wasting my time asking to be let off the 50 cent shortfall. She curtly pointed me to the cash machine across the street. For me, hitting a woman is up there with rape and child molesting but I have to admit, with my still sleepy head on and without a drink I really wondered what it would be like to punch this woman in the overies. And really hard too. Guess she was in an unhappy marriage and only kept it going for the sake of appearances at the women’s church auxiliary.

I crossed the ballroom and was greeted by a much friendlier bar lady who not only gave me the bottle but a large mixer too. And then, low and behold who did I meet – Daniel.

Turns out he is the Notary for the area. He invited me to join his table where I was introduced to his family, the State Governor and local prosecutor amongst others. Funny, being the only Gringo present amongst the 250-300 guests I did receive many warm welcomes, as well as a couple of curious looks as to how I knew this esteemed table. It was a fantastic night (see photos).

When the ball was over, the party carried onto the street. Where the younger folk line the main street with their cars, blast music and drink from their truck which is fully loaded up with beers. I hung out with a group of mates (led by Alex) who I met at the ball. I could see in them, the exact doppelgängers of my crew back home. Provocateurs and raconteurs – you know who you are. Over the following days we shared many a toast.

God only knows what time I hit the hay, but I was summarily awoken to a brass band practicing the weekend anthem at 8.00am. Saturday’s proceedings commenced at noon with a Pamplona style running of the bulls. Where the bulls were released at one end of the town, charge along the barriered streets and finish in a temporary bullring.

The ring itself was erected within 48 hours by locals. As I arrived into Alausi, I saw some activity around a large dirt field one block from the main street. Each family or group are allocated a four metre square space in which they themselves erect a three story wooden scaffolding to watch the bull fight. Quite impressive really.

I positioned myself half way along the route. Being a good runner and having regard for those around me I felt undaunted by the oncoming challenge. Forget bungee jumping as a thrill or adrenalin rush. When eight large oxen turn the corner, stampede in your direction you run for dear life. Then there is a moment of pure panic, when, despite the cheers of the crowds, you can actually hear hoofs behind you as you search with fleeting eyes for a door entrance or gap in a fence to dive over. And God help anyone who might be in the way. What a rush. Then to the bull ring.

The show had a different angle than I’d expected. No over embroidered matador to savagely kill the animal. Here a humane bullfight where the animal is only taunted and literally bullied! Anyone could go into the ring, as did yours truly. The aim was to get as close to the bull as possible.

Where individuals or groups would taunt the bull from different sides of the enclosure and as the bull went to charge one group and opposite group would move in. I even got to slap the bull’s ass as he charged off. However I made one monumental screw up which I might not have lived to regret.

When the bull was at the opposite end of the ring, I read a text message from my sister back home in Ireland. Although this only took a moment, when I looked up the bull was charging directly towards me as everyone else had scarpered. I shit you not, I just made it to the barrier with the bull right behind me. I was rightly scolded by a few of the nearby concerned locals.

That was enough excitement for one afternoon so I headed back to the main street and the day time concert. During this ramble I found the local pool hall, which was the smallest I’ve ever come across. Only three tables. I played the only guy in the hall and beat him 7-4. I was glad he clawed back a few games as his mates came in a towards the end of the match. Of course I didn’t tell them the final score. But good guy, we’d shared a beer over the following days as in such a small town you constantly bump into the same people a few times a day.

The Ecuadorians have a nice tradition of sharing their beer amongst friends which I found endearing. Each will, in turn, buy a litre bottle of beer and invariably with a small glass (or plastic cup) pour a swig before passing it on to the next person. It’s supposedly more intimate but importantly; as only one bottle at a time is open it keeps the beer cooler for longer.

Saturday night was more of the same, street party, moving from one end of the town to another where everyone was remarkably friendly. The atmosphere reminded me of St. Patricks Day back home. Interestingly, a lot of Ecuadorians who live in the US or Canada return for this festival rather than Christmas. As they know a lot of their friends will return during this period and it fits better with their summer vacation. This worked out well for me as there were a lot of people who could speak good English in town.

The final day of the celebration was the best. It started with a parade through the town. I talked to the organisers and they allowed me enter on my bike. With the bike washed and waxed I paraded along the route with the other participants. Stopping regularly to let women and children on the back for photos and indeed getting off to let guys sit on the hog. Of course at some points revving the full 1,800cc’s for sound effect. Music to some peoples ears.

At one point, a group of locals threw me one of their specially made festival souvenir T-shirts. I immediately swapped it for my singlet which I threw back into the crowd. An utterly vainglorious act I know, but it seemed like the natural thing to do at that moment. The last time I saw a similar rush, was when my mate Andre threw his T-shirt into the crowd at Centre Court! At the end of the parade I met the Chief of Police, Pageant Princess and an entire chorus line. What a trip.

Afterward I headed back to the bullring and was grabbed by one of the two brothers who own the hotel. He wanted to introduce me to the five Irish girls in the hotel bar. Keen to meet my fellow brethren I duly obliged. However I was horrified to see all were engrossed in a card game while a great festival was going on outside. A nice enough bunch of girls but a bit tame for my liking. The type who would always defer to wearing sensible shoes. I told them they should be drinking gin not playing it. And duly instructed them to go find a local lad to get a holiday kiss.

A couple of hours later, I was glad see one of their group building international relations between our respective countries. Suffice-it to say, tongues were tied and it had nothing to do with the language barrier. Good on them, as they were shy’ish lassies who’d get great mileage from it and girlishly blush in the months to come when the encounter was recalled.

Later still I had my third Irish encounter in Ecuador. I met three girlfriends who were on extended summer holidays in the region – two Irish and a Dane and all teachers. We got on well, particularly with the latter, as they were more of my own kind. Up for laugh and they even got into the bullring too. Here we bumped into Alex, David, Troy and mates.

One of whom also drove motorbikes – a Yamaha RG1. He’d heaped praise on my machine as he’d noticed it outside the hotel. I hadn’t parked it up after the parade. I threw him the keys, paused to let the realisation sink in, and told him to return it in one piece in 20 minutes. Most bikers would think I’m insane for allowing someone to go on my pride and joy. However I was reminded of an incident in Cape Town, South Africa a couple of years back.

One night, a buddy (Jan-Aire) and I, while queuing to get into one of the more exclusive clubs, noticed a yellow Ferrari as it pulled up next to the entrance. Obviously the vehicle grabbed the attention of all assembled, however the driver made a complete hash of the moment by taking three attempts to parallel park. What he should have done was to pull up, get out of the car, wink at the valet and throw him the keys. In that way he’d be a slick dude instead of some nob with a fancy car who cannot even park. And, just to clarify.

In throwing my keys, I wasn’t trying to show off in front of the girls or the rest of the group for that matter. It’s not about fame or infamy; it’s purely about the awesomeness of the moment.

As Sunday evening wore on, you could feel the collective exhaustion. As I ate a hamster burger (yes, really) on the go, I had to avoid certain streets and people. For having been at the ball, been in the bullring and in the parade I was well known around town. I couldn’t walk down the street without someone calling “Alan de Gringo”, and being invited to share a beer. That last night, I think I spent less than USD10, and that included buying others a drink.

Unsurprisingly, I woke on Monday morning still exhausted. I postponed the move until the next day. As I sauntered around town in the afternoon, I talked to a family as they dismantled their pitch of the bullring. One of the sons (probably early thirties), showed me the souvenir a bull gave him a few years back. As he lifted his t-shirt, he revealed an inch wide scar that went from his right hip to his upper sternum (see photo). He is lucky to be alive.

Glad I didn’t see this at the beginning of the festival. Otherwise I might not have been so cavalier. I took up their generous invitation for dinner at their house. A delicious mixture of pork, rice and beans and thankfully no hamster.

Other small but memorable highlights include meeting many Mayans and taking some superb photographs with them. Also, I must have given away about USD20, in one dollar coins to various kids when they guessed correctly which hand held the money. The delight on their face was magical as they rushed off to buy candy.

I visited Alausi to take a train ride, but instead I experienced the thrill of a rollercoaster. I went to and had a ball, ran with and from bulls, met many wonderful people and felt the warmth and friendliness of an entire town. I can honestly say, this weekend was without doubt one of the top highlights of my entire trip.

My time here also provided me with the motivation to carry on the journey with the same vigour that I started out with way back in August 2010. As I rode out of Alausi for Guayaquil and Montonita, I nodded toward the huge statute of San Pedro that overlooks the town. I promised him I would return in the future.

Muchas gracias a todos, gracias Ecuador y Alausi en particular.

Al Dempsey