We're a bit behind I'm afraid. I'm going to write from Banos until Guayaquil then Nick will write about our time in the Galapagos otherwise my hands might fall off from too much typing!!
So.. here goes.
Banos is a very touristy town around about the middle of Ecuador. It's grew up around natural thermal springs and is now a major tourist destination for Ecuadorians and foreigners. We arrived way back on 21st December and spent an afternoon wandering round and visiting the thermal baths. These were ok but nowhere near as good as the one we went to in Venezuela. There were several different pools you could visit but they were all just concrete swimming pools filled with warm green water!
Anyway, that evening we took a truck up a hill to view the volcano that Banos is next to. It's still active and on a clear night you can see the red glow of the crater. Unfortunately despite the day being clear it had clouded over by the evening and we couldn't see anything!!! It was still a great trip though, there were about 8 of us in the truck and we had a good laugh travelling up and sat on the roof travelling back down again! There was a fire and fire jugglers at the top who put on a very good show and the hot drink we were promissed at the top turned out to be hot orange with a shot of tequilla! (Not the hot chocolate we expected but definately very warming!!!)
The next day we hired mountain bikes to cycle the Tour a las Cascadas, a 60km cycle ride (if you do it all) which passes by loads of waterfalls, some right next to the road, some a short walk away. The most impressive of all was the Pailon del Diabalo (Devil's Cauldron I think?!?) which was huge and you could crawl through a tunnel to stand underneath it! Most people get a bus back from there but we kept cycling for a bit longer. After seeing 6 waterfalls we were a bit fed up with them and couldn't really be bothered with cycling any further so we go the bus back after about 45km. When we got back to Banos, Nick (being Nick) decided to cycle up a very very steep hill to photograph the volcano! I went up for about 10mins before going back to the Hostal for a shower (a far more sensible option I think).
The next day I looked around the Cathedral in town which was full of beautiful paintings and wood carvings. I also visited the museum next door which is the most bizarre place I've ever been! Imagine if a group of excentric old ladies emptied their lofts and displayed the contents! There were glass fronted wardrobes full of wedding dresses, pink bridesmaids dresses, faded silk flowers, traditional dresses, badges and shoes. Walls covered with paintings, posters, butterfies, bugs and sheep upper bodies and goat heads. A room full of very badly stuffed animals (I could have done a better job myself) and a room full of Indian artifacts. The strangest collection of "stuff" ever!
That afternoon we got the bus to Riobamba, the town where the famous Devil's Nose train journey starts. Unfortunatley it wasn't starting from there on Christmas Eve! Instead we stayed the night at Riobamba then got the bus to Alausi early next morning to do half of the ride. It was interesting but not the hair raising experience we expected. We sat on the roof of the train on the way down the "nose" and inside on the way back. There were parts where the train was at the edge of a steep drop and it was better than the Hinckley - Birmingham route but not amazing.
Straight after the train ride we took the 5 hour bus ride to Cuenca, the old capital of Ecuador. When there we met an Austrailian guy we knew from Banos so booked into the same Hostal as him. We then went to the town square outside the Cathedral where lots of Christmas Eve celebrations were going on. While there we met lots of Americans and Canadians so we had a little Gringo Party. Nick managed to attract the town drunk who thought he (Nick) was George Michael!!! He spent the night following him around telling him that he loved him (the drunk was following Nick, not the other way round) Funny to start with but a bit annoying after a while! Anyway, after mass had finally finished (at about 1:30am) they set off a big bamboo structure covered with fireworks - really scarey!!! There were literally fireworks going in all directions I ended up sheltering against the cathedral covering my head while fireworks flew past!!! They'd never allow it in England!?!?!
Christmas Day was pretty quiet, just wandering around Cuenca. It's a really beautiful place with a river, loads of churches, town squares and impressive colonial architecture. That evening we went for "Christmas Dinner" with a group of Americans and Canadians in a very posh restaurant. It was expensive by Ecuadorian standards but half what you'd pay at home and delicious!
Boxing Day we left Cuenca for Guayaquil. The second biggest city in Ecuador, on the coast and where our flights to Galapagos were due to leave from! I wouldn't recommend Guayaquil really - it's just a big city. There are some nice squares, one of which is full of Iguanas and turtles. They've recently renovated the river front but the new bit just feels very North American with shopping malls and Mac Donalds. Other than that the city is big, dirty and feels dangerous, we're really glad we didn't spend Christmas there (thanks for the advice Lynne and James!)
So, now it's Nick turn ... to the Galapagos!