Corporate conscience kicks in, flying around the world is no longer a badge of honour, the savings go back to struggling bottom-lines….
Budget airlines shut shop, the big boys survive – fossil fuel becomes less relevant, the aviation industry looks at options – technology gets a boost… “the future could be solar”, they say?
Jump on a plane for a city break, three holidays a year, frequent international travel – Carbon foot print all – do I care now? NO MORE….
Flying becomes expensive , we plan and save for essential travel. We start planning and saving – for that only one big holiday in the year!
Staycation becomes the name of the game. We look closer to home for a break – Homestay becomes mainstay! Air BnB stocks sky rocket… fresh ideas follow suit … giving us more affordable options!
Excessive, mindless conferences become passé (when did we ever achieve a milestone in any mass gathering of ‘know alls’?)…..the venues – some of them convert to emergency care centres. The Excel Centre is rechristened the “NHS Nightingale”… London leads the way… I feel proud and safer…
Construction sites pause…. luxury hotels drop out of the map. Many of them convert to hospitals….Work in progress changes course – hospitals or public housing! Our conscience has an awakening…
Only two days commute to work, three days WFH becomes the new normal, proven technology takes over, expensive commercial real estate finds new usage. Our cities become more attractive…
Big retail becomes more innovative. Amazon has clones…we now have choices…
School-runs three days a week, twice a week lessons online and technology takes over exams….parents get to breathe too…
The roads with an eternal ‘half term’ feel……You know what I mean!
Remote healthcare takes a new leap, breaking through regulatory red-tape, tele-medicine finally reaches masses…
Our leaders make health the nation’s priority – same as ‘national security’ – our world accepts “healthy people make healthy economies”….!
We love to brag about healthy eating, it is not an option but a necessity,
Lesser people flock to cities, many go back to their villages, farming becomes a career option!
Exploring planets to quality life on Earth – NASA takes charge – becomes the hub of new-age living.
We remember the perils of millions in this lockdown strife, the ones who drew their last breath alone, those who lost loved ones in ‘self-isolation’…..
The world gets a chance to breathe again, O2 rides over NOx…
Greta Thunberg and GenZ define our path ahead…
As the Vinyl creeps its way once again into our living rooms, bringing back the ecstasy of analogue sound, the new world draws us back to a slower pace, but ensconced in the comfort of family and safety of technology!
A long awaited journey began from the chaotic heartbeat of Nigeria, Lagos. Living there for the last 2 years and more, savouring Africa has been top of our “explorer chart”!
Reaching Windhoek via Johannesburg on a Saturday afternoon in early August, the air was clear with a crisp desert cool. The 50th country of my travel repertoire! Clean and tiny, the airport hits you with the Namibian pace. Be prepared for orderly queues with painfully slow service. But who cares when its a holiday eh?!
Collecting the car is probably the most important part of this holiday – you gotta get it right. (A piece of advise – if you do it , do it right, get a proper 4WD ).
Driving into Windhoek is a breeze, 40 minutes into this sleepy Capital we found our abode for the first night. Galton House is chilled out and just what you need to start it off. On Amasoniet Street in the Eros Park region of the city, an early morning stroll will give an idea of how the ‘well heeled’ live in this city!
An early dinner at the much discussed Stellenbosch Wine Bar & Restaurant on Sam Nujoma Drive was definitely a good idea. The wine and the fillet steak hit the right spot. It suddenly brought back memories of a similar experience in Bariloche (Argentina) where every bite was a divine experience!
Sunday: Sunday morning, after a hearty breakfast, we set out for the Great Namibian Adventure. Taking the B1 out of Windhoek, our first detour was at the Lake Oanab, which could be well avoided. A straight drive 315km to the Kalahari Anib Lodge, a turn off 10km before Mariental. When you read about Namibian towns/ places in travel guides you may visualise activities, traffic, people. Reality – outposts and a few shops and hutments! so don’t expect much at all.
The Kalahari Anib Lodge is a sensible night stop over and soft launch into the Southern Namibian wilderness! The red Kalahari sands are resplendent with character – shrubs, oryx, blue wildebeest, springbok, eland, ground squirrel, ostrich……..galore. The sundowner drive is well worth it.
Monday: Try an early morning wake 🙂 and get to see the sun rise from the car park. The waterhole provided by the lodge attracts quite a few mammals in the foreground.
Hitting the road at 0830 hrs, after a refill of diesel at Keetmanshoop, we hit the first stretch of “gruesome gravel” on the C12 – treacherous driving for 60km before it joined a more friendly version of the road, well looked after and kind to tyre and bum! This road through nowhere brings you to the quirky world of Messie and Andrew and their Canyon Farmyard – “between nowhere and goodbye”! Messie does the best Apfelstrudle this side of the Tropic of Capricorn. Jokes apart, you will wonder how the flavours add up in this arid nowhere-land and the creative junkyard.
Another hour and we reached the Canyon Lodge, our stopover for the day and the base for exploring the Fish River Canyon. A pleasant calmness in solitude, the lodge ‘smiles’ with the politeness and grins of those that abound – the host crew. The sunset from Zenobia’s heaven (a few steps up a hillock) does provide perspective and panorama.
Hoooorrrrayyyyy……..This the dayyy! Another early rise, leaving the hotel at 0600 hrs, we were the first at the gates of the Hobas Camp. Supposed to open at 0630 hrs and pay N$80 per head and another N$10 for the car. This is where the 10km road to the Canyon view-point starts.
The rising sun’s glow casts a myriad of colours on the landscape and gradually lights up the Fish River Canyon in its true splendour. The early morning sun for the next couple of hours takes one into a world of its own. Lovers of nature and solitude – this is your time.
(Tip: to avoid the cacophony of groups or disrespectful tourists, you may want to walk a mile down towards the left of the Viewing Point and find yourself a lovely spot to cherish nature at its million dollar best!)
Till now the the gravel roads have been kind and very very decent. Infact better than tarred roads in some parts of the world we have travelled and lived in (Nigeria? India?). However, spinning around on the loose soil is a great possibility..so caution and speed limit is important!
Driving down south we hit Ai-AisNational Park and then the hot springs. 65C is at the course – hot enough to scald and immobilise. The swimming pool is fed with the spring water and is a nice 26C for a good dip and freshening up. The scenery on the way is starkly breathtaking and I am not joking. It’s miles of no one except a few Oryx grazing.
Back to Canyon Lodge early evening, we pack up for our next destination – the Canyon Roadhouse – 18km up the road. A quirky watering hole in the middle of nowhere, an abode for ancient motors restored to glory for the eye, this place has a ‘sexy Motel’ feel where auto aficionados will revel in the company of the awesome steel!
Food is great and once again the staff are stars – look out for Emily. She rocks!
Wednesday: Today starts our journey to Aus – the stopover to explore Luderitz and the mining belt along the coast. We decide to go down via the Orange River unto Rosh Pinah and then drive to Aus. A little longer than the traditional route but it give a perspective otherwise not possible. Going down towards Ai-Ais once again and then turning off towards the Orange River, the landscape changes dramatically. The green lining along the river and the sights of South Africa across, you soak it in and drive through to the a T junction 4 kms from the South African border post. A right turn up and the tarred road brings in relief.
Rosh Pinah is a zinc and lead mining town that lies within the Oranjemund Constituency and the Diamond Belt. One would expect habitation, and one does see but sparse and makes you wonder where the humans are! Refill the gas tank and drive on. The tarred road unto Aus is few hundred kilometres. The wind is unkind and keeps the driver on their edge.
Once again the views are from another world and worth every mile of the detour.
Arriving in Aus early evening and expecting to see habitation, we find ourselves in the midst of a few hundred (if that) and check into the Banhoff Hotel – an old German institution made over a few times to its modern state. Homely and functional, the wine and the food excel.
We had heard of the wild horses of the Namib and took a chance to see if any around before sun down. And yes we did. These slender creatures that grace millionaire stables in other parts of the world, have no home and no jockey to ride them. The harsh conditions have tempered them to go without water for up to 5 days and we got to see them in their most unlikely surroundings, grazing on a barren unkind land.
History has it, these horses are descendants of ones that ran aground in a shipwreck nearby Luderitz, some say they belonged to the armed forces and were abandoned with the forces leaving and and and…..
The evening at the Banhoff went off fast into la la land.
Thursday: Kolmanskupp was today’s destination. 110 kms down the road West towards Luderitz, this town was once a sprawling Diamond township in the early 1900s. The Germans struck Diamond and a community developed – all of 344 people at its crowded best, complete with Casino, Night Club, Bowling Alley, Hospital, mansions and shops, this was a dream come true for many that turned millionaires in a short period. However, history has it, not all died rich, and even the state couldn’t pay for their funerals! (The web is full of information) C’est la vie!
Kolmanskoppe – a skeleton of its past, given in to the devouring flood of desert sands, submerging the corridors of past grandeur and spaces that once witnessed a reckless show of wealth!
Visit at your own peril – snakes galore, vipers and adders mainly!!
A short drive west and the coastal town of Luderitz shows its colours in the horizon. Home to a few thousand people, it boasts of a great Portuguese restaurant – the Portuguese Fisherman. The owner came to Namibia 10 years ago and settled down in Luderitz to his new home with offerings from his home country. The mixed seafood soup is the best seller, comes with rice and it came as a much needed break from the meat rich diet so far.
A little wander around downtown (two blocks) and we were on the way to Diaz Point, 22 kms on gravel with flocks of flamingoes on the way. The weather changes drastically here, a sudden blast of cold wind gushes over from the Atlantic….freezing!
Back at the Banhoff Hotel, we made new friends over a few drinks – Sonja and Matthias, who had interesting perspectives on life and much aligned to our way of thinking – speaking of the refugee crisis to the leadership circus worldwide, we delved on Africa and its charms and the world’s best destinations on our bucket lists! The wine was good and so was the evening.
The staff at the Banhoff Hotel broke into an impromptu song and dance medley around 9.00pm and dinner turned out to be full of entertainment.
Follow me on the blog. Next : Sossusvlei, Swakopmund, Spitzkoppe
Living and working in London often gets one into the drawl of things – complaints, whining, moaning – all about the weather, the journeys and everything that never seems right! – Story of an average Londoner.
Until, when one decides to give it a go and try capturing London’s various faces – and a different image emerges – medieval to modern to colourful to simply grey! Full of history, London amazes me!
Here is an attempt to capture sights as I see of the city. I will continue to update with fresh shots from time to time..
Staying at the Santa Lucia in Cuenca is like going back a few decades in understated luxury. This hotel is one of the top boutique properties in town and is a visual delight.
Cuenca is an amazing city. The more we experience it, the better it gets. 4 rivers, 8 Universities and 52 Churches (one for every Sunday of the year!!!) – a tall order that is! The former Inca town of Cuenca (situated at about 2500 metres in the southern part of the Andes) was conquered by the Spanish in 1533 and founded in 1557. With a population of about 350,000 people it is Ecuador’s third largest city.
For its charming historical centre, the churches, the small cobbled streets and colonial houses with noble facades, prim balustrades, wrought iron balconies and red tiled roofs, it was declared as World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1999.
The four rivers of Cuenca (meaning a basin made by a confluence of rivers)are the Tomebamba (named after the Cañari culture), Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara, in order of importance. The first three of these rivers originate in the Páramo of Parque Nacional Cajas to the west of the city. Very interestingly, these four rivers are part of the Amazon River watershed. Cuenca is surrounded by mountains on all sides, with passes to the west, south and east.
Our first day in Cuenca started with a stop at the San Sebastian Plaza where a lot of Cuencan histry has been written. From there it was a walking tour of the city that led us to El Vado. El Vado is currently under renovation and the old colonial buildings lining this plaza add to the flavour of this place. The walk takes you to a part where you come across the studio cum living quarters of Laura and Yani. Entering this house will transport you to a different world.
For decades the couple has collected antiques from the area and live with them in the house. Laura is a doll maker and Yani (of Dutch origin) is a restorer of antiques. Inside the house every corner is precious and a visual delight. Laura’s kitchen, their bedroom, the bird corner, the central courtyard and even the bathroom is something to look at. Wish I had the liberty to do up a little corner of my house to these specifications! Stepping out, the next door belongs to Prohibido Centro Cultural, the den of Eduardo Moscoso, a well-known extreme art protagonist who has worked on various traditional themes in the most extreme manner. Every corner is interesting and oozes dark brilliance. The central courtyard serves as a set up for local bands playing alternative sounds but forbids the use of drugs, alcohol and other narcotics. There is only a small corner for smokers. The founder and owner of this place, Eduardo Moscoso, has turned the place itself to an eccentric, paradoxical work of extreme art.
Overlooking the Cruz del Vado is the Tomebamba River and the sprawling campuses of the University of Cuenca. Going up the meandering road we took the next stop at the 10 de Augusto Mercado. Markets are my special weakness. It is in these markets I get to see the locals in their true spirits, without pretences, getting a slice for their survival. The character of a town is often revealed in its markets. This being clean, organised, odour free
and bustling with activity. The fresh produce is all organic which we struggle to afford in the UK – US$ 10 can fill up your baskets with fresh fruits and vegetables for more than week’s requirement of two people! The chicken is naturally corn fed and is the cheapest on the list followed by beef and pork. I feel energised visiting markets.
From the market it was the San Francisco Plaza and the new Cathedral of Cuenca. Walking through the square we reached the Carmelite Church which on a Monday morning was packed with believers. The flower market outside bustled with shoppers and school children concentrated around ‘Helado’ carts. It was already past midday. The skies looked a bit threatening and we didn’t want to miss the chance of a view of the city from Mirrador Turi. Postponing lunch we drove up the hill to Turi from where the real shape and form of this lovely city unfolded. Coming downhill, it was a stopover at Eduardo Vega’s Ceramic Studio. Eduardo Vega is an internationally renowned artist working with ceramics and has a few grand installations in Cuenca city. The reluctant visit turned exciting at the sight of his work. Once again the wish was to carry loads of his work back home – a dream that ended in a small purchase – just enough to fit into our holiday bags.
It was already two hours past midday and the hunger pangs called for a visit to Villa Rosa. It was a grand meal of Locro Soup and a Churrasco (local steak with an egg, fries and avocado on the side). After the meal, it was a trip down the history of the Panama Hat and a visit to one of Ecuador’s premier Panama Hat making houses on the fringes of the city.
PANAMA HATS (Paja Toquilla)– The History – Your Panama hat started its existence on the Ecuadorian tropical coast as a toquilla plant. The straw from this palm is processed by the locals to provide the fibre for the hat. This fibre is sold in bundles to the whole of Ecuador, mostly around the city of Cuenca. Although Montecristi in north-west Ecuador is the home of the original hat, Cuenca today is the centre of its final finishing. These hats have been traditionally woven by women and vary in quality from $20 to $1500. It is said the master weavers only use non-glaring light and weave only on cloudy days and/or in moonlight so as to see the fibres better, as this prevents errors. Working in the shade of large trees gives this option as well.
Centuries before Ecuador started exporting Paja Toquilla’s to Panama and the rest of the world, this type of hat was used by its population as a refuge from the strong Equatorial sun. In 1835, Manuel Alfaro, a recent immigrant from Spain to Montecristi, Ecuador, saw the potential that these hats carried and after some years of successful domestic business decided to begin exporting them to a public that would see them. Panama, a country flooded with Americans who furiously travelled west to California’s gold rush, was a guaranteed market. Within a few years, the demand for the hats grew and farmers of the Ecuadorean coast stopped farming cacao, coffee and rice and dedicated themselves to satisfying the growing hunger for Paja Toquillas’.
In 1855, Phillippe Raimondi, a Frenchman living in Panama City, exposed the European audience to Paja Toquillas during the World Fair in Paris. Forgetting to mention their origin, these hats were quickly baptized as Panamas. Since then, Paja Toquillas have taken a life of their own, quickly shedding their humble origin. 220,000 hats were exported to California during the years of the Gold Rush.
50,000 hats were ordered by the United States government to be sent to the Caribbean to protect its troops during the Spanish-American war in 1898. In 1906, every Panama Canal worker owned one and a new fashion statement began when Theodore Roosevelt displayed his own during his visit to the canal!!
And that for you Ladies and Gentlemen – is the PANAMA HAT!
Our stay at the Hacienda Abraspungo was very comfortable; although it was Saturday night we had to pack in pretty early. Sunday morning getting up at 4 am, we did make it in time for some fresh fruits and coffee and were on the road to Alausi at 5.30am. The 2 hour journey through the mountains so early in the morning was breath taking – the misty haze gave way to the rising sun and a glimpse of the communities waking up for their Sunday chores. Our first stop was at Balbanera, the oldest church of Ecuador constructed in 1534.
Destination Alausi, a typical small Ecuadorian town which is currently the starting point of a touristy train ride to Sibambe and back. Aside from the train service, Alausí springs to life for market day on Sunday, when indigenous people come down from the nearby páramo wearing their best and most colourful clothing. You can get a closer look at the statue of Saint Peter and admire the panoramic views by climbing the Lluglli hill. Alausí’s train station, the goal of most visitors, sits behind the small plaza at the north end of 5 de Junio. The train takes you through the famous Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) to Sibambe. After a stop of one hour at Sibambe, it is once again a climb back to Alausi – total 3 hours. The Devil’s Nose was one of the most incredible feats of railroad engineering when it was completed in the early 1900s. The train descends through a hair-raising series of switchbacks that are so tight the entire train has to back up momentarily to fit through. Just below the switchbacks, the train stops near Sibambe, turns around, and climbs back through the entire route. For the best views, sit on the right-hand side of the train if you can. Riding on the roof is now prohibited following the deaths of two Japanese visitors in 2007.
This train journey is managed by the Ecuadorian government and 20% of the ticket money goes to the local community of Nariz who mingle with the visitors and give them a taste of their culture, music and dances at Sibambe. So even if you are not too keen on this ride, remember your 3 hours and a few dollars could add to the economy of a very impoverished community!
Once back at Alausi, we bade farewell to our companions for the last one week – our guide – the very knowledgeable and pleasant Giovanny Reinozo and our driver – the quiet but witty Armando. We were greeted by Xavier our guide for the next phase of the journey and Giovanny, the driver. Driving further south, our next destination on the way to Cuenca was the Inca ruins of Ingapirca. We stopped off at a point to have a good view of Alausi and carried on to Ingapirca on a long and winding road that took us through villages and truck stops dotted with colourful markets and eateries. The dirt track to Ingapirca was full of rustic charm.
Ingapirca firmly stands at 3230 meters as Ecuador’s most impressive and most significant site of Inca ruins. These ruins are set in the rolling green hills of the Southern Andes region of Ecuador, about 90km north of the major city of Cuenca. A complex network of stone structures that surround a circular sun temple, Ingapirca displays both the Inca and Canari cultures’ mastery of stonework and their keen awareness of solar patterns. Set in an agricultural zone with a rich indigenous history, Ingapirca also evidences the fertility of the soil and the unique interaction between the warring Inca and Canari peoples during the pre-Spanish 15th century. The most important characteristic of this site is the Canari moon temple standing side by side with the Inca sun temple and a part of the original Inca trail passes here! We had a family of Huarizos (cross between a male Llama and a female Alpaca) giving us company at these ruins and it was interesting watching these creatures grazing the fertile grounds.
After a sumptuous lunch at the Posada Ingapirca we were once again on the road – to our final final destination for the day – Cuenca. En-route we passed through small communities and watched congregations enjoying a game of Ecuavolley – an improvised form of volleyball which is a craze only after soccer in this country of 15 million people.
It was 2 hours more on the road and with a mix of dozing off and taking in the sights on the way we were atlast in Cuenca – another UNESCO World Heritage City of 4 rivers, 8 universities and 52 churches! Our stop for the next 4 nights is at the very colonial boutique hotel – Santa Lucia. More later.
After a good night’s rest at the Hilton Colon, Quito, we started off on our journey to the Cotopaxi National Park on a Friday morning. With a slight struggle and few nudges we were able to leave the city and on to the Pan – American highway once again. I will do injustice to the efforts of the Ecuadorian administration if I do not mention the quality of the road surface that we encountered till now on the highway. It is indeed a pleasure to be on the road, with proper markings, crossings, directions and continuous developments. The colourful array of shops and
habitations on both sides enhanced with the Andean landscape make this highway very different from the monotonous drives on the motorways of Europe.
By now we were onto our third province of Ecuador, having already driven through Pichincha, Imbabura. Cotopaxi province is named after the volcano. After crossing the town of Lasso we hit a dirt track entrance to the Cotopaxi National Park – leaving the double peaks of the volcano Illinizas on the right. The path is currently undergoing up gradation and will be a metalled track till the main entrance of the park by the end of this year (2012). The local guide Maria joined us at this point and the ride for the next half an hour was an interesting drive through the cloud and the natural habitat that has sprung on the lava paths of the Cotopaxi. Our first stop was at 3600 metres from where walked for
an hour through the forest of this park – an occasional humming bird and some rabbits crossed our path. The clouds came head on covering the ravines from our sight but the silhouettes gave us an idea of the topography. We hit a point at 3800 metres where the next ride was to the valley at the lake Limpio Pungo. The vegetation changes drastically and suddenly the clods seemed to vanish as we neared this glacial lake. Our trek around the lake took us through the foothills of the volcano Ruminahui – actually the climb to Ruminahui starts here.
After an hour and a half, the clouds lifted briefly for a glimpse of the Cotopaxi – and awesome it was indeed. The scenery included groups of wild horses grazing with the Cotopaxi as a back ground!
Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Since 1738, Cotopaxi has erupted more than 50 times, which created the numerous valleys formed by lahars (mudflows) around the volcano. Cotopaxi poses a high risk to the local population, their settlements and fields.
Cotopaxi’s most violent eruptions in historical times occurred in the years 1744, 1768, and 1877. There was a major eruption in 1903 through 1904, and some minor activity in 1942 as well as 1975 but it did not produce any major events. The main danger of a huge
eruption of Cotopaxi would be the flow of ice from its glacier. If there were to be a very large explosion, it would destroy most of the settlements within the valley in the suburban area of Quito (pop. more than 1,000,000). Another city which would be in great danger is Latacunga which is located in the south valley. In 1744 and 1768 an eruption destroyed the colonial town of Latacunga.
After the day well spent we headed for our night stop at Hacienda La Cienega, another very old property. A good night’s rest and we hit the road again on Saturday morning, south to the Chimborazo national park. We passed by the market towns of Salcedo and Ambato and stopped for some amazing deals on scarves, ponchos and sweaters. We entered our fourth Ecuadorian province – Chimborazo and hit the park around eleven. As we got the first glimpse of the Chimborazo we were reminded about its height and special position. The Chimborazo is the tallest Ecuadorian peak standing at 6310 metres at the tallest and is an extinct volcano. Chimborazo – is also the closest to the sun by virtue of it being on the equator (the centre of the Earth)- closer to the sun than
the Everest is! The arid landscape at its foothills is home to the vicunas and pumas. We passed these herds (?) and reached the Chimborazo base camp Estrella del Chimborazo. An amazing set up owned by the famous Ecuadorian climber Mario Cruz, this place provides us with a hot meal and a very warm welcome from its resident guard Whymper the German Shepherd.
We drove further south and hit the town of San Juan from where the community of Palacio Real came into sight. A detour brought us to this community of 80 families that farm and weave for a living. Fani and her son Fricson from the local community took us for a walk (roughly an hour) through the fields and provided us with a little history of the place as well as some insight into their lives. All this while in the background the mighty Chimborazo played its daily game of ‘hide and seek’ with the clouds.
We bade Fani and her son goodbye and moved on towards Riobamba – the capital of the Chimborazo province. Riobamba is a vibrant town of 160,000 people and an important base for commerce in this region. Strolling through the city on a Saturday afternoon as fun. Families, children, lovers and the retired took to the streets in hoards and gave it a festive feel. Live bands played in a few parks that we passed and the city pulsated with their beats!
Our day ended at the Hacienda Abraspungo, on the outskirts of the city. An early meal, some good Chilean wine and a cigar rounded off the day’s experience. Early start next morning – 5.30 am for Alausi and the train journey to the ‘Devil’s Nose’. Good night!
After the few days in Quito we hit the road to Otovalo at 8.30am on a Tuesday morning. It’s Saturday evening and I could only clear my ‘blogger’s block’ today – what with awesome landscapes, some amazing experiences, hikes, local people and of course the wine and food – there was a fog which seem to have just lifted!
The journey from Quito to Otavalo is on the Pan American Highway travelling north of the Capital. Starting early we made a stop at Calderon, a small town off the highway , famous for its Masapan (masa – dough, pan– bread) or bread-dough sculptures. This is the only city in the world that makes these figures. As always, there may be some imitations out there like there is for almost anything, but there is nothing quite like the figures of Masapan! These make great gifts if you’re looking for something small but original and unique. If you are wondering what I am referring to – you may have seen these while decorating your Christmas tree.
From Calderon, another hour or so and we did a brief stop at a small café with a great view of the Volcano Imbabura and the Lago San Pablo at its foot. The Imbabura is referred to as Taito (Father) Imbabura who fought with the Volcano Mojanda to win the love of Mama Cotacachi! That is local legend. Volcanoes are revered in this part of the world, irrespective of the threats of eruptions; the people are at peace with them. This is the start of the Imbabura province. The view of the Andes is spectacular from every angle, but with these majestic volcanoes and the associated folklore, it makes the experience even more surreal. Getting a glimpse of the peaks of these volcanoes is quite a challenge – no matter how bright the sun shines, there is almost always a tuft of cloud cover on the peaks – you get to see them if you deserve to! A green carpet of vegetation all over gives the surroundings a soothing feel about them.
In the valley between these volcanoes lies the peaceful but very important town of Otovalo. This is by far the most important indigenous market town in the highlands. The indigenous Otavaleños are famous for weaving textiles, usually made of wool, which are sold at the famous Saturday market. Although the largest market is on Saturday, there is a very wide range of wares available throughout the week in the Plaza de los Ponchos, and the many local shops.
During the market’s peak, almost one third of the town becomes full of stalls selling textiles, tagua nut jewellery, musical instruments, dream catchers, leather goods, indigenous costumes, hand-painted platters and trays, purses, clothing, spices, raw foods and spools of wool.
Otavalo is an area made up principally of farming communities due to the rich volcanic soils in this area, but with the growth of tourism, the town has begun to focus more on the making of handicrafts which have made the Saturday market a popular stop with visitors to Ecuador.
Our next stop was 20 minutes up the road from Otavalo, at the 300 years old Hacienda Pinsaqui, where we spent two absolutely fascinating nights. Built on acres of fertile land at the foothills of the mighty Imbabura, the Hacienda still has a portion of the original gravelled Pan American Highway as a part of it. This Hacienda is a treat – for those who love history or don’t, it will be very difficult not to love this set up. Simon Bolivar ‘El Liberatador’ and the hero of South American independence from the Spanish Empire, spent many a days in Room 1 of this Hacienda, where he would be accompanied by his lover Manuela Saenz. It is believed that the ‘ghosts’ of Simon and Manuela still come down to oversee the Hacienda’s working on some nights!!!!
The evenings at the Hacienda are made interesting by the personal touch of Victor Montalvo, the General Manager, who makes it a point to explain the history of the place and the many stories associated with its existence! The music of Waukis, the local Andean Band from the nearby village of Iluman and rounds of Canelazo, a mixture of hot water, sugarcane alcohol, lemon, sugar, and cinnamon – typical of the Andean region, build up a tempo that is rounded off with a handsome ‘Lomo Pinsaqui’ – the local steak and a glass of Argentinian Malbec.
Walking on the grounds of the Hacienda one comes across elegant horses that are winners of several equestrian events nationwide and in other South American events. The bar here is called the ‘cave’ and is literally like a cave forming the basement.
An early morning ride to a farm high up on the slopes of the Imbabura brought us to the base of our hike through this landscape on the second day. Here at the farm Cecilia greets you with a warm hug and enthusiasm. Owner of acres of land that was once part of the Hacienda Pinsaqui (her family owns the Hacienda), she is cultivating potatoes and beans and rearing 280 sheep for wool. Cecilia took us up to the mountains for a few hours hiking and interaction with the Andean flora. The hike started with a prayer to the ‘spirit of Imbabura’ as the locals would do and the ‘Shamans’ would advise you to do.
The second half was dedicated to another walk around the Cuicocha National park where we walked up to a height for a view of the Cuicocha crater lake with two islands. On the way back, it was a visit to the town of Cotacachi (named after the volcano). This town is famous for its leather goods. Mark my words – you will not get it cheaper and better anywhere else! How does $70 for a nice leather jacket sound?
The next morning, we were once again on the road to a town further north – Ibarra. Ibarra is also known as the ‘white city’ as it is predominantly a mestizo town. Known for its wood works and sculptures, it is quite fascinating to see the galleries which serve buyers from distant towns and cities. From Ibarra it was down towards Quito. Rose plantations are a big contribution to Ecuador’s economy, and this part of the country is full of them. Stopping off at a plantation to see the source of some of the roses we buy in England, we had another great experience of visiting an old colonial Hacienda, where the owner showed us around and sat us through an authentic Ecuadorian lunch. The Hacienda Campania is part of the rose plantation and is strewn with roses of 72 varieties that it exports to the US and the rest of the word. Quite a sight – it almost gets better at every stop!
The day ended at the Hilton Colon, in the new part of Quito. This part of town is very well organised with no eye sores. There are modern buildings, universities, grand parks and open spaces and bistros lining its streets. Quito does have a good feel about it.
With a night’s stopover it’s on to the Cotopaxi National Park early next day. I will come back with more from there.
Before I go onto the story of the last few days in Otavalo region, I guess it’s worth sharing a few facts about Ecuador – for those that may consider this as a destination one day.
A land of 31 volcanoes, this country borders with Peru in the South and the East, Columbia in the north and the Pacific Ocean in the west. Chimborazo is the highest volcano at 6267 metres, while Tungurahua is the most active with the last known eruption earlier this year (2012)! With highly fertile soils as a contribution from its volcanoes, the main produce of this land includes a variety of fruits and vegetables and of course Corn of several varieties. Corn forms part of the staple diet including beef, pork, guinea pig (cuy) and seafood in the coastal region.
The Andes run north to south forming the middle territory or the highlands. Through a succession of wars and marriages among the nations that inhabited the valley, the region became part of the Inca Empire in 1463. 2011 estimates put Ecuador’s population at 15,007,343. The CIA World Factbook gives the following statistics: “mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 65%, Amerindian 25%, Spanish and others 7%, black 3%”.Ecuador’s population is ethnically diverse. The largest ethnic group (as of 2007) is the Mestizos, the descendants of Spanish colonists and indigenous peoples, who constitute 65% of the population. Amerindians account for 25% of the current population. The unmixed descendants of early Spanish colonists, called “Criollos” independent of their ethnic Iberian or Mediterranean origin, as well as immigrants from other European countries, account for about 7% of the population. Afro-Ecuadorians, including Mulattos and zambos, are also a minority, largely based in Esmeraldas and Imbabura provinces, and make up around 3% of the population. This is a great place to experience the indigenous Amerindian people and their cultures on a non-touristy level.
Ecuador is one of 17 mega diverse countries in the world according to Conservation International, and it has the most biodiversity per square kilometre of any nation. In addition to the mainland, Ecuador owns the Galápagos Islands, for which the country is best known. Since 2000, the US Dollar is the official currency (legal tender), and this makes things a lot easier for tourists. Things are reasonable priced and the peace loving population make it a real pleasurable experience to be here. The pan American Highway cuts through the country from the north to the south and connects Columbia in the North to Peru in the South!
Spanish is the official language spoken by one and all.
London – Madrid – Guayaquil – Quito (24 hours door to door)
Twenty-four hours of continuous travel in the 21st century sounds like one fraught with delays and cancellations or simply bad planning! That was my first reaction when faced with the itinerary to Ecuador. But intense research for an alternate journey plan from London to Quito – came up with the only other option of flying Iberia direct into Quito from Madrid saving three hours at the most – AND that too on REAL out-dated aircrafts – Iberia (the Spanish national airline that now partners the great British Airways) still does not offer in-flight entertainment on your seats, with no movies on demand on a 12.5 hour flight, and this comes with a huge propensity of misplaced luggage! The choice was obvious – London to Madrid – 3 hours at Madrid and then on LAN to Guayaquil (12 ½ hours). The last bit from Guayaquil to Quito was 55 minutes and we reached the hotel at 11.30 pm, (4.30 am UK time) – exactly 24 hours since we left home the day before.
Here starts our third journey in Latin America – 16 days in Ecuador including the Galapagos Islands
QUITO: Sitting pretty in a valley at 2800 metres above sea level, on the eastern fringes of volcano Pichincha, Quito is a city to soak in. The Old city – is full of flavours, colours and colonial leftovers. The weather in March is a lovely 11 – 22 degrees Celsius that gives no reason to fret except for the sudden bursts of rainfall, though very short spells. Walk the streets of the Old City and meander through the undulating streetscape – it could leave you breathless at times – the sheer altitude and of course the sights!
Quito was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978, the first one in Latin America. To quote UNESCO’s World Heritage site “Quito, the capital of Ecuador, forms a harmonious ensemble sui generis, where the actions of man and nature are brought together to create a work unique and transcendental of its kind. With its historic centre and its buildings the city is an outstanding example of the Baroque school of Quito, a fusion of European and indigenous art.”
Starting at La Plaza de la Independencia , the walk around the old city on a Sunday was full of local charms – Quitenos congregate in San Francisco Church, La Compania de Jesus Church, San Augustin Church – the prominent churches amongst many in this part of town. After the Sunday service, it’s a party on the streets! Families indulge with Bands, food stalls, indigenous wares, street entertainment of other sorts and simply loitering in the Plaza – Independencia and San Fransisco. It was indeed a feast of colours, smells and emotions!
Monday brought about some more experiences and surprises –
One – an early morning run on the streets of the Old City brought in glimpses of Quitenos on the move – children rushing to school, trolley buses filled with commuters to work, nurses in uniform rushing for their morning shift, workers heading to the church – to seek blessings before starting their day at work and the early morning odours of a city steeped in history!
Two – the presidential palace at the Plaza de la Independencia, where the incumbent President of Ecuador resides and works from turns out into a colourful parade venue. The ‘Change of Guards’ ceremony is officially attended by the President or by the vice-President, in his absence, only on a Monday. We were in the crowd. A few thousand Ecuadorians, school children (the best behaved and dressed I have seen in a while – I live in the UK!!!) and tourists lined up the square for a view of this colourful event and a glimpse of the President. The national anthem was sung with much pride – the look in their eyes and the smile on their faces spoke of a nation content and at peace! The President was there and so was the vice-President – after years of corruption and mismanagement, Ecuador seems to have a stable leadership – this is what the locals told me.
While in Quito try doing the following:
Soak in the Old City
Try not to miss a few museums
Spend some time inside the La Compania de Jesus Church – one of the best examples Baroque Architecture in Latin America
Get onto either the El Panecillo or San Juan hills for a spectacular view of the Old City
Visit the Mitad del Mundo (Centre of the world – Equator)
Try a run in the Old City at 6.30 am
Eat a proper Ceviche in an Ecuadorian restaurant
Drink the Ecuadorian Pilsener beer
Try to be here on a Monday – for the ‘Change of Guards’ and a glimpse of the President
Stay in the Casa Gangotena – right on the Plaza San Francisco
This is a splendid property that has been able to impress a very observant and ‘fastidious’ ex-hotelier. With 31 brilliantly appointed rooms, this is a very successful attempt at converting an old family home into a boutique hotel. A lot of thought and detail has gone into the facilities, including colour schemes, staff uniforms, ‘eye for detail’, menu planning, room appointment, amenities and overall quality. It does reek of a luxurious colonial experience!
The hotel located right where it should be – provides fantastic access to the city attractions and ever accommodating staffs (at all levels) goes out of their way to suggest options – be it a tour or a meal.
For those who love the hum of the city and want to watch the day unfold at the Plaza San Francisco from their handsome French windows, eight gorgeously appointed Plaza View rooms await! Believe you me, you can spend hours just watching life go by!
With Quito done for the time being, we hit road to Otavalo tomorrow morning – Otavalo is a small city of 50,000 people and is the most famous indigenous market in Ecuador. More from their tomorrow – if the wine doesn’t get the better of me!
I set foot in Lagos for the first time on a hazy January morning in 2011. The mist hung low and it was my first exposure to the ‘Harmattan’ blowing south from the Sahara causing the blur. Well wishers having cautioned me and many questions about my intentions of traveling to Nigeria fueled with the 419 scams doing their daily rounds, there was much trepidation to deal with as I emerged from Murtala Muhammad International Airport. But honestly it all ended there! It has been ten months off and on and a lot of traveling throughout this amazing country which brought me close to some wonderful people with fierce optimism, pride and the desire to forge ahead in their lives – no matter what the stakes are!
Welcome to Nigeria – proud people, good country and land of opportunity.
I have had close encounters with an agriculturist turned driver, grass root entrepreneurs, God-fearing hustlers, business minded Pastors, greedy expats, lonely Bankers, cheerful hawkers, reformed crooks, an ex-President, an esteemed academician, a well known technocrat, a confused chieftain, early morning joggers, bread vendors, innocent children – you name it – and there is one common trait they all share – Positivity!
Yet it is so difficult even for an ‘honourably’ unscrupulous businessman from the ‘ever-so-transparent’ Bangladesh to accept the beauty of Nigeria as a destination – and then ofcourse there is the inverted snobbery of Indian and Western businesses who consider the BRIC as their only destination.
Before I start sounding like on the payroll of the Nigerian Investment Promotion Board, my foray into the country had been purely to assess and advise a local company on their sales and distribution strategy – the rest we will wait and see.
Many investors and business people are aware about the opportunities that Nigeria’s market of 150 million people offers but are still unsure of whether to take the plunge. The sheer scope of my project has helped me to be exposed to various levels of the Nigerian society and today I had the courage to pen down a few thoughts that could answer some common questions I have been asked about considering investing in Nigeria. Nothing is sacrosanct, but you will definitely get an idea of what things are. Try these:
I want to get involved in the Nigerian market but am not sure about the first step to take. What is the best route to follow?
It obviously differs from industry to industry but it is highly advisable to find a Nigerian partner who knows the business environment. Nigerians are generally also more sympathetic to investors with local partners or staff. The next stop would be to visit the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC) where you will be able to get advice on investing in Nigeria. The NIPC has streamlined the investment process by setting up a ‘One Stop Investment Centre’. Many countries also have bilateral chambers of commerce that will be able to assist you. It is always a good idea to meet with other established foreign investors to receive some insight from their experiences in doing business in Nigeria.
The political situation in Nigeria has stabilised dramatically since 1999 but how can one be assured that things will stay this way?
As with all young democracies there is always a fear that the situation can destabilise at any moment. Although such a scenario is theoretically possible in Nigeria, it does seem that the majority of the population, including politicians, is sick and tired of struggling and really wants to see Nigeria work. The people are happy with the democratic gains made so far. Corruption is still an issue but this evil is gradually being rooted out; and in most cases should not be a deterrent for investment. Incidents of violence around election time are often no worse than in other developing countries. Nigeria also has a vibrant and firmly established free press that is not afraid to hold politicians and authority figures accountable.
The re-election of President Goodluck Jonathan is another positive in this direction.
What are some of the major challenges in doing business in Nigeria and how can they be overcome?
Many Nigerians would tell you the country’s electricity supply problems are the main hurdle in the way of meaningful economic growth. The lack of infrastructure is also a major problem as anyone who has ever been stuck in Lagos traffic would know. Bad roads and a lack of railway services also create challenges in moving goods around the country. Despite this there are still many highly successful businesses in Nigeria. Most investors are able to look beyond these difficulties when Nigeria’s massive market of 150 million people is considered. The infrastructure situation is however being addressed by the authorities and the situation is improving.
What are the implications of Nigeria’s electricity supply problems for businesses looking to invest in the country?
Nigeria generates less than 30% of its total requirement of electricity.When spending time in a Nigerian office or hotel, there are normally short periods every few hours when the lights and air conditioning go off as the building switches from the national grid to its own generators; or vice versa. Most businesses have generators running the show. The direct impact that using generators will have on your business is that it raises the cost of electricity and subsequently the prices of most products in Nigeria. On an average businesses spend 10-15% on energy. Foreigners are usually surprised at how ‘expensive’ Nigeria is. This situation has made it difficult for many local manufacturers to compete with cheap foreign imports. The federal government has however banned the importation of many products in order to stimulate local production. As with other infrastructure projects many plans are on the table to improve power generation in Nigeria.
Will I have access to a skilled workforce in Nigeria?
Nigeria has a number of good universities and other educational institutions which turn out many highly educated and skilled individuals. A large number of Nigerians also go to America and Europe to study and then return to Nigeria to apply their skills in their homeland. Although investors might have to search a bit longer to find highly specialized individuals in certain fields, educated and eager to learn Nigerians are not hard to come by. Because of its British colonial past English is well established in Nigeria and the vast majority of people are fluent in the language.
There is an abundance of enthusiasm in the workforce. Tapping it and channeling this enthusiasm to ones advantage is the real challenge.
How big is the Nigerian middle class and at what rate is it growing?
The size of Nigeria’s middle class is estimated to be 38 million strong and sales of consumer goods such as cars, fashionable clothing, air conditioners, computers and satellite television decoders suggest that it is growing at a steady pace. Nigeria’s economy is fast expanding, albeit from a very low base, lifting more people out of poverty every day and pushing many into higher income brackets.
Nigeria has a very young population with a median age of 18 and more than 60% of its 150 million people aged 25 years or younger. This segment of the population has become very trendy, with widespread exposure to Western lifestyles through the internet, satellite TV and magazines.
What kind of assistance can investors expect from the Nigerian Government?
The Nigerian Government has demonstrated its desire to grow the non-oil sector of the economy by introducing various incentives for investors and reducing bureaucratic bottlenecks. Although investors should still expect some red tape there is definitely a political will to increase foreign investment in the country. Generally the Nigerian Government, on federal and state level, will help investors out in the areas of land acquisition, incentives, infrastructure provision and financing. The situation however differs from state to state and investors should go and meet with the local authorities where they want to establish their business.
Will I have to fear for my safety in Nigeria?
Nigeria’s image as a dangerous and lawless society is vastly exaggerated. I feel much safer in Nigeria than in many other countries. As is the case with the rest of the world, Nigeria’s metropolitan areas have more problems with crime than the rural areas. Most crime is however purely a result of poverty. Foreigners have told me that although they sometimes experience crimes like petty theft they have never felt as if their lives are in danger in Nigeria. Incidences of kidnapping in the Niger-Delta area are confined to the oil industry where the local population wants to draw attention to the fact that they are being exploited by multinational oil companies – this area should however be avoided if possible. Visitors in Nigeria should just use common sense !
As a foreign investor, will I be accepted by local Nigerians, or will I be seen as trying to exploit the country?
Nigerians are generally very friendly and hospitable but also a proud people who don’t like to be trampled upon. Most are aware of the advantages of foreign investment in terms of job creation and economic growth. As an investor the key is to always treat people with respect and to behave like you are a guest in a foreign country.
NIGERIA – Some Facts
The Nigerian industrial sector primarily depends on oil extraction and refining. It employs approximately 10% of the labour force and accounts for 34% of the GDP.
• The service sector is also gradually emerging in the country. Almost 20% of the population is engaged in service sector jobs. This sector contributes 32.5% of the total GDP
• 23,982,200 Internet users as of December/2009, 16.1% of the population
• Nigeria’s population sits at about 150 million with about 38 million people making up the middle class. This market continues to remain upwardly mobile, which presents great opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors.
• The upwardly mobile Nigerian middle class is still avidly shopping for consumer goods. The recession has not dampened the needs and desires of Nigerians
• Nigeria will be the next “gold rush” on the continent as investors take advantage of a booming economy, according to former South Africa reserve bank governor Tito Mboweni.
• Nigeria’s gross domestic product would overtake South Africa’s in the next three decades, says Mboweni, who is now an adviser for Goldman Sachs Group. Its economy of $169-billion compares with South Africa’s $286-billion, according to World Bank data.
• Nigeria is targeting annual economic growth of 10% in the coming years and intends to boost spending on power plants and attract more investment. The government is preparing to sell its first Eurobond of $500-million this year.
• The collective buying power of households in Nigeria earning $1,000 to $5,000 a year doubled from 2000 to 2007, reaching $20-billion. Nearly seven million additional households have enough discretionary income to take their place as consumers, according to a report by consultants McKinsey and Co.
• Unilever Global chief executive officer Paul Polman recently announced the consumer foods giant plans to over 100-million Euros in Unilever Nigeria within the next three years.
• Polman says there is great potential in Nigeria despite the challenges in the business environment. Unilever plans to double its business in the country.
This is Suleiman – he makes a living out of portraits and passport photos of local traders in the Suleja wholesale market, Niger State, Nigeria. This market also has a regular footprint of buyers from neighboring villages who make Suleiman a sought after photographer!
Click here for a Nigerian journey through pictures of my travel into the interiors of the country – as a market survey project for FMCG goods the pictures portray various aspects of life and people’s buying habits. Places visited include – Lagos, Kano, Gusau, Funtua, Sokoto, Kebbe-Birnin, Katsina, Abuja, Suleja and Port Harcourt. All the pictures have been with my Blackberry and a very cheap and dated camera – so please pardon the quality. It is more about the pictures themselves and not technicalities!
Contrary to media reports and perceptions my experience was highly enriching and fascinating to say the least! Politeness, positivity, innovative ideas, smiling faces, diversity and a great zeal for life – not common in the Western world today, sums up what I encountered!