Mama Negra – pigs on crucifixes, local spirits and shaman healings

… local custom calls for roast pigs to be carried on wooden ‘crucifixes’ through the town, dead guinea pigs, bottles of whiskey and cigarettes are also stuck into the side of the carcass.

 

Latacunga is our last adventure in Ecuador, although we plan to stop just one more night in Quito before heading to the Colombian border.

For 364 days a year this town should be firmly off any traveller’s plans. Arriving from Banos, we pass through a grey, concrete suburbia. It’s not pretty, although towering volcanoes help distract, with many stopping off here for trips to the largest, Cotopaxi. We are here for one of the biggest and most bizarre festivals in Ecuador, Mama Negra.

Our depressive hostel owners told us there’s not much in town, not really any bars or restaurants and we would probably not get to see any of the festival as it’s so busy and a little dangerous.  Rubbish, we got there early (9am), found a great spot, bought some plastic chairs, some silly hats and awaited the mayhem.

The Mama Negra festival is a strange mix of Spanish-brought Catholic religion, local native belief in ‘spirits’ and a good old excuse for a knees up.  The festival is traditionally led by a religious effigy of the ‘Virgin de las Mercedes’ who it is said saved the city from the numerous eruptions of local volcano Cotopaxi. As with many religious fairy tales the fact is far from the truth, the town has been all but obliterated three times. Recently the festival has adopted the slightly dubious racial figure of a ‘black mother’. A local priest decided to cut back the free wine and food at the festival and was visited at night by a black lady who warned him of evil consequences.  Local men now dress as pantomime dames with blackened faces and dance through the procession. Hmmm…

If you didn’t think this was weird enough, local custom calls for roast pigs to be carried on wooden  ‘crucifixes’ through the town, dead guinea pigs, bottles of whiskey and cigarettes are also stuck into the side of the carcass. They must weigh a ton, many of the guys carrying them have friends following with a stool to sit down and rest every few hundred metres. Also in the crowd you can spot shamen who will stop you, brush you with twigs, prod you with deer antlers and then spit sugar alcohol over you, a spiritual cleansing.

Basically, it’s a bit of a piss up (excuse the language, but I feel it describes the event perfectly). As the procession goes past they feed huge amounts of free local-made alcohol into the crowd, and as it turns out, if you’re a tourist they really love to include you in the fun.  As it’s rude to turn down the drink, I was pretty drunk by 1pm.

That’s Mama Negra, you couldn’t make it up. There’s a video below that’s got most of the weird bits in it. It’s doesn’t quite show the mayhem and the crazy heat, but I don’t think you would have believed half of the stuff above if I’d not got it on camera.

Look out for the ‘tree people’, the old ladies with the hula-hoops and the worrying Ku Klux Klan types.


Banos – cleaning off the monkey poo

Banos is a great little town. A welcome respite from the jungle on our days off, it was nice to spend a few days here once we’d finished our volunteering, and get a chance to do something other than laundry.

Banos is a great little town. A welcome respite from the jungle on our days off, it was nice to spend a few days here once we’d finished our volunteering, and get a chance to do something other than laundry.

We stayed at the Hostal Chimenea on recommendation from the guys at Merazonia. I have to say it is one of the best hostels we have stayed in so far in terms of value ($8.50 per person for a private room with bathroom!), cleanliness and facilities (swimming pool and jacuzzi!). It’s close to the thermal baths too, although I’m slightly ashamed to say that we never made it there during our stay. I know, I know, coming to Banos and not going to the baths is like going to Bath and not going to the baths, but on the days that we were staying there post-jungle, it was a public holiday and the queues were horrific. We didn’t fancy squeezing into a pool of hot water with half of Ecuador and their kids. We promised ourselves a thermal bath and mud volcano visit somewhere in Central America.

Panoramic of Banos

What we did do though is treat ourselves to a steam bath at the hostel. For $4, you get sat in a wooden box contraption which covers your whole body except for your head, which pokes out a small hole at the top. Eucalyptus is placed in the box and steam pumped in. After you have been sitting in the box for about 10 minutes (and by this time are boiling hot), you get out of the box and wipe yourself down with a towel dipped in freezing cold water. The method for said wiping down is demonstrated to you by an old bloke with the most enormous moustache – first the right leg, then the left one, then the right arm, and the left, up the back, down the front – and if you don’t get the movements quite right, he stops and makes you do it again. Once you’ve successfully wiped yourself down in the correct order and manner, it’s back in the box for another 10 minutes and the next person gets out and wipes themself down.

The church from a distance

This getting in and out of the box is repeated four times – first wiping yourself down, the second time sitting in a bath of cold water, the third wiping yourself down again and pouring a bucket of cold water over your head and finally, being hosed down by moustache man. Seriously, I was standing there in my bikini whilst some old dude hosed me down with cold water and amazingly it didn’t seem seedy at all. In fact, he took his job so seriously it looked like he derived very little pleasure from it at all. Still, probably the best $4 I’ve spent for a long while – finally felt clean after the jungle and we all had a good laugh at each other too. Bargain.

One thing we did lots of whilst in Banos was eat. As we only got meat a couple of times a week whilst in the jungle, we treated ourselves once a week to the amazing steaks at Swiss Bistro, as well as their cheese and meat platters. We also visited with a bunch of people from Merazonia for a big group goodbye meal on the day we left, followed by a few rather potent drinks at the Leprechaun (it case you haven’t guessed it was an Irish bar), which was surprisingly nice, with a lovely outdoor area complete with bonfire. The bar staff were rather taken with Tessie, one of the Swedish girls that was working at Merazonia with us – I think her drinks were about twice as strong as everybody else’s!!

Swiss Bistro

Lunch was always had at the sandwich shop (no idea what it was actually called) which did huge baguettes for as little as $2, and there was also the awesome Arome shop which sells all manner of herbs and spices as well as chocolates and cheeses that will make your mouth water.

The view from Cafe del Cielo

We also visited El Café del Cielo, where you can enjoy spectacular bird’s eye views of the city, and if you’re very lucky, the Tungurahua volcano, an active volcano which erupted as recently as December 2010, leading to an evacuation of the city. On one of our days off here, the air raid sirens starting blaring at 10am. We wondered whether that was our cue to leave but apparently it was just a drill. Not sure how you’re supposed to tell the difference but the locals seemed totally unfazed!

Merazonia – living in the jungle with monkeys

For a month we lived at Merazonia, a rescue centre for trafficked and abused Amazonian animals, located on 250 acres of rainforest, in Mera, Ecuador

Back in Buenos Aires we decided we wanted to stay on holiday for a little longer.  So we started to look for somewhere we could camp down for a month or two around October, preferably somewhere nice on the coast, so that we’d hit Central America in December, just as the weather was getting good. Then our thoughts turned to volunteering – gap year kids are doing it all the time but are paying crazy rates (up to £1000 per month for the privilege) so we spent some quality time on the internet and found a great website http://www.volunteersouthamerica.net/.

Looking through hundreds of places, from childcare to building work, teaching to hippy communes, we compiled a shortlist of 10 places we thought looked genuine and where we would like to give a little of our time. We decided early on we were not interested in working with kids. We don’t mind children, I might even have a couple when I grow up, but other people’s kids can get rather annoying. I can’t speak Spanish that well so teaching is out, and after describing our history to a hippy commune (which we thought might be a giggle) they responded with a polite – “are you sure this is for you – dude?”

Mera, not a bad location!

Luckily the place at the top of our list responded in just a couple of days, and after paying a deposit to hold our place we blocked out the whole of October. We were to spend a full four weeks in the jungle at an animal refuge, feeding the animals, maintaining their enclosures and working on the land. Although very excited, we were apprehensive about giving up electricity for a month and getting down into the jungle. As it happened, we had nothing to worry about.

Merazonia.

Merazonia is a rescue centre for trafficked and abused Amazonian animals, located on 250 acres of rainforest, in Mera, Ecuador. After a quick meal in Mera, we jump in a local pick-up truck and bounce our way down a track, at the end of which is a bridge over a crystal clear river into the refuge itself. We have arrived in the middle of feeding time so the place is a bit deserted. A couple of volunteers rush out from various paths and greet us, show us the dorm where we will be staying, a quick tour of the kitchen and toilet and then they disappear back into the trees.

Morning in Merazonia

The place itself is far more comfortable then we imagined. It’s rustic, but homely, and the house (containing an eight bed dorm, a communal area, where we eat, and an attic room) sits aside a tool shed, a separate kitchen and bathroom are at the end of short paths. There is no electricity but the kitchen is far better equipped than mine at home and gas canisters provide hot meals and showers. The other volunteers are of various flavours – western, local, just out of school or running away from it all like us. All a nice bunch of people, I guess it takes a certain sort of person to come and do this. We settle in and that night have a communal dinner over candlelight, whilst realising that at some point we’ll have to prepare a meal for all 12(ish) workers on site, not something myself or Leah have ever done before!

Everybody at dinner time

A usual day starts around 7am although we actually find ourselves getting up a bit earlier to feed the resident dogs and have a nice cup of tea. The first feeding starts around 7:30, and each person is assigned a particular feeding round, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, depending on the task or the number of volunteers. When we arrive there are loads of parrots (some in quarantine), tamarin monkeys, woolly monkeys, capuchin monkeys, kinkajous and a puma on site. At first it’s a bit of a struggle to remember all the different food types each animals gets, but after a few days it’s almost second nature. Feeding is a mixture of great fun and hard work, it gets messy and there is no other option than to just get stuck into it, cleaning the cages, filling water and hiding snacks around the enclosures whilst being scrutinised by various critters. After feeding there is a small rota for cleaning jobs around the place, including kitchen, bathroom and washing monkey blankets!

Piga, the puma
Sam, the happy capuchin

During the day the volunteers work on various other jobs, from building paths, new cages or even just painting new stools to sit on, depending on the weather. On our first day we were fixing new chicken wire to the puma cage (so the live rats that we fed it couldn’t escape!) in the middle of a torrential downpour whilst being eyed continuously by a stunning big cat (above). Not your usual day at the office! I even found time to make a see-saw for the capuchin cage, although I’m sure it’s been torn to shreds by the little cherubs by now.

My monkey see-saw

A second feed takes place at 3pm, after which everybody takes a shower and changes back into some decent clothes (there is a huge collection of second hand clothes to borrow whilst there , which you need as you get covered in mud and poo!)

Frida

The kitchen became a bit of an obsession whilst we were there, I guess it gave us something to do after dark aside from play cards and drink rum. Leah quickly became pretty good at rustling up a meal for 10 odd people. As we had no refrigeration we only had meat on shopping days (twice a week) and as someone who religiously threw food away on the best before date, I quickly re-adjusted my hygiene levels and realised how overcautious we are back home. Milk, margarine, mayonnaise and eggs seem to do just fine out on the table top for days and days. I didn’t get ill at all, and the saying “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” was bandied around, although what might not kill us might leave us with a lingering parasitic infection to deal with later. Still, the food was great. Fat chance of losing some of the weight gained in Argentina here. We were baking daily, cookies, scones, cakes. We even decided to have a Christmas meal one Sunday with homemade mince pies for the heck of it, although the non-English-Irish there thought we were a bit mad.

After a few days we moved up in to the attic in the hut, as there was a double bed there and we were the only couple which made things even more comfortable. Once a week, we left in the evening to spend the next day in a nearby town, Banos, for our day off,  but were always keen to come back and get back into things.

Our attic room

We knew there would be various bugs and beasties around us, but nothing that evil. Mosquito levels were very low, spiders, beetles and moths hung around harmlessly. Occasionally we spotted weird things mooching around, like scorpion spiders, enormous earth worms, a tarantula or two, and on one lucky day a lancehead snake. These are labelled as the third most deadly snake in the world, with venom that can kill in around 20 minutes. He was a small chap and was hanging out near a cabin used by the volunteer coordinator. One of the volunteers chucked him in a bin and released him away from camp.

Scorpion spider
Freaky big earthworm

As for the resident animals, we all had our favourites. The capuchins were great fun to watch, and moving them in and out of cages for cleaning was a battle of wits, made even more difficult by a resident wild capuchin who would aggressively scream at us when he felt like it. The woolly monkeys were cute as hell, greeting us with one arm over their mouths and making ‘snuffling’ noises to say hello. Niamh, a howler monkey, was one of Leah’s favourites.  A young monkey, we would take it in turns it get up at 1am to give her a hot water bottle (always gratefully received), whilst cleaning her cage she would almost always initiate a game of tag, swinging around on the new branches we gave her every day. She was an easy one to win over with a grape.

Niamh, the howler monkey

The kinkajous kept themselves to themselves, being nocturnal, the only real sign there were six of them was the incredible amount of crap they would leave for us overnight. A small collection of tamarin monkeys were in cages around wild ones, with a very special one in the clinic. The poor thing had so many things wrong with it. We used to take a few extra crickets for her as consolation; she would go crazy at just the sight of the jar we used to capture them. There were also loads of parrots, some we grew quite attached to, we didn’t realise how much personality they have. Leah discovered this when a particular blue headed parrot took a dislike to her and would bully her incessantly whilst she was in the cage. Whilst sitting happily on my shoulder and cooing, even accepting a scratch, she would attack Leah continuously, and even left a few scars. I found this hilarious.

Malcolm

I must also mention the fantastic Mrs Guatin, a rat like thing that lived on the floor of the largest parrot cage. A favourite of most volunteers, she was totally tame and would greet us when entering the cage, occasionally running off with our cleaning brushes.  Leah found it very cute when she ran off to hide her grapes under a leaf.

Mrs Guatin

There were also three resident dogs, who initially were very nervous around new people but over time became friends (feeding and walking them helped!).

Puppy with the house in the background

It’s was not all hard work, the local jungle provided great walks (the area is around 60% primary rainforest) so gave us our jungle fix.  A nearby waterfall was great for a swim, although cold, the water was so clear. Evenings were spent chatting, drinking the local rum and eating, and more eating.

Waterwall, nice on a hot day!

There is so much more we could say. We loved our stay, the work was sometimes hard, but satisfying. We would recommend coming here to anybody, although would say two weeks is probably not enough time to really get into it, make plans for a month or more if you can. If we have the chance, we will be coming back, if not possible we will certainly be trying to help out from afar. The work done here is inspiring, and well worth your time and money.

There are loads more pictures of our time at Merazonia on our gallery pages click here.

If you want to donate, you can do so easily through PayPal here. From our stay at Merazonia we know that every penny goes directly into the animals’ welfare, join them on Facebook to catch up with the day-to-day work and you can see for yourself. If you even fancy giving a few weeks of your time to help out , email them at merazonia@mail.com

The day we left, a very sick adult capuchin arrived after being taken from unsuitable conditions in a family home (hope your finger’s healing Frank!). He has been christened Theodore and is yet another mouth to feed!

Theadore - Not a happy monkey
Theadore - Not a happy monkey ( pic from Merazonia facebook page)

Tena – white water rafting

Tena is a small, quiet town in the Amazon rainforest worth visiting if only for the trip on the bus. The views are stunning. We are only here for two days, a chance for us to break up the trip en route to our volunteering and also to try a bit of white water rafting!

Tena is a small, quiet town in the Amazon rainforest worth visiting if only for the trip on the bus. The views are stunning. We are only here for two days, a chance for us to break up the trip en route to our volunteering and also to try a bit of white water rafting!

The place is quiet, maybe it’s the time of year, and we had to get someone to find the owner of our hostel to open up for us. We felt a bit guilty as he was in a local restaurant having dinner! Tena is also hot, it’s rainforest after all, but cooler than the jungle we have visited recently. We arrived to watch an incredible storm in the distance, constantly lighting up the sky.

Town centre

We learned that only two weeks ago, after a three month drought and three days of rain, the local river overflowed into the streets. A few indigenous people who were living in basic huts on the banks outside of town died as a result. In response, the local mayor ordered the river banks to be dug up and a wall constructed, without any planning or investigation into its effect. From our hostel window we could see a digger in the middle of the river carving huge new channels and reducing the width by at least half. Never nice to see primary rainforest torn down but who are we to say what’s best when lives are affected.

Bulldozer digging up river

We spotted quite a number of international businessmen around town. This is oil and logging territory so we’re guessing they have something to do with that. Deforestation is very real here, we can see it with our own eyes on almost every bus ride. Anyway, back down from my tree-house…

Neither of us has been white water rafting before, and Ecuador has some of the best in the world. We book a full day, about four hours on the river with a company called River People. It’s actually run by a family from England who have settled here with their family. Their daughter is one of our guides as well as a local expert.

White water rafting

We had loads of fun, something new that we loved and will probably do again. The river was quite low so not as fierce as we expected, if you’re in the know – it was a Category 3+ river.  Finishing, we immediately decided we’d tackle a bigger river later in our trip, there’s loads of rafting places on our way up to Mexico.

The river

We had a little free time and decided to hunt for a swimming pool. A hop into the  next town, we discovered a bizarre hostel that boasted a large pool and tropical gardens. Off we went. At some point in the creation of this hostel somebody had the bright idea to build a penguin pool. It looked great, all white and looking like ice and glaciers and stuff. I’m guessing getting penguins into the rainforest didn’t go so well so they stuck a couple of ladders in and made it a swimming pool for people instead. Very, very, strange experience. While we were there, there was a film crew for the Ecuador tourist board. We were alone so if you ever see a couple of gringos splashing about in a penguin pool in a tourist film, that’ll be us.

More rafting

So our time lounging around sipping tea and taking pictures is up. Next stop it’s a short hop to Mera to start our volunteering. We’ve prepared by packing most of our decent clothes away in plastic (rumour is everything gets mouldy in the jungle )and charged all our gadgets to the brim.

Quito – exploring the city at last

Back in Quito after our many excursions, we decided to spend a couple of days soaking up the city and exploring the old town. First stop on the list was the teleferico, which the guidebook described as a sky tram but was actually a cable car.

Back in Quito after our many excursions, we decided to spend a couple of days soaking up the city and exploring the old town. First stop on the list was the teleferico, which the guidebook described as a sky tram but was actually a cable car. It’s around a ten minute ride to the top, where you can enjoy spectacular views of both the city and the surrounding countryside. If you’re feeling particularly energetic you can trek even higher, but we decided to content ourselves with the view from the top of the teleferico.

View from the teleferico

Back on solid ground and we decided to head to the historical centre. A leisurely stroll took in all the major sites including the Plaza Grande with the Palacio del Gobierno and the city’s cathedral, as well as other churches and monasteries. Having seen our fair share of religious buildings (and not being religious at all) we decided to give the tours a miss and instead opted to admire the beautiful architecture from the sunny exterior instead.

Quito's architecture

En route, we found an excellent little local café serving Ecuadorian delights including empanadas, tamales (a sort of mashed corn steamed and served in a banana leaf) and quimbolitas (a sweet cake made of corn). Very yummy and also very cheap.

Cafe Modelo

After lunch we visited the Basilica del Voto Nacional. Here, you can climb the clock tower for more stunning views of Quito. To get to the clock tower, you have to walk across a rickety bridge, climb an incredibly steep ladder, then, once outside, climb two more (open) staircases, both of which are equally as steep as the first one, before you reach the top. Having managed the bridge and the first set of stairs, neither of us was brave enough to make it all the way. Trust me, it was pretty hairy looking – I don’t think they’ve heard of health and safety here at all, and we weren’t the only ones to give it a miss. We did, however, still manage to get some great shots from the halfway point.

View from Basilica del Voto Nacional

They also have some awesome gargoyles, representing all the different Ecuadorian animals. Not so much scary as cute…

Basilica del Voto Nacional

That evening we sampled some of the Quito nightlife around La Mariscal, stopping for a few cuba libres at the delightfully titled Dirty Sanchez bar before settling down in the Irish bar, Finn McCool’s for the England-Scotland rugby match (being shown at 2am). At half time, we finally headed home to bed. By now, we’d been in Quito for nearly a week in total and were about ready to move on to Tena, the final stop on our trip before heading into the jungle for a month of volunteering.