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Blog: WHC 2018: Chaîne des Puys

After two Referrals in 2014 and 2016 respectively, France will try once again to get the Tectono-volcanic ensemble of the Chaîne des Puys and Limagne Fault enlisted – probably already next year. It’s a natural site that covers a string of 80 dormant volcanoes and a parallel geological structure to the west that shows inverted relief.

Cloud cover over the Puy de Dôme

When I prepared for this trip, I opted to visit the Gour de Tazenat – an almost perfectly round crater lake or “mare”. But when my rental car plans fell through, I had to find a way into the core zone of the Chaîne des Puys by public transport. Fortunately its main landmark, the Puy de Dôme, lies just 15km west of the city of Clermont-Ferrand and I was able to catch a shuttle bus between Clermont-Ferrand and the Dôme Railway Station on the last day of the season.

The Puy de Dôme itself nowadays can only be accessed via the Panoramique des Dômes, a panoramic rack railway that covers the final km’s to the top. A return trip costs 12.30 EUR (in low season), though you can save a bit by riding up and walking down which supposedly takes some 50 minutes. At 10 a.m. I unfortunately found the Puy covered in the clouds. A temperature of -1 degrees Celsius was displayed at the departure station. Apparently it’s best to sit to the left in the train (for the better views), but it didn’t matter much this day as nothing was visible anyway.

Ruins of Mercury temple at the top

So what did I encounter at the top of the Puy de Dome? It was freezing cold indeed, the grass covered with hoarfrost. A strong wind was blowing as well, making any form of hiking a struggle. The clouds were so low that I could not see where to go from the upper train station. I just went uphill a bit more until I arrived at the ruins of the Temple of Mercury. This Roman temple was discovered when the scientific station at the top was constructed. They’re now trying to rebuild it – it is fairly large and it’s interesting to know that the Romans came to the top of this hill as well. The best thing on this day however was the adjoining exhibition room: clean, dry and warm.

Beforehand I wondered whether 1 hour and 10 minutes at the top would be enough (as that was all I had to be back in time at Clermond-Ferrand Airport). Well, I even had time for a 30 minute break at the convenient cafeteria next to the upper station. Around it there are many panorama viewpoints, but on a cloudy day there’s just nothing to enjoy.

A few more dormant volcanoes

So will it be third time lucky for the Chaine de Puys? Rarely have I read such negative reviews of a site by IUCN as these, and I guess they will continue to try preventing inscription. The Advisory Body’s opposition is based on two pillars: the high degree of human intervention and the comparatively low interest of the volcanic features on a global scale. The human intervention takes many forms, such as the antenna on top of the Puy de Dôme: “this entirely unnatural feature dominates the landscape and significantly and permanently detracts from its natural aesthetics”. Also active quarrying within the area must be stopped.

Regarding its volcanic features, “IUCN considers that the Convention should aim to list the sites that have the most significant scale and extent of natural values. Identification of the most significant sites in absolute terms, and not their "scale models", is the appropriate basis for defining Outstanding Universal Value.”

Published 18 November 2017

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Blog: WHS #648: Saint-Savin sur Gartempe

Saint-Savin sur Gartempe is a quaint French village with just over 900 inhabitants. It has a couple of hotels and restaurants, and as I was pressed into slow travel because of limited public transport options I found the place pleasant enough to stay overnight. I had a fine 4-course gourmand dinner at Le Patisson, the quality of which in such a small town provides at least one reason why so many NW Europeans choose to move to rural France. But of course at the end of the day I came just for its enlisted Abbey Church and its medieval murals.

The Abbey at the Gartempe

The next morning I started with a walk along the Gartempe river and across both bridges for some photos of the Abbey. Its size is remarkable for such a small town and it was fully included in the core zone by a minor boundary modification in 2015. Most of it though is from a much later date than the medieval murals that provide the site’s OUV.

Entrance nowadays costs 8 EUR, which includes a good booklet with explanations (without it is 1 EUR less). There's a large souvenir shop, where they even sell lollipops displaying the logo of this WHS. After buying the ticket one is directed first to the main Abbey (which features an exhibition) and the gardens, but these are mildly interesting to say it nicely. To get to the murals, you have to take another entrance: the front door of the church.

Candystick columns

At the church I was the only visitor. Upon entering the candystick-coloured columns definitely stand out. I know I’ve seen similar ones before – probably at another WHS, but where?

There are some paintings already in the porch of the huge gothic tower, where you enter. These include the Lady and the Dragon, with an especially fierce dragon. The uninterrupted strip of main murals is located in the nave, painted at a height of 17 meters in a semi-circle. The most famous painting is Noah's Ark, a crowded wooden boat with 2 copies of a few animals in front of the windows and several human passengers at the top deck. Most interesting I found the Tower of Babel - not really on scale, but you see people in elegant robes supplying stones to the builders at the top. And there’s also God introducing Eve to Adam, both looking like primitive cave people.

Tower of Babel mural

Getting to Saint-Savin by public transport is not an easy task as the schedules are mostly geared to daily commuters. The slow bus 103 leaves Poitiers 5 times a (week)day for Chauvigny, a town 19km away from Saint-Savin. Twice daily this bus connects with a ‘bus on demand’ for the final km’s, a service that has to be booked a day beforehand by phone. Otherwise you have to hope someone else did that already and you can ride along (I was lucky on a Thursday evening). As a last resort there will be taxi’s. There also is a second bus company, TER, covering this stretch – only a couple of times a day as well but they take a faster route and do not have to be prebooked. This seems to be the best choice, but I only found out about them on my way back.

Published 11 November 2017

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Responses to WHS #648: Saint-Savin sur Gartempe
Clyde (15 November 2017)

Sure :)

Els Slots (11 November 2017)

Thanks for your research, Clyde. I see a new Connection!

Clyde (11 November 2017)

After some research, it seems that the colourful columns are painted replicas of marble ones in The Santa Apollinare Church in Ravenna or the San Paolo Fuori Le Mura church in Rome.

The tecnique is called faux marble or marbleizing and has been used in Albi Cathedral, Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg, the Chartres Cathedral, the Pavlovsk Palace in St Petersburg, the Venus Room in Versailles Palace and many more whs for sure.

Blog: WHS #647: Bourges Cathedral

Bourges Cathedral was meant to be my 650th visited WHS – but after my biggest WH travel mistake ever I had to rearrange my 5-day trip to south-central France. I had planned to visit my last 4 remaining WHS on the French mainland plus 1 TWHS within that time-frame. The route involved quite a bit of driving, but it would all still be doable. My chances turned instantly when I discovered at the car rental counter of Clermont-Ferrand airport that I had left my driver’s license at home. No license = no rental car = no remote WHS visits. The Vézère Valley and the Pont d’Arc Cave would have to wait, and even reaching Saint-Savin sur Gartempe now would involve a minor expedition.

The west façade with its five portals

So I eventually ended up on a train from Clermont-Ferrand to Bourges. This area of France is not well-covered by public transport, and I had to wait a few hours to take the first train north. I arrived in the mid-sized city of Bourges in the early evening. The streets in the town centre were deserted, and the inhabitants seemed to be in some kind of voluntary lock-down: no lights visible from the streets, gates and shutters closed. After dropping off my luggage at the hotel, I went directly to the cathedral for a first look. It was beautifully lit.

The next morning I did a proper cathedral visit. I started with its exterior. You cannot fully circle it, but at the north and east wing there are two chapels that are worth a look for their sculpted decorations. The best decorations however are at the front (the western entrance). Its 5 portals are framed with all kinds of biblical and regional-historical scenes. These 5 entrances are in itself one of the special things of this cathedral: a 'normal' gothic cathedral of that period has only 3. I especially liked the heaven versus hell scene above the main door. Hell is portrayed particularly nasty, with little devils pushing unfortunate human beings into a flame-spewing mouth.

Into hell

The cathedral’s interior already is open from 9 a.m., and entrance is free. Only the tower and crypt have more limited opening hours (French office hours with a long lunch break) and require a fee. I wasn’t keen on climbing the tower, and the crypt was closed for the morning due to a private function. So I just ‘did’ the main cathedral.

Right near the entrance stands an historical astronomical clock. It still ticks and chimes nicely.

The stained-glass windows however are the main attraction. The cathedral has 3 rows of windows above each other, and all those windows are painted. At the back, in the choir, the oldest windows can be found. These are the 13th century originals. They let through little light and are mostly done in red and blue. The ‘newer’ (still as early as the 15th century) stained glass windows are lighter in colour and more translucent. Despite all these windows I found the cathedral still quite dark inside.

15th century stained glass

The original 1992 site description mentions that the designated area also includes “… a 13th century tithe barn, those elements of the 17th century Bishop’s Palace which survive as the Hotel de Ville, and the cathedral gardens in classical French style.” However this is not reflected in the official map, where the core zone only consists of the cathedral. As these additional elements are situated next to the cathedral I had a look at them anyway. The gardens are a good spot to take photos of the cathedral building as a whole – very hard to do otherwise. And the tithe barn is an interesting timber-framed storage or granary. In the Middle Ages it was used to store the church tributary (one-tenth of a farmers produce).

Published 4 November 2017

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Responses to WHS #647: Bourges Cathedral
Jay T (5 November 2017)

That's terrible, but at least it sounds like you were able to take lemons and make lemonade so that your trip to France wasn't a total loss. I hope it won't be too long until you can finish your last sites in France.

Blog: Favourite entrance tickets to WHS

During my recent trip to Ecuador I was pleasantly surprised by the entrance tickets that I received at locations within the Quito WHS. No photography is allowed within these buildings (they are mostly churches with lots of art), and a hefty foreigners entrance fee is charged. But in return I got tickets displaying the church interior’s main features; these are good souvenirs. It made me think about entrance tickets of other WHS - which ones were remarkable enough for me to save over the years?

Some of the glitzy Quito tickets

Especially in Western Europe nowadays one often gets nothing more than the cash register receipt. Or even no receipt at all – sometimes they just take your money and that’s it. At the Hohle Fels Cave of the German Caves and Ice Age Art I just had to drop 3 EUR in a plastic box. Another annoyance is when the ticket inspector keeps the (best part of the) ticket that you just bought!

I am not really someone that saves all kinds of memorabilia from my trips, but I have held onto some 15 entrance tickets from my Big China Trip of 2007. At the time, these tickets were glossy postcards displaying the WHS at their best. I went through them again last night, admiring those showing off the sculptured heads at the Mogao Caves and Leshan Giant Buddha. I believe the one from Huanglong – showing the site’s remarkable blue-greenish colours - stands out most among them.

Huanglong postcard-type ticket

South Korea surely is the most generous country in handing out free brochures at WHS, though the entrance tickets aren’t that special. When I visited India for the last time in 2011, they had special entrance tickets showing a couple of WHS together. The ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) became the issuing authority for a common entry ticket for all World Heritage sites in India - and they went for standardization.

Regarding the High Entrance Fee-sites, you’d expect a substantial and/or glossy ticket too. But for the 100+20 USD fee to the Galapagos you get nothing in return but a kind of immigration card. The 50 USD Rock Islands of Palau left me with a cute credit card sized ticket, with a turtle, the UNESCO logo and my name on it. Looking back further into my ‘travelling history’, the 3-day ticket for Angkor was no less than a personalized pass. And for visiting the gorilla’s in Bwindi you even receive a diploma.

A 3-day Angkor pass from 2007

I am wondering, what are the best WHS entrance tickets in your possession? Were the tickets 'better' in the past? Really, shouldn’t we get a ‘certificate’ every time we visit a WHS?

Published 28 October 2017

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Responses to Favourite entrance tickets to WHS
Durian (28 October 2017)

I love tickets of Kyoto’s Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji temples, these entrance tickets are not only just a ticket but a talisman for good luck blessing by temple priests. Simple but full with culture and meanings.

Clyde (28 October 2017)

I keep all the tickets and brochures from my visits even if they are simple receipts. I agree that China's postcard tickets are among the best. However, the standardised ticketing system in India only applies to the WHS close to Rajasthan as presumably they attract most tourists. I was expecting the same glossy tickets when I cisited central and southern India but only got handwritten ot printed receipts. The combined ticket of palaces and the Jongmyo shrine was among my favourite in a booklet format with the date of visit, pictures and summary info on each site.

Blog: Hoge Kempen Transition Landscape

Belgium is currently preparing the 2019 nomination for Hoge Kempen Rural - Industrial Transition Landscape. This is going to be proposed as a mixed site ánd evolutionary cultural landscape. It covers the Hoge Kempen National Park plus .. more. To me it’s unclear which locations will comprise the core zone, but additionally to the park the garden cities of Winterslag, Waterschei, Zwartberg and Eisden seem to be included.

Hoge Kempen and its industrial left-overs in the distance

The core zone will be centred around Maasmechelen, a municipality of 37,000 inhabitants known for its coalmining history. Maasmechelen nowadays also is well-known even across the border in the Netherlands for its Outlet Shopping Center (attracting over 2 million people a year): ‘Maasmechelen Village’ was constructed on the grounds of the former mine of Eisden.

I did not come to shop obviously, but to get a grasp of this potential WHS. For its natural values I prepared a visit to Hoge Kempen National Park. The park only exists since 2006, and commercial exploitation seems to be a big issue here too. There are 6 designated access points to the park, but most have been spiced up to include attractions such as dog parks, miniature golf courts or a planetarium. I eventually choose the ‘Mechelse Heide’. This is mostly heathland, where a few easy hiking trails have been laid out. I walked the 5.5km long blue route, which has distant views on a former sand and gravel quarry.

Sand and gravel quarry

The site’s natural value is geological: here you can find river sediments of the last Ice Ages – sand, gravel, pebbles. This is said to be the best-kept example of glacial formation effects from that period in Europe. I cannot really say that my hike brought me closer to seeing, let alone understanding, this. There’s no interpretation along the trail, and most of it goes through a rather nondescript forest. I was even less successful at another access point, Station As. Here I followed a short trail that should reach the wall of a former gravel quarry where you can see the different deposits since the Ice Age. No “wall” was found by me however!

It’s a long story getting from the natural circumstances to the cultural landscape, which is the other pillar of this proposed WHS. Due to the sand and gravel, the agricultural value of this area was poor and it was mostly used for keeping cows and sheep. However, coal was discovered in the ground and the area was quickly turned around into an industrial economic system. This system came with changes in the landscape (slag heaps etc), migration from other parts of Europe and specific facilities such as housing for the miners. It even became the subject of 19th-century, Western European landscape painting (a favourite spot for plein air painting). This broad scope is reflected in the proposed criteria for inscription, and I can already see IUCN and ICOMOS lamenting about the lack of focus.

Former Parish House in the garden city of Eisden

On my way back home I drove via the garden quarter of Eisden, considered to be the most beautiful example of the Garden City concept on the European continent. This is not exactly a neighbourhood with homes for poor miners’ families. Spacious villas and public buildings were constructed in a leafy suburb. They’re now often converted into restaurants (and even a casino), or are in private use so that it felt a bit awkward to stop the car and take photos. There are a number of pretty buildings though, such as the huge ‘mining cathedral’, the parish house, the school and the house of a mining engineer.

Published 21 October 2017

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Blog: Tips for travelling to Ecuador

In September I spent 2 weeks in Ecuador, my first visit to this country. I covered all 5 WHS on a self-designed tour around the country by public transport. The small Andean nation has its pros and cons – it is quite compact for example, saving one the hellish bus rides known from Peru – but it will not make my list of favourite countries in the world that I’d love to return to.

Find below my Top Tips for Travelling to Ecuador as a World Heritage Traveller.

Galapagos Frigatebird displaying its inflatable red throat pouch

1. The Galapagos is expensive but not prohibitive

I spent 560 US dollars to get ‘into’ the Galapagos – and from that point the costs for lodging and food are similar to those in Quito. This expense was split between 440 dollar for the return ticket from Quito (getting there from Guayaquil is slightly cheaper), 20 dollar for a kind of visa fee (“transit control ticket”), to be paid at the departure airport, and 100 dollar for the conservation fee to be paid upon landing. So ‘ticking off’ the Galapagos is cheaper than seeing for example the gorillas in Bwindi. The islands still feature though on our connection High Entrance Fees, where I have updated the Galapagos entry from 100 to 120 USD (2017).

2. Take your time if you want to do the Galapagos on your own

I spent 5 days/4 nights on the Galapagos Islands, and that was actually a few days too little. You'd want a mix between exploring an island by yourself and joining a day tour for those islands that are only accessible with a guide. Besides a bit of personal freedom, this also lowers the cost as the day tours are not cheap at about 150 US dollar. A good additional thing to do would be to take the ferry to Isabela, and stay for 2 nights so you can take day tours from there too. A thing to consider is also the season: I visited in late September, and that was already the end of the summer season so not all day tours were available every day.

At the market of Guamote

3. Don’t miss the Andean towns for their active indigenous culture

Landscape-wise I found the area around Riobamba the prettiest: think Andes mountains plus mega-volcanoes. And that’s where you’ll find the largest share of indigenous population too. Probably only Bolivia rivals the percentage of people wearing traditional dress compared to this region. I recommend to visit the weekly Thursday market in Guamote, where you'll get a glimpse into the life of a small Andean farmer.

4. Don’t expect great pre-Columbian sites

One of the reasons that I didn’t like Ecuador as much as I would have wanted, is the near-absence of pre-Columbian archaeological sites. Where Mexico and Peru are literally covered in them, Ecuador only has the modest Ingapirca. A great place to visit however is the Casa del Alabado in Quito. It is a private art museum with an excellent collection of pre-Columbian remains from Ecuador. It has mostly ceramics, and these are in great condition. It highlights for example the Jama Coaque culture and the Chorrera culture.

Human figurine of the Ancient Jama-Coaque Culture

5. Ecuador’s Tentative List needs some further exploring

At the moment of writing, Ecuador has a Tentative List of 5. The country hasn't been very active nomination wise - actually I have not found any evidence of independent action since 1983. Only the Mining town of Zaruma has been in the news a few times, and if I had more time to spend in Ecuador I would for sure have checked it out. The other 4 sites are a petrified forest, an Andean railway track, an archaeological site with the world’s first traces of cocoa use and a coastal tropical forest. Noone has ever written a review about any of them on this website, so there's some unchartered territory to explore for the intrepid WH Traveller.

Published 14 October 2017

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Blog: WHS #646: Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands don’t need a long introduction: they were among the first batch of inscriptions in 1978 (actually it was the very first on record) and they were also a shoo-in at our Top 200 WHS. One can ‘do’ the Galapagos either via an accommodated cruise or a self-arranged land-based alternative, which has become more feasible and popular in the last 10 years. For me the choice was clear quickly: to be ‘locked up’ on a rather small cruise ship for at least a week with strangers did not seem appealing to me at all. Also I am not a fan of daily water based activities like snorkelling and swimming. So I based myself in the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, the largest town on the Galapagos Islands.

Giant tortoise couple on the move at Santa Cruz

Puerto Ayora nowadays is a surprisingly touristy and affluent city. It isn’t unlike a Greek harbour town, with tourists milling around in the streets at all hours and daily departures of ferries to other islands. I had planned on taking two organized day tours from here: to North Seymour and Bartolomé. But unfortunately the latter got cancelled because of too few bookings. Instead of Bartolomé I eventually choose Isabela island. I spent the rest of my time on Santa Cruz itself.

Santa Cruz is far from pristine, but a good spot nonetheless to see certain species – in particular the giant tortoise. Probably the first stop for every tourist on Santa Cruz is the Charles Darwin Research Station. It is located a pleasant walk away from the Puerto Ayora town center, and you’ll see mangroves, birds and the tortoise breeding center.

The best place to see giant tortoises in the wild is in the highlands of Santa Cruz – you can already see them in the fields along the road between the ferry to Baltra Airport and Puerto Ayora. I went to look at them more closely in El Chato reserve, but on the way up there we already encountered one in the middle of the road amidst the fairly busy traffic of taxis, buses and trucks. The tortoises at the reserve go about eating their grass quietly, they’re wonderful to watch. They’re not particularly bothered by human visitors though they sometimes stop eating and look up. Also I found one or two hissing, a sign of fear or annoyance?

Blue Footed Booby chick at North Seymour

My first full daytrip went to North Seymour, an uninhabited island about 45 minutes away from the canal between Santa Cruz and Baltra. It's a small and flat lava island, known for nesting birds. Especially the blue-footed booby and frigatebird can be seen in large quantities doing their thing. There’s a 2km trail on the island which we slowly hiked accompanied by a guide. We saw many young chicks of both species, often on nests right beside the path. Of course everyone who visits the Galapagos wants a good picture of a blue-footed booby, and you must be a real bad photographer not to succeed. Especially this species is without any fear of humans and often hops closer to get a better look at the passing tourists. Their fluffy offspring, already quite big actually, did take my heart though.

My other daytrip, to Isabela, first involved a public ‘ferry’ ride of 2 hours (the ferries here are small speedboats that take only some 20 passengers). It’s a very bumpy trip but fortunately I had some seasickness tablets left from my trip earlier this year to the Azores. Isabela is the largest island of the archipelago, but I only had time to check out the area not too far from its port. Sleeping sea lions, occupying the wooden benches that must have been meant for waiting tourists, are a common sight here. I did a short hike on the island near two lagoons with flamingos, and returning to the port via a long stretch of beach home to hundreds of marine iguanas and lava lizards.

Marine iguana at Isabela

Beforehand I had bought the Bradt Galapagos Wildlife guide, and then I was already surprised that all of Galapagos’ flora and fauna fit into a 156 page booklet. Anyone who has seen for example the volume and density of a bird guiding book of let’s say Costa Rica will notice that the diversity of species at the Galapagos Islands is very low. During my short stay I saw almost all species of interest named in the book, many of them in large numbers and at multiple locations. Unfortunate misses included the green sea turtle (was seen by people snorkelling during my day trip to North Seymour), the penguins (due to the cancelled day trip to Bartolomé and me not making a real effort for it at Isabela) and the Galapagos hawk.

Published 7 October 2017

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Responses to WHS #646: Galapagos Islands
Jay T (11 October 2017)

The wildlife in the Galapagos is amazing -- I'm glad you got to see so much. It sounds like the seas were just as choppy for you on your ride to Isabela as they were when I visited in May. I didn't need seasickness tablets, but I did find it was a lot less bumpy in the back of the boat, which helped with the rough seas. Thanks for the great reviews of Ecuador's World Heritage Sites!

Blog: WHS #645: Quito

The City of Quito has been on the WH List since its beginnings in 1978. The Ecuadoreans were quick off the mark, with the Galapagos Islands also inscribed that year. From its foundation in 1534, the city always has played an important political, economic and cultural role in northern South America. During its heydays between the 16th and 18th century, numerous churches, convents, colleges and universities were founded. Still, Quito does not have the ring to it of Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires and isn’t a tourist magnet in its own right. Most people visit it as an obligatory stop-over on their way to the Galapagos Islands.

Street in the Historic Center

Nicknamed ‘Florence of the Americas’, the city is high on religious art and architecture. In the retrospective Statement of Outstanding Universal Value, much emphasis is given to the Quito School of Art. In this fusion style, indigenous artists executed Spanish religious concepts. It resulted in an extreme degree of ornamentation, with bloody displays of wounds, the abundant use of gold leaf paint and the substitution of traditional European natural iconography with local flora and fauna.

I started my tour of Quito’s religious buildings at the Cathedral and the Jesuit church, located in the street next to it. Both have in common that they are marketed as “museums”, and thus charge a moderate entry fee and prohibit any photography. They also charge different fees for Ecuadorean citizens and foreigners, unfortunately not an uncommon practice in Ecuador. However they do give you a very nice entrance ticket to keep. After you’ve entered the Cathedral and the Jesuit Church, you’ll know pretty well what the Quito School of Art entitles: lots and lots of gold-painted wooden decorations with a dramatic painting or sculpture in between. The Jesuit Church La Compañia even advertises itself on a plaque near the entrance as “the highest representation of Baroque architecture in the Americas”.

If you want to take pictures of this particular way of decoration, your best bet is the Sagrario Chapel which is adjacent to the Cathedral. Although this isn’t the most exquisite among Quito’s churches, it displays the gilded ornamentation well and the church is free to enter.

17th century Altarpiece in San Francisco Convent

The highlight of Quito for me was the San Francisco convent complex. It is huge, covering the whole block of a large square. Sadly this square now is inaccessible and broken up for 80%, because of the construction of the Quito metro system. Works will go on to 2019. Fortunately, the interiors of the monastery and its church and chapels are also very beautiful. The church is slightly lighter in atmosphere than the other churches in the city, and the gold-coloured carvings do not prevail.

Next to the church the former monastery houses a religious museum. They have an abundance of Quito School paintings, sculptures and 4 great altar pieces (see pic 2 above). I enjoyed my rounds through the museum, being almost the only visitor. Although there are quite a lot of tourists in Quito, they apparently do not enter its museums. I had the same experience the day before at the Casa del Alabado, where they show an unmissable collection of pre-Columbian art from Ecuador.

Quito School interpretation of Jesus

In all, the historic centre of Quito warrants a full-day visit. In addition to the sites described above, the City Museum (housed in a former hospital), the Dominican church (with its Moorish wooden ceilings) and the neogothic Basilica del Voto Nacional (with gargoyles in the form of local animals such as iguana and turtle) are well-worth visiting. Despite its steep streets the center is easily explored on foot. There’s police presence literally on every street corner, which may or may not reassure you. It all seemed quite friendly to me.

Published 30 September 2017

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Blog: WHS #644: Sangay NP

Sangay National Park is a rarely visited WHS in the central highlands of Ecuador. Only 17 community members were there before me, resulting in a 874th spot at the ranking of Most Visited Sites. That’s less than Zabid (Yemen) or Ilulissat Icefjord (Greenland) for example. It would be interesting to find out how the other visitors approached Sangay, especially before the controversial construction of the Guamote-Macas road. I did it the same way as the only other reviewer so far (Jay T): with a car and driver/guide arranged by Julio Verne Travel in Riobamba. They also advertise downhill bike tours along that road, and can arrange multi-day hikes into the area.

Laguna Magdalena

The WHS covers only about half of Sangay National Park: the most restricted area. When you drive along the Guamote-Macas road, you’ll be in the core zone for only 8 km. The map from 2009 at the UNESCO website clearly shows the road at the southwestern tip, plus a lake system called Lagunas Magdalenas right beside it. Confusingly, their popular name is the Atillo Lakes (named after the nearby village). The outline of my day trip was to visit these lakes and drive on all the way down the Guamote-Macas road to a town called 9 de Octubre, to see the landscape change from subalpine Páramo grasslands to subtropical rainforest (one of the key features of this WHS).

Driving up from Riobamba, the scenery starts with rich agricultural lands. The lava soil is nutritious. One of the main products that is created and transported from here is fertilizer. Other crops include strawberries, potatoes, cabbage and tree tomatoes. There are even numerous greenhouses, used for growing ‘normal’ tomatoes. The scenery only changes slowly after having passed the “Welcome to Sangay National Park” sign. There still are numerous villages almost all along the road.

Typical vegetation around the lakes

The lakes are located at 3,466m altitude. A cold wind is blowing here all the time. I only noticed one duck braving the water. We got out at the parking lot near the Black Lake, a separate lake from the Magdalena lake(s) – deeper and thus darker in colour. A small trail leads up to a hill top from the parking. We climbed it and enjoyed the views some more. We were so blessed with the weather today, even the guide was taking lots of pictures as it rarely is as clear here as it was this day.

There is so little traffic on this road that we could stop when and where we wanted. According to the guide, rangers still do spot wildlife along the road. The most sought after mammal of course is the mountain tapir, the mascot of the park. These tapirs (mountain tapirs and ‘normal’ ones) are called “danta” in Spanish, and we even saw a sign that we had to be careful driving because of danta crossing the road. Well, we only wished to see one! We had to make do with two vultures having a snack along the side of the road.

El Altar volcano

The three volcanoes inside the park – Sangay, El Altar and Tungurahua - are difficult to see from this side. Just past the town of 9 de Octubre there's a viewing platform which supposedly has good views - but it was much too hazy when we arrived around lunch time. In Riobamba, there’s always the Chimborazo volcano west of the park that draws all the attraction. Other snowclad volcanoes rarely come into view. From the road not far from Riobamba my guide pointed out El Altar, the extinct one that has collapsed and isn’t as pretty as the other two. I saw it again the next day from the road while I was on my way to the market in Guamote. Tungurahua should easily be seen from the north (Baños, or possibly even the road to Quito). Sangay however will stay a well-hidden secret to most travellers.

Published 26 September 2017

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Responses to WHS #644: Sangay NP
Jay T (26 September 2017)

I'm so happy you had good clear weather when you visited Sangay National Park! It's great to see more of the mountaintops around the lakes in your photos. Despite unsettled weather when I visited, I enjoyed my hike inland to the first of the other Atillo lakes, within the park's core zone north of the road; I would have loved to see some of the vistas you got to see, though. Maybe some day I'll get back. Hope you are enjoying the rest of your travels!

Blog: Ingapirca

The Inca road network Qhapaq Nan consists of many sections. One of these is called “Achupallas-Ingapirca”, and it lies in the provinces of Chimborazo and Cañar in the southeast of Ecuador. Like all other inscribed sections, it comprises a stretch of road and associated sites. Parts of the original path are still accessible: there is a 3-day / 40km long trail that can be arranged to cover it. I just visited one of the associated sites, Ingapirca.

Temple of the Sun

The Inca started to expand their empire northwards into Ecuador from Peru only from 1463. They met with a lot of resistance, notably from the Cañari people who were local to the area around Cuenca. The interesting feature of Ingapirca is that it is a mixed Cañari – Inca site. The Inca Túpac Yupanqui ended up marrying a Cañari princess, and the two groups reputedly lived together peacefully afterwards although they kept their own customs.

The guides that accompany visitors to the archaeological site identify themselves as indigenous Cañari, and they are happy to point out especially these remains. The Cañari worshipped the moon, and the remains of their Temple of the Moon cover the first plateau at the site. There’s an interesting communal tomb in front of it, with a vertical monolith on top. Here a woman of high social class was buried together with 10 other men and women who – according to the guide – were sacrificed alive. A bit further into the complex a rock with holes in it represents a Cañari “lunar calender”. The different holes were filled with water to catch the reflections of the moon for each moon-month of the year.

Cañari lunar calendar

Ingapirca is also the largest known Inca ruin site in Ecuador. The most significant remain of that period is the Temple of the Sun, an elliptically shaped building constructed around a large rock. The typical Inca construction style, that can be seen in the many sites around Peru, is also clearly distinguishable here at Ingapirca. Because of the type of local stones that they used, the temple has an attractive greenish hue.

There’s a stretch of Inca road next to the Temples of the Moon and the Sun that was identified by our guide as ‘Qhapaq Nan’ and part of the UNESCO World Heritage. It is maybe 50 meters long and does not seem to go anywhere in particular. The Inca incorporated their newly won territories in their road network often as much as a symbol of their strength, as well as a means for communication and transportation.

The Spanish arrived before Ingapirca was completed. They ruined it, and the site was only restored in the 1970s by the Ecuadorean government. Many stones that were stolen from the site and used elsewhere were returned. They still lay about at the site, waiting for a new purpose.

Inca Road

Ingapirca is an easy day trip from Cuenca. The Transportes Cañar bus company offers a daily bus at 9 a.m. that goes directly to the site (well, including numerous stops to let on or off locals of course). The ride takes 2 hours. The bus waits at the site and returns at 1.15 p.m. For me this was sufficient time at the site, but I did not wander around much because the rain was pouring and the small on-site museum was closed. If you want to stay longer, you can take a bus back to Cuenca via Cañar from the village just below the ruins. There are also a few basic lunch restaurants near the entrance.

Published 22 September 2017

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Responses to Ingapirca
Jay T (22 September 2017)

I'm sorry to hear it rained during your visit. I really enjoyed Ingapirca, and it makes me look forward to some day visiting Incan sites in Peru.

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