Mar 16

A Month in Ecuador — A Travel Blog

Hatmaker in Sigsig, Ecuador

Hatmaker in Sigsig, Ecuador

A Month in Ecuador – Our Travel Blog

Introduction:  Our first pick for a South American vacation was Costa Rica, because it has a lot of ecological diversity and is well known.  Then we heard in the news that the President of Ecuador had granted asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.  This bold move made Ecuador stand out and we decided to spend our vacation there.  What follows is our travel blog, originally sent by email to a group of friends and colleagues.  It includes links to a ton of photographs. 

 

Friday 2/8/13

We arrived safely in Quito Thursday evening on schedule, after a flight that featured a sunset from 35,000 feet and an old-fashioned airline dinner. The landing had us holding our breaths as we came down through clouds and saw mountain peaks almost close enough to touch.

We stood in line for immigration and customs, and went through without incident, other than feeling a bit light-headed due to the altitude. Quito is at 9,100 feet, the second-highest national capital in the world.

Our friend Andy met us at the airport and we had a taste of the local traffic on the ride to our hotel, the Catedral Internacional, in the Centro Historico in the southern part of the city. This is a modest tourist hotel in one of a row of similar old houses built during the Spanish colonial period. Our room was clean, there was plenty of hot water for the shower, and lots of outlets to plug in our various rechargers.

Sheila had a bit of a headache and we both got easily out of breath due to the altitude, but got a good night’s sleep and felt OK in the morning.

Neither of our phones works here for phone calls, but we can connect via wi-fi wherever we find it.

Our itinerary postpones closer viewing of Quito for later in the trip. This morning we took off with our friend Andy and a hired driver for Mindo, a small town in the cloud forests on the western slope of the Andes.

On the way we stopped at Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the Earth), a kind of theme park devoted to the equator. There’s a monument with a globe on top, and a bright yellow painted line, and everyone who visits poses here straddling the line, or balancing on it, or standing on their heads.

Mindo is a more substantial village, which has become a bird lover’s and backpacker’s Mecca in recent years. We’re staying at a place up on a hillside not far from town called the Yellow House or the Hacienda San Vicente. A pair of sisters and their mother runs the place, and welcomed us cordially. We have a view of the valley from our room.

We took a short walk in the countryside here at dusk, and then took a “taxi” – actually a 4WD pickup truck – into town for supper. We asked the driver for a recommendation of a good restaurant and he diplomatically said there were lots of good restaurants in town. We chose one and were happy.

It is very quiet here in our cabin room. The voices of birds and the soft drumming of the rain on the roof are the only sounds.

 

Saturday 2/9/13

Marty woke up at 5:30 and took off in total darkness, flashlight on his head, up the hill toward the woods where the “bird trails” are. It was raining the whole way. Marty made it back in time for breakfast at the Yellow House.

An hour later, as we were sitting and chatting with the hosts, the house shook and swayed with an earthquake. It was no big deal where we were, over in a few seconds without damage.

Now we are sitting on the balcony with swarms of hummingbirds clustering around the feeders. We’re about to walk into town. Greetings from Mindo!

Photo Album, Quito to Mindo  http://goo.gl/xOu3g

Photos from Mindo:  http://goo.gl/AF26I

 

Saturday 2/9/13 continued

We walked into town for lunch. The driveway from Yellow House to town was dry enough to navigate and seemed remarkably short in daylight.

The central square in Mindo was filled with little kids celebrating a birthday party with those familiar inflatable bouncy-bouncy structures. There was a tent set up across half the main street, featuring local merchants of handicraft products and street foods. We checked it out but didn’t buy anything, in view of the fact that later in the trip we’re going to the giant handicraft market at Otavalo.

We ate lunch in a garden setting at a restaurant called Caskaffesu, and Sheila had vegetarian chili with a side dish of tomatoes; I had a bowl of chicken soup with cheese empenadas on the side. We sat and chatted for quite a while, and then, noticing that the sun had finally broken through, we got energetic and decided to go for a hike.

The Lonely Planet guidebook suggested a site called Tarabita. The taxi ride – in an old Hyundai 4WD wagon — to Tarabita turned out to be up a rough, rutted, muddy and narrow jeep trail alongside and over the Mindo river. The ride was an adventure in itself, as we passed oncoming jeeps by inches and sometimes came within half a degree of turning over, or so it seemed to us.

This area outside of Mindo is a bit like the Wild West, with roadside stands and a passle of operators offering all kinds of thrill rides down zip lines, bungees, whitewater runs on anything from kayaks to inner tubes, not to mention butterfly farms.

At our destination, la tarabita turned out to be an open steel basket with seating for four. It was suspended by a single wheel on a single overhead cable. Driving power came from what looked like an old auto engine with a pulley that drove a smaller cable attached to the bottom of the basket. You have to see this to believe it – I have pictures and videos up on the web, links below.

We climbed in and were whisked from treetop level to full flight maybe 200 feet above the river canyon, and then to the other side. It was a breathtaking two and a half minutes.

On the other side a set of trails presented a choice of seven different waterfalls to visit. We settled on the nearest one, which involved a sometimes steep and muddy descent from the heights down to the roaring river below. It was a challenging trail, but we were encouraged to see that whole families from baby to grandma were doing the trail, most of them Ecuadorians.

At the falls some brave souls got under the descending torrent and cooled off. We refrained.

After the hike back up, we returned across the canyon with the same thrill ride as we had come. Our taxi driver came back for us and drove us back to the Yellow House, where we had a good nap.

We then walked back into town for dinner. We chose a place called Fuera de Babilonia – Away from Babylon – on a side street. The owner, Guillermo Vaca, took our orders and then walked to a nearby grocery to buy the necessities.

The restaurant was ultimately more interesting for the craftsmanship invested in the building than for the food. The house was one of a kind, hand built with dadoed joints, diagonal braces, and interesting structural and ornamental elements. The owner also made wooden tables by hand. These were enormously solid pieces out of heavy local hardwoods, some of which would be worth thousands of dollars apiece here.

Marty came back to the house the next day to take some photos and these are up on the web, if you’re interested in unique housing construction and tables that are works of art. The maker is Julio Vaca, Tel. 088725390, Calle 9 de Octubre, Mindo.

Photos of the Vaca House:  http://goo.gl/azFB0

 

Sunday 2/10/13

After a restful, quiet night, we awoke to more birdsong, and our hosts provided a breakfast that was beautiful as well as nourishing. We met tourists from Canada, Switzerland, the US and Denmark there and had nice chats with them. The hummingbirds kept swarming to the feeders and Marty couldn’t resist taking more hummingbird photographs.

We walked into town for lunch and bought tickets for the bus back to Quito. It was a good thing we did because we got the last tickets on the 3 o’clock bus.

In the square, Sheila noticed that very few Ecuadorians smoked, and we checked it out and confirmed her observation. It was a holiday and lots of people, including men, were sitting on the square or on various stoops, doing not much of anything, and virtually none of them was smoking.

As an aside, Marty here noticed our first China-made automobile, an interesting looking small van. (See pix.) Since then we’ve seen several China-made auto dealerships with brands like Chery (a Chevy- inspired line) and Great Wall, among others. Korean brands are also common on the roads of Ecuador.

The bus was clean and in good repair, and the driver obviously knew the road well – he turned corners fast enough to almost roll the bus over, but not quite. Marty had to keep the window open to combat moments of motion sickness.

Sheila noticed that although there were quite a few babies and kids on board – Mindo seems to be a favorite weekend getaway for Quitenos – none of them cried or fussed. Generally, the kids we’ve seen various places seemed a happy, outgoing bunch, fun to watch, and we couldn’t resist taking a few kid pix with the camera.

The bus landed at the La Ofelia terminal in northern Quito. This is a new bus station, quite busy, sheltered, clean, and relatively easy to navigate. We caught a taxi through town to our hotel in the southern part of the city, where the Centro Historico lies. On the way we dropped off our friend Andy, the travel agent, at his home near the town center.

By the way, the photos from the past few days of a guy standing on his head in various places are of Andy, not Marty.

At the hotel we had our old room back. We ventured out on the street for the first time, looking for a restaurant. We found one near the Grand Plaza three blocks away. It was cold, so we chose chicken soup and spaghetti. Chicken soup seems to be an Ecuadorean national dish.

Album: Mindo and Back to Quito:  http://goo.gl/tBnN2

 

Monday 2/11/13

The next morning we did a bit more walking, up to the old cathedral to stretch our legs. Sheila tried to mail postcards only to learn that all official buildings are closed today and tomorrow for the Carnaval holiday.

We returned to the hotel and repacked our bags for the upcoming eight-day “Eastern loop.” The stations on this loop are Ambato, Banos, Casa del Suizo, Papallacta, and back to Quito.

The hotel desk clerk, a very helpful young man, called a driver for us who duly arrived in a small Korean economy car and took us to Quito’s southern bus terminal, which goes by the name of Quitumbe. On the way we chatted about the upcoming election. Our driver told us that things had got much better since Correa had come to office. For example, the highway from Quito to Ambato was now a smooth highway, where previously it had been a bad road. There were lots more schools and hospitals, wages had risen, and there were subsistence payments to the poor. True, the rich hated Correa because he made them pay taxes, something they were not used to doing under the old regime. But Ecuador today was a magnet for people coming from neighboring Peru and Colombia, and many Ecuadorians living abroad were returning home. He joked that in a small way, Ecuador was becoming the United States – a developed country — in the region.

The Quitumbe bus terminal is even newer than its northern counterpart. One wing shelters dozens of small booths selling hot Ecuadorian foods and sundries. In another wing the ticket booths are arrayed in regional order and we quickly found the line that goes to Ambato. The fare for this 2 ½ hour ride was $2.50 apiece, plus 40 cents for access to the bus gates. This line dispatches buses to Ambato every five minutes. The driver rushed us on board with our luggage and took off before we even got seated. A few miles later the conductor came and told us our luggage had to be stowed underneath. He applied a numerical sticker to each item, gave us a claim check, and lugged our bigger bag out of the bus and into the luggage compartment underneath at the next stop. My back pack we passed out to him through an open window.

This bus also was clean, comfortable, and ran smoothly. Outside, our eyes met scenery unlike anything either of us has ever seen before. This route is what Ecuadorians call the Avenue of the Volcanoes. On both sides, mountains with unmistakable volcano contours rose on the horizon. Clouds concealed the summits of most of them, emphasizing how very high these peaks range. You can read about them yourselves on Wikipedia or elsewhere, but among the peaks is Chimborazo, which is the highest mountain in the world, measured from the center of the earth. (The equatorial bulge pushes it further toward the sky than Mt Everest.)

The valley between these volcanic ridges is broad, mostly gentle, and green. The general layout is similar to the Central Valley of California, devoted almost entirely to agriculture, but here many of the land parcels are small, there is no central aqueduct, and the land is intensely, lushly green – so green that it looks as if Mother Nature produced it in Photoshop and leaned on the saturation button.

Inside the bus, in contrast to the uplifting scenery, we had to put up with the loud soundtrack of a violent American drug-gangster-cops film, dubbed into Spanish, which was showing on a TV just behind the driver. There was no way to turn off the sound. Before our next bus ride we will inquire about this issue and will not take another bus with this kind of annoyance. Apart from that the bus was fine.

The Pan-American highway was a smooth four-lane operation almost all the way. The bus did hit some rough road on a side trip to the town of Latacunga, and we were glad to be back on the highway. We were the only tourists on this bus.

Ambato has an interesting layout. Much of the northern part, as we drove through it, seems to be built in the crater of a large volcano. The town has almost no structures from the colonial period. It was completely destroyed in a devastating earthquake in 1947, so practically none of the buildings in town are older than we are.

At the terminal, we collected our bags without problems and caught a taxi from the bus terminal to our hotel, the Emperador, in the center of town. The streets were thronged. After stowing our bags in the hotel, we headed for the streets.

At a square just catty-corner from the hotel, there was a crowd making a circle around a couple of comic performers with a dog. It was corny stuff and you’ve seen better, but it was funny in a good-natured way and the crowd loved it. Marty took some videos.

We walked a couple of blocks to another square, in front of the cathedral, where an Andean band and dance troupe were performing. The front of the cathedral had a colorful display which a close-up with the camera lens revealed to be made of fruits and flowers.

In Ambato, after all, the Carnaval is called the Festival of the Fruits and Flowers, which is what we came for. The square also featured a display of local art and handicrafts, and various vendors hawked local produce. We took more pictures.

As darkness fell, we got hungry, and a local person steered us to a block-long Mercado Modelo building a few blocks away. In this big space many dozens of vendors of fruits, vegetables, meats, fish and other foods held sway on the ground floor.

Our attention was drawn to a small booth in a corner that was selling big chunks of brown sugar. About the size of volleyballs, these consisted of boiled and caramelized sugar cane juice. A Quechua woman in her traditional dress, and a young girl, agreed to be photographed with Sheila in front of the booth.

Upstairs in this market was an area about the size of a basketball court devoted to Ecuadorian traditional food. Literally dozens of vendors, each with a small booth, a counter, and a handful of chairs, cooked up big bowls and plates of dishes that crowds of locals eagerly devoured. We found two momentarily empty stools at one such booth and ordered chicken soup. Sheila’s bowl contained a whole leg; Marty’s had a big chunk of breast meat. Each bowl was easily a meal in itself. The total bill for both of us: $3.00.

Did we mention that Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its national currency? This is a debatable proposition from the standpoint of political economy but it unquestionably makes life easy for the U.S. tourist.

After dinner, Sheila returned to the hotel to chill. Marty was intrigued by a carnival parade scheduled to start in the upper part of town at 7 pm. Finding it was just a matter of going with the flow of the crowd. At the top, where thousands of people already lined both sides of the Bolivarian avenue, a cop advised that the best place to watch was further uptown, so I walked and walked until I spied a handful of empty plastic chairs by the side, which on inquiry were unoccupied, and sat and waited.

Hundreds of vendors came by to work the crowd with offerings of every conceivable local delicacy and toy. A few offered cigarettes, but I saw not one person in the crowd smoking. A wit behind me, growing impatient with waiting, quipped that this was actually a parade of vendors.

Shortly before 8 it began to sprinkle a bit, and vendors showed up offering sheets of plastic for 50 cents, followed by others offering plastic ponchos for a dollar. I invested in a poncho, and good that I did. At about 8:15 all the vendors who had worked their way uptown came streaming downtown as if fleeing a dragon. Then came a battery of police cars with lights flashing, followed by a row of what looked like soldiers, arms linked from one side of the street to the other, clearing the way.

Then came the actual parade, and with it came the rain. The skies opened up and it poured. Elaborate floats adorned by beauty queens and other performers proceeded onward in the downpour, undaunted. The beauties in their bathing costumes put on determined faces, managed brave smiles, waved at the umbrellaed multitudes, and kept to their appointed stations. Dancing troupes on the ground went through their paces with soaked costumes, but undeterred.

Ambato came recommended, in addition to its pride of fruits and flowers, because it is the only town in Ecuador where during Carnaval it is not the custom to batter people with water balloons. Water balloons are verboten here, and in fact we saw none. Of course, in this downpour they would have been redundant.

What we were not told is that the custom of spraying people with foam, out of pressurized cans called carioca is alive and well in Ambato. The foam cans cost a dollar for the small cans and two for the king-size. We saw lots of kids having foam fights. We got lightly sprayed ourselves – no harm done.

At the parade, the foam cans were everywhere. Some folks in the watching crowd thought it was amusing to pelt the performers, who were already drenched with the downpour, with barrages of foam. Marty thought that was a bit unfair, and the performers didn’t look amused. But that’s the way it was.

All in all, the parade with its rain – perhaps especially because of the rain, the way the downpour brought out the spirit of bravery and tenacity in the performers – was a memorable experience. When we return to the US, Marty intends to splice the various bits of video from the parade together into a piece for YouTube.

There’s more Fruits, Flowers and Foam tomorrow in Ambato. Stay tuned, if this stuff interests you.

Photo Album:   Quito to Ambato http://goo.gl/tHI5V

 

Tuesday 2/12/13

After a delectable buffet breakfast in the hotel, went to see the flower show at the Provincial Museum. Got there early and avoided the crowds that formed long lines outside the door yesterday.

A statue of the Queen of Ambato, 15 feet tall, dominates the interior courtyard. Her skirt is made of many hundreds of roses and other flowers. Smaller flower displays surround her, and the railing on the balcony is a solid garland of blooms.

Other rooms of the museum contain oil paintings by modern Ecuadorian artists, some with traditional landscape themes, some abstract or conceptual. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed in those rooms. Marty did sneak one photo in a room filled with understated artwork composed on coca leaves by Marcia Chauca, marciachauca.com, which was lovely.

The same museum also had a room devoted to an indigenous people that settled in the area about 11,000 B.C. and developed the custom of burying the female dead with pottery and other objects. Only the pottery remains of this civilization.

I briefly checked out the local Science Museum ($1). This has hundreds of stuffed birds, mammals, etc. jammed together in unappetizing displays. I guess when your ecosystem has so much diversity, you will tend to have crowded museum exhibits. This could use updating and modernization.

More interesting was displays of Inca and pre-Inca pottery. There was also a wall of landscape photos from 1904-1911, showing the area’s famous peaks before volcanic eruptions and climate change took hold.

Oddly enough, the city does not appear to have an exhibit devoted to the quake that destroyed it in 1947.

Also briefly visited the new Cathedral, built after the 1947 quake. Its clean, simple lines were a welcome relief from the ornamental overkill of the surviving cathedrals from the colonial period.

We lunched at the hotel. In the afternoon we managed to squeeze into the closing performance of an International Folkloric Fair in the nearby theatre of the Polytechnic University of Ambato. The sizeable auditorium was so packed we ended up sitting on the stairway. There are photos and there will be videos posted.

After the performance we went looking for swimming goggles for Sheila. These are called “gafas para nadar” and after several failures we found them at a Chinese variety store next to one of the downtown parks. Yay!

Ambato has been great fun. We’re a bit exhausted, but we’re heading tomorrow into the land of thermal baths and massages in the town of Baños. Stay tuned.

Thanks to the several of you who have written with comments. We read them and appreciate them. Best, Marty & Sheila

Album:  Ambato Festival http://goo.gl/ntiUh

 

Wednesday 13 February 2013

On our last morning in Ambato we took a walk along the Ambato River. This involved a steep downhill street followed by a staircase to a trail that sloped gently down to the brown, muddy stream. Now that the Festival of the Fruits, Flowers and Foam in Ambato was over, the sun came out. Cows grazed along the trail. There was a new-looking bridge about a half mile along, and we crossed over to the riverside trail on the other side. Soon we got so warm that we shed our jackets. Signs along the trail asked users to respect it and care for it. Effort had gone into planting trees and landscaping, and there was virtually no litter.

After a steep climb back into the city, we headed for the office of the Ministry of Culture, which was in charge of the Festival. We wanted one of the posters that advertised the event. One of them was taped to the wall inside the building lobby.

The woman in the bookstore on the ground floor did not know where a poster was to be had, and sent us upstairs one flight. There we found an art museum, and its curator, a woman about our own age, listened to our wishes, gave it a moment’s thought, and said, “Come with me” (in Spanish).

We followed her back down to the ground floor. With her fingernails she undid the scotch tape that held the poster to the wall and took it down. “It has to come down anyway, the event is over,” she said. We went back upstairs and she rolled the poster and gave it to us with a smile, inviting us also to visit the art museum.

She explained that there was no entry fee for the art museum because it was supported by the state and everyone was welcome. We spent a few minutes and were very impressed with the quality and diversity of the work, much of it done by contemporary artists living in Ecuador today. It is a shame that this work is not (yet?) displayed on the web.

On the way back to the hotel, we saw a team of workmen disassembling the display in front of the cathedral. The Festival was truly over.

We wished we had more time to explore Ambato. We saw very few tourists during our stay, and spoke with none. Ambato put on an outstanding show for the Festival. We felt privileged to be among the early birds who saw Ambato’s potential as a destination before it is “discovered.” The city is making a concerted effort to attract more tourists, and we endorse that project. We were treated very kindly and cordially by everyone we encountered, and experienced no problems whatever.

From the hotel we took a taxi to the bus terminal on the outskirts of town where the buses leave every ten minutes for the town of Baños, an hour away. The taxi driver put us at the bus stop on the highway, where a crowd of local people were waiting. The first bus for Baños pulled up in a minute, but was full. The next one came a few minutes later and we found seats. The conductor opened the luggage compartment at the side of the bus for us and we stowed our bags there. We paid on board, $1 each. There was pleasant local music on the bus’s PA system. The ride, on a smoothly paved road, was uneventful. We oohed and aahed at some of the scenery: steep mountainsides, cloudy peaks, deep valleys. We arrived at the Baños bus station and reclaimed our bags without problems.

A taxi took us up a steep paved road up to the Luna Runtun hotel, which sits on the edge of a steep hillside twelve hundred feet above the town. Our room was lovely, spacious, airy, decorated with bouquets of roses. There were some small annoyances, but eventually we ambled up to the pools. These are located at the edge of a cliff and have spectacular vistas of the valley and the mountain range on the other side. These are pools with a view.

We soaked in the hot pools for hours and got relaxed. What a wonderful location this is. The dramatic dark clouds moving in added to the spectacle, but foretold a night of rain, which began shortly after dark. With our rain gear on, we walked the few steps to the restaurant. The dinner buffet exceeded our expectations. Sheila, a vegetarian, found selections to make her happy, as did Marty, the omnivore. The buffet did not fall short on desserts, either. We lingered until after closing hour. And then to bed.

Album:  Ambato to Baños  http://goo.gl/vjBTq

 

Thursday 14 Feb 2013

The rain let up not long after daybreak, but the whole area was socked in fog. We relaxed in the hot tub until it was time for our massages. Ah, yes, vacationing is hard work! Sheila had a facial after the massage and posed for a photo with the goop on her face and two slices of cucumber over her eyes. The treatments were excellent and considerably less expensive than back home.

We had only booked one day at this place, so after the massages we grabbed a cab back down the hill into the town. Our agent and friend, Andy, booked us into a place called Posada del Arte (Inn of the Arts), in a good location near the base of the cliff at the foot of the Tungurahua volcano, yet within easy walking distance of the cathedral at the center of town.

Two Americans, Jim and Marshia, own this inn, which is filled with original artworks of contemporary Ecuadorian painters. Jim and Marshia were very helpful with advice.

We ambled through the town at dark. The cathedral is famously lined with paintings that claim to depict miraculous rescues that occurred when the victim appealed to the Virgin.

Outside the church, a trio of young women performers had a circle of onlookers mesmerized with torch waving and flaming hula hoop acts. We cruised the streets at the center with their dozens of restaurants, ice cream shops, and little stores of every description. At one point we got lost, but a local woman gave us directions that got us back on track. We’ll stay only one night here, then tomorrow we’re off into the rainforest.

Album: Luna Runtun and Baños  http://goo.gl/DPvOk

 

Fri 15 Feb 2013

After a good breakfast at the Posada del Arte, we walked into town to take care of four essential errands: Buy bus tickets for our next destination, buy a pair of light sport pants to replace the pair Sheila inadvertently left at her mother’s in Ft. Lauderdale, mail a postcard, and get cash.

The bus terminal is at the other end of town, a walk of 15 minutes. We found the bus line office easily enough and bought three tickets to the town of Tena. Three, because we had been advised that for security reasons we should buy a seat for our luggage. We were getting off at Puerto Napo, a half hour before the bus’s final destination, and we didn’t want to take chances.

By luck, we found a pair of sport pants that fit Sheila in a small clothing store. They were very similar in style and quality to the model Sheila had bought at REI. The owner did not have a dressing room but took us half a block away to a store owned by his wife, he said, which was staffed by his daughter. We bargained with him over the price but only got him to go down two dollars. He argued that all merchandise made outside of Ecuador was very heavily taxed and he would be giving the pants away at the price we offered. We didn’t argue very hard; we were glad to find the pants at all.

The owner insisted, however, on a five percent surcharge if we paid via credit card. We heard this also from the owners of the Posada del Arte inn, and from others. The credit card companies take a serious bite out of the merchant’s receipts, thus the surcharge. An ATM, the store owner pointed out, was just up the block, visible by the neon yellow vest of the cop who was guarding it. (We saw several other situations where cops were stationed in front of ATMs.) Marty slid the debit card from his credit union into the ATM slot and held his breath. Miracle! In seconds, we had the money, and there was no ATM bite taken out. So armed, we paid the store owner and took the pants.

A first inquiry for the post office – oficina de los correos – got us close, and a second inquiry with a policeman standing by the park got us to the spot. It costs two dollars to send a postcard via airmail to the States.

With our errands done, we bought a sandwich at one of the numerous shops along the main drag, collected our suitcases from Posada del Arte, and headed back to the bus terminal to await the bus. The bus was late.

During the wait, Marty had a chance to chat with one of the bus company employees and a knowledgeable customer. They said that the chassis for the buses, including the drive train, came from Japan (Hino brand) but that the body and interior were made in Ecuador.

We have also seen some buses that appeared to come from Spain. Most of the taxis that we’ve been in were Huyndais.

When the bus came, the driver didn’t like the idea of luggage taking up a seat, but understood our concern, and set the luggage on a space directly behind his seat. He assured us it would be safe.

The first leg of the bus route was from Baños to Puyo. This is almost entirely downhill. Baños is in the Andes; Puyo is in the Amazon. This ride passes by a dozen highly recommended waterfalls, and is supposed to be a popular bike route, but today, after a few sunny morning hours, the rain moved back in and the route was in rain and haze all the way. To our comfort, the bus driver drove very cautiously and we never had a moment of anxiety. However, this bus line, like the line from Quito to Ambato, showed an American shoot-em-up movie dubbed into Spanish, with the sound track on the speakers throughout the bus. They need to move up to the airline level where you can listen with earphones, if you want to. Or not!

After Puyo, which our bus bypassed, the road basically leveled out and we headed north in an area that featured sugar cane plantings, cattle ranges, and a lot of marshy places. Most of the land on both sides of the road had been cleared and worked over, probably several times, and the trees were scattered, with few imposing specimens.

As we headed north, the skies cleared and the roadway dried, which was a good thing for us, considering what came next. After a ride of almost exactly three hours, the bus stopped at Puerto Napo. Our neighbors in the seats to our right told us it was our stop to get off, and the bus conductor gestured to us to come forward. The driver handed us our luggage, safe and sound as promised, and we climbed down to the ground.

We had thought that possibly Puerto Napo, being on the map, might have some houses, but all that met our eyes was a bridge, a billboard, a bus stop, some thatched huts in the distance, and the river. We still had 30 km to go to reach the river port of Ahuano where we were to catch a canoe to our destination.

We were not prepared for the challenge of this next leg of our journey. A gentleman who was sitting some distance away walked up to us and kindly offered to call a taxi on his cell phone. We thanked him but waited for the bus.

Marty walked over to the thatched huts, where some humans were visible, and spoke with two old women who said the bus to Ahuano normally came every half hour on the half hour. That gave us fifteen minutes to wait.

A young boy, Alex, aged 8, came to wait for the same bus. Sheila conversed with Alex in a mix of broken English and Spanish, and found out about the boy’s life in school and in the village.

A woman in her 30s also came to the bus stop, waiting for her ride. We all got into a bit of conversation. But, well past the half hour, there was no bus. Three taxis passed us, filled up with people. When the fourth taxi passed, empty, we gave up on the bus and flagged him down. He was hesitant at first; he had a delivery to make – a giant trophy, more than three feet tall, for the women’s basketball championship – but after a bit of a chat we worked it out that Marty would ride in the front and hold the trophy, and Sheila would sit in the back with the luggage.

The map at this point shows two roads running due east in parallel on opposite sides of the Napo River. Our destination, Punto Ahuano, is on the southerly road, but our driver chose the northerly option, advising that it was a faster road, and that there was another bridge further on where we could switch to the southern road. We flew at the speed of a local driver until we reached the village of Nissahuali (sp? ), which looked like a lively river beach resort where the central square reputedly featured monkeys.

At this town there was indeed a bridge across the river, of considerable antiquity. It was barely wide enough for one car, and the local etiquette was that only one car at a time could cross. So we waited for the car ahead of us to reach safety, and then we proceeded. The sun was setting in an orange blaze to our right, and a flock of white birds flew up the river as we approached.

The remaining bit of road to Ahuano surprised us for its newness. The driver didn’t like it because it had rumble strips and speed bumps every few miles, to slow people down. We also saw lines of heavy trucks that were working or had been working on a brand new airport that was going in a few kilometers from Ahuano. There was even a bike lane from the airport turnoff to Ahuano.

After a slight downhill and a bend, the pavement suddenly stopped, and we were at the river’s edge. Two shacks that looked like they sometimes housed restaurants stood above a slope of round river rocks fading into the brown water.

The sun had set. But our taxi driver had phoned ahead and made sure that a canoe and driver would be present to take us the rest of the way. Our driver was one in a growing line of Ecuadorians who have been helpful and kind to us.

The boat man nosed his canoa onto the rocks, heaved our luggage into the front of the vessel, and helped us climb in, after putting on life vests. We sat. The vessel was perhaps a bit over three feet wide, not much more than two feet deep at the gunwales, and about twenty feet long. An outboard motor provided the power.

We took off in the growing darkness on the Napo River, a major tributary of the Amazon. You could stay on this river and eventually come out in the Atlantic Ocean. We reached over the side and tested the temperature of the water; it was cool but not cold.

After a ride of about 20 minutes we approached the silhouette of buildings on shore, and the boat man nosed the craft onto the rock bank. We got out, lumbered across the round river rocks, and lugged our bags up a few steps of the stairway that greeted us. The river front was dark and no one saw us arrive.

We climbed a considerable length of stairs and eventually approached electric lights, which turned out to surround a blue swimming pool of crystal clear water, and beyond that a reception desk with people. They were surprised that they hadn’t been notified of our boat’s arrival, but they had our reservation, sent an employee to fetch our bags, and we were soon in our room. This was a spacious area with a gabled ceiling, two gigantic beds, a porch with a hammock, a bathroom with double sinks, an overhead fan, all very clean.

We had been on the road since 2 pm; it took longer to get from Baños to Casa del Suizo than to fly from Miami to Quito. However, our trip today had been an adventure. A bus, a taxi, and a canoe. From the Andes into the Amazon. We were elated. Best of all, we were in time for dinner!

Casa del Suizo, it turns out, runs a little bit like a summer camp. Dinner was served from 7:30 to 8:30 pm, breakfast from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., and lunch from 1:30 to 2:30. There are activities every day. At dinner we saw that the place was fairly filled up. Most of the people there spoke Spanish and the ones we met were Ecuadorian. There was also a group of what looked like professors from Switzerland, and another group of international election observers. (Sunday is the national election here.) The management staff also conducted business in rapid Spanish.

Album: Baños to Casa del Suizo  http://goo.gl/6nXmi

 

Friday 16 Feb 2013

Marty’s limited grasp of the idiom became clear this morning after breakfast when we set out on a trip to an animal rescue project up the river a ways. This was to be followed by a ride down the river in inner tubes. Undoubtedly the nice young lady at the reception desk had explained to Marty that the visit to the animals would be followed by river tubing and that this, ahem, required the wearing of bathing suits, but Marty missed that part.

Result, when it came tubing time, our intrepid norteamericanos remained sitting in the canoe while the rest of the group, more fluent, floated down the waves on inner tubes. We can report that none complained of piranha bites or cayman attacks and all were recovered safely.

The animal visit brought to our attention the difficult situation of rainforest wildlife in this era. Much of the native fauna, notably the capybara, is said to be excellent eating. The indigenous people who live not far may have struck a balance between their appetite and nature’s reproductive capacity, but the encroachment of what calls itself “civilization” has tilted the playing field against the edible and/or vendible species. The project we visited, which is privately funded and staffed by volunteers, aims to rescue what can be saved.

What we saw was basically a zoo in the jungle. Injured birds, animals seized from illicit exporters, abandoned young ones, and other victims were fed and cared for here, with the aim of eventually releasing the able-bodied, or their offspring, back into the wild.

It was particularly painful to see the beautiful wild cats in cages. They were in the jungle, but not of the jungle.

We saw spectacular toucans and varieties of parrots that had been abandoned or mistreated pets, or injured.

There were also some wild capuchin monkeys and parrots who hung around the complex to cadge free food.

The project was also a busy schoolhouse, educating thousands of visitors a year about the difficult situation facing rainforest animals. Marty took photos.

The outing involved a considerable time and distance in the canoe. We were impressed by the river. Its many turns and islands created a maze of passageways with swift currents and fairly rough water, at places apparently deep, at other places so shallow that our craft scraped bottom. We came to appreciate the skill of our boat pilot and of our tour guide in reading the currents and delivering our defenseless bodies safely back to Shangri-La in time for lunch.

After a break, which Sheila used to test the swimming pool – high marks! – it was time to visit the Mariposario. Mariposa is the Spanish word for butterfly, and a mariposario is basically a butterfly nursery. It was raining now. Our guide, Marcantonio, walked with us into the little town behind Casa Suizo and past the soccer stadium on the outskirts to a tent, perhaps the size of half a basketball court, where the butterflies lived. He was wearing only a t-shirt and jeans, and shrugged off the rain as irrelevant.

But the rain affected the butterflies. He explained that most of the insects would be quietly resting or feeding in this weather, and would be flying in large numbers only in the heat of the sun. That was fine for Marty, because resting butterflies are much easier to photograph than when in flight.

Running a mariposarium appears to be no easy task. This one had thirteen species, and each species prefers a different plant. The fields surrounding the edifice were dedicated to raising these specific plants.

Butterflies go through four life stages, from egg to pupa to chrysalis to fly. It was apparently part of the duty of the mariposa keeper to collect the chrysalis and hang them neatly side by side on a rack, where their development could be observed. Some of these were small and shiny gold, apparently – explained Marcantonio – because the glow blinded predators. Others looked like dried leaves of no culinary interest.

We saw a number who had just emerged and were hanging from their chrysalis drying their wings in preparation for first flight. The keeper’s labors are constant, because most of the species live only 90 days or less. We had not seen any of these species before, as far as we could remember. Marty took many pictures.

Album:  Animals  http://goo.gl/TuA4X

Album:  Butterflies  http://goo.gl/cy3MN

 

Sunday 17 Feb 2013

Our activity at the Casa del Suizo summer camp this morning consisted of a jungle hike followed by a balsawood raft ride on the river. The clientele had thinned out so we had our very own guide and boat driver – they are called motorista. We couldn’t quite believe it when the two of them lugged half a dozen balsawood logs into the boat. We cruised upriver for quite a distance, past the point where the taxi had landed us a couple of days ago – this was now quite busy, with canoas and even a car ferry crossing from one side to the other – and to a forested spot we would have missed entirely if the boat had not landed us there.

There our guide led us up a set of steep and muddy steps into the thick of the Amazonian rain forest. We hiked up and down, across rigid bridges, across a swaying cable bridge, and even in a hanging basket suspended from cables (a tarabita).

Along the way our guide stopped to show us a tree that gives yellow dye, a pit of mud that yields white pigment used in ceramics, and several plants whose leaves, if boiled, cure fevers or ulcers or other ailments.

He showed us a rubber tree, a balsa tree, and an ironwood tree that’s used to make machetes, spears, bows, and blowguns. We also saw two varieties of “walking palms” – trees with multiple above-ground roots that “walk” in the direction of sunlight.

Then there was an “anaconda vine,” which can grow to 200 meters in length and wrap itself around the thickest tree.

We saw a tiny frog, no bigger than a pencil eraser, and a tree seed that looked like a sea urchin, all black and round and spiny.

He showed us leaves that feel like plastic but are fire- resistant, and are used to wrap fish or meat for cooking.

We saw ants that carried cut bits of leaves into an underground nest, where the leaves would decompose and give rise to a fungus, which would nourish the ants.

We saw other ants, tiny ones, that built a nest as big as a volleyball hanging from a tree branch.

We saw a termite nest above ground, bigger than a person’s head.

We saw different mushrooms and fungi and lots of different leaves, including some quite lovely ones, although it was hard to find a perfect leaf – the various insects were busy eating holes into them as fast as they grew.

We did not get bitten by any mosquitoes or by anything else. The hike took about two hours, at a leisurely pace; and then we returned to our starting point.

While we were away, the motorista had lashed the balsa logs together into a raft. We shed our outer clothes and climbed onto the floating logs in our bathing suits. Our guide climbed on behind us with an authentically indigenous-looking paddle, and we were pushed off into the middle of the river. The canoa followed at a distance.

The motorista very kindly took some photos of us along the way using Marty’s camera.

We drifted a considerable distance on the little raft, with our behinds wetted by the water between logs. Most of the way was steady, but twice we came into swifter current and choppy rapids where the water was so shallow we scraped bottom. As we approached Casa del Suizo, we transferred amidstream back onto the canoa, and were delivered safely ashore. Amazon summer camp!

While we were having fun in the rainforest and the river, Ecuadorians were going to the polls. Today is election day all over the country. A group of election observers from various countries of the world is staying here at the Casa del Suizo. They returned late in the afternoon after visiting, according to one of them, some ten different voting locations. How did it go? “Fine. Good turnout. No problems.” (More anon.)

Album:  Jungle walk and balsa raft ride  http://goo.gl/80Owx

 

Monday 2/18/13 Casa del Suizo to Papallacta

At around 3 am, Sheila and I woke up to a roaring sound on the roof. The rain was thumping on the roof louder than we thought possible. A flash of lightning illuminated streaks of water coming off the roof’s edge. We had never experienced rain of this ferocity before. The words “downpour” and “torrent” didn’t stretch far enough. It was as if a god had scooped up Lake Erie with a giant bedpan and dumped it here. Thunderclaps rattled the rafters. We held each other wondering how it would end.

In an hour it was over. Our abode suffered no damage. The electricity never flickered. We went back to sleep. In the morning there was sunshine. Had we dreamed the whole thing?

No, the river bore witness. A prominent point of river stones on an island opposite the hotel had disappeared under the swollen current. At the boat landing, where the day before we had to pick our way barefoot across twenty-five feet of river rocks to reach the steps, the water had advanced up to the second step. The river had risen about three feet overnight.

The motorista brought us to La Punta in the canoa, where the local bus to Tena, the nearest sizeable town, was waiting. The driver’s assistant put our luggage in the rear compartment and we climbed aboard.

This was a local bus, and it stopped anywhere along the road that someone waved it down, which was often. The assistant was a busy man, stowing bags of chicken feed, bundles of vegetables and other baggage in the hatches underneath, and climbing up on the roof to store a large motorized weed whacker. You had to be a young man to do his job, as the driver started rolling as soon as the hatch door closed, and the assistant had to run to catch up. The driver even moved on while the assistant was on the roof stowing the weed whacker; the nimble assistant climbed down with the bus moving and got back in the bus at the next stop.

It took this old bus almost two hours to reach Tena. We retrieved our baggage from the rear hatch of the bus without difficulties. Tena stands in the guide book as a center for river sports. Numerous creeks and rivers in the area were swollen with runoff and featured challenging whitewater passages.

The bus terminal in Tena is one of the old ones: cramped, jammed with bodies, and noisy. The earliest bus to Quito that would stop at Papallacta and had seats was at 3:45, later than we liked. A taxi driver offered to take us to Papallacta for $80, with a hint he could be bargained down to $50. We declined. The bus tickets were $4 each.

Restaurant stalls with open air tables, busy with customers and serving local favorite dishes, surrounded the terminal. But we wanted wi-fi access and took a cab to a riverfront restaurant (the Tortuga) frequented by backpackers. It started to rain again, briefly.

Our bus, bound for Quito, left on time. The driver’s assistant stood in the open door soliciting last minute riders as the bus wound its way through town. “Quito Quito Quito” he repeated, and it worked. We picked up half a dozen additional passengers before we hit the highway. We also stopped wherever anyone wanted to get off. We even stopped once for a portly gentleman who needed to relieve his bladder, which he did against a fencepost alongside the bus. This episode went without comment.

This segment of the ride is mostly uphill along winding mountain roads. Then it dips into a valley where the town of Baeza lies, and there our route took a westerly turn, again mostly climbing, until it reaches Papallacta Pass at 10,000 feet altitude. The driver’s assistant called out the stop for us. We clambered off, retrieved our bags, and the bus took off.

We saw a sign that said Termas Papallacta – the hot springs where we were bound – 2.7 km uphill. A driver in an unmarked 4wd Nissan approached us and offered to take us there for $1 apiece.

This bit of road was the worst we’ve encountered in Ecuador – rutted, potholed, muddy, stony, and steep. Why a very popular and not cheap resort like Termas Papallacta puts up with this kind of access road remains a mystery. In any event, our driver got us there, shaken and rattled but in one piece, and once again we celebrated the achievement of getting to our room for the night via public transport in time for dinner.

Papallacta is a thousand feet higher than Quito, and we each drank a few cups of coca-leaf tea as prophylactic against altitude sickness.

Album:  Casa del Suizo to Papallacta  http://goo.gl/H7Lxr

 

Tuesday 2/19/13 Papallacta to Quito

In the morning we had a chance to look around. It was raining and foggy, but the haze only highlighted the lovely job of construction, landscaping and maintenance that they have done at Termas Papallacta.

Our room was part of a ring of rooms encircling an area with five pools of different temperatures, all done with exquisite stonework, the water sparklingly clear. The landscaping showed a blend of tropical and Japanese zen-inspired compositions.

We soaked before breakfast and again afterward, sometimes lying in the hot water with just our faces above the surface, feeling the pings of cold raindrops on our faces, an exquisite sensation on the borderline between torture and delight.

After the soaking we could hardly move, and had to summon every ounce of will power to go take a short walk in the rain on an uphill path behind the resort.

In early afternoon, the hotel summoned a taxi for us, and we retraced the awful road back down to the intersection with the main highway to Quito. There was a shelter there. The hotel had not been able to tell us a definite bus schedule, since no bus to Quito originated there, and getting a bus meant flagging one down.

The first one that stopped for us was only going to a town about halfway, so we waved that one on.

Minutes later came a bus marked “Quito,” and it had plenty of seats. The ride, which took a bit over two hours, cost us $2 apiece.

During the taxi ride from the impressively new, spacious and clean Quitumbe bus terminal back to our hotel in the historic district, a chat with the driver provided the information that all the gasoline sold in the country is leaded. It is all imported, Ecuador not yet having its own refinery. The regular grade is cheap, around $1.48 a gallon at this time, but according to the driver it is not very good – not much power and makes the engine cough and spit. The premium grade, on the other hand, is good, but costs 50 cents more per gallon. The driver was astonished to hear that regular in California has been going around $3.75 or so and premium over $4. Diesel here is pennies over a dollar per gallon – compared to about $4 per gallon in California.

We read in the paper that the Ecuadorian government is negotiating a loan from China to build a refinery in Ecuador to process Ecuadorian oil. We hope that if and when this refinery is built, it will produce unleaded gas.

We took an evening walk around the Plaza Grande, just two blocks from our hotel, and then had dinner at a restaurant that has a fifth floor terrace overlooking the city. The terrace was a bit too cool for more than taking a couple of snapshots. After dark, we walked around a bit more and enjoyed the lit-up buildings, including the Presidential Palace on the plaza.

Some photos of this segment are here: http://goo.gl/mV0RD

 

Wednesday 2/20/13 Quito

In the morning we met our friend Andy, the travel agent, and walked to the Casa del Alabado, a museum of pre-Columbian art. Neither of us knew anything about the art or culture in this area prior to the coming of the Spanish. The Spanish colonial influence hits you over the head here with all the churches, official buildings, and private architecture (most of it actually built by indigenous labor, much as the White House was built by African slaves).

We had some knowledge of the pre-Columbus cultures in Mexico and Central America – the pyramids and all that — but all we knew about Ecuador was that the Incas were here before the Spanish. The Incas, however, ruled what is now Ecuador only for approximately half a century before the Spanish conquest. We didn’t suspect that there was more than 6,000 years or so of other cultures with evidence of artistic achievement in this area before the Incas got here.

The Casa del Albado was an eye-opener and mind-blower. This is a beautifully prepared and presented museum, and we had the privilege of an English-speaking guide, Amanda. You can look up the museum yourself on the web at http://alabado.org/. This has useful documentation of the pre-Inca cultures, in both Spanish and English.

Marty was so taken by the pieces that he took more than 100 photos; you can see them online here at http://goo.gl/bYTHu

What a strange set of masks some of these sculptures reveal! And yet how familiar and neighborly some of the unadorned faces are! War and peace, work and leisure, love and sex (including fellatio), birth and death – it’s all documented here by hands unknown, including some very accomplished artists indeed.

It was interesting to see that the earliest pieces that have been recovered so far are strongly geometric and abstract in style. One might have expected that the earliest pieces would be naturalistic, and that geometric abstraction would develop much later, but things seem to have taken the opposite road.

After the Alabado and a lunch at an open-air café on the Plaza San Francisco, we walked more or less at random through the old town.

Here are some photos, mostly street scenes: http://goo.gl/dwSov .

Marty and Andy stopped in briefly at the Companía de Jesus, a church built by the Jesuits. Built over the course of 160 years, this shows a remarkable mixture of Moorish, Spanish, and French design. But its most striking characteristic is that virtually every inch of the walls and ceilings is covered in gold leaf. How many indigenous miners were worked to death digging it out, and how many thousands of hours of indigenous labor did it take to hammer the gold into leaf thinner than paper? This church is both a masterpiece of design and a socio-economic obscenity. Marty sneaked a few photos – strictly verboten!

We arrived after some time at the Museo Manuela Saenz. Saenz was a major figure in the South American struggle for independence. She was an intellectual leader, a military leader, and the lover of Simon Bolívar, the George Washington of South American freedom. She could ride a horse and shoot more accurately from horseback than any man. She saved Bolívar’s life, and he called her the Liberator of the Liberator. The museum seemed rather tame, by comparison to her biography. There were a number of portraits of her, in one of which she rather resembled Frida Kahlo; but to be chronologically accurate one would have to say that Kahlo resembled Saenz, who lived two centuries earlier.

Marty’s photos of some of the museum exhibits are at http://goo.gl/2PJfk

There is a Wikipedia article about her.

 

Thursday 2/21/13 Quito

We had hoped to finish yesterday afternoon with a tour of the Presidential Palace (its formal name is the Palacio Carondelet), but the lines were too long for us. This is the Ecuadorian equivalent of the White House.

The guard at the gate told us they admitted 20 people every fifteen minutes, first come first served. We determined to meet there at 9 am today when the tours began, to be first in line. But a number of preschool teachers had beaten us to it. By the time we got there, at least a hundred Ecuadorian kids around age 4 and 5 were lined up waiting for their turn.

What to do? Andy negotiated with the guards, and things got kind of chaotic in a gentle sort of way, and before we knew it we were dubbed honorary preschoolers, more or less, and were admitted into the building trailing a group of five-year olds from a public preschool in the capital.

Along with the kids we were first shown a giant mosaic depicting themes of Ecuadorian history. Then we were led upstairs into the main executive council chamber, where President Rafael Correa (who was re-elected a few days earlier with a nearly 60 per cent popular vote) meets with the cabinet members.

Next was the official state banquet room, and then the so-called Presidents’ room, which held portraits of each of the country’s past chief executives. The kids were encouraged to ask questions.

We learned that Correa was not presently in the building but was at the Department of Labor, and that he does not live there but continues to live in an apartment elsewhere with his family.

At the conclusion of the visit, an official photographer took group photos of the class and then of the three of us on the inner steps of the building, and as we left we were given prints of these photos as a present.

Marty’s photos, including a copy of the official print, are at http://goo.gl/1L07M .

Sheila and the teacher of the class we went with exchanged emails.

We enjoyed the experience immensely, both for what we saw and who we saw it with.

The day would have been complete without more, but it got better. We took a cab to the Museo Guayasamín in the Capilla del Hombre – Chapel of Man – and became acquainted for the first time with the work of this giant figure in the history of art. Imagine Picasso, Matisse, Goya, and Orozco rolled into one, and you have a hint of the creative power of Oswaldo Guayasamín.

He was a man who saw the hidden brutality beneath the burnished surface of everyday reality. He designed beautiful silver jewelry, but also painted a giant mural emblematic of the many tens of thousands of indigenous miners who were worked to death in the silver mines.

He painted the faces of Latin Americans who suffered in the centuries of Spanish, French, and American occupations, coups, and dictatorships. He painted beautiful pictures of tender mothers and children, musicians, flowers, the city of Quito, Inca themes, and numerous others, testifying to a prodigious creativity.

Much of this is displayed in an imposing cube-like structure with a dome. The inner space is breathtaking. We could not resist buying reproductions of a few of his works for our walls at home. Photos were not allowed in the building.

You can see a rather chaotic and incomplete array of some of his work by googling Guayasamin images at http://goo.gl/6bo4Y

After a lunch uptown in the district of tall apartment buildings, we visited the contemporary art gallery of Ileana Viteri, the daughter of Osvaldo Viteri, a living painter of international fame. Ileana does not paint but teaches at Quito’s top university and converses fluently in Spanish, English, French, and German. We got an invitation to visit her father’s studio at a date to be determined.

As if this were not enough for the day, we walked down to the Plaza del Teatro in the evening to attend a concert by American jazz trumpeter Randy Brecker and his group at the Teatro Sucre, a historic hall that seats perhaps 300. As seniors, we paid half price for $10 seats in the nosebleed section, but after a few warmup numbers by opening acts, the ushers directed us downstairs to fill empty seats in the $25 section of the main floor.

Brecker’s group played hot be-bop jazz with a funk flavor. His saxophonist had a sound that might have come from a tall black man with a gray beard: clear, vibrant, soulful, deep, virtuosic, a bebop master. That sound came from a short barefoot Italian woman who couldn’t have been 30 and was barely bigger than her saxophone. Ada Rovatti is her name. Very impressive.

All the rest of Brecker’s band were Latin musicians, including several locals. It was strange listening to an American sound in an Ecuadorian setting, and we wondered how this audience – consisting mostly of young people – was absorbing these musical phrases, so different from the traditional local product.

And so to bed.

 

Friday 2/22/13 Quito With Sheila resting and attending to deferred travel maintenance tasks, Marty visited the Basilica del Voto Nacional, a cathedral that sits atop a hill at the edge of the historic district. This church was rebuilt in the 20th century following the destruction of the old one in an earthquake, and is notable from the tourist standpoint mainly for the opportunity to climb inside its towers.

Marty braved a catwalk and a steep ladder to get to the base of the smaller tower in the rear of the structure, but balked at climbing two additional ladders hanging over empty space. However, a set of tight circular stairways inside one of the main towers led to a view of the clock mechanism and to an observation deck even higher than the small rear tower.

Marty’s photos are at http://goo.gl/WQHUq

On the way back from the church, Marty happened to stumble on the Museum of Camilo Egas, a Quito-born master painter who painted at first in the Indigenist style, and later taught and painted in New York City, where he died in 1962.

It was OK to take pictures, without flash; see http://goo.gl/b43gJ

We had intended this afternoon to visit the Museo Nacional uptown and to have lunch there, thinking that a big museum like this must have a cafeteria. But that was a cultural mistake, and we ended up hoofing around this busy commercial neighborhood looking for lunch. We finally found it, of all places, at the Hilton. This was not our intent at all, but there it was, and the salad bar was very good. As a result of the delay we had no time to see the art work in the museum, and ended up going directly to the Ministerio de Educación, where Sheila had an appointment.

The Ecuadorian Ministry of Education, as our taxi driver informed us, moved a few years ago into a former bank building. It’s an imposing 13-story structure near other banks and near a shopping mall uptown.

Sheila met with the head of the Ministry’s English learning project, whose goal was to train an initial batch of five thousand teachers of English in Ecuador. He spoke excellent and colloquial English.

A few months earlier, Ecuador had signed a contract with the Educational Testing Service in Princeton NJ to adopt the TOEFL test as the standard measure for English language proficiency. President Correa had personally signed the contract and was urging the Education Ministry to produce more English teachers of high caliber.

Sheila then met with the head of the science curriculum in Ecuador and they exchanged basic information about this topic, with Marty doing his best to translate. This conversation may become the starting point of direct student-to-student science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) dialogs between the two countries.

A few photos, here: http://goo.gl/rT1Kp

After these conversations, we found ourselves in the middle of rush hour, and decided to wait it out at a restaurant. The nearest was the food court in the mall, which could have been in almost any American suburb, give or take a few brand names. After an inexpensive meal, we found a taxi to take us back to our hotel in the historic district. This turned out to be a long ride. Once we entered the district, traffic on these narrow roads was at a standstill in all directions. We used the opportunity to chat with our driver, who spent five years working in New Jersey in an electric plant, and then for an asbestos removal company after 9-11. He made “a little money” and came back to his home country.

 

Saturday Feb. 23 2013 Quito to Cuenca

We packed and got ready to check out of the hotel. Then we met friend/travel agent Andy and walked through more of the historic district to a street called La Ronda. A few years ago this was a dilapidated historic slum, but a major effort by the city has rehabilitated it and turned it into an attraction. Artisanal shops and restaurants line this narrow pedestrian-only passage, which becomes a party street on weekend evenings.

Here are a few photos: http://goo.gl/HjZnK

We had lunch there in one of the restaurants that features authentic regional cuisine. Then it was time to head back to the hotel, get our bags, and get to the new airport. It had opened for business just four days earlier. Andy had arranged a taxi for us, with a driver whose first name was Stalin. His brother was Lenin. He explained that his dad had been “kind of a Communist” and that’s how the boys got the names.

The new airport is more than 20 km out of town, and the first third of the outbound road is mostly cobblestoned and winding, and crosses a two-lane bridge that has seen better days. It took an hour and ten minutes to get to the airport, and that was considered excellent time. The last few miles of the road is a brand new six-lane freeway. The last half mile or so was jammed with sightseers from town who parked on the shoulder, got out, and walked as close to the planes as they could. As Stalin explained, they wanted to see the new airport and especially the big planes that the new airport could handle. No one had ever seen planes of that size in the country.

Stalin also told us that as of next year, taxi drivers had to take courses in basic English in order to keep their taxi licenses, so as to create a better experience for visitors.

The new airport was everything a new airport should be, more or less. Airport security was identical to the USA. The x-ray machines spotted Marty’s mustache scissors in our carry-on bag and confiscated it as a potentially dangerous weapon. That was annoying. Otherwise the flight of 45 minutes to Cuenca was uneventful.

 

Sat Feb. 23 2013, continued

Cuenca is almost due south of Quito, a 45-minute flight or an 8-hour bus ride. It’s almost as high as Quito and is similarly nestled between mountains of the Andes range. It’s quite a bit smaller than Quito and a bit older, and has a historic district that, like Quito’s, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This historic district, located mostly north of the Tomebamba River that bisects the town, looks like a town in Italy or in southern Spain. The streets are narrow, the houses are two or three stories tall and sit next to each other without gaps, like townhouses. Most have balconies or at least windows with some architectural ornamentation. The sidewalks are narrow and irregular. The streets are paved with cobblestones or flat stones.

In the center there are numerous small stores, some barely larger than a closet, others with narrow openings leading into wide courtyards.

Cuenca’s historic district is mostly flat and slopes very gently, unlike Quito’s, which is hilly.

We had the great good fortune to have a friend in Cuenca, Ana Loja, who directs the Spanish language program for foreigners at the prestigious University of Cuenca.

(Pix: http://goo.gl/KJhQi  )

Ana is a small bundle of high energy and kindness. She picked us up at the airport, took us to our hotel, and sat with us and gave us an orientation. We stayed at the Hotel Posada del Angel (Inn of the Angel) in the historic district, a delightful place with a young multilingual owner whose attention to detail is evident throughout the hotel and the included Mangia Bene restaurant.

 

Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013

The next morning, Sunday, Ana had arranged for a student in the University’s English language program, Enrique, to be our guide. Enrique brought his friend Cecilia, who had a 4WD car, to pick us up and drive us to the town of Cañar, and then to the Inca ruins at Ingapirca, about 40 miles from town.

Before they came to the hotel to pick us up, Marty dashed out before breakfast to take pictures at the flower market at a nearby square in front of a church. The flower sellers were just setting up, and the white façade of the church made a good backdrop for some of the colorful displays.

Photos are here: http://goo.gl/0n6Lx

On the drive to Cañar, we learned that when the Inca armies advanced north from Peru in the 15th century, the Cañari people fought them and defeated them. Thereafter the Incas used diplomacy and intermarried with the Cañari royalty. The Cañaris have ever since maintained their cultural identity.

We arrived in the town of Cañar, one of the chief towns of the Cañari people, with the weekly Sunday market in full swing. The Cañari women wore distinct clothing that easily identified them: brightly colored skirts, ornate scarves that did double duty as baby carriers, and distinctive hats that identified where they came from. The men were less easily identified by their clothing. Both sexes, generally, are of short stature and dark skinned, whether from their genes or from the sun. They are bilingual, Spanish and Kichua.

The market was a chaotic but orderly affair, with lots of talking and hawking, but no disturbances that we were aware of. Some vendors had only their arms and shoulders for a showroom. Others had a blanket they spread on the ground. Some had modern tents and extensive displays. The core of the market was in a permanent hall with defined stalls having electric power and plumbing.

The affair somewhat resembled an American Farmers’ Market, but on steroids. We saw all kinds of fruits and vegetables, including a number we didn’t recognize. Prices were unbelievably low: Sheila asked for a price on carrots, and the vendor filled up a small bucket to overflowing – easily three pounds – and asked $1.25. You could also buy dried loose kernels of corn, grains of wheat, dried beans, peas, lentils, herbs, and many other agricultural commodities in quantities from a handful to a barrel full. You could buy live chickens, ducks, and geese, and the eggs of anything from geese to doves. There were all kinds of meats, including a complete pig’s head if you wanted one, chicken’s feet, trout and tilapia. Pots and pans, jewelry, clothing, blankets, radios, tools, ropes, batteries, toys – you name it.

The market had a unique sound: the calls of the vendors hawking their wares in repeating, musical rounds, the honking of horns, the swelling buzz and roar of the clientele, unforgettable.

We spent an hour walking around, buying nothing but carrots, and taking lots of photos; a selection is here: http://goo.gl/BVJlQ

On the way from Cañar to Ingapirca, somehow we got off the main road and were diverted into a detour that quickly deteriorated into a single lane dirt road winding up and down through field and pasture among the picturesque hills of the region. We had to stop and ask directions from Cañari farmers several times. It was a road adventure. Luckily we had nice weather and the dirt road was dry. The countryside in this area looks a bit like hilly parts of Napa and Mendocino counties, except that the hills here are taller and the slopes steeper, and the land is devoted to field crops and cattle instead of grapes. Parts of Switzerland look like this.

After our long and bouncy detour, we arrived almost by surprise at the entry point of the Ingapirca archaeological monument. This site is now owned and operated by an agency of the Cañari people, and all the signage is in Spanish, English, and Kichua.

Our modest entry fee included the services of an English speaking guide, Carlos, who had been a teacher.

The Ingapirca site shows evidence of Cañari and Inca construction. Some of the peripheral walls and installations show Cañari construction, that is, irregularly shaped rocks fitted roughly together, really piled, without mortar. As we came closer to the center, the walls were of rough Inca construction: irregularly shaped rocks fitted rather nicely together with a mortar said to be made of a local mud mixed with llama poop.

Then we came to the central citadel: an elliptical fortress constructed with the Incas’ best technique: neatly, precisely squared off stones mated to each other with gaps no bigger than a quarter of an inch, often less, without use of mortar of any kind. We could not believe it. The Incas quarried these stones and shaped them before the invention of steel or of any other metal hard enough to cut stone.

Scholars say that they split boulders off rock quarries by heating the stone with fire and then throwing water on it, to crack it. To shape individual stones, they used other stones that were somewhat harder. It was all incredibly laborious, and must have required small armies of laborers, who in turn had to be fed by legions of farmers.

It is said that the Incas were phenomenally good organizers. Certainly the monument at Ingapirca, which is said to be the only example of Inca walls forming an oval structure, testifies as much to a highly developed social organization as to technological prowess.

In other respects, the Inca social organization left something to be desired. We were told that the skeletal remains of 30 young women were found at the site, and it is believed that it was the custom of the Inca, the king, to kill all of his wives when the oldest wife died. There is a similarly gruesome tale in the “Arabian Nights.” We are not aware of some young Inca maiden who managed to talk the Inca chief out of this grisly practice by some clever stratagem, as Scheherazade did in the Arabian legend.

Part of the monument is a short remnant of an Inca road. It is said that Inca messengers ran these roads, resting at small inns for this purpose every so many kilometers. They could carry messages hundreds of kilometers in a day. These roads, essential as they were to the Inca system of rule, then turned into veins of destruction when the Spanish came with their horses.

The story of the Spanish treachery, which dwarfs the misdeeds of the Incas, is known to every school child here. In brief, the Spanish asked for a meeting with Atahualpa, the chief of the Incas. At the meeting, instead of negotiating, they shot his guards and captured him. They then promised to free him in exchange for a roomful of gold. The Incas brought the gold, but the Spanish, instead of then freeing Atahualpa, murdered him.

With the Inca empire decapitated, the Spanish set about subjugating the people and erasing as much as they could of the Inca heritage. Like Machu Picchu in Peru, Ingapirca survived because it was in a remote area and the Spanish were not aware of it.

After an hour walking the ruins, we took a short side trip on the remnants of the former Inca trail toward the nearby river to view a natural rock formation that resembled an Inca face in profile. Along the way we passed several huts whose Cañari residents had set up makeshift restaurants and souvenir shops for the tourists. Out of one such hut, an old woman offered to sell us a genuine Inca cutting tool for $500. We passed.

We drove up the mountainside a few kilometers to a country inn where we had a satisfying rural lunch in an old hacienda with beautiful gardens and a lovely view.

A new village is under construction near the Ingapirca site, and the main access road from Cuenca (not the detour into which we wandered) is under repair in several areas. In a year or two, the trip from Cuenca to Ingapirca promises to be smooth and fast.

These ruins, while not as spectacular as those in Peru, are certainly worth the trip.

Marty’s photos of the Ingapirca trip are here: http://goo.gl/adY0A

In the evening, we walked around Cuenca a bit. In the central square we came upon a concert put on by the local police. Ten of them with drums and brasses stood in the local square and gave a concert. They weren’t great, but they weren’t terrible, and they drew and held an appreciative audience.

 

Monday Feb. 25, 2013

The indefatigable Ana picked us up at our hotel and drove us, along with another American visitor, to the nearby towns of Gualaceo, Chordeleg, and Sigsig. The latter two are Kichua names.

We went first to Sigsig, is which is famous for the so-called Panama hat. The “Panama” hat is actually an Ecuadorian hat. It got that name because quantities of them were exported to Panama at the time of canal construction, and there became known to a larger world, largely because Teddy Roosevelt was photographed wearing one.

The hats are made of a reed called paja toquilla which grows in several places on the Ecuadorian coast. From there, bundles are brought to Sigsig and turned into hats and other woven creations such as bags, baskets, boxes and decorations.

It is a common sight in Sigsig, and we saw it several times as we drove in, for women to walk along processing bundles of the reeds as they walk, or as they sit and talk.

The process of working the reeds into condition for weaving, and then the dyeing and bleaching, and finally the weaving and shaping, is long and complex, and is so sensitive to temperature and moisture that it can be done sometimes only for a few hours a day.

Ana knew about, and took us to visit, the Associación de Toquilleras, a women’s weaving cooperative, operating out of a former hospital building at the edge of Sigsig near the river. In the past, the women of Sigsig and the surrounding area had to sell their hats individually to middlemen and ended up getting virtually nothing for their labor. With the cooperative, they market their product themselves both for domestic sale and for export, under their own label and for rebranding by wholesalers and retailers.

The cooperative has about 180 members in Sigsig, nearly all of whom work out of their homes. About ten women work at the site of the cooperative, weaving, applying labels, dyeing material, and operating a small retail operation. We each bought hats there, very nice ones, and could not believe how inexpensive they were.

Marty has photos of the visit to the cooperative, here: http://goo.gl/hOFru

Chordeleg, our next stop, is a jewelry town. There are silver mines and gold mines nearby. The town is known for its fine filigree work in gold and silver. There must be four dozen jewelry stores in this relatively small place. This being Monday, it was quiet, and Sheila bought a set of very nice earrings in the Pachamama – Earth Mother – design at a bargain price.

Gualaceo is known for its rugs, but we were not in the market for them and were tired, so we drove past and headed for home.

On the way, we stopped at a travel agency and talked ourselves into booking a tour of nearby El Cajas National Park on Wednesday. More on that later. We walked some more and then ate at a restaurant on the central square before turning in.

 

Tuesday Feb. 26 2013

Sheila met with Ana and other members of the U of Cuenca faculty to explore possibilities for student and/or faculty exchanges between Bay Area schools/colleges and the U of Cuenca. Ecuador is peaceful and Cuenca residents speak a good, clear flavor of Spanish at a reasonable speed, unlike the coastal folk who are reputed to speak too fast and slur their words.

Meanwhile Marty went on a $5 tour bus around Cuenca, and took pictures.  This album also includes some walking-about-town pix: http://goo.gl/rqvcz

From the top of the sightseeing bus, Marty got a good perspective on the decorative wrought iron balconies and some other architectural details; for people interested in that sort of thing, those photos are here: http://goo.gl/IykKg

We met for lunch, then walked about 20 blocks along the main river on a lovely newish path to the Museum of the Banco Central. This showed gold and silver art of several pre-Inca civilizations in Ecuador, along with more recent historic photographs. There was also an exhibit on the history of coinage in South America, which quoted from historical works to the effect that the tons of silver and gold extracted from South America were probably the financial engine for the development of industrial capitalism in Europe.

Tired out by this walk, we sat in an ice cream shop on the central square for a while, bought a few nuts and raisins for the National Park hike, and headed back to the hotel. There we found out that our plan to book another night wouldn’t work because the hotel was full. But the owner’s sister very kindly called another hotel nearby and arranged for us to spend Wednesday night there. They will even transfer our luggage there, while we are hiking in the national park.

We had heard from others that this park can get very cold, down to freezing and below, so we are a little nervous about what the morning will bring.

 

Wednesday Feb. 27 2013

A friendly young guide, Adrian, with pretty good English picked us up at the hotel at 8:15 a.m. for the trip up the mountain to El Cajas National Park. We climbed into a Hyundai van where we met Lars, a lanky German 33-year-old, who was the only other guest on the expedition. Jorge, the driver, knew the road well and in a matter of 40 minutes we turned off the smooth concrete of Ecuador Route 258 onto a former Inca trail, recently paved with river rocks. The rattly, bouncy path led past a series of cattle ranches and a dairy farm, all on fairly steep hillsides.

Then we came to a park entrance booth for the Lake Llaviucu section, at 10,367 feet elevation. Admission to Ecuadorian national parks is free, although one has to register. A short ride past the booth brought us to a parking lot, where a small herd of llamas was parked, for no obvious reason. The llama herds in the national park now are managed by the park service and have tags in their ears. The animals paid us little attention and let us come within a few feet for photographs – about as close as we dared, because they aren’t small, and they wear a proud expression.

The temperature was about 40. After a brief photo session with the llamas, we began a short hike around Lake Llaviucu. This is one of the hundreds of lakes in the park, which is located on the continental divide. Some of the lakes drain to the Pacific and others drain into the Amazon and thus, ultimately, into the Atlantic. This particular lake feeds the Tomebamba River, which runs through Cuenca. Its waters were clear and cold.

On the far side of the lake we saw, and eventually walked past, the ruins of what was for some 50 years a major commercial beer brewery. Hops and barley had to be brought up on muleback. The reason for this remote location was the clear, clean water.

Adrian, our guide, told us that the municipal water supply in Cuenca is clean and that he has been drinking it since birth without ill effects.

We continued along the well-maintained trail, spotting perhaps six species of hummingbirds and other birds, but none of them wanted their pictures taken. Adrian pointed out various wildflowers and fruits, many with medicinal properties. It showered a bit, but nothing too heavy, and the rainforest canopy protected us when we weren’t out in the open.

The llamas were all sitting or lying on the ground in the parking lot when we got there. Adrian thought they were taking advantage of the warm ground and the shelter there.

Back in the van, Jorge drove us back to the main road and then up to Tres Cruces, the highest elevation that the highway reaches inside the national park, 13,000 feet plus. The temperature there was barely above freezing and a brisk wind was blowing. We could appreciate why the park was named after the Inca word for “cold.”

We were now in a completely different ecosystem. No more rainforest. The scenery here was almost treeless, brown, dark green, gray and black, and parts were veiled in clouds. This is called the páramo, the Andean high altitude moorlands.

We hurried back into the van and Jorge drove us down a bit to Toreador Lake, where our hike was to begin. There is a restaurant and small nature museum there.

At this point, after considering the lay of the land and the temperature, Sheila opted out of the hike and stayed in the van, and rode down the mountain a few miles with Jorge to the restaurant where we would all meet for lunch after the hike.

Meanwhile Adrian, Lars, and Marty tightened shoe laces and took to the trail. Apart from the initial few hundred meters, where rangers had built wooden steps, the trail was a free-lance affair. Occasional wooden markers and dabs of pink paint on rocks gave the general sense of direction.

Some of the surface, covered with low growing plants, was soft and moist, like walking on a saturated sponge. A few steps away our shoes would be on solid rock, scratched by the passage of glaciers tens of thousands of years ago. Some of the “trail” was just a momentarily dry creek bed.

We descended gradually down a staircase of lakes, pausing to take pictures of tiny flowers, some of them found nowhere else on earth but in El Cajas. It was soon clear why professional guides were the best policy in this eerie, otherworldly landscape.

Adrian, the guide, aged 22, who did this hike three days a week, and tall Lars, whose legs had climbed Cotopaxi, kept up a brisk pace. Marty lagged behind most of the way, pretending to take difficult photographs, but really just catching his breath.

Toward the end of the hike we came to a small hollow where the intriguing polylepis trees grew. These look at first sight like a manzanita, with a shrubby posture and red, scaling bark. But polylepis, commonly called paper trees because of the flaky bark, survive only at high elevations, and increase in size only a few millimeters per year. They can live almost two thousand years.

A few hundred meters from the road we came on another herd of llamas. These were not sedentary like their parking lot cousins from the lower altitude. They were athletic, nimble, sure-footed, and active. Marty got some video that displays them in motion. One of them was a youngster, not quite a baby any more but far from full grown.

Jorge met us in the van and drove us down to the restaurant. This was part of a trout farm, one of many we saw along the highway. One can “sport fish” here by throwing a line into a pond stocked with trout and take as many as one wants in a few minutes. You pay by the pound.

We just came for lunch which featured, surprise!, a choice between steamed trout and fried trout. Both were very good.

Then back in the van and in half an hour, back in Cuenca.

Marty’s photos of the trip to El Cajas national park are at http://goo.gl/nIqnv

We were both so tired from the walk and the altitude that we napped for a couple of hours.

Our former hotel had moved our bags to the new hotel, as promised. We were now at the hotel Casa del Aguila (House of the Eagle). This was a painstakingly restored colonial-era house with a lovely courtyard. In keeping with the retro decorative theme, our room was locked with a 19th century padlock.

This place was much quieter than the first hotel. After our nap we walked a dozen blocks in the old city looking for the Post Office, where Sheila bought stamps to send her post card to her Mom. Then we looked for a restaurant called Eucalyptus, recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook, but walked past it twice without seeing it, until finally a knowledgeable person on the street directed us to it. This turned out to be a tourist hangout. An important soccer match between a local club team, FC Barcelona of Ecuador, and a top club team from Argentina, was on the screen, and nobody was watching it (besides Marty). We ordered Indian food. We hadn’t seen a single Indian restaurant in our promenades and we missed Indian cuisine. It was OK, but not as good as at home.

Memo to Indian/Pakistani readers: Please go to Ecuador and start some restaurants!

And then to bed.

 

Thursday Feb. 28 2013

Today was the first day in Cuenca without a planned day trip, so we lounged in bed until 9 am, feeling decadent. Our plane back to Quito was due to leave midafternoon. We breakfasted, packed our things, checked out (leaving our bags for pickup later) and walked a few blocks to the flower market, where Sheila had one of the vendors compose a custom bouquet of lilies and roses. With that and a giant fruit of unknown name in hand, bought from a street vendor, we walked across the Tomebamba River to the U of Cuenca to return borrowed cold weather clothing to Sheila’s friends there.

With little time left, we hired a cab to drive us up the hill to the studio of Eduardo Vega, Ecuador’s most famous ceramic artist. Some of his pieces were stunningly original and gorgeously decorative. Moreover, the prices were far below what equivalent pieces – if they existed – would fetch in the States. We resisted the temptation to invest in an heirloom article, which would require an additional suitcase, and bought two casual pieces with flat shapes that had a chance of making it home with us. The studio staff wrapped them securely for us, and in a few minutes we were back in the cab, heading to our hotel to pick up our bags, and then on to the airport.

We flew TAME this time, the Ecuadorian airline, instead of LAN, the Chilean carrier. TAME was cheaper and had a better schedule for our purposes. Our flight left about 10 minutes late but arrived in Quito exactly on time. We took a cab back to town, to our old hotel, the Catedral International. But we were tired of that location and had made a reservation with the Casona de la Ronda at the edge of the historic district. This is a pedestrians-only street that the city has rescued from decay and restored into a warren of shops and restaurants. We lugged our bags through the noise and pollution of the historic district to the new hotel. Our new hotel is much quieter. Our room is toward the rear, away from the Friday night party noise on La Ronda.

We went to one of the dozen local restaurants for dinner. Marty finally had a chance to eat cuy there, the Ecuadorian delicacy (guinea pig). In a deep-fried version coated in quinoa, the cuy’s hindquarter tasted sort of like chicken, but was tough and stringy. It probably needs to be eaten from a street vendor to be fully appreciated.

Tomorrow our saga continues. We are headed for Otavalo, the 500-year old market town that is a “must see” on every Ecuador tourist itinerary. Stay tuned.

 

Friday March 1 2013

In preparation for the trip to the market town, Otavalo, we tried to make room in either a suitcase or a backpack, and quickly realized we were already overloaded. With both suitcases stuffed and both backpacks almost full, we had a bag of dirty laundry bigger than a backpack. If we buy anything in Otavalo, we’re going to need another bag.

Our friend/travel agent Andy and his driver, Stalin, appeared on time and off we went. It took almost an hour to get out of Quito’s perennial traffic jams. Eventually we hit the new highway, a freshly asphalted four-lane road as smooth as you could ask for.

The scenery got more and more dramatic. After a bit more than two hours, we saw Lake San Pablo in the distance, with the Imbabura volcano arising out of its northern shore. Clouds obscured its peaks, like a beautiful woman hiding her charms behind a white veil.

Some pix:  http://goo.gl/246aI

Andy had made a reservation for us at Puerto Lago, a resort with a meticulously groomed lawn and gardens. We checked in, dropped our luggage in a lakeside cabin, and took off again, with Stalin driving and Andy guiding, for the town of Otavalo, on the western edge of the lake. We went for lunch to a restaurant called Otavalito, which offered local fare. It must have been authentic, because as we were eating, a wedding party of more than thirty local Otavaleños entered for a wedding meal.

After our lunch, Andy guided us to the town of Peguche, a few kilometers from Otavalo. All of the Otavaleños are known for weaving, but Peguche is the weaver’s weaver town. In the Artesania el Gran Condor (Great Condor Workshop) on Peguche’s main square, one of the local weavers demonstrated for us the basics of how the goods were made. She showed us the minerals, plants, and bugs (well, bug) that went into the various colors of dyes. Then she demonstrated how rough wool sheared from Alpacas was carded (cleaned and straightened), and how it was woven into a thread using a simple rolling stick. Then she operated a simple hand loom, throwing the shuttle back and forth as she worked. Finally, she stepped into the oldest loom of them all, a back loom, so named because a strap around her back provided the power for the device. First she carefully guided the cross thread through the long threads with a wooden knife to make the desired pattern, then with a vigorous motion of her back, like a rower, she tightened the threads. Marty took stills and videos of the operation.

The room where she worked was hung on all sides with the result of her craft, and the craft of the other women in this weaving cooperative. We marveled at the beauty of the designs and the softness of their textures. Prices were almost sinfully low. We bought a wall hanging with a modern design and some scarves, and wished that we had luggage space to buy alpaca sweaters for every member of our extended family.

Andy then led us to another workshop with similar goods, signed in this case by the male artist, whom we met, and we bought another scarf.

Marty’s photos of our Peguche visit are at http://goo.gl/syIdh

The sun had sunk into a bed of clouds when we returned to our cabin. Mt. Imbabura, on the other side of the lake, was still hiding its peaks in wisps of grey vapor, but allowed occasional glimpses, with Marty snapping away. The mountain’s portrait changed from minute to minute, and one could spend the day just watching the slow dance of the clouds around its summit.

Tomorrow: the Otavalo market.

 

Saturday March 2 2013

We got a late start due to a lodging issue, but eventually, the taxi dropped us on the Panamericana highway in the middle of Otavalo’s animal market. There we met Andy, as arranged, and strolled through the scene. The basic idea of this market was simple. If you had an animal you wanted to sell, you brought it there and showed it off. Most of the people there looked like small farmers with an extra piglet or two, or a hen, calf, pony, goat, puppy, or kitten. A few of the sellers looked like breeders, showing off a pickup truck load of goats, or a crate of rabbits or guinea pigs (cuy, raised for food), or boxes of chicks, baby ducks, geese, or turkeys. There were also farmers with animal feed to sell, and sellers of rope, halters, saddles, and other gear.

Many of the market participants wore the traditional Otavaleño clothing. Everybody there was small-time. No corporate brands or big operators.

The animals had to put up with a lot of handling, and probably weren’t too thrilled with the whole affair, but generally endured the chaos without much protest.

The people seemed to be good-humored throughout the morning, although as the market thinned, the folks still standing there with unsold animals showed longish faces.

When we had seen enough, we drifted up onto a rise just above the market where a line of stalls offered food cooked on the spot. Sheila found a woman with a big kettle of mote (hominy) and had a plate of that with salsa and salad for breakfast. Marty opted for a plate of fried mashed potatoes and roast pork. The price for both: $3, with an extra dollar for two glasses of tamarind juice. We ate at picnic tables behind the cooking station along with buyers and sellers at the marketplace, and enjoyed ourselves hugely. The food was more enjoyable than many a fancy restaurant meal.

Marty’s photos are at http://goo.gl/nzQ2S

Refreshed, we ambled across the highway, over a bridge, and into town. Two additional markets were in full swing there. The first was a general goods market, similar to what we had seen in Cañar: a farmer’s market plus vendors of every conceivable necessity for everyday living. This filled block after block of the upper town, and the crowds in some areas were shoulder to shoulder.

Then as we worked our way toward the lower end of town, the offerings from the stalls in the street changed to handicrafts. The center of this third market was in the appropriately named Plaza de Ponchos. This was a dense warren of tents and tables thick with the artisanal goods for which the Otavalo area has been famous for centuries. Textiles held center stage here, but there was also every kind of jewelry, stonework, paintings, figurines, musical instruments, and much more. There was a good bit of kitsch, but also work of genuine beauty and value, at bargain prices.

We could not resist an embroidered tablecloth, even though we knew that it might be ruined by the first spill of tomato soup. It was so lovely we had to have it, and the price was so persuasive.

Photos at http://goo.gl/saOjp

Shopping tired us out, and we quit early in the afternoon. In a taxi, we dropped Andy at his hotel for his return to Quito, and then collected our bags from Puerto Lago and rode up the hill on a road paved with river stones to our new home for the next three days, the Rose Cottages. Owned by an absentee British couple, this hosteria is managed by a local woman, Guadalupe, and offers cabins at bargain rates. Our room is small but clean, with a private bath.

This property is located on the top of a ridge. From one side you can look out over Otavalo with the giant Imbabura volcano, its peak shrouded in clouds, in the background. From the other side you look over a lovely green valley with the even bigger and more cloud-covered Cotopaxi volcano as backdrop.

The people we met here were young backpackers, hikers and campers from Belgium, Germany, and Sweden – adventurous folk who reminded us of younger editions of ourselves. Dinner at the dining room here was simple but nourishing, and not expensive.

There is a public elementary school just below the Rose Cottage grounds, and we enjoyed the sights and sounds of kids playing games in the schoolyard.

Being here in this lush green scenery high in the Andes feels wonderful. Quito and Cuenca have much to offer from the cultural standpoint, but they are also crowded, full of traffic jams with noise and pollution. The air here is clean. There is the occasional pickup truck or motorcycle on the bumpy road, but the most common sound is birds tweeting, roosters crowing, cows mooing, and sometimes children playing. We’re unwinding from many days busily sightseeing.

We spent the afternoon doing what we haven’t done a lot of during this vacation, namely nothing. We got reacquainted with the joys of lying in a hammock.

Marty’s pix of the place and a bit of its surroundings are at http://goo.gl/sP8jP  .

 

Sunday March 3 2013

After a leisurely breakfast and chats with the other guests, we took a hike up the hill to the Taxopamba Falls (cascadas), about 90 minutes round trip. Along the way we stopped at an upscale resort, Casa Mojanda, where friends of ours had stayed some years earlier and were friends with the owners. The manager showed us around the well kept grounds of Casa Mojanda, with its extensive organic garden, book-filled library, and beautifully appointed dining room. We had a vegetarian lunch there and chatted with Betty, the owner, and with the other guests, before resuming our path.

The trail to the waterfall went along fields and creeks, sometimes through dense rainforest. It was rough and muddy in places, but rewarded us with birdsong, romantic views, and lovely little flowers along the way.

Marty’s pix of the hike are at http://goo.gl/MgfZi

 

Monday March 4 2013

After a morning of dolce far niente, we took a taxi into town with a German hiker who earned money on the trip by doing circus acts at traffic lights, a common sight in the cities. She had a B.A. in sociology but got the itch to travel and had been gone from home eleven months already. After a lunch together at the Otavalito restaurant, she headed toward the bus station for a ride three hours north to Colombia, and we ambled the streets with no particular goal.

By chance we ended up at the University of Otavalo where there is a Museum of Anthropology, but it was closed for the afternoon. We happened to be strolling when the local high school let out, and we were charmed by the kids’ uniforms: bright red v-neck sweater vests, white shirts, black skirts or trousers, shined black shoes. The kids looked sharp. After more strolling and resting, we got dinners to go at a self-proclaimed Tex-Mex deli and headed back up the hill after dark. We slept like logs.

 

Tuesday March 5 2013

Today we check out of Rose Cottage and take a bus back to Quito. Tomorrow is a free day in Quito. Thursday we fly back to Miami, change airports to Ft. Lauderdale, and fly back to SFO. Chances are that this is the last of our travelogs, except perhaps for a brief note announcing, we hope, our safe arrival home.

Until then, regards from Sheila & Marty

 

Conclusion

 

We made it home with only a slight delay due to airline schedule problems. Neither of us got the “turistas” or any other illness.  At high altitude we experienced a few seconds of dizziness when first getting up or lying down; that went away when we got closer to sea level.  We heard stories of cheating and crime, but nothing of the sort happened to us. The people were friendly and helpful. The country is very beautiful, as you can see from the photos.  Ecuador has three main regions: the coast, the Andes, and the rainforest.  We spent most of our time in the Andes, only a few days on the edge of the rainforest, and no time at all on the coast.  We’re saving the coast and the Galapagos (which are part of Ecuador) for the next time.