Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Flew back to Quito in the afternoon.  We decided to stay in a hostel for our last night, since we had to leave  at four in the morning.  Thought it would be nice to save a little money and there was a hostel that was supposed to have a great view of the City.  Sure enough, the hostel had a roof garden with a bar/restaurant that looked out over the city.  The problem was, people were drinking beer up there until quite late and the walls were pretty thin.  Lots of people yelling "woo hoo!" and such.  We decided we were too old for third world traveler hostels.

It's been a great trip.


We decided to take a tour of a nearby indigenous village, which we arranged in Cuenca.  Some of the people in the village started a collective for cheese and tourism, so all of the money from these tours goes to the collective.  I'm not usually into these kind of tours - going to an indigenous community and looking at the way they live kind of seems like gawking to me, never mind the fact that a lot of these tours really take advantage of these communities financially.  But, this tour was set up, run, and managed by the community itself, so it seemed less like gawking and more like um...a tour.

Anyway, when we got to the gathering point, it was clear that we were the only ones signed up on this day.  This especially made Allegra nervous, since the tour was in Spanish and she was going to be interpreting.  We took a cab to the village with our guide, Rosa.  The village was about 30 minutes outside of Cuenca in beautiful rolling hills.  Lots of dairy cows were milling about - obviously the source of the milk for the cheese.  We hung out with Rosa and some of the other villagers as they prepared for lunch.  We helped out a little bit, then went on a walk with Rosa.  We checked out the cheese making facility, which was pretty cool for me.  They make mozzarella, mainly - probably for all of those wood-fired pizza places.  It was a little problematic to understand Rosa, since her Spanish was heavily accented (she didn't really speak Qechua, but I think her Spanish was accented like she did).  She explained about the farming, local trails, economy, etc.  Interesting, but we didn't get everything.

Lunch was pretty cool - it was a traditional feast where they laid out a long cloth and then throw all of the food on it - everyone just digs in.  It was weird, however, since there were only about six of us - not so much a feast.  They told us about the agriculture in the area, textile making, and music.  We plaid with the kids a little bit, then headed home.  It was interesting, but a little weird.  The village was pretty prosperous, with a nifty school, internet, cars, etc.  As they becomes more developed, the less they use less of their traditional way of life, making it less interesting to tourists.  So, the tours become more disconnected from their actual, everyday lives.  This is good, I think (they seems to be happy with their prosperity - and why she they be denied of it?), but makes it a little less interesting for the tourists.

We had the best meal in Ecuador, tonight.  Went to a place that specialized in tangine-kind of things.  Great steak with a bunch of pickle and relish dishes.  I realized that one of the problems with Ecuadorian cooking is that their is little acid used - it is all pretty much carbs and fat - not much citrus/vinegar/etc.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


We had two full days in Cuenca, a city in the Southern highlands of Ecuador.  It is the third biggest city in Ecuador and was named a UNESCO heritage site.  I should add that UNESCO seems to throw around its heritage site designations like confetti, but at least it indicates it is not a total dump.  Cuenca did not disappoint - it it the most intact colonial city we saw in either Ecuador or Peru.  It is also the home of the Panama Hat industry.  Ironically, the Panama hat has always been made it Panama, mostly in and around Cuenca, but was mis-named because it was associated with workers building the Panama Canal that wore them.

We spent the day walking around the city, enjoying the architecture and the ice cream.  This is real dairy country, so the ice cream shops were everywhere and had great, homemade ice cream.  This was also our last chance to buy souvenirs.  We held off on a lot of shopping, since we were traveling with carry-ons and did not want to load up our bags.  I was also on a quest to buy an Andean-style fedora.  It is amazing that you see thousands on indigenous people wearing these felt fedoras, but you never see them for sale anywhere.  I did manage to finally find one made by one of Ecuador's most well-known hat maker.

Cuenca is quite a laid-back City.  It has more of a "cafe culture" than other places in Ecuador and people generally seem to like to mill about the streets, even at night (way more safer than Quito).  There was a small-scale riot going on the whole time we were there, but it was across the river in the university district, so we weren't really affected.  Not really sure what it was about, but we did see people cheering on the riot police heading to the scene, so my guess is that it was the usual college-kid riot.  People generally disregarded it, so we even forgot to ask people what it was about.

There was some sort of "tourist"celebration going on when we were there.  At night, we watched a free concert in the main square, which was fun (except for the group doing 70's soft rock hits in Spanish - "Killing Me Softly" and so on).  They even had fireworks. Mostly locals that were enjoying it, but there were a fair number of touristicos about, as well.


OK - just kidding, we were only in Guayaquil  for a total of an hour.  We flew back from the Galapagos to Guayaquil, Ecuador's second biggest city and its main business area, instead of Quito.  We heard kind of mixed things about the city, so we decided we would just take the bus to Cuenca without spending anytime in Guayaquil.  By some colossal bureaucratic slip-up, they built the bus station within walking distance of the airport, so we hoofed it over to catch a bus to Cuenca.

The bus ride to Cuenca was about four hours and, holy shit, was it a nail-biter.  The bus went from sea-level to 9,000 feet in what must have been about 100 kilometers.  Almost the entire length of road was under construction, there were sheer cliff walls a thousand feet high, and our driver was a madman.  When you see all of the locals on the bus clench their seats and throw up the Hail-Mary's, you know it is bad.  On the positive side, it was a beautiful ride - we went from wet, sea-level tropical to high-alpine dry in the course of a few hours.  The sun was setting out over the coast, throwing shafts of light on to the steep canyon walls we where headed over.  Luckily, we made it to Cuenca in one piece.


We got up super early, yet again, for our flight to the Galapagos from Quito.  What to say about the Galapagos?  It was amazing.  I'm not going to go into a day-by-day posting of our time there, since the days were all pretty much the same - we would get up, go for a hike with the naturalist on one of the islands, go snorkeling, eat lunch, go on another hike or snorkel, eat dinner, and go to bed while cruising to another island.  Repeat for five days.

Our boat was called the "Aida Maria" and held sixteen passengers, although there were only twelve of us on it for this cruise.  There were a scottish couple, an Israeli mother and daughter, a Swiss couple, an Austrian couple, and two young German girls.  Since there were two tables in the dining cabin, our group divided into the English speakers (us, Scots, and the Israelis) and the German speakers. There was also a naturalist, Ruben, who was our main liaison with the crew.  There were about five other crew members, but they kept to themselves, so it was kind of hard to tell exactly how many there were.  Overall, the food was great - in fact, the cook seemed to be the hardest working man on the boat.  Our "bartender" was by all accounts the most surly man every to be involved in the service industry anywhere in the world.  Part of this may have been due to the fact that the boat had absolutely no alcohol on board.  Usually, the ships make lots of money by selling booze to passengers (the only part not included in the price of the cruise).  However, the crew had apparently partied really hard the night before leaving and forgot to stock the boat with booze.  It seems that our crew had become the laughing stock of all of the other boats - as we we passed other boats, the crew members would yell out things, point to their refrigerators, make drinking motions with their hands, etc.

Anyway, we weren't their for the booze (as we all kept telling ourselves during dinner), but for the wildlife.  It was amazing.  The sea lions on the beach were oblivious to your presence.  You could literally get within inches of them (although we were told to keep a distance of two meters at all times).  Same with birds - we saw Boobies (Blue Footed and Nazca), Flamingoes, Albatross, Frigate birds, Gulls, Finches, and many others.  We saw iguanas - both land and sea ones.  While snorkeling we saw sharks, turtles, rays, and all sorts of colorful fish.  Also while snorkeling, the baby sea lions would swim up to you and play endlessly  - darting up and down, heading towards you, only to swerve away at the last minute.  It was amazing.

The only down side was the long haul between the islands.  They did them at night, so we wouldn't waste precious time during the day.  We did three of the islands (with small ones in between), but the distance between them was about a 7 hour boat ride.  This time of the year, the sea are pretty rough.  The first night, Allegra got pretty sick.  We did, however, learn two things after this: 1) always take seasick medication BEFORE you eat and 2) try to stay away from strawberry jello on rough seas.  After that night, though, things were not quite as bad.

We had a great time and wished we had more time to go to the other islands - especially the ones that had penguins and whales.  Next time.


Today we needed to head back to Quito from Banos, since we had a plane to catch the next day to the Galapagos for our "cruise."  We had a nice breakfast at our hotel (the juice here is amazing - all different kinds of fruit - some good, some weird) and went to the bus station.

The busses in Ecuador are amazing.  If you are going along the main roads (in our case, the Pan-American highway), the busses leave with alarming regularity and are super cheap - usually within the $2 USD range.  You don't need to be at a bus station - all you need is to be along the road and raise your hand up - they will stop immediately and pick you up.  We were never targets of any shady attempts to get charged more because we were foreigners (yes - I'm looking at you, Vietnam).  Also, you don't need to worry about food because there are a constant stream of people selling stuff on the bus - some places even had organized sellers who wore uniforms of blue or yellow, so you knew the merchandise was good.  There were potato chips (real ones), plantain chips, "stews," tamales, water, Coke, DVDs, candy, etc.  Basically, you could get off the bus at a town, hang out for an hour, head back to the road, and be back on a bus again without waiting for more then five minutes.  It was like having a subway that runs the length of your country.  We waited less time for a bus going half-way across Ecuador than we do for a bus in Seattle that goes five miles.

We decided to stop along the way at a small town call Latacunga for an hour or so, since it had a huge Saturday Market that attracted a lot of the indigenous population from the highlands around Cotopaxi, the big volcano in the area.  We got off the bus and hoofed it over to the market, which was actually a series of about three huge markets.  These markets were not tourist markets at all.  They sold clothes, food, food, and more food.  The town itself was pretty much a dump, but the market was awesome.

We picked up a bus again (wait time - 0 seconds) and headed off to Quito.

Devil's Bike Ride

Decided that we were going to rent some bikes today and take the road from Banos down to Puyo, a town in the Amazon.  The road is basically all downhill, so you just coast down the 60 kilometers from the high mountain country of Banos to the low-lands of the Amazon basin.

So, we found a place to rent some bikes.  I was, of course, looking for a bike that was half-way decent and in proper working order.  It seems that everyone one in town had the same model of bike (a GT mountain bike), so it was just a matter of finding one that was good enough order to ride.

Wheels?  Check.  Well, they had them, and they went around in a relatively straight fashion.

Gears?  Check.  Yes, you could actually change gears with a minimum of wrenching on the gearbox.

Seat?  Ummm....I guess you can call that thing a seat....

Brakes?  Well....yes...they had brakes that seemed to kind of work.  Anyway, it's not like we were going to ride these things down a twisty mountain road with tricks roaring past and sheer cliff walls off to.....umm...well, yea, the brakes kind of worked.

The ride did require going along the main road from Banos to Puyo which was, of course, the road that all of the trucks and busses took down to the Amazon.  The traffic wasn't that bad, however, and there were a bunch of side roads that we took along the way - mostly to avoid the tunnels that were drilled into the mountains with alarming regularity.  This was good, since we had to go through the first tunnel, which almost caused Allegra to have a coronary.

The road followed the river down, and all along the way their were amazing waterfalls were you could stop and hang out and, of course, buy some totally unique souvenirs.  The waterfalls had names like the 'Devil's Cauldron," which made me reflect on how many devil-related names there are of things down here: Devil's Crown, Devil's Mount, etc.  I guess you could call it ironic that most of these places are highly sought out now by Gringo tourists - maybe "appropriate" is more apt that "ironic"?  Anyway, lots of satanic things happening in the landscape here.

After about 30 K, we decided to pack it up and hitch a ride on a bus back up to town.  While we had originally planned to go all the way, the "seats" on the bike were getting a little rough on our backsides.  The Fauna had changed remarkably on the way down - orchids now lines the cliff sides, banana and papaya trees dangled fruit near the roadside, and the brush had gotten really jungle-like.  We hung out for a few minutes near the river, then caught a bus back up to Banos.