Friday, March 14, 2014

Ecuador Trip Jan-Feb 2014

This blog describes the trip we took to Ecuador starting January 14 and ending on Feb. 18. We were going there mainly to see the Galapagos Islands. But we decided to spend some time seeing the rest of the country because round trip airfare was fairly expensive, so we wanted more “bang for our buck”. Groupon had an 8 day Ecuador trip for $1299 (offered by Gate 1 Travel) and it included airfare, so we thought that was a good deal and we bought it. Then we had to pay extra because we were flying from California. They allowed us to delay our return flight until after our Galapagos cruise, so our 8 day tour turned into a 35 day trip. Our flight landed in Quito at 11:45PM, and we were met by a representative from Gate 1 Travel. This was very good, because the new Quito airport is about an hour away from the main part of Quito. He took us in a very nice van to the Hilton Colon, one of the best hotels in Quito. It was a relief to arrive in Quito and not feel any effects of the high elevation, except that we could feel it when we tried to pull our suitcases up an incline. Quito is at about 9300 feet in the Andes. We would recommend going a day or 2 before a tour starts to get used to the elevation. The next morning we met our tour leader, Isabel, and the other 22 people in our group. Usually when we take a tour, we go with companies which offer groups of 12-16. This larger group turned out to be just fine, with friendly people who were of varied ages and many had traveled extensively. Quito has outstanding churches, convents, museums, plazas, and historic buildings which were the key to it being named as the first world heritage city by UNESCO. Our first excursion was by bus to visit the Old Colonial section. We stopped at The Cathedral of the National Vote, the tallest church in Ecuador.
It is noteworthy that it has unique gargoyles – animals from the Galapagos on one side of the entrance, and animals from the Oriente (the rainforest in the east) on the other side.
We continued into the older section, much of which was built in the 16th century. The colonial buildings are quite stunning when they have been restored.
The streets are narrow. Usually there is a business on the ground floor and living quarters on the floors above.
Isabel took us to a store which sold Panama hats.
These are very lightweight hats woven out of toquilla straw which is grown over near the coast in Ecuador. But the hats are made by families in the southern Sierra.
The price varies a lot based on the quality. Some super-finos go for several hundred to thousands of dollars and will hold water. They were worn by men working on the Panama canal, which is where the name came from, because all of them are made in Ecuador. We continued on to Independence Square, an ornate 16th century plaza which is the political focal point of Quito. It is a popular park with a winged statue on a pillar in the center.
The plaza is surrounded by the cathedral, the Presidential Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace, and City Hall. This is the Presidential Palace
where there are uniformed guards.
We briefly visited La Compania, one of the most beautiful and extravagant churches in the Americas, with 7 tons of gold used on the ceiling, walls, and altars. The Plaza San Francisco is a huge cobbled area with the San Francisco church in the middle.
It is the oldest colonial building in the city and the largest religious complex in South America. It was begun on the site of an Inca royal house within weeks of the founding of the city in 1534. We drove out of the city to the north, heading towards Otavalo. The countryside was very dry:
Ecuador is named, of course, because the equator runs right through the country. We stopped at a monument called the Mitad Del Mundo, which means “middle of the world”. We stood with one foot on each side of the line, indicating that we had one foot in each hemisphere.
Since the real equator is a few hundred meters away, that wasn’t really true. There were many shops and vendors here, as well as restaurants and some informational museums. The center of Ecuador has 2 rows of mountains and is called the “Avenue of the Volcanoes”. There are 30 volcanoes on the mainland and 14 on the Galapagos Islands. As we drove north we passed this one:
Many of them are covered in snow year round, despite the fact that they are located very close to the equator! We expected Ecuador to be a warm place, and it is in the east and west, but in the center, the weather is cool because of the elevation in the Andes. So, if you go, bring some warm clothes!! Our hotel that night was located on the Laguna de San Pablo, not far from Otavalo. It was a beautiful hotel with many flowers on the property, and located right on the lake.
The rooms had a fireplace and because of being fairly high in elevation, we enjoyed the fire that night! The next day we took a hike to a waterfall called Cascadas de Peguche.
The hike through the park was nice because of the beautiful trees and flowers. After that, we stopped in Cotacachi, a town known for its fine leather goods, as well as other handicrafts.
The most famous market town in Ecuador is Otavalo, our next stop. The largest and best time to see it is Saturday, and we were there on Thursday, so it wasn’t busy.
A lot of the goods for sale reminded us of items we had seen on our trips to Central America, and when we visited Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Of course, you have to bargain with the vendors. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time there, because we had to start traveling through the Andes to the Termas de Papallacta. We were climbing quite a bit and passed this volcano on the way:
One of the nice things about the Gate 1 tour was the very nice hotels we enjoyed. High up in the Andes, on the way to the rainforest, we stayed at the Termas de Papallacta. These are only a few hours drive from Quito, but the elevation is about 10,000 feet. They are considered the best thermal baths in Ecuador. The rooms were nice, and were arranged around many hot springs pools, so it was easy to go directly from our room right into one of them:
Because there were so many, it was like having our own private pool. In this view you can see that the mountains towered above the area.
There are extensive spa facilities, and many people in our group paid extra to have a massage and steam room experience. Staying there was one of the highlights of our trip. The next day, we descended through the Andes towards Tena, on our way to the rainforest. Tena is one of the Oriente’s oldest towns and is a gateway to the Amazon basin. On the way there, we had amazing views of river valleys and waterfalls with the Andes in the distance:
Tena has a lot of indigenous influence because of the various groups which live in the rainforest, so we stopped to walk through the municipal market. Some of the things for sale had not been seen in other markets such as these stacks of coca leaves:
Chewing them helps people handle pain, and drinking a tea made from the leaves is used for the affects of altitude sickness. We drank some in La Paz, Bolivia a few years ago when we were quite sick from the altitude and it helped. The most surprising food on sale was these palm grubs:
The red palm weevil larvae can excavate holes in the trunks of palm trees up to a meter long and they live in the trunk. They eventually weaken and kill the tree. The indigenous people harvest them and eat them, either raw (creamy tasting), or cooked, when they taste like bacon or meat. We later ate some of these at our resort hotel and they did taste like bacon! From Tena we continued on to the Napo River where motorized canoes picked us up
and transported us to the Casa del Suizo, a very nice resort hotel right on the river:
The rooms were very spacious and open, with screens and no windows, because it is almost always hot and humid there. This was the view from our veranda.
It was so nice to sit out in the warm air after the chilly temps in the Andes. There were very nice swimming pools, with the bar and buffet areas around the pools, and the food here was delicious (buffet style). After our arrival, we were issued rubber boots, and then boarded the boats to go to a nearby island to hike to an indigenous village. On the hike we were accompanied by some of the local kids, and our guides told us about the plants, animals, and lifestyle of the locals. Here is a picture of a couple of the houses:
We went inside and the mother showed us how she makes chicha, a staple beverage made of yucca which they drink everyday and which is fermented. We tried it but none of us liked it. Later we went outside and learned how to use a blow gun, which they use to hunt animals. The next day we did a long rainforest hike, and we were glad we had brought rain ponchos and had rubber boots because it rained off and on all morning. In the afternoon our guides took us in the boats to an animal rescue place, so we could see some of the rainforest animals. There were lots of monkeys, birds, turtles, and other more exotic animals, such as peccaries,
caiman, ocelot, and tapirs. They also had quite a few parrots, macaws and toucans:
Some animals will eventually be released, but some will never be released because they have become too accustomed to people. The next day our boats took us back to the bus and we started climbing the Andes again, heading for the town of Banos. The mountain flora was very green and thick on this side of the mountains:
There is a road from Puyo to Banos called the Ruta de las Cascadas (route of the waterfalls) which runs through the Pastaza valley, and it goes through lots of tunnels and along the Green River. The most impressive waterfall on this route is the Pailon del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron), so we stopped at the parking area and hiked the trail to get to the viewing area.
It is a dramatic waterfall tumbling between vertical walls into a deep depression. On the way back to the bus, we passed an indigenous family who allowed us to take a picture of their son wearing one of the popular animal hats we saw for sale in every market.
We then moved on to an area of the river where there were several cable cars crossing the river, with waterfalls on the other side:
In 2010 a huge landslide in this area caused one waterfall to split into 2:
Our group went over and back in this cable car and it only cost $1 each. In Banos, Isabel took us on a tour of the town and treated us to a taste of a local delicacy: cuy (guinea pig). They were roasting them in the market area:
People have been eating them for a long time here because they can grow them easily in small areas, such as yards. Nowadays, they are fairly expensive – about $20 per animal. Isabel had the seller hack it up into small pieces so we could all taste it. I found it to be bony, full of fat and gristle, and not something I wanted to eat again. There were also lots of guys pulling candy that looked like taffy, so she bought some of that for us to taste as well: too sweet and hard. The most interesting place we went was to a tagua nut carving shop. This is what a tagua nut case looks like when it comes off the tree:
It has 70 to 100 little nuts in it. The artisan chops off the protective brown casing with a machete and then puts each small nut on a machine to use chisels and other tools to form it into things like buttons, jewelry, chess sets, and carvings.
They call it vegetable ivory because after it is carved, and dyed, it hardens and looks like ivory.
The place we stayed that night was outside of Patate and was a hacienda. Throughout the Sierra are these relics of former estates which date back to the 16th and 17th centuries when the Spanish allocated large tracts to Spanish families. Land reforms have broken them up and many of them now offer lodging as a means to earn the cash to keep the large houses. We stayed at the Hacienda Manteles:
Besides the large estate house, there were rooms in some of the outer buildings. There was a volcano nearby which we could barely see from the yard because of the clouds, but this picture shows the topography and how the land is divided into working plots
One of the vegetables we had been eating was tree tomatoes, which we had never heard of before:
There were lots of the tree tomato plants in fields near this hacienda:
The food here was very good, but Elaine missed it because she was sick. The next day we stopped at the local school:
We had all been carrying school supplies because we knew we were going to have this visit. The kids were all lined up when we arrived:
They looked very nice in their uniforms, which are provided free by the government. They did a song for us, we sang one for them, we all played a game together, we presented them with the school supplies, and everyone had a fun time. We got to see some of the school rooms:
Then we went to a rose plantation. We had been seeing lots of long white tent-like greenhouses in the mountains, and there were some of these at the plantation, as well as some varieties grown outside.
Roses and flowers are number 4 on the export list of Ecuadorian products. They were getting ready for Valentine’s Day and were packing a lot of the long-stemmed ones:
This is one industry that employs mostly women. There was another hacienda nearby, so we stopped there for a delicious lunch. A very good band came in to perform for us after lunch:
On our way back to Quito, we stopped in Salasaka where there was a very good indigenous market. Many of our fellow travelers were going home the next day, so they really bought lots of stuff.
There was an indigenous band here who performed for us,
and the women did a dance.
This town also had many shops that sold jeans, and the manikins were out in front. In Ecuador, the women wear REALLY tight jeans, or tight leggings (except not the indigenous women). Just around the corner was one of the few llama families we had seen:
When we were in Chile in 2001, we saw lots of llamas, alpacas, and guanacos, so we were surprised that we didn’t see many here. They were just not plentiful in the areas we visited. Sadly, that was the last day of our Gate1 tour. We all had a Happy Hour together at the hotel lounge and said goodbye. It was an excellent tour and we would highly recommend Gate 1 Travel. The motto of the company is “more of the world for less”. If you look at their tour prices, they are very reasonable and usually include airfare. Our guide was outstanding, the tour was well paced, we saw lots of things we wouldn’t have on our own, the bus and driver were good, and our hotels were excellent; far nicer and more expensive than we usually stay in when we travel on our own. Right across the street from the Hilton was Parque el Ejido, where there was this:
Quito has many large and well-kept parks which are heavily used and enjoyed by the people. We went over to take this picture, then caught a taxi to our homestay apartment. We had arranged it using and it was certainly reasonable at $20/night. This is the living room:
We like to stay in apartments when we can so we can make morning coffee and fix a few of our own meals. It is often quieter than hotels as well. There was a large supermarket within a block, and it was near the Mariscal Sucre area, also known as “gringoland”. There are lots of restaurants and places to stay here, so most tourists stay in this area. Quito has several trolley lines, ( $.25 per ride) one of which ran right by our apartment. So we were planning to enjoy more Quito sightseeing, but Elaine was still sick. For 3 days we mostly stayed in the apartment, which would have been boring except I used the time to do travel planning for our next weeks in Ecuador. Thankfully, good internet was always available in our hotels and apartments. Finally I rented another apartment nearby for 3 more days. Here is the view from the window of that apartment:
Elaine started to get better because she took antibiotics, which we always carry with us. This enabled us to sightsee. The most highly recommended museum was the Casa de la Cultura, and it was free. It includes more than 1500 pieces of pre-Inca pottery,
gold artifacts such as this mask
and colonial and contemporary art. There is a very reasonably priced Hop on – Hop off tourist bus, and we enjoyed a 3 hour tour which took us all over the city, which is extensive. It goes right down the narrow streets in Colonial Old Town:
The highest point we went was to El Panecillo, a 30 meter aluminum statue of the Virgin of Quito
which you can see from all over town. La Ronda is one of the best-preserved colonial streets in Old Town, and it is filled with painted balconies, shops, tiny art galleries, and cafes.
We enjoyed it on a Sunday, and especially because it is pedestrian only. We used El Trole for our excursions and although all the guidebooks have big warnings about pickpockets, we were careful and didn’t have any problems. The next day we took a taxi to the bus station. Taxis are fairly reasonable and were helpful when we had our luggage. The public bus to Banos was also very reasonable: about $1 per hour of travel. The ride to Banos was about 5 hours and cost $6. There is supposedly a rule that people can’t ride standing up on a long-distance bus, but our bus continually stopped to pick up locals along the way, and drop them off, and the aisle was full. They also showed movies, and they were very sexually explicit, which greatly surprised us. As we approached Banos, we saw more and more indigenous people:
In Banos, we stayed at a hotel called Jardin de Mariane, (Mariane’s Garden), largely because it was located on the edge of town and might be quieter. Here is Elaine in the courtyard, in front of our room:
The great thing about the courtyard was that there were tables and benches out there and we ended up meeting a Canadian couple and 2 American couples who were all staying there. They were so much fun that we ended up going out to dinner together:
They were all staying in Ecuador for 3 months, having rented places over on the coast near Salinas. They were just on a short sightseeing trip when we met them. The next day we all went on a bus tour together to see more sights around Banos, and do some of the cable cars and zip lines along the Green River.
The next day was Elaine’s birthday, and here she is having Happy Hour with the guys while the ladies went shopping.
We took them all to the tagua nut shop, and Elaine got a new vegetable ivory necklace and earrings as her birthday gift.
Banos is named for the hot springs that are prevalent in the area. It means “baths”. We went to see the one just down the street from our hotel and here it is:
The green water wasn’t very appealing but it supposedly was from the minerals. We didn’t try going in. It was time to move on so we took the public bus to Riobamba and intended to go from there to Loja, but were told we had to go to Cuenca first. The total bus time would have been about 12 hours, so we changed our plans and decided to just stay longer in Cuenca and skip going further south. Cuenca is the 3rd largest city in Ecuador and is the most popular place for ex-pats to settle. Because it is about 1000 feet lower than Quito, it is warmer. It is the most beautiful city in Ecuador and comparatively safe. It was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1996. There is a very large colonial section and we stayed there the first night in an old colonial hotel.
It was charming but it was on the corner of 2 busy streets and was very noisy. The next day we moved to our homestay, arranged through airbnb.
It had a language school on the first floor, 3 rented rooms for students on the second floor, and our bedroom and bathroom on the 3rd floor. It worked out beautifully because we could use the kitchen on the first floor, and it was in a quiet location. The most impressive building in Cuenca is the so called, new cathedral
It was begun in 1880 and it replaced the old cathedral from 1557, which is right across the plaza. It has beautiful domes in the back which are covered in blue mosaic tiles:
It is stunning inside because it has lots of pink marble pillars, a gold leaf altar, and stained glass windows from Belgium and Germany. Cuenca has lots of impressive churches. We continually seemed to be walking past this one (Santo Domingo), which was especially impressive at night.
We explored the city mostly on foot, although we enjoyed the tourist bus again too. The municipal market was huge and impressive
and very busy. There were lots of food stalls with delicious offerings, and a whole row of them offered this:
Cuenca has 4 rivers running through it, and along the Rio Tomebamba was the Museo del Banco Central which has the best archeological displays outside of Quito. Between this museum and the river are the archeological ruins called Pumapongo. This town was one of the major Inca cities outside of Macchu Picchu, and there is very little left here except quite a number of terraces on the hillside and this recreation of an Inca house:
Walking along the rivers was always a pleasant way to explore the town:
Near the Inca ruins there was a bird and animal sanctuary with some nice displays, such as these cuties:
The nearby town of Chordeleg is known for making and selling jewelry, especially filigree jewelry. This is delicate looking jewelry because it is made with tiny beads or twisted threads, or both, soldered together in artistic ways. It is like lace, and very popular in Indian and Asian metalwork. It has been around since the 5th century BC. We had first seen it in Portugal. So we took a bus to the town, which was a small, clean, delightful place loaded with jewelry stores. The cathedral is quite different and impressive, as well:
I didn’t get a very good picture of any filigree earrings, but here are some peacocks:
You can get any kind of jewelry or statues, plus regular jewelry, and if you are good at bargaining, very good prices. We made a day-long outing of it and enjoyed a nice lunch there too. In Ecuador, the fixed menu lunch is always a good bargain and is called an “almuerzo”. It costs between $1.75 and $4 and includes a soup, juice, usually a choice of meat such as chicken or pork, rice or potatoes, a veggie or salad, and dessert. The fixed menu dinner is “merienda” and priced just a bit higher. One noteworthy event happened 2 days after we arrived in Cuenca. We noticed a lot of grit all over the terrace, outside stairs, and streets. It was volcanic ash which had been blown south from an eruption of the volcano near Banos. If we had stayed in Banos 2 more days, we would have been stuck there because the roads were closed from the eruption. It brought home to us that many of these people live in areas where their lives can be seriously impacted at any time by the many volcanoes which add such beauty to the topography. The Cuenca zoo had been moved outside of town and was supposed to be a good place to get a walk/hike as well as see animals indigenous to Ecuador. We took a taxi out there and discovered that the zoo was very rustic, by American standards, but we did see some animals and we got some exercise. There were quite a few types of monkeys
The Andean spectacled bear is South America’s only bear and is a close relative to the spectacled bear of Florida. Cuenca zoo has a couple but we never saw them because they had quite a large and forested enclosure and they were hiding in it, but here is the picture on the sign:
Tapirs look kind of like large pigs with a small trunk but they are related to horses and rhinos. They are found extensively in forests and grasslands in South America.
The puma is sometimes called the cougar and is one of the largest cats in the country
The ocelot is one of the prettiest, but is rapidly becoming endangered.
There were lots of other zoo animals but I won’t extend this any longer with more pictures. We were lucky when we left the zoo because some other ladies were leaving and had a taxi waiting so we got to share it with them. Taxis in Cuenca rarely cost more than $2 in the central area, but cost more than $5 from the zoo because it was so far out of town. One thing we noticed all over town was wheelbarrows of fruits and veggies being sold by indigenous people, especially women.
It amazed us that anyone could make a daily living selling a small amount of fruit each day. They usually had their small children with them, and they had to amuse themselves while Mom worked. Then we learned that the average monthly income was about $350. Of course, these people weren’t living like we were as tourists, staying in hotels which usually cost $40 per night and eating meals out for $4-12 a meal. We were intrigued by what we had read about ex-pats moving to Cuenca, so when a woman invited us to attend a Ladies Lunch, we went. It was at a nice restaurant and all the ladies were from America or Canada. Some people call these people “economic refugees” because they move there to have a low cost of living. One lady was renting a 3 story house for $350/mo. It was unfurnished, so she had to deal with that. Some ladies were in nice, furnished apartments or condos overlooking one of the rivers for $650/mo. There is good government health care at a very low cost. Because there are lots of gringos around, they have an active social life, as well as enjoying the mild year-round climate and amenities of this interesting city. The next night we went to Gringo night at one of the pizza places. Besides having a delicious meal at a very reasonable price, with local Pilsener beer for $1 (600ml), we met a few single men who had been living down there for a few years, and learned more about the ex-pat situation. There are several blogs and websites which give more information about this, and which help all these people keep abreast of the activities happening in their community. Not wanting to ride a crowded bus for 12 hours back to Quito, we flew back, and stayed overnight at the Hosteria San Carlos, one of the few hotels located near the new Quito airport.
It was a nice place, in a very small town, but it had an early morning shuttle service back to the airport for our early flight to the Galapagos Islands. Like most buildings in Ecuador, it was behind big walls and you have to ring a bell at the gate to get in. At this hotel, most people were Canadians or Americans waiting for flights, so we had a lively group sitting outside at Happy Hour sharing travel tips and Ecuador stories. Some of the events these people experienced made our trip seem bland in comparison! The next morning we flew to the Galapagos Islands and started the adventure which is described in the other blog post.


jil said...

Very nice report…brought back many good memories...

dorothy mitchell said...

What a great trip. loved seeing the pics and you two looking so happy and relaxed and of course "living the dream".. good for you.. Dorothy and Jeff

CaliforniaGrammy said...

Fabulous trip and you tell about it so well, Mary. Thanks for taking us on yet ANOTHER part of the world! I mean, who's not to love a bacon-tasting grub!

Betty Prange, Nomad, from somewhere on the road said...

Brought back great memories. I too got to stay at the hot springs at Papallacta...nice and relaxing. Time in Quito, Cuenca, Otovallo, Gallapagos. So, it was fun to see your photos and hear your stories.
Name hasn't made it high enough at list at Park of Sierras yet, but hopefully this the paperwork from Yellowstone as I am returning there to work