Friday, February 29, 2008

Dispatch 35 Ecuador

January 22-February 17
We loved Ecuador. It is beautiful, inexpensive, friendly with lovely local crafts.

Panama City had begun to grate on our nerves. It is a large, dirty city that has everything a boater could need (mostly) but none of it is easy to access. It is hot and humid. So we decided to enjoy Ecuador as many of our friends had done only we decided to fly there and stay in the Andes, avoid the coast and the jungle for this trip.

We found a mooring for the boat, packed a couple backpacks and flew into Quito. There we were rewarded with cool weather. Although Ecuador is on the equator, the whole trip we stayed at 5000 feet elevation or above. Quito, at 9350 feet, is the second highest capital city in the world behind La Paz, Bolivia. Not only were we cool but the first part of our visit we were breathless as well! Quito is a large city, 1.4 million people, and is sprawled along a mountain valley. The old town is a beautiful colonial section which is actively restored. There we stayed for our first 3 days and walked much of the central part of the city. There are churches representing all factions of Catholicism, the Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits and others I can’t remember. One church is filled with decorations in gold leaf with influences of Moorish style as well as colonial. When part of it was burned in a fire, the replacement of that section cost 4 million dollars mining the population for artisans who still remembered the carving and gold leaf application crafts of the original building. There was a museum with a fantastic exhibit of indigenous art from BC to the present representing the many groups from coastal, to mountain to Amazon. Just when we thought we were getting a handle on the indigenous art of the NW native tribes, we boggled our minds with a whole new set of inputs. Fantastic. We took a de rigeur side trip to the Mitad del Mundo, center of the world, where a monument marks the equator crossing, sort of. It turns out that the monument is built about 200 yards off the equator according to modern GPS measurements. However, fascinatingly enough, there are indigenous monuments being discovered along the true equator by archeologists now that GPS tells us exactly where it is. Those indigenous people were excellent astronomers!

Next we left the big city and headed south along the spine of the Andes. We had a fabulously beautiful bus trip along a surprisingly good road perched precariously on the side of the mountain. We shared the road with llamas and their owners returning from market, cows, horses and sheep staked on grassy stretches along the road. We got off in Zumbahua late morning of their big market day. This town is small, mostly indigenous folks surrounded by their farms and is at around 12,400 feet altitude. We enjoyed the market and a festival which we happened to arrive for which included high school students doing folklorico dancing in native clothes of various regions in the country. That was a blast. We noticed some odd behaviors of the children—they were spraying each other with a type of foam like shaving cream in cans and with squirt guns. Occasional water balloons would be thrown. It was a few days until we understood what that was all about as the behavior escalated toward Carnaval time. More on that in a few. Our night in Zumbahua was COLD. We stayed at a tiny hotel and the owner joined us to chat while we ate supper at her restaurant. She was 8 years younger than me with 5 children and 3 grandchildren. The indigenous people have large families as a rule as we learned. They are so tiny that every time we met them and their children, I misjudged the children’s ages by up to 3 years and typically the infants by 3 months. The women wear skirts 100% of the time—while farming, walking in town, traveling on buses, etc. They also wear bowler style hats (like men’s hats) while the men wore jeans and baseball caps. It is a bit bewildering to me why the women stay in skirts when it is so cold, but when one squatted in front of us on the trail, presumably to empty her bladder, with perfect modesty, the style appeared to pay off.

We had met an American couple in the town before Zumbahua and taken the bus with them although they carried on to the next town, Quilatoa, As happened many times to us along this gringo trail, the next morning when we took a truck to Quilatoa and started walking around the crater lake there, we ran into Nicole and Eric and spent the next few days with them. Quilatoa is a tiny village which boasts the Laguna Quilatoa, really a beautiful emerald color crater lake from an old volcano. We arrived to fog and then got peek a boo views of the lake as we circled it from 1000 feet up on a trail. It was gorgeous. We then started walking with Eric, Nicole and Phillippe, a Frenchman with whom our only shared language was Spanish. I spoke French with him and with a Swiss couple along the trail, rather it was franol (French, Espanol) as I called it, but he understood quite well. If I didn’t know how to say something in French, I’d say it in Spanish and vice versa.

We walked to the next town over, Chugchilan, a 7.5 mile walk down the sides of the mountain that the crater was in and up a hill to the town. Quilatoa is at 12,600 feet elevation and Chugchilan at 10,500 feet. We were fairly well acclimatized by that point, but it was still work with our packs. The trail is well used but is quite precarious in spots, at times carved between stone walls, at other times switch backing down a very steep hillside. It was, however, stunningly beautiful. We passed indigenous people working their fields through the day. As we passed by a house in a tiny village on the way, 2 kids approached Phillippe and Eric and seemed to offer them water, or so they thought, until they were drenched by the buckets. They were followed by the father of the family who chased the guys with a bucket of water. Subsequently we were water ballooned and sprayed by water by kids along the way and finally we began to understand that this was the harmless fun enjoyed for weeks ahead of Carnaval, climaxing on the day before Ash Wednesday. We learned to be very wary of kids, especially those perched on rooftops or balconies.

We had a delightful time in Chugchilan despite fairly awful weather. The hostal we stayed at was so delightfully friendly. The collected visitors there were an international assortment which makes for great fun. There was a common room with drinks/snacks on an honor system and a wood stove which came in very handy to dry our clothes and warm ourselves after our outdoor adventures in the rain. Dinner and breakfast were included in the $10 per person hotel rate and the food was delicious—even the French travelers raved about it—very high praise indeed! During dinner, sometimes Spanish was the only common language but I very much enjoyed exercising my French during this trip as well since our next major crossing brings us into French territory after almost 3 years speaking Spanish! As usual, the Europeans we met (German, French, Swiss, Italian) often spoke English as well as their own language and at least one other.

The kitchen staff at the hostal was super friendly as well as cooking wonderfully. One afternoon we warmed up with hot chocolate and it was the richest treat we’d ever had. They use whole milk (more on that later too) and gave us a whole pot of hot chocolate to share. We were in heaven.

Our second day in Chugchilan, six of us took off with a guide on horseback to visit the cloud forest nearby. Unlike our Costa Rica cloud forest experience, this one felt more authentic; in other words, we stayed in a cloud the whole day. It rained steadily and was foggy most of the time. We climbed over a pass on the horses and saw absolutely no vistas despite being assured it was glorious scenery. The horses were kept moving by our guide so we trotted and cantered much of the way. It became so muddy that the horses often slipped on the trail/road, but our guide assured us they were “quatro por quarto”, four-by-four and had excellent footing even if their feet slipped occasionally. We left our sodden horses tied to trees and entered the narrow trail down into the cloud forest on foot. Slippery, muddy feet. The mud got up to ankle deep and we were all filthy messes by the end of the day. However, it was beautiful in the forest and our guide introduced us to the plants there. We walked for an hour during which we heard a landslide across the hillside from us. That was a bit eerie as we felt pretty vulnerable on the steep slope we were hiking. But we emerged unscathed if wet and muddy and rode the horses back to the hostal. The path took us back through the center of the village and, by then, the horses had smelled the proverbial barn (they live outside) and were trotting happily of their own accord. We clattered through the stone streets like the returning posse of lawmen, huge smiles plastered on our faces after the exhilarating adventure. It was a marvelous day.

Upon return, we were able to have hot soup, hot chocolate, hot showers, rinse then hang our clothes and shoes by the woodstove and generally settle in companionably and multilingually.

The hostal had another delightful feature that we hadn’t known about. As we sat around the lounge together waiting for dinner, a group of 6 little girls arrived in indigenous costumes (well, they were indigenous, I guess costume isn’t the right word). Again, I thought they were 5 to 8 years old but they turned out to be 8 to 12 year olds and they confidently shook every guest’s hand, said “Buenas noches” and proceeded to set up a boom box and position themselves for dancing. The girls did several folk dances including one with a sort of maypole, held by one of the guests while they braided fabric strands in a dance around the pole, then unbraided them perfectly ending exactly at the end of the music. The evening show was absolutely marvelous and, again to our surprise, the last number was audience participation. These tiny girls each grabbed one of us (those who had seen the show the night before were exempted) and danced folk dance with us. It was an absolute riot especially when they tried a maneuver where we were to parade under the upraised joined arms of two of the girls. It’s hard to bend that far down at our age!

The next day, several of us decided to carry on to the next part of our trip. The only ways out of Chugchilan are on a bus at 3 or 4 AM or the camionetta de leche (milk truck) that comes at around 8:30 AM. We elected the milk truck and were highly entertained by the experience. In the countryside in Ecuador, a frequent form of transportation is a pick-up truck. That is, whoever owns one and is driving picks up anyone who signals their interest in a ride. You bang on the window from the back to signal your destination. They charge little, maybe up to a dollar, for the trip although the milk truck is so often used that they charged us $2 each as I recall. The pickups usually have a plastic tarp to throw on if it starts to rain and bars around the edges and down the middle to hold onto as one is standing, not sitting, to make room for all the riders.

When we loaded into the truck in the morning—there were 7 of us gringos—the truck was already nearly full with boxes, plastic containers and the milk barrels before we got on. But the two guys working the truck made room for us on top of and around things and we managed. Nicole and I were at the front, the working end of the truck bed where the milk was both collected and dispensed from 50 gallon drums and thus we ended up helping with the pouring of the milk. The distribution is this: every time we passed a farm with cows, they would signal that they had milk, bring out the raw milk, just warm from the cows, in whatever container they had—buckets, jerry cans, and, the worst, an antifreeze container, and we would pour the milk into the large drums—floating sticks, leaves and other debris included. When we would pass somewhere that they needed milk, we would be handed a bucket or other container and fill it from the same drums. Remember the delicious hot chocolate, best ever? Well, our hostal was one of the recipients of the milk truck milk. We’re talking fresh milk with all the cream! No wonder it was so rich!

Meanwhile we were driving through some of the most stunning scenery we’d ever seen. The countryside is steeply mountainous with tilled fields up to the summit of nearly every mountain. It is richly green and textured, dotted with cows, sheep, llamas, pigs, horses. We all forgot our discomfort at being crowded and standing precariously in the bed of a bumping pick-up truck in our exhilaration. Well, then it started to rain. An old heavy tarp was pulled out and we draped it over ourselves, but the milk work never stopped. We would emerge from the tarp slightly at each stop and collect or dispense milk as needed. We were still all grinning at each other because it was so entertaining. I so far haven’t mentioned the half dozen other people we picked up including a woman with a baby of about a year old. Oh, and the constant “threat” of water balloon attack at each settlement, of course, once it started raining it hardly mattered.

A couple hours later we arrived at another town where we could catch a real bus to the highway and our next destinations. The bus didn’t leave for 4 hours and it was steadily raining, and, as luck would have it, we ran into a woman who was about to go to our next city in a friend’s pick-up and offered to bring us all in the bed of the pick-up to defray her cost a little. We jumped at the chance. Alas, this pick-up had no bars and no tarp so we had to hold a plastic paint cloth over us to stay dry. We settled on the bed of the pick-up in a dog pile lying across one another and holding the tarp and rode for another 2 uncomfortable hours to our destination. I was amused imagining our arrival as the pick-up driven by Ecuadorians (the official passenger was in the front with the driver) suddenly threw off its tarp and up sprang 7 gringos! Nobody in Ecuador ever seems surprised or upset by these scenes—they take it all in stride. We stopped at a roadside stand before our destination where they made tortillas with cheese inside (muy rico said our host,) and we all enjoyed the road food before we arrived in the city. There we went our separate ways only to meet again down the road on the gringo trail.

Richard and I stayed at a hotel in this city Latacunga where we had stayed before we headed on the Quilatoa loop. We had left one of our large packs there, consolidating for our hike, and we picked up our pack and had our muddy clothes laundered. Our hotel hostess was very chatty and always invited us to coffee or hot chocolate when we arrived. She chattered away in mostly intelligible Spanish and we learned that the middle class certainly don’t seem to like the current president among other conversations. Latacunga was gearing up for Carnaval too and the water throwing and foam were in hot action among the teenagers in town. We noted that the lovely town park/square in front of our hotel was closed at dark. Apparently I learned the next day, the drunks in town hang out there and some violence occurred among drunks so the town just closed the square at dark.

Our next destination was Banos. We had heard wonderful things about Banos from fellow boaters who had been in Ecuador and we looked forward to being there. It is a resort type town and reminded me very much of a ski resort style place. There were souvenir shops everywhere, a wide range of hotels and restaurants from very fancy to very basic. The town is known for its sweet treats including sugar cane to chew on and sugar cane juice, a marmalade-textured fruit concoction shaped and decorated into molds and taffy. At every taffy shop, there’s a guy pulling the taffy on a hook on the wall. We tried all the treats and, truth is, as much of a sweet tooth as we have, they overwhelmed our sweet appetite. We threw away some of the taffy ultimately wishing to hang on to our teeth, fillings and crowns for a bit longer. The name of the town comes from the natural hot springs that bubble into the area. Several pools have been constructed to enjoy the hot springs. This is a destination for Ecuadorians as well as tourists from other countries and, as we were there the weekend before Carnaval, it was very crowded by the weekend. We ended up staying there for 5 days because it was truly delightful. We found a hotel for $20/night that had a huge room with a king size bed overlooking the beautiful waterfall just above the hotspring pools at the edge of town. We could listen to and see the waterfall from our bed. We almost never left Banos we were so comfortable!

The town is in a valley surrounded by very steep mountainsides. Just behind the first ridge above us towered the active volcano Tungurahua which translates to “Little Hell” according to my guide book. We spent a day walking up the steep hillside next to us to several overlooks including one that was supposed to show us the volcano. Alas, the volcano drew clouds to itself and stayed shrouded even if the rest of the sky was pretty clear. That’s because it was continuously belching steam and ash in small amounts. We heard a steam explosion while we picnicked near the overlook. On several occasions we could watch the black smoke rise from the top of the volcano even if the mountain itself wasn’t visible. Since the mountain has been active to this extent for several years, nobody really thinks much about it. As it turned out, 2 days after we left Banos, the volcano erupted in the biggest eruption since 2004, spewing lava and much more smoke and ash and the town was partially evacuated. We were by then in Riobamba, perhaps 30 miles away, and they had ash on the streets that morning—appropriately so as the eruption occurred at 2 AM on Ash Wednesday!!

Banos afforded us as many activities as we could choose to do. One could mountain climb, go rafting, hiking, soak in the hot springs, ride mountain bikes down the trail of waterfalls, take trips into the Amazon jungle just to the west of us down the slopes of the Andes. We hiked the one day. Then the next day we rented mountain bikes (for $5 for the whole day) and rode 17 miles or so down the road toward the jungle. Waterfalls cascade down the river gorge regularly and spectacularly and we otherwise had a lovely sunny day. We walked down to Pialon del Diablo, the most spectacular waterfall and lunched there. The road was literally mostly downhill losing about 1200 feet of elevation. So, when it is time to return to Banos, everyone takes a truck or bus back. We ended in Rio Negro, a town on the road, had an ice cream, and suddenly, there was a regular bus coming our way. Without missing a beat, we flagged down the bus, they nonchalantly threw our bikes in the luggage compartment (happens all the time) and we loaded on for the trip to Banos. We also enjoyed the hot springs in Banos needless to say.

The weekend before Carnaval was a madhouse. Tourists from all over the country as well as various of us gringos filled the town. Kids were spraying foam at each other and occasionally at a gringo who happened to catch their fancy (which we did needless to say). Water was thrown or squirted. Spirits were high. Saturday night there was a parade through the streets. It wasn’t really a Carnaval/costume extravaganza, more like a civic parade like the 4th of July might bring, but, it was in very high spirits. We especially enjoyed the juxtaposition (twice) of a group of kids dancing followed by a geriatric group also dancing. There was a beauty queen type float where Miss Nature had on only a bathing suit bottom and body paint on top, but, overall, the costume part was restrained.

We left Banos sadly and headed to Riobamba to position ourselves to take a famous train ride down the Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose), another tourist “must”. Well, Riobamba was by far the most rowdy of the teenage water throwing locales for Carnaval. We got nailed by a pick-up of teenagers (who drove around with 50 gallon drums full of water to drench each other in red light water fights and throw on sidewalk pedestrians.) I heard them say something about “las touristas” just before we got soaked and as they drove by they were laughing and giving us the thumbs up for our good nature at taking the drenching like a good Ecuadorian. I don’t think we really had a choice. From then on we never walked with our back to traffic and we tended to veer off into parks and stores as the most rowdy pick-ups went by. We were glad when Carnaval was finally over!

Before we left the area, we took a couple buses that our book said were the most glorious scenic bus rides in the country. Alas, the morning we headed out, it was completely foggy. The road went over a pass at 4000 meters (13,000 feet) and passes within 6 miles of the largest volcano in the country, Chimborazo, at 6310 meters (20,702 feet) and another volcano at 5020 meters (16,470 feet). Miraculous, at the highest point in the road, the fog suddenly cleared and revealed most of Chimborazo, a mountain shaped much like Mt. Rainier with permanent glaciers on the top. It was spectacular. The last part of the trip into Riobamba we were able to see many of the volcanos at a distance around the town and it was beautiful. We saw the innocently steaming Tungurahua just hours from its big explosion.

We had been warned that the best part of the famous train ride was being able to ride on the roof, but, sadly, tourists were no longer allowed to do that since a Japanese tourist had been killed while riding on the roof. We still wanted to see the bit of train travel as it is famous for the difficulty in building. The hillside is so steep, at 2 spots, the train backs down a switchback because there was not enough room for a curve to be built. The train is no longer in active use, just this one section is preserved for tourists but it was once a part of an extensive train system now replaced by the Pan American highway. We had to bus to a tiny town Alausi from where we could take the small section of train trip down and back the Devil’s Nose. They run trains as long as there are tourists that want to ride so we got on the second train of the day. We pulled out of the station a ways down the track, just beyond view of town and the tickets were collected by an assistant who quietly told us we could ride on the roof for a dollar each. They stopped the train (where nobody could see) and the majority of us piled up on the roof and enjoyed the spectacular scenery from there. Suspiciously, they stopped the train just before town on the return and had us all climb back inside. We assume the driver and assistant had a small business on the side, but it was a win-win for us tourists, so what the hell.

We then caught a bus to Cuenca, the colonial jewel of the south according to the book. Indeed it was the most beautiful city and small enough to feel more manageable than Quito. There we enjoyed an amazing museum with an archaelogical site attached and attended an evening symphony concert of the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra. As to the latter, it made us appreciate our large city symphonies in the US as, shall we say, the quality of the performance was noticeably different. We enjoyed it all the same. And, as always, we ran into travelers we had met elsewhere.

Having spent one 8 hour day in the public transportation system of the country, we decided that a 12 hour bus ride to return to Quito wasn’t really what we wanted at that point so we sprung for the plane ride back and were happy we did. It was simple, not that expensive and worth it. The buses in Ecuador are fantastic and we never want to give the impression we didn’t appreciate them. They leave often, on time, travel everywhere and are cheap--$1 per hour is the standard rate. A 2.5 hour bus ride costs $2.50 apiece. Buying a ticket at the station guarantees a seat which is advisable as most buses end up crowded with standing room only as soon as they leave town. While we never saw chickens aboard, many of the indigenous people seemed to bring not only 3 or 4 children but sometimes their new puppies who were carried like little babies. The bus drivers, just like everywhere else we’ve been, are racing everyone else on the road and pass on blind curves, uphill, downhill, with opposing traffic coming. Whatever. The beauty of a crowded bus is the inability to easily see out and watch the antics of the driver. Inside we were treated to anything from loud Spanish rap music to traditional Andean music (which we like but it became very repetitive after a while especially because it seems like there’s only 3-4 tunes…) to the usual violent shoot ‘em up, beat ‘em up stuff dubbed in Spanish to Disney movies in English and subtitled in Spanish.

We went through Quito from the airport to the bus terminal and hopped on a bus to Mindo, a “new”-ish resort location. It is known for its bird-watching and another cloud forest and we hoped to do some hiking and bird-watching as well as just relax in beautiful surroundings. In this instance, bad weather definitely affected our experience. Mindo is a town that has not yet grown into its popularity with tourists. In other words, little has been developed in terms of infrastructure. Our friends had given us the name of a hostal run by a very friendly family who also does bird watching trips. Alas the hostal is charming but flimsily constructed and every sound could be heard everywhere in the 4 room chalet. So we were treated to the long hours of conversation and laughing from down below, the creaking of the hammock until the wee hours while they talked and then the intimate sounds as the couples took to their own rooms. The next day we took a hike up to the waterfall trail in clear weather in the morning. The rains for the previous days had made the road virtually impassable due to mud. We walked and watched while a couple cars/trucks got stuck in the mud. Needless to say, our shoes didn’t stay pristine. The trail in the cloud forest to the waterfalls was beautiful as were the falls themselves, but it was muddy and steep. Still it was a lovely trip. Again it started to rain in the afternoon and we got back to town muddy and wet longing for a hot shower. Alas, not only did the hostal not have hot water at that time, they didn’t have running water as, most days we found out, the water pressure is too low to get to the second floor where we were staying. Ugh. The family was quite nice about it, yet, there was nothing they could do and it was not until early the next morning that the water pressure recovered enough for us to have hot showers. We were up early because we had decided to cut our losses and catch the 6:30 AM bus to our next destination. We saw lots of birds in our wanderings but chose not to hire a guide given the weather.

Next stop; Otavalo, a town well known for its artisans. In this town, at their huge marketplace, one can buy any of the many crafts we had seen throughout the country. We had mostly held off on buying things because we didn’t want to carry them so we were primed to buy in Otavalo. The town and our hostal did much to improve our spirits after Mindo (hot water showers at any time of day went a long way to help). We shopped, took a lovely hike/walk at a volcanic lake near town. We walked up to 13,000 feet on the trail and had a cold but beautiful view day. We went to the local museum and enjoyed much about the town. By then Richard had caught a cold and was a little less energetic than usual so we took it easy. We finally went back to Quito for our last couple days. There we took the Teleferico, the gondola up from town (9350 feet) to the top of one of the mountains at 13,450 feet. Wouldn’t you know it, the rainy, cloudy day we chose to do it, the clouds closed in a few hundred feet before the summit so, while we had good views of the city on the way up, there was nothing to see at the summit, literally, nothing. It was a wonderful ride though.

Ecuador was one of our most favorite destinations. Alas, we tried to download some of the many fantastic pictures from our travels at one of the internet locales only to find the CD we thought we’d loaded them on was empty so a good portion of the center of our trip is not represented. Still there are many great pictures and wonderful memories not to speak of beautiful crafts and warm Alpaca sweaters and scarves for us to remember our travels. (Those sweaters have been buried since our hot sweaty return to Panama, ugh).

We loved the warm friendly people of Ecuador. The children and babies were amazingly prevalent and yet nearly invisible. We might ride a bus with 20 children on it with their parents and never hear a cry. Yet they would interact with big smiles when we made eye contact and start talking to us if we showed interest. They amused themselves with simple toys in the tiny villages and seemed very happy. We enjoyed the fairly well developed tourist resources there. In every town of any size, there were internet stores that included not just computers but telephone cabinas. The telephones used Skype or other voice over internet technology so a call to the US was as little as 8 cents a minute. (Since Skype costs 2 cents a minute the rest was profit for them, but, at that cost, we certainly didn’t begrudge them their take!) The hotels cost $20/night for most of our stays and often included breakfast. Our favorite economy though was to take the fixed menu lunch (Almuerzzo) in many of our stays. For $1.50 to $2.00 each, we would have a hearty bowl of soup, sometimes a salad, followed by a plate of usually meat, rice, vegetables and often potatoes (we never understood the rice/potato thing but it was common), a dessert and usually a juice of freshly blended fruit. That meal usually meant we had very little for dinner, often picnic food in our room. All that and glorious scenery, immense environmental diversity (from coastal beaches to high Andes with active volcanos as we were privileged to experience to Amazon jungle) and beautiful flora and fauna. The country is rich in resources thanks to oil reserves (diesel fuel was $1.03 per gallon!!) and proximity to Chilean produce (all that we produce in Washington state is also grown in Chile) and tropical fruit from the coast of Ecuador. Truly the country is a paradise.