Friday, April 30, 2010

Politics in Ecuador

Every Saturday at 10 a.m. Rafael Correa, Ecuador's president, gives a weekly televised talk to the public about what has transpired the previous week. Elected in 2007 with 80% popularity, Correa represents the socialist trend that has been occurring throughout Lain America during the last decade. While he is not as far to the left as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, he maintains close ties with him, as well as with Raul Castro, a fact that worries a great deal of middle and upper class Cuencanos .

I try to listen to Correa's weekly address when we are home Saturday mornings and have been really impressed with the content and the tone of his speeches. (I first heard his speech back in January and wrote this at that time). What I found interesting in his last speech was he gave an extremely detailed description of how he had spent the previous 2 weeks (he was in Russia and England and missed a Saturday in Quito), spelling out literally what he did at what hour and with whom he met. It occurred to me that he needs to build trust and confidence with the Ecuadorian people since the politicians that preceded him were so corrupt. He said several times in his speech "these trips abroad are exhausting for us but very important for diplomacy". At one point, he said "Don't think we just watch movies on the plane; we are always working - rewriting speeches, reviewing itineraries, briefing one another on different areas...". Although he is enjoying the support of the majority of the people, he still needs to defend himself as a politician because there is an inherent mistrust of government here. My sense is that one his goals in these weekly public reports is to be 100% transparent with the Ecuadorian people- something no other past president has done and for that, I admire him.

Correa also used his time to educate the population on different parts of the world and on topics of international interest. I was impressed that he was able to talk to the poeple, not in a condescending manner but rather in an informal, educational way. I felt like I was listening to my neighbor tell me about a recent trip. Some Ecuadorians have criticized him for being too informal; they are so accustomed to standoff-ish, extremely formal politicians that it is really hard for them to hear the president of their country talk in a different way. For others, it is very refreshing and they appreciate Correa's transparency and candidness.

As in so many Latin American countries, Ecuador's political past has been unstable and corrupt. Since 1996, there have been 10, yes 10, presidents. In 2007 Correa defeated Álvaro Noboa, the banana tycoon and Bible-quoting scion of a Guayaquil family who is Ecuador's richest man. Running on a platform that combined nationalistic control of the economy with broadly popular social welfare programs for the poor, Correa enjoyed great support and easily won the election. His "Ciudadania Revolucionaria" (Citizen's Revolution) has included free education for all from kindergarten to the university level, free health care, facilities for handicapped people (his vice president Lenin Moreno uses a wheelchair and is a parapelegic) and increased taxes on imported and luxury goods (this really angers the weaalthy here but, of course, is the right decision and encourages the purchase of domestic products).

Since I've been here, I have heard all kinds of opinions about Correa. In general, the poorer, rural folks adore him for obvious reasons. First of all, he makes an effort to broadcast his weekly speeches from towns and indigenous communities that many people never knew existed and, of course, the local community feels honored and recognized. One campesino recently told my American friend that since Correa has been President, he has not had to make the tough decision as to which of his 7 kids gets to go to school; now they are all enrolled and it costs him nothing! Access to health care is another huge reason why he is very popular with the poor.

Most middle and upper class Ecuadorians will admit that Correa has done one favorable thing for the entire country and that is improving the roads, particularly in southern Ecuador. Traditionally, the politicians in Quito have put the majority of their time and effort into improving the roads around the capital and southern Ecuador (where Cuenca is located) has been left behind. Now there are relatively nicely paved roads in the entire country, thanks to Correa. Both the rich and the poor love that!

Beyond that, however, the middle and upper class folks don't have much good to say about Correa. They feel very nervous about his socialist bent and ties with Chavez and Castro. They now have to pay more for their favorite bottle of wine (imported usually from Chile, Argentina or the States) or their preferred brand of perfume, cigarettes, etc, etc, And of course, they do not like higher taxes. I find those reasons to be quite selfish but, of course, I keep my opinions to myself because I really want to hear what they have to say. Every now and then I will meet an educated middle or upper class person who fully supports Correa (this happened with the couple Don and I met in the Galapagos and spent all evening chatting with) and I find that so refreshing. Generally speaking, these supporters truly want an end to the corruption of the elite classes and the government and they understand that universal access to health and education should be a right and is certainly beneficial for the entire country.

It will be very interesting to see what happens during the rest of his presidency.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Malecón 2000

Malecón 2000 runs for about a mile along the Guayaquil waterfront, along the river Guayas. A "malecón" is a pedestrian passageway along the water, and they exist in many waterfront Latin American cities, most famously, perhaps, in Havana.

Malecón 2000 reminds me, in many ways, of Seattle Center, where I work, but with design elements more in keeping with the history and setting of Guayaquil. It is a mulit-level space, with occasional ramps and stairs leading to higher plazas with views of the river or entrances to museums or restaurants, or lower levels of children's play areas, artificial ponds with remote controlled ships or go-cart tracks or themed gardens and fountains. Statues and sculptures, both historic and modern, grace many areas as do fountains, ice cream carts and even restaurants and bars with outdoor patios. The malecón is separated from the busy four-lane street that fronts it by plantings and a gate, but there are many entry points. The area is reassuringly patrolled by security guards, and apparently with cameras, although they must be discreet, because I never noticed any. There is also an army of maintenance workers, picking up garbage, keeping the ponds and gardens clean, and polishing the stainless steal railings. It's a great place for Guayaquileños and foreigners alike to spend an afternoon.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Monday and Tuesday of last week were, respectively, the Anniversary of the founding of Cuenca, and Teacher's Day, both days off school for the kids, so we took advantage of these two days and pulled them out for the whole week and flew to the Galapagos. The plane left from Guayaquil about 10:30, and arrived at Baltra Island about noon. The plane was not quite full, but interestingly enough, most of our fellow passengers appeared to be Ecuadorians. The Galapagos is an expensive destination for anyone, but foreigners pay more for the flight, and the entrance fee to the park is way more - $100/person for foreigners, $6/person for nationals.

Isla Santa Cruz

We took the bus from the airport to Puerto Ayora, and got settled in the hotel we had arranged prior to our trip. Most visitors go directly from the airport to their cruise ship, but we decided to do this all on our own, both to save money, and so that we wouldn't be tied to the rigid schedule these tours adhere to. It was a good decision on both accounts. Once we got settled, we walked to the nearby Charles Darwin Center, to see the Island's most famous inhabitant - Lonesome George. He is a hundred-something year old tortoise from a nearby island who is the last of his species, his compatriots and island habitat having been devastated by introduced feral goats. Attempts to get him to breed with closely related tortoises have been unsuccessful. The heat was pretty fierce, and the kids really wanted to swim at a nearby beach, so we pretty much took some pictures of George and some less camera shy giants, and headed to the water.

The area around the "muelle" (dock) in Puerto Ayora has been nicely developed, with a play area for kids, a small concert shell, some volleyball courts, and a dock which is mainly for pedestrian strolling. It is really designed for the locals, and on Sat. night it was packed. The water around the dock is illuminated, and we could see sea lions and sharks getting dinner. When we got our dinner, we met a nice woman named Judy who was renting out small "suites" with kitchenettes, and so we arranged to move in the next night, at half the price we were paying, with the added saving of being able to cook our own breakfast, and save about $20 a morning on meals. We ended up using the kitchen for dinners as well, and saved even more!

After we moved in to "La Casa de Judy" on Sunday, we took a water taxi past sea lions sunning on the decks of vacant boats to the trailhead to Finch Bay. From there we took a short but hot hike to "Las Grietas" a small inland lake, surrounded by steep rock walls, and filled with both fresh rainwater and water from the sea. The water was deep and clear, and many local kids climbed up the rocks to jump or dive in from 20' up. On the way back, we stopped at the Finch Bay Hotel, where Debby negotiated a half price deal so the kids could swim in their pool, which is where we spent most of the afternoon. Feeling like the day lacked a little in the physical activity department, Debby and I took advantage of the cooler afternoon to hike a 2.5 trail out to Tortuga Bay, while the kids went back to our suite and vegged in front of the TV. The bay is surrounded by a wide, white, soft sand beach, but as it closed at 6:00, we only glimpsed it, and promised ourselves we'd return. Sunday evening we enjoyed a birthday dinner for Debby at one of the nicer tourist restaurants on the island, Debby and I lingering over Mojitos while the girls entertained themselves at a trinket store across the street.

Monday started with a morning bike ride around town, notable for a refreshing rain which soaked us, but felt great. After lunch, we took the kids out to Tortuga Bay, where the kids swam, and Debby checked out the incredible wildlife - mostly iguanas and birds, We heard there are marine tortoises there, but we didn't see any. However, on Tuesday, when I went back to Tortuga Bay on my morning jog, I saw the tracks of a marine tortoise heading back to the sea from a nesting site in the grasses behind the beach. After breakfast at the suites, we took a boat tour of the bay, where we saw sea lions and the remains of a "cucero" (cruise ship) which had run aground three weeks earlier on the small islet of "la Loberia." We also snorkeled, which the girls loved.

Wed. morning we said goodbye to Judy at the Lava Tubes that are owned by her 95 year old father. He had come to the island in 1948, when the government wooed teachers to the Galapagos with the incentive of triple the salary he was earning in his home of Ambato. He discovered the Lava tube a few year after he arrived, looking for a water source. They are pretty amazing - about 20' in diameter and winding underground for about a kilometer.

Isla Isabella

We arrived at Isabella about 4:00, and walked the mile from the muelle into town. We would have taken a cab/pick up, but unlike everywhere else in the country, including the island we just left, the driver wanted to charge us per person instead of per trip. (We later learned that this anomaly is only for gringos - Ecuadorians pay $1 per trip.) Our sense of justice offended ,we shouldered our packs and headed into town.

Thru our Santa Cruz friend Judy, we had arrange our first night stay at La Casita de la Playa, in a triple for $70-night - a discount down from the $30 per person they usually charge. However, since the town was empty of tourists (most of the foreigners we did see were sleeping on their yachts - Isabella is the last stop before a three week ocean crossing to French Polynesia), and since the last entry in the hotel registry was from over a week ago, we figured we could negotiate the price down a bit for subsequent nights. Debby was the point person on this, and we ended up paying only $50/night for all of us, plus we got to use the kitchen to prepare our own breakfasts!

Puerto Villamil, the port town on Isabella, is quite different from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. It is much smaller, the streets are all sand, and there are few, if any shops selling the kind of trinkets (both the high end and the low end varieties) that tourists buy. The beach starts right in town and extends west for about 2.5 km, although the town itself peters out after just a couple of blocks. There are some hotels, including a few that were recently built (one on a wetland that used to be know as a good spot to see flamingos), but at least in this, the low season between Semana Santa and US summer vacation, they were mostly empty. The beach is home to a variety of long-beaked, skinny-legged birds that pick their food out of the receding waves, and on the black lava outcroppings, iguanas. There is a land tortoise breeding center near town, reached via a boardwalk over some mangrove swamps, all sleepy with fish, birds and other wildlife.

Thursday afternoon was cloudy, so we took advantage of the break in the heat to rent some bikes, and ride out to the "Muro de Lagrimas" (Wall of Tears), a wall built in the 1940s out of lava rocks by prisoners, either as part of a prison that was never completed, or just to give them something to do. The ride out was great, because along the black cinder road we saw numerous land tortoises, mostly about one foot wide, which means they were probably about 15 - 20 years old. These were the first tortoise we saw outside a breeding center.

On Friday morning we went on a boat tour to some nearby islets and saw sea lions, iguanas, rays and penguins - the Galapagos is the world's northern-most penguin habitat. We also snorkeled and saw white-tipped sharks and marine tortoises. The beauty of the wildlife, the turquoise blue waters and the moonscape lava landscapes was only slightly marred by the rip-off they pulled on us. Freddy, our hotel's neighbor, had arranged to take us on the tour - $10 including use of snorkeling equipment, he emphasized - unlike other operators (incidentally, not true). When we got to the dock, we were greeted by Freddy's "cuñado" (brother-in-law): Freddy had gone ahead with another group. Did he have snorkeling equipment on his boat, we asked? No, but Freddy had it, and we'd be meeting up with him further on, where we'd be snorkeling. Well, when we met up with him, we were told it was $5 to rent the snorkeling equipment. "Wait a second," I said, temper rising, "That's not what we arranged!" "Well..." the cuñado hemmed and hawed, "that was with Freddy, and he never told me, yada, yada, yada." Whatever. The beauty was there, and the incident was just another example of the difference between the two islands. The folks on Santa Cruz have a sort of Nordstrom's attitude towards customer service: be friendly, sincerely friendly, because it's good for business. On Isabella it is more of an "aprovechar" approach (literally, "to take advantage of," and not necessarily in a pejorative way): get what they can, when they can, because tomorrow may be too late.

Our last evening on Isabella we had dinner, then sent the kids back to the hotel, with instructions that they get to bed early, since we had to get up early (5:00) to catch the 6:00 boat back to Santa Cruz. Debby and I had the mission of delivering the remains of a bottle of rum to a local beachfront bar, where we had some happy hour drinks (rum and "maracuyá" - passion fruit juice) a few hours earlier. We learned en route, however, that the bar closed after happy hour, so we parked ourselves on a curb outside a juice stand and mixed our rum with jugo de piña (pineapple juice) instead. A short time later, John (or perhaps Jhon, as it is often spelled here) and Carolina, two young, (unmarried!) Quiteños who were staying at our hotel, and who shared the morning's boat tour with us, passed by, and we spent the rest of the evening chatting with them. I always really enjoy these conversations, all in Spanish, of course, with informed and educated locals (she is an electrical engineer, he's an architect.) Our conversation ranged from our mutual travels, to the culture of Cuenca - "muy conservadora" (very conservative.) (It's how everyone, even Cuencanos, describe it. Interestingly, people never use words like "cerrado" - closed, or "clascista" - classist, i.e., socially stratified by family name, although the subsequent conversation always demonstrates that this is what they really mean.) We talked about the presidents (theirs and ours), history, poverty and the aforementioned cultural differences within the islands. We left them at 12:30 am, and hope to be able to visit with them when we are in Quito in June or July.

Our trip off the island was unremarkable except for a couple incidents and conversations which illuminated and reinforced the inter-island cultural differences discussed above. First of all, the taxi driver who took us to the boat asked us for $5 for the ride. At our first exclamation of surprise, he said, "Ok, $4." When Debby responded that the trip the day before only cost $2 (remember, it's only $1 for Ecuadorians), he just responded "Ok, $2." Get what you can, when you can. Contrast this with our next interaction with a transportation provider, this time on Santa Cruz.

When we got off the boat, many taxi drivers were offering to take us to the airport. Since we were going to have breakfast first, we declined, but one driver divined where we were going to eat, found us there, and renewed his offer. We finally agreed, and along with another boat passenger, negotiated a fee of $15 for the trip. He would wait for us outside the restaurant. While dining, however, our fellow passenger discovered that a bus would be going to the airport, and got a more favorable price for all of us, including a stop at a visitor site we hadn't seen yet. We agreed, and when Debby informed the taxi driver of our change of plans, he just responded with a cheerful "ok."

I feel a little odd devoting so much blogspace to the issue of the treatment of tourists, because I think it makes me sound like one of those demanding gringo tourists who travel the world and are offended, or even angered, when it doesn't function like the one they left at home. But I'm not that kind of traveler, and I'm mostly just curious about these differences. My guess is that over 90% of Ecuador's foreign tourist dollars are generated in the Galapagos. Certainly, the two towns, Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil would be nothing more than a few houses, a tienda and a bar or two without foreign and domestic tourists, so why are they so different in their attitudes?

A gringa who has been living and volunteering on Isabella for the past 10 months and who we met on the boat provided some insight. One thing I didn't know is that the sea off of Isabella is pretty much fished out. Lobster and sea cucumber used to be plentiful, but now are rarely found. The loss of fish corresponds to something that Lourdes, who ran our hotel, confirmed earlier when she said that more tour boats used to stop at Isabella, but they didn't like the food so they stopped coming. Puerto Villamil is, in many respects, including education, health care and resident population (Pto Ayora has almost doubled it's population in the last 10 years, inmigration from other parts of Ecuador), more like a typical rural village than an international tourist center.

More photos from our trip:

Guayaquil, and the trip home.

We arrived back in Guayaquil around 3:00 pm, found our hotel, and headed out to enjoy the Malecón and Las Peñas, a neat old and refurbished neighborhood built on a hill at the north end of the old downtown.

On Sunday morning, we left Guayaquil for what will probably be the last time during our year in Ecuador. We have passed thru here many times this year - in November en route to Salinas; in December with our friends, when we got lost both coming and going; on two trips to Montañita and this one to the Galapagos. It's not a place we like, and wouldn't probably spend any time here at all if we didn't have to. Although I've never been to Lagos, Nigeria, it reminds me of what I imagine that city to be: huge, sprawling, unorganized, ungovernable, hot and sticky. Traffic is loud and chaotic and crawls in fits and starts. Ambulatory vendors in torn t-shirts and plastic sandals sell everything: water, ice cream, nuts, juice, tamales, fruit, watches, sunglasses - you name it.

There is a particularly interesting type of bus vendor we've seen a couple of times while leaving the "terminal terreste" (bus terminal) in Guayaquil. They get on right as the bus is pulling away. Smiling and talking a mile-a-minute: "Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I don't want to bother you and I'll only take a few minutes of your time, but I just want to share with you...." They are good at what they do. They go on to engage the captive audience with a short quiz with prizes and jokes (Nikki once won a plastic crucifix the size of her thumbnail), and only after 10 or 15 minutes do they get to the point, passing out their products for us to examine while they spend another 15 minutes extolling the virtues of this particular candy bar, or bottle of sugar pills or book of prayers. When they finish, no obligation mind you, they pass thru once again, collecting the asking price, "of not $10, not $5, not even $2, just one little dollar," or the product itself.

Usually by Puerto Inca, an hour of straight flat driving out of the city, the vendors are gone, which is good, because the ride now starts to get interesting Leaving the swamped fields of sugar cane, rice and bananas behind, we wind and climb for the next few hours from just a few meters above sea level to over 12,000 feet. If it's too cloudy to enjoy the view out the window, (or even if it's not) we can always watch the on-bus video, which might be Christian dramatic, violent horror, or if we're lucky, martial arts. Barring too many lane closures for construction or landslides, we descend to Cuenca about four hours after we start.

Monday, April 5, 2010


Monday of Semana Santa we left Cuenca after school with the girls, heading for Saraguro, three and a half hours to the south. We spent the night there, and Tuesday morning, we continued south, an hour and a half to Loja, and then, without leaving the bus station, we finished with another hour and a half southern journey to the town of Vilcabamba.

We had been hearing about Vilcabamba practically ever since we arrived in Cuenca, as a beautiful town in the southern Andes, near a national park (Podocarpus), and with opportunities to hike and horseback ride, as well as treat ourselves to a bit of luxury. Tuesday and Wednesday night, we stayed at the Hostel Izhcayluma, a semi-luxurious place we had heard about with backpacker prices. And it lived up to expectations: friendly staff, beautiful gardens and views, nice swimming pool and game room, and great German food. They have also put together a nice series of maps with descriptions of hikes around the area.

Tuesday afternoon, in the restaurant, we met Todd, Peg and Nico (10), a family from Taos, on a sabbatical year like us. They had been doing volunteer work in Baños for a couple of months, and when we met them, they were on their way south to Peru for about a month of traveling. Afterward, they would be heading back to a small village outside of Salinas, where they would be volunteering for another couple of months (and possibly more) on a community development project. They are a really nice, inspirational couple. After only 10 minutes of chatting, Debby and Todd discovered they knew 2 people in common from Lakeside and Albuquerque Academy...what a small world! They run a charter middle school in Taos that has a focus on outdoor education, and so they were the perfect hiking companions on Wednesday, when we all took on the "Mandango" loop.

The hike climbs over 400 meters (about 1,200 ft) along some pretty steep and sometimes narrow trails. After it reaches the top it continues on a razor's edge ridge line, before dropping back down into forest and finally back to the road. Peg, the quintessential cheerleader, did an amazing job of keeping Nikki moving forward along the trail, not accepting any whining or attempts to turn back or park herself in the middle of the trail. The hike and views were amazing, and Nikki did seem to feel proud of herself afterward. When we got down to the road, Debby and she walked into town, and when Debby offered her some cookies, she said no, but walked up to a campesino walking along the road, and offered it to him in Spanish. While we've seen this kind of big-hearted generosity from her before, it is out of character for her to approach a stranger like that, and for her to speak Spanish to anyone when one of us is around. Although she wouldn't verbalize it directly, she was clearly proud of her accomplishment and feeling confident and good about herself.

Thursday afternoon we left Izhcayluma and headed into town, for lunch, before heading out again, this time to the east, to the Cabañas Rio Yambala. The town, especially the center, was a bit weird in that it was full, I mean FULL, of North Americans who live there. It felt like a neutron bomb went off and removed all the locals, but left the architecture undamaged, and gringos had moved in to take their place. Lots of real estate offices, American-style restaurants, overpriced jewelry and other artsy stuff, and English everywhere.

The Cabañas Rio Yambala are a different story altogether. Charlie, the owner, has lived in Vilcabamba since 1978! He is married to a Brit, and they have 2 kids, 16 and 18, who grew up there, and they are all completely bilingual. Right now he has about 4 cabins, but he used to have more. I imagine that although he had one of the first hotels in the area, it seems that as Vilcabamba has gone from barely-on-the-map backwater to noveau-Santa Barbara, Cabañas Rio Yambala isn't getting anywhere near the customers they used to. His place is more for hikers and outdoor adventurers - in fact at some point he purchased a bunch of land bordering Podocarpus Nat. Park, and set it aside as a refuge. He runs horse trips into the refuge, which we participated in on Friday.

We left after breakfast, Nikki on Whiskey, Mia on Rum, Debby on Niño and Don on Speedy Gonzalez. The ride up was long, but passed thru some beautiful country, with views up and down the valley, from the Solomaco peak to the town down below. It took about 3 hours to get to the refuge, which is probably about 2 hours and 50 minutes more than I've spent on a horse in my entire life! The horses seemed to know the way, following the trail, although it was sometimes quite overgrown, including two stream crossings, and breaking into a gallop when the terrain permitted. (One such gallop event caught Debby off-guard, and while her life didn't quite flash before her eyes, some other bodily functions reacted with a near-death response. Which explains why the horse dropped to the ground and rolled on its back when it finally stopped.)

At lunch, Jorge, our local guide, gave us a bit of the local perspective of the Gringoization of Vilcabamba. He said that there really isn't much for locals in town anymore. Most of the restaurants in the center serve American-style food, which the locals don't like, and is way too expensive anyway. He said that outside the center, where anyone used to be able to freely walk across the neighbor's property, now there are fences and "private property" signs, and if one pauses too long (to look at the latest super-sized McMansion or Romanesque villa) the people inside look at you with suspicion, and "Que haces?" ("what are your doing?") He also told us the story of a robbery and vandalism that took place at the house of a developer in the countryside a few months ago. No one knows who did it, but afterwards some flyers appeared with the message that native Vilcabambans needn't fear, they just don´t want any more big-money Gringos moving in. Of course, there are some economic benefits to the gringo invasion: construction jobs, and gardener and domestic help jobs and tourism jobs, but land is priced way out of reach of the locals, and the balance is missing.

After lunch, we hiked up from the refuge to a zip line in the trees. It should have been a 40 minute hike, but Nikki was whining and dragging the whole way ("My leg hurts," "It's too steep," "You lied about how long it would take," blah, blah, blah....) I had hoped that her successful hike just two days earlier would have helped her turn over a new leaf, that perhaps she'd realize she doesn't have to play the role of "the daughter who doesn't like to hike," but apparently she's not ready to give this up just yet. And it's not like she is physically unable. With about five minutes of hiking left before we arrived at our destination, she gave up, and after much discussion, we agreed that she would stay where she was on the trail, while I went on. Well, who do you think showed up not more than 2 minutes after I did?

Anyway, she cheered up pretty quickly after she watched Mia do the zip line, and she had a couple of runs herself, and they were both laughing and giggling on the horse ride home. (The hike, by the way, was relatively hard, but not as hard and much shorter than the one we did two days earlier. I also need to mention that I hiked briefly with Mia on the way out, and she did a great job - steady, confident - she's turning into quite the hiker!)

Saturday morning, after a leisurely breakfast and a long chat with Charlie, we left Vilcabamba for Loja. We decided to break up the trip home with an overnight in Loja, a medium-sized city that we have wanted to explore for a while. We got in around 2:00, found a hotel, had lunch and headed out to Parque Jipara, a large park with lots of very cool features, including a three-story "Eurolatin castle" with a slide from the second story, a Chinese pagoda, a replica of St Mark's Basilica on Red Square, a small zoo (ok, just a couple of ostriches), a paddle boat lagoon and a half'pipe for skateboarders and BMX bikers. Although we didn't spend a lot of time in Loja, it seems like a nice place. It has a reputation for being a cultured city, with a well-respected university, and a tradition of art and music. It is a little smaller than Cuenca, and (although we were only there on Sat. afternoon and Sun. morning), the drivers seem less aggressive (i.e., less honking, more likely to let pedestrians cross the street), and we heard far fewer car alarms. Also, interestingly enough, the entire town did not shut down on Sat. afternoon, like it does in Cuenca. At one point, early on, we had considered spending our year here (although admittedly, before we knew anything about it), and although we are happy with our choice, I don't think we would have regretted Loja either.