Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Travel Log, Sunday, July 11, Otavalo

We arrived in Otavalo yesterday afternoon after a day's stopover in Quito. Saturday is the main market day here, and while we arrived way too late to see the animal market, the artisan market was still going strong. Otavalo is the most famous place in Ecuador for crafts, and stalls lined the streets and filled the "Plaza de Ponchos." We had saved some of our souvenir shopping for our visit here, so although I was pretty overwhelmed by it all, we dove in and shopped.

Today was the final of the Mundial, so we took a break from shopping and even site-seeing to chill and watch the game. We watched the game in the coffeeshop/tienda of a non-indigenous Otavaleño who had spent time in Albany, NY. Watching Spain beat Holland 1-0 in overtime with the locals was fun. At a few points when Spain was on the verge of scoring, the owner's Aunt, who wanted Holland to win, spun the thumb and forefinger on both her hands, (in a mini-itsy-bitsy spider move) while chanting something like "chumbale chumbale chumbale..." Must be an Ecuadorian curse that didn't quite work. It has been great traveling with the Mundial - always an easy way to strike up a conversation, asking about yesterday's results or predictions for today's game.

Travel Log, Thursday, July 8, Pedernales

Canoa, midweek in July, is a pretty sleepy beach town. Although there are lots of hotels and beachfront stands for food, booze or crafts, the majority of them were unoccupied or closed up. Although ceviche was available at restaurants, there were no ceviche carts on the beach, like we enjoyed in Montañita.

The sun came out for about an hour yesterday late morning, and we all enjoyed playing in the waves. Once we all dried off, we watched Spain beat Germany 1-0 in the semi-finals of the Mundial. Later we all walked the beach and picked up three large bags of garbage, earning a free milkshake for each of the kids.

We said goodby to Alex, Chuck, Sara and Ben, and then moved about 90 km up the coast to Pedernales. Tomorrow is a 6 hour bus to Quito. I think we are all pretty ready to be home in Seattle.

Travel Log, Monday, July 5, Canoa

Aunt Sue returned to Chicago early yesterday morning, and given the option of a couple of days of four-hour bus rides to get to Canoa, the second of which would be on the girls birthday, we took the wimpy way out and flew from Quito to Manta. We spent the night in the seedier side of Manta, in Tarqui, and caught a bus from there north to Bahia de Caráquez, then a 10 minute passenger ferry, and finally a 30 minute bus ride up to Canoa. The passenger ferry will soon be only a memory as a long bridge across the Rio Chone will open in the fall.

This time of year the coast is mostly overcast and rainy, and we arrived in the rain. We met Debby's Peace Corps friend Alex and her family here, and most of the afternoon was spent on the beach, catching up. We celebrated the girl's birthday at the hotel with cake and a few small presents. And tonight, although I can hear the waves breaking outside our hotel, the dominate night sound is the bar next door, blaring Ecuadorian top 40.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Travel Log, Saturday, July 3, Mindo

Our first morning in Mindo was for fun. Mindo is renowned for the rich variety of birds found in the protected forests (over 400 distinct varieties were counted in recent years) but a number of "adventure tourist" activities have sprouted up as well. So we all headed out first thing in the morning for the zip lines! Debby and I had done some zip lines in Panama many years ago, but the girls were too young. Sue had never been. There were 10 runs on this course, the longest was over 500 meters - about a quarter mile! The lines crossed back and forth over the river valley far below. A real rush for everyone!

Afterward we drove up the road a few more kms to a short hike to some waterfalls. A long thick rope swing surprised us about halfway down the trail, and the girls (and their parents) swung until the travails of the arduous 20 minute hike were forgotten.

Friday, the adults went for an early morning (6:00 am) bird-spotting hike while the girls slept in (and watched Germany trounce Argentina, 4-0). We chose to act as our own guides, and started out on the Yellow House Trail as the sun was still burning off the morning fog. We definitely saw a yellow throated toucan, and the back of either a parrot or a quetzal. (There are a couple varieties of quetzals in this forest, neither of which resemble the Guatemalan quetzal with its long tail feathers.) We heard lots of other interesting bird calls, but never could locate the squawkers.

One of the interesting things about the forests of Mindo is that most of them are on private property. For now, I guess the owners are making a sufficient profit charging $3 to walk to the waterfall, or $6 to hike the Yellow House trail for them to keep their property pristine. But I wonder what will happen when profit and ecological preservation are forced to go head to head.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Travel Log, Thursday, July 1, Saquisilí, Quilatoa Loop

We had an early, farm style breakfast and left for the market at Saquisilí, about an hour's drive further east. We had been through this town just two days earlier, on our way to Isinliví, and it was pretty sleepy. But Thursday is market day, and it is completely different. The market is spread out in five or six different plazas,and the streets are packed with people buying, selling and moving between areas. We started off in the animal market, where we saw people buying and selling pigs, sheep, cows, and various kinds of ropes and harnesses. This part of the market supposedly starts around 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, but when we got there about 9:00, is was still fascinating enough for us...

We moved on to another square with a little of everything: small animals like chickens, (in cages and bags), cuy (guinea pigs), rabbits, hardware, furniture, mattresses, fish and music are what stand out for me.

When we got to the artisan section of the market, what struck me was not the beautiful weavings, paintings and other products, but rather the subdued energy in this square. Since there weren't many tourists, this square, with all it's stalls, was just so quiet, compared to the chaotic hustle and bustle of the other areas.

After a picnic in the main square, we drove north, thru Quito, and after only getting slightly lost, arrived in Mindo, about four hours later, as the sun was going down. First impressions: a riot of vegetation, like being inside a gigantic greenhouse in a botanical garden!

Travel Log, Wednesday, June 30, Tigua, Quilatoa Loop

Karen, Sarah and Lucas left early yesterday morning, and after breakfast, Sue and our family rented a car and headed south. Our destination was a region about two hours south of Quito, a high Andean rural area, punctuated by small towns and communities. The main road around this region is dubbed "the Quilatoa Loop" in the guide books. Quilatoa is the name of a lake in a volcanic crater with a circumference of, perhaps, 6-8 miles. We entered the loop from the north east corner, heading counter-clockwise. The area is sparsely populated, and there is very little traffic as well. Driving to Isinliví we saw lots of sheep, a few llamas and lots of fields on steep slopes being cultivated by hand by entire families. Potatoes, wheat and onions are some of the main crops in this region.

The town of Isinliví is quite small, and we stayed in a wonderful little hostal called Llullu Llama. There were seven other travelers there, including a garulous Australian couple in their 50s, who had met doing an extended world tour 30 years ago, and were now back on the road after raising their family. We all ate family style.

Since the main road between Isinliví and the lake was reported to be a bumpy dirt road, so we decided to take a different, more direct, bumpy dirt road. Along this route we saw something we hadn't seen in Ecuador before: severe rural poverty. In many of these communities the majority of homes are "chozas" or low huts made with grass roofs reaching to the ground. (Although I interpreted this as one of the signs of their poverty, grass roofed huts being on the low end of the building material hierarchy, below adobe and concrete block, a guide we met at the Inti Solar museum a few days later, asserted that it was tradition, not poverty which lead to this choice of living arrangement.) At a couple places where we stopped and asked directions, we were asked for money. Outside of the occasional drunk, or some very down and out beggers, this hadn't happened to us before. But the people here asking for money weren't down and out, they looked young and/or healthy, they were friendly and helpful, and once they asked not for themselves, but rather for help with a new school building, but they didn't have any qualms about asking. Perhaps other travelers willingly gave when asked, and this is where the custom/problem started. Anyway, it was a little odd. Outside of this, and even considering this, the people we met, especially in Isinliví (where they didn't beg) are extremely friendly. Big smiles greet us, and people are happy to talk.

Although we somehow got off the road we were supposed to be on, we eventually got to a paved road on the south side of the loop. And once on this road, it was an easy drive to the lake. Supposedly it takes about 5-6 hours to hike all the way around the lake, along the rim of the crater. We only hiked out for an hour or so, and returned the way we came. The lake is beautiful, and although clouds obscured the views to the Cotopaxi and Ilinizas volcanoes to the north, the panorama views of the patchwork crop lands were wonderful.

We spent the night in a old hacienda house a few miles east of Tigua, about 45 minutes east of the lake. The delightful owners treated us and the other four guests with canelazo, stories of the history of the hacienda and a lovely dinner.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Travel Log: Saturday, June 29, Jamu Lodge

This morning we took a two-hour boat ride down river to Don Alberto's house. He is a traditional medicine man or shaman of the Siona community where he lives. He greeted us in traditional dress, which included a black tunic, a crown of parrot feathers and a feather thru his nose. He told us a little about the old ways, how the tunic used to be made of tree bark, and how they used wooden spoons and clay pots. He told us a little about his training as a shaman, which started at age 12, and continued to age 15 with his grandfather, and then continued with another teacher until age 30. He talked about using ayahuasca, or "eje" which is a hallucinogenic which helps them have visions which they use to help cure people and identify new and/or proper ways to use plants as medicine. According to Don Alberto, they can see illness in a person in three colors: yellow - stomach, red - blood, or black - brain (or mental illness). He then gave us a demonstration of the use of "ortiga" (stinging nettles) to help with circulation. (The welts this raised on Lucas' back and Debby's arms and legs disappeared by the end of the day!)

After lunch, we went to the house of another member of the community, "Mama Aurora" to learn how the Siona make yucca bread. First they pull up the yucca plant, breaking off and burying part of the root to start another plant. Then they peel it, grate it, and squeeze the water out of it, using a thin woven reed mat. After it is dry, they sift it, and this fine "flour" is spread on a hot clay plate (what the Guatemalan's call a "comal" but the Ecuadoran's call a "tiesto"). It is spread in a thin layer, and packed against the tiesto, and after a few minutes it is flipped. The resulting "bread" is more like a large pancake, and is tasty, but a bit dry.

After this, we headed back to the lodge, and after some down time, we took a short night walk thru the nearby jungle, and saw a lot of spiders, leaf cutter ants and other insects.

The jungle has been one of the parts of our travels in Ecuador that I have been most looking forward to, even more than our trip to the Galapagos or Machu Pichu. We had first talked about going with our friends who came to visit at Christmas-time, but it didn't make the final cut on that itinerary. (Probably just as well, based on what we learned on the trip this week, that the river drops from about 10' deep to about 1' deep in January and Feb.) Thankfully, this trip lived up to my expectations.

The four days we spent here was a perfect mix of the natural - bird and reptile watching boat rides, jungle hikes; and the cultural - a visit to a shaman and to Mama Aurora. The nature is fantastic and like a rich novel, I loved it although most of it went over my head. Although I won't remember, and can't appreciate all the different varieties of birds our guides pointed out, I did love the red crests of the tanagers, and the yellow breast and wing tips of the caciques, the swallow's graceful flight just inches above the river's surface and the iridescent blue of the "morpho" butterflies, which traversed the river too quickly and erratically to ever pose for a photo. The black furry monkey's tails high in the canopy were a bit difficult to distinguish, but the large band of squirrel monkeys crossing the river on the low fallen vines and trunks as our canoe passed underneath were easily identifiable. And although we were constantly on the watch for fauna, the overwhelming presence in the jungle is flora. The lush green of the trees and plants that line the river is amazing. The shades of green, from the canopy to the floor, from the almost translucent green of the newly opened fern to the sturdy pale gray green of the bromeliad and the multiple greens of the various palms, ever changing as wind and sunlight shuffle the pallet: green is the color of the jungle. Mix in the coffee brown of the river, the gray and ivory of the tree trunks, and the blue of the sky, glimpsed thru blocks of green, and that is the color of the jungle. The reds, yellows or violets of a flower or butterfly or bird punctuate the scene, but green dominates it.

Travel Log: Friday, June 28, Jamu Lodge

Our day started with a boat ride to a hike thru the jungle. This whole environment is so different. On our ride out we saw river dolphins, "anhingas," cormorants, stinky turkeys and long nose bats. On the hike we saw "quita calzones" ants, which swarmed out of their nests to cover our hands when placed on the the nest, and once we got rid of them all, provided (so they say) a natural insect repellent. We also saw lots of vines, bromeliads and mud (thank goodness for our "siete vidas" or knee high rubber boots that the lodge provided).

In the afternoon the adults went for a self guided canoe ride in a dugout canoe while the kids went out in a kayak, and swung from vines into the water. We all went for out again in the motorized canoe, and went piranha fishing (Lucas caught two) and after dark, saw caymans and tree boas.

Travel Log: Thursday, June 27, Jamu Lodge, Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve

We started the day with a 7:00 am taxi to the airport. The girls have been super excited the past few days, since they re-united with their cousins Lucas and Sarah and their Aunt Karen and Aunt Sue. We've been doing some site seeing in Quito, and sharing meals at restaurants, both "typical" and "international." With this crowd, we've had a kids table and an adults table, which keeps everyone happy.

Our flight to Lago Agrio was a quick one - probably about 30 minutes (compared to 10 hours by bus). At Lago Agrio we boarded a small bus with other travelers and headed towards Jamu Lodge, driving about 2 1/2 hours. This part of the jungle reminds me of the Guatemalan coastal region. We passed thru numerous small and newish towns - there is a lot of oil in this part of the jungle, and the towns are probably related to this.

At the end of the road we boarded a long, narrow motorized canoe. Our group of 8 sat two abreast and, along with our driver, guide and cargo, filled the boat. On our two hour trip down the Rio Cuyabeno, we saw 3 different monkey species, numerous birds and bats. About 20 minutes after the river emptied into a large lagoon, we turned into the dock for the Jamu Lodge.

The lodge itself is all wood construction, with thatched roofs, Light in the rooms is from candles, and solar cells provide additional power for lighting in the common areas and kitchen.

After settling in, we got back into the canoes for a sunset cruise to the lagoon. We saw a "stinky turkey" and some river dolphins. We finished a refreshing swim shortly before a beautiful sunset.

Now at night, the almost full moon is illuminating the woods, and the myriad sounds of the jungle lull me to sleep.

Travel Log: Saturday, June 19, Lima, Miraflores

After a late breakfast at a little diner tended by a wonderful grandfatherly man who had worked at a Greek restaurant in NY in 1971 and still spoke English, we left the historic center for the modern neighborhood of Miraflores.

Located on a plateau about 300' above the ocean, Miraflores reminds me a lot of Los Angeles. Along the "Malecon" which has a view down to the water, is a linear park, and across the road, modern high-rise condos or apartment buildings. There is even a mall along this strip, complete with a Tony Roma's and a TGI Fridays. There are lots of kids, and young dads and their sons, on skateboards, and although there are neither skate parks to encourage them, nor metal plugs on the bench and curb edges to discourage them, they are, on the whole, respectful and considerate of pedestrians. Bicyclist wearing helmets and dayglow jackets also share the path. In the water below, a couple hundred surfers in wet suits could be seen riding the slow waves.

Off the water, the neighborhood still reminded me of LA. The major streets are lined with modern stores, some US chains (but mostly not), and hi-rise residential. The housing on the side streets is from the 40's not quite Art Deco, but almost. And just as LA has its prehistoric La Brea Tar Pits, Miraflores has Huaca Pucllana, a large complex of adobe-based pyramids built by the Lima culture, dating from around 200-700 AD.

Miraflores (and some of the other modern neighborhoods, I imagine) are worlds away form the rural Peru we glimpsed in the Sacred Valley outside Cuzco, and even form the traditional, poorer neighborhoods of other parts of Lima. Although not that interesting to me, it is good to see, and good for the girls to see the wide diversity of lifestyles and cultures to be found down here.