South America Part 5: Ecuador

image_pdfimage_print

  South America

Part 5 – Volcano Country – Ecuador

 

March 14, 2009

Dateline: Quito and Otavalo, Ecuador

Latitude at Quito 0.13 degrees South, Longitude 78.30 degrees West

Today we started our tour of the Ecuadorian High Sierra and will be based in Quito for the next several days. Ecuador’s electricity is 110 AC, the time zone is the same as Eastern Standard, English is widely spoken and the currency is US dollars, so we are right at home. The country had a serious devaluation problem with their own money several years ago, and they went to the US dollar and never went back.  The population of the country is roughly 13 million people, who speak primarily Spanish. The indigenous people also speak five different dialects of Quichua (similar to Quechua in Peru) so they  use Spanish or English as a common language in order to be able to talk to each other. Ecuador is a large exporter of oil, and they produce enough cheap gasoline for their own consumption, but then again, they don’t consume nearly as much as we North Americans do. They also export bananas, shrimp, flowers, fish, and tropical fruit, as well panama hats which were always from Ecuador, but were widely worn in Panama during the construction of the canal, and thus the misnomer originated and still endures.

A Fruit Stand at the Otavalo Market

A Fruit Stand at the Otavalo Market

Our guide, Andrea, and our driver picked us up and we rode north for a few miles on the Pan American Highway (called locally the Pana or Panavial), which stretches from Alaska to Chile,  before taking a local road toward Otavalo (pronounced Oh-tah-vah-loh with the accent on “vah”), our destination for today, which is a trip of approximately 60 miles. Every Saturday in Otavalo there is a huge open air market for artisans, mostly weavers, to sell their work and for the local people to buy fresh produce and local delicacies, such as frittata, which is a whole hog cooked with roasted potatoes and plantains. And of course on the other end of the piggy spectrum is the cuy, or guinea pig, which is also available here in abundance, but more on that later.

Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi

Leaving Quito, the day was exceptionally clear and we saw the distant peak of Cotopaxi which stands at 19,350 feet, but is not the tallest peak in Ecuador. Still it is quite an impressive sight from the city since Quito is at a measly 10,000 feet and Cotopaxi towers so far above it.  The tallest mountain in Ecuador honor goes to Chimborazo to the south at 21,000 feet. And even at that height, Chimborazo is not the tallest mountain in South America. Ecuador’s claim to fame in the Andes Chain is the sheer number of peaks over 10,000 feet, most of them concentrated in this area of Northern Ecuador where there are 42 volcanoes, 12 of which are active. These are the youngest mountains in the Andes and among the highest. The Andes were formed when two tectonic plates collided over the centuries, causing a radical lifting of the earth’s crust. There are dramatic climatic differences here. For every 700 feet of increase in altitude, the temperature drops 1 degree Centigrade (which is 1.8 degrees F) and thus there are many micro climates within a few miles of each other. Major areas are the coastal area bordering the Pacific Ocean, the steep mountains of the West Range, the broad inter-mountain valley between the two ranges, the steep mountains of the Central Range, and the cloud and rain forests of the Amazon.

Our trip today will take us to northernmost Ecuador, just a few miles from the border with Columbia. We traveled through Pichincha Province and then the Imbabura Province to the Guayabamba Valley. The name means “green valley” in the indigenous language. The picturesque valley, as the name suggests, unfolds below snowy mountain tops and around every turn we saw multiple shades of green, bisected by the milk chocolaty waters of  the Guayabamba River. From there we dropped down into the Cochabamba Valley, one of the most prosperous in Ecuador where roses are the primary crop. Last Valentine’s Day they shipped 36 million roses worldwide from this area. It is an ideal location since stems grow tall and straight due to the latitude and there are no bugs, nor fungus due to the altitude. This valley is relatively dry, with most of the rain falling in the mountains to the west. Acacia like bushes give it an African savannah sort of look. There are no terraces since the land is flat enough to cultivate. There are more terraces in the southern part of Ecuador and in Peru where the Spanish took the flat land, forcing indigenous people to move up the hillsides to cultivate their crops. Although the Spanish are long gone, this is still happening in Quito today with the well-to-do taking the land on the valley floor and the poor are forced to the slums called favelas (the word sounds charming, but the reality is they are big on squalor low on charm) which are all built up the ravines and on steep hillsides.  Other big agricultural exports from this valley are cocoa and avocados. The farming here is very community oriented with friends and relatives joining together to plant, harvest, build structures, clear fields and so forth – sort of  like an old fashioned “barn raising” in the olden days in America, but with lots of the local liquor flowing instead of the traditional Midwest lemonade.

Guinea Pig Roast

Guinea Pig Roast

We saw cuy being roasted on a makeshift grill shaped from a 55 gallon drum alongside the road and made a stop for photos. Even on a spit without their fur, they still look like little tortured pets to me. Gary threatened to go to Pet Smart and get a cage full of them for a dinner party when we get home He kept singing “guinea pigs roasting on an open fire” (as opposed to chestnuts) until he was silenced by popular demand. If cuy didn’t suit your fancy here at the roadside stand, there were also roasted bananas and Hawaiian style shaved ice for sale.

 

Freshly Baked Biscocho

Freshly Baked Biscocho

We saw the Cayambe Volcano as the clouds parted from time to time and stopped in the town by the same name. The volcano is extinct, but there are many quite active ones nearby so the locals tend to tune in to any rumblings in the distance. Cayambe is the only volcanic mountain on the Equator in the world. In the village, our guide bought us a local treat they call biscocho, which is a twice cooked biscuit which tastes like shortbread and is served with caramel sauce. It was divinely delicious and might have been the best thing I have tasted on this trip. They also make a soft white cheese here which we tasted also, called Queso de Hoja, (literal translation is sheet cheese), often served in a banana leaf. It is very mild like that we have found in other parts of South America. They don’t seem to make the strong flavored cheeses like aged cheddar or any of the stinky variety (e.g. Roquefort).

Our next stop is the scientific center at La Mitad del Mundo (the center of the word) where the latitude is exactly 0.00. As I child I believed that when you traveled from one state to another and crossed the state line that there would actually be a line that you could feel as a slight bump when your car passed over it. If the state lines were a bump then the Equator should have been a crevasse or towering mountain range, but of course this was not the case, although the Ecuadorans did have a line in the stonework to show us the exact spot. . Gary and I had visited the Equator before in Kenya where we beheld the marvelous experiment where you watch water draining into a bucket with a toothpick floating on top and right on the equator the

Volcan Cayambe on the Equator

Volcan Cayambe on the Equator

water goes straight down. Then you take a few steps into the Northern hemisphere and the toothpick spins counter clockwise and then a few steps into the Southern Hemisphere it spins clockwise. Imagine our surprise and dismay when a scientist at La Mitad del Mundo denounced this as a hoax, saying you would have to travel a number of miles from the equator to see this effect. Apparently this con has been worked on the gullible tourists for years. Andrea stressed to us that we were at the scientifically certified center of the world. Many hucksters in other locales claim to be at 0.00, but are off by a few minutes ( One degree of latitude equals 60 nautical miles (69 statute miles) and there are 60 minutes in each degree and 60 seconds in each minute. The main thing we noticed that was unusual was that the shadows were very short and we were told that there are no shadows at all cast at the summer and winter solstices which would have been interesting to see.

Our next stop was the town of Otavalo and fortunately for us, it was Saturday, the day of the week when the whole town turns into a market (they call it la feria) where people buy, sell and socialize. At dawn many artisans from surrounding villages bring their goods and many small farmers come to sell their produce and their butchered livestock. The market is held in 3 main plazas and the surrounding streets. The market was a feast for the sights and senses – the

Little Piggy Who Went to Market

Little Piggy Who Went to Market

beautiful woven and leather goods and carvings, and the not so beautiful market essentials such as a whole roasted pig with a tomato in its mouth, skinned chickens with the feet still on (glad I ate my biscocho before seeing that),and  a truck just in from the farm, full of eggs in cartons stacked floor to ceiling. The  truck bed also served  as the point of sale. There were rows and rows of stalls with really delicious looking fruits, veggies and whole grains. The people here eat very well, but whatever nutritional item it is that makes people grow taller must still be missing from their diets.

 

Pan Flutes for Sale at Otavalo

Pan Flutes for Sale at Otavalo

Gary bought a pan flute from a local vendor. He could have used a few lessons , but then who besides the locals have enough spare breath to make any noise at this altitude?  He also bought a mask for our collection at home and Sharon and I bought some silver jewelry. The main attraction for tourists here are the legions of spinners, weavers, and textile merchants who spread their wares across the squares in a dazzling display of intense color. The town square is nicknamed “Poncho Plaza” since poncho weavers seem to dominate the market. It is a maze of stands with narrow aisles, and along with the ponchos you can find blankets, tapestries, embroidered blouses and dresses, long woven belts called fajas, woven tapes used to bind hair called cintas, yarn and bolts of fabric of every bright color with no subtle pastels anywhere. The textiles were tempting, but we have another 3 weeks of travel and couldn’t stand the drama (or the expense) involved in another FedEx shipment home.

Yarn for Sale Otavalo Market

Yarn for Sale Otavalo Market

The tradition of textile production here dates back to Spanish exploitation of local people and the encomienda system whereby colonizers were given the right to forced labor provided by the indigenous people. In exchange for their labor, the indigenous people received the blessings of Christianity (also forced so not exactly a good deal for the locals). This practice was banned in the years between 1690 and 1720, but it evolved to a system of debt whereby the peons would remain peons and “owe their soul to the company store” forever. This was called wasipungo and under this system, the people did the same jobs and got a wage, but that was eaten up by the debt to their employers. In 1964 agrarian reform laws were passed and the peons at last had a path to prosperity. Of course the Otavalo textiles are popular with tourists, but the Ecuadorians are actually the biggest consumers.

The Streets of the Otavalo Market

The Streets of the Otavalo Market

This is a very ethnically diverse region with two main groups of indigenous people (called indigenas) which both wear their distinctive clothing, particularly the women. The Cayambe women wear the big full skirts and both men and women wear Charlie Chaplin  bowler type hats. The Otavalo women wear a type of wrap, sometimes a woven shawl called a pano or a simple folded blanket, over white cotton peasant blouses and they bind their hair, worn in a long braid, with cintas.  They also carry shigras which are bright multi-colored bags made of strips of agave which has much the same texture as hemp.  Dyes come from nature, and are either plant or insect based. The jewelry includes elaborate seed bead necklaces that show what community the women are from. The well-to-do wear silver jewelry and quite often sport gold capped teeth where you would expect porcelain. The Ecuadorian equivalent of our backpacks are the macanas, which are comprised of lengths of cloth slung over the back, Santa Claus style, to carry everything from babies to groceries, to small farm animals, to firewood. As in Peru, the indigenous people are very small by American standards.  I would have to say many adult Ecuadorians would not be able to go on the big rides at Disney World if you get my drift. Of course, as in Peru, there is a large mestizo population where Spaniards have inter-married with indigenous people so they are a little taller, but still it makes it hard for us hulky gringos to blend with the locals.

And speaking of blending, it is easier if you have slipped across the border. Northern Ecuador has a problem with illegal immigration since it is so close to the Columbian border. They are largely refugees, fleeing drug lords and the associated violence surrounding the drug business in general. A couple of really cute kids joined us on our van and sang a few songs to us. They were little apple cheeked girls with straight black hair and dark, ebony eyes, and eyelashes so thick they looked like fakes. We let them off at a bus stop. It amazed us how children here at very young ages are out and about with no parent in sight (sort of like small-town America in the 1950’s). Ecuador has a very low rate of violent crime which permits children to have this freedom. It makes you wonder how and why our two societies are so different.

Lago San Pablo and Volcan Imbabura

Lago San Pablo and Volcan Imbabura

We stopped for lunch at a delightful lakeside lodge called the Puerto Lago Restaurant at Pinsaqui. Our table overlooked the very picturesque  Lago San Pablo  with a mountain called  Volcan Imbabura above it at an elevation of 14 thousand feet. A few miles away we could see a sister volcano called Cotachi, looming in the background. The scenery was very reminiscent of the lake district in northern Italy, or perhaps  Lake Tahoe. We got back to the hotel in the late afternoon and walked a few blocks to find a good restaurant. It was another early night for us, as we still are adjusting to being back at high altitude.

 

March 15, 2009

Dateline: Quito, Ecuador

Old Quito

Old Quito

Today we spent the morning exploring Old Quito. During the 13th Century it was the center of the Kingdom of Quitus, home of the Quitua Amerindians and the name Quito comes from their indigenous language which means “center”. Several hundred years later it became the Northern capital of the Incas, but they were only here less than 50 years. There is evidence of much older cultures going back 2 thousand years. Once the Spanish came here in the 1500’s, as in Lima, they found willing converts and began building monasteries, churches and cathedrals with a vengeance, often incorporating Incan religious symbols to facilitate conversions. The old town is well preserved, that is at least the structures that the Spanish built. Atahualpa (the last Inca) had a general called Ruminahui (a.k.a. Face of Stone) who burned all the Inca structures down to their foundations once his defeat became apparent. It didn’t seem to trouble the Spaniards, since they just built their stuff on the excellent stone foundations the Incas left. Quito was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. Ecuador is highly focused on their heritage and to that end, sixty per cent of their income tax goes toward historic preservation.  It is a city of two million people, situated  in a valley no more than

Above Quito

Above Quito

2 to 3 miles wide,  and 22 miles long. Despite the altitude, (they have oxygen bars around the city for those who may suffer from altitude issues)  they have a spring-like climate year round thanks to their position just 15 miles south of the Equator. The city is surrounded by towering volcanic peaks, the closest being Rucu Pichincha, a mountain of almost 16,000 feet. Many of the streets are named after dates of historic significance so navigating around can be a challenge if you don’t remember the month and day of the street your hotel is on.  If you do get lost, they have a special tourist police force, more to protect and assist tourists than to arrest them.

There were a few interesting, if unsuccessful, rebellions  including one against the Spanish  in 1592 protesting a sales tax and another in 1765 based on a rumor that the government was poisoning rum and giving it to the poorer classes to try to eliminate them in a rather novel approach to genocide. We had no word on whether or not this was true. The country remained under Spanish rule until a rebellion in 1822 when all the colonies under Spanish domination began to revolt. Ecuador briefly joined Columbia and Venezuela to form a single country called La Gran Columbia in 1822, but it only lasted 8 years. The old town is called the Casco Colonial, (literal translation is colonial town center). The old town is largely restored with museums, boutiques, galleries and restaurants, but there is still much to be done.

Gargoyles of the National Cathedra.

Gargoyles of the National Cathedral

We first visited the Cathedral called the Basilica del Voto Nacional, built in 1892 and fairly new by Old World standards.  It is situated on a hill above the old town in all its new neo-gothic splendor. It seems no architectural feature was ignored in the making of this cathedral. It has the pinnacles, the spires, the towers and parapets, the buttresses , the arches and of course the gargoyles to both ward off evil spirits and serve as downspouts for rain water. But these are not your standard mythological gargoyles – these are anteaters, monkeys, tortoises, iguanas, sea lions and other native wildlife. It is a little incongruous in this setting, but then incongruity is always much more interesting than the conventional, e.g. the standard dragons and assorted monsters found on most cathedrals.

After visiting the cathedral, we walked a few blocks to a restaurant that has a panoramic view of the city. From this vista we saw 3 (out of 4 that are  ever visible from city) volcanic  mountains in distance  which Andrea says is very unusual.  We saw Volcan Pinchincha  and two others very clearly, but very briefly as clouds and fog began to roll in. We also saw the hill called Cerro Panecillo with a huge statue called the Virgin of the Americas (also called the Winged Virgin) which looks out over the city, sort of reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro without the ocean. There is a cable car (the teleferico) which goes to the top of a peak called Cruz Loma at 14,000 feet and from there you can hike to the top of Volcan Pinchincha, but the visibility is usually poor this time of year. We said thank goodness for that. Otherwise, we would feel obligated to actually attempt it. We were told there is an oxygen bar at the top, but that knowledge wasn’t much encouragement to make the hike since you’d have to actually reach the top before it could do you any good.

The Cloisters at the Monasterio de San Francisco

The Cloisters at the Monasterio de San Francisco

Quito is nicknamed the Cloister of the Americas and with good reason We walked down to the old center city filled with churches, abbeys and monasteries representing all the usual orders – Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican, Carmelite as well as several lesser known ones.. The Spanish church fathers apparently hit the mother lode here in terms of potential converts resulting in a frenzy religious indoctrination in a very short period of time. They did a good job too since the country is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic today. Because of the plethora of churches (80 in the old town alone), we have found that we

tourists, in addition to altitude and digestive issues, can also suffer from “church overdose”. To avoid this affliction, we didn’t explore too deeply into any of the churches, but instead we just did a walking tour that went by many of them. We first visited the main square, the Plaza de la Independencia, (Plaza of Independence) which is a park like setting filled with palms, park benches and gardens with a statue dedicated to liberty in the center. It is bordered on one side by the 400 year old presidential palace (Palacio Gobierno) and the Metropolitan Cathedral on another. On the other two sides are the archbishop’s palace and city administration buildings. This is pretty standard in Latin America – not only are church and state not separated,  they work hand in glove, with the church being the hand part with all the power. Ecuador has a colorful, if not long, political history, with religion not only bleeding over into politics, but actually taking over (or sometimes only attempting to take over as in the case of the failed coup by the Jesuits of all people)  Between 1901 and 1948 Ecuador had 39 different governments,  including one tumultuous period where they had 4 governments in 26 days. The phrase, “Throw the bums out” seems to have really been taken to heart. They seem to have stabilized since then, but here in Latin America you always need to watch for a flare-up.

The Metropolitan Cathedral

The Metropolitan Cathedral

The Metropolitan Cathedral was first built in 1565, but it suffered from fires and earthquakes and has required 3 major renovations due to earthquake damage – the most recent being a big one in 1987. It is much more modest than the Basilica on the outside, but is very ornate inside as is the standard for cathedrals. It’s real claim to fame is its religious paintings by the famous (in Ecuador anyway) School of Quito painters, whose works  hang inside the cathedral. The Quito School artists painted Christian themes, but focused on the really bloodthirsty ones – tortured and bloody martyrs, saints dying a painful death at the hands of heretics, and other assorted horrors – not recommended for queasy or wimpy tourists. Interestingly enough, life at the cathedral has indeed imitated art. There have been several murders in the cathedral including that of President Moreno in 1875 who was shot leaving Mass and taken back into the church where he promptly died. In 1877 a bishop died during mass, after drinking poisoned altar wine. The cathedral was a dangerous place in those days and it makes you wonder if maybe those paintings depicting so much evil have a subliminal influence to make people start thinking about doing a little evil of their own.

The Palacio Gobierno

The Palacio Gobierno

The Plaze de La Independencia was really hopping today since Prince Charles and Camilla were visiting the president of Ecuador after wrapping up their stay in the Galapagos. They have roughly the same itinerary as ours, but we suspect with different accommodations. There was an honor guard of Ecuadorian troops who wore colorful red, blue and gold uniforms from the 19th Century, but carried modern weapons. We arrived at the Palacio Gobierno along with 400 cops (which may be just about the whole force in Quito) just in time to see Charles and Camilla arrive and be greeted on the portico by the President. We weren’t real close so I could not tell if Camilla is as horsey looking as the tabloids and late night comics suggest. She looked pretty spiffy in a grand dowager sort of way and so did the Prince. He was in a business suit (Savile Row no doubt) and walked with ramrod stiff posture which we assumed he must have learned at Eton or wherever royalty goes to learn how to be royal. We didn’t see them in the Galapagos, but saw TV footage from the Tortoise Sanctuary and noted that Prince Charles was dressed just as formally to visit the tortoise, Lonesome George, as he was to visit the President of Ecuador. (This led us to speculate that Charles probably owns no tee shirts, nor shorts and that the Royal Knees are only seen in public peeking out below a kilt) There were a few pleasantries (we assume since we were out of earshot) and a round of handshaking and they disappeared inside for lunch. A unique feature of the governor’s palace is that the ground level floor is rented out to souvenir shops and boutiques – no word on whether Camilla planned to stop by to pick up a couple of trinkets later in the day.

La Compania de Jesus

La Compania de Jesus

Our next stop was to be at a Church called La Compania del Jesus (the most accurate translation is the Church of the Society of Jesus, and it is also referred to locally as the Gold Church since there is so much of it used on the interior). However, we learned that the church was closed for the afternoon for a private tour for Charles and Camilla, so we had to move on. We did miss a couple of other things in this area such as the catacombs in the basement of the San Augustin monastery and dungeons under the palace where 36 revolutionaries who took part in an 1890 uprising (those pesky Jesuits again) were held for 9 months before being executed (really swift justice compared to the US system). We heard that their deaths are graphically illustrated in a wax museum, but decided to skip that and have a nice lunch while we still had an appetite.

San Francisco Cathedral

San Francisco Cathedral

We stopped briefly for refreshments at an outdoor café on the Plaza San Francisco after seeing the monastery and church built in 1534, making it the oldest church on the South American continent, as well as the largest religious complex in colonial Quito. It was started two months after the Spanish Conquest on the site of a destroyed Incan temple Like most of the other churches of the era, there is strong Moorish influence in the design and it has undergone massive reconstruction due to earthquake damage. It is full of sculptures and paintings and unique architectural features, however we were too full of sculptures, paintings and architectural features ourselves so we decided to just admire it from the outside. While we were sitting at our table, Gary engaged the services of a young shoeshine girl. We learned that the shoeshine business is the primary source of income for kids in the city, with the selling of candy and chicle (chewing gum) a close runner up. These kids

Quitena Shoeshine Girl

Quitena Shoeshine Girl

don’t usually get to keep the money they make – they are actually helping support their family. Mom and/or dad are typically nearby selling other stuff, often textiles from the Otavalo region.  The cost of a shoeshine is 30 cents, but Andrea said your heart will tell you more. Gary’s heart told him about 3 bucks, ten times the going rate, and he bought a Coke for the little girl to share with her two little brothers who were also shoeshine entrepreneurs.

We walked by another church, quite young by Quito standards, called  La Merced (The Mercy), and admired its bell tower and exterior. It was the  last church built in old Quito, started in  1700 and completed in 1734. The tower houses the oldest clock in city which dates from from1817. From there we walked through the La Ronda neighborhood,

La Ronda

La Ronda

once a slum full of muggers and pickpockets, but it is now restored and very artsy. It was built in colonial times at the very edge of the city (literally an edge since there is a deep ravine behind the buildings on one side of the street). The neighborhood has a Greek feel to it with cobblestone streets, white stucco buildings with blue window trim and doors, pots of red geraniums, balconies, maze-like paths, and steep winding stairways. The name comes from the guitar serenades (rondas) that were played here from the balconies in the colonial days.

We had an early dinner in the Mariscal section of the city which is where most of the embassies are. It is a very international community with lots of good restaurants and nightclubs. It’s funny how you can only visit so many churches and monasteries before your interest starts to flag a bit, but that does not seem to be true of bars and restaurants. We wonder why that is.

 

March 16, 2009

Dateline: Avenue of the Volcanoes, Ecuador

We had hoped for a special adventure today which involved riding atop something called the Devil’s Nose Train. The Devil’s Nose is a railway line that winds its way from just south of Quito, down to a town in a valley far below called Riobamba and eventually to Guayaquil, a drop of over 11,000 feet. The train, we learned is not actually a train, but a bus called the Chiva Express that runs on the train tracks and has open air seating on top. A “chiva” is an old fashioned Latin American bus, on which in the old days they put  chickens, grain, bananas and so forth on the roof instead of tourists. We were also told that chivas are often hired for parties in Quito for celebrations of birthdays, weddings and other happy occasions. The host invites his friends to join them and they ride the bus through the streets, sometimes with a band on board and fully stocked with liquid refreshments, doing the local version of “ hootin and hollerin”. The refreshment is often an Andean drink called canelazo which is a mixture of aguardiente,  lime sugar, water, cinnamon, oranges, Aguardiente is the local firewater made from fermented sugar and fruit or grain – comparable to American “corn likker”, and every bit as high in alcohol content.

The route is called the Avenue of the Volcanoes, since the valley is lined with them, a combination of  active, dormant and extinct ones  in two parallel ranges running north to south, with the occasional transverse inter-mountain valley carved out here and there. Ten million Inca lived here back in the time of Atahualpa, but outside of Quito the land is very sparsely populated  today. However there is still a total of 693 individual indigenous communities in the country. There are 20 active volcanoes along the Avenue and 7 of them are constantly monitored in case they create dangers for humans. This was to be one of the highlights of our week in Ecuador; however this particular adventure was not to be. It seems a combination of rockslides and washouts had destroyed a section of the tracks and the Chiva Express was out of service. The destruction happened last fall and we were a little puzzled over why our travel agent didn’t know about this, but we decided to go with Plan B and have fun anyway. Plan B was a tour bus with a few other travelers which would visit the same or similar places, but we were not given the option of riding on the roof, which would have been challenging to say the least since there was not so much as a luggage rack up there. We decided that if this were not the Devil’s Backbone, it had to be the Devil’s Hiney because the potholes were killers and their numbers were legion. We suspect that whatever shock absorbers once existed on this bus were long ago destroyed on the Road of the Devil’s Hiney.

Clouds and Wetlands of Cotopaxi

Clouds and Wetlands of Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi Volcano and the surrounding ecological sanctuary are the primary attractions on any trip on the Devil’s anatomy. The peak is 19,347 feet and is snow-covered all year round. It is surrounded by the  Andean paramo (moorlands or  high meadows). The paramo is not dry like the Peruvian altiplano,  although it is at a comparable altitude. There are 3 rivers that emanate from Cotopaxi and since it is situated on the Continental Divide, it has the unique feature of having two running east and 1 running west. It is still an active volcano with the last eruption occurring in 1904, but the really, really big one was  in 1877 which sent lava hurtling down the valley as far away as Guayaquil.

We started with a clear day driving south from Quito, ascending to a high ridgeline with the whole panorama of  the city spread out below us.  To the north behind us we had a view of Cayambe (the peak located on the Equator) and we could also see the peaks of Cotopaxi and Corazon as we drove along the Pinchincha Valley. The soil is rich and fertile, the landscape green and lush, and the sun burning off the mist was beautiful. But by 9:00 the burning off stopped and the clouds rolled in bringing a driving rain.  The rain moved through quickly and was replaced by thick fog . It seemed to move like a veil, allowing us a glimpse of something wonderful ever so often and then it would be gone as the veil dropped. We played the Andean version of  Peek-a-boo with Cotopaxi for close to an hour, but as the day wore on the gauzy veil became  more like a burqa and Cotopaxi disappeared.

A Walk in the Clouds

A Walk in the Clouds

We stopped for a short trek to commune with nature – it was mostly a cold wet walk in the fog, and parkas with hoods were the order of the day. We stopped at a nature center where we saw a grazing deer through the mist and there were enough birds to delight any ornithologist, although the grand prize, the giant condor remained unseen. We had been on the lookout for condors, which are known to inhabit these parts, but as in the Colca Canyon of Peru, they need thermals to fly and these Ecuadorian Condors apparently don’t like the wet and cold any better than their condor cousins to the south We did have a condor encounter, but unfortunately this one was stuffed and resting on a display case inside the center so it wasn’t exactly the defining moment type of experience we were looking for (i.e. giant condor soaring majestically above snow capped peaks so close that we could smell the carrion on his breath). This guy’s days of soaring over  snow capped peaks were well behind him, and truth be told, he was looking just the slightest bit tattered, thus fueling speculation that the taxidermist might not have gotten around to working on him as soon as he might have. We also were able to see some “chosi” which are single room houses made of Andean bamboo. At one particular chosi we found a very furry donkey staring back at us and surmised that at these altitudes they keep their winter coats all year round.

Our next stop was for another walk in a high meadow with a shallow lake and abundant wetlands in a basin just below Cotopaxi, which again was peeking at us intermittently as the clouds swirled by, and I don’t mean overhead. We were at an altitude where we were literally walking through clouds. They may look fluffy, but they are as cold and inhospitable as a wet dishrag slapped on your face –  nothing at all like those painted on cathedral ceilings with angels sitting on them.  Those artists had obviously never encountered a real cloud up close and personal.  Back in the bus, we splashed through several rivers without benefit of bridges and eventually reached the Tambopaxi Lodge for lunch.

Esstancia La Alegria

Esstancia La Alegria

On the way back to Quito we stopped at a small estancia (estate) which was a working farm on the southern outskirts of the city. Here the cowboys are called “chacas”, which would be gauchos in Argentina. The estate was called Estancia La Alegria (happy estate) and it has belonged to the Espinoza family for the last 4 generations. The house, quite Victorian in design, and nearby barns had many antiques including hand-made saddles.  La Alegria is also guest house (sort of an Ecuadorian Dude Ranch). They offer special guest  packages to travel by horseback to Cotopaxi and other destinations up into the “high country” for two

Baby Alpaca at La Alegria

Baby Alpaca at La Alegria

and three week trips. It sounds like fun for the first hour or so –  but after that, the bus on Devil’s Hiney might feel really good by comparison. While at La Alegria we had coffee and dessert ( a cobbler/strudel like pastry that was delicious) and a short tour. There was a crew working on a drainage problem in one of the fields with docile  alpacas and tourists (also docile) looking on. The horses had been turned out to pasture so we visited with the alpacas who were right friendly and well groomed specimens.

Once back in Quito after another grueling day of touring at high altitude,  we had a light supper and again retired early – party poopers all.

March 17, 2009

Dateline: Papallacta, Ecuador

Termas de Papallacta

Termas de Papallacta

Today was our day off from touring, so we decided to treat ourselves to a day of relaxation. Our destination was Papallacta (pronounced Papa-Yak-Ta with the accent on “yak”) Thermal Springs Resort (Termas Papallacta in Spanish) in the Central Cordillera  of the Andes. Luis, our driver from the day before, came to get us at 8:30 in a small mini-van. We made the climb out of Quito and stopped briefly at the Papallacta Pass on the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet, and then started down the Eastern slope. Although we were descending, we were still high above the Amazon Basin when we reached the town of Papallacta. En route there were numerous switchbacks and steep grades and lots of those little shrines where previous motorists have had a very bad day.

The Termas Papallacta was comprised of a rustic lodge and restaurant, Spanish Hacienda style, set in a mountainous cloud forest. It was built around a series of natural hot springs that

Hot Springs of Papallacta

Hot Springs of Papallacta

have been creatively harnessed, both outside and inside, to pamper the visitors with long soaks in soothing mineral water in pools in a variety of sizes, with and without jets. Most of the springs had temperatures of 100 degrees plus and the air was downright chilly, so it was heavenly to slip into the water and relax. We had been issued speed racer sort of head coverings which sort of detracted from the glamour aspect of our visit, but we had a good soak and then went inside for “treatments”.

We all had massage appointments with one other treatment of our choosing. Stu opted for a nap in the quiet room, which had individual lounge chairs with soft cushions covered with fluffy towels, soft music and soft lighting.  Gary and I chose the steam option. We went into a small room with two chairs and sat beside a waterfall splashing very hot water on lava rocks, creating clouds of steam, sort of like being in the Amazon, but without insects and the trekking. There were cold towels and cold water in case we got over heated,  so all in all, it was an excellent  experience. Sharon, unfortunately did not have such a good experience. Her chosen pre-massage treatment was hydro-massage which was advertised as an exfoliation treatment designed to remove dead skin and stimulate the circulation to produce rosy glowing skin. Well the rosy glowing part was right, although Sharon felt she was taken a few steps past rosy. She reported that she was told to assume the position of standing with arms stretched out to the side, and then she was literally power-washed with a small fire hose with a spray strong enough to blow the freckles right off your body. It was supposed to be a thirty minute process, but she says she cried “uncle” after the first few excruciating minutes while she still had some flesh left. We all had great massages that left us deliciously lethargic with only enough energy to walk the twenty or so yards to the resort’s restaurant for lunch where we invited Luis to join us.

Giant Fuschia at Papallacta

Giant Fuschia at Papallacta

We had a wonderful lunch of Andean trout and local wine and visited with Luis. He told us he had lived in New York for a while and had lost a brother-in-law on 9-11 at the World Trade Center. After that he decided to move back to Ecuador to enjoy the quiet life. We had a stroll through the grounds on our way back to our van and were amazed at the size and health of the plants. The soil here must be world class Miracle Grow stuff, and with the total absence of winter weather, the plants flourish. We saw geraniums that were over 6 feet high and rose bushes taller than the roofline. There were elephant ears growing on a scale that would actually fit real elephants and fuchsia going wild on the hillsides. If you thought about it too much it was borderline creepy. You really start to think that the events in the movie, Little Shop of Horrors, could have taken place here (Were those ferns that close to our van when we parked here? Are those geraniums demanding to be fed or is it just someone’s stomach growling?)

We climbed back into the minivan for the return trip to Quito. It started to rain on our trip back and it made for really good snoozing. We had dinner at a nice Italian restaurant near our hotel, and as is our habit at high altitudes, went to bed early. Tomorrow Stu and Sharon fly to Buenos Aires and Gary and I have one more day in Quito

March 18, 2009

Dateline: Quito, Ecuador

We are on our own today since Stu and Sharon left for Buenos Aires and we had no tours planned. We had a “bit of a lie in” as our British friends would say (that is we slept late) and decided to go back to revisit Old Town, but we encountered some problems, starting with language problems when we hailed a cab just outside the hotel. I gave our destination to the cabbie, who looked at me as if I were speaking Urdu. After several repetitions of key phrases, he responding in Spanish, and I finally decided he understood me – I just didn’t understand him. I gradually came to understand as my limited Spanish trickled back to my brain, that for some reason he could not take us to Old Town, but would be glad to take us on a tour outside the city. Finally we agreed he would take us to Mariscal district from where we could walk to the Old Town. In Mariscal there are many English speaking people and we availed ourselves of a very helpful concierge at the Mercure Hotel, who told us of a taxi strike, gave us a map and directions to our destination and cautioned us to beware of pickpockets

It was a very strange taxi strike to be sure. It was only in Old Town, and it was only between the hours of 8 and 11 o’clock. There were marchers instead of picketers. After eleven o’clock, apparently all is forgiven and everyone goes back to work. In the meantime, there was a parade on the Avenida 10 de Agosto (August 10 Avenue) comprised of a stream of protestors, laughing and joking,smoking cigarettes, buying ice cream, singing songs marching under everything from huge banners to small hand lettered signs on cardboard. They were shouting slogans (more football fan, than angry Teamster and not very strident in their demands). I imagined the translation went something like this: “What do we want? Oh, I dunno. When do we want it? Whenever.”  But I guess from their perspective it’s a day off and it gets them out of the hacienda for a few hours.

The parade (oops make that “The Protest March”) started in the Old Town and was marching toward Mariscal so we found ourselves walking on the same street, but more or less against the tide. It was an interesting walk through their commercial area – lots of stores, not many gringos but everyone was very cordial. The stores are quite eclectic – for example one store was selling washing machines and motorbikes, along with batteries, Tupperware and blank CD’s,  could be bought all in the same place. We continued with our walk and then all of a sudden the church bells tolled eleven and everyone more or less folded their banners, flipped their lights on in their taxis and went to work.

Michael Vick Sighting

Michael Vick Sighting

The young people in Quito don’t go in for the native dress as much as their parents and grandparents and consequently, there are a lot of name brands and sports team shirts worn here. Our favorite sighting was an unsuspecting kid in a Michael Vick Atlanta Falcons Number 7 jersey strolling down the street. We were sure there was a real flood of those on the Latin American apparel markets after the dog fighting conviction. We did have an interesting chat with a local woman who admonished Gary that he needed to carry his backpack on his chest rather than his back because pickpockets are especially bad about preying on tourists. We got a chuckle out of this because the average tall adult here is about 5 foot nothing and can’t even reach the top of the backpack where the zipper is, but we thanked her for her advice and her concern anyway.

Shoeshine Shyster

Shoeshine Shyster

As it turned out the pickpockets were not the only thieves in town. Gary finally agreed to a shoe shine from a small boy who had been stalking, accosting and pestering him at a negotiated price of $1.00 which was about 3 times the going rate per our guide, Andrea. In fact Gary had given this same kid a dollar two days earlier when we were here just to go away.  But then after he finished the job the little shyster said the price was $1.00 per shoe. As the chief translator of the Palmer family, I said in my very most threatening voice and wobbly Spanish “Es un dollar para dos o nada” which I intended, and suppose he understood, to mean it’s one dollar for both or nothing.  Thus threatened, el nino took the dollar, but then I guess he took some satisfaction from the fact that he had applied black shoe polish to the gringo’s brown shoes.

Teatro de Sucre Square

Teatro de Sucre Square

We continued our walk and stopped at the Teatro de Sucre Square (a square in front of the national theater named for a local hero) for a glass of wine. They were in the process setting up speakers,  preparing, we assumed, for a dancing exhibition since there were several women in native costume, but as close to an hour passed with no sound issuing forth from any of the ancient speakers, we had our doubts. (There were a lot of hola, holas  being said– their equivalent of testing, testing, – but nothing happening.) We decided to continue our stroll since it could be a long time before any of the dancers decided to “bust a move”. Our destination for today was the church that had been closed to us two days earlier when Charles and Camilla were here. We were hoping we common folk could see it now that the glitterati had departed. En route Gary saw some rotisserie chicken (still on a quest ever since

Rotisserie Chicken Behind Bars

Rotisserie Chicken Behind Bars

our first day in Lima) and wanted to stop there for lunch, (there being a hole in the wall with 4 tables), but I convinced him we should look for something with a little more ambiance, which we found on the Plaza de San Francisco at an outdoor restaurant with a wrought iron fence to keep the shoeshine sellers at bay. We did see a lot of pint size vendors including those selling baskets of fresh produce, with luscious strawberries, peaches and raspberries – 1 gallon Ziplock size for $1.00 (a much better deal than the shoe shine). They also had roasted ears of corn with really giant kernels about the size of marbles, and of course cuy (guinea pig), and little tiny finger size sweet bananas.

From the restaurant we went to the Plaza de La Independencia, which was very quiet today with the royalty having departed and not many souvenir seekers in the first floor shops. We also found we had  La Compania de Jesus Church mostly to ourselves. It was built by the Jesuits over a period of 163 years in the Baroque style and is filled with Quiteno colonial art. The columns on the outside are called Solomon spirals, meant to symbolize how the path to heaven starts on the ground and winds upward. Call me a heathen, but I thought they mostly resembled those swirly cones from Dairy Queen, but then what do I know about baroque architecture? However fancy on the outside, the real treasure is inside with gold leaf altars, and elaborate paintings on vaulted ceilings, giving rise to the nickname, Quito’s Sistine Chapel. Every wall and niche has murals and statuary and the inside columns are patterned after those in the Vatican. The architects also very cleverly incorporated some of the Incan religious symbols in the interior such as a giant sun to represent Inti, the Sun God. The thinking was that this might help convert the locals if they could be made to believe their own religion and Catholicism were basically the same thing.

The really valuable treasures are in a bank vault and are only brought out on special occasions (maybe Camilla got a peek). This collection includes a painting of the Virgen Dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrow) whose frame is encrusted with emeralds and gold. This church used to have a lot more treasure, but in 1767, the Jesuits were banned from Spanish lands, and much of the church’s treasure was shipped to Spain although some never made it, as was the fate of the treasure of  the Atocha, salvaged by Mel Fisher off the coast of Florida. The silver was to be sold locally, but people refused to buy it saying it belonged to God so much of that is still here. At the foot of the altar are the remains of Quito’s saint, Mariana de Jesus who reportedly intervened with God to end a combination of plagues and earthquakes in 1645. Unfortunately 14,000 people died before her intercession. After her prayer, she fell ill and died on the spot and the diseases stopped and the ground quit shaking, or so the story goes.

It was late afternoon by the time we got a cab back to the Dann Carlton. We walked to one of the many nearby restaurants for a light meal and went back to the hotel to rest up for our early departure tomorrow morning for Argentina. We have left much left undone in Ecuador – the colonial city of Cuenca, the Ecuadorian coast and the elusive Devil’s Backbone, the quest for the rotisserie chicken,  just to name a few,  and so a return trip is definitely called for.