Cuenca Walkabout (November, 2011)

Cuenca: the whole world!

Saturday  

We have traveled to Quito so many times in the past year that it is easy to breeze through customs and we are at our hotel in no time.  We are hopeful that tomorrow will be clear.  Our flight to Cuenca does not leave until 6:30pm.  We have the whole day and want to visit Teleferico, a cable car attraction that gives visitors a breath-taking view of the city and surrounding mountains.

Quito from the plane

Sunday 

We are not disappointed.  The day is sunny and bright, with a clear view of the snow-capped peaks.  We are the first to arrive at the base of the mountain.  There is no line and we hop on the first cable car available.  

cable car up to Teleferico

It is a long way to the top:  Quito sits at 9,000 ft.  The base of the park is at 10,000 and by the time we exit we are 12,500 ft above sea level.  It is hard to breathe at this altitude but the view is spectacular.  We can see all of the surrounding peaks:  Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe.  

view of Cotopaxi from 12,500ft
TG

We hike up the hill.  The Cruz Loma crater, part of a still-active volcano, is three miles further along the steep path.  Horses are available for hire but TG chooses to wait while I hike for another twenty minutes.  

horses for hire
Cruz Loma crater

The volcano is no closer and the thin air makes me short of breath.  I turn back.  A family has stopped along the side of the path.  I say “Es difícil respirar.”  It is difficult to breathe.  “.”

It is a short, one-hour flight to Cuenca and we can see the mountains clearly from the plane window.  Even from this height they are massive. We collect our bags and arrive at the Hostel Chordeleg by 8pm.  This will be our home for the next six days.  We walk to the main square for dinner. 

Volcano Cayambe

If you travel to Ecuador for peace and quiet, you will be sorely disappointed.  It is many wonderful things but it is never quiet.  The streets are crowded and bustling, with every car beeping its horn as often as possible.  Street vendors loudly hawk their wares and fireworks ka-boom at all hours of the day and night.

the Cathedral at night

Monday 

We are awakened by sunshine pouring through the slits in the wooden shutters and the sounds of traffic on the street below.  We walk south, towards the river.  The city is still waking and the stalls in the square are not yet open for business.  The market, however, appears to have been bustling for hours.  

produce market
produce market

We wander through aisle after aisle of produce: mountains of bananas, mangos, strawberries.  The meat counters overflowing with slabs of thick red meat, piles of plucked yellow chickens, and cakes of white lard.  A pig hangs from a steel hook.  We are astounded at the variety of it all. 

meat market

Upstairs we share a table with another couple while we drink our coffee.  The people-watching is incredible and we try to be discreet as we take our photos.  The upstairs vendors sell cooked foods: beans, corn, and sheets of chocolate.  Later we will learn that city women buy their beans pre-cooked to avoid the long soaking process.   And the chocolate sheets are bitter:  you must add sugar and milk to make hot cocoa.  But for now we are content to just sit and soak it all in.

meat market from our second floor perch
you wonder: whatever his story it must be very sad
beautiful women and children
so much variety!

The afternoon has grown warm.  Before we left home the forecast for Cuenca was overcast, drizzly and 60’s.  We brought long-sleeves and down vests.  But it is sunny and in the 80’s. We return to the hotel to cool off and plan the week.  There is a tour company across the street and we sign up for a day hike in the Cajas National Park tomorrow and a city tour on Wednesday morning.

street vendor
flowers against a wall mural
the river walk

Tuesday 

The bus picks us up at 8:00am.  Cajas National Park sits just outside of Cuenca.  The highest elevation is 14,000 ft, at the continental divide.  Even though it is only 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean, all waters east of this point flow across the continent of South America to the Atlantic Ocean.  The national park land was formed during the ice age by glaciers moving across the mountains.  There are over 320 lakes in the region along with beautiful “paper” tree forests, whose bark is so thin the Incas used it for paper.  The micro-climate is called a cloud forest because of all the vegetation that grows at this altitude. 

the start of our hike: Three Andrean crosses
Cajas lake
Cajas lake

We did not know what to expect.  The tour operator said a “short walk through the hills.”  We hike, some of it quite arduous, for three hours.  But are rewarded with one incredible view after another.  The guide warns us to stay with him.  It is easy to stray off the path and lose your way.  Every year people are lost on the mountain after dark and die from hypothermia.   It is sunny and warm again today but at this altitude once the sun sets temperatures will drop quickly.

Cajas cloud
JET
Cajas lake

Ten miles later, we finally arrive back at the bus.  We are taken for a traditional Andean lunch: potato soup and fried trout.  The soup is delicious.  The trout is presented with head and eyes fried along with the rest.   We are no longer hungry.

no thanks!

Wednesday 

Our guide, Juan Carlos, meets us promptly at 9:00am.  He takes us to the Homero Ortega panama hat factory.  

Homero Ortega panama hat factory

Cuenca is the birthplace of the panama hat and we learn much on this tour.  Hats are still made as they have been for centuries: by hand.  Local craftswomen deliver the hats to the factory where they are sorted by quality.  The finer the straw, the better the weave, more expensive the hat.  Each hat goes through a process of bleaching, pressing, and shaping before it is ready to be sold.  

hats are handmade by local craftswomen and delivered to the factory
hats are bleached and then dried in the sun

The factory walls are lined with photos of celebrities: Sean Connery, Johnny Depp, Bruce Willis, and Julia Roberts have all worn Homero Ortega hats. This is the largest exporter of panama hats in Cuenca: they export over 600,000 annually.

the finer the straw, the better the weave, the more expensive the hat

After the tour we drive across town and up the hill for a view of the city.  Cuenca is very red – the clay used for much of the building materials and tiled roofs is from the local hillsides.  We stop at Eduardo Vega’s studio.  He is the premiere ceramicist in Ecuador and I instantly recognize his work.  I purchased some of his pieces the last time I was in Quito. 

Cuenca is very red
view of the red city

Juan Carlos drives us back into town.  We start our walking tour.  We visit the Museum of Modern Art, where we find the hummingbirds and gardens far more interesting than the art. 

Museum of Modern Art
hummingbird in the Museum of Modern Art gardens

We walk through the market and Juan explains the various fruits and vegetables.  He points to a narrow passage and tells us that is the best place to purchase handicrafts and panama hats.  He takes us to the cathedral.  Until this point it has been a dominating force in the center of town but we have not gone inside.  We stand in awe.  He describes in detail the history of this beautiful building, the story of each stained glass window and statue.  The church comes alive and we will visit it often during our stay this week.

the Cathedral
stained glass window
inside the Cathedral facing towards the alter
the alter
rosaries, crucifixes, and candles sold on the Cathedral steps

We visit the flower market where discreetly tucked in one corner is the entrance to the Monestario del Carmen de La Asuncion.  There is much mystery surrounding the monastery, home to an order of cloistered nuns.  Even the locals tell conflicting stories.  We hear somewhere between 16 and 18 nuns, all university graduates who must first serve as a novice for somewhere between two and nine years.  Once accepted, they will never leave the monastery and can never be seen again.  If they have visitors their faces are covered with a thick veil.  They raise money by making various products. Juan Carlos tells us the pigeon jelly (geletina) cured his daughter.  We purchase as much of the locion for sore muscles and crema for dry skin as we can carry home.  

the Monestario del Carmen de La Asuncion
locion and crema

Thursday 

Today we look for panama hats.  Buying the right hat takes patience and stamina.  We walk from one store to the next.  Nothing speaks to Tall Guy.  We end up back at a shop we visited on Monday.  I like a blue hat with blue band I find laying on the table.  We explain to the clerk what Tall Guy wants:  a good-quality weave, black, with narrow (pork-pie) brim, green band, size XL.  They can make it.  It will take about an hour. 

the panama hat store

While we wait, we happen upon the Cuenca Zoo.  It is no more than a storefront, with cages and tanks full of all manner of strange reptiles and insects.  It is fascinating and ever so campy. There are two albino things in a water-filled tank.  I am obsessed with finding out what they are.  I can hardly believe that they are real. The docent speaks no English.  I get (somehow) that they are juveniles as he shows me a photo of an adult.  Ah!  Definitely some sort of lizard (thing).  We turn a corner in the tiny room and are surrounded by snakes including a thick python. Most are sleeping with their heads away from us.  But a yellow one dances in front of the glass while we take photos. 

python at Cuenca Zoo

I am so mesmerized by the snakes that I almost miss the green iguana sitting on a tree next to my head.  He is not in a cage.  Up a flight of stairs and I am looking down at a 6 ft crocodile, sharing his pen with a small Galapagos tortoise.  The next room is full of slimy snails and spiders.  We are happy to escape this strange little place and spill back into the bright sunshine on the street.

Cuenca street
flowers everywhere!

Our hats are not yet ready.  We are brought upstairs to a balcony with a beautiful view of the city.  We wait high above the street and traffic.  It is worth it:  TG’s hat is exactly what he wanted.

panama hats!

Hats on head, we walk back to the flower market.  We did not have time yesterday to take as many photos as we wished.  The perfume from the flowers fills the air.  We sit in the shade and enjoy the beautiful colors and smells.

the flower market
the flower market
the flower market
the flower market

Today is Thanksgiving.  Someone tells us that a restaurant is serving a traditional American dinner: turkey and all the trimmings.  We stop in to confirm.  “Yes!”  they tell us.  “Wonderful,” we say, “we will be back for dinner!”  I have the pasta primavera and TG the mixed grill.

Happy Non-Traditional Thanksgiving!

Friday   

We have reservations at the Piedra de Agua thermal hot springs & spa, a short ride outside of Cuenca.  We arrive when they open at 9:00am.  There is no one else here.  We are treated to a 15 minute eucalyptus sauna, followed by cold rinse, and then repeat. We are coated in red mud, baked in the sun, rinsed, coated in blue mud, baked in the sun, and rinsed.  We are brought into a small cave.  At the bottom on the steps, lit with small candles, is a thermal pool of very hot water.  We soak for ten minutes, and jump into a freezing cold bath.  We sit for two minutes, gasping for breath, and then repeat the whole process three more times.  David, our attendant, asks if we would like a glass of wine.  “Si.”  After wine, we are encased with only our heads through a round opening at the top of a wooden steam box.  A Canadian sitting next to us jokes about the James Bond scene in Thunderball when the box is jammed shut with a mop handle and the steam turned on full.  We laugh, nervously.

TG at Piedra de Agua

It is time for our massage.  TG is on the other side of the screen from me and we finish at the same time.  After lunch it is time to head back to Cuenca.   We are utterly relaxed and our skin is baby soft.  We were at the spa for six hours and the total cost was only $80 per person.

all that for just $80 each!

Saturday 

The office calls and TG must crunch numbers.  I go for one last walk around Cuenca.  I am drawn to the cathedral, the flower market, and the monastery.  I try to absorb everything, not knowing when we will be back.

one last visit to the Cathedral
beautiful bread lady

We have a five hour layover in Quito.  We have checked our bags straight through to Miami and have plenty of time to go to the market.  We are almost there when a horrible hail storm hits.  The hail is the size of gumballs, pounding against the taxi.  We dash into the market, seeking cover in the narrow aisles of the stalls.  This is awful!  It is wet and chilly.  We head back to the airport.  Traffic is backed up and the streets are flooded.  They are shoveling the hail like snow.  We are grateful we gave ourselves plenty of time.

The Colorful Faces of Puerto Lopez: July 2011

Our first visit “Chasing Silver,” watching the humpback whale migration off the coast of Ecuador

the garden at Hosteria Itapoa

It took a full day to get here:  two planes, a five hour layover in Quito, another flight to Manta, followed by a two hour drive south to Puerto Lopez.  Hosteria Itapoa is simple but clean and comfortable.  It sits at the north end of the malecon, directly across from the beach.  The rooms are small bungalows.  Ours comes with a tiny second floor and balcony.  Including full breakfast it is $13 per person per night. 

Hosteria Itapoa

Situated within easy walking distance of restaurants and shops, we head to Exploramar Diving first thing Thursday morning.  I sign up for a two-tank dive to Isla de la Plata on Friday.  And then we go whale watching.

“Observación de ballenas”
the beach at Puerto Lopez

We surrender our shoes to a large rice sack and walk across the beach.  It is a cacophony of boats, fisherman still unpacking their gear, fish caught fresh that morning chopped and bleeding on blocks of ice, dogs chasing each other and birds swirling about.   

Puerto Lopez harbor
stray dogs everywhere

We spend close to an hour searching before we find our first pair of whales.  They stay close to the boat, surfacing to breathe and shoot water from their blowholes.  They show us only their large hump backs but even that is magnificent. They are every bit as long as our boat – maybe longer.  In the distance we see one breach.  The boat races but by the time we are close enough for photos it has stopped.  We do manage to capture a fluke, dripping with water.  We are hooked.

surfacing close to the boat
humpback whale tail

After waiting for an hour at the dive shop on Friday morning I am told that the boat was overbooked.  I cannot dive today day.  I return to Itapoa.  Not expecting me home until 5:00pm, TG is pleasantly surprised to see me.  We hire a moto-taxi to take us to Las Frailes, one of the most beautiful beaches in Ecuador.  It is almost deserted and we are not disappointed.  It is beautiful.  We walk for an hour along the beach, photographing the pelicans and tiny sand crabs.  In spite of the overcast sky it is a perfect day.  I may (or may not) dive this week.   The whales are calling.

Las Frailes

Later that evening a young man tracks me down at the hostel.  He is from Exploramar Diving.  Management just found out what happened and he has come to apologize.  They will have a space for me whenever I wish to dive.  Regardless of whether or not I accept their offer, I appreciate their follow up.

horseback tour through the jungle

Saturday we have arranged for a horseback tour through the jungle.  No waivers are signed; no one even asks if we have any experience.  If they had asked, we would have answered we have ridden an elephant more recently.    At times it is absolutely terrifying.  I am certain my horse will slip on the narrow path and we will slide down the side of the steep, muddy mountain. Our guides whack a path ahead of us with machetes.  

whacking the way ahead with machetes

But we are treated to panoramic views every where we look; we see rare capuchino and the more common black howler monkeys.    

howler monkey

Roberto and Policarpo speak no English.  They point out various plants as we struggle to understand.  My pockets are full of tobacco leaves, coffee beans, and a tagua nut.   “This leaf is good for medicine.   The wood from this tree is used in constructing houses.”   By three o’clock we are back at the road to meet the moto-taxi.  We are exhausted but exhilarated.

TG
Roberto and Policarpo
Roberto knocking down oranges

It is Sunday and we have booked an all-day trip to Isla de la Plata.  Barely twenty minutes out and we already find whales.  At first we see only their backs.  Suddenly one breaches.  It is so close to another boat!  We are at the perfect vantage point to photograph both the whale and the boat – giving perspective on how big these creatures really are.  We spend an hour with him as over and over he rises up out of the water, showing us his enormous size before splashing back down beneath the waves. 

humpback tail with boat
humpback breaching next to boat

It is time to move on to Isla de la Plata. “The Poor Man’s Galapagos.”  It is a wind-swept island in the middle of nowhere, covered with palosanto trees.  We recognize the sweet earthy fragrance.  We smell it even before Sandra, our guide, points it out. 

Isla de la Plata

We see blue-footed boobys, their webbed feet dipped in bright blue “paint,” red-breasted and brown frigates, warbling finches, and albatross. 

blue footed booby
red-breasted frigate

The landscape is rugged and somewhat barren this time of year.  Sandra tells us that during rainy season everything is green and flowering.  Off shore in the distance we see whales breach.

view from Isla de la Plata

Back at the boat we are surrounded by huge green sea turtles.  They are drawn to the pineapple chunks our crew is tossing overboard.  We spend thirty minutes snorkeling in a quiet bay.  The corals are pretty and I see many unfamiliar fish.

green sea turtle

The boat heads back to Puerto Lopez.  It has been a long day and the crew is anxious to get us home.  We see whales breach and more water spouts during the hour-long ride back but it is full speed ahead.  If Saturday left us exhilarated, today we are giddy.  The camera is full of photos.

we are giddy

We  try a different restaurant every night.  Puerto Lopez is a fishing village.  We order fish; none prepared quite the same way. 

“pescado frito con arroz”
Pilsener: the only beer we ever drink

After dinner we have taken to stopping for a drink.  Last night we found a quiet bar called “Bambu.”  There is a sign on the wall:  “Buena Vibre” Good Vibes.   Tonight Jaime pours us home-made caña, a traditional Ecuadorian drink made fermented sugar cane.  We are living on the edge. 

caña at Bambu

After another full day of whale watching, we have decided to stay on dry land today.  We hire a moto-taxi to take us to Agua Blanca, an archeological site dating back to pre-Columbian times.  We have no idea what we are in for.  There is a small museum filled with artifacts:  funeral urns with human bones still tucked in the fetal position in which they were cremated.  Alejo, our guide, patiently teaches as we struggle to understand his Spanish. 

Agua Blanca

And then we set out on a two kilometer trek through the dry jungle, past a small banana plantation, over a river where women are hand washing clothes and on to a sacred pool.  It is healing sulfur water. We coat our hands and arms in thick black mud, let it dry for twenty minutes and then rinse off in the pool.  I lie on my stomach and let my arms dangle in the egg-smelling water.  It feels silky. There are two toads on the bank next to me.   Tall Guy  says his arms are as soft as a baby  but it does nothing for my dry hands.

the healing waters at Agua Blanca

After all the excitement earlier this week there is little whale activity on Wednesday.  We are disappointed.  We’ve been spoiled.  We see one whale breach but are not in the right position for a photo.  We see a few hump backs and one fluke.  We spend too much time drifting, the engine idling.   One person is sick, and then another and another.  It is the domino-effect.  TG and I sit towards the front of the boat, away from the diesel fumes, frustrated with our fellow passengers and the crew. 

not much activity

Once again back we head to Las Frailes.  There is a small hill we want to climb.  The view from the mirador at the top is breath-taking.

hike up to the mirador
TG 
view from the mirador at Las Frailes

Thursday is our last day in Puerto Lopez.  I have booked with a different boat.  The captain and crew take care to position us so that everyone has a perfect view.  They move the boat so that we are always at the best vantage point to see the whales. 

humpback whale breach

It is, in a word, spectacular.  Multiple breaches, a fluke (“cola”) so close I can almost touch it, and a pair that roll on their backs like overgrown puppies.    But I am not feeling well.  Not seasick, I have succumbed to Jaime’s fermented sugar cane drinks.  I go straight to bed. 

It is unfortunate as we have been invited to dine with a German couple also staying at Itapoa.  They were fishing early this morning and have caught enough to feed everyone.  The hostel kitchen is a beehive of activity:  Maria, her mother, and daughter bustle about filleting fish, dicing potatoes and chopping onions.  TG contributes two boxes of wine. I am sorry to miss the festivities.

Puerto Lopez chicken

By Friday morning we are both sick.  We’re certain it was the caña. We will find out later there were bad batches of caña being served all throughout Ecuador. Many people died.  

the drive to Manta

We manage to arrange a taxi to Manta.  In spite of everything, I am happy to see this drive in the daytime.  The coast of Ecuador is beautiful – nothing but rolling hills and unspoiled white beaches.  The landscape is dotted with palosanto and ceibo trees.  Between the magnificent views are tiny towns:  one after the other.  Machalilla.  Puerto Cayo.  Jipijapa.   The main street of each village is lined with vendors, all featuring the same specialty.  In one village it is beautiful wood carvings.  In the next it is small loaves of bread, the women waive handkerchiefs to flag down the cars.  In a third town all the shops sell grotesque ceramic piggy banks and urns.  In yet another it is stall after stall of honey.  They have recycled every conceivable glass container.  We see honey in pickle jars, ketchup and Snapple bottles.  All this flies by us at 70 kilometers per hour.  We are both slightly queasy and wonder if it is even real.  We are on to the next town before I can say for certain. 

the drive to Manta

We land safely in Quito.  The Mercure Hotel is a perfect way to end the trip:  a comfortable king-size bed and plenty of hot water.  We had plans for our last day.  Jaime told us about a magic lake, a holy waterfall, and a mystic tree just outside the city.  And we wanted to check out the thermal baths in Papallacta.  But tonight we are content to order soup from room service and fall gratefully into bed.

TG on the plane

Saturday is gloriously clear.  We can see to the top of the mountains that surround this city.  We had planned to take the cable car to the top of the volcano, Teleferico, at 13,000 ft.  Instead we walk to the market. We are feeling better but we have a long day of travel ahead.

Magic lakes, holy waterfalls, and mystic trees will be here – for next trip.

P.S. In March of 2012, we returned to Ecuador to spend a weekend at the Otavalo market. We also visited the Mojanda Lake, Peguche Cascade, the sacred waterfall, and El Lechero, the mystic tree. You can watch our video slide show here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLdcvrSMQ1o

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador Dec 30, 2010-Jan 8, 2011

12/30/10

We are in the domestic terminal at the Quito airport; the monitor reads our flight to Manta is now boarding at Gate 16. There is no Gate 16, only Gates 1-5. I ask the ticket agent if we are in the right place. She replies, “yes, you will board at 12:05.” I look at my watch, and then back to her, confused. It is 12:15. She taps my watch. “Don’t worry about it.”

Quito

Barely an hour later and we are touching down in Manta. By 3:30 we are lying flat on our bed under a cool ceiling fan in our hostel in Bahia de Caraquez. Cocobongo Hostel is simple but clean. The shower begrudgingly gives up a trickle of tepid water, the bed is hard, but the ceiling fan runs strong and we are steps from the ocean.

Bahia sits on a thumb of a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. To the west is the Pacific Ocean. To the east, the Chone river and estuary. It is spectacular. The vibe is beachy-touristy, similar to tourists towns in Florida. This trip is about more than simply a relaxing vacation. We want to live as close to “local” as we can. We want to experience the trickling shower, the power outages, and shop at the produce market.

The produce market!! An entire city block filled with stall after stall of succulent vegetables and fruits, fish caught that morning, live chickens, hot-from-the-oven breads, freshly made cheeses, plus all manner of herbs, spices, and little sticks in bags. Over the week we will spend hours wandering the market but very little money. Three huge avocados and three juicy tomatoes cost a total of $1.00. Paired with a soft roll and some queso (cheese) it will make lunch for days. We will eat for pennies all week.

herbs, spices, and sticks

12/31/10

We take a panga across the river to San Vincente. They recently built a beautiful bridge, so it is possible to walk or drive across the river.

the bridge to San Vincente

But pangas run a regular, inexpensive ferry service and are quick. Only ten minutes shore to shore. The capacity states 20. I count 27 on our boat, not counting the two infants and a small dog. On the way back a tiny abuela (grandmother) boards after us. Her face is wrinkled, her hair is white. She looks ancient. She hesitates at the top of the steps, the small boat rocking in the waves. TG offers a strong, steady arm and her face lights up. She grasps his arm and comes aboard. I scoot over so she can sit next to him on the narrow bench.

There is a different sense of personal space in this country. No one seems to mind sitting so close together. We find this everywhere — not just on the pangas. Shop aisles are narrow and crowded. At 6’4″ TG towers above everyone. We pass another tiny abuela. She is literally the size of his leg. She is walking with a young woman and as they pass, they gasp. If one can communicate “holy sh**t!!” with a gasp, they just did.

New Year’s Eve in Ecuador is like nothing we’ve ever seen. All day we have been accosted by “widows” – young men and boys dressed in black funeral drag, symbolizing the loss of their husband (the old year). They beg for coins to purchase fireworks for later tonight.

New Year’s Eve
the “concert”
Feliz NuevoAños 2011!

At 10pm we gather for a “concert” on the point of the peninsula. It turns out to be two hours of canned rock music, blaring from speakers. There are many families here and everyone is happy and friendly. Roman candles, bottle rockets, and sparklers explode over our heads. At midnight, everyone kisses. “Feliz Nuevo Años, Año Viejo!” Happy New Year, Better luck next year!

And then the bonfires begin. We had seen the paper mache effigies for sale on the streets but were not prepared for the fires — everywhere. Figures, good and bad, symbolize out with the old and are burned along with any bad memories from the previous year.

Someone throws a brick of firecrackers into the middle of a burning pile. The streets are smokey and our throats hurt as we walk home. It’s a wonder no one is hurt, that no fire burns out of control.

bonfires and smoke in the streets

1/1/2011

New Years Day. We take a panga across the river to San Vincente again. We arrange transportation to Canoa. Canoa is like an overly crowded Miami Beach. We cannot see the water for all the little tents, the areas between the tents are crawling with people.

New Years Day at Canoa

We sit at a street cafe and watch the crowds go by. The mood is light-hearted and happy. Used to the Florida sunshine we forget how close we are to the equator. TG has a horrible sunburn. A young man calls from a truck “Oh my got, meester! Mucho sol!” We laugh. “Si.

“oh my got, meester, mucho sol!”

The traffic is a snarled tangle of buses, trucks overflowing with people, motorbikes, and bicycles. People and dogs scurry back and forth between the stopped cars. Someone jumps off his bike to direct traffic. Soon everyone is moving again. It seems there is always a guy willing to jump in and get things moving. We saw the same thing at the concert on New Year’s Eve.

1/2/11

We stay in Bahia today. We walk for miles, all around town. Atop one of the hills is a lookout point with a huge cross. You can climb the stairs to the top of the cross for a spectacular panoramic view of the coast. We hike the road up to the cross and down the other side. We are comfortable on these streets — they are easy to navigate and we quickly learn our way around.

Bahia from the cross

children watching from a balcony above us

On our way back to Cocobongo we pass a small storefront restaurant with rows of chickens roasting on spits out front. It smells delicious. We purchase a chicken for dinner. It comes with rice, beans, and a small salad, more than enough for the two of us, for $10.

1/3/11

Marcelo meets us first thing in the morning. We are getting a tour of the nature reserve and his important reforestation work. But first we stop at the local grade school to meet Miguelito. American classrooms might have guinea pig or hamster for a pet. The grade school in Bahia has a 150-year-old, 525 lb Galapagos tortoise. We find out later that Miguelito has been at this school for 80 years. He was brought from the Galapagos when there were no laws protecting his status and at one point they tried to relocate him back. But he grew sick from missing the children so they returned him to happily live in the grassy playground.

A veterinarian by degree, it’s difficult to explain all that Marcelo does. He is a respected scientist who has traveled all of the world, lecturing on ecosystems. But he has chosen to live in his hometown of Bahia and tend land set aside as a nature reserve. He teaches us much about the tropical dry jungle as we hike. He offers me fruit from the Hobo tree. He says it is good for my brain. I eat it. It tastes bitter, like an aspirin. Later I will pay dearly for this.

fruit for the Hobo tree … I will pay dearly for this

We are far from fluent in Spanish, but Marcelo speaks clearly and slowly. We understand everything he says.   He points to tracks in the dirt.  Ocelot.  He is excited.  He has not seen any evidence for six months and now look, he says, father, mother and baby!

We reach the bottom of the valley, filled with towering ceibo trees, trunks thick as elephants.  They are stately: royal.  As we head back we hear the hooting of howler monkeys.  I peer into the trees hoping to catch a glimpse.

It is James and Anna’s last night in Ecuador.  They leave tomorrow for their long trip home to Tasmania. They have been watching Cocobongo for the past two months while Suzy, the owner, is in Australia, and tonight marks the end of a year of travel in Central and South America.  We will miss them.  They have a gift for bringing people together.  We meet for a farewell dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. Anna, James, Marcelo, Teresa, Nick, Uli and Cleo:  our new friends in Bahia.

1/4/2011

We are up early to say good bye to Anna and James.   We wait for them to leave and then walk to the ocean.   The tide is out.  We walk on the hard packed sand for many miles.  Cars pass us, driving on the beach.  At the white retaining wall we turn in and head up the road.  This will take us back to Bahia.  It is a beautiful walk through more of the same dry tropical jungle as Marcelo’s reserve.  We are on the outskirts of Bahia and rather than head straight back to town we walk over the hill past the big cross again. 

Later Dr. Don and his wife Marian seek us out at Cocobongo.   TG has been communicating with Dr. Don via email for the past year. We go for helado (ice cream).  They share their experiences of moving to Bahia two years ago.  Others pass by as we sit: ex-pats, Mary Lena – the local tennis coach, our waiter from the restaurant last night.  Hola! Hola!  We’re finding Bahia to be a very small, very friendly town.

Bahia cemetary

1/5/2011

Lars meets us at 9:00am to show us his house and land.  Lars and Lone are originally from Denmark, but after sailing around the world for ten years they settled here in Bahia about five years ago.  They built a beautiful home on the hillside just outside of town.  The view across the Chone and to the Pacific beyond is breath-taking.

view from Lars and Lone’s

After lunch we visit the archaeological museum.  Carlos is as passionate about the fascinating history of this country as Marcelo about his reforestation.  His English is fluent and we learn much. 

We have made two special friends since we arrived.  Teresa is Canadian; she is on hiatus from her job and has escaped the cold to stay in Bahia for four months.  We are kindred spirits with potential to be great friends.  Rosita is a small Chihuahua-Min Pin mix.  She is the sweetest, friendliest dog I have ever met.  Although she does not belong to anyone she has adopted Cocobongo as her home. She follows us everywhere and sleeps outside our room at night.  I hope that Suzy will keep her.    I will miss my friends Teresa and Rosie very much.

1/6/2011

Our last morning in Bahia.  We have arranged for Carlos to pick us up at 11:00 to drive us to Manta.  But this is Ecuador.  Carlos’ car was impounded for non-payment.  Uli quickly helps us arrange another taxi.    After breakfast we walk to the ocean once last time.  The tide is high this morning and the surf rough.  It is untamed and beautiful.  Rosie follows along behind us. 

children playing in the surf

I have never been so heartbroken to leave a place.

By 2:30 we are in Quito.  It is easy for the taxi to find our hostel.  The room is small, even by New York standards; we can barely squeeze around the bed with our two suitcases.  It is in the middle of the old city, with ancient churches and buildings crowding in upon narrow cobblestone streets.  Quito is 9000 ft above sea level.  The altitude has affected us both with a mild headache.  I find myself short of breath walking the hilly streets and up the stairs to our third floor room.

On our flight to Manta a week ago, a woman gave us a business card for her shop.  After dinner we visit.  It is located right across the street from Quito’s largest market and is filled with beautiful Ecuadorian handicrafts.  Between the market and Plaza Naya we purchase many gifts.

Quito market

1/7/2011

Quito sits in a valley surrounded by mountains.  It is like a large bowl and the houses and buildings sprawl up the surrounding hillsides.  They are piled haphazardly on top of each other, every one of them ramshackle and wonky.  If you tried to fix one, you would need to tear down the entire mountain.  With their faded pastel colors of blue, yellow and pink the hills around Quito look like a Dr. Seuss illustration.

view of Quito from hostel

We take a taxi to the Mitad Del Mundo Ciudad:  the equator. 

There is a line extending through the park and we have fun taking photos at 0°00’00.”  We down-dog yoga style across the northern and southern hemispheres.  TG lays flat on the line, like he is taking a nap.  There are shops surrounding the plaza and in one a man offers to stamp our passports. 

The line runs straight through a little church: I name it Our Lady of Zero Latitude.  It seems an appropriate place to say a prayer for Rosita.  I slip into a pew and pray that she will be adopted.  I am overwhelmed and my eyes well up with tears.  Just then the music from the nativity scene at the front of the church registers in my brain: Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.  I smile and leave Rosie in God’s hands.

1/8/2011

Home to Miami today.  At this early hour it takes us no time to get to the airport.  We arrive at 6:00am for our 9:30 flight.  We check in.  Our flight has been delayed for four hours for “maintenance issues.” This is Ecuador.  They give us a voucher for breakfast.  We have a massage and browse the shops to pass the time. 

We are already making plans to go back.  This is Ecuador.