Thursday, October 11, 2012

Gone to Ecuador

 Why Ecuador? 
 When I was in my twenties, I set a goal to work until I was forty five years old then retire somewhere in Mexico. Half of that dream was fulfilled when, miraculously, I celebrated my forty-fifth birthday. But  instead of retiring in Mexico I was starting life over from scratch— for the third time.
 Now that I am and finally retired, at the age of sixty-six , Mexico no longer appeals to me or anyone else.
In only ten days, Charlie made me go to every place inside the blue ring on this map.

 Recently my interest has been focused on South America in a search of an alternative to Mexico, so a trip down that way seemed like a good idea. I spoke with my friend Charlie Brown and found he was also curious about South America..We got together to talk about a a trip to some place south of the Panama Canal and settled on Ecuador. Neither of us had been there before, so decided to spend ten days exploring the central highlands (see map) from Cuenca, north to Otavalo. We saw lots of beautiful places and smiling faces. I’m sure Charlie won’t mind, so I’m going to share  some of our trip highlights.

 The Plan:

 Charlie and I met before dawn at DFW airport Tuesday, September 4th, 2012. There is no need to tell you about the details of planning the trip because there were none. Unless you travel with a guided tour arranged by someone else, you really never know what you need to take or what you can actually do until you get there.
 There are travel books that  help some, but mainly  as a source of places to avoid. It seems half the traveling college kids in the world flock to predetermine locations with their backpacks over their shoulders and a copy of Lonely Planet in their hands. I’d rather avoid those over crowded and over priced places and their platoons of pimpled patrons.
 Neither Charlie nor I had been to Ecuador before, but here’s what we did to prepare for the trip:
  1. I packed everything I could carry (including dust tape, rope and matches) and Charlie brought a back pack that contained a change of underwear and some books.
  2. The official currency in Ecuador is US dollars, however a lesson learned long ago in Mexico prompted us to visit our banks to pick up small bills—ones and fives. Cab drivers and the likes seem to get away with some big tips when you hand them a twenty dollar bill. They hardly ever have change!
  3. During a lay over in Atlanta we discussed some of the places and activities we would like to experience. One thing we both agreed on was shopping for good deals on hats.The finest Panama hats in the world are made in Ecuador.
  4.  Up to this point our itinerary was no more than a list places we wanted to visit and confirmed reservations for places to stay each night. I set up the reservations for our hotels and Charlie came up with a lot of fun places to go in and around the places we stayed. Other than these basics, our plan was simply to “wing it”. Hard headed old farts have a tendency to avoid high expectations in order get more fun out of the good things that happen. Try it sometime. You just might find that if you don’t expect a lot in advance you’ll have more appreciation for the things that work out well.

    The Flight
    Our flight landed in Quito at 11:00 pm Tuesday and right away we noticed discomfort caused by the decreased amount oxygen in the air. Quito sets at an elevation of 9350 feet above sea level and there are hills every where. The free lance cab driver who collared me had parked his car outside of the airport proper and on a hill, at about 11,000 feet. Other than the fact we couldn’t breathe, this mountain city seemed to be the best place for a base camp. The modestly priced hotel in the central Mariscal district worked out well. The staff at La Casa Sol took good care of us. They even did our laundry while we were traveling around in other parts of the country.


     Friday morning we decided to take the Quito Teleferico (tramway) to access a park located 3,000 feet above the city,. Charlie had noticed signs advertising the tram on the way from the airport to the hotel the night before. We wanted to get a good look at the layout of Quito, so the following we asked directions.
     After nearly an hour of trying to figure out how to pronounce Teleferico, we spoke to the hotel staff and asked for advice on how to get there by bus. “We wantie el buso to el chingadera que takie us to top of mountain”.  “Chingadera” was as close as we could get to “Teleferico”, but we I guess we did OK because we got good directions to the buses we needed to ride. Metrobus is the most popular means of transportation in Quito because it costs only a quarter to go anywhere in town.
     The lady at the hotel gave us some good information about which buses to take but she neglected to tell us about the procedures for getting on and off the darn things. The bus doesn’t stop. A bus stop is really a place where the vehicle slows down enough for you to run along side it and jump on. The same goes for getting off the bus. You had best hit the ground running.
     Most buses have a singer or a preacher on-board. These guys gamble a quarter for a ride in hopes that they will earn enough from the other passengers to make a profit. In some extreme cases the passengers pay early just to get the guys to shut up.

    The Tram:

    View from tram window going up.
    Every semi-level place near Quito has something built on it.

    Free ranging cattle.
    We jumped off the bus at the parking lot for the tram and walked up in time to catch the first departure of the morning. The ride was fun and we got our first look at some free ranging cattle. Chickens and goats also can be found anywhere there's something for them to eat. However, pigs are tethered. I guess there is a liability problem if they get loose and cause damage to some one’s property. Or maybe pork is in high demand.
     The view from the top of the tram was well worth the time and a great way to start or first day in Ecuador.

    Amateur pork-poacher near Quito.
  5. Tram stops at an altitude of over 12.000 feet MSL.

    If you decide to go farther up the mountain, toward the volcano,  you may want to stop at the little church first.

    After returning to Quito we caught a taxi to the heart of "old town". I guess every town has an "old town:" unless, of course, it is a very new town.The original plaza has been preserved beautifully. There are magnificent churches, quaint barber shops, stores, and all sorts of businesses which seem to be thriving, including banks. At the entrance of each bank there is  at least one guard armed with either an automatic rifle or a sawed-off shotgun. The weapons are held at the ready position so that it can be fired without hesitation. The alert soldiers constantly scan back and forth making eye contact with everyone in sight. The forceful appearance of the guards is more startling than the weapons they carry. I am usually bold when it comes to getting pictures of almost everything but pointing anything, even a camera, at these guys would be considered more asinine than bold.
     The fact that U. S. dollars are used in Ecuador and the proximity of Colombian cartels may explain the heavy defense of the banks. Or, maybe they just never quite got over Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—those estiking gringo robbers who caused all that trouble in Bolivia.
     Thugs understand heavy armament that is meant to stop foul play. This aggressive stance is the only way to prevent the creation of war zones like those in Mexico.
    Public display of military presence seems to be doing a good job of preserving the peace in Ecuador. I felt safe from the bad guys.

    Pictures of "Old Town":

    Fiesta de Miercoles:

     When we got back to the hotel that afternoon we dropped off  our gear and set out to explore the neighborhood. After walking a few blocks we found a big party in the streets of an intersection. It seems Wednesday is the big night-out for Ecuadorians and this place is one of many where folks get together to drink, hoot and holler. On all four corners there were motorcycle cops keeping an eye on the festivities. As long as no one is being destructive it makes no difference how much noise they make or how drunk they get, there's no worry about being hassled by the cops. But, there is zero tolerance for any kind of violence. One important trait in an environment such as this  is the ability of each individual to feel that they are being laughed with and not laughed at.  It kind of reminds me of Juarez in the 1970s.
     When we got back to the hotel we could still hear the noise from the fiesta so it took a while to fall asleep.

    Trip to Otavalo:

    Thursday morning we had our usual breakfast of fresh fruit, juice and juevos revueltos. Then we struck out to see the town and get idea how much hats cost in Quito. We were planning a trip to Otavalo, a town up north, near the Colombian border, the next morning. The big attraction in Otavalo is the Indian market every Saturday. If we could get a general idea of stuff was going for in Quito we would have some idea of what we should pay at the market where goods are bought directly from the natives who produce them.

    Lake side community.
     The following Monday we were scheduled to go south to the city of Cuenca so we decided we had best decide what means of transportation would be most feasible. We discovered it takes ten hours to go through the mountains on a bus and the price is eleven dollars. The same trip takes forty five minutes on a plane and costs fifty dollars, so we went to a travel agency to buy some plane tickets. We would have been better off going to the airport to get the tickets because it took all afternoon for the seniorita at the travel agency to figure out how to complete the transaction. The scenery was pleasant; hence another universal truth surfaces in this foreign land: “A pretty girl can do no wrong.”
     By the time we got done, there was too little time left in the day to do anything but start packing for our trip the next day.
     After breakfast Friday morning we took a pleasant cab ride out of Quito, down into a big valley and back into some more mountains and past a volcano to Otavalo.
    Another volcano added to the great scenery along the way.
    Lago San Carlos
     It was a fun trip because we got the driver to take side trips so we could look at anything we wanted to.
      The only time I felt a bit uncomfortable was when the taxi driver stopped the cab, opened the door and ran behind a fence to relief himself. I had no problem with Juan Gabriel heeding nature’s call; what bothered me was the fact that he didn’t pull the vehicle off the highway before he stopped. The roadway didn’t have a shoulder and there was lots of noise from automobile horns and screaming passengers in vehicles as they rounded the blind corner where we were parked and had to swerve to miss us.

      After Juan finished is business we continued north through rolling foot hills covered with green-houses. When Charlie asked the driver what was being grown he told us it was tomatoes and flowers. Give me a break. It had to be mota. If they were really growing flowers and tomatoes they wouldn’t have had the tall fences and guards.
     When we got to Otavalo the driver was completely lost. This became evident when we asked him to take us by the Mercado de Los Ponchos where the market is located. He had to ask directions several times but we finally found it. People were already set up for the Saturday market.
     Then we went on to the hotel which had the same name as the one in Quito—La Casa Sol. It was owned by the same people, but this one was in a more remote location on the side of a hill. The view was good but, again, there was lots of smoke in the air. There were a few large fires in the distance but most of the smoke was coming from people burning their trash.

    La Casa Sol; Otavalo

    La Plaza de Los Ponchos:

     In the morning the air was clear and cool. The visibility was at least around 50 miles.We got ready and headed for the market in where the indigenous people of the Andes sell their arts and crafts. This huge market is said to provide close to eighty percent of the monetary income of the natives. Saturday is the busiest day and we started at one end and worked through the maze of tables and racks that displayed too many things to list. A look at the photos will give a better description than words.
     The first row was two blocks long and consisted of food concessions. We had just eaten breakfast at the hotel so missed a  chance to sample some really weird looking stuff being cooked in huge pots and skillets. I recognized some of the ingredients like: potatoes, eggs, peppers and such but most of it was pretty strange looking. It smelled great but I just wasn’t in the mood to experiment. One reason I was timid was the fact I recognized one of the meat items. I’m talking about cuyes  (koo-ways), or guinea pigs. They are considered fine dining in Ecuador and several other countries. They looked delicious, but there are some critters I just don’t consider to be food.
     The market itself was stocked mostly with hand made items that the indigenous people bring down from the Andes each weekend. There were too many things to list, but hopefully the attached photos will speak for themselves. Bargaining and people watching were the best parts of this experience. Places like this market are great for practicing Spanish and learning new words.
     After I had bought about all I could carry we went back to the hotel so I could sort the treasures. It appeared I would need to buy an additional suitcase to get all the stuff home but with a little imagination and luck the last day of the trip, I managed. I was lucky enough to talk the airline people into letting me take three carry-on bags.
     A few photos of the people, and other treasures, of El Mercado de Ponchos:
    Family fun...


    Card Game

     Condor Park:

      In the early afternoon we hired a taxi to take us to a condor park at the top of one of the nearby mountains. This turned out to be one of the best parts of the whole trip.
     At the top of the mountain is a fenced off area with a gate where an admission fee of $3.75 is collected. As you walk up the cobble stone paths there are raptors for around the world in cages spread over an area of about five acres. At the summit, where the paths converge, there is a gated holding area where several eagles and falcons are tethered. Just past the holding area is a flat area at the edge of a cliff that drops of at least a thousand feet. This area is half way enclosed by a stone seating area.
     While sitting there taking in the view I heard a squawking sound behind us. I turned around and saw a hawk walking on the ground and being coaxed by a trainer who prodded the complaining bird into the performance area. For the next hour we were entertained by several trained raptors and their handlers.
     The most impressive part of the show was a eagle which flew off the handler’s arm, down the cliff and out of sight. The bird returned after several minutes and soared in circles hundreds of feet above us. The handler shouted at the eagle and it tucked its wings and dove at the trainer. Just before the bird reached trainer’s  gloved hand it open it’s wings and landed gracefully on the glove.
      I took lots of pictures at Parque del Condor. Here are a few of them:

     We had a full day and at dinner supper we were joined by the only other guest in the hotel; a lady from Scotland named Kathleen. I love the sense of humor  people from her part of the world have and she was hilarious. Everything we discussed was fun or funny.
     Kathleen is a retired widow who had decided to see the world. Her itinerary, which went on for four months, included lots of hiking and mountain climbing. Most kids in their twenties are too lazy or afraid to do the stuff she was enjoying.
     The next morning when we went upstairs for breakfast Kathleen was headed out the door with boots, hat and back pack on.
     Before heading back to Quito we visited the small town of Cotacachi which is known for it’s leather goods. I also had been in touch with an American who had moved there. I was curious to see the place and decide whether or not I would like to live or stay there for a month or so. I decided that I may want to return for an extended stay but I don’t think my wife, Debbie, would ever move out of the USA. I also decided that I am an American and I need to live in America and do all I can to return a positive attitude to as many fellow Americans as I possibly can.
     We returned to Quito and started getting ready for our flight to Cuenca. The folks at the hotel had our laundry done and our room waiting for us.
     The staff at La Casa Sol, and everyone I had contact with in Ecuador treated me like a good friend who was their guest. They all seemed so happy with life in general and wanted us to have a good time too.
    Some photos taken near our hotel in Otavalo:

    Charlie with giant cabbages

    Sunset on Vulcan Imbabura

    Charlie's feet


     We were up at 4:30 am so we could get to the airport early for our 7:00 am flight to Cuenca. The word cuenca is Spanish for basin and this city of half a million people has four rivers flowing through it. After we leveled off for the forty five minute hop I was able to get some pictures with my phone. I was most impressed with the view of the snow topped volcano, called Cotopaxi, sticking up through the clouds.

    Cotopaxi from above; the elevation of this volcano is 19,347 feet

     We went from the airport to our hotel and were allowed to check in early. We then put on our back packs and started off to explore Cuenca.
     What a beautiful city. The population is about a half million but the people are laid back and friendly.
     The central plaza is surrounded by beautiful churches that are hundreds of years old. I was most fascinated by the Cathedral Nueva and its three domes built with blue ceramic tile. When construction began, the cathedral was meant to be the largest church in South America and able to accommodate 10,000 people. In the mid 1800s an engineer visited the site and warned that the foundation wouldn’t support any more weight, so construction stop and the building has remained suspended in the same state of unfinished construction for a century and a half.
    In this picture of Cuenca taken from a hillside, the three blue domes of La Nueva Cathedral can be seen in the center

    Fresh flowers form a corner market like this one are sure to brighten your day.

    One of the four rivers that flow through Cuenca

    Domes of cathedral as seen from the plaza
    Lobby of La Posada del Angel

     Panama hats were at the top of our shopping list and Cuenca is supposed to be the best place in the world to find hats that are completely finished or can be finished with a custom design. In Quito we learned that the largest factory is Homero Ortega’s, so we headed that way.
     Charlie picked out a couple of hats, discussed the details of how he wanted them finished and we were told we could return the following day to pick up the custom sombreros.
    One of Debbie's hats
     These hand made straw hats are made from paja toquilla which is straw cut to various thicknesses. A fine hat takes three months to complete. The name Panama leads many to think the hats are made in Panama. The fact is that Panama was an early distribution point for the hats. Folks said they got their hats in Panama and it was assumed they were made there.

    September 11:

     We toured Cuenca some more and went back to Homero Ortega’s to pick up Charlie’s hats. They turned out great and  cost a fraction of what they would in the States.
     We got a cab back to our hotel, La Posada del Angel, and started getting our things organized for the flight back to Quito. We had collected quite a few treasures and had to pack strategically in order to get all the stuff home without extra costs.
     We had supper at a the restaurant down stairs. The family that owns and operates the hotel also owns a popular Italian restaurant which adjoins the hotel but  has its own entrance on the side street. The food and prices were excellent.

    September 12:

     We got up at 6:30, had coffee and made our way to the airport for our 8:30 departure.
     Luckily, the folks at La Casa Sol in Quito had reserved our same room and allowed us to check in in early. Then we went out and about to pick up some more gifts.
     That afternoon was pretty kicked back and we mostly hung around close to the hotel.
     I went to get my shoes shined and the bolero did a great job. He asked for forty cents. When I gave him two bucks he was ecstatic.
     On the way back to the hotel I stopped off at a book store and spend a while visiting with the owner. The name of the store is The English Book Store and Mark, the owner, moved to Ecuador from Essex, near London, in 1987. I told Mark that I had some interest in returning to Ecuador for an extend stay so I could have some time to consider moving there. He was a wealth of knowledge and made sure I had a way to contact him if I needed any help.
     I went back to the hotel, showered, packed and spent the evening reading.

    September 13:

     Our flight back to the U.S. didn’t depart Quito until 11:30 pm so we had plenty of time for another adventure. Charlie had read about a place called Mindo that was about a hundred miles north of Quito up in the mountains. We thought it would be worth the trip so we grabbed our pack packs and headed out.
     We literally jumped on a bus and headed to the central bus station to catch another bus for the three hour trip. When we got to the station at 9:30am we learned that the bus to Mindo didn’t leave until 4:30pm so we hired a cab.
     When we got there we went to a butterfly house and took some pictures. Next we took a ride on a cable car that spanned a half mile wide canyon. It was about seven or eight hundred feet to the river below. Take a look at the picture of the power plant for the cable car. It is a Nissan engine and transmission bolted to a concrete slab. The accelerator, clutch and gear shifter are intact and a guy sits there and drives the little cable across the canyon and back.

    Pictures around Mindo:

    Cable car across the canyon

    This set up powers the cable car. It's a Nissan engine, transmission, clutch, throttle and gear shift.


     We were glad we took the side trip and made it back to Quito in plenty of time to pack and rest up a while before our flight.
     We departed on time and flew all night long arriving at DFW at 8:00 Friday morning.
     It was a great trip but I’m not moving to Ecuador. Debbie and I have decided we belong in the U.S.A.
      I hope you enjoyed the story and the pictures.
      Dennis Sumrak

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