Fishermen head out to sea each morning in Canoa

There’s not a lot to report from the Pacific Coast of Ecuador – we spent an uneventful week relaxing with our feet plunked in the sand, swinging in a hammock under palm trees, drinking cold beers and eating fresh catch seafood with piles of rice and fried plantains.

After months of being at altitude high in the dry Andes of Bolivia and Peru, I was craving water. Specifically the ocean. My home for the past decade has been coastal Maine and the sea has become a constant in my life. I was drained from my service as a Kiva Fellow crisscrossing Bolivia and Paul was ready for a break from the airlines.

It was time for some beach R&R.

Palm trees and Pacific sunsets... very little to complain about in Canoa!

Canoa was recommended to us by several travelers – it’s small enough to duck the surf-and-party scene yet large enough to offer good backpacker accommodation and an assortment of mom-and-pop restaurants. And with surfable waves and undeveloped beaches that stretch for miles, Canoa was our pick and we quickly settled into our comfy beachfront bungalow at the Hostal Baloo.

The beach and our porch were our only commitments in Canoa

Continue reading ‘Beach Bums: A Week in Coastal Canoa’ »

Paul and Peter above Quilotoa Crater Lake

Flipping through the pages of Lonely Planet Ecuador we found a short segment on the Quilotoa Loop, a walking circuit in the central Andean highlands. Eager to leave the tourist-heavy main corridor of the Panamericana highway, this was right up our alley. Offering energetic walks through attractive valleys and nights in isolated Kichwa-speaking villages, this outdoor Ecuadorian excursion reminded us of our gratifying rambles in the UK and Ireland.

So we dumped our heavy stuff in storage at our friendly hostal in Latacunga and set off with light backpacks on a bus bound to Zumbahua. There we found a large crowd awaiting the appearance of Rafael Correa, the socialist president campaigning for his third term.

He’s wildly popular among Ecuador’s indigenous voters: he learned Kichwa (the dominant local language) and has systematically backed strong social programs and public works since he took office in 2007. Fortunately there are sufficient funds to implement these changes since the new constitution guarantees that 85% of proceeds from Ecuadorian resources stay in the country (rather than 15% previously) – much to the chagrin of large multinational companies.

Correa is part of a growing group of popular and pragmatic leftist leaders taking root in Latin America in the last decade, known as the Pink Tide, which rejects the “Washington consensus” policies of unchecked open markets and rampant privatization. Widely expected to win by a landslide, Correa is already the longest-serving Ecuadorian president in more than a century. The current political and economic stability offers enormous hope and optimism for a large part of previously disenfranchised Ecuadorians.

Chuggin' along to Chugchilán

Chuggin’ along to Chugchilán

Our first stop was in Quilotoa, a settlement on the rim of Volcán Quilotoa with its stunning turquoise crater lake. We spent the night with other walkers from Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom and Brazil, sharing a hearty family-style meal. We love these kinds of hostales where meeting fellow travelers is easy and conversations flow breezily. It was chilly on the rim at nearly 4000 m (13,000 ft) but the camaraderie warmed our hearts.

Continue reading ‘Ecuadorian Excursion: The Quilotoa Loop’ »

Nariz del Diablo, Alausí, Ecuador

The Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) train ride in Alausí, Ecuador is unlike most others.

Part of the crucial railway running from coastal Guayaquil to capital city Quito high in the Andes, this hair-raising stretch near Alausí zig-zags up an incredibly steep stretch of mountain – so sheer that a series of rocking switchbacks guide the train up nearly 600 meters (2000 feet) in just a few miles of track.

An engineering marvel when it was completed over 100 years ago, the Nariz del Diablo track still makes for one dizzying ride today. And thanks to the rebuilding efforts of current Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, the entire railway line from the Pacific coast to the Andean highlands is set to reopen in a couple of months after decades of interrupted service.

The many joys of Baños, Ecuador

What fun we had in Baños! I was somehow expecting this given that pretty much everyone we met had told us so. “It’s touristy,” they all warned us, “but you’ll barely notice it once you start doing stuff.”

Normally when my expectations are high about a place I tend to be underwhelmed when I get there. But in the case of Baños, I can honestly say it was more pleasing than I anticipated.

Baños is touristy. So much so that there are literally hundreds of hotels and restaurants in the relatively small town of 10,000 residents. But this also means that competition among businesses is intense so the quality is high and the prices very favorable to the tourist.

Our hotel, for example, Hostel La Chimenea was a delight: sparkling clean and spacious rooms with private bathrooms and balconies, a pool and sauna, wireless internet, a rooftop terrace with views of the surrounding mountains and waterfalls, a great breakfast restaurant, and friendly laid-back management. All this for a mere $8.50 a person!

Baños' distinctive church made from black volcanic stone ~ The tidy main plaza ~ Baños is "green" in more ways than one ~ A passing funeral procession

Baños’ distinctive church made from black volcanic stone ~ The tidy main plaza ~ Baños is “green” in more ways than one ~ A passing funeral procession

The real charm of Baños is not the town but the surrounding area. There are miles of excellent hiking trails with views of the active Tungurahua volcano which towers above the valley at 5,023 m (16,480 ft). There is mountain biking past scores of waterfalls, mostly down hill with frequent buses to whisk you (and your wheels) back effortlessly to Baños. You can whitewater raft, bungee jump, zipline, rappel down waterfalls and rent ATV’s. And since the mountains descend rapidly to the eastern Amazon, you can even tour tropical indigenous areas and spot jungle wildlife.

After all this adventuring, you can relax in the numerous hot mineral springs in Baños (known officially as Baños de Agua Santa or “The Baths of Sacred Water”). Our favorite were the baths just two blocks from our hotel which sit beneath a striking 100 m waterfall. We went every day, sometimes during the mornings when we encountered quiet older Ecuadorians, and a couple times during the evening when it is packed with locals and travelers – the happening social scene in town.

Clearly there is much to love about Baños. Here are some of the many things we enjoyed during our visit:

Fantastic Food

Pizza and boxed wine in our hotel room... sometimes you just want to eat in! ~ Peter protecting the sugar cane juice lady ~ Our favorite breakfast: a pancake pile with fresh fruit ~ Sharing a HUGE portion of shrimp and rice at a local eatery

Pizza and boxed wine in our hotel room… sometimes you just want to eat in! ~ Peter protecting the sugar cane juice lady ~ Our favorite breakfast: a pancake pile with fresh fruit ~ Sharing a HUGE portion of shrimp and rice at a local eatery

Continue reading ‘Baños: Getting Wet and Wild in Ecuador’s Outdoor Paradise’ »

Rough mountains near the epicenter on the approach to Pasto

As the Blizzard of 2013 bore down with full fury on New England, my world in Colombia was rocked as well. Just as I was stepping from the shower I suddenly felt a very strange vertigo and my feet became unsteady. Within moments I realized it wasn’t something physiological but rather seismological — an earthquake was underway! I quickly grabbed my clothes and headed for the stairs as hanging lamps swayed above me and books fell from shelves in the lobby.

It was over in 40 seconds. Everyone in the hotel was atwitter, the receptionist was on the phone calling family, she said this was highly unusual. I headed out to the colonial streets of Popayán and found people standing around, wide-eyed and waiting. We didn’t feel any significant aftershocks. Soon people got back to business and the city returned to normal.

I later learned that the temblor was no small incident, registering a whopping magnitude 7.0. The epicenter was just outside the town of Pasto, a pleasant provincial capital city where I spent the night two days prior. Fortunately there were no major injuries or damage but the quake was felt in the capital Bogotá 500 miles to the north and through much of Ecuador to the south.

Apparently this wasn’t my first earthquake as my home in Maine is subject to several small ones each year but are rarely felt. But this one — golly gee! — it literally almost knocked me to my knees. How astonishing to feel the colossal force of rupturing earth as it shakes, rattles and rolls over hundreds of miles.

It was my first real earthquake. I’m just thankful that there isn’t any shoveling as a result — snow or stone!

Tranquility returns to peaceful Popayán

Tranquility returns to peaceful Popayán

Adios, amigo... ¡otro viaje maravilloso contigo!

Well… another arrival and departure of Paul. It doesn’t get easier.

We had an extraordinary five weeks together in Ecuador’s wild playground: traipsing through the rainforest, flying on zip-lines above thundering waterfalls, crisscrossing the Equator, hiking past volcanoes, descending the steepest railroad track in the world, lounging on Pacific Coast beaches, galloping through the tropics on horseback, mountain biking from the Andes to the Amazon — we did it all.

It’s been a transient few months for us. I’ve been living in South America, volunteering and traveling through four countries. Paul has been moving between friends and family and joining me when he can. We have no fixed address since we rented our home.

But we’re not homeless. We’ve long yearned to be free of the hassles and headaches of maintaining a house and being tied down. It has been a long (and arduous) process of letting go.

We’re working to establish a new way of living, one that is freeing but also fleeting. The bonds of living together under one roof become slippery; special care is required to keep our relationship on meaningful footing.

This is new to us. It’s exciting, tricky, bold, and irregular… We’re learning as we craft new ways to engage our interests and passions and each other.

Today as I entered Colombia I was marveling (as usual) at the breathtakingly awesome Andes. And reflecting on my rambling ’round life — now in its fifth month.

The truth is I deeply miss Paul. But I’m also very happy. It puzzles me.

Then as this song popped in my headset the light bulb went off:

Ahh, Home
Let me come Home
Home is wherever I’m with you
Ahh, Home
Let me come Home
Home is whenever I’m with you

This feels crazy but it all makes sense.

Click below to listen to “Home” by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros:

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Vilcabamba: Land of Longevity

We rushed to escape the clouds and cold of Cuenca, traveling about six hours south to the small town of Vilcabamba. Nestled in the green hills near the Peruvian border, Vilcabamba has attracted a fair number of expatriates who appreciate the laid-back feel, the mild climate, the relative isolation and its attractive natural setting.

The verdant valley of Vilcabamba

The verdant valley of Vilcabamba

Paul and I immediately took to the town. We settled into our cozy hostal just a block off the main square, replete with a hammock on the balcony and lush gardens inside the expansive walled patio. We chatted with the caretakers, an English-Romanian couple who own a well-regarded restaurant in Cuenca and agreed to run the hotel in Vilcabamba while their friend/hotelier takes a much-needed sabbatical.

Paul lounging on our comfortable balcony

Paul lounging on our comfortable balcony

Vilcabamba has a great feel. It attracts a trickle of backpackers and the expat residents are mostly alternative/hippy types who seem to integrate well with the locals. We met young and old, and many families live here. It’s not uncommon to see bilingual European or North American kids playing in the main square with their Ecuadorian friends.

Continue reading ‘Vilcabamba: Land of Longevity’ »

Pisaq ~ A Wedding at Saqsaywaman ~ Streets of Cusco ~ Terraces of Moray

My first visit to Cusco was in 1999 at the end of a backpacking trip through Peru with my brother Erik. As a finale to our journey we hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Standing together at dawn at the Puerta del Sol high above the celebrated Inca city, the clouds parted and the shining white stone buildings revealed themselves. It is an experience I will always remember. As soon as Erik left I was surprised by a visit from Paul, and we traveled together through the Sacred Valley, an area rich in important Inca archaeological sites.

My memories of Cusco are among the most vivid of my past travels. As I recently returned to this much-loved place after thirteen years, I could not extricate my past recollections from my new experiences. And that was big part of the fun!

Of course I expected differences. The most notable change is how tourism has grown. Cusco then was still very touristy but I was not prepared for the marked increase in boutique hotels, shops and restaurants. In 1999 there were maybe one or two franchises in the city but now are many more with, of course, a Starbucks on the corner of the Plaza de Armas, epicenter of the Inca world.

Visiting Cusco and the important sights now requires an expensive, all-inclusive boleto turístico entry pass.  To hike the legendary Inca Trail you now need to sign up months in advance and pay hundreds of dollars.  In 1999 Erik and I just showed up at a travel company and booked the four-day trip for $60 leaving the next day. But these changes are not bad things per se, of course regulating the Inca Trail limits the environmental impact of thousands of walkers each year and the much-needed entry fee revenue helps Peru maintain and improve its national treasures.

Fortunately, despite these changes, Cusco remains a marvelous destination. The city admirably balances the strain of mass tourism and its vibrant Peruvian highland culture. Local markets still subsume the central Plaza de Armas during festivals, you can still walk along streets lined with stunning Inca stonework, fill up on a hearty breakfast of rice and beans, fried eggs, avocado, onion, tomato and spicy salsa de ají at the boisterous San Pedro market. And good budget accommodation can still be had; it’s just a few blocks further from the city center.

Cusco remains one of my favorite places in Latin America, most of all because it is evolving and changing. The city lives and breathes its history, like Rome or Bangkok, drawing upon its past and present identities to sustain its exceptional character. Traditional and touristy, Cusco still boasts an incredible concentration of art, history, folk traditions, architecture, religion and creature comforts that few areas on the continent can match.

Continue reading ‘Reconnoitering Redux: Revisiting Peru’s Cusco and the Sacred Valley’ »

Me with Bolivia, a great love affair!

It seems like ages ago that I was frantically working on my Kiva Fellows application back in the spring of 2012 while traveling in Southeast Asia. Then the tense months of interviews followed by the thrill of being selected. And finally the excitement of preparing for my placement in mesmerizing Bolivia.

How time flies when you’re having fun and loving your job!

Now, after a blink of the eye, I am leaving Bolivia and my Kiva Fellowship after three whirlwind months of motivating work, meeting endearing people and learning fascinating things in a whole new world.

My moving on is bittersweet – while I am eager for the new journeys that await, I am so thankful for the meaningful opportunity Kiva has given me in the world of microfinance. I have absorbed so much and witnessed how access to low-interest credit can make a real difference for those living in poverty.

At every moment of this incredible adventure Kiva has provided outstanding support and open trust in my work and my mission.  My Kiva family has showered me with love from beginning to end. I am eternally grateful.

And Bolivia! Oh my beguiling Bolivia: you welcomed me with the smiles of your handsome people, you gave me a home that I simply loved, you treated me to splendid sights and vigorous geography, you nourished my body with wholesome foods and you gave me friends to fill my days. My heart is heavy as I leave you.

I already miss your rugged landscapes, the comfort of familiar places and people, and my routine and purposefulness in your midst.  You have shown me a new way to travel, one that comes slowly after considerable effort but rewards in powerful ways. I can’t wait to see you again!

I am so proud of my Kiva Fellowship – proud of the difficult changes I made in my life to get here and proud of the work I accomplished.

No, I probably didn’t change the world. But it changed my world.

And the best part of all this is knowing that it is only the beginning…

Kiva Fellows Class 19... we rock!

Kids flying kites above La Paz

Visiting a potato farm in Colomí

Mysterious and mystical mountain ruins

Chola women watching a bullfight in the altiplano

CIDRE colleagues enjoying an afternoon chicha break

Beautiful Lake Titicaca and Island of the Sun, spiritual center of the Incas

With Angélica, my bestie at Emprender in La Paz

Street fiesta in Tarata

Here’s my sixth installment on the Kiva Stories from the Field website as I serve as a Kiva Fellow in Bolivia. Perhaps the highlights of my experiences were the many opportunities to meet Kiva borrowers.

Here are three of the many wonderful moments I shared with Bolivians who received low-interest loans through Kiva’s partners here in Bolivia. Thanks to all of you who loan through Kiva, you make a big difference in their lives.

Kiva Fellows Blog 6: Magical Moments with Kiva Borrowers in Bolivia