Posts tagged ‘Andes’

There was so much we loved during our weeks in Ecuador but here are the standout “Number Ones” from each of us:

Paul’s #1 Thrill:

Paul’s #1 Thrill: Riding the “milk truck”

Riding the “milk truck” on a journey that seemed to climb its way to the apex of a very remote and stunning area of the Andes. We enjoyed the open air with the camaraderie of the locals who, like us, were taking the only ride out of town that day. The only thing missing was a thermos of nice hot coffee because we did have the luxury of an endless supply of fresh creamer right at our fingertips.

Peter’s #1 Natural Wonder:

Peter’s #1 Natural Wonder: The captivating Quilotoa Crater Lake

The captivating Quilotoa Crater Lake was a supremely blissful start of our 3-day trek through the remote Andean highlands. Every step of our walk was beautiful but the splendor of Volcán Quilotoa’s turquoise water was the most dazzling of all.

Paul’s #1 People:

Paul’s #1 People: The group of young Ecuadorian hikers we met

The group of young Ecuadorian hikers we met at the waterfall near Baños. If they are an example of the young and upcoming generation in Ecuador I have great hope for that country. I was thoroughly impressed with their enthusiasm, curiosity and manners not to mention they were just plain fun.

Peter’s #1 Animal:

Peter’s #1 Animal: Felipe the Cat

We encountered countless friendly critters in Ecuador, but none endeared our hearts like Felipe in at our hostal in Chugchilán. This lovely little cat spent every moment with us: purring on our laps, rambunctiously playing with peacock feathers, knocking over beer bottles, sneaking in the dining room to sniff our food, and generally being an entertaining nuisance. Oddly the owner said Felipe was in “mourning” over the recent death of his sister, but to us Felipe was always in the highest of spirits – he certainly lifted ours.

Continue reading ‘Peter and Paul’s Numero Unos of Ecuador’ »

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’ »

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’ »

Here’s a short video of Paul and my New Year’s revelry in Cuenca, Ecuador. Locals here celebrate with a unique tradition in which they burn life-sized dolls representing the old year in order to start the new year with a clean slate. These effigies are simply old clothes filled with sawdust, cardboard and newspaper and at midnight they drag them out to the streets, douse them with gasoline and the blazes begin.

Lots of neighborhood groups work together to build elaborate themed displays of these Old Men. We saw acerbic political commentary, clever takes on global warming, and other displays that were just plain absurd.

And since this is Latin America there were plenty of costumes, loud music, fireworks, dancing in the streets, food and good fun kept everyone entertained throughout the whole evening. An unusual but amusing way to ring in the New Year!

All things small at the Alasitas Fair in Bolivia

La Feria de la Alasita is a craft fair in Bolivia where miniature ritualistic items are sold to enthusiastic locals. Objects include tiny baby dolls, wads of small bills, petite bottles filled with healthy concoctions, cars, houses, even diminutive diplomas. With the help of the Tiwanakan deity Ekeko, god of abundance and prosperity, the Aymaran people of the Andean altiplano believe that possessing (or gifting) these figurines will become reality for holders.

While the crafts on display were fascinating, I especially enjoyed watching the whirlwind commotion at the fair.

Plaza 24 de Septiembre in Santa Cruz: It's Got a Lot Goin' On!

The plaza principal in Latin America is an amalgam of the social, cultural, religious and political life of latinos. Here is where you find it all: protests and politics, seasoned romance and youthful exuberance, food and festivals, lush foliage and (occasionally) flowing fountains, majestic churches, music and laughter, promenading locals encircling comedians, Bible thumpers and magicians. The plaza reflects the people.

I wander the main Plaza 24 de Septiembre in sultry Santa Cruz de la Sierra in eastern Bolivia, so-named to honor the auspicious day in 1810 when the city joined the Buenos Aires junta rising against Spanish colonial rule.

On this night surrounded by the crowds and energy of the plaza, I find myself alone but not lonely. Paul left this morning after three marvelously companionable weeks crossing the country. This is the picture I see around me, a whirling world of sights and sounds and smells.

Continue reading ‘Plaza 24 de Septiembre: The Heart and Soul of Santa Cruz’ »

Scenes from Samaipata: Paul amid the peaks ~ Peter chatting on the parrot phone ~ El Fuerte archeological site ~ Easy rider Paul

In Quechua the town means “The Height to Rest” – and indeed this is where Paul and I found a relaxing and picturesque place to kick back for a long weekend.   We were coming from steamy, tropical Santa Cruz in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia in search of cooler temperatures and an escape from the crowds.  It was our last weekend together in Bolivia before Paul had to return home.

Samaipata is something of an anomaly for Bolivia.  Blessed with a delightful subtropical climate and tucked in the easternmost folds of the Andes mountains, the area has attracted foreigners for centuries: first the Sephardic Jews expelled from peninsular Spain during the Inquisition, later some Italians and Croats, and finally a sizable number of expats (mainly artists and free-thinkers from Europe) starting in the 1970’s when the road from Santa Cruz was paved.

Perhaps the most celebrated foreigner to come to the region was Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 1966 during his ill-fated attempt to bring Socialist revolution to South America.  He was killed almost a year later in the nearby village of La Higuera.

Today Samaipata remains a sleepy backwater with quiet colonial streets, a peaceful Plaza Principal filled in the evenings with locals on promenade and traveling hippies playing music and selling hand-made wares.  The resident expats are barely visible but present, often running businesses catering to tourists.  Samaipata hosts organic farms, Buddhist meditation retreats, ecological construction (my superadobe instructor from La Paz is based here), and a large number of reveling cruzeños from Santa Cruz on holiday weekends.

Samaipata is an especially agreeable place.  It reminded us of what San Miguel de Allende in Mexico may have been like decades ago.

The quiet streets of Samaipata: wandering cows, unpaved roads and the parrot phone booths

Continue reading ‘Finding R&R (Rest & Ruins) in Serene Samaipata’ »