Monday, January 4, 2016

Mindoo cloud forest, 12/19
We arrive in to Quito around 4 AM and after being driven in to the old city, which is about 25 miles away and with a few hours of sleep and a headache we travel via car towards the Mindoo cloud forest, which is a rainforest. While Quito is 2850 meters, Mindoo is lower by about 1000 meters and feels a whole different world.  Mindoo cloud forest is fairly typical of most rain forest however the trees are not quite high, supposedly because it's a recovering secondary forest.

We spend some time in a butterfly sanctuary that is limited in its variety with large monarch's and even larger snake eye butterflies and a smattering of other. There are interesting orchids that we had never see before which is  what Ecuador is know for. There is a humming bird section that has several bird feeds with sugar water in them to attract the birds. Humming birds are very territorial and it was interesting to watch them battle and protect their bird feeds. A walk in the rain through the forest looking at the flora rounds up the morning.

The evening has attracted tourists and locals to the independence square, where there is plenty of music, dancing and people watching. Old town Quito is the world's first UNESCO world heritage site and is very alluring. Dinner is at a roof top restaurant called Vista Harmosa with spectacular views of the old city and hills around it, however the food is wanting by considerable measure.

On Christmas day we drive up to the top of El Panecillo to catch views of Quito city and that of the Virgin Mary's statue that is taller than the Christ redeemer in Rio, something about the Mother being above the son. Quito is in a valley surrounded by several volcanoes some that have some activity. The city is large for a population of only 2 million, about 35 miles long and 4-5 miles wide. Then we return to walk the old city starting with the independence square opposite the presidential palace which allowed us in for a quick look including the changing of the guard.

There are several churches in this area including 7 on Garcia Moreno such as the la compania which unfortunately is closed on Christmas Day! We wander up to St. Francisco cathedral, where legend goes that a certain local constructor named Cantuna made a deal with the devil to build the courtyard over night as he was running behind schedule. Cantuna was to sell his soul if the devil could complete the courtyard by day break, however Cantuna hid one brick disallowing the devil to complete the courtyard and saving his soul. The church is attached to a monastery and museum that gives an insight in to the work the Franciscan monks work to learn art and promote their faith.
Old Town from the El Panecillo
San Francisco
La Compania on the right looking up Garcia Morena
Cathedral of Quito on the Independence Plaza
San Francisco at sun set
Independence Plaza
The Basilica of the National Vow
St. Francisco

La Compania
The Basilica
La Rhonda Street - Bohemian Quito
Old Town Quito from El Panecillo
Balconies of La Rhonda
Balconies of La Rhonda
Metropolitan Cathedral & El Panecillo
On Opposite sides of the world
After lunch we head to the monument that has been constructed on the equator. Apparently there is a private museum that is next door from the museum that is on the true equator as indicated by modern gps however they were closed ahead of schedule...endemic of Ecuador's laid back attitude to business. So we go to the public monument and our iPhone suggests that we are at 0,0',7", about 7 seconds off. Apparently the equators width is approximately 5 km to care for the earth's revolution.

More Quito Pictures
This is a fascinating city in the valley in the north of the country with a quaint old city. We liked it so much we came back to Quito 3 times from various excursions around the country. Still it takes a while to get used to the altitude.
In 1999 through the culmination of several financials crisis Ecuador changed to the US dollar as their currency replacing the Sucre.

Galapagos: Dragon Hill, Santa Cruz Island
We have an early flight to Baltra, Galapagos, which stops at Guyaquill to drop some passengers and pick up loads of supplies. Galapagos is a archipelago of over 25 islands some 1000 miles to the west of mainland Ecuador. The island operates with sole purpose of preserving its fauna and flora. As a result they don't grow or produce anything on the islands. Their sole source of income is tourism that is heavily regulated . Despite this it is interesting to find that they try to make it as exclusive as possible by slowing the count of visitors by making it expensive with many restrictions of where and when one can visit. Given our late reservations, we have been fortunate to get ourselves on a very nice yacht that can carry 16 visitors. The Sea Star Journey is a freshly furnished yacht that will carry us on a northerly route starting from Isla Santa Cruz, up to Isla Genovesa, the furthest island and back down to Isla Bartolome and Isla Santiago. We have been assured that this route gives us the best that the Galapagos has to offer.

The folks from the yacht are at the airport to receive us for a short ride to the dock to catch a "panga" or a rubber dingy with an outboard motor. Once we are settled on the yacht and a wonderful lunch we are off on our first excursion on Isla Santa Cruz to see Sally light foot crabs, marine and land Iguanas, Flamingos, Sea Lions and some excellent views of the Galapagos. I think these pictures tell the story better than I can in  words.

Heading to our yacht
Our home for the next 5 days
Sea Lion on Dragon Hill...our 1st

...seconds away from being spat at
An untouched landscape
Marine Iguana: Its an infestation!

Flamingo's who stayed behind

A male land Iguana on the prowl for a lady
We were here!
If you can get past the altitude sickness in Quito and the highlands, sea sickness in the Galapagos and the heat and sun all over, this is a spectacular country to visit.

We are still anchored of Santa Cruz and are visiting the Black Turtle Cove this morning to view turtles who are in their mating season.

Marine Iguana
Sea Lion
Mating Turtles
Mangroves we had to duck & weave through
Black Turtle
Blue Footed Booby
Brown Pelican
Noddi terns and a Sally Lightfoot Crab

Sea Lions are as ubiquitous as the water around the islands
Later this afternoon we visit Chinese Hat Island off Santiago Island, north west of Santa Cruz which I suspect is an hours sail away.
Chinese Hat Island
One of many Lizard types
These Sea Lions vacation all their lives
Sally Lightfoot Carb in all its colorful glory
Apparently this little fellow is abandoned...
...while this little guy has not a care in the world
Grass grows on lava!
Parts of the beach are layered with Corals
These marine Iguanas are uglier than ugly!

Galapagos Penguins....they are really tiny

We head to the very north of the Archipelago to Genovesa Island (names after Genoa city), about a 6-7 hours of sailing from where we are. It is a very rough night as our yacht battles the high seas. Still we make it to see the high cliffs of Darwin's bay. We climb up Prince Phillips steep steps and spend some time at close quarters looking at some very interesting birds...interesting not only in their colors and looks but also their unabashed lack of fear for humans or other predators. Galapagos is utopia for these birds.
The fearless birds around Darwin's bay

Prince Philip's steps, Genovesa Island

Red Footed Booby; color of the feet depend on what they eat

Young great frigate

Red Footed Booby and flurry chick
Male Frigate Bird will inflate the red sac to attract the female
Masked Booby
Booby chick
Galapagos Lobsters - they tasted "ok"
On the way back to the yacht we make a detour as we see some fishermen taking a break in the bay. They have a load of lobsters that look appetizing and so we pick up several for dinner. While the meat tastes ok, the shell is real hard compared to those from Maine.

Mid afternoon gets us on the sand to snorkel and generally hang out with more booby's, sea lions and Iguana's.
Swallow Tailed Gull
This sea lion is getting some sun
Male Frigate
This Booby looks like a Dodo!!!
A marine Iguana swimming away
I wonder if this tastes as good as its colors
Swallow Tailed Gulls
Fascinating...this community living, no predators
Mr. & Mrs. Frigate
Inches from a Booby chick while the mom watched
The water is so clear you can see the fish
We are going to head south west another 6-7 hours to Bartolome Island, south west of Genovesa Island. Another rough few hours as the boat tumbles and rolls its way. The island is famous for its pinnacle rock. Apparently that was formed not naturally but through the vigorous shelling by US forces stationed on nearby Baltra....this was before the world started treating Galapagos with kid gloves...still a shame.
The money shot!
The pinnacle - thank you US Army
Genovesa Island
A volcanic crater in the foreground
Pelican swallowing a fish as the crab watches on
But struggles for a while before aligning it properly

This evening we head to Sullivan Bay on the east coast of Santiago Island. The lava that flowed on the island was due to the last volcanic eruption about 100 years or so ago. However the lava feels like it was recently hardened. First impression is like a picture of one the planets or perhaps the moon. Walking on it is surreal.

Its Christmas Eve and our last day on the Galapagos gets us to anchor of the southern shore of Santa Cruz and then a ride to the island's highlands to see the giant tortoises made famous by Darwin. We saw plenty and were led to believe that it is not possible to age tortoises with any measure of certainty, though the ones we saw were estimated to be over 100 years. It makes you wonder how it can spend its time for over 100 years eating, pooping and sleeping!
On his way south to find a mate...will take a month
These guys can weigh up to 500lbs!
Their excuse to lying around is to conserve energy!

He might be some 120 years old

We now have to cross from Isla Santa Cruz to Isla Baltra where the airport is located and compete with locals and other tourists for space on the ferries and transport to the airport...this is a disaster, but we still we make it in time to catch our flights with some airport empanadas through perhaps the most sub par security one can find.

Christmas Eve dinner is at one of Quito's best restaurants called Zazu. The chef has a playful character to his menu by drawing on the natural flavors of his ingredients vs. banking on spices to enhance them. The tasting menu was one of the best we have tasted.

Merry Christmas in Quito to Otavalo
The night is being spent at a genuine hacienda close to Otavalo, about 35miles north of Quito. The hacienda has a vegetable garden that they use to make their meals, Llamas and other live stock. The rooms have character to them with wonderful views of the estate.

Early in the morning we head to the famous Otavalo market. The locals trade animals, fruits, vegetables and clothing here. On a Saturday as is today the market is even bigger and busier. Animal traders bring their livestock and stand in the middle of the market and buyers come and haggle over price amidst squealing pigs and cows, sheep and Llama's. The vegetable market has produce that we are not familiar with including a variety of beans. In the middle of the vegetable market is a local food court catering to both the traders and shoppers. A bowl of potato soup and plate of rice, salad and a piece of meat will cost you less than $2.00 and by the looks of the folks eating it appears to be a tasty meal. The rest of the market sells everyday stuff to the locals and ponchos, hats, bags and assorted crap to tourists. We found negotiating price down to be perhaps the easiest compared to other similar markets around the world.

Locals getting ready to get to the market

Interesting local attires
Animal market

These pigs were noisy; I imagine they knew their fate
Vegetable market

A variety of different kinds of potatoes
They mostly eat pork vs. red meat

This food court serves locals a full meal for $2.00

All fresh, cleaned & ready to go
Bugs for snacks any one...with corn.
Hornado Ecuatoriano...roasted pig
Tasting the Hornado before deciding to dig in

We grab lunch at a street vendor in PIFO a little south of Otavalo who sells Hornado, a pig roasted overnight with herbs and spices. The pig is served with baked potatoes and salad with local hot sauce called Ahi. This meal has been the highlight thus far for its taste and location.

We will spend the night in Papallacta in a thermal spa with the Andes surrounding us. While the views are grand and the waters nice and hot, the altitude does take a toll on us. Still we hike the surrounding areas going up to about 3,500 meters.
Grand views from the thermal pools
12/27 Antisana
While we had planned on hiking the Antisana which is 5,750 meters, medical advise rendered to us to stay well below 4,000 meters requires to adapt our hiking route. Infact we decide to conserve energy and instead go out to spot Condor's. This part of Antisana has the highest density of Condor's in Ecuador.
A soaring Condor
The Antisana valley
We are now in Coniferous territory
We have lunch at Hacienda Hosteria Guaytara whose chef warmly greets and prepares a fine meal. The Hacienda is literally in the middle of no where but attracts the local's. While the ambiance was welcoming, the flavors were just ok.
We are going to spend the night close to the active Cotopaxi volcano in another Hacienda (La Cienega).
La Cienega
Lord & Lady of the Manor
Cotopaxi, while it is active we did not see action

12/28 Banos
We are headed to Banos today. But before we get there we are going to go visit a Rose farm. Ecuador exports crude oil, Bananas, crustaceans and cut flowers like Rose's and is a thriving industry. We are very impressed with the modern industrial manufacturing approach this particular Rose producer (Nevado Rose) who claims to be the second largest in the country has taken. We will end the visit with lunch with some of the management here who are served lunch prepared in their own kitchen on campus with Rose's for ingredients. The chicken was delightful as was the fresh berry juice.
The grand welcome
They have rows and rows of different colored roses
Mass movement of cut Roses
Ready to pack
A streamlined process to pack & ship roses
Banos is an interesting town and is teaming with tourists of all kinds. The streets are quaint yet garish with all types of souvenir stores.
Town square
Souvenir stores
Making Melocha...local candy
     Tegua, a coconut like fruit that is replacing ivory carvings
For those who miss home?
We are going to drive to the eastern edge of the Andes and the beginning of the Amazon basis today. We are also going to drive through the Avenida de las Cascadas (Waterfall Avenue) and see some spectacular sites. Only pictures will begin to help appreciate it.

Avenida de las Cascadas towards Amazonia
Avenida de las Cascadas

One of many random falls along the way

Hanging bridge towards the Devil's cauldron
Pailon del Diablo or the Devil's Cauldron

Devil's Cauldron

At the end of the Waterfall Avenue we leave the Andes behind on its eastern edge and begin towards Amazonia. The bio diversity of Ecuador is incredible and can only be experienced to really appreciate it.
The end of the Andes
The beginning of Amazonia

Some real happy diners
After this excursion it is lunch time and we are going to relish the local delicacy in Puyo. Puyo is located by the Puyo River, a tributary of the Pastaza River, which eventually leads into the Amazon. Our lunch menu includes Maito Tilapia with rice and Minestra. Maito is essentially fish wrapped with herbs in a banana leaf or similar and grilled on open fire. 
Maito Tilapia being grilled
We are going to spend the night in RioBamba. While we dont spend much time here, the town looks festive and energetic. Perhaps next time.

12/30 Rio Bamba
Its an early morning drive of about an hour from Rio Bamba to Alausi, where we are going to catch the famous Devil's Nose Train (Nariz del Diablo). The tracks were laid out here to allow faster access to the coast. Given everything in Ecuador has to go through the Andes, this is nothing short of an engineering marvel...however from a touristic perspective one that we felt we could have skipped. The train goes from Alausi to a little village called Sibambe, where the locals entertain you with music and dancing, a little museum tells you about the hardships of the construction and the thousands of Jamaicans who died here. Sibambe is infested with mosquitoes which makes it even harder to want to stay here. An hour of this and the train takes you right back to Alausi.

The tracks go back & forth vs. round the mountain
Just in case we did not know we were climbing
Diablo Del Nazir; one of many diablo's in Ecuador

Super Train that brought us here

Local entertainment in Sibambe
Our engineers...getting a well deserved break
Next stop is an Inca ruin in Ingapirca. I am afraid this is one more location you can and should skip. However the lunch we have prior to this is at at a Hacienda that has some delightful sights and the food though prepared for tourists is fairly tasty.

Alex Ortiz, with Saritha & I
Last stop on this adventure is going to be Cuenca, where we will bring in the new year. The city is a hub for expats from the US as a retirement destination for both its weather and its cost of living. The latter seems to be slowly getting diluted as the locals have learnt to adjust for that. The attitudes in Cuenca feel different than the other parts of the country, they are still friendly but I sense there is a little coldness here, perhaps a sense of quasi invasion or perhaps a reflection of their deeper pockets comparatively.

12/31 Cuenca
Cuenca is a walking city and wonderful one at that. The weather is holding though it constantly threatens to pour on us. After a big breakfast we begin our wall king tour and our first stop is a Panama Hat factory...yes Panama Hats are actually a product of Ecuador. At the turn of the last century, President Theo Roosevelt was seen wearing these hats in Panama and so it began to be called Panama Hats. In any case, both Saritha & I get ourselves custom made hats...they were literally fresh of the oven and warm to the touch when we first wore them.
Cuenca a walking city
The old city architecture is typical of Spanish
Panama Hat Factory
My hat is ready!
With our fresh of the oven hats in the local market
Cuenca local markets have interesting foods in stores, markets and streets. While I brave the Fritada (fried pork with nuts), I cant say I enjoyed it much. Still there were others that looked quite appetizing.

Nuts...lots of different kinds
Fritada: Fried Pork & Nuts
Pork feet...Pork is king here in Ecuador
Guinea Pigs are delicacies; apparently they taste like a gamey bunny...I passed
Plantain...they are delicious in any form
Quail eggs, a snack that seems quite ubiquitous
Guinea pigs being roasted....still pass

Now in the midst of visiting churches and sampling street food, we visited Pumapungo museum to check out some shrank heads. Apparently the Amazonian's continue the practice but with animal heads.

Cuenca's main church Catedral de la Inmaculada Conception, is the new church across from their main square, the Calderon.
New Cathedral
New Cathedral
I was fascinated by their doors
Cant say I have seen Turquoise cathedral doors ever

St. Francisco; closed because the locals don't care for them...Papa Francis is unlikely to visit here I imagine.
Santo Domingo

One last memory of Ecuador are the puppets. They make puppets and about midnight burn them as a way to get rid of the old and make room for new. As part of this practice they have competitions in the neighborhoods and the winners I understand make a bunch of money and off course have bragging rights for a while.

Lovely country, lovely people...very glad we came and visited with them. Our guide and new found friend Alex Ortiz is someone to connect with when in country, he knows his way around and can show you a good time.

Here are a bunch of random pictures & videos that we captured, a reflection of Ecuador from a little less of a tourists lens. Adios!


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