Saturday, March 20, 2010


Last night after blogging i went back to La Ronda. The street was even livelier last night. There were street musicians and performers and all of the restaurants and bars were filling with happy people. In the doorways women had skillets of unidentifiable meat and fish and bubbling cauldrons from which they were ladling cups of soup and hot drinks. (Really, they were proper cauldrons.) I had a glass of hot blackberry juice (which was sweet and tart and tasty) and I walked in the crowd. There didn´t seem to be many tourists there. It is only two blocks, but it is a great place to spend an evening.

Two little girls, about 5 years old walked around selling cigarettes from wicker baskets.  It is amazing, all of the children who are out at night by themselves, working. Some of them seem very happy, but others look so tired and and sad. I saw a very little boy carrying a bag of potatos that was almost as big as he was. It is kind of tragic, really.

It is interesting, a number of people here have told me that the historic centre, where my hotel is, is dangerous after dark, but I have had the opposite experience. At night the streets are busy, with people and traffic everywhere. At no time did i feel even slightly uneasy. 

This morning i left my hotel at 6am and took a taxi to the bus station north of town. From there i caught a bus to Otavalo. The ride was about 2.5 hours and cost $2. At first the bus wound through dry-looking mountains, but they soon gave way to lush farmlands surrounded by towering green mountains, the tops of which were obscured by mist.
I reached Otavalo and proceeded to make my way to the market - supposedly the largest in south america.  

It is fantastic! There is an animal market where they sell pigs and cows and chickens and then there is the other market where they sell everything. Blocks and blocks of arts, crafts, hats, clothing, spices, fresh produce, an endless assortment of legumes and corn, and many stalls selling an array of food. There were at least a dozen enormous roasted pigs. Strolling vendors sold more food. I had a huge slice of watermelon and a small bag of mixed beans in a salsa type sauce. The prices for everything were reasonable, but bargaining is mandatory.
Market at Otavalo
I must admit, i bought a lot of stuff; almost none of it for me. In fact i had to buy another bag to put all of purchases in.
me at the market
I caught the bus back from Otavalo and then had dinner and a cigar on the plaza infront of the San Francisco monastery. Now i am back at the hotel and i am in for the evening. My flight to Houston is at 6-30 tomorrow morning. I have a long layover in Houston and i plan to go into the city, so i may blog about that if the mood strikes me.
Oh, a word about cigars. I brought some with me, enough for one a day, and i am glad i did, because i have seen only one cigar store here. It sold only Cubans and the prices were at least as high as in Canada, so i didn´t buy any.
So, that´s about it for Ecuador. It has been a marvellous trip. I must return someday and visit the Galapagos, but that is another trip for another time.
Buenas noches.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Relaxing Afternoon in Gringolandia

This morning, after an excellent coffee at El Cafeto, I caught a bus to the New Town, or more particularly, to Mariscal Sucre, or ¨Gringolandia¨as the locals called it. It is the part of town where most of the hotels and tour/travel agencies are located. (I am staying in the Centro Historica). It is actually pretty nice. Very colorful and packed with hostels and hotels and international restaurants and bars catering to the back-packing and traveling crowd. (There are also lots of locals there.)
First stop was the National Museum, where i viewed some excellent ancient and Incan art, mostly pottery, sculptures and gold. There was also a lovely exhibit of Colonial religious partings.
After that I had a coffee on the Avenida Amazonas, the main street. I browsed in the shops and waled up and down all of the blocks.  I had a leisurely lunch and cigar at a cafe in a square (below) and then browsed at an art market.The weather was perfect today and it was a delight to be outside.
Upon returning to the Old Town, I sat in the Plaza Grande and people watched for some time. There was a street performer dressed as Charlie Chaplin who was interfering with traffic, much to the delight of the large crowd. Even the Police were cracking up.
After that, i must admit that I returned to my room and had a nap.
Now i am going to do back to La Ronda for a beverage or a bite to eat before an early bed. Tomorrow morning I plan to be at the bus station by 6am to catch a bus to Otavalo - about a 3hour journey. I may or may not go to other towns along the way, depending on how the scenery looks.
Whew. Three blog entries in one day. A personal record. I am all caught up now.  I shall write again tomorrow morning.

Return From the Jungle

Thursday morning I woke up at 5am and caught a canoe at 5:30, which took me back to the Rio Napo where a motorized canoe made the 2.5 hour journey back to the port of Coca. The air was cool and thick with wet fog. Once there we caught a pickup truck back to the airport. It was pretty squishy in the cab, so i volunteered to ride in the back with the luggage as we wound our way through the lively and dirty streets of Coca.
Arriving back in Quito, i returned to my hotel where i had a much-needed hot shower. Soon i was back out on the street.
What a change from the Quito of Sunday! The whole city is alive and bustling. Where there had been only closed doors before were now hold in the wall bodegas and boutiques, restaurants and bars. Women on the streets walked around selling everything from pencils and toothbrushes to baskets of fresh fruit and cups of hot soup. I am totally enjoying Quito. It is so lively.
I spent about an hour and a half looking for a store that sold disposable cameras and then i visited the Iglesia de la CompaƱia de Jesus, Ecuador´s most Ornate Church. It is very lovely.
After the church I had a delicious lunch at a restaurant located underneath the San Francisco monastery. It was so cozy with low, arched ceiling carved fro stone and local art on the walls. I had lunch and then a coca tea and a cigar on the square.
Outside the San Francisco Monastery
After lunch i tackled the Basilica de Voto National, an enormous church which looks like an old gothic creation, but was actually built in the 20thC. The cool things about this church is that you can climb right up the bell tower - on the outside. Fist you go up many stairs to the top of the interiors, then you cross a rickety wooded bridge through the church´s attic. At the other end, you climb a tall ladder (virtually in the dark) which takes you up and outside. From there there are 3 metal ladders up to the top. I am not afraid of heights, but i must admit that i thought twice before making the climb. The ladders looked flimsy and even though they had handrails, a fall would mean certain death. To make matters worse, it was raining, so they were slippery. Casting caution aside, i made the climb and was rewarded with spectacular views over the city.
clock towers
I then walked to the Plaza del Teatro and had a glass of wine and a cigar with two lovely women from Arizona.
After that pleasant interlude, i walked down to the street La Ronda. On Sunday it had been a ghost town, but now it was lined with stores selling crafts and cafes selling alcohol, coffee and hot chocolate. I selected one of the many restaurants and had a delicious bowl of potato-corn-avocado soup, served with tortilla chips.
After dinner, i was walking back to my hotel when i hear wonderful Spanish music coming from an alleyway.  I followed the music and found that in what was a space between two buildings, a stage had been set up and there was a performance of traditional Ecuadorian dances. I sat and watched for about a half an hour. The music, dances and costumes were incredible. And it was free; just there for the enjoyment of the public.
Back at my hotel, i slept soundly; a perfect end to a great day.

Why It's Called the Rain Forest

Wednesday morning after breakfast we hiked into the jungle to a kapock tree, around which a wooden scaffolding had been built.  At the top, we were above the jungle canopy and had incredible views of the lush green sea. Our purpose there was to look for birds.  I have never gone bird watching before, but now that I have i can say that i don´t enjoy it. Don´t misunderstand - i like seeing the birds, but when you are waiting for birds to appear, it is very dull.  Fortunately, we didn´t have to wait long. We saw bright blue swallow tanagers and brilliant red summer tanagers, parrots, and many other birds the names of which I cannot recall.  Later that day we saw flocks of nighthawks, black vultures and toucans flying overhead.
Our bird watching was cut short however when a heavy rain came out of nowhere.  We climbed down the tree and put on our ponchos. Some people wanted to return to their huts, so Bolivar took them back. They rest of us went on a rain walk with Marco. We were wearing ponchos and wellingtons, so we were quite protected. The rain was amazingly heavy. The whole forest became intensely green and thick with mud. It was quite a lot of fun. Aside from a few frogs, there isn´t much to see when it rains like that, because all of the animals hide, but it was a great experience. 
Later that day, while walking, I spotted a black millipede. When i saw my first one the other day i was fascinated by it, but wouldn´t touch it. This time however, i felt brave and i let it crawl on my hand.  Its many feet tickled a bit and it was not slimy. It was covered with shiny black armor. I am making progress in my fear of insects!
large cockroach seen during dinner
In the afternoon we tried our hands at piranha fishing. We had fishing line and hooks baited with chunks of raw meat. I did not have any luck. The piranhas, happily ate my bait, but i couldn´t get them on the line. A few people did catch some though and they ate them for dinner later that evening.
In the evening, we hung out and chatted and I read and went outside for a while to look at the stars and lightening.  The rain quieted our activities a bit, but it was a very nice, relaxing day.
Later, when i returned to my hut for the night, there was a brightly painted wooden tortoise on my bed - a parting gift from the lodge. It really is a wonderful place. I recommend it highly.  

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Welcome to the Jungle: Day Two

I woke up at 5am and had coffee while watching the sunrise over the lagoon. It is so incredibly peaceful, just watching flocks of birds swoop over the water and the odd indigenous jungle resident silently sailing by on a dugout canoe. 
I had breakfast (toast, yogurt and fruit) and then a very serene canoe ride down the river to a clay bank where dozens of parrots gather to eat the clay, which helps them digest certain fruits.  We then went for a walk through the jungle and encountered a cocoa tree. I ate quite a bit of the fruit - basically, you suck this sweet white goo off of the bitter seeds. It was good.
We then went to the home of an indigenous family. They lived in this two room hut on stilts. The littlest girl (about 4 maybe) had a pet baby monkey - only 1 month old - the monkey sat on her head. She let me hold it and it clung to my chest. So adorable.

We walked a bit more and then learned how to shoot a blow gun. Our indigenous guide put a papaya on a stick and that was our target. I didn´t hit it, but i came close.
As our stroll continued, we encountered a large troupe of squirrel monkeys playing in the trees. They leapt from branch to branch and then they sat and watched us watching them.   On this walk we learned about the various medicinal plants in the jungle. Plants that aid in healing a variety of ailments. We samples many of them. One tree has thick red sap, called Dragon´s Blood. It is good for a number of things, including helping to soothe itchy mosquito bites, which i was relieved to discover. We also ate the bark from one tree which is bitter with quinine, which i hopefully will not need, as i have been taking my malaria pills daily.
Now, i should say that on every trip i have at least one great fall, usually i step off a side walk and fall into the street. My great Ecuadorian fall happened this day. We were boarding our canoe, which involved walking along the length of another dugout canoe. I was first, so i had to walk right down to the end of the canoe. I was almost there when i lost my balance and fell, partly into the Amazon river. I was fine, sadly, my camera was not. The memory card survived (thank god) but the camera has not. Thankfully a kind girl at the lodge let me use her extra camera (which was compatible with my memory stick) for the rest of my adventures in Amazonia.
After a delicious lunch of avocado, beans, soup and fruit, i lay outside, overlooking the water and read and enjoyed a cigar.
Later that night, after dinner, we went on a late canoe ride. It was completely black and I could see an amazing array of stars and constellations. We saw caymans looking at us with their red eyes and saw bats fishing. Very cool.
That evening, as on every evening, we sat around in the common area and chatted. Most of the people there were quite delightful and the staff was excellent, including Pepe, the bartender, who made me some fruity cocktail. (I figured i should have at least one.)
It was this day that as i finished my shower i noticed the large gecko on the ceiling of my bathroom.
That night i slept fine. Earplugs make a huge difference. A number of women at the lodge though admitted that they took Zanax (i don´t know if that is how it is spelled) every night before bed. I was happy with ear plugs.
I will write about day three and catch up to the present day tomorrow morning.
Adios, amigos.

The Creature From the Black Lagoon

I have returned from the depths of the Amazon Jungle, where i was exploring from a base on a black water lagoon on a tributary of Rio Napo.  There is so much to say, so i will not say it all now.  I will start at the beginning and stop at the end of the first day.

I caught an early flight from Quito to Coca on Monday morning, where i took a bus to the River. On the River i caught a motorized canoe to a smaller part of the river where i switched to a dugout canoe, then hiked a bit to reach the the La Selva Lodge. The canoe ride was amazing! it was just like being on the jungle cruise ride at Disneyland, except a million times better.

La Selva Lodge
It is a wonderful place, right on the lagoon and in the jungle. It has a main building with a dining room and  social area and then it has a number of huts. All of the buildings are built entirely out of bamboo and roofed in palm fronds. No other materials, so they are pretty rustic accommodations, but they are so charming! All of the huts are on stilts and have little balconies with hammocks. They have a beds with mosquito nets and do have electricity and running water in the bathrooms, but only from 6am to about 10pm.  Because of the way the huts are made, they have huge gaps in them and all sorts of creatures can come inside.  I didn´t have any awful bugs that i am aware of, but i did have a large lizard living in my bathroom and a family of fruit bats that slept hanging from the ceiling at night.
my hut
inside my hut
Once at the lodge I was put into a group of 5 other people with whom i would be doing my jungle exploring.  There was a mother-daughter duo from London, a Couple from Helsinki, a couple from Victoria, and a girl traveling solo from London. We all got on quite well, which was great.
We had some lunch and then we went on our first hike in the jungle.  A few comments about the jungle:
  • it is very hot and very humid. Think of a particularly humid day in Miami in August. Yeah, like that. I was sopping wet in minutes and stayed that way for the entire trip. It was pretty great though, once you accept it.
  • it is very loud and alive. Everything is moving and strange sounds come from all sides, including underfoot and overhead. Frogs, insects, birds, monkeys and sound of trees moving and dropping leaves and is quite overwhelming.
  • everything is enormous.
So we walked and saw an incredible variety of plants and birds. We walked with an amazingly knowledgeable guide, Marco, and an indigenous guide, Bolivar. Bolivar did not speak English, but he was incredible. He could spot a monkey sitting still and camouflaged from 20 yards. We saw, amongst other things, a fascinating parade of leaf cutter ants, a group of black mantled tamarin monkeys, and two dusky titi monkeys. It was incredible. 

We had some down time after our walk and i retired to my hammock with a cigar. A word about hammocks--it is impossible to feel bad while lying in one. Try it. I defy you to try to remain angry or upset whilst in an hammock. What is better than lying in a hammock is doing so in the amazon jungle with a cigar. I was so relaxed and so in awe of my surroundings. It was perfect.

me in my hammock, in the Amazon, with a cigar (bliss)
After dinner (the food was marvellous, by the way; something different at every meal and special vegetarian treats for me) we went on a night walk.  For those of you who don´t know, i am afraid of only 2 things, bugs and the dark. The walk required me to summon all of my courage. You see, it gets dark in the jungle. Put out your flashlight and you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face. Also, the jungle is FAR louder at night.

We saw a myriad of creatures--vine snakes, a pink-footed tarantula, many red rumped tarantulas, scorpion spiders, armored millipedes, giant cockroaches and many types of frog.  I liked the reptiles, but the bugs were creepy.

After that, i went to bed.  The lights go out at 10pm, so you want to be in bed before that. I got into bed, securely tucked my mosquito net in around my mattress and tried to sleep. What ensured was a sleepless night of terror. I couldn´t see anything and i´m not sure i would have wanted to. A bat was flapping either in my room or just outside the window, the jungle sounds seemed to grow louder and closer, i could hear creatures walking under my hut and the humidity was oppressive. (There is a ceiling fan, but with no electricity, no fan).  I probably slept for about 3 hours. It was terrible.  On a positive note, however, my second two nights were fine. Once i knew what to expect, I wasn´t bothered by the sounds a bit and slept just fine.

So that, in a (coco)nut shell, is my first day in the jungle.  
 I will write more before i retire for the night.

The Lagoon

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

I arrived last night after a wonderful flight (two wonderful flights actually).  On the first one, i had three seats to myself and had Direct TV, so i watched Spongebob and an awesomely bad movie called ¨Mega Shark v the Giant Squid¨.
I arrived at about 10:30 and caught a taxi to my hotel, the Hotel de San Francisco in the Centro Historico of Quito.  I like my hotel.  It is in a converted historic house with all of the rooms looking out onto a courtyard filled with plants.
Hotel Courtyard
My room is simple, but is comfortable and clean and has hot water and a free breakfast - for $20  a night, what else could you want?
I had a brief sleep then awoke, ready to tackle Quito.
I am pleased to report that i do not seem to be suffering from any symptoms of altitude sickness (Quito is at 2850 m, in the Andes). I feel a bit tired, but other than that i am ok.
Sunday is a lousy place to arrive anywhere, as everything is closed....except the churches.  Fortunately, i like visiting churches and most of them let me in even though they were in the middle of their Sunday masses.  The churches are beautiful and similar to what you would see in Europe, although they are a bit more colorful and a bit rougher around the edges.  Out side all of the churches (all over the place, actually) are tiny shrivelled women and dirty children selling religious pictures, candles, bits of wood and shoelaces. I am pleased that most of the older women dress in the traditional Ecuadorian style with traditional hats, braided hair, ponchos, and heavy skirts. 
I am not going to name every place i went to, so i´ll just say that i wandered through broken cobble stone streets dirty alleyways and pristine squares.  Much of the historic centre is pretty run down and dirty (but in a charming way) - stray dogs running around, children playing in the street, garbage and shabby storefronts, but other parts of it have been lovingly restored or maintained and those areas are quite exquisite.  The Plaza Grande in wonderful. It is fulled with flowering trees and benches and in framed by a cathedral and the national palace.  The square was filled with people whiling away their sundays after church.  It was also filled with tiny, desperate boys, maybe 4 or 5 years old, begging to shine your shoes.  If they had cockney accents they would be right out of Oliver Twist.
Plaza Grande
I sat in the Plaza Grande and smoked a cigar while wearing my new Panama Hat! That´s right, i bought a hat. Sure, it makes me look like a tourist, but i don´t care. It was $10 and i like it. I feel like Skye Masterson. 
Things here are ridiculously inexpensive. I think you would struggle to try to spend $20 a day. I bought a coffee for 30 cents and three bananas for a dime.
I didn´t get to look in many shops today because they were closed due to the whole Catholic thing, but there were plenty of people hawing their wares on the street. (Hence the hat.)
I went to a museum showing contemporary Ecuadorian photography, which was quite good, and i took a delightful tour of a historic home which had beautiful furnishings but dreadful art.
i went to a market where women were selling produce and grains and meat. I bought some fruit i have never had before. It looked like a prickly pear, but tasted more like a dragon fruit. It was good. I saw merchants selling all manner of hideousness - guinea pigs, testicles, (well, where i can go from there?). There wasn´´t a lot for me to eat other than the fruit. I think it would be difficult to live here and be a vegetarian. There are some international restaurants, but they are in the new part of town. So i am eating fruit and bread.
So after all of my wandering i caught 2 different buses which took my to La Mitad Del Mundo - The Equator. The bus ride was a bit difficult as no one here speaks English (not even at my hotel) and my Spanish is pretty much limited to what i learned on Sesame Street. But i found my way. The ride took about an hour and a half and cost 40cents.
Equator in mist
It costs $2 to go to the equator and visit the monument. It is pretty cool, actually. I mean, the whole thing is touristy, but it is still the equator and it is hard to dismiss that. I had my photo take standing on the equator with one foot in each hemisphere. It´s mandatory. If you try to leave Ecuador without showing that photo to immigration they shoot you on the spot.
On sundays at the equator they have live music. It was great, there is a stage and a little square ringed with restaurants and shops. People were dancing. I had dinner at a cozy little eatery, the first i had seen all day with anything meatless. I had a dinner of corn on the cob, boiled lima beans and boiled potatoes. No spices, no butter, just plain. It was the best thing i have ever eaten, and i don´t even like corn on the cob. The lima beans were outstanding. (Maybe i am suffering from altitude sickness after all.)
Tomorrow i am going to fly to Coca and then journey about 3 hours by canoe and foot into the Amazon Jungle, where i will be staying along the Rio Napo. I can´t wait.
Sorry if this is kind of long and general, but i did a lot today and i have limited time on the computer. I will close with a few random observations:
-The weather was beautifully warm today and is cool this evening.
-There are lots of dogs - tough looking street dogs. They don´t look like they would bite you, but they might mug you.
-The men are super annoying with their constant come-ons and cat calls.
-Everyone here is tiny. I feel like an 8 foot tall albino by comparison.
I have no idea if the main building of the place where i am staying has a computer. They only have electricity for part of the day, so i kind of doubt it.  If you have not heard from me by Monday night, then i am ¨off the grid´ and i will blog about my jungle adventure on Thursday evening.
Adios, all.