Archive for January, 2012

30 enero – Mindo Canopy Adventure

Monday, January 30th, 2012

I bought a ticket yesterday for the Mindo Canopy Adventure – the zip line through the tops of the trees. I did this after a bit of research, first on the company website, second asking a seasoned friend for advice, and lastly, chatting with the saleswoman in the office in the center of town. I paid my $10 when my courage was at an all time high. Being suspended hundreds of feet in the air unprotected didn’t seem that appealing.

We got to the zip line area right as a grande groupo of Canadians was taking off. The guy in charge dressed me in my harness, helmet and gloves and sent me in the direction of the first platform. After watching the 15 Canadians get sent off, it was my turn. Francisco, Barbara’s brother-in-law, was also harnessed in for the ride and he translated the instructions, even though the advertising (in really big letters) said “We Speak English”.

Clink, clink … my carabineers were hooked to the wire and the guide told me to hang on with two hands, lean my head away from the wire, bend my knees in a seated position and cross my shins. Then he let me go. The view is amazing – BONITA – and the fear level was pretty high the first couple of times. After that, it was more the speed at which I approached the landing. And they’ve got the braking system figured out, so after awhile I just enjoyed the ride and didn’t worry so much about the landing.

At one point, the guides offered to let us ride upside down or in the “Superwoman” position. I opted for “Superwoman”, where the carabineers are hooked on the back of the harness, arms out front, and my legs wrapped around the waist of the guide behind me. And out into the canopy we went.

All and all, it was fun and not nearly as terrifying as I thought it might be.

28 enero – Mindo

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

Barbara and I started the day at the Butterfly place in Mindo. The tour (in English) included an explanation of the life cycle of the butterflies. There were a lot of butterflies and I got a couple of GREAT photos. The butterflies will easily sit on your finger, especially if you put a dab of banana mush on the end.

Every afternoon at 4 PM there’s a tour of the chocolate factory here at El Quetzal. Jose Meza, owner of El Quetzal, entreprenuer, and husband of Barbara Wilson, does a great job of telling the history of his business, history of chocolate, and showing the steps to making chocolate. Also included in the tour is the garden behind El Quetzal, often used in the preparation of the meals served there. The highlight, of course, is the tasting at the end of the tour. The award winning chocolate is used to make the best brownies on the planet, which is the last part of the tour.

In the evening, Barbara and I went to the “Frog Concert” just a bit out of town. It’s easy to see how the eco-tourism business has become a part of this town and culture. The frog place takes groups around after dark and, amazingly enough, finds frogs, shining flashlights on them for us to see. Although there are about 20 different frogs in the frog pond area, the tour usually only includes about five. We also saw a walking stick and another insect/spider like creature.

Mindo is in the “Cloud Forest”. I feel like I’m back in the rain forest of Puerto Rico. Everything is lush and green and looks like it’s on steriods. It rains every day and it’s humid. The temperature is mild enough, though, so it is comfortable. The view from the back yard of El Quetzal is “bonita” – lush, green, over grown, with the clouds touching the tops of the mountains.

26 enero – Museo de Banco Central in Cuenca

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Barbara and I visited Museo del Banco Central in the afternoon. The museum, archaeological site, and botanical gardens are included in this museo. The museum was constructed over the ruins of an Inca palace, Pumapungo. One room of the museo included the history of the Incas in Cuenca and artifacts found in the area. Afterwards, we walked behind the museum to see the actual archaeological site. The complex is set on a high hillside and there are nice views. The gardens include information about the plants and trees. There’s also a small aviary with very colorful birds.

Random Thoughts – Panama Hats

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

Panama hats are made in Ecuador, specifically Cuenca and the surrounding areas. In the 19th and early 20th century, South American goods were shipped around the world via Panama, and they got the name “Panama Hats”. Many famous people have worn Panama hats including President Theodore Roosevelt, Napoleon, Edward VII, Jason Mraz, Sean Connery, and Anthony Hopkins. And, they are worn throughout Ecuador. This country and culture loves hats (or as they call them “sombreros”). All kinds are worn by men, women and children. Not only for the style, but also for function. The sun is strong here and wearing a hat is almost mandatory if you’re outside a lot.

The hats are still handmade. People make them in their homes and then send them to a “factory” for finishing. There’s a variety of styles and quality. The more expensive hats have a finer weave and can take many months to make and cost hundreds or even more than a $1,000.

25 enero – Cuenca

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

We’re staying at La Cigale in the old part of Cuenca. The streets are cobblestone, the sidewalks narrow, and the hostal is basic with hardwood floors in the room and a fabulous restaurant! The other thing that we really like about Cigale is the main guy at reception. He’s been great with directions and suggestions, honest and forthright. The downside is that the restaurant is popular and kind of noisy, the walls are a bit thin, and the church next door rings the bell three times before 7:30 AM.

Yesterday on our trek to Piedra de Agua in Banos we spotted Hosteria Duran and made a reservation to stay our last two nights here. They have volcanically heated pools, a Turkish bath and an upscale restaurant. It’s quite plush and very fancy, especially compared to the places I’ve stayed in so far.

Our objective today was to see how Panama hats were made and Barbara wanted to connect with a maker to potentially partner with and sell hats in her hostal in Mindo. We went to a couple of retail places just blocks from the hostal. I bought a hat for myself and wore it all day. It helped keep me cool in the Cuenca sunshine. Barbara was successful at getting six or seven hats for her place in Mindo.

Next we went up the hill to a famous potter’s place, Vega. Cuenca is known for Panama Hats and for ceramics. The store and studio are housed in one building. The pottery is gorgeous and from one of the rooms it’s possible to see into the studio where there were at least three artists working.

24 enero – My birthday in Banos

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

I think it was a the best birthday ever. Barbara Wilson, chocolate maker and Mindo hostal owner, and I went to Piedra de Agua, a spa in Banos a short bus ride from Cuenca. We bought a package, which allowed us to take advantage of all the things at the spa: Turkish bath, mud bath, mineral bath and all the pools. It also included a massage and dinner … with a “cupa de vino”.

A young man, Mario, was our host and time keeper for the afternoon. We started by taking a quick shower, then entering the Turkish steam room. It smelled like eucalyptus, and was so steamy I couldn’t see across the room. Mario came in after maybe 10 minutes and had us rinse and repeat, which was great because as soon as I was in the shower I thought “I’d like to go back in there”.

Our next stop was the mud bath. I’ve never done that sort of thing before so it was an experience. We covered ourselves with mud, even putting it in our hair. Mario instructed us to get out, let the mud dry, and then get back in the pool and rinse it off. The next tub was very similar except it was a mineral bath (gold and silver) where we smeared a turquoise substance on our skin.

Mario escorted us to the next station, hot and cold tubs. We got in the hot tub for 10 minutes, jumped (well, not really jumped … we sort of reluctantly went in inch by inch) into the cold tub for two minutes, went back to the hot tub for 10 minutes and then into the cold tub for another 2 minutes. He encouraged entering the cold tub “poco poco”.

The last stop was a steam box, where we sat in a chair in a box, doors closed in front and on top with just our heads sticking out. We were in there for 15 minutes. After that, we sat by the pool until it was time for our massage.

We were cooked after the massage so we got out of our bathing suits (which still have mud stains!) and had dinner with a glass of wine, batido, and a dessert. I’ve never done anything like we did today. It was very relaxing and it was just what I needed at this point in my trip. It’s a birthday I will certainly remember for a long time!

22 enero – Cotacachi

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

The first hot shower with good water pressure in three weeks was this morning at the hostal in Otavalo. What a treat!

Buses run from Otavalo to Cotacachi every 15 minutes or so. The ride is quick and just vente cinco centavos. The rest of the group planned to do a 4-6 hour hike around a lake nearby. They got off before Cotacachi and I carried on by myself to the town known for its leather goods. One entire street (and maybe more) was lined with leather shops selling jackets, belts, purses, boots/shoes, wallets, vests and horse saddles and other riding paraphernalia. I shopped for a couple of hours buying myself a purse, gloves, belt and jacket. Quite a shopping spree for me!

Before I left town (and while a quick and hard rain came through) I hit the cybercafé to send my mom a happy birthday email. There was a beautiful cake in the bakery this morning with “Feliz Cumpleanos” on it and it was nice to think of her in that moment. I took a photo but it’s not the same as being there (or having a piece of cake together).

It was a seamless trek back to Quito. The guy who takes the money (and sometimes another “sales” guy) is at the bus station shouting “Otavalo, Otavalo, Otavalo” and other city names. So, it’s easy to find your bus and just get on. No need to have a ticket because he comes through and collects the money. The bus to Quito took the PanAmerican Highway there and back. There were two toll booths between Quito and Otavalo but I couldn’t make out what the toll for a bus was.

Over the weekend I got to listen to the other students speak Spanish and, in the market and stores, I practiced both my negotiating skills as well as my Spanish. It was a good weekend and I’m glad I went.

22 enero – Happy Birthday!

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Happy Birthday to my mom!

21 enero – Otavalo

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Six of us from escuela espanol Vida Verde met around 7:30 AM Saturday morning for a weekend trek to Otavalo and Cotacachi.

We took a taxi to the north station in Quito ($5) and then caught the bus to Otavalo ($2 for a two hour ride). The bus ride north of Quito was quite “bonita”. The mountainsides are green with fields of corn and other crops occasionally planted along the way. I suspect they can plant year round here. It’s a ‘mas bonita’ ride than the one from Manta to Puerto Lopez.

Once in Otavalo we checked into the hostal. I got a private room and had to use the common bathroom. The place smelled like camp with that sort of musty mildewy kind of smell.

We headed toward the market. The local indigenous people make goods in this area from alpaca and leather. There are hats, sweaters, jewelry, belts, scarves, blankets, and even an animal market. They sell these items everyday with sabado being the busiest day. Even so, it was manageable. I bought a couple of scarves (2 for $5) and a pair of double knit mittens ($4) that would have cost about $25 in the US.

After lunch we hiked to Peguchi Falls, a 45 minute walk. It was nice to be out of the city and in the smaller town of Otavalo … and then hike in the countryside. The falls are pretty and there are three bridges over the stream that allows a great view. On our hike back, there were three separate instances we came across cattle – five or so in a bunch. Twice they were with the ‘rancher’, being moved from one place to another. The third time they were on (very long) leashes in an open field on the outskirts of town. I took a pic of one with a very modern looking building behind it. The juxtaposition is just exactly what this country seems to be all about.

Three hours later, we arrived back at the hostal. There are a couple of hammocks in the courtyard and we rested there until it got cool. There were also flowers in the courtyard that were attractive to the hummingbirds. They were fun to see come and go. I’m looking forward to more bird watching in Mindo.

Trout is on the menu at nearly every restaurant in this area so that’s what I had for dinner. The head was taken off but the tail was still there. Included in dinner was an appetizer of sorts. A small plate of toasted maiz. Apparently there are many (six or eight) kinds of corn grown here. It tasted a little like soybeans only better.

Random Thoughts – Cars in Ecuador

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Although my sense of smell is assaulted by the exhaust in Quito, it hasn’t been attacked by cigarette smoke. There just aren’t a lot of smokers. In my guidebook I read that internet cafés were plentiful but often smoke-filled. That hasn’t been the case. I was in an internet place today and it was smoke free. For 30 minutes online and to have one page printed, I paid 45 cents.) Restaurants haven’t had smokers in them, either, and the few people I’ve seen smoking have been on the street. I’ve heard cigarettes are expensive, although I haven’t checked it out myself.

Random Thoughts – Cars in Ecuador
There’s a lot of traffic here in Quito. Cars are expensive and even so, there aren’t a lot of junkers, at least in the city. In my observation walking through town (not statistically accurate), I’d guess that half the vehicles are Kia, Hyundai, and Chevrolet. Chevy has Ford beat, hands down about 10 to 1. There are a good number of Toyotas and I’ve only seen one Honda. Renault is here, too, along with Volkswagon and Nissan. A good number of the Chevy’s are the Chevy Spark and Aero, two cars I don’t often see in the US.