Friday, October 21, 2016


My last week and a half in Ecuador was split between two cities: Cuenca and Guayaquil. First - Cuenca. 

I got a haircut in Cuenca

Cuenca is beautiful city in the southern part of Ecuador. It’s so pretty that it has attracted a fair number of expats to settle there. There is an especially large number of American retirees. (Brian shared this article outlining the reasons for the large number of retirees in Cuenca.) The good thing about the large American community is that Cuenca is full of creature comforts that I could appreciate after more than a month of traveling in Ecuador. For example, I indulged in a day at the spa.

Piedra de Agua spa - notice the mud baths
Have you ever heard of a steam box? I hadn’t.

One day I took a trip to Ingapirca, which used to be an important stop along the old Inca trail.

This Ecuadorean woman was also a tourist at Ingapirca. Throughout Ecuador it’s not uncommon to see locals dressed in traditional clothing.

They call this rock Face of the Inca. Can you see the face?

On a different day I took a trip to Cajas National Park, which has over 1,000 lakes in the park (how many does Minnesota have again?). Its beauty is almost surreal.

The puya-clava-herculis or Hercules plant

My last three days in Ecuador were spent in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. Guayaquil is pretty much the opposite of Cuenca - near the coast, hot, muggy, and with few tourists (except for a handful who have a layover there on their way to the Galapagos). Hence, not Gringolandia. I splurged on a real hotel in the city center and explored its highlights and also go some extra rest before leaving for Colombia. 

Guayaquil boardwalk
Guayaquil boardwalk

"Iguana Park" in the middle of Guayaquil

"Iguana Park" in the middle of Guayaquil

The top of the hill in the Las Peñas neighborhood

After 1 month and 19 days, it was finally time for me to leave Ecuador. It may be a small country, but there sure is a lot to see. Thanks, Ecuador, for a great trip!

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Cloud Forest of Ecuador

Everyone has heard of rainforests, but cloud forests are not as well-known. I hadn’t heard of them myself until I came to Ecuador (although there are cloud forests in a number of other countries, such as Costa Rica). I visited the cloud forest in Intag Valley, which is to the northwest of Otavalo. Like rainforests, cloud forests have a lot of biodiversity, but the climate and terrain are different. Cloud forests are at higher elevations than rainforests and, true to their name, they are often cloudy, which leads to dense vegetation and moss hanging from trees, on stones, etc. 

I stayed at a lodge in the Intag cloud forest for five days. It is a lovely remote place, run by a retired American teacher named Peter. He and his wife (who wasn't there during my visit) built several cozy and stylish houses and cabins on the property that blend in with the natural surroundings.

The cloud forest and lodge are easier to describe with photos than words.

Gazebo lookout. Note clouds.
The cabin where I stayed
My room
The view from my room
Path at the lodge (photo credit Peter Joost)
Toki the dog on "Brooklyn Bridge" (Peter is a New Yorker)
Forgot my hat, but my shirt made a passable turban. (Photo credit: Peter Joost)
Riding on the back of a pick-up truck

Many people travel to this area of Ecuador for bird watching. Ecuador - a country the size of Colorado - boasts over 1500 (known) species of birds, compared with under 850 in the U.S. I quadrupled (at least) my knowledge of birds during my short visit, and also developed a great appreciation for moths - butterflies’ under-appreciated cousin. Seriously, moths are a lot cooler than you realize! Check out these guys:

Top: moths mimicking a bee and a green leaf
Bottom: moth mimicking a brown leaf; a cool-looking specimen

There was quite an assortment of butterflies as well:

Top left photo courtesy of Peter Joost. (The rest are my own meager photo attempts.)

Just please don't ask me to identify any of these moth or butterfly species (yet!).

For all of you bird lovers, I am sorry, but I didn’t get a single good photo of a bird! I am using my phone as a camera and the zoom is terrible. Here’s a not-so-good photo of a Thick-billed Euphonia:

Blurry Euphonia photo

(A much better photo of a Euphonia is on Peter’s blog here.)

Now I’m back in the modern world, in Cuenca, Ecuador’s 3rd largest city. I arrived yesterday and can confirm that Cuenca is an attractive colonial town. It might be even more attractive than Quito. It’s also not far from the old Inca Trail, which I hope to hike a bit during my visit. Stay tuned for more... 

Friday, October 7, 2016

The day I did laundry in Otavalo

I’ve been traveling for over a month now. This has required me to engage in rather un-exotic activities, such as doing laundry. Here in Ecuador, instead of going to a laundromat to wash your own clothes, it’s more common to drop off clothes to be laundered and folded for you (I don’t mind). Last week I was in Otavalo, a town 2 hours north of Quito that is even higher up in the Andes, and couldn’t postpone laundry any more. I was confronted with the laundry dilemma of wanting to washing everything I brought with me, which would have left me with nothing to wear in the meantime. So I came up with the idea of wearing my scarf as a skirt, which allowed me to wash (almost) all of my dirty clothes.

I dropped my laundry off at the leisurely hour of 10, when the only laundromat (connected to a bar) opens in Otavalo. (Actually, it opened closer to 10:15...) Then set out to explore more of Otavalo.

First I took a taxi about 3 miles out of town to a Condor Refuge, which is home to one Andean condor (it’s huge!), as well as many hawks and owls, who were not able to survive in the wild because of injuries or, in most cases, because they fell out of their nests as chicks.

I decided to walk back to Otavalo from the Condor Refuge because the road is downhill and it was raining gently. On the way I saw this man herding his sheep:

I also stopped at this tree, El Lechero, which is supposed to have healing powers (or so claims the local population):

After I visited the healing tree, the rain started to come down harder and it got quite a bit colder. There were few people, and no taxis, so I plodded along, back towards town, to pick up my laundry. I didn’t go far before a 9-year old boy on a bicycle named Yamki joined me. He accompanied me all the way back to Otavalo, which took about 45 minutes, and made it his personal mission to see that I got back safely. 

At a fork in the road, he insisted we go right, not left, because there were ladrones ‘robbers’ to the left. At the next fork, he insisted we go left, not right, to avoid perros que muerden ‘dogs that bite’ on the right. I confess I didn’t fully believe believe these fairy tale-esque dangers. But further down the road we were actually charged by two large dogs barking aggressively with teeth bared. Yamki protected us by using his small bicycle as a shield and the dogs relaxed, allowing us to continue our trek back to Otavalo.

I didn’t question his decisions after that. 

Yamki told me that he wants to work in the construction business when he grows up, which is his father’s profession. I personally think he would do quite well as a tour guide, or perhaps as a diplomat. In any case, he made my rainy laundry-day afternoon a lot more pleasant, and certainly a lot safer.

I arrived back at the laundromat around 5 pm. My laundry wasn’t finished yet (you’re getting a sense of “Ecuador time,” I hope), so I ordered a beer at the attached bar. (Brilliant business model, by the way.) A craft beer scene has started to pick up some momentum in Ecuador, so I was able to enjoy a nice porter with hint of fig.

Otavalo is a medium-sized town with a cute square, a large market and a thriving native/indigenous community, but what really inspired me to come here was its natural setting. Otavalo is surrounded by volcanoes and mountains with names like Imbabura and Cotocachi, crater lakes such as Lake Cuicocha (which in Kichwa means Guinea Pig Lake because of the two islands in the center that resemble guinea pigs), and waterfalls, and provided me with some of the most spectacular views I’ve had since the Galapagos. 

View from the top of Peguche waterfall

Lake Cuicocha

One of the Mojanda Lakes from Mt. Fuya Fuya 

Meeting people like Yamki (who’s name is also from the Kichwa language, by the way) was just an added bonus. But it’s a pretty big bonus, I’d say!

On Tuesday I left Otavalo for a 5-day stay in the remote cloud forest of Ecuador. It’s so remote that the closest town - Santa Rosa de Pucará - doesn’t show up on Google Maps. Neither do any of the nearby roads. But, of course, there’s internet (I’m blogging from the cloud forest right now!)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A few more days in Quito

Quito is almost 2 miles above sea level and some people are affected by the altitude. I haven't noticed it too much except for 2 things: 1) I get slightly more winded than usual walking up stairs and hills and 2) my skin burns really easily! My nose is currently peeling and I think that my scalp is burned… (Note to self: bring a hat when you’re out all day.)

Quito is high, but it’s surrounded by mountains that are even higher. Quito is sort of like a sandwich - the middle of the sandwich, the peanut butter and jelly, is the city itself, and the two slices of bread are big mountain ranges. Locals say the city is like a banana - long and curved (between the mountains). The altitude didn’t keep me from having a few outdoor adventures, including a steep climb up another volcano and a city bike ride.

There is a cable car (called Teleferiqo) on the west side of Quito that takes you up to a point where you can hike ~3 hours to a peak near the Pichincha volcano. This is supposed to be the easiest hike in this area, but I would not call it easy. The last bit of the hike is more of a climb. I was on my hands and knees navigating around rocks for the last 45 minutes. (Coming back down required a lot of sliding…) It was good that I went on a Saturday when there were plenty of other hikers out, because the route isn’t well marked and it’s relatively easy to get lost if you don’t know the way.

I hiked to the point at the top, into the clouds!

This hawk flew in and sat right next to me for a few minutes at the top of Rucu Pichincha:

Proof I reached the top of the peak (4,696 meters above sea level is about 3 miles!):

Here are some intrepid hikers walk-sliding back down the mountain:

Sunday is the day of ciclopaseo in Quito. Almost 20 miles of streets in the city are closed to vehicles between 8 AM - 2 PM so that cyclists can ride freely. I rented a bicycle and rode around for 3 hours straight, seeing parts of the city I never would have seen on foot.

I've already left Quito (for the 2nd time) and am at my next destination - Otavalo - a town 2 hours north of Quito known for its huge Saturday crafts market and stunning mountain setting. It’s colder here because it’s at an even higher elevation than Quito. The hotel where I'm staying has an open plan with a central courtyard and balconies, which is very pretty, but also means there is no heat. Last night it was so cold I had to wear my wool hat and gloves to bed! I might have to buy a nice warm sweater at the crafts market on Saturday... If I can last that long. I'll write more about Otavalo soon with pics. Until then, ¡buenas noches!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Galápagos, Part 2: Swimming with sharks, etc.

The last part of my Galápagos trip was on Isabela Island, the largest island in the Galápagos with five active volcanoes. (It's the island on the map that looks sort of like a seahorse.)

I flew to Isabela from San Cristobal on this 8-seater plane:

I was directly behind the pilot.

(By the way, I WALKED to the aiport in 15 minutes in San Cristobal and WALKED from the airport to the town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island in ~25 minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever walked to or from an airport in my life.)

I stayed in the town of Puerto Villamil, which is tiny and relaxed, with a dirt road as the main road. Using Puerto Villamil as a base, I went on three excursions, one hike around Sierra Negra Volcano and two snorkeling + animal-viewing trips. 

The Sierra Negra Volcano was active in 2005! This volcano doesn’t spew lava like Mt. St. Helens, rather it sort of just gurgles lava when it’s active. When it was active in 2005, people could still hike around the crater and observe it. This is a picture of our guide Daniel (originally from Quito) in front of the enormous crater with a diameter of ~10 miles (the 2nd largest in the world).

On my snorkeling excursions I swam with sharks, sea lions, sea turtles, seahorses and more!

I swam with this shark! The sea lions were my favorite. They swam in circles around me and one looked at me directly in the eyes as if s/he wanted to play. (Sadly, no pictures of this.)

I saw many more animals endemic or unique to the islands, including the blue footed booby, the Galápagos penguin, and the famous giant tortoises. Also rare animals like flamingos.

Above is a nest with two baby blue footed boobies, which don't yet have blue feet (they get them after puberty... that is, if they survive through puberty; usually only one of the two babies survives to adulthood). Here's a short video I took of a booby "in action"!

After my time on Isabela Island, I took a speedboat back to the island where I started my trip - Santa Cruz - and spent about 24 hours visiting its beaches, lava tunnels, huge inland craters and the Charles Darwin Research Station before flying back to mainland Ecuador. 

In total, I spent time on three different islands: San Cristóbal, Isabela and Santa Cruz, and flew in and out of a fourth island Baltra. Even though I really enjoyed my time on the farm with the family in San Cristóbal, Isabela was my favorite island. I loved the wildlife, the gorgeous views, the volcanoes and the tour guides, who managed to be champions of the islands while at the same time being laid back and friendly (all the guides were Ecuadoreans). 

I am now back in Quito. Quito is a great city and there's a lot to explore here in mainland Ecuador, but I'm having a little bit of post-Galápagos depression. It's hard to say goodbye to such a unique place.