Friday, January 25, 2008

Ecuador 2008 Part 3

This post is written by Shelley. The deal was that I would sort through all the photos and she'd write up what we'd been doing. We took over 900 photos in 6 days. We used to figure two rolls of 36 per week. Digital has made quite a difference!

Shelley -- It's my turn to deal with the written posting. The side effect of Andrew having a super duper fancy dancy new camera is that he's filled four humongous (4 gb) memory cards with photos in only a week and now has to sort through them!

Heading north to Otavalo, the landscape is a little bit different than south. Rather than a somewhat straight road through the valley with mountains on either side, here the roads go up and down, in and around deep gorges -- emphasized by a fast and crazy bus driver!

We stayed at Hostel Chasqui, a place that Andrew's sister, Penny, had read about in a travel magazine. It cost $7 per person and although not fancy you can clearly see they are making the effort to fix it up and keep it clean. Our host, Roberto, was very nice and spoke just enough English, combined with our limited Spanish, to give us a brief rundown of the area and make some good suggestions on things to see and do and where to eat. Although the big market day is Saturday, even the rest of the week there's a big square stuffed with stall after stall of sweaters, paintings, weavings, jewelry and other crafts. We bought a few things just so we could do so in relative peace, expecting that tomorrow (Saturday) will be a zoo.

And we were mostly right. We started Saturday at the animal market just on the edge of town. There was a mass of people with ropes/halters around their pigs, piglets, cows and sheep, just standing around. It took us a while to figure things out. There's no auction as we would expect; the people holding the animals are the sellers, the people wandering are either buyers or gringo tourists. The buyers make their offer, go buy a new halter from a rope seller, come back and receive their bill of sale and their animal. I'm kicking myself for not going and finding out how much a cow in Ecuador is worth -- I know my Dad will ask!

Andrew had two interesting experiences at the markets. On Friday he was looking at some paintings at one of stalls and the traditionally dressed lady was giving him the sales pitch when she suddenly reached deep down the front of her shirt, digs around for a bit, pulls out a cell phone and says "un momento por favor" and proceeds to chat away to someone else. It just seemed so out of place! Then at the animal market a women with two young children in tow and carrying a third in a sling in front of her starts chatting him up; asking where he's from, how long he's been in Ecuador (Andrew did a great job of this whole conversation in Spanish!); she shows a photo of herself in front of a weaving loom and the oldest child starts pulling out scarves and belts out of a bag. Then, in the middle of all this, without batting an eye she reaches into the front of her blouse, pulls out a big floppy boob and sticks it in the baby's mouth! I'm afraid that ended the sales pitch!

In addition to the big open square, the Saturday market stretched about 7 or 8 blocks long, stalls on both sides of the street, plus most of the side streets a block in either direction. We'd had enough after a couple hours and took a bus and taxi to the relative peace of Laguna de Cuicocha, a beautiful lake formed from a collapsed volcanic crater and surrounded by steep and natural greenery.

On Sunday we headed to a hostal, La Luna ($12 per night per person), about 4 km from Otavalo. Incredible surroundings! Lots of hills and trees, streams and waterfalls - a bit like Switzerland. And very peaceful. Our little cabin overlooked a valley and from a nearby viewpoint you could see down onto Otavalo. The food here was awesome too! We had the most yummy salads with ingredients from their organic garden. Andrew also had more friendly dogs to play with. It gets chilly in the evenings up here but we had our own personal fireplace in our room to keep us toasty warm.

From there we got a taxi to drive us up to Laguna de Mojanda from where we could climb to the top of Fuya Fuya (4200m), another of the volcanic mountains. Pretty straight forward hiking other than the very long grass near the bottom that trips a person up with almost every step and a bit of rather serious scrambling near the top of each of the two peaks (we climbed them both). The odd good view of the lake but cloudy for the most part. Once down, we hiked back to the hostel. It was 11 km downhill which normally wouldn't seem like much but the road was all small rough stones which were very hard to walk on as our feet/ankles twisted a different way with each step. Luckily there were short stretches of grass and gravel along the edge of the road which meant we only felt half crippled by the time we got back. On the positive side, we got more incredible views of the valleys and farmland and could stop whenever we wanted to take photos. I've determined there are some very hard core cows around here! A Canadian cow wouldn't walk all the way up these big hills when the grass at the bottom looks just as good!

We made a quick trip back to Quito and then took a bus to Mindo; into the cloud forest area. We stayed at a place called Septimo Paraiso (Seventh Heaven) Cloud Forest Reserve. Again, food was incredible and to the point of being too much! We went for a hike on one of the trails when we first got there and it started raining but we barely got wet because the forest canopy was so thick! Lots of interesting and different plants, a few frogs, lots of spiders, and even an armadillo!

The next day we hired a guide to show us around. Danny is 25 years old and has been guiding (for bird watchers) for eight years. We spent five hours with him and he did an absolutely incredible job of finding birds for us to see. There's no way we would have spotted them without his help. He also told us the names of many of the trees and flowers and the use of them for medicine, roofing materials, jewelry, etc. We were extremely lucky on this day because it only rained for a few minutes. The next morning was an absolute downpour! Of course the almost constant mist/drizzle/rain is what makes it a cloud forest.

Back in Quito now. Last night we happened across an exhibit of prize-winning World Press photographs. They were very good but also very disturbing -- lots of war torn and natural disaster areas. We spent today shopping, working on this blog, going through photos, and finalizing details for Galapagos. Heading there tomorrow!

PS. We didn't book any of these hotels in advance - one of the benefits of traveling in the "off" season is that we could just show up and pretty much count on getting a room. Combined with $2 or $3 long distance bus fares it makes it very easy to move around.

Here are the photos. Sorry, over a hundred - didn't have time to filter them more. Feel free to skip over the bugs and flowers!

As usual, click on the slide show to see a bigger version.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Ecuador 2008 Part 2

Thursday morning we headed out from Quito. Took a taxi to the bus terminal with a certain amount of confusion over which bus terminal and which part of the bus terminal. But the taxi driver took us inside and handed us over to someone else who eventually led us to our bus. We got on and the bus left a few minutes later. Maybe it´s just coincidence but that has been the pattern for every bus ride - they seem to leave as soon as we get on. Maybe because there are frequent buses and they are directing us to the next one to leave.

We took the bus to Machachi for 75 cents each, spending the first 30 minutes of the 45 minute ride just getting out of Quito. Our climbing guidebook said we had to walk down the street to transfer to the bus to El Chaupi, but the bus dropped us off immediately behind the next bus so it was an easy transfer. It was 50 cents each for the bus ride to El Chaupi, where, as the guidebook said, there were ¨taxis¨waiting. Actually, pick up trucks - more suitable vehicles for the rough roads out here. This was the most expensive part of the trip - $2 to go the last few kilometers to Hacienda San Jose El Chaupi.

We had tried, with the hotels help, to phone ahead and book at the hacienda but we weren´t sure it it had worked. Probably not, since there was no one around except for three exceptionally friendly and dirty dogs. We wandered around the farm giving strokes and belly rubs to the dogs and meeting the pigs, sheep, chickens, cows, and ducks. We finally met Juan, the caretaker who waved us inside the hacienda but didn´t speak any English so we weren´t sure what was up. We hung out and finally started cooking our supper in the kitchen. At this point two more climbers showed up and Juan appeared with a cell phone with Rodrigo, the owner, on the line. He told us to make ourselves at home and he would come in the morning to make us breakfast and then drive us up to the start of the trail into the Ilinizas.

Rodrigo showed up to make us a great breakfast of eggs, bread, jam, tea, coffee, juice, and fresh milk from the farm. After breakfast he drove us up to the end of the road at La Virgin. (There are a surprising number of virgins here!)

The end of the road is about 4000m. (The hacienda is at about 3450m.) There is a hut at 4600m but that is quite a big jump from the hacienda so we camped at about 4400m, at the bottom of the N.E. face route. A descending guide told us it was "too hard" to go up the N.E. face, that it is a descent route, but it didn't look too bad to us.

Shelley even ate supper - a good sign. (Appetite is one of the first things you lose at altitude.) We set our alarms for 4am and got away about 5:30 under mostly clear skies. At breakfast Shelley said she figured she'd be puking sooner or later but I hoped this was the usual altitude plus godawful early morning rather than altitude. I was optimistic when she set a blistering pace for the first few hours of about 300m vertical per hour. That may not sound like much but up this high it's a good pace. [Shelley: The reason I was setting a fast pace wasn't because I was feeling good, it was in hopes of reaching the summit before puking!]

We reached the ridge line after about two hours and joined the normal route. It was still early and the tracks in the snow were pretty frozen and icy. The last 100m of scrambling (5.3 according to the guidebook) made me a little nervous because it was quite icy and we didn't have crampons, just ice axes. But we made the summit (about 5100m) by about 8:30 am.

This was luckily the clearest day we'd had yet and we got good views of Cotapaxi (second highest mountain in Ecuador) across the valley.

Unfortunately, Shelley's breakfast prediction came true and just below the summit on the way down she vomited up her breakfast. So much for my wishful thinking that this time she'd be ok at altitude.

On the positive side, the N.E. face is a quick descent route an once we were past the icy scrambling at the top we descended quickly. Back at our camp we relaxed for a bit. It was pretty obvious Shelley wasn't going to be up for the higher and more difficult South peak the next day so we decided to go down and catch a ride with Rodrigo who was picking up some other people at 3pm.

Unfortunately, although we got down about 2:30, we missed Rodrigo. We put up our tent, expecting to have to spend the night at the end of the road, but a German couple came down and gave us a ride to El Chaupi where we got a taxi back to the hacienda. There was no one around but eventually we found Juan (the caretaker) and he let us in.

As the saying goes, "the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay". Obviously, with Shelley's altitude issues we weren't going to be able to climb Cotopaxi and Chimborazo as planned. We decided we'd go to Riobamba for a few days and then come back and climb a few of the lower peaks like Corazon and Ruminahui.

So the next morning, after another great breakfast, Rodrigo drove us down to El Chaupi where we took several buses to Riobamba where we checked into Hotel El Estacion (Station Hotel) that Rodrigo has recommended. It was $24 per night including breakfast and well worth it.

Just as we arrived a parade passed by - very colorful. Later in the day another parade went by the coffee shop where we were sitting. Sunday must be parade day.

That night we ate at El Delirio in a building where Simon Bolivar (the "liberator" of Ecuador) had written a poem to Chimborazo. We had a great meal and the restaurant was delightful with a tiny courtyard full of plants and a giant tree, and the interior decorated with local arts and crafts.

The next day we wandered around Riobamba. It doesn't seem to be a very touristy town. The few tourists we did meet seemed to be the hard-core, traveling for a year types.

On the 15th we took the bus to Banos. Originally we thought we couldn't go the Banos because the nearby volcano, Tungarahui, was erupting and they were evacuating. But things seemed to have settled down so we decided to visit for the day. Banos is an interesting little town, definitely touristy, but with a "hippie" flavor. We at lunch at a place called "The Hood" ("where the food is good"), at a table under a large mural of Ganesh (the Hindu elephant god).

We spent most of our time in Banos at the Eco-Zoo. Most of the time we were there we were the only visitors - it was nice to have the place to ourselves. One of the highlights was the escaped monkeys. We weren't sure if the zoo staff knew the monkeys were on the loose. The monkeys were delightful and very friendly. One of them followed us around and kept trying to climb up our pant legs and jump onto our shoulders and heads!

From Banos it should have been a simple bus ride back to El Chaupi. Unfortunately, our plans got derailed once more. Just about when we reached El Chaupi there was a big accident on the highway and we ended up sitting in the bus, stalled in traffic for over 2 hours. And then when we did get moving, the driver forgot to stop for us and we didn't realize till too late. So we ended up back in Quito instead of at the hacienda (where we had left our climbing gear). It ended up being a 6 hour bus trip instead of 3. Luckily the Patio Andaluz had a room and they even gave us the same rate as we'd got from the internet.

So much for our plans to climb a bit more around El Chaupi. We wanted to be back in Quito on Thurs. so that Fri. we could go north to Otavalo to see the big Sat. market. By the time we got back to El Chaupi we would have just had to turn around and come back. We managed to contact Rodrigo and he kindly brought our climbing gear back to Quito for us.

Wed. we wandered around town, confirmed our Galapagos trip and went to the Vivarium (small zoo in Carolina Park). But we would have rather been out in the mountains.

Thurs. we took the Teleferico up to 4000m from Quito at about 3000m. From there we hiked up Rucu Pichincha, about 4700m high. It was a good hike with a bit of scrambling near the top. The weather was a little better than it has been - we actually got a bit of sun - but for much of the time we were buried inside clouds. Shelley felt a little queasy by the top but felt better by the time we descended.

Today (Friday) we're taking the bus to Otavalo for the Saturday market and hopefully to do a little climbing around there.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Ecuador 2008 Part 1

It was a long day getting to Quito, Ecuador from Saskatoon, Canada. We were up about 3 am after not much sleep to catch an early flight to Calgary where we went through customs and grabbed a latte. Then to Houston. The sun was just coming up as we left Calgary and I took about a hundred pictures of the fantastic views (partly due to "new camera" syndrome). Late lunch in Houston and then the last leg to Quito. No views this time as it was cloudy and then got dark. Arrived in Quito with, thankfully, all our bags, cleared customs and caught a taxi to our hotel, arriving about midnight (11 am our time) - a 20 hour day.

The hotel isn't obvious from the street, just a big double door and small windows. Luckily the taxi driver knew where it was. It was all dark and closed when we arrived, but they opened up as soon as we pulled up.

I was a little nervous about our reservation. When I originally contacted them they said they had no rooms. But then I found I could book the hotel through a German travel site ( for half the price. It seemed almost too good to be true but seemed legitimate. And it worked - the hotel had our room waiting for us. Even an upstairs room as I had requested based on recommendations on the internet. A little bizarre booking a hotel in Quito, Ecuador from Saskatoon, Canada via a web site in Germany!

The hotel is beautiful inside - the rooms are around two large courtyards with glass roofs. Our room was two levels - a living room with a desk on the main floor and a spiral staircase to the second floor with the bedroom and bathroom. Even chocolates on the pillows! The staff all seem to speak quite a bit of English and have been very friendly and helpful.

I have been trying to use my very small amounts of Spanish with mixed results. Our room number is 203. The first time I asked for it I said "dos cien" - wrong. Next time I was closer with "dos cientos y tres", although even then they couldn't understand my pronunciation. Finally I got it more or less right with "doscientos tres" and was rewarded with the room key instead of a blank look.

Shelley is pretty excited to be here. It's been a long time (2004) since she's been on a longer trip and Quito is reminiscent of our other trips to developing countries. Crowded cities, small run down taxis that rattle as they drive over cobblestones and potholes, black smelly exhaust fumes coming out of many vehicles, jammed like sardines on the local buses, not understanding the local language, guessing at what you're getting for lunch based on the one word in the menu description that you understand . . . it's awesome! At least no one has offered us guinea pig yet! (Supposedly a local specialty, although I suspect that the "specialty" is shocking tourists.) It's also nice that, unlike Kathmandu, the locals aren't harassing us all the time to buy tiger balm or miniature violins!

Yesterday, we started our first day by walking along "La Ronda", an old narrow street with interesting buildings. Then we took a taxi up to La Virgin del Panecillo which is up on a high hill with fantastic 360 views of Quito. Unfortunately it was a bit cloudy so couldn't see Cotopaxi and some of the other mountains that are visible on a clear day. Went to Pim's where we could continue to enjoy the great views while we enjoyed a glass of wine with our lunch. (We know how to "rough" it!) We both got slightly sunburned despite it being mostly cloudy and despite saying at one point "we should put on some sun screen". You'd think after this many years we'd learn to put sunscreen on regardless when we're up high. (Quito is at roughly 10,000 feet.)

We're ready to go climbing now. There's a grocery store right beside the hotel so that was easy. We got fuel canisters for our camping stove at a climbing shop, some good cheese and bread from a deli & bakery. Of course it seems like we've got way too much stuff! We're hoping we can just leave Quito for the next couple weeks and move from mountain to mountain without too much trouble. Negotiating the local buses will be "interesting" to say the least. But when it's only a dollar or two per bus ride, one can hardly complain too much!

(Click on the slide show to view a larger version.)

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Tomorrow I'll Be

half way round the world.
Not literally, but near enough.
as they'd say in The Princess Bride.
I can never quite believe
that the rest of the world
goes on, carries on, without me.
Shouldn't Saskatoon
hibernate and hold it's breath
while I perambulate?
And do all those other places
really need to exist
outside of the guidebooks
when I'm at home?
It seems terribly wasteful,
in my self centered view.