Jul 9 – On our last day in Cuenca, we checked out the Cathedral.
Across the street is the Old Cathedral, which is now a museum with frescoed walls and some passionate paintings.
We visited the flower market.
The Museo Pumapungo contained Incan ruins, shrunken heads (no photos allowed) and a botanical garden with llamas and parrots.
Lunch here (almuerzo) always consists of a bowl of soup, an entree and a dessert (postre). This wins the prize as the chintziest dessert ever – a single Ritz cracker smeared with jam!
The Museum of Modern Art was interesting.
And we ran into Dante, the student working for world peace, who works in a fair trade shop by day.
We had a great time in Cuenca – if you’re looking to retire to an exotic location, put Cuenca on your list!
Jul 10 – Today we flew back to Quito Airport, so we would be in place for our flight home tomorrow. One short flight sure beats all day on a bus! Had our last breakfast of scrambled eggs, bread and white cheese.
Jul 11 – Got to the airport at 3am for our flight to Miami, then home to Norfolk without a hitch. So happy to see David’s smiling face at baggage claim! So we are home, with a dog who is happy to see us, hugs from grandkids and a garden full of ripening tomatoes. Til next time!
July 5 – Last bus ride today! Six hours to Cuenca. Lots of pretty green mountains viewed from the bus window.
We are staying at Hotel Pegasus, which we were informed has bunny rabbits in their patio. And sure enough, they do! Our host told us that a few years ago there was a festival in town, and several magicians stayed at the hotel. When it came time to leave, the magicians said it was easier to buy new rabbits in the next town than pay to take them on the plane, so they left them behind. So cute!
Jul 6 – We are here to see our friend Nancy, who we originally met on the Semester at Sea in 2008. After Nancy left the ship, she served three years in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan, then looked for a place to retire. The expatriate community gave Cuenca rave reviews, so she packed her suitcases and flew here seven years ago. It’s a great city, and the water is drinkable here!
Cuenca is proud to be the place where Panama hats are made.
So why are they called Panama hats? The poor hat makers of Ecuador traveled to Panama to sell their wares in the 1800s, so travelers thought that the hats came from Panama. Then Teddy Roosevelt wore one when he traveled there to officiate at the opening of the Panama Canal. That sealed the deal. We toured the museum that showed how the hats are made.
The locals like them too. Pretty nifty.
Our hotel is right near the Cathedral, so we set off to see it, but it was closed for the installation of a new bishop. We got to hear the municipal band and see all the priests and bishops gathered for the ceremony.
Cuenca is built along the Rio Tomebamba, and we walked along its pretty garden path.
Jul 7 – We were warmly welcomed into the expat community here, participating with Nancy in a morning Shambala group meditation, then accompanying the group of 20 or so out to a long and animated lunch complete with a birthday cake for one of the group. Sitting near me were retirees from New York, California, New Jersey, Ohio. A college student from Connecticut here on a grant to promote world peace. Americans here for dental work or medical procedures, here to escape India’s monsoon season, here to make their Social Security checks stretch farther. Culture shock for us.
We walked through a park with some interesting tree sculptures.
We checked out one of the many pretty churches here. Did you know that Santa Zita was the patron saint of domestic employees?
More street art.
Jul 8 – Today we journeyed forth to find a plate for our wall collection. Yesterday at lunch we asked the expats for suggestions, and the overwhelming recommendation was to find the studio of Eduardo Vega and son. Google showed us the studio, at the other end of town, and up a steep hill. It’s a grey and rainy day. Should we walk? Nah – taxis will take you just about anywhere here for a dollar.
Up we went. Here’s the misty view from the top of the hill.
The Vega studio was a joy to behold.
So many plates – most of them as big as shields!
Tiles and sculptures too.
The artists were not on site, but the workshop was busy painting the works.
Which plate did we choose? You’ll have to drop by the house and see!
Jul 3 – We bid adios to Baños this morning, and got back on the bus for the two hour ride to Riobamba. Today’s ride brought us two hours closer to Cuenca, which will be our final Ecuadorian destination.
Riobamba is a big, noisy city, with a few pretty buildings and bright blue skies.
The market had lots of colorful fare, and lots of potatoes. Fedora hats are popular among the indigenous people here.
We are staying in a beautiful old hotel, Casa 1881, surrounded by antiques. We have Netflix here!
The reason we are in Riobamba is its proximity to Mt. Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador, at 20,548 feet. The folks here maintain that Mt. Chimborazo is actually taller than Mt. Everest, if you measure from the center of the Earth’s core. It is a volcano, but it hasn’t erupted since 550 CE. Tomorrow, we will climb!
Jul 4 – We had an early five-star breakfast, with grilled vegetables, fluffy eggs and the best coffee we’ve had in weeks. Our host arranged a taxi to drive us the hour and a half to base camp one on Mount Chimborazo. From there we plan to climb up to base camp two. No, we will not be scaling the snowy summit – that’s just crazy talk. We are told that climbers practice Chimborazo before trying Everest, to acclimate to the very thin air.
Rosa picked us up promptly at 8am. First we left the city, then climbed up into the hills. Pretty soon, we were above the tree line, surrounded in fog. Below are vicuña (rhymes with petunia), relatives to the llama. They stay in the high altitudes – it doesn’t look like there’s much for them to eat.
The landscape looked like the surface of the moon – rocky and bare.
We entered the national park, signed in, and then Rosa continued driving us another 20 minutes up the gravel road to the Carrell base camp at 15,900 feet. There she let us out, and promised to wait for two hours. As soon as we got out of the cab, we felt woozy. The air is very thin here. The clouds are starting to lift.
The trail up is well marked with stones, and not all that steep, but the thin air made for slow going. I found that I had to pause and slow my breath every dozen steps or so.
We came upon an area of what looked like tombstones – sure enough, these were markers commemorating climbers who didn’t make it.
We continued our very slow ascent. There is nothing green here.
We reached the level of patchy snow. We are hiking through snow on the Fourth of July!
Finally, we could see the red roof of base camp two ahead. It took us a long time to get there, but we made it!
This camp is called Whymper. Whymper and Carrell were the first Europeans to reach the summit of Chimborazo in 1880, when it was thought that this was the world’s highest peak. We are on the route they took. The refuge huts have a kitchen and an upstairs sleeping area for those on their way to the summit. We achieved 16,404 feet, and that’s enough for us today.
As always, going back down was easier than climbing. Even though the altitude was the same, it felt much easier to breathe.
Soon we could see the road and our starting place. There’s our taxi!
We celebrated by sharing a chocolate bar with Rosa as we started back to Riobamba. As we drove away, the clouds lifted and we could see the summit of Chimborazo glistening in the sun.
Jul 2 – Today we stayed in town and visited the church, Nuestra Señora del Rosario de Agua Santa, a pretty place with a red altar, and a convent that now houses a museum.
The sanctuary is filled with paintings depicting the miracles attributed to the Virgin of the Holy Waters. Each painting has the story inscribed on the bottom with the date and particulars of each miracle.
The museum has a large collection of musty clerical robes, and a room full of taxidermied animals that had seen better days.
Some nice paintings here too, and a mosaic.
Then we walked to the edge of town, where we could see the Agua Santa waterfall.
It looks like the folks here were gearing up for the holy waters to be a major tourist attraction, like Lourdes, with the waters available to the masses. Unfortunately, we were the only folks around, and the Garden of the Virgin was padlocked. We climbed closer to the waterfall.
From the waterfall, we could see the thermal baths next door.
We dipped our fingers in the Agua Santa, and the water was ice cold, so we’re not sure where the thermal bath waters come from. A mystery.
Walking home, we enjoyed more street art and some lovely brugmansia.
Jun 30 – Today’s journey was an hour and a half bus ride through the mountains, as we left gray and misty Puyo behind. We rode through a town named Shell – named for the oil company. Now we are in the mountain town of Baños.
Baños means ‘bath’, and refers to the hot springs that have long been popular with tourists here. I think the sign below indicates the hot springs.
The full name of the town is Baños de Agua Santa, or Bath of the Holy Waters, but the signs just say Baños. In Western Hemisphere Spanish, baños also means bathroom, which makes it an odd name for a town, to our ears. (In Spain you ask directions to the toilet or WC or servicios – if you ask for the baños, you just get an odd look and a shrug. Why are you asking for a bathtub?)
Stepping off the bus, it felt like we’d been magically transported to Switzerland – crisp air, blue skies, and mountains all around. Here’s the view from our hotel window.
We even have a snow-topped volcano, Volcan Tungurahua.
We walked into town. Lots of street art here.
The downtown was packed on a Sunday afternoon, with locals and visitors crowding the sidewalks. Lots of backpackers and hostels and tour companies here.
There was a huge fruit and vegetable market.
Some mosaic wall art!
Jul 1 – This morning we took the bus up the mountain to visit Casa del Arbol – the Tree House at the top of the world.
The bus ride, in a very comfortable tourist bus, cost $1. (Note: the tour company in town would be happy to charge you $50. for the same ride.)
Casa del Arbol is on all the lists of things that one must do in Ecuador. The premise is simple – the little tree house is built precariously on the edge of a cliff, with swings attached. Swing out over the abyss for the thrill of your life!
Simple indeed, and unlike Disneyland, the adventure is entirely up to you. Once you’ve paid the $1. entrance fee to the gatekeeper, there is no evidence that anyone works here or watches the tourists in any way. You can do any crazy-ass thing you like on the swings, as many times as you wish.
Note that the single strap that you can attach (or not) across your lap would not do much to keep you from flying down the mountain if you overbalanced. However, we all took several turns, it was great fun, and we all lived to tell the tale. The feeling in the pit of your stomach when you are extended out over nothingness just can’t be beat.
This place also featured a self-service zip line, which was tame by comparison. You zipped down the hill, then walked your harness back for the next person to use.
Once your adrenaline is racing, you might also want to balance on a log and cross a pond. Some folks will do anything.
When we weren’t swinging or zipping, we walked through some beautiful gardens and enjoyed the mountain air.
Jun 29 – Today was our day to visit Tarqui, and see the animals that have been rescued from being illegally trafficked. Tarqui is not a zoo per se, but a refuge for animals that cannot be returned to their native habitats. As many of the animals are African in origin, I’m not sure how they got to Ecuador in the first place.
By U.S. standards, the animal enclosures were small, and there was a lot of the compulsive pacing that indicates animal distress.
Lots of noisy birds.
Lots of big cats.
The lion sleeps today.
Plenty of monkeys, both inside and outside the fences.
You lookin’ at me?
A bit of political commentary – the muddy pen of peccaries (pigs) was labeled ‘The Trumps’.
We enjoyed a pitcher of Wayusa tea at the refugio restaurant. Very sweet and caffeinated.
Remember I told you that the currency here is the U.S. dollar? Well, the smallest bill used here is the $5. If you pay with a five, you will receive $1 Sacagawea coins as change. Now you know where all the dollar coins went!
Jun 28 – After a good night’s sleep and a very good breakfast, we ventured out to find the Omaere botanical park, on the edge of town. And just like that, we’re back in the jungle!
Omaere means ‘nature of the rainforest’ in the language of the native Waorani people. The park (once a cleared field used for grazing cows) was purchased by two French women and one Schuar indigenous woman almost 30 years ago, and planted with all the medicinal plants important to the nearby indigenous people. It now looks like the jungle it used to be, lush and green and teeming with life.
We met Chris, a biologist from California who came to Ecuador to complete his dissertation 30 years ago, and never went home. He provided a bilingual tour of the medicinal plants, telling us what each one was good for, and how each medicine was prepared.
Chris explained how the Schuar and Waorani people lived and hunted (with blowguns and curare darts), how a fierce hunter could have as many as 15 wives, and how they maintained an ecologically sustainable life over the centuries. He also had tinctures, shampoos and handicrafts to sell.
Chris expounded about the eco-friendly toilets he created for the park. Urine flows out a pipe right onto the forest floor to nourish the plants, and poop is covered with soil and stored until it turns to compost. We agreed that it makes no sense to use our precious fresh water resources to flush away our waste, but are not sure that folks back home will be willing to store their poop for a year…
Then we were treated to a native cultural performance by a Waorani family – a man named Yeti, his wife Rosario and her sister. They offered to perform in their native costume – stark naked with a single string tied around the waist – but we figured that we could get the gist of their dance without their full disclosure, so they just wrapped themselves in ropes and put on headdresses.
They chanted several songs in a flat repetitive tone, and shuffled back and forth. Rosario offered to paint my face with the red mask that she wore, but I politely declined.
Then Yeti asked if anyone would like to get married. The college kids in our group all declined that offer, so Jim volunteered that we would get married in the Waorani way. We all got up and shuffle danced, then everyone gathered in a tight circle around us and chanted. And just like that, we were married (again!).
We walked out of the park to find some lunch and found ourselves in the tourist part of town. We were the only tourists in sight.
After a fine meal of pollo y papas (chicken and fries), we walked home. The roads are being torn up to put new pipes in. Unlike our experience in Guatemala, most all the roads we have encountered here are paved.
After a siesta, we went out for dinner and found that almost all the restaurants we had seen in the afternoon closed at 4pm. Dinner out isn’t really a thing here. Way down the street we found an Ecuadorian Chinese restaurant – not your typical fare, but not bad, considering.
On our way home we heard music, and walked over to the sports stadium. There, under the lights, was the biggest community Zumba class ever! How fun!
An ad at the pharmacy – I’ll have what she’s having!
Jun 26 – So, life continues here in Iyarina. One morning we had no hot water, the next day no WiFi, then last night the electricity went out entirely. Small inconveniences when you consider how well we are living in the middle of the jungle!
Jim taught his last class yesterday, so our official duties are over. We continue to walk every day and find new things to appreciate. The sky has been very blue, with no rain for the past few days. Our clothes dried on the line! As we near the end of June, the rainy season is coming to an close.
Walking down the road, we encountered a maintenance crew cutting brush with machetes to keep the jungle from overtaking the road. Not sure if the dog is part of the crew.
A man told us that if we took a side road, we could climb up El Mirador – a scenic overlook. Of course we had to check it out. As soon as we started walking up, we were joined by Flora, a barefoot nine year old with a lot to say.
She took a liking to Jim, and kept up a stream of chatter as we ascended the hill.
The view from the top.
We walked back to the house of the shaman, and spoke with his wife Maria. She showed us the herbs she grows, and told us which ones are good for back pain, and which help if you have an open wound.
Don’t hug this tree!
There are many little huts erected at the roadside. Bus shelters? This one is also a shop. There was not much on offer, mainly warm bottles of Big cola.
Some beans set out on the pavement to dry.
More student sculptures – water women (mermaids) are a thing here.
Jun 27 – After one last delicious breakfast, we bade farewell to Iyarina. Janis had hired a cab to take her back to the airport in Quito, and because the bridge is still out due to last week’s floods, she has to take the long detour, which goes past our next stop, Puyo. She graciously offered to let us share her taxi. Luisa also came along, as she actually lives in Puyo.
An hour and a half later, the jungle is gone, and we are in Puyo.Our very nice hotel is right on the main street, which is full of little shops and eateries. We will be here three nights, which should give us more than enough time to see what Puyo has to offer. This is not a tourist town, so we will see. Stay tuned!
Jun 22 – Today we accompanied Janis and Luisa on a six mile trip by taxi to the nearby indigenous community of Shiripuno and the town of Misahualli.
Shiripuno serves as a traveler’s hostel with the hope of attracting tourists. It is run by a women’s cooperative. Right on the Rio Napo, some of their crops were damaged by yesterday’s floods.
The women demonstrated how to crush manioc, a root vegetable that can be cooked as a sort of bread. It is mixed with wayusa tea, wrapped in sweet leaf and roasted in the fire.
In another recipe, the manioc is chewed by all the women, then spit back into a communal bowl where it ferments for several days or weeks, then used as an intoxicant. We were offered some wayusa.
We were shown a huge rock that is said to be spiritually powerful. In the rock you can see a face and a tapir.
The women drummed and danced for us. Janis said the blue outfits, beads and grass skirts are a recent addition to attract tourists, but the dance is authentic, characterized by the swinging of their long hair. Grass skirts may have been used in pre-Colombian times.
There was a three year old just learning the dance, who was having a very good time doing her own thing. So cute!
Then we ventured into Misahualli. Here they imported some monkeys in the hopes of attracting tourists. There’s a monkey statue in the square.
The town’s primary attraction is canoe rides down the churning Napo River.
Grilled grubs are a delicacy here. Live grubs are skewered, then grilled, still wriggling.
After a few minutes, they are ready to serve. Jim pronounced them juicy and tasty!
The capuchin monkeys entertained the visitors, very active for mid-afternoon.
Misahualli is a very poor town, with an interesting variety of tourist shops and expats.
Jim and I would have explored more thoroughly, but Luisa at 90 could not walk far, so before too long we took a taxi back to Iyarina. An interesting day.