Villa la Caleta

Feb 18 – We are staying this week in Villa la Caleta, which is run by a very nice Italian named Dario. We are at the eastern tip of the Samaná peninsula, and far from the cruise ship crowds. This area is frequented primarily by Europeans, and we have been hearing mostly French, some German, and some Russian in addition to Spanish.

So against all odds, one of the other villas is inhabited this week by Americans – a retired couple from Philadelphia. It’s strange but nice for us to make English conversation at dinner.

Chris and John have been more places than we have!

Dario runs a little restaurant, which serves an egg and fruit breakfast, and dinner of anything you want as long as it’s spaghetti, at prices much higher than we are accustomed to paying. We’ll have to get creative if we’re going to last the week.

We walked down the beach this morning, arriving after 15 minutes at a resort, with rows of sun worshipers slathered in lotion, lying on beach loungers, and a line queued up for drinks.

We kept walking. There were a few vendors along the beach, selling coconut milk and touristy stuff. I thought these carvings were particularly good.

After another 15 minutes, we reached the little town of Las Galeras, which we had not been able to properly inspect on our whirlwind journey yesterday.

There were lots of little cafés, spas and shops. It’s evident that English is not the primary language here.

English translation needs a bit of work!

The food offerings were still overpriced by our standards, and we had to walk a good way up the street before finding a place where the locals eat. We had a lovely lunch of chicken, beans, rice and salad, then found a very good grocery. Our room has a fridge, so we stocked up on sandwich fixings, a very tasty local cheese, and, of course, some Presidentes.

We purchased a little bottle of Mama Juana – the local specialty drink made of rum, red wine and honey, steeped in various medicinal barks. The locals say it will cure whatever ails you.

We swam in clear waters at the sandy beach.

We took a long walk up the hill to see the sunset.

I think we’ll manage here just fine.

Feb 19 – This morning we broke out our snorkels and set out to see what denizens may lurk beneath the gentle waves. Right outside our villa is a brown coral beach, with lots of places for critters to hide. We had to wear footwear into the water so we didn’t cut our feet on the sharp coral.

I have not been snorkeling since I was a kid in a swimming pool. I had reservations about how clearly I would be able to see under water without my glasses, but I was pleasantly surprised. Lots of colorful little fishies and anemones. It really is pleasant to lie face down in the water and just drift.

Here’s some of the wildlife we’ve encountered.

Hitching a ride!

So this will be our week – eat, walk, swim, snorkel, eat. Repeat. I’ll check back in if there’s anything exciting to report!

Las Galeras

Feb 17 – today was a travel day, and a day worth describing. (Yes, dear friend Tom, this post is for you!) We had our final breakfast in Santo Domingo, and called for an Uber to the bus station, where we rode a big bus north in air conditioned comfort for three hours to Las Terrenas. There was even a movie on the bus!

As soon as we got off the bus, we were surrounded by an eager group of drivers inviting us to take their taxi or moto (motorcycle). We have left urban Santo Domingo, so Uber is no longer an option.

We were looking for the local public transport, or guagua station, but couldn’t find it, although we walked up and down the street where Google said it should be. We ducked into a shop, and a very nice tailor left his sewing machine and pulled out his phone to help us. Nice person of the D.R.!

Turns out there is no longer a guagua heading to our town. The best option was to cross the city of Las Terranas by motorcycle and find a guagua heading for El Limón. Please note that I have never ridden a motorcycle ever, let alone ridden helmet-less behind a Dominican. But here we are, so here we go!

Ten minutes (and $1) later, hair blown back, we were on the other side of town, stepping into our guagua, otherwise known as an open pickup truck. Here’s Jim getting in with his pack. Yes, we sat on the wood slats on the sides. No, we didn’t worry about falling out, as once all nine of us were shoehorned in, there wasn’t much room to move.

The truck took us half an hour (16 miles) to El Limón, where we were instructed to leave the truck and hop into another guagua, this time a van, which was nice and breezy as the doors and windows had been removed. The van took us 15 miles to Samaná, where we transferred to an even sadder-looking van with a cracked windshield, and wooden crates where the seats should be. All the interior upholstery on the sides and top had been removed as well, giving the van a nice, rusty metal vibe.

I thought the van was quite full enough with twelve people plus the driver, but the driver kept calling ‘Las Galeres!’ out the window until were reached our 15 seat capacity. From there, it was stop and go every few blocks, as folks got off and others got on, greeting their friends and keeping up a noisy chatter. Big parcels had to be strapped to the roof rack, and when we passed a grocery, the driver got out to do some shopping. He was nice enough to inquire if anybody else needed anything.

17 miles later, we arrived in Las Galeres. Almost there! We were just two miles from our destination, and guess what? Two motorcycles were standing ready, waiting to take us! I jumped right on, this time. I am a biker pro!

So now we are in our seaside villa, listening to the lap of the waves and feeling the gentle breezes. There is a salamander on our bedroom wall, and cows lowing right beneath our window. It’s good to be home.

Sunset view from our balcony

More from Santo Domingo

Feb 14 – For those who wish to see this city, know that the Zona Coloniál is very compact and easy to navigate. We understand that most tourists spend one day here, on their way to or from the beach, but our guidebook has a walking tour that will take us to every interesting thing, so that’s what we are doing.

There is a pedestrian-only central street with lots of shops and restaurants.

There are lots of churches, but many are closed. Here’s Nuestra Señora del Carmen, with a historical facade and a beautiful black wood altar.

This is the Iglesia Regina Angelorum. I liked the painted fresco behind this statue.

The first ever fort built in the new world (1502), Fortaleza Ozama, contains some of the timber from Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria. It overlooks the Rio Ozama, and for a while it was actually the tallest structure in the Americas.

The Pantheon of the Fatherland is a former church that serves as a mausoleum for important military figures in Dominican history. I was happy to see a number of females included among the busts of important people. The big three heroes, Duarte, Mella and Sanchez, have full sized statues in front of their crypt.

The Museo de Casas Reales had an interesting display of an early pharmacy, including a still used to make potions and a cabinet used to store medicinal herbs. As many could not read, the cabinet was painted with a picture of what each herb looked like and the tree or shrub on which it could be found.

The Museo Alcazar de Colón was the residence of Christopher Columbus’ son Diego, who was the Viceroy of Hispaniola, and his wife Maria de Toledo. It contained artifacts from Columbus’ family. His office displays a modern painting of Christopher and Diego. The deteriorating statue depicts Maria de Toledo, who ruled Hispaniola whenever her husband was out seafaring and exploring. She was said to have been compassionate to the indigenous people.

Feb 16 – today was the municipal elections, which were canceled midday due to problems with the electronic voting machines. Sound familiar?

Tomorrow we will bid adios to the city of Christopher Columbus’ brother, and head north to the beach!

Santo Domingo

Feb 12 – After a leisurely American breakfast (omelette, toast, juice and coffee, as opposed to the local preference for coffee and pastry) we packed our bag and walked a block to the local bus stop, where we boarded a very nice air conditioned bus that shuttled us to the bus terminal for free. From there, we hopped on a bigger very nice air conditioned bus for the 90 minute ride to Santo Domingo, for $1.50 per ticket.

We are staying in the old part of the city, called the Zona Coloniál, which was originally founded by Christopher Columbus’ brother Bartolomeo, after the first two colonies attempted on Hispaniola failed. Santo Domingo was named after St. Dominic, who founded the Dominican monastic order and invented the rosary (bet you didn’t know that!)

Our little hotel is a five minute walk from the center of town, the Parque Colón. Here there is a statue of Christopher himself, his outstretched arm serving as an invitation to the pigeons.

The park had a festive air, with musicians simultaneously playing Spanish guitar and Sousa marches.

An artist at work.

There were several strange creatures roaming the park. The one giving away red balloons had to do with next week’s political election, and the gorillas had something to do with Carneval, but no one could tell us exactly what. Carneval is celebrated for the whole month of February here.

I admired the entrepreneurial spirit of this group, who stood beside the upscale cafés, drumming up a horrible racket until someone paid them to go away.

Right next to the park stands the Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor, the oldest cathedral in the Americas.

A small sandstone interior, with a mix of classic and modern artwork.

Sir Francis Drake and his English forces swept through Santo Domingo and took everything worth taking in 1586. This church is definitely lacking the gold embellishments so prevalent in other cathedrals. It is interesting to view history from different perspectives – the English knighted Drake, but the Spanish considered him a pirate.

My favorite display in one of the side chapels was a surreal looking nativity scene that looked like it might have been made of Legos. No baby Jesus, though.

We stopped in to see the Larimar museum, which was mainly a gift shop. Larimar is a pretty blue or green pectolite stone that is only found on this island. Buy some today, before it’s all gone!

Then we went into the Museo Casa de Tostado, Museum of a Family House, which was a house decorated with antique furnishings from the Spanish colonial era. For the price of admission, we received two tour guides and an audio in English, which was so funny that I have to describe it in detail. Two young women ushered us into each room and pointed to the sign displaying the audio guide number. So we walked into the kitchen, pressed 364 and play, then listened while the audio said, “this is the kitchen.” Then on to the next room. Funniest tour ever!

The highlight of the house was this fancy window, with stone carving above, the first one of its type in America. Now you’ve seen it too!

Guess what Santo Domingo has? A Chinatown! A great place to have dinner, although there were no Asians in evidence in the restaurant we chose.

Here is a statue entitled “Chinese Immigrant”.

This one depicts the Buddha, one of Jim’s favorites.

A fun day!

Dominican Republic

Feb 10, 2020 – Looking for a place to warm your bones in the middle of winter? We wondered if the Dominican Republic might be a good place to do just that, and we’ll be checking it out for the next three weeks.

Where is this place? You may recall that the island of Hispaniola is where Christopher Columbus first set foot in the New World in 1492. The D.R. shares the island with Haiti, and is close to Puerto Rico and lots of Caribbean islands that folks fly to for resort vacations. Of course, Jim and I don’t do resorts, so we’ll just see how it goes!

Feb 11 – We came in on a late flight through Atlanta, and arrived at Santo Domingo Airport at almost midnight. Jim had chosen a little hotel in the nearby town of Boca Chica for convenience, and a short Uber ride got us there. Cannot say enough good things about Uber in foreign countries. It is a great equalizer, in that the app can not distinguish if you are a local or a tourist ripe for fleecing. I’m sorry that the drivers don’t make enough. I tip. The 20 minute ride cost less than $5.

The little town of Boca Chica really didn’t have much going on, but we sat on the beach for a bit and got our bearings, while enjoying our first Presidente beer. There was a park with some gnarly old trees.

There was a church, but it was not open.

And some wall art too!

Tomorrow we’ll head into the capital city, Santo Domingo, and see what there is to see.

Last Day in Cuenca, Ecuador

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!

Cuenca, Ecuador

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.

We visited the textile museum.

Traditional skirts

Street art.

More tomorrow!

More from Cuenca

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!

Riobamba / Mt. Chimborazo

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.

This is the Cathedral, not open to visitors

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.

What a day!

More from Baños de Agua Santa

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.

Baños – a groovy place!