All posts by karenfranza

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!

On to Baños, Ecuador

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.

Most fun we’ve ever had for a dollar!

Zoorefugio Tarqui, Puyo

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.

Leopards

Ocelots
Pumas

The lion sleeps today.

Plenty of monkeys, both inside and outside the fences.

This old guy looks like he may deliver Hamlet’s soliloquy

You lookin’ at me?

Coatimundi
A caiman

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!

Etnobotánico Omaere Parque, Puyo

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.

Vanilla vine
Biggest prayer plant ever

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.

Chanting – no eye contact

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.

Wall art!

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!

Iyarina to Puyo, Ecuador

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.

More wildlife.

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.

Pretty fungi.

Papaya, I think
Pineapples growing on the ground – I always thought they grew on trees
Huge heart shaped leaves – so pretty

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!

A Day in Shiripuno and Misahualli

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.

Plantain
Coconut

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.

See the face?
See the 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.

Luisa, Janis, Luisa’s sister Eludia and Jim

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.

More from Iyarina

Jun 20 – So, I haven’t really talked about the weather here. It is not hot at all considering our proximity to the equator, perhaps in the low 70s during the day, but very humid. Pleasant walking weather. After sundown it gets chilly enough for a sweatshirt and long pants. The river provides a constant background noise as it roils along, soothing white noise. We are sleeping very well here.

Morning mist on the hills

More pretty flora.

Jim is busy teaching the anthropology students about Asian shamanism, to enable them to compare it to the Quechua shamans here. He also gave a hypnosis demonstration so the students could better understand the trance state. Here is the open-air classroom where most classes are held. I enjoy the contrast of the thatched roof and the flat screen tv.

Tod, who owns Iyarina, is the son of American doctors who brought him to Ecuador as a small child; he was raised here and married into an indigenous family. He maintains an academic career at Arizona State, while concurrently running this center. His extended family works here in all capacities. He explained (and I oversimplify) that in the Quechua culture, a person’s sense of self includes his entire family, and not caring for family members is thought to result in illness or misfortune to the children or elders of the family. A big responsibility.

The Quechua derive their power from the mountains that surround them, and, in times past, sacrificed animals or children to keep the mountains happy. In a land of many volcanoes, you can understand how this belief would arise. If a person experiences illness or misfortune, shamans are still consulted to determine the source and remove the misfortune.

We went with the anthropology students to observe a shaman ritual.

The shaman, named Bartolo, drank a cup of the hallucinogen ayahuasca, then chanted to various animal spirits. His wife Maria sat behind him. The round stone in front of him has magical properties and was described as female. He encouraged the students to touch the stone and the section of ayahuasca vine.

There were two smaller dark rocks described as male, that looked like faces. They served as protectors.

The shaman had a hand rolled tobacco cigar that he used to blow smoke over all the objects to cleanse them. The bunch of leaves were shaken throughout the ceremony and used to brush away negative effects. The shaman’s chant was calming and beautiful. Quite an experience!

Jun 21 – It rained so heavily through the night that the sandbar we could previously see in the river was submerged. Charles and his daughters are leaving today to travel home to Utah, and he received word mid-morning that the bridge back to Tena was washed out, and they would have to take a long detour. Safe travels home, Charles!

Jim and Charles

We continued to explore the campus.

The rain muddied the river

Huge fragrant gardenia

Logs used as seed starters

Tomorrow, an adventure!

A Day in Iyarina

Jun 18 – So, the first thing you should know about the Amazon jungle is that the WiFi isn’t great, so my posts will be less frequent. But isn’t it amazing that we have WiFi at all?

Inchplant, growing wild

The second thing is that so far this place is really wet, all the time. It is the rainy season, and it rains in the afternoon, and sort of mists on you even when the sun is out. It rains at night. Towels don’t dry. Clothes mold on the line. Everything is sort of musty. This isn’t such a problem for the professors and students who arrived with fat suitcases full of clothes. But for us poor backpackers with only two outfits (one to wear and one to wash), these two weeks will be a challenge!

There are about 50 students here, mostly post grad, pursuing different courses of study in anthropology, linguistics, biology, sociology, pre-med, and I’m sure other disciplines that I haven’t encountered yet. The ones I’ve spoken to so far hail from Pittsburgh, Arizona, Utah, England, and Washington state. They are mostly here on government FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) grants of $5000. per student for a seven week semester. They are an affable bunch, mostly female, happy to spend time talking with a non-academic like me.

We eat communally in an open-air dining area, with food prepared by native cooks. Lots of fruits and fruit juices, fried plantain, dough fritters, rice, beans and manioc. The main meal is served midday, with a light supper in the evening. Burrito night is the favorite meal, and banana covered in chocolate is the favorite dessert, according to the students.

Janis introduced us to the strong woman of the local Quechua village, Luisa.

Janis and Luisa

She says she is 90 years old, and still labors with her sisters and daughters. She patiently answers student questions about nuances of the Quechua language, and tells them the stories of her people.

Other Quechua women run a pottery class, exposing the students to ancient pottery techniques. The pots are dried on the cooking fire, then glazed and decorated with vegetable extracts. They are very fragile.

Jun 19 – Tod, the owner of Iyarina Lodge, showed us where to pick up a trail through the jungle. It is the trail his family used before the road was improved. The trail is sopping wet and muddy. There are beautiful blue morpho butterflies here. This is a small one resting on a wall.

On the trail we spied a pair of large ones, bright electric blue, each wing as big as your hand. Their underside is brown to blend with the tree bark.

Try as I might, I couldn’t capture the large morphos in flight with their wings open. Here’s a pic from Google to give you an idea. They are breathtaking.

These are tiny spiders that build communal webs, which the students tell us is unusual.

Lots of cieba trees, huge ferns and flowers.

Near the road are some lava formations, although there are no volcanos nearby.

Wall art!

Let’s see if I can post this. Stay tuned for more!