All posts by karenfranza

Iyarina Research Center, near Tena Ecuador

Jun 16 – It rained all night and into the morning, reminding us that we are indeed in a rain forest. Here are some more of the beautiful plants growing all around us.

At mid morning, Jim’s colleague Charles and his wife Janis picked us up and drove us out to Iyarina Lodge, an educational compound about half an hour from Tena. Iyarina is in the Amazon jungle, right on the Rio Napo. Charles and Janice are both professors at Brigham Young University in Utah, and have been coming here every summer since the 1980s to study the Quechua people who live here. Janis is the authority on their language and Charles is a cultural anthropologist.

The center hosts college and post doc students studying linguistics, anthropology, and biology. It seems that some very interesting spiders 🕷 and frogs 🐸 live here. We have a beautiful big room overlooking the river. Here is our view.

Here is our bathroom!

There are hiking trails and lava formations, and perhaps a trip to a local village nearby. Jim will present some sociology and shamanism to the students. It should be an interesting two weeks.

Tena, Ecuador

Jun 15 – We set the alarm for 5am, but of course we didn’t need it, as we woke up every hour throughout the night to check the time. Are we the only ones who do this? The 15-passenger van arrived at 5:15 to take us to the next chapter of our Ecuadorian adventure – Tena. The van picked up passengers at various spots around the city until all the seats were full.

It was still dark for the first part of our ride, but the popping in our ears let us know we were coming down from Quito’s high elevation. Then we had to remove our jackets as the weather warmed up. We saw some breathtaking views of the Andes covered in morning mist, but the condensation on the windows didn’t allow for any photos. Use your imagination!

By 9:30 we arrived in Tena, and the van stopped right at our hotel. Just like that, we’re back in the jungle!

Tena is a scruffy little town, touted as the cinnamon (canela) and wayusa capital of the world. Wayusa is a leaf that is dried and used as a caffeinated tea, drunk by indigenous people as an aid to having visions. Located on the Pano River, Tena caters to adventure tourists who come here to whitewater raft, kayak and take jungle tours to interact with the indigenous Quechua people and partake in shaman rituals. We are here for just a day, prior to meeting up with Jim’s professor colleague tomorrow.

Tena is also home to Parque Amazonico La Isla del Amor, a nature park right next to our hotel. We dropped off our bags and walked over to check it out.

What’s the first thing we saw? An observation tower! “Up!” said Jim, so up we went.

As we walked along, I was just starting to ask Jim what our chances were of actually seeing any wildlife, when out of the brush strolled a tapir, big as life and unrestrained in any way!

Jim moved in, in pursuit of a Facebook video, causing me to wonder how close was too close to an animal this size, even if they are herbivores. Say cheese!

Five minutes later, we met another one!

This day was already a home run as far as I was concerned. Further down the path, there was a restroom (read tin-roofed outhouse), and I decided to answer a call of nature. As I sat, I heard a loud crash right above my head, and Jim informed me that a monkey had just jumped onto the tin roof! I looked up, and there was a sweet-faced little spider monkey, looking down at me inquisitively through a gap in the tin. I’m sure you’d like to see a picture of this, but I was a little busy at that moment.

I rushed out, got my camera and snapped a few shots of the little guys right above my head. Don’t you just love that sweet little face?

After a while, the wooden boardwalk stopped abruptly and only the cement supports remained. Jim said this was a town once enriched by oil wealth, but when the current administration came into power, this park project was just never finished. The oil wealth is now used to pay back the loans for infrastructure made by China, and there’s no money left over. Jim was happy to walk on the support beam, but my balance isn’t that good, so we turned around.

Here is a ceibo tree, where elves and fairies – the guardians of the forest – were thought to live.

I love seeing what we consider ‘house plants’ growing huge and free in the forest.

In the evening we strolled the town board walk in search of supper. Here’s some wall art:

A good day!

Friday in Quito

Jun 14 – Today is our last day in the city, so we went back to Centro Historico to see more of the sights.

Touch the hand of San Augustine for a blessing:

Here are a few examples of wall art, which I look for wherever we go:

We checked out the Art Museum, which displayed paintings from classic to modern:

In the Plaza de San Francisco, we got caught in a flurry of pigeons:

The Mercado was small, but had plants used for botanical cures:

…and some jumbo sized pigs feet:

…as well as normal market fare:

These eggs were our supper.
If you ask for a chicken leg, you get the foot too!

Iglesia La Merced (Church of Mercy) was the prettiest church of all:

It had scenes painted on glass around the doorway that depicted the coming of the Spaniards and conversion of the native Ecuadorians.

It also had many paintings of regular people being watched over by the Madonna.

The Museo de la Ciudad (Museum of the City) showed the history of Quito using mannequins and dioramas:

It all started in the jungle…

The museum building was once a hospital.
Battling the Spaniards in the jungle.
Semana Santa – Holy Week procession
Traditional costumes in different areas of Ecuador
Me hanging with some native ladies

Thank you Quito (and the Virgin on the hill) – we had a blast! Tomorrow we’re off to Tena!

Thursday in Quito

Jun 13 – Today we ventured into the Centro Historico, or historical part of the city. Around the main plaza are the Presidential Palace and official buildings.

We heard the municipal band play some snappy marches:

…and admired the talents of some street buskers:

This guy was the best. His puppet dancing partner was attached to his hands and feet, and he really made her shimmy!

Of course, there were plenty of churches, displaying all the gold and art that were not in evidence at the Basilica yesterday.

Adoration of the Magi

Jesus presented at the temple

My favorite painting showed Jesus literally sending a message to Saul at Damascus – too bad Saul was blind and couldn’t read it!

Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?

Many of the churches were museums, with no worshipers in evidence, but one active church, El Sagrario, suffered from loose floorboards, and every step sounded like a herd of buffalo stampeding by. I felt sorry for those trying to pray in such a noisy space!

We admired an exhibit of small Salvador Dali sketches:

We visited a monastery and learned the story of Santa Mariana de Jesús, who was the first-ever Ecuadorian saint. She sacrificed herself to save Quito during a plague in the 1600s (could not find an explanation on how her dying saved the city from germs…)

Unusual to see wooden cloisters instead of stone

We ate an excellent lunch – hot, freshly cooked, and served with delicious cantaloupe juice to drink! Before we knew it, we had walked all the way across town to behold the Virgin Of El Panecillo, the largest aluminum statue of Mary in the world, and the only one with wings.

Most tourists are content to admire the statue from the foot of the hill, but you know Jim wasn’t having any of that. If there are steps to be climbed…

The Virgin up close in her winged glory, standing on a snake.

When we finally reached the pedestal, we could see there was a chapel inside. We stepped in, only to be offered the opportunity to climb up to an even higher viewing balcony at the statue’s feet, for only one dollar. Hah! I told Jim they’d have to pay ME to climb any more steps, and it would definitely take more than a dollar! Of course, Jim went up. I waved. Can you see him?

Then it was time for the much easier walk down, followed by a congratulatory soft swirl ice cream cone. If you are interested, my step counter registered 15,072 today!

Quito, Ecuador

Jun 11, 2019 – We’re off on another adventure, to the South American country of Ecuador. Jim lived there with his family when he was a teen, and he is eager to see what has changed since 1962.

Where is this little country? See it there on the Pacific coast between Colombia and Peru? The Galapagos Islands are off to the west, and we saw tons of teens at the airport in Galapagos tee shirts. The national currency is the U.S. dollar. There is one hour time difference , same as Central time. We will be here for a month.

We Lyfted to the airport and hopped a short flight to Miami, then the four hour flight to Quito. The airport is an hour out of the city, and we were due to arrive late, so Jim booked us into a hostel near the airport for one night. The proprietor picked us up ( I love to see our name waving on a sign in the airport pickup area, especially after midnight!), took us to our nice clean room with hot shower, where we dropped immediately to sleep.

Jun 12 – In the morning, our host fed us ham, cheese and eggs, and showed us where to stand on the main road to flag down the bus (actually the first of two buses) bound for the city. While we waited for the bus, an Uber driver stopped and asked if we wanted a ride. He was off the clock and on his way back to the city, so Jim negotiated a half price ride right to our hotel. A win-win for everybody! Here is a view from our hotel, Casa Carpedm (carpe diem – get it?)

Quito, Ecuador’s capital, is almost two miles above sea level, and built into the mountains. I could feel the altitude just walking across the street to our hotel – the thin air causes a breathless tightness in your lungs. It will take several days to adjust. Although Quito is just 16 miles from the equator, the altitude keeps it rather chilly, with a daily high temperature in the low 60s, dropping down into the lower 40s at night.

We settled in, then went off in search of lunch. The streets are steeply slanted ( think San Francisco) so we won’t go very far today. We set out for what we thought was an Indian restaurant that got five stars online, but turned out to be a set menu place, run by Hare Krishnas – who knew they were still around? For $3 apiece we got a bowl of tepid soup and an entree of tepid vegetables over rice. Not a great start… we’ll try to do better next meal.

Our hotel is near the Basilica of the National Vow, so we sauntered over for a look. This neo-gothic cathedral looks old, but wasn’t built until the early 1900s, and was only consecrated in the 1980s. It’s the largest neo-gothic in the Americas.

One of the interesting things about this church is that they included carvings of animals native to Ecuador, where the gargoyles usually are.

Inside, there were some interestingly modern likenesses of Mary:

…along with others more traditional.

There was also a Mary chapel with intricately painted pillars.

The weather went from sunny to rainy then back to sunny in the space of an hour, reminding us that although the temperatures are cool, we will be subjected to the fickle weather of any tropical climate. Note to self: tomorrow, bring your raincoat!

The view from our hotel window as the sun set. Not bad for a first day!

Flores, Back to Guatemala City, then home

Mar 6 – We’ve enjoyed our week’s respite in beautiful Flores, walking the town and the hills behind us on the peninsula, which we found was called San Miguel.

Jim discovered a network of trails that promised a scenic overlook from El Mirador.

In addition to the view, we found a big rock. Little did we know, this was an artifact of Tayasal, another ancient Mayan site with its own grand plaza and pyramid, that was rediscovered in the 1920s and studied by archeologists from the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s. Right up the hill from our hotel! We were the only ones there.

The carving on the rock below depicts a human figure sitting cross legged on a mask with a bar in his left hand. Can you see it? Me neither…

Next door to our hotel lives a parrot, who perches on the veranda and wolf whistles at all the passers by.

We heard a marching band right under our hotel window, and rushed out to see a parade in honor of the local Quinceañeras (coming of age party for 15 year old girls)

We’ve become enamored of a little panderia in town with an enthusiastic baker who let us sample her wares before selecting. On our last day in Flores, we asked if we could take her photo. You can see her shoulder as she quickly ran to hide behind the door!

Adios, Flores!

Mar 7 – Remember how many hours we spent on buses to get us from the south to the north of Guatemala? Our return trip to Guatemala City took exactly one hour, thanks to the regional airport in Flores. Yay!

In typical American style, we got to the airport two hours before our flight was scheduled. In typical Guatemalan relaxed fashion, we sat in the terminal looking at our empty plane until the pilot arrived, about ten minutes after we were supposed to take off. Then the young woman who administered our boarding passes shrugged into an orange vest and walked us out to the plane. Remember planes like these?

When we were all inside, she checked that everyone had a seat belt, then she left. The pilot got up and locked the hatch. When was the last time you got to watch the pilot fly the plane?

It was my job to make sure the left propeller kept turning.

In an hour we were back in Guatemala City, and ten minutes later at our hostal, a beautiful home with a lovely garden in the heart of the city. There are no restaurants nearby, so our host showed us a little shop around the corner where the proprietor cooks a delicious meal for those who had reserved. We had a lovely supper with a couple from Minnesota, a man from Hamburg, and a woman from France. A great ending to our adventure.

We were up at 6 and at the airport at 7 for our flight to Atlanta, where Customs was so slow that we ended up sprinting through terminal B to make our connection with three minutes to spare. Happy to say we made it, and we are back home safe and sound. Til next time!

Tikal – Yax Mutal

Mar 2 – Got up early this morning for the 90 minute ride to Tikal, the huge site of Mayan ruins in the rainforest that was discovered in the 1840s, and is still in the very early stages of being uncovered and restored – about 15% uncovered since work began in the 1950s.

The place was originally called Yax Mutal (Yosh Moo-TALL) by the folks who lived here, and pottery uncovered dates back to 1000 BCE. There is no waterway, so the complex includes 10 huge reservoirs to collect rainwater during the rainy season and distribute it to grow crops and sustain the 90,000 people who once lived here. By 900 CE, they were all gone, probable victims of drought and warfare.

Here is what a pyramid looks like before the archeologists start digging:

Here’s one in the process of being uncovered:

Our guide Luis shared his passion for the history of Yax Mutal with us. If he looks familiar, it’s because he appeared on Survivor: Guatemala – The Maya Empire, when an episode was shot near Tikal. I’ll have to look for the episode when I get home.

The howler monkeys made a huge racket up in the trees – if you didn’t know better you would swear it was the roar of a T Rex!

We also saw spider monkeys and a coatimundi.

The temples are laid out so they line up with the sun on the equinoxes and solstices. Very mathematically precise.

Below is the latest building uncovered. See how the stone is still white on the bottom where it’s just been exposed?

These are the altars and stiles thought to have been used for sacrifices. They are arranged in groups of nine.

From the top of Perdido Mundo (the lost world), you have a 360 degree view of other temples in the distance.

A face has been uncovered at the Temple of Masks. Can you see it?

Another carving – not sure what it represents:We befriended Sue from Bristol UK, who climbed up and down the pyramids with us.

Fascinating, very hot 🥵 , experience of a lifetime!

More from Flores

Mar 1 – Today we explored a bit of our peninsula. When folks talk about Flores, they are usually referring to the island across Lago Petén Itzál, but because we are staying on the peninsula, I’ll make the distinction.

There are little tiendas (shops) here for the townspeople, mostly chips, snacks and sodas, but nothing to appeal to travelers. We saw some wildlife:

A playground (creative things to do with tires):

A statue:Hmmm… that was about it.

On Google Maps I saw a restaurant about a ten minute walk down the shore. Doña Rosa got five stars from the locals for serving the best pescado blanco (white fish) around. It is the specialty here, proudly caught in the lake. We decided to check it out for lunch.

We followed the directions, but could see no restaurant. We asked, and were told to open a gate and go into a yard. Inside a hut we found Rosa. She showed us three different sizes of fish, and asked us to choose which one we wanted. Then she shooed us out to sit at a table looking out over the lake. Twenty minutes later, our fish was presented, steamed in foil with vegetables, and served with salad and fresh tortillas.

Delicious! Thanks Google Maps!

Here is the sunset from our veranda. A person could get used to living here..


Feb 27 – This morning we rose early to catch the pickup truck back to Lanquín. I managed to finagle myself into the cab seat next to the driver while Jim and eleven others stood in the back, but it was still a pretty thrilling ride. In Lanquín, we were separated by destination to board the mini-buses. Unfortunately , there were 32 people traveling to Flores, and only one 15 passenger bus going there. After much hand waving and histrionics, a second bus was obtained, and two extra seats were added to the aisle of our bus. It all worked out, but we got a late start and were packed cheek to jowl for the whole day. I sat with two girls from Israel, and Jim was sandwiched behind me between a young man from Stuttgart and an older woman from France.

It will take nine hours for the 97 mile ride to Flores. For such a small country, it sure takes a long time to cross it! Flores, in the department (province) of Petén, will be the northernmost part of our adventure, where we plan to visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal.

The driver stopped every three hours so we could eat and stretch our legs. It is now officially 🥵 hot. Then we got an extra, unexpected break. We pulled into a queue of cars, buses and trucks sitting idle. The driver indicated that we could get out and roam around, as we had to wait our turn for the ferry. It was only a little spit of water, but there was no bridge, so we waited for this ferry, powered by two outboard motors, that could take about six vehicles across at a time.

I felt badly for the trucks of cattle, squished together (so they wouldn’t fall over) in the hot sun. After half an hour’s wait, it was our turn.

We arrived by 6pm. All the kids headed off to the two hostels on Flores island. We are the only ones staying at Casa de Grethel, which is just across the water on the peninsula, and only accessible by boat. We knew to call our host, and he came and picked us up in his little skiff. He will ferry us back and forth for free as long as we are here.

A view of Flores island from our restaurant on the pier

Feb 28 – After a leisurely breakfast, we took the skiff over to explore Flores island. Here’s the view of our hotel from the water. They call the little pier “the beach” as you can jump in the water to swim there. This is on our list of things to do.

Flores island is itty bitty, filled with hotels, hostels, tourist agents and restaurants to serve the people who come to see the ruins at Tikal, which is a 90 minute drive from here.

In our walk around the island, we found pretty flowers:

Interestingly colorful painted buildings:

Some wall art:

Some wall art in progress:And a church!

Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios, Our Lady of the Remedies

We found the ATM, a place to eat lunch, and the panderia (bakery) for tomorrow’s breakfast. On our way back to the dock, we passed a masseuse with a cute mascot:

An altogether delightful day!

More from Semuc Champey

Feb 25 – After our strenuous adventure yesterday, today was a day to relax. We took a morning walk up the road and along the river. Beautiful flowers and mountain views.

We encountered natives on foot who asked where we were going. Just walking, was our reply. I imagine they don’t often just walk – if they set out, they have a destination in mind.

Spent some time in our hammock overlooking the river, reading and snoozing. Watched a bunch of kids tubing down on the current, drinking beer at 10 in the morning (you get a free beer when you sign up for the tubing), hooting as they floated past the women washing laundry in the river. What a world of contrasts we live in.

Nice lunch, and a swim in the afternoon. All days should be like this one.

Feb 26 – Ditto the exciting events of yesterday. We are very relaxed here.

What is the plant below? I’ve never seen a pod like this on a tree.

This is the nicest place we’ve stayed, with a resort atmosphere and ample friendly staff, 100% Guatemaya, as it proudly says on the sign. We don’t miss not knowing the news of the world for a few days. Viva Semuc Champey!