Thursday, July 31, 2014

Should we call it parte tres?

Okay, let’s see if we can try this again.  Hangover dealt with, I’m ready to write again!

So I remembered what I was going to say.  We do really like Ecuador, so much so that when we drove through the area in between Cuenca and Guayaquil, I kept asking Ron about buying property in that area.  It was SPECTACULAR!  We come from British Columbia and know something about vistas and views.  This was really something to see, and really punctuated that Ecuador is fantastically beautiful. 

But back to Baňos…. 

As Baňos sits close to the rainforest, and situated within a deep gorge, it has a tendency to be a rain-gatherer.  It was gorgeously green, waterfalls galore, hot springs feeding pools and medicinal baths, and wet.  
We are warmer now - BIG thumbs up
As there are quite a few tourists that come to visit the baths, both international and Ecuadorian, there are a terrific number of diverse restaurants, some good, and some with feral dogs as a part of the attraction.  Our last night in town, we tried the Stray Dog Brew Pub, thinking that the name probably had an interesting history, and what tourist doesn’t like a brew pub.  The owner, some guy from Chicago, had come to Baňos years ago and was struck by the number of stray dogs roaming the streets.  He was so interested, he started taking photos and has compiled a casual pictorial of the wandering dogs, left on the bar, available to be viewed by patrons.  The namesake of the pub is now a resident, and had just had a litter of puppies.  This protective mum was allowed to wander the restaurant, barking at anyone she didn’t like, and when one of the wait staff put her outside, she then proceeded to terrorize various lone, usually elderly, pedestrians.  Now anyone that knows me, knows that I love dogs, and animals in general.  However….I was incensed.  Having been bit by a stray dog in Mexico, I am now a bit more cautious of those dogs out defending their piece of the pie.  It has been weeks since we were there, and I’m still fuming about.  I lost it when some man tried to come into the pub and the dog stood inside the doorway preventing him from entering.  Not only was I a bit concerned for my ankles, but my dining experience was ruined.  In addition…..the wings were shit!!!

But I digress….

The waterfall right in town emptied into the local baths, or washing stations.  Gave me a break from doing laundry on the boat.....kidding.

Laundry room with a view
Similar primitive conditions when washing aboard
One day we decided to brave the weather (it was after all, just wet) and went for a walk up to a mirador overlooking the town.  This photo is taken only 1/3 of the way up, giving you a good perspective of how the town is situated.  

One of the reasons we kind of liked Banos was all the good choices for alternative types of restaurants.  We’ve been in South America now for over a year, and have traveled to Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and now are getting a “taste” of Ecuador.  We have tried, and tried but we really don’t think that our north American palates are that enamored of the local delicacies.  Something about needing to choose between petting something and consuming it leaves us cold.  Besides, isn’t guinea pig only once removed from rat?  And bananas (okay, plaintains….) stuffed with cheese and grilled, seems to me to be pretty close to stuffing a mango with a can of tuna.  Haute cuisine, this is not!  

Yea, okay, but no
Yea, okay, still no
In between days of solid rain, we managed to head out when there was a break in the action.  Having lived in San Diego, and worked at the world famous zoo there when I was a teenager, I’m not easily impressed with caged animals (the Stray Dog Brew Pub could have used a cage) but there were some interesting residents at the local zoo.  Set on the edge of a cliff, and tucked into yet another gorge, we saw local examples of fauna (that hadn’t already been eaten by the millions of previous Inca warriors) that we’ve never seen before.  

This piece is entitled "Spectacled Bear, at rest"

Now that we've seen them, should we save $2000 and skip the Galapagos?
Sometimes he's soooo needy
Not sure what this is, something grey
Like I said, needy
I had no idea they were so stout
I'm not a big fan of birds, but these looked sort of good
ANYONE to have a conversation with - needy
Escapees from the zoo
One of the main reasons to go to Baňos is to do La Ruta de las Cascadas (Route of the Waterfalls).  The colourful local chivas (open air buses) are available to jump on to do the tour, anywhere between 15 and 65 kms from town down to Puyos, as you can jump on and off when you want.  We opted to go via mountain bike instead.  With the almost constant downhill run, it didn’t tax us too much.  Along the way, there were various ziplines and cable cars to do an aerial overview of the rivers and gorges, and while it was only $5 per person, some of the equipment looked a bit dodgy.   

See the cable car?  

A bit wee
Early ziplines - yea, nope

We chose to watch. 

When there was a tunnel, an alternate route for bicyclists was provided, taking the angst out of the ride, unlike our ride down The Most Dangerous Road in the World, in Bolivia.  

The last waterfall and most famous, El Pailon del Diablo (Cauldron of the Devil) was reached by another down, down, down trail from the road above.  The entire way I kept muttering under my breath, “what goes down, must come up”.  As we were on bicycles, just because at the end we would be back up by the road, that didn’t mean anything….we still needed to get back to our hostel!  Whatever…it was again, spectacular. 

At the bottom. Brewing up before the return ascent. 

Wonder how many photos we have with beer bottles in them?
We really do prefer to travel the slow way.  We ended up spending a week in Banos….and it was just right. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ecuador - parte dos

....and head to Baňos.  We utilized all sorts of conveyances.  We started out with a private car/taxi that took us 14 kms down the road to Zumbahua.  A quick burn around town (it was Saturday, and market day) and the bus set off for Latacunga.  We had to head back there, of course, to retrieve the remaining t-shirt we had packed but didn’t want to carry along “the Loop” (we drew the line at sawing our toothbrushes in ½ to dispense with weight, after all we never DID walk, technically).  Back to the bus terminal and a 2 hour run down the road to Ambato, which disgorged us at the wrong terminal to pick up the next bus to Baňos.   We needed to taxi over to another parking lot where various bus lines came roaring in and out with reassuring regularity, and where we queued and jostled for the next bus.  A rapid descent down, down, down, into a gorge that seemed to be never ending.   With windows open, we could feel that the temperatures were climbing, even as we were descending.  Shedding our coats, we disembarked into the waiting arms of another taxi driver, and off to our hostel.  Taxi, bus, bus, taxi, bus, taxi – for the both of us, it cost $16.80.  Ecuador fits right into our budget.

Baňos is known for a few things: waterfalls, melcocha (taffy), hot water and being the gateway to the Amazon.  We loved every bit of its touristy shops, restaurants, and noise, because we were WARM.   Our hostel, while crazily named, Plantas y Blanco (Plants and White) seemed to be of the same hostel chain as one we stayed at in Oaxaca, El Diablo y Sandia (the Devil and the Watermelon).  Reminds me of a Tori Amos song parody….I’m tall, but I’m sick, I’m weak but I’m employed.  “Which of these is not like the other?, somewhat reminiscent of your SATs.   (Funny how after a day of sitting in front of the computer, and hard on your third glass of red wine, word associations seem to come more easily and a bit more randomly).  Have you ever heard me say…

….but I digress.  Now you know why.

Baňos was warm and wet – as is appropriate.  Now let me start by saying we like Ecuador.  As  a matter of fact, coming back to the boat…..oops, forgot was I was going to say.  Damn the wine.  

Yup, good enough.  Let’s POST IT!!!

Inland Ecuador - parte uno

Where do I begin?!  We’ve just returned from the first of two inland trips around Ecuador, to be followed up by another month or so in September.  For now tho, we are on SERIOUS bank account recovery mode.  Heading to the market yesterday, we were delving into nickels and dimes to try to do a bit of restocking of the refrigerator.  The first of the month can’t come soon enough.  We can hardly afford to buy eggs, but Ron got a case of beer.  Mmmm, is that called Captain’s Perogative?

But I digress….

So in order to not bore you, I’ll do the scintillating account of our travels in a couple of installments – (don’t want to lose my readers).  Creating an interesting and varied itinerary, as any trip planner will tell you, takes time, and a bit more time.  We know people that simply wing it – they arrive in a city/town/village, and proceed to wander the streets looking for a hostel, or hotel, or inn to stay at.  Call me anal, unspontaneous, boring….whatever, but I consider TripAdvisor one of my best “go-to” resources.  I have no interest in slogging around an unfamiliar town looking for accommodations after a no doubt long, bouncy, noisy and uncomfortable bus ride, lugging the requisite backpack.  Okay, the rides are usually cheap, but I can still complain, can’t I?   

After 10 very long hours, we finally arrived in Quito from Bahia de Caraquez.  There was some confusion…..I couldn’t remember from our last trip, and I was assured from someone that had absolutely no reason to be so confident, that the bus departed at 6:40am.  We of course had woken up in plenty of time to have a cup of brew (not too much as the buses never have baňos on board) and then to head off.  Missed it by 10 minutes!  There was another bus immediately, but instead of the directo bus, we stopped all along the way to disgorge and take on more passengers, at times filling the aisles to overflowing, turning an 8 hour trip into one closer to 10.  Welcome to busing in Ecuador!

After arriving in Quito around 5pm, we got to proceed with the inevitable taxi dash, the uncertain ride to a hostel supposedly around the corner from the bus terminal, the 20 minutes taxi it actually took, the immediate need for the captain to find a beer…. (helped along the way by the manager as World Cup was playing and he needed a few too) and a decompressing in front of a computer.  (I’m not sure it’s adequate, or healthy, but a computer has a way of bringing us level again after the uncertainties of travel in a foreign country.  Oh, and that beer too…..)  For anyone wanting to hit Quito, we can recommend La Posada Colonial, in the heart of the Old Town, and ½ block away from La Ronda, a walking street filled with bars, restaurants and galleries.  Perfect, and only $8 per person per night. 

La Ronda
This pizza joint (we have eaten pizza in EVERY SOUTH AMERICAN CITY, thanks to Ron) was just a doorway.  They’d figure out what they wanted to make, and display it in the doorway.  You could either eat a slice, or continue on your way.  We stopped, and it was fantastic!  

Another satisfied customer
As we are planning to return to Quito in another month, and we had been there for 5 days last year when we first arrived in Ecuador, we didn’t linger.  The next morning we figured out why the reviews had said that the hostel was close to the buses.  It was.  Just a 5 minute walk to a bus stop, and 25 cents later (rather than the initial $8 cab ride) got us back to the main bus terminal for our onward 2 hour trip to Latacunga, the start of the famous Quilatoa Loop in the Andean highlands of Ecuador.  

My preferred hostel in Latacunga seemed to also be preferred by every other climber and backpacker in the region…no room at the inn!  We got directed to another hotel with dodgy rooms, but they had a massive television set in the dining room, and while it rained outside, we watched the Netherlands try to defeat Argentina – unsuccessful and the local crowd watching with us breathed a sigh of relief that the remaining South American team had made it to the finals.  

The weather was beginning to cause us a few problems.  While we wandered around Quito the night before, still shod in sandals, our footsies didn’t seem too bothered, but we were also in jackets, and I had a scarf on.  Hmmmm, seems I forgot that Quito is close to 9,500 feet in elevation.  Yes, it was summer, but….and we were headed to 12,841 in Quilatoa.  Yup, should have packed the fleece.  
The Quilatoa Loop “is one of Ecuador’s most exhilarating adventures”, according to Lonely Planet.  Highland markets, an amazing and lofty volcanic crater lake and traditional Andean villages.  Seems I had glossed over the words….”bring warm clothes (it gets painfully cold up here)”.  Before we had gone too far, as in still in Latacunga, Ron was asking me where the rest of the clothes that I had packed for him were.  I informed him they were on the boat, and that I wasn’t his mother.  Yes, I was getting the idea that the next few days might be challenging in more ways than one. 

The Loop can be ticked off in a few ways: walking the entire circle, catching various buses and milk trucks along the backroads, or a combination of the two.  Safe in my 80 degree boat, happily researching our trip, I kept asking Ron if he was good with a bit of a walk while we were exploring this area.  10-20kms per day was an average, and I wanted to be sure we were all on the same page.  Come to find out we weren’t even in the same library!  

The first leg of the trip had us jumping on a bus from Latacunga to Tigua, where we were going to be spending the night at a working posada, Spanish for ranch.  As we would be walking a good portion of this loop, I had suggested we leave the majority of the luggage in Latacunga, keeping our carryables to a minimum.  This actually translated to “you know all those warm clothes you don’t have packed?  Well I want you to cut them down by ½, as it’s either that, or you carry them”.  The first day entailed walking from the top of the road down a dirt track to the ranch house – 800 meters, ya, we can do that, can’t we?!  See Ron’s large bag of cold-weather gear?  Magic – doesn’t exist! 

Now you see the fleece, now you don't!
Tigua is famous for its bright paintings of Andean life made on sheepskin canvases.  Due to carrying constraints, we were spared from agonizing purchasing decisions.  We shared the posada with 8 other hearty, and hardy, travelers, and a few 4 legged types, too. 

Posada de Tigua
No heat in those rooms

The nursery
Someone looks like he needs a pet
These were the least expensive rooms
And if the guests wanted to stay, they had to milk
Accommodation of a different sort
The wind was howling the next morning, but I was game….Ron was rational.  Along with 2 other travelers, we hitched a ride with the sag wagon that was carrying gear to Laguna Quilatoa for two intrepid hikers, and their two guides.  As we pulled out of the property and spied a group of about 20 hikers fully gearing up (and I mean hiking boots, all sorts of technical gear, folks looking like they were off on an expedition of the greatest magnitude), I snorted, as I looked at my hiking sandals.  Ron rolled his eyes at me, and settled in to enjoy the ½ hour car journey (rather than 8 hour trek) to Laguna Quilatoa.  As we got out of the car and were blasted with 40 mph winds, I silently acknowledged that perhaps I had been a bit ambitious.  Located close to 13,000 feet, the wind and altitude, not to mention the views, took our breath away.  

Literally breathtaking
These horses were running down the trail that we had just hauled our heaving asses up, in order to help lazy (smart) other walkers up from the waters edge some 1000 feet below.  Notice HER technical gear…..I believe that’s called a skirt.  

Yes, it really was that steep
So the cold was beginning to affect Ron’s and my relationship – the second night with no heat, in a hostel that steadfastly refused to put wood in the stove until after dinner…WTH?  Was I not paying $10 for the room?  Didn’t they think we deserved a bit of heat?  I don’t want to say that we are getting soft in our old(er) age, or more demanding, but the “because it’s there” mentality of hiking the loop was beginning to wear off, pronto.  Time to get out of dodge……