Parque Condor

 

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On the way to Parque Condor, a rescue center for Andean birds of prey, our GPS failed us and lead us down a dirt track on the other side of the mountain that we were supposed to be at the top of.  Fortunately the first person we asked walking along the road spoke a little English and pointed us back in the direction from which we came.  Before we turned around she looked seriously at our car, shook her head and said “I don’t think your little car can make it there”.  We too had our doubts when we saw the condition of the dirt road and the incline that faced us. “It’s not what you drive, but how you drive it” became my favorite mantra when considering the capabilities of our wheels.  And yes, we wished we had a little more ground clearance occasionally, and more horsepower.  With minutes to spare we made it in time for the morning “free flight” demonstration at 11:30.

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In a stone amphitheater set into the side of the mountain top, high above the valley below,  a falconer performed with a variety of Andean hawks, to the audience’s delight.  Starting with their smallest raptor and working their way to the larger ones, from behind us his assistants would release the birds from their cages and they would fly through the crowd to land on the sheathed hand of the falconer. As the falconer tossed food in the air, the birds would grab it in mid-flight, circle around and land on perches amidst the audience. Evidently the falconer moonlighted as a stand up comedian as the enthralled audience erupted in laughter numerous times throughout the hour and a half show. Unfortunately, “no hablo Espanol,” the jokes were lost on us.  The park also houses a great variety of owls and condors which were a delight to photograph.

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Artisans of the Andes

We were so anticipating the Otavalo Market, and better yet we were there on a Saturday, its largest day. As promised, the streets were full of vendor stalls radiating for blocks from the Artisan Square.  Unfortunately, many stalls featured everyday essentials for the local populace and not the high quality crafts that the market had previously built its legendary status on.  At the very center on the Artisans square, what looked liked machine woven textiles, made in Ecuador, were available and priced accordingly.

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We opted to visit one of the local weavers, Miguel Andrango, at his home workshop in Agato to view his unique and one of a kind textiles, all woven by hand on a backstrap loom.  A fourth generation weaver, he explained to us how everything was done by hand. From the shearing, cleaning, carding, spinning and then dying the wool using local plants or insects to create the colors needed.  A hand woven blanket wide enough for a double bed takes two months to weave by hand.  It is so important to support these local artisans as they are knowledge keepers of their craft and maybe the last, as the younger generation shows little interest in keeping these traditional crafts alive.  Please try to avoid buying cheap foreign knock-offs at these markets. The local craftspeople suffer terribly from this competition.

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The town of San Antonio de Ibarra has two large plazas, one block apart, which are lined with numerous traditional woodcarvers shops.  Here we found artisans creating religious statuary for homes and churches and more contemporary pieces for decoration, in workshops fragrant with cedar and sawdust.

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Otavalo to Papallacta – The First Leg of our Avenue of the Volcanoes Drive

We were still weaving with our sea legs as we stood at the Budget Rental Car counter in dismay and frustration. We were told that our reservation (that we had had for six months) was canceled an hour earlier. Seems we were late for our pickup, and since Budget didn’t hear from us, they cancelled our car.  And since we were on an airplane, it wasn’t possible to call.  We quickly found the LAST vehicle available at the airport at the Thrifty Car rental counter, as more than twice the price.  The best they could do was a SUV with the driver’s door severely banged in, but it was a set of wheels and as they say “vamanos amigos!”

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Ecuador has invested heavily in infrastructure projects and the Pan American highway is a marvel of engineering, whisking drivers away from the Quito area through numerous  S curves that steeply climb then descend, then repeat, repeat, and repeat until you’ve reached Otavalo.  Sometimes the highway is eight lanes wide and at other times it’s only two. If you love S curves, the Pan American highway is a definite must drive.

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Though an international highway, many times the road is the main street through small towns with active businesses lining its sides.  This area is full of nurseries growing flowers, mostly roses, for international export.  Numerous street vendors also lined the route selling a dozen roses for three dollars.  In Otavalo we had to exchange our muscular SUV for a small 5-speed, manual transmission, sedan.

Due to the steep, long climbs and S curves of the highway we spent many miles in second gear.  This continued on the secondary roads as well – they started off asphalt, then switched to flat pavers, followed by cobblestone paving (with a center stone line) which eventually turned into compacted dirt with ruts. Did I say RUTS?!  First and second gears ruled now as it seemed there was not a level or straight road in all of Ecuador, especially where were we were headed.  I had to treat Donna to massage therapy after one particularly bone-jarring adventure, where we were lucky that the muffler didn’t get snagged on a rock .  And of course there is the thrill factor, with side roads in the mountains not having guardrails and buses barreling down hill at you in a cloud of dust as you are trying to negotiate an uphill 180 degree switchback in first gear on a dirt road wide enough for one car! Numerous roadside crosses dotted the landscape for an instant reality check. Really these roads would be a challenge for the drivers that do the infamous Baja off-road race!  Why buy a ticket for a rollercoaster when you can scare yourself to death driving the secondary roads of Ecuador.  As I said before, the Pan American highway is a great road in perfect condition without potholes.  Once you leave it be warned. And really do opt for that SUV. Vroom, vroom!

Set at 9800ft altitude, high in the hills above Otavalo, Casa Mojanda is definitely a destination; a boutique lodge that practices sustainability.  The massive dining room has 3 foot thick walls constructed using a rammed earth technique which was then whitewashed.  Rustic cabins with kiva fireplaces, to ease away the chill of an Andean night, are set into the hillside to follow the natural contour of the terrain and take full advantage of the view.  Lower on the property, a massive organic garden supplies the kitchen. And an authentic sweat lodge is available for those would want to hire a local, registered shaman and indulge in the indigenous traditions.  For a side trip we drove up to the crater lake  of Lagunas de Mojanda which is at 12,000ft, and got the feel for the first of many to follow ubiquitous cobbled roads.  So far our transportation has proven to be the little car that could.

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On the way to Parque Condor, a rescue center for Andean birds of prey, our GPS failed us and lead us down a dirt track on the other side of the mountain that we were supposed to be at the top of. Fortunately the first person we asked walking along the road spoke a little English and pointed us back in the direction from which we came.  Before we turned around she looked seriously at our car, shook her head and said “I don’t think your little car can make it there”.  We too had our doubts when we saw the condition of the dirt road and the incline that faced us. “It’s not what you drive, but how you drive it” became my favorite mantra when considering the capabilities of our wheels.  And yes, we wished we had a little more ground clearance occasionally, and more horsepower.  With minutes to spare we made it in time for the morning “free flight” demonstration at 11:30.  In a stone amphitheater set into the side of the mountain top, high above the valley below,  a falconer performed with a variety of Andean hawks, to the audience’s delight.  Starting with their smallest raptor and working their way to the larger ones, from behind us his assistants would release the birds from their cages and they would fly through the crowd to land on the sheathed hand of the falconer. As the falconer tossed food in the air, the birds would grab it in mid-flight, circle around and land on perches amidst the audience. Evidently the falconer moonlighted as a stand up comedian as the enthralled audience erupted in laughter numerous times throughout the hour and a half show. Unfortunately, “no hablo Espanol,” the jokes were lost on us.  The park also houses a great variety of owls and condors which were a delight to photograph.

We were so anticipating the Otavalo Market, and better yet we were there on a Saturday, its largest day. As promised, the streets were full of vendor stalls radiating for blocks from the Artisan Square.  Unfortunately, many stalls featured everyday essentials for the local populace and not the high quality crafts that the market had previously built its legendary status on.  At the very center on the Artisans square, what looked liked machine woven textiles, made in Ecuador, were available and priced accordingly.

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We opted to visit one of the local weavers, Miguel Andrango, at his home workshop in Agato to view his unique and one of a kind textiles, all woven by hand on a backstrap loom.  A fourth generation weaver, he explained to us how everything was done by hand. From the shearing, cleaning, carding, spinning and then dying the wool using local plants or insects to create the colors needed.  A hand woven blanket wide enough for a double bed takes two months to weave by hand.  It is so important to support these local artisans as they are knowledge keepers of their craft and maybe the last, as the younger generation shows little interest in keeping these traditional crafts alive.  Please try to avoid buying cheap foreign knock-offs at these markets. The local craftspeople suffer terribly from this competition.

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The town of San Antonio de Ibarra has two large plazas, one block apart, which are lined with numerous traditional woodcarvers shops.  Here we found artisans creating religious statuary for homes and churches and more contemporary pieces for decoration, in workshops fragrant with cedar and sawdust.

For a change of pace we switched hotels and drove across the valley to Hacienda Cuisin which dates from a Spanish land grant of 150,000 acres in the 16th century.  The hacienda is a classic example of Spanish colonial architecture, situated under Cerro Imbabura.  Sprawling whitewashed buildings with red tile roofs which once provided exquisite shelter for extended family and staff now sleep guests.  The common rooms filled with antiques have the atmosphere of an old money private estate.  The grounds are also fun to explore with stately plantings and llamas on tether to keep the lawns trimmed.  We were pleasantly surprised to find hot water bottles under the bedclothes, to take away the evening chill, when we went to sleep that night in a bed large enough for a conquistador and his horse.

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Back on the road, we headed to Termas de Papallacta, a hot springs resort in the middle  Andean mountains range, at an altitude of 10,000ft, to soak our weary bones in their therapeutic waters.  Our room faced out onto soaking pools only ten feet from the door.  Since we were there for only one night, we took full advantage of the facilities with Donna getting a much enjoyed deep tissue massage.   Dinner that night was a locally sourced Andean trout which was delicious and surprisingly fairly priced considering the remoteness of the location. The next morning, a chilly early morning mist fell and steam rose from the pools as I soaked for one last time before breakfast.  At $14 per person, what was offered for the buffet breakfast was highway robbery. “Levanta tus manos” or “stick your hands up”!

Till later,

Craig & Donna

An Amazing Day in the Mindo Cloud Forest

We weren’t going to opt for this day tour from Quito in the beginning when we first planning our trip, but we are so happy that we changed our minds. Being backyard bird enthusiasts we have been happy with the small variety that was attracted to our Northeast feeders and thrilled when a hummingbird would briefly land on our flowers. The Mindo Cloud Forest ranges from 3200ft to 9800ft altitude and is lush in verdant green vegetation that hosts over 330 species of birds. Our guide, provided by Enjoying Ecuador Tours, was so enthusiastic that he would suddenly stop the car and beckon us to jump out to observe a bird that he spotted, high in the canopy above us, as he was driving.  We spotted 44 species of birds in one day!  The variety of wildlife in Ecuador is incredible! It was a fun and amazing day.

I use a Canon PowerShot SX60 HS all in one camera.  It zooms out to the equivalent of  a 1300 mm telephoto lense.  Hummingbirds move so fast.  I shot wide and then cropped into the photo.

Birds are a little more cooperative, they perch for awhile.

Galapagos – It’s Everything They Say It Is!

The animals and marine life of the Galapagos Islands are everything they are supposed to be – UNIQUE and AMAZING! A tour of these islands and their unique ecosystems should convince even the most die-hard doubters among us to become tree hugging environmentalists.  Kudos to Ecuador for doing a wonderful, difficult, and expensive job protecting this unique environment for future generations.

We were originally thinking of heading to the Galapagos for our 60th birthdays, but work / life interceded.   So we postponed it until our retirement this year and made sure it was the first thing we did, because you can never predict the future.

There are so many options to consider when planning to visit the Galapagos Islands.  Did we want to do a cruise around the islands or do shore based excursions from various ports? If we did a cruise, should it be for 3, 5, 7 or 8 days, on a large or small boat?  After some research we opted to go for an eight day cruise, arranged by Eva of Enjoying Ecuador Travel – thank you – on the small ship Golondrina which slept 16 in eight cabins in bunk beds on three decks.  Our group had a wonderful international mix, consisting of folks from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Argentina and the U.K., all good friends by the end of the trip. Before being converted to carry tourists the Golondrina served as the scientific research vessel Beagle lll.  The ship had lines and character that would have enticed Joseph Conrad or Jack London to step aboard.

Wanting to be away from the potential noise and vibration of the engine room, we chose a cabin on the top deck, right behind the pilothouse.  The cabin was small and efficient and the location on the third deck perfect for fair weather sailors like us.  In choppy or rough seas every pitch or roll was exaggerated; then you wished were as close to the bottom and back of the boat as possible, were the motion wasn’t felt as much.  We had been on large cruise ships many times before and never experienced sea-sickness, but on this small vessel we were not as lucky and I was in the top bunk.  We paid a premiun for the priveledge to be tossed, rolled and bounced. Fortunately, two young women from Germany shared their motion sickness medicine and it saved the week for us.

As soon as we were all aboard the yacht it was anchors away and we headed to Mosquera Islet and our first wet landing and snorkeling.  A wet landing is as you would expect: the ship’s two pangas (small boats) motor you as close to the beach as possible and drop you off into, hopefully, knee deep water to walk ashore.  There are also dry landings where the pangas bring you into a dock or more likely stone outcroppings and you jump ashore ,keeping your feet dry.  Then there is the less discussed dry landing with really good potential to become very wet.  These are situations where the surf might be a little rough and the boat handler has to keep the bow of the panga pinned to the rocks with engine in full throttle until everyone is off.  The boat’s guide is always ashore first to help everyone else ashore safely.  “Welcome to my world,” Donna says as she helps me into my wetsuit. “It’s just like putting on Spanx!”  I was always the last one to get in or out of their wetsuit.

Mosquera Islet was a narrow sliver of brilliant white sand with bull Fur Seals protecting their harems and on one end, and the sun bleached skeletal remains of a small whale as well as hundreds of red Sally Lightfoot crabs scurrying over the rocks on the other end.

That night as we steamed toward Isabela Island we crossed the equator and encountered some large swells as northern currents clashed against southern ones and had us second guessing our choice of an upper cabin.  In the morning we awoke to find ourselves at anchor in the calm waters of Urbina Bay.

After breakfast (which daily consisted of eggs, granola with yogurt, fruit, toast, coffee, tea and incredible fresh juices) it was into the pangas  to see what was living in the cliffs that lined the bay. Sea Iguanas shared rocks with penguins, while pelicans squabbled with blue-footed boobies over the same cliff outcropping.  Our pangas edged into the black mouth of a sea cave where more birds were roosting high up.  After an hour we headed back to our mother ship to prepare for snorkeling along the cliff face where it met the sea.  I think my eyes popped when a sea turtle gracefully swam by almost close enough for me to touch.  The first of many close encounters during that swim and the subsequent days to follow.

Back aboard it was lunch time and a two hour cruise to stop at Isabella Island’s Tagus Cove.  The food aboard our boat was amazing considering the small galley space that these tasty and healthy creations emerged from.  So our days followed a wonderful schedule of discovery and adventure with one or two activities between meals and then sailing overnight to the next day’s destination.  Each island’s environment was unique in the animals it hosted, as was the sea life in the surrounding waters.  The sheer joy of seeing so many animals in their natural habit was awe inspiring.

On Santa Cruz Island we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station for a tour of their tortoise breeding program.  Tortoise eggs collected from each island are marked accordingly as are the shells of the hatchlings, so that they can be returned to the right island later. The young tortoises are kept sheltered for 5 years or until their shells harden enough to protect them against predators in the wild when they are released.  We also visited a private tortoise reserve in the highlands where from a distance we saw hundreds of small boulders.  Walking closer to the boulders we realized that they were actually tortoises in their natural environment, slowing munching away as they inched across the verdant green highland.

Many times in our travels in other countries, we have noticed the highwater mark from a flood or storm by the line of plastic bags left hanging from trees and bushes along the tributaries.  We never saw this in the Galapagos; there was absolutely no litter on the Islands.  Ecuador takes great pride in preserving its natural resources.  Please make an effort to reduce your plastic waste as it is severely polluting our oceans and has a terrible impact on all sea life.

Our First Stop – Quito

It was after midnight when our plane landed and it felt so good upon leaving the baggage claim area to be greeted by our driver Raul, carrying a sign with our names on it.  Ecuador has invested heavily recently in upgrading its infrastructure.    The new airport was a model of efficiency, making transit through passport control and claiming our bags nearly effortless.  And considering the high altitude and mountainous terrain, the highway system is amazing and enabled our driver to deliver us quickly and safely (though after midnight stop lights and signs seem to be suggestions) to Hotel Boutique Portal De Cantuna in Old Town, Quito for the first week of our journey.

Portal De Cantuna was a family home for over two hundred years before being converted into a boutique inn. Full of charm and antiques, with guest rooms on three floors that open on to a central courtyard that is covered by a glass dome, to protect it from the elements.  The dome is enhanced with beautiful, floral metal scroll-work,  that creates a wonderful ambiance.  The inn’s location was perfect – just across the street from San Francisco Church and within very short walking distance of the other major attractions of Old Town.  A short walking distance is really important when you are in a city as hilly as San Francisco, California, but at 9500ft altitude!  It took us about four days to acclimate; we walked slowly, avoided alcoholic drinks and reduced our caffeine consumption. The last was the easiest as it took us days to find several places that served a good cup of artisanal Ecuadorian coffee.  You would think that a great cup of coffee could be found on every corner, since Ecuador is a coffee producer and exporter.  But surprisingly many restaurants and hotels just serve instant coffee!

Now, if you are going to explore the churches and convents of Old Town, of which there are many, you will be attending Mass at some point.  It seems there is one almost every hour.  Don’t be deceived by the plain exteriors of some of these churches as they all conceal intricately decorated, gold plated, sparkling baroque interiors. We are talking high church here, with riches that will rival those found in The Vatican.  The museums in the convents we visited also displayed a remarkable treasure of art from the 16th and 17th centuries, created by the indigenous artists trained by European professionals to paint religious works with local relevance to inspire the faithful.  At Convento San Diego we were required to be part of a tour, even though there were only the two of us and our guide spoke only Spanish.  This awkwardness soon vanished as the sweet woman who was escorting us realized our enthusiasm for what we were viewing.  This prompted a behind the scenes tour to a crypt in back of the altar that was accessed through a small stone door. Later we climbed narrow stairs and squeezed through tight passages to the bell tower and the roof for some nice views of Old Town, Quito, in the distance.   The City Museum, across from the Museum of Carmen Alto, was a pleasant find. It featured world class, permanent exhibits of life through the centuries in Quito since its founding.

In late afternoon the pedestrian areas around San Francisco Plaza hosted a variety of street musicians and performers who played to an appreciative, mostly local audience.  Hawkers worked the gathered crowds and passed the hat, coins were tossed  and applause given. We didn’t notice many other foreign travelers as we walked around Old Town and our hotel was not full.  This lack of tourists was surprising, since the summer vacation season in North America and Europe.

La Ronda is the oldest street in Old Town, now lined with restaurants, stores and artisan workshops. It dates backs to pre-Inca times when it was a dirt track following a ravine, which is now a traffic tunnel.  Of special interest are wood carvers and metalsmiths who keep the traditional crafts alive, replicating 16th and 17th religious and period pieces, despite intense pressure from cheap  foreign imports.

A five dollar cab ride took us across the city to the base of the Teleferico cable car for a quick ascent to 16,000ft above the city for tremendous views of

Quito below and the towering mountain range that surrounds it, with ten peaks over 10,000ft.

Ecuadorians love to eat, so there were multiple choices on every block from sidewalk vendors to snack joints, coffee houses and restaurants for us to choose from.  A typical Ecuadorian and delicious, three course lunch with beverage cost us about $3.50.  Very good dinners were available starting at $15.00.

We had a great time in Quito, but feel that we just scratched the surface of this historic and yet cosmopolitan city.