365 Days on The Road – Our First Year as Nomads

“It’s hell, I tell you!” My heart sank. I only regained my composure and burst into laughter when I turned to see a wry smile across Donna’s face and heard, “I only have three pairs of shoes with me.” Dusty after a full day of game drives, we were sitting on the porch of a small cottage sipping wine in the middle of Schotia, a 1600 hectare (4000 acre) private game reserve, just outside of Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, reminiscing about our first nomadic year.  Darkness covered the countryside early in June, the beginning of South Africa’s winter season.  Our guide had just lit the oil lamps a few minutes earlier, handed us a walkie-talkie and said, “Use this to call the owner if there’s an emergency, you’re the only folks here tonight.’’ There were no other lights around except for the moon.  The bush has a life of its own and sounded totally different in the darkness. The owner lived somewhere on the other side of this vast reserve.

We’ve had a great year, but there have been some challenges along the way:  An extremely close encounter with an aggressive bull sea lion and seas rough enough to shake a martini in the Galapagos Islands; playing chicken with chicken-buses in the Ecuadorian Andes on serpentine roads, without guard rails, more suitable for Humvees than tiny sedans. Running into the courtyard of our Airbnb in Cuenca half naked when we felt our first earthquake.  Watching a major eruption of Volcan Fuego, only 9 miles away, from our rooftop in Antigua, Guatemala, and surviving the city’s pyrotechnic Christmas season, which at times can resemble a war zone.  Endured an open coconut-taxi ride during a torrential rain in Cuba while searching for Cuban cigars; pickpockets in Lisbon; tourist information officials in Bulgaria who were better suited to working in a gulag – “FOLLOW THE LINE!!” – than greeting visitors to their beautiful country.  Plus, a husband who snores.

And through all that my gal only wants an extra pair of shoes!  I’ve married the right woman.

We didn’t plan on being the only folks at the game reserve during the middle of the week, but that’s one of the benefits of off-season travel.  Following spring-like conditions around the globe, we’ve been able to avoid hot, humid weather and the crowds.  Plus, the prices are lower for hotels and Airbnb’s. Our traveling budget is intact, so we haven’t had to resort to smuggling, selling blood or that extra kidney.IMG_7406When we retired early, a year ago, we had to choose health insurance or travel.  We made the decision to go without U.S. health insurance, because it’s too damn unaffordable and wouldn’t cover us outside the U.S. anyway.  We chose travel insurance instead, with medical evacuation, and we pay out of pocket for wellness care and dentistry.  Our two years on the road will bridge us until age 65 when we qualify for Medicare.  And it’s surprising how affordable excellent healthcare is in other countries.  We’ve paid $25.00 for an emergency room visit to a private hospital and $5.00 for the prescriptions in Ecuador to treat high altitude sickness.  Our travel insurance paid fully for a visit to an ENT specialist in Lisbon to treat a persistent sinus infection.  I’ve visited dentists in Cuenca, Ecuador for a tooth extraction and bridge; Sofia, Bulgaria for a broken filling; and Cape Town, South Africa for a root canal.  The care has been excellent and extremely inexpensive compared to pricing in the United States.  Though when we are in the United States travel insurance only covers us if we are one hundred miles away from our previous home in Pennsylvania.IMG_0594We plan on purchasing a home when we return to the United States. Right now, though, our budget is plus/minus $1000.00 per month for an apartment.  One thousand per month for housing goes much further overseas than in the states and allows us to live in unique and interesting locales.

The regional cuisine everywhere has been wonderful.  Food is a large part of any travel budget and to keep our expenses down we cook in quite a bit.  We enjoy the experience of shopping like a local and buying different fruits, vegetables and “oh, the breads.”  We’ve purchased meat and chicken from street vendors and learned to arrive early in the morning while the day is still cool to avoid the flies.  Our dieting regime of walk a little then café, walk a little more then café, seems to be working.  We monitor our physical activity with our phone’s health app. Though after a day bouncing through the bush in a Land Rover it credited us with climbing 170 flights of stairs.  No fools we – we ordered two desserts that night.IMG_3737[35074]Restaurants have been refreshingly inexpensive with most meals costing half or less for what you would pay in the states for something similar.   In 99% of the places we’ve dined we haven’t experienced tourist pricing and it’s wonderful.  We did get extremely gouged at a historic café in Porto, Portugal, which wouldn’t have been so bad, but the coffees and pastries were tasteless.  Lamb, fish, oysters and ostrich, pricey things at home, are now on our shopping list.  The wines in Portugal and South Africa are very good.IMG_7034We’ve rented cars in Ecuador, Guatemala, Portugal, Bulgaria and South Africa. Near the Schist villages in the mountains of central Portugal we gave a lift to two hikers, who were exhausted from a long trek without water.  We ended up having a delightful afternoon and lunch with them.  Aside from the deeply rutted dirt roads of the Andes Mountain range in Ecuador, South Africa with its driving on the left has proven to be the most difficult.  We find that a pilot plus navigator system works well, with the latter reminding the pilot to stay left and make very wide right-hand turns.  Interesting traffic signs dot the roads here: Caution Tortoise and Baboons Share this Road Too, Watch for Stray Cattle.  I chuckled to myself when I passed a sign that I thought said Zebras Humping, only to realize a moment later it was a speed bump when I hit it at a pretty good clip.  Caution High Winds – Parents Hold Your Children Firmly by the Hand as there is Mortal Danger of Them Blowing Off, greeted us in the parking lot of a scenic and windy overlook.  South Africa has a well deployed and concealed electronic camera system and we’ve received our first notice of a traffic violation from the rental car company. 

Originally, we were going to spent April and May pet sitting in England, then June, July and August doing two different Workaway assignments, in exchange for free housing in France, in order to budget some extra funds for our push into Africa.  On short notice our first pet sit in England fell through. Next, Donna was sick for several weeks and I fell three times on the same arm, severely bruising it.  With deep introspection we realized we’re not as young as we wish anymore and cancelled our working assignments.  Gardning at a 14th century chateau sounded wonderful, but not in the record 114F heat that France recently experienced.So, we quickly reworked our plans and ended up in of all places Bulgaria, (more on that in future blogs,) for a month, before flying down to Cape Town.  At the end of August, we head to Victoria Falls, bordering Zimbabwe and Botswana, for a few days before flying to Ethiopia to visit the indigenous tribes of the Southern Omo Valley, and the Rock Churches of Lalibela.  Montenegro and Italy will host us until Christmas when we’ll return to the states to celebrate it with our family.  Our route for 2020 hasn’t been determined yet.

When shopping for souvenirs we try to buy directly from local craftspeople and have learned that if an item is very inexpensive it was probably made in China.  Cheap Chinese imports are undercutting the livelihoods of many local craftspeople around the world.  I don’t want my tourist dollars inadvertently supporting rich Chinese businessmen who purchase poached rhino horn for use in folk remedies.  China’s traditional medicine practitioners are the only market for poached rhino horn.  Three rhinos are killed every day to support this illicit trade and China needs to stop turning a blind eye to it.  In Cuba we witnessed widespread poverty, the effects of a failed communist state.  Tourists dollars greatly help aspiring entrepreneurs and local economies grow.  Why the U.S. is restricting travel again to Cuba is beyond me.  We conduct business with China, forgetting its reprehensible human rights record, but not Cuba only ninety miles from Miami. Go figure.

Many of our most memorable moments have been conversations around communal dining tables sharing stories, adventures and tips with inn keepers, guides and fellow travelers.  In many of the places we’ve been “we don’t get many Americans here” is a common refrain. Travel – it’s good for the soul and opens a window of empathy that you can’t find sitting in an armchair watching the nightly news.

Till next time,

Craig – Suitcase #2

Now for a different perspective on our nomadic year check out Suitcase #1, Donna’s blog at: https://bornwithgypsyshoes.com/2019/07/02/a-look-back-one-year-of-being-homeless-jobless-and-uninsured/

P.S. The 2suitcasesfor2years blogs run about 8 weeks behind our actual travel dates.  You can also follow 2suitcasesfor2years on Instagram for more great photography.

Two Hundred Fifty-Three Days on the Road

cropped-img_4837The good news is we haven’t killed each other, though there have been times that I’ve dreamt a pillow was hovering over my head. Just kidding.  We have gone from the two of us working six days a week while living in an eight-room house, to being together 24/7 with only a suitcase each.  Boy did we downsize! It was challenging: what not to bring, considering all the seasonal changes we have encountered.  Don’t laugh, but I have thermals, wool hats and gloves packed, just on the off chance we get snowed in on a mountain pass in the French Alps, this July.  Yes, there’s also a flask of medicinal whisky packed in the bags for emergencies.  And to my wife’s amusement, a cheap plastic fly swatter.  Tragically the backup swatter was left behind in Antigua.  In Lisbon I finally caved in and bought a pair of slippers because the floors of the stone buildings just don’t retain any heat in the winter.  The comfort of a pair of slippers in the evening, after a long day of walking, can’t be underestimated.IMG_8406It’s been a huge but surprisingly easy transition for us. 253 days ago (I thought I was writing this at around day 200, it’s easy to lose track of time on the road) we slammed the door shut on our storage pod, locked it, and popped open a bottle of champagne to celebrate our impending journey. We haven’t looked back.  Ecuador, Guatemala, Cuba and now Portugal; I can’t imagine undertaking this adventure with anyone else.

The Airbnb revolution has greatly contributed to our concept of slow travel, allowing us to immerse ourselves in a location for an extended period of time and to enjoy a community to its fullest. Experiencing a festive Christmas season and an explosive New Year’s celebration in Antigua, Guatemala, was extraordinary and something we wouldn’t have appreciated as much if we were just passing through.

We felt a little blue being away from our kids and their families during Christmas. The irony that we, and not the children, broke with the family tradition first was not lost on us.  A three week visit back to the States in mid-January to see everyone helped tremendously.img_0864 This visit also gave us an opportunity to jettison the wonderful textiles and ceramics we had purchased along the way for a home we don’t have yet.  Imagine this scene from our last stop in San Pedro – the backseat of a tuk-tuk overflowing with Donna and all our suitcases, while I’m sharing the driver’s seat with the driver, one cheek on, one cheek off and a foot dangling outside the cab as we speedily snaked through the steep narrow alleys of the village. 

Shopping in the central markets and street markets of each city has been wonderful as cooking is essential to keeping within our budget, though the size of some of our kitchens have tested our creative culinary abilities.  The exotic fruits available to us in Ecuador were amazing and we tried many that we were unfamiliar with.

In Olon we bought the catch of the day from the fish monger as be pushed his cart through town. Guatemala yielded remarkably flavorful vegetables.  We had a memorable culinary carrot experience there, go figure. This from a home gardener is quite a statement. Like our neighbors in the Alfama district, we are hanging our laundry out the windows to dry in the Lisbon fresh air. Our stays in each place have ranged from four to ten weeks.  I favor the longer stays whereas Donna prefers a shorter visit. 

There have been challenges negotiating the medical systems in Ecuador and Portugal only because we haven’t known the protocol of the local doctors.  We have been extremely impressed by the care we have received from the medical professionals in these countries for altitude sickness and a persistent upper respiratory infection.  The out of pocket costs have been remarkably inexpensive in comparison to the U.S. medical system.IMG_8692 Not everything has gone smoothly.  A rental car agency did not honor a reservation and we had to scramble to find another one late one night in the airport.  We have felt very safe during our travels, but there are unfortunately some extremely talented pickpockets out there. May the curse of arthritis shorten their careers!  Filing a stolen property report in Lisbon with the tourist police turned out to be an enjoyable experience due to the officer assigned to us.  Luckily, within 24-hours they called us with the good news that our wallet had been recovered, minus the cash of course, but that our passport and credit cards were all there.  Honestly, we weren’t following our own advice: only carry in your pockets what you are willing to lose.  Everything else of value needs to be carried under your clothing.IMG_8596After Lisbon it’s a two-week road trip through Portugal. Then we are off to, of all places, Sofia, Bulgaria for a month, (the Beatles song “Back in the USSR” keeps coming to mind) in order to reset our Schengen union days for later in the summer.  After that, two dog sits in England and two Workaway experiences in France at a 14th century chateau await us before we resume our life of leisure in Kotor, Montenegro, in September.img_0669We have shared meals and stories with so many wonderful and interesting people along the way.  These friends have made this journey what it is – fantastic! 

Kindness and a smile go a long way in this world.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

 

San Pedro la Laguna on Lake Atitlan – The Road Was Un-named

img_1653The scenery along the drive to Lake Atitlan, along roads that continued to climb higher, was spectacular with verdant greenery and distant volcanos appearing then disappearing again with each twist of the serpentine route. img_1668Arriving in San Pedro we thought we were on a movie set for a sequel to Mad Max or Water World.  Down by the Panajachel dock dreadlocked travelers, wearing eccentric attire, filled the streets along the lakeshore.  Feeling as if we had time traveled, we were relieved to find our Airbnb far out of town on a dead-end road that ran along the lake.  According to Google maps the road was unnamed.  Our host said “tell the tuktuk drivers you are staying on Calle Finca,” which referred to a distant and abandoned coffee farm, about an hour’s walk from the trail head at the end of the road.img_0540-2Our new home for our last week in Guatemala had a wonderful porch with great view of Lake Atitlan and tranquility.  A relaxing change of pace was called for after the Christmas and New Year’s Day celebrations in Antigua.  Bird calls or the soft Mayan chatter of coffee pickers, harvesting ripe beans right outside our door, were the only sounds that filled the air.  Fortunately, we were much closer to town than the abandoned coffee finca and were able to walk to the daily outdoor market, along streets where we could see women washing clothing in the distant lake, and make-shift scales were set up to buy coffee beans hauled down from the slopes of Volcan San Pedro.

As we neared the market the streets became steeper than those in San Francisco, CA.  Every morning vendors set up vegetable, poultry, meat, flower and used clothing stands.  The fish monger displayed freshly caught fish, pulled from Lake Atitlan earlier in the morning, still flapping in baskets along the edge of the road.  And multiple varieties of avocadoes were available to satisfy our cravings for them.  San Pedro lacked a proper super market, so if we wanted meat or chicken, we had to purchase it here.  The key to buying meat or poultry was to go first thing in the morning, before the heat of the day and most importantly before the flies started to stir.  Shopping this way, we did not have any issues with the meat, poultry or vegetables we bought.  There were several small panaderias in the blocks around the market that had great baked goods. We rounded out our pantry with fresh eggs, yogurt and coffee from the farmer next door to us.  Large numbers of tourists didn’t seem to venture up the steep streets of San Pedro away from the waterfront, which was filled with coffee cafes, art galleries, hostels, restaurants, and bars.

Aside from researching an affordable and charming place to stay on Lake Atitlan we didn’t know much about San Pedro La Laguna itself.  Fortunately, we were able to reach out to one of our Instagram followers who does medical missions to the area several times a year. Cathy was right on with her coffee and dining recommendations.  Straight uphill from the Panajachel ferry dock, Luis at Cafe Las Cristalinas brewed a great cup of coffee and served wonderful empanadas, among other delights as promised.  On the street that follows the shoreline, La Terraza Coffee Shop & Kitchen offered a quiet respite and a wonderful view of Indian Nose mountain towering over the village of San Juan, just across the lake.  Closer to the Santiago Atitlan ferry dock at Restaurant Idea Connection we enjoyed their Italian menu and coconut macaroons, outside in the garden. The brunch offered on Saturdays and Sundays at El Barrio can’t be missed if you are in San Pedro over a weekend.  Plan on eating only one meal the day you choose to go, so that you can fully enjoy their incredible and very affordable four course brunch.  Smokin Joe’s BBQ has a store on this side of town which sells local and imported meats, all vacuum sealed and frozen.  We were impressed with their selection.img_0767A short ferry ride took us to San Juan La Laguna, a weavers and artists village that visually celebrates its Mayan heritage with colorful street murals.  The steep walk uphill from the boat dock to the center of town was lined with art galleries.

The streets at the top of the hill of were full of various weaver’s cooperatives that use locally grown cotton, wool or bamboo and only natural dyes.  Here we serendipitously stumbled across the Casa Flor Ixcaco, the first weaver’s cooperative in San Juan, founded in 1996 with only five members.  Today more than 100 women support their families through this weaving cooperative.  The variety of designs created on backstrap looms and the color range they created from natural dyes was amazing.   The question here was “what not to buy?” because everything was so beautiful.img_0864Six years ago, when we first visited the lake, we stayed at Posada de Santiago in Santiago de Atitlan and met Carolina, an American expat who has been in Guatemala going on thirty years now.  We’ve stayed in touch over the years.  Being so close by, a reunion was in order.IMG_1019It’s a long ferry ride to Santiago de Atitlan and even longer when the wind churns up whitecaps on the water, and the small boat we were in rocked side-to-side for the duration of the crossing.  We silently said our prayers when the local folks stated to reach for the life preservers.  Fortunately, we were never too far from shore and know how to swim.  It is a breathtaking view coming into the boat dock at Santiago with its namesake volcano towering over the town and Volcan San Pedro just an avocado toss away, across the water.

The waterfront seemed the same with kids swimming and women doing laundry in the lake, but the walk up to the tuktuks overwhelmed with craft stands and vendors calling out their sales pitch.  Lunch was as delicous as we remembered at Posada de Atitlan and as wonderfully lively as we anticipated with Carolina.  Very interesting embroidery art by the late artist Antonio Ramirez Sosóf hung on display in the restaurant. These are truly amazing pieces of cultural art that were all delicately hand stitched and depicted indigenous and Mayan culture around the lake.img_0669Enjoying the stars from our porch we were surprised when fireworks celebrating Epiphany lit up the night sky above villages across the lake, their colorful bursts reflected brilliantly on the water.  With magical moments like this, still fresh in our memories, Guatemala tugged at our hearts as we packed for our next adventure.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

Follow 2suitcasesfor 2years on Instagram!

 

 

 

 

 

Olon – A Beach Paradise – Head Here Before it’s too Late!

IMG_0157Our quest for eternal Spring-like weather has brought us to Olon, a rustic beach town on Ecuador’s southern Pacific coast with a wide, flat sandy beach that stretches for nearly five miles without a high-rise to been seen. Think San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua fifteen years ago, before it was discovered, or Costa Rica thirty years before it became a top tourist destination.

It’s ideal for long solitary walks along the beach collecting shells, especially near the Mirador del Olon cliffs that rise dramatically from the ocean.  On the other end of town, the Rio Olon runs through a nature preserve, where we have entertained ourselves photographing various birds and listening to their calls. It’s amazing how small birds seem to have such loud songs that carry for a long distance.  The river doesn’t have enough flow to reach the sea this time of year and is separated from it by a berm of sand, but one night after a heavy rain the river breached the sand dune and carved its way into the sea.

Change is coming slowly to Olon. The roads in town were only bricked three years ago. So, there is still a wonderful, authentic undeveloped rawness to the town, with a small number of hotels and surf schools mixed in amongst local homes, many in an unfinished state.

It’s off season now in October, mostly cloudy with a light mist every morning, but the water is still warm, perfect conditions for the handful of surfers and us. Although the waves can reach 12ft at times, beginning surfers prefer the less crowded, smaller wave conditions in Olon over those of Montañita, which can be more treacherous.

The seafood cabanas along the beach are only open on the weekend this time of year, when it seems to get slightly busier. Our favorite is the last one down by the fishing boats, Mar del Sol, run by Rosa.  You can’t beat her stuffed calamari, ceviche or various seafood salads.

At times teams of fishermen can still be seen setting seine nets from the shore and hauling their catch in by hand. Other fishermen fight the waves to launch skiffs through the rough surf from the beach.

Sometimes the beach is a corridor of commerce with freshly caught fish being delivered by motorcycle from small villages further up the coast. Fathers can be seen taking their kids to school on the handlebars of their motorcycles, gently splashing through the incoming tide, hurrying to get there.  Outside of the small school every morning it’s like New York’s Times Square for ten minutes, with all the coming and going of motorbikes.  One morning a parade of open bed, stake trucks carrying school children dressed in different team colors honked and cheered its way, through town, to the school for a day of field activities.  Every evening there is a well-attended, robust soccer game on the beach. Just imagine the memories these kids will have!  Outside our hotel, a group of young men play marbles in the dirt road under a dim streetlight, using the light from their cell phones to help find stray ones hidden in the foliage along the road. In the morning we passed our neighbor, singing softly to herself as she gardened.

Our budget friendly and relaxing short-term rental at Rincon d’Olon included a very nice breakfast on the rooftop terrace prepared by the gregarious innkeeper, Chris.  He emigrated from the Netherlands to Ecuador six years ago after volunteering in the Andes and vacationing on the coast.  He is a great source of information for all things local and arranged several transfers and an excursion for us.

By ten o’clock each evening the streets are empty.  From our apartment at night we can hear the waves crashing onto the beach, along with roosters crowing – they start at one in the morning, seemingly on a campaign to discourage tourism – and dogs barking to each other. There is no traffic in this tiny four block square village.  Everyone walks in the middle of the road, roosters, dogs and cats included.  Restaurant owners and musicians will wave to you if they remember your visit from the day before.  Every day pushcart vendors wheel their offerings of fruit, eggs, cheese, clothing, kitchen supplies, etc. through town, each peddler singing out a different sales pitch. Sometimes the loudspeakers around the usually sleepy plaza blare: community news, music or appeals for donations to help a family pay funeral expenses.  One Saturday, families gathered to pay their respects at a memorial service on the plaza.  Later, the pallbearers hoisted the casket onto their shoulders, and solemnly carried it through town to the cemetery. A small marching band followed the coffin, playing El Condor Pasa, If I Could, by Simon and Garfunkle.

For a change of scenery, we took a day cruise out of Puerto Lopez to Isla de la Plata, an uninhabited island twenty-three miles off the coast, which is part of Machalilla National Park.  It is also referred to as the “budget Galapagos,” where we had a chance to see nesting blue-footed boobies and frigate birds.   Fifty dollars per person included shuttle transportation, boat ride, snorkeling gear, lunch, a three-hour hike with a licensed guide, and most importantly, the chance to see humpback whales. IMG_7650 Puerto Lopez hosts the largest fishing fleet on this part of the Ecuadorian coast.  Lacking a protected harbor, all the fishing boats beach on the shoreline to unload their fresh catch.  It is a hectic scene of never-ending activity that is reminiscent of an earlier era.

At Olon’s outdoor fish market, vendors sell a wonderful selection of fresh seafood caught locally at stalls set up along Ruta del Spondylus, named after a thorny shell used by the Incas in religious ceremonies.  The stalls are closed by noon, so we try to get there early for the best choices.  Two kilos of fresh large shrimp set us back six dollars.  After dark small tiendas fire up their street-side charcoal grills, offering chicken, pork or sausage shish-kababs to go, or you can stay and eat at tables set up in the street.  Several doors down from our hotel, at a little house with a barbeque made from an old fifty-gallon oil drum, two plates of fresh grilled fish with a beer cost five dollars for dinner.

For a tiny place, this village also has a surprising number of refined, small niche eateries, most of them created by foreign surfers, (Swedish, Dutch, Brazilian, Argentinian, Venezuelan, Austrian, Russian) who fell in love with the waves here and never left. Wonderful and inexpensive empanadas ($1.00) along with the best papas fritas (French fries) can be consumed at Bahio which offers Argentinian fast food.  Next door, La Churreria has good coffee and desserts which rival any French bakery in Paris.  For more refined though still very casual dining, try the eclectic menus at Momo or Cotinga’s across the main road.  Cotinga’s might be the only restaurant in Ecuador where you can get home-made borscht accompanied by a shot of vodka, prepared by Olga, a Russian expat.

The only thing Olon really needs is a French inspired chef whose specialty is Coq au Vin.  Roosters, you’ve been warned!

Till later,

Craig & Donna

Vilcabamba – “My friend is really good at colonics, she’ll be here soon”

IMG_4211A vacation from vacation? Yes, its’s tiring work having fun every day!  Where to? Vilcabamba had been on our radar for a while, having read about its reputation as the “Valley of Longevity,” with mineral rich spring water and crisp mountain air.  That along with its location in Ecuador’s Southern Andes Mountains at an elevation of 5000ft, a setting which provides continuous spring-like conditions, has attracted a growing expat population of greying hippies, new agers, and backpackers seeking the fountain of youth and inexpensive housing.  We had to check it out!

Hostal Izhcayluma was recommended as the place to stay. Their $15.00 per person shuttle from their sister hostal, La Cigale, which was only a block from our apartment, as well as a line from their website (Izhcayluma is NOT a place for perpetually grouchy people) cinched the deal.  Hostal Izhcayluma, promotes itself as a “luxury resort spa priced for backpackers” and truly has to be one of the best travel values in Ecuador or all of South America.IMG_4389With a bed in the dorm room going for $9.50 and luxury private cabins starting at just $39.00, the resort has a reputation as the place to go to “relax, enjoy, forget time and stay awhile.”  Free morning yoga classes, a wonderful restaurant with some German dishes, and super affordable spa treatments (90 minute, deep tissue massages for $24.00, we both indulged) definitely promoted well-being.  Bird calls filled the air and the distinctive face of 6,000ft high Cerro Mandango, god lying down, watched over the valley.  Three thousand feet lower in altitude and much farther south, Vilcabamba was about 10 degrees warmer, which was a much-needed reprieve from the chilly days and nights we were experiencing in Cuenca.

At the reception desk are numerous brochures for off-site activities in the valley.  For reasons unknown I’ve become attracted to horseback riding later in life. With naïve enthusiasm I was immediately drawn to the five-hour ride on “galloping horses” to Cascada El Palto high in the surrounding mountains.  I’ve been riding about a dozen times, mostly on mountain trails, and the horses walked, occasionally trotted short distances, but never galloped.  Thinking this was hyperbole from the corral, I was reassured by the sign-up sheet that asked for your riding experience.  A family of five marked inexperienced. I thought this was a good sign and that the group would saunter slowly through the countryside for the novices. They must have been a family of vacationing gauchos from Argentina, because as soon as our guide shouted VAMANOS! we galloped out of Vilcabamba, into the mountains, and back.  I walked liked a saddle-sore cowboy for a week after that.

A disc-jockey blasted “You can’t always get what you want” from loud-speakers setup on the steps of the church across from the plaza as we walked along vendors’ craft tables in the street.  Trophies were visible on the DJ’s table as were bags of dog food under it.  To our delight, Vilcabamba was having its Best Dressed Dog competition today and later in the afternoon a Paso Fino, fine step, horse show.  About twenty proud and good-humored dog owners entertained a large crowd through several rounds of judging.  Several dogs had cheering sections in the crowd.  One or two ran away out of embarrassment, I think.  Trophies and bags of dog food were presented to the winners by a tiara and sash wearing Miss Vilcabamba.

IMG_5723

Immediately after the awards were presented the crowd rushed to the other side of the plaza where the horse show was ready to start.  Horsemen with perfect posture, dressed in immaculate white shirts, pants and hats, paraded their mounts up and down the dusty street to the sound of lively Spanish music.

The restaurant porches around the plaza were full of aging gringos, drinking beer, sipping wine, observing from afar.  Occasional a whiff of pot floated down the street.  “My friend is really good at colonics, she’ll be here soon” was an odd conversation snippet we overheard.

We were glad we visited Vilbamba for a long weekend, but were relieved we hadn’t committed to spending more time there.  Thoroughly relaxed we headed back to Cuenca.

 

 

El Barranco – Cuenca’s Most Interesting Neighborhood in Ecuador’s Renaissance City

With a vibe and cultural scene reminiscent of Florence, Italy, Cuenca continues to reap tourism awards as a hot new destination in South America. The city is investing heavily in infrastructure with a new tram line opening soon, but with all this positive press the streets are still mostly filled with Cuencanos (people of Cuenca) going about their daily lives.  Masses of flag-led tour groups are unheard of, as are masses of tourists in general.  We have been in Cuenca for five weeks and have never felt the crush of tourist season descending upon us.Parque de San Sebastian_001The city does a wonderful job supporting its craftspeople who still use traditional, made by hand, methods to create exceptional pieces in jewelry, textile, ceramic, wrought-iron, tin and copper workshops located across the city.  Toquilla straw weavers in the villages around Cuenca who carry unfinished sacks of Panama Hats into the city’s sombrero (hat) factories also need to be included into this group.  There are also several traditional felt hat tallerias (workshops) that cater to the indigenous women who live in the rural areas around Cuenca. The fine arts scene is also well represented with galleries and artists’ studios often next to traditional crafts workshops. To get the broadest experience of this vibrant arts and crafts community a tour through Cuenca’s most interesting neighborhood, El Barranco (the cliffs), and along its busiest street Calle Larga, is a must.  The colonial buildings that front Calle Larga back onto the cliff which overlooks Rio Tomebamba and the newer southern part of Cuenca. Wide stairs in several parts lead down to Paseo 3 de Noviembre, a shaded pedestrian walkway and bike path that follows the river for several miles.Coronel Guillermo Talbot Stairs_001This route actually starts several blocks west of Calle Larga at Cuenca’s Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art) across from Parque de San Sebastian which has a large fountain and several nice places to eat. Casa Azul, which has rare sidewalk tables that face the quiet plaza, and Tienda Café are good choices.  Most of the workshops won’t have business signs over their doors or street numbers, might open by ten, but will reliably close between one and three for lunch.

Just around the corner from the Museo Municpal de Arte Moderno at 7-49 Coronel Guillermo Talbot is the unimposing metal embossing workshop of Carlos Bustos. With his workbench by the door to take advantage of the daylight and his finished pieces hanging behind him, he works until the sun sets.  Still keeping the traditions of his family alive he offers embossed decorative pieces which can be traditional or whimsical.  At the end of the street a mural-lined staircase will take you down to the Rio Tomebamba; instead make a left onto Presidente Cordova and then veer right at the Y in the road onto Bajada del Valo. A few doors down is the felt hat Sombrereria of Camilo M.  Hanging from his walls are dozens of white felt hats in various stages of completion with name of the person who ordered it pinned into the brim.  Ask permission to take photos and you will be greeted with a smile.  Just past the hat maker,  Plazoleta Cruz del Vado merges with Mirador del Barranco.  This small plaza has several whimsical sculptures, largest of which depicts the traditional festival game Palo Ensebado (the teaching stick – climbing a greased pole) and a religious cross which celebrates the founding of Cuenca in 1557.

Walking along this scenic overlook, open doors reveal artists’ studios and Casa Museo La Condamine, a museum/antique store that houses an interesting menagerie of long forgotten Cuenca furnishings and antiquities.  Next door to them is the Prohibido Centro Cultural, an alternative museum that displays sculptures and art that could have been inspirational for your worst nightmare or an award winning sci-fi/horror film, depending on how you look at things.  It has a café. Further along the balustrade, musical chords waft from an instrument maker’s workshop, drawing you in, as the craftspeople test their work . Stairs from this scenic overlook lead down to Calle la Condamine and several coppersmiths.

Rounding the corner onto Calle Larga is like returning from the Amazon to New York City. It’s tenfold busier, with the Mercado 10 de Agosto (Cuenca’s central market) accounting for most of the activity in the first block.  This a great short detour to get some exotic fruits or fresh bread and rolls from the numerous panaderias that surround it.  Diagonally across the street is the Museum del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla (free), a still operating panama hat factory where you can watch the manufacturing process and try on the finished product.  They have a lovely rooftop café, the only one in Cuenca, that overlooks the Rio Tomebamba and park below.  They offer you a free cup of coffee when you purchase a hat.  From the rooftop here you can see the jewelry workshop and store of Andrea Tello on Av 12 de Abril across the river. One of Cuenca’s finest silversmiths, having created filigree masterpieces that are in museum collections around the world, she earned the UNESCO Award of Excellence in Handicrafts in 2010.  Just a few doors away is the wide alley Bajada del Padron where you will find the workshop of an ironsmith who makes Pucara, a symbol given as a gift to bring good fortune and prosperity. The sculpture incorporates the Christian cross with images of the Sun and Moon to honor Pachamama.

Continuing east along Calle Larga you will cross the intersection of Benigno Malo. For the next several blocks the restaurant choices are tremendous, with options for Arab and Indian cooking to gourmet Ecuadorian cuisine and everything else in between.  El Mercado and El Jardin offer fine dinning experiences that are very enjoyable. For a more casual environment try Goza Espresso Bar which has outside table facing a small park. The lower level of Museo Remigio Crespo Toral (free) offers the Café del Museo, which is truly an oasis of calm in this bustling city, has terraced outside dining that looks over the lush greenery along the Rio Tomebamba and Paseo 3 de Noviembre. The museum itself is worth exploring to see how Cuenca’s gentry lived at the end of the 19th century.  Or you can head to the Wunderbar Café on the Francisco Sojos Jaramillo stairway that leads to the Centro Interamericano de Artes Populares (CIDAP – free) which offers changing, monthly craft exhibits.

Back on Calle Larga the Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes looks unimpressive from its entrance, but the museum upstairs has an enthralling collection of 8,000 indigenous artifacts that spans 15,000 years and 20 pre-Columbian cultures, stone-age to bronze-age. Downstairs there is a very good, no-pressure gift store with excellent pricing. Next door is the fascinating studio of metal sculptor Julio Machado who creates hummingbirds and other animals in bronze and aluminum.  Stay straight on Calle Larga when you come to the fork in the road at Todos los Santos Church; this will lead you to a store front painter’s studio where his favorite subject seems to be the church you just passed.

At the end of Calle Large at what once was the Inca city of Tomebamba, its terraced gardens still home to grazing llama, now stands Museo Pumapungo (free), one of Ecuador’s finest museums. The first floor offers changing contemporary art exhibits as well as a fascinating collection of artifacts discovered on site here. Upstairs features exhibits which represent all of Ecuador’s diverse cultural groups and their historic way of life.  Topping it off, there is an unusual exhibit of shrunken heads, tzantzas, along with how-do instructions in Spanish and English from the Shuar people of the Amazon.

Across the river from the Museo Pumapungo is Las Herrerias, the street of the iron forges, where several workshops create utilitarian and decorative works; to locate the workshops, just follow the sounds of hammers striking anvils. Plaza del Herrero, at the end of the street, has a very interesting monumental sculpture dedicated to the ironworkers who helped build Cuenca.  Be sure to try Tortilla de Choclo, a scrumptious corn pancake that is pan-fried on large griddles along the street in this neighborhood.

Artisans not in the Barranco neighborhood, but definitely worth the effort to visit, are ceramicist Eduardo Vega (internationally recognized for his decorative arts.) His workshop and home are a short walk downhill from the Mirador de Turi. Located on the new tram-line that runs through the historic potters’ Barrio Convencio Del 45, at 2-90 Mariscal Lamar, is the traditional, ceramic workshop of Jose Encalada where he and his son Ivan still form every piece using a potter’s kick-wheel. A few blocks over on Vega Munoz is the contemporary, ceramic studio of Eduardo Segovia where he creates whimsical decorative pieces influenced by South American traditions. Closer to the historic central part of Cuenca is the Mama Quilla silversmith shop on Luis Cordero. Here, Harley-riding Ernesto creates fine filigree pieces that reflect the cultures of the Andes.

We enjoyed walking through El Barranco, and specifically Calle Larga.  The route we suggest here provides a wonderful overview of life and art in Cuenca.

Till later,

Craig & Donna