Back to Quito

We arrived back in Quito late. We decided to meet up with friends we had met along the 17264850_10210179870666798_6261762905422355019_nway for dinner. At the advice of a tour guide, we went to his favorite bar and pizza place.

It was a crazy cab ride to get there through small streets and insane drivers. We were dropped off in front of our restaurant. I instantly liked the place. It had a bar feel with tables scattered throughout for diners. We made our way to a back room and sat at a long table and benches. We ordered beer and pizza and enjoyed the rest of the night chatting and saying goodbye to all of our new acquired friends.

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We tried not to make it a late night because we wanted to see tour a little more of Quito the next morning before we caught our plane back to the U.S.

We found several others from our tour at breakfast and we all agreed to tour together. Most of us wanted to go to the same places. We decided to first go ride the gondola lift up the Pichincha Volcano. We piled into a cab and set out. We paid $8.50 each for a ticket to ride the Quito Teleferi17361636_10154151629046920_1389858891764917752_n.jpgco.
We had been warned that it was too cloudy to see anything, but we decided to try for it anyway. It is one of the highest aerial lifts in the world, rising from 10,226 ft to 12,943 ft in 20 minutes. I was happy that we had a clear view of the city all the way up.

Once we disembarked, there was a large indoor shopping area. I instantly ordered a coffee. We were told that caffeine would help with the altitude sickness. Just a few minutes of walking around made me instantly aware of the altitude. My lungs felt like they were being squeezed and I felt dizzy.

17352169_10210372570363732_8474380398732351279_nWe decided to endulge in one of the tourist 17308794_10210390942223017_421669170831413609_n.jpgpictures and made a fun picture for a memory. Continuing the climb up the mountain was not even a consideration. The clouds moved in and I was having trouble catching my breath.

We headed back down the mountain on the gondola. We were happy to find that our taxi driver had patiently waited and we asked him to take us to what the locals refer to as “cupcake hill”.

El Panecillo is a 656 foot hill above the city. Again, the views are spectacular. On top of the hill sets a statue of the Madonna. We went inside and up to the observation deck.

There was a small brick road that lead up the hill to the statue. On the side of the road were local vendors selling souveniers. I negotiated for a alpaca scarf and a few trinkets to take home as gifts.

(I have no pictures of El Panecillo or the spectacular view because my phone was stolen. More about that in my next post).

 

Devil’s Cauldron

From the Amazon we headed back up the Andes. Our first stop was at Pailon del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron). This ranks up there with one of the most magnificent waterfalls I 17342968_10154131006901920_4458202785638714581_nhave seen. It is about 260 feet tall.

To me, the most fascinating part of it was how the waterfall received its name. The locals use to sacrifice bodies to Pachamama (Mother Earth) by pushing them over the waterfall. The devil didn’t exist in this culture, so it was named Devil’s Cauldron by the Spanish Jesuits.

The best view of it is from a very long suspension bridge. It’s a bit of a slipper steep hill to get to it. We not only crossed the bridge, but continued to walk the trail that went right up to the waterfall. It was very slippery so good shoes and rain jackets were important. We even managed to get a little wet in the process.

I had planned initially to zipline across the gorge over the waterfall. We were notified when we got there that ziplining was no longer an option. With a little prying I found out that the zipline had actually broke with someone on it about a month before. I was reassured it was only a local (as if that made it better) and that he was at the end of the zipline so he fell into the trees. 17352404_10210366508892199_2304226409322396489_n.jpg

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Hiking in the Amazon

We readied ourselves in our rubber boots and life jackets once again and loaded into canoes. We set out to hike in the Amazon. I must be honest, this is what the entire trip was about to me. Despite the stifling heat, the breeze from moving up the river in the motorized canoe 17308782_10210349316102390_2971485119377380513_nfelt fantastic. We arrived at the Misicocha Private Natural Reserve. The government closely monitors it’s protected lands, so we had to have approval to hike.

We met under a hut at the top of a hill where there were giant spiders building elaborate webs for us. Several people grabbed walking sticks and we set out. We walked through the rainforest observing many species of trees (including my new favorite tree the walking pines), wild flowers, termite nests the size of cars, and various insects. 17361542_10210366819699969_4018232383304316734_n

We came to a gorge that had a suspension bridge strung across. Before I knew what was even happening my son took off across it. He is fearless. I set out after him when he was over halfway. The bridge bounces so much that only one person can be on it at one time. It was a little intimidating.

We continued to climb in elevation, trudging through mud and watching for insects and spiders. We stopped to try some ants that our guide told us tasted like lemon. I popped a s17362792_10211715205546021_7247668252483515258_nmall ant into my mouth. I couldn’t feel the ant, but had a sudden small burst of lemon flavor. I was relieved I couldn’t feel the ants little legs crawling.

We came to a larger gorge that had to be crossed by a basket chair on a zipline. Of course my fearless son was the first to volunteer to go across. Our guide sat him in the chair and u17308735_10210349315422373_6419910977450234425_nsed his walking stick to

place between the bars to keep him in. I can say I was more than a little nervous. Once again I followed him over to the other side. The ride was so fast it was over before I knew it.

About an hour and a half into our hike we reached our destination. We came upon an ancient kapok tree. It is believed to be 400 years old. At approximately 150 feet tall, it would have taken 20 people hand in hand to wrap around the tree it was so large. This is considered an sacred tree by the locals. I couldn’t even begin to take a picture what would clearly show17342841_10210350716537400_7770539619706682147_n how large this tree is. It was absolutely magnificent. It had massive vines hanging from so far above we could not see the starting point. My son decided to connect with his inner monkey and climbed the vines. I’m sure he felt like tarzan as he swung from the vines. I will admit, I was a little bit envious.

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After I laid my hands on the tree and honored it’s age and wisdom, we hiked back towards our rafts. Our clothes were thoroughly soaked through with sweat. I stopped to spray myself with bug spray at least twice in an effort to keep the various insects off of me. I felt like I was sweating it off as fast as I was applying it.

Back at the water we boarded balsa rafts. They were modeled after the rafts made by natives. We took off our boots and anything that wasn’t waterproof. We left them in a canoe with a few souls who weren’t quite as brave. Sitting on the raft, I was instantly wet. The water was cold and very silty. The water sloshed up through the individual logs. We pushed out into the current and began to float down stream. I was the first to jump. The water felt 17424849_10211715170265139_7830998117733676427_nexhilarating. The shock of cold after such a hot and humid hike took my breath. It quickly became comfortable and I held out my arms as my son jumped.

We held onto the raft letting our life jackets keep us afloat. I had asked previous to boarding the raft if I needed to worry about any of the weird parasites you see on those freaky medical shows called terrifying names like ‘Monsters Inside Us’. I was reassured that the urethra seeking parasites were further south, along with piranhas and other potential threats.

We were greeted back at the lodge with a fresh sampling of17264253_10210343014464853_7687460539118863904_n grilled food. Just like the locals, our food had been cooked inside of palm leaves. I was given a sampling of fresh trout, grub worms, and palm. Even though I was hesitant, I decided this would probably be my only opportunity (or half desire) to try the grubs. My son and I decided to do it together. We both popped a grub in our mouths. Surprisingly it tasted like bacon. I wasn’t able to eat the entire thing because I was expecting it to be crunchy (and to spare you further detail) it was not. I was told by others that the head was quite crunchy but I had purposely avoided that part.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drinking chicha with the natives

Karl and I got up at sunrise and snuck out into the thermal pools outside our room for a soak before everyone else was up. The steam rose off the pools , the sun came up behind the nearby volcano, and I sat drinking my coffee and took it all in. It was a perfect morning. We agreed17309548_10210334916422407_8751021778529238267_n that this is a place we could definitely come back to.

After breakfast, we loaded a bus and drove towards the Amazon basin.  We stopped in a small village to see the wild monkeys. They come into town on days the locals set up market in hopes to find food. We were warned the monkeys can get a little aggressive (they steal stuff) so we needed to take off hats, sunglasses, or anything shiny or colorful.
IMG_0149After a short walk across a very sketchy bridge (that I thought was a pedestrian bridge and turned out to be also for traffic), we made our way to a bunch of trees on a beach right by the market. The monkeys were playing and jumping from tree to tree. On occasion one would jump down and try to take something from someone’s neck or head that hadn’t listened to the instructions of taking these things off. They were a lot of fun to watch.

We eventually loaded back up on the bus and headed to the Amazon Basin. The lower altitude was a little bit of a relief. We made it to a place called La Punta Ahuano on the Napo River (a tributary to the Amazon River). It was pouring rain when we arrived. There was a small shelter that we all crowded under waiting for it to let up a bit before we loaded into motorized canoe to go across the river. Eventually we decided that we are in the rainforest and rain is a part of every day, so climbed onto the boats.

17362435_10211734758594835_6811658986573402061_nThe heat and humidity were intense so the breeze from going upstream felt great. The current was so strong that our boat didn’t go straight against it. We zig zagged back and forth. About 10 minutes later we arrived at Casa del Suizo, our resort set up on a hill overlooking the Amazon Basin. Yet again, I was blown away by our accommodations.

We had to climb a lot of stairs to get up to the resort from the boat. We entered next to a pool surrounded by little hu17342618_10210343014744860_389843342584525691_nts, palm trees, a bar, and an outdoor dining area. We were shown to our rooms, which were just as impressive. It was surrounded by so many exotic plants and flowers. Our balcony had a hammock that Lil’ Man and I instantly took advantage of. It overlooked a courtyard full of more gorgeous trees and flowers.

IMG_0195.JPGOnce settling in a bit, we marinated ourselves in bug spray (even though I hate it, it’s better than all the bad things you can get from a bug bite in the Amazon). We headed out for a visit to a local Quechua family in Ahuano, also called Anaconda Lodge.

img_0233.pngWe were fitted with rubber boots and loaded back into the canoes. We went to an island called Anaconda by the locals. We hiked across a muddy wet area that is often underwater. We continued our hike for about 15 minutes through high grasses and trees. Our boots sucked into the squishy mud and sweat poured down every inch of our bodies. I kept a looIMG_0138k out for any strange snakes or insects. The most interesting thing I spotted was a giant black mass on a tree. At closer look, it was a large grouping of catepillars. I have never seen anything like it.
Eventually we walked into a clearin17155347_10210350718497449_677940779364879196_ng and saw huts on stilts. We had arrived. We climbed the stairs into the hut and found a seat next to a burning fire pit. The heat was already stifling and my clothes were soaked. A barefoot woman sat on the edge of the pit.

Our guide explained that the hut was on stilts because once a year the entire area floods about 5 feet high. The fire is left burning all of the time because the smoke keeps the bugs away. It is women’s work, and they get up at 3 a.m. to start stoking the fire and making breakfast.

The woman sat in the middle of the room with yucca root and sweet potato on a board. She began to mash it to demonstrate how to make chicha, the local alcohol drink offered to guests. We were told, as she was mashing, that this 17308856_10210343037545430_1481689716924246743_n.jpgalcohol was originally created by the maker chewing the root and spitting the saliva into a bowl. This would cause the solution to ferment and eventually turn into alcohol. In the past few years, they learned that if the person making the brew was sick, everyone the drink is given too also fell sick. She then used bark of walking pine to grate sweet potato into the brew to be the fermenting agent.

Once she finished the demonstration, she passed a bowl of 10 day old chicha around for us each to drink out of. I was very happy this was no longer a saliva based solution. I was proud of Lil’ Man for trying it, too. As soon as I tasted it, it reminded me of the intense smell my moms homemade bread use to have while it was rising. It was bitter and I couldn’t have drank more than a sip.

17155566_10210343036985416_2189276111118603188_nAfter our chicha sampling, we went back to the ground where we got a demonstration on blowing darts. We were each given an opportunity to try. Lil’ Man was set on getting a blow dart set until he realized that the ones for sale were just replicas. It didn’t discourage him from trying to shoot the target several times. The blow dart gun was about 5 times bigger than him.

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We finished the day up with hiking back to the canoes and returning to our resort. A shower was required to wash all of the sweat and bug spray off. We were told that bug spray wasn’t required in the resort because ginger was strategically planted. I had no idea that ginger kept the mosquitos away.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon watching Lil’ Man play in the swimming pool with a new friend. Bats swarmed overhead and the kids seemed completely oblivious to it. I had a cocktail and sat under the ceiling fan in the hut enjoying the amazing view and feeling completely blessed.

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Middle of the World

Driving out of Otavala, the landscape that passed outside my window reminded me of
Vietnam. Trash littered the streets, stray dogs ate out of shredded garbage bags, houses were dirty and shabby. It is evident that the country is poor.

We stopped roadside at an ice cream shop. It is 6th generation owned. The owner made homemade sorbet in a large copper bowl that sets on ice and salt. By spinning the copper bowl on the ice and salt, the raspberry and soursop juice poured into the bowl began to freeze. It was a very refreshing treat. Of course I had to try all of the flavors. We waited out a massive afternoon downpour eating the ice cream.

 

After we were done, we headed to the equator. La Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World) is the place of the monument marking the Equator. In reality, the equator is actually located 250 yards away.  This was only discovered a few years ago after GPS was invented.

 

 

 

This is definitely a tourist trip, but it’s pretty cool to be able to kiss your love from a different hemisphere, or balance an egg standing up on a nail. Lil’ Man was the egg expert.

We grabbed some lunch at one of the many restaurants and watched local dancers perform native dances. I finally got to try real Ecuadorian food. I ordered several different kinds of empanadas and potato soup for our table to share. I chased it with an Ecuadorian beer.

Probably my favorite part of this entire trip was the hotels we got to stay in. After our equator adventure, we headed to the village of Otavalo to Cabana del Lago. This is such a magical place right on a lake surrounded by mountains. We had our own cabin, complete with a fireplace.

There was lots of activities such as boating (though it was too cold), miniature golf, and even a pen with rabbits and guinea pigs that you could feed by hand. I was reassured they didn’t eat these (guinea pig is not an uncommon delicacy). Lil’ Man instantly made friends with a girl his age and they spent hours playing mini golf. A great deal of it was flooded due to all the rain but it didn’t slow them down. The hotel workers were quick to come to the rescue with pails to clear out as much water as possible.

We had a big buffet with Ecuadorian food for dinner.  We drank chocolate liquor and chatted over yucca chips until we retreated back to our cabins. The temperature had dropped considerably and I was a little afraid that our room would be cold. When
we entered I was happy to find that our fireplace was burning warm. There was an extra special touch in the bed. The hotel staff had not only started a fire, but also had placed a hot water bottle in my bed. At first I thought it was a little odd, but found myself cuddling with that most of the night listening to the frogs chirp outside and the fire crackle in the fireplace.
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Waterfalls and llamas

Today we drove down the old Pan-Am Highway. It’s essentially paved with cobblestone. It’s rough on the bladder after a few cups of strong Ecuadorian coffee. The rough ride was totally worth it. We went to Pegucha which is famous for waterfalls.

We walked through a small village where people were cooking on their front porches and stray dogs followed children around. This is the first place I realized the value of carrying wet wipes with me. In attempt to give my full bladder some relief I found a public restroom. It turns out that toilet paper is a precious commodity and very scarce in Ecuador.

We hiked up a steep path to the waterfall. Once again I felt the altitude reeking havoc on my
lungs. We couldn’t get super close to the waterfall, but we did get up to a nice view point.

A local was at the falls with two llamas. A girl asked if I would take a picture of her while she sat on the llama.  As she climbed onto the llama, and reared its head back and spit a green fat ball of phlegm right at me. I managed to dodge most of it and it hit my shoes. After I took her picture, I decided that the llama and I were going to have to be friends. I took a picture with him, but he wanted nothing to do with me.

Giving up on making a new friend, we headed to the market in Otavala. It is one of the largest in South America and run by the local Otavaleños. It covers several large blocks. I’ve never been very good at bartering, but it is expected here. We browsed various stalls for traditional goods such as hand-woven clothes and rugs, jewelry and more. I bought a watercolor painting from a woman who insisted that buying it would give her milk for her baby. She had a small baby wrapped around her. I loved the artwork. Lil’ man found a musical instrument for Lil’ Man. Since this was  my birthday trip,  Lil’ Man felt the need to buy me something. He got a few dollars from Karl and he felt like a rich kid. He quickly learned to ask “Cuantos?” which means how much. The locals seemed quite taken with him. I’m guess some of it had to do with his big blue eyes and big smile.

The heat became pretty intense so we stopped for a fresh coconut being sold from a vendor. We drank all the water then had the seller use her machete to chop it open so we could eat it.