Exploring Cliff Dwellings

Being interested in Native American Indians, I instantly knew my son had to go to Mesa Verde National Park (which is also a World Heritage Site). This is where the remains of hundreds of ancient cliff dwellings that belonged to the Pueblo people are still preserved. Conveniently, its located just 35 miles from where we were staying in Durango, CO.

There are over 5000 archeological sites at Mesa Verde. We were allowed to climb up into the cliff IMG_2008dwellings and see how Native American Indians lived up to 1500 years ago. Being able to crawl down into the ancient kivas where it is believed religious rituals and political meetings were held feels like getting a front seat view of history. If visiting with kids, it’s definitely best with school-aged children that can climb the ladders into the dwellings.

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I would highly recommend taking a ranger guided tour. They are $5 and are worth every single penny. They give great insight into how the Indians lived day to day, along with belief systems, history, and were great at answering questions. I got a real impression that they love their jobs and love this land. Our ranger talked passionately about the importance of preserving such historical places and taking care of the land.

Not only did we visit cliff dwellings, but we also visited Coyote Village. This is a village that has been excavated and stabilized. You can walk along the top exploring the different rooms and structures. It’s like a dream come true for a kid. The ultimate historic playground.

 

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Free – Junior Rangers Program

I set out to visit several National Parks with my son over Spring Break. I was unaware of their Junior Ranger programs. I seriously think this is one of the coolest things you can do with a kid (did I mention it’s free)?

I am an avid hiker and love the outdoors. I was hoping this is something that my son would like as well. Not sure how he would react to a week of hiking and outdoors I was a little apprehensive. As soon as we discovered the Junior Ranger Program at the National Parks, my worries were instantly put at ease.

Upon arriving at a National Park my first stop is always the Visitor Center. My son and I 1385989_10207309479348371_4927713132212871052_nwere repeatedly asked, “Do you want to do the Junior Ranger program?” I had no idea what it was. A Park Ranger explained that it was free program. By completing several activities, your child can earn a junior ranger badge at each park (very similar to boy scouts). Once my son completed his first set of activities and was sworn in as a junior ranger, he proudly wore his badge.

We bought him a junior ranger vest to display each badge as he earned them. Activities include things like picking up litter, hiking certain trails and getting pencil rubbings or trail markers, and watching an educational video and answering questions.

This is brilliant. Free entertainment that’s educational and keeps him focused. He has a purpose (which eliminates boredom) and I get to be in the great outdoors learning right along with my son.

My son is a very literal child and takes most things very seriously. This is one of the things that he got excited about. His sincerity and seriousness while taking his oath left one Park Ranger in tears. At another park, he got an ovation from everyone in the visitor center for receiving his badge. Many people stopped on the trail to congratulate him on his badges while hiking.

What a great way to get him involved, teach him about the outdoors (disguised as entertainment), boost self-esteem, and help him understand and respect the great outdoors. Did I mention it’s free?

Volcanos and Moonshine

We headed to Banos, Ecuador from Devil’s Cauldron (about 40 km away). It’s near the active Tungurahua and a gateway to the nearby Amazon Basin. On the way there we 17352380_10210366736337885_4052340927093209023_ndrove by a village that was covered by an eruption about a year and a half ago. We saw the scarred remains of a home.

Once in Banos, we had lunch at a small bed and breakfast and spent the next few hours walking around the city. There were lots of tourist shops offering tours to the Amazon and volcano.

Banos has a very artistic flair, with artisans working in doorways and windows and paintings on buildings. It 17264284_10210172410480298_6561258471637593502_nhas a large ex-pat population, and I can see why. If I return to Ecuador, I would want to come back here.

We wandered into a a vegetable ivory shop called, El Cade. The son is the artisan, carving vegetable ivory, and the mother sat in the corner stringing jewelry he created. He gave a demonstration of how he carved a dried tagua nut into a small pitcher. The tagua nut is actually a seed from a certain palm 17353085_10210366801099504_4831787035353403146_ntree. The vegetable ivory resembles elephant ivory and was actually used for buttons before
plastic was popular. The small sculptures and jewelry were inexpensive and made for great souvenirs.

We took our bag of gifts and headed for the market. Outside vendors hacked away at sugar cane with machetes. One vendor was selling sugarcane ginger moonshine along with every other possible thing made of sugarcane. I took a shot of the moonshine and it was exactly as I had expected, enough to take my breath.

A little buzz from my shot of moonshine, I ventured behind the market and found an amazing view of the city.

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We drove away from the city and towards our lodge for the night. We drove into the Valley of Patate and then just above it to Hacienda Manteles. This place was like something out of fairytale. It was chilly and the air was crisp. The slightly smoking volcano loomed not far in the distance.

When I was shown to my room, a sheep and llama were hanging out nearby. It just added to the magic of the place. The rooms were situated so that 3 rooms were
inside one building with a little living room that had a fireplace. I took a shower and then ventured out to take pictures of the grounds. Lil’ man was playing with the random animals and running everywhere.

As it began to get dark I grabbed an alpaca blanket from my room and big bottle of beer. I had Karl meet me on the porch swing set up overlooking the volcano and valley below. Soon we could see every star in the sky. It was very romantic and peaceful.

Of course it didn’t last long and we ventured up for dinner. We served family style in the main dining room and after we sat around with everyone having drinking by the fire and chatting. Eventually our guide broke out a guitar and we all sang along. It was one of those moments that can make an entire trip. Lil’ man fell asleep on the couch and several of us sat near the fire singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. It was a perfect way to end our night.

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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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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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Into the Andes

As we headed into the Andes Mountains, we stopp17342881_10210349681911535_8591327376380371571_n.jpged in a village called Papallacta. We were invited into the home of a local family of musicians. The man of the house gave us a demonstration of how he makes musical instruments. He made a pan flute out of bamboo and string, carefully cutting each piece to the right length for the right tune. Once he was done, his entire family came out and played for us.

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While on this trip we saw several local bands play, and what I found the most fascinating is that the little ones are always included. This is a tradition passed from one generation to the next and they are included from the day they can hold an instrument.

From there, we went to our resort Termas de Papallacta. This area is famous for its thermal springs and has a magnificent view of the Antisana Volcano. It is the highest city in Ecuador at almost 11,000 feet above sea level. It’s well known for it’s thermal springs that are heated by the subterranean activity of the nearby volcano.

17202864_10210332757128426_7904056639254265890_nThis place was simply breathtaking. These heated pools were just feet from the front door of our cabanas. Lil’ Man couldn’t even wait until our bags were delivered to our room before he ventured in. These waters are known as healing waters due to the natural minerals. It definitely healed me of any stress I may have had.

I spent the little extra money and Karl and I went to the spa. Our tour manager volunteered to watch Lil’ Man while we treated ourselves. We found even more pools of different temperatures. After 30 minutes in the pools, we were taken to a sauna. We were supposed to spend 30 minutes in it, but it was so hot I cut out a little early. We were shown to a room with lounge chairs where we laid and relaxed until a masseuse came and retrieved us for a neck and back massage. I was pretty much jelly by the time the whole experience was over. Needless to say, I slept like a rock.

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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.