First night in Athens 

Greece has been a place I have always wanted to experience. When I got the chance this year, I jumped all over the opportunity.

It started out with 2 days in Athens. The first day doesn’t really count because it was img_2914really a blur of jet lag and acclimation.

We stayed in the Athenian Callirhoe Hotel near the ancient Acropolis. The first evening we ventured to the roof garden restaurant for dinner on top of our hotel. It may be one of those few moments in life where everything seems perfect. It was ridiculously romantic, except that my date (lil’ man) barely made it through dinner and returned to our room.
I had a drink and watched as the sun set and the lights made the Acropolis glow right outside our terrace.

The mushroom risotto was near perfect and live jazz played in the background as older couples danced. Exhausted from jet lag and feeling warm and fuzzy from ny cranberry vodka, I returned to my room feeling content. What an amazing first night.

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New York, 3 days, 1 kid

I have been to New York City several times, but it was usually for work or to visit a friend, and I had always avoided the tourist traps. One thing I’ve noticed as I travel with a child is that I tend to gravitate towards a lot more tourist destinations.

Being from Kansas, New York City is a very big awe-inspiring place. I was excited to see it through my sons eyes. It began with fighting the crowds in Time Square to get on a bus tour. I found it completely overwhelming with chaos and people. I found it interesting that my son did too, however Karl thrives off of the energy and loved every second of it. After 2 1/2 hours of touring the downtown loop, we walked through Hells Kitchen and found a small hole in the wall Italian restaurant. After a good dinner and a drink, we were exhausted and retreated back to our hotel for the night.

Day 1

The next morning we set out to explore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  I had looked online before traveling to New York to see about getting passes to go into the crown of the Statue of Liberty. It was already booked three months out. I read that pedastool tickets were work first come first serve and could be bought at the ticket office. 

I quickly learned that standing in lines is just part of visiting New York City.  We waited in a long line to buy tickets to the Statue of Liberty and then another line to go through an airport-like security. Then we stood in another line to ride the ferry. The ferry was jam-packed and we couldn’t make it to the top level which was open air. Once we reached Liberty Island, we search aimlessly for the entrance into the Statue of Liberty. What I hadn’t understood it was that there is no entrance. Our tickets were only good for the grounds around the statue and tickets could no longer be purchased to enter inside for the pedastool. I heard many people asking how to enter as well so I knew I wasn’t the only one. It was a bit of a disappointment, because all we could do was walk around Statue of Liberty.

We did go to the information Center where we got the worksheet for the Junior Ranger program. We walked the grounds among the crowds of people answering the questions. My kiddo was sworn in and received his badge as a junior ranger.

We headed to Ellis Island. We were starving, so we decided to grab a bite to eat in the café. It was outrageously crowded so we decided to just grab cold food from the cooler instead of standing in line to order food. We were lucky enough to find a dirty table to sit at.

Ellis Island was very educational and we thoroughly enjoyed the museum. Parker asked lots of questions and I got goosebumps in the giant room where I knew my own ancestors had once stood as immigrants hoping to become American citizens. I got so much more out of this than visiting Lady Liberty.

We returned to the city and hurried to get ready for the theater show Stomp which I had pre-bought tickets for. This was by far the highlight of our trip. There was so much energy and fun in this. I’m not sure if I enjoyed the show more or watching the look and the smile on my son’s face. He was completely enthralled.


We finish the evening with A funky little restaurant in the East Village.  

Day 2

The third day we decided to go see the American Natural History Museum. It was an easy sell to my son, because he seen the movie Night at the Museum. Only after arriving and looking for the Genghis Khan exhibit, were we told that 90% of what is in the movie is fictional. It was a bit of a disappointment, but there was so much to see. We spent several hours wandering through the dinosaur skeletons and the history of the different cultures. You could easily spend more than one day here. Without seeing the entire museum, our feet were aching and it was time to leave. 

We walked around Central Park and pet some of the horses that were attached to carriages. Sweaty, hot, and a bit exhausted we decided to go to Ground Zero. It was tough to explain to my son what the significance of this place holds. I explained about the Twin Towers and how they had been destroyed when terrorists flew planes into them. This led to a deep conversation about evil and why someone would want to do this. 

I was actually very surprised at how emotional this place made me. There are two memorials where the towers had stood. They are fountains that flow into the ground and the names of the victims are displayed in metal along the side. On the name of each victim, a rose is placed on the day of their birthday. Upon seeing the roses, I became a complete and utter emotional mess. I watched a man gently touch a name with a trembling hand and bawl. I could literally feel the tragedy in this place.


We moved from here to Battery Park. We watched some of the street artists, and then took a break under the shade tree enjoying a frozen lemonade. It was a nice reprieve from the heat and walking.

We decided to end our evening with dinner in Hells Kitchen. Instead of researching a restaurant, we decided to just walk along the street and read the menus until we found something we liked. After another amazing dinner and a few drinks, we headed back to our hotel for a restful sleep.

Day 3

Our intention for our last day in New York City was to make the most of it. Honestly, we were just exhausted. We got up early to eat breakfast and then to go play tourist, but we all began dragging our feet. We ended up just taking our time packing our bags and relaxing in the hotel. We decided before lunch to walk down Canal Street where we were told we could get cheap deals on souvenirs. I found it incredibly overwhelming with all the traffic, litter, and people. We walked through Chinatown and the smells physically turned our stomachs and crowds jostled us.

We walked to Katz Deli, one of the oldest delis in New York City. It was crazy busy, and they had to be making a killing at $20 per sandwich. After lunch, we decided it was too hot and we were too tired to do anymore touring. We went to the hotel and picked up our bags and headed for the airport. We hung out in the Admirals Club with free food, drinks, and wifi until it was time to catch our flight to Greece.

3 days is just not enough time in New York City. 

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).

 

400 year old hacienda

Our bus bumped along a small avenue lined with giant century-old eucalyptus trees. Driving
around the fountain in the middle of the driveway, we arrived in front of Hacienda La Cienega. This hacienda is one of the most historical in Ecuador at over 400 years old. It sits at the slopes of the Cotopaxi volcano. Today, it serves as a boutique hotel and restaurant, though its history has been preserved. 


Lunch was a variety of native food. The best part of lunch was when a local band came through and we were serenaded. There was even one Spanish song that I was familiar with and was able to sing along to. 

17342948_10210179874986906_7229302235458948416_nOnce our lunch and singing was over, the band displayed some small musical instruments and CD’s for sale. My son gravitates towards anything musical (or possibly to anything that makes noise) and picked out a flute. A member from the band came and gave him a quick lesson on howFullSizeRender (16) to blow into it in order to make sound.

After lunch we wandered the grounds, viewing the original church and gardens. I had a coffee and enjoyed the shade of the ancient trees.

Rose Plantation

Several times throughout our tour of Ecuador, we heard about their production of roses. They are everywhere, decorating every hotel and restaurant. A17361717_10154131007516920_916788562876517059_nlthough roses are not native to Ecuador, the country has a perfect environment for rose cultivation, and is presently one of the world’s major producers. Ecuador actually exports 400 million roses a day.

We went to a rose plantation near Latacunga.  We ventured under the giant canopy which housed hundreds of rose bushes. These were long stem roses. We could see yellow tags marking the ones that were ready to be picked.

FullSizeRender (15)We walked through the fields outside and then into the final building where the cut roses were taken and checked for quality, de-thorned, sorted, and then put into boxes to be shipped out. We learned about the workers and met several. We were given a rose as a  souvenier.

We finished the tour in the giant refrigerator (that felt a little like heaven) where the ready-to-be-shipped roses waited for pick up.

One fun fact we learned was that if you were to give a rose to your sweetheart in Ecuador, it probably wouldn’t be met with gratitude because they are so cheap. 17309627_10210366764818597_5159556340110574569_n

 

 

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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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.

Exploring Quito

Our first day in Ecuador started early with a buffet breakfast at our hotel. I had expected an Ecuadorian breakfast, but instead the buffet was filled with a western style breakfast: eggs, bacon, sausage, pastries, etc.  If you want the Ecuadorian breakfast, you have to pay  extra for it. Seeing that it consisted largely of soups I stuck with coffee and a muffin.

After breakfast we waited in the Hilton Colon lobby for the other members of our tour group. One thing that stood out was the huge vases of the longstem roses everywhere. It turns out that roses are the second most exported product from Ecuador (oil being number one). They export 400 million roses her day.


We loaded the bus and took off for the Old Town section of Quito. Quito is the capital city of Ecuador is almost 3000 feet above sea level. It’s famed as the highest capital city in the world, and walking around I instantly felt the altitude.

Our first stop was Quito Cathedral. It’s the largest church in South America. This was also a made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Quito has one of the most intact historical centers on the continent.


I was more interested in exploring the area around the Cathedral than paying the fee to go inside. There were great views of the city below. Also, there were many vendors selling coca leaves and candy. Even though it’s illegal to grow coca in Ecuador, they are brought in from Peru and sold. Of course I had to try out the candy, and will say that it is no joke! One piece of candy has the same effect as an energy drink on me. It definitely helped with the altitude.

All amped up on coca candy, we continued our tour of Quito. We went to the Inglesia de la Compania de Jesus (Church of the Society of Jesus). Even though pictures were forbidden inside (so you will buy the postcards), I managed to capture a few. The amount of gold in this church is excessive. Everything is covered in gold.

After getting our shiny fix we ventured through the Plaza de la Independence, the central public square of the city. I watched political groups protest, religious groups sing, and locals sitting on benches having conversations. We walked by lots of vendors peddling ice cream, sunglasses, coca leaves, and clothing for dogs.

As we were heading back to our bus an elderly woman bumped into one of our group members. After getting settled onto the bus our group member realized that the clumsy elderly lady had relieved her of her iPhone that was in a pocket in her backpack. I helped her track the phone and then wipe it with the Find My Iphone app. We were told that Iphones are not imported into Ecuador and can be sold for up to $1800.

I was happy to be heading out of the city.