Sunday, November 29, 2009

Amazon & Cuenca

Sacha Lodge - 00 29.2S 76 26.3W 2hrs down river from Coca, Ecuador

After a 45 min flight to Coca, we were met by a bus and taken to Sacha's City House for a box lunch and briefing. We then all piled into the long motorized canoe for a two hour ride down the meandering river. The skilled driver managed to find his way down the river without hitting any of the many downed trees or sand bars. We then had a 20 minute hike through the woods on a boardwalk in the rain to arrive at the black water lake, so called due to the high tannin content making it rather dark. A short paddle by canoe brought us to the lodge where we were served some drinks and apps while told a bit more about our coming activities before being shown to our very nice cabins. At 7:00 we got our rubber boots, at 7:30 we had a scrumptious dinner, and at 8:30 we got to appreciate our rubber boots during a night walk.

We saw many grasshoppers and crickets, a few tree frogs, a small snake, many spiders and a few stick insects (like a praying mantis). My favorite was the tree frogs, with their cute toes and big eyes. The late night was followed by and early 6:00 wake up for our first hike out towards the northeast corner of the reserve which included monkeys, some birds, and some neat descriptions of what some of the plants are used for by our native Spanish speaking guide Benjamin while our English speaking naturalist guide, Fernando, translated and discussed the insects we were seeing. Bill unfortunately got stung by a Bullet Ant, so called due to the pain involved in the sting. Luckily, he got hit on the leg muscle, which isn't quite as bad as a fatty area or highly sensitive areas like the hands. He recovered after lunch in time to fish for paranahs (no luck unfortunately, but they ate a lot of our bait) and at 4:00 we went to the top of a large tree via a wooden observation tower to bird-watch. Never thought we would enjoy birding so much, but it was quite enjoyable to find the colorful birds amongst the tree tops and view them either via my travel binoculars (thanks dad...they are great!) or the spotting scope Fernando had brought. We stayed in the tree till the sun went down and canoed back in the dark, looking for caimans, a smaller cousin of the crocodile (though not that small).

Our second full day started at 5:30 for a very early morning viewing from the steel canopy walk. Again, we were mostly bird watching, seeing toucans, parakeets, and many other colorful birds. The walk back included more monkeys, including a pygmy marmoset up close and personal. Our afternoon activity was a short hike followed by a relaxing canoe ride back to the lodge to finish off an amazing day.

Our last morning was a later start, then we replayed the arrival procedure in reverse, canoeing across the lake, hiking to the river, and motoring back to coca, then onto a plane to Quito. We followed that flight with one to Cuenca.

Cuenca - South-East Ecuador

We arrived late afternoon and found our hotel, Casa Ordonez, an amazingly restored colonial home still owned by the grandson of an old Cuenca land-owner, who used to own the entire block and much else before the 2nd generation blew the fortune by not working and gambling. He spoke excellent english, having served in the US Navy for 6 years. We went to a wonderful french restaurant for our Thanksgiving Dinner (how very american of us).

For Black Friday (not quite the holiday here that it is back in the states), we went to the Central Bank Museum, which includes a floor of art, a floor of cultural exhibits describing the different regions of Ecuador, a floor of archialogical finds from the ruins out back showing pre-Incan civilization and some info on the Incan & Colonial eras, as well as a floor showing the history of Ecuadorian currency, the most interesting exhibit as far as I was concerned. It gave an appreciation for our founding fathers establishing a central bank as Ecuador had several different currencies offered by the large banks in the country until the 1930's when they created a central bank and offered Sucre until the 90's when hyper inflation forced them to adopt the US dollar.

Saturday was the travel day from hell, spending almost 8 hours on buses before getting home to the boat at about 7:45. Now our vacation is over and it is time to get back to work so we can leave La Libertad on Thursday next week.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Roads... We don't need no stinkin' roads!

Quilatoa Loop & Banos – SSE of Quito

We parted ways with Sierra Rob & Emma 0n Tuesday the 17th and spent our morning at the French Consulate finally getting our French Polynesian temporary long stay visas glued into our passports. We then rented a car and headed south on the Panamerican Highway toards a loop of road called the Quilatoa loop. Getting off the highway a bit north of Latacunga, we headed west on some dirt roads. Shortly thereafter the worst detour in the world had us off-roading over dirt berms and up crazy switchbacks. The front wheel drive hyundai suv barely made it, but eventually we got back onto the normal dirt & cobbled road on our way to the Black Sheep Inn, located at about 11,000 feet near the town of Chucchilan. We settled in there while Bill got lost on a run up the mountain, getting back just in time for dinner. Served family style, the vegetarian meals where a nice time to meet the other travelers. We met two Washingtonites, Mac & Frouda (sp?), a Canadian/Finnish/Indian mas San, and a young Aussie, Neda...all very interesting and friendly people. Wednesday we took a local guide, drove partway up the mountain, and hiked up into the cloudforest, a high altitude (12,500') tropical forest. It had amazing trees and plants and more moss than you could shake a stick at. Luckily, the clouds parted for our lunch and we were treated to some amazing views of the surrounding countryside. After lunch, Mom & Bill hiked back down the mountain in the rain while Zak and I got very lost trying to drive back. After an hour and a half offr-oading on mountain ridges, we finally found our way back nd all enjoyed an afternoon near the fire reading and talking, while it rained outside.

Thursday morning we left the lodge with Neda keeping us company and drove to the Quilatoa Lake, set within a dormant volcanic crater. The day was incredibly clear and you could see the mountain peaks behind the large crater. We hiked up to 12,800 feet, the highest we have ever been as well as about 1/3rd of the way down the crater towards the lake before turning back to have enough time to see the rest of the loop. Our next stop was the artisan cooperative in Tigua where some talented painters do their work in a distinctive style on sheep hides. We bought a few keepsakes and one medium sized painting and were back on our way. Around 2:00 we dropped Neda off in Puji (we thought it was Latacunga till we got there 5 miles further down the road –oops, but we were sure Neda had already caught a bus by then, headed south towards Cuenca). In Latacunga, we rejoined the Panamerican Highway and headed up to Saquisili, in search of the famous markets. It seems all but the food markets were closed up by 3, so we wandered around, grabbed luch for the following day and headed to our hotel in San Mateo.

Friday, the weather was overcast, so we skipped our planned visit to mount Cotopaxi and headed southeast towards Banos, a resort town famous for their hot baths and active volcano. We arrived at our hotel in time to make lunch in their kitchen and meet Sophie, stepdaughter of Charles who rode bikes across Tibet with Uncle Matt, and the reason we were staying at the Casa Verde Lodge. In the afternoon we walked around town and made plans for the following day before heading to the baths and a great mexican dinner with Sophie and two of her adult friends in town.

Saturday Bill, Jo, San (who we caught up to the afternoon before), and I hiked up to the ridge overlooking the town (not very pretty really with a fairly dirty city in the foreground, and then we all (zak included) rented bikes for a 17k ride down the valley of cascades. We saw several amazing waterfalls, finishing up with Boca Diablo, the Devil's Mouth. Bill rode home while we took a truck up the hills.

Sunday we left Banos early and found our way, eventually, back to Cotopaxi, an amazing snow capped volcano and national park. We have to say, if it was as hard to find, and drive on the roads in american national parks, no one would ever go, but the views were amazing and well worth the sore back from the rough drive. We then drove back to Quito in prep for our flight this morning to Coca and our stay in the Sacha Jungle lodge.

Also note that Zak's Flikr album is now linked to on the right and is being updated more often, so go there to see some pics from our adventures.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

North of Quito Wrap Up, and Zuletta Nirvana/ Captain on the Hard

Chugchilan, Ecuador


R,S, & E have left Ecuador (Booooo). We are now south of Quito on the well known Quilatoa loop, but  a few northern stories remain that should be told as we move on. When we stayed in Peguche, we hiked to the "cascada" , the falls that give the town it's name (see a picture in an earlier post). Peguche in Spanish means "breath, or vapors, of the water" and these falls hold spiritual powers in the eyes of indigenous peoples. Looking closely, you can see a mystic cloud over the falls, and one can understand a sense of reverence that accompanies it. Through the ages, the indigina have used the waters for ritual baths, cleansing, and empowerment. I could not help but take a moment to steal Emma away and  anoint and bathe her with water from the falls. In the future, if Emma develops telekinesis, or can foretell the future, you might have me to blame!


I enjoyed several special experiences at Hacienda Zuleta. Their condor restoration project continues to grow, and it was noted that the 8 wild condors we saw that morning were about 20% of the entire wild condor population of Ecuador – which really put things into perspective for me. The view from the aptly named "Valley of the Condors" was spectacular in every direction, but I left the group and their horses to bicycle back to the hacienda, through the town, and up an adjacent ridge. The views were golden, but roads were paved in cobblestone, and it was a jarring ride up hills steep enough to relieve me from the saddle for short periods.


The roads turned to dirt, and farmland was tilled through 45 degree inclines. Thomas, the manager at Zuleta, had described a hiking trail atop the roads that crested the ridge, and I managed to make it up to a vista that looked down the other side to the fairly sizable city of Ibarra below. While there was a small lake further around the volcano I was circumnavigating, I turned back - both tired and unwilling to miss even one meal at our hacienda. The ride down was hairy, as I constantly reminded myself to sit back and not to squeeze the front brake. I later learned that I climbed just shy of 3000'.


Earlier that morning while at the condor aviary, Thomas had described a hike further up into the valley through some of the last virgin high altitude jungle/cloud forest in Ecuador or all of South America. I was intrigued, but we had less than one morning left for the 4 hour hike. In light of my interest, Thomas arranged an early morning start the next day, but no one else elected to accept a 6 AM alarm. This became another unforgettable experience as I and my guide Antonio set off at 0630. We hiked along a stream through the valley (forded it no less than a dozen times up and down) and then up towards the jungle as my guide described various medicinal plants, birds, and flowers. He was excited to find a feather from a large wild bird. Good luck, it quickly adorned the band of his fedora-like hat. Part of the "trail" had been cut earlier that month and we somewhat easily followed a path up to the first set of falls. Beyond that, I learned to stay at least two machete swing lengths behind trail cutting Antonio. The jungle was thick and thorny in places and moss covered trees were covered in vines that criss-crossed the trail. One quickly learned to sense the grip of a vine over your foot, and I was thankful for the hat that protected my head from low hanging branches. Our ultimate goal was "los cavos", or "the caves" and Antonio had not been there this year. It was necessary to radio the hacienda and check directions, but we found the trail and continued up. We were pushing the clock at this point, but my guide really wanted me to reach our goal. After passing the first set, we made it to the second. They were large enough to be home to jungle fauna; we found footprints of a large cat outside. We were the first visitors of the season, and nearby we spotted the body of a young jaguar – about 2 ½ feet long. I realized how special this was when the guide radioed down to talk of our find. The jaguar carries a powerful spirit and Antonio took the tip of the tail and one paw for good luck. As we headed home, we stopped and whistled every fifty yards or so in order for the spirits to follow us down into the valley. Very cool!


I made it back in time for a quick shower, and joined the rest of the crew for an 11 Am taxi to Otovalo, where the story continues…


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hacienda Zuletta

Hacienda Zuleta - NE of Quito, Ecuador - 00 12.1N 78 05.2W - 8963' Elevation

We arrived at Zuleta on Monday morning after a longer than expected cab ride over the cobbled mountain roads from Ibarra through the towns of Esparanza and Angochagua. We were greeted by Thomas, the German manager of the Family home of a famous Ecuadorian family and previous President. The Farm includes over 5000 acres of land and abuts even larger preserve areas, over 100 horses, several hundred cows for production of milk and cheese, organic gardens and a small city of workers who all have been working the farm for generations and have their own small houses, plots, and cows strewn about the land. The guest house is amazing, with 14 guest rooms, a beautiful living room, library, kitchen, dining room, entertainment spaces, and a wonderful enclosed courtyard that is a wonderful place in the afternoon to catch a little of the VERY strong sun.

We were shown our rooms, noted the fresh flowers strewn about (including in the toilets) and had an amazing lunch, starting with three of their cheeses, Barely soup, and chicken with a sweet onion reduction, to be followed by home made vanilla and mandarin ice cream. Thoroughly stuffed, we headed on a hike up to about 10,300 feet where a wonderful view of "The Valley of the Condors" awaited us along with wonderful vistas of the surrounding mountains. We got back in time for a shower, short rest, and then some of their aged cheeses, including a 6 month aged cheddar, and an 8 month aged pepper Jack that were almost as intense and hard as Parmesan or Pecarino cheeses. Dinner followed with a Quinoa soup that was to die for and some wonderful Pork tenderloin. After cofee and some more time around the fire, we retired to our rooms to find a fire blazing and hot water bottles in our beds...quite luxurious.

Tuesday morning we were up for an 8:00 breakfast with fresh from the farm yogurt and eggs/pancakes to order. Mom, Sierra, Zak, and I then got dressed for horseback riding and met our horses while Bill got a mountain-bike and Rob took care of Emma. We all met at the Condor Habitation Project the Hacienda runs (Rob & Emma by Jeep) to see both captive breeding Condors and their wild friends who come to visit each day. Ecuadorian Condors are quite beautiful (except for their heads) and Huge with at least 8 foot wingspans (hard to tell really). The viewing was superb as the wild ones (juveniles as well as adults) flew around and landed on the cages. After 20 mins of viewing we mounted back up with our guide Andres, Bill got on his bike for a solo ride up to 12,000 feet for a view across the valley, and Rob and Emma hiked back to the house.

We had an excellent ride, covering much of the Zuleta lands, and saw our guide's house on the side of a hill and many beautiful vistas of the mountains as well as the valley below. We returned at about 1:30, just in time for a lunch of Grilled Trout with Lemon Butter, caught that morning from the Hacienda's Trout Farm. It was this amazing salmon like pink/orange color and was some of the best fish I have ever had. For the afternoon, we saw the calf's in their barn (Sierra & Zak offering their hands to be suckled on) and then went to the manual milking shed to watch the local women milk the cows. They are amazingly fast, getting about 4 gallons of milk from a cow in just a few minutes. We all tried, Bill having the best technique, and then headed back to the house for a few hours of relaxing and showers before dinner. Our final big meal was Swiss chard soup and a rice and chicken souffle, followed by a HUGE flan made in a bunt cake pan.

This morning Bill left at 6:30 for a 3+ hour hike into the 300 year old primary forest, which I will let him talk about separately while we had another nice breakfast and then a tour of the cheese factory where they process over 6000 liters of milk per day. We finished off our morning with a tour of the organic gardens where they grow all the food for the Hacienda as well as send boxes of fresh veggies to the Owner's family each week.

Next we head to Otavalo to see the Wednesday Market. More on that later.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In Quito/Captain on the Hard

Quito, Ecuador


Nine thousand three feet high yet only15 miles south of the equator, Quito is proving itself to be a charming, yet modern city. In several ways, it reminds me of Cartegena, another South American city we have explored. There is a well preserved and UNESCO protected old city adorned with winding narrow streets and flower filled balconies. Every where you turn you might find a Church glittering in gold leaf, or a plaza teaming with people and trees in bloom. Adjacent to this, one also finds a modern city with all it's entrapments including fancy hotels and shopping.


In terms of history, once again we are looking back multiples of thousand of years. One reads of 5000 year old artifacts and throws around terms such as "Pre-Columbian", as Quito is named after the Quitua Amerindians, an indigenous people who lived at the most northern extent of the South American Inca empire. Initially overthrown in a Peruvian invasion, Quito became a Spanish subcolony in the late 1500's. A proliferation of grandiose churches followed and later, Quito became known for painters and a prototypical genre of artists. Of course, time was also marked with fires that razed the city, revolutions, and rebellions. Ecuador became independent in 1830, within the wave of independence that flowed through Latin America in the early 19th century.


I arrived in Quito late November 6th accompanied by our long awaited visitors, Emma, Rob, and Sierra. Emma is proving to be quite the traveler. She plays and occupies herself quite nicely – although it helps that this youngest generation (hereby dubbed  by me as gen-i), grows up thinking that it is normal to watch Curious George movies on your dad's iphone while you are flying south of the equator on vacation. Jo, Gram, and Zak were waiting for us, and the three bags of boat parts and treats I carried, (thanks, M&D) at the hotel.


In Quito, we walked and absorbed the ambience of the old city. Our first stop was the Church of La Compania de Jesus, reputed to be the most grandiose church in all of Latin America. Cavernous and dripping with gold leaf, the ornate ceiling is known as the Cistene Chapel of South America. The church suffered a fire in the mid 1990's and there was much damage. Most of the ceiling was covered in soot, plaster fell from the water of hoses, and beautiful details were lost. Ultimately, it was felt that the church was so incredibly Baroque that it had to be fixed, and after a decade long restoration it re-opened several years ago. Curiously, a singular face in a ceiling frieze was left untouched and remained darkened with soot. We felt that this was an attempt to be PC. Afterwards, we strolled towards lunch. The plazas teemed with people, and we found a typical lunch in the oldest café in the city. We visited the arboretum in the afternoon, and then headed back to our hotel.


The neighborhood we stayed in, the Mariscal, bridges the old and the new city. It was a popular area for small hotels, tour agencies, well equipped outdoor stores, and was alive with nightlife. We were tired enough so that any night time antics were barely a bother. Dinner was at an Argentinean grilled meat restaurant, where we enjoyed some of the best meats any of us had ever had – very memorable.


After Quito, we will begin our exploration of the areas to the north. Volcanoes, lakes, local markets, and table cloths leather jackets await us.   More to follow soon.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Peguche Waterfall Before Breakfast

Peguche Ecuador 00 14.3 N 78 14.3W

Back in the Northern Hemisphere, we went to a beautiful lake in Cotatachi as well as some amazing leather markets where Zak got a new jacket. Dinner and evening Scatergories was held at Casa Del Sol in Peguche where this morning we went for a quick hike to this beautiful waterfall.

This afternoon we head to Hacienda Zuletta for 2 days of hiking, biking, horseback riding, and relaxing in an organic dairy farm.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Dinner with Emma

Quito Ecuador

A wonderful dinner at an Argentinean Steak House was the highlight of the day that included visits to some pretty spectacular churches and some cool streets as well as the botanical gardens. Emma had Spegetti and enjoyed much of it, leaving the rest on the floor.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Updated Pictures

No real news except that the sun finally came out yesterday and today Zak finished his Open Water Diver Certification, so now can dive with us. Also had enough time to finally upload some new pics to the Picassa Web Albums (or see link on right hand side at the top).

Still more photos to go, plus a timelapse video of the Canal to create and upload. If only there were about 40 hours in a day.