countin' the days

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Temperatures Rise as the Pace Slows Down

I headed 6 hours farther south down the Panamericana, the mountainous road that cuts straight down through the Andes of Ecuador, on a particularly miserable bus ride (see previous post for the failed attempts at taking the train). It was a foggy, bumpy, uncomfortable, and long ride... but the next stop was well worth it. Cuenca is an endlessly charming old colonial city, just the right kind of size to make it completely walkable, approachable, intriguing, and delightful all at the same time. It was also the warmest place I´d been yet. Frankly, I felt like I was back in Spain. This doesn´t come as too much of a surprise, seeing how the Spaniards are responsible for all of its architecture and city planning (much of which dates from the 16th century). I spent days lounging in beautiful parks, eating delicious helado (ice cream), wandering the streets, seeking out vegetarian cuisine, admiring churches, and even enjoying a budget-extending raucous night out in a city that really does feel decidedly European and sophisticated in a very nonchalant kind of way -- just like Spain, but minus the flamenco.

Mostly, Lauren and I took it easy in Cuenca, but we did have a very unexpected adventure one day. We read in the guidebook about the local University-run Orquideario, a nursery where they house and grow all species of orchids from Ecuador. We jumped on a local bus to get there, but after seeing absolutely no signs at all and traveling for some 15 minutes along increasingly empty-looking roads out of town, we realized we´d gone too far and turned around. We got on the same bus headed in the opposite direction, and asked the driver to drop us at the University. Instead, we ended up back in downtown Cuenca. Ok, new plan. We ate lunch and decided to grab a taxi this time. However, our taxi driver had never heard of this strange orquideario word we kept repeating, nor the street it was listed to be on. And neither had the other 12 taxi drivers he asked. Hmmm... eventually someone actually picked up the phone at the university and gave me slightly confusing directions from a nearby hotel. Well, we made it to the hotel but wandered around in the heat for half an hour until finally a kind woman at the hotel, the first person who´d heard the word, directed us to it. We rejoiced when we finally found the one and only sign hidden down a dirt path. The good news was this place was well worth it. It housed over 500 kinds of orchids of all shapes, sizes and colors, some of which could have easily passed for space aliens or deep sea creatures. It was amazing.

Eventually we decided it was time to check out the beach. We´d heard a lot about this place called Montañita, famous for its excellent surfing waves and the party scene. It was nice to be at the beach, but wasn´t quite what I had imagined. First of all, it was hot. Really hot. And when it wasn´t hot, it was rainy. But ok... it is the beach in Ecuador after all. Second, it was pretty touristy. I recognize the fact that I am endlessly biased after spending so much time on so many amazing beaches in Southeast Asia, but the truth is that tourist towns don´t do it for me anymore, and for better or worse it takes a damn nice beach to impress me. Third, we arrived on a Friday night to find the place disgustingly packed full of locals from Guayaquil with no free hotel room in sight. After a good 90 minutes of wandering around, we did eventually snag a room way far down the beach, but it wasn´t exactly a friendly welcome. But no matter. Fortunately, once the weekend passed the city folk went back home and the place chilled way out. I spent most of my time lying in the hammock outside of our room, reading my Bob Marley biography, and going for the occasional swim. We were lucky enough to have 2 really awesome surfer dude neighbors, who provided plenty of fun company and good times. And the absolute best thing about Montañita were the little roadside beach bar stands, chock full of fresh tropical fruits and plenty of alcohol for whipping up incredible and cheap cocktails. I had the best mojitos ever, all four of which went down far too easily... luckily, I had that hammock right outside the door to get me through the next day.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Happy Days in the Central Highlands

Supposedly, one of the classic journeys in Ecuador is to take a train ride on an old steam locomotive through a treacherous stretch of high mountainous tracks called "The Devil´s Nose." The ride originates in Riobamba, a mellow non-touristy town in the Central Highlands surrounded on all sides by gorgeous mountains. Lauren & I specifically headed there to take this train ride, but things played out quite differently than we had planned on.

Our first attempt to take the train was unsuccessful, since the train decided not to run on the first day following carnval. So rather than wait two more days in the city, we opted to go 40 km away to the base of the mighty Volcano Chimborazo and enjoy the outdoors. This was an excellent call. We stayed at a tiny hostel that used to be a train station on the now-extinct railroad, and were treated to home-cooked meals, generous hospitality, and absolutely breathtaking weather & views all around. I even learned to play chess from a French climber staying there who had summitted SIX mountains in 10 days!!! The following day, we went for a lovely hike along the old railroad tracks, casually taking in the scenery and exchanging enthusiastic waves & smiles with the locals. We even made friends with a local girl who was walking a donkey down the road, and she asked us if we would so kindly give her a little gift of candies. Unfortunately for her, not only did we not have any candy on us, but I adamantly refuse to give those kinds of gifts away to people who don´t have access to dental care. Sadly, many tourists choose to give candy away though, and primarily to children.

Finally, we headed back to the city for Round 2 of the train excursion. And guess what? We failed again. It turned out the train for the following day had already been booked up, so we we were flat out of luck yet again. But not all was lost. Randomly, while eating a delicious lunch of potato cakes, eggs, salad, avocado and beets at the market, we met 2 guys originally from Riobamba who have been living in New Jersey for the past decade, Vinny & Carlos. They couldn´t have been nicer people, and immediately took it upon themselves to show us the best possible time in their hometown. And that they did. The first night, after taking us out to dinner at a delicious pizza restaurant, we went back to Vinny´s apartment and climbed up to the 4th floor of his building to watch the nearby Volcano Tungurahua spewing out surreal clouds of glowing red lava. It was my first time ever seeing an active volcano erupting!

We also met up with another Carlos, one of their buddies from high school. It turned out that he owns a hacienda (farm) up in the mountains about a half hour outside of Riobamba, and he is a professional horse trainer. Our three new friends had been trying desperately to convince us to stay an extra day in Riobamba, and it took one mention of the phrase "riding horses" to instantly convince to utter a very enthusiastic: OK!!!!

It turned out to be easily one of the greatest days we´ve had in Ecuador. We spent the day hiking around the hacienda through the beautiful and foggy Andes, rode beautiful horses, were treated to a huge and delicious lunch, and even tried our hands at milking cows! Lauren was an instant pro, but I couldn´t quite figure it out. It was still fun nonetheless. The fun continued back in Riobamba that night, when after a decandent dinner of "the best ice cream in the world" (according to Vinny), we danced the night away at Vinny´s farewell party with a dozen of our new, wonderful Ecuadorian friends. The fun we had could never have been matched by a train ride with a bunch of tourists. Once again, a change in the plans turned out to be the best course of action. Vinny, Carlos and Carlos showed us exceptional hospitality and we are incredibly grateful to them for everything they did for us. ¡Grácias, amigos!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Carnaval is quite the celebration in Ecuador. It´s nothing like the classic Brazilian carnaval, or the New Orleans Mardi Gras, it´s something uniquely Ecuadorian. Basically, everyone stops working for a full 4 days (sometimes more), and does this: covers everyone in buckets of water, sprays cans of "carnaval foam" on young and old, parades down the street in lovely costumes and homemade floats, plays slightly altered versions of this same damn annoying carnaval song over and over, and drinks more alcohol than the body should ever see.

I traveled to Guaranda, a small highland town that rarely sees many visitors. But during this time each year, tens of thousands of people (mostly Ecuadorians) pour into town to celebrate their famous carnaval. I had two partners in crime: Lauren, my awesome travel buddy of the moment, and Chris, a Brit we met in Quito who decided to come along for the ride. Being gringos, we were extra special targets for hits of water, foam, and flour; but we fought back with a vengeance. Armed with our own cans of the disgusting, pastel-colored, bathroom-cleaner-smelling crap (think: silly string meets shaving cream, but gone wrong), we moved in and retaliated on every group that doused us with the nasty stuff. It was super fun.

We spent a few hours wandering through the craziness, and then finally got some nice seats right on the street to watch the dancers & partiers pass by. But just like everywhere else in the town, this was a primo spot for getting sprayed -- in the face -- with that dreaded foam. As an added and unexpected bonus, our hotel room had a killer view right out the window onto the parade, so we spent the rest of the day watching from the comfort & privacy of our own room -- and of course throwing foam and flour down on all the people below us (hee hee).

It has, however, had a bit of an expiration date for me. I mean, it´s plenty of fun to get attacked by water, flour, foam, and eggs for a day, but two... three... FOUR... I´m over it. Tonight is the end of it though, and at the moment I have to admit I´m hiding out in an internet cafe to avoid being drenched by the groups of dudes in the back of pickup trucks driving around the city to cover people in water.

Oh yeah, it´s also my 26th birthday. In case you´re interested in the statistics, it´s my 3rd birthday in a row abroad. And the 4th out of the last 5 that I´ve been abroad. It went like this: Spain, Davis, Thailand, Kenya & Tanzania, Ecuador. Dizzamn! Been all around this world.

A Few of My Favorite Things

It´s only been a week , but already I´m falling in love with so many things in Ecuador. Here are a few:

The bus rides. Although not every traveler would agree with me, due to the condition of the old clunkers they use to transport people and their belongings across many kilometers of often sketchy roads, the scenery is so unbelievably spectacular that it makes up for any discomfort. Just yesterday I took a ride from Guaranda to Riobamba on a road which literally circles around Volcano Chimborazo -- at a startling 20,823 feet, this gorgeous snow-capped beast is the highest mountain in all of the Americas north of here and actually the furthest point from the center of the Earth. A few days before that I left Quito on a bus that climbed across Andean ridges, over 13,000 feet, while poncho-clad indigenous folks cultivated their plots of land on the steep slopes. They are all quite literally jaw-dropping journeys. I also have to admit that I love the deafening music (cúmbia or reggaetón ONLY) they play during the ride, it just matches the view so perfectly.

The fruit stands. This is nothing new for me, that is: adoring exotic tropical fruits and the colorful and delightful ways in which they are displayed around the world. But with each new country comes brand new types of fruit. Lately, I´ve been enjoying the mora (raspberry), claudia (yellow and plum-like), and uvilla (tiny orange and a tad bitter). Plus, due to Ecuador´s climate, I am enjoying insanely cheap and delicious versions of my old favorites: avocados, pineapples, and bananas.

The plazas. Europe was the first place that taught me to adore the plaza, a public space of enjoyment and relaxation, usually including a fountain or monument, and often adjoined by a beautiful church or gardens. Each of Ecuador´s cities and towns are teeming with lovely plazas. Each one is charming, and an iglésia is usually not far away. And you can rest assured to find an older Ecuadorian man reclining on a bench, wearing the classic black brimmed hat, watching you walk by and gracing you with a simple "buenas."