Ecuador – A Farewell

Here we are, Intrepid Readers; the stories of my final week in Ecuador.

Picking up where we had left off, I had finally made it to Cuenca and checked into my fancy pants hotel room and then proceeded to take my first hot shower in 2 weeks and go to bed. And what a fluffy, comfortable bed it was.

While I had been in transit to Cuenca, I received a text from Nancy saying that she was in Cuenca until Monday. So, when I woke up Sunday, after a delightful breakfast, I headed to the bus terminal to meet with Nancy and some new friends of hers to go to nearby Ruins called Ingapirca. Nancy was a little bit late showing up, so we missed the bus and ran for a taxi for a short ride so that we could intercept our bus at their next pickup location.

Ingapirca, was, well, I’m not going to spend much time on it. The surrounding area was beautiful, but the posted information on signs throughout the ruins weren’t particularly informative and there wasn’t much to look at except some low stone walls. We had to take a tour guide through the ruins, and he was not the best tour guide I’ve ever had, so Ingapirca was not the best experience I’ve ever had. At the end, however, was this cool sun-stage with stone windows facing east and west. The Incas were some crazy precise people when it came to their culture of building stone shit and worshipping the sun. We were told on every Summer Solstice, the sun would shine directly into one of the four windows facing east when it rose, and would shine directly into one of the other four windows facing west when it set. The same held true for the Winter Solstice and the Autumnal and Vernal Equinoxes. So anyway, here are some pictures of Ingapirca and the Sun-Stage.

After Ingapirca, Nancy and I headed back with her friends back to Cuenca for a late lunch/early dinner. Here’s the thing about Cuenca. It is a fantastic little city, but quite nearly everything is closed on Sundays, so finding a place to eat was surprisingly difficult. We ended up eating at the hostel where they were staying. Later in the evening we headed out to see a big holiday event occurring in Cuenca called San Cristobal to celebrate the upcoming Winter Solstice. The main square was literally ringed with vendors selling on manor of cookies, candies, pastries and marmalade Guinea Pigs. It was an endless array of pastel colors and enticing sweets, and I was all too happy to take part.

The big event for the evening, however, are the fireworks. Now, before I go any further, Ecuador takes their fireworks seriously. I mean, really seriously. There are an interactive event, whether you choose to be a part of it or not. These fireworks are not out on a barge in the middle of the lake while everyone sits 300 feet away and oohs and ahhs. These fireworks are in the middle of the crowds, or directly over the crowds.

For example, the beginning of the fireworks these men came out with these fiberglass animals – elephants, reindeer, horses – and they are lined with sparkler style fireworks that every so often shoot out something similar to a Roman Candle. So, these men are dancing while holding these fiberglass animals over their heads, with all these crazy sparklers going off in every direction and when it was time for the roman candle things to go off, they would aim them into the crowd. I’m not exaggerating or making this up, they actually aimed explosives at people, and the crowd would just giggle and brush it off.

If this was in the United States, the people dancing would be arrested, the people who planned the event would be arrested, the city would be sued and the people who provided the fireworks in the first place would be sued.

Then, after the dancing animals were done, these scaffolding pillars of fireworks were set off, and most of them lasted about 5-6 minutes. Scaffolding pillars of fireworks. What does that even mean? Well, they were this 12-foot monstrosities with pinwheels and mortars and giant sparklers all over. First the sparklers would go off and eventually light the fireworks on pinwheels, so once they started going off, the pinwheels would rotate sending sparks everywhere. Then the mortar fuses would get lit and giant fireworks were set off right over our heads. There were four of these towers, and each one was set off one after the other, and people gathered close around them without any seeming fear of their safety. I stayed far the hell away, because I am weak American, raised with a healthy fear of all things that explode.

With the excitement of the fireworks I complete, I said my farewell to Nancy, who was leaving for Quito that night, and returned to my hotel room and luxuriated in another hot shower before going to bed. Am I not the most exciting person with whom you’ve had the pleasure of reading about?

Monday, I woke up far earlier than I would have liked and stumbled down for breakfast and tea before heading out for my Monday plans. My first stop was a short walk out of the main core of the city to a hat factory called Homero Ortega, the original maker of Panama Hats. Panama hats, you ask? Aren’t in Cuenca, in Ecuador, you ask?

Yes. And you’ve done been lied to.

Panama Hats are from Cuenca, Ecuador. Homero Ortega made them for workers on the Panama Canal, and, while visiting how work was going, our own Teddy Roosevelt wore one and made them famous, and thus the name Panama Hat was born. As it turns out, these Panama Hats can be quite fast to make, by handmade standards, roughly 3 days, and cost about 20 dollars. OR they can be made ultra-fine by constantly splitting strands of straw over and over again and taking the utmost care to weave them, in which case one hat takes about 8 months to make and costs about $3000.

Naturally, I bought a $3000 hat. (I did not do that.)

Other fun facts about Homero Ortega – they made the hat Bryan Crasnton wears in Breaking Bad. I HAVE PROOF!

Also, many movies have featured iconic hats worn by famous persons are from Homero Ortega, like a certain movie archeologist. My photo of that did not turn out, so you’ll just need to trust me on that one.

Yes, well, moving on. After my Panama Hat experience, I went and discovered more of Colonial Cuenca by visiting their open market, which was like a microcosm of Otavalo market, and wandered around an open-air mall displaying handmade crafts by local artisans. I picked up a few gifts, but what they are is a secret.

After some lunch, I took a walk along the river that flow between Old City and the newer build areas of the City, Rio Tomebamba. I was specifically looking for the bridge where Melissa used to sit when she was studying in Cuenca, 9 years ago. I did, in fact, find said bridge. OBSERVE!

cuenca bridge

After sharing the same experience with Melissa, separated only by time, I made my way back up the center of the city to visit another hat factory and take some photos of the main square before it got filled with more festival goers and firework towers for the evening. I simply spent the rest of the day meandering about the city, sightseeing.

Dinner that evening was tough as Cuenca is almost exclusively a cash only town, and I was low on cash that evening. Restaurants that took cards were more catered to tourists and almost all Italian restaurants and pizzerias. I thought about taking out some cash, but nearly every ATM I passed had people of questionable intent hanging around. I decided not to chance the prospect of getting mugged or worse and accepted dinner would be pasta or pizza.

Tuesday, while at breakfast, I met a guy slightly older than me visiting from New York. We’ll call him Jean-Luc. That’s not his real name, but it’s close enough to what his name actually was. Jean-Luc had just got into town and was looking for some things to do, and since I had just wandered the city and made a small mental list of other things I wanted to see while wandering around Monday, he and I teamed up and did some more exploring of Cuenca.

We spent the morning at a small museum that had quite the vast collection of stone tools and artifacts, including statues, bowls and, um, ‘instruments’ intended for womanly pleasure. There wasn’t a whole lot of written information, but just the number of pieces they had was overwhelming. I lost all those photos when my phone was stolen, so you’ll just have to trust me. We also went to the ruins of the Cañari people. These again weren’t much to look at, with even less information provided, so I was looking at stone walls and some holes in the ground. I think the whole place was being renovated or something, because almost all the exhibits in the attached museum were closed. So, for us, the Pumapungo Ruins were a bit of a bust.

Just outside the city was a viewpoint called Turi that overlooked the valley Cuenca is situated in, but alas, that was also a bust, because as soon as we got there, the clouds settled in and the rain lasted the rest of the day. To make up for it, we went to this fancy pants restaurant that was one of the top-rated places to eat in Ecuador and paid a whole $12 a person for lunch. I wish fine dining in the US had the same price attached to it. Afterwards, we had ice cream sundaes, because we are adults.

Finally, Jean-Luc was interested in finding an art-gallery. One of his interests is to buy a piece of local artwork from the places he travels to. I would be interested to see his place, I’m sure he’s got a very eclectic style on display at his house, with plenty of stories to match. We found a few art galleries listed, and when we got to where they said they were, they all no longer existed. So, Tuesday in Cuenca was a bit of a bust.

We met up for dinner later in the evening for some beers and Columbian Style arepas, which are dense corn based pancake-like breads topped with meat, cheese and various other toppings. There is also a Venezuelan style of arepa which is a little less dense and filled, instead of topped, sort of like a pita pocket. That’s what I thought we were getting, I didn’t know that Columbian Style was so different. It was still delicious though. After dinner, we headed back and I took what would end up being my last hot shower until returning to Lima, then went to bed to wake up for an early morning on Wednesday.

Wednesday morning, I had breakfast with Jean-Luc then checked out and got a taxi to the airport to fly back to Quito. I could have saved a bunch of money by taking another Bus to Quito, but that was like an 8 or 9-hour bus ride and I wanted to have another afternoon to see more of Quito, so I opted for the flight.

Returning to Quito, I checked into the hostel I stayed at when I first arrived in Ecuador, the Secret Garden, and then immediately set out to see other parts of the Colonial Old Town I had not seen earlier. It turns out I had already seen most of it, so I headed back to Calle La Ronda, where the artisans were, to pick up a few gifts. As I was heading out of the last shop, I noticed some very dark clouds starting to roll in, so I opted to head back for the hostel and cut my losses. Weather and I were not getting along these past two days.

While I was walking back, I cut through the main square, where a protest against Capitalism and GMOs was occurring. It was interesting to observe and the skies were holding out, so I stuck around to take some pictures and see if I could understand what they were saying. I didn’t understand everything, but the basic jist was the protesters were upset in what they state complicity in the sellout between the country’s economy and the control foreign (read: American) agri-businesses had over it. I have no in-depth knowledge of Ecuadorian politics or the state of their economy, but I got the feeling there was some truth to what they were saying.

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Well, the rain finally started to fall, however lightly, so I made my way back to hostel, avoiding the route I had taken when my sunglasses were stolen, and arrived back without issue. I went up to the terrace and had dinner and some beers and was joined later in the evening by Nancy, who had been staying at the Secret Garden during her last few days in Ecuador. It was very nice to meet up with her one last time before I headed out for my final destination. That evening, we went out for drinks and some snacks at the aforementioned Calle La Ronda, where we heard there would be some sort celebration for Inti Raymi, the Inca day of celebration for Winter Solstice. It was, in fact, June 21st. When we got there, however, absolutely nothing was going on. We still something to drink and snack on briefly, then headed back to the hostel.

Thursday morning, I said my final farewell to Nancy before heading off to Cotopaxi, a nearby volcano that, at its summit, is known to be the closest point to the sun on Earth. This place I was staying at was a second location for the Secret Garden hostel. Getting there was its own adventure, myself and 11 of my newest best friends I have never met before crammed together in a van with all our stuff and took an hour ride down the highway, before turning onto a cobblestone road that seemed to go on forever. Eventually we turned onto a dirt road that then just became two tire tracks in the grass.

You know that scene from the beginning of Fellowship of the Rings, where Gandalf first arrives in Hobbiton for the first time in his wagon, with the stone walls and brilliant green grass? You know, this scene:

hobbiton arrival

Well, approaching the hostel felt a little bit like that, which was fitting, because here were my final accommodations while in Ecuador.

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Yes, a Hobbit Hole.

Basically, here’s how the beginning of the Lord of the Rings would go if it was set in the area around Cotopaxi.

Bilbo: I want to see mountains, Gandalf! Mountains!

Gandalf: Lol, k.

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Yes, the scenery from the hostel was quite nice – a direct view of the stunning Cotopaxi Volcano. The locals are quite proud of its perfect cone shape. “Volcan Cono perfecto,” they say with adoration of their always looming landmark. Watching the clouds break around the volcano was a good way to spend the mornings and evenings while sipping tea.

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Truth be told, the hostel had everything figured out quite well so that you always had a perfect view of Cotopaxi, whether it was when you were waking up in morning, eating a meal, taking a shower or using the bathroom…

Upon arrival to the hostel, we got a brief tour of the property and a plea to use their composting toilets to continue to provide, erm, organic waste to help keep their gardens verdant beautiful. Then we were treated to a very excellent lunch of tomato soup and crusty bread, before heading out on a short waterfall hike. I tried to join in, but I was still having issues with my ankle, so a 2 hour hike up a river was not in the cards. Instead, I sat in the jacuzzi and admired the view of the mountains.

That night, after an enjoyable evening of meeting all the other hostel guests and the resident beagle puppies, along with a hearty helping of beer and a chicken dinner a don’t recall the particulars of, I settled into bed in my cozy little hobbit hole, read a little bit of a fantasy novel as it seemed fitting, and drifted off to sleep, only to awaken to more stunning scenery of Cotopaxi.

Friday morning, I joined a few others to go mountain biking down the road that leads up to the lodge built at the base of the volcano where the snow line begins. We had some excellent photo ops on our trip up, and when we finally parked the car, the fun began.

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First, after parking, we took a short (and difficult) trip up to the lodge. The parking was about 350 meters, or just a little over 1100 feet below the lodge, and it was a straight shot up. No switchbacks, just straight ascent up a loose gravel walking path. That was a tough walk and, not having been totally acclimated to the elevation, I was having a rough go of it with lots of stops and starts. When I got to the lodge, I was in desperate need of the coca leaf tea they provided to help people like me huffing and puffing with lack of oxygen. It helped quite a bit, and fairly quick. Perhaps you’ve heard of coca. Or rather, the refined version of the plant known as cocaine.

Well coca leaf and cocaine are entirely different in the way they affect you, so fear not Intrepid Readers; yours truly did not leave country with an addiction problem, or a bloody nose problem.

After our visit to the lodge, we headed back down to the parking lot, a significantly easier proposition, and set out on our mountain biking journey. Let me tell you, that was a lot of fun. We didn’t ride out on any hiking trails, simply road down the main road that switched and swerved up the side of the mountains. I kept the brakes in a little more than necessary, and half way through had to pull over and wait for the truck following us to catch up and retighten the breaks. My wait was pleasant however, as the skies were clear and I was able to get many more pictures of Cotopaxi; significantly closer this time.

After my brakes were fixed, I finished the descent of the mountains and waited for the trailing transport to become the lead. Once it took over, we followed it through various small trails and tire tracks, swerving to avoid boulders hidden from view until you were nearly on top of them and, somehow, miraculously maintaining my balance over unanticipated drops in the path. At one point, I had to navigate my way around a herd of wild horses that weren’t particularly interested in moving off the road at an expedient pace, and I was only marginally afraid I would get kicked. About half a mile before the end of the trip, I lost my balance after going over an unseen rock and went head first over the handlebars and somehow, by the grace of hidden ninja skills I was unaware I possessed, landed on my feet.

Once our excursion was successfully completed, we headed back to the hostel for another relaxing afternoon of a lunch I can no longer recall, followed by more well deserved hot tub time. When you’re at the near top of a mountain, and it’s windy, and you’re past the snow line, it’s quite cold. I had only my hat and Pendleton* Wool Shirt. My shirt did a good job of cutting out the bite of the wind, but I wish I had at least worn another long sleeve T-shirt under it.

*Pendleton – Makers of Fine Woolen Products Since 1863

That evening was a delicious meal of fried fish and even more beer, followed by a cloudlessly clear night where I marveled at all the stars. I was gifted with some shooting starts and a satellite or two, as well. I tried to take some picture, but it just didn’t work out; my camera does not have a long enough exposure time. I think I’ve mentioned this on my post “Hoodoo Voodoo” in my other blog, Park System Polka.

I awoke Saturday morning to my final day in Ecuador and still clear views of Cotopaxi. I was making the most of my time at the hostel before heading to the airport. Myself and a woman from New Zealand were the only two people going on a horseback riding expedition, so it was a much more personal experience than the previous day of mountain biking, when 6 other guests came along. I was hoping for some awesome shots of myself on a horse in front of Cotopaxi, but by the time we got there, the mountain had clouded over. I did get this almost awesome shot of myself in front of some other mountains, though.

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Well, let me tell you, that for the nearly 4 hours we were horseback riding, I was only ever slightly terrified. My horse was mostly content to walk along at a leisurely pace, but when we tried to cross rivers, it wanted nothing to do with that. I was convinced I would be thrown off. It also had a thing for running as fast as it could down hills, where I had to lean into the horse and try and grip it with my legs. Have you ever tried to hug a horse with your legs? It’s not easy.

We ventured down into a valley, where stunning canyon walls rose around us. I really love the feeling of being in canyons, it makes everything else feel so small and unimportant; the earth has no care for such fleeting, petty problems that us humans have. If it has the time to carve a canyon, then surely it can wait us out while we destroy ourselves. Also, they look super cool.

We stopped in the canyon for a quick lunch before heading back on the second half of our trip. I was getting more comfortable with the horse trotting a little bit faster, and I got it to gallop once or twice, but I was still not down when it decided to go for all out runs. The ride back felt a little bit like a western as we cut through tall fields of browning grass, surrounded by mountains, and our guide being in a cowboy hat and chaps helped with the setting. Still, I am not accustomed to sitting on a saddle, so I was beginning to look forward to the end of the trip.

Before we were truly done though, we had one last surprise though. The guide had to clear out a herd of cattle, who had no interest in moving. When he finally got them to dispersed, they looked pissed, and I was anxious at the thought of them causing problems for us when they followed us for a short time. Eventually though, some grass looked appealing, or perhaps there was a particularly soft spot to lay on, so we made it back without issue.

I guess that’s kind of the end, then. We went back to hostel and I took a taxi almost immediately upon arrival to the airport. I was eager to get back and see Melissa again, though after seeing stars and breathing fresh air, my desire to be back in the pollution and cloud cover of Lima was not exactly what you would call high. Now, here we are, me finally overcoming my laziness to write about my trip to Ecuador and you getting to hear all about it. I hope you’ve enjoyed your vicarious experience. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Ecuador, you should absolutely take it. As for this blog, it will return to my observations and musings of life in Lima with another post next week. Until then, my Intrepid Readers, stay adventurous and in wise words of Billy Joel, don’t take no shit for nobody.

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