Written by: Jim Stubblefield
Item reviewed: Mainland Ecuador Tour
Jan 18: We flew to Quito, capital of Ecuador. Flight from Atlanta takes about 4.5 hours, lands at 2340.
Jan 19: Our guide, Gustavo, picked us up at 0700 for Ibarra (the "White City"), which lies on the equator. In the early 1900s, an earthquake unleashed millions of rats upon the city. To control the rats in the aftermath, locals spread limestone everywhere. This resulted in a white appearance in the city for many years, hence the nickname. We boarded a tour train and headed for Salinas, crossing the equator after rolling for less than a half mile. Salinas has a large black population, descended from escapees from slavery. The story goes that Pizarro was about to seize the city and re-enslave the black population, but a wise leader told Pizarro that a city of gold (el Dorado) lay beyond several mountain ranges. This distracted Pizarro from his original plans, and they hurried in the direction of the fabled city. Today we were entertained by several of the black populace who danced in the town square, with the lead female dancer balancing a very large urn on her head the whole time. Amazing. I saw the bottom and it didn't have Velcro on it. The night of the 19th we stayed at a 300-year old hacienda the Pensaqui. Taxes and a different way of life have had their effect, and the grounds have shrunk from an original 1400 acres to less than 50. The hacienda was owned by Simon Bolivar and we were told our room was the one Simon slept in. It had about 15-foot ceilings. Note: all haciendas are throwbacks from colonial times, much like the plantations of the Old.
Jan 20: We left for Peguche, a mecca for rugs, textile products, pottery, etc. We foreswore buying much in the market because Gustavo took us to a craftsmans workshop. He was actually looming as we entered. It was here that we bought a woven alpaca blanket. Alpaca is considered superior to llama fabric. The man makes some dyes from scratch. He showed us how one colorant source a wormlike larva that lives in certain plants, can make four different colors by adding sulfur, vinegar, or baking soda to get entirely different hues. He smashed the poor little fellow between his thumb and finger to create the first color, a distinct yellow, then continued with the different additives to change the shades. Then we drove to Cuicocha lagoon?a lake created by water trapped in the aftermath of a volcano. Two pretty cone islands lie in the middle, poking up in the air like aspiring volcanoes in their own right. Our guide was good enough to explain that the shape had nothing to do with eruption but not good enough for us to determine what peculiar forces led to their shape. The volcano was facing away from us, so it just looked like another mountain. The lake is acidic enough that nothing lives in it, although the water was a beautiful aqua. Back to Quito for the night.
Jan 21: We were escorted around Quito, viewing beautiful cathedrals, the presidential palace, the archbishop of Ecuador's house, and the grand plaza. We had a fantastic lunch at the restaurant of a friend of the guide. It was authentic local cuisine and it was great. The shrimp ceviche is an Ecuadoran specialty. The fancy restaurant we ate in that night was twice as expensive, but not half as good. Nearly every sit-down place we ate in has its own salsa made from fruits and their own unique combination of spices and tree tomato.
Jan 22: We drove at the foot of a volcano at the town of Banos called Tungurahua. Banos in this case means hot spring, not bathroom. That's a relief! The volcano erupts reliably every six months. Great damage has been done to Banos many times. Now the government has stepped in and said no more eruptions. No, I mean they have begun to dig gigantic ditches to route the lava in a predictable and harmless direction. Our trusty guide knew of a route that took us off the beaten path and higher up so we could see the amazing gullies and rock wipeouts that took place five months ago. These were BIG gullies. We refreshed ourselves with an ice cream treat in a town (Salcedo) that was known for creating a way to make ice cream in pre-electricity days by bringing ice down from the higher mountaintops and placing it beneath large metal bowls which held the ice cream ingredients. The 93-year old lady owner was in the dining area and we spoke with her. Our guide said she was a major factor in making the town of Salcedo an ice cream extravaganza. And so it goestowns attempt to make a name for themselves in some area of expertise in order to draw business. Our next stop was in Pelileo. Nearly every other shop sells jeans. Levi Strauss once was located in this town, before they found cheaper labor on the other side of the date line. They left behind all their equipment, as well as numerous jeans-making experts. The shops in town kept going without a hitch, only having to change the label a little bit on their jeans. It was in Pelileo that we saw our first cuy cage. Cuy (rhymes with phooey) is guinea pig, and it is considered a delicacy in Ecuador. I bought two pair of jeans, and the lady who altered them for $2, was raising a cuy in the back. She doubtless had goals for her guinea pig less lofty than training it to shake hands. Part of today?s tour included a cable car ride across a deep valley near the face of an impressive waterfall called ?Veil of the Bride.? Late in the day we saw off in the distance Altar, the scariest-looking volcano of the whole trip. It had pointy crags all around the perimeter, like the teeth in the bottom jaw of a crocodile. (Somewhat disappointing is the fact that at no time on the trip did we see smoke coming from any volcano.) We got on the Pan-American highway down the Avenue of the Volcanoes to drive on to Riobamba. Other volcanoes were Chimborazo, Antisana Cayambe, and Cotopaxi. Stay in Riobamba. When the temperature got down to 68 near 9PM, a hotel employee came by to see if we wanted him to light a fire in the little chimney unit near the window. (68 is considered very cool by the locals. 76 is considered insufferably hot.) Fortunately, things seldom get very far from 70.
Jan 23: Thursday we set out for a train adventure. On the way we stopped to see a small church that our guide said is the oldest church of Ecuador. It was established in 1534. Some of the church was lost by earthquake years ago, but the main part is still used. Our train ride was called Devil's Nose (nariz de diablo). It teeters on the edge of a very steep mountain. The train was an effort in the nineteen oughts to connect the coast of Ecuador with the inner highlands. 2000 lives were lost in the construction, including many of the workers in a single gigantic explosion. There is a point in the construction where it was impossible to continue skirting the mountain in linear fashion, so they designed a zig-zag technique. This requires the train to ride on a spur past the point where two tracks converge like a carat ^ symbol. A switch operator throws a rail switch, then the train literally backs down the back side of the carat for a couple of miles before repeating the process to move forward. Some indigenous young people were dancing on a stage when we arrived at our destination end point. We were treated to a nice lunch at the small cafe before heading back. Next we drove to a major site of Incan ruins. A different tribe had kind of merged with the Incans. The Incan stones looked like they were cut by a laser, while the other tribes stones looked like I had made them. It is thought the Incans heated up giant boulders with a healthy fire. After a day or two of heating, the boulder glowed red hot. Then a giant vat of water was dropped directly on it (the water was dropped, not the vat, although that might have worked too). This resulted in predictable stress fractures leading to the excellent stones. Over a period of many years, the locals came to disregard the ruins, and some townspeople even stole stones for their houses. When a cultural re-awakening happened, the government performed stone-ectomies on the offending homes, literally leaving open holes wherever they had found a stolen stone. These stones were laid on a flat spot near the ruins, since it was impossible to determine which part of the ruins some of them had come from. Our guide pointed out some rusty-looking stones, the color of which is thought to have been caused by sacrifices. The girls who were to be sacrificed were looked upon as near-gods by the locals, and it was a great honor to be chosen. Then we traveled to Cuenca.
Jan 24: We were taken on a tour of the Panama hat factory. The hat process begins with harvested bamboo from the Pacific coast. The canes are stripped down lengthwise to get strings. After some additional softening and soaking, these strings are hand-sewn into hats. A lady was making a hat as we walked through. It is a slow, tedious process. When the hat has been woven, it does not have the right shape, so it is fit into a shaping mold, then a press bears down on it to give it its classy look. Our last hour with Gustavo was to look at artifacts from pre-Columbus days. Many archaeological items were displayed in the museum and they represent a fairly advanced culture. For example, teeth were repaired with gold. Overnight in Cuenca.
Jan 25: Wow, a week shot already! We were introduced to our new guide, Andres. He showed us the expatriate area, tennis courts, supermarket, and a wonderful overlook of the city on a high hill to the south called Turi.
Jan 26: We took an open-top bus ride for only $5 each. Ate at a very nice restaurant, Casa Alonso. Walked around in the city.
Jan 27: Andres took us to La Paraisa Park. Excellent exercise machines are available and are well-taken care of. Beautiful walking paths all around. Only in the last ten years has Cuenca become aware of what valuable natural assets they have, and marked improvement is taking place. The city is now a model for the rest of the nation, including Quito. The so-so housing market in the U.S. is not reflected in Cuenca due to an influx of ex-pats.
Jan 28: Our flight to Quito lasted about 45 minutes. The drive from the airport to Quito was at least 75 minutes. This new airport replaces one that was smack-dab in the middle of the city, but it can handle much large aircraft like the 757 we were to fly to Miami in. Quito sprawls up the side of Mount Pinchicha like a giant amoeba. No hill seems to be too steep to put a house on. While the volcano erupted in 1999, Quito is not endangered because the mouth of the volcano faces west away from the city. Our view of the volcano from the glass cupola on top of the hotel was awesome.
Jan 29: I visited a local park, then I got on the internet and booked a tour of the Mindo Cloud Forest. Got acquainted with the city metro system. Physically getting on the train is more complex than figuring out the bus routes. Even though it was not close to rush hour, the thing was packed.
Jan 30: Out to the Mindo Cloud Forest. This actually part of the Amazon geography that runs close to the highlands of Quito. We stopped on the rim of volcano Pinchicha. People are farming inside the crater. We hopped back in the car and made a stop to take a hike along a stream leading up to a waterfall. There were many orchids. In fact, today's guide, Richard, indicated it was the largest diversity of orchids in the world. However, most of the orchids were not in bloom. We drove a little further up the mountain, and Richard told me we were close to a zip line. l asked if I could do it (NOT part of the tour). He assented, so I paid a whopping eight dollars to fulfill this bucket list item. The first zip was not fast, but it was high. It appeared I was going to hit some trees, but the line dipped down due to body weight just before impact and I went through an arboreal tunnel. I was probably 200 feet above the ground at some points. I estimate the length of the traverse was 200 yards. After Zip 1, we climbed quite a ways to regain altitude in order to get to Zip 2. Another great ride. Climb to Zip 3 launch. This one was fast, zippy. Almost as good as flying (Peter Pan style, not Delta style). We did get to stop at a very neat hummingbird place. The owner planted all the vegetation himself over a period of years. He uses the same kind of feeders we in America use sugar water. Seven to nine species were present, including one the size of a bumblebee. There was one with twin tails, a lot of ruby throats, a white tail one, a very aggressive brown one, a blue throated one, and a purple throated one.
Jan 31: Fly American Airlines out of Quito at 8:05 for the four-hour flight to Miami.
Editor's Note -- read more on Jim's trip and view pictures
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