Monday, November 30, 2009

Ecuador: Day 5 – Giddy Up!

We woke up and met up with Gabriel around 8am for breakfast. It was to be quite an eventful day at the Hacienda. The first visit was from Chris and Abe, two folks who were visiting, coincidentally, from Index, WA. We learned over breakfast that Chris was there advocating for a new alternative to shoeing horses. While I didn't particularly understand the mechanics behind it, she was hoping that Gabriel would try out his method on his horses to see if the local folks would then decide to use it as well. She and Abe would be conducting a 2-day clinic with Gabriel's staff and working with the horses.

After breakfast, we met Gabriel's llama and alpacas, who were wandering around in a pasture adjacent to the stables. Jon and I walked around with them for a while and met Gabriel's cousin who was visiting for the day. Next, Gabriel put us one some horses so we could get accustomed to them for our ride later that morning. Far from being ready to take on the label of "Chagras" ourselves, I can happily say that neither Jon nor I fell off our horses the whole day!    

After successfully mastering walking and trotting and, with a little less luck, some galloping, a "bus" arrived from Quito with a group of tourists. They had ridden on this bus down the train tracks for a demonstration of some chagras activities. Jon and I helped by herding the alpacas and llama out of the arena. It turns out that both of us could take up alpaca herding, if our day jobs don't end up working out! We watched with the other tourists as Gabriel and his cousin lassoed a bull in some traditional chagras costumes.

Then, the fun began! Jon, Gabriel, and I mounted our horses and took to the trail to the mountains. Jon's horse, Armiga, was quite amenable to the walk, as was my horse, Copper. This was our second excursion on horseback, and also our second in South America. Gabriel led us along the railroad tracks for a while before we headed off into the foothills. It was a beautiful day for a ride as we made our way past some local residents and their dogs going about their usual business. I was surprised by all the different parcels of land even in this rural area. Gabriel explained that the US had advocated this system of small agricultural plots as some sort affront to Communism, but I wasn't exactly clear on his explanation. Still, it seemed a shame to me that property lines encroached upon the natural beauty.

Eventually, we had ridden so far up into the mountains that we were actually riding through the clouds! It was absolutely amazing to be up that high on horseback, and our horses were more than happy to take us up to about 10,000 feet with no complaint. The clouds were moving quickly, so we had some views of the nearby volcanoes, but for the most part we just enjoyed the ride. We reached a good stopping point high in the hills and gave the horses a rest as we marveled at our experience. Descending the mountains, we got caught in a bit of a hale storm, but the horses didn't seem to mind. The weather cleared as we headed down, and the sun was out by the time we got back to the hacienda.

Jon and I were a bit tired from the ride, but we knew we'd never forget having the chance to ride horses in the countryside of central Ecuador. For dinner that night, Paty (Gabriel's wife) had returned from her trip to Quito and joined Gabriel, Abe, Chris, Jon and me for another nice meal. It was soon clear to Jon and me that we were out of our league in the presence of such experts on horses, so we just sat back and listened to their conversation about the day's events in Chris and Abe's class. We did get to learn that Chris and Abe had been stunt coordinators for ABC's reality show "The Mole" which I watched religiously! Initially, I thought this seemed like an interesting job, until Abe revealed that he had to test out a lot of the stunts before the contestants performed them. I'm not so sure I'd want to be the guinea pig in that particular situation.

After dinner, Gabriel wanted to show the videos from a recent ride he had done of quite some distance. I watched for a while, but Jon and I were soon overcome with fatigue and had to call it a night.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ecuador: Day 4 - You can't get there from here

Always on the move, Jon and I woke up, enjoyed a protein-filled breakfast and set off for a walk in the hills. We walked up the streets of San Pablo Del Lago from the hacienda which afforded us some great views of the nearby lake and some of the local residents herding their cattle...down the same streets we were on! Eventually we wound our way to the center of town and it's central plaza where we picked up some baked goods for our travels that day.

With regret, we took off from Hacienda Cusin and got a ride up to the main road where we stood waiting for our bus back to Quito. About 2 minutes later a bus slowed down enough for us to hop on and get going back south. This time we got proper seats, although not together, and had a much more comfortable ride back to the northern bus terminal. Our final destination for the day was Aloag, which is about an hour south of Quito. That meant we had to arrive at the northern bus terminal, then somehow get to the southern bus terminal before finally hopping a bus to Aloag. I thought that it would make sense to get between the bus terminals by cab as opposed to navigating the metrobus system through town with our bags, but the lowest price we could find on a cab was $12! That seemed a bit high, but some folks at the bus terminal were able to direct us to a $1 bus which would take us straight there. What luck!

Quito is built on the hillsides on the surrounding mountains, which means that many geographic barriers exist as you go from one side to the other. With the new bus terminal layout and a new airport opening in 2010, the city has built new higher-speed belt highway systems to the east. They're great, and our bus trip was very quick, but because they've been built out of necessity on the side of mountains, there are few to no straight sections! Our bus ride from North to South reminded me of a roller coaster which made eating our sandwiches and drinking our Cokes an adventure in and of itself.


We got to the south terminal and asked for tickets to Aloag. Everybody seemed to think we were crazy, but they sold us tickets to Santo Domingo which would at least take us through Aloag. Another run to a bus had us on our way south. I kept the map close by to point to if necessary and tried to keep a close eye on where we were headed, still a bit concerned with the lack of road signs that we'd end up where we wanted to go. Soon enough, however, we were in sleepy Aloag on the side of the road with every business around us closed (it was Sunday, after all, in a fairly Catholic country).

One place seemed kind of open, so we walked in to use the phone to call Hacienda La Alegria, our ultimate destination for the next few days. The two girls and their mother there spoke no English, but eventually they tried to help us call the Hacienda. We couldn't get an answer there, and I figured we'd soon have to set off on foot to get there. But the mother went to get her son, who offered very kindly to drive us to the hacienda! I feel like there's always one point in all of our trips where I'm overwhelmed with the kindness of the folks we encounter around the world. This was that moment on that trip as the son went out of his way to drive us two crazy Americans and fill in the blanks between all of our advanced planning and our ambitious travel plans "off the beaten path" to a hacienda down some random cobblestone paths deep in the Avenue of the Volcanoes. We thanked him profusely, offered him a few dollars for his trouble, and were delivered to a gorgeous hacienda adjacent to some stables.

Unfortunately the innkeeper, Gabriel, wasn't there when we arrived, but one of the workers and her children welcomed us and called him on her cell phone. He explained that he'd be there in an hour as the worker showed us to our room. One of the smaller children saw us and immediately shouted "Gringos!!" upon seeing us. Jon and I had a good laugh over that one as we had to admit that we were, indeed, Americans!

We had some tea, and Gabriel soon came to introduce himself and show us around the place. He told us a little bit about the Chagras (the cowboys of the Ecuadorian highlands) and a little bit about the hacienda itself. Jon and I soon came to realize that we were about to hear a lot about horses, and they seemed to be Gabriel's passion. The hacienda has been in his family for many generations but had converted a few years ago from an agricultural farm to a tourist destination in an effort to make it profitable. If it had remained a farm, there's a good chance that after it is turned over to his daughters upon Gabriel's death, it would be parceled off and sold.

We had a nice dinner with Gabriel and then settled in for bed. It had been quite a day!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ecuador: Day 3 - Becoming Ecuador bus travel experts

Having earned our wheels on the previous day's bus adventures, we set out confident for our next destination: Otavalo! This was to be the site of one of the largest markets of the country, and I was eager to get a look at the country outside the confines of Quito. The first thing we discovered was that our bus information from the Frommer's book mentioned the old bus terminal which has since closed. A friendly cab driver, however, set us straight and said he'd take us to the correct bus station for the 1.5-hour bus ride to Otavalo.

As we drove the polluted and crowded streets of northern Quito, I began to get alarmed by the distance to the north interprovincial bus terminal. I had no idea it would be as far as it was from the city center! Eventually, however, my fears were unfounded as the cab pulled up to a brand new bus center alive with activity even at the early hour. We thanked our driver as he wished us safe travels in Spanish.

Soon, he was yelling at us that the bus that had just passed was the one we wanted. They run every 10 minutes or so, but there was no reason to wait as we chased the bus down the street. That's when the fun began! All the seats on the bus were full, but there was a bucket up near the driver that Jon could (partially) sit on while I stood next to him. The advantage to this arrangement was that we could keep our bags within sight as the bus labored northward. Every so often, more passengers would jump on to fill the aisle of the bus, and folks selling papers and all varieties of fruit and ice cream would occasionally jump on and off. Soon, a lady was sitting on a pillow wedged against my foot. I was happy for a little stability as the bus continued, but it did make it difficult to shift my weight from one foot to another.

Leaving Quito and passing a tollbooth, an air brake system providing a screeching soundtrack coming down from Quito's high elevation, I attempted to keep from watching the clock that seemed to tick off the 90 minutes more slowly than usual. I had a great vantage point to see the vistas of the Andes out the side window. The driver spent a fair amount off this time either dialing his cell phone or texting as the vehicle careened from cliffside to cliffside. I took some comfort in thinking that he'd probably driven this route often and knew it well.

Eventually we arrived at Otavalo, hopped off, and caught a cab to Hacienda Cusin in nearby San Pablo Del Lago. What a beautiful place! The hacienda and connected monastery have a long history but were restored to their current condition in the 1990s with modern conveniences.

Our room was on the second floor with a little balcony overlooking a nice courtyard. Another cab ride later, we found ourselves at the Otavalo market. It's a great collection of vendors all hawking food, clothing, and everything else pretty much to all the folks walking by. My first purchases were a hat and some sun block, however.

Jon and I walked around a bit and discovered a nice runner for our coffee table which will be a nice reminder of our trip. We got some lunch in town and stopped by an ATM before taking another cab back to the hacienda. There, we walked around to explore the grounds, the stables (complete with turkeys, chickens, etc.), and the monastery where we discovered a secret passage to a small watchtower.

The cooling afternoon rain was a welcome break from the sunshine and gave us a chance to do some reading and relaxing. In the evening, we had a nice dinner in the hacienda's dining room with our fellow guests. It was a grand room with great service and decent food. Afterwards, we rented the movie "Ray" on DVD from the reception desk and settled into the library to watch it. One of the hotel staff even brought us some popcorn to go along with it! After an eventful day and the long movie, we enjoyed a great night's sleep.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Ecuador: Day 2 - A trip to the middle of the world

Well-rested and eager to explore, we woke up and carried our bags to Mansion Del Angel: our second Quito hotel. Despite the early hour, they were able to give us access to our room so we could set down our gear and set off to see what Quito and its environs would have to offer.

I had been studying up on the trolley bus system around the new city, so we walked a few blocks to the main street. First, we decided to stop at a local bakery for some breakfast. As we were walking down the street with our Pan De Yuca, somebody threw some orange substance on our jeans! Not seeing the offending party anywhere around, some local folks at a nearby restaurant offered to help us clean off our pants. The orange liquid had gone conveniently on the back pockets of our pants. Sensing a scam, Jon and I made eye contact and then moved our wallets quickly to our front pockets. One of the men told Jon that a bird had caused the stain on our pants, but that seems unlikely. I hate to be suspicious without any true grounds for it, but after having my wallet stolen in India, I think we're both pretty careful to make sure that our valuables are protected. As usual, most of my cash, passport, and credit cards were tucked safely under my shirt in a hidden pouch. The most that would have been lost would have been about $10 and a soon-to-expire driver's license, but still it's an unpleasant event to have anything stolen.

So, perhaps a little dirtier but with undampened spirits, we took the crowded trolley bus towards the center of the city. Eventually, everybody got off and the bus turned around, which indicated that we had reached the end of the line! That was unexpected! So, we got off that bus and decided to get some better information from the helpful locals. Throughout our entire time in Ecuador, I saw very few printed bus guides which made navigating the system a little tricky. Jon used his Spanish skills to ascertain that we could take a non-trolley bus from where we were to the end of the line and then transfer to another bus up the highway to the Mitad Del Mundo (the Equator). So, paying another 25 cents each, we boarded a bus headed north. About 45 minutes later, we reached a far north bus terminus (also devoid of bus schedules or a formal information booth). Leaving the metrobus system again and going to the intercity bus area of the station, we found out that the bus we wanted was also a metrobus...costing us yet another 25 cents to get back in the system. Whoops!

Now headed in the right direction and silently cursing myself for forgetting my GPS, Jon and I arrived at the Equator! Even though it took longer than it should have, it was quite a site! There's a large monument and a nice collection of museums and shops. We took the standard tourist shots of straddling the imaginary line that defines quite a bit of my work. Looking down at the painted line that marks the Northern hemisphere from the Southern, Jon remarked, "Hm, I had no idea that the Equator is actually yellow!"

After a nice visit and a little snack, we headed back to Quito, this time via taxi in order to save some time. We got to the old city in the mid-afternoon and set about on foot to take in the stone buildings, narrow streets, and grand plazas. It's always interesting to see these venerable structures and churches in place for years, some now transformed for modern purposes like convenience stores and pharmacies. We visited the Plaza Grande and then the Plaza Del San Francisco.

After a few blocks of walking, Jon felt a tugging on his backpack. At the next street corner, a kind woman pointed out to Jon that his bag was unzipped. Unfortunately, somebody had relieved Jon's bag of his iPhone. And on his birthday, no less! We walked the block of the offense and the surrounding area a bit, but by then the phone was gone.

As sad as it was to be robbed on one of our trips again, I think it's important to remember how lucky we've been with the sheer volume of travel that we do and how rarely things go wrong. I don't think I would trade in the experiences of seeing the amazing things we saw on our trip just to prevent the theft (probably easy for me to say since it wasn't my phone that was taken!) All that being said, the theft did briefly put a damper on our outings for the day.

A bit deflated, we caught the next trolley bus back to our hotel. We beat the afternoon rainstorm that would happen pretty much every day we were in Quito by a few minutes and rested up for a few hours. Later, Jon chose a nearby restaurant called Azuca for his birthday dinner. The live DJ and happening crowd kept things lively as we ate a pretty good meal complete with excellent mojitos: mine was traditional, but Jon's included passion fruit. The nice food and jubilant atmosphere of Plaza Foch lifted our spirits as we strolled around. Finally, ice cream cones in hand, we walked back to our hotel for the evening.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ecuador: Day 1 - Flight 1...of 10!

Very early on another Thanksgiving morning, Jon and I took to the friendly skies once again. This time the destination would be Ecuador! Despite the early hour and the rain that fell on a still sleepy I-5 as our cab hurtled towards Seattle-Tacoma airport, Jon and I were excited to get started on our latest international adventure. Our first flight left on time at 6:10 am to DFW. We checked in with our families during a quick layover before heading to Miami.

Soon, our connecting flight took us down to Quito, Ecuador a few minutes late. The flight wasn't very crowded at all, so we had plenty of space to spread out and read through the travel articles that Jon had located about our various destinations. Eager to get started exploring, but overcome by a long day of travel, we got to Quito around 9:40pm and made it to Hotel Sebastian for our first night. The hotel wasn't particularly remarkable, but it was comfortable, clean, and only a $6 cab ride from the airport.

We settled in for some news of the day's events on the local Miami stations and took advantage of the free Wi-Fi. What a change this was from a late night arrival in Southeast Asia on previous trips, where we'd comb the streets for an Internet cafe to check in with everybody back home! Soon we got to sleep so we could get an early start to our sightseeing the next day.