Saying Goodbye

Today is my last day in Quito, and it’s hard saying goodbye to a city that despite its quirks, I’ve grown to really love.  There are things I’ll miss about Quito and Ecuador, and there are definitely some things I can’t wait to be done with, so here’s the list I’ve complied:

1. I will miss the gorgeous views.  The city and its valleys sit in the middle of gorgeous green mountains and hills, and the view is spectacular during the day at night.  By far my favorite place to see the city is Parque Metropolitano, near my house.  You can see Volcan Pichincha, the Basilica, the Panecillo and virgen de Quito, and all the way from North Quito down to the southern valleys. It’s incredible.

2. I will NOT miss the spotty availability of hot water.  At my house we have hot water before 7am and after about 8pm until about 10 pm every day, and all day on Sunday.  Taking a run in the morning at a normal hour and coming home to a freezing shower is not something I have particularly enjoyed.

3. I will miss the panaderias.  You can find these little bread stores on literally every street in Quito and in every town in Ecuador.  They all either have freshly baked rolls, loaves and cookies delivered every morning or bake them in-house.  I have LOVED the bread here and it will be so hard to go back to grocery store slice bread.

4. I will NOT miss the cat calls. Yes, some of it is funny and it’s hard  for me not to laugh at the ridiculous things Ecuadorean guys come up with.  But on the whole, I’m done with the “tse, tse, tse” and whistling that apparently men here feel is an appropriate way to address women.

5. I will miss the ease of traveling and the diversity this country has.  It is so easy to hop on a bus for a weekend on the beach, or go camping and hiking/climbing, or go mess around with monkeys in the jungle.  And travel is so cheap! Bus trips run  for about $1 an hour and flights to Guyaquil are affordable.

6. I will NOT miss the pollution.  There is a lot of traffic in Quito, like any big city, and like any big city the major side effect of this is pollution.  The buses really don’t have any filtration system, so they end up spewing out clouds of black smoke for the unprepared pedestrian to inhale.

7. I will miss the food.  Most people can’t believe me when I say this, but I really do like food.  Yes, I am really tired of rice, and yes, there is more fried food here than in the south, but overall I’ve liked it.  Aji has become one of my favorite condiments, empanadas are delicious, the fruit and juices are incredible, and you just can’t go wrong with the $2 almuerzos. At the same time, I do wish I had made attempt to eat healthier here. I’m pretty sure the pinguino ice cream, potatoes and rice, hot dogs, and Pilsener have taken their toll.

8. I will NOT miss hearing stories of my friends getting robbed and having to keep my guard up at all times.  For a girl my age I think this is a more normal instinct to know when it is too late to walk alone, keep keys and phone handy, and always watch your purse.  The difference is that crime is just so much more common here, you can’t ever really relax because even safe neighborhoods can be dangerous.

9. I will miss the beautiful weather.  Quito’s weather is unique because it is both on the Equator and 9,200 feet high.  The result is temperatures during the day between the mid-60s to the  80s and cooler at night.  It is sunny much more than it rains, and there is a nice breeze most days.  It’s just perfect.

10. I will NOT miss the danger of contracting “little buddies” as they are affectionately called.  Gringos here are prone to amoebas, worms, parasites, and all manner of nasty digestive disorders.  Luckily I was spared from any of those problems, but I can’t wait to drink tap water without fear of unpleasant repercussions.

There are so many more things I could write about: my sweet family, the friends I’ve made, the people I’ve met, but that would probably make me even sadder to leave than I already am.

Quito, te quiero, vuelvo a verte pronto.

Tena.

As part of my last hurrah here in Ecuador for the semester, I headed to Tena, a town on the edge of the jungle, five hours from Quito to the north of Baños.

Scarlett and I stayed at A Welcome Break Hostel, which was simple but comfortable.  There was an outdoor area with hammocks, a kitchen, and hot showers, almost everything I look for in a hostel.  And for $6 a night, $8 for a room with a private bathroom, it was definitely worth it.

Most everything visitors to Tena need is located on the street 15 de Noviembre: tiendas, hostels, guide companies.  Two blocks from 15 de Noviembre is the street Francisco de Orellana, which runs parallel to the river kind of like a riverwalk.

The first night we wandered around the city and got our bearings, arranging our rafting excursion and ate my favorite type of dinner in South America- street food.  Most of the town’s activity centers around the bus station; there are food vendors and Ecuavolley courts and of course the normal activity of a bus station which goes a bit like this “Suba, suba, a Quito, a Quito” “A Riobamba, A Riobamba.”  We stopped at one of the little vendor stands and I had typical jungle food: tilapia wrapped in a leaf and grilled, with rice and yucca. So good.

The next day was our rafting adventure, which is what Tena is known for.  We went with Mundopuma, a guiding company which offers both rafting and trekking excursions from one day to four or five days.  It is a Spanish-speaking company, which is cheaper than the English-speaking ones, so it was perfect for us.

Our guide, Faustus, gave a Spanglish introduction at the beginning, and  yelled directions down the entire river.  It was pretty hilarious and sometimes a little scary to be headed toward a bigger rapid and her Faustus yelling “ADELANTE! ADELANTE!”

We stopped to have lunch at an indigenous family’s home.  It was an open wooden structure propped up on pilings, like houses on the beaches back in the states.  The guides chopped up onion, cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes, made guacamole and we made our own sandwiches on tortillas and sliced bread with other fixing like canned tuna, mayo, and ají (of course!).  They also brought along fresh pineapple, chips and chocolate bars for everyone, and all the leftovers were left for the family we ate with.

While stopped, the other guide pointed out some of the cool plants that you can find in the jungle.  For instance in the family’s yard was a cinnamon tree, whose leaves can be use for tea instead of the bark like we usually see in jars in the US but harm the tree a lot less, there were lime trees (which provided lime juice for the veggies we ate for lunch) and even several cacao trees.  The guide pulled off a cacao pod and broke it open for us to see.  You can suck on the pods inside and they have a fruity flavor, almost like guanabana. I bit on them just out of curiosity, and the cocoa on the inside is as bitter as they tell you.

After our rafting adventure, Scarlett and I came back to town and did some more exploring and made possibly one of the most discoveries I’ve made in Ecuador.  We found an INCREDIBLE ice cream stand just on the other side of the pedestrian bridge over the Tena River.  They have batidos which are more like American milkshakes, made with fresh fruit and vanilla ice cream.  Scarlett got the fruit salad, which is out-of-this-world fresh and cold, and as a plus, is serve yourself.

That night, Scarlett went back to Quito and three other friends arrived.  We went to dinner at Chukitos, also across the Tena river.  It was a little more expensive, but absolutely worth it.  The restaurant was literally right over the river and the food was delicious.  I felt like I was eating fish back on the Florida panhandle.  Afterward we had to go back to the ice cream place but this time I had a sundae, and the consensus from everyone was that it was possibly the best place in Ecuador.

Tena is a tiny town that doesn’t have too much going on but is a good jungle adventure is you’re into river rafting, kayaking and jungle tours.  It is close to Baeza, another small town which serves as the starting point to see the San Rafael Falls, Ecuador’s highest waterfall.  And it is also near Puyo, closer to Baños, where my friend Bret found a small refuge for monkeys rescued from the black market.  Visitors can walk around the grounds, play with the monkeys, and even stay and volunteer.  A visit to these three towns would make a great jungle-weekend getaway.

The Mariscal, or, Vamos a Farrear

Part of the student experience is of course, going out and experiencing the social scene of wherever you’re studying.  In Quito, the place to go for gringos and Ecuadoreans alike is the Mariscal, Quito’s only bar and restaurant district.  There are all kinds of places from the most rowdy dancing joints to more chill bars and restaurants and even karaoke.  The area centers around Plaza Foch, the intersection of Reina Victoria and Mariscal Foch, two blocks from 6 de Diciembre.

For a quiet night in the Mariscal, Coffee Tree in Plaza Foch has outside heaters for sitting and people-watching and great two-for-one drink specials every night of the week.  Right next door Dragonfly is a similar atmosphere, but more expensive.  Strawberry Fields Forever is a Beatles-themed bar one block from Plaza Foch and around the corner on Jose Calama.  The drinks are reasonable and the music is a little loud for conversation, but it’s a good mix of classic and current rock.

Several bars offer trivia nights which start between 9-10 on different nights of the week.  Fin McCool’s on Reina Victoria south of Plaza Foch has trivia on Wednesdays.  As its name indicates, it is an Irish bar with  an intimate feel and is a great place to go to celebrate St. Patty’s Day while in Ecuador.  On Thursdays, Mulligans on Calama does trivia with proceeds benefitting local charities, lasting until close to midnight.

If you are out to farrear, or party, start out at Brau, right on Plaza Foch.  They have unlimited beer for an hour for $7, a mix of 80s and current pop videos blasting, and even pool upstairs.  Head over to Chupitos for shots starting from $2; it’s a small, dark bar that you could miss if you don’t look closely.  Above Strawberry Fields is the Boot, a bar with an atmosphere similar to Brau, playing loud pop music and is the only place I’ve seen in Ecuador with beer pong tables, adorned with the faces of Correa and Obama.  Bartenders will gladly provide solo cups and pitchers of beer for those looking to show off their beer pong or flip cup skills.  Beware of the infamous Boot fishbowls, a dangerously sweet and fruity bowl of alcohol which has claimed more than one respectable international student.

When it’s time to go dancing or sing some Karaoke, the Mariscal has a plethora of options.  The Bungalow on the corner of Reina Victoria and Joaquin Pinto is a three-level dancing joint.  The drinks are expensive, and cover is $5 except on Thursdays, when entrance is free until midnight.  Wednesday is ladies’ night, and they offer free admission for ladies and good drink specials for everyone.  The music is a great mix of reggaeton, US top-20 hits, dance music staples, and salsa.  Tequila Sunrise, next door to Strawberry Fields and the Boot is another good option, with lots of salsa and reggaeton all night.

After a night of drinking or dancing, visitors to the Mariscal are bound to be hungry.  There are Shawarma places all over the Mariscal, offering chicken and lettuce wrapped up in pita bread with ají and mayo sauce until about 2am when most close up for the night.  Hot dog places, like Los Hot Dogs, are also common in and around the Mariscal.  Be sure to get a dog with all the fixins like marmelada de piña.  The hidden jewel of Mariscal munchies is Taquitos.  Located on the far side of Joaquin Pinto, follow the florescent light toward Mexican food heaven.  For around $2, satisfy your late night cravings with a plate of three taquitos, which are small soft tacos filled with your choice of chicken, beef, mixto (both meats), or veggies.  Or, go for a burrito with the same filling options.  Top either with the salsa (not ají like most places) and you’ve got the perfect end to a night in the Mariscal.

The classic Ecuadorean drink is Canelazo, a hot combo of aguardiente (an anise or licorice-flavored liquor) and mora (the ubiquitous ‘berry’ flavor) or orange juice.  There is a small shack on Jose Calama which offers 2 x 1 Canelazos every day of the week, but it is served all over the Mariscal.  Bars serve all the classics: mojitos, cuba libres (rum and coke with a twist of lime), etc. and of course everyone’s favorite Ecuadorean beers, Club and Pilsener.  Pilsener is your basic amber brew, a lot like Budweiser or PBR.  Club is the poor man’s Heineken, and neither are too bad at all.

Naturally there are places outside of the Mariscal to have fun at night.  Naranja Mechanica, is a local favorite.  The movie-themed bar-come restaurant-come art gallery is a very low-key place to spend a night hanging out with gringos and Ecuadoreans alike.  Shawarma Kings in Tumbaco is the valley’s PREMIER shawarma, beer, and darts place.  The owners, Ahmad and Kurt are always around to play darts and chat.  They are converting their backyard into a concert venue and the second floor into a tattoo and piercing parlor, so soon USFQ students will never have to leave the valley.  The late, great Reina Victoria was an Ecuadorean-run British pub about 4 blocks from the Mariscal with darts and fun staff.  It was recently sold and only the future will tell what will replace it.

To the Ole Miss bunch heading out to Quito this summer- hope this is a helpful guide, have fun!

Sincholagua

Once again, I spent a weekend climbing yet another one of Ecuador’s incredible volcanoes.  This weekend’s project was Sincholagua, southeast of Quito by way of the valley where the towns of Cumbaya/Tumbaco/Pifo/Yaruqui are all located (Which, if you’ve been paying attention, is where my university is, and the location of a past rock climbing/rappelling adventure with my andianismo class).  The peak is 4,898 meters tall, or 16,065 feet, which makes this the highest I’ve even climbed; even higher than where we camped at the refuge on Cayambe.

We went with Paypahuasi Guide Company, my first time with a professional guiding company, because through friends and the ample time he spends at Shawarma Kings in Tumbaco, my climbing buddy Bret got to know a couple of the guides/owners.

Our group left from Cumbaya Saturday afternoon and set up camp on the hillside of the mountain at a house, which I can only assume is part of a farm and is rented out for purposes such as ours.  Saturday afternoon we set up tents and spend the entire evening inside the house, eating dinner at playing Cuarenta, an Ecuadorean card game.

It rained most of the evening and the night, making for a soggy morning.  We woke up before the sun at 5 am, but it was just incredible to see the lights of Quito and then watch the rising sun illuminate Pichincha, Pasachoa, Rumiñahui, El Corazon, and in the distance we could even see the Ilinizas, although they were mostly obscured by clouds.

After breakfast, at about 6:30 we set off.  The beginning of the trail follows barbed wire fences separating different fields and is moderately sloped.  The first half hour or so of hiking up a mountain is always the hardest, I’ve noticed, just because it’s early and your body isn’t warmed up.  After hopping five fences we reached the beginning of the trail.  Half of our group went up the ridgeline while the group I was with followed the ravine trail.  Both meet in what our guide called the “bosque” which means forest, but it was really just where the grassy field turned into bushes.  Our group reunited and after a snack we began the ascent to the summit, at about 11 am.

Like other volcanoes, Sincholagua doesn’t have one clear peak; the remnants of the caldera form a ridgeline which runs east-west, with the crater to the south and the north face sloping down to the valley.  The ridgeline rises and falls, alternating between loose rock and more technical climbing, but nothing more difficult than basic bouldering.  On one ascending section our guides fixed a rope to help us ascend a narrow rock face, but this area could have been climbed without the rope by those with more experience.

We reached the summit at about 1pm, and it had been raining, and then sleeting on and off since our break, so our stay at the top was short.  Because of the wet rock we took a different route down the north face, which is mostly loose rock and rather steep, around 45 degrees.  We had to descend slowly because the now constant rain had turned the slope into mud and joined hands to descend as a group.  Then we traversed the face back to pick up the trail on the west side of the mountain and followed the ridgeline, rather than the valley, back to the campsite.

In all it took just over ten hours to climb, and once everyone packed up, the adventure was not quite over.  The dirt road back to the valley and Quito had turned into mud, and three of the four vehicles for our group became stuck in the mud or on rocks uncovered by the rain.  It took two hours and some creative maneuvering in the rain to get them all unstuck before we could all get on our way back to Quito.

El Corazon

This past weekend I climbed my highest mountain to date, El Corazon, which is actually a volcano.  El Corazon stands at 15,700 feet, or 4,788 meters and is less than an hour south of Quito near the towns of Machachi and Aloasí.  The peak is right next to several other volcanoes in the area: Iliniza Sur, Iliniza Norte, Rumiñahui, and one more I may have mentioned before- Cotopaxi.

We began the weekend by heading to climb the mountain on Saturday early morning, but were deterred by lots of cloud coverage and fog on the mountain.  So, we continued south to the town of Latacunga where we explored the city and its market and ate some great Chinese food.

Sunday morning we woke up to perfect weather, though we did not get moving as quickly as we had planned.  After being egregiously overcharged by a guy in a pickup truck who took up to the “trail head” we started our ascent at 9:20 am.  The “trail head” was not very high on the mountain at all, and was in fact one of the hardest parts of the climb, given the steep grade of the road we were walking up.  After cutting through a field and jumping a couple of fences, we were on what could legitimately be called the beginning of the trail up the mountain.

After the first, steep part of the hike, the trail was relatively easy, winding up through the foothills of the mountain.  Right across from where we were hiking were Rumiñahui and Cotopaxi.  Rumiñahui is a long, rocky volcano in front of and to the left of Cotopaxi if viewed from the Panamerican Highway.  Cotopaxi, from any angle, is incredible.  We took a couple breaks just to take pictures and look at the mountains.

Unlike when we climbed Imbabura right before Semana Santa, we managed to follow the trail without any trail blazing or getting lost.  This is a particularly impressive achievement given the fact that hikers often get lost on El Corazon, including my Andianismo teacher Diego and our guide Romero (better known as El Lobo).

At 1:45 we arrived at the base of the summit, which looked incredibly intimidating.  El Corazon is rated class 3 in terms of rock difficulty.  This means that although it is not technical, the route is very steep and there is the potential for falling.  We were warned beforehand about the danger of falling rocks, and took care to approach faces which looked dubious.  On top of all of this, the parts of the summit which were not steep and rocky are covered by some mixture of gravel and sand, so we had to take care not to misstep and slip down the side of the volcano.

The odd thing about El Corazon is that while it doesn’t look like a volcano, the top still has a long summit, remnants of a caldera which used to exist.  So each time we thought we had reached the top, we saw that we actually had to keep climbing.  The clouds had been rolling in all afternoon so that by the time we reached the real summit it was impossible to see any real view.

By 3:20 we were back down to the base of the summit where we had stashed my backpack.  At this point we refueled with some leftover Chinese food, something I’m not sure many andinistas have ever done.  I like to think we could start an elite group of Chinese food-eating mountain climbers.   I’ll keep everyone posted on that.

On the descent, I understood why it was so easy to get lost on the mountain.  The clouds made it very difficult to see beyond the next ridge or foothill, so it was difficult to decide whether we were on the correct path or not.

While we were still high up on the mountain, some combination of the being far away from any civilization and the muffling effect of the clouds made it absolutely silent.  It was like being in a completely isolated part of the world, it was so cool.

During our descent, it started raining and continued raining for the better part of an hour.  While it was damp and cold during the rain, afterwards it was absolutely amazing.  The birds chirped, insects made noise, the cows and the horses had escaped from their pens and walked across our path; it was like spring had sprung.

Then, in the midst of all of this, we rounded the bend and the clouds had cleared and we saw Cotopaxi.  In the late afternoon sun the mountain looked red, contrasting with the white of the glacier.  It was absolutely incredible.

Dog tired, we flagged down a truck and hopped in for a ride back to the Panamerican highway where we caught the bus back to Quito.  If you’re keeping track, I have now hitched a ride in the back of a pickup truck on nearly every adventure thus far in Ecuador.

Cusco

During my trip to Peru we spent six days in Cusco.  We arrived Friday morning and left the next Thursday morning, and had plenty of time to see the city and go to Machu Picchu.

We stayed at the Flying Dog Hostel, which was located close to both the San Blas area and Plaza de las Armas.  The rooms were comfortable and cute, there was internet available 24/7, a great kitchen and community areas for hanging out and watching movies.

San Blas is up the hill from the historic center of Cusco, around the Plaza de las Armas.  In San Blas, one can find the coca museum, lots of restaurants and hostels, and shops selling anything from art, coca goodies like chocolate and cookies, and alpaca fur sweaters and hats.   The area is a maze of tiny streets, we spent a good amount of time exploring and finding new shops to stop in.

Cusco could easily be called the city of churches.  Founded by the Spanish, there are a dozen or more churches in the historic center alone.  Plaza de las Armas is the main plaza of historic Cusco, and there are two giant cathedrals flanking one corner.  In the middle is a fountain, flower gardens and benches to sit- a great place to people (or tourist) watch.  Immediately adjacent to Plaza de las Armas is a smaller plaza, also with a church.  Further down from this plaza, is a gorgeous arch leading to a third plaza which naturally has its own church but also is the location of a great market.

The market has a small section for artisanal goods like sweaters, hats and purses, but the food is the main attraction.  There are hundreds of stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, eggs and cheese, nuts and spices, and baked goods.  My favorite part was the almuerzo and juice stalls.  For 3 soles (about $1) one can get a full almuerzo- soup and main dish, or a great bowl of food.

For example, there is arroz cubano: rice, fried banana, and a fried egg.  Or salchipapas, hot dog and fried, potatoes over rice.  There are also typical Peruvian dishes such as lomo saltado: alpaca meat with red onion and red peppers, over rice, with or without a fried egg.  My favorite dish was what I affectionately like to call a heart attack in a bowl: rice, onion-cucumber-tomato salad marinated in vinegar, fried potatoes, fried banana, hot dog (which had basically been deep-fried), and a fried egg. I covered the entire thing in aji salsas (plural) and it. Was. Delicious.

There is a lot to see in Cusco, and the way we tackled the city was by riding bikes.  We rented them from a place off of the Plaza de las Armas which usually caters to mountain bikers going into the Sacred Valley for 30 soles for the entire day.  I would not recommend this method, but it was pretty fun.  Traffic in South America is crazy, and there are not bike lanes or sidewalks, so saying that cars are not friendly toward bikers would be an understatement.

Cusco has its own soccer stadium, which we discovered on our self-guided bike tour of the city.  We were lucky enough that there was a soccer game on Easter Sunday between Cienciano Cusco and Leon de Huanuco, two Peruvian teams.  We were even luckier to get to go with two of the guys who ran our hostel, die-hard Peruvian soccer fans who got really into the game.

While we didn’t try out the night life to its full potential, there are a lot of bars and discos surrounding the Plaza de las Armas and lots of smaller hole-in-the wall places with live music in San Blas.

Cusco is a city full of history, gorgeous scenery, and great food.  Six days was a perfect amount of time for us to enjoy the city and see Machu Picchu at our own pace, but more motivated tourists could probably fit in more adventures than we did.

Lima

Lima blew my mind.  I really didn’t know what to expect from Peru’s capital city, and discovered a TON.  The coast of Peru is basically a desert and the city is covered in palm trees and gorgeous tropical flowers.  It is a lot cleaner and less crowded than Quito, and even has skyscrapers; it reminded me more of San Diego than the other places I’ve seen in Ecuador.

We stayed at Backpacker’s 151 Hostel in the Miravalle sector of the city.  The hostel was all dorm-style rooms but Becca and I had our room to ourselves the first night we were in Lima.  The final four days of our trip we shared with a friendly Australian girl who was on a break from doing ecological work in the jungle in Ecuador (small world, huh?).

Miravalle is the tourist center of Lima, close to Barranco, which is the bar and night life center of Lima.  It’s really nice and safe, which worked well for two girls traveling alone.

Lima has lots of parks- some large, some small, but all really well-kept.  In Miravalle and not too far from our hostel was Parque Kennedy, where there was an outdoor photo exhibition and one night there was salsa music and dancing.  In the historic center we found the Parque de Museos, a huge park with fountains and as promised, museums.  We visited both the Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI for short, and Art Museum of Lima for the Spanish-challenged) and the Italian museum.  Both were small but had really interesting exhibits.

The historic center of Lima has two main plazas, the Plaza de San Martin and Plaza Mayor.  Plaza de San Martin has a central statue commissioned by the city and completed by a Spanish artist, who, misunderstanding the word “llama” which is ‘flame’ in some countries and an animal in others, placed the animal version of a llama on top of the woman’s head.  It’s pretty funny.  The plaza is surrounded by gorgeous white buildings, which I believe are government buildings, but don’t hold me to that.  Plaza Mayor, in contrast, has a fountain in the middle and is surrounded by yellow buildings.  The two are connected by a pedestrian street with tons of restaurants and stores and plenty of opportunities to get D’onofrio, a Peruvian brand of ice cream bars which became my addiction in Peru.

Since the city is on the ocean, we spent two of our five days in Lima on the beach.  The beaches in the city aren’t the best for spending a day in the sun, so we headed to the south.  We ended up at Punta Hermosa, a little beach town an hour south by bus.  April is the end of summer and therefore the beach season, so the town was basically deserted and the beaches weren’t mobbed with people.  There were still some surfers and beach-goers, but not enough to make it crowded.  Peruvian waters are freezing so we didn’t get in the water, but the surfing is great up and down the Peruvian coast.  Maybe next time I’ll rent a wetsuit and bring someone to teach me to surf.

Lima is both what one would expect of a large city in South America and much nicer than what one might expect of a city in South America.  The city was a nice counterpoint to Cusco’s natural beauty and perfect weather- not too hot and cool at night, made for a great trip.