Banos and the waterfall road

Just got off our little Galapagos boat an hour ago and are awaiting our flight back to mainland Guayaquil.   The Galapagos Islands were FABULOUS … as everyone told us they’d be.   This photo from GoPro camera snorkeling a couple days back – its our new screen saver.  Lots to share with you in coming blogs, but for now we’ll catch up on our adventures before heading to Galapagos.
Jake just posted a blog about the same adventures as below, but his is in French.

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This guy actually tapped the GoPro camera with his beak!

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I’m writing this from the dining room of the Floreana, our boat on the Galapagos. After two days we’ve seen many kinds of birds and fish, and two sea lions have come up to me and sniffed my face. We love it here. But in this blog, I’m going to talk about two days we spent last week in Banos, in the Andes mountains of Ecuador.

After some great days of hiking in Chugchilan, we decided to go to the town of Banos. The bus schedule was a little unclear… then a pickup truck/taxi offered to take the four of us plus our packs to Zumbahua (about 45 minutes away) for 20 bucks. We chose the latter option. Even though it was a bit windy, we got some great views from the back of the pickup truck.

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From Zumbahua (say “zoom-BA-wa”) we took a bus to San Filipe bridge in Latacunga. We got off there so that we could catch a second bus that would go to Banos. A lot of busses went past us (and the many other people waiting for busses there), they don’t stop, but the driver-helpers would lean out the door and yell out the destination, “Quito Quito Quito!” or “Ambato Ambato Ambato Ambaaatooooh…”. If he yelled out your destination, you wave your hands in the air and run to get on. When finally a bus to Banos came (about a half hour later) we got on, and so did some other people who were very anxious to get on before us and take our bags from us and put the in the compartment behind our seats, not the one directly above us. They were so insistent that they took the bag from my dads lap while he was drinking! the water spilt all over him. We think that they were trying to rob us.
When we arrived in Banos, (say “BA-nios”, I don’t know how to type the “n” with a squiggly on it) we found a hostel, then we went to see the natural hot bath. I don’t think it had changed much since 1950. My mom pointed out that the most modern thing was the neon light highlighting the sign that said “1950”! The town was quite nice – cobblestone streets, lots of craft shops – but the cool thing about it was that 90% of the tourists were Ecuadorians coming for the weekend. We had pizza for dinner and some people came to the pizzeria to play live, traditional Andean music! The three of them played drums or mini-guitar, plus panpipes, and they all sang! We liked it so much that we bought their CD.
The next morning, we woke up at 6:00 am to go into the hot spring. We were the only non-Ecuadorians there! It was really hot (no kidding, Kaia) and we cooled off in the freezing shower. After that we rented some bikes to ride the famous “Waterfall road”, downhill from Banos. There are four awesome waterfalls along the way. At the first one, we took the $1 cable-car across the valley.

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Trying not to drop the camera...
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Pretty awesome view!

  In between the waterfalls, the riding was really cool, too. The main road goes into a lot of tunnels, but the cyclists can ride around the tunnels on the old road.

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Riding on the main road
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Riding on the old road
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At the first waterfall

At the second waterfall, there was a zipline. The guy trying to convince us into it was quite drunk and told us that Jake, my dad and I could go there and back on the zipline, all for 20 bucks. We just couldn’t refuse an offer that good. At least the drunk guy wasn’t the one running the zipline!

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About to go!
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Here is where the first zipline goes. My dad took this with the GoPro

Here is a clip from his GoPro video: http://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=JC1bgM0NRRo

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Here's where the second zipline goes

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Wheeeeeeeeee!

Here is the video of the 1st part of my and Jake’s 2nd ziplines:

Jake: http://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=DUNFu9rfr2k

Kaia: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=HZLT3QeDv0w&feature=youtu.be

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Slowing down...

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I didn't make it all the way to the end, so this guy had to come out and rescue me to pull me the rest of the way

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Happy zipliners!

We like to visit waterfalls in the order of climax, so here goes waterfall #3.
You have to walk a couple of kilometers and pay a bit to get there. Only the pictures can explain the pure awesomeness.

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See the steps on the other side of the falls? We got really excited because we thought we could walk right behind the waterfall! But we couldn’t find the place to get to the other side. Turns out that two different people bought either side of the falls. Two different companies, two different entrances. Many people trying to make money off the same thing does seem quite Ecuadorian.
Anyway, we walked back up to the top, then went to the second entrance and back down again. We paid the second fee there, then went to see the falls again. The engineering of the trails on both sides is amazing- they are built right into the cliff, all done by hand, while the water pounds down around you. It’s really unbelievable! At one point, you need to climb through a tunnel in the cliff, then through a small opening above you. Can you imagine carrying rocks and cement through all that?!

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Seeing the falls from the other side was even better!

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This picture was taken from behind the waterfall!

Then we went onto the suspension bridge…

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By the time we had climbed back to the top, It was raining. We were soaked and decided to skip the last falls and catch a pickup truck back to town.

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That night, my dad, Jake and I decided to check out the town square. There was a band playing, and people letting off fireworks and huge Chinese lanterns. It was really lively! Apparently, during the month of October, this happens every night, to celebrate “La Virgen de Santa Agua“, the virgin of the holy water.

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The next morning, we ate at the central market. We also met up with Erica, Chris and Carl who we met at the Black Sheep Inn in Chugchilan.

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It was a super busy market with all the locals. We met Chris and Erica at Black Sheep for a few days, saw them about six times in Banos, then saw them on the airplane to Galapagos, and again a few times in Porto Ayora!
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Yummy blender drinks!!

We had some time before our bus left that morning (we were headed for Guayaquil), so we spent the usual half-hour searching for a bank machine that worked, then went to the San Fransisco bridge at the edge of town.

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view from the bridge

Jake saw that there was bridge jumping for 20 bucks, and remembered that his Uncle Craig had given him money for the trip, and thought about it for a while, then decided to do it. He was nervous, but only when he got to the platform did he realize that it wasn’t going to happen.

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Here's how high the bridge is
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Jake is looking a little nervous .... understandably!

We left Banos late morning for Salinas de Guaranda en route to Guayaquil.

Kaia

Banos et notre petite aventure de bicyclettes

Vendredi, le 17 octobre, nous sommes partis de Chugchilan pour aller a la petite ville de Banos (c’est dit “Bagnos”, mais je n’ai pas l’accent sur ce clavier).  C’est une ville tres fameuse a cause des bains chaudes naturelles causees par l’activite geothermique a cet endroit.  Nous avons pris 2 autobus pour plusieurs heures, et par le temps qu’on est arrive, il faisait deja noir.  On a rapidement trouve un hostal, et on a trouve une pizzeria.  C’etait la premiere fois qu’on a soupe a un restaurant depuis Quito.  Pendant le souper, des musiciens sont venus, et ont joue de la musique traditionnelle de l’Ecuador.  Deux jouaient une petite guitare, l’autre jouait un tambour, et chacun jouait une flute en meme temps.  Apres un bon souper, on est alle se baigner aux bains thermiques, mais quand on est arrive, on a appri que c’etait ferme.  Donc, le matin suivant, nous nous sommes reveilles tot pour aller aux bains.  Ils etaient ouverts cette fois ci, mais il y avait tellement de personnes!  Ca sentait bon et relaxant de changer de bains chauds a la piscine froide, et encore au bains chauds.  On est reste la pour quelques heures.  Ensuite,  on a decide de louer des bicyclettes, et on a cycle 22 kilometres a cote d’une grande gorge.  Les premiers kilometres etaient dans la ville, mais on est bientot arrive a une montagne qui descendait si raide dans la gorge qu’on devait passer a travers un tunnel tres etroit en meme temps qu’un grand camion qui transportait du petrol!  C’etait un peu epeurant, mais heureusement les prochains tunnels avaient un detour a cote pour les bicyclettes.  On a vu une place ou il y avait des chutes d’eau qui tombaient de l’autre cote de la gorge.  Il y avait une telepherique qu’on a pris pour la croiser.

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Voici ce qu'on pouvait voir du téléphérique.

Pour croiser la gorge, cette place ci avait aussi un zipline genre “superman”, mais c’etait un peu cher, alors on ne l’a pas fait.  Mais un peu plus loin sur la route, il y avait un endoit semblable, avec des grandes chutes jumelles qui tombaient de l’autre bord de la gorge, et des ziplines superman.  L’homme qui essayait de nous convaincre avait bu un peu trop, mais il nous a donne un tres bon prix.  Moi, mon pere et Kaia pouvaient aller et retourner pour un total de 20$.  On a verifie que les femmes qui allaient nous attacher n’etaient pas inebriees comme le promoteur!

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Mon père est allé en tenant le GoPro
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Moi et Kaia sommes allés un a cote de l'autre sur le premier zipline
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Le gars m'attache au poulie...
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Il pend mes pieds a une autre poulie...
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Et il me lâche!

C’était tellement excitant!
Après ça, on a continuer sur nos bicyclettes jusqu’au Pilon del diablo, le chaudron du diable.  C’est une chute d’eau très haute et puissante.  On pouvait marcher directement a côté sur des escaliers de roche incroyables sur le bord de la falaise.  On pouvait meme aller derriere les chutes!

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On se demandait comment ces escaliers ont ete consruits!

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Ce que tu peux voir derriere les chutes!

Les proprietaires des 2 cotes des chutes ont chacun une marche construit sur la falaise, et ils chargent de l’argent pour entrer.  Il est evident qu’ils competitonnent pour que les personnes aillent a leur cote au lieu que celui de leur voisin.  On est alle au cote plus proche, mais de la, on pouvait voir que l’autre cote allait beaucoup plus proche des chutes.  Alors, on a remonte a la route, croise le pont et on est entre l’autre.  C’est seulement ce bord qui a des escaliers qui vont derrière les chutes.  Quand qu’on était fatigues et extrêmement mouilles, on a trouve un taxi pour retourner a notre hostal.  Il y a tellement de personnes qui font ce qu’on a fait, donc presque tous les taxis sont des camions avec le derrière couvert, et une place pour mettre des bicyclettes.  Après qu’on a retourne nos bicyclettes, on a eu une bonne douche chaude après d’être mouillé par l’eau froide pour si longtemps.  J’ai oublié de mentionner plus tôt qu’en plus d’être derrière des chutes, il pleuvait!  On a bien dormi ce soir la.

Le prochain matin, nous nous sommes préparés pour partir. On voulait voir une autre chose, le pont San Francisco. On est allé juste avant d’aller au station de bus.  Sur le pont, il y avait un “saut de pont”, ou tu te fait attache a une corde forte, tu sautes du pont, tu tombes a peu près 25 mètres, et tu balances quand ils te descendent lentement a quelqu’un qui te détache.  Mon père nous a dit que si on voulait payer notre argent de poche pour le faire quelque part sur le voyage, ceci serait probablement le moins cher, 20$.  Après un long débat mental, j’ai décidé de le faire.  Ils m’ont attache et je grimpais la clôture pour me rendre au petit plateforme de ou je sauterais, mais quand je pouvais voir directement ou j’allais sauter, je devais retourner.  Au lieu, j’ai décidé de regarder quelqu’un d’autre sauter.

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Tu peux voir que je suis un peu nerveux!

Ensuite, on est allé prendre un autobus a Salinas, que ma mère écrira un blog a propos.  Banos était très amusant et excitant!

Jake 

Black Sheep Inn lives the Eco in “Ecolodge”

Kaia & I went kayaking today out from Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos.  Highlight:  snorkelling 3 ft away from a HUGE sea turtle (4-5ft long)!  Actually, it swam to us and surprised us.  So fabulous, after seeing these guys nesting up in Tortuguero Park in Costa Rica (not sure if same species though).  Yvonne and Jake went on two SCUBA dives and saw sea turtles, hundreds of rays, sharks, and fish all around – they loved it.  So we had a great warm up day for our cruise tomorrow.
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If you read the previous entry (posted last night) you’ll know we spent a few days hiking around Chugchilan.  About 20 years ago a couple of young Americans  – Andres & Michelle – were visiting this very off the beaten path area, and had troubles finding a place to stay.  Long story short … they decided to put down roots and built the Black Sheep Inn

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They loved the fabulous landscape of the Andean paramo, the very welcoming people, and wanted to tread lightly on the world.  They especially liked the remote feel of the area.  Why did they name it the “Black Sheep”?  Because there are lots of them around.  Because it sounds good and is understood in lots of languages (eg. Oveja Negra), and because the type of traveler that would even find the village of Chugchilan could be considered a “black sheep”

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this stained glass greets you at the entrance of the Inn

They built an eco-lodge, and tried to create a community feel in their space.  Lots of places call themselves eco-lodges.  But I have to hand it to Andres and Michelle – they really thought this one though.  Andres toured us around the eco-features.
Highlights:
– all walls are “adobe” in construction – bricks made from mud and sand on-site
– most roofing is thatch or tiles recovered from other buildings being torn down

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This is the 3-storey bunk house we stayed in (on 2nd floor). Note roof material and chairs/swing made of recovered wood

all toilets on site are composting.  recovered compost is used in gardens around the property.  water for washing hands and flushing the urinals is collected from the roof

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composting toilets ... all with a FANTASTIC view
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typical view from Black Sheep toilet
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Even the urinals have fabulous views. A flush is one cup of rain-water.
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This is the mirror above the "bathroom" sink. I rather enjoyed shaving here!

– much of the furniture and other wood construction was recovered from demolition in town
– as much as possible, features were made from recovered parts.  For example, the weights in the “gymnasium” were adobe or car motor parts.

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mud weights. notice the beautiful bottle windows at far end.

– natural lighting prevails.  For many years there was no recycling for glass bottles, so Andres and Michelle saved all their bottles and used them throughout the Inn for “windows” – for function, for beauty, for waste management.

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shower, from the inside
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a slightly unorthodox-looking shower from the outside

– the Inn needs heating at night, owing to the 3300m elevation.  They space heat with wood and use the scraps left from milling local lumber, and only the non-native pine and eucalyptus
– the kitchen uses as much local food as possible … but this is a challenge, so much does need to be brought in from Quito (this is the key challenge of remote eco-lodges)
– the operation is fastidious about waste generation – SO much is avoided or re-used, resulting in only 1 oz of non-recyclable waste per guest per day

Low environmental impact is of course a key aspect of ecotourism.  But community involvement and benefit from the operation is also key.  Andres and Michelle still own the lodge, but it is run entirely by Ecuadorians from Chugchilan (OK, save for a few months stint of dutch Tecla) – including the manager/operator Edmundo.  The lodge started a waste management/recycling system in town, has contributed to the school, and funds the internet cafe in the library for local kids.  Andres and Michelle have worked in the schools and helped maintain the water and phone systems.

Another key element of ecotourism is promoting understanding of local ecosystems and cultures.  The Inn’s focus on hiking the surrounding hills and communities provides ample opportunities for this, as detailed in our my previous entry.

It’s also worth noting that the Inn has lots of fun, low impact stuff to do; yoga in beautiful studio, zipline, waterslide, frisbee golf.

All this aside, the Inn was lovely .. to look at, to eat at, to play, to relax, to socialize.

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The Inn's very own black sheep

I recall Yvonne’s reflection on the challenges faced by Monteverde community in Costa Rica, as “development” marches on.  Locals were worried about the impact of a new paved road on their rather remote town.  Chugchilan is now at a similar crossroads.  Our trip up to Quilatoa was delayed about 15 minutes because of road construction.  You can now drive the 20km in from Zumbahua into Chugchilan on a beautiful paved road.  Andres was really worried … even to the point of wondering if he and Michelle would ultimately have to leave as the “remote” part of the Inn disappears …

I will leave you with the following definition of ecotourism.  It comes from Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin who is considered by many as the “father” of ecotourism, with some modifications by Black Sheep Inn creator Andres:

“Ecotourism is environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy, study and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features – both past and present), that promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations”. This definition was officially adopted by IUCN – The World Conservation Union – in 1996. According to this definition, ecotourism denotes nature tourism with a normative element. Also, ecotourism should be seen as a component of sustainable tourism (which should now embrace all types of tourism, including city and beach tourism). In general, I may say that I am quite surprised and satisfied with the evolution of Ecotourism since I coined the term back in 1983. However, I am also concerned that the term has been variously abused and misused in many places. In my own country, Mexico, and in many others, I am sad to see that “ecotourism” is seen mainly as adventure tourism and carrying out extreme sports in a more or less natural environment, with little concern for conservation or sustainable development issues.”

Cam

Living the High Life at Chugchilan

We landed in the Galapagos Islands this afternoon.  Yvonne and Jake are doing two SCUBA dives tomorrow while Kaia and I rent a double kayak to explore the shoreline and snorkel west of Puerto Ayora.  We board our ship Florianna on the 23rd.  We haven’t met anyone who hasn’t been captivated by a visit to these islands so we’re really excited. A little taste of the islands presented itself during a stroll through town before dinner … with a bunch of sea lions lounging on a dock 50ft from the main road.
If I don’t get to the Black Sheep Inn eco-blog tomorrow, you won’t hear from us in the next 9 days …
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We REALLY wanted to travel deep into Yasuni National Park and spend some time with the indigenous Waorani.  Yasuni is lowland jungle in NE Ecuador draining into the Amazon basin.  It is both wildly remote/pristine and sitting on top of a vast reserve of oil.  Yasuni has become famous recently because of an innovative attempt by Ecuador’s president to get the world community to pay Ecuador to keep the oil in the ground and protect the park and the Waorani.  This was a great idea  … that didn’t go anywhere.  Only a pittance was committed internationally, so the oil companies are slowly pushing at the borders of the park.  This jungle area on the Peru side of the border is already overrun by the oil companies and the indigenous folks (many of whom were contacted only very recently) are undergoing great stresses.  Oil spills are a huge problem.
However, after many hours of internet searching and phone calls from Costa Rica, Panama and Quito trying to line things up, we realized this journey would not happen this time around.  It would be a 10 hour bus ride followed by a 10 hour motorized canoe ride down the Rio Napo, just to meet our guide and start our trip.  And the same on return.  The guides generally don’t speak any English, and we were looking at a cost of over $300/day.  Our time and budget in Ecuador was somewhat limited, so we very grudgingly gave up on this idea ….
So instead we headed towards what is known to tourists as the “Quilatoa loop” which involves several days of bus travel and hiking through a remote and very high elevation area (“alto plano” or “paramo” – high plains) about 2 hours south of Quito. 

An easy bus ride took us from Quito to the large center of Latacunga where we boarded a bus to start the loop counter-clockwise.  Within a half hour we were climbing through VERY steep valleys, gazing across at what seemed near vertical potato, bean, corn and pasture fields with snow capped volcanoes in the backdrop.  Hairpin switchbacks up the valley wall … then down the next.  Thrilling, actually. 

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enroute to Sigchos

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Mt Iliniza Sur

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Chugchilan is just north of Quilatoa

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The first map can be placed within Ecuador using this map - look for Latacunga in center of map - south of Quito.

A brief stop in Sigchos to take on the high school kids, then south towards Quilatoa – our destination was a little village called Chugchilan (emphasis on the “lan“).  The school kids got off the bus one by one, and we watched them start walking up or down the fields towards little homesteads.
Upon arrival at the Black Sheep Inn http://blacksheepinn.com we were immediately greeted by one of the most outgoing, friendly, warm, enthusiastic (you get the picture …) people I’ve ever met.  Tecla is a dutch woman living in California who spends about half of each year exploring the world, and for now she is the assistant manager of this fantastic Inn.  This Inn is well known as an eco-lodge,  and indeed it is.  So much so that I’ll do a separate post to highlight it.  Within minutes she had us out hiking the “ridge” trail … with just enough time before dark.  First 20 minutes were straight up, and we started at 3300m, so breathing did not come easy.  We scrambled down some very steep fields to arrive back at the Inn in the final rays of daylight.

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fading light on the paramo

Dinner is included at the Inn, and is served “family style” – with all guests sharing a big table.  Erica & Chris from the US, Stephanie and Maria from Switzerland/Germany, Karl from Germany, Marco & Katie on a motorcycle with sidecar from Italy/California.  Great company!

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Next morning we set out on the signature hike of the area – to Quilatoa lake which is set in a large crater.  A 20 minute pickup/taxi ride puts you right at crater edge for a fabulous view of the lake/crater.

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It's hard to believe that we are only about 100km away from the Equator! But the wind was howling, and we're at 4000m (13200ft) vertical - we had all our warm clothes on, and were still cold.

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Quilatoa lake/crater. It is panorama - click to enlarge

The first hour of the hike follows the ridge of the crater, with outstanding views all along.  We got a few minutes of respite from the wind when the trail ducked behind the crater edge.  Kaia’s stomach was a bit off … owing most likely to the altitude.

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Cam, Kaia & Jake atop Quilatoa overlook

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The trail then descends from crater ridge back towards Chugchilan, via the little town of Guayama San Pedro.  Spectacular views abounded, and we loved to see how the local farmers (all Indigenous) successfully grew their crops and kept sheep & cows & pigs in such challenging geography (steep, remote, little water).

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click for panorama

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A potato field. All cultivation done by hand, and notice the attention to "contour" cultivation - furrowing perpendicular to slope to maximize water retention and minimize soil erosion.

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started warming up a bit ...
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These boards had very recently been hewn from trees growing only 10m away ... with only a chainsaw. Pretty good chainsaw work, I'd have to say!
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the locals have spent some time and money developing the hiking trails - benches and signs.
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great fun!
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Kichwa girls coming home from school
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we had already dropped 700m, but had another 300m to go - down this steep switchbacked trail

We marveled at local folks making their way through this country side, with babies and larger loads on their backs, trudging up hundreds of meters of vertical, as part of a daily routine.  We were greeted with smiles every  encounter.

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highly eroded trail from hundreds of years of use ... and they turn into drainage ditches
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This type of hat is characteristic of the local (Indigenous) women and many of the men from this and many other areas of Ecuador
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looking back on the trail from Chugchilan. We left the crater ridge in the low spot on the horizon. The last steep section descends from the plateau.

We had to climb 300m out of the valley floor to get back to Chugchilan, and got back in time to relax a bit at our comfy inn before dinner.  It was a 7 hr hike .. we were tired.  Yvonne managed to find her way to the yoga studio to stretch out a few sore muscles.  And Kaia, Jake and I had fun on the Inn’s home-made zip line.

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Whihoo! The line runs down to beyond the end of the shed in the distance.

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Kaia at end of zipline. You climb off onto the tire platform.

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A fantastic dinner followed, with some new guests joining. 

Tecla had arrived at the Inn only one week before us, but had already discovered most of the local trails.  She was anxious to try a new route back from the (somewhat) nearby cloud forest the next day, with a guide, and invited us along.  We gained about 500m of elevation very quickly, past farms, with ever present beautiful views.

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A local school, with no road to it. These kids and teachers must be in great shape!

This is truly the paramo country – we felt like we were on top of the world.

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Our cloud forest destination is in the distance ... as you can imagine from this photo!
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A cloud forest gets a significant amount of precip from water vapour, as opposed to rain.
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We'd seen cloud forests in Costa Rica before. But cloud potatoes were a new concept.

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This contrast from the very dry open plain only 500m and 15 minutes away was astounding. Here we are in thick, dense forest with lots of moss and other plants growing off the trees.
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our local guide Juvon (sp?)
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Yvonne with Tecla, admiring some new fruit

From this remarkable little cloud forest we made our way to a cheese factory that had just recently closed its doors and was for sale.  Enroute we passed through a small village where the school kids were outside playing soccer.  Keeping with the theme Kaia & Jake started in Zancudo Costa Rica, they joined in for 15 minutes of fun.  It was pretty fast paced.  Although the concrete field was pretty small, even a short sprint at 3900m altitude put them into oxygen deficit.  Kaia just about puked as we left the school.

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the girls were watching the boys (& K & J) play, and were disappointed when Kaia left as they took to the field.
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Solar hot water makes so much sense in the high altitude (cool) part of the country. I'm surprised we didn't see more of it.
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Dramatic views all the way back down to Chugchilan

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These chocho beans are a staple of the local diet and were being harvested and shelled as we hiked past. They were terribly bitter to our taste, and apparently are soaked for 10 days before cooking.
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The other local staple ... maize (a lovely taste, with big white kernals)

The descent from the paramo was challenging as our guide struggled to find a trail, but our very tired feet found their way home to make another 7 hr hike.  I had arranged with the owner/creator of the Black Sheep Inn for a tour of the “eco” side of the Inn.  Upon return from the hike, Jake and Kaia fronted the questions, Andreas explained, and the video camera rolled.  Andreas’s passion, vision, and sheer hard work was astounding – stay tuned for the next blog entry.
We had decided that we couldn’t afford another night at the Inn (above our budget) and had opted for a cheaper option right in the little town.  But the night before I had helped the manager with digitizing his trail map/photos, and he was very pleased – so he graciously offered to us to stay at a very reduced rate … and we were only too happy to not pack up and move.  Edmundo had until this point given hikers photos on paper of key points in the trail to ensure they stayed in right direction.  I had shown him how to resize the digital photos and add arrows with MS Paint, so he could then email the photos to hikers to use on their phones.
We had a relaxed morning next day then began our multi-bus ride to complete the loop back to Latacunga then on to Banos. These were good days.

Cam

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Our road south from Chugchilan towards Zumbahua, taken from the back of our open-air pickup truck

Cycling down Cotopaxi

I am sitting on a rooftop deck at our hostel in Banos, listening to marching bands, fireworks, and car alarms.  It is a beautiful evening in a lively city. As I look down from my 4th storey perch, I am struck by the narrow streets (single lane) and wide sidewalks — the cars are definitely at a disadvantage here!  Cam, Kaia and Jake are out walking around, checking out the sights and action.  It all revolves around “la virgen de la agua santa” and there will surely be a blog post soon about our time here.  However, in an effort to keep things more or less chronological, I will describe the day we spent on Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world!  (or second highest if you count Llullaillaco in Chile which hasn’t erupted since 1877).

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We could not see the summit, but read that it is at 5897m (19 347ft)
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Here is Cotopaxi on a clear day -- yes, snow at the Equator!

After hearing about this cycling trip from some other travellers at our Quito hostel, we signed up to mountain bike for the day with “The Biking Dutchman”.  We suited up (bringing many layers in preparation for being as high as 4500m).  Taking public transit to the meeting place was an experience in itself:  buses were frequent but absolutely PACKED.  So much so that we couldn’t get on about the first 6 or so that went by.  We considered getting a taxi, but ended up squeezing onto a bus and getting to “The Magic Bean” only a few minutes late.  There, we met Jan (the biking Dutchman) and our fellow cyclists.  Jan landed in Quito 26 years ago after traveling the world for 4 1/2 years.  He met his Ecuadorian wife, started a family, and made a business out of doing what he loves to do — ride a bike!  We were lucky to have him as our driver and guide, since he doesn’t personally guide so many of the trips anymore.  Jan drove us south through Quito, pointing out that the city is built in a valley — it has grown to be 70km long and only 5km wide.  While driving up the side of Cotopaxi, I asked Jan what was meant by the term “active” volcano.  He explained that Cotopaxi has had a lot of minor activity and is overdue for a larger eruption which historically has occurred about every 120 years.
As we approached the parking lot at 4600m, Cam said to the kids, “No one in our family has ever been to this altitude before.”  And, once in the parking lot, the 50m uphill walk to the sign had us all puffing in the thinner air.  Jan has acclimatized to the higher altitude over the past few decades, but said that he has not managed to summit the volcano due to altitude symptoms (his excuse being that the Dutch live at 5m below sea level!) 
Our group of 12 was quickly outfitted with bikes, gloves and helmets, and briefed on the route:  first 7km on a bumpy, switchbacking road (same one we had driven up), and then regroup for some single and double-track riding on the high open plains.  The most important skill we needed to master was braking.  So, it was all downhill from there…

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The Landrover was specially equipped to carry many bikes.
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Jan, the biking Dutchman, demonstrates the important skill of how to brake properly.
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This is as clear as the mountain got for us -- we could see the snow level.
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Heading off through the clouds.
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The first 7km looked something like this.
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Jake, coming around a switchback, followed by Cam (in red) and Kaia (in purple).
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Good thing we bought Ecuadorian hats at the market on Sunday!

The tracks on the open plains were great (and not as bumpy as the road!)

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OK, I guess it was a bit foggy!
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But it cleared up and we got some great views.
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Even saw some wild horses.
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Kaia was wearing the helmet-cam for some GoPro footage.
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There were dramatic clouds at ground level.

We had a nice lunch, packed up the bikes, and drove to another location for another 20km of downhill fun.

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Lunch and ginger tea at a ranger station.
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Our best view of Cotopaxi's peak. But we did get a pretty good view of a condor (one of only 17 remaining in the area).
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Finishing the day, back down at about 3000m altitude.
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...and the bikes go back on the well-designed roof rack.

We’ve since had some days of great hiking in the mountains, our day in Banos, and are now looking forward to a trip to the Galapagos!  We fly there on the 21st and will board the Floreana on the 23rd for a week of cruising and exploring various islands.  There will be a lull in our blog posts during that time, and definitely lots to report about once we get back to the mainland. 
Yvonne

Great first impressions of South America

When we first arrived in Quito on Friday, we took a taxi from the new airport about an hour out of town to our hostel, la Posada Colonial, located in the old part of the city.  We heard about a walking street called la Ronda (that turned out to be about 100m away from the hostel) that was lined on both sides with traditional Ecuadorian restaurants and cafes, and live “folklore” music.  It’s the oldest street in all of Quito, and was the street surrounding an old walled city, and the restaurants were built into the walls.  The street was the center for the artistic community of Quito and some very famous Ecuadorian songs were written here. So to start our South American experience, we went there for dinner that evening.  We spent quite a while looking for the perfect restaurant, with live music, but not too loud, and reasonable prices.  We found one, and had shrimp and chicken burritos, fish, salad, and some of the best fries I’ve ever had!  Potatoes are native to the Andes mountains, so they don’t need to be drenched in salt and butter to taste good.  There was a musician playing traditional music, and people were dancing.  It was so lively all down the street, and in the park right beside it, people were selling jewelry and wool clothing.  It was a great start to our South America.

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The guys in the back are playing guitar, panpipe and singing
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La Ronda

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We got a chocolate-covered-strawberry-kebab for dessert!

The next day we went to Intinan museum on the equator, which Kaia will write a blog about.  On Sunday, on our way to a travel agency to book our Galapagos cruise (on the 21st, so excited!!!), we stumbled onto the Mama Negra parade, a celebration in Ecuador.  Mama Negra is a festival which originated in 1742, from the eruption of Cotopaxi volcano.  Many towns were completely destroyed, but the town of Latacunga was not, and it was believed that it was saved because they prayed to the Virgin of Mercy.  It became a tradition that every year, to save them from later Cotopaxi eruptions, a festival was held where people prayed to the Virgin of Mercy, which eventually mixed with african culture and became Mama Negra.  Now, it is a festival to celebrate many things, including homosexuality.  That explains why a man walked up to my dad, grabbed his crotch and kissed him on the cheek (nothing personal, he did it to a lot of people).

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There were people dancing in traditional clothing, marching bands, and even someone dressed as Mama Negra on a horse.

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It's Mama Negra!

We followed the parade until we got to a park which happened to have a great market, where we bought a bunch of Ecuadorian snacks, and alpaca wool hats for all of us. 

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Kaia and I in our new hats
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Colourful indigenous fabrics
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Lunch!

The next destination was to be Cotopaxi mountain, which we were told would be surprisingly and painfully cold, given it being on the equator, so the hats would and will be put to good use.  We walked around the park a bit, then went to the travel agency.  We decided to walk back to the hostel along a street that was closed to cars for a day.  My dad and I were due for a haircut, so we stopped at a barber shop along the way.  It was quite different from the usual buzz cut by my dad!  The barber shaved the sides and back of my head, spayed my head with water and alcohol, combed my hair, cut it with scissors, trimmed around my ears with a tiny razor, and so on.

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Next, we’re headed to the Black Sheep Inn in a remote part of the Andes.  Our 5-week visit to South America is off to a good start!

Jake

Mitad del Mundo: The Middle of the World

On our first day in Quito, Ecuador, we decided to go to the Mitad Del Mundo (equator) museum, 20 km north of the city. While talking with another woman at our hostel, she said “Well, you know you have to go to the real equator, not the fake one.” As it turns out, three French scientists (Louis Godin, Pierre Bouguer and Charles Marie de La Condamine) first calculated the equatorial line in 1736. A monument was built there, and there is a very famous museum. Unfortunately, their measurements were inaccurate (but pretty good for 1736!). In the late 1900s, the line was calculated with military GPS, and it showed to be about 300 m from the original line. So of course, another museum was built on the “new” line, called the Itinan Solar Museum. That’s the one we decided to visit. Two bus rides, $1.35 for the whole family, and a couple of hours later, we were there.

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The museum was cute: it was all outside, with traditional artwork and sculptures. You could tell that an artist was involved in the making of it. We had a guide to show us around to the different parts.

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The beginning was about the aboriginal culture, we got to go inside two traditional huts (houses for four families) and saw graphics of how shrunken heads are made. The picture speaks for itself.

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In the next part of the tour, our guide showed us science experiments and phenomena of the equator. My personal favorite was the water basin: we got to see how in the northern hemisphere, draining water goes down counter-clockwise, and in the southern hemisphere, it goes clockwise. When he put the basin directly over the line, the two forces canceled each other out and the water drained down straight. Really mind blowing! Thinking back, the guide did push the water a little bit… could that have exaggerated the movement of the water? Decide for yourself: watch the videos on YouTube
http://youtu.be/0p02wZcPLcg (Northern hemisphere)
http://youtu.be/l_8SE5wF05w (Southern hemisphere)
http://youtu.be/IMndm548mu8 (directly over the equator)
We also got to try balancing an egg on a nail. Apparently, one out of ten people are successful because it is easier on the equator. I’m not sure what the difference is… but one guy in our group did manage to balance the egg.

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mom trying .,..
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a Russian guy succeeded

We also tried to walk in a straight line on the equator with our eyes closed. It is supposed to be harder than usual because you are being pulled in two directions by coriolis forces… It definitely was hard… but, I’m not sure how much more difficult it is than anywhere else, I mean, walking in a straight line with your eyes closed is generally a hard thing to do. But I definitely did feel those forces pulling me in two directions!

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We also had to take those cliche pictures…

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The museum was really cool, although I’m not sure how much those experiments were manipulated. After, we got the GPS app on my phone, and the “equator” didn’t show 0deg 0′ 0″, so my dad decided to go find it. He said that it was in the middle of the busy street. Somehow he still managed to get that screenshot…

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So, who knows if the experiments were manipulated a bit, but it was a cool place, and we are really glad we went.


Kaia

Panama city is booming

this entry typed enroute to Quito from Panama City …

Our travel from Zancudo beach in Costa Rica to Panama City was pleasant but a bit gruelling.  We were up very early to eat and pack up to be ready for the 5:45AM bus out of Zancudo.  This bus served as public transport and the local school bus for high school kids who had to attend about an hour away in Conte.  A two hour bus ride took us to Laurel where we found a 20 minute taxi to the CR/Panama border.  We were busy here … had to change our remaining Colones into $US, then purchase $7 exit stamps, then through CR immigration/emigration.   Took a while, but Yvonne eventually found an ATM that would dole out $US, because we were told by just about everyone that Panama authorities want to see that you have at least $500 cash on you!  All told, our border prep took about 2 hours, then into Panama fairly painlessly and onto a 1.5 hour bus to David.  A 30 minute layover in David then onto a huge swanky air conditioned bus for the 8.5 hr trip to Panama city.  We were stuck in the first rows of seats and the driver had the curtains pulled, so we saw virtually nothing – good thing we all had books.  Arrived Panama city 8:30PM without much of an idea where we were going to stay.  Our SIM chips from CR didn’t work in Panama, so we were without mobile internet for the 1st time in our 5 weeks on the road so far.  I had pulled up a few hostel names at the CR border for this eventuality, but no taxis had heard of them.  Fortunately the bus station had some WiFi and we selected a hostel in the “Casco Viejo” section of town.  Taxi took us there only to find that hostel didn’t accept kids (just as well, probably – there was a pretty raucus party going on there), but another around the corner (Magnolia) did, and we got quite a deluxe private room for hostel prices.  It was now 10PM, so that had been a 16.5 hr travel day.  Fell to sleep pretty quick …
We slept in a bit (all relative … we were up by 7AM), found some groceries and planned the day.  1st stop was the Miraflores Visitors Center for the Panama Canal.  Aside from the fact we were over-run by school trip kids at the center, this was fantastic.  We watched a bulk carrier go through the two-tiered lock, then worked our way through their interpretive museum, then went back out to watch a huge car carrier pass through, all from an observation deck very close to the locks. 

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bulk carrier entering the lock, heading Atlantic to Pacific, 2 locks away from Pacific at Miraflores Visitor Center/lock
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A boat this size as 6 locomotives (known as "mules") to guide it through the locks and keep it from bumping into the sides. I mentioned this to Kaia, who thought about what I'd said, then asked "isn't it hard for 6 mules to pull a boat that size? What don't they use some sort of machine?" 🙂
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Just left 1st Miraflores lock, and into last lock before Pacific
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These boats are built to JUST fit - 2 ft on either side!

We had a chance to sit down with the main guide at the site who filled us in on some key details:
– price of passage depends on the length of the ship as well as the value of its cargo.  The large car carrier paid almost $400,000 for its passage through!  A small sailing yacht would pay the minimum passage of $800.  These fees bring in about $1 billion to Panamanian economy and represent 15% of its GDP
– it takes about 8 to 10 hours to pass through.  In the morning, ships from both ocean sides work their way up through the locks to high point of the lake in the middle.  Boats rise 26m through 3 locks (in both directions).  They use the width of the lake to pass each other, then in the afternoon they descend the 3 locks on the side.  We asked “wouldn’t it be more efficient from a water use perspective if you had boats going in both directions at the same time through the locks?” but he explained that the only place boats could really pass each other was in the central lake
– 30 to 40 ships transit each day
– canal was completed by the US in 1914 – so we saw quite a few centennial celebration signs around.  In 1975 the US signed an agreement “treaty” with Panama to transfer ownership/control of the canal to Panama in 1999.  There was a huge national celebration on this transfer date.
– ships that transit are for the most part of the “Panamax” size – that is, they were built to just fit into the Panama canal locks – with only 2 ft to spare on each side!.  There are many ships larger than this though, and Panama wants to be able to capitalise on their desire to transit the canal.  In 2007 they had a national referendum and 76% voted in favour of enlarging the locks to increase the length by 40% (to 1400ft!) and width by 60%.  Construction started immediately and the new locks are supposed to open in early 2016, but there is some question about that date

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car carrier entering lock
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I think I heard that these car carriers hold up to 5000 cars! This one had cars from Europe.

We thoroughly enjoyed that visit.  Then set off for the “Cinta Costera” sea-side walking/cycling path that follows a good portion of the Panama City waterfront.  It is full of playgrounds, tennis and basket ball courts, and generally full of life. 

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Kaia & Jake uptop a lovely climbing web along Cinta Costera

A very short walk took us to the VERY lively Fish Market for some ceviche (raw fish).   The ceviche was pretty good, tho Jake stuck to a more recognisable form of whole (and cooked) fish filet.  I have to give him and Kaia credit though, as they polished every morsel .. brain, and both eyeballs too!  Jake and I were curious to learn from a trip to the bathroom here at the market that it costs 25cents to pee on a weekday and Saturday, but 50cents on Sunday.  hmmmm?

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shrimp ceviche
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Kaia said she'd have enjoyed hers more if it weren't 75% onions.

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The remainder of our day was spent strolling around the Casco Viejo section of town where we were staying.  FASCINATING!  The original Panama cith was built in early 1500 in a different section.  But in 1613 when the town governor heard that privateer/pirate Captain Morgan was about to attack, he ordered the burning/destruction of the

town to spoil Morgan’s looting.  From there, a new town emerged in the location now knows as Casco Viejo.  Over the past decades or 100 years, Panama city migrated into a more central location and Casco Viejo was mostly abandoned.  But its colonial architecture is nothing short of outstanding, and in 1997 it was recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site and has since undergone a remarkable restoration.  Buildings untouched for decades (centuries?) sit right next to buildings that have undergone full restoration … painted, woodwork redone, stone repaired.  Cafes and restaurants have come to life in the narrow streets and around the plazas.  We took in an art exhibit, got some food, wandered some more, then took a few steps back to our hostel for a snack before bed.

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Casco Viejo of Panama
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Freshly restored in Casco Viejo
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restoration work in its early phase in Casco Viejo

We’d love to have had another day or two to explore Panama Viejo (the old original city) and the new modern city.  Speaking of which … what a remarkable story.  For reasons I still don’t full understand, money is pouring into Panama City.  Our taxi driver this morning pointed out to us the tallest building 10 years ago – it was about 12 stories high.  Now the skyline is actually more impressive than Toronto’s. 

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the "New" city of Panama seen from the fish market

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Huge office skyscrapers, dozens and dozens of really tall condos … all in the span of 10 years.  Panama is apparently now an international banking hub and enjoys very low personal and corporate tax rates.  I guess that explains things partly.

Cam

La liste “Top 10” a Costa Rica de Jake

#1: Les ziplines et les balancoires Tarzan
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#2: Les plages et l’ocean chaud
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#3: Les fruits frais
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#4: Les animaux dans les arbres
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#4: Les oiseaux multicolores
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#6: Les tortues de mer a Tortuguero
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#7: Apprendre a surfer a Playa Zancudo
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#8: Faire la plonge SCUBA a Manuel Antonio
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#9: Les arbres bizarres et enormes

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L'interieur d l'arbre Ficus a Monteverde

#10: Les hamacs partout
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Pura Vida Costa Rica!

Jake