Ya Can’t Beato Quito part 2

Ya Can’t Beato Quito part 2

All goods things must come to an end, it is the nature of glass to eventually break.

The tour stopped where it started, in Quito, and we had our goodbye dinner. We have really bonded with a number of fellow travelers and will stay in touch with a couple. We might book a tour of Turkey the same date as another member of our group. A couple travelers were fascinating in their own way and one I will write a whole chapter about.

We slept in and walked about to find the Modern Art Museum which was closed again. It was only open three days a week so we headed off into another direction of the city and found yet another charming boulevard. We had sandwiches and soda at a small cafe for $8.00 and later coffee with a brownie for $6.00, for two people.

Food here is cheap.

Rent is cheap.

Gas is cheap.

The Hilton downtown was $90.00 a night.

I did hear that cars were insanely expensive and cell phones too.

The main exports are oil, shrimp, roses and bananas .

On the way back to the hotel we found a small indoor shopping mall that was built as a spiral with each small shop slightly higher and sleightly curved going up 8 stories.

We had dinner at the hotel, took naps and headed to the airport at 11:00 PM to catch our 2:00 AM flight to Houston.

Night at the Monastery

Night at the Monastery

The town of Banos is a favorite among younger people, college kids and hikers. There  were many hostels in the area included one called the Transylvania Hostel. We had lunch at a restaurant, I had the trout and Marla had chicken with mystery vegetables. I routinely order things I don’t recognize because “when in Rome”, and occasionally it’s a winner and sometimes I’ll get cold squid chunks with soggy seaweed so you have to take the good with the absolutely funky. Cie la vie!

Where was I? Oh, after lunch we walked a few blocks to yet another cathedral but this one is famous with new car owners and once a year there will be blocks of cars lined up with people waiting to get there cars blessed.

A block later we found what looked like a man wrestling an albino python but he was stretching out taffy on a hook at the entrance to his shop and would then hand off a piece to a lady who then rolled it up with a twist. The taffy pieces were all lined up perfect in length and thickness. We all tasted a piece and some guava candy that I thought tasted like guava but others thought it was gross so I bought some anyway.

A lady Across the street from the candy shop caused a stir as she had a small metal machine that squeezed the juice out of sugarcane. Not remarkable but the sugarcane lady would add moonshine to it and we could get our Ecuadorian hillbilly on right in the street. For five dollars she would fill up a liter bottle and hand out cups. One member of our group would later still regret this Appalachian indulgence two days later.

We had some time to kill and drove up to the top of a hill that had a Dinosaur Park and equally giant swings that would swing you out over the valley for a thrill. Like good childish adults we waited our turn for a local around 70 years old to push you. It was a blast. I hadn’t pushed on a swing in decades. Weeeeee! The pusher would also say “spin?” and twist you on the next push if you said yes or no. He was the devil and we had a devil of a good time.

Back down the hill we pulled into a former Jesuit  monastery built a couple hundred years ago, repurposed through the years, abandoned and then purchased by another evil genius. The Samari resort was fully upgraded with newer rooms added built with local volcanic rock and cedar wood. It was beautiful and throughout the resort was the owner’s collection of sorts. Down a hall might be rusty vintage sewing machines, adding machines, office chairs or old radios. Hard to describe and very eclectic.

And, it all worked. As we checked into the resort the sanitation station was a vintage manual powered sewing machine table and the foot paddles operated the soap and water spigots.

The room was fantastic with rose petals on the bed and a jacuzzi in the bathroom.

Dinner was great.

Well done Samari. If you do stay at Samari, you won’t be…sorry.

You knew that was coming.

Road Closures, Police Escorts and Mudslides

Road Closures, Police Escorts and Mudslides

Several days prior on our way to Otavalo we encountered a temporary road closure. Not because of an accident but due to “potential accidents” from the rain. With the slick roads a police escort had been arranged for sections on the Pan American highway. The highway was well maintained and appeared safe but yet we had a police car zig-zagging in front of us to slow traffic. This isn’t so unusual here and with limited infrastructure probably an important way to keep the major routes open.

So today as we left for the Devil’s Cauldron by way of Puyo Banos or E30 highway, it was not surprising that once again we encountered another road closure, but this one was due to mudslides. We waited patiently as bull dozers cleared the road from the surrounding mountains mud and debris.

Then after about 30 minutes we were allowed to slowly proceed in an organized procession like fashion…. until….. What was this? A local commuter bus was squeezing merrily inches on our left. At first our driver Ermis appeared to hold his ground not allowing the bus to pass. I mean think!? Where did they expect to go? Then what made this even more amazing were the passengers hanging out the front door of the bus as if look outs and begging for mercy. Crazy! But hey! It’s Ecuador!

The Rope Torture

The Rope Torture

One of the excursions we signed up for was a Canopy Adventure Park featuring a rope obstacle course. We have done zip lining before and one excursion also included rappelling down waterfalls and climbing rope ladders. Heck we did it when our kids were around 10 and 16 years of age.

We got this. Easy right? Thing is, there is a reason they call it a rain forest and it had poured rain the night before with some wonderful thunderstorms. In the interest of safety and not getting their asses sued, they said it would be cancelled if it rained, and it didn’t rain all day. Out of 14 tour guests only one other person had signed up for the adventure and she then backed out as we were literally walking to the transport. Four other guests from the Other Gate 1 tour had signed up.

We were to be in our dorky rubber boots again and tote our running shoes with us. The trucks drove a short distance of maybe two miles from the hotel and pulled over to the side of a hill. The hike up the hill was more strenuous than our Amazon hike that morning, it was within the same ecological preserve but it was covered in leafs and not as well maintained. It did have the occasional steps cut into the bank and handrails but, BUT, it was steeper, longer, the steps were higher and the leafs hid the roots out of view. To make it worse, the four other guests were these sickeningly fit and agile 50 year olds. Kids! Needless to say the Browns were the slow seniors bringing up the rear. The guides were carrying heavy gear, helmets and harnesses, and had to wait for us several times only to take off as soon as we caught up. Bastards!

The summit appeared and then we walked along the ridge line until we got to the staging hut. As we put on our running shoes, resting and drinking water the guide was telling us how to wear the harness and use the hooks to secure us to the safety cable. We were all ears, but I saw only one zip line and several obstacles made with ropes and ladders. The rain started to come down and there was a murmur among the guides.

We were beat from our second slippery and strenuous hike of the day, but here we were with our boots off and a harness on. The four fitness fanatics clearly suffering from eating and body dysmorphic disorders were started on a different section so we would not crowd and heckle each other.

Short story, it was very physically hard. It was fun balancing on logs, swinging ropes and climbing these obstacles but the rain had made several of the steps and logs slippery. Picture playground a swing set and you stand up on one swing, and then you hold the rope to step onto the swing next to it. Just as you step onto the second swing your foot slips on the wet plank and your legs start to do the splits, your arms pull tighter while you fight to pull yourself to the second swing, and it’s 12-20 feet off the ground, but you are clipped into a safety cable.

We will tell you the long version if asked.

Marla was in rope hell. Many of the cables to clip into were a reach for me and my long monkey arms. Many of the foot and hand holds were a stretch for me and I was pulling, reaching and hanging on with all of my strength..

And then, there is Marla. She was handicapped in every category except she was superior in the brain department as she was clever enough to have the guide follow her and show her the correct hand holds or combination to use. My fireball of a wife, a warrior woman, a do’er got it done. Not in the style and grace that I did but with a few more colorful words that added to the guide’s vocabulary. Many of the adjectives rhymed with “ truck” in various combinations unheard of outside the military.

She was sore all over for a few days. We would have regretted not doing this more than doing it.

The cherry on top was that we didn’t zip line down to the bottom we had to hike back down in the now wet conditions.

Grubhub of the Jungle

Grubhub of the Jungle

We’re a little adventurous I admit. When we set out for new places we like to try local foods or you know “eat like the natives”. At a food bazar in Thailand for example, we ate bbq’d scorpio on a stick. It tasted like burnt chicken. Then on the side of the road near a rice field we … I mean I….. Allan stood this one out, ate bbq’d rat from a local farmer, which also tasted like chicken! Oh and not to forget those live jumping shrimp, which were pretty yummy too.

So when opportunity presented itself during a food demonstration in the Amazon we ate Grubs, those creepy underground worm like things the size of your thumb. These tasty protein rich larvae are a staple of the indigenous people of the Amazon. Marco referred to them as the “bacon of the jungle”. Before we tried them, his assistant demonstrated the proper technique of biting the slimy heads off first before devouring the wiggly morsels. What did they taste like? You got it! Chicken!

Rift Raft

Rift Raft

After our Amazon rain forest walk we hopped back on the boats and cruised across the river to a sandbar where two balsa wood rafts were waiting. They were like it sounds, balsa logs tied together like in the movies. We sat on the edge dangling our legs in the water and were pushed off and about ten minutes later we all jumped in the river. This portion of the river was wide and smooth with no whitecaps. Then the hard part came, a bunch of overweight and out of shape seniors trying to hoist themselves back onto the raft with lots of grunting and words of encouragement. The boats pulled up and we had to now stand up on the raft and step over the side of the boat, one task was brute strength and this one required grace and balance, neither which most of us had.

A Walk in the Forest

A Walk in the Forest

Not just any Forest the freaking Amazon Rain Forest. We headed down to the Boot Room, or Booty Room or even the Boot Barn to put on our big giant rubber boots that one wears in the forest. The hotel provides these and you put your shoes in a cubby until you return. It’s convenient and boots are much needed to keep out the mud, muck and things that want to bite you. The canoes are much like the long boats we used in Thailand.

The motor on the boat started on the first pull, always a good omen, and with that our tour group split into two boats off we went up the river. The Napo river is one of thousands of rivers that are tributaries to the Amazon. The whole Amazon basin is the size of the USA and it includes the countries of Columbia, Peru and Bolivia. The Napo is one of the few rivers that flow north, something I never thought much of but when the sun is setting in the west your brain bends a little trying to figure what wrong, its flowing the wrong way. Another thing is that the banks and sand bars are covered with smooth rounded river rocks. Bazillions of them! After spending too much money over the years buying these type of rocks at Home Depot, I estimated I was looking at millions of dollars of river rock. Funny how the brain works. To Ecuadorians the rocks are probably just a pain in the ass for landing their boats without a scratch.

Our long boats churned their way upstream before landing at a small beach that one could easy pass by, but this one had a sign noting that it was an Ecological Preserve. We quickly realized why we all needed to wear the big dorky boots. The path was muddy, mucky, slick and covered with leaves and hidden roots wanted to grab your foot if you were not careful. The preserve volunteers keep the path maintained, installed handrails in the more tricky sections and have even fashioned “stairs” from wood planks covered with plastic mesh. It was tough going. A two mile loop took two hours with several stops to look at the plants and trees. Our tour guide was a biology teacher in college and pointed out species of fauna and what was unique about them, some had healing properties, some had poisons and whatever the indigenous people used them for. His assistant stayed ahead of the pack finding frogs, ant nests, tarantulas, weird batshit crazy looking insects while also carrying his machete. We felt safe and informed.

Fun fact: ants will attack any birds or monkeys that land on their tree except the sloth. I thought that maybe the sloth was too slow and they felt bad if they started stinging it, but no stupidio gringo. The sloth’s poop gave a special nutrients to the tree unlike the other ….pain in the….ants. The ants know this and leave their pinchers off the sloth.

Amazon Hut

Amazon Hut

A few fun facts: The Amazon Rain Forest is approximately the same size as the United States and has at least 30% of the planets fresh water.

Our small group piled in the caravan for a five hour drive from our resort Papallacta to the Amazon basin resulting in an elevation drop of 9800 feet. It’s funny how your body reacts to not only elevation changes but changes in the weather when you have little time to adjust. I like some of my fellow travel mates had experienced mild headaches, rapid heart rate as well as shortness of breath. Actually we were just happy to continue our trip with the growing Ecuadorian strikes and the potential road closures.

Once we reached the Napo River, a tributary to the Amazon, our group boarded motor powered canoes for transport to our Amazon lodge. We were all hot and sweaty with temperatures of around 90 degrees and humidity to match. A few of the ladies in the group were wearing long sleeve sweaters and quilted vests, coming from the cold weather that morning, and I felt oh so bad for them. But it was all worth it once we reached our lodge, very beautiful with the surrounding jungle and wildlife.

Once we were situated we once again headed out by boat to a small island inhabited by several families of indigenous people. The idea was to visit a native family to get a “real feel” for their lifestyle. After a short nature walk we reached the family that would be hosting us, which also was one of our guides in-laws.

We were ushered into the islands hut greeting area that was probably a whitewashed version for the tourists. It was smokey inside due to the burning of an empty termite nest, that is routinely done to keep the mosquitoes away. Effective, but if your not use to it can seem overpowering at first.

The patriarch of the family and father-in-law to our guide was also the shaman or medicine man and elder to the other people on this small island. He wore a crown of feathers and seemed bored with our intrusion. The wife and several small children were also present. The children were shy but the mom was more eager to greet us. We all wore masks.

We then sat down on benches placed along the perimeter of the hut for an informative talk of the local fermented drink chicha and how it was made and various tools and plants used in preparation of meals. It was also an opportunity to ask questions about everyday life and customs.

At some point though my interest waned as I increasingly felt uncomfortable from the heat, humidity and smoke in the hut.Then I felt a physical transformation occur, but not in a good way. It began with the sunscreen as it slowly dripped down my face while I liquified into a huge pile of sweat. I could feel Allan looking at me empathetically while perhaps considering my demise. The sunscreen I had applied earlier that day was now making its way into my eyes causing them to burn and become red and swollen. Other people in the group shot nervous glances at me as if I was some monstrous wax figure melting in real time like you would see in some horror movie. I swear I could hear them thinking …. “Was she suffering from jungle fever?” Honestly at this point I didn’t want to leave the hut and bring any more unwanted attention to myself, so I sat quietly and didn’t move and dissolved.

Fortunately this experience was short lived as we exited this Amazon hut and soon had demonstrations of blow guns and piranha dart sharpeners. All of which I had a greater fascination for.

Our Tour Almost Ended Today

Our Tour Almost Ended Today

During breakfast we found out that a planned protest involving shutting down the Pan American highway from the rice farmers over increasing gasoline prices would not affect our route. Our tour guide had alternate plans, one of which was making a 5 hour drive a 10 hour drive or even ending the tour and flying us out via the military air base close to our destination.

In October 2019, they had indeed shut down the Highway for a couple of days protesting also the price of gasoline. The fuel price had increased reducing their profits. So, you can imagine this possibility would be a tour guide’s nightmare.

Marco finally got an “all clear” text during breakfast. Whew! Close one!The protesters had planned to shut down a Pacific coastal highway not affecting our route.

Marco had been on the phone with his boss to keep them abreast of conditions and alert the travel company of any road closures on our route.

A second Gate 1 tour, referred to as “Gate 2”, had to alter their plans. Gate 2 started a day behind us and would have been blocked going to the spa resort, instead they arrived at the Amazon resort a few hours behind us.

Market Day in Otavalo

Market Day in Otavalo

After the waterfall and averted dog mauling the bus headed towards a market where we were told was THE place to do our shopping. The Mercado near our hotel in Quito was pretty cool and we had held off buying there waiting for this Mercado to help the Ecuadorian economy with some dollars.

Textiles were touted as their claim to fame which translated into scarfs, blankets, table runners and clothing. There were a few of the ubiquitous nick nacks that we had seen in Quito, but it was time to get some gifts for the kids.

And meh it was pretty much the same stuff, same prices and the same overly zealous vendors so we took a loop to get some ideas and walked the 5 blocks up to the central plaza. There were shops on the way there with more of the same old stuff. At the plaza the local Army band was playing and were quite good, people were dancing and it was a thing to do after church. Nice. Good people having a pleasant afternoon.

It was starting to drizzle and we mentioned how good coffee sounded. We reached the plaza, made a right and there was a coffee stand with stools available at the counter. A quick glance of the menu showed that they sold pretty much everything from coffee to sandwiches to cake, and we needed no more encouragement. The drizzle turned into a light rain and the plaza started to thin out. Joe from our tour group showed up and later Robert and Shelia. The conversation went from travel to a hashish drug binge in Morocco when one of the group was young. More on that later, it’s worth the wait.

The coffee, cake and rain started to disappear so we headed back to buy our gifts. Open markets of the world all seem to be built on the same business plan, have 80% of the stalls sell the same stuff. How they make money is confusing unless they are all owned by the same families and I suspect that to be true when vendors go get the pattern or color you want from a fellow vendor. I swear the word spreads as the vendors seem to know what you are shopping for and pull it out before you reach their stall.

We helped the local economy, had some good conversation with our fellow travelers and had cake, nothing wrong with that.

Hacienda Pinsaqui

Hacienda Pinsaqui

I’m not sure what I was expecting and really hadn’t given it much thought, but when the tour changed locations of our hotel I guess I was expecting the accommodations to be “ok”. So when we pulled up to our hacienda for the evening I was simply giddy. What is this beautiful place?

This unexpected beauty is Hacienda Pinsaqui and is located about 1 1/2 north of Quito at the base of the Imbabura Volcanoe in Octavalo. It was originally built in 1790 as a textile plant but now serves as a boutique hotel with about 20 rooms; which meant it was probably just our group staying here for the night.

During the evening we with our fellow travelers assembled toward the end of the hotels Equestrian bar and where we met with the haciendas manager. He introduced us to more of the rich history of this place such as the hosting of dignitaries and that the “Treaty of Pinsaqui” was signed here, an important nineteenth century peace agreement between Ecuador and Columbia.

After a few specialty drinks, a little dancing and indigenous music performed by a local band we all returned to our rooms to find hot water bottles warming our beds. This was perfect!

I really liked this unique place and wished we had more time to spend here. The grounds were charming, as you might expect with a 300 year old colonial style hacienda. No pool but horses wandering the grounds…..like a dude ranch.

Who let the Dogs out?

Who let the Dogs Out?

Or, Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls…

After a delightful breakfast and a 20 minute drive we were the first tour group to pull into Pachunga Cascadia, or waterfall. This park is run by the local indigenous people who maintain the trails, service the banos and of course sell trinkets to the tourists. Our bus driver Ermis, the second best driver in all of Ecuador, dropped us off to tackle our first challenge, the weird Archway of Misting Sanitizer that we had to walk through, step on the sanitizing mat and then sanitize our hands. Keep in mind that this is all out in the open area of a parking lot.

I have to applaud Ecuador for embracing the Covid restrictions, everyone wears a mask even while driving, everyone. There are murals on walls with masks painted on them and mottos like, we can do this or we are all in this together.

So, after being fully sanitized we hiked up towards the waterfalls with making a bathroom break in the campground. Like so many public restrooms here there was a little old lady selling toilet paper and use of the facilities for .15 cents. The Potty Lady also keeps the rooms clean. Our guide Marco would often bring a roll of toilet paper for some unmanned restrooms as they would often be out of TP, or in one case the TP selling machine gizmo didn’t work.

After 15 minutes of hiking we were at the waterfall for some photo taking before returning back. On the way back we cut through the campground to use their restroom again, (our group is all had small bladders), and we started chatting with one of the Potty Ladies who was a small indigenous woman. The Potty Lady became enamored with Marla and wanted to know what country she was from, what state and where she was going next. They seemed to be getting on so well that I asked her for a photo and she agreed. Indigenous people generally do not like having their photo taken. But wait she said, she took off her woolen knit cap and started to brush her hair before I was allowed to take her photo. Afterwards she wanted to see it and I promptly let her scroll through the photos. She let out a laugh showing the other Potty Lady a pic with her eyes closed. Some things are universal.

There are always plenty of dogs around on these excursions and today there were more than usual. A pack! Well maybe 6 dogs hanging out being dogs until a dog from out of the group crossed the little bridge into the campground and then it was Battle of the Barks. This intruder was a little scrappy thing that apparently wanted to see what the gringos were up too. Who wouldn’t? We looked weird, sounded weird and surely smelled weird. The barking and good natured posturing continued as the ring of fur now had us circled. It kept going and the little scrappy dog’s friends now crossed the bridge to join the fun. Dogs from both sides were up against our legs protecting us from the other dogs.

We were not scared but we were not flattered by this affection either, the fully awakened campers were now out of their tents and amused, the Potty Ladies were laughing and we were laughing. Just like that it was over and the camp dogs kept their pride while the intruders ran off.