Monday, September 26, 2011

Bird watching in Mindo

We left the arid landscape of the coastline and headed in land to the Cloud Forest. We stayed in a small town that is nestled in the middle of densely forested mountains called Mindo. Population here is about 2,500. Our hosteria was a 4 story B & B in town called The Dragonfly Inn. The staff here is very friendly and helpful. The food is great and the house wine (decent tasting) is only $2.50/glass.

We spent 2 days birding here and saw many different species, including the star attraction, “The Cock of the Rock.” What a crazy looking bird. Our first morning got up at 4:00 A.M. and trekked up to the Cock of the Rock Lek. We stood behind a blind and watched about 12 males performing for one female. They squawked, flapped their wings and danced back and forth along a branch. What a show!

There are many things to do in Mindo, like: zip-line canopy rides, river tubing, scenic waterfall hikes, canyoning, horseback riding, visits to a local chocolate factory and butterfly farm and of course birding. We only participated in the later, as we were winding down our adventure. We did attend the “Frog Concert” on our last night here. This event is basically a night hike at place that has a large pond in the middle of a preserve with many trails through the forest surrounding it. Here as you can imagine you can hear and see many types of frogs as well as different kinds of insects, mammals, and snakes. They put on a guided tour every night at 6:30 P.M.

Mindo is a lovely little town with friendly locals. It is easy and safe to walk around even at night. The setting is picturesque, a blanket of deep green, topped with the ever present wafting clouds. There is a daily downpour that seems to happen at around 3:00 – 5:00 P.M. and is followed by sun.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Beach time in Puerto Lopez

We said good-bye to our Ecuadorian family in Cuenca and headed to Puerto Lopez on the coast for some R & R and whale watching. Our plane landed in Manta. The scenery was bleak, the land parched with dry shrubs and stunted Ceba trees, and there were vultures – lots of them, in fact, I don’t think I have ever seen so many vultures. I envisioned bones scattered throughout the landscape - no chance to see them though, as we sped down the highway at about 80 MPH with Latin music blaring. We arrived in Puerto Lopez 1 ½ hours later.

Hosteria Mandala (our lodging for the next 4 nights) is a lush oasis located on a long stretch of beach. It has colorful tropical gardens with many birds. The cabins are dispersed throughout and accessed via a maze-like pathway that winds its way through the garden. The beach has powdery light beige sand and there are pelicans, Frigate birds and of course vultures flying overhead. The water feels about 70 degrees. To the left you can walk toward the town to see the local fisherman bringing in their catch starting around 6:00 in the morning. To the right you can take a leisurely stroll for an hour or more and encounter only beach, surf, crabs, shells and if your lucky baby turtles. We encountered two on one of our morning strolls. They were struggling to access the sea against high tide. We provided them with a little human assist and set them a drift in deeper water, past the shallow waves that kept re-depositing them further up the shore. We watched for a bit to see if they would get washed back and when they didn’t return we wished them well on their continuing perilous journey.

In addition to our daily beach walks and hammock time, we went on a whale watching tour that proved to be the best we’d ever encountered. First we saw a mother and baby Humpback about 15 minutes into our tour and farther out we found another mother, baby with an adult male. They performed for us for nearly 2 hours and did everything from fin slaps to spy-hopping. The grand finale was a breach by the adult male. What a treat! Whale season here is June – September.

Our last day in Puerto Lopez we visited a local community called Agua Blanca where they have Pre-Columbian ruins. For $5.00 you get a tour with a non-English speaking guide. The ruins are not too impressive and unless you speak Spanish well it’s difficult to get the history from a guide that doesn’t speak any English. They do have a sacred natural lagoon fed by mineral springs where you can swim. The dip was a refreshing after a hot dusty hike but the water smelled heavily of sulfur, so got in swam across it and got out. After this stop we visited a lovely secluded beach called Los Frailes in Manchalilla National Park. It is a perfect beach for swimming, picnicking, etc.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cuenca Final Day- "The Cuy Experience!"

Day # 6: Our final day in Cuenca, we finished our Spanish lessons and took one last walk through city streets to capture a few more photos. In the evening we took our family hosts and our instructor out to a local restaurant that served “Cuy” (Guinea Pig). The meat is roasted on a spit over coals. It is really quite tasty. The flavor is sort of like strong flavored chicken. We weren’t able to muster the guts to try this local delicacy when we were in Peru, so we decided that this time we had to go for it. It was a nice way to bring a close to a very enriching week and I think the family and our instructor were thrilled to share this unique culinary experience with us.

Cuenca, Continued

Cuenca Day #5: In the morning we took a tour to the ruins of Ingapirca which means “Inca Wall”. On the way to the ruins we passed stands where they were cooking whole pigs with a blow torch. Our guide told us that they use this technique to cook the skin only (people eat the torched skin). The rest of the pig is cut up and cooked in other ways. When we reached 12,000 feet, we left the paved road and passed through verdant mountains where the local people raise trout.

Ingapirca is located at 3160 meters, approximately 1 ½ hours from Cuenca. The Incan ruins here are 600 years old. There are also ruins here from the Canari people that date back 3000 years. The Canaris were conquered by the Incans, but some of their culture was integrated into Incan society. The Canaris were a matriarchal society that worshiped the moon. The Incas were a patriarchal society that worshiped the sun. Here is where the Incan boy “Huaynacapac” became king at 5 years old when his father died. He married the Canari princess “Paccha” when the Incas took over their society.

At this site we were able to see both Incan and Canari ruins, like: the Temple of the Moon (Canari) and the Temple of the Sun (Inca). The Canari used river rocks and mud to construct their structures, while the Incas used square stones positioned in perfect alignment (a design thought to be used to withstand earthquakes).

In the afternoon we visited a very unusual art museum with our Spanish instructor. It was called “El Prohibido”. The art depicted demonic creatures and scenes relating to sex and death. The artist is from the Amazon where he is currently developing a lodge. One can only imagine what it will be like.

Cuenca Continued

Day# 4: Today we didn’t have any morning tours. For our Spanish class walkabout, we visited a local market where female shamans perform ritual cleansings on people. Most of the recipients were children brought by their parents. During the ritual, the patient is brushed with leaves from the Huanto plant (seeds used to make Scopalamine) and the plant called Ceniza. At the end of the session the shaman took a drink of some liquid and sprayed it on the patient.

Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca Day #1:  We arrived around 5:30 P.M. and were greeted by our hosts Ivan and Enma. We share the home with 6 other people and 3 Yorkies. We have breakfast and dinner with the family and during those times we discuss in Spanish what happened during our day as well as share information about our lives in general.

Immersion experiences are not only an intense way to learn a language, but also a great lesson in adaptation. You basically move in with total strangers who don’t speak your language, so you must rely on your knowledge of their language to communicate all the things you need in your activities of daily living. If you have already had some classes in Spanish, it is by far the best way to advance your knowledge and speaking ability.

Shortly after our arrival, Ivan offered to show us how to navigate our way to class from their house and to take us on a short tour around the city. The school is about a 20-30 minute walk from the house.

Cuenca has a population of about 510,000, 10,000 of which are ex-pats. It is a city steeped in antiquity with many old churches, hotels, government buildings and museums. The streets are impeccably clean. The pedestrian signals are equipped with 2 different bird sounds that accompany the change in color. Green makes a Cuckoo sound and red makes a tweeting sound. As with most Latin American cities, people drive really fast and use their horns a lot. They pretty much always take the right of way, so this requires extra mindful walking practice – no spacing out while gawking at city structures.

Cuenca Day #2:  We struck out on our own and successfully located a nearby laundromat , where we were amazingly able to communicate our needs. Our sentences sounded like Caveman Spanish, but the woman seemed to understand, as she smiled and nodded politely.

Next, we traced our way back along the route that Ivan had showed us to our school. We met our instructor Maria Elaina, who it turns out is also a nurse. We spent our first class talking to her about ourselves and discovered just how much of our previously learned Spanish we had forgotten.

At the end of our session, before our walk home, she advised us to be careful, because there were occasionally robbers on the corners near the school. “Great, we said, undoubtedly scoping out the tourists!” She said that they frequently use the drug “Scopalamine” in its natural form. It is a drug that is rapidly absorbed through the skin on contact and can render the recipient unconscious and sometimes dead.  It is apparently placed on a brochure or other kind of printed papers that people try to hand you, so the rule of thumb is, don’t accept any form of paper from strangers on the street.” Ok, we say, we will walk fast and with purpose – like we know what we are doing.” Of course we don’t stand out at all. No worries, we made it home without incident.

Cuenca Day #3:  Our day started at 9:00A.M. with a city tour. Our first stop was at the cathedral of San Sebastian built in 1736. Our next stop was at the Museum of Modern Art. Strangely, the place didn’t seem to have much art. Its history was more interesting than the art displayed. Prior to becoming a museum, it had been an orphanage, an alcohol treatment center and a prison.

We visited a tiny shop where an elderly man made a form of metal art called “Repujado”, and another small shop where they repaired “Panama Hats”, that apparently originated in Ecuador, not Panama. Our guide informed us that the process of dying the hats white was extremely toxic and that many of the workers develop throat cancer as a result of working with sulfur to dye the hats.

We walked through an indigenous market where they had many different kinds of fruits, vegetables and herbal products that claimed to cure everything. We tried several of the fruits and also the “Hornado” (roasted whole pig) – very tasty.

The shining star of the tour was the new cathedral built in 1885. It is the 2nd largest in S. America. Inside there were huge pillars made of pink marble and  an alter that is a perfect replica of St. Peters in the Vatican.  Outside of the main cathedral we visited a cloister of the Carmelite nuns, who are not allowed to have direct contact with the outside world. They do make several products that the public can buy for $5.00. The procedure goes something like this: First, you ring the bell and wait for the response –“ Ave Maria Purisma”, to which you reply, “Sin pecado consivida”(without sin conceived). Next you place your $5.00 on a rotating shelf with your request and in turn they place your product on the shelf. Outside of the cloister is an incredible flower market where you can purchase elaborate bouquets for $3.50.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Devil's Nose Train

From our overnight stay at the hacienda in Riobamba, we continued on our journey to a town called Alausi, stopping on the way to see the church of Balbanera built in 1534. Outside of the church there were still smoldering as piles of Eucalyptus from fires built the previous night to celebrate the Virgin of Balbanera. There were also stands cooking Puerco Hornado (roasted whole pig) and other stands selling souvenirs. Here we got our first glimpse of Quinoa plants, a high protein grain that grows well at altitude. It grows all over the hills and mountains around here.

In Alausi, we boarded a train for a 2 hour round trip ride down the “Nariz Del Diablo” (The Devil’s Nose). Before 2005, people were able to ride on top of the train down the steep incline, but there was an incident where 2 tourists were killed and that brought the practice to a screeching halt. The train used to operate from Quito to Guayaquil, but now it only runs the short round trip out of Alausi. They hope to rebuild the line in its entirety someday, but as you can imagine, it is a major financial obligation.

The train ride involves a steep incline with many switchbacks. The scenery is rather bleak with towering mountains and minimal vegetation except for Agave plants. Half way through the trip you stop at a place for snacks, a traditional dance demonstration, and of course more souvenirs. You can also hike up the hill to see a museum about the railway. After returning to Alausi, we stopped for a typical lunch of lamb stew and then resumed our journey to Cuenca by car, where we will be living with a family for 6 days during our Spanish immersion.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

More Amazon Photos