Categories
Ecuador

Surf’s up in Montañita

We finally made it to our final destination Montañita , a cool, chill little beach town about 3 hours west of Guayaquil.  Montañita is best known for two things; surfing and partying. This combination attracts a diverse, slightly offbeat and hippie crowd from all over the world.

The town has grown tremendously in recent years and while this is mostly a good thing (accommodations and infrastructure have improved), some of the locals lamented to us that just a little bit of charm may have been lost in the process.

The slightly "hippie" crowd of Montañita

That being said Montañita  is still a great spot where travelers and locals depend on each other and mix and mingle as well as any tourist town I’ve seen.

Montañita is growing

But the real reason to come here is the waves. Now I’m not a huge surfer by any stretch but the waves in Montañita are legendary. The edge of the beach at the Point is where the big monster waves are, but given my surfing experience (basically none); we decided it best if I sought the services of a professional.

Riding a baby wave

We headed over to the Balsa Surf Shop and one of the best surfers in town, Eusebio Rodriguez  agreed to give me a lesson. Eusebio is not only a great surfer; he’s a good teacher.

He insisted I stick to the baby waves, not the big daddy waves I naively wanted to try. In the end, I listened to Eusebio and got up on my first try. From there on it was a constant battle to stay upright and to remember all the techniques Eusebio taught me until I eventually tired out and called it a day.

Eusebio and his star pupil (me)

Once back on land I accidentally dropped the surfboard on my foot and bled like a stuck pig. But that didn’t damper my producer’s enthusiasm. He ignored the injury and insisted on getting his “intro” and “outro” so I gave it to him.

Montañita

Later that night we sampled a little bit of the Montañita nightlife but nothing too crazy or ridiculous. I was exhausted from surfing and a work out at the local gym aptly named “Surf and Gym” and called it an early night.

We went to sleep to the lovely sounds of waves crashing in surf and the decidedly less lovely sounds of reggaeton and electronic music spilling from one of the discos in town.

Cool Souvenirs

The next day we took a cramped and claustrophobic minivan back to Guayaquil because the buses back were all booked up. It would have been a quicker and less painful journey but one guy, an obvious friend of the driver, kept insisting the van stop so he could either buy more beer or relieve himself of the beer he had just consumed.

Montañita may not be the charming little beach town I first set my eyes on 5 years ago. But it’s still a cool and somewhat off the beaten path destination to take in a little beach action. If you go, I heartily recommend you look for Eusebio at the Balsa Surf Shop and at least give the baby waves a try.

 

Categories
Ecuador

Guaya-killer!

The Malecon at Dusk

Guayaquil has a whole different vibe than Quito but has plenty to offer a curious traveler for a couple or three days. Though many people may tell you the central part of town is dangerous, that is based largely on outdated information from the 1990s. We stayed in a lovely apartment flat cum hostel called “Casa Romero” in the central part of town that was perfect for our needs.

The Malecon or waterfront boardwalk is the area to see and it was completely redone in a very intense renovation in the year 2000.  Today it is a beautiful part of the city and a great and secure place to go walking (day or night), but especially around dusk or sundown when you’ll see families and tourists doing what they do best, enjoying life.

Tribute to the 1960s

There are restaurants, bars, cultural monuments and statues, artisan markets and on weekends and holidays usually entertainment (the night we were there a live tribute to the music of the 1960s). And perhaps most importantly lots and lots of police and security stroll around so that a traveler never should feel insecure.

The end of the Malecon leads to the beautiful Cerro Santa Ana the historical part of Barrio Las Penas. Cerro Santa Ana has over 400 winding steps that are numbered so you can track your progress.

Cerro Santa Ana

If the hike is too intense, don’t worry; the area is full of colorful restaurants, bars, souvenir shops etc., so you can take your time. On the day we were there it was packed because it was a holiday but we made it all the way to the top which has a lighthouse and church, both which afford a great view of the city and surrounding river.

View from the lighthouse in Cerro Santa Ana

Also near the central part of town is the famous Parque Bolivar which is better known as Iguana Park because it is chock full of friendly and cool iguanas that will even let you pet them (though I saw signs telling us not to, we, along with about a dozen kids, did anyway). Iguana Park is small and besides the iguanas isn’t that unlike many of the dozens of other parks we’ve visited, but it’s still one of my favorite parks in all of Latin America.

Iguana Park

Now if you have time to head outside of the center of town, I recommend Parque Historico, which is out in a newer, wealthier suburb of Guayaquil just past the airport. Parque Historico was built in a naturally occurring mangrove.

Parque Historico

It has a zoo that features the native wildlife of the area that is not to be missed. The animals aren’t really in cages as much as fenced off and contained in naturally occurring areas that make it feel like your observing them in their natural habitat. We saw monkeys, foxes, exotic birds, leopards, caymans and more. While zoos don’t really turn me on, I must admit the monkeys cracked me up with their antics. Hilarious and so human like.

The park’s namesake comes from the fact that they have a scaled down replica of what the Malecon was like during the heyday of the late 1800s and 1900s. The buildings feel pretty authentic and it seemed like a small movie set.

Actors at Parque Historico

They also have other traditional exhibits which showcase the different types of homes, complete with the culture and traditions of the 1800s including a hacienda (ranch) and a rural farm typical of the coast.

It felt pretty authentic because it comes complete with actual actors in full character. On the weekends we hear they have shows and demonstrations that add to the feeling. All in all, Parque Historico is worth the drive/taxi ride if you have the time.

Parque Historico

 

We also visited the Botanical Gardens way, way on the outskirts of town on top of a mountain. The best thing to me about the gardens was the beautiful view of the city as well as the monkey and bird exhibit.

Let’s face it plants just aren’t that exciting. The guide map promised a butterfly reserve, but we could only spot two butterflies in the whole exhibit. Maybe they escaped or were in hibernation? All in all I can’t recommend the Botanical Gardens unless you are really, really into plants.

View of downtown Guayaquil from Casa Romero

But Guayaquil, I can most certainly recommend, especially if you want to get a different flavor of Ecuador beyond Quito and the indigenous, mountainous cities and towns. It’s not as cultural as Quito or Cuenca, but there is something about the coastal vibe that you feel immediately upon arrival to Ecuador’s largest city.

Perhaps the best thing about Guayaquil is that it is just a few hours bus ride to the coastal towns of Salinas and Montenita, which is where we are headed next to wind up our trip.

 

 

 

 

Categories
Ecuador

Cuenca: More Shrunken Heads, Panama Hats and Goth!


Cuenca is Ecuador’s 3rd largest city with around 500,000 residents. A lot of foreigners retire here because you don’t need a car (taxis are cheap), the weather is temperate (warmer than Quito but not as warm as Guayaquil) and it’ a cleaner city than most in Ecuador. In fact this historic town has a pretty impressive recycling program with a company called EMAC working in partnership with the local government.

While we were in town, EMAC was throwing a little celebration and had information booths set up in one of the main plazas. After our conversation in Baños with the guys from La Casa Verde, we were even more curious about recycling and environmental conservation efforts in Ecuador, so we interviewed the President and a few key staff of EMAC who filled us in.

Through the event they were hoping to provide education about recycling efforts in Cuenca, fully aware that without the residents’ cooperation, their best efforts would be futile. I was pleased to hear that plastic bottles were recyclable in Cuenca. We had been drinking a lot of bottled water and I was feeling a tad guilty. I had been trying to figure out another solution to drinking clean, potable water while on the road.

Later we took some footage of the wonderful, Colonial sites and historical architecture along Cuenca’s cobblestone streets.

Then we headed over to the PumaPungo Museum to see the impressive Inca Ruins, the only ones I’ve witnessed inside the city limits of a major city. The site had been partially restored by the museum and is definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in Cuenca.

PumaPungo Museum Exhibit of an Inca Princess

Our guide, Pablo, spoke English and filled me in on the fascinating culture and history of the Pre-Inca and Inca civilization. This particular site was where the Inca Princesses lived and had 11 servants each (all male). The garden was reproduced to look exactly like the Garden might have looked back in the Inca days with over 400 different species of plants.

Much of the food raised went to the birds in the sanctuary the museum runs where they rescue birds that have been injured or are retrieved by the police from people who try to illegally export these rare birds as illegal pets to places like the U.S. and Europe.

Later we visited the museum’s impressive archeology section which displayed some of the items recovered from the site.

Solid Gold Ornament Recovered from the Inca Ruins

 

We also saw their exhibit of shrunken heads. They gave me a DVD on them and I can’t wait to hear and see more about this fascinating practice which was just outlawed on humans in Ecuador in the 1960s!

After the museum we headed over to the Panamanian Hat Factory and Store, Homero Ortega. Most people don’t realize the ubiquitous and famous Panama hat actually originated in Ecuador. It got its confusing and misleading moniker during the building of the Panama Canal when then U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt wore one while visiting the canal and its popularity soared.

At the Homero Ortega Store you can see the Panama hats being woven

Even though the hat originates in Ecuador (Montecristo and Cuenca) people still confuse the hat with Panama, the port where the hat was exported back in the day and the name has stuck.

Cuenca has a large number of people who depend on the Panama Hat industry as they normally weave in their homes and then bring the hats to the Homero Ortega Company to be finished. The process is pretty cool to see first hand, which you can do at the factory. It can take as little as 2 days for some hats that might retail at $20 or as much as 6-8 months for hats that might retail as much as $1,000-$1,500 U.S. The difference is the quality of the weaving, as the more expensive hats have a more fine straw material which takes a long time to weave and requires more material.

Alicia Ortega S. is the founder’s granddaughter and current President of the company and she and her staff could not have been more gracious to us. They even gave us each a Panama hat as a souvenir. Incredible generosity and a great segment for the show.

With Homero Ortega's Granddaughter and President Alicia

After that we pretty much called it a wrap. But I had one more shoot I wanted to do so I went along to this Gothic store called “Godos” close to our hotel to get a little info n the punk/metal and gothic scene in Cuenca for my side project “Punktology”.

At "Godos" the Goth store in Cuenca

The owner’s were super cool. They let me have free run of the place and filled me in on the local metal and goth scene. In Cuenca it is really big it turns out which also helps explain all the teens and kids I saw running around town wearing black.

Godos' Goth Store Prop

Cuenca is a really cool town. It’s big enough to have most of what you might want (it has an international airport) yet small enough that traffic and getting around isn’t an issue and it felt safe, even at night, in the old town. Of Course all the old precautions should be followed anywhere when traveling (don’t walk alone at night; don’t wear expensive jewelry, etc.). But all in all, I heartily recommend Cuenca as a safe, friendly and interesting destination.

Downtown Cuenca at night

 

Categories
Ecuador South America

Up the Devil’s Nose in Alausí, Ecuador

After a stopover for lunch in Riobamba, we arrived in the small town of Alausí, about 4 hours by bus from Baños. The bus ride from Riobamba to Alausí was made much more entertaining when I made friends with Lupe, a little 4 year old Ecuadorian girl who was fascinated by my camera. I never saw her parents but she said her father was a few rows back.

My little friend Lupe

I am still amazed by the independence little children in Ecuador seem to have. I can’t tell you how many times I saw young kids, sometimes as young as 4 or 5 walking by themselves by the side of a busy highway.  Contrast that with the U.S. where I swear I’ve seen kids the same age being pushed in strollers in Manhattan!

I didn’t complain when Lupe came up to share the ride with me. She was cute as a button and I taught her a few basic English words before she eventually got bored with me and my camera and she went over to our producer’s (Renzo) side of the bus, where she promptly fell asleep. She was still sleeping when we got off at Alausí, so I slipped a piece of candy in her little folded arms so that she’d have a sweet surprise when she woke up.  I’m such a big old softy when it comes to kids, especially cute little Ecuadorian kids. Simply the cutest.

Alausí Resident

Alausí has a big indigenous influence and despite having the famous “Nariz del Diablo” or “Devil’s Nose Train” station it didn’t seem to have a lot of tourist infrastructure to speak of.

That being said, the people were friendly and the food at the local Chifa (Chinese restaurant) across the street from our hotel was good. You can get a good sense of Alausí in about 2 hours walking around town and if the altitude isn’t kicking your butt too bad, a great view of the city can be had from the lookout with the large San Pedro monument which towers over the town.

At the San Pedro Monument Overlooking the City

We woke up early to take the 1st Devil’s Nose Train which was scheduled to depart at 8AM and arrive back in town at 10:30AM.  Since we didn’t have tickets (the ticket office was closed when we arrived the day before) , we had to wake up really early to buy our tickets at 7AM at the ticket office. Buying tickets was by far the worst part of the train trip, it took 45 minutes and we were the 2nd group of people in line. Maybe there “system was down”, but it killed any chance of us getting breakfast (and me, my much needed coffee fix) beforehand.

The Devil’s Nose Train is probably one of the most famous and infamous tourist sites in Ecuador. If you research on the web or guidebooks before you go, you’ll get an amazing amount of outdated, misinformation. This stems from the fact that the train used to depart from Riobamba for a much more grueling all day train ride and not that long ago, tourists could ride on top of the cars. Of course, this is dangerous and eventually someone died so that no longer is allowed. A round trip train ride from Alausí is only 2.5 hours and that includes a 50 minute stop in the town of Sibambe for lunch.

View from the train

As of this writing, the train currently runs from Alausí 3 times a day (8A, 11A, 1PM) Tuesday-Sundays and the cost is $20 U.S. per adult. You can buy tickets at the ticket office in Alausí or at the old train station in Riobamba before you get there. Evidently weekends and holidays are pretty packed so you’re advised to get your tickets as early as possible.

You’ll also get mixed reviews about the train ride itself, some saying it’s a tourist trap and that the views are just as great by bus. Not so. The train ride overlooks cliffs and valleys in a way no bus ever could (or that you would want) and because the speed is slower (and the ride smoother) it’s much easier to get video or photos and appreciate the beautiful surrounding landscape.

In front of the aptly named "Devil's Nose" formation

The train was built in 1901 and many people died building it and when you take the ride you understand why. The terrain is precarious. I can’t imagine the amount of manpower needed to build around the mountains at that time. At times the train is so close to the side of a mountain that if you stick your hand outside the train car, you’ll lose it.

There are two types of train cars. Buses that are retrofitted to ride on  train tracks and the kind we thankfully took, which are refurbished train cars from back in the heyday of the route when it was used for transportation and not just a diversion for tourists.

When we arrived in Sibambe we were welcomed with folkloric dancers and surprise, surprise you could buy souvenirs from the local artisans. We also toured the museum and had a light lunch before we headed back.

Folkloric dancing in Sibambe

The train ride is not that adrenaline pumping excitement you’ll get in Baños from some of the adventure sports and I admit I was disappointed we couldn’t ride on the roof, but the views are stunning nonetheless and it’s really a good way to feel like what travel was like in these parts not that long ago. If you have the time and are in the area, I wholeheartedly recommend the ride.

We hopped on a bus to Cuenca (another 4 hours) and realized when we arrived that we had left our tripod (valued at $250 U.S.) on the train.  Getting it back proved to be an adventure but Marcos the manager of the Train was so cool and eager to help us out. We wired him some fare money to put it on a bus to Cuenca and we got it back the next day. Big gracias to Jose Luis (our guide who found the tripod and turned it in) and Marcos for their help.

Below is a small video clip to give you some idea of what the train ride was like.

 

 

 

Categories
Ecuador

Gringo Blood… Ummm Good! Beautiful, Bloodsucking Baños!

In Baños we stayed at the eco-friendly hostel, La Casa Verde (The Green House) owned by a lovely Australian/New Zealand couple Doug & Rebecca ho live there along with their adorable 4 year old son Jonathon. It’s hard to say enough about La Casa Verde and the good work they are doing. A few years ago I might have ignorantly referred to Doug and Rebecca as tree huggers or hippies, but now, the more enlightened version of myself is thankful for what they are doing.

At a time when being “green” is more marketing term than an actual way of conducting business, La Casa Verde more than lives up to its name. Despite the higher cost, La Casa Verde was constructed with wood from a nearby tree forest (trees that are planted and harvested in controlled conditions and grow very quickly) as well as recycled materials. They grow and maintain their own organic and sustainable garden which provides much of the food for guests. By foregoing pesticides they happily allocate 10% or so for the birds and insects (call it nature’s tax) and share their bounty with their Ecuadorian neighbors.

Only reusable containers for La Casa Verde's kitchen

When they do find it necessary to purchase food in town, they insist on bringing their own reusable containers (no paper or plastic thank you) and buy in bulk. So that guests don’t have to buy plastic bottles (which are not recycled in Baños  ) of water, they provide free purified water in the kitchen. They built their own septic tank (very unusual in Latin America) and separate the black (sewage) from the grey water (shower, sink) which is reused in the organic garden. Not to mention the shower water is hot, the breakfast delicious and healthy and Rebecca makes some incredible, all natural brownies and granola bars that still has my taste buds going through withdrawals.

Indeed there is something about Baños that brings out the inner hippie in everyone. I suddenly wanted to go for a bike ride (something I probably haven’t done in over 10 years). We took the 28 KM (17 miles) or so tour of the lovely Rio Verde (Green River) via the Ruta Cascada (Cascade Route), an amazing bike route where you can view incredible waterfall after incredible waterfall throughout an ideal scenic landscape of green mountains and deep valleys.

Now we were assured (accurately as it turned out) that most of the bike route was downhill. This was important because we were each carrying some type of expensive and not so easy to balance camera equipment on our backs. You can imagine how surprised we were when we were struggling almost right off the bat to get up a never ending, ridiculously steep hill. Turns out this was no little hill but the local (and very active) Tungurahua Volcano, which is just a mere 16,000 feet in height!

Rookies!

We had misread the map and taken a very wrong turn. Finally after about 20 minutes of breathlessly walking our bikes uphill on the side of the road and erroneously thinking the plateau must be near, a kind soul in a pickup truck took pity and told us our mistake. We were able to correct course and the rest of the bike trip seemed like a breeze afterwards.

Once back on course, the bike ride was absolutely amazing, incredible or whatever cliched adjective you care to insert. But dare I say (can’t believe I’m saying this) that for me it was the highlight of the entire trip. We stopped along the way to take a basket ride over an incredible (that word again!) ravine to view one of the (I won’t say incredible) waterfalls up close and personal. The baskets are like uncovered cable cars and are more than a simple tourist draw. They are a very practical means of transport for people who live across a steep valley or on top of a mountainous terrain.

In the basket over an "incredible" ravine & waterfall

To further prove that Baños does something strange to you, I stopped to bungee jump off a bridge, something I’ve never attempted or cared to attempt before. Do you even attempt bungee jumping? You either succeed or fail right? I meant there are not many “do overs” in this “sport”.  This hit home when the guy started outfitting me with gear.

I realized no releases were being signed, no legal disclaimers were being spouted and how unofficial everything was looking and I started to get really nervous. Who is this guy and how do I know this isn’t his first day on the job? Will it be hard to get my corpse back to the U.S.? Do I want to be buried in New York, Tennessee or California? Maybe in Ecuador? Or at sea? or just throw me in the volcano? Did I remember to donate my organs? Will Social Distortion play at my funeral?

By the time I was standing on the side of the bridge ready to dive headfirst into the rocky terrain below I was in full panic mode. But I felt it impossible to back out because a small crowd had gathered to watch the scared Gringo; no doubt baited by the TV cameras recording my first ever jump (failed jumps are great for ratings I hear).

I vowed not to make a sound but am afraid I ended up screaming, if not quite like a little girl, like a scared man who was about to lose his life in a very stupid way. It was instinctual, primitive and over in a split second. And when it was over, I was swinging to and fro, slowly being lowered to the ground below and it was really no big deal. I’d easily do it again, but I might check the credentials of the personnel first.

After successfully defying death, swinging from the bridge

The bike tour was capped off by a stop at the Pailon del Diablo falls, the most miraculous and powerful falls I’ve ever seen so close up. We all got a little wet from the powerful spray and we were exhausted at this point so we bussed it back (hey, don’t judge! most people do) to La Casa Verde.

The Powerful Pailon del Diablo Falls

 

TV producers hate getting wet

Later that night we tried our luck at spotting the Tungurahua Volcano’s lava flow. We hired a taxi who took us to the top of the mountain (the very same one we had ignorantly attempted to climb on our bikes earlier in the day) to one of the volcano observations stations high, high up.

It was dark and cold and it felt eerie being this close to an active volcano that could blow at any moment. But alas it was too cloudy for observation. We gave up after about 20 minutes and went home. If we’d have hung in there all night we would have probably eventually seen something like the photo below.

The very active Volcano Tungurahua at night

The next day our outdoor adventure continued.  My producer talked me into trying a thing called Canyoning, which is really rappelling down a slick water fall. It was pretty cool. I’m not sure my instructor was old enough to drive, much less guide a clumsy beginner in a dangerous sport, but I’m alive so he guess he did ok.

To be honest the scariest part of canyoning seemed to be climbing to the top where one wrong move and your could fall on a pile of rocks and the flimsy little helmet would probably be of no use.

Canyoning
With my very young "Canyoning" instructor

Finally we took a break from all this adrenaline and took advantage of what Baños is so aptly named for; it’s naturally occurring, volcano heated thermal spring pools. There are dozens all over Baños but I soaked in the one right smack in the middle of town, the popular Banos de la Virgen. I wasn’t alone. It was a weekend and the place was packed with Ecuadorian families enjoying the cheap entertainment of the pools.

With my pale, decidedly un-suntanned body I stood out in the brown crowd as the only Gringo in the pools. Where were all the Gringo tourist I had seen in town the night before? Probably out biking, bungee jumping, rafting or cascading.

Baños is a town I thoroughly enjoyed. It was economical (taxi rides from our hotel to the center of town, $1.50 U.S.) , full of great outdoor activities and had a little nightlife as well. It was cultural with the indigenous residents mixing in with the tourist quiet naturally. There are vegetarian restaurants and spa and massage services for those who prefer a more laid back experience.

But if you go, remember to wear your mosquito repellent. I had been lulled into a false sense of “we don’t need no stinking repellent” in Quito and as a result got eaten alive for the two days I was in Baños . You could almost hear the little critters singing over and over “Gringo Blood… ummmmmm.. delicioso” as they went to town on my arms, legs and neck.

Local Banos Resident

Despite the incredible natural beauty of Baños and really all of Ecuador, it ain’t easy being green there just yet. Thanks to the efforts of many eco-conscious travelers, transplants like Doug and Rebecca at La Casa Verde and the numerous locals who obviously care about the future of Ecuador, hopefully this will begin to change over the next decade before it’s too late.

Baños, you get a big, if a bit mosquito ravaged, two thumbs up from me! Keep keeping it fun and please for God’s sake, keep it green.

Categories
Ecuador

Munching on Some Guinea Pig in Otavalo!

Today we took the 2 hour drive to the small artisan and indigenous village of Otavalo, a popular day trip from travelers from Quito. Karina, a local musician picked us up at the Folklore Hotel in Quito. We stopped along the way to shoot some b-roll of the beautiful, mountainous surroundings.

Renzo, Karina and Myself on the way to Otavalo.

Our first stop was the famous market, which is usually in full swing on Saturdays. Even though we were a day early, most of the vendors were out and selling stuff pretty aggressively and as usual, I bought things I really didn’t have room for in my bag. But this is THE spot to go to stock up on any gifts or souvenirs you care to buy when in Ecuador. If you wait until you get to the airport you will likely pay 4 or 5 times as much for the very same merchandise.

The Market in Otavalo

I purchased some typical Ecuadorian pants and a small painting and anything else that caught my fancy and I thought I could stuff into my backpack.

Local Otavalo Lady

We then headed over to Nanda Manachi where Jose Luis and his family, which comprise the Andean musical group Los Hermanos Pichamba performed a typical Andean song for us.

Here is a little video preview of their performance for you to enjoy. Check out the cute little boy (we confirmed, he is indeed a little boy) singing his heart out!

 

Jose Luis then demonstrated how some of the instruments are made and he taught us a little bit about the history and heritage of the major instruments used in Andean music. We were joined by about 30 jet lagged but very friendly Australian tourists.

After the demonstrations and the Australian Tour Group went on their way, Jose Luis’s family prepared Cuy (Guinea Pig) for lunch.. a typical Andean delicacy. Jose Luise brought it to us whole, head, little teeth and all, and looked pretty scary but after they chopped it up and removed the head, it was very edible and I must admit, yep, it tasted like chicken.

I felt a little guilty because just the previous day I had made friends with a little baby guinea pig (I named him Snowball) just the day before at the Museum Intinan at the Mitad Del Mundo (Middle of the World).  I sure hope they weren’t close relations.

With Jose Luis and our lunch.. Fried Cuy (Guinee Pig)

Some sections of the Cuy still had a little fur left on the skin and since I don’t eat skin anyway (that’s where most of the fat is on almost any animal), I gave it to our producer Renzo, who happily ate the skin, fur and all!

After all this we took a few pick up shots of Otavalo and then headed back to Quito where we caught a late bus for the 3 hour bus ride to Baños. We arrived around 1AM at our hostel La Casa Verde and proceeded to sleep like rocks. Dead tired. A good if tiresome day.

Categories
Ecuador

Giving Back While Shrunken Heads Abound!

We began our 2nd day of shooting by visiting a small school in one of the poor barrios on the outskirts of Quito. The Fundacion Honor de la Vida (Foundation for the Honor of Life) School’s mission is to work with poor children from even more difficult backgrounds (an addicted parent, an abusive situation, etc.). The school is solely supported through private grants and donations and serves a few hundred poor and special needs children.

The Kids from The Foundation For The Honor of Life

Because school supplies are always in short supply, we brought along pencils, sharpeners and erasers, as well as Punk Outlaw and Afro Latino stickers which were a big hit. I spent about 30 minutes teaching them some basic English words and to my surprise, a couple of them actually knew some  of the words already. To my further surprise, I really enjoyed teaching these kids. Though I come from a family of teachers, I’ve never considered the profession seriously myself (I hear you need something called “patience”), nonetheless we made it through 20 or so basic English words like “hello” “goodbye” mother, “Father” etc and the kids really seemed to comprehend.

Afterwards the kids were all over us, hugging us and hanging on to us as they asked us questions all at the same time, like how to translate their names into English, or the meaning of certain English words along with some pretty personal questions like our age, family status, etc.  This was by far my most rewarding time in the trip so far.

Next, Bernardo, the owner of the Folklore Hotel where we were staying, picked us up and took us on a tour of Mitad del Mundo (or Middle of the World). Bernardo acted as our Driver/PR guide/Fixer and Guide and handily got our admission to almost all the area attractions waived. Gracias to Bernardo and the fine Folklore Hotel, a good budget accommodation in a great location in Quito that is a step above a hostel but not like staying at some multi national chain (we were not compensated in any way for that endorsement).

Mitad del Mundo

The very touristy Mitad Del Mundo is the one that you see in all the brochures and tour books. However, it is not the actual center of the world. Thanks to GPS technology, we now know the French, who first established this as the center of the world with a latitude of 0 x 0 degrees in the 1700s were off by a few meters. Still pretty impressive given their instrumentation back in the day and the site is still very much worth visiting, especially if you happen to hit it on the weekend when there is folkloric dancing and traditional musical entertainment.

But to me the most impressive was the much smaller but wildly popular museum just down the road, the Museum Intinan.  Our guide, Javier, was a charming, English speaking young cat who also happened to play drums in a punk band so we hit it off immediately. Javier showed us how the water drains differently just a few feet each side of the equator.  If I remember correctly, when to the north it drains clockwise, to the south counter clockwise and directly over it flows straight down. A truly a fascinating demonstration.

With Javier from the musuem

The museum also had an impressive collection of fake and actual shrunken heads that were fascinating. The practice of shrinking the heads of noteworthy enemies when they were killed and important members of the tribe after they died was outlawed just over 60 years ago in Ecuador.

Actual Shrunken Head - Over 200 years old

After the museum we hit up some pre-Inca ruins which were close by and afforded an incredible view of the valley below. I always get chills when I visit Indigenous ruins (even when it’s not windy and cold). I could just imagine the local indigenous tribe defending themselves against rival tribes who were foolish or brave enough to try and climb the hill to attack.

Shooting from the Inca Ruins

We made it to the La Virgen del Panecillo on Panecillo Hill just in time for sunset and to grab some pretty incredible pics and video of the towering statue, which can be spotted on the hill over the old city from miles around.

La Virgen del Panecillo

For dinner, we grabbed some local street food at one of the nearby parks, which judging by the crowd is a very popular spot for locals. I can understand why. The food was incredible. I tried Menudo (the soup, not the Puerto Rican boy band), Tripe (intestines) and a couple of other items full of mystery meats. My hat is off to anyone that can make intestines taste good enough for me to eat.

Later that night I had an interview with a local punk band El Junta at Plaza Foch. The guys were super cool and invited me to a punk show but I was exhausted and we had a big day trip planned to Otavalo the next day so I had to pass.

Ecuador's "El Junta"

Working with the poor school children in Quito was a great start to a great day. I have to admit, things in Quito seems to be looking up, but I’m looking forward to getting out of the big city to some of the more traditional small pueblos of Ecuador.

 

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Ecuador

Quito – Are We Blessed or Cursed?

Ciudad Viejo (Old City) - Quito, Ecuador

Ecuador got off to a somewhat rocky and inauspicious start when I was surrounded by 6 young hoods and accosted for my camera just hours after having arrived in Quito. The location was Plaza Foch which is packed with tourist and police, but evidently is one of the more dangerous areas you can wander around at night by yourself with a camera around your neck.

By yelling, screaming and simply refusing to give over my camera without a fight or a big scene, I was able to avoid anything more serious than a ripped jacket.  I was also able to notify the police when I later spotted some of the  main culprits walking around as if nothing happened just a few blocks away.

Santo Domingo in the Old City

Unfortunately, because they did not actually steal anything, I’m afraid the guys were most likely released from custody that very same night to continue their reign of bullying on unsuspecting travelers. Nonetheless I recognized my luck at having my Cannon still available for our first day of shooting the very next day and while I had an exciting story to tell I’ll be the first to admit I was a bit foolish in having my camera out at night in the first place.

But I must say I will probably do so again, when circumstances are similar and I want to get a good shot.  I firmly believe you can’t spend your whole life with your camera packed safely away in your hotel or hidden away because someone might actually be willing to rob you for it.

At some point you have to live your life and enjoy your trip, but common sense must tell you have to weigh the risk vs. the reward and be prepared to lose your camera or worse. If you don’t risk anything you may as well stay at home and never go anywhere or do anything. But if your reading this and planning a trip to Quito, be very vigilant, especially at night around Plaza Foch and other areas.

Inside one of Quito's Lovely Old Cathedrals

We received what we thought to be a 2nd bad omen when early into our first day of shooting in the historic old city of Quito (at 52 blocks the largest preserved old city in South America), a bird, or a flock of birds more likely, did their business all over me, my shirt, my producers shirt and our camera bag. Normally I’d laugh this off but this stuff was the ugliest, foulest smelling bit of feces I’ve ever come in contact with (and I grew up on a farm). I didn’t have another shirt with me so we all had to wash in a nearby public restroom and I had to change into my previously ripped, hooded jacket  and we carried on shooting, continuity be damned.

Quito's Bright Blue Sky

My producer, Renzo, is Colombian and he said that in Latin America a bird plopping crap on you was considered a sign of good things to come. I certainly did hope so because the last 24 hours had been tough.

Indeed, things did quickly get better. Our shoot in the rest of the Old City was wonderful as we shot such beautiful historic sites as Plaza Independencia, La Plaza Grande, The Government Palace Building and more.  I took advantage of the situation and bought a hand woven replacement shirt at one of the stalls where they featured clothing made in nearby Otavalo, a city famous for its textiles, market and indigenous culture . We also met a lovely couple who were weavers and demonstrated how to hand weaving process works for our cameras.

The Art of Weaving
With Luis and Preci Morales (local weavers)

Later we were joined by Cheo, a local, young communications student from the coastal city of Esmeraldas who had volunteered to help us out. We made our way to the Teleferiquo or the cable car which took us up for an incredible if chilly view of Quito high above one of the area mountains.

View of Quito from the top
In La Calle Ronda

We made it to the back down to the old city and the lovely La Calle Ronda, an area of cobblestone streets, cafes and restaurants in time for dusk and we got some great shots off there before dark and then heading over to the more modern part of the city to shoot at the famous rock bar, “The Garage”. We were there to shoot my buddies from the local punk band DMTR (Demeter) who agreed to put on a special performance just four our cameras.

DMTR (Demeter) @ The Garage performing for our cameras

All in all it was a solid 1st day of shooting and given the way things had begun I had a feeling our luck was changing. I mean the camera wasn’t stolen, I ended up washing my shirt and getting a cool hand made replacement in the process. Maybe the old Latin American superstition about a bird doing its business on you was true after all? Only time would tell but so far, so good… I guess!??