Tag Archives: Ecuador

Galapagos Wrap-up, pt. IV

Arriving on Isla San Cristóbal I was more than ready for change. My time on Isla Isabela had put me into a dismissive and negative mood and the sooner I was off the island the better. So I went to Isabela’s airport an hour early and met Veronica, another passenger also eager to be gone. She’s a director in the Ministério del Ambiente, kind of a Parks & Recreation Bureau within Ecuador’s central government.

I didn’t know it at the time but she’s a high-level functionary within the workings of the country’s civil service. I found this out later when visiting a Sailors’ Museum and saw a bronze plaque with her name on it. The plaque commemorated the new museum and its major benefactors, with her name prominent on the list.

Anyway, Veronica suggested some things to do while I visited San Cristóbal. One of them was the path that began at the island’s Darwin Interpretation Center and continued to the summit of a hill overlooking the main city of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Following that advice I was to take that trail several times during my stay, each time just before sunset. Muchas Gracias, Veronica!

She was very proud of that trail, having recently attended its grand opening after having worked to get it funded and built. She also took my phone number and promised to call and meet while we both visited the island. But this time I was ready for those notorious subjunctive tenses and (rightfully) didn’t expect the call to come. By now I’ve started to recognize “the meeting that will never be.” On the road for less than a year and I’m already making some cultural progress ;}

Who I did meet though were people very different than the folks on Santa Cruz or Isabela. I found people who were not on the make. The people of Santa Cruz, and more specifically Puerto Ayora, are there for your money. They are friendly enough to be sure, but the town and the island by extension, is there to redistribute the wealth (and property if you don’t hold on to your purse) from the visitors of the developed world and relocate this wealth among the people of the developing world. Visitor and resident alike knows this and there’s no misunderstanding. And at a coarser and sleazier level the same is true on Isabela. But San Cristóbal is different.

It also has an airport allowing flights from the mainland, though the traffic is far less than at the main landing strip on Baltra servicing Santa Cruz. And it also has sights and tours to some relatively unique features, like the only natural fresh water source in the Galapagos. What keeps this island different in flavor is the presence of federal offices, a large naval base, and national commercial fishing administration. There are dry-dock facilities, freight-forwarding yards and other trappings of non-tourist related activity. So one’s chances of meeting someone not involved with tourism are far easier on San Cristóbal. No scams for a change, and a welcome one too.

In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno the streets are clean. And the waterfront promenade with its one-way street was named, but what else? Avenida Charles Darwin. All the shop fronts and park benches in the sun and the shade were well-cared for. This port town was neat, proud, and yet still had time to be friendly.

Just outside the Darwin Interpretation Center there is a brand new UNC/Chapel Hill facility housing earth and/or natural sciences graduate students with lecture halls and common areas as well. The architecture blends well with the surrounding structures and land forms. It was the beginning of fall semester and the grad students seemed to be mixing rather smoothly with the local residents. This island is definitely different from the others.

Yet again Janina was right by revealing to me that the people can be every bit as interesting as the animals. I got a first-hand view of her thesis and now am a believer too. People can and do change rapidly in different social structures. They had clearly done so among the inhabited islands of the Galapagos. But do they evolve? Maybe, if they are as adaptable as guppies.

Which brings me to perhaps my biggest failure while visiting the Galapagos: I never visited Floreana, the mystery island. The last, smallest, of the inhabited islands, Floreana boasted a tale of death, perhaps murder and certainly deceit; mistresses and scandal with transformation following hellfire. Being south of the main island group, this outpost holds itself back from the others.

Set completely ablaze by a whaler’s prank in 1819, it is now believed that a number of important and unique species of animals were lost in the conflagration that consumed the entire island. Descendants of the original settlers from early 20th Century still run the single hotel on Floreana. And if I ever return to the Galapagos, I’m going there very early in the trip.

Back on San Cristóbal, one night walking, I encountered a sea lion pup not more than a very few hours old. Cruising along the town’s seawall and encountering herds of sea lions is vaguely reminiscent of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. The difference being that the hundreds of sea lions use the beach here, plus the common piers and sidewalks to bask; Watch your Step!!

Barely able to move with most of the umbilicus attached, as was the placenta to the mother, this particular little pup was too weak and still too new to use the flaccid skins that would become flippers. When I returned barely 8 hours later those same flippers had somehow “inflated” and were now able to carry the pups weight as it struggled to find its mother to nurse.

Witnessing both of these sea lion pup events I was accompanied by a recent friend, Michaela. Twenty years my junior, this owner of a German travel agency and I had bumped into each other on 4 islands now, so we ended up wandering the docks and eateries along the waterfront. I was fortunate that Michaela speaks far more English (she’s fluent) than my 4 words of German. We compared notes of our various day tours and she collected the information for her clients back home. My second regret, after Floreana, is that I never directly introduced Janina and Michaela. I’ve made some amends via the computer and I sincerely hope that both of them thrive.

In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno I had my first (and only) lobster in the Galapagos. It was pretty good and pretty cheap. Seafood in the Galapagos is generally a bargain.  Along with visiting Floreana, I will spend more time on this island should I get blown back to this part of the world. If I weren’t so fond of Janina and her family on Santa Cruz, I’d fly directly here from Guayaquil. And being retired, I’d happily and easily spend a month in these islands. Now THAT, would be a vacation!

It’s mid-November as I’m writing this and I’m living a comfortable life in Lima; the Galapagos is a long way away. When I consider those various experiences there and the people I met, I think often about how I could improve on my trip. And the most obvious change would incorporate my new love of being aboard a boat. I would root out more day-trip boat tours, or perhaps even a short multi-day cruise. But I wouldn’t learn to SCUBA dive here. These waters are for experienced divers.

The unique life systems that motivated Darwin to devise his theories were themselves the results of unique geologic and geographic conditions found nowhere else on the planet. These islands sit at the collision point of 5 major and 4 minor ocean currents.

From the massive Humboldt Current bringing both cold water and surprisingly cool air temperatures up from the Antarctic, to the nutritionally important Pacific Equatorial Under Current bringing food eastward from the ocean depths to feed the whales, to the Panama Current bringing rain and clear diving waters, these currents form a complex set of powerful forces which endanger the unwary. So learn to dive elsewhere, learn safety and emergency procedures and then you can put the knowledge to good use here.

A day-trip for SCUBA divers will cost somewhere under $200/person. It’s all-inclusive with well maintained equipment, just show up with your bathing suit (and a set of warm, dry clothes). But if you’re like me with size 13 feet, bring your own fins. Each of the populated islands offers day-trips and with some pre-planning before leaving home one can easily dive in almost all of the biomes in the islands.

What about the last-minute cruise packages, said to be possible at amazing discounts? Possibly. But marketing has changed over the last several years. When the Islands started accepting tourists wholesale a generation ago, the park was geared solely for the well-heeled who could afford multi-day cruises aboard all manner of yachts. There were no land-based facilities and the choice was expensive cruises or stay home.

As more travelers visited the islands, the galapagueños rose to the challenge and began offering trips for land-based tourism. Each year saw newer and more extensive and comprehensive ways to experience these islands without committing to an expensive cruise package that virtually dictates every minute of every day. The change in emphasis from cruises (which, to be sure, still exist in a multitude of options) to land-based day trips brought about a corresponding change in what gets flogged to the newer generation of bargain conscious traveler.

Now that all the hip travel guides mention the lure of last-minute cruise deals that is exactly what is (said to be) offered by every business everywhere on the islands. Of course it begs the question: if they are all last minute, how can this be a bargain? I’m still waiting for that answer. The various agencies, sporting goods stores, and shoeshine boys, each of whom offer tickets to everything everywhere network amongst themselves with smartphone apps, so the deals of a decade ago are deals no more.

What this means is that one sees a leveling of pricing that follows the increase in choices. So one now still has the option for a pampered but rather rigid cruise package (which take the traveler to places off-limits to the day-trippers) or a more personalized though still regulated series of land-based 1/2 day and full day tours. As there is some wriggle-room in pricing for the land-based tours, a general homogenization of offerings among vendors markedly dampens opportunities for bargaining. Yet it doesn’t hurt to ask. Hidden treasures exist if you seek them out and you don’t have to pay the asking price.

The Galapagos Islands is an experience every bit as astounding as people say. I barely touched on what is there and how a visitor can see it. I met a Scottish couple in Quito who spent £800 between the 2 of them, for a week. That’s a bit less per day than I spent and one of them had a sea lion come up to him and kiss his GoPro® while snorkeling off Isla Española. I watched it on their computer back at the SAEX Clubhouse.

There are as many ways to visit the Islands as there are visitors. Pick one…

Where The Writer Bites The Lodge That Fed Him

Here’s the second of the my 2-part posting about my experiences in the Rio Cuyabeno Reserve. If you came upon these 2 postings out of sync, you probably haven’t lost much, but reading the first post first will probably make more sense; so go back and start at the beginning.

Did I mention the fresh-water dolphins? Every afternoon, as we headed to the ole swimmin’ hole, we would stop at a bend in the river where the Rio Negro joined the Cuyabeno and wait, perhaps what? 3 minutes, for a spotting. They are not of the “Flipper” variety and have no interest in human contact, but their lives are predictable and therefore they are pretty easy to locate. At the juncture of the 2 rivers they swim in circles feeding on the numbers of fish passing by. Compared to the familiar ocean-going bottlenose dolphins they are an odd looking bunch and they rarely provided us with more than a glimpse of their blowholes as they surfaced for air.

Each day following the previous was a precious reminder of why the Amazon Basin is so important by ensuring that the world goes ‘round. The bio-diversity can at times be overwhelming, it is that ever-present in one’s consciousness. So what of the people who inhabit this biological cornucopia? Do they exhibit this same richness. I wish it were so.

As mesmerizing as the Jamu Lodge stay was, it was not perfect. And yet, the blame cannot be solely the Lodge’s responsibility. This blame must be shared. It must be shared not only with the other lodges located within this river shed, but also with federal agencies and the indigenous communities themselves.

Puerto Bolívar

Puerto Bolívar

Towards the end of my stay, on a Saturday both bright and hot, the guests of Jamu Lodge and the nearby lodges were invited to attend a once-yearly celebration downriver at the Siona community of Puerto Bolívar.

The Siona, the Cofan, the Secoya and other indigenous peoples populate Amazonia. The Cuyabeno reserve is operated by a collective primarily made up of Siona and Cofan, with the latter group also extending into Colombia. The collective puts up pieces of the reserve for bid to outsiders and this is how Jamu Lodge came to be. Jamu, now 15 years old, and the other lodges lease the land they are on and adhere to the guidelines formulated by the collective.

The guidelines dictate how many lodges the reserve can sustain, how many guests the reserve will receive, and how the lodges care for the environment. Jamu has been in the forefront of the “green” movement within this jungle environment and relies solely on electricity generated from solar panels to operate day-to-day activities.

After some pointed questions about their “green” claim, I was invited to inspect their composting system, the solar charging station, the water filtration units, and the bio-digester for black-water (the plumbing kind of black water, not the tannin-based kind). They really do have a green system. If someone wanted to build a new lodge there on the Cuyabeno, using Jamu as a model would be a smart choice.

But the problem I saw was not with Jamu’s environmental footprint, but rather with the manner in which it handles the interaction between us tourists and the folks downriver. We had been invited to come and share with the Siona and join in, not only at the huge community feast, but also to afterwards take part in the festivities and games of skill, like tree-climbing and spear-throwing, swimming and dancing, chicha-drinking and running. I was ready.

So we left right after breakfast and motored downstream until we landed in Puerto Bolívar around 11am. Sulema had arranged for us to first visit with a family that she’s known for years. The the mother, señora Florinda, showed us how to harvest yucca, peel it, grate it (watch the fingers!), strain it and then cook it on a ceramic griddle for a surprisingly tasty (nothing added) tortilla-like flatbread.

Later we went down to the community hall and listened to several elders. They explained how, in the past, they used bows and 7-ft long arrows to fish. The elders showed us how the blow-gun was made and used, with darts soaked in varying strengths of curare, depending on whether you wanted the animal for food or just to knock it out and keep it as a pet; all fascinating stuff. Then it was time to eat. And so we ate and then just picked up and left.

Lovin that Monkey Meat

Lovin that Monkey Meat

As the communal dishes were being set out for a crowd of several hundred I wandered down the tables seeing what I could see, and then seeing more than I wanted. Halfway down the 50-ft long foodline I spotted one of the main dishes and a human-like claw on one of the platters. I had read that folks still eat monkey and I had also read that it should be refused since primates the world over are endangered. I was so glad that Sulema had brought Lodge-made boxed lunches.

What didn’t make me happy was that immediately after our private meal (off to the side and separate from the foodline), we collected the containers, walked back to the canoe and motored back to the lodge. This was disturbing to me. And I let it be known to Sulema and Victor, the head guide. From all I’ve come across and all I’ve seen personally, no one eats and runs, that’s one of the biggest insults imaginable. The answer I received was as vapid as could be.

They “explained” to me that, well, the Siona aren’t very organized. What??! So, you insult them? I’m still trying to figure out just what transpired, but disorganization is not at its root. These folks, the Siona, host the lodges who in turn host us tourists. Why visit, eat, and then vanish? WTF, indeed.

I understand that they live simpler lives. Puerto Bolívar is miles and hours from the nearest road. Their electricity comes from a diesel-powered generator.  Although earlier I had seen a Siona teen teardown and reconstruct a Yamaha 40hp outboard motor. I lead a simpler life than that kid.

But if they lead simpler lives, isn’t it the responsibility of the lodges, depending on the indigenous community for their existence, to help organize a once-yearly event so that there can be real interaction between the tourists and the people who have lived there for millennia? And wouldn’t this organization of efforts give both groups, the indigenous and us, the chance for interchange? To the benefit of all? Jeez Louise.

Based on previous personal experiences contacting indigenous life and customs here in Ecuador, I know that outsiders want more and deeper opportunities for cultural exchange. And after my encounters with the Shuar down south, I realize that the indigenous also want this exchange because it may be their last, best hope of preserving what they have left.

Siona Elder2

Siona Elder2

Earlier, in a completely separate post, I mentioned about the violent confrontations the indigenous have recently had with the Correa government. They do not have a receptive ear within that government and they are desperately looking for other means to get their message to the rest of the world. Here, on the Rio Cuyabeno, they still have that chance.

I came away with feelings of embarrassment (to be included in such an insult), anger (at such insensibility) and confusion (my normal state). Since the visit I’ve communicated with both the lodge and the owner, a Quito-based entrepreneur. Or, I should say that I’ve written to both but not heard back from either.

So, given this lack of perfection, would I repeat my jungle experience again? In a heartbeat. The Amazon Basin is 7 Wonders of the World rolled into one majestic piece of the planet and it deserves to be seen by all who can do so. I would also repeat my stay at Jamu Lodge, which offers both a most restful hideaway and a stimulating chance to be off the grid and unconnected; with some wildlife thrown in to boot.

If I were to repeat this trip, I’d save even more money by flying (or taking a 10-hr bus ride from Quito) to Lago Agrio. Then I’d stop in one of the local agencies and book passage to the Lodge from there. Now that you know it, start planning your trip. Below is a repeat of the images from the first part of this story.

Returning To Quito For Some Basics

I’m back in Quito after more than a month on the road circling Ecuador. From Otavalo and Cotacachi in the north to Guayaquil, Zaruma and Loja along the coast and in the south, to a retreat near Cuenca, I’ve met some wonderful sights and seen some interesting people. Or is it the other way around?

Rooming at the SAEX/Quito Clubhouse for the next month, I have set aside this time to review what has transpired and what will come next before I leave this amazing country and move on to Perú. Having 2 months left on my visa I expect to flesh out the 2 big targets on my agenda: the Amazon Basin and the Galapagos Islands.

Through connections here at the Club I am negotiating a trip to the Amazon, most likely from the city of Coca. With a population of about 45,000 people, Coca is the staging point for trips to both the Cuyabeno and the Yasuní Reserves and sits at the confluence of the Coca and Napo rivers.

The Napo is a major tributary of the Amazon River and was the route taken by Francisco de Orellana when the conquistador made his way east as the first person to cross South America from the Pacific to the Atlantic. You might have seen the movie “Aguirre: Wrath of God” (1972) that was an artistic take-off of the expedition. I’m hoping my trip won’t be quite as surreal! And anyway, Brazil’s pretty expensive, so I’ll skip the Atlantic for now.

On the Road to Cuenca

On the Road to Cuenca

My way back to Quito from Loja included a 12-day retreat near the village of Gualaceo, itself about an hour outside of Cuenca, which I have now visited 4 times. I’d have to say that the road from Loja to Quenca, only a few years old and in beautiful condition, has to be one of the most stunning I have ever traveled, anywhere. Within minutes of leaving Loja the road begins its love affair with the mountains and canyons separating the 2 colonial cities. This twisting route hugs the cliffs along the way and reveals to the traveler wondrous vistas of mountains, rivers and bottom land, often a thousand feet below the pavement. I’d consider visiting Loja again, just to repeat witnessing the drama along the highway that leads there.

After a night in Cuenca I made contact with Javier, the axis of a multi-generational family of taxistas. He drove me and 2 others over another beautiful but rough road to a private 55-acre retreat that we will call Sacred Earth for now. Javier is the person you want to know in Cuenca. He seems to know everyone and every place and will connect each to the other upon request. I enjoyed his company immensely and we’ve since traded several e-mails. We had a great conversation about life on our way to our destination.

I had reserved a spot at this retreat 2 months earlier and I was eagerly looking forward to repeating my spirit world journeys of April/May while visiting the Shuar. But it was not to be. Just because both retreats each held ayahuasca and san pedro ceremonies, just because both use state-registered shamans, and just because both profess a path to the divine, was no assurance that both would, or could for that matter, deliver the same experience. And this turned out to be the case.

Community Center Garden

Community Center Garden

In the most charitable of times I might be able, I suppose, to consider the Sacred Earth retreat as a kind of summer camp with ayahuasca. Though we received many pep-talks at Sacred Earth about how we were there for spiritual growth and how Sacred Earth was set up for this “life-transforming” purpose, in fact and in deed this was really not the case. More attention was placed on and directed to Kumbaya-style creature comforts with a little jungle medicine thrown in for authenticity. And very little at that.

In nearly 2 weeks of very comfortable living, we attended 4 ceremonies: 2 each of both ayahuasca and san pedro, with a lot of free days in between. In comparison, during the 18 days I spent with the Shuar, the participants attended 16 ceremonies, 11 of which were natem (ayahuasca in the Shuar language), a san pedro ceremony, and 4 other ceremonies relating to the ayahuasca vine that also provided opportunities for spiritual assessment.

Each of these 2 very different retreats had set participants back about the same in costs on a per diem basis: about $125/day. In comparison this expense is a 1/2-off bargain to what is available at the new age-y retreat extravaganzas in Perú, where you can also get your hair done and your teeth straightened, with maybe some paragliding thrown in too. But what was delivered by these 2 Ecuadorian retreats differed immensely both in quantity and in quality. Surely let the buyer beware.

To The Ceremonial Maloka

To The Ceremonial Maloka

Sacred Earth is truly an ayahuasca beginner’s resort and and it’s really rather more an introduction to the Wonders of South American Spirituality. Compared to the Spartan offerings of the Tsunki retreat, this experience was closer to a Club-Med for your summer vacation. I suppose if I had read more closely between the website lines and asked a few more pertinent questions beforehand I could have detected the difference, but Así es la vida, such is life.

What with the 3 full-size hot tubs, a “sauna-ish” room, a media room in the Community Center with an extensive video and music library, wi-fi connectivity and a yoga pavilion, massage and Reiki, we were offered any number of diversions with a high level of creature comfort. Oh, and don’t forget: an ayahuasca ceremony on Tuesday; try not to be late! But don’t fret, because Saturday is a free day and we’ll all hop into vans and go into Cuenca for shopping, ice cream and dinning out at any of the numerous groovy restaurants.

During the Shuar ceremonies each participant had an understanding of reverence for the procedure. I don’t remember it ever being discussed as a rule to follow, but for at least an hour before the beginning of each ceremony, as we singly prepared for what we knew would be a long and difficult night, there was little to no talking since each of us was focused on the intent of being there for our personal journeys into the spirit world. Even as a newcomer I understood that this was a sacred undertaking and by no means a trivial jaunt. Silence and contemplation, like the Zen retreats I attended many years before, was a given and an expectation; you just did it.

Maloka Ready for a Ceremony

Maloka Ready for a Ceremony

At Sacred Earth however, each lead-up to a ceremony was entirely light-hearted and even when the shaman appeared and began his incantations, his songs and his prayers, the group behaved as if we were taking part in an adult version of a sleep-over; with jokes and silly banter and fluffing the pillows just right; all this sharing was going on back and forth around the circle as the night closed in and the ayahuasca took effect.

I was speechless at such a casual approach to what I’ve previously only understood to be regarded as a deeply religious experience. Yet at Sacred Earth we were assured that all was taken care of and everything would be fine, because the tobacco smokers among us would have the option of a smoke-break part way through the night’s proceedings! Sacred indeed.

In the past few years, as ayahuasca has become quite well-known in the “developed world,” a division has grown between 2 groups seeking out this indigenous medicine. There are those who recognize the power of the vine and its ability potentially transform one’s life. This group believes that through millennia the people of the Amazon developed their protocols based on keen observations and their integration into the natural world around them, and developed the reverence necessary to realize the full potential of this powerful path.

Those who studied these cultures and their approach to the path of self-discovery both accept and welcome the traditional steps necessary for such an experience. As it happened, the majority of the people in my first retreat had been working with the plant for years. A woman from Germany who helped introduce me to protocols during the retreat, believes, by her own calculations, that she has taken ayahuasca about 80 times.

Then there is the other group that I can only regard as tourists: people who add the ayahuasca “experience” to their lists as just another must-do, like storming the disco bars down in the Zona Rosa, like buying the perfect trinket for a new setting on the dining room table. These are the ones who race to South America’s natural wonders, grab a selfie, and move on. Sacred Earth fully caters to this second group and is really nothing more than a beginner’s guide to what’s hot and what’s not in natural medicine south of the Equator. It’s really pretty sad as it lowers the drinking of this important medicine to just another thing to do while on vacation. Wait ‘till we tell the guys back home; I should say.

Oh, right, I just did.

Out of Guayaquil and On to Zaruma And Back in the Mountains

The Howler monkeys were a bust. We could hear them grunting high up in the Royal Palms, and we smelled their excreta (similar to the “apples” a horse will leave as it makes its way down the street in a parade), but except for some moving fronds, no sightings. It wasn’t a complete surprise since a group of school kids, 20 or so, set out less than a 1/2hr before us. What with their screams, shouts, and other teenage vocal discharge, this pretty much sewed up any chance for a primate encounter on this day’s outing.

So, as the family from Wisconsin, our guide Eduardo Meneses, and I made our way back to our driver Freddie and the van, I figured it would be a good time (I had dropped back to last in line) to relieve myself of the morning’s coffee. We had been walking for an hour and previously riding a 40′ motorized canoe for 2hrs before that, so now was as good a time as I was going to have. But the Chonta snake, Chironius carinatus, stretched out in the understory felt differently.

In Parque Central, Zaruma

In Parque Central, Zaruma

Bashful Bladder is a not uncommon urological condition that many males confront during our lifetimes. Often it can be outgrown as a man matures. Yet in an instant, I reverted to childhood as that snake and mine stared each other down. At the time, I didn’t even know that it was a Chonta, and though it didn’t look particularly venomous, it also didn’t look particulary pleased either.

And it wasn’t about to give ground at that point, based on its rearing its head along with about a foot of its 5ft long body. While I learned later that not only is it non-poisonous, and full-grown can become twice that length, at this point in my life herpitological taxonomy was not high on my list of must-do’s. Ever so slowly backing away I watched its 2 bright yellow longitudinal stripes slide into the brush in the opposite direction. Walt Disney was never like this!

Fortunately, our next stage, lunch and then a tour of a cacao farm, was far more lighthearted. Ninfa, the daughter of the farm’s owner, and a high-energy recent college grad, was our hostess and guide. After our main course of Pollo Seco, a regional chicken dish, she brought out a Stars-n-Stipes cake in our honor to celebrate the 4th of July.

Ninfa and Our 4th of July Cake

Ninfa and Our 4th of July Cake

Later she walked us through the land her great-grandfather had cleared 100 years before. By most chocolate experts, Ecuador is recognized as producing much of the world’s best bean, and the “Champaign” region of Ecuador’s best was only a short distance down the highway from where we were sampling this fruit. Ninfa took us from germination to seedling to grafting to the eventual harvest of the 1/2 dozen varieties her family grows.

She then demonstrated the advantage of 4 days of sun drying the seeds over oven-baking (less chance of mold and a better, richer flavor), and finally the roasting which transforms a fruity tasting pulp into what we  know as nibs. These are ground into a cocoa butter which she mixed with her family’s crop of dragon fruit, and mango juice, and produced an amazing drink that became even more so with a bit of aged rum.

The whole day spent with Eddie, the owner of Guayaquil, A Guided Visit Tour Guides, was a wonderful exposure to the Guayas Peninsula. Eddie is a native of Guayaquil and his love of place is ever-present in his interactions with the network of farmers, fishermen, street shills, museum staff, and others he works with to show us the life here beyond the popular tourist guidebooks.

Earlier that day, while we glided through the mangroves very similar, and yet also very different, from the Florida biomes I’ve visited previously, we saw how the province and the central Ecuadorian government are working to halt further wetland destruction. The country’s 4th largest source of income is the harvests from shrimp farming and this industry has been the biggest threat to mangrove stands along the coast.

Eduardo Meneses in Manglares Churute Reserve with the Wisconsonites

Eduardo Meneses in Manglares Churute Reserve with the Wisconsinites

Many areas in the Guayas Peninsula have been reclaimed from those same shrimp farms and now the trees, crabs, and other elements of the original habitat are returning. But it’s still an uphill fight. It takes time, and curious tourists, to help more Ecuadorians see that saving and revitalizing the natural habitat can be as profitable, or in many instances more profitable than monoculture crop production. Next time you head to the Galapagos, stay awhile in the Guayas Peninsula and it will benefit us all.

But enough of this heat and humidity, an hour ago I plunked down the princely sum of $4.40 and bought a bus ticket to Zaruma, the original capital of El Oro Province. El Oro was originally named for the pre-Inca, then Inca, and finally the Spanish Colonial gold mines in the hills and mountains that spill into the sea, at the Peruvian border. Now the gold comes from bananas, and Ecuador leads the world in banana export. With a lock on the European Common Market, and a major share in the US and elsewhere, Ecuador means bananas and bananas mean Machala, the current provincial capital.

When I started my tour of the country after leaving Quito, Machala was high on the list. But with the chance to visit the Amazon Basin having become a reality, Machala lost my custom. I’ve been told not to regret this since the city has no tourist facilities, but I was essentially told the same about Guayaquil and found quite the opposite. Perhaps getting to or from the Galapagos I can make amends and find the time to visit the “ugly” port of Machala.

Seeing the port of Machala, which transits so much of Ecuador’s wealth, really is of high interest to me. And when people tell me that there’s really nothing of interest, nothing to see, I simply cannot accept their notion of what matters. Immersive diversion (hanging out in tourist bars, standing in lines for tourist attractions, etc.) is not what I consider touring. I want to know what/where/how a country works. Machala is a place where that happens.

And so is Chimbote, Perú. When I was in Lima I learned that Chimbote is the country’s largest fishing port, which like Ecuador’s bananas at Machala, makes Perú tick. So in a few months, after I’ve been run out of Ecuador, I’ll start to plan for the smelly fish-capital of Perú, and visit another town “of no interest.” But next is the mountain-sided mining town of Zaruma.

Well it’s now 8hrs later and I’m ensconced at the Hotel Zaruma Colonial and sitting out on a restaurant balcony enjoying both the end of daylight and my first meal since breakfast at 7am; I’m famished. I’ve only seen a small bit of this small town, but it looks like fairyland: most of the houses are wood, a rarity in Ecuador. This is the direct result of a disastrous earthquake nearly 200 years ago that totally destroyed the town. In rebuilding, the town leaders decided to abandon the plentiful stones nearby and harvest trees from the surrounding forests.

So. I’ve had 8hrs of sleep, saw the town square after sunset (top photo, really!), and now I’m off to the mines. But after breakfast, please…

Night Bus to Guayaquil

By now I had already extended my stay here in Otavalo by several additional days. There is so much to do, so many kind people, and the hostal is very peaceful. But somehow today I knew that I was ready to be moving on. Maybe it was the train I couldn’t ride. Rejection is usually the time to end relations.

Before I arrived in Otavalo I planned to visit the famous weavings market in addition to attending Inti-Raymi festivities. The Saturday morning animal sales across the Pan American Highway was also a strong attraction. Then too, there’s the train that runs from Otavalo to the coast, stopping at a small town called Salinas. This is not the popular beach town of Salinas, near Guayaquil, but an Afro-Ecuadorian village up near the Colombian border. Sadly, the train is overbooked and over sold, so I’m not going to stick around another week in hopes the seating fiasco will sort itself out.

Animal Market

Animal Market

One traveling idea I’ve had is/was to head to the northwest coast near Esmeralda and then work my way down to Guayaquil. But after some conversations last week, I discovered that a trip to the Amazonian jungle, like a cruise in the Galapagos, is not an unreasonable possibility. Bam! This changes everything. My priorities just changed and rearranged. No more, the notion of a slow trail down the coast. I’m off to Guayaquil now instead of visiting at some vague time at a later date.

In a bit over 2 weeks I’m scheduled for a 12-day retreat south of Cuenca, so Guayaquil just got moved up the list to number one. After the retreat I will head to Lago Agrio for a trip to the Amazon, and pretty much duplicate the strategy that I have already planned for the Galapagos in September: hurry-up and wait.

The standard routes to these 2 destinations is through one of countless travel agencies, which is in so many ways a smart move. There are branches of these agencies in not just the major cities, but also in the Galapagos and the gateway cities to the Amazon: Lago Agrio and Napo, though choices at the last 2 locations are severely limited in these tiny, oil industry settlements.

Trying to plan one of these trips independently without an agency can well be a nightmare. Both the islands and the jungle encompass vast areas and the success (or not) of either visit is driven by a complex coordination of elements, not the least of which are time and timing. If you don’t have one you will never have the other. Both destinations are also highly restricted biospheres and wandering on one’s own is strictly prohibited.

The best of the travel agencies (do your research before you get here) will not only devise a trip for you but they will listen to you as well. If you want to SCUBA dive with sharks, but are turned off by iguanas, they want to know this. If you want to see pink river dolphins but are not that interested in visiting indigenous jungle villages, they want to know this too.

By thoroughly interviewing their clients these highly professional agencies can create tours that will provide tourists with a genuine trip of a lifetime and the trip will be based on the desires of the traveler. Both the Galapagos and the Amazonian Basin are unlike any other places in the world. And an experienced and committed travel agency will ensure you receive memories never forgotten. But it won’t be cheap. Like anything of quality and singularity, you really do get what you pay for and these 2 destinations don’t come for free.

Yet one can greatly reduce the costs if time is on your side. A two-week break from the normalcy of life won’t make it though. For that, just accept the breathtaking costs and know that you will have purchased opportunities unavailable elsewhere and worth every bit of the expense you incurred. But if you do find that you have more time than money, fly to the Galapagos, or arrange for time in one of the Amazon gateways.

People are changeable creatures and if you have the patience to wait for change, visiting either of these destinations need not cost so dearly. The travel agencies who book these tours must frequently face cancellations and subsequently must deal with them as quickly as possible. Because all of the Galapagos are part of a national park, the schedule of tour vessels is very tightly controlled.

These schedules are assigned once yearly and each separate vessel, whether  a small sailing yacht or a 100-passenger cruise liner, must adhere to this pre-set timeline or risk losing their license for that year. So if they have cancellations they must fill them quickly or possibly lose money for that particular cruise. A full passenger manifest is more important at this point than maximum profit. Because of the strict governmental rationing, having fewer visitors than allowed for a particular vessel can mean a reduced quota for the following year. At this point head-count trumps all. 

This being the case, if a potential passenger (with more time than money) is there on the dock when such an opening occurs, then the chance for a discounted passage opens, however briefly, and very often at a discount approaching 50% or more. Though not as dramatic, a similar opportunity can and does happen with the jungle excursions. My physics professor friend from New Zealand happened to be at the right place at the right time, so she took a 2nd Amazon trip for 1/3 the cost of her first one. While it didn’t provide her with the luxury of the first one, she saw a different area of the Basin in a non-motorized canoe and without the outboard motor noise she saw far more animals than during the first, expensive high-end trip.

We Are Otavalo!

We Are Otavalo!

Thus, my night bus to Guayaquil. It leaves at 9PM, in about 5hrs time, taking close to 12hrs to make it there. I’ll arrive in city-center about rush-hour, looking for breakfast and booked into a hotel in the historic district.

My bags are packed and I’m taking a last stroll through Otavalo. This is a place I’d love to return to. There are so many great experiences that I’ve had here and the “Valley of the Sunrise” has so many more.

Ecuador Calls and Hostal Curiñan Answers

Otavalo, Part III

Comfortably into my 2nd week here in Otavalo and I’m at somewhat of a crossroads. I could easily stay here, even while Inti-Raymi is winding down. Though today is the official end, more festivities go on until Friday, and then there are 3 “spill-over” religious rites that last until early July.

BigHead, Inti-Raymi parade

BigHead, Inti-Raymi parade

Tomorrow, with my senior discount 20¢ fare, I plan to visit Cotacachi via a 30-minute bus ride. This small village, known around Ecuador and beyond as the Nirvana of leather goods, it is also home to a growing number of expats. Sue, one of the guests at Hostal Curiñan is one of them.

She and her husband are “mule farmers” in Alberta and are also homeowners in Cotacachi. They have just sold their original home in the pueblo and are in the midst of constructing their 2nd one. Sue is a true expat in that she speaks a passable Spanish and knows how to always have a backup plan.

Plan B is critical for when the plumber doesn’t show up as promised, or her Ecuadorian lawyer disappears at a critical junction in her property negotiations. Or worse yet, when he asks for double the original fee for handling the legal papers. Not only does Sue have a Plan B, but she plugs it in with a laugh and a smile.

Ruth blew in and blew out of the hostal this past weekend. A retired physics professor somewhere north of age 70, this New Zealander has been a solo traveler for decades and she taught me a thing or 2 about bargaining with alpaca weavings vendors, traveling light, and converting inches to centimeters on the fly. We had a great (but frigid) boat ride on Cuicocha Lake the day after she bought me a pitcher of tomate de arbol (tree tomato) juice for my birthday.

Judy Goldberg is another one of the Hostal Curiñan clientele crew. She and I share acquaintances in Santa Fe that go back more than 20 years, though the 2 of us had never met when I lived there. She and her husband have lived in New Mexico for more than 40 years and she’s in Otavalo for the next stage of her anthropology grant. A professional videographer, Judy is interviewing Matilde and José Miguel for the 2nd year running and she recounted to me a bit of the extraordinary lives that brought them together and that they are even now living as the hosts of this wonderful inn. 

Years ago Judy created a non-profit in Santa Fe that is now very alive and healthy. As time moves one she wants to pass it on to others as she grows her Ecuadorian projects.  In addition to recording the Hostal owners, she is also making audio recordings of a family split apart during the Ecuadorian diaspora. I had no idea that the 4th largest Ecuadorian city is NYC! I do now. Now that she’s interviewing the brother of a New York Ecuadorian radio-show host. The brother lives here in Otavalo. Where else?

Inti-Raymi in Otavalo

Inti-Raymi in Otavalo

Judy was having some issues with language subtleties during a few of the interviews, so Marcela stepped in to help. A young Chileña psychologist, beautifully fluent in English, she had the room next to Judy at the Hostal. Marcela is here buying medicinal herbs to use with her curandera during an upcoming San Pedro (mescaline) ceremony. She felt comfortable revealing this after I recounted my own Natem experiences from last month.

Marcela, even while directing a UNICEF program on a farm outside Santiago, is a fellow traveler in the spirit world. She and Judy, José Miguel and Joselito, and I all journeyed to Peguché at midnight on Monday to enter the waterfall for a ritual New Year’s bath.

We all swapped e-mail addresses and my pals: synchronicity and serendipity, being what they are we may well and we may easily cross paths sooner or later. But the hostal is quiet today. Sue and I are the only ones left and she’s headed back to Alberta tomorrow.

Yet even as she’ll be hopping buses back to Quito’s airport, the Hostal is set up to greet a dozen new faces scheduled to arrive on the same day, some for the night and some for longer terms. Among them will most certainly be some worth knowing. Hostal Curiñan and the loving people who own and operate it attract guests who also bring with them this energy and this love. Should I go or should I stay? I’ll have to answer that question at some other time. Right now, more people are dancing in the street outside the restaurant, and I’m going out to watch

I Meet Two Unemployed Pickpockets and Receive Guidance to the Hills

Otavalo, Part II

It was a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon; wait, a different movie… The Artful Dodger was really a bit too obvious to be that artful. And once I let him pass me I also realized he had a bleak and slimy little sidekick behind him of about 12 or 13 yrs old; most likely an apprentice in the trade. Walking a main avenida in Otavalo, I was returning from the market up the street, the market where the Otavaleños buy their stuff as opposed to the main market where the gringos are separated from their cash. Not particularly engaged, I was window shopping, carrying a bag of fruit I had just purchased and kind of ambling. Andando-ing and Pensando-ing one might say.

In spite of the glaucoma, my peripheral vision is still pretty intact and I kept seeing the same shadow a few storefronts back, keeping the same distance regardless of my pace. So after a block or so of this ridiculousness I stopped, leaned against the wall of the store I was passing and allowed them to pass me. With their studied indifference and a new-found interest in pieces of their own clothing, the 2 walked on by, so I crossed the street and followed them.

Eventually they came up to the main market, which by now, nearly 5pm, was closing down. They met up with some other low-rider-pants types who were hunkered down, gambling on the sidewalk. Do, be careful folks. You’re a target simply because you’re a gringo and never believe otherwise. Otavalo is guide-book famous for its pickpockets, though this one should file for unemployment. I mean really.

I was headed to the Tourist Information Office, staffed by congenitally friendly folks who are honestly hoping that we discover the treasures of this place. And I know that I certainly am. So when you’re next in a foreign clime, stop in and make it a point to muddle your way through the language and see what tourist office folks have for you.

For me, it was the second time meeting this particular agent and our professional relationship was growing noticeably warmer. Earlier I had helped him with his English translation of a city Inti-Raymi guide which had pleased us both. Juggling constant interruptions from folks off the street, he was ably and engagingly informing me of the Festival of San Juan, held in a village a 10-minute walk from Otavalo. He explained that the dance competitions, celebrating the cosecha, or harvest, were fascinating and often hilarious. However, there was always the chance for a life-threatening element of danger.

He warned that that ole devil likker was ever-present during these fervently religious observations and often the competitions turned unruly with escalating salvos of rock-throwing. (Is it as interesting to you that my explorations, only and universally filled with love and peace, using various entheogens are frequently condemned while such anger, hatred, and even killing are tolerated in the name of organized religion? OK, enough.) The competitors and bystanders (nobody’s immune with a bellyful of booze) both infrequently and too-frequently land in the hospital and/or the morgue. What can I say? I’ll be reporting live from the scene.

Joselito

Joselito

Joselito, the hostal owner’s brother and right-hand man, is my assigned guide into the mountains around this Valley of the Sunrise, as it’s called by locals. The area is noted for its hiking excellence in every guidebook ever written about Ecuador. And hiking has been a favorite lover since my crass and craven youth.

However I am traveling solitario and had gloomily believed that this particular affair was to be off-limits. Even as the actual trails nearby are never technically challenging, flirting with my 7th decade and finally admitting physical limitations brings a sensibility that I never thought I’d be saddled with. And walking alone in the wilderness, often near 4,000 meters elevation, I just will not do. Oh, well.

Doña Matilde, Hostal Curiñan co-owner

Doña Matilde, Hostal Curiñan co-owner

Whining about my lost love to Jose Miguel and Matilde, they immediately assured me that my pining was not in vain and volunteered Joselito, who merely stood there grinning and nodding yes. Those twins, serendipity and synchronicity, were playing cupid with my passion for being afoot in the hills. Yesss!

Matilde and I will meet later today to construct my schedule for the time I’m in their care. The 3 of them have an almost limitless number of suggestions, and I must be sure that as we schedule, we also include events that I have already decided that I want to see. So we’ll negotiate my future, but after breakfast.