Tag Archives: Guayaquil

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…

Climbing the Steps of the City of Zaruma and Climbing the Ladder of Success in Loja

Zaruma, de la Provincia de El Oro, is unquestionably the most vertical city that I have ever visited. Roads, at least those planed for motorized vehicles, are at best an afterthought throughout the entire municipality. In a city, a village really, of barely 20,000 residents there is a developed and inhabited area that marches up and down the mountain for more than 1,000 vertical feet.

Zaruma Steps

Zaruma Steps

This isn’t a place for someone with a fear of heights. Since as you move about in just the commercial area of Zaruma alone, you move along in the street, up steps, down steps, over curbs, up more steps and then repeat. A still active mining town, Zaruma is like no other. And because of this, Ecuador has petitioned the UN to place it on the short list of World Heritage sites. It certainly has my vote.

Though as beautifully unique as it is, a village this size only has so many things one can do, and with wi-fi being something that not all of the residents had heard about, keeping myself plugged-in was it’s own interesting challenge. It’s a nice, no it’s a great place to visit, but you know the rest.

Three days later I hopped on a bus out of town for the most beautiful yet frightening bus ride yet. The first hour was pretty tame: we coasted downhill to the smaller town of Portovelo where I changed buses after a long wait in the town square. Within 3 minutes of leaving Portovelo the pavement ended and we started climbing up into the Andes.

Zaruma to Loja Road

Zaruma to Loja Road

I was thrilled to be on this route because near the end it would meet up with the road I had taken out of Catemayo in April to attend the Natem retreat. That path ended at the door of the finca we stayed at and this ride would complete the rest of the journey coming in from the opposite direction. However these interprovincial buses are very tall affairs with great stretch out seats.

They are far taller than a Greyhound back in the US, so that when we rounded bends on the one-lane gravel road and overtook an overloaded mining truck, or met an oncoming pickup, my heart lumped up in my throat as the cabin swayed along the hardpack. We weren’t making much speed, since the gravel and washouts prevented over-jouncing along the way. But we were moving about, perched 8 or more feet above the road surface.

We did of course survive the trip. The drivers of these buses do this every day and know the twists and turns of their routes intimately. So at the times when I knew we were going over the edge, the driver carefully and methodically maneuvered this beast easily along to our destination. The days in Zaruma were a true march back in time and this bus ride punctuated the divide.

But now that I’m in Loja, life is different. Somewhere in the vicinity of 200,000 people call Loja home (accurate population figures and, for that matter, municipal boundaries are more of a concept than a reality in much of South America). Considered by the rest of Ecuador as the jewel of the south, this city holds a long memory of mining and agricultural wealth. But it’s the 21st century. The old days were nice and there will always be respect for history (Loja is one of the oldest cities in Ecuador), though I get a clear message here that folks want nothing more than a comfortable middle-class life.

And who can blame them? With the wonders of cable/satellite TV, dubbed Hollywood movies, and the Internet, all the excitement of the outside world beckons, and many here have answered. They have seen much that favors the attraction of a comfortable life and have decided to follow this dream. It’s the American dream, but it’s not exclusive to the US. This is also America, America of the South, and let no one forget it.

With a city of this size, geographically isolated though Loja may be, one can find most anything imaginable for leading the comfortable life. These days that also means that Loja has caught the eye(s) of travel and retirement media as the “new” Cotacatchi, which everyone who’s anyone knows is the “new” Cuenca. And for those who have followed these types of publications, we cannot forget that Cuenca of course was at one time the “new” Ajijic/San Miguel de Allende, and they of course were the “new” on and on and on…

So there is a small and slowly growing expat population here, and these retirement publications are all singing praises for Loja. Of course the result of this favorable press is that expats are moving here. But they are in no way as visible in Loja as the expats are in Cuenca, where they have seemingly taken over the Centro Historico, or are they as visible through sheer numbers, as they are in tiny Cotacachi. But expats are here and they do blog and the blogs make for some interesting reading.

Bolívar Enters Loja

Bolívar Enters Loja

As regards expat life, Loja is still in the first stages of “colonization” and this means that the transplants here are a hardy bunch, by necessity speaking Spanish, and who are quite content flying under the radar and not flocking or swarming as in the other locales. These new Lojanos are happily leading the middle-class life too and fitting in quite well with families tracing Lojano roots back in some cases to the founding of the city in 1546. Ah, but nice though it may be, that same middle-class longing is where problems arise.

Rafael Correa has changed the face of Ecuador like no other president before him. Regardless of how one applauds or rejects his views, his redistribution of wealth essentially made a new country. In multiple comparisons to other South American nations, Ecuador has lifted itself from an also-ran to a contender in virtually all aspects of social metrics. Correa’s administration has lifted more people from poverty than all of his predecessors combined and the country is now in the top tier of wealth, prosperity, and individual contentment across all factors of life in Latin America. Crime is down and happiness is up.

Because of the wealth re-distribution there is now in Ecuador a large sector of the population that not only can simply dream about material gain, but actually achieve it through individual effort. This has never happened before and the people who this message was intended for have embraced it whole cloth and gladly worked hard to move up the ladder; out with the old ways and all aboard for the new ones. Yet differences exist here in the beautiful and rugged south.

Unlike Cuenca, the cultural capital of Ecuador, or Cotacachi, near to the world market of Otavalo, or the main cities of Quito and Guayaquil, Loja is off the (international) tourist trail. It is at the bottom of an isolated valley, nearly 7,000 ft above sea-level, and surrounded by rough and mountainous mining country. Loja therefore is at the mercy of its geography, and as a result of these defining landforms the city, like any city anywhere in similar circumstances, has an insular outlook on life and the values that define it as a community.

Seeing the world of the outside and how the Loja of old compared to that world, and seeing progress as good thing, it was only natural that Loja too would be moving forward. If hard work and a clear vision were the antidotes to stagnation, then Lojanos were ready for their share of the rewards. It would be worth it for now and for the future. But at what cost?

When I arrived here last Thursday I had several immediate tasks before me. In order to stay on the road I have certain regular chores and the occasional “one-off” task that come up. This last week I needed to have some laundry done, a haircut, and some forms filled and mailed back to a US bank. I also wanted to purchase some palo santo.

This sweetly aromatic wood is burned in curandismo ceremonies and next week I begin a 12-day retreat hosted by 4 curanderos. The plan was to purchase quantities of palo santo for each of the shamans as symbolic offerings. Once I leave Loja I will be again in isolated country south of Cuenca and unable to locate such things. So Loja is where I had to find my palo santo.

Booking a room in a centrally located hotel in colonial cities has many benefits, not the least of which is convenience. There is a reassuring sameness to the layout of old Latin American cities. Each has a parque central: a green-space (sometimes more green in concept than in currency) which will have fronting it the city cathedral, the local governmental offices, and provincial and/or federal agencies as well.

Radiating outward from the park will be the supplementary and complementary businesses, shops, and other modes of commerce that keep the community operating. The tailors, the hardware stores, the cyber cafés, and pharmacies, restaurants, and more. Big cities and small pueblos; this layout is both regular and reassuring.

Loja Mercado Centro

Loja Mercado Centro

Among these surrounding stores will also be the mercado central. This will be the grand market selling everything from local produce (which in Ecuador is astounding in variety, beauty, taste, and incredibly low prices), meats: both the butchered and often the live still clothed in feathers or fur, toys for the tots, sweets for both the tooth and the heart, umbrellas, shoes and boots, basketware, items for the kitchen and home, and many, many other items in a large warehouse or series of warehouses with running kids, pleading mothers, hawkers for both licit and illicit goods; a fascinating place to watch one’s belongings while weaving through the always crowded aisles.

Loja’s grand market is barely 2 blocks from my digs, the Hotel Podocarpus, and after scouting it out on Thursday just before the 6pm closing, I knew that checking off my tasks would be a snap; there was even an internet café, so I could print out the forms for the bank. The central post office was 2 blocks in the other direction from my hotel. Perfect! At least mostly so.

After finishing up most of my tasks at the mercado with a $2 haircut (and it looks like a $2 haircut too!) on the top floor amidst the row of barbers, I set out to find the palo santo. In Quito, Cuenca, and many other communities along the major transportation routes, tiendas de remedios (shops selling folk remedies) seem to be on almost every street corner. Yet I couldn’t see any, either in the mercado or along the side streets lined with shops selling everything but remedios.

Mercado Produce

Mercado Produce

So I asked one of the vendors in the mercado who gave me a puzzled look and then pointed me off in some vague direction elsewhere, a common gesture when someone doesn’t know something but can’t bring ones’ self to admit it. So off I went to another sector, got the same treatment, and repeated this a number of times until the husband of one of the earlier vendors found me several aisles over and pointed out a tiny closet of a shop one more aisle down.

Finally! Success with what turned out to be the last remedio shop in Loja. It was getting late with rain threatening, so I was thankful that I did find my palo santo, and that the old man selling the flower-waters (floristas), trinkets, salves and such had 4 bundles left. He was both quite pleased and puzzled to find a gringo as a customer, and after our transaction admitted that not only was he the last, but that his supply of palo santo had dried up from over-developing the forests for farmland. He also told me that for 10 years or so, fewer and fewer people are following the old ways and that he was going to close down this last of the remedios in Loja.

In their climb up the material ladder, Lojanos have willingly forsaken indigenous ways and plowed up the once plentiful palo santo forests. For progress. Other communities here in Ecuador, ones located on busy and regular transportation routes still accept the old ways and have comfortably integrated them into newer ways of living. There is no real conflict in those cities and both beliefs of health and healing exist symbiotically. However, these folks here in Loja, walled in by the beautiful but culturally stifling mountains, concluded some time back that it was an either/or choice and made their move forward by saying goodbye to traditions that had been in place for millennia. Something was lost here in Loja.

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…

Can You Like a City And Not Like Its People?

Perhaps Term-Limits Do Have a Place in Modern Politics

Guayaquil is a gritty, sticky, smelly and crowded place with more homeless than I’ve seen elsewhere since I’ve been in South America. The weather is dismal: hot, humid, with mostly still, dank air and a breeze only rarely. When you think of the tropics and your thoughts are not kind, Guayaquil (“Gwhy-a-Kill”) could at least be a placeholder for your archetype.

But I really like this city. In the city center, where my seedy hostel is located, there are buildings more than one hundred years old (and occasionally double that age) and beautifully preserved, sprinkled liberally throughout the barrios. One revitalized barrio, Las Peñas, is a multi-colored maze of old houses, tiendas, boutiques, and restaurants seductively climbing up a hill overlooking the Guayas River.

Barrio Las Peñas

Barrio Las Peñas

The showpiece of Guayaquil, the Malecon was a rundown and crime-ridden slum along the waterfront less than 2 dozen years ago. Now, after millions of dollars of makeover, it is a 2.5km long, pleasant and picturesque place to stroll. These most recent days it is even more active, for along with the rest of the city center, the workers along the Malecon are preparing for Pope Francis, who will visit Guayaquil in less than one week’s time.

There are banners and bunting all over this part of the city, with multi-storey’s tall pictures of the Pope and his quotes adorning many of the big buildings near and even on the grand cathedral. Of course even though he is not expected to generate the excitement here that will come when he chews coca leaves with Bolivia’s President Morales later this month, nevertheless one can feel the emotion and pride brewing locally. And with the power-washing machines blasting away mold and mildew from many of the larger buildings, this part of the city is looking pretty fine, thank you very much.

The sad part is that the day after the Pope has come and gone, Guayaquil will revert back to being an also-ran in the Pantheon of must-see South American destinations. But why? Each year the Galapagos Islands compete with Machu Picchu as the most visited place in all of South America. And each year tourists drop half a billion dollars on the islands. And no matter what people think or how they book their cruises, you only get to the islands via Guayaquil, period. You may think that you’re going to visit the islands via the capital, Quito, but you will fly here nevertheless.

Half a billion dollars to a developing country is some serious cash. Yet this, the largest of Ecuadorian cities has effectively no tourism infrastructure. I just came from 2 weeks in Otavalo, an indigenous city of about 90,000 people, roughly 1/30 of the size of Guayaquil, and yet every restaurant that I visited, and that was about a dozen in the time that I was there, had wireless internet. But here in the city center? Nothing! I can get an advertised 1/2hr free along the Malecon (though they cut you off after barely 20 minutes!), and I can get it at the Ecuadorian version of Starbonks, called “Sweet & Coffee” but that’s it. What’s up with that, City?

Perhaps it was a cost-cutting measure, but the city now only has a single tourist information office. After visiting 3 times, I believe that I’ve had more than enough. The only person I get to talk to may as well be a robot; in fact, I wish that she was fully automated so I wouldn’t have to fake being courteous. She’s only capable (or perhaps only willing) to talk about the Malecon, the high-end hotels, or the shopping malls. When I asked her, during my final time about a good restaurant with comida tipica, or regional food, she could only talk about fast-food places. I repeated several times that I wanted neither fast food nor fried or greasy food. But she only could talk about the same thing, over and over an over. When I asked about a restaurant that had wi-fi, she just looked and said nothing. When I repeated my questions, she took out a phone book, turned to the restaurant pages and showed me the listings. I again repeated my questions and she had no idea what to say, she could only point. This is not what a tourist office is, I’ve been to ones in cities that care. I’ve been to ones in cities that realize the value to city coffers that tourists bring. Guayaquil is not that city.

And that’s the problem: this city doesn’t care. They have an alcalde, a mayor, who’s been in office more than 15 years and he needs to go. His name is plastered over every surface imaginable, and yet he has no clue about how badly he is harming this city. The central government of Ecuador is spending great sums of money promoting the country world-wide as a tourist destination, but the guy running the country’s largest city is clueless. He really, really needs to go.

Fisherman, River Guayas

Fisherman, River Guayas

When you read online travel forums you see that the main message about Guayaquil is to spend as little time as possible on the way to the Galapagos; get in, get out, and get going. This is an outrage and it is a message that should have been countered years ago. It is a message that is thoughtlessly hurting the city when instead this could be a place where people actually look forward to spending some extra days. Virtually every other part of this fascinating country has a great tourism infrastructure, but not here. What a sad state of affairs for a situation that doesn’t need to exist. Who is running this place anyway?

But as I say, I do like the city. Today I took a double-decker bus tour (there are 2 different tour companies, but the first one I went to, 4 separate times (and right there on the Malecon), never seems to actually have a bus that operates. Yet I had a great time with the company that actually does have a working bus, even when the driver backed into a tree heading out from the ticket office and smashed the glass window inches from my head. Well, I quickly changed seats and spent the rest of the trip cautiously ducking as he passed a bit too close to many power lines, light posts and other tree branches. In spite of his driving though, the bus ride was very interesting.

Build-Out, Old Style

Build-Out, Old Style

Build-Out, New Style

Build-Out, New Style

Because of the heat and the equatorial sun, the architecture in Guayaquil has retained an interesting element of sameness. The old buildings still standing are of an identical nature that builds the second and successive storeys above it out over the ground floors; every building has this feature. It’s more than a portico, since the actual floor space above the ground floor extends outward rather than just providing a roofed overhang. And it’s not cantilevered, since there are columns to support those higher floors. This design helps pedestrians escape the direct sun and the plan works so well that the newer buildings have adapted accordingly and integrate the same design. These newer structures aren’t nearly as attractive as the old ones, but they do provide us walkers with  an escape route from the killer sun. My sincere thanks to the architects who refuse to fix what ain’t broke.

I really do like this place, just not the way that it’s run. Or the people that run it.

Port of Guayaquil

What’s Really in a Name?

Michigan is filled (both the Upper and the Lower Peninsulas) with place names derived from the French language. From early 17th Century onwards, French-Canadian trappers knew well the lands that were to become the Wolverine State. And one can now find cities such as Charlevoix, Sault Sainte Marie, and even the once and perhaps future great city of Detroit. You can travel on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit or visit Montmorency County farther north and just below Presque Isle, near Fort Michilimackinac, but no, that’s an Iroquois word. You can visit Marquette, or ride the Bois Blanc (“Bob Blow”) boat to the amusement park of the same name.

As a child I was always fascinated by these names, but none held quite the fascination of Belle Isle, truly a beautiful island. Back in the late 50’s and early 60’s our family visited this jewel of a city park very often. Smack dab in the middle of the Detroit River it was entirely given over to leisure times and maintained by the City park service. My dad would try his hand at fishing in the rank and polluted river, my mom would busy herself with laying out a picnic lunch while my brothers invested time in doing brotherly things. I, on the other hand, would like as not find myself on the bank of the river, looking south toward the Canadian shore.

Now here’s a pop-quiz for you geographically challenged: When one looks due south from Detroit, the first country one locates is, wait for it; O, CANADA! Canada to the South? Check out a good map and you too can verify that Windsor Canada is actually directly south of Detroit and their Red Wings.

But I wasn’t really interested in Canada during those times, I was looking for smoke stacks. Not the stationary ones, though both Detroit and Windsor had more than their belching fair share. I was looking for smokestacks atop the Great Lakes freighters that sailed from late March to the beginning of November each year, bringing iron ore down from Minnesota’s Mesabi Range to Cleveland steel mills, bringing Chicago livestock to New York processing plants, and coal to Eire Pennsylvania and so much more.

I had a notebook that I used to keep track of the insignias on each of the smokestacks because each of these insignias was unique to a particular shipping company, and like nations’ flags, each was a beautiful design that set that particular fleet of ships apart from competitors. Yet even while I kept a log of the big US firms like Cleveland Cliffs, and Ford Motor Company (bringing iron ore down to its River Rouge automobile plant, another French name), I really had my eye out for the foreigners.

Mast and Spars, Guayaquil

Mast and Spars, Guayaquil

In April of 1959 the first ocean-going vessels could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the middle of the US heartland with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. A series of locks and canals built to skirt the rapids of Canada’s St. Lawrence River which emptied the Great Lakes into the sea, this water highway opened up new worlds for me and fanned the fires of my dreams to travel which were already burning brightly.

I spotted ships from Antwerp and Panama,  São Paulo and Liberia, and more, each one setting my mind alight to the possibilities of knowing at least some of those places. And now I’m here in Guayaquil, South America’s 3rd largest Pacific port.

I discovered this morning that there’s a boat tour of the city. How could I not get on board?

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.