WE’RE IN SOUTH AMERICA – ECUADOR
Swimming with sharks in the Galapagos, crossing the Andes, waking up with altitude sickness, being whacked with herbs by a shaman, cramming a 2 week Spanish language course, and partying with locals for Carnaval – who knew this little country was so much fun.
When I announced to Phil that our next travel adventure would be to the continent of South America, his response was “Why?” But the day after we arrived, he turned to me and said, “We need to stay longer!” He loved what he was seeing in our first stop, Ecuador.
How delighted we were to wake up on our first morning in this lovely old colonial city of Quito (pronounced key-toe), capital of Ecuador. Our hotel, located in the historical district, had been built in 1698 by a wealthy Spaniard. It had adobe walls that were 2 feet thick. We felt right at home since it had the same name as our hometown, San Francisco. That is the former name of Quito also – San Francisco de Quito.
Quito is the highest capital city in the world at 9,350 feet above sea level. Did that altitude ever hit me! The morning after our late arrival I woke up with a swollen face. (I’m not showing a photo of THAT!) My body ached, I was short of breath and I had a headache – the sure signs of altitude sickness.
Our travel doc had given us altitude meds for Machu Picchu in Peru, but we didn’t think we would need them for Ecuador. And we didn’t take them. My symptoms passed after a few days. Coca tea helped (though our doc had told us that if we used coco we would “test positive” for drugs. We don’t plan on getting tested….)
When I finally did feel good enough to explore Quito, I found a lot to love about it. It had its origins in the 1st millennium, was conquered by the Incas, and the Spanish took control in 1534. It established its independence 300 years later, under the command of Simon Bolivar, known as The Liberator. Its historical district is said to be one of the largest, least altered and best preserved in the Americas and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In the middle of the world
Quito is almost smack on the equator. Just a short drive from the city and we were standing on the equatorial line – dubbed “the middle of the world”. The snow-capped Andes volcano Cotopaxi, itself on the equator, served as our backdrop.
Imagine Phil’s delight when his compass showed zero latitude! How cool is that?
Oh no, not elections….
Try as we might to escape politics, we were in Ecuador during their presidential elections and saw a lot of campaigning. We learned that all Ecuadorians are required to vote or they have to pay a fine.
It is illegal in Ecuador to drink alcohol on the days preceding the election. One restaurant did sell beer to us tourists, but requested that we sit in a corner out of sight to drink it! It turned out that no candidate received the required majority, so a runoff is scheduled for later. Local people we talked to were rather distressed that something fishy was going on.
THE FABULOUS GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
A true “bucket list” place for me, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands are about 600 miles off the coast. They are well known as one of the best places in the world to see endemic wildlife. Because of its isolation, 80% of the land-based animals on the archipelago are only found there.The most famous is probably the giant tortoises, weighing in at around 1,000 pounds. They are the largest in the world and can live to be over 100 years old.
Since you know my sense of humor, you will appreciate this next photo I took. “Coochie-coochie”, as our guide called it, takes over 4 hours with these big ‘uns. I couldn’t bear to stand around for the whole thing. It was painful enough watching how many time the guy on top slid off….
While in Ecuador we researched how to “affordably” get on a ship to experience the Galapagos. We were lucky enough to find one with a cancellation that was leaving in a couple of days. The ship was lovely. There were 16 guests, a very international group. Among us were 2 Canadians, 2 Germans on an around-the-world trip, 2 Chinese, 2 Brazilians, 2 Indian-Americans with their daughter who is attending Princeton, and 5 others from the USA. We had 9 Ecuadorian crew members.
Often, the crew moved the ship to our next island while we slept. We would have a big breakfast and then go ashore or for a snorkel with our guide to see the animals. When we returned to the ship, we’d have a snack, a rest, lunch and then take a hike and/or snorkel again. We saw a lot of fascinating animals, including my first penguins! We even saw them swimming, which you can see in the 2nd photo in the series below.
we swam with sharks
And we swam with rays. I can’t believe I did that. There were white-tipped and black-tipped reef sharks, hammerheads, and Galapagos sharks. Phil is quite the waterman, so I like to hold onto his hand while snorkeling. During trips when the guide said sharks would be present, Phil brought a metal walking stick underwater with him in case he needed to ward them off. I could feel him physically tighten up whenever they appeared. Fortunately, the creatures just peacefully swam around under us and didn’t seem to give a hoot that we were there.
We also got to swim with baby sea lions who were very playful with us. They got so close it was almost like they wanted me to touch them, except that they swam by quite fast. These were the times I wished I had an underwater camera.
When we returned from the Galapagos to mainland Ecuador, we had a driver take us from the coast across the Andes mountains to a town farther south. The drive took us through El Cajas National Park which stands at 4,167 meters, or 13,671 feet. We stopped at the top of these Andes mountains, but didn’t even try to walk around in this high place. We just got back in the car and ate chocolate to make us feel better. Ecuador has some very good chocolate.
Here’s a photo of our driver’s altimeter:
cuenca-a city loved by ex-pats (and me)
We crossed the Andes to get to the lovely town of Cuenca (pronounced qween-ka), more to the southeast of Ecuador. Among its other attributes, it seems to be a haven for ex-pats. We met many Americans and other foreigners who were very happy to have moved there. Some lived in an ex-pat conclave, called “gringolandia” which we didn’t like at all. Others lived in areas where Ecuadorian locals lived, which we found much more agreeable.
Cuenca, and Ecuador in general, is a very affordable place to live with a lot to like about it, such as cultural events and festivals. If Cuenca had an ocean, it could be in the running for our place to one day “settle down” in. It would certainly stretch the dollar, so to speak. During our visit, we rarely paid over $20-30 for a lovely dinner out with drinks. For lodging in Cuenca, we stayed in a terrific hotel not far from the main square that had 3 beds, 2 desks, an en-suite bathroom, a sitting room, a balcony and breakfast each morning for $36 per night total!
Our room is number 6, upstairs on the left.
We took a private Spanish language course for 2 weeks in Cuenca at a school named after the great general, Simon Bolivar. Was the course ever intense! We had a wonderful teacher, Patricia, for just the two of us for 4 hours every day. Plus we had a 2nd teacher, Viviana, who was our cultural teacher. Viviana took us to markets, museums, ruins and other sights all over town, all the while speaking to us mainly in Spanish.
Additionally, a couple of times a week, we would attend an evening demonstration by the school director Marco of typical Ecuadorian cocktails or food. In the photos below you can see some items from the school’s food demonstration. Our featured cocktail was canelazo, a cinnamon liquor, warmed with lemon, orange, sugar and hot water.
The food dish Marco made on another night was mote pillo, a large-kerneled white corn somewhat like hominy, cooked with eggs, onions and an achiote-flavored oil. This red spice is also called annatto and is used by some indigenous people for body or hair paint or for lipstick. The food and drink were delicious and the experience in the school’s kitchen with other students from all over the world was enriching.
On top of all that we spent at least 2 hours per day doing homework! Did I say it was intense???
Did we learn to speak Spanish in 2 weeks? Maybe in 2 years, although some say it takes 5 years or more. It has been very useful to us in our further travels in South America, by helping us in reading signs, menus, etc., and in speaking a few words or phrases that are sometimes miraculously understood. It was very much worth the time and effort and we plan to continue learning over time.
The best part is the People of Ecuador
To a person, everyone we met was pleasant, friendly, helpful and kind to us. In my understanding, the people of Ecuador are made up of 3 broad ancestries. There are the first inhabitants of the area, the indigenous peoples, who have been there for 11,000 years. There are the Spaniards, who came and conquered in 1532. And there are the mestizos, or mixed, with both Spanish and indigenous blood. As is true in many parts of the world, a huge number of indigenous people were decimated by diseases brought by the conquerers.
I was fascinated by the indigenous and mestizos, many of whom maintained their native dress.
My cultural teacher from the Spanish language school asked me whether I would like to have a healing treatment by a curandera, or indigenous healer. Of course I would. This beautiful woman first had me smell a bunch of herbs and plants. I didn’t notice at the time that there may have been some ‘stinging nettle’ type plants among them. It sure felt like it when she whacked me with them. Take a look at the video below. The sound she is making is to get rid of the “evil spirits” or whatever the culprit is.
(If the video doesn’t appear, kindly refresh the page.)
After the herb slapping, she rubbed me all over with an unbroken eggs, then cracked the egg into a plastic bag and “read” what it said. The diagnosis – “nervosa, muy estresado y asustado” – nervous, very stressed and scared. Me?
She then took a swig of a liquid concoction of herbs and alcohol into her mouth and literally spit it under my shirt onto my chest and back. Hopefully, that finally got rid of all those bad things I had! She finished me off by putting 3 crosses on my head, back and belly.
Carnaval in Ecuador is a b-i-g holiday. The people really get into the revelry. We saw 2 things they really like a lot – foam and water. The foam is a substance much like shaving cream that is sold in canisters all over the town. Everybody from young to old seems to have one with their finger on the trigger. And if you are anywhere on the streets, you are going to get sprayed by the foam.
The same for water. They spray it, shoot it, throw it, and dump it from above. (You can think for yourself whether or not I liked that….) They even make a ritual of sitting in a chair and having a bucket of water dumped over them – and it’s chilly in Ecuador! The parades are fun, but you will get sprayed with something while viewing them.
The food in ecuador
We had to try the local delicacy in Ecuador – the Cuy, or guinea pig. It didn’t sound appetizing at first but I decided to give it a try. How did it taste, you ask? Like chicken, of course.
Cuy has more uses in Ecuador. One of our guides told us about how cuy are also used for healing. When someone gets sick, the shaman rubs a live guinea pig all over the sick person’s body. Then the healer opens up the little guy and uncovers from its insides what disease you had, that is now gone, thanks to the guinea pig. You don’t eat these particular cuy – I made sure to ask.
Corn, or maize, is said to be the single most important gift of the Americas to the world. There are many varieties of corn in Ecuador and it is served often. We would find popcorn on the tables at restaurants, sometimes with a sauce in which to dip the kernels. Potatoes abound, too, and there are many, many varieties. Agriculture is very important to Ecuador and is a major source of their export income. Indigenous people brought their agricultural products to market everyday in the cities and we loved to go see what they had.
A funny thing we saw being sold on the streets was ice cream cones that didn’t melt. It really perplexed Phil and me. Come to find out it was a type of merengue. I had no desire to try it, though it was quite pretty, and a lot of locals liked it. See a photo in the group below.
I hope you have enjoyed this post about our 5 weeks in the lovely country of Ecuador. Have you been to Ecuador? Do you have any desire to go? I would love to hear your comments in the section below. I look forward to hearing from you.Tweet