Grant Muller

Donde esta el Banos?

Ecuador2-577"Fraaaaaaancoooooo, Ingles" The woman behind the counter at the Hostal Abalorio cooed. A man rustled a little on the couch in the lobby under a heap of blankets. She called Franco’s name a few more times until he rose from the couch. Half asleep, Franco hobbled towards us. Struggling to do two things at once in his stupor, his put the small round glasses on his face and asked if we spoke German before resorting to English.

"Sorry, I’ve been up all night, I’m normally not a lazy boy. We’ve been very busy with the Carnival.” Franco apologized.

We noticed.

Six hours before arriving at the Hostal Abalorio Cary and I had hopped on yet another exciting bus ride to the unfortunately named Banos. Nestled in the valley’s of the Andes, Banos is named for you guessed it, baths. Hot springs are plentiful in the area and at least four bath houses have been built to take advantage of the natural wonder. Additionally, a small city has grown up in the area to accommodate the incoming tourists.

We had announced to several people that we’d be heading to Banos at some point in this trip. Responses had varied.

"Banos? Ah, well you’re young, you’ll like it"


"Really? Well, you should do the bike ride"

I got the distinct impression that Banos wasn’t exactly a place that locals expected Gringos to go.

Our bus ride was once again fraught with excitement. First, after confirming with a bus attendant that we were on the right bus, we found out that we were on the wrong bus. As it was taking off towards another city. The attendant who previously assured us that we were on the right bus was kind enough to almost stop the bus before kicking us off so that we could board the correct one.

A few minutes and lessons later we discovered the correct bus and settled in for the three hour trip. Some notes about buses in Ecuador:

  1. They are never full. There’s always room for one more.
  2. There is no reason to bring food, someone will sell it to you later.
  3. There will be one passenger who vomits on every trip. Guaranteed.

All of the above occurred on every single bus trip we took. We seemed to go out of our way to pick up additional passengers, especially the food vendors. If someone vomited, it was not out of the ordinary for another passenger entering the bus later to throw a few newspapers down and take a seat on top of it. Unique to the ride to Banos however was the sheer length of time if took to get there. Banos was a mere three hour ride on a good day. We happened to be arriving towards the tail end of Carnival, and if traffic was any indicator, all of Ecuador had descended into the little valley for the party. Our ride dragged from three hours to six, and if you recall bus rule number 1, our bus was packed full of Carnival-goers. It was easily the most miserable commute I’ve ever made.

Which is why I wasn’t particularly in the mood to make conversation with Franco, the English speaking proprietor of Hostal Abalorio. Frank Fix, known locally as "Franco El Blanco", was a pharmacist in his home country of Germany before becoming part owner of the little hostel in Banos. He spends his winters operating the hostel to avoid the German cold, translating for the rest of the staff when necessary. We helped Frank flex his English for a few minutes, dumped our backpacks in the hostel and set out for the city to stretch our legs.

Ecuador2-558There is a little place in Georgia called Helen. It is affectionately known as ‘Alpine Helen’. Every year in September Helen hosts its own little Oktoberfest. At the height of the celebrations traffic into Helen comes to a complete standstill, and the streets become so clogged with stein-swinging Georgians that even walking around without getting beer-soaked is impossible.

Banos is to Ecuador as Helen is to Georgia.

Ecuador2-552It was clear that this was the tourist getaway for the natives of Ecuador. The streets were jam-packed with Carnival goers. Where Helen has fudge Banos has taffy-pullers, who stretch lengths of melted sugar sometimes eight to ten feet in length from the street to their shop, pulling the candy just millimeters before it touched the sidewalk.

Cary and I stopped at a street-side bar to take it all in, and realized that it was getting awfully crowded on our particular street. Eventually a live band started up and the street was alive with dancing and drinking. I wandered into a bar to see if we could get a balcony seat, only to be chased out by a teenager wearing a huge pair of earphones around his neck. He tried to tell me they were about to film a promotion inside, and to come back in ten minutes.

It was getting late so Cary and I headed back to the hostel instead. Frank had mentioned that he would like to take a trip to the baths in the morning before it got too crowded, and asked if we’d like to to join him. At 4:30 am. We actually agreed to this, and I still don’t know why. We had a full day of soaking, canyoning and cycling in store for us, it was time to crash.

Cotopaxi: Part Two

"Why aren’t they stopping?" Cary asked wringing her hands.

"It’ll be alright, one of them will stop. Relax."

I tried to make the words sound as assuring as possible, but I was beginning to have doubts of my own as another bus roared by without even looking at my outstretched arm. Everyone from Luis to Esteban to our guide at Cotopaxi had assured us that getting a bus back to Quito from Cotopaxi would be "no problema". As more than a dozen passed I began to wonder if I was translating that phrase incorrectly.

Another bus rolled past in the darkness I began to wonder how far Latacunga was, and how safe it would be to walk down the Pan-American towards it. I had seen plenty of locals doing it, but none since the sun had set, and there weren’t any street lights to guide the way. I started sticking my thumb out to any passing vehicle who might be willing to take a few gringos back to Quito.

I was hitchhiking on the Pan-American highway in the dark. A few hours earlier I had been on top of the world. A lot can change in a few hours. I zoned out and thought back to the hike earlier.

Ecuador2-492Before coming to Cotopaxi I had never been higher than 3000m, and that was a few days ago when I arrived in Quito. So far, the altitude had only a mild effect on me. Some fatigue climbing hills, but nothing more. The hike to the refuge in Cotopaxi starts higher than 3000m, and after a few steps Cary and I both knew it was going to be a tough climb. The snow, driven horizontally by the heavy wind, pummeled our faces as we ascended further into the clouds.

We began our climb to the top of Cotopaxi slowly and methodically. Fernando, our guide, was taking a group all the way to the top of the volcano later that night. He trudged slowly in front of us wearing a pair of heavy, reticulated boots. I said a silent prayer to my New Balance Minimus’ that they keep my feet warm, and assumed Cary was doing the same. I would have asked her, but conversation wasted oxygen. Little was said during the climb.

Ecuador2-494To the left and right of the path a black and orange a layer cake of obsidian and lava rock litter the mountainside and the cliffs. Where the stones aren’t packed into dense layers they are strewn haphazardly on the steep hillside, deposited either by the volcano’s explosion or the movement of ice. I found myself thinking about the effects of pressure and heat on rocks and wood. I thought about how charcoal is made, burning wood in a low oxygen environment. I imagined my muscles shrinking into little square Kingston briquettes as I climbed. I thought about breaking into a run, just to see what would happen.

Ecuador2-504With every switchback I expected to look up and see the refuge. The clouds had surrounded us now and visibility was too low to see more than a dozen feet. We kept our heads down and took it one step at a time. Finally, we looked up and saw the yellow tin roof of the refuge. We may have sped up a little then. We were promised hot chocolate at the top, which might have helped. A fox was wandering around the refuge; perhaps he had been promised chocolate as well.

We walked around unsteadily at the refuge, taking a few pictures and looking up into the clouds. We wandered in to the log cabin atmosphere. A stew was simmering on the stove and the scent pervaded the little wooden hut. We took a seat at one of the tables and Fernando disappeared into one of the little back rooms, looking for cocoa and something to eat. He came back with three steaming glasses and some kind of croissant stuffed with cheese. We gladly accepted and made what conversation we could with our broken Spanish. Fernando had summited Cotopaxi many hundreds of times it seemed; for him, this was just another day at work.

Ecuador2-514The promise of hot chocolate kept, we stepped out of the refuge to find the clouds had parted, revealing the summit of Cotopaxi for the first time all day. Cary quickly snapped as many photos of the summit as she could, while Fernando cried "Cotopaxi loves you!". It was a satisfying moment. We took the opportunity to leave on a good note, shook hands with Fernando, and stomped heel first down the hill.

Ecuador2-519At this point Cary and I were feeling confident in our traveling capabilities. The morning had been rough, but we still made it to our destination and were heading back just in time to reach the road before dark. We discussed future travel plans, especially our intent to reach the top of Cotopaxi on a subsequent trip. Perhaps high on the thin oxygen, we made it back to our ride and happily crammed into the Toyota for the rough ride back. I might have even offered to wipe the windshield with the newspaper if the rain and snow hadn’t given way to a steady afternoon sunshine. Everything was looking right with the world.

And then a cab flashed it’s lights in the darkness, and I remembered I was hitchhiking on the Pan-American Highway.

In broken Spanish it became clear that the off-duty cab driver was on his way to meet some friends in Quito, fifty or so kilometers away, and would take us as far as the south bus terminal.

"How much?" I asked.

"Three dollars." Came the reply.

We hopped into the car and the entire way I second-guessed the sum the driver had given me. Three dollars? A beer at a cheap restaurant costs me that much. Surely he meant thirty. Cary and I counted out extra money just in case we had it wrong while the driver bobbed and weave through traffic to Quito. Even if it was thirty, I would gladly pay, and our driver’s skill more than merited it. In the end the fee was exactly three dollars.

"Keep the change", I said as I handed him a five.

It was getting late and we needed to head back to Old Town Quito. We flagged another cab who announced that his fee would be seven dollars. I groaned, wishing that our off-duty driver had been going our way. We thought we might stop and get some dinner, so we asked the cab to take us to The Ronda. In simple Spanish that two road-weary gringos could understand, he told us that the Ronda wasn’t safe tonight, and dragged his thumb across his throat, making a sound you only hear in movies. We raised our eyebrows and told him to take us to Jumbo instead.

When we arrived a steaming hot plate of empanadas was on the table, courtesy of Luis’ wife Maria. We gladly accepted the cheese and onion filled pastry with a coffee and chatted with Luis and Esteban. They were discussing the particulars of the farm and how to organize the cabins for the best exposure. Not wanting to interrupt we excused ourselves and stepped out to find some dinner.

We didn’t realize how hard this would be. In a country that is 90% Catholic literally nothing is open on a Sunday night. After an hour of walking the empty city streets we found exactly one restaurant open. And it was in a hotel. We stepped into the [Plaza Grande] and asked for a table for two, hoping for little more than a few beers to cap what was becoming one of the most ridiculous days we’d ever had. We sat down and ordered a few cold ones.

Suddenly the lights went out. I thought perhaps the Hotel had lost power but when I looked out into the illuminated lobby I knew that something was afoot. A funeral dirge began to play over the speakers.

"Oh god, now the KKK have arrived" Cary announced.

A man dressed in a pointed purple hood and long robes ambled out of the kitchen. The Grand High Wizard of the hotel delivered two bowls of ice cream to a table nearby, folded his hands and walked away. The the lights came back on, the music stopped, and everyone continued as if nothing had happened. Cary and I looked at eachother.

"I’m gonna need another beer."

"Yeah, me too."

Cotopaxi: Part One

"La Entrada de Cotopaxi!" The bus attendant called.

We looked around and didn’t see anything resembling the entrance to a national park. The bus didn’t slow, but we walked to the front anyway, thinking we might have to duck and roll to get off this thing. The bus slammed to a halt and the door opened. I looked outside and saw nothing more than open road.

"Where is the entrance?" I asked in Spanish.

The attendant pointed somewhere as the bus roared off. Cary’s pupils dilated to full moons as they darted around looking for anything at all. Finally we spotted the sign. Cotopaxi. Across the Pan-American Highway. We were going to have to run across six lanes of highway traffic to get there. We slung our jackets back on, grabbed our day packs and sprinted into the middle, where a police officer was "directing traffic". A few moments later we darted through a gap between trucks to get to the other side and enter the park.

It had been a hell of a morning.

We had woken later than expected, and had breakfast with Esteban and Isabella, a couple that had just arrived from Banos. They were making a very long vacation out of a work engagement that Esteban had in the area. A white-haired architect, he recently gave a conference for the locals regarding the design of hospitals in the area, and was working with Luis on a project to turn his farm into a countryside tourist retreat.

One of the things I love about hostel and haveli lodgings is the interaction with other travelers, learning from their experiences and taking in their advice. We spent longer than we had working out the details of our trip with Esteban and Isabella. Having just come from the south they had plenty of recommendations on where to stay in Banos and Cuenca, where to eat and what to do.

Our late start padded with friendly conversation, we left for our one and only destination of the day: Cotopaxi. Cotopaxi is the second-highest but assuredly the best volcano in Ecuador. Located right in the middle of the country, it towers almost 6000m above the earth and represents some of the finest climbing in the Andes. We walked out of the hotel thinking we were well-prepared for the trip, and found out just how wrong we were.

Transportation planning is the most difficult part of any trip. Figuring out when you need to go, how to get there, and communicating changes in plans to your driver are extremely difficult. We had let Luis and Esteban convince us that the easiest and cheapest way to Cotopaxi was by bus. Furthermore, they suggested, taking the city trolley to the bus was also quick and cheap. Cary and I nodded and said ‘Si’ thinking we had it all under control, and walked our spanglish-speaking asses right down to the Plaza Grande trolley station.

$0.50 later we were crammed into a standing room only trolley that made a Japanese subway car look roomy. Dressed for hiking the Andes, we spent 45 minutes sweating in the trolley before arriving at the bus station. Cary was showing signs of breaking in the heat, but we wandered around the bus terminal until we found the counter for tickets to Lasso. It wasn’t our destination, but Cotopaxi was on the way and we were told they would "drop us off". After wandering around a helpful bus attendant pulled us over to what was evidently our bus (though no markings indicated it). We sat, and after the bus was filled we took off. Things were improving. We were on the bus on our way to Cotopaxi. A little later than expected but on the way nonetheless.

Then shit started to get weird. We made several unexpected stops, picking up along the way additional passengers, food vendors, and a guy selling a DVD. Very loudly. Then we arrived at a toll booth, at which point the bus attendant rushed around trying to get all of the standing passengers in a seat, or at least pretending to sit. It turns out those extra passengers weren’t exactly regulation. Not too long afterwards we hit a traffic jam so bad that every car on the road was stopped, and food vendors were walking the five lanes trying to make a few sales. Ecuadorian drivers resemble Indians in that their total lack of patience for standing still requires them to drive on the other side of the road to get around other cars. Five lanes of traffic quickly turned into eight then nine, and oncoming traffic could not get by. Thus creating more traffic. Eventually we made our way through the chaos.

Only to have to sprint across the Pan-American into what we hoped was the entrance to Cotopaxi.


After reaching the other side, we discovered that the entrance to the park is a full 16km off the Pan-American, and the only way in is to drive your own car or get a guide to take you back. Obviously we had no car so we hired a reasonably priced guide. Minutes later a single cab Toyota truck pulled up, and our guide opened the passenger door. We peered inside and the stout, wrinkled Ecuadorian with nearly a full set of teeth waved back at us. The guide directed us with a wave of her hand to step into the truck. Cary and I stuffed ourselves into the cab next to the driver, Cary taking the middle seat next to the floor-board shift stick, with myself pressed so hard against the passenger door I literally fell out every time it was opened. Which had to be done from the outside since nobody in the cab could move enough to open it from the inside. Our guide hopped into the bed of the truck. which I presume was more comfortable.

Ecuador2-481It was the rainy season and all of Ecuador this side of the Andes felt perpetually overcast. As we made our way down the gravel path into the national park the bottom of the clouds fell out and a steady rain began to fall. I didn’t notice at first, but after about five minutes of rainfall it became impossible to see out of the truck. Our driver muttered something in Spanish and then reached for a pile of newsprint on the dash. He rolled up the old news, rolled down the window, and began to try and wipe as much of the moisture from the windshield as possible. The attempt was futile and the droplets were merely pushed around. The driver laughed and said something unintelligible in any language to us. Was he was trying to tell us that the wipers were broken? Cary and I looked at each other and shook our heads.

As we continued wiperless towards the volcano we made a few stops along the way. First to register; anyone entering the park must do so, and it costs $10 per person. Our guide’s fee covered it; hiring one just became even more reasonable. From there we headed to the visitor’s center, which held the typical visitor’s center fare; examples of flora and fauna, maps of the area, and information about the mountain including dates of eruption. Cotopaxi is still active, and it’s most recent major eruption in 1977 destroyed the nearby city of Latacunga.

Ecuador2-474Driving onward the rain began to worsen. Our driver had grown tired of his newspaper windshield wiper and took a new tack. At some point along the way he had filled an empty 2-liter coke bottle with water, and was stopping to pour on the windshield at regular intervals up the mountain trail. I’m still not sure what the point of this was, as it seemed to just add insult to injury, but if it helped the driver see in the rain so be it. I focused my attention on the stones and boulders strewn across the plain at the base of the volcano.

About halfway into the park we arrived at Limpiopungo lake. The lake is located at the base of Cotopaxi, and is home to many of the volcano’s birds. It’s also only a meter deep, making it more of a really big pond than a lake. Still, its an example of glacial melting producing bodies of water, and an important part of the park. We took in the sights then packed back into our ride. Our final stop was the hiking path to the top.

The road up the mountain began to get treacherous. The rain was slowly replaced with a driving snow as we rounded the switchbacks and hairpins up the slope of the volcano. The driver didn’t have any new inventions to deal with the increasing moisture, but the density of the clouds made seeing through the snow on the windshield irrelevant. The temperature outside began to seep into the cab of the tiny truck, and even being crammed together couldn’t prevent us from growing cold as we ascended.

Ecuador2-481Finally, we arrived at the last parking area before the climb to the top. We weren’t prepared to summit Cotopaxi as it requires the accoutrements of ice-climbing. To summit the volcano you must also leave in the middle of the night to make it up by dawn. We agreed that to go as far as the refuge, and that we’d make summit on the next trip. We hopped out of the old Toyota,  pulled on our hats and hoods and started the slow, breathless hike up to 4800 meters.

Otavalo: You Don’t Know What Cuy Is?

“Luis, what do you call that plant?” I asked, pointing to one of the hundreds of Century plants dotting the countryside.

“That? Just ‘cactus’.”

“I can’t believe there are so many of them. They are a treasure in many American gardener’s collections.”

“Here, they are a nuisance.”

Ecuador2-177After a Jumbo breakfast we took a road trip to the north of Ecuador. Along the way to our first destination we stopped at one of the many equator lines. We would find that there is some dispute regarding the actual location of the equator, and the Quitsato organization had set up shop near Cayambe to make their point. Based on ancient ruins, a large circle with lines marking the crossing of the sun at both elliptic extremes, the exact center should mark the location of the equator, which is drawn boldly in stone across the floor of the site. Cary and I took the requisite feet-in-both-hemispheres picture before moving on to the hot springs.

Ecuador, with it’s volcanic activity is dotted with thermal hot springs. Along the road to Otavalo we paid a visit to a local hot spring. The springs are public, which made for a unique opportunity to rub elbows with the locals as they enjoy the thermal baths and accompanying cold pools. When I say baths, I mean that literally. The locals don’t just soak, they lather, rinse and repeat here as well. And when I say rub elbows, I mean that literally too. We had to wait a while for a few square inches to open up in the 8’ by 8’ tub for a soak. After about 30 minutes in the human soup we were ready to move on.

Ecuador2-386Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca house most of the citizens of Ecuador, the rest of the country is dominated by jungle, the Andes, or farmland. The latter made up the majority of the scenery on our journey through the North. Cows, goats, chickens and sheep roam the country side, and anything not cultivated by man is taken care of by nature. The Century plants, apparently a nuisance in Ecuador, grow anywhere they can find a foothold on the steep Andean , many of them featuring stalks over 25 feet.


Condor Park

Ecuador2-265Although Otavalo was our final destination, we had several stops in between. After the baths we drove up the road towards Condor Park just outside of the city. Condor Park is a reserve for raptors. The staff of the park takes in wounded birds from around the world, but especially in Ecuador, and nurtures them back to health. The park’s most prized birds are of course a pair of Andean Condors, but everything from Harpies to American Bald Eagles call the park home.

When we arrived a falconing demonstration had just begun, and a leather-gloved trainer walked out with a Gray-breasted Falcon perched on his arm. He gave the bird a command and it floated off into the distance, while he gave some information about the bird in Spanish. The bird was called back a few times before moving off out of sight. The trainer spent some time trying to call him back as a pair of wild birds descended towards his pet. One of the wild pair dove towards his falcon. Frightened, he flew safely back to his trainer’s outstretched arm in a hurry.



“Are you ready for lunch?” Luis asked as we left Condor Park.

Luis was excited about lunch. The night before he mentioned we would be trying a Ecuadorian specialty. Cuy. Oh you don’t know what cuy is? Cuy is Guinea Pig.

Ecuador2-403There are as many opinions about how to cook Cuy as there are equators. Along the road we passed several cuy restaurants advertising the best roasted, braised, or grilled cuy, oftentimes in the form of a cute cartoon character. Like using a cartoon pig as the mascot of a barbeque joint. Luis took us to a town far North of Otavalo to make sure we had the best Cuy in Ecuador: Whole, deep fried. The guinea pig arrived at the table splayed spread-eagle on a bed of potatoes and mote, and we tore in. The skin was crispy and thick like pork. The meat tasted like gamey chicken. It was fantastic. The organs are included if you’re interested, but even Luis skipped snacking on the lungs or liver. I munched on the heart and the kidneys but left the rest. There may have been some cerveza involved. Satisfied, we left and headed on to Otavalo, but only after a surprise stop at the local ice cream store, which specialized in fresh avocado, tomate de arbol, and mango. The mango and tomate were great, but the avocado sealed the deal.



The largest city to the north of Quito is Otavalo, inhabited by the descendants of tribes that pre-date the Incan expansion. With their own culture, customs and religion, the Otavalenos and other nearby tribes create the country’s wool and alpaca textile works. We were lucky enough to be taking the trip to Otavalo on market day, when the weavers and yarn-workers would be showing off their wares.

Ecuador2-408When we arrived it was getting late in the day, and many stall owners were closing early to head off to Carnival celebrations. If even 50% of the market were closed it would still be too much to see in one day. The stalls are packed close together creating narrow hallways through the market, and the high stacks of textiles block your view from hall to hall. There isn’t any real organization, creating something more akin to a maze than a super market. Walking down one narrow path, you might reach a dead end. Down another you might find a round about with three new paths leading away, and one lucky stall owner running the center. All in all the market is a fantastic place to buy woolen goods; sweaters, hats, gloves, and socks all hand-knit from sheep or alpaca wool. You can also buy yourself one of the Otavalenos’ signature fedoras. 


Cascada de Peguge

Ecuador2-417After leaving the market we had some daylight to burn so we went to hiked to the nearby Cascada de Peguche, a magnificent waterfall on a sacred site for the local people.

We were beginning to learn a lot about the Otavalenos on this trip into the north. 90% of Ecuadorians are catholic; the other 10% are a mix of tribal customs and nature worship. Referred to as being “without god” by the Catholics of the country, some of the tribes adhere to a religious creed that is in some ways secret. Luis, a resident of Quito didn’t know much about what their beliefs entailed, but could spot a prayer circle when he saw one as we passed by during the hike. A few moments later the same group sprinted by, shouting something down a steep path and across a bridge back into the mountain forest. Later we would hear that several of the Otavalenos in the forest that night were using a drug, probably produced locally, as was their custom.

“They are hard workers, but on the weekends they are wild.” Luis told us.

“Work hard, play harder?” We asked.

“Yes, that’s exactly right.”

Ecuador2-426Luis appeared to have a great respect for the Otavalenos, guiding us through the market and conversing with the locals. Many of the tribes are closed off about in regards to their tribal customs; Luis told us that the Otavalenos are “too kind”.

Despite the all of activity the park was peaceful and relaxing. The smell of Eucalyptus pervaded the path up to the waterfall, to the lookouts and eventually behind it. There are a dozen paths leading to different areas; one requires you to climb up a vertical cliff to reach the mouth of the waterfall itself, which you have to jump over to reach the other side. It’s a breath taking experience to be at the top looking into the source of such a magnificent cascade. We carefully climbed back down and around the collection pools and the rest of the mountain park before beginning our journey back to Quito.

It was dark as we left. Without the landscape to keep our eyes busy Luis exercised our minds with Spanish lessons. We could speak a little when we arrived, and Luis would be kicking us out of the nest for the first time on our own tomorrow as we made our way to our next destination by bus; He wanted to make sure we knew enough Spanish to get ourselves there and back. We expanded beyond the simple “What is the bus number and platform?” to more conversational topics. Music, movies, travel, etc. Luis drilled us the entire way home before dropping us off at the Vista Hermosa for dinner. We dined on a balcony overlooking the city before turning in for the night. We had an early morning coming again as we tackled our most daunting obstacle on the trip:


Old Quito: The Cure for Altitude Sickness

Feb. 17th 2012

I popped out of bed starving and ready to get some food in me. Cary rolled out wondering what the hell was wrong with her. We made our way downstairs and as we had breakfast the effects of altitude sickness took hold of Cary. After politely excusing herself from the table, Cary rushed back upstairs to eject what little she had already eaten. She allowed me to eat the rest of her meal, which in addition to 3 cups of Luis’ fabulous coffee, made me all right with the world. Cary demanded a ‘pharmacia’ to get some ‘ibuprofeno’ for her headache, so we hobbled on down to the local drug store for provisions before moving on toward the attractions of Old Town Quito.

The Churches

We made our way first to the Plaza Grande as Luis had suggested. When we arrived the Iglesia de San Agustin had just opened, so we paid the nominal fee and went inside. The church grounds feature the room where the declaration of the independence of Quito was signed and a small museum featuring local Catholic artwork, much of it dating from the 17th and 18th century. Of special note is the wooden remains of the figure that used to adorn the dome. Sorry folks, few pictures here as ‘photografia es prohibitada’ in the churches.

We left San Agustin and headed for another church, El Sagrario, situated on the South end of Plaza Grande just past Quito’s Cathedral. The sanctuary of Agustin and Sagrario are very similar, though Sagraria is much larger. The Sagrario is more richly adorned than Agustin, and feels more active in terms of parishioners.

(1 of 1)-2Exiting the Sagrario we found ourselves directly across from the Ciudad Municipal. It looked surprisingly modern inside, so we stepped in to check it out. We found ourselves immersed in the modern day educational lives of young Ecuadorians. In the central hall there is a library of books translated into Spanish, rebound from earlier editions, on subjects ranging from Physics to Computer Science. We wandered around for a while viewing various art galleries and verandas, before exiting.

Ecuador2-33As we stepped out onto the street a parade of Carnival celebrators was passing by. A small marching band accompanied by dancing residents dressed in traditional garb, the parade marched on carrying the banner of their troop. The celebrators ran around spraying a colored soap, which is a bit like silly string, on spectators. Cary and I were gawking and naturally made easy targets. I was blasted furiously but it was all in jest. After the parade had marched away Cary perused the fabric and yarns marts nearby. We wandered the streets for a few more hours, down the main stretch of the Ave Agostos de 24th.

Ecuador2-60Cary had finally acclimated to the altitude and the light breakfast had caught up to her, so we went in search of some lunch. We made our way to La Ronda, a rejuvenated area of town filled with restaurants and art galleries. We stepped into one of the nearby restaurants and had a traditional lunch. I ordered a fritada, fried pork chunks. It’s a bit like carnitas in an American Mexican restaurant, served with mote and toasted corn. Mote is a boiled white corn, each kernel about the size of a thumb. The toasted corn tastes a bit like corn nuts. Together they make for a unique side dish. We split a Pilsener, the local beer, and headed out for the Panecillo.

The Panecillo

Ecuador2-82The Panecillo is a hill in the middle of Quito, that divides the city into Northern and Southern halves. It features a statue of the Madonna trouncing a chained dragon. It offers a fantastic view of the entire city, especially if you climb the stairs inside the statue and walk out onto the veranda. The name Panecillo means “little piece of bread”, reflected by the round shape of the hill.

We made two attempts to reach the Panecillo. Our city map pointed us in a direction that took us around the hill before ascending a side street and up a few switchbacks. On our way a local stopped his car, rolled down the window, and politely cautioned us to be careful up ahead; their were thieves about. We thanked him and promptly turned around. The map showed a few ways to get their so we decided another way might be best. Cary suggested we just get a cab but I refused. I wanted to walk the hill.

Ecuador2-63We met a similar fate on our second attempt. Near the base of a hill is a long stair case, which seemed to be the most direct route up the little piece of bread right to the top. We began to ascend (much to Cary’s chagrin), before being stopped by a group who informed us that unless we were traveling with a larger crowd, this wasn’t the safest way to go. We turned around and walked with them back to the base of the hill, passing a very obvious sign indication to gringos that the way was not safe. It stated bluntly

Caution Tourists

Robery Zone

Do Not walk

This Street


I shrugged while Cary scolded me for being so reckless.

Finally, near the base, we flagged a cab and paid the $3 for a ride to the top. We took in the view, climbed the statue, and descended the little piece of bread safely in our cab.

The Basilica

Daylight was in short supply so we took off for our last destination for the day, the basilica. We had saved it for last because we were told you can climb all the way to the top of the tower for a fantastic view of the city. We figured we ought to spend some time walking around the city and acclimating to the altitude before climbing higher.

Ecuador2-89The Basilica del Voto Nacional was commissioned in the late 1800’s and like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. remains unfinished to this day. Wikipedia says that locals believe the world will end when the church is completed, but none of them mentioned it to us. Finished or not, it is the most beautiful sight in the city.

The caretakers of the Basilica were clearly going through their end of day rounds, but we had a little more than an hour before they closed, so we made our way around climbing various belfries and towers, and taking in the city from the top. The climbs, up ladders made of rebar with “mesh reinforcement” couldn’t possibly pass inspection in America, but oh well, “When In Rome”. Braving the clearly unsafe ascents was well worth it however, a the vistas of the city were better here than at the Panecillo.

Ecuador2-108After climbing we made our way to ground level and into the sanctuary itself. The enormous sanctuary was completely unlit, and I imagined this is what most medieval churches must have felt like. To round out the unfinished look, the once colored panes in the stained-glass panels have been replaced with clear glass. We roamed around as the last visitors inside, peeked inside the much small inner sanctuary (which is off limits to tourists), before an attendant let us out onto the streets again. This is the only church we visited that allowed photography inside.

The day had come to a close so we cleaned up, grabbed a quick dinner at a restaurant near Jumbo, and took a cab to the New City. We stepped into the Ghoz Bar, a Swiss-owned 80’s themed bar. We grabbed a few more Pilseners, played a round of foosball and billiards, then caught a cab back to Jumbo. Tomorrow we would rise early for a trip to Otovalo and the northern side of the country with Luis.

Center of the Earth: Coming in Hot

Feb 16th 2012

"We’re coming in kinda hot, aren’t we?"

"Uhh, yeah"

The little display embedded in the seat in front of me indicated Time remaining to destination: 25 min. I glanced up seconds later and it read 19. Moments prior the captain had indicated that we shouldn’t be concerned with the woman lying in the aisle, and that she was well taken care of. He kindly asked that we stay seated while they rush her off the plane after we land. He didn’t mention we’d be landing almost an hour ahead of schedule.

"The way Quito is situated at altitude, in the valley, they have to be very careful when they land"

Our neighbor on the plane, a native of Quito had struck up a conversation to take our minds off of the dicey landing we were about to make. He picked a brilliant ice-breaker. We moved on quickly to topics ranging from work-life balance and former jobs, but mostly he focused on recommendations for things to see in Ecuador. We were grateful for the suggestions and the conversation, and hardly noticed as the plane dove from cruising altitude and roughly touched down. It raced down the runway in the rain much longer that it should have, and when we came to a complete stop, the cabin erupted with applause.

On our way out of the plane, a passenger asked the obviously harried pilot how much runway he had left. 3000 feet. We would later find out that we almost landed in Panama instead of Quito, Ecuador to get the woman in the aisle off the plane. Luckily the passenger in front of her was a doctor, and took good care of her while we sped towards our real destination. We got off the plane and headed for the taxi stands, unsure of whether or not our hearts were beating too quickly from the altitude or the landing.

(1 of 4)A ten minute taxi ride later and we were at our Hotel. It would be a mistake to call it a hotel of course, we weren’t staying at the Marriot. Cary found a place called Jumbo Lodging, a highly rated bed and breakfast style lodging in Quito’s Old Town. Despite its name, Jumbo has four rooms, a kitchen and a common area, which is very similar to the havelis we stayed in while touring India. The rooms are brightly painted, open to the street below, and feature few unnecessary adornments. There isn’t a TV in the place (though wifi is available). Luis runs Jumbo with his wife and daughter, and is an extremely knowledgeable native of Quito with an endless supply of suggestions. This next part is very important. Luis makes the best cup of coffee I have ever had in a hotel anywhere. It turns out that he has his own coffee and chocolate bean farm, which is the source of his fantastic brew. With any luck I can talk him into selling me a batch of green beans to roast at home before we leave.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we could experience the coffee we would need to sleep. And sleep we did. Tomorrow would be our first day in Ecuador.

JTTE: A Final Word on India

210601_10150511011125160_595550159_18180009_3882883_o“So how was India?”

Next to ‘how ya doin?’, this is the most common question I’ve had in the past week from relatives, family, friends and co-workers. I don’t mind actually; every time the question is posed I get to reminisce about the trip.

“It was awesome. It’s an amazing place”

India will teach you things. You’ll learn how different we all are, and how foreign a culture can be. You’ll also learn how similar we are, even half a world apart. You’ll see what a country transitioning between ancient custom and modern convenience looks like. You’ll see a country that has managed to respect those customs while still adopting western technology, or refusing to adopt it because its just doesn’t work for them. You’ll see what real poverty looks like, and you’ll see people getting by just the same. You’ll see people who have woven work and life together in such a way that they occur at the same time, without making them burned out or in danger of going postal. Sure, it’s dirty, but it’s a raw dirt, like a gravel country road that hasn’t been paved. It feels lived in, like an old house, endearing and warm.

210289_10150511012020160_595550159_18180036_6636474_oI find myself missing it. I’m happy to be home to my clean air, my vast expanses of open living space, and orderly street traffic, but where is the nearest kulfi stand? I miss the barber on the corner with a line of men waiting in patient conversation to have their whiskers trimmed. I miss the smell of the corner tea shop, masala chai on the boil over an open flame. I miss the street bazaars. I miss the cows. I can understand how many Indian expatriates yearn to return to their home, there is a lot to miss.

India is going to be a different place in 10 years. Hell, as fast as they got the Delhi airport up, maybe 5. I have it on good authority from the world’s biggest Tata fan that it will be even less. The Indians are proving that they can make a new world quicker than we can take the old one in, if you want to see it the way it is, you had better get out there before it happens.

So did we have a good time? I’d say so, we’re already planning our next trip.

Cary, who took the lion’s share of the pictures, has been uploading edited pictures. I’ll be returning to the old posts day by day and adding links to them as she posts them.

With that said, I compiled a list of most humorous, but still applicable do’s and don’t if you find yourself making a trip in the near future. Feel free to add to it in the comments!

Do’s and Don’ts
  • Stay away from the water. Don’t brush your teeth with it. Shower with your mouth tightly closed. Ingesting the water is the quickest way to get sick in India. Are you likely to get deathly ill? No, I know from experience that it’s not that bad, but it’s still something to be avoided if you want to enjoy your trip.
  • If you do get a stomach bug, eat the local curd. Even if you don’t get sick, it’s tasty stuff. Lassi. Yogurt. Etc. Obviously I’m not a doctor and my advice is only empirical, but this worked like a dream for me. I found I was better capable of handling the water if I had been drinking lassi’s all day.  Make sure that they aren’t adding ice or water to the curd though…
  • Avoid raw fruits and vegetables. Why? They wash them with the water. And if they didn’t wash them with anything, then you really don’t want to eat them.
  • You’ll get a better deal if you pay in cash.
  • Try not to pay more than 50% of the asking price, unless the price is so low that you don’t feel like haggling. Especially in tourist towns like Agra, bargain your way down to half the asking at the very minimum.
  • Don’t give money to beggars. Even children. Ever see Slum dog Millionaire? Seriously, don’t do it.
  • Get over the smell. You can’t escape it anyway.
  • Use hand sanitizer frequently.
  • Bring camping toilet paper with you. You will not find toilet paper in public restrooms. Hell, you may not even find a toilet. Plan to poop like you would on a camping trip, and you’ll do fine.
  • Learn to use that little sprayer next to the toilet. Its better than paper anyway.
  • Don’t even think of renting a car. Rent a driver. You will kill someone or something if you try to take your terrible western driving skills on to the road in India.
  • Don’t be freaked out or homophobic about dudes holding hands, hugging, or lounging together. They develop different relationships than we do, it doesn’t make them homosexual.
  • It would not be prudent to say “Whatchoo lookin’ at?” to someone staring at you. You are weird looking. Get over it. They are a fairly pacifist group of folks, they aren’t sizing you up for a confrontation like we on the western side of the world do. People are staring at you because you stand out. It’s ok.

JTTE: Coming Home

India-2386There is nothing exciting about waking up at 4:00 in the morning to start a 12 hour car ride from Udaipur to Delhi. Suffice it to say that that is what we did.

There isn’t much exciting about a 12 hour car ride either. We did that too.

Upon arriving in Delhi we had far less time than we would have had we taken the train, which cut out a lot of the last minute sightseeing we had planned on. We shrugged and agreed that since we’d have to come through Delhi on our way to virtually any other location in India, that we’d have the chance to see the Lodi Gardens, Lotus Temple, and Gandhi House next time.

We did have time to grab dinner with my long-time friend and co-worker at one of the top restaurants in Delhi, R.E.D. (Rare Eastern Dining). It was nice meal, certainly for the food, but more so for the opportunity to have a drink with an old friend, relate the details of our trip, get clarification on some of the customs, and have an intelligent conversation about the future of India. It was a nice time and I’m glad I got to treat him to a meal, since he greased the tracks for our successful vacation.

After dinner we jumped on our 8 hour flight to Amsterdam. The plan was to sleep as much as possible on this flight, then arrive in Amsterdam well-rested and ready for the day there, our 12 hour bonus day iIndia-2409n the Netherlands. The plan worked, and we dozed through almost all of the trip. We spent an hour in the airport sipping a real coffee (not instant!) and planning our day. Early morning on Tuesday, we set out for the city by train.

We took a walking tour of Amsterdam, occasionally stopping into a coffee shop to warm-up and have a cafe crème before moving on. It was too early for much of the city to be open for business, but that didn’t keep us from wandering around the streets, viewing the canals and seeing some sights.

To be honest there wasn’t much to see in Amsterdam. Not really in the mood for museums, we took the opportunity to unwindIndia-2449, eat some chocolate, and otherwise get back into "Western" mode. The contrast between New Delhi and Amsterdam was stark, the density of Delhi making Amsterdam feel like a ghost town. Amsterdam is also one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever visited, making the transition from east to west even harder to fathom.

As the day wore on, we made the rounds at the Albert Cuyp market. I sampled some raw herring with pickle, which was so fantastic I kept sampling it. I hadn’t had a raw anything in almost three weeks, and just to get a few uncooked onions was deeply satisfying. I had a few beers; Heineken tastes the same everywhere, La Chouffe doesn’t. We walked the surprisingly tame red light district, though it was only just after lunch and I assume things "heat up" after dark arIndia-2459ound there. I got some vlames frites, and will forever refer to mayonnaise as "Dutch sauce" as a result.

In the end our tiny taste of Amsterdam was bittersweet. I missed some of the constant action of India, the din of people everywhere replaced by the solitude of the Netherlands was too much, too soon. Amsterdam is certainly a beautiful city, and I plan to return, but perhaps not so soon after a trip to the far east.

We hopped on our last plane ride. I fidgeted through most of it, got grumpy during customs, then fell asleep a few times on our way home. With only one recovery day to follow this long trip up with, we hit the pillow hard that night. The trip was finally over. It was good to be home to my city, my home, my dogs, and my own bed.

One thing I’ve failed to mention is that Cary takes all of the pictures you see here. I know how to use a camera, but she has a way with it. I do some editing and throw this stuff together, and that’s about it. Cary makes these trips, and forces me out of my comfort zone (though she probably says the same of me). I wouldn’t have had half as much fun on this trip, or any trip without her. To be honest, I probably would have come home after the first week. Thanks Cary, you make life worth living.

JTTE: The Hell with the Train

India-1925We got an early start on our first full day in Udaipur as their was much to see and do. Our first stop was the Jagdish Temple, very much a working Hindu temple near to our haveli. We proceeded clockwise around the grounds to each of the small shrines, examining the elephant plinth and the representations of the gods around the base of the temple. We had arrived early and several people were performing their morning prayers; we did our best not to disturb them.

After traversing the outer temple we proceeded inside. The temple was constructed of carved, unpainted stone with a central shrine where several worshipers with giving offerings. Speaking of offerings, a man dressed in typical Indian security garb, beret and all, tried to insist that we pay him 50 rupees to enter the temple. I sensed a shady deal, especially as the false guard skulked behind the columns of the temple while rubbing two grubby fingers together like a bellboy begging for a tip. I cocked an eyebrow and shook my head. No chance buddy. We wandered the temple, trying hard to keep ourselves from taking pictures inside out of respect for those worshipping quietly. I also had to try very hard not to drag my new bellboy out by his goofy beret and beat the hell out of him; you know, respect.

Breathe deep, my friend. Calm as a Hindu cow.

India-1951We left the tranquility of the temple for the hustle of the narrow streets and headed up towards the City Palace where a crowd of tour buses had gathered. When you’re on vacation you don’t realize when the week begins and ends, and we hadn’t realized it was Sunday until we encountered the huge crowd at the palace.

The City Palace in Udaipur is much like the one in Jaipur. Formerly the home of the Maharana of the city, the royalty has quietly sequestered themselves into a much smaller segment of the palace and opened the majority to the public as a museum. Several of the halls, including the now familiar Moti Mahal have been opened to view the fine glass work and fixtures. Several segments of the palace have been devoted to museums of Mughal art portraying tiger hunts, battles, and games featuring the Maharana and his sortie. You get the impression that in Udaipur, there is still a great amount of respect paid to their royalty. We would find out later that he is still drawn by horse and carriage, in full regalia, during a procession through the streets of Udaipur on Holi. We had just missed it by a few days.

India-2230After the tour of the City Palace museum, we took a boat ride around Lake Pichola and onto Jag Mandir. Formerly a prince’s pleasure palace, now a luxury hotel and spa, the accommodations of the manmade island that aren’t open to tourists are available starting at around $899 per night. Cary and I checked our wallets and decided we might consider booking here after a few years of saving. On the other hand the spa did smell nice, and the gardens were well maintained. I don’t usually dig on spas, but I would certainly consider taking a day to indulge here; if it was good enough for a Rajput prince, it’s good enough for me.

We left the island by boat and meandered back to our hotel. Our intention was to grab a bite to eat, and do some last minute shopping for family before heading off to the railway station to catch our train.

"Waitlist 1 and 2? I’m sure you’ll get on the train, I have been waitlisted as far back as 14 and still gotten. You have nothing to worry about."

We heard this same story at least a dozen times on our second day in Udaipur, intended to put us at ease as our seats had not yet been confirmed on the train back to Delhi. We still checked our ticket status constantly to be sure, but at least in our minds and the local’s, we were as good as home. Our local Tata connoisseur looked up our ticket info. "Oh no, you’ve made a blunder!" he said. I apparently didn’t know the ins and outs of the India rail system when I booked the ticket, and had inadvertently booked the most difficult seats to get. He gave us a ton of useful information and urged us to rush to the train station as soon as possible to try and get our tickets modified.

Only a certain number of seats are actually reserved on the trains in India, the rest are put into statuses such as "reserved against cancellation" and "waitlist". We were in the latter group. Additionally there are several other mechanisms like "foreign tourist quotas" and "emergency seats" and something called Taktal that are held in case any last minute travelers must get on the train. Our strategy was to get into one of these quotas, and we were equipped with some pretty decent information regarding how to do it. Then the reality of the Indian Railway bureaucracy set in.

If any of the above information looks like a lot of nonsense, that’s because it is.

India-1991We arrived at the train station and found out that our tickets had effectively been cancelled; even the highest ranking waitlist ticket is still a waitlist ticket, thus we could not board. Furthermore a very surly ticket collector poring over a huge paper chart took one look at our ticket and waved us off, saying in some kind of broken English "train is full". I spoke with the superintendent as well as the tourist office manager. Apparently there was nothing anyone could do. We would not be getting on the train.

We left the train station with mixed emotions. Bewildered at the silliness of the bureaucracy, I no longer desired to take a train in India, and we were both having a great time in Udaipur anyway. Staying another night and riding back with Mashtan was our backup plan, and executing it didn’t bother us at all. We shrugged our India rail experience off, went back to our inviting haveli (the owner’s of which were incredulous that we couldn’t get on the train), and took up residence in our former room.

India-2294This gave us time to take a rickshaw to another tourist destination in Udaipur, the Classic Cars Museum. Over the years, the Maharana of the city have gathered a collection of cars, on display in what is essentially his garage. It was an experience. The guard at the gate took us by each individual garage, unlocked it and threw open the doors, describing the vehicle inside and what it was used for. There was a Rolls-Royce for everything; one that was hacked up to look like a jeep for royal hunts, another opened up like a truck to transport the cricket team. There were a few ancient Chevrolet trucks and buses, as well as cars whose manufacturers I had never heard of, like Morris and Nash. It was here that we had a look at the Maharana’s official carriage as well. It turned out to be a fascinating side trip, and well worth the rickshaw ride.

We left the car museum and slowly made our way back to our haveli. We had a restful evening planned; we couldn’t have picked a better city in India to be stuck. We took up residence in one of the best seats in the house on the terrace, had a lassi or two, then retired around midnight. About 4 hours from then we would be en route to Delhi by car. It was going to be a long ride.

JTTE: The Most Romantic City in All of India

India-1822The road to Udaipur began after a quick caffeine fix. This would be our shortest driving length of the trip, but owing to the terrain would be our longest. Leaving Jodhpur we encountered some of the most poorly maintained tracts of asphalt I’ve seen this side of Costa Rica. Couple that with the fact that we were on the main road from Jodhpur to Mumbai, the Indian shipping capital, and we had created a very stressful start to the day for Mashtan. After a few hours we turned off this one lane superhighway onto the road to Udaipur, and things quickly improved.

The terrain changes dramatically between the encroaching western desert and the city of Udaipur. On the horizon mountains appear, and rocky outcroppings poke up out of the scrub like monuments in the sand. I can only describe is as looking like the countryside of Greece sounds. Within an hour we were in the midst of the stony mountain pass, with terraced farms, stacked walls and rock huts dotting the landscape as we zoomed by. Mashtan was visibly happier with this portion of the drive. "This is like Himalaya" he said to us, as the road hair-pinned around an embankment, "This is not boring drive". We agreed, and when the opportunity to have a tea at a hotel nestled in the hills presented itself, we lingered long.

India-1832Udaipur is like an oasis in the mountains. The city surrounds a lake, and the transition between algae covered waters and concrete structures is immediate. There are several spots where stairs have been built right into the water, and I’m certain that all of the classic shots of people collectively bathing and doing their laundry in India come from Udaipur. The city is also quite small. We planned to have Mashtan drop us off at our lodgings and just walk everywhere from there, which is more conducive to the way Cary and I travel anyway. It also gave Mashtan a much needed break.

Speaking of lodgings. In Udaipur we stayed at another "guest house", or haveli that has been converted into an inn. I don’t know how to describe these guest houses to Americans other than comparing them to a bed and breakfast, which isn’t quite the same. At a guest house, there are usually few rooms, four to ten in our experience. With such a limited number of guests staying in the haveli, the staff can better accommodate your needs than a traditional hotel. Indeed, we found that when we stayed at a guest house in India, we were much India-1840happier with our lodgings than when we stayed in a hotel. Here is an example: whenever we had an early pick up at a guest house, well before the kitchen opened, the staff would usually offer to make use something that we could pack for breakfast. Another example: internet costs money here in India. At every hotel we went to we had these goofy scratch off cards with a password to get on their internet, which was finicky to use and required constant re-authentication. At the guest houses internet was free, or they charged on a per hour basis simply asking you to report to them about how much you used. I am much more likely to overpay in the latter scenario, simply because the bond of trust between guest and host has been created by the host’s faith in my honesty. Bottom line: Pick the guest house over the hotel if one is available.

India-1870After a quick check-in later than we expected, we wandered around the city in an effort to catch the boat tour. We got a little lost, but a few rickshaw rides later caught our bearings. The boat ride would have to wait for the morning, but we did wander the streets, conversed with the locals and perused the shops. We met some of the most memorable characters we had encountered so far in India. The most avid Tata connoisseur on the planet who ran Tata’s first retail endeavor. Jony and Sony, two brothers who had set up shop as tailors of fine suits. We also ran into several other residents who had spent time in other cities and ended up back in Udaipur. I don’t blame the latter of these; we found Udaipur to be the finest city we had the privilege to visit in India, and agree with the most common assessment of the it: "Udaipur is the most romantic city in all of India".

Taking it easy for the evening, we had a leisurely dinner on the terrace of our haveli, which overlooked the lake, the lit palaces, and the city. Tomorrow we would set out on foot again to visit the tourist attractions and catch our train back to Delhi.