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We cantered along the ancient Inca trade routes with vistas stretching to eternity. While descending on a narrow track into the less-traveled Zuleta Valley, the sky darkened. A mist hit us and a few drops fell on my cheeks. Instead of the threatened downpour, the sun burst through the gray curtain sending shafts of light upon the golden fields and a broad-banded rainbow arced over the pastoral valley.
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This romp with a band of nine merry women began in Quito, the gateway to outdoor adventures in Ecuador. It is good to take a day to adjust to the altitude (9,300 ft.) and rest before joining Sally on the ride between restored 17th century Colonial haciendas that climaxes on the wild slopes of Cotapaxi (19,350 ft.) volcano. While in Quito, I arranged for a guide to explore Old Town, a recently restored UNESCO world heritage site, and to take the cable car up to 13,000 feet overlooking the expanse of Ecuador’s second largest city nestled between towering snow-capped volcanoes.

Sally picked me up at the Hotel Sierra Madre, a comfortable safe haven with a helpful English-speaking staff near the new town center. The first stop on the journey with Sally is the Otavalo Valley, one of the last strongholds for indigenous people who share their wares in the largest outdoor marketplace in South America. The scent of roasting pig and exotic spices floats on the air. Colorful ponchos and scarves of the villagers famous for their weaving lift on a light breeze like flags. I purchased hand-carved gourds at bargain prices as gifts to take home.
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Our first night was spent at Hacienda Pinsaqui, a gracious oasis with all the trappings of the Spanish aristocracy who ruled here with an iron fist for 300 years (1542 to 1822). Delightful gardens surround the haciendas that are decorated with massive carved wood furnishings and murals and tapestries reminiscent of glamorous days gone by. After a dinner of local specialties, a serenade beside a warming fire by Andean musicians, and an early turn-in, I was ready to ride.
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We trotted in the crisp morning air on cobblestone streets through villages. Shouts of ”hola” came from smiling children waving to us from rooftops of adobe abodes. Once upon the flanks of the mountains overlooking the valley we were greeted by Santiago, dressed in a royal red poncho and riding his prized pony. He led us to his modest Tuscan-yellow home where his wife awaited us with tasty treats from their garden. He then took us on a ride even higher through billowing grasses to the primary forest above his ranch. Riding through a tunnel of mountain bamboo listening to the clip of dive-bombing hummers gave me a sense of what it was like here before hundreds of years of cultivation changed the look of the arid landscape.
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Today the flanks of the volcanoes, held sacred to the Incas who ruled here for 100 years before the Spanish conquest, are a colorful tapestry of purple, gold, and green plots. Mama Cotacachi reigns to the west of Otavalo Valley while Taita Imbabura dominates the east. Incas sacrificed maidens to the mountain gods to bring rain and keep the valley fertile. Today, a few drops of trago, a fierce liquor, sprinkled on the ground will do. We passed cattle, pigs, and goats staked to graze along the trails that locals traverse daily to tend their crops on tiny inherited plots.

Spirits soared as I galloped through undulating fields of shimmering wheat beneath a brilliant sun in the highlands of the Northern Andes. The sound of my steady mount’s hoofs upon the grassy lane and the brisk wind cooling my cheeks were all I thought of as I followed Sally Vergette’s lead across the top of the world.

The Colonial hacienda ride is for intermediate riders who can handle mounts at all gaits, but Sally has more relaxed, shorter rides on horses suitable for children and inexperienced riders in this region. She keeps a constant vigil on her rides, checking tack often and making sure that horse and rider is a good match. After twenty years in South America, Sally learned the language, the ways of the people, and earned the respect of local horsemen who also act as guides. This is a rare and wonderful way to explore Ecuador; it gets you into the countryside and gives you a chance to meet the people who call it home.

To learn more about Sally Vergette and the rides she offers in Ecuador, Chili, Brazil, and Uruguay please refer to our interview in my September post and go to www.RideAndes.com.

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“The Earth has music, for those who listen” – William Shakespeare

I leaned back on the comfy seat of a canoe shared with five other travelers in the magical maze of canals at Sacha Lodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon basin and watched a troop of squirrel monkeys overhead. With death-defying leaps they sprang from branch to branch forming a super highway through the tropical foliage. Bets were taken on who would become the first to have a monkey land on their head as the creatures peered at us with the comical faces of a curious child. After four days of total immersion in the rain forests surrounding the lodge, I felt I was a part of the scene.
This adventure begins in Coca, a gritty oil town where the Coca and Napo rivers collide and proceed to the mighty Amazon River. A motorized canoe awaited us on the banks of the Napo, the main artery in the region. On the way to the lodge about three hours downstream, we passed barges carrying heavy equipment to oil depots and locals in canoes fishing as they have done for thousands of years. Children waved to us as we passed remote villages tucked in the impenetrable sea of green foliage. We hiked on a boardwalk through a flooded forest to Pilchicocha Lake, aka the Black Lagoon, where canoes and guides were waiting. After a serene glide over the lake lined with rhododendron leaves as big as elephant ears and reeds where Caiman (a member of the alligator family) lurk, we arrived at the miracle of Sacha Lodge.
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Nestled in a 5,000-acre preserve, this Robinson Crusoe fantasy made from local wood covered in a shaggy palm roof and staffed by 65 indigenous workers, is totally self-sufficient. The lounge upstairs overlooking the lagoon is cooled by most-welcome fans after a session of hiking in equatorial heat. Raised walkways lead to spacious rooms with open beam, wood floors, and inviting hammocks on the deck. There is nothing but a screen between you and the wild mish-mash of jungle trees and plants that are home to millions of thrumming insects, barking tree frogs, clicking cicadas, and the sharp whistles of birds that make up the chorus that intensifies as night draws nigh.
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An early rise increases your chances of spotting some of the 600 species of birds counted at the lodge as well as other wildlife. Forest walks are the classroom for naturalist guides who point out medicinal properties in plants and how they were used by “the people.” They explain the symbiotic relationships between plants and insects that have evolved over the ages. Our guide carried an iPod downloaded with calls to attract the mot mots, toucans, and many more birds, while he talked to other creatures in their language trying to draw them near.
“Friends, look at this mandible ant,” our guide Marco said as he pointed to a stream of insects on the jungle floor. “He can be used to suture wounds. Just let him clamp the wound with his mandible and then pinch off his head.”
“Friends, you see the kapok tree? This one is centuries old. He is the tallest tree of the jungle. If he were to be cut down it would take hundred year for the forest floor to recover. His canopy provides shade for the plants below. Competition for light and nutrients is fierce in the rain forest.”
Like Jack on the beanstalk, we climbed up a giant wooden stairwell wrapping the kapok tree. A drenching rain set in before we reached a viewing platform above the protective canopy. We stood atop what must be the 9th wonder of the world with our heads tucked into the hood of our ponchos waiting for the weather to change. Soon, blue skies opened over the platinum Napo River. Pink flamingo hues softened gray layers of clouds. Shafts of light streamed down upon the primal forest and mist began to rise from the verdant green canopy of the forest below. Orange, crimson, and yellow blooms that rest on the crown of trees brightened the scene. Birds begin to stir once again. A flock of toucans flew swiftly by and the droplet song of the industrious weaver bird was heard. The sun set with a tender sigh in soft pastels as we left our perch and canoed home through the tranquil channels to the lodge and another fabulous meal.
Healthful salads of shredded cabbages, carrot, tree tomatoes, and avocado served with a tangy lime dressing were just a few of the choices. Entrees include tender beef in a peppercorn sauce, chicken, pork and tilapia fish prepared with a unique seasoning known only to our native chef. Wonderful desserts like strawberry mousse, caramel flan, exotic fruits, and walnut cakes were served buffet style in the lodge.
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On our night canoe, the heavens opened wide with a neon crescent moon hanging in a crackling sky. Marco pointed out different constellations with his powerful green laser. The glide around the lake in splendid silence looking up to the southern sky listening to the serenade of the cicadas and frogs is a treasured memory.
Thankfully there are no radios or televisions, no boom boxes, no leaf blowers or car alarms at Sacha. The promise is that the lodge will build more exciting features like the longest (1,000 ft.) and highest (120 ft.) canopy walk unique to Ecuador, the Kapok Tower, and trails that enable people to experience the forests in an intimate way. They will not, however, add to the 26 private rooms ensconced in green. This spectacular eco-lodge exists because of the dream of Arnold Ammeter, more commonly known as Benny. He purchased the land surrounding the black water lagoon in 1991 and began construction of the now famous lodge. It will remain a very special place if it is protected from encroachment of oil companies that cut roads into the forest creating access for poachers and inevitable spills that threaten the entire Amazon basin. www.sachalodge.com

 

IF YOU GO: Cafe Cultura, a boutique hotel in Quito situated walking distance to a farmers market and art in the park, is a perfect place to rest from a long flight. A charming restaurant with tasty selections, a welcoming study, and gracious hosts make this a comfortable safe haven. The staff arranged for an English-speaking guide who took me on a tour of Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which recently received a 250-million-dollar facelift. They also made arrangements for the driver waiting for me at the new Quito Airport.
www.cafecultura.com

Where can you stand with one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere? How can you feel chilly standing at the Equator? Is that a real shrunken head? The answer to all of these questions and more can be found at a site called Middle of the Earth, located a few kilometers north of Quito, Ecuador.

Legend has it that an ancient and powerful ruler of Peru wanted to give both of his sons a portion of his kingdom. He carved out a piece of Peruvian land located at the middle of the earth. The land became known as Ecuador. Its name referencing the Equator that crosses right through the heart of it.

In 1736, the French Academy of Sciences sent an expedition to Ecuador to find the exact location of the Equator, in order to calculate the circumference of the Earth. Once they determined the site, a stone monument was erected at San Antonio de Pichincha, and “Mitad del Mundo” (Middle of the World) city was founded. The site houses museums, a planetarium and several restaurants. If you feel hungry, try a bite of cuy, the local delicacy. What’s cuy? Cooked guinea pig.
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Shrunken Human Head

The French almost got it right – using instruments they had available to them at the time. But the Incas who came to Ecuador in 1460 discovered the true center of the earth, in a much earlier time. These people, whose tribal name means “Children of the Sun”, were excellent astronomers. As proof of this, when G.P.S. positioning was developed over 500 years later, scientists decided that it was the Incas who found the exact spot and without the use of sophisticated scientific instruments.

To visit the true G.P.S. center of the earth, travel a few yards beyond Mitad del Mundo City to the outdoor exhibit of Museo de Sitio Intinan. Here, visitors can wander through a replica Inca village with thatched huts, complete with authentic furniture, pots and utensils. A multi-lingual guide gives detailed accounts of the archeology and culture of the people who lived here.

Is that a real shrunken head? In the remote Amazon region of Ecuador, the warring tribes used to shrink the heads of captured enemies. This practice may not have been entirely abandoned in the most remote parts of the jungle. Standing just inside a thatched house the guide explains how and why this was done. There is a fascinating, yet gristly pictogram on the wall of a thatched hut showing the process step-by-step. The head currently on display was the son of a tribal chief. Feathered earrings hang from pierced ears and you can see the stitches where the bluish eyelids have been sewn shut.

Further down the path, another hut is home to a sampling of crawly creatures that abound in the Amazon jungle. One display case holds a huge dead snake submerged in murky Amazon River water. Another glass box contains an orange spider, its leg-span larger than the hand of a grown man. A small bottle holds a poisonous fish.
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In the common area, the guide gives a demonstration on how to use a blowgun. Give it a try. You’ll find it heavier and harder to do than it looks.

Walk by an open Inca burial mound. The dead would lie curled up in fetal position, inside of a jar. Food, drink and personal items were placed around the body, so they would have something to eat and drink in the next life. Then, members of their family were put to sleep and buried alive in the mound, to accompany the deceased into the next life.

A few steps away, a guide takes you through a series of demonstrations. Demonstration stations are centered over a 3 inch wide red stripe painted on the rocky ground that runs the length of the exhibit. This stripe marks the G.P.S. location of the Equator. The first station shows how a solar clock works. It is so accurate; you can set your watch by its time.

Did you know that you could stand a raw egg on its end, at the Equator? It takes a steady hand and a little practice, but the guide shows visitors how to balance an egg on the head of a nail. It should rest there without falling off. If you can do it, you get a certificate.

Next, the guide demonstrates Korioli centrifugal forces using a sink full of water. At the Equator, water drains from a sink by falling straight down into the bucket below. Once the sink empties, she lifts it up and carries it a few feet north of the Equator and pours water back into the sink. When she pulls the plug, the water swirls down the drain counterclockwise. In the final part of the demonstration, she carries the sink a few feet south of the Equator. This time, the water drains clockwise.

Museu de Sitio Intinan is not in many guidebooks. It’s not crowded so you can spend time admiring the wonders of this little-known part of the country. Bring a jacket because here you’re standing at an altitude of about 7,000 feet. When the cool mountain breezes blow, it’s chilly.

Middle of the World City is about 20 minutes drive from the capital city of Quito. If you come, the entrance fee to the “Middle of the World City” is $2.00, to the Planetarium $1.50. Visiting hours: Monday through Thursday 0900 – 1800 Friday, Saturday and Sunday 0900 – 1900. Museo de Sitio Intinan Ethnic Museum entrance fee is $3.00. Bring your passport. Have it stamped “Mitad Del Mundo – Ecuador LAT: 0°-0°-0°”.

Where can you stand with one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere? How can you feel chilly standing at the Equator? Is that a real shrunken head? The answer to all of these questions and more can be found at a site called Middle of the Earth, located a few kilometers north of Quito, Ecuador.

Legend has it that an ancient and powerful ruler of Peru wanted to give both of his sons a portion of his kingdom. He carved out a piece of Peruvian land located at the middle of the earth. The land became known as Ecuador. Its name referencing the Equator that crosses right through the heart of it.

In 1736, the French Academy of Sciences sent an expedition to Ecuador to find the exact location of the Equator, in order to calculate the circumference of the Earth. Once they determined the site, a stone monument was erected at San Antonio de Pichincha, and “Mitad del Mundo” (Middle of the World) city was founded. The site houses museums, a planetarium and several restaurants. If you feel hungry, try a bite of cuy, the local delicacy. What’s cuy? Cooked guinea pig.
2dc4f4770

Shrunken Human Head

The French almost got it right – using instruments they had available to them at the time. But the Incas who came to Ecuador in 1460 discovered the true center of the earth, in a much earlier time. These people, whose tribal name means “Children of the Sun”, were excellent astronomers. As proof of this, when G.P.S. positioning was developed over 500 years later, scientists decided that it was the Incas who found the exact spot and without the use of sophisticated scientific instruments.

To visit the true G.P.S. center of the earth, travel a few yards beyond Mitad del Mundo City to the outdoor exhibit of Museo de Sitio Intinan. Here, visitors can wander through a replica Inca village with thatched huts, complete with authentic furniture, pots and utensils. A multi-lingual guide gives detailed accounts of the archeology and culture of the people who lived here.

Is that a real shrunken head? In the remote Amazon region of Ecuador, the warring tribes used to shrink the heads of captured enemies. This practice may not have been entirely abandoned in the most remote parts of the jungle. Standing just inside a thatched house the guide explains how and why this was done. There is a fascinating, yet gristly pictogram on the wall of a thatched hut showing the process step-by-step. The head currently on display was the son of a tribal chief. Feathered earrings hang from pierced ears and you can see the stitches where the bluish eyelids have been sewn shut.

Further down the path, another hut is home to a sampling of crawly creatures that abound in the Amazon jungle. One display case holds a huge dead snake submerged in murky Amazon River water. Another glass box contains an orange spider, its leg-span larger than the hand of a grown man. A small bottle holds a poisonous fish.
2dc5f4770
In the common area, the guide gives a demonstration on how to use a blowgun. Give it a try. You’ll find it heavier and harder to do than it looks.

Walk by an open Inca burial mound. The dead would lie curled up in fetal position, inside of a jar. Food, drink and personal items were placed around the body, so they would have something to eat and drink in the next life. Then, members of their family were put to sleep and buried alive in the mound, to accompany the deceased into the next life.

A few steps away, a guide takes you through a series of demonstrations. Demonstration stations are centered over a 3 inch wide red stripe painted on the rocky ground that runs the length of the exhibit. This stripe marks the G.P.S. location of the Equator. The first station shows how a solar clock works. It is so accurate; you can set your watch by its time.

Did you know that you could stand a raw egg on its end, at the Equator? It takes a steady hand and a little practice, but the guide shows visitors how to balance an egg on the head of a nail. It should rest there without falling off. If you can do it, you get a certificate.

Next, the guide demonstrates Korioli centrifugal forces using a sink full of water. At the Equator, water drains from a sink by falling straight down into the bucket below. Once the sink empties, she lifts it up and carries it a few feet north of the Equator and pours water back into the sink. When she pulls the plug, the water swirls down the drain counterclockwise. In the final part of the demonstration, she carries the sink a few feet south of the Equator. This time, the water drains clockwise.

Museu de Sitio Intinan is not in many guidebooks. It’s not crowded so you can spend time admiring the wonders of this little-known part of the country. Bring a jacket because here you’re standing at an altitude of about 7,000 feet. When the cool mountain breezes blow, it’s chilly.

Middle of the World City is about 20 minutes drive from the capital city of Quito. If you come, the entrance fee to the “Middle of the World City” is $2.00, to the Planetarium $1.50. Visiting hours: Monday through Thursday 0900 – 1800 Friday, Saturday and Sunday 0900 – 1900. Museo de Sitio Intinan Ethnic Museum entrance fee is $3.00. Bring your passport. Have it stamped “Mitad Del Mundo – Ecuador LAT: 0°-0°-0°”.

Hold onto your Panama Hat … this is one exhilarating ride!

 
At 10,000 feet, the air is perceptively thinner in the Ecuadorean capital of Quito. Travelers puff and gasp the first few days of their visit. Stone steps and sidewalks seem steeper; footsteps tread more slowly. This ancient, beautiful city is home to over 2 million residents. It fills the valley at the foot of 15,710 foot high Rucu Pichincha with thousands of single-story simple homes, creeping halfway up its green slopes. In the city center is the international airport, laid out on a dried-up lakebed. Still, my lungs longed for the warm sea-level coast, with its cool Pacific breezes.

While most travelers hop the 40-minute commuter jet from Quito to the coastal city of Manta, We chose the 7-hour overland route through the Andes mountains, in a taxi.

It was the rainy season in Quito. This city’s temperatures vary only a dozen or so degrees year round, maintaining a feeling of perpetual springtime. The journey began with navigating the drizzly, twisting streets filled with Sunday morning churchgoers.

As the crowded city dissolved into open road, mountains peeked through the open edge of the steep man-made ravine. Distant mountains, grayed out with aerial perspective, wore a froth of pale, translucent clouds. We continued to climb. The higher we traveled, the more a misty fog condensed into rain clouds crawling through the foliage. We began to see waterfalls cascading the sheer rock face of the mountains. Mile after mile of uninhabited cloud forest unfolded.

What lay ahead was the spectacular panorama of trees and vegetation clutching the sides of sheer, vertical cliffs. The road became a single lane in both directions, occasionally widening to allow for passing of slower traffic. As the road ascended the peaks, the air became ever thinner, wetter, colder.
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Everywhere “Ahora” signs warned of landslides. Rocks of all sizes were strewn across the road. Roads narrowed and entire lanes suddenly disappeared as the edges crumbled over the precipice. Few guardrails are seen. A yellow line marked 2-way traffic lanes, but it did little to deter drivers from passing in “No Passing Zones,” around blind curves, where the misty visibility shrouded traffic in either direction. Cars passed buses, passed trucks, passed cars in a kind of vertical challenge hopscotch. Switchback turns concealed any vehicles except those visible only a few yards ahead.
Every so often, I glanced at the speedometer. The driver was doing between 80 and 100 kilometres per hour. Yet, other cars, intra-city buses, and trucks sped by our little car.

All along the route, groups of men in hard hats and day-glo vests were building the road one shovel-full at a time. Others manned the bright orange dump trucks, and backhoes that were clawing a new road out of the massive granite mountainsides.

Here and there, the road surface had eroded to a consistency of corrugated cobblestone. The driver arm-wrestled the steering wheel as we slalomed our way across the bumps and potholes. There were few road markings, or signs. Guardrails, where they occurred, abruptly ended leaving unprotected sheer fall-offs and rock slides. Every few miles, a solitary homemade cross marked a spot where fellow travelers never completed their intended journey.

After a few hours of digging my nails into the taxi’s armrest, we reached the summit of the ridge, and began our decent. With each turn, as the Sierra Andes receded into the rearview mirror, the air became warmer, denser. We found it easier to breathe. Soon we were seeing small hamlets. Banana trees and palms replaced the deciduous trees of the higher altitude landscape. As we passed through the farmland, we saw cacao beans spread on the side of the road, drying in the sun. The carcass of a freshly slaughtered pig hung from a pole that was propping up the front corner of the tin roof of a wooden mountain shack.

A tropical landscape began to emerge. Solitary, doorless, thatched-roof huts, perched on stilts, appeared. Each having open-air eaves and a single window covered by a shutter, they began to dot the countryside. A Vietnamese mountain family would have felt perfectly at home in such a hut.
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On and on we drove through the countryside, finding strange and wonderful sights. Rounding a sharp hairpin turn, we found a carving of the menacing face of El Diablo chiseled into a 20-foot high slab of rock face. The brave, anonymous sculptor had worked miles from any town.

Slowing to enter another small town, we found our path blocked by a gathering of townspeople attending the open-air funeral of some prominent local. They spilled out into the street, entirely filling the traffic lane, forcing us to drive into oncoming traffic to continue our journey. Hours later, we watched a truckbed full of joyful young men celebrating their soccer victory. They hoisted a small trophy, chanting their victory song. A large joy in a small town.

Near dusk, as we watched clusters of riders on burros and horseback gathering at a local hacienda to spend a Sunday evening together. We approached Montecristi, the town where the real Panama Hats and other crafts are fashioned. There, street vendors approached the car to sell fruit (the ubiquitous banana) and cookies.

At long last, we arrived in Manta and caught a glimpse of a cruise ship pulling out from its berth as it began to continue the journey southward down the coast. It was just after 6:30 pm. The sun had set over the Pacific horizon and it was nightfall.

A most exhilarating road trip. Sights, sounds and smells never to be experienced from an airplane’s altitude of 30,000 feet.

At least I got to sleep until 6AM (rather than the 3 & 5AM wakeup calls for my other flights,) before my two hour TACA flight from Lima to Quito Ecuador. I would finally get to meet Paulo Irigoyen, the 23 year old Gray Line South America head, and my guardian angel in Buenos Aires, Lima & Ecuador. He arranged a city tour, dinner with him and his French wife, and I overnighted at the Grand Hotel Mercure which was part of my Galapagos tour package. Justin Laycob and his right hand man Jonathan Borgida are friends of Brian Pearson who took me around Chile. I booked my Galapagos tour through them after finding them on the internet and liking their style. I both called and e-mailed and always received a prompt response. They even agreed to pick up an extra bag with my dirty laundry & cold weather clothe, plus brochures I had collected in the other countries, and get it back to me after my cruise. They found a boat that fit my schedule and worked hard and professionally for their commission. They also deal in tours to Peru, Bolivia and Costa Rica and I highly recommend them.
Quito is the capitol but not the largest city in Ecuador. Their two million is topped by Guayaquil with three million. It is a World Cultural Heritage Site with colonial buildings combined with European Renaissance and indigenous influences. The many churches are mainly in the Old Town area and within walking distance. Quito is only a ½ hour from the equator and there is the obligatory photo opportunity standing on the line between the two hemispheres. At 9,184 feet above sea level it is the second highest capitol in the world (La Paz Bolivia is over 11,900 feet). The center of Old Town is Independence Plaza with the Governors Palace, Municipal Palace, Archbishop’s Palace and the Cathedral (the same in every major city I visited on this trip) anchoring the four sides. We drove up to El Panecillo with a commanding view of the city and climbed even further inside the statue of the Virgin Mary made from over 7,000 pieces of aluminum. I had some problems with the altitude so skipped the brand new cable car ride up 13,000 feet to an active volcano.
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The Baltra airport was still closed for repairs so all flights to the Galapagos now were routed through St. Cristobal, a nearby airport which really overburdened the people working there. This also changed the schedule of the Angelique, their ship of choice, for me. My flight from Quito to Guayaquil was a swift 30 minutes and then another hour and we landed in St. Cristobal. Customs and immigration took a long time and then we had to wait for four passengers whose flight was late. The good news is Ecuador uses the good old US dollar as its currency so no more slide rule conversions. Even though the Galapagos is part of Ecuador it is 600 mile off the coast and foreign visitors pay a $100 preservation fee; cash only, no traveler’s checks.
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The Angelique is a 96 foot sailing yacht, refurbished in 2001, with 8 double cabins (I had the top bunk). There is a shower and toilet for every cabin which is the size of a very small closet. I would call the cabins Spartan, but then again I only slept there. An hour after leaving port we arrived at the sheer-rock outcrop of Leon Dormida or “sleeping rock.” This tiny island has no landing area so we floated around the sides and saw our first example of the boobies; red, blue and masked (don’t write to me I didn’t name the birds). Lunch and dinner were excellent and featured Ecuadorian specialties (potato soup, fish, lamb, pork etc). There is nothing to do on the boat after dinner and our nightly preview of the next day’s islands, so it was a 9PM bedtime and 9 hours sleep. (Perhaps it was my evenings that were Spartan.) The Angelique sailed throughout the night to arrive at our first stop, Genovese Island, the most northernmost of all the islands. It was a ½ hour climb to the top of the cliff passing by hundreds of sea bird nests.
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Half a dozen sea lions slept on the sandy beach while we went snorkeling and swimming. That afternoon we moved across the island to Darwin Bay with even more marine life.
An eight hour nighttime sail proved that the patch and wristbands did work as I never felt seasick the whole trip. Our first stop was North Seymour Island and frigate birds, sea lions, marine iguanas, crabs and lots of boobies, many mating or hatching their young. At no time did any of them seem to pay any attention to the human species. Another refreshing swim among the curious and very friendly sea lions and then it was off to South Plaza Island with its rocky trail along the edge of the cliffs abounding with seal lions and land iguanas.
San Cristobal was where we started and ended our Galapagos adventure. Four days and three nights were perfect as we saw all the marine life we could ever hope to see. Larger ships offer entertainment and nighttime activities and are, of course, much more expensive. Our boat continued on a different route so you could have 7 days and not duplicate any island. Please remember the Galapagos is not for people who have trouble walking. Lots of rocks, steep climbs and many places to fall make it a beautiful oasis of nature but not for the faint of heart or feet. We packed and were ready to go ashore and spend an hour at the San Cristobal Interpretation Center learning all about the history, geology and animal life of the islands. To the airport and my flight to Guayaquil where I overnighted at the 5 Star Oro Verde Hotel (again part of my Galapagos package) and finally, after three glorious weeks, return to the Baked Apple.
Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador and sits at sea level, unlike Quito which is inland. Once again the Southern Exploration folks met me at the airport and walked me to the cargo area where I retrieved my spare bag they so graciously had shipped from Quito. I broke one of my cardinal rules which are- don’t buy anything from a street vendor (last time I did that in France I ended up with food poisoning). It was the most delicious large juicy grilled hamburger I have ever tasted with lettuce and tomato and only $1.50. That was my lunch as I awaited my Gray Line city tour.
I am in love with Guayaquil; what a change a mayor can make. Once considered one of South America’s most dangerous, dirty and crime ridden cities Mayor Ab. Jaime Nebot has turned the city around (maybe he studied under Mayor Giuliani). The Malecon (promenade) stretches two miles along the Guayas River and includes art exhibitions, monuments, botanical gardens, cafes, restaurants, docks and a replica of a pirate ship. The city is named after the indigenous chief Guaya and his wife Quil; is located on the Pacific Ocean and is the main port of Ecuador. The central part of the Malecon has a monument to Simon Bolivar & San Martin. Nearby there are four sculptures that represent the earth’s four elements (water, fire, air and earth). The best viewing point in the city is up 444 steps on Santa Ana Hill (yes, I climbed them, slowly) through Los Penas to the lighthouse, chapel and naval museum. The great fire of 1896 destroyed almost the whole city as the wooden houses were stacked next to each other. These homes have been repainted by the residents and many have opened shops, restaurants and cafes on their first floors. There is no automobile traffic and everything must be carried up the stairs.
Other things worth seeing are: Seminario Park filled with iguanas, fish and birds; the only Imax theatre in South America; The Municipal Palace, the cities architectural jewel; the Cathedral (Ecuador is over 95 % Catholic); the Modern Art Museum; the Genedal Cemetery, the second largest in South America, after the one in Buenos Aires and the nearby flower market. Congratulations Mr. Mayor; if I had known what a fabulous city you had I would have stayed another day.
American Airlines upgraded me and in four hours we landed in Miami and I transferred to my LaGuardia flight home. Twenty one days, perfect weather, only one flight delay. Every hotel a gem; every scheduled city tour on time; every meet and greet was there for me; every airport or hotel transportation was on time. It does not get much better. On a scale of 1-100, this trip was a 98.
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My naked body glowed as I stood before a roaring fireplace waiting to be purified by an Ecuadorian shaman. Though not a spa devotee, I search for new and unique experiences when I travel; hoping to learn more about this world and its people.

Esthela is the shaman, or medicine woman, at the charming La Mirage Garden Hotel and Spa in Cotacachi, Ecuador. I rushed to book an appointment after reading the spa brochure, which described this treatment as a lengthy ritual using fire, water, and earth to call the spirits for assistance in cleansing and healing; followed by relaxation therapy in the warm float tank covered by a blanket of rose petals; and, finally, a soothing aromatherapy spiritual massage.

Her father, a well-known shaman of this region north of Quito, taught Esthela the purification; which is the visual and sensory highlight of this particular spa experience. After she donned her white robe and secured her necklace of natural beads and bones, the adventure began. She applied warm stones and cold liquids; massaged my body with copious amounts of oil; surrounded me with smoke and the scents of incense; and gently stroked me with crystals, egg-shaped objects and a bundle of herbs. All this took place in a two-level room crafted to resemble a cave or indigenous holy place lit by countless candles, creating a warm, womb-like place filled with intoxicating aromas.

Esthela kneels beside the float tank covered with rose petals. (Photo compliments of La Mirage)
I felt a sense of peace; appreciating the timeless tradition of the shaman and the rejuvenation of the spa treatment-thanks to the touch and gestures of a charming woman who spoke no English.
La Mirage Garden Hotel and Spa Cotacachi, Ecuador

All you need is a gimmick, and tourists will flock to the place and pay a ridiculous amount of money for the “experience of a lifetime.” Not even the savviest traveler is immune to the lure (especially if it has a good write up in The Lonely Planet, Footprints or any other number of respected travel guidebooks.)

We bit the bait in Ecuador. Everybody raved about the train trip from Riobamba to Alausi, passing through la Nariz del Diablo (the Devil’s Nose) where the trip ends with a dramatic series of picturesque and breathtaking switchbacks in a steep ravine. How is this different than any other train ride you can take in any country with a couple of mountains? The aforementioned gimmick. On this train, you ride on the roof.

Our daily travel budget was about $15.00/each, so to pay $15.00 for a hair-raising train trip was lunacy. We knew, though, it was the chance of a lifetime (as someone had mentioned before), and we convinced two Danish friends to join us in the adventure. Kim, Janne, Cesar and I awoke early to assure ourselves a good seat on the roof.

At 5:00 am, the chilly mountain air and rain didn’t deter us. We clambered up on the car furthest away from the engine (having been told that the smoke and noise can detract from the pristine trip). We huddled together to keep warm. Every language could be heard: Hebrew, Swedish, German, English, Spanish, Danish and more. We were the proverbial “Train of Babel,” joined together by a gimmick.

Everybody cheered when the train chugged out of the station with toots and whistles. It putted past small villages, farms, green fields and mountains. Children ran to the tracks, hoping to catch candies and treats we threw to them. For a dreamy three hours, the train slithered through mountain passes. Suddenly, it stopped.

We looked ahead to see the engine continue on, leaving the cars behind. Did the engineer notice he had left us? Everybody was baffled. Some of the train workers were investigating the tracks ahead. One pulled out a hammer and began to work on the rickety wooden tracks while others searched for rusty nails nearby. This was a pretty good indication of the state of the train and track –run down by over-use and bad weather. Lack of government funding rendered it a death trap, only to be fixed with a couple of hammers and rusty nails found in the vicinity.

About half an hour later, the tracks looked parallel once again, and the engine returned for the rest of us. The little red warning light probably would go off in most people’s heads by this time, but intrepid travelers have a “conviction complex,” convincing themselves that anything out of the ordinary is simply part of the adventure. Usually, this is the case. Usually.
We resumed our positions on top of the train when word reached us that we had to return to Riobamba because the tracks ahead were washed out completely. I was a little relieved to know they weren’t going to ask us to shovel through the landslide. The train reversed and our car lurched toward a precipice. It stopped.

My heart raced and stomach knotted. We were ready to get off when the train started again, and our car came within a foot of the cliff’s edge. “Stop! Para! Arrête!” along with many other colorful words resounded in the canyon.
The engineer and his crew headed over with another hammer, and the process of re-building the tracks ensued. At this point, we decided walking was a better option. Many travelers, including the four of us, jumped off the train. Kim, normally a cool-headed Dane kept muttering, “I think I should die. I think I should die.” We collected our things, damned all travel guidebooks and gimmicks, and set out for the nearest village. From there, we would take a bus back to Riobamba.

95c96710Twenty minutes later, we arrived at Colombe, dismayed and drained. A sea of children brilliantly dressed in purples, pinks, reds and blues ran to us. Initially, we were slightly annoyed by the attention, and we began digging in our backpacks for candy to appease the crowd. Soon we were surrounded by twenty townspeople, curious about our travels and homes, the frivolous bags of candy unnoticed. Within minutes, they invited us to a wedding and the town’s festival.

The children escorted us to a small church with townspeople spilling out of the entrance. Streams of toilet paper decorated the ceiling, swooping across, making arches in cutout patterns. The ceremony was in Quechua, and everybody involved in the couple’s life had a role in the ceremony, speaking or singing, giving advice and suggestions. A community of people invested in the happiness of the young couple. Colombe was resolved to support the couple in their life and commitment together. Choirs of children sang and ran in and out of the church, excited about their role in such a significant event.
After the ceremony, the town festivities began. We gathered around the basketball court. Children carried our bags, held our hands, and bombarded us with questions about our lives. They were excited to tell us the English words they knew and talk about their lives in Colombe.

9607da70The hours flew by. We ate, sang, and danced with the people. There wasn’t a moment in which I didn’t have the soft hand of a child cupped in mine. They shared everything with us, and we felt foolish with our bags of candy. Humbled by their graciousness and generosity, we offered the only gifts of value we could – hugs, kisses, smiles and friendship.

96296710Colombe, being so small, didn’t have a place for us to stay. We had to take the last bus to Riobamba. The townspeople accompanied us to the bus stop. They gave us hand-made post-cards from Colombe and waved goodbye. The bus rumbled down the highway; Colombe and our new friends became dots on the hillside. Out the window, we saw the rickety old train chugging toward Riobamba. I smiled. Maybe gimmicks weren’t so bad after all.