Journey to Ecuador (May 2008)

Adored Ecuador: April 26–May 14 Adventure Shared

Summarizing a 17 day adventure in a few 100 words ain’t easy, especially when surprises were the daily norm. Rather than write a tome here’s a smattering of insights and travel tips gathered while on the Health Habitravels May Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands adventure extraordinaire.

The Galapagos Islands are the volcanic Pacific archipelago 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast that set the evolution light bulb off in Charles Darwin’s brain. Home to blue footed boobies, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas and 150 year land tortoises – all of whom I’ve now had the pleasure of meeting! If you’ve dreamt about visiting Galapagos, DO IT! These “Enchanted Isles” are just one reason to visit Ecuador; a small country that ranks among the top 17 most bio-diverse countries worldwide. Our entrée to this stimulating adventure was Ecuador’s capital, Quito:

The City: Stay at Hotel Patio Andaluzwww.hotelpatioandaluz.com – a 4 star find in the revitalizing colonial part of the city, walking distance to La Plaza de la Indepencia and the city’s famed churches, among them San Francisco and La Compania de Jesus – with it’s almost blinding gold leaf interior. Prime time to explore, Sundays, when locals are out in droves, wearing a meld of clothes worn by Inca ancestors, spiced up with imported knock-off Nikes and branded baseball caps. Yes, the Global village thrives. Quito, elevation 9000 feet, means middle of the earth in the area’s ancient dialect. Atahualpa, the last Inca King, was born nearby. Since Spanish Conquistadors executed him and toppled the Inca Empire a weave of indigenous, Spanish and North American culture has evolved under Volcano Pichincha, which actively lords over Quito. Things of note: Amazon jungle and Galapagos island animals are the gargoyles on the outer buttresses of San Francisco Basilica. Inside, a heart shaped window frames what appears to be the small “Virgen de Quito” in the distance. Drive up the hill to the top of El Panecillo (“little bread”) to get a gander at and climb inside the gigantic “Virgen” to a balcony affording a spectacular view of sprawling old and new Quito. There are approximately 1.5 million living here, with traffic jams and exhaust fumes as proof. Warning, vendors price local goods high on El Panecillo. If possible, wait and shop at markets in highland towns outside Quito. Below the Virgen find Pims, which serves Ecuadorian and American fare. Ubiquitous in Ecuador, popcorn (cangil) with ceviche and in soup like crackers, Ahi – similar to salsa, tree tomatoes, plantain, yucca, and a favorite beverage, hot chocolate with cheese melted into it. No, I wasn’t curious enough to sample it or the Cuy, guinea pig, which my travel companions declared “delish.” .Some good Quito dining spots, L’Atitude where $20 buys you unlimited wine and Tapas, La Choz and Theatrum. Got time? Visit Olga Fisch Folklore, Guayasamin and Centro Cultural Metropolitano museums. If, like me, you’re prone to altitude (mountain) sickness, brace yourself for a day of headaches and nausea. Rest, relax, hydrate with water and coca tea and you’ll weather it. Seek medical advice if problems persist as extreme cases of mountain sickness can actually be fatal. And, remember, you’re on the equator and, close to the sun. Slather on the sun block daily regardless of cloudy skies.

The Jungle (Oriente): A 30 minute flight from Quito lands you in Coca on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. Coca, originally named Puerto Francisco de Orellana, after the first Spaniard to navigate the length of the Amazon, transformed from sleepy outpost to boom town with the discovery of black gold (oil) in the 1970s. Oil fueled its growth, but eco-tourists don’t stay long. Instead they pile into motor boats for two hour scenic river rides to several Amazon basin eco-lodges. Our group went deeper into the wild with a 2 ½ hour canoe ride to remote, 100% Añangu community owned and operated Napo Wildlife Reserve and Lodge in Yasuni National Park. (http://www.napowildlifecenter.com/ ) Vermillion sunsets on Añangucocha lagoon. Pewter caiman in the lagoon. Up creek spot giant Blue Morpho butterflies – Locals view Morpho’s as evil, because if you give in to their beauty and try to follow them you can get lost in the jungle and die. Keep keen eyes as you paddle and you’ll see an occasional sloth, colonies of Howler, Squirrel and Pigmy monkeys, and endemic Golden Tamrin and giant river otters. In the lodge’s common room bats and geckos intrude. Malaria carrying mosquitoes like to feed during cocktail hour, so slap on the DEET and down those malaria meds. Guides, both college educated and native Quechue’s heap on information during daily canoe and hiking excursions. Birds rule, with over 500 species recorded. If the jungle deities allow you may view flocks of parrots feasting in the wild on mineral rich clay at clay licks. My groups’ one opportunity fizzled when the show got rained out, but those that saw the parrot spectacle raved (bird list http://www.napowildlifecenter.com/birdlist.html). One hike exposed the orderliness of this outwardly wild eco-system. Along the trail army and leaf cutters ants recycled jungle waste while our guide palmed a cyanide secreting centipede for examination. One night a riotous thunderstorm briefly broke the cycle of hot humid days. Yes, it was like being in a sauna much of the time—very cleansing. But what would a visit to the rainforest be without rain! The lodge provides knee high rubber boots for all hikes. Bring along a rain poncho and quick-to-dry pants and long sleeve shirts as insect bite protection. Local conservation efforts, using some of the lodge profits, combat exploitation of the area by oil companies and refineries. By staying at Napo you’ll contribute to this on going battle as well as help this community sustain itself and grow. Go Napo!

The Islands: After 4 days in the jungle and a night in Quito we flew to Galapagos and boarded our 16 passenger yacht, The Beluga. From our first hike on North Seymor Island to our final sunrise pajama panga ride on day 8, the islands cast their spell on us. Imagine one day sunbathing on one of the most gorgeous beaches in the world with seal lions and splashing in and out of the calm turquoise ocean with them, and another trekking over a lunar like landscape of lava rock that extends for miles toward a mist cloaked volcano, then happening on a green lagoon graced by a flock of pink flamingos, perfecting their communal mating dance—just like a chorus line! Always wanted to see a Blue Footed Booby in the wild? You’ll see dozens on North Seymour and you’ll need to walk around Albatross nesting on trails. Frigate birds, marine and land iguanas and other native species abound, all with no fear of humans. In fact what’s most magical about being on the islands is that the veil separating humans and animals evaporates. Snorkeling you swim with sea turtles, sea lions and penguins, just one more creature enjoying paradise. On land iguanas give you nonchalant once-overs. 100 year old land tortoises in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island gazed at our camera wielding group nonplussed. Enchanted Expeditions, owners of The Beluga, handled our 8 day cruise as well as our full 17 day adventure. Being on a private yacht rather than one of the 40-100 passenger vessels allowed more flexibility for island excursions. Plus we really made friends in our group, savoring this one of a kind life changing adventure. Go to these links to learn about Galapagos and how to contribute to island conservation efforts, and even volunteer your expertise and services, http://www.darwinfoundation.org/.

The Highlands (Sierra): We reluctantly left Galapagos and returned to the mainland for 4 days at Hacienda Pinsaqui, built in 1790 – http://www.haciendapinsaqui.com/. Pinsaqui and nearby Hacienda Cusin, both 4-star, are the highly recommended lodgings in the region. Both are conveniently located near the towns of Otavalo and Cotacachi, which boast excellent markets and shops – http://www.otavalo-ecuador.com/. Do bargain. You’ll find ponchos, weavings, Panama Hats which originated in Ecuador NOT Panama, jewelry, embroidered goods, and Shigras, agave woven bags unique to the area. I bought a wall hanging directly from well known master-weaver Jose Cotacachi. He demonstrates at his workshop in Peguche, 2-1/2 miles from Otavalo. Peguche’s also home to musical groups. One musician left her Mother’s Day soccer game to build from scratch and then play a pan flute for us. But the highlands are not just about shopping. If you can handle hiking in thin air (10-12 thousand feet) allot 3-5 hours to hike around Laguna Culcocha. Take it slow because of the altitude and to admire a wide variety of wild orchids. Saddle up and horseback ride from the haciendas into the countryside and through villages. Don’t miss Condor Park, www.parquecondor.org, where you can view rescued falcons and hawks in flight on a hill known as Pukara Alto. On our way back to Quito we enjoyed informative exhibits about the equator at Museo Solar Inti Nan. Then it was time to leave and fly back to reality. The 17 days had raced by—we’d all bonded. I gotta say—this was a truly fabulous group of travel companions; such a mix, teens to seniors, couples, singles, folks from Australia, Canada, the Caribbean and the USA. Now we’re all good friends with thousands and photos to share and tons of amazing memories in common.

I shall return! I plan to return to Galapagos and Ecuador. If you’re interested in coming along for a 2009 or 2010 adventure—OR if you have a group and want to go with or without me, let me know. I do have connections—and can get you great rates! I mean it. There’s so much to explore in Ecuador. How about an historic/scenic train ride ending in the beautiful colonial city Cuenca. Spectacular vistas line the Avenue of Volcanoes There are healing getaways available at Papallacta Hot springs and Cloud forest retreat centers. And the season’s on Galapagos offer a variety of wildlife behaviors. Having been I know there’s no bad time to visit this most amazing place.

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