Peru: Ica and Huacachina

I realize that my last post made it sound like I’m in a pretty awful state – I’m really not. I’m actually quite happy! I will try to be more lighthearted, but at the same time… I’m going to continue to be honest about my feelings (which may come across stronger than they are, depending on my mood when writing).

PERU! Peru is about ten thousand times better than Ecuador in the sense of hospitality – people are friendly again! I arrived in Lima around 9:45 Friday morning and knew that my goal was to get to Ica ASAP – about a five hour bus ride. Lonely Planet isn’t really superb with bus information, but I knew there were a ton of companies bound to have departures for Ica, so I picked one and took a taxi (with a very nice, chatty driver!) to the Flores bus terminal. Peru, more so than any other country I’ve been in, has bus terminals separated by company – unlike other places where there is ONE terminal (maybe two for a bigger town) for every single departure. Flores had departures for Ica every twenty minutes, so I got on the 11:20 bus and settled in for the long haul. Driving through Lima was pretty nice, I expected it to be an ugly big city, but it actually looked pretty charming and welcoming! I won’t end up spending more than one night in Lima (probably), but hopefully I’ll see a bit of it.

Driving out of the city it became apparent that Lima was build in the desert. The suburbs immediately turned into sand dunes and the bland landscape stretched forward forever. Lima is the first city I have seen sprawling shacks – really decrepit shacks – this entire trip. I’m sure they exist other places I’ve been, but these were the most obvious and reminded me of the cardboard shacks on the edges of Mexico City. Behind them was more sand and beige land. More sand and beige for about 5 hours… and then we rolled into Ica.

Ica has an awful reputation (just for being sketchy and boring), but I really kind of liked it! I felt safe, the people were friendly, and the town has some charm. It isn’t beautiful or super historic, but it has character and feels real. That said, I didn’t spend too much time in town. I got there, wandered a bit (went to the grocery store to buy water), and then took a taxi to Huacachina for the night.

Huacachina is a funny little oasis just a few minutes drive from Ica, nestled in the sand dunes. It is cute and pretty, but I don’t know what people do there for more than a day! I got there around 5:30, walked around (it takes maybe 5 minutes to walk around the entire place), watched the MOST beautiful sunset of my life (seriously, amazing color of pink surrounding the dunes), had dinner, and went to bed. I think Huacachina is a party hot spot, so if you just want to drink all night and sleep all day, it’s perfect for you. I, however, was exhausted and wanted to sleep all night – which was difficult because it was SO hot in the dorm room I was in (but $5 for a dorm room? yes!).

I woke up around 7:30 and went out to climb the dunes – I’m definitely getting fat and feel awful from lack of exercise – which proved to be exhausting but not a very long exhcursion. I found multiple couples sleeping on top of the dunes – it was definitely not as warm up there as down in my room. The view was great – tons of sand dunes as far as I could see, except for the copious amounts of trash littered all over! What the heck!? It’s really disappointing to see such a beautiful place littered with trash as if nobody cares.

One thing about Huacachina, and Ica, that set me off was the copious amounts of attention I received from local men. In Central America we all got whistled at and lots of “I love you!” shouts, but in Peru it is a completely different experience. These guys stop at nothing, and and really pretty aggressive. The fact that I have a boyfriend at home seems to do little to dissuade them, and my cold hearted American self is somehow still intruding to them. I feel a bit mean, but seriously: leave me alone. My LP guidebook says: “If you are fair-skinned with blonde hair, however, be prepared to be the center of attention.” Confirmed. I’m hoping this doesn’t keep up for the entire country.

I was glad to escape Huacachina simply because I was tired of being harassed, so I spent Saturday in Ica eating local food, going to local bodegas (where they make wine, pisco, chocolates, and jams!), and reading in the park. Aunt Mary recommended a kids series by Isabelle Allende, which I found at a bookstore in Ica! I sat reading on a bench in the main plaza for a while, but ended up chatting with the guy (who was maybe 45 years old and asked if I’d like to have children with him), for quite some time. Despite the few sketchy comments, he was very nice and informative about Ica and Peru in general. He also said that Americans have hearts of stone and don’t fall in love easily – something I don’t totally disagree with, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing either!

It felt weird to leave a place so quickly, but I guess there really wasn’t a ton more to do in the area, so I got on a night bus from Ica to Arequipa. Night bus experience #1 (and perhaps my only one)! This bus was a double-decker bus with fancy seats downstairs (like lazy boy chairs that recline significantly) and normal seats up stairs (like a greyhound bus). I think they were a bit more spaced out than normal, so reclining further wasn’t a problem for the people behind you. Luckily, I had a seat in the very front row and could look out the window the entire time, as well as not worry about anyone reclining into me! The bottom half of my body was definitely comfortable, but the lack of total reclining action made my head a bit unhappy… I think I dozed for about 6 of the hours, but woke up at every significant turn (of which there were many), and every time the man next to me moved. Not the most pleasant night, but not entirely awful either. I would consider doing it again – it saved me an entire day of traveling and a night in a hostel! Plus, they served dinner AND breakfast (both a bit small, but still!).

I arrived yesterday morning in Arequipa, and I’ll be here all week in my home stay with Maria and her two daughters, Sonia and Diana. So far it is going very well, and tomorrow I started language classes! I’m excited to hopefully improved my Spanish, and to be in one place for FIVE nights! I have a lovely room on the third floor with plenty of space for my things to sprawl out (which is probably good for them after being in a backpack for so long).

Totally unrelated note: Lonely Planet says “Note, though, that ceviche eaten on the coast will be almost certainly made from seafood.” Err… duh? I assume that ALL ceviche, unless otherwise noted (and therefore not really ceviche), is made from seafood… Some of these LP books leave something to be desired – but I still hold true to the Nicaragua one, it was AWESOME.

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Cuenca

Change of pace for my Ecuador feelings – I really liked Cuenca! The town is beautiful, the food was slightly better, but the people remained a bit distant… more on that later.

After our adventurous day trying to ride the train, we finally got to Cuenca and were HUNGRY. We went to Chicago Pizza something-or-other and had mediocre calzones, before wandering a bit and finding a good-looking heladeria, ice cream parlor. We decided we’d go back there for dinner (really, it was kind of our only option!). When we did go back for dinner, it was PACKED with people – I assume because almost nothing else is open – and we had to wait, with the store’s armed guard (!?!?) before getting a table. We split a delicious pizza (hominy, bacon, and pineapple), then each got sweet concoctions including a lot of sugar and dairy. Oh what a life 🙂

Monday morning we decided to go to Ingapirca, the Ecuadorian version of Machu Picchu! Ingapirca, meaning “Inca Wall,” is the only Incan formation to include an ellipse – interesting, eh? I have several bones to pick with Lonely Planet, including it’s description of Ingapirca as “about as exciting as staring at a pile of rocks” (something along those lines) – I thought it was neat! The museum was very informative and the ruins themselves were very fun to walk around. Also, we could buy tons of alpaca goods afterwords – hats, gloves, scarves, ponchos, you name it! If you want more real information about Ingapirca, click here.

We thought going to Ingapirca was a safe bet for Monday, since nothing else was open due to Carnivale, but it turned out to be quite the adventure of a day. We had no problem getting TO Ingapirca – the buses were running as usual; however, they apparently stopped running midway through the day. We were told a bus would come pick us up at 1 o’clock, and when I asked someone at 1:30 where the bus was, I was informed that there would be no buses that day. WHAT?! How were we supposed to leave?! It seemed a bit odd. We hitched our way down into El Tambo, a town about 15 km away, and then waited for the bus back to Cuenca. Which did not come either. Finally, after waiting with a decently sized group of Ecuadorians, we decided to all split a cab back to Cuenca – about an hour ride, with four of us crammed into the back seat of a little cab, for only $6 per person! We decided it was worth it to not get stuck in El Tambo.

Monday and Tuesday were scary because we never knew when we would get hit with foam, water, or any other mysterious liquid. We got hit by all three numerous times. Walking down a one way street with your back to the traffic was SCARY – it just came out of nowhere! We were glad when Wednesday rolled around and we no longer had to wear our rain jackets everywhere.

Tuesday was a pickle, because nothing was open – again. We decided to do our own little walking tour of the town, and about halfway through stumbled upon the tourist information office – which was open! The woman there told us that there was a bus tour of the city leaving three times that day, so we decided to do it in order to see more of the town and actually have an activity. It was very informative (all in Spanish) about the parts of the city and different historical features, and ended up on the hill South of the city looking out over everything. For the first time in Ecuador, we actually saw American tourists! They were slightly obnoxious, but I suppose we probably are at times as well.

After our bus tour we had really run out of things to do, so we had a relaxed afternoon at the Austrian Cafe where they serve a lot of good food, and have free wireless! I updated the blog, did some research for Peru and my return home, and did plenty of useless diddling around. All in all, it was a glorious afternoon. I think I’ve reached the point in my traveling where I need a break. A real break. I feel like just sitting around and doing nothing – ALL THE TIME – not good! Whenever I have an internet connection I find myself spending hours looking at recipes online, tons and tons of them. I cannot wait to go home and cook, I really miss baking! While the list goes on forever, here are just a few of the things I plan to bake shortly after getting back to Boulder:

Chocolate Cherry Pound Cake
Blackberry Pie Bars
Peanut Butter Cup Cake
Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Stuffed Cinnamon Rolls

I’m not sure how to remedy my lackluster attitude right now. I start my Peruvian home stay on Sunday (if I can successfully get myself to Arequipa on time), then have two days in Puno (on Lake Titicaca) before Mom, Grandmother, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Debbie, and Uncle Bob all arrive in Cusco. I’m REALLY excited for them to come! It doesn’t feel so much like I’m homesick in the sense of being lonely and wanting familiar people – I have plenty of that – but I think I really just am tired of being homeless. I want to be in ONE place for a LONG time and be able to settle back into a routine. I can’t do that here, and I’m tired of carrying my heavy backpack (which is getting heavier as I near the end of my trip due to PURCHASES!). I’m sure the next three weeks will fly by too quickly, but I am ready to go home and not worry about where I’ll sleep, what I’ll eat, and how I’ll get to the next destination.

Back to Cuenca.

Tuesday night we ate at a Spanish Tapas Bar which had REALLY good food. I had spinach ravioli (not very Spanish, and not a huge portion, but delicious!), and Aunt Mary had a vegetable crepe which looked VERY good. We had a relaxed evening again because Cuenca was still in a shut down stupor for Carnivale!

Wednesday finally meant stores were open – what a change! Cuenca came to life after being so lazy and quiet for the previous three days. We started out the morning by going to Homero Ortega’s – one of the most famous makers of Panama Hats. Why is it called the Panama hat, if indeed it originated around Cuenca, Ecuador? Well, there are a variety of answers, but the most reputable one I’ve heard is that while being shipped to some international expo back in the day, the hats went through Panama to be shipped and were stamped PANAMA as the port of origin – confusing the fact that the actual origin was Ecuador!

It is really cool to see the process for the hats, woven by hand, and then see them in the store room to try on! They had some very elaborate ones, but I actually ended up buying a mid-range (meaning $45 instead of $20 or $300) classic Panama hat, like a fedora. It is now rolled up in my backpack and hopefully will regain shape when I unpack it at home! Excuse the Brittany Spears photo, but my hat looks a bit like this, only more finely woven and with a better shape.

After hat shopping, we went to the huge Museo Banco Central – full of information on indigenous Ecuadorians, money through the ages in Ecuador, and even a full on ruin in the back. We learned a lot about the various regions of Ecuador, including how the people are perceived. True to what we have experienced, the museum said that people in the central area we have been traveling in are known for being distant and quiet. I’m glad to know that my perception is not fabricated! We walked all around the outside ruins as well, through a garden of typical Ecuadorian crops, and past a lot of birds (macaws and toucans and more!).

We headed back into the main part of town to see the new cathedral, which is magnificent from the outside, and were greeted by throngs of people attending services for Ash Wednesday. There were two lines in the cathedral which wrapped all around the inside and out the door to the street. This is serious business! We walk in and stood in the back, admiring the alter (which is the main attraction because it is apparently a replica of the alter at St. Peter’s in Rome), then decided we’d seen it and headed out to get lunch. We had our first Cuencan lunch, which (HALLELUJAH!) included BEANS! Big step up.

Wednesday afternoon we went to the Modern Art Museum, which frankly was not good at all. It had multiple rooms of the same woman who did bland watercolors I really didn’t like, and then multiple rooms of crayon and colored pencil drawings from children. The kid artwork was fun to see, but not what I was hoping for in a modern art museum. The museum in Leon, Nicaragua completely put this one to shame! One our way back from the museum we stopped in a peluqueria to get my haircut – I’ve been desperately needing one. I really just wanted about a centimeter off the ends, but ended up getting layers and layers and layers – much shorter than I normally would! Oh well, I look fine. It was actually very nice to get my hair blown dry – I haven’t done it since December!

One thing I was repeatedly warned about before coming down here, but haven’t actually experienced until Ecuador, is getting ripped off. Perhaps I just wasn’t aware of it in the other countries, but I have noticed MULTIPLE times here (buses and haircuts being prominent) being given less change or being charged a totally different price (e.g. MORE) than I should be. Usually I just let it slide because I don’t especially care, and I don’t have the guts or language skills to really fight it, but it kind of irks me that just because I’m a foreigner it is assumed I can be taken advantage of! ARGH.

We ate an early dinner and headed over to go to a Wednesday night service at the CS Society in Cuenca, but discovered that the Journal listing is old and that they don’t actually have Wednesday services anymore. We ended up talking to the guy whose house we showed up at, and Aunt Mary noticed that he was an amateur radio operator (like she is), so they dinked around with the radio for a while before we headed back to town for our last night of ice cream at Tutto Freddo’s.

Today, we got up at a normal hour, took a 4 hour bus from Cuenca to Guayaquil, and are getting ready to leave EARLY tomorrow morning for our respective destinations (California and Peru!). I’m excited to move into Peru, but also not thrilled about having to move and move again so many times in the next week. Luckily I really only have six more times of packing up my backpack and moving it before I get home, but right now that sounds overwhelming.

I feel as if I have not done Ecuador justice, and would love to come back to see the other parts of the country. I think I would LOVE the coast, and be really interested in the Amazon. One day I’ll have to journey back and polish up my image of Ecuador, but that also poses the question: is it better to see other places first, or to revisit places I’ve been to experience them in more depth? Aah that is the question. At this point I still want to go back to Panama ASAP since I skipped 80% of what I wanted to see there, but Ecuador will remain on the list so I can experience it in a different way.

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Ambato, Riobamba, y Alausi

If I never see another french fry in my life, it might be too soon. I haven’t actually been eating that many of them, but Ecuador has french fries in abundance! Specifically, salchipapas, literally just french fries mixed with cut up hot dog. Not the classiest meal I’ve ever seen.

After escaping the freezing grasp of Quilotoa, we headed back to the Panamerican Highway and headed South to Ambato. Our plan was to arrive, find a place to say, and hang out for the weekend and attend the Fruit and Flower Festival, capped off by going to the large Monday morning market. We arrived in Ambato and immediately gathered that there were very few hotels in the city… VERY few. Since I’m on a tight budget (and Aunt Mary is being very flexible and allowing us to follow my budget), we stopped in at a hostel in search of a room. We were aware that getting a room might be tough because it was Friday night before Carnival AND the Fruits and Flowers Festival. This place was mediocre at best – kind of dingy and definitely not hospitable. The woman working there acted as though she really didn’t care if we wanted a room or not (which is SO weird to me, don’t you want my business!?). Finally she showed us up to a double room, which we agreed to take, but then she returned and said we actually couldn’t say in that room, but that she had a room with a double bed (for us to share) downstairs. We took a look at it, but the bed was probably about as wide as the single beds we had upstairs, so we declined. After being told to wait for the boss lady to show up and hopefully work something out, we waited long enough to get annoyed and leave. By this time it was getting towards sunset and we really wanted to find a place to stay before it was dark. The only place we found was Hotel Ambato, for $115 per night. WOW. Seeing as we had almost no other option, we sucked it up and paid for a fancy night! I’m not sure what I would have done if I’d been alone (well, taken the dingy “double” room for myself, ugh), so I’m grateful Aunt Mary was here!

We realized that every room was booked for Saturday and Sunday nights, so we were going to have to leave town on Saturday anyways – which was okay with us because we decided we could skip the Monday market and try to get on the Nariz de Diablo Train, which only leaves Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. That night we ate HUGE platters of french fries with grilled meat on top – interesting. I think that room is the first place I’ve seen a bathtub since I left home in January, unfortunately I didn’t put it to good use.

On Saturday we got up and explored the various plazas of Ambato in order to see the festivities for the Fruits and Flowers Festival. In the first plaza we encountered, which happened to have the Cathedral on one side of it, there was a HUGE mass going on outside. We think we arrived right as it was starting, at 9 am. We wondered through a few fruit (and chocolate!) vendors, before heading out to the rest of the plazas. We ended up seeing a lot of stages and chairs being set up for later events, but absolutely loved seeing the markets in Ambato! It wasn’t actually market day, but they were big enough to be thoroughly entertaining and educational. The had rows upon rows of fruits, veggies, flours, pastas, meats, etc. These markets are in enclosed buildings with huge central open spaces, and all have some sort of hanging signage to say where you go to find “Papas” or “Carnes” or “Harina” (potatoes, meats, flour).

We saw everything we could have ever imagined. For the most part, the markets felt very clean – lots of the workers had smocks and hairnets (or at least hats) on. My most adventurous culinary experience of the day came with aloe vera juice – something I’ve often seen, but never actually tried. Now I know why: because it is AWFUL. I got a tall glassful for $0.50, and before I started drinking it (I was planning on taking a test sip) the woman who sold it to me instructed me to take it in ONE long chug. Okie dokie! I started out with gusto, gulp gulp gulping it down as fast as I could, but about halfway through the glass I had to literally BITE the goop to stop drinking. It felt like I was swallowing a never ending slug, with an awfully bitter taste. Not pleasant. I feel like someone could have held the goop in their hands and slowly fed it to me before pulling it all back out in one long string. Sorry if that’s gross, but the experience WAS gross. Luckily she let me test out another drink, honey and aloe vera mixed, which was WAY better and got part of the nasty slug taste out of my mouth. Blech.

On our way back to our hotel we walked pass the mass again, which was STILL going on. It was an hour and a half later before we finally left the area, and the mass was still in full swing. Lots of people, full bands, umbrellas, TV cameras – it was a big deal! We had fun observing the crowd for a while, and then set out to Riobamba on the bus.

Riobamba immediately greeted us with Ecuadorian Carnival: foam spray, water, and colored powder (I think corn starch?). Our taxi from the bus terminal to our hotel finally got fed up and made us walk a few blocks, during which we were sprayed with foam and doused by water guns. Our hotel, Hotel Tren Dorado, turned out to be lovely. We picked this hotel because of its proximity to the train station (half a block away), and knew that the train ticket office opened at two o’clock (it was one at the time), so we set out to find some lunch. We had a typical lunch of soup, white rice, meat, and juice. Meh. We wandered around the outside of the train station for a while, remarking on the dilapidated look of the train tracks, before waiting outside the door of the ticket office for a while. Finally the guard inside came over (we though to unlock the door) and asked us what we were waiting for. I explained to him that we would like to buy tickets from Riobamba to Alausi, including the Nariz de Diablo, to which he informed us that the train no longer runs from Riobamba. WHAT?! Why did nobody tell us this? Not even the guy at our hotel, who we specifically asked about buying tickets, told us that the train doesn’t even come to Riobamba anymore! Whoops.

So our stop in Riobamba ended up being pointless as far as out activities go, but it was fun to see the train station, the Carnival excitement, and wander a new city a bit. We decided we would try out luck and try to get to Alausi early the next morning to get on the 11 o’clock, or at the latest the 3 o’clock, train down el Nariz de Diablo. We got on an early bus and arrived in Alausi at 10 o’clock, only to find that the tickets were sold out for the entire day. The guard asked if we had reservations, which is odd because NOWHERE could we find a way to make reservations for the train – and nobody we asked knew anything about it either. Strange. This country is not the easiest for transportation.

Alausi is a really cute little town, and we wished we had made it there instead of Riobamba to spend the night. They were gearing up for a big parade, so the streets were packed with people, music was playing, and energy was high! We asked a few places if they had breakfast, all of which said no, and finally settled in to have “breakfast” in a place that appeared to have some food (it was weird, nobody really had a lot of food…). We got tiny bits of chicken and white rice. COME ON ECUADOR, step it up! We wandered around town observing the parade, which was pretty cool with dancers, musicians, etc. and then hiked back up to the Panamerican Highway to continue on to Cuenca. While our dreams of riding the train were crushed, the views on the way to Cuenca were pretty spectacular. It is a beautiful country!

We arrived in Cuenca and immediately knew that it was our favorite place! It reminds me a bit of Cartagena, due to the colonial architecture, but a bit more dusty and old. Our hotel, Hotel Tomebomba, is less than stellar, but they have hot water, internet, and breakfast – what more could we ask for? We got settled in and decided that we NEEDED food (since we had skipped eating in Riobamba and then found meager pickings in Alausi). Problem: being Carnival, 99% of the businesses are closed. ARGH. But now we’re talking about Cuenca, which will have to be for another post.

Ambato, Riobamba, and Alausi were all good to see, but we didn’t feel the need to stick around in any of them (except maybe Alausi, it seemed pretty fun). Now we’re enjoying our time in Cuenca (although it is a bit frustrating that nothing is open until tomorrow!), and are off to Guayaquil Thursday to fly out on Friday. This is going really quickly!

Thanks to Mary B for the photos in this post, and for the upcoming Cuenca post as well!

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Quilotoa Loop

My Ecuador Lonely Planet guide has a list of weekly markets – which town has their big market on which day. Since I’m only spending 11 days in Ecuador, at first it looked like I wouldn’t be able to hit ANY of the markets – the timing was just a bit off for my location; however, after some rearranging, we’ve hit at least one! Thursday morning we got up at a respectable hour and headed South of Quito to Saquisili, a small town included in what is called the “Quilotoa Loop.”

We had toyed with the idea of doing the entire Quilotoa Loop – a loop West of the Panamerican Highway which goes through various small towns, some connected by trails, and all a bit difficult to get to/from because of the lack of transportation. While doing the entire loop would have been really fun, it would have taken a few days to “do it right” and we just don’t have the time! We decided we would go to Quilotoa, a town on a laguna, and stop in Saquisili for their market on our way.

The market in Saquisili was no bigger than one large city block, but filled with all sorts of stuff. Pastas, grains, chickens, fruits, veggies, furniture, plants, street food, rabbits, pigs, etc. We had a good time walking around buying various types of street food to try and asking people about different fruits (because there are so many that we just don’t recognize!). Saquisili is a pretty cute town, but I’m not sure there is all that much to see except the market! The drive from Quito was gorgeous though, passing various snowy volcano peaks and amazing green hills.

We headed out of Saquisili and made a connection in Latacunga to head around the other side of the loop to Quilatoa. The drive to Quilatoa was amazing. HUGE green mountains surrounded us, but were a patchwork of greens due to the farming. They farm, literally, to the tops of the mountains. Every piece of farmable land seemed to be growing something! It made for some great views – sorry I don’t have a good picture of it, I was afraid no picture would do it justice! We also started seeing llamas – lots of llamas.

Quilatoa doesn’t have an practical purpose, as far as we could tell, besides accommodating tourists who come to see the Laguna Quilatoa – a crater lake in the volcano the town is on. The town itself has maybe 40 houses (maybe), and definitely less than 300 people. We stayed in Hostel “Pachamama” for $12 per night, including breakfast and dinner. It was directly across the street from the viewpoint and beginnings of both the rim trail and the trail to descend into the crater to the lake.

Our first day we arrived around three, so we headed out to do part of the rim trial. My guidebook says it will take “fit walkers” 6 hours to do the hike – I don’t know where the author drew the line for “fit” but anyone with two legs could probably do it in 4 or less. We only made it about 1/4 of the way around due to timing (sunset, getting cold, etc.). We headed back to our hostel and realized that it was getting COLD. We were up around 14,000 feet, so it wasn’t really surprising, but I don’t think we had realized that it really would cool down at night! Since our room had no heat, we huddled around the wood stove in the main room while waiting for dinner, then headed directly to bed (to read) when we got back to the room. Apparently our shower had hot water, but the thought of turning off the water and having to stand wet and naked in the FREEZING air was really not appealing at all. We opted out of showering. That night was VERY cold, I slept in long underwear, wool socks, a hat, and my down jacket, under three thick woolly blankets. It was still cold. We decided that we would NOT spent another night in Quilatoa (as was our plan), but that we had seen enough and should move on to warmer living!

I was both happy and sad when morning arrived – it meant it would eventually get warm, but it also meant I’d have to get out of bed into the cold air. We got up in time for breakfast (rolls, 1 egg, a bit of fruit, and tea) and then headed down into the crater to hike to the lake. It was a STEEP trail, but really not all that far. When we were almost to the bottom we ran into some kids who asked if we would like horses to ride back up – sure! The kid “in charge” said he’d be back in 10 minutes with out horses, and we said we would wait at the bottom. 45 minutes later, no horses. We decided, if we were ever going to get out of town, that we needed to start hiking back up and couldn’t wait anymore for the horses. When we were about 3/4 of the way up, the kid came around the corner with two horses, and asked if we still wanted them. I told him we were almost to the top, so we wouldn’t pay nearly what he had originally asked ($8 each), but he insisted we were only half way and the $5 is half of $8, so we should each pay $5. We felt pretty sorry for the kid, so agreed to take the horses – but upon trying to get ON the horses, Aunt Mary discovered that the cinch was VERY loose, thus making the saddle fall completely around the horse, which in turn made the horse spook and run away down the trail. Needless to say, we did not ride the horses up the rest of the way.

Upon our return to town we grabbed our bags, got in a camioneta (little truck) and rode down to Zambahua, the next town over (where the bus actually goes). We ate a quick lunch, hopped on the bus, and headed back to Latacunga in time to catch a bus to Alausi! The plan was to stay a few nights in Alausi and go to their Monday morning market, but Alausi turned out to be much more of an issue than we had expected. I’ll write about it tomorrow!

I’ve really enjoyed seeing the indigenous communities here in Ecuador, especially because of the way the women dress. They always look dressed up, but it is really just what they wear! They have knee high socks under black high heels, knee length skirts (usually velvety looking), colorful shawls (often with a baby tied into it), and hats. Their hats are apparently different depending on where they come from, and a knowledgeable hat person could tell them apart just by looking at them – we just think they look cool. The people are beautiful, dark, and very small. On the buses we often hear them speaking Quichua, similar to Quechua, but many also speak Spanish when they need to.

Ecuador, while gorgeous, is the first place where I have not felt overly welcome. Especially in comparison to Colombia, where everyone is overjoyed to see you and goes out of their way to take care of you and make you feel comfortable, Ecuador is a bit unwelcoming. Various restaurants and hostels have met us with such indifference that it really appeared that they just did not want our business. I was not expecting this, especially after being accosted from all sides in Central America for any sort of business deal! It makes getting around and finding food/lodging slightly more difficult, and frankly doesn’t make me want to try very hard to see more of the country! That and slightly (I’m being nice) boring nature of typical food. How can this country be SO different from the others I’ve been to? I wouldn’t be as surprised if I’d seen a huge change between Central America and South America, but the fact that Colombia was so friendly and helpful makes it weird to see such a stark difference here.

We’re in Cuenca now, after a number of plan changes, for the next four nights! Today marks my 9 week point, only leaving 4 before I go home! Next Sunday I’ll start a home stay in Peru, the Sunday after that the rest of my family comes, and the Sunday after that I’ll only have one week left! Wow. I feel like the rate of time passing is increasing exponentially, and that the next four weeks are going to FLY by.

In more somber news, my camera is no longer with me. I think it is in Ambato, but am really baffled by it’s disappearance so I can’t actually say where it is at this moment! I’ll do my best to use Aunt Mary’s pictures for the rest of Ecuador (after this post), but then you’ll have to live without pictures for two weeks. Once I’m in Cusco I’ll be photographing again, but until then… use your imagination!

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Quito

I’m in the Southern hemisphere for the first time EVER!

Quito is much bigger than I anticipated! For some reason I expected a picturesque little mountain town, but was greeted by a bustling metropolis spreading the entire width of a huge valley! I think deep down I knew it would be big, but my imagination was so happy with my little town vision. Oh well!

I arrived in Quito after the sleepless night and day in Colombia, so upon arriving at my hostel I promptly went to bed and tried to nap – somewhat unsuccessfully. I went out to buy some food and bottled water, since this is the first place I’ve been (besides Bocas) since Nicaragua where the water isn’t safe to drink! I was decently adventurous and actually ended up drinking the water after a week in Nicaragua, but I’m not feeling as adventurous here (mostly because I’ve gone this long without getting sick and I don’t want to ruin one of my last weeks here!). Luckily, after a delicious meal of Ramen noodles, I slept like a baby for at least 9 hours.

On Tuesday I decided to see a bit of the city, but not too much since I knew Aunt Mary would want to see it as well – and she didn’t arrive until Tuesday night. I started out the day by walking around the Mariscal Sucre area, touristy area really close to our hostel, to get my bearings. I then walked up to the Quito Hotel and down the STEEP hill behind it to the Guapulo neighborhood. It was a cute little neighborhood, nothing fancy, but the Sanctuary of El Guapulo, a gorgeous church the 1600’s, stands out from a distance and makes the hike worth it. I went in, for $2, ogled at the beautiful insides, looked at some art, then trekked back up the massive hill, past my hotel, into the park, back all around the Mariscal Sucre area, and finally settled at an Indian restaurant for lunch (per the recommendation of an American guy in a bookstore who was very picky/stingy about buying some books from me…).

After lunch I headed to the teleferiQo – a gondola up the side of the side of Volcan Pichincha, just West of Quito. My plan had been to do this first thing in the morning (because they say you get the best/clearest view early), but it had been very rainy and foggy in the morning. I had only cleared up a bit by the afternoon, but I decided I might not have another chance so I’d better just do it. It was almost $9 to ride up in a gondola to Cruz Loma, at 4,100 meters, from where you can hike to the summit in about three hours. The weather was not inviting when I was there – nor was the lack of oxygen after coming from the Caribbean coast! Unfortunately, it was still cloudy and I really couldn’t see anything from Cruz Loma – but it was fun to see the entire city (and low flying planes coming to land!) before the gondola entered the clouds.

Besides traipsing all over the city on Tuesday, I also stopped in at LEAST four bakeries just because everything smells and looks so delicious. I was certainly not hungry, and felt like a super fat cow by the end of the day, but it was delicious! So far I’m not overly impressed with Ecuadorian food – it is similar to Colombia in that you get soup and juice with most meals, but the meals themselves have thus far been much less exciting than in Colombia. Here we get plain rice, a boring salad (lettuce and tomato), and stewed chicken. Meh. Nothing to write home about. I miss beans and arepas (in all their many forms), various types of fried corn, and plantains! That said, I’ve yet to experience a TON of food here (other than the baked goods, which are fantastic), so I’ll hold out some judgment until the end.

After my adventures in eating, I returned to the hostel and found Aunt Mary already there! I thought I’d timed it perfectly, but she beat me back (around 8:30 pm) and was already unpacking. She brought my jeans, undies, sweatpants, contacts, and debit card – all of which are greatly appreciated and (mostly) desperately needed! It is definitely colder here than the other places I’ve been, so jeans are REALLY wonderful to have. Sweatpants are nice too, since now I don’t have to look like a dork walking around in my long underwear bottoms if I’m cold in the hostel.

On Wednesday we set out to do the Lonely Planet’s suggested self-guided “walking tour” of the old town in Quito. We did it backwards, since the end was really near our hostel – slightly more confusing as far as figuring out directions, but my little brain ended up handling it just fine. We walked past a few parks, numerous plazas, and tons of churches and museums. We went to the Museo del Banco Central, a huge museum full of a million artifacts about Ecuador’s history. We didn’t see the entire thing, but read a lot about the history up until Ecuadorian independence. Very cool museum, if you’re interested in history!

We continued on and arrived at the Basilica del Voto Nacional – SO cool. It is relatively new, built in 1926, and instead of gargoyles coming out from it, it has different animals (turtles, birds, lizards, etc.) portruding from all over the place! It was beautiful. We walked/climbed up to the top of the clock tower, and the belfries – definitely got our workout for the day. It was amazing, and had gorgeous views of the city. From the Basilica we walked past more plazas, churches, monestaries, etc.

After the “tour” was over, we figured out our plan for the next week more firmly, and then headed to church! We went to find the CS Society in Quito, and had no problem finding the correct address, but there was absolutely no signage to indicate that anything was going on. After waiting around in hopes that someone would arrive, and nearly giving up, we rang the bell in one last desperate attempt to find them and were successful! We went in and enjoyed the meeting, talked to the members for a bit afterwords, and then went out to dinner before returning to our hostel and going to bed. It was an active day, and luckily we figured out a plan for Thursday that did NOT include getting up at 6 am (as we originally thought we might have to).

On Thursday we took a taxi to the bus station in Quito to catch a bus South towards Latacunga, but actually headed to Saquisili for their weekly market – a sight to behold! I’ll write about that in my next post about the Quilotoa Loop, an adventure we had no idea would be so exciting!

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