30 April 2010

The End of Ecuador

In coming to Ecuador, we had a pretty specific idea of what we wanted to do and how long we would spend there. That was a first for us. Usually we have only a vague idea and plans eventually change regardless. Amazingly, we also stuck to our initial schedule. Two weeks, only the mountains, Quito to Vilcabamba.

First, Where We Did Not Go:
  • The beach. The surfing is supposed to be great, but we have seen plenty of great beaches but not enough mountains.
  • The jungle. We have been bitten by enough jungle mosquitoes to last a lifetime.
  • Mindo, a cloudforest near Quito. We just spent a week in Colombia's cloudforests, which were free and empty of travelers.
  • Mito del Mundo (Middle of the World) - A giant tourist trap that is full of science experiments that prove you are on the equator. That sounds cool, except that the structure is not on the equator (as proven by more advanced GPS measurements) AND the science experiments are fake (they are more magic than science). 
  • Otovalo and around - Renown for the local handcrafts, we skipped these towns because we never buy anything, a lot of the items are actually mass manufactured, and, according to a well traveled-friend, the markets in Guatemala are better. 
  • Galapagos Islands - More important than the exhorbidant costs of a trip to the islands, Ecaudor has poorly managed development so much so that the area is considered an endangered habitat. From what I gather, the tourism industry is generally doing a decent job in respecting the environment. The rampant growth of buildings and infrastructure and pollution is due to the uninhibited migration of Ecuadorians looking for jobs on the island. The government has done little to nothing to protect the nature that makes the Galapagos such a unique biosphere, and therefore, such a world renown eco-tourism attraction.
Soooo, where did we go? South along the Andes via Quito, Iliniza Norte, Machachi, Cotopaxi area, Baños, Quilotoa, Cuenca and Vilcabamba. I expected the Andes in Ecuador to be bigger and more wild, but they were mostly rolling green hills and completely farmed. There is virtually no wilderness camping to be done in the entire country. Quilatoa was easily the highlight of our trip, due to the unspoiled culture, magnificent hike, friendly locals and lack of tourist infrastructure.

The volcanoes certainly stand out as most are above 5000 meters and glaciated. Some are easy walk-ups while others are very technically demanding. We hoped to climb Cotopaxi (5897 meters / 19347 feet), which is a lot higher than either of have ever been, as well as slightly more technical than anything we climbed before. Alas, it was not to happen as a crucial snow bridge had collapsed, rendering the largest crevasse impassable. Luckily we discovered this issue two days before we were to climb . . . as opposed to acquantances who found out the hard way - during their climb.

Honestly, I am glad I saw Ecuador but I do not have any desire to return. The food was typically horrible, with the exception of a few vegetarian restaurants which were cheap and healthy but not amazing. We had the worst run of hostels yet, even though we sometimes paid more, only to get shafted on something. The bus drivers were the least helpful. The police are corrupt. The tourist district in Quito is the most dangerous place in the city. Usually the touristy areas are safer as cities strive to protect the tourism industry.

Of course, most of the pictures are of the wonderful things that we saw. Thank you Becca B. for the great ideas on where to go, whose itinerary we followed almost exactly. Thank you Rich Meyer, for assisting us with our climbing efforts, such as good beta, guide recommendation, and acclimitization plan.

Iliniza Norte, at 5100+ meters, is the high point in our relationship. It also was more than breathtaking, a little scary at times, and we were the only people in the entire park.

Cotopaxi at sunrise, as seen from our tent. Beautiful views, worst hostel experience ever.

Lake Quilatoa at sunset.

In our hike around Lake Quilatoa, we passed only one other pair of hikers.

A great hike with good views above Baños on a rare day of few clouds.

Ecuador's national dish: guinea pig. Does this make you want to be vegetarian?

The view from our hostel in Cuenca. This is a scenic, tranquil college town with an absurd number of historic churches. It also has (at least) two excellent vegetarian restaurants.

The best hiking in Ecuador: Vilcabamba. Advertised as the Valley of Eternal Youth, we couldn't tell if it lived up to it's slogan, but it certainly was pretty and had lots of good food. While the area wasn't wilderness as it was all used for grazing animals, the land was still less altered than in any other mountainous area in Ecuador. You can see the tiny town of Vilcabamba to the right of the central peak.

28 April 2010

Oh Ecuador

Ecuador is leading the slow race when it comes to internet access: slow down- and up-load speeds, spotty connections, frequent downtime, and the fewest wifi spots. We have gone to hostels specifically because they have wifi, only to find that the workers don't know their own passwords, haven't a clue as to what to do if the connection is lost, and don't seem to care if the wifi goes down. They don't offer an apology, let alone a discount, even though backpackers like us choose their hostel because it has wifi. So goes the modern backpacker.

I can't post many pictures because I have not been able to upload them to Picasa yet. It may be another week before that happens. So far, we have been to Quito, Machachi/Papaguyo to hike Iliniza Norte, Cotopaxi area, Quilatoa, Banos,  and Cuenca. We are in Vilcabamba now and will soon make a run for the border. We hope to be in Huaraz, Peru by the first of May.

We have also been surprised at the uniformity of the Andes in Ecuador. Besides a few awe-inspiring volcanoes, the terrain here is rugged hills, very green and almost completely farmed. We have traveled far and wide along this mountain range, and we have yet to come across a hillside that is not cultivated. Even the national parks have evidence of cattle grazing. The hills/mountains have looked the same for the last two weeks of traveling. I thought there would be more variance, and I thought that I would be able to find more wilderness. Wrong on both counts.

During our exciting hike around Lake Quilotoa.

Enjoying the fresh mountain air near Cotopaxi. 

19 April 2010


If our travel photos look great, it's mostly because the places we are visiting are magnificent, not because of the person holding the camera.

However, I have had some help and inspiration from my friends, Todd and Dan. Throughout my years in the backcountry, they has given honest critique of my photos. Most recently, Todd has pushed me to take more macro photographs. These are essentially close-ups of objects smaller than my pinky fingernail.

With Kristin's patience, I went a little crazy on our last hike and took many macro shots. I got up close and personal with the tiniest living things, crawling on my hands and knees to discover the little brilliances of the paramo terrain. I think a few of them came out well enough to share with you all. Enjoy.

17 April 2010

Quito - Day 2

In less than an hour from leaving our hostel, Kristin and I stood at 4100 meters. Granted, Quito sits at 2850 meters and we took a gondola the rest of the way ($8.50 rt). Still, this was pretty cool. Even cooler was that we got to hike another 3 hours (2 up, 1 down) to the peak of Rucu Pichincha at 4680 meters. It was partly cloudy for most the hike, until we got near the peak, where is was a complete white-out. We enjoyed peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches (this one´s for you Matt B!), nutella, and wholegrain cookies. This was easily the best day-hike we´ve done from a big city. in Latin America.

The terrain is páramo, which is a like a high-altitude tropical sponge. The harsh conditions - rain, clouds, high winds - prohibit trees from growing. But if you look closely the earth is covered with magnificent tiny plants and grasses. The soil is saturated with water and filters the water, slowing it´s descent into the valleys below. This process helps regulate water flow to the Amazon, ensuring water even during a drought. This ecosystem exists only in on small area of Guatemala and Costa Rica, plus portions from Venezuela through northern Peru. 

The tallest plants we found were less than two feet high.

Beautiful flowers, the size of a peanut M&M, peppered the ground.

The trail splits at the base of the rocky peak. The direct routes goes straight up the ridge and hits class 5 territory (an experienced climber died there a few years ago), while the standard route winds to the right around the backside.We chose the more scenic trail.

We took the easier way, but still got off trail and found ourselves scrambling up a wall that eventually stopped us. Luckily, a passing hiker alerted us to the actual trail.

The summit. Grand views, huh? It was still well worth it.

Enjoying the descent.

A view of the city.

On the gondola ride down. They don´t call it a CrackBerry for nothing.

15 April 2010

Quito - Day 1

Quito is a city that evokes love or hate in most travelers. Many friends warned me that I wouldn't like it here, while a few others said it was one of their favorite cities in South America. So far I have enjoyed many of the continent's biggest cities, much to my surprise, but we've always stayed with a friend. In Quito, we are staying in a hostel in a quiet neighborhood near the New Town. And while I can't say that I'm in love with the city, we have  had two days of the best urban adventures yet. Tune into the next blog for our second day.

Our First Day - The Old City (Ciudad Viejo)
I have lost track of how many "old towns" and colonial cities that we have visited. Each city has a historic district and that is usually the only area worth visiting. Quito's historic center is quite large, on hilly terrain, and easily navigated with the many tall church towers. It's also horribly clogged with traffic, which makes walking tours less appealing.

There are three places that are the most memorable:

Basilica del Voto Nacional
This gothic monstrosity sits atop of a hill overlooking the old town. The three soaring towers elicit awe from all points in Quito. We each paid $2 to climb the two front bell towers, above and across the church roof, and into the rear tower. This was by far and away my most exhilarating church experience ever.

Too big to fit into my camera lens, even from a block away.

View of the inside of the church . . .

. . . and on the ceiling above it, which we walked along the apex on wooden planks

The scary climb up. I don't think this church has insurance or a risk analyst.

A six-table vegetarian restaurant that has no sign over the front door and no menus. You sit down and are quickly served a set meal of soup, brown rice, beans, fake meat, fresh juice and dessert. This set us back $1.60 each. The soup was delicious, though we weren't sure what veggies where in it. The main meal was fairly standard. The dessert was fig served in honey. It was delish.

Adding popcorn to my soup. I've never heard of this before, but it's such an easy, cheap and fast way to add flavor and texture, instead of unhealthy crutons.

La Compania de Jesus
A very odd church, not just for the 7 tons of gold that was used to gild the walls, but also because of the graphic "art" adorning said walls. The entry was $1, which in unusual in that most churches don't charge and if they do, then we don't go.





13 April 2010


This week Kristin and I have taken the slow road to Quito. We have meandered through smaller mountains towns sandwiched between cloud forests and coffee farms. The weather has been mostly rainy, but we've still enjoyed it. There are only a handful of travelers in each town and there is no real tourist infrastructure here, which we prefer. We haven't had another gringo on any of our buses and there are only Colombians at our hostel tonight.

Also, tonight is our last night in Colombia. After exactly a month here, we make a run for the Ecuador border tomorrow, hoping to make it all the way to Quito. From there, we'll try to spend as much time in the Andes as we can. Like the next three months.

Salento is "famous" for the nearby Wax Palms. This is the only place in the world where these 60 meter tall palms grow.

We hiked past many a farm, past the wax palms, into the cloud forest. Deep in the forest is homestead that has become a haven for hummingbirds. The birds are all wild, but they are not afraid of humans. I sat for an hour just watching them fly back and forth, sucking the nectar from bottles and flowers alike. This photo shows one hummingbird actually licking it's beak.

Our transportation to and from the wax palms and cloud forest. Guess how many people fit in this standard-sized Jeep? Nope, guess again. Higher. No, still higher . . . yes, 17 people!! Easy stuff first - squeeze three people up front and four on the seats in the back. I hung off the back, standing on the bumper, in between a Colombian couple. Another couple sat on the roof above the driver. Along the way we picked up a farmer (on the back) then two fisherman (I moved inside, standing still, but between the legs of the four seated passengers) and then other hitchhikers. Eventually we had the three up front, two on the roof, four sitting and two standing in the back of the Jeep with another six hanging off the side and rear. It was awesome.

Salento was the most colorful town we have been to. The people were very charismatic: a lot of cowboys, farmers, indigenous, and old men walking around with hats and handmade canes. People could care less that we were there. I think this was my favorite town so far, even though the food selection was extremely limited.


It rained every day that we were here, but it did not deter us from staying for five days. Why? Well, we didn't see the nearby volcano or thermal springs because of the rain, but we loved our hostel. We got a lot of computer work done. There were four vegetarian restaurants within a few blocks from our hostel. And like Salento, nobody in Popayan cared that we were there. It is really nice to feel like a person, not a tourist/money sign.

Yes, we actually ate out. The vegetarian restaurants all had set-lunches that were excellent deals. This meal cost us $1.50. Now do you understand why we a) ate out, and b) stayed so long?

The view from our room. Each town has at least a half dozen churches. I don't know why, but I still try to see them all. They are typically the only thing of note in smaller towns like this. I might only spend 10 seconds inside, but it's worth it. I don't know how many thousands of churches I have seen.

The least favorite of the three towns, this one serves only as a stopover between Popayan and Quito. The roads here are super sketchy and the bus drivers like to pass on the windy two-lane mountain roads. Additionally, there are horror stories ruminating in the backpacker world of buses that cross the border into Ecuador at night and then are robbed as all the passengers are gassed to sleep. No thanks. Anyways, there is not much to see here, though I did manage to peek into 4 churches. More importantly, we found another veggie restaurant, which was particularly important because our "hostel" doesn't allow us to use the kitchen. Lame.

On the way to Pasto, though, we did see a lot of these buses. Not only are they doorless and six-passengers wide, but they also lack windows. When it rains, they just hang the tarp of the center roof pole, dropping the tarp down the windows and tying them to the bus. I hope we have these style buses to look forward to in Ecuador.

10 April 2010

Saying Good Bye to Bogotá

Last Wednesday we left Bogotá with heavy hearts, because we were leaving a most wonderful family that has practically adopted us. Grant and Kathleen hosted us, off and on, for two weeks over the last month. They taught us an immeasurable amount about Colombia, their family, and their beliefs. We ate an exotic array of excellent vegetarian food. Over dinner, we received an enlightened education on any topic that piqued our interest. Together, we played in the parks, shopped for food, and hiked through the nearby hills. It was perfect.

At the same time, Kristin and I were afforded the luxury of having a home for over a week. While Kristin programmed, I did our taxes, edited photos, wrote emails, blogged and did research for our future travels. We both read a lot and ran a few times, but mostly we just worked. It was a much needed break after six months of traveling. As we told them, our trip wouldn't be possible without the help of wonderful people like them.

We thoroughly enjoyed the time with their family and deeply admire the work that they do as missionaries. They have literally dedicated the last 12 years to helping Colombians improve their own lives. At the Peniel Farm, Grant works with 24 boys who had a precarious future. In addition to giving them a safe and loving home where they can eat well, sleep comfortably, and have help with their homework, Grant also trains them in technical skills in the farm's workshop.

When Janie was here, the three of us spent a day touring the farm, meeting the boys and the on-site adults, playing soccer, and fixing a few bikes. We can attest to the excellent work that Grant and his team are accomplishing in giving these boys help for a more hopeful future.

If you would like to learn more about the work that Grant is doing on the farm, please see his brand new blog: Peniel Workshop

Taking a break at the Farm after an exhausting game of soccer.

Saying "Goodbye" for the first time, as we left for the Caribbean Coast

Many of the boys spend Easter Week with their family, but William and Einer didn't have anywhere to go. Naturally, Grant and Kathleen brought these two home for the week. We went up to the mountains for a day of hiking and gawking at the rock climbers.

Enjoying some veggie and non-veggie empanadas at a local restaurant run by the first Colombian to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen.

Sometimes balancing on the rail is easier when someone is holding your hand.

The view from the stairwell of our "perch" - the loft that we called home for two weeks.