Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Alpacas!!!!! - or - Cuenca Part 2

28 October 2015

Just a note - we met an Ecuadorean tour guide who looked at my animal photo and said that these are llamas, not alpacas.  Sorry for the confusion.


We took the back road out of Cuenca toward Guayaquil, not sure how far we'd get nor where we'd spend the night.  There was some road work being done on the avenue we needed, so there were detours, and for a while we had no idea if we were on the right road or not.

But finally some of the tiny towns matched where we needed to be according to the map, and we did our usual winding around mountains and driving along what seemed like cliffs and drop offs.

Some areas were green and lush, others were almost barren and dry parched grass with wind-tortured trees.  I suspect it depends which side of the mountain or even mountain range one was on - one side would get all the rain, the other would be in the rain shadow and thus be all dry.

At one point, we entered the Parque Nacional Cajas, or the Cajas National Park.  This was some of the driest and arid land we had seen yet, with amazing rocky outcroppings on top of the various hills.  It was also really cold - no idea how high up we were at this point, but one of the hills or plateaus was some 4,300 meters on our map - so maybe 13,000 feet?  Yes, HIGH!

We continue driving along, or rather Richard driving and me navigating.  There are signs about don't litter, this is a fragile environment, take care of the flora and fauna, animal crossing, be careful, etc.

And then - all of a sudden - a few alpacas or llamas or one of those cuddly furry animals who lives up in these wild and barren mountains!!!!!!

And OH WOW MORE ALPACAS!!!!!  A whole mini herd!  Or flock!!!!!

An amazing photo considering this was taken from the car as we drove by!

Look at those cute little faces and furry cuddly bodies!  How adorable!  How wonderful to see wild alpacas just hanging out in the Andes!!!!!

We saw a few more walking up the hill, brown alpacas daintily placing one foot in front of the other, walking on the shoulder of the road.  I have no idea if it was easier to walk on the more level road, even though the concrete might be harder on their little hooves.  But they seemed to prefer walking on the side of the road to walking around on the uneven mountain slopes.  Although they certainly liked grazing on whatever was growing there.  They looked like big brown fuzzballs walking up the hill.  And really, they do walk quite daintily, almost like little old ladies in very high heels, placing each foot so carefully and politely on the ground.

By the time we started heading downhill, we encountered more fog and rain, which really slowed us down - we could barely see five feet in front of the car!  I think this was on the western side of the mountain range, so the clouds and fog most likely blew in from the Pacific and just piled up against the Andes.  We drove through downward spirals and hairpin turns, in a tunnel of fog.  We finally emerged in tropical rainforest, full of dripping ferns and huge green plants, not a conifer in sight.

Somewhere along the way we either made a wrong turn or missed an intersection, because we ended up several roads north of where we had expected to - so we actually were further north on E25 than we had planned.  Well, okay, plans change, so we headed toward Guayaquil.  We hadn't planned to spend a night here, but this is where we ended up.

But hey, when you see wild alpacas, it makes everything good, right?

When In Cuenca - Part 1

28 October 2015

On Monday, we drove from Baños to Cuenca along the Pan Americana, the Pan American Highway.  We took a shortcut from Baños to Riobamba (isn't that a great name?), though it turned out that had we gone in the opposite direction, to Puyo again, it would have been several hours shorter.  As it was, the 300+ km trip (about 240 miles?) took us nearly 8 hours.

Our route took us on a new section of highway, then an old section of highway (as in, the local road that ran through all the towns), and then on the Pan Americana, which in some places looks like a multi-lane highway, but in other areas is just the single-lane main road that connects all the towns.  

And of course, the road climbed up and down mountains, wound around the sides of other mountains, zigzagging through valleys or hanging on cliffs above ravines.

Some areas were beautiful and sunny, others filled with fog or high enough we were in the clouds.  Really, we were driving along at some 8,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level!  (2,500 to 3,300 meters)

It was interesting to see rural Ecuador.  We passed through tiny towns, maybe a few shops gathered along the highway, with a café or small restaurant, a small general store, not always even a school or a gas station!

Along the way, there'd be farms, with men and women working in the fields.  The farms are on flat land as well as sheer slopes, crazy inclines that seemed as if the people would fall off, never mind growing any crops!  

And the clothes!  This area seemed to feature brightly colored skirts with contrasting embroidery for the women, often cobalt blue, bright yellow, lipstick red, or neon purple.  Sweaters were in another contrasting color, and a shawl or wrap would be in a third color - all bright and cheerful in the dark, grey, drizzly mountains.  

What really amazed me is that women were working on the farms in these clothes!  Really, they were wearing velvet and alpaca in these gorgeous rainbow colors, with the intricate embroidery, while bent over hoeing the dirt, tossing aside rocks, or digging up potatoes!  To me, the clothes looked fancy, like dress clothes, for special occasions!  But for these women, well, this is just what they wear, no big deal!  I just was so surprised they didn't have darker or more worn clothing for farming.  (Or maybe they just stay cleaner than I manage to!)

Then there was the pig town.  No idea what the name of the town was, but several cafés or restaurants featured whole roasted pig, hanging outside the restaurant.  I guess people would come up and buy whatever chunk of roasted pork they wanted.  It smelled wonderful but looked a little gruesome; we had to wait for the traffic light to change, and counted five of these roasted pigs hanging around.  (I don't know where these are stored at night.  Out of reach of dogs and cats, though.)

We finally reached Cuenca, our destination.  Cuenca is an old colonial city, home of a gorgeous cathedral, and the workshops where true Panama hats are made.

We couldn't figure out how to find our hostal (a small hotel), having arrived after sunset.  We stopped at a strip mall, and Richard managed to find a wonderful man who asked one of his employees to ride with us and show us the way.  (We hope her home was nearby!)  We stayed at a great place in the old city, a small hotel that has been in the family some 100 or so years: 

Anyway, we spent time walking around Cuenca (pronounced KWEN-kah), just absorbing the history and ambience.  Cuenca is at an altitude of about 8300 ft (2600-2700 meters), so I started the day with my coca leaf tea.  The Spanish built beautiful edifices with the usual balconies and embellishments, and incredible churches as well as the huge cathedral that dominates the old part of the city.

As I said, Cuenca is home to the Panama hat industry.  I know, we all think of these hats as being made in Panama.  No, they're actually named Panama hats because the workers digging the Panama Canal wore these hats to protect them from the sun - that's where the name comes from.  They've always been made in Ecuador, and are stamped "Made in Ecuador" in the inside.

The have HUNDREDS of hats!  Maybe even thousands!  All styles, from the original sunhat to a more streamlined fedora, all in the woven reed that is so light and perfect for hot sunny weather.  Some are in the natural beige color, some are bleached almost white, some are dyed in all sorts of colors, from hot pink to bright orange to deep purple or black.

There are also styles for women as well as men.  And my personal favorite, the crocheted hats!  The reed is crocheted for a softer style hat, which travels well because it can be crushed, or folded and rolled, for easier packing.  

So, well, what can I say - when in Cuenca, buy a Panama hat.  I tried one on, liked the fit, loved the look, and I even had the chance to select the ribbon I wanted.  One of the women who sews the ribbons discussed this with me, I settled on a white-bordered black ribbon, because it looked "muy elegante" (which turns out to be real Spanish, not just me sticking a Spanish ending on an English word). 

The indigenous people in this part of Ecuador wear either the usual wool fedora-type hat, or Panama hats in the shape of the usual wool hats - I thought that was really interesting, to see women in the embroidered skirts and sweaters or shawls, with a jaunty Panama derby or fedora!

Also, the museum/ workshop has a coffee shop upstairs, which has a great view across the city!  Cuenca is divided by several rivers, and the river seen from their overlook is bordered by beautiful trees and paths through almost a garden-like park.  There were various flowing trees - this is early summer here - as well as weeping willows.  It looked like a lovely place to walk, bicycle, or have a picnic.  But we were there for the hats, so only looked for a bit and then moved on.

It was great fun, I had an almost custom-made Panama hat that will pack and travel well, all for under $20.  Richard also found a hat for himself.  We had a great time.

Cuenca also was in full guagua fever!  Guaguas are the bread babies that are baked for 2 November, the Day of the Deceased.  It seemed as if every bakery had guaguas, some filled with jam or cheese, some plain.  

The guaguas fascinate me - I can't figure out if they're somehow symbolic of sacrifices (going back to Incan times), or our ancestors, or what.  They usually are decorated smiling, but then we eat them - sort of like chocolate Santas, right?  And then all kinds of squiggles and designs and decorations - are these symbolic too?  Ancient runes maybe?  (Who knows?)

My afternoon snack was a guagua, with arms and legs, who was served with hot "morada colada" - the local blackberry, but more like a thick sauce than a juice.  One is supposed to dip the guagua into the morada colada and then eat it.  I tried it that way, and the taste is a great combination - but I really don't like the texture of wet bread, so I just ate my guagua and drank my colada.  (Hot blackberry sauce is actually quite tasty!)

Last two photos - we saw what we think might be a new group of police being sworn in, or certified, or something like that.  I liked the red jackets in front of the collection of flags.  But then, well, I have NO clue what the guy just to the left of the middle is doing.  Stretching?  Police dancing?  He was just so funny!

And the map shows our route - pretty amazing, to drive through the Andes!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

From the Andes to the Amazon

25 October 2015

Things have been hopping in Baños!  Lots of excitement! 

We decided that we needed to check out the thermal baths, so we went to the private ones up the hill from town.  Of course, everything is on the side of Volcan Tungurahua, so there are volcano zone and volcano eruption evacuation signs all over the place!

At the baths, there were various pools with volcanic heated water - one was bubbling with steaming hot mineral water flowing in, others were medium to cool, and one was freezing cold!  We changed into our swimsuits, and were told (in Spanish) that we both had to wear swim caps, which we rented.  Then we had to shower, and then we could relax in the hot water.  The hottest water was 54C, so roughly 138-140F - HOT!  Most people went from the hottest to the icy cold pool, back and forth - I put a foot in the cold one and no way was I jumping in!  Brrr!  So we rotated to the lukewarm and medium warm pools, soaking in the warm water and relaxing, and smiling at the other people also hanging out.  It was a very mellow experience, especially with the green hills towering over us.  The worst part was when the sky clouded up and the breeze turned into a fairly chilly wind - and of course this was about an hour into our time there, just about when we were ready to go dry off and leave.  Another Brrrrr!  But we survived, and drove back into town.

On our way through town, we saw a crowd of people posing for photos with a small statue wrapped in magenta or fuchsia robes - we figured this must be the representation of Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa, Our Lady of the Holy Water here in Baños.  We had to detour around the crowd, but eventually parked at our hotel.

Not too much later we went to lunch, and discovered the statue (which kind of looked like a big doll) on a chair in a truck, heading in the direction back to the basilica, followed by a crowd of people.  We have no idea if there was some kind of procession when she came out, nor what was going on with the posing.  But apparently it was a big thing, as well as the return to the basilica.

We went out to lunch, enjoying a sidewalk café.  Traffic was back to normal.  And then, we heard music playing, and looked up the street - here was a school parade, each class carrying a sign with the name of a country; then a girl in a fancy dress, sometimes with an escort; and what looked like the rest of the class in sort of futbol (soccer) clothes in the colors of that country!  It was absolutely adorable with the youngest classes, looking like maybe four year olds, with tons of parents for supervision.

They worked their way from the youngest up to the older grades, each group acting like normal kids of that age.  I especially liked the middle grades, where the girl would be walking by herself, and the escort was nowhere to be seen.  Or the teens, with the boy and girl clinging together, and the others waving to friends, chatting, doing all the usual peer socializing.

This continued throughout the day.  Not the school parade, but the sort of impromptu, pop-up parades.  We're hear music, and either run outside or look out the hall window, to see what was happening.  Often, it would be a small brass ensemble either in the back of a pickup, or marching down the street, with the horns playing music that was somewhere between Latin jazz and salsa, accompanied by a drum or two.

But late in the afternoon, there was a group of dancers, young women in bright skirts and shawls twirling their way down the street, dancing with young men in furry chaps or leggings or something.  No idea who they were, but they had their own brass band marching in front, and they were followed by people carrying flowers, all heading toward the basilica.

The random pop-up bands and episodic fireworks continued all evening and on into the night.  Some of the fireworks had the wonderful colorful explosions, but some were only noise-makers, not as much fun.

Saturday we decided to drive to Puyo, a town in the Amazon basin, on the east side of the Andes.  There's an animal rescue center there, and we thought that would be an interesting place to visit.

Well, it was a longer drive than we thought, because the highway is really a single lane in each direction, with numerous tunnels through the mountains, and the road wound around mountains and foothills, until we were dizzy and had no idea in which direction we were heading.  The point of the compass no longer had any relevance - the only issue was whether we were heading uphill or downhill, and how close were we to the edge of the cliff.  Or were there actually two lanes - at one point, our side of the road was just gone, the side of the mountain was gone - the markers pointed us into the lane of oncoming traffic, who then were forced to drive on the shoulder.

It was a bit of a hairy ride!  Beautiful scenery, gorgeous waterfalls, crazy people in gondolas or zip lines over riverbeds and gorges - but a nail-biting kind of road experience!

We reached Puyo in time for lunch, and the tropical rainstorm.  We both noticed that the temperature was a good ten or so degrees warmer than in Baños, which is warmer than Quito.  The air was humid.  Definitely more tropical!  And then the rain, with thunder and lightning, absolutely drenching heavy pouring rain pounding on the tin roof of the little restaurant where we ate.  Rain flooding the street and pouring onto the sidewalk.  Yeah, this is tropical Amazon rain!

Eventually it let up enough for us to run back to the car, and continue on our way.

The monkey rescue center, Paseo del Monos, is outside Puyo - here's their website:

They focus on monkeys, but have other animals as well.  The organization takes in injured animals, but also animals that were raised as pets and are now too large or rambunctious to be kept as pets.  So many of the animals are in cages where they are being essentially un-socialized.  The monkeys or coatis or whatever are with their own species, and contact with humans is limited, so that the animals will lose their pet mentality and be able to be returned to the wild.  I know, I'd rather not see animals behind fences.  On the other hand, I understand that this is part of re-educating the animals so they can return to their natural environments.

But of course, there is human contact.  The workers and volunteers clean the cages, feed the animals, make sure they have play time, or activity time, or whatever.  And there are visitors, like me, who wander through, and talk to the animals as if they can understand.

I was the only visitor, which was nice.  Some animals, like the coatis, came over to see if I was a food person.  Others, like the parrots, talked to me - one said "Ola!" several times, another gave me a wolf whistle!  (These are the behaviors the center is trying to get them to forget.  Really, a jaguar would eat a parrot who gave it that kind of a whistle!)

Most of the woolly monkeys ignored me, though one or two came over to see if I had food.  The white capuchins were curious, but they were keeping an eye on the staff who were cutting down a tree that had fallen over.  And, because of the tree, I couldn't go check out the squirrel monkeys, who are the cutest.

I wandered down to the river - I'm not sure, but I'm guessing this might run all the way to join the Amazon, which starts somewhere in this giant basin.  The vegetation was decidedly tropical jungle; I even got caught in some sticky, prickly, thorny vines, and had to gently pull them off myself.

It was a wonderful experience, and I'm really glad I went.  But the thunder had started up again, so I didn't stay long - Richard was waiting patiently in the car.  Our drive back wasn't as long, somehow.

Today, Sunday, there seemed to be more activity around the basilica - again, random bands, maybe a parade, I think the Señora statue made another round of town.  

People were in their Sunday best, going to church, buying items from the vendors around the basilica, but also Ecuadoreans who came to Baños for the day.  Town seemed more crowded than usual, though some people said it wasn't bad.

Last photo will be a map with the route we've taken thus far.  You can see how the Andes split the country almost in half, with the Amazon basin on the east and the coastal plain leading to the beaches on the left.

And you know we'll be heading there soon!