Posted by: Merrilee | April 1, 2013

Faces of Ecuador

Faces of Ecuador

I am now back in the USA following my winter travels through Ecuador.

Following are some faces of Ecuador – photos of a few people who crossed my path during my travels in that lovely country.

Travelogue written by Merrilee Zellner

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Posted by: Merrilee | March 30, 2013

Galapagos Islands – Discovering Isla Santa Cruz

Galapagos Islands – Discovering Isla Santa Cruz

IMG_3732Many visitors to these volcanic islands immediately embark on a boat on arrival and cruise among the islands for several days to get up close and personal with the various animal species that live there.  Due to our time limitations, my friend and I spent our time staying in the charming port town of Puerto Ayora while exploring the beautiful island of Isla Santa Cruz, a large dormant volcano.

IMG_3761I enjoyed hanging out in the mornings at the waterfront fish market where the fishermen came in with their daily catch.  Sea lions and long-necked pelicans waited expectantly for the remnants of their catch.  Children frolicked in the water nearby.

It was fun cruising around the harbor by water taxi. Once we hired one for a couple of hours and got close to the rock walls where Blue-footed Boobys perched between nose-dives in the water going after fish, sea lions lazed, and brightly-colored crabs scurried.IMG_3965

IMG_3733Late afternoon each day in Puerto Ayora the town came alive when the locals played volleyball on the public courts along the waterfront.  It was always an interesting place for people-watching as many of the islanders gathered there to cheer them on.

IMG_3881We visited the humid highland area of the island.  The weekly outdoor, covered market in one of the highland villages was full of corn, beans, watermelons and other native grown products.  The prepared food section was bustling.  IMG_3889Selling in the market was a family affair, as I found most public markets in Ecuador to be, where children and young people worked alongside their parents.

IMG_3979One day I hiked to the lovely Las Grietas, a water-filled crevice in the rocks just outside of Puerto Ayora.  To get there I traversed a lovely beach and trekked over rocky terrain passing giant cactus. Fearless divers jumped from steep, rocky cliffs into the fresh water below.  Observers perched on opposite rocks.  Swimmers cooled off just out of range of this daring activity.

It was easy to spend several days lost in the beauty and activity of Isla Santa Cruz.IMG_3743IMG_3997

Posted by: Merrilee | March 30, 2013

Arriving on the Galapagos Islands

Arriving on the Galapagos Islands

IMG_3707There was a certain sense of desolation around us as my friend and I disembarked from our plane on arrival on the island of Isla Baltra in the Galapagos Islands. The stifling heat at sea level on the equator was a dramatic change from the cool mountain air of Quito where we had just come from.

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After a bus, boat and taxi ride we landed in the bustling seaside town of Puerto Ayora on neighboring Isla Santa Cruz where about half of the archipelago residents live.  It is a place where sea, sun, seabirds, boats and people coexist in harmony.  Numerous water taxis plied the turquoise waters picking up and dropping off passengers among the fishing boats, cruise ships and yachts.

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The Galapagos Islands are a UNESCO natural World Heritage Site and lie in the Pacific Ocean about 1000 kilometers (620 miles) off the coast of Ecuador. The volcanic islands are famed for their unique animal species.  Charles Darwin drew on his experience here when writing his theory of evolution by natural selection.

IMG_3774One of the first things we did shortly after our arrival was visit the Charles Darwin Research Station just down the road from the harbor.   As we were following a dirt path inside the Darwin Station we heard some unusual, rhythmic sounds.  Rounding a bend, we discovered that these unique sounds came from two pairs of giant turtles that were mating in the nearby brush.   

Further on we observed baby tortoises in cage-like structures for viewing by the public, and incubators used for tortoise eggs and iguanas.  I was most grateful when we stumbled onto a little wooden café serving ice cold drinks.  The tropical climate here certainly takes some getting used to.

Posted by: Merrilee | March 26, 2013

A Chance Encounter in Quito

A Chance Encounter in Quito

It’s often a chance encounter with locals that makes an international traveler’s day extra special.

IMG_3683One afternoon a friend and I decided to visit Quito’s Museo Nacional, a museum which houses one of Ecuador’s largest collections of Ecuadorian art in the country, as well as its human and natural history. In front of the neighboring building we encountered hundreds of high school students, many of whom were dressed in the uniform of their respective schools.

IMG_3681One friendly young man named Juan approached us.  He explained, in perfect English, that inside the building in front of us were representatives from various universities in Ecuador who were there to speak to students during their last year of high school.  Juan spent part of his early childhood in the USA, hence the reason for his command of the English language.  He said he hoped to attend university, whether in Ecuador or in the States, and perhaps become a translator.

IMG_3593I soon got into a lively conversation with a group of female students while my friend continued talking to Juan.

In general their English was sketchy, but I was able to communicate with them enough in Spanish to understand that they were excited about the prospect of going to college if they could get into one, and a little about their hopes and dreams for the future.

When I asked if they would like to attend a university in the United States, all expressed a desire.  All but one indigenous lady named Angela seemed to be resigned to the fact that it was not possible for them due to the excessive cost.  IMG_3675

Angela, who appeared to be the most serious in the group, told me she loved English and really wanted to study in the States.  I found it interesting that the only two students I spoke to who felt a dream of attending university in the USA was possible, were Angela, the indigenous student, and Juan, the student who had previously lived there.IMG_3676

The excited faces of these students and the warmth I felt from them was refreshing.  Before we parted ways I asked them for a couple email addresses in order to send them some of the photos I had been taking of them.  They eagerly complied.

I was glad my friend and I had decided to visit the museum that day or we would have missed this special encounter with these students.

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Posted by: Merrilee | March 24, 2013

Quito by Day

Quito by Day

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Taking a two-hour tour on one of Quito’s double-decker tourist buses is the best way to get up close and personal with some of the lovely balconies and window details of Quito’s colonial center, and at the same time enjoy sprawling vistas of Quito from the top of a nearby volcano.

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One of the stops on this bus is the base of the mountain Cruz Loma where we boarded the Teleferico, the highest cable car in the world, climbing to an altitude of 4000 meters (13,000 feet).  We soared over the city’s surrounding hills and up the flanks of Volcan Pichincha.  At this height it is possible to see 14 peaks of the Andes on a clear day.  Snow-peaked Cotopaxi stood out the day I was there, partially shrouded in wispy clouds.IMG_3248

In the Old Town I always enjoyed the buzzing street life that took place along the narrow streets and in the colonial squares.

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Whenever I found street musicians performing I would stop, enjoy the music for a few minutes, and then leave a few coins.

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In leafy plazas I occasionally found myself privy to an unintelligible heated discussion among a small group of men.

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I often searched out cafes and restaurants recommended by my Lonely Planet guide book.  One such eatery I stopped at on a pedestrian mall just off Plaza Grande was the popular Fruiteria Monserrate.  It had the feeling of an old colonial house with a covered courtyard and interior balconies, much like many of the shops and restaurants in the Old Town.  I enjoyed their delicious fruit salad.

IMG_3531One Sunday I joined hundreds of cyclists, joggers, and walkers who took to the city streets for the weekly “ciclopaseo.”  This is the day when many of Quito’s streets are closed off to cars so locals can reclaim them for a few hours.  Makeshift bike shops were set up along the main thoroughfare.  The permanent city bike-share stands along the way were offering bike rentals to residents.  Mobile fresh fruit stands were inviting.  I had experienced similar scenes on various Sundays last year during my winter travels in neighboring Colombia.

IMG_2881Whether climbing to the top of one of the spires of the Basilica del Voto National (National cathedral), strolling through a colorful public market, or just sitting on a bench in a park or at a bus stop to people-watch, it’s never boring on the streets of Quito.

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Posted by: Merrilee | March 19, 2013

Market Days in Otavalo

Market Days in Otavalo

IMG_2786As I alighted from a bus in the bus station of the colonial Andean town of Otavalo two hours north of Quito one weekday afternoon, I saw a group of indigenous teenage schoolgirls waiting in line to catch a bus home.

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Each was dressed in their finest traditional dress of dark woolen skirt and white embroidered blouse with bouffant sleeves.  Colorful hand-woven belts cinched their waists.  Canvas sandals peaked out from under their skirts.  An air of femininity was enhanced by their jewelry.  Delicate golden earrings and coral-colored strands of beads cascaded from their necks and were wrapped around their wrists.  Their jet-black hair was pulled back softly with a multi-colored woven band wrapped tightly around a single braid.

IMG_3469“Otavalenos” are known for their exquisite weavings and handcrafts. Every day is market day in Plaza de Ponchos, the center of Otavalo’s crafts market.  Here a wide variety of artesian crafts are found including hand-woven woolen goods of rugs, tapestries, blankets, ponchos, sweaters , scarves, bags and hats.

Stretching back to pre-Inca times, Otavalo has hosted the most important markets in the Andes.  The town is a major transport hub for smaller towns and villages in the Northern Highlands.  Farmland stretches up the surrounding mountainside

IMG_3429I returned on Saturday, the day the colorful open-air market spills out of the main square into the surrounding streets.  In addition to their famous woven goods, there was a wide assortment of hammocks, wood carvings, beads, jewelry, and paintings. I resisted buying anything bulky since I would have to carry it in my backpack for the next few weeks until I returned home.  I settled for a hand-woven traditional belt made by the lady I bought it from.IMG_3419
The outdoor food market was particularly interesting for people-watching.  Here I found more indigenous shoppers than the main square of Plaza de Ponchos which tourists flock to.

IMG_3489Babies were contentedly strapped to the backs of young, and not so young, indigenous women.

Many of the handcrafted items found at this market are made in the nearby villages.  Upon leaving Otavalo I visited one to get a feeling for where these talented people live.  I perched myself in the quaint main square of San Pablo del Lago, with a colonial church in front of me, and watched the surrounding activity.  Cars clogged the narrow streets which fanned out from the square.  A few indigenous women scurried about.IMG_3506

Visiting Otavalo on the weekly market day is a must for anyone visiting Ecuador.  The people, the crafts, and the setting represent the Northern Highlands of Ecuador in all its present-day glory.IMG_2785

Posted by: Merrilee | March 13, 2013

Quito by Night

Quito by Night

A longtime friend and travel companion from Boston has now joined me.  Feeling more secure outside at night in Quito with a man by my side, I have ventured into the streets of the Old Town on balmy evenings recently.

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Quito is the highest capital city in the world at 2800 meters (9350 feet).  Its colonial center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and shines resplendently at night.  As the lights come on, we often sit on weathered benches in the various historic colonial plazas of the Centro Historico (Old Town).  The portico on one side of the Plaza Grande, once the archbishop’s palace, seems to come alive at that time.

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Plaza Santo Domingo is magical when the flood lights light up the church dome of the 17th century Inglesia de Santo Domingo.  Its arch to the side of it glows in the dark.

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Sometimes in the evening when I find an old colonial church with its doors open, I wander in and take in the beauty of the gold-leaf altars.  They look particularly stunning when lit up.    

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One of my favorite things to do on a weekend evening is to stroll with the locals down La Ronda, a narrow, atmospheric street just off Plaza Santo Domingo.  Street vendors, families and revelers fill the cobblestone street as live music spills out of restaurants and bars. Hidden courtyards reveal packed, candle-lit bars.

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Two entrances to the winding street through well-lit tunnels add to the allure of this happening place.  Police presence is strong here, making La Ronda one of the safest places to be strolling outside on a weekend night in the Old Town.

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La Ronda (Ring Road) is lined with 17th century buildings where artists, writers and political figures once resided.  It was an old pre-Colombian trail where indigenous people, mestizos, and Spaniards built their homes for hundreds of years.

One evening as my friend and I were walking along a main street in Old Town, a group of bikers zipped past us on a parallel bike lane.  Every Monday evening 20-50 bike riders spend three hours touring various parts of Quito.

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I shall always remember the sweeping panorama of old town at night viewed from the rooftop terrace of the hostel where I stayed several nights during this trip.  It is only with views like this can one grasp the extent of the beauty of Quito’s Centro Historico by night.

Posted by: Merrilee | March 11, 2013

Honoring Chavez in Quito’s Plaza Grande

Honoring Chavez in Quito’s Plaza Grande

IMG_3095As I passed through Quito’s Plaza Grande the other day, a ceremony was taking place on the steps of the Metropolitan Cathedral in honor of Hugo Chavez, the controversial leader of Venezuela who had just died.

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The lovely Plaza Grande (also known as the Plaza de la Independencia)  is the central square in the Old Town and one of the symbols of executive power of the Nation.  The National flag was at half mast on top of the Presidential Palace.  People in the crowd were waiving the Ecuadorian flag, the Communist Party of Ecuador flag, and the green flag of the PAIS Alliance, a democratic political socialist movement in Ecuador lead by the incumbent president Rafael Correa.

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A guitar player was singing with large posters of Chavez hanging over the stage beneath him.  The crowd that filled the square was as diverse as Ecuador’s population.  Many in the crowd were indigenous people showing support.  Bands played between speeches. Four people in Venezuela military dress were standing in solemn attention among the onlookers.

IMG_3036Several camera crews were in action.  A strong police presence prevailed. 

A video of the political life of Chavez was being played on a huge screen in front of the cathedral façade.  IMG_3009

Park benches were occupied by people taking in the prevailing atmosphere, with some participating in occasional political chanting.  VIP’s were seated in rows of chairs at the foot of the cathedral steps where the ceremony was taking place.  Steady streams of people were signing books of condolences at tables nearby.

IMG_3048I noticed a group of Chavez supporters who were wearing red t-shirts and holding photos of him  One man in the group who was watching me take photos of him and his comrades raised his fist in apparent defiance.  Even though I understood a clenched fist thrust in the air was a dominant image of the political movement that President Chavez left behind, I felt his fist was directed specifically at me as a foreigner.  Despite this, I continued taking pictures of his group.  Only when I turned away did he lower his fist.  It was the first time during my current travels in Ecuador that I felt any hostility directed towards me.
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Posted by: Merrilee | March 8, 2013

Experiencing the Nariz del Diablo Train

Experiencing the Nariz del Diablo Train

IMG_2558A short bus ride north from Cuenca on the Panamericana (highway) brought me to the quaint Andean town of Alausi at an altitude of 3323 meters (10,900 feet).  I came here to take a unique train ride to a mountain named Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose).

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On arrival in Alausi I booked into Hotel Europa, a lovely, historic hotel in the heart of town ($15 for private room w/bath) and walked the surrounding cobblestone streets and along the town‘s railroad tracks.

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Women in colorful traditional dress were gathered on a street corner. Children were playing in the gazebo in front of the cathedral of the main plaza.

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Shops seemed to display their colorful merchandise more outside their shops than inside.  Rows of houses along the railroad tracks were in the process of being restored.

The following morning I took a spectacular train ride along with two passenger cars full of mostly Ecuadorian tourists.

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The Ecuadorian rail system, built in the early 1900’s, connected Ecuador’s major port city of Guayaquil with the capital, thus joining Quito to the world and to the rest of the country. The railway was severely damaged by El Nino in 1997 and most of it fell into disrepair.

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During the ride to Nariz del Diablo we passed through steep gorges and over rushing rivers. To the delight of many, one of the passengers who had been a conductor for 15 years on this train line had his lantern with him and posed for photos aboard the caboose.

Alausi was relatively quiet until Sunday morning when it came alive with the weekly market.  Music blared from a music shop in front of my hotel, trucks full of people unloaded men, women and children. Many were dressed in their traditional finest.

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Women and children lined the outside walls of the covered market selling their goods.  Upstairs in the prepared food section I shared a table with some locals while I had some chicken and rice soup.

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Having lunch along with indigenous people of Alausi and surrounding villages was a fitting closure to a wonderful couple of days in this unique Andean town.

Posted by: Merrilee | March 6, 2013

Day-tripping out of Cuenca

Day-tripping out of Cuenca

Sunday is market day in three villages near Cuenca.  Being in Cuenca on a Sunday and wanting to experience these markets, I grabbed my day pack and hopped on a bus.

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The bus followed winding and occasionally steep roads passing endless fields of corn and other well-tended plots of land.  At times thin, wispy clouds seemed to cling to the green hillsides.

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Sigsig, which was 1 ½ hours away, was the most remote of the three villages. Women in colorful traditional dress filled the streets and markets.  The covered market was teaming with activity, especially the food court on the upper level.

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Outside women were seated on the curb selling their fruits and vegetables.  I found a shop of women’s traditional skirts which was owned by a young lady who makes all the skirts at her home herself.  The quality and detail of her handwork were astounding.

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In Chordeleg it wasn’t until I found the main square that I realized the extent of the importance of the jewelry business to the town.  The large, leafy central colonial plaza was lined on all sides with jewelry shops, many specializing in fine gold and silver filigreed jewelry.  Well-healed Ecuadorians and foreigners filled the shops. I bought some silver earrings.

When I arrived in the village of Gualaceo in the afternoon, a food market was still in full swing in a central square.

IMG_1917After browsing through it, I snagged a ring-side seat on a bench on the edge of a nearby small, colonial square to soak in some sun and take in the activity around me.

Fancy cars were cruising around the square.  Occasionally one car would pull up in front of me, someone would jump out and buy a couple of ice cream cones from the shop behind me, and then hop back in their car and continue cruising around the square.  I was told by a local that these people were “weekenders from Cuenca.”  They were an interesting contrast to the mostly-indigenous people at the market I had just observed around the corner.

It was late in the day when I finally returned to Cuenca.  I didn’t have the time to find some of the woven crafts that Gualaceo is famous for.  Sometimes it’s good to have a reason to return to a place you enjoyed.

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