Posted by: Merrilee | March 4, 2013

Ingapirca, an Inca Ruin

Ingapirca, an Inca Ruin

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As I alighted from the bus at the small village of Ingapirca about a two-hour ride from Cuenca, the aroma coming from a street-side stall and the gathering of indigenous ladies around it, caught my attention.

The chickenIMG_1713 and fresh French-fry combo a lady was selling looked good. I ordered it and sat down under her plastic tarp to eat and attempt to communicate with the locals who were around me.  All were quite amused at my presence there.  Visitors to the nearby Inca ruins probably didn’t stop to often to have lunch with them in their humble surroundings.

Bidding them farewell, I headed up the hill to the entrance to Ecuador’s best preserved archeological site, the ruins of Ingapirca.

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The original ruins were used by the local Canari people long before the Incas came through in the 15th century.  The Incas developed the site into a military stronghold.  A highlight of the ruins is the Temple of the Sun, a large structure originally used for ceremonies and solar observation

The Royal Road of the Incas runs through the complex.  This road linked Cuzco (Peru) with Cuenca and Quito.  In its heyday this transportation and communication network rivaled that of the Roman Empire.

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As I strolled through the ruins I found myself on a dirt path paralleling the Inca road following an old lady.  She was burdened with a huge bundle on her back.  The Temple of the Sun was in front of us.  How many centuries, I wondered, has this same scene of a farmer walking the Royal Road towards their home or field played itself out in this very same spot among these ruins.

These Inca ruins pale in comparison to those in neighboring Peru.  But the local flavor that surrounds them, the spectacular bus ride through the Andean Highlands to get there, plus the beautiful local surroundings, all contributed to making my day trip from Quito to Ingapirca well worth the effort.

Posted by: Merrilee | March 3, 2013

Vilcabamba – One Expat’s Story

Vilcabamba – One Expat’s Story

IMG_2179One evening at an outdoor café under a portico in Vilcabamba’s plaza, I met Nancy, a retiree from Vail, Colorado.  She was enjoying her favorite local food, fresh trout.  She invited me to join her and then shared her interesting story of how she made Vilcabamba her home.

She had lived in other Latin American countries before, but they never seemed like the right place for her to settle for the rest of her life.  It was important the location be affordable and enable her to fulfill her passion of gardening year round.  In this Ecuadorian valley, both of these desires are being fulfilled, she said.IMG_2224

She recently bought several acres of land just outside of town.  She sold off a couple of acres and then had a small adobe house built on the remaining land to live in while she has a larger, more permanent adobe house built next door.  She told me with a contented smile that her daughter and son-in-law are now with her. They are in the process of building their own home on a corner in her land.

IMG_2225Nancy was in town this evening to attend a meeting on trees. The government has offered to plant 600 trees free of charge on her land as part of a reforestation plan.  She is delighted.

As we were parting ways, she exchanged greetings with n American man who was passing by the cafe.  He said he recently saw her daughter. With unabashed joy she commented that her daughter was seven months pregnant.

The commitment of this American family to Vilcabamba runs deep, I thought, as I said goodbye to Nancy.

Posted by: Merrilee | March 1, 2013

Vilcabamba – An Idyllic Andean Village

Vilcabamba – An Idyllic Andean Village

It feels like I am finally getting nearer to the tropics of Ecuador. The air is heavy with moisture and feels steamy at times.  I am in the small Andean village of Vilcabamba a few hours south of Cuenca, at the lowest altitude of my trip so far – 1500 meters (5000 feet).

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I am sitting in a hammock in front of my room at Hostal Jardin Escondido (“hidden garden“) writing my blog.  A jungle-like garden is at my side. I was awakened this morning by roosters crowing followed by a cacophony of chirping birds.

This hostel is owned by a British man who obviously understands what backpackers want – a lush garden, a pool, a hammock to relax in, free breakfast, free WIFI, and a bulletin board packed with information about local activities such as horseback riding and massages, and rooms for rent.  And of course there are wonderful travelers to meet here.  What more could I want for $15 per night?

IMG_2170Travelers who visit this peaceful village stay for a day, a month or even more to chill out.  Numerous retirees come from America and Europe to stay. The colonial town square is lined with inviting outdoor cafes, a favorite gathering places for *expats in the community.

A traveler I met earlier in my trip, Chris from England, happens to be staying at my hostel in Vilcabamba during the same time I am.  Hiking together yesterday we skirted rivers, tramped up and down mountainsides, and interacted with friendly people along the way.

IMG_2133We passed new homes interspersed with old ones, all nestled in the hillsides, revealing the recent influx of new money from foreign retirees.  We watched as men paraded knee-deep through a muddy mixture in the process of making adobe bricks.

IMG_2187At every bed in the road we enjoyed unique panoramic views. Light rain interrupted the day periodically as low-lying clouds appeared to whisk playfully around the surrounding mountains.

Vilcabamba – a treasure of a place to visit – so glad I made the detour.

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* An expat (short for expatriate) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person’s upbringing.

Posted by: Merrilee | February 28, 2013

Cuenca – The Lady and the Colonial House

Cuenca – The Lady and the Colonial House

IMG_1843I rang the doorbell with the expectation I would be walking through an antique shop which was advertised on the outside of the richly-decorated Spanish colonial  building.  I was greeted at the door by a young woman.  Behind her in the inner courtyard an elderly woman slowly descended an old wooden staircase.

After the two women, arm in arm, took me through a small antique shop on the ground floor, the elderly woman asked if I wanted to see her house for a fee of $2.IMG_1829

Realizing that this was my opportunity to see the inside of one of the famous, historic, colonial houses that hangs over the cliffs above the rocky Rio Tomebambo, I jumped at the opportunity.

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My hostess, Cecelia Toara, had lived in this house all her life and continues to do so.  I could tell from the grandeur around me, and a younger photo of her, that she must have been quite a society lady during her day.  She said her heritage was French and Spanish, as were many of her furnishings.

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She proudly stated that in her extensive three-level house, which is over 180 years old, she had slept over 25 people at one time.  Photos of several generations of her family graced the tables and walls of the large room at the top of the stairs. She identified her relationship to each one as I carefully studied them. One of her daughters currently lives in Quito, she said.

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The views of the river below and the hills in the distance were stunning  from this room.  The rear balconies of her U-shape house were now in clear view.  A young lady was working at a table on a balcony of the lower level.  She was a renter, Cecelia explained.

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Each room of the house that she showed me had beautifully painted walls, trim, and ceilings, and elegant, old furnishings.  Beautiful woodwork was everywhere, including the stunning inlaid floors.  The home was a living museum – a masterpiece.

If Cecelia was as gracious of a hostess to her guests in her past as she was to me, I thought, then I was sure all who had the privilege of being her guest must have felt most welcome.

I thanked her profusely when I left, wishing I had a better command of the Spanish language so I could have learned more about the ghosts of the past that must lurk around every corner of her wonderful home.

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I returned to visit this lady when I passed through Cuenca again later in my journey.  This is when she told me her house is up for sale for a price tag of $1.2 million and has 43 rooms.

Posted by: Merrilee | February 27, 2013

Cuenca – Enjoying the Charms of the Colonial Center

Cuenca – Enjoying the Charms of the Colonial Center

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I have been in the Cuenca for the past few days soaking up its charms of the city’s historic colonial center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which dates from the 16th century. It is second only to Quito in importance and beauty.  It is a place where soaring church bell towers loom over a leafy, colonial square; where balconies jut out over narrow cobblestone streets; and where a rushing, river flows below dramatic Spanish colonial houses hanging over steep cliffs.IMG_1530

The view when I first entered Cuenca’s main square took my breath away. I said to myself, this is one of the reasons foreigners are flocking to Cuenca, both to live and to visit.  The twin towers of the dramatic cathedral along with its multiple blue domes loomed up in front of me.  Vendors displayed their wares under the arched porticos that lined two sides of the square.

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I perched myself on one of the wooden benches which were scattered gracefully around the square’s lush gardens and spewing fountain, and studied my surroundings as the sun peaked through the clouds.  Tourists, lovers, families, and students were among those who occupied some of the benches.  Children played among the pigeons; strolling vendors sold ice cream.

IMG_1267I have established a couple of favorite haunts now around town.  My visit to the central market for breakfast each morning includes a llapingachos (traditional potato-cheese patty) and some fresh juice. I regularly visit the Coffee Tree (known locally as the “Gringo Café”), a couple of blocks from my hostel, to meet up with friends or enjoy a bit of Western food for a change.

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It’s all in a day in this wonderful city 2530 meters (8300 feet) high in the Andean Highlands of Ecuador.

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Posted by: Merrilee | February 22, 2013

Quilotoa Loop – A Day in Zambahua

Quilotoa Loop – A Day in Zambahua

IMG_0998I awoke Sunday morning to a bustling market outside my hotel in the main square of the mountain village of Zambahua on the Quilotoa Loop.

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Highlanders were arriving in droves – many climbing out of the back of trucks.  I joined the locals over breakfast at one of the food stalls.  Stalks of green and yellow bananas covered the ground in front of the church which anchored one side of the square.

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Piles of round-shaped slabs of vanilla were being examined by customers.  Fresh fruit and vegetables glistened in the morning sun.  I watched as money changed hands.

In one of the shops lining the square a man worked diligently shaping a traditional felt hat for one of many waiting customers.

Late in the afternoon clusters of women gathered as if to sIMG_1128eize an opportunity to catch up with friends.  Unsold sheep and llamas, under great protest, were coaxed, lifted and shoved tightly into the back of trucks to be returned home.

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Soon after my arrival in Zumbahua the day before, I wandered well-worn dirt paths around the surrounding hills.  Adobe houses clung to green hillsides. When unfriendly dogs growled at my passing, locals came to my rescue.IMG_0878

That evening I spent sipping hot chocolate in a cozy café off the main square while exchanging travel stories with new friends, Chris from England and Anna from Norway.  No heater was needed as the cooking that was going on in the kitchen in preparation for sale at the next day’s market kept the place toasty warm.  We didn’t want the evening to end because we knew that then we would have to face the cold mountain air on our way back to our respective hotels.IMG_0920

 

 

 

 

My memorable time in Zambahua was a wonderful ending to a two-day adventure exploring parts of the Quilotoa Loop.

Posted by: Merrilee | February 20, 2013

Quilotoa Loop – The Shepherds of Quilotoa

Quilotoa Loop – The Shepherds of Quilotoa

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She reached down, picked up a stick, and proceeded to write the letter “g” in the dirt beside us.  We had exchanged names; each repeated each others name. We had a good laugh when I tried to pronounce her name repeatedly and still couldn’t make the guttural sound the way she wanted.

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I had been walking along the dirt path that followed the rim of beautiful Laguna Quilotoa that afternoon when I saw three children running through the nearby hillside with a flock of sheep.  When they saw me taking photos of them they came closer to me and called out, “photo, photo.”  I invited them to sit down and see the photos I had taken of them.  They gathered around me excitedly.  I proceeded to take more.  Laughter continued among us as we tried to communicate in Spanish.IMG_0847

The small village of Quilotoa hugs the rim of the dramatic crater lake of Laguna Quilotoa.  It is on the Quilotoa Loop at 3900 meters (12,800 feet), a couple of hours from my “base camp” at Latacunga.  The water-filled caldera is 400 meters below the crater rim trail which I followed.  I could only imagine the snow-capped peaks of Cotopaxi and Iliniza Sur volcanoes in the distance.  Cloud cover surrounded them that day.

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As I followed the trail back to where I had started, I stopped and looked back.  The children I had shared special moments with were perched motionless where I left them.  I waived and they waived back.  The indigenous children of Quilotoa – I shall never forget their laughter and shining faces. They were pure delight.

Posted by: Merrilee | February 19, 2013

The Quilotoa Loop – The Market at Saquisili

The Quilotoa Loop – The Market at Saquisili

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The lovely, colonial town of Latacunga, high in the Central Highlands of Ecuador, was my jumping off point to experience the Quilotoa Loop the past few days.

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The Quilotoa Loop is a bumpy ring-shaped road that travels from the Panamericana (highway) into the back country of Cotopaxi Province.  It brings adventurous travelers through traditional indigenous communities of *Kichwa-speaking people and to beautiful Largo Quilotoa, a  volcanic-crater lake.

A trip on a local bus to the Thursday morning market in the quaint village of Saquisili, a few kilometers out of Latacunga, revealed a fascinating slice of Highlands life.

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The sprawling market spanned several plazas with mostly indigenous shoppers, many in traditional dress.

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We wound our way through piles of fresh fruit and vegetables, piles of corn, prepared food stalls, live chickens and guinea pigs, fresh fish, arts and crafts, Andean felt hats and other material-goods markets in search of the animal market, which we knew to be on the outskirts of the village.

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Leaving cobble-stone streets for mud-soaked ground, we found the intriguing animal market.  Sheep, llamas, pigs and cows were all being haggled for.  We were told llamas and sheep went for $100-$125 each. The sounds of screaming pigs prevailed above the cacophonous noises of the other animals.

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*Kitchwas (or Quechuas) is the collective term for several indigenous ethnic groups of people in South America who speak a quecha language.  The Quechuas of Ecuador call themselves as well as their language Kichwa

Posted by: Merrilee | February 15, 2013

Political Rally, Ecuadorian Style

Political Rally, Ecuadorian Style

Presidential elections are just around the corner in Ecuador.

IMG_0750This afternoon while I was exploring the colonial heart of Lataconga, an interesting Andean town that has survived several eruptions of nearby Cotopaxi, a blaring brass band on top of a colorful truck caught my attention. People perched on top and leaning outside of windows were waiving political flags and yelling. Brightly colored balloons rose from open windows.

IMG_0716I soon found myself joining in the parade which consisted of this truck engulfed in traditional dancers, vehicles covered with political signs and slogans, and political candidate supporters waving flags.  The parade wound around the narrow colonial streets for about an hour finishing at one of Lataconga’s lovely squares, where Latin music was blaring from a stage dripping with flags.

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I nearly tripped over a rope which was attached to a donkey, a political flag waiving from the animal’s saddle.  He was being paraded around the square by an indigenous woman.  In the distance I could faintly make out the cathedral bells which were unsuccessfully trying to compete with the scene in front of me.IMG_0773

Welcome to Ecuadorian politics!

Posted by: Merrilee | February 14, 2013

Banos – A Slice of Heaven

Banos – A Slice of heaven

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I am sitting by the pool in my hostel in Banos (S7.50 per night for a dorm bed).   It is 9am and I just returned from the local marketplace around the corner where a new hostel friend and I enjoyed a traditional breakfast of eggs, rice, hapingachos (fried pancakes of mashed potatoes with cheese), and some salad fixings.  To make my breakfast complete, I ordered a tall glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice.  IMG_0286

Just outside my hostel a line of sugar cane stalls are setting up for a day’s business of selling such things as jugo de cana (sugar cane juice) to passers-by.  Mountains are peaking out of the light cloud cover in every direction.  It’s t-shirt weather today.

A  couple of days ago the bus I took from Quito to Banos followed the Pan American Highway south high in the Andean Mountains for a couple of hours then turned off into dramatic hills and valleys before reaching its destination.

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Banos sits nestled at the foot of the highest active volcano on Ecuador, Mt. Tungurahua.  The picturesque, historic town which sits at 1800 meters (6000 feet) draws tourists and travelers from around the world.

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When I think of Banos, I think of extreme sports, mineral baths, colonial architecture, colorful local markets, fresh sugar cane juice, Andean crafts, cascading waterfalls, lively night walks on busy streets, sheer cliffs and green mountains.  It’s all in a day’s adventure in this awesome place!

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