Walking in the footsteps of the Inca

This last weekend I got the chance to spend the night at the indigenous community of Salasaca. We all went as an official Oregon trip, led by our program coordinator, Franco. Along the way, we stopped for breakfast and saw beautiful views of Cotopaxi. Our first main stop was the Jardin Botanico La Liria and Quinta de Juan Leon Mera, a botanical garden and museum. The grounds were full of native plants, and serve as a place to preserve some of the species. The museum highlights the life of Juan Leon Mera, who wrote the Ecuadorian national anthem, and his family. They had extremely luxurious houses with some of the finest things of the era (ceramic French chandeliers). In the same place, there was the home of another family that had 11 children, all of whom became famous in in some way or another (art, science, mountaineering, everything).

Cotopaxi from the bus

Cotopaxi from the bus

We had lunch afterwards at a pizza place and headed to Salasaca. The location where we were staying had a small farm with lots of sheep, cows, pigs, and crops. Everything is done by hand, on a small scale in Salasaca. I really enjoyed how peaceful it was and how clean the air was.

Cows and crops

Cows and crops

In the evening we had the special opportunity to tour a workshop that tourists usually don’t go to. My friend Lilian, one of the students on the Oregon program, has a conversation partner from Salasaka. He ended up taking us to his father’s workshop where we got to see a demonstration of how the agave root is used to make a soap/shampoo, how the guinea pigs are raised (in pits), and a type of insect larvae used to make dyes. Then we got to go inside and see the traditional loom that the men use to make textiles. It can take months of labor to make some of them. When we returned to our hostel, we got to listen to some of the traditional music and dance to it. It was a very enjoyable experience.

The musicians (sorry a bit blurry)

The musicians (sorry a bit blurry)

The next morning, we ate a delicious breakfast that included Salasaca tortillas (thick, warm, and filled with cheese) before heading to the sacred site. We ended up walking a long ways uphill, enjoying beautiful views of the valley below. The site itself was a small circle and then a crack in the ground with a small hole. We sat down on the crack and then went through the cleansing ritual. Our guide said some words in Kichwa (the indigenous language), took a bouquet of native flowers, passed them over us, had each of us spit on them three times, and then had a moment of silence. After the ritual, we descended on a narrow path that was used by the Inca. We finished with some down time, a visit to the textile workshop at the hostel, and lunch before heading home.

A traditional loom

A traditional loom

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Mitad del Mundo

Sometimes one never visits the closest places that are right in front. For me, one of those places was Mitad del Mundo (the monument on the equator) until Sunday. I went alone since most of my friends were travelling or busy. The location itself was not incredible but worth checking out. However, the trip signified a victory for me. I figured out how to take the bus to Mitad del Mundo, not without a mistake. First I ended up taking a bus to a different bus station in the far north of Quito instead of the station I intended to go to. There were buses to the correct station luckily.

There is a small town close to the monument, where I got off the bus. It was very dusty because all of the roads and sidewalks were under construction. I decided to eat lunch at a small restaurant with lots of Ecuadorian families inside. The meal only cost $2 and overall was good, except that the meat was really tough.

The whole town looked like this

The whole town looked like this

Next I went to the actual site. It cost $3 to enter the site, which is really a giant complex with shops, restaurants, a stage, multiple museums, and the giant monument. I started by getting my picture taken on the “equator” in front of the monument. The reason I put quotes is because the monument was built on a site that is a few hundred yards away from the real equator by mistake. Next I entered the monument for $3. It had a staircase through the center, which housed a museum that represents all of the indigenous cultures, province-by-province in Ecuador. At the top, there was a really nice view of the land surrounding the complex.

Me on the "equator"

Me on the “equator”

The complex

The complex

I really wanted to go to another museum that supposedly is on the real equator, just outside of the complex, where they do scientific demonstrations of the effects of the equator. I visited many other museums beforehand, and then inquired about it. The man I asked ended up telling me that it isn’t the real equator either (the real equator is in the street), and that everything they do at that museum is just tricks.

The end of my trip was also great. There was a couple from Argentina trying to figure out how to get to Centro Historico, and I was able to help them, signifying a victory of my knowledge of Spanish and the city. Then I got talking to a man from Costa Rica on the bus back. It turns out that he is a graduate student, studying geology and taking a class in Quito. We had a long conversation, and he complimented me on my Spanish.

Cotopaxi National Park

Yesterday I went to Cotopaxi National Park, home to Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes. My friends and I left Quito in the morning and took a bus toward Latacunga, a small town in the province of Cotopaxi. We then got off along the side of the road at the exit for the national park, where there were lots of pickup trucks with guides waiting. For $17 per person, we were able to get a guided tour that takes us to the museum, primer refugio (base camp), and a lake.

The weather at the lower elevations looked pretty good. However, we could see some clouds higher up on the mountain. Our guide said that the clouds usually pass at the higher elevations and decided to take us up to the highest point first. We parked at the parking lot and hiked up to the lodge. There  was a nice view of two other volcanoes and the land below when we started. The weather started getting worse as we hiked up, with heavy snow. Our guide called it snow, but it seemed more like hail to me. It was still very fun hiking up the mountain, as I felt like I was on a real mountain for the first time in a long time.

View down from the trail

View down from the trail

We got to the refugio, where we were able to buy some hot chocolate from a vendor outside. This location is where people usually start to climb Cotopaxi. Cotopaxi is almost 20,000 feet high, and this lodge sits at over 15,900 feet, over 1,000 feet higher than the highest mountain in the continental US. The building reminded me a bit of the Silcox Hut on Mt. Hood, but I wasn’t able to enter because it was closed for remodeling. I bet the view would be great on a nice day, but we weren’t able to see much. The good thing, though, is that I didn’t have to worry about getting badly sunburned. This was the highest altitude I have ever been at. I’m really happy to know that I didn’t have any issues with altitude sickness that high, because that means that I will be fine with anything in the continental US.

There was some thunder and lightning that began as well. We waited about an hour outside of the lodge for the worst of the weather to pass before descending. We saw two really cute kids sledding down. It is quite something to experience snow on the equator. Not something that most people see.

Snow down below

Snow down below

Once we got back to the car, we went down to the lake. I was expecting a nice mountain lake, but instead what I saw was a small, pathetic mudflat with a few inches of water on top. It was also really cold and rainy. Then we went to the museum. Unfortunately it looked very small and was closed. Even the bathrooms were closed, and one of my friends had to go really bad. At the restaurant, there was a sign outside that said there was soup, but when I asked there was none.

The "lake"

The “lake”

I really enjoyed the hike up to the refugio even though the weather was bad. I love the mountains, and it reminded me of some of my climbs and snowshoes in Oregon. However, the rest of the park was a little bit of a disappointment. There wasn’t much there to see. However, I am still glad I was able to go up to a real mountain!

Running around the city: a day in the life

Friday was one of the busier days I have had when it comes to travelling around Quito. I started my day relatively early in the morning with the objective of going to the 3D printing kiosk in the Quicentro mall (for my research project), and getting the deposit money back from the chagra costume I rented. It turned out that I was an hour early, since the mall opens at 9:30. I decided to pass the time across the street in Parque Carolina, reading for one of my classes. Afterwards, I went to the costume place and the 3D printing kiosk and got good news that they will probably be able to print the dental implant (after I email them the correct file format).

The next part of my day was my trip to the university for my one class on Fridays. Fortunately I made it on time, but I ended up cutting it very close. After class, I thought about staying for lunch and then going to the dancing lessons (with Ecuabuddies) afterwards. I decided not to because I had to convert the file format for 3D printing and try to find a shoulder rest for the violin I am borrowing (for the talent show performance on Monday afternoon). It turned out that the music department doesn’t rent instruments or accessories, but the man in the office gave me the phone number of a violin student, because she might have something. Sounds like trying to get one may be more trouble than it’s worth, but I really could use a shoulder rest. Next I went home to eat lunch and communicate with others about the afternoon plan.

In the afternoon, I went to Centro Historico and El Panecillo (the Virgin Mary statue in the center of Quito) with my friend Jalsese and the sister of someone we met in the Galapagos. I was running a bit early, so I decided to stop off at Parque El Ejido. Vendors of handmade goods were stationed in the park, which I only thought happened on weekends. One of them had some of the finger puppets, which are cute and make nice gifts. I decided to buy a few and then got talking to the vendor. It was a really nice conversation. She looked to be an indiginous woman, who makes these goods for a living. She was telling me that she travels around Ecuador to sell her goods and has even been to the Dominican Republic. Most people would usually think of the vendors as being really poor, but it sounds like she has a nice little business going.

Afterwards, I headed off to Centro Historico. Bere, the sister of the person we met in the Galapagos, turned out to be really nice. We walked around a bit, viewing a few plazas and going into a few churches. Then we took a taxi up to El Panecillo. It sits on a little hill in the center of the city. From the hill, it is possible to see the entire city, north and south. This site was sacred in the era of the Inca. When the statue was built, it marked the far southern end of the city. Nowadays it marks the center of the city. Legend has it that the back faces the south because it is the poorer part of town. The view was fantastic of the city and the mountains that surround the valley.

The statute

The statute

The north side of Quito with the Quito flag in the foreground

The north side of Quito with the Quito flag in the foreground

Mountains, city, and statue

Mountains, city, and statue

Galapagos: a natural zoo

USFQ operates on a semester system as opposed to OSU’s quarter system, so we had a mid-semester break of one week. This presented a perfect opportunity to travel around Ecuador or to nearby countries. I chose to go on a 7-day tour of the Galapagos with a group of my friends from Oregon. It was an incredible (albeit tiring) trip!

We started by flying to the island of Baltra, a small desert island with the airport and the remains of a military base from WWII. This meant that we had to take a small ferry across the channel to Santa Cruz, the most populated island in the Galapagos. We met our guide Mauricio and then had a 45 minute ride across the island to the town of Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos. I was surprised to see that there was agriculture in the highlands of the island (which receive more rain and look more tropical). However, you’ll be glad to know that 97% of the land in the Galapagos is national park and only 3% populated.

Puerto Ayora from a boat

Puerto Ayora from a boat

Our first day consisted of a trip back to the highlands of the island to see Los Gemelos (two giant volcanic craters) and a tortoise reserve. The tortoises were gigantic! They just moved slowly and ate the grasses. We also saw how they walked in a pool of mud because of the minerals. The same place also had a small lava tube that we visited.

A giant tortoise

A giant tortoise

The next day was our trip to Bartolome. We took a large boat on a two hour ride and sat out front, where we could see turtle swimming by, birds, and manta rays jumping. We arrived to a beautiful uninhabited island with perfectly colored light blue water. There was an aggressive male sea lion on the steps that had to be shooed away by the guide before we could get off. Iguanas were basking in the sun on the steps along with crabs. We hiked up the small volcano to see the most iconic panorama of the Galapagos. Afterwards we went snorkeling off of a beach on Santiago (just across the channel). Unfortunately my mask was leaking into my nose, but I was still able to see a giant turtle, some fish and some sea lions.

The view from Bartolome

The view from Bartolome

We stayed on Santa Cruz for the third day. The first place we went was Tortuga Bay, which has one of the biggest and most beautiful beaches on the Galapagos Islands. It was a long walk to get there, but the beach was big and sandy with super fine, white sand, and beautiful water. We walked along the beach until we reached the end of the sandy beach, where there were tons of iguanas waking up and moving down the beach to feed. We saw three blue-footed boobies on the rocks and then went to a beach on a small inlet. Since I can’t swim well, I opted to rent a kayak and go out on the inlet. I’m glad I did, because I was able to see tons of sharks along with some fish and corals. The second portion of the day was a bay tour close to Puerto Ayora, where we went snorkeling and did a short hike. There wasn’t a whole lot new to see there.

Iguanas at Tortuga Bay

Iguanas at Tortuga Bay

Blue-footed boobies

Blue-footed boobies

We spent the next two days (and one night) on Isabela, the largest of the islands. After a long and bumpy boat ride, we arrived at the most beautiful harbor I have ever seen. Puerto Villamil is the largest (and perhaps the only) town on Isabela, but is still very small in comparison to Puerto Ayora. We started seeing wildlife as soon as we arrived at the dock. There were tons of sea lions, birds (including penguins), fish, and even rays. Our first stop was the tortoise breeding facility, where we got to see all different sizes of tortoises. Next we passed by white sand beaches as we went to Muro de Lagrimas, a wall built by Ecuadorian prisoners during the 1940s and 1950s. Nearby there was viewpoint with an expansive view of that side of the island. The second half of the day, after lunch, was our boat tour in the bay where we snorkeled and hiked. This may have been the highlight of my entire trip. We went in a small sheltered bay and saw whole families of sea turtles, golden rays, tons of fish, and even corals. The hike afterwards also didn’t disappoint as we walked over lava rocks to see penguins, iguanas huddled together, sea lions, and a small channel with at least a dozen sharks. We went to an eco lodge, where we slept in tents, for the night. It was situated in a beautiful garden with fruit trees, palm trees, and a small tortoise reserve. The area was lush and reminded me a lot of Hawaii.

A penguin

A penguin

Our next day on Isabela consisted of a tour of Volcan Sierra Negra, an active volcanic crater that filled with lava in 2005. The crater was very expansive. It took quite a while to hike only a quarter to a third of the way around it. We finished the hike by walking on recent lava flows until we had a view of the north side of the island. The afternoon consisted of our boat ride back to Santa Cruz.

Crater of Volcan Sierra Negra

Crater of Volcan Sierra Negra

The final full day was spent going to Floreana, another island. This island has hardly any people on it now but a rich history in the past. We went to the highlands where there is a freshwater spring that has sustained the population on the island and still does today. Floreana served as a safe haven for pirates throughout the centuries, because it was remote, there were caves to hide in, and fresh water. There were also many mysterious haunted stories of disappearances, etc. The highlands of Floreana were also lush and green, mostly with native plants, unlike Isabela which had many nonnative plants. Afterwards we went snorkeling and had some time to just relax on a beautiful black sand beach before returning to Santa Cruz. The final evening was very relaxing. We saw the sunset and then went to the dock where we saw a few sharks and rays.

Despite being tired, I decided to wake up early to see the sunrise on my last day. The Hinkles and I saw it from the harbor and then decided to walk quickly to Tortuga Bay for one last time to see the beach and the animals there. Afterwards, our whole group packed up and went to the Charles Darwin Center to see the tortoise breeding program and view land iguanas in captivity (difficult to find in the wild). The last free time was spent on a small beach at the station before heading to the airport.

Sunrise in Puerto Ayora

Sunrise in Puerto Ayora

Termas de Papallacta

Quito is always bustling with people, but an hour and a half away by bus exists a mountainous national park with natural hot springs. This place is called Papallacta. I went yesterday, and it made for an excellent day trip.

The location is very close to Quito, but due to curvy roads and maintenance, it isn’t a super short ride. However, that’s not important because the views of the mountains from the bus ride were incredible. We got dropped off in the town of Papallacta and then took a taxi up to the hot springs.

View from the bus

View from the bus

The hot springs are within a large complex with a spa, cabins, restaurants and more. This appeared to be a place were wealthy Ecuadorians and tourists go, based upon how well maintained the facility was and the entrance cost ($8). There are tons of pools that form quite a large space. Some are very hot, others are warm, and some are very cold. I liked switching between the hot and cold pools. There were also showers that consisted of the water from the pools going through a pipe, which I thought was kind of funny.

One section of pools in the complex

One section of pools in the complex

The hot springs aren’t the only attraction. There is a lot of wildlife present, since a national park is nearby. I saw many birds and flowers among the mountain views. I would have liked to hike in the park, but the weather decided not to cooperate. Instead, we got lunch and then headed back to Quito.

These flowers were everywhere

These flowers were everywhere

Three buses, two boats, and a plane: An Amazonian Adventure

I had the special opportunity to venture deep into the Ecuadorian Amazon to Tiputini Biodiversity Station, a research station operated by my host university (USFQ). Yasuni National Park, where the station is located, may be the most biodiverse place on the planet. It is so remote that we had to take a 30 minute flight from Quito to Coca, then a 1.5 hour boat ride down the Napo River, a 1.5 hour bus ride through an oil facility and indigenous communities, and then a final 2 hour boat ride down the Tiputini River. The scenery kept getting better as we got deeper into the jungle.

One of the boats

One of the boats

View from the entrance of the station

View from the entrance of the station

After getting pelted by rain during the final boat ride, we arrived excited (but wet) at the station. I was surprised at how sophisticated the station was. It is amazing that they are able to run a facility like that in such a remote place. There is a dining hall, a lab, a library, and cabins. All have electricity (albeit only for certain hours of the day) and running water that is drinkable.

The dining hall

The dining hall

The physical features are marked by the Tiputini River, a small lake, lots of hiking paths, and salt licks where animals gather. Two of the more unique and special features are a platform and staircase in the canopy of one of the largest trees, and bridges that are situated above the forest with platforms in smaller trees. We had the chance to visit both places, observe the wildlife that lives in the canopy, and have a fantastic view of the forest. A large portion of the time was spent hiking with guides. We even went on a night hike with headlamps, and took a canoe on the lake. One day we woke up very early to see a sunrise from the platform. That was one of the most amazing views I have ever seen.

A view from high up in a tree

A view from high up in a tree

The majority of the wildlife I saw consisted of plants, insects and spiders. Never have I seen so many different kinds of unique plants and insects. Word of warning: if you don’t like spiders, don’t go to Tiputini! I enjoyed seeing all of the different kinds of spiders, but I’m sure some people wouldn’t enjoy that.  I also saw three types of monkeys: wooly monkeys, howler monkeys, and the rare pigmy monkey. The birds I saw consisted of curassows, toucans, a heron-type bird and many smaller birds. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see many amphibians or reptiles, which I heard is common on a two day stay.

An interesting black and yellow spider

An interesting black and yellow spider

The climate: hot and very humid during the afternoons where it didn’t rain. When it rained, the temperature was actually quite nice. It was so humid one afternoon that I was dripping sweat, despite not physically exerting myself. For this reason, they recommend putting electronics in a bag of rice or in special “dry boxes” that they have at the station.

How can I best describe the experience? It was like summer camp or outdoor school but 100x better. We had down time where we played cards, hung out, and ate together like at camp. However, we weren’t just in any location, we were in the real Amazon Jungle, where we got to see an almost untouched forest, and incredible wildlife.

Next stop: Galapagos!