Archive for the ‘Ecuador’ Category

Quitting Quito

Posted: December 5, 2012 in Ecuador, USA

Some days are long, and some days are really loong.

We have said lots of goodbyes, and this morning it was our turn to leave. Our flight was scheduled for 10.15, so we caught the 8am shuttle from the hotel. Max & Kerry came down to say goodbye in their jammies & waved us off. And then there were two.

We found our queue for checking in with a little difficulty, and were lined up by 8.15. The queue was long but really didn't seem to be moving very fast. By 9am there were still so many people ahead of us I was sure we would not make our flight. I tried not to worry as it seemed everyone was waiting for the same flight. Soon we heard a rumour that the flight was delayed until 2.26pm. I checked the board and it still said 10.15. I was sure someone would have notified us if there was a 4 hour delay, and I was getting worried since we only had a 90 minute turnaround in Miami to catch our next flight to Houston.

At this point we remembered Keith has Priority Access so joined the shorter queue and eventually reached the front. The board had finally updated to reflect the 2.26 departure – still no announcement, but it seemed the rumour was true. When we eventually were served the American Airlines staff were very helpful. They had already rescheduled us onto a later connecting flight, gave us a lunch voucher, and even escorted us to an office and made a call to Jan to let her know we'd be late, since she was picking us up in Houston.

We had 4 hours to fill in at the airport – a sleep in would have been better! It turned out the incoming flight had had mechanical problems and was diverted to Panama, so I was glad we weren't on that plane! We found a cafe with decent food and free wi-fi, and filled in the time until we had to go through security. On the other side we found some nice shops, and more free wi-fi so the 4 hours went quickly enough. The flight was not full and we had an empty seat next to us, so were able to spread out, which makes a lot of difference.

We arrived in Miami International Airport, which is a seriously big airport. We managed to clear customs and negotiate the various queues with only a moderate amount of confusion (Keith's Priority Access was a huge help), caught the Sky Train to gate 51, found a cafe to get some dinner (It was around 7pm, and we knew there would not be food on the domestic flight to Houston) and then settled down to wait. The flight before ours at the gate was still being called about 30 minutes before ours was due, so we got that sinking feeling again that we were not going anywhere soon.

Eventually our 9.20 flight took off at around 10.30pm. It was a 3 hour flight, and I pretty much slept the whole way, thankfully. We landed in Houston at 11.45 local time (that was 12.45 Quito time) and went to collect our luggage, optimistic that our long day was coming to an end. But there was no sign of luggage, nothing to indicate it was coming soon, and no-one to ask. After maybe 30 minutes of waiting and wondering the bags appeared on the carousel marked with the details of a flight from Chicago – I guess there was no-one still there at that time of night to update the signs. Jan was waiting for us, and we gladly hopped into her blue Prius for the drive to Tiki Island.

By the time we had a cuppa and a bit of a catch up, settled in our room and collapsed into bed it was 2.45am (or 3.45am Quito time). What a long and exhausting day!

First world problems!


Out and About in the Andes

Posted: December 3, 2012 in Ecuador

As a rule I plan my travel very thoroughly, and know exactly where I want to go & what we are doing. That didn't happen today. We had booked a bus trip to some markets in a nearby town which Jess & Chris recommended. I assumed we would just be driven to the markets & collected, but it turned out to be that and so much more.

Our guide for the day was our old friend Oscar who accompanied us to the Cloud Forest yesterday. He was eager to show us much more of the area than just a market, and we had a wonderful day. Around half the group have already left Ecuador, so there were only 7 of us on the bus (plus Oscar and Marcelo the driver). We were collected at 8.30 and headed out of Quito.

Quito is situated in the Andes Mountains. It is a very hilly city, and surrounded by towering peaks, some snow covered. Driving through the surrounding countryside was just lovely, with mountain vistas, small villages, and cultivated fields. The mountains are permanently covered in clouds, but it was a clear day with blue skies, and quite warm, which was a bonus.

The first port of call was “La Mitad del Mundo” – the middle of the earth, which is a sundial marking the site of the equator. It was fun to stand with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern, and there was a surprisingly interesting presentation about the solar clock, the equator, pre-Incan archaeological sites and how we draw the map of the world the wrong way.

At the middle of the world.

Nearby, in a small town called Cayambe, Oscar took us to a little bakery where they make the local speciality, Biscochos, a crumbly pastry/biscuit and a cheese called Queso de Hoja, which was a little like fresh mozzarella. Of course we all had to taste the product – both were quite delicious.

Biscochos - Oscar explaining the fine points of cooking biscochos - the cheese doesn't look appetising here but it was scrummy

We stopped at a little view point to admire the snow capped mountains and the lake beneath. It was a lovely view, even if the lookout was somewhat touristy – there was a young boy in traditional dress posing with a llama and an alpaca for photos, the look somewhat spoiled by the fact that he was eating his lunch out of a styrofoam bowl. When we left there we were accompanied by a young native Ecuadorean woman called Christina who demonstrated the national dress and sang a couple of songs in the native tongue. She also had some shawls she happened to be selling, but since they were pretty and very inexpensive we all bought a few.

Views from the lookout, alpaca, llama & a couple of locals. We noticed many native Ecuadoreans wearing the traditional costume, not just for tourists.

Eventually we reached Otavalo, the site of the market. On Saturdays it is a bustling farmers market, but the rest of the week they sell local handicrafts – alpaca wool jumpers and ponchos, rugs, jewellery, carvings, musical instruments and more. We had an enjoyable wander and bought a few things, but didn't get too carried away. There was a bit of the usual hard sell, but we didn't find it too intimidating. We probably paid more than we needed to for what we did buy, but it was all very cheap.

The colourful Otavalo Markets

Some nice doors around the Otavalo main square

By now it was 1.30 and time for lunch. Oscar promised to take us to a little place he knew – it turned out to be a hacienda, a lovely old ranch house set in beautiful gardens. We were welcomed by a mariachi band, and had a great meal in very elegant surrounds. Unexpected but delightful.

Our classy lunch at the Hacienda - my new favourite soup, Locra (potato soup with cheese & avocado), Keith & I with Max & Kerry enjoying the nice surrounds.

The drive back to Quito was quite long but very scenic. I think most of us slept part of the way, but we all enjoyed the scenery of the Andes and were glad of the opportunity to see a bit more of the areas than we had expected. A great way to spend our last day in Ecuador.

Views through the bus window.

We got back to the hotel in time to say goodbye to Chris & Jess. They did such a great job in organising and running this trip, teaching us photography skills, being unfailingly cheerful & helpful. It was a privilege to travel with them!

By dinner time there were 6 of us left, and we met in the hotel restaurant for a light meal and a last catch up. It's a funny thing, travelling for 2 weeks with a group of strangers who quickly become friends. It was a really good group, with people of different backgrounds, ages and careers, but with a common interest in travel, photography and wildlife, and we all got along famously.


Head in the Clouds

Posted: December 2, 2012 in Ecuador

Today was a bonus day, and it was certainly that. As we were all staying an extra night in Quito, Jess & Chris organised an outing to an area in the mountains that surround Quito called the Cloud Forest. It is a beautiful area of deep valleys and cloud-shrouded hills covered in dense rainforest.

After a buffet breakfast at the hotel we were picked up by bus at 8.30. Our guide Oscar was a charming young man who entertained us with stories of life in Ecuador as we drove to the Cloud Forest. Our first stop was a service station for a refueling stop – for the bus and for us. He had told us that Ecuador makes the best chocolate in the world, so we were keen to try some – but all they had were Hershey Bars and the like.

The drive was longish (well over an hour) and I'm afraid I dozed for some of it. It was interesting driving though the city and suburbs of Quito, and then along a winding road through the hills. We arrived at our first destination which was a walk to a pretty waterfall, through an area of native orchids. It was very pretty and we loved being in the rainforest and taking photos of flowers, frogs, lizards and the waterfall. Oscar had to chase us out of the forest and back onto the bus or we would have stayed there all day.

The Cloud Forest

Orchids (mostly) in the rainforest.

We arrived at Bella Vista Lodge in time for lunch. Bella Vista is an ecolodge deep in the forest, where we stopped for lunch but also to photograph hummingbirds. There are many endemic hummingbirds in the Cloud Forest, and Bella Vista has a number of feeders which attract them. We spent a happy couple of hours trying to get the perfect photograph – tricky, considering how fast those tiny birds fly! I dread to count how many photos I took but I actually filled 2 memory cards. Amongst those there are lots of shots of empty branches! Some of the group (including Keith) also went for a rather strenuous walk through the forest, which is a magical place. They saw toucans and woodpeckers, but couldn't get any photos of them. There were however lots of opportunities for macro shots of flowers, berries, mushrooms and a tiny frog.

Just a few of the hundreds of hummingbird photos we took today

It was quite a long drive back, and we encountered a bit of traffic, so we were glad to get to the hotel at about 6.30. We went straight out for dinner at TGI Fridays, which is apparently a North American restaurant – tasty food, huge servings. The menu was amusing – the names of the dishes were all in English, but the descriptions in Spanish, and the waitress seemed to struggle with the English names. Keith & I played it safe after last night and both had steak.

Half the group are leaving tomorrow, either to go home or on to further adventures. It was sad to say goodbye but we will keep in touch. I am glad we still have some holiday ahead of us!


Planes, buses & boats

Posted: December 1, 2012 in Ecuador

Should be a pretty short post today, as we spent most of the day in transit.

We started ridiculously early with a 5.15am pickup at our hotel. We were taken by minibus to the wharf, where a water taxi took us to our boat for the 3 hour crossing back to Baltra Island and the International Airport. The flight back to Quito (with a refuelling stop in Guayaquil) was smooth, and after a bus ride from the airport (squished onto the bus with all our luggage) we finally arrived at the hotel at around 5pm.

We are staying in a Best Western Hotel, and it is very comfortable. We have a little suite, with a bedroom, bathroom (with spa) and a small sitting room, and walk in wardrobe. The lap of luxury. It's not the quietest place as there have been loud functions on each night, but at least there isn't the street noise we had in Guayaquil.

After a meet up in the hotel bar, we headed to a nearby Argentinian steakhouse for dinner. Keith and I ordered a shared platter of meats for 2. Unfortunately our Spanish wasn't good enough to translate all the 'meats' on the platter, many of which were unidentified squishy things that clearly were internal organs of some kind. Fortunately there was way too much food on the platter, so we ate our fill of steak, which was delicious.

Looking forward to a couple of days in Quito, then to Galveston Texas.

Why a kill?

Posted: November 18, 2012 in Ecuador

After a lovely long sleep in to recover from the very late night last night (we finally fell into bed at 2.37am) we planned a lazy day today … that's how I probably should be starting this post! However what actually happened was less sensible but more fun. I'll start again.

Many of our fellow Galapagos travellers are staying at this hotel, and were meeting for breakfast at 8am. We were keen to join them and set our alarms accordingly. There was a wedding on in the hotel, and we finally fell asleep to the sound of loud Latin music so when the alarm went off it didn't feel like much time had passed. Oh that's right – it hadn't! Breakfast was good & it was great to meet David, Karen, Vicki, Russell, Noel & Jenny and reconnect with Max, Chris & Jess. Still waiting for a few stragglers to arrive in town.

Across the road from the hotel is a park called (I think unofficially, but I'm not quite sure) the Iguana Park, because of the number of Iguanas that live there. As keen wildlife photographers that was too good an opportunity to pass up, so we scooted over there after breakfast. I was surprised to see large numbers of them in the trees, as well as on the grass. We took, you won't be surprised to hear, a number of photos.

Just a few iguana shots

Next to the park is the Guayaquil's main Cathedral, so we popped in for a visit. The original wooden cathedral had been destroyed by fire, this one dates from 1948, though it is in the Gothic Style. From there we headed to the riverfront, where an extensive development has turned a rather shady district into a lovely riverfront walk called Malecon 2000, with boardwalks, lagoons, playgrounds, cafes, museums, an Imax etc. A delightful stroll, although it was already warming up. The weather wasn't the greatest for sight-seeing, it was hot and muggy, and very hazy.

Scenes around Guayaquil

One of the highlights of a visit to Guayaquil is the walk (climb) to the lighthouse at Santa Ana, through the historic neighbourhood called Las Peñas. This 400 year old district has been somewhat renovated with the houses painted bright colours. There are many artists and galleries there, as well as a vibrant night-life. The steps are even numbered, and in the heat it was a bit of a slog, but the view from the top was incredible. My favourite part though was walking through the narrow lanes and pretty coloured houses of this old section of town.

On the way up - note the numbers on the steps.

The big hill - all 444 steps worth

Having reached the top (and I got Keith to take my photo next to sep #444 to prove it) we looked for a shady spot for a cool drink. There are lots of tiny bars / cafes which look like the resident has opened up a room of their house to make some money. We chose one with a great view and playing the nicest Latin music, and ordered a drink. The waitress, who looked about 15, didn't speak any English and we don't know any Spanish, so communicating was challenging. She didn't even understand “Coca Cola” which I thought was a universal language these days. So we ended up with a bottle we thought was cider but turned out to be beer. Not quite what I had in mind but cold and wet, and we had a great table on the verandah. We decided to brave it and order some lunch. We knew 'pollo' means chicken but had no idea what we were ordering. It turned out to be Arroz con Menestra y Pollo Asada – which Wikipedia says is the most traditional food of Ecuador – delicious grilled chicken with lovely spices, rice and beans. Really tasty. And cheap – $9 for 2 meals and 2 beers.

A lunch to remember

We came down the hill a different route, and enjoyed more stairs and more charming vistas. But by then the late night was catching up with us and we decided to take up the local habit of a siesta. The air-con in our hotel room was very appealing. After a refreshing sleep we met the rest of the group for dinner at a restaurant on the waterfront. Keith and I decided to forego the all-you-can-eat-crab special and settled on seafood ceviche, also a local speciality. It was a fun evening catching up with old friends and getting to know new ones. There was a great atmosphere on the Malecon, with lots of people, music, children, lights and a general party atmosphere.

Tomorrow the real adventure begins as we fly to the Galápagos Islands first thing in the morning. Breakfast at 6, in the car by 6.40 to head to the airport. No rest for the wicked. We are all really excited and looking forward to the experiences we will enjoy there. Can't wait!

PS If you're wondering about my title, “why-a-kill” is the correct way to pronounce Guayaquil 🙂


Chihuly Dooley

Posted: November 17, 2012 in Ecuador, USA

Mary is the most organised person I know. (Next time you come to Oz, Mary, I’m putting you to work in my study!). We didn’t need to be at the airport until noon, so she figured we could get to the Dallas Arboretum to see the Chihuly Glass exhibition if we left her house at 7.30, all packed and ready to go. That meant a rather early wake up, but since our bodies are still not quite adjusted to local time, it wasn’t too difficult an ask. And she had promised us left overs of yesterday’s delicious “breakfast casserole” (which was even better, if that’s possible, second time around – and yes, I did get the recipe!).

We had heard a lot about the Chihuly exhibit, and had hoped to see it, but it was scheduled to finish last month. Much to our delight, it was so popular they decided to extend it so we got to see it after all. Rain was forecast but the morning was clear, if somewhat chilly 30 deg F (yes, folks, that’s around -2 deg C) and a crisp frost on the ground. By the time we got to the Arboretum it was sunny and almost warm, and the sky was clear and blue – perfect! We entered as soon as it opened, so we had the place almost to ourselves and had a delightful 2 hours wandering, photographing and enjoying the gardens, the incredible glass sculptures, and the ‘fall’ festival displays.

We left the gardens in time to get to the airport for our flight to Guayaquil, in Ecuador, via a brief stopover in Miami. They say everything is bigger in Texas, and we were struck by the amount of space between buildings. Even in the CBD (downtown) there are open air car parks around office towers, and we saw many huge malls surrounded by vast open space. No wonder they need so many multi-lane freeways and those incredible spaghetti-like interchanges!

We are excited to be embarking on the next leg of this trip. I am writing this on the plane, so by the time I post it we will be in Ecuador, a country (and continent) neither of us has visited before. We had a great time in McKinney, Texas with Mary, and are very grateful for Mary and Rick’s generous hospitality.

PS. To save scrolling through endless photos, I have created collages using an iPad app called Diptic. Enjoy.

So many roads, so many cars

Dallas Arboretum is a beautiful botanic garden

I know they;re varmin, but they are cute varmin 🙂

Going early meant great light for photos

Every work is stunningly beautiful

The sculptures come in all shapes and colours

With some friends in the Arboretum

There were thousands of pumpkins!

Footnote – it is now nearly 2am and we are finally in our hotel room at Guayaquil. Our flight was uneventful except for a 45 minute delay while they tried to fit everyone’s oversize carry-on bags into the overhead lockers. We were expecting a ‘driver’ to pick us up but instead were met by Chris & Frank (our guides/hosts/organisers) in a cab (“bit of a mix-up”), and then waited in the lobby for an extended period because apparently they had re-let our room and there were no others available. A lot of heated words in Spanish were exchanged (not by us!) and in the end Frank moved out of his room so we could move in – thanks Frank!! Welcome to Ecuador!

The room is very comfortable, however, and we will sleep well tonight – what’s left of it!