Thursday, January 19, 2006

I've been traveling

In case you are wondering why I haven't finished the Africa postings yet, I have a simple explanation: I've been traveling. More to come soon!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Celebrating the Holidays in South America

Around Miami
Christmas in Miami (December 25)
Marvelous Miami Deco (December 26)

Arrival (December 27)
Touring in Lima (December 27)
A few thoughts about Lima (December 27)
Introduction to Cuzco (December 28)
Sacsayhuaman (December 29)
A Shopping Trip (December 29)
On our own in Cuzco (December 29)
Along the way to Machu Picchu (December 30)
Machu Picchu in the Rain (December 30)
A Perfect Morning at Machu Picchu (December 31)
Aguas Caliente (December 31)
New Year's Eve in Cuzco (December 31)
Chincheros in the Sacred Valley (January 1)
Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley (January 1)
Lunch in the Sacred Valley (January 1)
Pisac's Market (January 1)

Quito (January 2)
North of Quito (January 3)
To the Galapagos (January 4)
Aboard the Galapagos Explorer (January 4)
The Galapagos: Morning on Espanola Island (January 5)
The Galapagos: Afternoon on Santa Cruz Island (January 5)
The Galapagos: Morning on Genovesa Island (January 6)
The Galapagos: Afternoon at Darwin Bay (January 6)
Leaving the Galapagos (January 7)
Quito's Basilica (January 8)
A Parade Through Quito (January 8)
Old Town Quito (January 8)
Above Quito (January 8)
To the Cloud Forest (January 9)

The Details
Notes and Comments (January 10)

All photos are mine unless otherwise noted.

For those of you who were on this trip with us: These are pretty low-resolution photos - if you would like higher quality copies of any of my images, please contact me at:

Other Posts Related to Peru and Ecuador
Maybe I COULD Do the Inca Trail (August 31, 2007)

Monday, January 9, 2006

Ecuador: To The Cloud Forest

Previous Post: Above Quito

Those of us flying into Miami have another full day in Quito. Rather than spending it in town, a group of us have arranged with Eduardo to visit a cloud forest.

We begin by retracing the first part of our route through the gorge(s) from our earlier trip to Otavalo. We pass a few flower-filled greenhouses and then arrive at the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) complex. We had not planned to stop here -we will have too little time in the cloud forest as is, however, despite a general lack of interest, Eduardo doesn't want us to miss this important Ecuadorian tourist site. The complex (a monument, museums, shops, a tourist village, etc.) is closed when we arrive and, despite our bus driver's best efforts to sneak in, we are unable to enter. Now let's get to the cloud forest!

Our first stop (at the end of a short detour) provides a view into Pululahua Crater, carpeted with small farms and hosting a geobotanical reserve on its slope.

The scenery is becoming spectacular: Steep mountains carpeted with tall trees. The earth road drops straight down below us and every bend reveals another magnificent view. I wish I were traveling through here in my own vehicle so I could stop along the way and soak in the wonderful wild scene.

Our next stop is the El Pahuma Orchid Reserve. This small reserve has a collection of carefully tended orchids, forested hillsides, abundant bird life, and a small stream complete with waterfall.

We start our tour with a short, slightly slippery hike the waterfall. The air is moist and the surrounding vegetation luxuriant. Thick stands of slim trees tower over dense tropical undergrowth.

Eduardo warned us in advance that it has been dry and that there may not be many orchids in bloom. He is correct, but there are still a good number of plants displaying amazing intricate, and often miniscule flowers. Walk too quickly and they are easy to miss. Of course, a magnifying glass would have proved helpful too!

Back on the road we pass through more spectacular mountain scenery. Wow.

We turn down increasingly smaller roads, ending up on what is essentially a wide dirt track. Despite the decrease in road quality, there are actually more signs of human habitation here. In places the wooded hillsides yield to open pastures where cattle graze and an occasional home or the rooftop of an otherwise concealed resort. Signs direct visitors to unseen shops and lodges.

At last we enter Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, which focuses on education. As if to prove this point, a student group is settling in as we arrive.

We will be having lunch here in the thatched geodesic dome that is at the center of the facility. However, until then, we are free to wander the nearby paths and watch a multitude of hummingbirds taking their own lunch at the numerous feeding stations. The hummingbirds blend into the leafy undergrowth, but when I look closely, it seems as if there are hummingbirds everywhere!

It begins to rain during lunch. Not a surprise, really, since Eduardo's explanation of cloud forest weather systems included the fact that morning humidity builds up and condenses into afternoon rainfall. It rains very hard.

It is still misty, but the rain has mostly stopped by the time we finish lunch.

Outside the hummingbirds have been joined by beautiful tropical birds. A lovely red, white and bluish masked trogon cooperatively poses on a branch. However, the rest flit about in the dark undergrowth, leaving me with images of blurred bright colors in both my memory and on my camera.

Being that we are in the cloud forest, where daily rain is a fact of life, there are plenty of umbrellas for everyone (unfortunately, I forgot to bring the umbrella hats!) and we follow Eduardo into the misty forest.

Our walk is too short and most of the birds are hunkered down out of the rain. Still, it is lovely to be out here. I wish we had more time.

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Ecuador: View from Above Quito

Previous Post: Quito's Old Town

For an afternoon activity, Eduardo recommends taking the new cable car up to a viewpoint on Pichincha volcano. This suggestion elicits groans from the rest of our altitude weary group, but I think it sounds great.

Soon a cab drops Lane and me and Mark and Kathy at the lowest level of a series of restaurants, fast food arcades, and amusement parks. We have no idea where the terminal is and the information desk we were told to seek out is unstaffed, so we wander through the people milling about, instinctively working our way up the mountainside. Soon we come across a series of "TeleferiQo" signs that lead us to the terminal.

The huge terminal is packed. Long lines snake back on themselves, making it hard to discern where one begins and another ends. However, a more careful look shows that the situation isn't very complicated. There are two separate lines for the boarding area, one of which is significantly shorter than the other. I spot a "FastPass" sign above the shorter - almost non-existent - one. Does this mean there is a way to avoid a very, very long wait?

We turn our attention back to the ticket booth. Regular tickets are $3.50 each, but one sign seems to indicate that this window sells tickets for $7 each. There is a tiny "FastPass" sign in the corner of this sign. I'm still mulling over this application of the term "FastPass" for a simple ticket upgrade (why not call it "express" service?) while the others sort out where the proper line begins.

Finally we are in line to board the cable car. We still have to wait some and I watch the distant sky nervously. As the day goes on, the cloud cover increases. Eduardo had assured us that it is worth going up even on a cloudy day, but I am hoping that the clear skies will hold long enough to give us a view of some of the other volcanoes that surround the city.

The TeleferiQo has 18 cars, each of which can hold 6 passengers. The staff loads a few cars with people from the "FastPass" line and then a few from the other line. It is extremely organized and efficient, but the vast majority of the other passengers are families with children - usually mom, dad, and three kids - so it doesn't move very quickly. I can't imagine how many hours we would have had to wait had we paid the lower fare.

At last it is our turn. A car arrives, still swinging slightly from the passengers who just disembarked, and I scramble in.

We depart at 9,680 feet and climb to 3,600 ft in 8-10 minutes. The cars are completely quiet as they rise high above the mountain's slopes. We can see the city far behind us. Below, the landscape changes from woods to rich grassy pastures (with grazing dairy cattle) and to rocky moorlands.

We exit the car at about 13,000 feet.

A serious of foot paths lead out and up over the slope to observation points that provide spectacular views of the city far, far below us.

We eat a late lunch in a restaurant with an expansive view of the city far below us.

Ecuador: Old Town Quito

Previous Post: A Parade Through Quito

Our guide Eduardo leads us through the colorful colonial buildings and into an open courtyard inside the Archbishop's Palace, which is lined with balconies hosting small shops and delightful-looking restaurants.

I wish we had more time in Quito so we could spend a couple of evenings here.

After lingering a bit, we walk through a cool dark passageway and unexpectedly find ourselves facing a sunny plaza, the Plaza Grande or Independence Plaza.

A large statue presides over the plaza's center and, from where I stand, palm fronds frame a graceful white tower of the cathedral Iglesia El Sagrario. The church practicaly sparkels in the sun.

It is a warm and inviting tropical scene.

To the right is the Palacio de Gobierno, Ecuador's seat of government, topped by the Ecuadorian flag.

The plaza itself is lively, with the parade just ending and a festival of some sort beginning. Food stands and amplifiers are already in place and families are gathering. Young children swarm around.

Eduardo carefully moves our group around the edge of the square, avoiding both young women with baby strollers and playing children.

We go around the corner and stop there, at the side of the religious complex that includes El Sagrario. From here Eduardo points out some of graceful colonial mansions and churches all around us. This area is filled with churches and steeples rise into the sky on all sides. Religious and secular alike, at our level all these buildings have wonderful details

Slightly farther down the street I am facing the overwhelmingly ornate fa├žade of La Compania.

Eduardo has been scurrying about and now explains that we will be able to enter the church once mass ends. While we wait along the narrow street, street vendors offer postcards for sale, giving us a preview of the splendor to come.

Finally the doors of La Compania open and people begin to slowly stream out of the church. A few of the women carry flowers. Soon the departing worshippers are joined by a man dressed in street clothes and carrying a statue of what appears to be Jesus as a toddler. A few of the women with flowers stop him in order to spend a moment with the statue. Some sprinkle flower petals around and over the statue and its bearer. I know that today is the first Sunday after Epiphany, but my mid-west Lutheran upbringing is inadequate to explain the scene before me. Eduardo is equally unable to provide an explanation. (I wish Lucho were here -- I'm sure he would be able to provide me with an explanation!)

Once the crowd at the entrance to the church dissipates, we are allowed inside.

Inside it is dark and quiet, but the walls and ceilings glisten in the low golden light. Built by the Jesuits between 1605 and 1768, La Compania is awash in tons of gold. Worshipers are gathering for the next service, so I opt not to walk to stand between them and the alter at the front of the sanctuary. Even from the side aisle it is clear that the alter and it's surround is an astounding mass of gold. Most of this is too heavy and Baroque for my taste, but toward the front of the church, high up and to either side of the sanctuary, the decoration becomes abstract and geometric, actually Moorish in appearance. I decide this is my favorite feature - until we return to the door to leave. At the door where we first entered I am startled to realize that a delicate circular staircase twists up along one side of the door, while an identical faux version is painted on the other side. The staircase is light and airy, simple yet graceful, and I am delighted by it.

On the street again we continue our tour. By now the sun is getting hot and the streets are busy.

Even here, in the heart of the historic city, Quito's hills always rise above the buildings. They provide a soft green backdrop to the city's brightly painted buildings.

In no time at all we are at the sweeping Plaza San Francisco and its namesake church.

The Iglesia San Francisco is described as the largest and oldest colonial edifice in the city, although the impact of various earthquakes over the years probably ensures that little of the original structure remains.

Like so many of the churches we have seen in both Ecuador and Peru, this one is described as being heavily gilded and featuring imagery adapted from the Inca. I don't think I can stand any more over-the-top Baroque carvings gilded with the melted artistic treasurers of the Inca empire. Too much of the old world has been carried over into the new: The art of an entire culture destroyed in order to out-do the churches of Spain - and with just enough local imagery to add some legitimacy to the conquering culture. These churches are masterpieces, but I've seen enough.

It is a beautiful day and the plaza is bright and sunny, surrounded by attractive buildings and filled with lively and interesting people.

It is a glorious place to be.

We wander the plaza for awhile and then join our friends at a pleasant outdoor restaurant. From here we are able to watch local life going on around us.

We are also treated to the sight of the three kings as they cross the plaza to return to their cars to change and pack up their costumes. The sight of them, still on stilts, loading their gear into a rather small car is most entertaining and a fitting ending to the morning.