Monday, December 22, 2014

A Ball en Baños

December 21, 2014

"The Swing"
Tungurahua obscured by clouds

Last week I had the chance to go to Baños, Ecuador with expat friends Dan and Annette, Annette’s mom, Pat (who is visiting from Canada) and Bob and Novena.  What a great time we had!
We booked our rooms at the Hostel Erupción for Friday, Saturday and Sunday night.

Bob and Novena took a Thursday night 10PM or so red-eye bus out of the Santa Elena bus station to Baños (though it is billed as “direct”, there is a bus change in Ambato).  It costs $11, executive style bus, and arrived in Baños around 7AM Friday morning.

(One sour note – During the trip, Novena heard “scuttling around” noises coming from the luggage bin underneath the bus.  When they got to Baños, she discovered her camera and some cash missing from her suitcase stored there.  They filed a complaint with the bus line, but not expecting much response from them, since it likely was an “inside” job if it was stolen by someone with access to the luggage compartment…Hard lesson learned…
Listen, folks – when traveling on buses here, always, always, always keep your valuables (laptops, cameras, important papers and identification, cash) with you.  Do not put it under your seat (someone behind can slash bag open and steal).  Put it where you can see it at all times, preferably right in front of you, or even better – use that carry-on as a pillow).

Dan, Annette, Pat and I drove there in their truck, leaving on a Thursday morning.  Our plan was to drive north through Jipijapa (pronounced “hippy-hoppa”) to Santo Domíngo de los Colorados to spend Thursday afternoon/evening to explore that area on our way there.
However, when we got to Jipijapa, we actually believed the route our not-so-bright GPS lady was telling us (despite some sorta gut feelings, and the vague and outdated maps we had with us that she was sending us in the wrong direction) – which she did...  
We ended up heading back south, towards Guayaquil, and by the time we confirmed this mistake (on the outskirts of Guayaquil) we had no choice but to push back north from there, through Babahoyo, San Miguel and ended up in Guaranda just as it was getting dark and checked into a budget hotel there.
For the most part, we enjoyed the detour, since we got to see a lot of central Ecuador (much of it agricultural and/or grazing land) - truly the “breadbasket” of this country, especially around the San Miguel area.

The town square of Guaranda was
brilliantly blazing with holiday lights, and
reminded me of KC "Plaza Lights"

Town square of Guaranda in daylight.

On Friday morning, not too far out of Guaranda, we had a choice to take the main highway towards Ambato or take the old road (apparently, all roads to Baños/Tungurahua lead through Ambato).
The four of us opted for the back road, though we knew it would take more time.  We tremendously enjoyed that drive through a number of indigenous villages along the way, and got into Baños by early afternoon.

This view of  Chimborazo seen along
the "old" route we chose..

One view from the 4th level balcony
from Hotel Eruption.
A few tables and chairs added to that
terrace would be a good addition.  

We stayed at the budget Hostel Erupción, located adjacent to the main plaza in town, and met up with Bob and Novena there.
After some confusion about our on-line room reservations when we checked in (and took a couple of hours to resolve - which we pleasantly spent in the hostel’s restaurant/bar while waiting), we got settled into our rooms.  It’s an agreeable enough hotel; the restaurant there has nice ambience, a diverse menu – I thought the “Locro de Papa” (an Ecuadorian potato and cheese soup) was particularly tasty – and the staff at Hostel Erupción was super, super helpful and friendly.   For the money, it was a decent place to stay, although in-room wifi was virtually non-existent in Dan & Annette’s room – at the end of a hallway furthest from the router, so try and get a room near the staircase. I was in one of those rooms, and had no problem getting on-line while I was there.

Cuy served here.
Why am I reminded of the old
"Hamster Dance" tune?

On Saturday, we split up; some for massages, some for exploring the town, all of us hitting at least one of the in-town thermal springs, though none of us made it to presumably the best hot spring there – the “Termas El Salado” at the base of Volcan Tungurahua, said to be especially spectacular at night, when it is lit up. There wasn’t time to squeeze this one in.

We had Saturday night dinner at a French restaurant that generally gets good reviews. We found the meal and service lackluster, but maybe we just hit it on an “off” night, or ordered the less than stellar menu options.  After that, we spent time exploring more of Baños at night (festively decorated for the holidays) and ended up on one street that had a wide choice of bars. We parked ourselves in one of those for a while.   

"Hamster Dance" - thanks/courtesy to you guys who came up with it...Has always made my day.

Something about Baños at night seemed reminiscent of New Orleans in a way – a “quaint” Bourbon street vibe, I thought.

Photo  - Courtesy of Novena

On Sunday morning, we all went on a 4-hr double-decker bus tour that featured the area cascadas (waterfalls) and a pass by of Tungurahua Volcano. Tungurahua is somewhat currently active now, but not enough to be afraid of visiting this town, and there are several hills and valleys that protect Baños from lava flows.
That double-decker tour bus left at 10:30 in the morning, and I’m pretty sure you can buy tickets for this tour from any number of tour agencies in town. 

We bought our tickets from one of them – the day before - cost of $6 each, and make a beeline for stairway to top of bus as soon as you get on. May or may not be crowded on top.
We had a wonderful time!
This tour offers several opportunities/stops along the way to take cable cars/zip lines across a few canyons as well.
This tour also basically turns around after passing the volcano, towards some of the best waterfalls in other direction, and heads down the "old road" to Rio Blanco, the "gateway" to the Amazon rain forest of Ecuador. 
Along this route is also the best and longest zip line in Ecuador. 
On bucket list for next trip here.

Volcan Tungurahua

Me. On one of the ziplines along the way
Photo Courtesy of
Canopy Baños San Martin photographers. 

One of the tunnels we went through towards
the best known waterfalls.

The original old road/gateway between Baños and
the  Amazon rain forest in Ecuador.
Once considered the most perilous road in Ecuador,
has since been improved (in the last 7 years or so)
 with pavement and guard-rails.

Standing underneath the
"Puertos del Cielo"
(Doors of Heaven)

Especially enjoyed the Pailón Del Diablo..
The "Devil's Caldron" Waterfall.

On that day from rope-swing bridge.
What a blessing to see the Almighty
show up with
 this rainbow of promise.

"Do one thing a day that scares you"

After we got back, we went in different directions for the rest of the afternoon.
I made a bee-line to the "Tree Swing at the End of the World"(ask driver to take you to "La Casa del Arbol" -- $20 taxi ride from town, with driver waiting till this accomplished).
I have seen so many photos of it and thought “oh, HELL NO!” ...but, of course, I couldn't resist giving it a shot once I got there.
And so glad I did it!
It was a blast (!) and not as scary as it looks from most pictures.

We reconnoitered at Hostel Erupción around cocktail time on late Sunday afternoon, and we had a wonderful meal at the steak house “Bambu" before Bob/Novena and I caught the 10PM bus from Baños back to Santa Elena.  (Dan/Annette/Pat were driving to Cuenca for a few days after Baños).
That bus ride was not very comfortable (said by me, who instantly falls asleep on virtually any moving vehicle… the KC Chiefs could hold football practice in my bedroom at night, and I wouldn’t rouse).

But this bus ride back was a little rough (damn driver kept arbitrarily changing the temperature from hot to cold in the cabin at most sadistic times, made a number of stops so he could pee, get a drink, etc. and I didn’t get a wink of sleep).  It took me until the following Tuesday to get caught up on my rest.
Honestly, I was less jet-lagged coming back from Germany a few months ago.

That being said – I would do Baños again in a heartbeat, and can’t wait to return there!

A delightful scene I came across:
These jugglers
on my way back to taxi after
"The Swing"

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Clacker Balls

December 10, 2014

Courtesy of internet.
Photo-taking is discouraged at
this museo

I can’t believe I’ve lived here this long, and only recently heard about the Museo los “Amantes de Sumpa” (the “Lovers of Sumpa”) in nearby Santa Elena.
A new friend, Nelson Sears and I went to visit it a few weeks ago. (Nelson was in Olón for around a month, staying in the guest house of my friends, Annette and Dan.  Nelson is a Vermonter, has traveled Ecuador extensively, and is here again for a few months to see more).

It’s an easy half-day trip to do from Olón.  Nelson and I caught a morning Ruta del Sol southbound chicken bus to the Santa Elena bus terminal (either blue “CITUP” or the green “Manglaralto” buses go there - $1.50/pp).  The taxi ride to the museum from the bus station took less than 5 minutes and cost us a little over a buck.
The museum is free and very well done. The museum focuses on artifacts and remains that date back to 7000 BC, and were excavated from a southern Ecuadorian coastal archaeological site named Las Vegas/Las Vegas civilization.  The highlight is a man and woman from that era buried together entwined in an eternal embrace.
Well worth the trip.

Another day, we took a chicken bus north to walk a stretch of beach that’s known to have interesting shell-finds and artifacts that wash in from some ancient pueblos that are now under sea.  I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, ever since a local friend (who knows more about treasure hunting than I do) mentioned that beachcombing in this area sometimes yields some amazing finds, especially during low tide after a “churned-up” high tide.
In particular, we were looking for small, flat, colorful, round & smoothed disks with man-made holes in the center, made out of Spondylus shells (which come in a variety of colors – I think red/orange most common) .
In more ancient times along this coast, these were used as currency, and my treasure-hunting friend has an impressive necklace he wears of the ones he has found.

We met this local who did hit
the jackpot for octupus food.

We didn’t find any, but we had a delightful time and we still found some pretty neat stuff.
We had the bus drop us off in La Rinconada, and walked the beach south from there to Las Nuñez.
Ummm… the beach part around Rinconada is a little treacherous during low tide because of the exposed, mossy boulders that can be slippery.  I think when I do this again, I will go only a little further north of La Entrada and walk the beach south from there.   That is where we found our best finds.

My brother Jack came for a two-week visit this month. He arrived in Ecuador on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and we rendezvoused in Cuenca during his first week.  We enjoyed a lovely Thanksgiving at Doug and Pam’s house in Cuenca with amusing friends, and spent the last week on the coast.
It is always so fun to hang with him (I’m not a proud big sister or anything).

While I was in Cuenca, I also attended the Celebration of Life for Steve Beckman at the Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes.  It was a lovely, intimate, and joyful service, concluding in “globos del fuego” balloons launched.  Steve shined with warmth, genuine kindness, and friendly curiosity every time I was around him.  
His wife, Mary (South of Zero) says it more succinctly:
“On November 3rd he suffered a burst aneurism and passed away two days later. He was the happiest he’s ever been in his life and told me how grateful he was that we moved to Cuenca. He wanted to live in Ecuador for the rest of his life”.
And he did.

Here are how these globos are sent off.
From ground level in Cuenca.

The whole town of Olón is gearing up now for our annual town party.  It is a combination of Olón’s birthday and a saint holiday, which generally starts around December 10, lasts loud and 4-days long.
A LOT OF FUN (see "I Love Lucia" link).
It is also the time when the Ecuadorians love to display outdoor Christmas lights and/or interior lit-up trees that can be seen from the outside.  I think there might be a little competition going on in my local barrio, and grateful that the 8-function outside lights I hung last year (which I never took down) still work this year.
The school drummers and tinkle-triangles have been diligently practicing for the last month or so, and as an added noise bonus, this year …some vendor/politician must have come through town a couple of weeks ago, because I SWEAR EVERY – EVERY kid around the block between here and Montanita now has those annoying “clacker balls” and practicing with them.
Said with a smile.

The weather is absolutely glorious now.