This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Humming Along in Mindo

Like Papallacta, Mindo is an easy day or weekend trip from Quito and a great escape out of the city. But whereas Papallacta takes you up to hot springs high in the hills, a trip to Mindo will lead down into a cloud forest and river full of activities like tubing and birdwatching.
I have to pull myself across the river in this contraption to get to hiking trails in the forest
We roll into Mindo straight from Papallacta with an extra hour in Quito to cross from one bus terminal to the next. I am actually surprised how touristy Mindo is. The town is very small and clean with the one main road lined mostly with tour offices, small hotels and restaurants that look geared towards visitors, not for people from Mindo. It is the first place in South America that reminds me of Thailand where I often wondered if people were doing anything in these towns before tourism arrived. It is the type of place that is very busy on the weekends, mostly with Ecuadorians, and almost completely dead during the week apart from several foreigners loitering around town.
We find a nice wooden structure of a hotel sitting by a small river. It is quite beautiful and what one would expect in Mindo, but the constant rush of river is quite loud and I have several nights of interrupted sleep. Our hotel (and I think most others as well) has hummingbird feeders which are filled with sugar water. There are about seven different species buzzing back and forth between the trees and feeders. It is quite delightful to sit and watch them and we do so for what must be hours during our days in Mindo. I am though a bit concerned about an entire generation of hummingbirds being dependent on sugar water for their sustenance while ignoring the flowers all around them. Will having an endless supply of sugary drinks make hummingbirds fat and slovenly like it does some humans?

I have neither the proper camera lens nor the skill set to take stellar hummingbird photos, but I burn a lot of pixels trying:

Safety first
Our first activity is not to go into the cloud forest, but to glide over the trees on canopy zip lines. It is a course of ten cables of various lengths that takes us from platform to platform on top of the trees. After the first two lines I become accustomed to the harness, speed and safety of it all, so begin to relax and enjoy the parrot-like views of the tree tops. This is really an excellent activity and well worth the money. It costs just $10 - a complete bargain compared to other places like Costa Rica.

Hook up, second

Zip line, third
Getting stuck right before the final platform and needing to be rescued by the guide, fourth
Our next activity is not worth the money. We hitch a ride with a nice Ecuadorian couple to the butterfly pavilion that charges us $5 for a six minute lecture on the evolution of butterflies and unlimited time to try to get the insects to eat gooey bananas from our fingertips. I am not sure why I am so irked about this place. Maybe because of the lack of aesthetics of the place or maybe because only the big, brown, creepy looking butterflies accept my fruity finger while the cute, colorful critters just flutter away. Either way we feel like we got gypped.
"I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder:
Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?"
-- Chuang Tzu (369-286 BC)
Mindo has no ATM, well they have one but it is out of service. We are running low on cash so we must make a trip to the next town appropriately called Los Bancos (the banks) which kind of makes it the Switzerland of the region. Coming back from that dingy town I can appreciate much more the relaxing, quaint cleanliness of Mindo, the surrounding greenery and the population of cute but lazy hummingbirds.

Cacao seeds drying at a chocolate makers in Mindo 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Papallacta - Pretty Much Just Hot Springs

It feels like recently that I am blogging often about hot springs. Maybe because it is a thing to do in Colombia and Ecuador or maybe becuase it is a thing that we do in Colombia and Ecuador. I hope the blog isn't becoming redundant. Regardless, we find ourselves headed to another hot springs town. Carnival has ended in Ecuador, the captain has turned off the seat belt sign and we are free to leave Tena and move about the country.

Volcano Antizana
We now have a rough travel plan for the next couple of weeks which believe me is a big step for us since we are usually moving from one place to the next. We have already decided that we are going back to Quito for some shopping and then stay up in the Andes mountains. Our bus route to Quito takes us past Papallacta, a hot springs town so we make the obligatory soak stop.

Papallacta is a tiny little town sitting at roughly 3300 m ( 10,800 feet ) above sea level that pipes in hot springs from somewhere in the mountains. Just two hours by bus from Quito, the town gets many weekenders from the city. Even a day trip would be possible. There are several hotels of various quality some with their own hot springs tubs. Two km at the end of the hill from the highway sits the fanciest hotel with rooms starting at $129 without breakfast and just a piddly discount to their spa. I am not sure who is staying here but they are getting ripped off. This hotel also has pools for the general public which are the main draw to Papallacta.

Today, March 9, happens to be our sort of anniversary (official signing day, not wedding day) so we decide to splash out for $69 at a small hotel that has their own pools plus a private tub and fireplace in our room, breakfast included.
Our swanky pad
The next day and anniversary over we get back to our backpacker budget ways and move down hill to the only economical place in town. The Senora tells us that she has been in the business since the 80's and that they are 100% from Papallacta, a definite dig at all the carpetbaggers coming to town recently and opening new, pricey accommodations. She also has a very cheap restaurant.

We climb back up the hill to spend the day at the public pools run by the fancy hotel. Being a weekday there are very few people and very calm which is good. The hotel has eight or nine pools, with one tucked away in the corner of the property sitting by the edge of a river. Mika, much preferring a nature-based hot springs atmosphere to a YMCA public pool feeling, is very happy and we spend the rest of the afternoon lounging in warm water by the chilly river.
Hot Pool
Cold River
In other hot springs towns I have tried to write about other activities to do besides sitting in a pool of warm water, but in Papallacta there is really nothing else though people with cars might get to some interesting trail heads. We do manage to push ourselves into a giant trout farm for an impromptu tour. The farm was donated by Japan in 1996 and is now run by the Ecuadorian government which then sells small fish to other trout farms. The manager reluctantly acquiesced our request to visit the site, though he said no photos allowed. Protecting government aquatic lfe secrets I guess.

My logic is that since I have eaten trout for my last three meals in Papallacta, I might as well see where they are coming from. It is quite interesting. We see rainbow trout from orange egg - shown to us sucked up with a turkey baster - to really large ones sporting large pink stripes past their reproducing prime. By my estimate this trout fishery has produced millions of fish over the past sixteen years.
"Today Trout" and pretty much every other day also
We leave Papallacta. On the bus rides through the Andes we are always surrounded by big green mountains and the views never get tiring. Since it is a clear morning we have bright blue sky and perfect sight of the snow-capped volcano Antizana. As we wind down towards Quito we start to see the city and a thick pinkish gray cloud of pollution hanging over it. I actually do not have the mindset for a stay in Quito right now. Probably all of that mineral water has made me soft. So at the bus station instead of going into town, we cross town to the other bus station and go to Mindo. I'll deal with Quito later when the lingering affects of Papallacta's hot springs are long gone.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Foamed Fun at Carnival in Mishualli

I should probably not start off a blog post by publicly declaring my ignorance, but I had no idea that Carnaval (Carnival in Spanish) was such a big thing in South America -- and the world for that matter. I knew of course that in Rio de Janiero it is the big thing and there is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but I thought that's it. However, I was quite mistaken. Carnaval is celebrated all over in different forms.

Carnival here is a week long holiday. Schools are closed and many people are off of work. Events big and small are happening all around the country. This means that moving around Ecuador will be difficult. Buses and hotels will be filled with local travelers. To avoid unnecessary complications Mika and I decide to sit tight where we are in Tena until it all passes. Tena happens to be a thirty minute ride from Mishualli, a small town that is listed as one of the Top 5 places to be in Ecuador for Carnaval. There is a big concert on Sunday and we plan to attend along with about 10,000 other people.
Mishualli riverside during Carnaval
Where as in Rio and New Orleans Carnaval is all about beads and boobs, Ecuador is about the water and the carioca, spray foam in a can that quickly dissolves. Dousing and foaming strangers is not frowned upon, it is expected. I cannot verify this, but I have been told that this custom is unique to Ecuador. By mid-week we see the build up toward the big weekend slowly growing in town. Supermarket shelves are full of canned spray, while neighborhood boys have started engaging each other with home made water cannons. Walk past them at your own peril.
Spray foam for sale
On Carnaval Friday we make a small bus trip out of town. Children are waiting by the side of the road to spray passing vehicles with water before passengers can close their windows. I actually find this quite endearing because many of these kids in rural areas cannot afford to go to the events in Tena or Mishualli. This is their Carnaval.
A roadside ambush
On Sunday we head down to see what is happening in Mishualli. There is a big concert by the river with a three dollar cover charge that includes plenty of bands, beer, food stalls and water and cans of carioca. Foreigners make for obvious targets and quite soon we find ourselves drenched in water and covered in foam. We are entrenched in warfare with people much more heavily armed than our puny water bottles. Nothing is malicious or cruel. It is all in good fun here in Mishualli. 

The concert atmosphere is also enjoyable. The headlining act is Jorge Luis del Hierro who is sort of well known in Ecuador. I can tell this by the ear-shattering screams of the female teens in the audience when he is on stage. Other acts include a Shakira wanna-be, a Colombian crooner and an incredibly awful, not-so-young-nor-sexy-anymore girls group. The first act we catch -- and my favorite -- is an indigenous guy singing party music with two scantily clad girls. His name is Chicha Loca. Chicha is a locally made alcoholic drink making a rough translation of his name...Crazy Moonshine. He walks close to the stage and gets covered in foam, his dancers walk up to the stage and get covered in foam, actually anyone on stage that is near the crowd gets covered in foam. It is a rite of passage for every performer.
Chicha Loca and his chicas
It's a carioca party and everyone's invited
A scrum for a free t-shirt
We leave Mishualli wet, tired and wondering about the health impact of inhaling spray foam residue for the last four hours as our bus is getting sprayed every now and then by groups of kids standing by the side of the road.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Jungle Boogie in Tena

A view of the park
From Baños we take a several hour bus ride to Tena which takes down and out of the Sierra (mountain) region and into the Amazonia (jungle) region. Tena sits on the edge of the jungle and is a very easy place to make trips into the semi-wild Amazonia jungle. Tena city itself is really quite uninteresting. It is fairly small but growing rapidly. A major international airport is almost completed. Which will could be a boon to tourism, but the city is only about five hours from Quito. The airport is probably more for the oil business (Ecuador's largest export) which has been sucking crude and doing reprehensible damage to the Amazonia for decades. Follow this link to read current news about an ongoing case against Chevron in Ecuador.

There is one main road in Tena with some mediocre restaurants and stores, one large supermarket and a bus terminal. The main urban attraction is a park on a peninsula that is nestled between two rivers with some native plants and animals. I want to go because there are three tapirs there running around freely. Tapirs are extremely rare now in the wild. We never do see them here either.

Tena is known in the guidebook circuit for being the place in Ecuador to do whitewater rafting. They charge $45 per person for half a day trip which, relatively speaking, is not much cheaper than what they charge in Colorado. This is my logic anyway for declining on the activity. Instead we opt for a two day, two night jungle tour. This also costs quite a bit more than we like to spend per day ($38 pp / per day with guide and 3 meals), but there aren't jungles in Colorado.
A sculpture in Tena celebrating Quichua Indian culture
There are several tour operators which have cabanas in the jungle and give hikes and such. Here (as in Asia) everyone seems to offer the same thing. It is always difficult to know whom to select. We choose one that is run by a German foundation and owns four hundred hectares of land part of which is partly a former cow pasture and cocoa plantation being regrown into jungle. Their other section is untouched primary forest. They also grow balsa tree saplings which are handed out to the local community and eventually converted into balsa wood artisan products.

A termite nest
Our first day starts off with a medicinal plant hike. For 90 minutes we have a very interesting tour unlocking mysteries of the forest which have been known by the Quichua Indians for forever. We collect guayusa leaves to make a tea that gives energy and staves off hunger. We learn about plants used for all types of ailments, dyes and nutrition, encounter termites that become a natural mosquito repellent when rubbed on the skin or smoked in a fire, a tree used for making homes and blow guns, and find ayahuasca, a hallucinagenic plant, that when prepared properly by a shaman can foretell the future and unknown events of the past. For example, if your camera is stolen, have the shaman prepare the ayahuasca and the camera stealing scene will appear in front of you like a movie and you will know exactly who the culprit is. Or so says our guide. Anyway, if it is a stranger in Quito who nabbed your goods, I am not quite sure what good ayahuasca will do apart from the enjoyment of a trippy experience.
Are you experienced? - Ayahuasca
For lunch we are making our own maito. Maito is a traditional, indigenous dish of whole fish stuffed with palm, rubbed with salt then wrapped in special leaves and cooked by fire. Our guide collected the leaves from the jungle during our hike. The fish (tilapia, actually not native to Ecuador) and palm were bought in the market in Tena. Without any spices it tastes quite good.
Stuff, wrap, salt the fish and then...
...grill and eat maito
That evening after dinner and a short rain shower we take a night hike into the jungle. The highlight of this hike is not what we see which is pretty much just large insects, but what we hear. Owls hooing in the distance and a symphony of tree frogs conversing about who knows what. Oh yeah, we also spot one hairy tarantula ...under our bed.
A hand-sized stick bug
Not sure which one of us is the uninvited guest

Some unwarranted vine swinging
The next morning we head out for a longer hike that will lead us through the primary forest which means the trees will be larger, the jungle more dense and shady. With this area so close to civilization it is near impossible to see any mammals, therefore, I had already decided yesterday that I really want to see a toucan. Anything less will be a disappointment for this pseudo-jungle adventurer. We hear some squawking parrots and just one toucan whistling too far away from our current position. He is taunting me.

Our tour ends at a tree house suspended 100' (33m) in the area with access by a wiggly steel rope ladder. We are assured by our guide that it is completely safe, but our brains tell us differently so we do not linger too long at the top.

We return back and after lunch visit a small museum/cultural center run by an indigenous Quichua community. Here we can find the animals that we will not be able to see in the jungle. After the museum we miss our bus and walk the few kilometers on the main road back to the trail leading to our cabanas. Lo and behold what do we see a glorious toucan darting over our heads like a stubby javelin. It is high in the air, but the beak and body shape is unmistakable. I am very happy. My jungle tour is saved by a thirty minute walk on the asphalt road.

Click this link to read about our interesting visit to see animals around Tena.
Up to the tree shack
The next morning we have one more jungle goodie, fried chontacuro. These are the larvae of the rhinoceros beetle that grow inside of the chonta palm tree in the jungle. In the market they cost $0.25 each. It looks gross, of course, but not bad at all. I cannot really think of anything else that the chontacuro tastes like. The texture is squishy if that helps any.

Feel free to add your descriptions in the comments below.

Collect and fry the larvae and then... the larvae.

The International Rambler Travel Tip:
If you want to really experience the Amazonia in Ecuador I would not suggest doing it from Tena, but going farther east into the jungle maybe starting in Coca or Lago Agrio and a canoe ride from there. Was our tour fun? Sure. Was it worth the money? Probably not. It is more of an effort and will cost a bit more to get deeper into the jungle, but you should be able to see a lot more wildlife and get a better taste of Quichua culture.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Tale of Two Zoos

I should first start out by saying that these are not "zoos" per say, I just thought it made for a better blog post title. The first place is an animal rehabilitation center, Amazoonico, while the second, Ecoturismo Comunitario, is a place that teaches a bit about indigenous life in the jungle. Both are near Tena, Ecuador, both have animal species native to the Amazonian jungle in cages with a few wandering around freely and both can be visited by tourists. Mika and I went to them within a couple days of each other. So now I am going to compare them head-to-head - a tale of the tape - to see who comes out the winner. 

Access from Tena and Entrance Fee

Amazoonico (AZ): A two hour ($2) bus ride farther into the jungle and stop at Puerto Barantilla pier and then a six minute canoe ride ( $10 return). There is also a sign there saying that you can walk 1.7 km, but the trail from the road through the jungle is not marked. We are told that it is very dangerous because an aggressive monkey is attacking people. The entrance fee is $3.50 for foreigners.

Ecotourismo Comunitario (EC): About a half hour ride from Tena. We arrive by other means, but it probably costs less than $1. Entrance fee is $2.

Winner: Ecoturismo Comunitario - Closer and cheaper. The canoe to Amazoonico is highway (river way) robbery.
 A jungle road traffic jam

AZ: An animal rescue center that accepts animals from captivity and rehabilitates them and releases them into the wild when possible. They own over 1,000 hectares of jungle with guardians from the community that watches over the wildlife. Many animals, however, cannot be released because they are too accustomed to human contact and have lost their instincts to survive in the wild. Many of the animals are former pets that arrive very stressed, like parrots missing feathers or monkeys completely crazy. The animals that cannot be released are kept in cages and are treated as well as possible with limited human contact. Money from visitors helps support the organization. They also have a gift shop and run a fancy lodge.
EC: I am not quite sure if Ecoturismo Comunitario is the real name, but I will stick with this because it is on their sign. They are an indigenous community organization who has set up a museum which teaches about indigenous life and the local flora and fauna. Their proximity to the towns of Tena and Mishualli makes them a good stop for people on guided tours so some of the tourism dollars flows into the local communities. They have a small gift shop selling herbal medicines made from jungle plants and are in the process of building a restaurant.

Winner: Tie - Both are set up with good intentions. Both have animals in cages and receive money from people to look at them.

Cultural Education

AZ: Nothing really. Many guides are foreign volunteers. We do learn a little about the trafficking of animals in Ecuador.

EC: We learn about medicinal plants found in the jungle. We see miniatures of traps used to catch all types of animals.

Winner: Ecoturismo Comunitario - They have created a museum to teach us specifically about indigenous life.
A blow gun used to kill monkeys and birds
Guided Tour

AZ: We are guided in English by a young German volunteer who gives us some information about the characteristics of each animal while providing us with a lot of information about the backgrounds of the specific animals (ie. how they arrived at the center) and the work of their organization.

EC: We are guided in Spanish by a young Ecuadorian guy. He offers us some info about plants and traps, but little about the animals except how delicious each one tastes on a plate.

Winner: Amazoonico - The workers seem passionate about their cause and care for the animals.

A free roaming coatl
Animal Interaction Philosophy

AZ: Most of their animals' problems are due to contact with humans, so it is forbidden to talk to them or bother them. Photos without flash are okay.

E.C.: Can animals really have psychological problems? Feel free to pet, feed, converse and take photos with our critters.

Winner: Amazoonico - EC is probably more family fun, but animal welfare should be a priority.


AZ: Capybara is the world's largest rodent and native to only South America. They are hunted for their meat, but the population is not endangered and breed quite easily. I read about a farm in western Arkansas that breeds capybaras. Some people keep them as pets. They are semiaquatic and have strange webbed feet. Amazoonico has two of them in a nice area with a pond.

EC: Has one Capybara in a very large pen with a pond and some other animals. We do not see him move far from his food bowl of rice and corn though we are able to coax him over to us with a few fresh grasses which is his natural food source. Our guide assures us that capybara are quite tasty.

Winner: Tie - Sure AZ is probably better, but hand feeding the world's largest rodent at EC has gotten the better of my sensibilities.
Hey, I did not see a "don't feed the animals sign."

AZ: Ocelots are a cat that lives in the trees of the jungle. They are endangered and protected species. Sure as kittens they probably make cute pets, but apparently people do not want a wild cat in their house when they reach maturity of up to 35 lbs and the male starts slinging diarrhea around to mark his territory. Amazoonico has three ocelots in a large cage with lots of trees. They were all well-hidden when we arrived.

EC: They have one well-seen ocelot in a small cage with nowhere to hide. 

Winner: Amazooico - Not seeing any animal is better than one in a depressing box
Big cat, small cage, no trees

AZ: They have so many parrots, red ones, blue and yellow macaws, and two species of green ones. Most are former pets from hotels whose job it was to take photos with the guests for $1. This is a very stressful job for a parrot. A couple of their parrots have had their wing muscles clipped. The parrots that could be released to fly around the area unfortunately cannot be set free because the organization fears that they will be hunted and sold. Animal trafficking is illegal, but a parrot goes for $3,000 on the black market. In the past several have been stolen from Amazoonico. We pass one filled cage which becomes a complete cacophony of squawks, caws, laughs (they can imitate human laughter) and one "hola bonita, hola bonita" repeated incessantly. We are watching an aviary insane asylum. Maybe it is time to let some of them out and take their chances in the wild?

EC: They have five birds. One red one to take photos with tourists. A blue and yellow macaw who looks very sickly. A pair of green ones that say "hola" and laugh, and a different green one that flies on command. All of the birds are out of cages.

Winner: Tie - EC's birds probably suffer from too much human contact and AZ's will be in a cage for eternity. I do not know what is best.
His Spanish vocabulary is better than many foreign tourists

As We're Leaving

AZ: We catch the anaconda being fed a dead baby chicken on a stick.

EC: We get to see a dog and monkey playful wrestling.

Winner: Tie - Both are strange and slightly unnatural.
Does the anaconda ever think "ugh, chicken again!"
Dog and monkey wrestling
And the Winner Is...

Amazoonico by technical knock out. The technicality being of course that my perspective is of a gringo tourist who would like to see the animals of the Amazon jungle be able to remain free in their natural habitat. Amazoonico is genuinely concerned about the welfare of animals.

I am sure that there are many Ecuadorian tourists would decide that Ecoturismo Comunitario is winner by being a much more fun place to visit. Conditions of cages are not all ideal here, but not completely horrific. They live by the philosophy that it is perfectly alright for wild animals to be household pets and/or served for lunch. This has been their tradition for centuries so who am I to tell them any differently.
A toucan who would probably prefer freedom to being at either of these places
For more info about Amazoonico click the link to their website.