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!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

454 Years in Cuenca

Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador, but it feels much smaller. The population is about one-third of that of Quito, the second largest city. There also seems to be a larger sense of civic pride in Cuenca than in the capital. There is noticebably much less garbage, car pollution, dogs (which really means dog poop), shady characters and grafitti here which makes it quite a pleasant city to pass several days or weeks or years - In 2009 Cuenca ranked #1 on International Living magazine's best place to retire list.

Rocking Out in Cuenca

We settle into a hostel that is in the mini tourist ghetto of Cuenca. With cheap rent, a kitchen and not terribly too much to do in Cuenca we have some very very cheap days and Mika finally starts her own blog in Japanese. We end up staying here for fourteen days which is the longest we have stayed anywhere since being at Mika's mother's house way back in June. On a scale from Crappy to Fantastic I would rate the city as "Pretty Nice." I can see the charm and why some North Americans would want to come. But let's be honest, being much much much cheaper than Arizona, Spain or the fancy parts of Mexico is the real reason most expat retirees end up here.  
A typical old building of Cuenca
Our time in Cuenca happens to coincide with the city's 454th anniversary and it is celebrated with a whole host of free concerts. The first one has a whole host of bands and ends with Altiplano de Chile with sort of a traditional/rock fusion music. They use an impressive amount of (about forty) different types of wind instruments and the band leader takes joy in badmouthing Reggaeton.

We also catch another show with more flutes and a funky light show, an arts festival and a rock concert (thankfully this time without any flutes) headlined by Sergio Sacoto who apparently is pretty well known in Ecuador.
A psychedelic light show on the church wall
Sampling edible roses dipped in chocolate at the arts fair

Day at the Museum

Besides just walking around town admiring old, colonial-style buildings and waiting for the next concert to start Cuenca has some interesting places. There is the old and new cathedrals along with the usual assortment of other churches, plazas, some markets and museums. None of these museums are good enough to make the Guggenheim nervous but worth a peek. Plus they are all free.

Less than a block from our hotel is a nice little museum exhibiting traditional costumes and art from indigenous communities all over Latin America. I also, after three attempts, visit the Museum of Modern Art. The first time I go they just closed for their afternoon siesta. The second time they are closed all day because the night before someone had broken into the building. The third attempt I finally enter and see why the theives stole some cash and a computer, but not any of the art. The currnet humdrum exhibition is water colors (admittedly not my favorite medium). Half of the covered wall space is dedicated to children's art made in the museum's classrooms which is technically still modern art.The old building itself is art and my favorite part of the museum The former House of Temperance was a clinic for alcoholics.
The museum as seen through the eyes of children

and through my camerea lens
 The Museo del Banco Central has very extensive exhibits showing cultural aspects from every region of the country and a special, dramatically lit room dedicated to tsantsas -shrunken heads - a tradition that is not practised on humans anymore (or so they say), but is still allowed on unsuspecting sloths. We are not allowed to take photos at the museum so I have included a photo I took in Quito a while back.

Sloth and human tsantsas
Behind the museum are some Inca ruins of Pumapungo, a large garden where we pick some fresh chilies before seeing the "do not touch the plants" sign, and a depressing aviary.

The remaining walls of Pumapungo

Do not bother the birds.
If I were a bird being in this cage I would be quite bothering.

An Ecuador Hat?

French fries come from France, dutch ovens come from Holland and panama hats come from Ecuador.
Excuse me?
Panama hats
Back in the day the world famous hats made in Ecuador passed through Panama on their way to North America and Europe so the name panama hat stuck. In Ecuador they call the hat Paja Toquilla because the straw comes from the toquilla palm. Since I am American I will stick with "panama hat" for this post. I see no real need to be politically correct with regards to head wear.
This plant will be a hat
Cuenca is a center for making and purchasing panama hats and the shops are everywhere around town. Some hat purists will go out to smaller villages to find the perfect sombrero, but there seems to plenty of styles and different qualities from which to choose from in Cuenca. There is even one shop/museum where we can learn a little about the hat making process.
A panama hat press
Follow the link to see our daytrips from Cuenca.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Day Trippin' from Cuenca - Ingapirca and Cajas National Park

Arriving in Cuenca, Mika and I have hit a slight travel wall. We end up staying in the city for two weeks. Cuenca is a very nice city to chill out for a few days. It also makes a nice base for taking two separate relatively easy day trips. Both places are reached directly from Cuenca’s bus terminal which is just a $2 dollar taxi or $0.25 bus ride from the center of town.


Ingapirca is touted as the best ruins in Ecuador and a good day trip from Cuenca. The bus takes three hours one way which ends up being quite a lot of traveling time considering that the ruins are pretty small and touring them can easily take less than an hour. If you do not speak Spanish and skip the guided tour the main area could be covered in about twenty minutes.

The site was first inhabited by the Cañari people who were later ruled by the Incas coming from the south. It is quite interesting that the Inca had empirial aspirations like the Europeans. They conquered and enslaved other indigenous communities well before Cristobal Colon’s accidental discovery. I guess history proves the Incas biggest problem was that the Spanish were much better at tyranny than they were -- that and living with small pox.

In Quichua, Ingapirca means "Inca wall" 
The short guided tour explains aspects of the Cañari people’s life and that of the Inca people. The original temple wall is still standing, but the altar has been reconstructed. There is also a small museum showing artifacts found at the site and a few small trails that lead to some centuries old stone sculptures. I would have liked to go to these sites, but the rain starts so we decide to hop on the earlier bus which means that we sat for over five hours on a bus to be at Ingapirca for less than two.
Ingapirca's next Incan Idol

Cajas National Park

This is a very easy trip from Cuenca. There are many trails in the park for hiking various distances and difficulties. Our bus takes us past the entrance and we get off with a woman that points us to a trailhead. She is waiting for a horse to pick her up to take her to a village while we are supposed to continue on following the trail. The most excellent thing about Cajas is not the nature or endless views. It is the fact that the trail is very well marked with painted rocks. It is the first time in Ecuador that we have been hiking without the very real fear of making wrong choices and getting lost.

The hike is quite nice and four hours is a perfect length for us. But what seems to be the norm of late on all of my hikes is that grey clouds roll in and loom overhead. Mika sees me as some cartoon figure with a rain cloud three feet from my head following me wherever I go. It could be that, or it could be that it is rainy season in Ecuador. Either way the greyness gives the wide expanse of mountain scenery a brownish hue. The tall grass, rocks and even the lakes are brown.

So on this hike we find that the beauty of Cajas lies in the flecks of colors sprouting from the ground in the form of tiny, pea-sized red, yellow and purple flowers and soft green cacti. We break out our cameras and try our best to take Ojii-san photos. Ojii-san means "old man" in Japanese. Let me explain:

In Japan there is an entire subculture of retired businessmen who purchase ridiculously expensive cameras, join photo clubs, shoot pretty straight forward photos of flowers and other forms of nature, then have exhibitions around town so that other retired businessmen and their spouses can look at their pretty straight forward photos of flowers and other forms of nature.

Now any time that I take or see a photo of a flower it is labeled as an Ojii-san photo. During our hike in Cajas Mika and I have a who can take the best Ojii-san photo competition, but having much better equipment and being just a few short decades away from being an Oji-san myself, the odds are heavily stacked in my favor though Mika usually holds her own.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Packed! - What I Need for Long Term Travel

Imagine no possessions; I wonder if you can
   -- John Lennon

In the words of John Lennon, "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not."
   -- Steve Carell

Super Downsize Me

For what ever reason human beings accumulate things, lots of things. Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of owning a house is just to have permanent storage for our belongings. Therefore, leaving your home and country for a year or longer requires serious downsizing.

Look into your overflowing closets and drawers. What is necessary? Would it still necessary if you knew that you had to physically carry it around the world for the next twelve months? For me the process of whittling my necessities down to what would fit into one medium sized suitcase was liberating. Before traveling, every piece of furniture sold on craigslist was a step closer to freedom. Selling my car was exhilarating. After the yard sale and Goodwill charity drop-off three days until my flight to Japan I could feel the heavy weight of "stuff" being lifted from my shoulders.

Now don't get me wrong, I am quite far from being a happy-go-lucky hippie free of worldly possessions type of guy. There is a large pile of boxes in the storage closet of our basement in Colorado, a few things at Mika's mother's house in Japan, my sister's house in Denver and a hostel in Bogota and, well, we still own a brick and mortar building called "home." But right now as I sit in my hotel room in Ecuador all of those things mentioned above can feel slightly abstract. I am living with one suitcase and a small backpack.

Below I have made an exact inventory of my possessions as of April 14, 2011 which is exactly 320 days of living out of my suitcase. It is everything that I need to travel for a very long time. This post probably would have been a better for the beginning of my travels, but basically my things are the same as when I started. This year I have tried to buy as little as possible only replacing items on a per need basis -- lose a hat, buy a hat; ruin shoes, buy new shoes. The only shame of living this way is having to pass on the countless number of excellent souvenirs we have seen along the way. All of which would end up as another box in the basement.

Here's what I'm packin'...


4 pants, 1 long-sleeved and 1 short-sleeved button down shirt, 6 underwear, 5 t-shirts, 4 pairs of socks, 1 undershirt, 1 sweatshirt, 1 long john shirt, 1 bathing suit


1 hat, 1 pair of glasses and prescription sunglasses, 1 glasses case, 1 day bag, 1 sneakers, 1 flip-flops, 1 small towel, 2 bathing caps, 1 international driver's license, 1 money belt with passport, expired CO driver's license, 2 ATM cards, 1 credit card, some US $ cash and a frequent flier card


High tech travel
1 netbook with bag, 1 ipod touch, 1 headphones, 1 small digital camera, 1 SLR digital camera, 1 camera battery charger, 3 camera lenses, 1 500 GB hard drive, 1 memory stick, 1 set of international plug converters

Just Stuff:

1 guidebook, 2 paperback books, 1 book from Colombia tourism office, 1 modest sized bag of assorted toiletries, 1 light sleeping bag, 1 7" x 5" empty art portfolio, 3 small locks and keys, 2 empty plastic bags, 1 small notebook, 3 pens, 1 flashlight without batteries, 1 package of bath salts from Bali, 1 dried seed from Ecuador jungle, 2 Malaysian Ringgit, 2 packages to make hot chocolate, 1 reusable coffee filter, 1 handwoven belt from Otavalo, 1 cow skin wine flask from Cali, and 1 pack of International Rambler business cards
Laundry and clothes I am wearing not shown, but you get the idea
Does anyone need anything more? Looking at this list again there are probably some things I could do without and I should one day definitely add an umbrella or rain poncho.

Follow this link to see the list of exactly where my suitcase and I have been for the past ten months.

So what do you think, am I missing anything, maybe something vital you could never do without?

My Case For The Case

My travel mentality, budget and attitude would place me in the "backpacker" category, but I do not have a large backpack. I cringe when I see other backpackers walking around loaded down front and back. Backpacks are great for carrying all your belongings up mountains and in jungles, but almost nobody brings all of their belongings on these types of excursions. They leave their big bag in storage at a hostel and take only what they need, just like I do.

I am not sure why more people do not do use the wheelie suitcase. Apart from stairs I almost never have to lift it. Only twice can I recall ever having to schlep it on my shoulders for any considerable distance: The beach on Perhentian Island, Malaysia and on the cobblestone roads in Villa de Leyva, Colombia. Usually I am just wheeling it around with minimal effort.

I rest my case.

The following message is not endorsed by Yoko Ono:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On the Move - Riobamba to Cuenca

View Larger Map

We are in Riobamba knowing that we want to go south to Cuenca. Direct it is a six hour bus ride which is not so bad, but no need to rush so we decide to stop off in Guamote a small town just about an hour from Riobamba. Tomorrow is market day in Guamote so a good enough reason to stop there.

The Organization Dilemma

In Guamote we stay at the guesthouse of Inti Sisa, an organization that provides educational opportunities like computers, sewing and a pre-school for the local community. They currently rely heavily on donations from Europe but are trying to become self-sufficient which is difficult because their town is off the main tourist trail. The guesthouse's prices are higher compared to what we where we have stayed in the rest of Ecuador, $14 per person w/o breakfast for a private room. So we stay in the dorm ($7.50 pp) which is like a private room because we are the only customers. Not many travelers make it to Guamote.
A sewing student
We first decline their offers for breakfast and dinner which cost almost double as in a typical restaurant though the food is quite typical, but then later we decide to have one dinner at Inti Sisa. More so because we feel that we should than because we really want to. Which brings me to my next point:
Being serenaded by the pre-schoolers
Inti Sisa really seems like a terrific organization that is busy empowering women and the community. Their prices are just unbalanced with the rest of the country. I have seen this before in Guatemala, India and elsewhere and never quite understand. Organizations' price structures are set banking on the charitable goodwill of foreigners to pay more than they normally would and much more than any local ever would for similar goods or services. In Guatemala, the much higher priced artisan goods made at one woman's organization were exactly the same as those found in the market made by women who were not part of an organization.

My philosophy is that if the organization charges correct prices for goods and services people will buy more and more income will be generated. For example, us eating four normally priced meals at Inti Sisa must surely be better than us eating just the single over-priced one. Right? They pay staff whether we eat there or not. People are always happy to pay a premium for quality knowing that is going to support a good non-profit organization, but just as much people hate feeling that they are being ripped-off, even for charity.

Anyway, I still recommend coming to Inti Sisa. Market day is fun and worth a night's stay. Eat there and buy goods made by their sewing class at your own discretion. I think they also do weekday tours into the countryside to visit the communities which is probably quite interesting. Check Inti Sisa's website for more info.

Market Watch

Market day, Thursday, in Guamote is really quite nice. Here there is nothing geared towards tourists. There are no alpaca wool scarves, no decorated gourds and no paintings depicting the colorful indigenous life of the Andes. The Guamote market is the colorful indigenous life of the Andes.

Ninety percent of the population is of the Puruha indigenous community. They come from the surrounding villages dressed in their Thursday's best to buy, sell, eat lunch and socialize all day. We leave our hotel and immediately follow two guys walking their cows, correctly figuring that they must be headed to the market. The cow plaza is quite large covering one entire square block. We stand on the outskirts observing the action. Sellers holding their cattle on tethers ready to whack them with a stick if they get feisty. One cow costs several hundred dollars depending on size and sex. Some people will cows early in the morning and flip them quickly for a $10-$20 profit.

I take particular interest in watching one young couple who are deliberating over a certain cow in the same way Mika and I bought our refrigerator. They listen to the salesman's pitch, check the features (hooves, mouth), deliberate amongst themselves, look at some other models, come back to the first cow to check it again, deliberate some more, haggle price with the salesman, sold!

Cow market
Ever wonder where the phrase "cash cow" came from...
There is a fruit and veggie section with lots of potatoes and an inordinate amount of carrots. We head over to the sheep and pig section where people are purchasing ovine by the truckload, then wander around the clothing area with its stacks of hats, skirts and belts for the ladies always sporting their traditional fashion.
Fruits & Vegetables: The large sacks are all carrots

 Buying Sheep for Dummies:
Step 1: Buy your sheep and place them to the side
Feel free to spray paint them so as not confuse yours with somebody else's

Step 2: Lift your sheep onto the truck
Step 3: Pile them in and drive home

Rolls of material for making clothing and ponchos
Hat shopping
Taking a rest
In the afternoon the buses start filing in to town and people load up themselves and their belongings to go back to their villages until market day next Thursday.
Yes, that's sheep on the roof of the bus

Haunted Hacienda

The next day we leave Inti Sisa to spend the night 10 km away at Granja Totorillas, a tourist farm with accommodation. We catch a bus and walk along a dirt road to the large property. Nobody is around and Mika sits with our luggage while I try to find someone. Inside I find empty, dusty rooms with creaky doors and cracked windows. This old place gives me the eerie feeling that I am in The Shining. When Hollywood decides to make The Shining 2 - Here's Juanny!!!, this will be the location. Finally, I hear people (ghosts?) and call out. A woman comes to inform us that we need a reservation to stay there, something the tourist office guy in Guamote forgot to mention.
Anyone? Please...
The woman kindly offers to give us a tour of the grounds. It is actually nice. Still creepy, but nice. The main building is the former hacienda of one of the wealthiest landowner's in Ecuador. He even had his own railway station which is now abandoned. The farm today does a little bit of everything: animals, dairy, honey, organic vegetables, reforestation, and runs a hotel. After the tour it is too late to make it to Cuenca before dark, so we decide to just go to the next town, Alausi.
Collecting potatoes for tonight's dinner
A Train to Catch?

There is only one real reason to visit Alausi (that reason is very debatable) which is to take the train ride to see Nariz del Diablo - The Devil's Nose - a rock that apparently looks like the schnoz of ol' Beelzebub himself. This railway was part of the system traveling from Quito to Guayaquil which became obsolete with the construction of good roads and buses. Built in the early 20th century it was an engineering marvel at the time for the way it sharply descended down the mountain. Now it's a tourist trap running almost daily three times a day.

People used to be allowed to sit on top of the train for spectacular 360 degree views of the scenery. Unfortunately, a few years ago a tourist fell off and died. I have seen photos of this activity and it looks a bit dangerous with people covering every square foot of the roof. However, instead of remedying the problem by putting forward facing benches and better railings on the train roof similar to a doubledecker tourist bus and politely reminding people to "please do not stand up while on the roof of the moving train," they have now forbidden people to go on top all together. Meanwhile they have raised the price of tickets to $20 for the round trip ride including guide and a snack. If you want good views you must sit on the right side of the train.

We meet one British couple who did the ride and thought it was good enough. I am not sold and opt not to do it. We get plenty of spectacular views every bus ride we take in the Andes. Though I definitely would have paid twenty bucks to risk my life on the roof of that train.
All aboard?
Mika is flip-flopping. She finally goes on Sunday morning to ask about tickets. It is sold out but there are twenty no shows. Without a stand-by policy, she and ten other tourists get left on the platform as the train leaves with one car empty. No train means that we can catch the 10:30 AM bus to Cuenca.

Market day in Alausi under the watchful eye of San Pedro
 Encebollado, mmm mmm Good

For me one highlight of Alausi is that we find a really really tasty encebollado restaurant. Encebollado is a tomato and fish based soup with chunks of albacore tuna, onions and yucca. It is found all over the country, but here is the best so far. Encebollado is always served with a small dish of popcorn. Alausi is the first place I have been to offer rice instead of popcorn which makes the bowl more filling. On the table are fresh limes with a nifty little lime-squeezer gadget, oil, spicy sauce and mustard to spruce up the encebollado to your liking.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Touching the Sun on Chimborazo

Staring at the sun - Chimborazo
With a summit reaching 6310m (20,702 ft) above sea level the volcano Chimborazo is the highest point in Ecuador. Because the Earth bulges at the equator Chimborazo is also the closest point on our planet to the sun -- or furthest from the center of the earth for inward thinkers. With serious climbing gear, a serious guide and a serious ability to withstand altitude sickness it is possible to reach the peak. We are anything but serious.

For common visitors, like us, it is very accessible to get to 5,000 m (16,404 ft) with very little effort which is pretty awesome. I have never been at this altitude in my life and that includes living at the edge of the Rocky Mountains for four years. Chimborazo is an easy day trip from the city Riobamba where we are staying.

We take a bus going to Guaranda and ask to get dropped off at the entrance to Chimborazo park. Our driver and his helper forget about us and luckily Mika spots the entrance from the window as we whiz by it. We get dropped off about two kilometers from the entrance which actually turns out to be a good thing. We immediately hitch a ride with an older Ecuadorian couple going back the other way who happen to be local tourists also headed to Chimborazo. They make room for us moving aside blankets and heavy coats.They are obviously much better prepared than we are.
Our first snow of 2011
The entrance to the protected area is $2. The guidebook and some other blogs by foreigners say the entrance is $10. The tourist info office in Riobamba told us it is $2. The Ecuadorian guy driving thinks that the entrance is $1 for locals, but they have to pay $2 too. From the entrance it is a winding eight km (five miles) road past grazing vicuña (a wild relative of the llama and camel) to the first shelter which sits at 4800 meters.
View of Chimborazo at the first shelter, 4800 meters
From here it is a 200 m walk up to the second shelter. The beginning of the trail passes tombstones of climbers who died attempting to touch the sun at Chimborazo's peak. The walk is relatively short, but long. Walk fifty meters catch our breath, another fifty, breathe and rest. I now have a greater appreciation for oxygen than I used to.
Honoring fallen climbers
At the second shelter we are rewarded with the fact that we are now at exactly 5000 meters and with a hot chocolate sold by a park ranger at the next shelter. It is quite windy. Clouds are blowing in and around the volcano from different directions. Sometimes Chimborazo is hidden in clouds, then it will clear up the sun shows itself and we warm up to pristine views of Chimborazo in all its glory.

Wool worth?
 Since we were able to hitch a ride up to the first shelter, we are not so tired and decide that we will walk down the 8km to the main road. Our main purpose for doing this is to get a better glimpse of the vicuña.

The vicuña live only in the South American Andes and are known to have finest wool in the world. During Inca times it was illegal to kill them and only royalty could wear vicuña wool which they would round up and shear every four years. I think even today only royalty can afford to wear vicuña wool. A stole made from the fine fibers easily costs over $1000.

Also today it is illegal to kill vicuñas. In the 1960's their population on the continent was whittled down to only 6,000. Currently there are several hundred thousand most of which are in Peru. To prevent poaching they are now shorn every two years.

As we move down the mountain the barren landscape is a stark contrast to the lush greenness we are used to seeing in the Andes. We encounter several small groups of vicuña dotting the scenery with their beige and white coats.
I am quite sure that they hear us well before we see them. As we try to approach closer to get a decent photo some of them will move away quickly while others lift up their heads stare directly at us and then casually walk in the other direction. If we stand still they eventually get back to the business of grazing on the scrubby plants.

We finally make our way down to the main road back to Riobamba. We have just cut across the mountain bypassing the park road and skipping the ranger station at the entrance unsure if we were supposed to let them know we are leaving. I hope they are not still looking for us. We flag down a pick up truck and have a breezy, dusty ride back to town as Chimborazo gets smaller in the distance.
Chimborazo at 60 mph
Chimborazo is by far the highlight of our stay in Riobamba. The city itself is not so bad. People are out and about and it feels pretty safe with a nice atmosphere. One Sunday afternoon a park we visit is filled with children catching little fishes with plastic cups. There is a nice historic district with the ubiquitous old churches and plazas. Riobamba does not have too much for the international tourist in town. People used to come to catch a  tourist train, but it has stopped running to Riobamba. Though for me, the trip to volcano Chimborazo is an excellent enough adventure to warrant a night's stay in Riobamba.
Early evening view from the unused train station
Our big splash out is going to a buffet restaurant our first evening in town with plenty of seafood, vegetables and fruit options to stuff my face with. This pig out is a result of my body clamoring for nutrients after eating too many eggs and french fries for two days in Latacunga.
Is the name of this restaurant in honor of the 18th US president,
or a dig at Americans' large eating habits?