Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The wrap-up

The last chapter of any effort is always the hardest, sometimes you give up and lose interest and sometime you leave for so long to complete the job that you forget what you did at the end of the project. Same with me, so I am trying to wrap-up while the time is still fresh.

Sunday - Don't ever leave town in a car on the weekend!

The traffic is terrible at the best of times, we however underestimated the problems of trying to get somewhere, a. when the destination only has two ways to get there and b. one of those roads is blocked by mudslides. The consequence was that it took six hours to reach a two hour destination and another six to get back - kinda took the edge off a nice day. At one point we were diverted onto an old railroad track the pic illustrates the problem, only the amassed dust hid the existing tracks. We did get to visit the Volcanic crater near Cotacachi ( a Town famous for its leather products) and had the best lunch for the best price in the holiday - grilled trout for five dollars. The intention was to visit the open air market at Otavalo, the largest and probably the cheapest in South America. With time running out we omitted it because we had already shopped at the market in Quito.

The reason for the long trip out was because by the time we reached the toll booth on the Pan-American Highway the road had been closed and we had to retrace our route almost back to Quito. The way back we were stuck in what might have been the longest traffic jam in Guiness's records, we hit the jam at about the thirty K mark and the traffic was at a standstill behind us. The problem was that the two roads from the North of Quito merge in a one lane road fifteen kms from our hotel.

But that was not the kicker. Arriving at the hostel at one in the morning we unlocked the outer door only to find that the inner door was locked from the inside. By this time we were all numb enough to be casual about the prospect of being homeless for the remainder of the night. The hoteliers do not arrive at the Hostel until eight am. But after pestering the security guards in the street we did get told about another hotel fifty yards away. After telling the guard that the hotel was locked he did come down and speak into an unobtrusive speaker on the wall. Inside we discovered not only a fluent English speaker, on the front desk, but that the rooms cost nearly one hundred and fifty dollars a night. WHO Cares? Spending the night in total luxury, compared to our sparse but clean quarters (ours only cost forty-five a night) with a plentiful supply of hot water. the next morning was going to be interesting at the La Ronda when we speak to Hernan and Gloria.

Monday - the last full day in Quito

Speaking to H & G, Gloria the least fluent in English, phoned Hernan and I spoke to him, explained the situation and without hesitation he agreed to pay for the night in the swanky place. Gloria however pouted all morning and presented a really crappy breakfast. Heading back to the swank after breakfast, to get our money's worth and luxuriate in hot water and cable TV, we checked out of there just before the checkout time of Noon.
Time for wine in the room before picking a restaurant for the last two-meal a day plan. having walked around the main Square that morning, still finding new places to explore we had come across a three level complex with three good looking places to eat. Settling on, what appeared to be an Argentinian eatery. Good place good food and a fitting last night. We had to be up at two am to be at the airport for a six o clock flight.

Panama - again

Saying stilted goodbyes to Hernan, he had driven the van himself, at the airport we started the last leg of the journey home. Learning that Doreen and i would be travelling with others we decided that in order to let the others see the Panama Canal we would take the seven hour layover instead of the fifty-five minute dash between gates. In a move that could only be completed via the Internet, we had started an email conversation with Mario from Panama. He runs tours for layover people. Asking him at four in the afternoon for a tour for four starting at eight the next morning, we finished negotiations at six and expected to be met at eight-thirty the next morning outside the Customs Hall in Panama. Despite being without the necessary documents for a correct immigration process ( the airline did not supply them inflight) we were outside being met by Oscar at eight forty-five.

Reaching the Canal, just in time to see a large cruise ship enter the lock, it's amazing just how these behomeths can navigate the lock and not scrape any paint off the sides of the ship. It only takes  twelve minutes to lift the ship the full height and be ready to open the gates. A trip to a comprehensive Museum completed the tour of the Locks and it was off to the Old Town and City lookaround. A meal at one of the legends of Panamanian eateries - The Balboa restaurant a quick goodbye to the annoying tour guide - he just never shut up his streams of trivia about Panama and we were back at the Airport for the three hours prior to boarding. A full plane and a slight delay brought to the Taxi stand half an hour later than planned only to find that the local taxi company had not arrived. Finally, citing a litany of woes, the driver did turn up only making us wait another thirty minutes than we had planned.

Now only the cleanup - assemble the six hundred odd pics, write this copy and generally look back to an unrushed ten days in a strange place that soon became very familiar.

Well it has been a joy to get this done and thanks to those of you who read it.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Ecuadorian things

Ecuador is different, from other Counties, not that we have been to many that will truly allow us to say that. For starters Ecuadorians obey the law - they even stop, religiously, on a yellow traffic light. They are pushy but polite when behind the wheel. That's an oxymoron I know but having watched more than a few drivers elbow their way into a traffic lane and then see the same guy stop to allow another into the traffic from a driveway???

The police are everywhere, it is though the President, who is immensely popular, has driven down unemployment by hiring more police. But they are conspicuous in their absence on weekends. Only the unarmed traffic Police are out in force on the weekends. Strange.

Quito is a City of over two million and it seemed as though all of them went shopping yesterday, the streets were packed and some small discount stores had swarms of people pushing, and I mean pushing, to get in to them. A few shopping malls here are multilevel and really small. The style in those Malls is only to have 'Cabinas'. That creates multilevels of small stores predominantly clothes and cellphone electrical stores. We looked at a six level model where the access to the stores was circular and ascending at the same time - imagine little stores abutting the Eaton Centre's circular parking ramp with little store fronting the ramp and you have the idea. Now put the Boxing Sales day throngs into it - controlled chaos. But kinda fun to see it.

Visiting the Presidential Palace yesterday we entered a world that few can see. This President believes in transparency and he has opened up the Palace and also said that all of the official gifts he receives from other Dignitaries are the "people's" belongings so he has them placed in glass display cases for all to see. Interesting how other Governments think. Russia's Putin gave a traditional pottery samovar and drinking cups, Hilary Clinton gave huge Chrystal bowl. And Hugo Chavez gave a gold display sword encrusted with diamonds. Just how much loot and swag the previous Presidents took home with them when they cleared out their desks is easy to imagine.

Quito is a clean but dowdy City without a sidewalk culture. It must be because of the rainy season but it is rare to see outdoor patios in any of the many many public squares in this City. That was was a surprise to us. Of course we confined ourselves mainly to the Historical District, but we did look at other parts of the City, so outside patios - no, indoor cubbyholes - yes. Homeless people do not congregate in groups, the Police must have cleared them out, but begging is a common sight.

English speakers are not as common as other Countries we have been to bu they pop-up in very strange places. For instance yesterday at the National Museum while we were getting lost following directions that had been obtained in Spanglish from a policeman we caame across a parking lot attendant who even showed us where to go. He like others had lived in the US as a child and now that things are better in Ecuador the parents had moved back.

Today is the day for another rip out of Town - pics to follow

Friday, August 30, 2013

Two days - one in the City one out

Another two casual days, yesterday we spent in the City, well a bit of it considering that this place is sixteen kms long. Three taxi trips and we now may be veterans of that mode. The first was a negotiated price, the hotelier jumped in and made his buck and skimmed one off a four dollar ride, the next one was a surprise. We had made our way to the largest Mall in Quito, also the poshest one, so that meant we didn't buy but looked really closely. After a couple of hours and a cheap coffee from Dunkin'Donuts we wended to the Banos and then looked for an exit. Coming across what we thought was the valet parking the suited gent said he could get us a taxi. Paying four dollars to the neatly dressed female valet, remember this was a swanky mall, a large new SUV pulled up driven by an equally smartly dressed older man who spoke no English and had not been told where to go. Broken Spanish managed to tell him we wanted to go to the Artisans' market in Marisco. And we did!

We have been to many many markets in our travels and this has been the best - price location, cleanliness, the lack of aggressiveness and overall enjoyment we will recommend this market to the world. All of us bought something some of us bought a couple of things and we all received value for our money - cheap, cheap. Note the first purchase of the day shown in the pic below - a Panama Hat for the burnt head.

The first ripoff, of the trip,came at this market but not by the marketeers. I was accosted by a scruffy looking street urchin who had spotted that I was wearing leather shoes. Producing his shoeshine kit he mumbled a price and proceeded to work away. At the end he very clearly stated - in English; "Three Dollars", somewhat shocked I paid.

Leaving the Market we walked a couple of streets looking for a cab, finally spotting an empty one I asked "Cuanto a Plaza Santa Domingo" he just pointed at the meter and said, "Meter". OK we were in heavy traffic so we feared the worst. Turned out to be cheaper than we had wanted to pay. 

Of course we wanted to eat at the time the eateries are closed - beween lunch and dinner. Finally finding a pizza shop we entered and ordered Calzone for me Lasagna for the girls and Pizza for Stuart. All too much food and less than ten bucks apiece with drinks. End of day four.

Day Five
Today was a trip out of Town, using our trusty guide and getting in the middle of a dispute about the fares - Hernan, the hotelier, put the price up but kept the difference for himself cutting out the driver - Charlo. We fixed that by upping Charlo's tip. 

Off to Mindo a town eighty kms North and famous for being a mecca for backpackers who want to zipline or tube down the river. We went for the Butterfly farm and the Chocolate factory tour.

Stopping halfway for a pee stop Charlo took us to his friend who owned the "Armadillos" Cafe. This was an immaculate facility famous for its birds. The humming birds were plentiful and demonstrative. but the piece de resistance of this place was the WCs - the cleanest and most hospitable any where in the world. Arriving in Mindo after leaving the main road and driving seven kms down into the valley we found a small Town in the early stages of tourist overload, but very nice.

The Butterfly Farm was small compared to others but it had a table that actually showed the chryssali emerging from the case. Hundreds of varieties were there but we only appeared to see a few different varieties. Staying awhile we then crossed the road o look at the river. This is the river that the 'tubers' ride on and we were glad not to have done that considering the speed of the flow, the size of the rocks and small width of the river.

Onto the Chocolate factory but not before inspecting the lunch facilities in a magnificent lodge by the river. The Chocolate factory is world famous despite being a very small producer. Wikipedia description here. The tour cost six bucks and lasted an hour where we were shown every aspect of the production and given a comprehensive sampling session, it was probably that long to induce guilt and to ensure purchase of the product from the small sales shelf.

Driving back, on the same road, it seems that all of the trips we have taken are in the North and there is only one road out, the ninety minutes passed quickly - I fell asleep! Back to the hotel and a bit of relaxation and then an exploration of the La Ronda, the street that the hotel is on. It is a short street but the cultural resurrection of the City. Four years ago it was the seediest place in Town but having cops and social thrown at it has made it the place to be seen. One hundred yards long in each direction the stores and cafes inhabit little cubby holes or are entrances into larger patios each containing a restaurant of some kind. We entered a place three doors down from the hotel and were immediately greeted by English, "Hello what would you like?". Didn't even have to attempt broken Spanish, but I did. Sucking back on hot chocolate and striking up conversation with a couple from Phoenix who were backpacking through Ecuador by bus or cheap planes. Nice folks.

Onto bed.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sore bums and burnt heads

This vehicle - an open top double-decker bus was our home for three hours yesterday. A lot of fun, sun and sights. Taking us around the City we saw most of the places we had seen on the internet and brochures. We try to do this tour in all of the cities we visit and learn as much as we can about the place. This time being Seniors we paid half price - $6 usd. That amazing price is indicative of the prices we are paying for all of the tours we have taken and those we intend to take. A similar tour in a similar bus in Rome cost $37 and in Milan $42. So Quito's bus is a bargain. Perhaps because it is not owned by the Viator conglomerate. 

The first sight we saw the first morning at first light was the ninety foot statue of the Virgin Mary, located high above the City, well we visited it on the tour and stayed twenty-five minutes to gawk. A visit to the Chapel and shrines was the princely sum of one dollar - cheap at half the price.

Quitenos are very proud of their open spaces and the Parque Carolina is no exception. Full of recreational sports users - soccer players, tennis players and even some boaters all enjoy this park which most compare to Central Park in NYC. The Public Art on display at the North end was a series of full size Hollywood level Dinosaurs. These really lifelike models entranced the kids, specially when they moved body parts.

Another marvel of the trip was being on a large bus that could actually manoeuvre the skinny streets and sharp turns without holding up traffic. Traffic in Quito is not a hectic one but the small streets and the three lane arterials do get clogged very quickly but the 401 at rush hour is much busier. One of the things that sticks out to a tourist is the large number of Police on the streets. Almost every intersection has one and community policing is taken to the Nth degree with strolling pairs almost every hundred yards. Apparently one of the first things the popular President did when achieving office was to remove Police corruption and reduce crime. He obviously swamped the place with cops; none of whom appear to be over twenty-five years old.

As an example, when we walked to the bus stop yesterday we noticed squads of riot police around the Governor's Palace. Buses of heavily armoured cops who looked like trekkies in their plastic flak jackets and holding shields. Prudence dictated that we take no pics of these guys. Not knowing what was going on we just got on the bus and took the tour. When we
passed the Grand Plaza, on the way back, we realised that the show of force was to contain a protest by the tribespeople being displaced by the massive contract given to the Chinese who will be drilling for oil in the Amazon.

Back to the Hotel to chase up the hot water problem, and after standing over the hoteliers we actually did get it back. Next problem - get the TV fixed. 

Across from the Hotel is one of the two restaurants that advertise Cuy (guinea pig) a national food. We wanted to see one and Stuart wanted to try one. Seated and ordered the food arrived and it was definitely local food, the vegetables were hard for me to eat, I don't like corn cobs at the best of times and this local one was obviously right off the village farm, Stuart loved his quarter of the Cuy, it arrived complete with head and feet but not much meat to chew on - put it down to an experience. Again another  meal for ten bucks a plate! Seeking out dessert we wandered uptown and came across a bakery. Two coffees, two hot chocolates and and three pastries - eight bucks - amazing.

Tomorrow we explore the markets.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

If we see everything today what will we see tomorrow?

It certainly felt as though we were going to see all of the sights in one day when the guidemaster told us about the tour. Cable Car - check, Real Equator - check, Volcano - check, the fake Equator - check; we saw them all. What will be left for the other days?
We rode in a van through the City of Quito, it is sixteen kms in length and runs from North to South. The Historical District (where we are staying) is in the South and the trip took us twenty five kms North so we saw most of Quito through the window, trouble was it wasn't all of Quito as we rode the main roads and they skirt the City. But what we did see was the same as other South and Central American urban sites we have seen roads lined with the day to day life of the average worker. Shops, garages, bus stops and all the places that cater to all. But none of them anything but scruffy by our standards. And lots of dogs - no cats! 

The Telefériqo starts at the edge of Quito and ascends about three thousand feet to the start of a mountain range where one can hike or horse ride to another one of the many volcanoes that surround Quito. Wikipedia description is here. The temperature of the place was about ten degrees lower than the start and it was windy as heck. Nothing much up there except some concession stands, only one was open on the Monday we went but all would be open on the weekends. The eight minute ride was not scary as the cable car hugged the mountain side and didn't have any long spans - pretty tame. But still a worthy site. Onto the next sight.

Arriving at a National Park we were supposed to see a mountain range that shielded a volcano. But the volcano was a two hour hike and the fog obscured a good view of it. We did get to see what the 'oil money' had built - a modern vendors' shop and an interpretive centre.

There are two places to see the Equator. The actual Equator and the place the locals founded in the 1700s. They are about four hundred metres apart and are two completely different experiences.

The actual Equator runs through a place where there is a Museum and guides will run little click here for the reference But even if its not the right place it's close enough and gives the visitor a good time. They run scientific experiments to show that it is actually the Equator. The most impressive consists of a basin and a bucket of water. But just checking Wikipedia even this site is not on the line.

Enough for the tripping we were bushed and wanted to drink a glass of wine and relax, so the last stop was to a SuperMaxi (large modern supermarket) where we bought our wine and then headed back to the Hotel where we discovered that the plumber had not fixed the hot water and so another night without it. I wonder how much of a discount we could get for this? We haven't paid yet as the credit card machine was not connecting to the Bank when we were asked to fork out - we haven't volunteered to pay.

Eating the last meal of the day we all commented on just how cheap the food is here, another full meal for ten dollars each is a wonderment to us.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The landing and the first day in the Town

Day one:
The flight  down was peachy - half-full plane and free beer toss in a real meal and it feels like air travel twenty years ago. Copa Air is just as impressive this trip as it was the last trip, a traveller's dream; cheap fares with full service and real steel flatware. Arriving in Panama City, there were fifty-five minute to kill. Finding a gate, time for a visit to the bathrooms and we were ready to take the next leg (Amazing Race lingo!). we will be exploring this airport on the return trip. Back in the air for another ninety minutes, the lasting memory of Panama City airport will be the price of water demanded for 500mls of water - $3.75 usd. We obviously were taken for tourists!!

Snapped a couple of pics, one showing the airport concourse and an interesting one that tells all about the non-smoking law in public spaces. Onto Quito, another flight that featured frr food and beverages (Air Canada take note). Landing on time it was another half hour to clear customs and look for the driver who was going to be looking for us. The first surprise that the trip was not a normal air travel was when we retrieved the one checked bag, the new lock - a combination lock TSA approved, was missing. Normally we do not put locks on the bags but this time it was decided that we had better because we were going to parts unknown. Good job it was a sale price but it's still ten bucks down the drain just because some lazy customs inspector couldn't be bothered to put it back after looking through our jewels.

The Hostal LaRonda had promised us an airport pickup so we looked at all the waiting people holding signs - none for us. Waiting about thirty minutes we spotted a hurried man clutching a piece of paper running toward us. Speaking no English he pointed to the paper, where my misspelled name appeared and gesticulated to mean are we him. "Si", he then apologised for being late "Mas tardes, Senor" and then said the parked car was five minutes away, he seemed surprised to see four people, maybe he had to get another van. But out of the concourse and into the parking lot to a small van. Two bags and four people filled the van and we were off. Pointing to the looming clouds he said"Quito one hour and much rain." He was right the roads we travelled, all of them uphill were deluged with running water, I'd hate to be at the bottom of the hill. Next surprise: the driver's cell phone rang and I heard him say that he was half an hour away and then he said, "It's for you" The hotel owner was also surprised that four people were coming even though I had confirmation of two rooms. "I can put you in a big suite - two bedrooms and shared bath" What can you do and it wasn't as though we hadn't shared an apartment before. More rain and more hills and then we arrived in the middle of the Historical District to face a traffic problem. In streets that can take no more than one car at a time ther was a huddle of cars trying to turn around and move away - the Street had been closed for Saturday night. Well only a short walk to the hotel and then we found the room.

While the ladies settled in and acclimatised themselves to the Quito accommodation, which was large by their standards Stuart and I went of to buy some bottled water and look at the Street. La Ronda Street is the main pedestrian place in the District, every other doorway led to cafes and bars with restaurants - very much a people place. We found a little hole in the wall cafe that sold agua and we bought a couple of bottles each. How much you ask - seventy-five cents. Helluva lot cheaper than the airport price but still way over local price. Incidentally Ecuador uses the US dollar, so we handed over a couple of ones and received some strange coins - Centavos - they use American coin as well so we now have to use some funny money - still money.

Day two
after a long night for those who didn't sleep well, TripAdvisor had published reviews of the hotel that had said it was noisy because of the street. It was true. he street noise didn't stop  until 2am and the people noise didn't stop until three. As a heavy sleeper I never heard a thing I was just relieved that the music didn't have any big Bass speakers pounding away.

Down in the lobby/courtyard area the advertised WiFi was tested. A signal had been picked up in the room three storeys up but it was weak. In the courtyard a strong signal was found but the router was not linked and so we have no Internet link, Just another problem on the list of things we have to present the hotelier with when we see him during business hours. But the weather is cooperating morning temp is not bad and not cold - a cool eight degrees.

A long walk this morning exploring the many Plazas in Downtown Quito, ended up at the Basilica. A service was going on so we didn't see the interior but for two bucks we ascended (in the elevator) to the roof of the church. The next phase was a staircase to the Tower. we got halfway up, on the inside, using a very steep staircase. These stairs led to a balcony below the Tower and another two flights took you to the top. The pic below shows just how dodgy the stairs outside were - enough to make us look twice. This is where we lost our nerve and decided this was far enough.
Meandering back to the hotel took a while and we had decided to finish the afternoon with wine. Going into the local SuperMercado a couple of bottles were selected, taken to the checkout and then we were told "No wine selling on Sunday" Tracking down a place where we could drink wine led us to a five star swanky hotel. We got the wine --- for nine dollars a glass! The final surprise of the day - no hot water in the shower.

Quick update:
Second World  facilities clash with First World attitudes. When we checked in the first thing to be checked out were the communications - wifi and tv. The cable did not work despite the efforts of Hernan the faithful hotelier, the wifi came on but sporadically and we discovered that there was a free wifi zone just outside the window, so goodbye HOSTAL network hello FreeQuito network. The cable was knocked out by the storm we experienced the night we landed and it needs a techie fix - today (Monday) maybe. Next experiment is to see how many piccies we can upload at a time.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Ecuador in ten seconds

Taken from Wikipedia:

Ecuador (Listeni/ˈɛkwədɔr/ E-kwə-dawr), the red stuff on the map, officially the Republic of Ecuador (Spanish: República del Ecuador [reˈpuβlika ðel ekwaˈðor], which literally translates as "Republic of the Equator") is a representative democratic republic in South America, bordered by Colombia on the north, Peru on the east and south, and by the Pacific Ocean to the west. It and Chile are the only two countries in South America that do not have a border with Brazil. Ecuador also includes the Galápagos Islands in the Pacific, about 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) west of the mainland.
The main spoken language in Ecuador is Spanish (94% of the population). Languages of official use in native communities include Quichua, Shuar, and 11 other languages. Ecuador has a land area of 283.520 km2. Its capital city is Quito, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the 1970s for having the best preserved and least altered historic center in Latin America.[8] The country's largest city is Guayaquil. The historic center of Cuenca, the third largest city in the country in size and economically,[9] was also declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 for being an outstanding example of a planned inland Spanish style colonial city in the Americas.[10] Ecuador is also home to a great variety of species, many of them endemic, like those of the Galápagos Islands. This species diversity makes Ecuador one of the seventeen megadiverse countries in the world.[11] The new constitution of 2008 is the first in the world to recognize legally enforceable Rights of Nature, or ecosystem rights.[12]
Ecuador is a presidential republic and became independent in 1830 after having been part of the Spanish colonial empire and, for a much shorter time, of the republic of Gran Colombia. It is a medium-income country with an HDI score of 0.720 (2011).[7]