Sunday, January 24, 2010

From the Jungle to the Andes

You know where you are?
You're in the JUNGLE baby!!!!

We left Baños and headed to a sleepy town called Misahuallí. It was very tranquil after the holiday festivities in Baños.

Mark played beach soccer in the sand with the locals. One side of the field was the luscious tree line and the other side was the lazy river.

He was on the team without shirts and the subsequent sunburn was a treat for the beautiful local children who took turns making handprints on his back. They just couldn't believe how red someone could get!

We hiked to a waterfall and took a boat ride down river to an indigenous reserve where we met a new friend.... A tame monkey (well, kind of tame).
Misahuallí was so small and lovely. We stayed right on the central plaza and were awakened to the sounds of birds and monkeys right outside our window in the park.

After the jungle we headed to the high mountain hot springs of Papallacta (at 11,000 feet) to soak in the high altitude thermal baths. Then we took a bus to Quito to experience the big city life for awhile. We stayed in San Blas near the Centro Histórico which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We spent days strolling through the narrow cobbled streets and we climbed the towers of the Basílica del Voto Nacional which had amazing views of the city and surrounding mountains. We thoroughly enjoyed our days in this fabulous city. We have a million and one photos and I want to post them all.... alas...

Of course, what is a trip to Ecuador without a visit to the equator? The equator line lies just outside of Quito in a place called La Mitad del Mundo, where we were able to place a foot in each hemisphere.

Right in the middle of Quito there is a tram (teleferico) which offers a 2.5 km ride to an astounding 4100 m (13,452 feet).

This was one of the highlights of our journey. We rode to the top of the tram and then hiked to the summit of Rucu Pichincha at 4698 m (15,413 feet!) and nearly 2.5 hours--the air was mighty thin. What fun!

Here are some photos: One before we got on the tram at the bottom, and the next two on the hike up with Quito in the background.

From Quito we ventured our separate ways for the first time. Mark headed back to Otavalo to volunteer with children, and Michelle headed to Montanita, along the coast, to take more Spanish classes and volunteer in a local clinic. Sadly there are no photos to document these undertakings. Mark worked with kids between the ages of 2-17 and did everything from playing sports to teaching English to tutoring math and science. He also had a blast practicing Spanish with the children as they had no qualms correcting his grammar when appropriate. Michelle, on the other hand, landed in what turned out to be the party capital of the country. Montanita is the
beach town where folks from all over South America--all over the world actually--come to play, surf, drink, play reggae music, and sell their handcrafted jewelry. The local clinic was undergoing some staffing changes and the hours were sporadic, the Spanish school was for beginners, the town was outrageously expensive, and the bunch of Russians staying at the same hotel really, really liked to drink rum and stay up late. When we spoke via Skype for the first time in a few days Mark was full of stories about the children and teaching and Michelle said, "I went for a run on the beach and... oh yeah, I got a dreadlock."

After a week apart we met up again in Quito and headed together to do the Quilotoa Loop which is basically a series of roads passing through several small villages which lead to an enormous crater lake. Our first night on the loop we spent in a village called Zumbahua at 3800 m (12,467 ft) and we attended a local dance celebration held on the village square. It was so much fun milling about and talking to people dressed traditionally who kept offering us the local firewater.

We hopped on a bus the next day to spend the night in the village of Quilotoa at 3854 m (12,645 ft). We stayed in a hostal which hung on the edge of the crater overlooking the magnificent deep blue waters below. As soon as we arrived we headed out to hike the crater rim. This hike is a MUST DO for anyone in reasonably good shape who is travelling through Ecuador. This lake is massive and spectacular!
The rim trail is not an easy jaunt. There are big peaks encircling the humongous emerald lake.
Arriving back in the village.
We got up early the next morning to try to catch the sunrise over the crater but were foiled by the clouds. We were joined by a group of new friends from France with whom we made plans to hike to the next village.

Because of the distance Mark and I formulated a plan where we would take all of our backpacks (six or seven) to the next village by bus, get a room, and reserve some rooms for our friends for the following night. We would then return on the 6am bus to Quilotoa, have breakfast, and head out together for the 13 km trek without our huge packs. What a great idea! We had such a great night in Chugchilan (ie warm). It is mighty windy up on the edge of the crater and the wind found its way through the cement blocks of our hotel in Quilotoa and into our bedroom.

The next day we hiked one-quarter of the way back around the crater rim and then down through a small indigenous village untouched by modernity and nestled alongside a canyon, through the canyon, then back up to the village of Chugchilan and the Cloudforest Hostal (which is definitely the place to stay--great food, great owners, and great prices). Our group splintered about one-quarter of the way along the trek so we ended up hiking the majority of the way alone. It was so peaceful and I have never in my life been on a more beautiful hike; so stunning and varied and a memory we will treasure always.

The hike begins.
Our rendition of "Climb Every Mountain" caught on digital.
. . . . . "How do you solve a problem like Maria". . . .??? Ahhhh, no, I think "Edelweiss."
The small village of Guayama about half-way through the trek.
The beginning of the canyon which drops to the valley below.
Looking back up from the bottom of the canyon.

Mark's dream house is made of adobe; he'll build it one day.
Patricia, one of the owners of the Cloudforest Hostal, in Michelle's favorite room...
The kitchen, of course! She was a fabulous chef with very creative vegetarian dishes.

On January 21st we decided to make our way back to Banos (I'm home now and don't know how to put the tilda above the 'n' in Banos--but it's pronounced 'Banyos.') How did we leave Chugchilan, you might ask... Well, by the milk wagon of course.
Yes, we rode in the back of a pickup truck which stopped every so often to collect containers of milk left along the side of the road. The milk was measured and documented for future payment and poured into a big barrel.
Throughout the two hour or so ride more and more people hopped in the back of the truck until they were hanging off of all sides. In places the road hugged the edge of a cliff alongside a magnificent valley and we had amazing views in every direction as we raced along.
To answer your question, yes, those are sheep on top of the bus.
You would be amazed at the things we've seen in and on top of buses and vans.
This was the first thing we saw when we arrived in Saquisili, an important market town in these Andean highlands. Check out the Saquisili link which has a video of a traditional market place.

We decided to continue our journey back to Banos to study Spanish.
[An aside: To anyone making the journey from Saquisili to Latacunga--sit on the left side of the bus. The views are outrageous!]
I don't know if we've mentioned it but Banos is the Park City or Aspen of Ecuador. It's absolutely stunning and situated in a pristine little pocket of beauty nestled against the mountainside along a canyon with a beautiful river. We had left Banos just after the new year and we returned on January 21st.
During the three weeks we were away, the volcano Tungarahua had erupted and continued to spew. We mentioned in our last Banos post that Tungarahua had been sleeping for 10 years. . . Well she sure woke up while we were away.

We settled down to what would be considered "the lap of luxury" for the first time ($10/day). After all, we had our very own, private bathroom AND a television. The owner even let us borrow his DVD player so we bought some DVDs to watch in Spanish and English--an excellent way to learn.
The hotel came with two dogs, three parrots and a turtle. We shared our fruit with the parrots and turtle every morning.

The end for now. It's nearing the end of January.

Will Mark and Michelle be buried in volcanic ash? Will they buy a house and move to Banos? Will they both go back to Montanita on the beach? Stay tuned.

Mark & Michelle

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