DOES HISTORY LOVE COMPANY IN CUENCA ECUADOR?

Cuenca is a charming colonial city made up of cobblestone one way streets, geranium-filled balconies and imposing churches like nowhere else. No wonder it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.

And don’t forget that unbeknownst to most, including me, the Panama hat comes from Ecuador and most of them are woven right here in Cuenca. The Panama hat is also UNESCO listed as an intangible cultural heritage so you get two UNESCOs for the price of one here.

If you love architecture and history Cuenca is for you. You will find yourself on every corner with camera in hand. In fact, your lazy saunter through this little pueblo might prevent you from seeing all the landmarks which is what happened to me. Having said that; however, it turns out that my addiction to Red Bull can’t be all bad as this bebida energìa is difficult to find in central Cuenca but my day long search for it led me down streets I wouldn’t have otherwise traversed and I met locals I wouldn’t have otherwise met.

Honestly, however, I felt a bit separated from people in this place almost as if it was intended to be viewed from afar. The people were going about their business to work, the children skipping past you in route to school and the grandiosity of the churches and their ever looming doors felt more like a sacred “no entry” zone where I wasn’t welcome rather than an invitation. It felt like you had to be a part of their past to be included here (even though it is a high priority place for tourists which is probably the reason for this). It’s hard to explain and it is not a complaint about this place or the people here but unlike other places in the world I’ve been I felt invisible here. Even at night I witnessed the parties, the singing, the marching and fireworks throughout the town but from my hotel window. Not one person, not even Fernanda or Jose from the front desk at the Hotel Conquistador, told me about the festivities. By the time I ran down, the procession had moved on. If I have any travel complaint, it is this one thing. Hotels, hostels, etc should know what’s happening in their town and should share it with their guests. Believe it or not this is a worldwide phenomenon – where the place you are staying doesn’t say “hey make sure you go to XXX today for the XXX”. Us travelers can agree on one thing for sure (aside from the obvious which is that there is nothing more important than seeing and connecting with this world (yes you can take your family and your God with you!)) and that one thing is that we want to participate! So tell us where, when and how local folks! We beg you!

Anyway, this separation feeling was only in my mind and probably due to the inordinate amount of time I spent in the hotel room trying to close two transactions in the states as once I was departing I marveled at the ease of the connection with Fabiano during my taxi ride and again at the send off I received from LATAM. No kidding I was only asked a few questions about my travels and word spread like wildfire through LATAM staff and the airport and I actually got a big send off to Country 82 while boarding my flight. Bien viaje from everyone and people saying “it’s you…you’re her…the blessed one” well actually it was “la bendita” and Yes that’s definitely me! Why you might wondering?  I have found lately that somehow when you cross over into country 80 plus people really start to take notice and be interested.

It was at this time it occurred to me that this thing I’m doing is a very BIG deal. I know I’m not the first (lots of people remind me of the girl who touched the soil in every country in a mere 18 months) and I know I won’t be the last or at least I HOPE not, but spending time in another country, connecting with the people, learning about their history and culture, trying their food (and ESPECIALLY natural fruit ice cream and dulce in Ecuador), climbing and bike riding or horseback riding in their mountains, swimming in their seas, rafting in their rivers, hiking through their jungles, viewing their flora and fauna and their wildlife and even experiencing their catastrophes side by side whether natural such as mudslides or monsoons or man made like bombings and shootings – ALL of this has made me a part of this world. I have touched the lives of other people whether with a smile when they were having a bad day, or whether through a lollipop given to a village child who had never had one before or whether asking their name and remembering it regardless of whether they drove my taxi to the airport or served me my food or cleaned my hotel room or guided me to safety up and back down a 6,000 meter mountain or off a 40 meter dive into a waterfall. I have left a footprint in this world – the good kind. I was reminded of this at the last second as I climbed those stairs to my departing plane in Cuenca despite having felt a little distant and apart from the world and the people in it in this gem of a town in the south of Ecuador.

Okay Travelirvana, you may be thinking, that’s touching and all but what do we need to see in this gem of a town called Cuenca, where do we stay and what’s it going to cost us to include this in our itinerary?

Stay in central Cuenca so you can walk anywhere. You don’t need a lush extravagant place to stay here as you’ll only be sleeping so save your money for extravagant places somewhere else (like Lima) and grab a $33 USD plus tax per night perfectly comfortable room with great WiFi like me at the El Conquistador which is right where you need to be location wise. There are plenty of places just like it and on the same street even or within blocks so just find the place that is cheapest and will serve you a good breakfast and where you get free WiFi like El Conquistador.

WALK – walk everywhere, walk everyday, walk all day. It’s free. And take it all in and leave that camera around your neck and not in your backpack. It will be safe and you are going to need it. Walk to the same places multiple times throughout the day like the park, the new church, the old church and other landmarks because the lighting changes and it is remarkable and different each time you look especially the grand churches I’ve been telling you about and then go again at night. Every time I turned a corner I thought I was seeing some new and startling architectural wonder but it was just a different angle and different lighting. It was simply miraculous how that happened. You will understand when you get here. Given these architectural wonders were churches, it shouldn’t have been all that surprising especially in South America knowing the strength of the faith the people have here especially in the historically Catholic town of Cuenca.

Here is the list of landmarks you can see:

1.  Parque Calederon

2.  Catedral Vieja

3.  Catedral Nueva

4.  Plaza de las Flores

5. Mercado de San Francisco

6.  Museo de Arte Moderno

7.  Museo de las Conceptas

8.  Museo del CIDAP

9.  Puente Roto

10. Museo de Culturas Aborigenes

11.  Ruinas de Todos Santos

12. Parque Arquelogico Pumapungo

13. Imanti Handicrafts

14.  Planetario

15. Ceramica Eduardo Vega

16. Sucursal Homero Ortega Panama Hats

Below are some restaurants I went to that I enjoyed:

1. Raymipamba

2. Fillippo

3.  Subway (una broma or in English Just Kidding Folks)

If you have any questions or comments, submit them below and then go Unlock the Travelirvana in you.

EVERYBODY SAY JUMP JUMP – CANYONING IN BAÑOS ECUADOR

I have viewed waterfalls from afar in places like Honduras and rafted through one or two including the monster at Iguazu Falls in Brazil so why not rappel into them or better yet jump 40 meters down into one!!! There are a lot of names for this kind of adventure including, but not limited, to abseiling in Germany, rappelling in France, canyoning here in Ecuador, kloofing in South Africa, torrentismo in Italy and barranquismo in Spain but in essence you travel into canyons using a variety of techniques that may include other outdoor activities such as hiking, climbing, jumping, swimming and/or technical descensions into waterfalls.

You will be suited up in wet suits, with ropes, helmets, harnesses, carabiners and the like and, in our case, a very sexy orange diaper-like apparatus. Most importantly, you are handing your life into the hands of another human being and praying that the anchor bolted into the rock holds and no one has dropped your carabiner causing a hairline fracture thereby weakening it before you use it. A RUSH? OH HELL YEAH!

Who did I hand my life over to today? Gabriel and Reinaldo at Fanaties Sport Travel Agency in Baños, Ecuador.  They were safe, informative, spoke enough English to teach us what we needed to know and most importantly a hell of a lot of fun.  Or is that the most important thing…..I never can remember…..hehehe….

It was a short drive in the back of a pickup truck from Fantaties Sport Travel Agency to the waterfalls followed by a quick 10-15 minute safety briefing and ‘how to’ training session followed by a short, but often dangerous and very slick, hike across rushing rivers and pounding waterfalls to the top of our first of 4 waterfalls all the while the nervous energy building from the tips of your toes to the top of your head, your heart racing and your gut clinching.

I have rappelled many times before as I’m an avid outdoor rock climber and as what goes up must come down, more often than not I’m rappelling down from a climb but what we did in Baños is a WHOLE NEW STORY. Why? All things are slippery when wet right? And what is the most slippery thing do you think? Rocks covered in moss perhaps? And how is it getting so wet and slippery? The raging 30 plus meter waterfall slamming you in the face while you descend.  I learned right away that danger has a new name as rappelling down a dry cliff side is nothing like rappelling down into a waterfall. Planting your feet flat on that wall, bending your knees and leaning back like you are sitting upright in a chair but with your back to the ground may be the only way to get through this activity uninjured. That, of course, and remembering that hand clinging to the rope behind your back is your brakes. You don’t want to go plummeting to your death right? I’m just messing with you a bit. Know this – you are going to be fine as even if you let go of the rope you are not going to fall as you are fastened in at the top. I do, however, recommend that you never let go of that rope because if you do lose your footing you can turn around and just use that slick, moss covered, waterfall bashing, rock face as a water slide. Click here to see the action.

We got to rappel down two waterfalls and slide down one before doing the final insane feat – saltando a/k/a jumping backwards off the waterfall 40 meters down before swinging for 2-3 minutes or so back and forth into the rushing waters.  Say goodbye to your contact lenses…say goodbye to your sanity…and say goodbye to your fears because you will leave all that behind standing on that ledge all alone before plunging into this next extreme adventure. Click here to see what the jump is like.

Since I survived yet another adrenaline pumping extreme adventure, you can write me to learn how or comment on this post below but then go Unlock the Travelirvana in You.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SHOP TIL YOU DROP IN OTAVALO AND COTACACHI ECUADOR

I am known for preferring a sporting event and a game of Texas Holdem over shopping any day of the week and long ago I learned that shopping is not all that conducive to long term traveling due to the weight I’m already carrying in my luggage or the cost of shipping after shopping but an exception was made for Otavalo and Cotacachi a/k/a Leather Town and a big exception at that.

I have traveled to 81 countries at this point and been to more markets than you can count but none compare to the market in Otavalo, Ecuador on a Saturday. It is so well organized and none of the Ecuadorians are pushy nor do they take advantage and, in fact, I encourage you to negotiate with them. Plus, the rainbow of colors you will see from the handmade goods, to the spices, the clothing and most especially the fruits and vegetables is a crowd pleaser if nothing else. The designs of the jewelry are really unique. The quality of the products for sale ranges along with the price but even the cheapest items are well crafted. I purchased a belt that took 2 days to weave and cost $15 USD but only because I didn’t want to negotiate. There were alpaca sweaters, handbags, blankets, scarves, ukuleles, food and perhaps anything else you could think of or want.

Also, if you arrive in Otavalo prior to 11:00 a.m. you can first stop at the animal market and buy live chickens, sheep, cows, lambs and even a prized rooster for the cultural phenomenon known as cock fighting which I witnessed for the first time in Otavalo.

In route from Quito, you should stop at the rose gardens where the roses climb up to six feet high and because of the volcanic and, therefore, very fertile soil as well as the high altitude and cool nights, Ecuador is the third largest exporter of flowers. I learned today that 1.5mm roses are exported daily from here. In fact, around 400 varieties of roses grow in the highlands. Learn more at Latin Roots. And today I received one of those beautiful roses as a gift from a kind soul I met.

Click this link to hear some traditional Ecuadorian Music.

Also, in route stop at the Mira Lago on the Avenida del Vulcan or Avenue of the Volcanoes and photograph Papa Volcano – Imbabura and Mama Volcano – Cotacachi, take a photo with a lama and Pedro, taste the biccochci (both plain and chocolate covered) which is a special recipe and listen to some authentic Ecuadorian music.

Some say after you leave the Otavalo market that you should head about 15 minutes more to La Marquenza in Cotacachi to have an Ecuadorian delicacy of sorts – guinea pig! If you are brave, give it a shot. Truth is it tastes like chicken.

Then you absolutely must head to Luis Saavedra Echeverria’s Boots & Boots on the Main Street in Cotacachi. Imagine purchasing the most innovative designs of leather goods (bags, boots, shoes, jackets) direct from your favorite Italian designer for a fraction of the cost and you still won’t come close to understanding how wonderful perusing through and inevitably purchasing something or some things specially designed by Luis. I broke down and purchased a pair of handmade boots for $119 USD and a leather jacket for $150 USD which would have cost me well over $2,000 at Neiman Marcus in the states.

Click Link to see a Cockfight

Finally, if you can stand it, stop by the Otavalo’s Gallera Arena and witness first hand a real cockfighting match. I’m always torn between experiencing everything that another culture has to offer and balancing that against my own personal views about animal cruelty and the like but often land on learning and not judging and I did so again today given the history of raising fowl for fighting goes back 6,000 years. I spent $2 and watched one fight where the losing cock was killed within 5 minutes in a horrible way and I had enough but, if you can stomach it, then experience it or stand up against it and don’t. It’s entirely up to you and to each their own.

I wouldn’t recommend parking your vehicle (even the fender of your vehicle) in the bus lane in front of the Gallera Arena or you will get towed and it will cost you $90 USD so we found out today!! Ugh.

I would, however, highly recommend that you take this tour and your Quito tour with Juan Carlos of Tour Guide Ecuador. Juan Carlos is the most knowledgeable guide I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and you will learn so much if you book all of your tours in Ecuador with him. He speaks perfect English as does Andres.  He is fun, interesting, kind, knowledgeable and will tell you all the legends and stories there are to tell.  He will ensure you have everything you need including transportation throughout the country and you won’t miss a thing if you book with them.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me and then go Unlock the Travelirvana in You.

THE SECRET GARDEN COTOPAXI ECUADOR

A SYMPHONY OF COLOR, THE BACKDROP OF HEAVEN, MYSTICAL, ENCHANTING, UNIQUE AND SPECIAL. NO WONDER IT IS CALLED THE SECRET GARDEN.

Yes they have tiny homes called Playhouses to stay in with tiny furniture and they have Hobbit Homes slightly larger and built into the mountain plus dorms and private houses surrounded by gardens.

Yes they have a forest filled with waterfalls behind you and incredible views of Cotopaxi and Rumiñawi in front of you.

Yes they have gentle streams, little ponds, gardens of flowers and other magical treats for your eyes to feast upon.

 

Yes they have a jacuzzi and hammocks to lounge around on plus family style meals, banana bread to die for, among other delectable dishes, as well as dogs to hike with or cuddle up with next to the fireplace.

Yes they have llamas and sheep and horses to love on and play with.

Click here to see some of the daytime beauty of the Secret Garden.

Click here to see some of the tranquil yet fun action at night at the Secret Garden.

They have everything your little heart could desire. Beauty and tranquility abound here at Secret Garden Cotopaxi. Come experience the utter bliss and the adventure for yourself.

The outdoor activities include, without limitation, hiking to waterfalls, biking down the mountain, ice trekking to the summit of Cotopaxi (which by the way is a traditional Quechua word meaning “Neck of the Moon”) and horseback riding in the National Park with mesmerizing views everywhere you look.

And for you photographers out there, welcome to a place where you will never set your camera down. Both the sun and the moon dance with the clouds decorating the valley below and the volcanoes above with rays of light and shadows.

So how do you get to heaven and what is the cost you might ask? Go to Secret Garden Cotopaxi and book your 3 day/2 night promo. The price is $97 for three days and 2 nights for a bed in the dormitory. If you book early you might be lucky enough to get a Hobbit Home. Keep in mind that the price includes all your food, a hike to the waterfalls and a hike to Pasochoa as well as your incoming shuttle transport. Meet your fellow travelers at Secret Garden Quito (the sister property) by 10:00 a.m. on your date of departure and take the approximate 2.5 hour shuttle ride deep into the mountains to the land of enchantment. The other activities range in price depending on whether you are going alone or with a group. And Tony or one of the volunteers here will handle scheduling all of your activities for you and your transportation to your next location.

I did the waterfall hike on Day 1 which was a lovely trudge through a forest full of trees and icy rivers. In fact, you must wear the water boots they provide for free because the river crossings can get quite deep. The hike requires you to cling to the sides of rock walls periodically bringing with it a thrill or two and certainly a sense of adventure and jumping in the freezing water near naked when you arrive at the final waterfall is part of the tradition for those of you who are brave enough to do it. Click here to see some of the waterfall hike.

I did the horseback riding in Cotopaxi National Park on Day 2. I had forgotten how at home I am straddling a horse until my guide Christina handed me the reigns and I hoisted myself on Carbonera’s back. Surprisingly, given my lifelong experience with horses as I grew up on a horse farm and rode equestrian hunter jumpers all through my formative years, Carbonera was still the most comfortable, smooth ride of my life. His gallop equates to a gentle massage rather than your typical bounce fest on trail horses for tourists making this excursion even more pleasurable. And because I have experience and was alone with the guide, we got to gallop over the beautiful terrain, stomp across fast flowing rivers and reach heights I had never been before – at least not on a horse. And breathtaking doesn’t cover the views. There are no words brilliant enough to describe the views from here.  You MUST come see. Click here to see some of the action.

As I turned my ankle on Day 1 in the aforementioned water boots, I was unable to hike either Rumiñahui or Pasochoa but all my new friends would recommend either of these activities and if you are into real challenges then the overnight ice trek to the summit of Cotopaxi is right up your alley. And, by the way, the water here must be magical too as after I soaked in the jacuzzi my sprained foot began to heal. No joke.

In the late afternoons and evenings, there was card playing, yoga, jacuzzi and even a few folks who played guitar and sang. Tranquility was mostly the name of the game here at Secret Garden after about 3:00 p.m. each day (except for the new arrivals) given the exciting adventures during the first part of the day.

Things to know are as follows:

Children are welcome. We had 2 year old Lily with us and 11 year old Wilhom. There were also some local kids hanging about who were just as darling as could be. And despite being a summer camp for adults, we loved having the little ones with our group.

There is no WiFi and your Ecuadorian SIM card will not work here so go outside and play and you can brag to your friends and family on social media later.

Help fertilize the garden and use the composting toilet. Believe it or not this eco friendly bathroom is private, has a view and even a little waterfall to get “things” flowing but watch where you walk as some of the dogs at the Secret Garden haven’t figured out how to use the composting toilet!

Bring sunscreen, a balaclava to cover your ears while horse riding or climbing, bring your Kühl waterproof pants and jacket as you might get some rain, your The North Face thermal ball jacket too (although they have lovely ponchos for you to wear here), bring some gloves, some bug spray, bring CASH as they ONLY take cash, bring your Swell Bottle and any Red Bull or specialty drinks you may want (you can use the pond as a frig to keep your drinks cold – that’s what I did) and definitely bring a good book to read or your Kindle as there is little out there more relaxing than kicking back with a good read in one of the indoor or outdoor hammocks they have here. AND, OF COURSE, BRING YOUR CAMERA!! I again cannot recommend anything more than I recommend the Olympus Digital SP-100EE as it is so light and has a fantastic zoom and takes just as good, if not better, photos than all those huge heavy lenses people weigh themselves down with. Evidence of that is included in all my recent blog posts including this one. And, if you have one, don’t forget your Go Pro.

Also, the chefs prepared some of the best meals I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting so bring your appetite.

I have traveled far and wide my friends and can name on two hands some of the most charming and magical experiences I’ve had and Secret Garden made it on the list. Write me if you want to know about the others as I’m happy to share them as well and then go unlock the Travelirvana in you.