A Travellerspoint blog

October 2009

Three Days in Paradise: Vilcabamba

We caught a flight from Quito to Loja, in southern Ecuador, saving us 15 or 20 hours of road travel. From there we were unsure of whether to go straight to the Peruvian border, another 6 or 8 hours by bus, or to stop in Vilcabamba, a hippyish sounding place we had read about in the The South American Handbook. In the airport we talked to a young norteamericano who happened to be teaching English there. She told us it was a wonderful place. That decided it, and we shared a cab with her for the hour ride to the small town.

As it turned out Vilcabamba, was one of the highlights of our trip. Located somewhat lower than the surrounding highlands the climate is semi-tropical, though it is surrounded by imposing mountains. Everything is incredibly lush with many species of plants, both tropical and nontropical. True, it was the rainy season, but we heard that it was green all year long. The afternoons were hot, and often punctuated by a thunderstorm or two, while the mornings and evenings were comfortable and mild. We had some rain on each of the days we were there, but it came in short bursts, and the sun was out for most of the time. Every day we could see rainbows, sometimes two at a time, stretching from the valley floor all the way into the distant mountains after the storms would roll in

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Often the high mountains would still be overcast while the valley was sunny. We stayed in Izhcayluma, a German run small hotel on a hill overlooking the valley. There were elaborate gardens, a small, but beautifully landscaped pool, and good meals in an open-air restaurant. We decided to go for broke at $30US a night, and had our own cabin, complete with terrace and hammock facing the hills in the back. Staying in the hotel were several German's, not surprisingly, a family from Quito, and an afro-american woman from California, another psychologist.

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View of Valley from the Hotel
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Wandering around town we discovered a central plaza, and in it a small cafe that served, what they said, were organic crepes and yogurt smoothies. It was obvious that some of the more decrepit building were being repaired, and sizable new hotels and houses were in various stages of construction. We talked to another American, our age, who was in the process of building a house in the hills. He was far from the only one it seemed, and slowly Vilcabamba is becoming something of an expat community for retirees, mostly from California. Despite the considerable rise in land prices fed by foreign dollars, the town still felt like a sleepy village. Perhaps the hippie element, such as it is, was best expressed by the funky bar I stopped in for a beer and sandwich. It had a disheveled garden in the back, with banana palms strung with Christmas lights that looked as though they had been there a while. Inside, the bar stools were made of saddles, while the wooden walls had newspapers for wallpaper. I was the only customer, but it was, after all mid-afternoon.



Another day we climbed part way up Mandingo, the base of which is an easy walk from the hotel.

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It turned out to be more challenging and exposed than we thought. We climbed to the first cross, and could see that the trail continued on a knife's edge with loose rock, to where we could see another cross. We had been warned that the hardest part was beyond that. So the first cross was it. Nearby were several cows, who seemed to think think they were goats. They had no fear of us, or of falling off for that matter.

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We rested here, and admired the views across the valley.

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On the way down it began to get hot, and we stopped at one of the few internet cafes, close to the trail head. The cafe which was on the 2nd story had a roof, but otherwise it was an open terrace. Naturally the net was slow, but we had an expansive view of the village and the mountains beyond.

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I thought that there could not possibly be a more beautiful place to compose a letter.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:25 Archived in Ecuador Tagged postcards Comments (1)

Cotopaxi To Canoa

We returned to Quito to meet our older daughter, 26, and her boyfriend, who were flying in for 10 days from New York. By the time she arrived, the weather had turned cold and rainy, and was the same for our two day excursion to the Otavalo market. On Christmas day, we attempted to climb the lower reaches of Vulcan Cotopaxi. At 5897M or more than 19,000 feet, it is the second highest peak in Ecuador. Our Spanish speaking guide picked us up early in the morning, as the drive took about 2 hours. It was overcast, but not raining. On the way out we saw many Indians, whole families with children, begging on the side of the road. Our guide told us that they were there because it was Christmas. Occasionally a car would stop and give them a few pennies, but for the most part it seemed like they waiting in vain. When we arrived the upper half of the mountain was totally encased in cloud. Our plan was to start hiking from somewhere around 14,500, and make it to the snow line, around 17,000 feet. It was chilly and damp as we trudged through the open paramo that surrounded the cone.

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The hiking was not difficult, but at altitude, it was tiring. Natasha, in particular was struggling, as she and Eric had just spent a couple of days in the highlands before coming here, and didn't have enough time to acclimate. A small dog followed us all the way up from the refugio, apparently belonging to the caretaker.

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Despite the mist it was quite beautiful, and although the summit never did appear, we occasionally got a longer view of the ravines on either side.

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The walk took us through low grasses, and then onto finely ground scree of volcanic rocks. After a few hours of hiking in the ever thinning air, Natasha had enough and wanted to turn back. We didn't make it to the snow, although our guide said it wasn't far. The weather deteriorated as we hiked down; the rain adding to the chill. It became difficult to see. Not quite a white out, but still hard to determine exactly where the path was, as the terrain all looked the same in the dim, flat light.

On the way back to Quito, the rain picked up, but the indigenous families were still out begging. Covered with plastic or cardboard, they attempted to keep dry any way they could, though the splashing from the cars and trucks made that difficult. We got back to L'Auberge in the late afternoon, glad for the opportunity to get out of our damp clothes, and feeling very privileged compared to the people we saw on the road.



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The next day we went to Canoa, for a few more days of R and R on the beach. The folks at L,Auberge had just opened up a small hotel there. The price was right, $30US for two with two meals a day, and Canoa seemed relatively undeveloped from what I could gather by talking to the staff. The ocean swimming on the Pacific coast is not nearly as pleasant by the time you get to Peru and Chile, where it is chilled by the Humboldt Current. On our previous trip to Ecuador we had been to Atacames, which was then practically deserted, except for a few small thatched huts rented to German tourists. Most of the people on the beach were local shrimpers, who would come in every day and sell their catch to the open air restaurant, where we gorged ourselves on ceviche. Not now though. According to the guide books, it is THE party spot of Ecuador, and the beach is lined with hotels, restaurants and bars. I had no desire to go back and see how the quiet, beautiful place I remembered had been wrecked. That's always a problem when you go back to a place you remember fondly, especially when it's been a number of years. It's somewhat of a dilemma for me, even in terms of this blog. While I love sharing my experiences with others, I worry about what will become of the places I describe. I seem to get to many of them before they get written up in the Times. That's great, but I worry about running out of out of the way places, when its possible to get to so many of them in a day or two.

And then there was the bus ride. Not really a chicken bus, it was crammed to the gills with people sitting where they could in the aisles, or else standing for most of the 11 hours or so that it took to get there. It was supposed to take 8. We had our own seats, but people in the aisles couldn't help but lean against us. My daughter was a little stressed, both because of the overcrowding, and the fact that there was no bathroom on board, which was typical. We assured her that the bus would stop for pee brakes, but really we had no idea how often, or for that matter what the condition of the bathrooms would be. Perhaps it would be like our last trip here when the buses simply stopped along the side of the road, and the women hiked up their skirts. The bus did stop for bathroom breaks, but not for long, and not that often. Although I was somewhat used to it, I had forgotten how long the wait could be, and unfortunately had my usual morning coffee. Not a good idea when it could be three hours before the first real stop.

It seemed to take forever to get out of the city, but when we finally started to descend from the mountains the scenery was magnificent. Huge gorges and waterfalls lined our route, not to mention the inevitable 1000 foot drop off on one side of the road. When we got to a rather large town, at around two in the afternoon, the driver decided he was hungry. He got out, but neglected to tell us how long we would stay. Before we had a chance to climb out, which no one seemed inclined to do, thereby making it impossible for us to do so, hordes of street vendors descended upon us. This was not unusual, but because the bus was impossibly crowded they could not climb on board. Instead, they all seemed to have movable platforms on wheels that reached up to the bus windows, perhaps 10 feet or so off the ground. From there they sold us all manner of bananas, fried chicken, tamales, partially frozen, but melting ices, and the ubiquitous Inka Kola, which was not really a cola at all, but a super sweet lemon-line soda the color of urine. Apparently the bus crowds were a regular thing and these vendors were prepared.

We arrived at the end of the line as it was getting dark. Our hotel, Coconuts, was a few miles down the beach, and we took a taxi. We were all exhausted, but the room was fine, if simple, and faced directly out on the water 300 feet away. You could hear the waves breaking, and best of all, we seemed to be the only guests in the place. Since one of the owners was French, dinner was delicious. The little town of Canoa was a mile down the beach, but that would wait until tomorrow.

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The beach was wide, and where we were, completely undeveloped. Except for the occasional brightly colored “cabanas” stretched over a couple of poles to provide shade, there was nothing.

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The water was indeed warm and inviting. As in Nicaragua the surf conditions were highly variable, depending on the tides and the time of day, and the sunsets were sometimes incredible.

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On the walk to town there were sand cliffs/dunes that grew in height to a couple of hundred feet.

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These were perfect for paragliding, and we would often see the red and blue kites riding the thermals for hours, just like the smaller hawks nearby. After hearing I might get airsick the first few times, I decided not to try it. The town which had been primarily a fishing village, was slowly being transformed into a small beach side resort. There were several backpacker hotels and sea food restaurants which were good and inexpensive. We sampled a couple of them for lunch.

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Most of the patrons seemed to be middle class Ecuadorian families on holiday, though the backpacker establishments clearly had an international clientele. The streets beyond the water were still just sand.

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On the beach there were fishing boats that had been dragged up beyond the water line.

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Kids frolicked in the water, while the ice-cream man made his rounds.

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A long line of those same brightly colored cabanas, open on two sides , framed the water giving the whole place a festive air. It was busy enough to be fun for people watching, but small enough to be low key and relaxing. Natasha and Eric rented horses for her birthday, and went riding along the cliffs and the sand lanes beyond town. The staff at our hotel made a little cake and sang Feliz Cumplianos. All rather charming.

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It was hard to pull ourselves away, but we left on the 31st because we wanted to spend New Years Eve in Quito and their flight was scheduled the next day. For the third and final time we returned to L'Auberge. That evening we went back to Mariscal for the festivities. There was music and large crowds milling about and looking at the huge paper- mache puppets that lined the streets.

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Many seemed to have a political theme and we heard that making fun of the government and its corrupt politicians was a favorite New Year's Eve pastime. For a time we donned our own paper mache devil masks, which were being sold everywhere.

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After the long drive, we did not make it to midnight.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:08 Archived in Ecuador Tagged postcards Comments (0)

Galapagos

Located about 600 miles off the coast, for many years the Enchanted Islands were a total backwater, ignored by everyone, including Ecuador, which annexed them shortly before Darwin visited in 1832. The only practical way to see them on a short visit is on a boat, which acts like a floating hotel. No camping is allowed. Despite popular misconceptions, the islands have been inhabited for years, but the only significant towns are Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Of late, the population, especially of Puerto Ayora, has increased significantly. We flew from Quito to Baltra, a former US army base, as most tourists do. From there we took a bus for the ½ hour ride to island of Santa Cruz, where we were ferried out to our ship on zodiacs. When full, the ship has a capacity of about 80, but now there were 50. They showed us to our rooms, small, but efficiently laid out with two portholes and our own bathroom. Shortly thereafter lunch was served, and not surprisingly, it was a lavish affair with more food than we could eat. Much to our relief we saw that most of the people were younger than us. We envisioned that on a bigger ship, most people would be older, more conservative, and less fit, God forbid, than we were. The sedentary life of a cruise has never appealed to me, and this was my first. Next to us was a delightful French couple, Zoey and Nicolas, an older gay American couple, and a couple of young American docs on their honeymoon. While we ate, the boat sailed to another nearby island where we would make our first stop.

A short, rather pretty, mid 30's, Ecuadorian woman got up and introduced herself in English, and then in Spanish, as the activities director. Oh Suzanna, I thought, from the old TV program with Gail Storm.(I date myself badly here). She introduced the captain and the ship's officers, and told us that we would be assigned to different groups of 8 or 10 passengers and a guide, with whom we would stay with for the entire 5 days, whenever we left the ship. The ship would make two ports of call daily. Wake up call would be at 7 AM sharp, breakfast at 7:30-8:30, and usually the first landing would be around 9. We had to be ready to leave as soon as the name of our group was called over the loudspeaker. Some landings would be “wet” and others dry, and we would be snorkeling almost every day. Each night, there would be a lecture on what we could expect to see on the following day, as well as some kind of informal entertainment. "As soon as we finish here, I'll make the group assignments. Any questions?"

She was certainly the model of organization and efficiency, as was the entire ship. We were assigned to the Frigates, with a rather international mix of people.

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We were the only Americans. Zoey and her husband were in the group, a young Italian and his English roommate, Will, who had come separately, two Dutch girls in their 30's, and finally another young and somewhat shy, Japanese couple. Our guide, Carlos, was from the mainland, and in his early 40's. Right after lunch we had a brief meeting with him, and he told us what we would see that day. We had to stick together, and he again emphasized that we had to be ready to leave as soon as we were called over the loudspeaker. You'll want to touch many of the animals. Please refrain from doing so. as they will then have a human scent and may be rejected by their own kind. In addition they may look harmless and cute, but they can and sometimes do bite, so it can be dangerous. Please walk only on the paths and don't wander off. Uh, oh. How regimented was this going to be?

Not to worry. Carlos turned out to be a very bright, personable, and obviously well informed naturalist who spoke five languages. Our group was a lot of fun, and in general stayed out snorkeling the longest, and was always up for more adventures. The islands are mostly volcanic deserts, rough and rocky, with various types of lava stretching all the way to the sea.

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Some of them have volcanic cones that reach up another 2000 feet or so, and the tops are often shrouded in cloud, and a constant mist known as Garua. There are some desert plants at sea level, such as cacti, and various bushes, many of which have sharp thorns.

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The vegetation gets noticeable thicker as the elevation increases. There is not a lot of fresh water, and all in all, it is a harsh environment, beautiful, but unforgiving.

And then there are the animals, the reason everyone comes here. They are everywhere. There are thousands of marine iguanas, anywhere from 2 to 4 or even 5 feet long, sunning themselves on the rocks and crawling into the water. It is hard not to step on them.

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There are large male sea lions with their harems of females. who can sometimes be aggressive, and it is necessary to give them a large berth. There are playful seals, also thousands, little ones, big ones, some dark and others light brown, cavorting in the water or lying on the rocks or sand not far from the iguanas.

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There are bright red crabs scuttling in between, and seemingly in constant motion, avoiding the surf as it moves up and back.

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There are giant and ancient land tortoises, some more than 150 years old, not to mention the inimitable Lonesome George, said, at one point, to be the last remaining tortoise.

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Land Iguana

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And of course there are the birds. Blue footed and masked boobies,

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albatrosses, swallowed tailed and lava gulls, mockingbirds, Darwin's finches, pelicans swooping down to catch fish,

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flightless cormorants,

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flamingos, penguins, and yes, our namesake, frigate birds. They all let you get close enough to feed and touch them, which dutifully, we did not. And this doesn't even include the fish and the sea turtles.

My favorite part was the snorkeling. Every day, sometimes twice a day, we would go out for an hour or two. The seals would play near us, sometimes even bumping into us by mistake. They were very curious and would swim right up to my body and face, before darting off to do flips and spinners. At times, I would spend 15 minutes swimming above a turtle or manta ray, the occasional shark, or a brightly colored school of parrot fish. One time we snorkeled along a cliff face, and not only could I glance down and see the world below, but I could look up and practically touch the rookeries on the rocks just above the water, and watch the birds dive for their dinner.

They took good care of us on the boat, while keeping us very busy. The staff was there with fresh towels when we returned from a long snorkel, and there was usually a snack just as we came on board, to hold us until dinner. At times lunch was served outside by the pool, and the daily lectures were informative without being too long. The schedule worked like a Swiss watch, but never felt oppressive because there was always the option to skip something. Not that I took advantage of that. There were just too many interesting things to do and see. On the last night the crew, led by our indefatigable activities director, who could dance a mean salsa, put on a talent show, and then our group stayed up late, led by Zoey's husband, drinking caipurinas and singing karaoke. A first for me, but our Japanese couple who didn't speak much English, knew all the English songs. It was indeed, a trip. We managed to avoid getting sea sick until the very last zodiac ride to shore, when Nanette felt queasy, but by then, it didn't much matter.





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A LITTLE HISTORY




This is the typical tourist picture of the islands, an Eden wilderness of tame and often exotic wildlife, that is protected by the Ecuadorian government for the benefit of all. It was my view, until I returned home, did a little research, and read Michael D'Orso's book Plundering Paradise. He presents a very different view, which in many ways is the opposite. Far from being an untouched paradise, the Galapagos are under siege from both rich and poor out to make a buck, and the government has been anything but helpful.

Shortly after annexation in 1832, a penal colony was established by the government on Floreana, and then abandoned 30 years later. In 1870 another colony was established in San Cristobal. Known as El Progreso, its residents were little more than slaves on a sugar and coffee plantation that also harvested moss, used for making dye. There was a revolt, and the sadistic overseer was killed in 1904, after which the inmates fled to the mainland. Largely uninhabited for the next 20 years, the first permanent settlers were Norwegian farmers.

The islands have always attracted their share of oddball characters and misfits. One of the more infamous stories is that of Frederick Ritter, a German doctor. Inspired by a popular book about the Galapagos, as were the Norwegians, Ritter, a vegetarian nudist and astrologer, left his wife and moved to Floreana in 1929 with his new girlfriend, Dore Strauch. Not far from the old penal colony, the couple constructed a dome of logs and hacked out a farm in the jungle highlands. They started writing home, and several accounts of their success were published, encouraging others to come and see what they had created. Most left after a relatively short time, but in 1932 another German couple, Heinz Wittmer and his wife Margaret came and stayed. They built a house some distance from Ritter. However a few months later a Viennese “Baroness” showed up, replete with silk panties and a revolver, as well as three men. A couple of years later, two unrecognizable bodies washed up on a beach 120 miles away, and created a huge sensation in the international press. This eventually brought to light the long standing feud between the baroness and the other two families , including an unexplained shooting of one of the men living with her. Not long after, the baroness and one of the other men disappeared, and then the third went missing. Finally, Ritter died that winter, supposedly from a case of botulism. To this day no one knows exactly what happened. Were they murdered or was it suicide? Dore Strauch left that year and returned to Germany where she wrote a book about it, as did Margaret Wittmer, who stayed on, and whose family continues to run the same beach hotel on the island.

On a less lurid note, the national park was created in 1959, when the Ecuadorian government bowed to international pressure. At the time, there were only a few hundred residents in all of the Galapagos, and a compromise was reached that 97% of the land would be put into the park, and 3%, the settled areas, would be left outside and therefore not subject to park regulations. The park would be controlled by a newly created park service, and a system of boat-touring was initiated with specific landing sites, so that only 8% of the land would be open to tourists. To pay for it, the government would charge everyone a park entrance fee, and the boat owners would be subject to taxes and licensing fees. All well and good. The problem has been that the government of Ecuador, like those of Central America, has been incredibly corrupt. Although nominally a democracy since 1973, many of the presidents have been little more than demagogues beholden to wealthy families, and often concerned with lining their own pockets. As a result , the park regulations have rarely been enforced.

What has happened in the Galapagos is also linked to the larger history of the country. In the mid-20th century, oil was discovered in the Amazon basin. Initially developed by a consortium of American companies, a pipeline was built over the Andes, and as the government of Ecuador came to depend on the revenue, the size of the government bureaucracy increased rapidly. Though nepotism was rampant, some of the money was spent to improve infrastructure, and subsidize basic services and commodities, including gasoline and cooking gas, which were sold below cost. However, a good deal of money was skimmed off the top. As the economy continued to expand, the middle class as well as the rich benefited, though least of all, the Indians. The government did not have the foresight to set aside money to deal with the market fluctuations in the price of oil, and in the mid 80's when the price began to fall, it was caught flatfooted. It responded by increasing production, but it never reached the intended levels. Industrial growth came to a halt and there was little foreign investment. Government expenditures exceeded revenue, and by 2000 the country was in debt close to $14 billion, with a GNP of just slightly more than that. Political unrest followed the gradual collapse of the economy, and the most powerful indigenous rights movement in South America, headed by CONAIE, began to launch protests and demonstrations.

In response to demands by the IMF and World Bank, the government launched various austerity measures in order to secure more foreign loans. As in other developing nations, the burden of these measures fell disproportionately on the poor. The value of the sucre began to plunge. When D'Orso initially visited the Galapagos in 1999, it's value was somewhere around 2000 per US dollar. Within a year it dropped to 7000 then 20,000, and finally to 25,000, just before conversion to the US dollar. Except for those rich enough to shelter their money overseas, many people lost their entire life savings. Three presidents were thrown out of office in what amounted to bloodless coups, and the government has changed hands several times until recently. Despite widespread opposition, monetary policy continued unchanged for many years. In addition, the "War on Drugs," being fought against the narco-trafficers by the Columbian government, encouraged and paid for by the US, made the border areas with Ecuador increasingly dangerous and violent. Immigration from Columbia, both legal and illegal grew accordingly, and some drug dealers moved their operations to Ecuador.

The economic pressures on the locals in the Galapagos increased, as it did on many people on the mainland. Pepineros, or sea cucumber divers took to the water in increasingly larger numbers, as the price rose to more than $2US a piece. This is important because sea cucumbers are considered vital to the ecosystem. At one point in 1995, “fishermen” even attacked the Darwin Research Center. The Ecuadorian commercial fishing fleet also began to raid the islands in larger numbers, even though it was illegal. They spread huge nets, sometimes as long as 70 miles, that would catch everything in their wake. Despite the increases in tourism, and in the local population, almost 27,000, in the late 90's, the park service had just one boat to patrol an area the size of Pennsylvania. Eliecer Cruz , a Galapagueano, who became park service director in 1996, took the job seriously, but his efforts were hampered by a lack of resources and by a totally corrupt judge, who released boats and crew members caught for illegal poaching.


As 2001 drew to a close, the battle between the Galapagos National Park Service and the illegal fishing fleets, had escalated. Cruz, and the park service, supported by a Greenpiece ship, had sized sixteen fishing vessels for an array of violations. The government's response in each case was either to release the ship and its crew, or at the most, to delay legal action, (D'Orso, P, 323.) Not a pretty picture, and certainly not one I would have imagined from my own idyllic excursion. On a somewhat more positive note, the current Correa administration is trying to limit both the number of tourists, and the number of Ecuadorians immigrating to the islands. We shall see.

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Posted by jonshapiro 08:05 Archived in Ecuador Tagged ecotourism Comments (5)

Quito and Vulcan Pichincha

We arrived in Quito in the evening, and were picked up by the folks at our hotel, L'Auberge Inn. Owned by a couple of French expats, it is located midway between the old and new parts of the city, and is a good, quiet, and inexpensive option. We had previously been in the city 28 years earlier, and were eager to see how it had changed. Then it seemed exotic, with a large indigenous population, provincial, and somewhat isolated. Our first impressions now, was that it was much larger, and up to date, similar to other Latin capitals.

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Quito is high, about 9000 feet, and surrounded by even higher mountains, such as Vulcan Pichincha at nearly16,000. The urban sprawl has spread further down the valley and up into the steep hills nearby, which is not surprising, given the number of years and the large population increase.

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Initially, we walked to Mariscal, a tourist area in the new city, full of hotels and restaurants catering to foreigners, as well as tour agencies. Our hope was to get a deal on a trip to the Galapagos. We stopped at the Hotel Colon, which was one of the few upscale options during our previous trip to Ecuador. Though we never stayed there, it seemed to be located in the same place and had an updated look. Then, as now, it was the center of action for business people, and others willing to shell out the bucks to stay there. Most of the main avenues in Mariscal were wide, heavily trafficked, and appeared relatively prosperous. The side streets, less so, but there were many foreign restaurants, Indian, Thai, etc., espresso and juice bars, along with mountaineering shops selling the latest high tech gear. There were also hundreds of tour agencies, all offering trips to the Galapagos. How to choose? We checked out a few that were listed in our guidebook, but they didn't seem to have quite the bargains we had been hoping for. After a few hours, we decided to give it another day.

The next day we booked a trip on the Legend, one of the larger and more upscale boats. At $1200 US a piece for a five day cruise with air, it was not exactly a bargain, but seemed to be about 25% less than it would have been had we booked in advance. Paying for the cruise was an interesting process. There was steep credit card surcharge and our ATM daily limit was $400. We went to the bank to try and get the remainder of the cash we needed, but after waiting on line for a long time, were told that our debit card wouldn't work. They didn't tell us that there was a system problem. This put us in a bit of a panic and we trudged back to the agency to ask for help. Luckily Felix, one of the guides, spoke English fairly well, and said, most likely, it was a computer or connection issue, not to worry. When we got upset, it seemed our Spanish skills deteriorated. We went back later and the card still wouldn't work, but then I remembered I had a couple of thousand in travelers checks as an emergency stash. I didn't want to use them all, but perhaps we could pay half, and then use our ATM card to get more cash on the days before we sailed. This was acceptable to the agency, although we had to go to several ATM machines, all on different streets, before we found one that liked our card. All in all, a frustrating day, but just one of the hassles you have to put up with when traveling. It seems no matter how many fail safe methods you take with you to obtain additional funds, none is foolproof.


We had five days to explore the city before leaving for the Galapagos.

Hilly Side Streets of Old-Town
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It looked less indigenous then it had in the past. Most people were dressed in western clothes, and looked mestizo.

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Although there were some women with bowler hats and big packages on their backs.
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The buildings and churches were as magnificent as I remembered, and in fact the whole area seemed spiffy, with new signs and clean squares and parks. Plazas Independencia, Grande and San Francisco with their cobblestones, cathedrals and government palacios all looked in really good shape. We were later told that the place had been listed as a World Heritage Site, just in time for the Miss Universe contest, held two years earlier. This was the reason for the face lift.

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On a Sunday, it seemed as though most of the city was out walking the streets. There was an outdoor street theater, music and mimes, and everything was very lively.

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We went to an art museum, with an exhibit of surrealistic oils, that were obviously a commentary about the social and ethnic divisions of the country. There had been several large Indian demonstrations over the past 10 to 15 years, so they were now a political force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, social and class differences remain extreme, and many areas of the city are quite dangerous, much more so than when we had last been here. The poverty was, if anything, worse then, so perhaps it is because the signs of wealth are more obvious to those who have nothing. We were told to take cabs everywhere at night, and not to walk up to nearby Cerro Panecillo to see the statue of the Virgen overlooking the city.



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Asleep Under the Virgen
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I wanted to do some climbing before we left Quito, and so I spoke to the French mountaineers who had a shop at our hotel. Although they were still doing Cotopaxi and some of the others, the weather was far from ideal at this time of year. This was already apparent in Quito, as we had rain and a couple of days that were cloudy and chilly. Technically easy, the big volcanoes of Ecuador are over 20,000 feet, and I was concerned about whether I had enough time to acclimatize. In the end, I decided on Pichincha, which was lower and closer, and could be done in under a day. That would be a good test of the limits of my acclimatization. Nanette decided that this was one she wanted to do as well, and although possible to do without a guide, we hired Felix and Roberto, from the same travel agency where we booked our cruise.

We left early on an overcast day. It took about an hour to drive through the city to get to the mountain, visible from most everywhere.

As We Approach
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We gained another 3 or 4,000 feet of elevation by the time we got to the base, and there were a couple of inches of fresh snow on the rocks. Our plan was to take the harder of two routes to the summit, most of which is a class 4 scramble. The snow made things much more difficult, and we felt the lack of oxygen. At times it was difficult to find adequate hand and foot holds that were within reach, but Roberto was always there to help, which was a good thing given the slippery conditions. There were a few, well let's call them interesting sections, where we had to jump or lunge forward over exposed areas. Despite my interest in hiking and climbing I have a fear of heights, so this was pretty scary. I have to have a conversation with myself to keep calm, and wondered as I have before under similar circumstances, what possessed me to do this. However there was really no turning around, as it is always more difficult to go down steep rock without a rope, than up. After roughly two hours, we got to the top and, as always, it was rush.

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The intensity of the sense of being ALIVE was very strong, and it has a way of focusing my mind so that I was fully, totally, present.

With Felix and Roberto
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Although there were clouds and volcanic fumes, we still got some distant views of the valleys and mountains beyond.

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It was hard to believe we were just outside of a city of 3 million, here in this wild, high country. We stayed for a 1/2 hour, and then took the easy hour walk back down to the refugio. The climbing high lasted the rest of that day and into the next, after which we headed to the Galapagos.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:47 Archived in Ecuador Tagged events Comments (2)

Tica Bus

We left Lago Apoyo for Managua,and went from a decidedly upscale place to the opposite. It had the advantage of being close to the bus station since the bus left the next day at 5 AM. for the two day,19 hour ride back to Guate. It was either that, or a $400 flight. The bus itself was good one, relatively new, air conditioned, with bathrooms that worked, sort of, a rarity in Central America. There were assigned seats and people were not standing in the isles. Tica has its headquarters in Costa Rica, which may explain why the bus was in good shape. It was filled with young foreigners who could pony up the $35 admission price. Not much by first world standards, but expensive compared to chicken bus prices. The ride was grueling because of the poor roads, and the long, hot border stops in three different countries, Honduras, El Salvador and then Guatemala. The only food available was at these border crossings, and mostly it was greasy and not especially clean. After crossing the Honduran border, we were stopped again by the military for a drug check. We had to unload all of our luggage from underneath the bus. They lined up the men and woman separately, and then poked around our luggage with their machine guns. Finally they brought in dogs for a final sniff. It wasn't a strip search, but it seemed designed to intimidate.

The bus stopped for the night in San Salvador, and left the next morning at 5AM. Although we could stay at the small hotel at the station, it seemed overpriced and basic, so a few of us took a cab to another place a few blocks away that sounded better. Bad choice. The cab actually drove into the courtyard of the hotel, where they closed and locked the gates behind us, before we got out. Nuevo Panamerico, although described as newly renovated, turned out to be a dump, but by that time we were committed, exhausted by the 13 hour ride. When Nanette saw that the bathroom was not particularly clean, and had a cracked window so that you could see into the courtyard, she had a meltdown. Crying, and blaming me for dragging her to this place, she refused to go anywhere and said she wasn't hungry. I needed to eat, and after checking with the desk that it was safe to walk a few blocks around the hotel, went out with the two other guys that had come with us. There were a group of street weary prostitutes hanging on the corner, and the outdoor market at dusk was noisy and teaming with people. There were places to buy fruit and pupusas, a kind of cornmeal tamale stuffed with cheese or beans. We ate a few of these, and I brought one back for Nanette along with a couple of avocados. By now she was calmer, and we managed to get through an uncomfortable night on the lumpy, but fortunately bedbug free, mattress. In retrospect, we should have taken the cab to another part of town and just gotten up a bit earlier to catch the bus.

In the morning, another 7 hours on the bus got us back to Guatemala City. The coda, after 19 hours of watching shot-em-up videos, was the ad they showed us as we arrived, of two old geezers reminiscing and bragging about the comforts and wonders of taking Tica Bus to various parts of Central America. Our friends, Elizabeth and Robert, had invited us to stay with them for the couple of days when we returned to Antigua, and we took a taxi there, instead of waiting for the chicken bus. It felt great to be back to the relative comforts of their little condo. The next day we watched the Diablo festival, a local ritual when people burn a straw effigy of the devil, and set off fireworks. That was a nice finale to our time Guatemala.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:08 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged transportation Comments (1)

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