Tuesday, July 28, 2009

most of the rest of Ecuador

Wow, we have a lot of catching up to do on this blog! From Quito we headed south to Loja and rendezvoused with our friend Steffen, with whom we plan to travel for a bit. The big event in Loja was finding a little shop that sold good ground coffee and coffee socks (fabric strainers to make drip coffee). We have lamented the lack of good coffee in these pages before and were happy to finally have the wherewithal to combat the pervasive indignities of instant. We also met the fantastically named Napoleon Andretti, a very short elderly man who fell in love with us and insisted on having his picture taken with me even in my haggard and greasy post-busride state. His son, Pablo, has a little travel agency next door. He was a bit bemused by his father's dragging backpackers in off the street but so kind in suggesting hostels and things to see around Loja. He seemed a bit melancholy in the dusty disorder of his office with his erratic parent on the loose.

From Loja we headed to Vilcabamba, a small rapidly gringofying town in a forested valley where we stayed in our own adobe cabin at the Rumi Wilco Ecolodge. Steffen cooked and Mike whipped up blender drinks, and they hiked together up into the nearby hills. I did a lot of hammock swinging.

We bussed ourselves back to Loja and from thence to Cuenca, another colonial city in southern Ecuador. We stayed in our worst hostel ever, the inaptly named La Perla, took in the beautiful blue domed cathedral, and encountered our only microbrewery so far in South America. Mike was in heaven with the good beer brewed next door to the bar, La Compañia. Pedro, our host, and his employee Jenny were fun to talk to and so nice that we ended up there the next night as well.

From Cuenca we headed for Guayaquil, the biggest city in Ecuador. Everyone in the mountains tells you that G'quil is insupportably hot, and everyone in G'quil says the sierra is bone chillingly cold. We found the metropolis to be warm but not on the order of a bad July day in DC. Our first night in the city the gregarious and impossibly adept language-learner Steffen found us our own guide to local nightlife, Agusto, who took us to a nice bar and then to a little dance club.

We took long walks through the city that has a ragged bustling energy. There is a very spruce malecón or seafront promenade, with a walkthrough nature park and an immense museum of anthropology and modern art. When we visited it was entirely empty except for us. We got an eyeful of precolumbian pottery (Steffen's favorite) and some fun art. Later we hiked up to the old lighthouse in Las Peñas, through a renovated colonial neighborhood of brightly painted airy houses.

One of the best things in Guayaquil is Parque Seminario or the iguana park. The one-block square oasis in the middle of the city is full of trees that are full of iguanas. They climb up and down and through the grass and down the paths but don't leave the park. There are hundreds of iguanas, as well as a pond of huge turtles and fish. It's a fantastic experience and reminded me of the old days with Vladimir (my brother's iguana).

Steffen stopped on for another night in Guayaquil and we took ourselves off north to Puerto Lopez, a little town on the coast. It's quite rundown and a little too full of backpackers and people selling artesanias, but we wanted to take in it's main draw, the Isla de la Plata. We've decided going to the Galápagos proper is too expensive and touristy and has a high likelihood of inducing much seasickness. The Isla de la Plata is billed as the poor man's Galápagos, without tortoises but with colonies of interesting birds. At this time of the year there is the additional attraction of humpback whales with their calves. We saw blue-footed boobies and Nazca boobies, both with chicks and with so little fear of humans they make their nests right on the path.

In Puerto Lopez we stayed in a nice hostel with little cabañas around a garden where Steffen and the ladies of the hostel arranged a cake for my 37th. Mike persevered in finding the right combination of numeral candles. That night we had a good dinner with Eva, another German guest at the hostel, and then Mike proceeded to make friends with an enormous number of Ecuadoran men in a local watering hole. We had a great time, chatting and dancing with them, and then went off to a little karaoke bar so that Steffen could serenade local chicas.

Our plan to camp in a nearby national park was thwarted by the illegality of such an undertaking. We visited the beautiful Playa los Frailes in the park and then went off to camp in a local community called Agua Blanca. After shelling out for the national park we had to pay more to get into Agua Blanca and then extra to camp in what we have dubbed a concentration camp. Their vaunted campsite is a nearly treeless area of flattish ground hemmed in by barbed wire but nevertheless blanketed in animal droppings. A little goat accompanied us for a time but eventually moved on for greener pastures. We admired Steffen's new tent, had an early dinner and campfire and hustled out early in the morning.

I haven't written us out of Ecuador yet but this post is already way too long. Next up, Riobamba, Quito redux and Colombia!