Copacabana, Bolivia

I cannot believe we have departed from Peru and are now in Bolivia. The bus ride over the border was a beautiful ride that stretched along Lake Titicaca. As Americans we had to apply for a visa at the border and all went down without a hitch. Phew! We decided before settling in the capital of Bolivia, La Paz, that we would stop off in Copacabana as we had heard the views on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca were worth the trip. Boy were they right! Copacabana is a charming beach town that had a bit of a hippie flair to it. You can see from the picture above the view from our hotel which couldn’t be beat! Not to mention the prices have dramatically decreased which after Macchu Picchu is a welcomed change. We took a two hour boat ride to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) and hiked from the north end of the island to the south end of the island. It took about three hours and we packed a lunch. There were stunning views in all directions and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Keith described it as a “death march” as it was long stretches of hot, dry trails going up but I still say it was worth it! Glad we took the time to stop here and enjoy the beautiful lake views. At times it looked like an ocean. Now we go to La Paz, where we have decided to rent an apartment. Until next time……..

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Puno & Lake Titicaca, Peru

Our last stop in Peru was an uneventful city called Puno. Although we didn´t find much to offer from the city it does reside on the famous Lake Titica, which straddles the border of both Peru and Bolivia and boasts to be the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,000 feet. Some of the main items of interest are the floating islands off the coast of Puno called the Uros Islands.

After a quick 30 minute boat ride you begin to see this fascinating site. There are about 60 islands here. Each island has about 25 people living on it and each island is man made with reed. It’s such a strange site as you pull up to these creations. As the boat drove around these islands women on each island were waving you down as much of their income comes from tourists gawking at this way of living. Our island had a large fish on it which had something to do with the name but unfortunately due to my stellar memory I cannot recall the name. The language they speak on these islands is Aymara which makes it a bit more difficult for memory recall as well – do you like how I try to justify? As I stepped off the boat it felt a bit like walking on a mattress as you sink a little with each step. Each island has a President and on ours there were four houses and the people were friendlier then you can possibly imagine. They gave us heartfelt tours of their tiny accomodations where kitchens consisted of a mere stone on the ground with a tea kettle and a bed in the corner. We had the pleasure of getting to tour El Presidente’s living quarters. They dressed us up in their traditional garb and it was great fun.

I have been so good about not buying any souvenirs but here I broke down and got this wonderful piece of art that the women of the island sew that tells their story through monogrammed like pictures. It was reminescent of many of the things I found endearing about Peru so I don´t regret the buy at all. As we left the fascination of how these people live they waved us goodbye and it’s one trip that will always remain special to me.

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Cusco/Machu Picchu/Sacred Valley, Peru

I’ll begin with a bit of history, since those who know me well know no story of mine is complete without it.  Nearly 500 years ago Cusco was the political, cultural, religious, and military center of Tawantinsuyu, known better to gringos as the Inca Empire.  It was from here that their power radiated out across the vast expanse of their lands, which stretched some 3000 miles in extent from what is now Columbia in the north to about halfway down Chile in the south.  Quite an impressive feat for a civilization which possessed neither a written language nor the wheel.  The Children of the Sun (as the Inca nobility referred to themselves) lived a life of opulence amid buildings and temples that were clad in massive sheets of pure gold and whose stone masonry would not only have been the envy of any European contemporary, but to this day still elicits awe from those who witness it.  All this came to an abrupt end in 1532 when an illiterate, illegitimate, former swineherd named Francisco Pizarro landed on their shores.  He arrived with a force of just 168 fellow zealots and butchers and in the course of a mere decade managed to subdue a nation of millions.  The Incas were arguably the most powerful force ever to rule the Americas, but in the end they were no match for guns, germs, steel, and horses.

Our very first overnight bus ride brought us to Cusco, a beautiful city perched high (11,200 ft) in the Andes mountains of southeastern Peru. My life’s travels have taken me to some truly fascinating places, however few of them have ever been put into a category that warrants an immediate return, owing largely to a practically infinite list of locales I’d like to visit coupled with the blunt reality of a finite life in which to see them all.  Cusco was one of those places though.  I had been here once before some three years ago, blazing through en route to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, and was excited to return to such an interesting place where I felt unfinished business still remained.  The thin air was taxing even for these two hardy Coloradans, but still we managed to enjoy ourselves whiling away the hours roaming through the narrow, hilly streets.  As mentioned above, what remains of the original Incan stonework is still impressive.  When their conquest was complete the Spanish rebuilt the city to their tastes literally right on top of the original Incan walls and foundations.  They knocked down exterior walls in order to widen the streets and facilitate the passage of men on horseback, so what you see are primarily the interior walls of the former structures.  Some of the stones are massive, and the precision and complexity with which they were fit together is truly astounding.  The city is also host to numerous beautiful cathedrals and most of them, again, were built above former Incan religious sites.  We found it humorous that the Spanish not only built their primary cathedral atop the main Incan temple, but also built their convent atop the Incas’ Temple of the Virgins. 

Cusco also has some great restaurants thanks to the many tourists and tourist dollars flooding the place.  We had a very nice first anniversary dinner while we were in town, and we even got to sample the famous local “delicacy” cuy.  If you´ve never heard of cuy, it’s guinea pig.  The look and texture of the meat are somewhere in the neighborhood of duck, and the flavor is similar to a slightly gamey dark meat chicken.  Would I bother to eat it again?  Probably not.  We also enjoyed our fair share of Cusqueña beer (the darker malt version is particularly pleasing, and our guide in the Colca Canyon claimed with a straight face it’s a cure-all) and even gulped down a few bottles of local favorite Inca Kola, a neon yellow swill which has sort of a cream soda flavor with notes of, many say, bubble gum. 

As much as we enjoyed the city, few come to Cusco for Cusco alone.  The city serves as the gateway to the Sacred Valley, and since we were eager to explore the many fine villages and ruins it contains, one morning we hailed a cab outside of our hotel to take us to catch a combi to Pisac.  Of course, no self-respecting cab driver in Peru is going to just give two gringos a ride to a bus station or combi station and leave it at that.  Oh no, amigos, oh no.  Along the way he’ll coyly ask what you’re up to and then offer his own services as a most logical and economical replacement.  When told we were taking a combi to Pisac to spend the day exploring the huge ruins there he offered to simply drive us himself.  So, an itinerary was formed, a brief haggle ensued, a price was agreed upon, and Ysac (Isaac) was our own personal chauffeur for the day.  In the end we were very happy with our decision, too, since he turned out to be an excellent guide.  He was friendly, cheerful, and very informative.  Though he spoke no English, he seemed to purposefully speak Spanish in a slow and clear manner, using only the most basic vocabulary.  For $35 Ysac drove us the hour from Cusco to Pisca stopping at numerous vistas along the way for photos, waited at the ruins for two hours while we explored, drove us down to the village and waited another hour while we checked out the market, drove us back to Cusco including another wait at the bus station there while we purchased some future tickets, and finally back to our hotel.  He was really great.  The ruins weren’t too shabby either.  The site is huge and, along with the customary gigantic agricultural terraces, the structures are divided into four main groupings of various functionality.  The first section was packed due to all the day trippers who breeze through the entire valley on a tour bus in a single day, but as we moved deeper into the ruins we eventually had the place nearly to ourselves.  Again we saw some of the high-quality stonework its builders are famous for.  We also saw a complex system of water canals/baths and an intihuatana, two features we would see again later at other ruins.  The market in the town below was fairly large, but at this point we had seen enough markets in Peru to know what one looks like.  We did however get to see an interesting display taking place in the square.  It appeared to be some sort of reenactment of an ancient ritual, and there were all these people dressed up like Incas in brightly colored clothing.  They made some offerings to the earth, did some chanting and dancing, then paraded around the square.  It was thoroughly entertaining in its bizarre randomness.

Pisac and Cusco were both great introductions to the history and architecture of the Incas, but the real jewel of this trip was about to be seen.  At the opposite end of the Sacred Valley from Pisac lies Machu Picchu, the most familiar icon of the Incan world, the famed ¨Lost City of the Incas¨, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.  We packed our smaller backpacks and left the rest of our belongings at our hotel in Cusco, catching a combi for the hour and a half ride to the village of Ollyantaytambo.  Ollyanta is the literal end of the road, and from there the only remaining approach that doesn’t involve four days of hiking on the Inca Trail is a two-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes, often referred to as Machu Picchu Village.  There’s not really much to say about A.C., other than that it is somehow both the world’s greatest and worst tourist trap.  The entire town seems to exist purely to concoct new and crafty ways to separate foreigners from their money, and despite the millions of visitors who stream through it every year, there’s nary a decent hotel or restaurant to be found.  Nevertheless, with great excitement we awoke early the next morning, joined up with the guide we had hired, and took the 20-minute bus ride up the winding road to the entrance.  What came next defies all attempts at description.  Many words have been written, many pictures have been taken, but none of them offer even the slightest bit of justice to the site our eyes beheld. 

We spent about the next two hours with our guide exploring the ruins and learning about its history, construction, and varied mythology.  It’s considered a very sacred and mystical site, not only by the modern-day decendants of the Incas, but also by the multitude of new-age hippy types that seemed to swarm the place.  It took Herculean feats of strength not to laugh out loud at all the kooky people standing around the various rocks of significance, their hands hold out as if to absorb the “energy” they somehow believed was radiating from it.  After our guide departed we spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering around the site and taking in the incredible views.  We also took a short hike over the the Incan bridge, a narrow causeway hewn from the side of a sheer cliff and a further testament to the engineering prowess of those people.  Exhausted from the constant climbing of stairs and mentally drained, we finally caught a late afternoon bus and descended the set of switchback back down to A.C.

The next morning we took the train back to Ollyantaytambo.  Since this town had its own set of unique ruins and was also the only place where the Incas managed to successfully repell an attack by the Spanish, I wanted to stay there for a few days for some final exploring in the Sacred Valley.  We set up base at a nice little B&B called Apu Lodge and headed straight for the ruin complex that could be seen right from our window.  Some of the stonework here, most notably the Wall of the Six Monoliths, was quite unlike any that we had seen before both in their size and the way they were put together.  We also saw massive blocks lying on the ground half finished, abandoned in place when the Empire rapidly collapsed, and an impressive array of water works and fountains.  The next day we hired another cabbie to drive us to a couple of other sites in the area. The first, called Moray, contains an interesting ruin comprised of a set of concentric circles set within a deep depression in the ground.  The most prevalent theory is that it was a place to experiment with the effects of different climatic conditions on crops.  Supposedly the temperature changes substantially at each level, allowing for a sort of microcosm of conditions at various altitudes.  This would have been pretty important for a culture that depended on vertical farming in terraces.  The other site called Moras, consisted of huge salt pans that have been in production for thousands of years.  A warm saline stream flows out of the ground, its water cascading into a series of small pools.  Over time the pools fill and the water eventually evaporates leaving behind a crust of salt that is then shoveled out. 

After a couple of days in Ollyanta our time was up, and we headed back to Cusco for one more night before departing again for the Lake Titicaca region.  It’s impossible for me to overstate how much I enjoyed the whole Sacred Valley.  The entire area is like one giant living, breathing archaeology museum stretching for hundreds of square miles and packed will all manner of towns and fascinating ruins to explore.  I feel very lucky to have been there twice, but not so lucky that I wouldn’t make it a third time, just in case anyone is ever interested…

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Arequipa and a 3 day Trek in the Colca Canyon

Where to start with this surprise of a city. If it gives you any reference Keith and I were planning on being here for about three days and ended up staying an entire week! The first thing to note is it really reminded us of home. Nestled in a valley with two large snow capped mountains called Volcano Misti and Volcano Chachani. The temperature was a perfect mid-seventies and the city boasts sunny days almost every day of the year. Sound familiar my fellow Coloradans? The air is dry and the elevation is 7,661 feet. The first few days I definitely had to take it easy as I felt it.

Most of our days here were spent meandering around this city of approximately 1 million fine Peruvian peeps. The architecture here was spectacular! It is colonial style from the Spanish and most of it is a white volcanic material called Sillar. The detail once you stopped and really took a look at it was stunning. Both of us really fell for the intricate beauty. We would stumble across narrow passageways into beautifully detailed courtyards where there would be picture perfect cafes to sit in the sun and just relax. Many times we wished we had pedometers as I do believe we walked multiple miles each day just seeing what the next street would bring us in terms of history and beauty. One of the highlights was the museum of Andean Sanctuaries. Here they have an actual preserved mummy of Señorita Juanita. She was a sacrifice to the Incan gods and was recently found on the Volcano Ambato in 1995-incredibly interesting history. We also met some great folks here to include an American couple living in Lima who shared a bottle of wine that we had purchased on our wine tour in weeks past. Great folks!

The last MAJOR highlight of Arequipa was our three-day trek into the Colca Canyon. A 3:00 am pickup started this amazing adventure. As the sun rose over the snow capped Andean mountain range and the sky had this beautiful light pink and blue hue I could not help but smile and think how magnetic the mountains are to me. Our first stop after sunrise was at a lookout where we saw large condors floating through the air. These birds can have wingspans of eight feet and they almost look prehistoric. We got lucky and ended up with a private guide who spoke English named Christina. We hiked down into the Colca Canyon which some say is deeper than the Grand Canyon for three and a half hours. The sun beating down on us and down, down, down made for a brutal day for our old and tired knees. We bunked the first night in a small village called San Juan. 40 families call this home and electricity was just brought to this village four years ago. Dinner consisted of rice, potatoes and a bit of Alpaca meat. Day 2 we hiked for about four more hours across the canyon. The scenery was breathtaking. I fed one of the dogs at the first village a bit of my pancake from breakfast and that meant a forever friend. Pelachin, the dog, hiked with us for the next two days, all the way up until we boarded our bus on the last day. Of course, that made me smile. After our hike the second day we came across what they call the Oasis and boy was it. It actually had a pool! We dove right in and enjoyed a nice relaxing swim and for a moment it felt like I was not in the Colca Canyon but some beach resort. This village didn’t have any electricity so was quite simple. Day 3 we began our journey up, up and more up at 4:30 am. It was dark and we were zigzagging through brutal switchbacks with the stars helping to light our way. It was something I have never experienced! It felt amazing to accomplish this feat and both of us were glad to have a day of R&R back in Arequipa the next day before we set off for the ruins of Cusco, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.

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Nazca, Peru

One Christmas, many years ago when I was about 12 years old or so, my parents gave me a three-book collection of those Time Life books that you used to see advertised on TV all the time. The three volumes were “Mysterious Creatures”, “The UFO Phenomenon”, and “Mystic Places”. The first two were interesting enough, but in the end they were about things that couldn’t really be seen or touched, much less even proven to be real. I was more interested instead in the third, because it at least dealt with tangible places. Whether or not you agreed with how “mystic” the place was, it was still a real place you could go to and examine for yourself, contrary to say Bigfoot or a UFO. One of the subjects the book investigated was the Nazca lines, and suffice to say my 12-year-old brain was captivated. Beginning around 1500 years ago, a strange and mysterious culture had carved these fantastic lines and images onto the desert floor. I knew then that someday I would see them, and 25 years later the payoff finally arrived.

Yet another bus ride brought us to the town of Nazca, a bustling, dusty little town in the desert. For the first time in the trip there was absolutely no doubt we were firmly on the “Gringo Trail” as the place fairly crawled with tourists from all corners of the globe. We set up shop in a simple hotel and secured arrangements for a flight over the lines, quickly discovering that the price we’d been told to expect has recently doubled. And for good reason, too. You see, up until some months ago, any local with a plane and the undocumented ability to fly it could set up shop at the airport and pimp flights to any tourist with the requisite funds. This was all fun and games until planes started falling out of the sky due to lack of maintenance and/or gross negligence. The authorities finally had enough of this and, no doubt wanting to secure what is surely the primary source of income in this backwater burg, stepped in and dropped the hammer. Upon doing so two things happened. The first is that half of the companies doing flights were permanently shut down. The second is that the remaining half immediately doubled their prices. More than willing to accept the reasonable exchange of money for safety, we showed up at the airport ready for our flight.

After waiting for the morning fog to clear, we finally boarded the little plane that would take us on a 35 minute flight to view the lines. We were joined by two other tourists (the plane only held four passengers total) and led by two pilots who were noticeably younger than me. My first impression was that it was like two kids who had been given the keys to dad’s car, but in the end they proved to be both professional and skillful. The flight was fantastic, taking us over what must have been hundreds of lines and about a dozen zoomorphic shapes. The co-pilot would call out what image we were approaching while the pilot manned the controls and kept a keen eye out for other traffic. They would fly over each site twice, once for each side of the plane to see it, banking the plane quite sharply each time to offer the best view. “Okay, now we’re coming up on the spider”. WHAM, 60-degree bank. “Okay, amigos, now for the other side”. WHAM, 60-degree bank the other way. Those with weak stomachs (a.k.a. Kelly) found such actions a bit disturbing, but I was too busy mentally salivating to be bothered. Although it seemed like only five minutes, half an hour later we were safely back on terra firma, and I had managed to cross another item off the bucket list.

After years of study and speculation, the Nazca lines still present more questions than answers. The night before our flight we took part in a very interesting presentation at the local planetarium that detailed the lines and the most prevalent current theories about their purpose. Some say they were created for ceremonial reasons, sort of a religious tool for a belief system centered around pleasing the gods enough to bring water to an area that receives only millimeters of rain each year. Others believe they are celestial markers that aided their creators in marking important dates. Indeed, some of lines do seem to align with significant days like the summer solstice. On the other hand, if you draw a thousand lines in the desert, a few of them are going to line up with something. In the end their exact purpose is still unknown, and the lines themselves remain mystic places.

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Ica, Peru

After our week long stay in Lima we were ready for some warmth. Lima´s weather as mentioned before was damp and chilly. So we did away with the cold and made our way to a warm, cozy town called Ica. Here felt a bit like a beach getaway. Our hostal, Villa Jazmin, was just perfect for our wants and desires. The first and foremost being absolutely and completely quite. Lima was full of constant honking, car alarms and the hipster next door finding it okay to play his music until about 3:30 am most nights so we needed some peace for a bit. And this spot did just that! The food was wonderful at our quaint little get away and many times we ate right on the patio overlooking the pool. The pictures were of a one day adventure where we rode on a dune buggy. I have always wanted to try it and it was a lot like a roller coaster ride for hours. LOVED it!! They took us during sun set so the dunes were stunning. Many folks on the tour snowboarded on the dunes. I figured I would pretty much injure myself trying that so I opted for riding the board down the dune on my stomach. That was just fantastic! I unloaded sand out of my pockets for days. The other tour we did in this lovely city was visit three wineries, Bodegas as they call them in Peru. All of them made the specialty peruvian liquor called Pisco. Now I´m not a big fan of the alcohol just straight up but I do believe Keith has taken a liking to it – much like that of his tryst with tequila this summer. The wine made was decent and we made friends with our taxi driver, Eddie, for the day which is always fun for me. Nasca, Peru was next and Keith will be commenting on this city as this was a bucket list item for him in life and I find it only appropriate that he report. Until then…

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From Loja to Lima, Peru

Well it has been some time since I have posted so thought I would sit down and say hello. As you may or may not know we have crossed over the border into Peru. Our last city in Ecuador was called Loja and we crossed the border at Macara. Our first night was spent in Piura, Peru. Here we began to see more colonial architecture from the Spanish. This particular city was more of a break in time for us so not much to report.

Next we moved South to Chiclayo, Peru. The picture above is a common form of transportation called the mototaxi. Chiclayo began our journey into a big history lesson for me. We visited two museums which explained the pre-Incan cultures of Moche and Chimu. It was truly fascinating tombs and information at the Museo de las Tumbas Reales de Sipán dedicated to the discovery of the Lord of Sipán. It was shaped like a pyramid and me being a visual learner found it very interesting.

But far better and what I would consider a city on the verge of becoming a tourist haven is the next city 4 hours south called Trujillo. It’s a big city of about 1.5 million people. The weather was hot and it was right on the ocean. The historical findings here are so amazing to see and I would suggest anyone to pay it a visit. The Huaca del Sol and Huaca de La Luna were pyramid like temples with some parts recently discovered as late as the nineties. An entire city is being excavated here in between these temples and as you tour around you get to see the archeologists working.

There were also the ruins of Chan Chan which again taught me more about pre-Incan culture. We toured another temple called El Brujo and within this temple a mummy was more recently discovered and we were able to see the actual remains. Trujillo also has this quaint beach town called Huanchaco which we visited one day. Lots of surfers riding the waves and fisherman with their handmade boats.

We really liked Trujillo and do believe this is a mecca of history that anyone visiting Peru should experience. Next we took a 9 hr bus ride to the bustling city of Lima, Peru. I am not kidding when I say it was the best bus ride of my life and the trip. The seats were huge leather seats larger than those on a fist class airline. We had lunch served to us and were treated like royalty. Compared to what we were used to in Ecuador we were smiling and it was quite nice to sit back and watch the beautiful scenery of ocean alongside sand dune after sand dune unravel before us. Entering Lima gave me an energy. With 8 million people you can imagine the contrast from what we had been used too. We have rented a loft apartment for a week in the neighborhood/city of Miraflores. It’s nice to do mundane mindless chores like dishes, cooking, ironing, etc. I know it sounds crazy but it adds a little touch of home to do these things and it makes me smile. I have to admit I made myself macaroni and cheese one night and it was a real winner for me. Macaroni and cheese aside, Lima boasts some of the best dining throughout South America so we will try our fair share of yummy food – I already had my first ceviche and it was heavenly! We have been sleeping in, walking to the ocean and just checking the city out and it has been wonderful. It feels rather cold here even though the temperature is around 68 F. With the ocean so close it is very damp so often I am wearing my long johns as there is a bit of a chill in the air. Until next time!

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Ecuador Wrap-up

All in all we really enjoyed our time in Ecuador. For the most part it’s a beautiful country with a rich diversity in both geography and population. The locals are generally quite helpful and friendly people, and it also doesn’t hurt that it’s a VERY inexpensive place to visit. Here are a few random thoughts/observations/take-aways from our time there:

Things we saw a lot:

  • Dogs. Nearly more of them than people. They roam the streets of every town and city. Most are friendly, although we did have a couple of run-ins with a few who weren’t.
  • Ice cream shops. Ecuadorians apparently have a serious love affair with ice cream. Every block seemed to have at least one, and there were loads of vendors walking around selling it.
  • Loud TVs. We never ceased to be amazed how every restaurant, cafe, hotel, and shop had a TV on, always with the volume cranked up to 11.
  • Litter. Folks in Ecuador have a very cavalier attitude towards litter, and it’s unfortunate given the otherwise abundant beauty of the country. Most trash is simply dropped on the ground or tossed out the window of a vehicle once it’s no longer needed. And, since most trash these days is not biodegradable, it just continues to pile up. Even far into the countryside the roads were lined with refuse.
  • Cabinas. A cabina is a little shop where you go into a little booth to place a phone call. There must have been one on every block.

Things we didn’t see at all:

  • Bars. You can order a drink in just about any restaurant, but not once did we see an establishment dedicated to the practice of tossing them back. On a related note, we were never able to purchase a beer other than either of the two, count ’em TWO, local varieties. I did see a bottle of Fat Tire behind a bar inside a restaurant once in Cuenca, but it must have been for display purposes only.
  • Misbehaving children. The little ones in Ecuador were remarkably well-behaved, able to sit quietly and calmly on their parent’s lap for hours and hours on a bus without making a peep. I’m pretty sure we never even heard one cry during the three weeks we were there.
  • Restaurant service of any degree. They take your order and bring your food when it’s ready, but that is literally the extent of service there. I guess it explains why 10% is an awesome tip.

Best meal: Probably the dinner we had on Floreana Island in the Galapagos. The resort we stayed at there was so small and basic that it didn’t even have a restaurant, so in the evening they loaded everyone into this open-sided truck and drove us down the dirt road to some old woman’s house. She had a kitchen in the back room of a little shop and some plastic tables set up on the front patio. Make no mistake though, this old woman put on a serious spread. The food was ridiculously fresh since she grew most of it in her backyard, and there were heaping mounds of grilled fish and chicken, fried yucca, salads, juices, vegetables, and desserts to name a few. It was the sort of farm-to-table restaurant that every new, hip restaurant in Denver is trying to achieve, but this was the real deal, glorious in its simplicity and flavor.

Worst Meal: To be honest I can’t recall having a bad meal in Ecuador. Most of them were quite basic, some variation on the standard theme of chicken, rice, and beans, but none of them was bad. Kel once dipped her spoon into an opaque soup only to come face to face with a chicken foot, but even that was the best $1.75 lunch we’ve ever had in our lives.

Most unforgettable experience: Swimming with a juvenile sea lion in the wild. To relive just those five minutes alone I would gladly spend the money and time required to return to the Galapagos. We were snorkeling in shallow water when he appeared out of nowhere, twisting and turning and darting all around us. I dubbed him “the Golden Retriever of the ocean” due to his playful and enthusiastic nature. He was keenly interested in bubbles, so I would splash my hand to create a cloud of them that he would swim through, all the while maintaining eye contact with those huge brown eyes of his. It was a moment I’ll never forget if I live to be a thousand.

Experience we’d like most to forget: We took a private van from Cuenca to our next destination south upon learning that spending an extra $4 would cut our journey’s time in half. We were pretty sure it was going to be an interesting ride when we climbed into the van and saw the driver cracking his knuckles and putting on driving gloves Our suspicions were confirmed twenty minutes later when we heard the thump-thump of him running over an errant puppy.

Well folks, that’s it for Ecuador. Thanks for following along and be sure to stayed tuned as we enter the mystical and fascinating country of Peru. More to come…

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Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca is a charming city in southern Ecuador that we first heard about from a cab driver in Denver, and we were looking forward to putting down some roots for a few days after basically being in transit for the previous four. Luckily for us we stumbled upon Casa Ordoñez which proved to be excellent for doing so. Sr. Alberto Ordoñez has created a truly unique lodging experience. It’s sort of a combination hotel/guesthouse, and it’s evident that he strives very hard to make it something other than the usual scene where you check in and check out without ever having much personal interaction with either the staff or other guests. Being welcomed there was like being welcomed into his home, which it essentially is as it has been in Alberto’s family since his grandfather bought the property over 100 years ago. We noticed things were different the first morning we went down to the restaurant for breakfast and all the other guests, who we had not even met yet, greeted us warmly. It was sort of like one big family of strangers, and this was reinforced later in the evening (and each subsequent evening) when the informal happy hour kicked off. The other guests included three other couples and a man traveling on his own. Everyone was friendly and charming and quite interesting, and we wound up hanging out, going on excursions, and having dinner at night with them. It turned out two of the couples were in Cuenca checking out retirement properties. Apparently it’s in the early stages of becoming the next hot gringo retirement place, and it’s easy to understand why since property is cheap, it’s relatively safe, and it has surprisingly good healthcare.

Kelly and I spent three days there strolling through the streets and taking it easy. Although it’s a fairly large city, Cuenca had a much more relaxed vibe about it than Quito, and it was a nice change of pace to be able to walk around without having to glance over your shoulder every two seconds. One afternoon we checked out an interesting museum that covered the ethnography of all the different peoples that make up Ecuador. Behind the museum were some really cool ruins of buildings that were begun by the Cañaris and later expanded upon by the conquering Inca. It included a big garden where they were growing examples of the crops used by the Inca and also the furry friend shown above. The llama, not Kel. Anyway, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Cuenca and would highly recommend it to anyone else. Like most places we’ve visited so far we could have spent longer there, but alas the allure of the open road is too hard to resist. We’ll next be making our way to Peru, a country I’ve been waiting to return to for a few years, and the anticipation is killing me. See you there…

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The Road to Cuenca

When we ventured earlier to Puyo and Macas, we did so because we wanted to get off the beaten path or “gringo trail” and into an area we knew few tourists usually see. It wasn’t until later though that we realized just how far off we had gotten. Leaving Macas was another early morning trek to the station to catch the first filthy, bathrooom-less bus out of town for the eight-hour journey to Cuenca. We didn’t even have time for breakfast although our inn keeper was kind enough to pack our morning meal into a little plastic bag so we could eat it during the ride. It wasn’t until later in the day that we discovered the bag contained not only the breakfast that was included in our room rate, but also a couple of sandwiches and some fruit and snacks for a lunch. I’ve often relied on the kindness of strangers throughout my travels, and this simple act of generosity would leave us very thankful and fed as the long day progressed.

The ride began in the semi-jungle lowlands characteristic of the Macas surroundings. This was the home of the Shuar, a group of indigenous indians who have lived in the area since time immemorial. They inhabited what appeared to be one- or two-room wooden shacks that are perched on stilts a couple of feet above the ground, and they usually had a cow and a few chickens roaming about their yard. The entire area was quite sparsely populated, although the bus still stopped often to pick up additional passengers. That actually turned out to be one of the hallmarks of bus travel in Ecuador. People basically just stand on the side of the road and flag down any passing bus that’s headed in the direction they’re headed. They might ride along for two miles or two hundred. Either way, whether there’s sitting room or not, the bus always stops for them, and it leads to a LOT of stop and go traveling.

A couple of hours into the ride the bus stopped in some no-name hamlet so the driver could eat. He literally pulled up to a restaurant, parked the bus, went inside, and sat down and had lunch. All of the passengers got off the bus too, stretching their legs, using the bathroom in the restaurant, and keeping a keen eye out for the dining driver to finish. Twenty minutes or so later he was sated, everyone boarded the bus again, and off we went. Upon leaving this little town though I quickly noticed a change in the atmosphere. The driver closed the door between the entrance to the bus and the sitting area and put a movie on the ancient TV set mounted to the bulkhead above the first row of seats (we were treated to a “White Fang” and “White Fang 2” double feature, in Spanish of course, for the next few hours). It soon became evident why this had occurred and why the driver had chosen to eat when he did. As soon as we got out of town we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, so far into nowhere, in fact, that for the next three or four hours there would be no more people getting on or off the bus simply because there weren’t any people around to do so. We passed neither town nor farm nor person for miles on end. Pavement came and went in bone jarring fits, rivers were forded through the water because the bridges in place could not bear the load, massive boulders lying in the road were dodged just in the nick of time, and the scenery…the scenery was spectacular. We circumnavigated the tops of endless green valleys roofed by the threatening underbellies of gray clouds. Up and around and over passes we went, each time to find a similar scene waiting on the other side. Waterfalls crashed down from heights unseen. Unknown plants and trees whizzed by out the window. And all the while we were slowly climbing back up into the Andes, constantly gaining altitude to reach our next destination, the old city of Cuenca.

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