Cuenca, Banos & Quito:Land of Hats and New Parents

Trip Start Aug 09, 2007
Trip End Jul 29, 2008

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Thursday, May 8, 2008

After leaving the sunshine and warm tropical breeze of Mancora we jumped a bus to Ecuador.  Our destination was to a town called Cuenca, another high land area.

We left Mancora around 12:30 in the afternoon and had a pretty long haul all the way to Cuenca.  Our Peru to Ecuador border crossing seemed to take forever, as usual, mainly since the border guards tend to be an uninterested and unmotivated type.  This means my arrival at the window usually coincides with the guards spontaneous 10 minute break...

We arrived in Cuenca and found this little old man (or, he found us) who ran a hostel and had a double room for us to stay at.  Not too bad a price either - only $6 each including breakfast.  The hostel owner was really ambitious and seemed to like travelers from different countries, especially the girls.  He was reaally affectionate with all the ladies and I was no exception - he was always finding reasons to touch my legs and would even try to modify the traditional cheek-kiss into a full on mouth kiss, but I was always a step ahead.  While this was generally quite harmless, it was made all the more creepy by the fact that it was all done with an open fly...  Well, anyways he gave us good info on what to do around Cuenca and he made a meaaaaaaan breakfast!

When we got up the next morning it was pretty overcast and by the time we had a plan in order, it started to piss rain.  Shitty Luck.  We headed off to the Museo Pumapungo which is run by a bank probably because other places don't have the money to have an exhibit.  The main reason we were going was to see a collection of shrunken heads, really f-ing cool.  But, when we got to the museum it was closed despite that our book said it was open as did the sign on the door - it's not that that was so much surprising as we are now used to that sort of thing, but it was moreso annoying since we were now completely soaked...

To waste some time on a rainy day, we decided to head to a 'Panama Hat' store.  Contrary to what the name suggests, Panama hats are actually from Ecuador.  They got this name since all these hats were shipped to Europe and elsewhere via the Panama Canal and, due to their abundance, they were extensively used by the people who worked on the Canal.  Their prominance in Panama just natually led to the name of Panama Hat, much to the dismay of the Ecuadorians... At the store, we saw a bit of history on the hat (also called a Montecristi), how they are made, where they are shipped and so on.  Basically, local woman start with toquilla palm trees that grow in the eastern jungle of Ecuador from which the palm is cut, peeled, boiled to become pliable, dried in the sun and sometimes dyed.  Then it is woven by the ladies into a basic sombrero form.  The tighter the weave, the softer and more pliable the hat is - these are the more expensive hats that can be rolled up and slid through a man's ring and then bounce back to perfect form.  These hats are then transported to another workshop - predominantly located in Cuenca - where typically men finish off the brim of the hat and finally they are hydraulically pressed to give them their characteristic shape. 

In this store, we saw a sales-lady operating one of these hydraulic presses to give the hat its shape.  Following this, the hat is given to another woman who sews the black band on.  We decided to get a hat for Sarah and my dad, so we tried on a few and then found one we liked.  The way it works there is that you demo the floor models, but then they make one brand new for you right there.  Pretty cool.   Some hats in there were pretty expensive and ranged from $10 to $300, depending on the tightness of the weave of the hat.  They can reach well over $500 for some of the best made hats. 

Before we got to Cuenca we were looking for a place to stay a bit longer, since we were a bit tired of hoofing it all over the place.  So we applied to teach English in Quito (Capital) through a company and then stay with a local family.  The only twist was that they wanted $225 a week per person for us to 'volunteer'...what a sham! That's almost $50 more than what we paid to *receive* 5 hrs a day of Spanish in Guatemala while living with a family too.  We were a bit disappointed with being unable to afford volunteering, but fate smiled on us that day.

 Enter New Parents...In the hat store we met this really nice couple from Canada.  Sarah started talking with Linda and mentioned we wanted to go to Quito, volunteer and teach English.  Linda then said that she lives in Quito and teaches English to kids and then she invited us to stay with her and Walter.  She also mentioned that she would talk to the owner of the school (also named Linda) to see if we could volunteer at the school she owned.   Eventually everything worked out and we managed to volunteer at the school for about 2 weeks and also help out with some of the local's kids that Linda knew.  It was really rewarding to do that, meet some great people and not have to pay some retarded volunteering fee.

Linda and Walter live in a really nice area of Quito, it's called Cumbaya.  This area is basically where the ex-pats come to stay if they have a job in Quito.  The specific area is called Jacaranda, it's a gated community with guards and the whole nine-yards, it also has a lot of other rich whitties or rich Ecuadorians living here.  Walter and Linda are both about our parents' age and are really super-sweet.  Walter is down here because he is a Civil Engineer working on the new Quito Airport which will be completed in 2010.  They have 3 kids back in Canada that are aged similar to us, so the arrangement really fit.  We stayed here for free and Linda fed us delicious food and then they took us around Quito and the area on the weekends.  This was probably the sweetest deal EVER!!!

So that day in Cuenca we were pretty stoked to have a place in Quito with really nice people.  We checked out the main plaza, took more photos of the churches to add to our church collage once home (what the hell else do you do with church photos!?) and then headed back to the hostel.  We decided that we were going to go to one more place before heading to Quito. The place we had in mind was Banos, a mountainous area with hot springs and taffy (milcocha), we decided to spend a day or two here before getting to some sweet digs in Cumbaya.        

Banos itself was pretty cool, there is a bunch to do there.  We could have paraglided, mountain biked, rented a quad or done a bunch of hiking.  But, we are really boring and watched TV instead (to be fair, it was *English* programming and I'm addicted to Grey's Anatomy reruns...).  Actually, we just feel hiked out and we were also thinking that we had to save money - LOTS of money - for our upcoming Galapagos Island trip. 

We did end up going to the hot spring that night (before the TV).  When we got to the pool they closed the main hot pool for cleaning so they only had one hot one left and it is the size of a kiddie-wading pool and there was about 50 people in there, kids and adults, and everyone was touching each other and you couldn't see below water so you didn't know if the person being indecent on your leg was the big gross man next to you or the 7 year old boy who popped up next to you after.  We had just secured a spot on the wall when Nik turned around and saw a green mutant tadpole squiggling around behind us and suddenly swimming towards us.  Nik was like, "That's it!! We're outta here!!" and we plowed our way out lighting-quick...only to join another 50 ppl in the communal showers.  But, really it was beautiful and we just caught a bad night we think!  And, we did feel a lot better when we got back to the hostel, totally relaxed.  We pretty much fell asleep the minute we laid down.

The next day we kicked around the town of Banos and noticed all these shops with boys standing outside swinging these long strands of taffy around this wooden post on the wall.  It was pretty cool to watch, they would basically twirl it into a coil and then lasso the post and repeat and they'd let it get so long that each time it nearly hit the pavement - but these guys are pros.  It's supposed to soften up the taffy before they form it into these delicious cigar-shapes.  I guess the more they whack it around the pole and swing it, the more air bubbles it puts into the taffy and the more delicious it tastes. Delicious and addictive!!  I was certain we'd lose all our teeth before we broke this addiction, but we're off it now.  We've moved on to Linda's home-made cookies...We opted to not go back to hot springs that night and then started looking for Galapagos trips instead (man are they pricey, or as Australians say, 'exy').

We left the next day to get to Quito to meet up with Linda and Walter.  As we wouldn't see them for a day or so more, and as we wanted to book our Galapagos adventure first, we spent a night or two in the Mariscal area of town.  This is an exy area in New Town, but we were lucky to find a cheap and good hotel.  We spent a full day visiting Galapagos agencies and comparing itineraries and prices and finally found the "Last Minute Deal" we were looking for.  Our tour agent was an ex-con from the Bronx (this is Sarah's theory anyways) with really long yellow fingernails (likely used to snort coke) but yet we trusted him with our $3000 of cold hard untraceable cash. 

We had to get cash advances on our Credit Cards because we didn't have that amount in one account.  So off we went to the bank, Sarah wore her new panama hat to the bank to look classier as she asked for $2G.  And then when we payed our tour company she wore the hat again, hoping it would shave a few more hundred off the price by smoothing negotiations over, but, it didn't and they laughed at us.  The tour company we ended up going with was called Etnotour and they owned the boat that we selected.  The boat was called the Galapagos Vision and it was a 10-guest sailing catamaran with a 6-man crew plus our naturalist guide and we were set to fly out on the 18th of May to the islands, have a cruise for 8 days then 4 extra days and fly out on the 29th.

After we had bought our Galapagos trip we met Linda and her friend Therese at the Hilton for lunch....high class!! We totally fit in with our big packs, no one even noticed us, and I think it was in good style too when I ripped my pack away from the bellhop to avoid having to give him a tip.  Our "private driver" brought us back to the burbs and we quickly adapted to our new life in a huge home in a gated community.   Beautiful place, wonderful people, great location, views of the mountains and nice security guards.  We were sooooooooo happy!!

We had set up things with Canadian Linda a few days before and she said Spanish Linda would really like us helping out at the school.  So off we went to 'The English Club' to meet other Spanish Linda, talked for a bit and then started the next day.  Sarah was assigned to teach a 'devil child' - an 8 year old terror of a little girl - and, to quote Sarah, "she broke me."  After that she was only given teacher's pets which she could identify with a whole lot more.  I played on the internet and drank free cappuccinos from the lady-staff who liked me.  I was only given male students (I guess she thought I was a CREEPER), and some were challenging like Miguel with muscular dystrophy, others were challenging cause they didn't know who Macho Man Randy Savage was so I couldn't really get through to them...tough, after that I felt pretty old.

In the afternoons we also volunteered to privately tutor some local kids whom our new mother knew.  This was really cool since the kids were smart and really listened well and normally Sarah and I had one kid each.  But, then the word got out that free English classes were on, so these kids started bringing their brothers and sisters and cousins and so on until it was one of us with 5 of them, all at different levels, and that was pretty overwhelming initially!! We always found ourselves at a loss for resources or the right Spanish words to explain the English word to them, so while teaching, Sarah tried to explain gymnastics to one of the kids and out of desperation resorted to doing a really akward cartwheel.  She said she hurt for 2 days after that.  These kids belonged to the people that worked for Canadian Linda and Linda was teaching them for free, just to give back to those less fortunate. 

On Friday night we (Sarah, Linda and Me) went to concert at a church for mother's day.  This concert was pretty awesome as it had pan flutes and really good children's choirs.  Outside, Linda from 'The English Club' was there promoting her school.  We helped her out for a bit, chatting with those who walked by and I think the publicity really helped, as she could show she had 3 native English-speaking whitties helping out at the school - a big attraction for the Latinos wanting to learn.   After the concert we went for a night-cap and pizza and I ordered a Cuba Libre (rum and coke) and yet, as if a miracle had occurred in South America, no coke was to be found...gasp!!'s true!! The impossible became possible.  I had to settle for a long-island iced tea, complete with umbrella, that was heavily loaded with vodka.  The initial taste was horrible, but afterwards, I felt pretty good.

On Saturday we all went to the fruit market and then on Sunday Walter and Linda took us to Old Town for Mother's day.  While down there we saw a church with 7 tons (7,000 kg) of gold that had 2 really disturbing pictures of the last testament and hell, holy shit, hell is scary.  Then we ate lunch at an old monastery that was turned into a restaurant.  This monetary was famous for a monk who used to sneak out nightly by climbing up a giant crucifix of Jesus and using Jesus's shoulder to make the final step out the window.  The monk would then sing to women on his guitar, get blasted and score a lot after the serenade.  Every night he would sneak out he would hear Jesus say "Until when Father" and then the monk would reply "Until I return."  The monk eventually stopped sneaking out when the monastery couldn't find him and thought he was dead, so they had a funeral for him that morning and the monk walked into this funeral and apparently saw himself being carried to his grave.  Bizarre, but true...ish.  We ended that day by going to a huuuuuuuuge church, 'Basílica del Sagrado Voto Nacional', which was giabungus.  They had catacombs in the basement for regular folk and then instead of gargoyles on the spire they had Galapagos animals (turtles, penguins, sea lions, very cool!).  We wanted to climb the tower which is supposed to be pretty rickity and scary, but they closed 15 min early that day, of course, so we couldn't go up or go into the church.   Instead, we just checked out an artisan market in a park close to Mariscal called Parqe Ejido. 

The next week flew by, we were working at English school in the afternoon and in the mornings we would kick around the mansion and eat cookies.  At night, we usually watched really recent movies.  Down in South America they have DVD shops, but, they aren't rental places - you buy the DVD for $1.50.  I made the mistake by asking when a DVD had to be returned and she looked at me funny, then said "you own it."  Pretty nice since the movies were really new, just released in theatres a day or 2 ago and already on DVD, some were high quality and you could hear people laughing, or clapping or see them sit down in the theatre (movies taken in theater by camcorder). 
During the week we also took Salsa lessons, we found an instructor through Linda at the school.  We danced usually for 1 hr at a gym with this guy name Jean-Paul.  I thought he was gay, but, I don't think so.  He was a prostar, he was only 21 or so and was helping choreograph dances for the Latin TV knock off of "Dancing with the Stars".   The only difference is that the Latin version had no stars - just regular people learning to dance really well...and this is why we have no idea what the show is called.  As for how we did, salsa is haaaaaaaaard!! Even for being one of the easier dances, it is fast and requires a LOT of teamwork!  Our teacher tried to reassure us by saying, "It's ok! You are Americans, you cannot help that you can't dance".  Despite that this comment is basically true, I was still slightly offended.    

At the end of the second week, our new mom Linda wanted to feel like a backpacker and take a local bus into town so we (Sarah, Nik, Linda and Marlene - Linda's housekeeper) went in Friday to visit a museum (Banco Central) and to pick up our Galapagos tickets.  The ride in from the burbs cost a total of $0.50 vs. an $8 cab ride.  The Museum was cool, it had a room full of nothing but gold, lots of dioramas depicting ancient life for the natives and actually had nice ceramics that we wanted to look at, not the shattered bits we've seen in every other museum down here.  These were elaborate gods and sculptures and figures of ceramics, quite nice!

We then headed to our tour company to meet Aaron, aka ex-con coke dealer, who had f-ed up our flights and not told us - when we asked him why not, he acted confused and said that we didn't leave him anyway to contact him, which actually meant that he had lost the emails we gave him two weeks ago.  We were going  to fly out on the 18th and wanted to return on the 29th, so I could get some diving in. But, Aaron had only done our booking that morning and had us returning on the 27th because there was no room left on the 29th, so it wasn't enough time to have a dive day.   We were supposed to leave in a few days for the Galapagos and had no confirmation for return on the 29th.  Sarah was pissed and talking with Aaron was going nowhere fast - finally Aaron called over the manager so she could deal with it.  Feeling a little stressed, Aaron stepped into the backroom to snort some coke of a hooker's a$$ while we figured things out.  The manager gave us a sweet deal on a hotel and promised to get us on the 29th anyways, which she did, and Aaron's retardedness was forgotten

That Saturday, Walter and Linda and us broke into hacienda to see barn owls and potentially a ghost, though we saw neither.  The hacienda is actually on the land where the new airport is and it's supposed to be haunted.  At the site there is also an old monument to the equator, put there by the French on their first attempt at locating the center of the world - they were about about 400m off which...ok, it's a bit hard.  Their second attempt was declared to be exact and as such, they build a huge monument, 'Mitad del Mundo', but it's off too, by about 240m.  Despite this, its marketed as being correct and heaps of tourists still think that this is the actual equator and have photos straddling the line and so on.  The actual middle of the earth is about 20km north of Quito and was discovered by GPS.  At this site is a giant metal tube with a mirror on the ground where, on the 21st of June, the sun shines right down the tube and hits the mirror.  The site has less funding than the French exhibit - just volunteer staff - and nearly no tourists.  But, it was still really interesting.  We had some water that we swirled around while crossing the line several times, trying to swirl direction change from clockwise to counter-clockwise, but our experiment failed miserably.  We continued on to a town called Otavalo for a famous Saturday market.  It was impossible to bargain but found a couple of hot ponchos, one bright bag and some balls, I mean bowls.

On the way back we stopped at a nice but creepy hacienda.  The original church at the hacienda is known for soldiers having elaborate orgies inside.  They had to build a second church because people disgraced the first; the second church now houses a museum.  We did have some bitchin' good hot chocolate and soup for dinner though.
When we got home, we packed for the Galapagos Islands.  Our plane was to leave the next morning at 10am.  Next up, amazing boobies.
Love Niko & Sarita
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