Quito

Quito… ECUADOR!

(cue Sash!)

Oh Quito, such a fun yet odd place for a Christmas Holiday. Lots of fun. Odd in that we got to see about 50 people dressed as Santa on Motos drive down 12 de Octubre, some with Mrs Claus riding on the back, some kids riding along on bikes.  I also got to watch people set a small campfire on the sidewalk in front of our apartment building and about two dozen watch it. Per our guard was nothing special. (If you know why, email me.  Gracias.)

So, yeah, Quito.

We arrived the Sunday before Christmas for a 10 day stay. After checking out our immediate neighborhood, stocking up on coffee, Pilsener (Ecuador’s version of cheap, watery South American lager) and some food staples for cooking in our airBNB, we checked out a nearby brewery, Abysmo (decent), and waved at the Paraguayan embassy next door.

Not too bad a view, eh?

Monday we got up and decided to hit Old Town. The President, Lenin Moreno pulled out all the stops to welcome us. Full on crowd, parade with soldiers and horsemen in dress uni’s, all the important people on the balcony to greet us, complete with speech.

Oh wait, nevermind. Apparently the President addresses the people every Monday and we just literally stumbled into it, almost getting bowled over by the cavalry. Oh well, at least that likely means the protestors shouting at him weren’t there for me.

The whole downtown area is wonderful to take in, you can see why it was granted UNESCO heritage status. Lots of hills, though, at 2850m/9300 feet in the air can take a toll.  And in addition to the obvious concerns with altitude (not for us, coming from Bogota, just a hundred meters and change lower) is the STRENGTH of the Sun. On a blue sky day your weather app might read 65F/18C, but the Sun will fry you. If feels a good 20F/12C hotter than it really is. It’s not uncommon to see locals toting umbrellas, not just for impending rain, but existent Sun as well or running around with their arms spread over their heads, coats out like Angel or Spike running around in the daylight in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode.

So back to the old city… We did get to check out a good chunk of it on foot, including several churches that don’t allow internal photos to be taken. You can see why, particularly in the San Francisco Church where you can clearly see the damage time has done to some of the artwork. The Metropolitan Cathedral, adjacent to the Presidential Palace is definitely worth the paltry price of admission as you can see more than just the church, but continue back to see what else comprises the monastery… the library, etc.

We hiked up to the Notre Dame-looking Basilica del Voto Nacional, but more on that later as we would return, before calling it Day 1.

Day 2 we opted to take the TelefiQo up the nearby volcano Pichincha. Took a wrong fork while doing the hike up at the top and instead of doubling back and following the primary trail we doubled down and continued on the one we stumbled upon. Ended up with a pretty good view of the actual volcano.

Followed that up returning to the Basilica where we ascended the towers upwards. You basically take a rickety bridge over the spine of the church before a steep staircase takes you to the roof of the church. Katie then ascended another steep ladder (outside this time) up to the Condor’s Nest. Not good with heights, not thrilled at nothing between a stumble and flying in a fashion absolutely nothing like a condor, opted to hang back. Pressed hard against the wall of the Basilica.

We followed that up with some craft beer at Bandidos Del Paramo – two breweries sharing one pretty nice building to bring barley sodas to the people. Bandidos Hop Rey IPA and Guapa American Pale Ale were great (Paramo’s Oktoberfest and APA were also enjoyable) – putting pretty much most of what I’ve had in Colombia to shame. Kudos to the brewers of Quito.

We took off for a couple days to the Maquipucuna Cloud Forest Ecolodge for an overnighter. Was a two hour or so drive from Quito, windy mountain roads with brilliant scenery. The Lodge itself is some 23km off the main highway through a village, then another 7km on a dirt road, seemingly in the boonies. (Amusingly you pass the Mittad del Mundo monument on your way out of Quito, so you go from Middle of the Earth to Middle of Nowhere in about 95 minutes.)

The place itself as magical. Cross a bridge over the Alambi River to a pretty cool lodge. Our lodgings were river view so we had the nice white noise of rolling water to help relax when not out hiking.

 

So yeah, managed in 26 hours “botas” on the ground (they issue you rubber boots… they get like 9 inches of rain a week, so pretty much mandatory) to do a two-hour swamp hike with guide Arcenio and a short nature walk to a nearby waterfall before the afternoon rains came (and a welcome nap) followed by a two hour bird watching effort and another 90 minute river view loop hike the following morning. Learned a bit about the indigenous wildlife, absolutely failed to see the Spectacled Bears Katie was so hoping to see (missed by a couple days), but did see about 20 species of birds, including ten Hummingbirds a humming, eight Tanagers a-tanning, seven Motmots a molting, six Tyrant Flycatchers catching, five black condors and a green Toucan in a green tree. (Phew). Or something like that, you get the point.

On the way back our (awesome) driver Gonzalo took us through the misty mountains, now obscured almost completely by clouds – like something out of Stephen King’s “The Mist” – and to a few sights.

First was Pululahua, a volcano with a fantastic view of the crater… normally. As with most the mountains we had driven past earlier in the morning the entire thing was obscured by clouds. Made for a pretty interesting/weird view. Gonzalo had a postcard in his cab, so we were able to see what we would have seen.

Next stop was the actual equator. Not the one with the big towering monument – turns out that while the Franco-Spanish explorers who measured with Earth with the instruments of the times around 1736 were very close, they were off by about 250 meter or so.

Some enterprising locals then went on to build up a museum/site with a lot of local history (perhaps overdramatized by the guides… I wouldn’t recommend the “penisfish” drinking game as unless you have my tolerance, a sip each time “watch out swimming in the jungle river for the penisfish” is said will floor lightweights.)  Followed by some exhibits at the actual GPS-verified Equator.

Following that we went to the far more grand, but incorrect, “Fakequator” for a look around before heading home.

Saturday was fairly quiet, just looked around Plaza Fochs (lots of restaurants, bars) and hiked over to the Parque Carolina for a look around. Nice park, dog park section for those with four-legged buddies, pedal boats, skate park, some vendors selling Ceviche, water, etc.

Sunday am we were up bright and early and off to the Cotopaxi Volcano. We booked a Hike ‘n Bike trip. A busload of travelers from all over (Switzerland, China, New Zealand, France, Germany, Brasil) joined forces to have a merry ol’ time. The bus took us to the park, some 50km or so from Quito and all the way up to about 4,500m (about 14,750feet). From there, despite being an hour from the Equator, during “summer” (at least for those south of it) the temperatures dropped to near freezing.

We trudged our way, slowly, up some 350m more to the refuge where climbers, erm, take refuge for a day or so before doing the two day climb to the actual top. From there after a few minutes to visit the baños or chow down some more cocoa leaves (I was enjoying a cocoa leaf lollipop, which helped and hindered a tad. Tasted great, cocoa-power to help with altitude versus a big, spherical pop in my mouth impeding air intake.)  While we were trudging before, the remaining 150m up featured more treacherous footing on already light oxygen. Basically most our ragtag group of extranjero funseekers were shuffling like zombies in The Walking Dead at this point. Head’s down, pushing ever onward. We lost some along the way, as did other groups. Just had to toss in the towel.  I nearly did with the top in view, save for an Ecuadorian family there with their young kids. One was struggling as badly as I was (I had paused and shared a rock with them for a 2 minute breather)  passed me, just muttering “!Vamos!” with each ponderously slow step. “iVamos!” (3 count, shuffle) “iVamos!”. I glanced at him, “iListo!” and continued up. We hit 5000m, about 16,404 feet, the glacier line. Woohoo! A couple minutes later we began the return trek. Was a bit easier, what with gravity doing some of the work, though the treacherous footing had a few of us nearly take a tumble. (Side note, Katie didn’t find it terribly tough. Not even top 25… the hike surely wasn’t that difficult, but the breathing sure was.)

Next came the bike portion… riding on slippery rock roads on wobbly legs, with rocky road doing a bunch of cutbacks down the mountain. Some 17 (of 26) of us started, wary of danger thanks to the safety lecture (which made the prior Penisfish admonitions seem quaint) … two others and I pulled the plug maybe 200m in. I had almost no control and while I could have completed it, would have been nothing but 30minutes stress rather than a fun experience. Katie was slower going, riding the brake pretty much the entire way, but finished. (She is bad ass, I am fat ass.) We then returned to Quito, lunch along the way, said “Adios!” to all our new compadres and basically took the rest of the day and Christmas off.

We closed out Quito on Tuesday with a look around our neighborhood… up and coming, some restaurants a little more autentico and less touristy than Plaza Fochs with a lot of street art, as well as a final trip to a couple near by breweries and pubs (Hops Craft Beer Pub is worth a visit) before packing up for our next stop, Guayaquil.

   

 

 

Final verdict on our first 10 days in Ecuador? Cue the old Drew Carey Show theme song and sing along… “Quito Rocks! Quito Rocks!”

 

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Guatape

We decided to “Opt Outside” for Black Friday during our trip to Medellin for a daytrip to El Peñon near Guatape. La roca (as it’s also called) is disputed between two towns, El Peñol and Guatape. Two hours by bus, you can get dropped off along the road maybe a half mile or so from the actual entry point to the park. Most hike it, but there are a couple guys who will (for a small price) tuk-tuk you most the way. We opted to tuk it. Why not?

There is a switchback cement staircase with 650 steps leading to the top of the rock, followed by another 90 to ascend a tower located at the summit , thus 740 steps will get you to the top of the tower on the top of the rock. Phew.

Also “phew” as while 740 steps isn’t too terrible, I suppose, your starting point isn’t exactly sea level. The top is at just over 7,000ft (2,130+ meters) … so there was some huffing and puffing going on. And not only from me.

   

The view at the summit is incredible and is a full 360 degrees.

   

After taking in some ice cream and a pineapple juice from vendors at the top (passed on a cerveza… needed my legs for the walk down), we took in the view for a good while before descending. Descending was actually more harrowing than the climb. Slow people and steps that extended maybe 70% of my size 11’s  had me duck walking down and rendered my legs jello by the time we got to the bottom. Fortunately our tuk-tuk guy was waiting at the base of the rock and for 15,000 pesos ($5) would drive us all the way to Guatape, which is still a couple KM from the rock.

Along the way in “The Limozeen of Tuk-tuks” (his term, though I altered spelling of Limo in homage to Strongbad) he slowed for a couple houses on the way to “Guatapulco” (his term, again, he’s gots the wordplay, mixing tourist magnet Guatape with Acapulco) to show the paneled artwork along the bases of the houses, showcasing pictures of Llamas, the Rock, flowers.  He explained this wasn’t a thing to attract tourists, but a practice that dates back a couple hundred years and even houses that were a ways away from the restaurants, etc, were still done up.

Tuk Life

After he dropped us off in town, we decided to skip on walking around to take in the picturesque place to gobble down some well-earned lunch, not to mention a well-earned cerveza. Fortuitous. Partway through our meal it started dumping down rain. Just as we finished a feast for a king, consisting of grilled trout with (a LOT) of cheese, ajiaco soup for her and bandeja paisa for me, it cleared up giving us perfect weather for a stroll through town.

  

After walking up and down the streets, enjoying the vibe, colors and feel, it started to rain again. Fortunately we were able to trade in our bus tickets for an earlier ride and returned back to Medellin.

 

 

Notes for travelers who are going to Medellin, want to visit Guatape and somehow stumbled across this blog:

– Getting there from Medellin isn’t terribly difficult. Or expensive. Take a cab to the north bus terminal, from there ask someone at the info kiosk. “Guatape?” and they will point you to the correct kiosk (there are something like 30 to 40 of ’em) to get your bus tickets. The tickets themselves are pretty cheap. Like almost shockingly so. Maybe $7 each, one way?

– The rock sits between two towns, and is a couple KM outside (BEFORE) Guatape. The bus will stop there, our driver simply announced “La Roca!” and all us gringo tourists got off. You don’t need to go all the way to Guatape only to have to double back to the rock.

– You can also buy your tix to return to Medellin at this drop off spot. Hooray, convenience. I think the last returning bus is something like 6pm. Maybe 6:30pm. Though, as noted, we had no trouble exchanging ours in town for an earlier return.

– Our entire foray took maybe four hours or so, from the time the bus dropped us off at the tuk tuk guys until we boarded a bus back to Medellin. Was ample time to climb the rock, take it in, take pictures, take more pictures, enjoy our ice cream, take it in once again, along with a few more pics, head into town, enjoy a leisurely one hour lunch or so, and stroll through the majority of the town. If the day is clearer, you can spend more time if you’d like to get on board one of the boats that offer lake tours.

Frankly, my Spanish is terribad and hers terriworse. We stumbled through this without any more detail than the above, and believe we spent maybe 100,000 pesos or so (about $35), in all for transportation. That includes the cabs to get us from the Poblado area of Medellin to the North bus terminal, busing back and forth, both tuk-tuk trips and the return taxi from the bus terminal to our apartment. And even then, probably a full 10,000 pesos of that was “rent” for our cab, you know, the meterbleed when the cab sits inert in traffic.  So swerve the $80+ tours you find online, the additional money is better spent on ice cream on top of the rock and a nice bandeja paisa and cold cerveza for lunch.

 

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Medellin

For Thanksgiving weekend we took a short trip to “The City Of Eternal Spring”, Medellin.  Plan was two days in town sandwiching a daytrip to Guatape. Enough time to get a feel of the city.

The nickname is merited, with Medellin being a tad warmer than Bogota, 70’s every day (still feels significantly warmer under direct sunlight than the raw number indicates) with the evenings being less chilly as well.

We stayed in a hotel/airBNB maybe a 15 minute walk to the trendy, bar and restaurant saturated Poblado neighborhood. We arrived late enough on Wednesday that after touching down at the airport and the long, windy road to Medellin that only a handful of restaurants were even open and able to deliver on Rappi.

Thanksgiving day we started off taking a cab to Plaza Botero, famous for the dozen or so bulbous sculptures that Medellin-born artist Fernando Botero donated to the city. We took in the busy plaza, enjoying the sculptures and the architecture of some of the nearby buildings. We remained a bit wary as our cab driver was nice enough to point out where NOT to wander off to from the plaza.

 

The plaza and nearby neighborhood were busy, some turistas like us taking pictures, lots of local vendors selling their wares… lots. And lots of every day people doing their shopping. Was a bit frustrating not being able to take 7 steps without being asked to buy something or just give people money… I’m accustomed to it, it’s a daily occurrence in Bogota and wasn’t uncommon in Asuncion, Paraguay, but this was a bit excessive.

We strolled down a walkway with more outside markets selling sunglasses, t-shirts, Pablo Escobar merchandise and eventually found a former palatial building which used to host government offices but some time ago was sold to private investors who turned it into a shopping mall. The entire, massive footprint (pun intended) of the first floor and some of the second are ENDLESS stores selling sneakers, trabs, running shoes, kicks, whatever you call them. Was a weird juxtaposition of seeing this fancy, well designed building merged with, say, Mercado 4 from Asuncion.

Feeling a bit hungry as well as tired of being asked solicited every 47 seconds, we hopped a cab* and headed to Parque Lleras in Poblada, a small park in a much more tranquilo neighborhood. We wandered a bit before heading to a Peruvian place for lunch. We both enjoyed our lunches (I, paradoxically, ordered an Argentine cut of steak at a Peruvian sushi-centric place) and were pleasantly surprised by the bill. We were anticipating it to be a bit pricy, but apparently it was happy hour (Thursday, 1pm?) and our entire meal was half off! Steak, chicken, shrimp cocktail, beer, coffee and water all for $20.

After hiking back to our room to for a short rest we returned to Poblado to take in some craft beer, take in Parque Poblado and grab some pizza from friend-recommended Zorba. Yep, Greek name, Italian food. Good pizza, great hummus, though all vegetarian.


Black Friday we decided to “Opt Outside” and head to Guatape, which has  it’s own entry with lots of pics.

For our last day in Medellin we again opted to leave the city. Sort of. This time we took a cab to the metro to the metrocable to fly over a barrio that is perhaps a tad infamous and now thanks to metrocable, better connected to Medellin and improving, then continued over a few resilient farmers living and working way the heck up on the mountainside to continue on another 10-15min to Parque Avri, all so we could take a short hike.

 

Lots of beautiful views, both of the city in one direction and a whole lotta green in the other. Kinda like Monserrate here in Bogota.

Finished off with a return to Poblado for a few more craft beers and some dinner at well regarded Oci.Mde for some great ribs, better caipirinha and The Ramones “Pet Semetary”  (and other tunes) playing at such volume (we were seated right below the speaker at the bar) as to render conversation nearly impossible.

Weekend closed out with a morning taxi ride way up one of the hills to the airport. Arrival was in the dark, departure was in a misty morning. Enjoyed the city and hope to return to see a bit more.

Items of note – No beer suggestion, best we had were just beers they brought in from Bogota. Also modes of travel for this trip included: taxi, plane, tuk-tuk, metro and metrocable.

 

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Villa de Leyva

About 100 miles outside Bogota is Villa de Leyva. a quaint Colonial town some 445 years old. Went there to take sting off turning *cough*somethingsomething*cough, enjoy the sites of the Colombian countryside as well as the village itself.

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Monserrate

Monserrate sits on the hills on the east side of Bogota allowing for some spectacular views. Like those below. To the west the sprawling city that seems to go on forever, whereas to the east, just forest green as far as the eye can see.

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Bogota Street Art Tour

This gallery contains 34 photos.

Shortly after our arrival in Bogota, we did a street art tour through Candeleria neighborhood, learned a bit about the artists as well as the city’s attempts to take art down (which just leads to graffiti) and the rules for … Continue reading

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Bogota

The First Week

So I still owe some closing thoughts on my time in Paraguay… working on those, they’ll go up at some point. And you’ll see a lot of Paraguay below as, well, it’s my only proper South American frame of reference for living, not visiting, abroad.

In the meantime we’ve been in Bogota for almost a week now, so some random thoughts.

Altitude – holy cow! Going from 1,000ft to 8,600ft does exact a toll. I’m sleeping more than normal, a couple days I’ve felt hungover despite not having anything but coffee and water the day before, and while I can walk on the flat surface of Septima (7th, a major traffic artery very close to our current apartment), the mere act of climbing the two flights of stairs to our apartment leaves me winded like I’d just jogged a 5k.

For any of my friends who want to visit me, whether Americano or Parguayo, brace yourself.

And brace yourself for some great views.

Weather – between living in Arizona and Paraguay for the last 30 years (which includes a 2 year stint on Tropical Guam), wasn’t completely ready for here. While the daily high, year around, is somewhere around 62F and is absolutely positively wonderful, the lows in the mid-40s while in apartments with no heating can make things a bit chilly. Consider this a big warning, my Paraguayan or Arizonan friends. Particularly Paraguayans, who treat anything sub 70F by bundling up like the little brother from the Christmas Story movie.

Of course, for those looking to come to visit – or just random people who stumble upon this because the #Bogota hashtag, airBNBs in my neighborhood see nice apartments going for about $36/night. No joke.

Huge city – population of about 9m or so, about 40% more than all of California-sized Paraguay, let alone Asuncion or Tucson, which hover around the 1m mark. Our current apartment is on the cusp of the “rich” area, which is awesome for:

 

FOOD – holy hell. I think I melted FourSquare looking for nearby places to eat.  We had north of 90 within a half mile. Lots of interesting places, it seems. Hooray.

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(Chicken breast Florentine, with “rice Coco” and fried plantains. Cost, with bottled water and tip… $8)

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Within 96 hours of landing I have found one supermarket that sells Cholula and another place that sells Sriracha, so I’ve got that going for me. Makes up for…

BEER – big drop off from Paraguay thus far. Bogota Brewing Company is ok… not quite on par with Paraguay’s Sajonia, let alone the mighty Herken. Not bad, but not great. I’ve tried several other local Colombian beers and don’t think I’ve scored any non-BBC beer above 3 out of 5. Not impressed. Seems there is to be some tour of some of the craft breweries this weekend, hoping to get my name on the list, though as “Not A Teacher”, I, once again, am orbiting the school social scene like the moon and the Earth. Or maybe more accurately, Halley’s Comet … as you see the moon nightly.  While the beer is woeful, and mis amigos from the AcervaPY leave most of what I’ve tried in the dust, Bogota does win equally going the other way with…

COFFEE – Colombia is the 3rd largest producer of coffee in the world. (Bet you can’t guess the second offhand!) … and it’s all over. Great stuff at the supermarkets as well as a coffee places all over. Side note, this lead to a great quote from a younger teacher new to the area that just makes me feel old. She was talking with my wife and said something to the effect of “They’ve got this coffee here and it’s even better than Starbucks. It’s Juan Valdez!”  Upon hearing that all I could think of was my younger years when Juan Valdez was as good as it got in the US before the raise of Hydra…er Starbucks.

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Currency – Paraguay was ballpark 5,000 Guarani to the dollar. Values slowly went up or down, with larger trends which saw the dollar slowly go from 4,200 when I arrived to about 5,500 when I left. Here it’s 3,000 Pesos to the dollar. Or so. Apparently it can fluctuate like 15% in a single day or so. And while it’s fairly easy to mentally convert prices, just divide by 3k, after about two years of using 5k I have to think all my conversions over twice.

 

Peoples – Done some minor touring of the city while doing requisite paperwork with some of Katie’s school’s HR staff and met some of the both Gringo and local teaching staff. Everyone we’ve met has been super nice and friendly. Which is swell. My worst fear here is not getting mugged, kidnapped by some rebels out in the jungle and held for ransom, but rather just being lost and anonymous in a city of this size, particularly after my time in Asuncion where I had some great local friends and couldn’t even do the 5 minute walk to the mall to pay my bills without waving at 5-6 familiar faces and talking futbol with 1 or 2 on the way.

 

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