Ecuador - Quito and surroundings
Europe - Germany, Belgium, and France
Nepal - Around Manaslu
Australia - Driving around Southern Australia
Australia - Olympics
Australia - Great Barrier Reef
Thailand - Bangkok
Vietnam - Central and South
Vietnam - North
Egypt - Along the Nile
Egypt - Touring and diving
Israel and Jordan
Brief return to the USA
Ecuador - Quito and surroundings
Ecuador - Galapagos Islands
Ecuador - Quito and the jungle
Peru - Machu Picchu and Lima
Peru - Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Zimbabwe and South Africa - Vic Falls and Blyde River Canyon
South Africa - Motorcycle trip
Argentina - Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls
Argentina - Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes
Chile - Exploring the Lake Region
Chile - Pucon and the Bio Bio
Argentina - El Calafate and El Chalten
Chile - Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine
Argentina - Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia
Chile - Santiago and Punta Arenas
Guatemala and Honduras - Rio Dulce and Copan
Guatemala - Coban and Spanish school
Guatemala - Tikal and Spanish school
Guatemala - Antigua and Spanish school
We finished the last bit of packing, before enjoying our last big breakfast. The pangas took us to shore where we loaded onto a bus and headed to the airport. While waiting in the airport many of the group made last minute t-shirt purchases, including us.
We enjoyed an uneventful trip, and did not even get off in Guyaquil. Luis met us and we headed straight for Mitad del Mundo, the middle of the earth. We were famished when we arrived, so we ate a large Ecuadorian lunch at Equinoccio. After lunch we headed to the monument marking the equator.
The four of us snapped a few pictures while straddling the northern and southern hemispheres. The monument includes a tower providing views of the Ecuadorian countryside, so we rode up the elevator. At the top Tom pulled out the GPS and we checked the accuracy of the monument. According to the computer, the line and monument are inaccurate by a few hundred meters. After a good laugh, we started down the tower. It houses a mildly interesting museum of native culture.
Shortlyy we were off to Mindo and the cloud forest. On the way traffic blocked the road. We discovered that a truck was trying to load a steamroller, but instead got it stuck in a precarious position in a mudbank. After a 30 minute delay we were underway again.
In Mindo we stopped at El Monte's cafe and picked up Giovanni and a woman The five of us filled the seats of the Broonco, wo the woman sat on the front seat arm rest and the man stood on the back bumper, holding to the luggage rack on top of the car.
In order to reach the lodge, we had to cross a river. El Monte has rigged up a cool palapa-esque basket for the crossing. It is a one person basket, so each one of us sat down with a bag for the ride over the rushing river. Quite fun!
Mariella, our host, greeted us with a fantastic dinner. Her husband Tom recently finished the new kitchen and eating area in the man palapa. Shawn noticed an impressive hand-powerred blender in the corner. The lodge does not have electricity, so Tom (the other host) turned a bicycle over, rigged a hand crank to the gear shaft and built a table across it on which sits the blender. To power the blender, choose your preferred gear and crank away.
The dining room table was impressive as well. In fact, so impressive that Laetitia inquired if a similar one could be purchased.
After dinner, Giovanni took us for a night walk in the forest. We only saw a few spiders and one frog, (the latter due to Shawn's persistence). Giovanni showed us the lodge's frog collection to the delight of Shawn.
Then we headed off to our cabins for sleep aboout 10pm.
We returned for a good breakfast with great bread and an unusual combination of orange juice and oatmeal. After breakfast we headed up the hill towards a waterfall. During the walk through the jungle, we caught sight of some woodpeckers, and saw a few cool spiderwebs glistening in thhe morning dew.
After an hour we got to the falls, which were nice but not spectacular. There were a few swimming spots, and Tom and Shawn elected to jump from the 3 meter bridge, not the 10 meter rock. The water was cold, so after a few minutes to dry, we headed back through the jungle. On the way back, we saw a quetzal - quite rare - so we were psyched, although it wasn't the one with the incredibly long tail found in Guatemala (which we never saw).
We packed and showered, and had a great lunch with great soup. Then the girls crossed back over the river while Tom and Shawn embarked on a rafting adventure. The rafting journey was fun, although a bit out of control - the guides would direct the boat by jumping out into the rushing water and pushing the boat in the right direction, then jumping back in. They shouted at each other in Spanish the entire time, making the ride more exciting.
We then had a long but beautiful drive to Hacienda Pinsaqui, where we met the owner (who had laryngitis) and the manager Hector. We relaxed and had hot spiced drinks by the fire while Hector told us a little history of the hacienda. Later, we went upstairs for a decent dinner and great conversation. We hit the hay early, since we were still fighting colds - Lou's coughing was starting to sound pretty bad.
El Monte review: The food was amazing, home cooked, original, and really tasty. The huts were reasonably comfortable, athough not built for tall people. Also there were no lights, and the lamps were a bit inadequate.
The trails were well maintained and in good shape, and the river, while not huge, has nice rapids and a soothing sound. Giovanni as a guide was not that great - the owner Tom was not there, and we suspect that he would be much better. In any case, there were not that many animals to see, unless you're really into birds.
The waterfall was nice, but not amazing - not worth it unless you also enjoy the hike, which we did. The tubing was fun, but a bit out of control. All in all it was a decent trip, but not a highlight.
In the end, Shawn and Laetitia only had a .5hr ride. They headed out from the hacienda and soon came upon road work by a backhoe. The horses shied away at the sight and sound of the tractor. The guide tried to force the horses past, but Laetitia insisted on returning with a quick ride around the grounds.
Checkout took nearly an hour because they had lost our dinner check from last night, (Amazingly, the waiter remembered what we ordered and wrote it out) to finish it off, the credit card approval took the usual period of forever.
Shawn persisted and we were off for a day of shopping. Luis took us to San Antonio de Ibarro, which is a village known for its wood carving. We started on the central square at the shop for Luis Potosi, the most famous artist. All of us immediately found lots of good stuff, however we resisted the urge to buy since it was our first stop.
We walked through the rest of town, with its street completely lined with shops selling wooden wares. Most of it was low quality and with the exception of one bowl did not tempt us. Although Laetitia admired some end tables, none of us figured out how to get them home.
We returned to Luis Potosi where the major shopping began. The purchases included a wooden centerpiece, statue and a pair of candlesticks for us while Laetitia bought some presents.
Next Luis drove us La Mirage for lunch. It was very chi chi, and totally empty. Even though the four of us were the only table and had 5 girls attending to us, lunch took forever. It was the most expensive meal of the trip, and while it was not bad, it was not great, either. Overall, La Mirage did not impress us in any way.
The nearby village of Cotocachi was our next stop. It is nown for its leather goods. Again, the main street is lined with leather stores that hock the same goods, however with different quality.
Tom and Louisa purchased more gifts, including a change purse, large wooden crayons and a silver charm. Shawn was the big winner with a handsome black leather jacket.
We finally rolled into Otavalo just after 3pm. The market vendors had started to pack up their stands, so we ran around making quick, end of the day purchases.
Immediately we found a cotton rug dyed various shades of blue. We bartered the price down and made the purchase. Tom and Shawn, went on a mission for an atm, but could not find one that included the Cirrus netework. They returned to find that Louisa and Laetitia were prepared to buy out a watercolor gallery. The boys helped make final selections.
Tom and Louisa also bought a necklace, bedspreads and ceramic bowls with modern designs. Laetitia bargained for the best deal of the day for a straw purse, then we headed back to Quito. On the return trip, Luis stopped for us to buy some bizcochi (fried dough) with manjar (dulce) de leche. The bizcochi were lacked much flavor, but the manjar was excellent. We stopped at a few markets to buy manjar for Laetitia to take home, but with no luck.
Our present-laden Bronco arrived in Quito shortly before 7pm. We checked into two great, and unique, rooms at Cafe Cultura, then the boys went on a succesful atm mission. Before dinner the four of us sat around the fireplace in the library and drank the complimentary wine. It was a great way to wind down after a fun day of shopping.
We enjoyed a very good late dinner down the street at the Magic Bean, where Laetitia finally found some Ecuadorian coffee. Tom decided to hit an internet cafe, while the other three returned to Cafe Cultura for bed. We said our goodbyes then since Shawn and Laetitia had a 5:30am departure for the airport, however, it was not too difficult since we knew that we would see each other again in a mere five days.
We rode in a rattly land cruiser with the bikes on top - we were the only guests on the tour. On the way, we found out that this was Marcus' first time leading a group, and only his second time to Cotopaxi. He is Dutch, and apparently was only doing this as a favor to his friends at the Biking Dutchman. He was nice enough, but clueless, and consequently not a great guide. We chatted amiably for the 3.5 hours needed to get to the refugio parking lot at 15k feet, with a brief stop at the "museum".
We decided to drive down a few hundred feet because of the freezing rain mixed with snow. We were cold when we started out, but soon dropped down enough to warm up significantly. The bikes were pretty decent, and our hands got quite a workout on the brakes. Overall the weather was quite variable, with sprinkles and clouds but no real sun, and not overly cold.
After dropping 3000 feet we rode along a stream for a few miles to a nice lunch spot. The food was decent and the brownies very good. We then wimped out and loaded the bikes back on top for a mile or two to avoid going up a hill - our excuse was Louisa's cough. After the hill, we rode down some more and up another minor hill. At the park exit, we got on a single-track for a fun little while before breaking out onto the road and having a bit of confusion finding the land cruiser again.
After loading the bikes again, we had a very short drive to Hacienda San Agustin de Callo. This is an amazing hacienda built in some Incan ruins with many original walls - absolutely beautiful. We were shown to a large room with a huge fireplace, and were surprised and delighted by the huge bathroom, also with its own fireplace. We immediately requested fires, and relaxed in the afternoon to the sound of the crackling wood.
We had no hot water, but after a few discussions with the maids we seemed to get enough for Louisa to take a bath. Later, however, when Tom tried to shower, it turned an ugly brown, and with no shower curtain, went all over the bathroom - finally, he gave up in frustration.
Dinner was served in a beautiful small dining room with original Inca walls and niches. The ambiance was nice with candles in the niches, and the dinner was pretty good. Unfortunately, the wine list was very limited, and the one we picked (outrageously priced at $25) was almost undrinkable. We then headed back to the huge comfortable bed.
We had made a pact that whoever woke during the night would stoke the fire, so it was still burning in the morning. We stayed in bed late, then got up for a good country breakfast. We then spent the morning relaxing, journaling, and reading.
Around 10:30 we motivated for a short bike ride on the hacienda's bikes. We checked out local flower greenhouses, and took the resident golden retriever, Huahualinda, with us.
About 12:30 we packed up and decided that we'd have lunch on the road. We had to take showers in the office, because there was no water at all in the room. Luis picked us up, and we drove just over an hour to Quito - with no good restaurants on the way. Just before reaching Cafe Cultura, we stopped by a mall to get manjar de leche for Laetitia, we also bought trail mix for later on. Once at Cafe Cultura, we did laundry, and then ate a very late lunch there.
We tried to reconfirm our Ecuatoriana flight to NYC and found out they "decided not to fly tomorrow". We went to the office and talked to the idiot behind the desk, who kept telling us to go on Thursday. After insisting, we got endorsed over to a Continental flight for tomorrow. She then gave us totally wrong directions to the Continental office, but we got there anyway. They were quite helpful, and we got taken care of right away.
We had some more errands: the photo store to develop pics and get passport photos, the internet for an hour, and then back to Cafe Cultura to pack. We decided on an easy and delicious dinner at the Magic Bean, and then hit the internet for another hour to order stuff for the 2nd half of our trip. We ended up going to bed kinda late after finishing packing.
Ecuador review: Ecuador contains many natural wonders, the Galapagos Islands, the Equator, cloud forest, rain forest, beaches, volcanos and mountains. The natural beauty is incredible, and a visit to the Galapagos we believe should be included in anyone's life journeys. However, the infrastructure and economic structure of Ecuador need development to ease seeing multiple locations and provide a better overall experience. For example, more than anywhere else in Latin America, ATMs were hard to find, and almost nobody takes credit cards or traveler's checks. Also, in our opinion, the local food is edible, but not great.
El Monte Review: The lodge provides access to the Mindo cloud forest that houses the red cock-of-the-rock, quetzals, waterfalls and lush vegetation. The lodge provides individual thatch cottages that are attractive and include modern-looking bathrooms (the latter proved to have minimal hot waer). Tom, one of the owners, is the main guide. He seems to be fantastic, but we do not know since he was out of town during our visit. We believe that having Tom would significantly improve the experience. Giovanni, the substitute guide hardly noticed any wildlife. The tubing on the river should not be missed for the wild adventure that it is. Finally, Mariella's cooking is phenomenal. We defintitely enjoyed the most delicioius and filling food in Ecuador at El Monte, with no other restaurant ranking. The food almost makes El Monte worthwhile in and of itself.
Hotel Pinsaqui Review: The grounds are beautifully landscape and filled with gorgeous flowers. The building's quaintness exhibits the type of colonial architecture that we expected, and the stable bar with its roaring fire was outstanding. However, the restaurant served terrible food and the entire hotel provided slow service. Additionally, unlimited horseback riding was promoted as one of the provided services, in reality only two guests could go riding, and were charged a fee. Very disappointing.
Biking Dutchman Review: Riding bicycles down the Cotopaxi volcano was exhilarating, but our guide Marcus was clueless. He was nice, but in no way enhanced the experience. To his credit, it was his first solo trip as a guide, but he just did not seem ready yet.
Cafe Cultura review: As a place to stay, it was very comfortable, with cute rooms and a pleasant, if sometimes disorganized, staff. For example, our laundry was promised by 6pm, and we had to check at 7 and 8 to get it - on the flip side, we had given it to them at 3:30pm the same day. And they didn't seem to remember that we had pre-paid a couple of airport transfers. All was straightened out eventally, but required some work on our part. Our final experience was a 5:00 am departure with a pre-aiid continental breakfast at the high price of $8 for the two of us. In the morning we were handed three rolls with butter and jam with no coffee or tea. It was definitely a rip-off.
As a travel agent, they are creative and full-service. However, they are not exactly cheap. Our driver, Luis, was nice and an average guide but by far the most expensive we encountered. We paid a higher price to Cafe Cultura for San Agustin than if we had booked direct. But, we had a great trip with almost no snafus. We were even picked up at the airport by the owner himself, when our flight was cancelled and we came in on another airline.
San Agustin review: The hacienda is in a beautiful spot, and is amazingly well restored. The rooms are spacious and the bathrooms beautiful - our room had fireplaces in both bedroom and bath. The food was pretty good, with attentive service, in an unbelievable setting of an Incan room. The wine was terrible - they didn't have a very extensive selection, and the one we got (and paid an outrageous $25 for) was nearly undrinkable.
During our stay we were the only guests and there apparently was no manager or owner present, just a maid who was occasionally hard to find for service. The hot water didn't work when we arrived. They fixed it for a little while, but then it got painfully inconsistent and rusty brown. The next day they turned off our water completely - we couldn't even use the toilet. When we brought this to her attention, her solution was for us to take showers in the office. All in all, an absolutely beautiful spot that did not live up to its potential.
Our driver Luis was there on time, at least. Once we got to the airport, we discovered that you can't pay the $50 airport tax with a traveller's check, forcing us to scrape together the last of our cash (Ecuador is the most backward country we've visited in this way). Then there was a long line at immigration, so in general it was a frustrating morning.
Things looked up when we got the exit row and took off on time. We passed the time working on the journal, and chatting with a nice Ecuadorean guy we were sitting next to. We actually landed at Newark early, a good ending to our first half of a year's travel.
Revised: Wed Feb 13 11:37:55 2008 on