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Archive for March, 2012

Exhausted from our two-day bike trip, we arrived back in Quito late on a Sunday afternoon.  We wandered around for a bit looking for food but to our dismay everything was closed.  Quito felt like a ghost town.  Eventually we found a half decent chain restaurant and ate dinner before turning in for an early night.

The little we had seen of Quito to this point had failed to impress.  So the next morning we were determined to get to the historic center of town and see what our guidebook was talking about when it called Quito one of the best renovated historic centers in Latin America.  Having been previously to Cusco, Peru and then to Cartagena, Colombia on this trip and finding them absolutely gorgeous colonial centers, I was ready to be seriously impressed by Quito.

We started at the Basilica del Voto Nacional, otherwise known as a huge church!   We bought tickets to enter and climb the towers but we had no idea how high they actually let you climb.  First it was several staircases up to the clock tower then began a series of spiral staircases and metal (fixed) ladders that led even higher!  We poked our faces through little cutouts in the concrete designs to see Quito sprawling out as far as the eye could see.

La Basilica

Church and courtyard (where you can also visit a therapist or dentist)

Climbing the towers

Oops eyes closed, but we´re in the clock tower!

Views of Quito

Quito, the other direction!

View of La Virgen de Quito

Crossing over the sanctuary ceiling to the other towers

OK, going to stop climbing soon, getting scary!

Big head!

Other highlights of the Basilica were the stained glass windows and the gargoyles out front that instead of depicting traditional monsters were actually forms of wildlife found on the Galapagos Islands.  Cool!

Sanctuary

Beautiful!

Instead of dwelling, I´ll sum up the rest of Quito by saying it just wasn´t our style.  A major theme we saw in Ecuador was graffiti, everywhere!  The weather, graffiti, and general city grime all added up to a not very impressive picture.  Travellers are also warned to be very careful in Quito and the fact that even locals didn´t go out after dark had us on edge most of the time.  In the end we decided to do one more day in order to visit La Mitad del Mundo, the middle of the Earth (Equator!) and then get the heck out of Quito.

So the following day, we set out to find the middle of the Earth.  Quito sure wasn´t going to make it easy!  After approaching 2 separate metro bus terminals, asking 3 city employees, and walking 15 blocks, we finally found the right bus.  At this point we were really missing Medellin´s super easy and clean metro system!  Quito´s city bus did have some added interest though in the form of a young guy with an 80´s style boombox on his shoulder busting out rap beats (for donations).

Mitad del Mundo park

The Mitad del Mundo park is kind of like a very small town – there are tons of crafts shops and restaurants all centered around a monument and a few museums.  We went through a couple of the small museums including an insectarium which had crazy bugs from all over Latin America and the world.  The science nerd in David was having a ball.

We´re in 2 hemispheres!

We took the obligatory picture supposedly straddling both hemispheres although the true center is actually a few hundred meters away, accessible with a guide.  Most of the restaurants were rather expensive but we did find a small locals only type of place with a set lunch for $2.50.  We had seen the dreaded “Chicken feet soup” on several Quito menus already but thought we were safe this day – almost, save for the single claw floating in mine 😉  Other than that it was a tasty soup and a good lunch!

Zero

Two days of exploring Quito felt like plenty to us and we were more than ready to hit the road to greener pastures.  Baños to be exact, land of waterfalls and volcanoes!

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We were exhausted after the first day of biking and trekking around on the volcano, Cotopaxi, in the central highlands of Ecuador.  After a beautiful car ride through the Andes, we settled in at a small lodge in the pueblo of Quilotoa, situated on the rim of the Quilotoa crater.  The rooms were basic and chilly, but  fortunately each room was equipped with a wood stove which was quite charming.  I was supposed to get up every couple of hours to keep it burning, but after we fell asleep, getting up was not even a faint possibility.

yep

Day two began with a breathtaking descent into the crater.  The views from the rim where we began were amazing and the entire trail in and out of the crater provided equally stunning views.  The crater was formed about 800 years ago. It is about two miles wide and over 800 feet deep in the deepest parts.  The crater lake sits at over 12,000 feet elevation.

Quilotoa Crater... wow

Roberto (guide) called this his postcard shot

Roberto, Casper, and Kristi on the rock formation jutting out into the lake

On the hike we passed several families with their donkeys, mules, and horses.  Some were transporting potatoes to sell and others were offering tired gringos rides out of the crater on horse or mule.  We were definitely tempted, but were a bit scared of being on horseback for some of the rugged terrain.

Two small boys leading their beasts down into the crater

Striking a pose on a cliff at the crater bottom

Despite the draining first day and the steepness of the trail, we didn´t have much trouble getting down then hiking back out.  However, this was just part one of the day´s adventure.  At the crater rim there were a few shops where Kristi bought a nice alpaca scarf from a local family.

They had some great stuff, wish we had more room in our packs!

After our hike we got back on the bikes for another 20 km ride through rural countryside in the Ecuadorian Andes.

Plenty of uphill on Day 2

The first few kilometers were a mud bath and we weren´t exactly enjoying ourselves but as soon as we began descending, the dirt roads dried up and the only danger was getting distracted by the views and the people we passed.

Alpaca with saddle ready for load

Cute donkey

Bootiful

Despite not-so-perfect weather, our two-day mountain biking trip was something we´ll never forget.  Quilotoa is an incredible town and hike and still retains its pueblo charm.  The Ecuadorian campo is a must see for anyone visiting, and we suggest a bike trip to fully appreciate the scenery and the local people waving and greeting you along the way.

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After a few days in Guatapé we said goodbye to Colombia and flew from Medellin to Quito, Ecuador. Upon arrival we took  taxi to our hotel and set in to rest for the evening and attempt a rapid acclimatization.   To give you an idea, Medellin is at an altitude of 1,500 m (4,921 ft), Quito lies at 2,800 m (9,200 ft), and where we were headed the next day was even higher!

One of the activities I researched ahead of our trip was a mountain biking trip on Cotopaxi and the Quilotoa crater.  While David is a fairly experienced mountain biker, I am more of a casual beach cruiser type of bike rider.  I was assured by the owner of the tour company that so long as you could ride a bike then it would be no problem.  He also said things like ¨it´s not a race¨and ¨take your time and go as slow or fast as you want.¨  This will come into play later on in the story.

Our guide picked us and one other person up from our hotel and we headed off for the tour.  The weather was again grey and dreary.  As we drove through the mountains to reach Cotopaxi the clouds were literally so low it felt as if they were pushing down on us.  The weather seemed less than ideal but our guide wasn´t worried so we forged on.

At 5,897 m (19,347 ft), Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world and the second highest mountain peak in Ecuador!  It also has one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world.   On a clear day you can see it´s snow capped cone towering over the highland plain and the valley below.

Our guide drove us through Cotopaxi park and up to a small museum where we took a break to stretch our legs and sample some coca tea, made from the leaves of the evil coca plant.

Té de coca

Yes, the coca plant is processed to make cocaine but the unprocessed leaves are perfectly legal and have been used for centuries by native people to ward off altitude sickness.  When I studied abroad in Peru we drank lots of coca tea, ate coca hard candy, and chewed the leaves directly. It was David´s first time trying the tea and we both thoroughly enjoyed it!  The flavor is similar to green tea but less grassy.

Yum!

After our little break it was time to continue on up the volcano to our starting point.

Our ride

Along the way we passed a foggy field with mossy boulders and wild horses grazing.  It was absolutely gorgeous!

Wild horses

Throughout the entire ride through the park the vegetation was really interesting.  We saw everything from pine forest, lichen fields, low scrubby brush with what looked like sea grasses, and wild flowers, up until we reached 4,000 m (13,123 ft) where the vegetation stopped.  From there the ground was covered in dark crumbly soil and small rocks.

We stopped the car at a parking lot on the North face to begin our hike up to the climber´s refuge, a permanent camp set up for those climbing to the summit.  At this point it was freezing rain, windy, and very cold!  I hadn´t remembered that a hike was part of the trip but there was no time to chat as our native guide took off up the mountain.

The crumbly soil and the steep inclination made it a bit difficult to ascend but the real trouble was the altitude!  Some people describe tiring easily and feeling short of breath but for me the main bother was the feeling that my heart was actually beating in my skull!  My heartbeat was very fast and the pressure in my head was also uncomfortable.  Coupled with the poor weather and even poorer visibility I was starting to wonder what was the point of this hike?!  At around 4,700 m (15,419 ft) I found a nice rock to sit on and wait while the boys forged on to the refuge.

David and Casper at the refuge, 15,780 ft

From there it was a quick descent to the car where we picked up our bikes and helmets and set off on our further descent down the mountain.  I was pretty nervous as I stared down the steep roads that zigged, zagged, and switch backed their way down the side of Cotopaxi, but there was nothing to do but go for it!  The dirt road was bumpy, rocky, slippery, and soft in places and my whole body felt like it was in an agitator!  The first 20 minutes was pretty much torture with the freezing rain – our hands had only the cheap, thin gloves provided by the tour and I almost thought my poor fingers were frozen solid!

Zooming down

After we made it back to the vegetation line the conditions improved and we were no longer being pelted by freezing rain.  My hands began to thaw out and the crazy switch back roads were now straighter and had less incline.  That´s not to say that I didn´t still have a death grip on my brakes!

A slight break in the clouds to reveal Cotopaxi´s snowy peak (look closely!)

At this point we had reached the highland plain and the roads leveled out.  Thank goodness!  From here it was pretty smooth sailing down to meet the car at the original tea stop.  The sun even came out for a few minutes and we had to peel off jackets and gloves.

Flat roads!

When we met back up with the car lunch and a rest were waiting for us!  My head was still pounding but was much less severe than during the hike.  Knowing we still had a couple of hours in the car to our next destination I took a Dramamine and settled in for a backseat nap!

David, captivated by the Andes, stayed awake and took these pictures along the way.

Mountain drive

Blue skies peeking out!

I woke up from my nap in time to see our arrival to the small mountain community of Quilotoa, our lodging area for the night and the starting point of the next day´s bike ride!  That´s right, there´s more!  Stay tuned for Part 2…

 

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After a couple of days in Medellin, we were ready for a change of pace, so we took a recommendation from our hostel owner´s wife and booked a room in a hostel in the lake town of Guatapè.  Guatapè is a smaller Colombian town situated on an artificial lake about 2 hours from Medellin by bus.  The lake was created to generate hydroelectric power for Medellin and the surrounding towns.

Paint explosion

Fortunately, we avoided the weekend when the town supposedly transforms  into a crowded party of paisas, as people from Medellin are known.  We´re usually down to party, but we´ve found that South Americans start the party around midnight or 1am and don´t crash until dawn.  Now, I know I´m getting older but I´m not sure I ever stayed up to watch the sunrise (or at least I have little recollection of such things).

On each house there were painted reliefs of different Latin American scenes. This is the pool hall, notice the passed out bolo in the corner.

Our hostel was owned by a friendly gringo named Greg from California and his sweet puppy Sophia.  The digs were good and the other people staying there were entertaining as well: an Irish girl (completely Irish, but oddly enough, born in Atlantic City), a couple of hilarious Brits, and a smattering of other Europeans.

Weird turret from a US warship that was transported high into the mountains for re-assembly on the lake. Obviously, this scheme fell though, and now there are random ship parts lying around near our hostel.

Kristi and I spent the first afternoon touring the town which was ridiculously cute.  Cute isn´t a manly way of describing things, but take a look at the pictures and help me find a manly word to describe it.

Motochiva

Church on the main town square

These reliefs were on almost every house depicting everything from airplanes to frying tajadas to coffee harvesting

On day two we set off to climb la Piedra del Peñol, the 200m tall granite monolith situated about a 3 mile walk from town.  After an exhausting walk to the rock, you have to climb 1,203,234 stairs to the top.  It seems like a lot, but the view from the top was jaw-dropping.  And then we walked back, ugh.

Along the trail to la Piedra del Peñol

Halfway there!

Now we just gotta climb a few stairs

The view vale la pena

On our last full day we rented Greg´s kayak and cruised around the lake, ducking in and out of little coves finding nothing but the sound of wind in the trees and bird´s songs.  It was a pleasant way to overcome the aftermath of the previous night spent with our cousins from across the Atlantic playing cards and discussing the difference between the US and the UK (sherbet in the UK is like Fun Dip… wtf?).

Yaking... kayaking

This was our last stop in Colombia.  The new tourist slogan is true, “The only risk is not wanting to leave”.  Off to Ecuador!

Sunset from the balcony at our hostel

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The last post focused on Medellin´s public art and how the city is rising above the drug cartel history that it is known for.  Beyond public art, Medellin boasts many other great amenities such as an above ground metro system and cable system that makes almost the entire city accessible to its citizens and visitors.  Kristi and I loved how easy it was to visit whichever corner of Medellin that we wanted.

The metro

View of Medellin from the metrocable (basically a gondola)

The metrocable also provides access to a forest park that overlooks the city, but on the day we went it was closed.  Not an unusual occurence for us in our travels about Latin America.  No big deal, we just turned around and jumped off the train at the city´s botanical gardin.

The orchid area

Purty

The garden was free and open to the public.  Due to its location near one of the major universities many college student take advantage and relax here between classes.  The garden has areas devoted to orchids, desert plants, tropical forests, and a butterfly house.

Cactus flower

More orchids

Flutterby

another

Spotted this guy in the tropical forest section. Guess he got loose!

There was also a nice little pond home to turtles and a group of very large and lazy lizards.

Showing off

Boat lizard

Medellin was a great stop on our South American tour.  We were only there for three days but it was enough time to appreciate much of what the city has to offer.  Next stop, Guatapé, located on an artificial lake a couple hours outside of Medellin.  Blog to come soon!

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Medellin is most famous for its bloody cocaine cartel history and its patròn Pablo Escobar.  In recent years, the government and citizens of Medellin have made huge strides to progress beyond this image and from my point of view they have succeeded.

"Escopetarra" symbolizes the movement from violence to art in the form of music which is currently thriving in Medellin

Weird modern park

Kristi and I have spent the last couple of days meandering around this modern city enjoying vast and numerous amenities such as historic and modern parks and plazas, art and history museums, innovative public transportation, and the topic of this blog: public art.

Palacio de Cultura with the Plaza de Botero in the foreground featuring around 20 Botero sculptures

The new patròn of Medellin is not the head of any cartel but one of the most distinguished artists of the late 20th century, Fernando Botero.  Botero is famous for his paintings and sculptures of “chubby” people and objects.

Chubby horse

Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI (and Kristi)

Medellin is home to an enormous collection of his pieces, the majority of them donated by Botero himself during the city´s recovery from the fall of the Medellin cartel and the death of Escobar.

The Death of Pablo Escobar

Even his still lifes are a little chunky

Works by Botero and murals by the equally notable Pedro Nel Gòmez can be found throughout Medellin along with works by numerous other Colombian artists.

Mural of Medellin from years past. This mural appears adjacent to the buildings it depicts. (don´t think this was a Gòmez but was still cool)

"Pedro" (Botero`s son)

Medellin is truly modern and a wonderful city to explore by metro and on foot taking in the views of the surrounding mountains and enjoying typical local foods at inexpensive but delicious comedores and food stands.  The paisas, as the locals are called, were welcoming and warm.  Medellin gets a definite recommendation for travelers visiting or passing through Colombia.

Perro

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Cartagena Sunset

On our last night in the city of Cartagena we took in the sunset from atop the old city walls…

Headed to the wall

Made it just in time

Looking back the the old city at sunset

Beautiful lady, beautiful sunset

One of the old churches at night

A beautiful evening to end our time in Cartagena.  Off to Medellin!

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