Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ecuador trip - Part 3 (More Quito & Cuenca)

From the islands, we headed back to Quito. We took a walking tour of the historical district (old town) of Quito, which consists of a bunch of very old churches of different Christian orders (Franciscans, Dominicans etc.), and big plazas joined together by cobblestone streets. The architecture was pretty impressive, but the crowds and the traffic a little annoying.

There were armed guards everywhere to ensure tourist safety. The old town can get quiet and dangerous after dark, so we limited our walking activities to the daytime. We also rode up the Teleferico, which is a cable car that takes you to the top of a 13,000 ft mountain next to Quito. You get a good view of the city from up there.

From Quito, we headed down to Cuenca, which is another colonial city on the Andes. It's the 3rd largest city in Ecuador, albeit a distant 3rd. We spent a quiet couple of days in Cuenca, walking around its historic churches and cathedrals and enjoying the nice food & weather.

There were a lot less tourists here, and the vibe overall was more friendly. We stayed in a hotel where the entire staff only spoke Spanish, which lead to some fun conversations. Cuenca has a bunch of artsy places like Panama hat factories and ceramic studios, but we visited on Saturday/Sunday and most of them were closed. Cuenca was our last stop in the Ecuadorian adventure.

One thing I noticed in Quito and in Cuenca was how little of the Inca & pre-Inca heritage is still remaining. Talking to people and going around town, you would be lead to believe that the Ecuadorian history began with the Spanish. In Peru (especially Cuzco) this was pretty different. People there took pride in their Inca-past. In Ecuador, it was as if the Incas never existed.

I'll end this with a shout out to Ecuador as a tourist destination. You don't require a visa to enter the country, and they use the US dollar for currency. It's pretty tourist-friendly, and hence safe. The weather is great throughout the year. Knowing Spanish is definitely a plus, but not knowing it leads to even more memorable interactions with the locals. We had a bunch of those :).

Ecuador trip - Part 2 (Galapagos islands)

Next up was the Galapagos cruise. The next day, we took the early, 2-hop flight to Baltra airport on one of the Galapagos islands and took a raft up to our cruise: The Galapagos Legend. The Galapagos has a bunch of islands, relatively far apart from each other, so taking a cruise is the best way to visit them. A cruise also ensures that you minimize your impact on the islands & help in preservation.

The Legend is one of the few big cruises (capacity of 100 visitors), running across the Galapagos. Most ships are much smaller (17-40 passengers). We decided to go with a big ship, because more people equals more fun. We thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Galapagos. The service was great and the schedule was optimal. Never did we feel that we were too rushed, or too bored. We had 2 excursions a day, 1 in the morning and 1 in the evening, where we visited one of the islands.

The islands themselves were quite different than what I had imagined. I had imagined a lush, green paradise, but most of the islands were dry, barren, rocky affairs. What makes Galapagos special is not the richness of life, but rather the uniqueness of it. A lot of the species at Galapagos evolved at Galapagos and hence you wont find them anywhere else on the earth. Some of the highlights in no particular order were:

The salt-sneezing marine iguana and the magnificently colored land iguana...

The blue-footed boobies, especially their straight vertical dive into the sea...

The frigate birds and their majestic flight...

And the overall lava-created landscape...

Yes and the tortoises were great too :). But you've probably heard a lot about them already.

A surprising fact that I did not know was that Galapagos has a permanent human settlement of almost 18000 with proper villages and farms primarily on the island of Santa Cruz. The settlement was originally created by the Ecuadorian government because they wanted to assert their control on the islands and didn't want any of the mighty European countries to claim it.

As we found out, Galapagos also suffers from the influx of invasive species introduced by humans. So the national park is hard at work eliminating rats, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats, non-native plants and everything else that is non-native. It seems like a huge and a very hard undertaking.

Overall, I felt that the Galapagos islands are a unique tourist destination for casual tourists. A bit on the expensive side, but worth it.

Ecuador trip - Part 1 (Quito and Otavalo)

I thought I should write about our Ecuador trip before I forget. So here it goes.

We visited Ecuador for 10 days from late August to early September. Our first stop was the capital, Quito. We reached Quito on Friday night and took a cab to our hotel: Hotel Boutique Portal de Cantuna. This isn't really a standard hotel. It's a 120 year old house of the owner converted into a hotel.

The owners were very friendly with us and gave us the kind of personalized service you would never get from a standard hotel. The con was that the rooms were a bit noisy, it being a wooden construction and all. But all in all a great experience.

I was surprised at first with the size of Quito. I expected the city to be like Cuzco (in Peru), but it was more like Mumbai than Cuzco. The city is narrow (2-3 miles at its widest), but very long (25 miles), which gives you the impression that the city never ends. A city this big, nestled on the slopes of the Andes, at 9500 ft above sea-level is quite a sight. The traffic and the driving patterns in Quito are somewhere in between US & Mumbai (low lane discipline, moderate honking etc.).

The next morning we headed to Otavalo which is around 2 hours north of Quito. We took a bus there. I guess the buses are run by the government, which meant the fare was really cheap, around $2.5 per person.

Otavalo is famous for it's Saturday market where local artisans sell their handicraft. It's very colorful and vibrant and Maitreyee had a lot of fun here.

We spent the night at Hacienda Cusin, which is a 17th century estate near Otavalo. The hacienda was peaceful and quiet, and pretty artsy as well.

The next morning, we visited the Condor Park which is located on a hill near overlooking Otavalo. The park has a lot of big birds: different hawks, owls & eagles and a huge condor. Twice a day they have a bird show where the trainers make the birds do their bidding. It was OK, not unlike anything you would find at other places.

We took the bus back to Quito that evening and tried to check out the "New town" of Quito. But it was Sunday and everything was closed. There were quite a few people in the parks, but everything else was pretty much dead.