Cotopaxi Calls

I’m a mountain girl. I guess that’s why I ended up in the Andes of Ecuador.

When I had the opportunity to visit Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second tallest active volcano at 19,347 feet, (the first is Chimborazo), I grabbed it. I’m a hiker, but not a mountain climber, so this first visit was to check out the lay of the land.

Cotopaxi is one of the most beautiful sites in Ecuador. Its nearly perfect cone is perennially snowcapped. Often, people flying into Quito can see it peeking above the clouds. On clear, sunny days, Quiteños can see it from many vantage points on the ground. Its name is believed to come from the indigenous Quechua language meaning “neck of the moon.”

Time out for a quick geology lesson.

Cotopaxi is among the most powerful of four volcano categories. It’s a stratovolcano, (or composite volcano) composed of layers of hardened lava, tephra, and volcanic ash. These volcanoes are characterized by a steep profile and periodic, explosive eruptions. The lava that flows from them is highly viscous, and cools and hardens before spreading very far. The three other types are cinder cones, shield volcanoes and lava domes.

Since 1738, Cotopaxi has erupted more than 50 times, resulting in the creation of numerous valleys formed by mudflows around the volcano. It’s the world’s fifth highest active volcano. The last eruption lasted from August 2015 to January 2016. The park was closed to climbing until the fall of that year.

Just 31 miles south of Quito, Cotopaxi is the centerpiece of its own national park.

Our family of five was taken there by Amanda Mena of EcuaTouring (our favored driver anytime we visit Quito). Our first stop was Limpiopungo (clean door) laguna, at the foot of the extinct Rumiñahui volcano. Ruminahui – Stone Face, named after the last indigenous warrior to resist the Spanish invasion – towers 15,489 feet within the park. There is an easy hiking path around the lake with spots to stop and observe the wildlife. We were lucky to see a number of birds, including the liplig, Andean ducks and coots.

Back in the car over washboard dirt roads, we left the lagoon just in time to see some wild ponies leisurely feeding on the vast, open grassland. Next stop: Hosteria Tambopaxi, the only hotel inside Cotopaxi National Park. The hotel has a great restaurant, rooms and camping areas. But we came for the horseback riding.

Tambopaxi offers guided rides of two to eight hours across the páramo – the alpine, treeless plateau at the foot of Cotopaxi. Though we were between rain showers and promised more precipitation, we were all in. Once saddled and on our way, we had time to enjoy the vast rocky landscape, pitted with lava and multi layered sedimentary rock.

The ride was well worth our time, on well-mannered and able horses matched to our abilities.

Once back at the stable, with the skies threatening to split once again, we headed for the restaurant. There we were treated to a variety of delicious dishes, including maracuya, or passion fruit, chicken, and herb-crusted trucha, or trout.

Finally, it was time to drive to the summit trailhead. With the parking area at 14, 760 feet, the air was noticeably thinner – and colder. The trail leads to the José Ribas refuge, just another 1,000 feet higher. Also known as “base camp,” the refuge is just an hour’s walk, but at that altitude can be challenging. Mountain climbers seeking to summit the peak often overnight at the refuge before tackling the ascent.

If you can catch Cotopaxi on a sunny day, the view from this point is staggering. Seemingly still rising miles above you, it is ethereal. Its peak seems painted white, so picturesquely snow-capped it looks like a luscious desert. There are always clouds, but if you wait long enough, they move quickly to give peeks and glimpses that astound.

Cotopaxi is well worth a visit, and easy to get to on public transportation or by taxi. Buses between Quito’s southern Quitumbe terminal and Latacunga can drop you off in Machachi ($1.50, 1 hour) which is the city closest to the park or directly at the intersection to the park entrance. Buses also stop at this intersection to come back to Quito or Latacunga.

Of course, since there is no public transportation within the park, you’ll need to hire a taxi. Instead, take my recommendation and hire the English-speaking guides from EcuaTouring.

Don’t miss it!

Amanda Mena of EcuaTouring may be reached at +593 995198944, info@ecuatouring.com and https://www.ecuatouring.com

Experiencing Real Ecuador

An ooey, gooey mess dripped from finger to finger. I had to act quickly, performing delicate hand acrobatics, to prevent the sugary confection from falling on the ground. But I was in heaven.

Or, more correctly, I was back in El Paso, Texas, just six years old. I was standing on a chair in the kitchen, with my mom and brother, laughing as we pulled taffy between us. Literally, a sweet memory!

Now, I was at Hacienda Santa Marta, deep in the breathtaking Cajas National Park nestled in the Andes of Ecuador. A guest of Martha and Tony Camp, I was on a sugar cane harvest tour, savoring every moment.

The road to the Hacienda is not for the feint-of-heart. Something like Disneyland’s “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” it includes two hours on mountainous, rocky dirt roads. But on arrival, you forget the journey to embrace – with all your senses – the goal.

Hacienda Santa Marta is perched high on a mountainside overlooking verdant green valleys pocked with fluffy white clouds. As far as the eye can see are flowers, fruit trees, and the greenest of trees, all covered by an intangible blanket of peace.

Fragrances range from blooming flowers to the citrusy bite of the shot of mapanagua the 153 proof white rum distilled from sugar cane, laced with lemon juice. The feel of the woody, peeled sugar cane in your hands contrasts the subdued sweetness we sucked into our mouths.

The Camps came to Ecuador 10 years ago in search of a dream. He wanted orchids in the cloud forest. She wanted a colonial house.

They found both in an abandoned 1800s plantation in San Gabriel de Chaucha. Historically known for its Trago, or white rum, the plantation is far off the beaten path. Ironically, it was christened with the same name as its owner – Marta – hundreds of years ago.

No one is sure how it got its name, but Martha comes from the Bible, the sister of Mary and Lazarus. According to the Hacienda’s website, the siblings were among those persecuted as followers of Jesus Christ in the first century AD. The trio was set adrift on the Mediterranean Sea without paddles and finally made landfall in Southern France.

“They debarked in a small village that was being tormented by a fire-breathing dragon that torched their crops and land. The people huddled inside their homes in fear of the dragon,” the website reports. “Martha, with the power of the Holy Spirit, slew the dragon and set free the citizens to return to prosperity and fullness of life. Martha is the only female dragon slayer in history. She is also the patron saint of homemaking and housekeeping.”

The Camps spent three long years restoring the Santa Marta Hacienda to its glory. And restored it is. The couple rebuilt and created additions with handmade adobe bricks, sun-dried on site. Forgoing modern farming implements, the field workers use machetes to harvest cane, the solitary fire-tender slowly stirs sugar mixtures in a giant copper kettle and yoked bulls stamp endlessly in a circle to grind the sugar cane. 

The Hacienda produces a variety of sugar cane products: guarapo (cane juice), chicha (fermented cane juice similar to beer), miel de cana (cane syrup, and panela (natural brown sugar).

Our tour left Cuenca at 7 a.m., winding through the Cajas along the back roads. Arriving at the Hacienda a couple of hours later, we were met by Martha’s beaming smile and a taste test of sugary-based drinks and liqueurs. Afterward, we tried our hands at the machete and learned how the cane is replanted from a simple whittled stalk.

One volunteer fed cane into a central cylinder while another encouraged the bulls, used as draft animals, to power the grinder.

We were amazed by the ancient-looking, ragtag still that delivers a stream of alcohol via a cane chute.

Then we were called back to the main house to enjoy a gourmet lunch created by Martha using the vegetables, fruits and meat of her own lands.

The unique excursions are $60 and include transportation from Cuenca. The Camps are planning additional excursions soon.

Chaucha is quickly gaining a reputation among specialty coffee buyers as having some of the best high altitude Arabica in the world. The Camps’ next tours focus on their coffee crops. Visitors will have taste tests, experience picking coffee, learn about processing techniques, enjoy a gourmet lunch and relax in the orchid garden. Tours return to Cuenca at 7 p.m.

Soon, the Camps hope to offer a hike through their cloud forest in search of orchids. Tony has identified more than 100 species already. He will lead hikers along an ancient Canari road, past stunning waterfalls, and close to a local sacred site. After a picnic on the shore of the Rio Malacatos, the hike returns through the cloud forest on a mission to spot local birds.

Another planned tour will focus on artisanal cheese making. Visitors will enjoy a refreshing batido or leche de tigre and an opportunity to milk a cow. They may participate in the cheese making process and sample a variety of cheeses, before enjoying the traditional gourmet lunch.

For those wanting to extend their adventure, the Camps offer overnight accommodations. They have two guest rooms for rent, ranging from $20 to $40 nightly, with discounts for extended stays. Meals are extra.

The Camps currently have limited space available for a Sept. 20 coffee tour. Contact them at haciendasantamarta@gmail.com. For more information, see the website at haciendasantamarta.com

Sharing the Ocean

There is nothing quite like swimming in tandem with a gentle sea creature almost four times your size.

Snorkling is usually a solitary, calming ocean sport. You gently paddle where you want to go, letting the currents carry you over what you want to see. When an unexpected 20-foot whale shark crossed my line of vision while snorkeling recently, I literally gasped underwater.

I raised my head to check my bearings and clear my snorkel. Then I started swimming. I swam faster than I had in all my life.

Delighted to be wearing a top-quality pair of strong fins, I was able to keep up with the seemingly mythical creature next to me. Nearly matching him stroke for stroke, I wanted to reach out and touch his glistening, bumpy skin. I didn’t, because near the Isla de Mujeres off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, whale sharks are fiercely protected.

Whale sharks are filter feeding carpet sharks, the largest species of any fish. Unlike whales, sharks are not mammals. The whale shark carries its name due to its massive size, which can be as long as 40 feet.

They pose no predatory threat as their diets are composed of plankton and small fish. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t beware of these creatures. His powerful tail, the one our boat captain warned us to beware of, slapped my son on the shoulder and he felt it!

The whale shark’s skin general is dark gray, with a white belly. It is polka-dotted, with pale gray or white spots and stripes that serve as unique identifiers. The fish has five sets of working gills.

Frankly, it was the whale shark’s head that intrigued me most.

Unlike most of its cousins, the whale shark has a round, flat head. The mouth is at the front of the face, instead of underneath.

Would I have been so calm watching that yawning mouth come toward me if we had not just been educated about their diet? Inside the nearly five-foot-wide mouth are as many as 350 rows of tiny teeth, constantly filtering tiny particles of food.

In Cancun, you can snorkel with the whale sharks for a fee. My children and two of their friends joined me in a recent, exhilarating excursion.

The whales come to the same spot about an hour off the coast every single year. How they know they are home in the middle of the ocean, I’ll never know. They come for the abundant krill in the warm waters, then move on to the next destination to mate or give birth.

As a scuba diver for more than 30 years, I long for underwater encounters like these. After 100s of dives, my stories revolve around a handful of favorites: the time I gingerly held a pregnant male seahorse; the cave that became a nightmare as 10 divers crowded in and panicked, stirring up silt; the lurking sharks circling us in the Blue Hole; the whirling dervish of barracuda spinning like a cyclone in Malaysia.

Now, I add the whale sharks of Mexico to the list. Technically, they don’t belong on my diving experience tally, but what the heck. I didn’t even have to strap on my  weighty gear or sink far below the surface to be thrilled.

And what a thrill it was.

My El Paso

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Downtown El Paso looking toward the mountains in Juarez, Mexico

You tell yourself it can happen anywhere. But when it does happen, you can’t contain your shock.

My hometown just became the site of one of the 10 worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

El Paso, Texas was a sleepy, international community for most of my life. As a child, we freely walked or drove across the bridges from El Paso into Juarez, Mexico for shopping, visiting friends and eating great food. That changed, in later years, as the increase in drug traffic made crossing dangerous. Drug wars prevented many of us from enjoying the multi-cultural village that had become a cross-border international community. And now, of course, it is all about controlling immigration.

On Saturday, Aug. 3, a hate-filled young man from North Texas walked into El Paso’s mid-city Walmart and shot to kill. According to a published manifesto the FBI has attributed to the shooter, he was fueled by a hatred for Hispanics. We may never know if he researched the most likely spots to find a high percentage of Hispanics, but that mall is an El Paso favorite among Mexican shoppers. He succeeded in gunning down 22 individuals. Another two dozen were hospitalized or treated for injuries, while authorities have confessed some victims illegally in the U.S. may have left the scene, fearful of being deported.

Not my town. Not El Paso, Texas, ranked the safest city in the country the past three years. I can’t begin to tell you the gamut of emotions I have felt. And the pride I have felt as the residents of my former town rally together.

We don’t know all the victims’ names yet. By the grace of God, my family members are not among them. My best friend’s daughter was barricaded inside the restaurant she worked in – safe – until the all clear was given. My daughter’s best friend’s husband was a first responder. Former journalism colleagues sweated out the hot sun until the story was told, and one was forced to seek medical treatment for the heat.

A number of friends shop in that Walmart, some of whom noted they had been in just a day earlier or neglected to go on Saturday as planned.

Other friends stood in hours’ long lines to give blood, lines that stretched around the building until organizers had to appeal to potential givers to stay home. Local funeral homes – Martin, San Jose and Perches – are absorbing all costs associated with burying victims in support of their families.

67582172_10217527713298935_7581264975688105984_nThose are the things I do know. What I don’t know is how to deal with the aftermath. El Paso has joined a new fraternity, ranked on a national list we never aspired to.

I don’t have the answers, but there has to be a conversation about the sanctity of life. This conversation – between lawmakers who CAN do something – must lead to action. I don’t agree with those advocating for action as a replacement for prayers. I do believe continued prayer is crucial WHILE legislators take action.

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photo by Kate Gannon

I do not understand racism. I cannot fathom xenophobia – the fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners. Our country has strayed far from the innocence of my youth, when I played happily in the modest home of a cotton picker’s daughter and later developed a relationship with a black journalist who could not be closer to me than by own sisters. I fear for my grandchildren, who are inheriting a world of fear and hate.

So I continue to pray, because it is all I can do at the moment. Meanwhile, we try to find ways to channel our anger and helplessness into a positive outcome. There are many already stepping out to lead the charge.

My friend and former pastor Ellen Fenter posted this in the aftermath of the shooting:

Step into the light.
Embrace reality.
Live lives of courage and commitment and clarity.
Stand against the darkness and call it what it is.
Free your hearts from a political and economic agenda that imitates safety but welcomes demagoguery and hate.
Fuel yourself on love and understanding and goodness by entering the fray and serving in the trenches of otherness.

Manuel Oliver, father of Joaquin, one of the 17 high school students massacred last year in Parkland, had his own words of advice. He just happened to be in El Paso on the day of the mass shooting.

“In the next 10 days you will find teddy bears, crosses and balloons, then people forget. Don’t let this happen,” Oliver said. “This will never be the same city again, I can tell you that.”

Richard Wiles, sheriff of El Paso County, agreed.

“This Anglo man came here to kill Hispanics. I’m outraged and you should be too. This entire nation should be outraged,” Wiles said.

“In this day and age, with all the serious issues we face, we are still confronted with people who will kill another for the sole reason of the color of their skin.

57e94faf3e904.image“It’s time to rise up and hold our representatives accountable at all levels. I want representatives who will stand up against racism. Who will stand up and support the diversity of our nation and our state. Who will stand up for a strong criminal justice system that holds criminals responsible and keeps violent individuals locked up and off our streets. Who support robust community mental health services. Who support keeping guns out of the hands of people who are just waiting for an opportunity to kill others,’ Wiles said.

My extended family is split on this issue. Many protect the second amendment as a sacred right, refusing to consider any change that might weaken it, in their eyes. Others, including me, believe changes are imperative.

It took a year and a half to enact a federal ban on bump stocks after the mass killings in Las Vegas. With pressure on legislators, we could begin with a ban on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons. Background checks should be required for all gun purchases. If the voting public would push back against the powerful gun lobby, we could develop stricter government tracking of weapons used in crimes and improvements to the collection and sharing of data between law enforcement agencies.

According to the FBI, the racist El Paso shooter left a manifesto claiming his massacre was a “response to the Hispanic invasion.” It accuses the Democratic Party of “pandering to the Hispanic voting bloc,” and expresses his contempt for “race mixing” and supports “sending them back.”

That last comment reminded me of a conversation I had with a privileged family member after I moved my two small children to El Paso in the mid-90s. She asked me about my adolescent daughter’s choice to go to a public, rather than private, school. “Aren’t you afraid she will date a Mexican?” the family member asked. I was floored at her blatant xenophobia, but all I could say is that there was a good chance she would, and that I would look forward to meeting him.

Education has to begin now, at home, with our children. We can’t afford to raise another generation that includes fear-mongering, racist citizens. And while I am fully in favor of increasing funding and access to mental health nationwide, we need to separate the issues. As a recent Internet meme said, “Racism is NOT a mental disorder; it is a conscious decision to hate.”

We have an opportunity to put aside hate. We have a responsibility to do it now. Start by speaking up and voting. And yes, don’t forget to pray.

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Birth of a Living Museum

Walking into the Museo Viviente Otavalango in Otavalo, I heard voices.

We had not been greeted and there was no one there. But the voices of workers who once toiled in what was the San Pedro textile factory were loud and clear. The past emanated from the corners of the silent rooms. Footsteps of artisans hurrying to work made the old wooden floors creak once again, echoing my own.

My friend and I found the Museo by accident. Quite literally. We had been looking for it, but the “ten minute walk” promised by the tourist office in town had turned into 30 and it was nowhere in sight. On Google maps, the museo is on “Unnamed Street.” Big help. We found a friendly local woman who offered to lead us. Then we bumped into a man and young boy who pointed us in the opposite direction.

Finally, we found it. Another couple was just getting into a taxi when we arrived, leaving us the only visitors on the property.

What a property. The 200-year-old shell of the former textile factory still stands. Only one of the three large buildings is still empty. Woven between them are tiny homes of some of those who have vowed to preserve the ancient culture of the Quechua.DSC_0102DSC_0094

DSC_0116We were soon met by José René Zambrano Cachimuel, the president of The Otavalango Living Museum. As a young man, René worked in the same the buildings now housing the museum. It is because of René, and his determined wife Luzmila, that the dilapidated factory has been preserved, and the museum created.

Years after working there, curiosity took him back to the factory where he found it in ruins. There was very little left, and most of the furniture and antique looms had been stolen. René began the several years’ process of rallying support for an indigenous center. He ever coerced his wife into writing the president of Ecuador to ask for his support. That letter led to the president soliciting a bank to loan funds to the project.

In 2011, a company of twenty Quechuas, also known as Kichwas for their language, from Otavalo became the first indigenous owners of La Fabrica San Pedro. Together they fed the dream promoted by René and Luzmila, joining to find and preserve artifacts and ancient stories.

The Otavalango Living Museum is an interactive classroom, showcasing traditional games, dances, and ancestral tales. Groups schedule meetings in the renovated classroom and teachers offer regular classes in the Kichwa language.

DSC_0111My friend, Carol, and I were a captive audience. We marveled at the talents of seamstresses who create elaborate costumes. René explained the traditional Otavalan clothing that began with two versions before the Spaniards arrived and two more after they occupied the land.

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We learned about ceremonial weddings during which the couple remains on their knees. They are blessed by herbs and antique artifacts, and the event ends with the woman braiding the man’s long, black hair.

There are masks and traditional costumes used for celebrations blessing the sun, moon and earth. René playfully dons one mask and takes a few steps, leaving us all laughing.

We hover over the display of Kichwa burials. We are enthralled with the tiny casket surrounded by toys. It’s part of the Incan culture passed down that encourages those left behind to populate the burial ground of loved ones with the things they will need in the next life.

DSC_0132René does his best to make the displays come alive. There is another man in the weaving room, who begins spinning yarn as we enter. It isn’t enough for our tour guide who drops to the ground to operate a back strap weaving loom.

Our private tour ends and our senses are full. We are so thankful we chose the museum as our last stop in Otavalo.  René’s passion is infectious; he found converts in both of us.

Museo Viviente Otavalango is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s important to call ahead at (593)062.903.879, especially if you come with a group, to ensure an English-speaking guide. Advance notice also gives René an opportunity to gather members of the community to set up live demonstrations.

Admission is just $5. The official address is Vía Antigua a Quiroga #1230. But just ask for the Antigua Fábrica San Pedro. The Museo Viviente Otavalo hasn’t quite stuck – yet.

ContactMuseo Viviente Otavalango at museovivienteotavalango@hotmail.com or http://www.otavalango.org

Falling for Peguche

DSC_0041I chose the path that got us lost.

And once we found the grand entrance, it was a challenging admission to make.

Nonetheless, we had lots of laughs and a grand adventure finding the Las Cascadas de Peguche, tucked into the foothills of the Imbaburu volcano in Otavalo, Ecuador.

My buddy Carol is a good sport. She followed me dutifully. We skated down slippery, muddy slopes. We tiptoed across barely-there wooden bridges. When we lost all signage, we confidently walked the animal paths along the edges of the mountain.

The unmistakable roar of cascading water led us there. Frothy foam and churning liquid is spell-binding. Falling from 50 feet through the jungle foliage into the Peguche River, the scene was all the more mesmerizing.

It was well worth the walk – and the detour!

DSC_0036Peguche is one of many waterfalls throughout Ecuador. But it holds three distinctions: It’s found inside one of the most beautiful forests of northern Ecuador, it’s easily accessed from the main road through Otavalo, and it’s an indigenous ceremonial site.

Inside a 40-acre protected forest known as Bosque Protector Cascada de Peguche, the falls can be reached in 20 minutes. That assumes you go through the front gate. There is no charge, but donations are accepted inside the interpretive center. The waterfalls  originate at the foothills of the volcano, at the northern tip of San Pablo Lake, about two and a half miles south of Otavalo.

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Peguche is considered a sacred place in the indigenous culture because of the native people’s relationship to nature. Villagers from throughout the region visit the falls to perform purification rituals in the days before Inti Raymi. Inti Raymi is an Incan-based celebration of the sun and harvest, traditionally set for June 24.

Like many ancient sites, the falls are also the stuff of legends.

We rested outside a cave leading behind the falls, but neither of us had any interest in, or equipment for, crawling through the mud into the inky blackness. Later I heard one of many folktales: There is a cauldron of gold guarded by two black dogs deep inside the cave. The devil sits next to the cauldron, according to the legend, holding a plate of sand. The falling water washes away the sand in the plate, little by little, until the plate is empty. At that point, the devil snatches the soul of whoever has entered the waterfall at the same moment.

No problem there. We weren’t in the purification mood. And while the mist felt rejuvenating, the icy cold water was not appealing.

Hikers in the area need to look pat the ever-present, shameful graffiti, to appreciate the forest foliage and an abundance of birds. While we didn’t see most of them, I’m told the lush vegetation houses doves, owls, Quindes, hummingbirds, reptiles, frogs and various other species.

We passed through a Quichua community on the way to the falls (or on the way out for those who follow signage). We were a bit early for business, but the villagers living there are dedicated craftsmen. Still weaving in the traditional ways, they produce blankets, ponchos, bags and other textiles. They offer photos with a fully outfitted llama for a price and refreshments in a small café.

There is public transportation available in Otavalo to get to the waterfalls at Parque Central Simon Bolivar. Buses leave every 20 minutes from there. Taxis are readily available and charge about $3 one way.

If you are planning your trip from Quito, there are buses from the main station every 5 to 10 minutes. The Terminal de Buses de Carcelen is on the north side of Quito. The two-hour ride costs about $3.

Just a reminder. Look for the main entrance. You can still have the adventure but maybe a little less stress.peguche-entrance

Conserving the Condor

Getty ImagesIn 1963 I was scarred for life.

That was the year Alfred Hitchcock delivered one of his most iconic, frightening, horror films; The Birds. The BirdsFrom that day forward, I had no interest in being anywhere near a bird.

Then a college friend decided it would be funny to let her parakeet fly around her house every time I visited. And every time I visited, it dive-bombed me. How did it know?

As a seasoned adult, I find myself a bit more understanding, even appreciative of these majestic creatures. Especially when I moved to a country that is home to some of the most spectacularly plumed birds I have ever seen.

Now, I am championing the Andean Condor.

In Ecuador, where the condor is a national symbol and part of the country’s coat-of-arms, the dramatic birds are critically endangered.

I have yet to see one in the wild. I was fortunate to see albatrosses in Antarctica earlier this year, which have the largest wingspan of any bird at 11 and a half feet. But the magnificent condors are considered the largest birds in the world by combined measurement of weight and wingspan.

The condor, a species of vulture, has a black body and, especially in the male, large white patches on the wings. The bird wears a ruff of white feathers around the base of the neck. The head and neck, otherwise featherless, are a dull red, which sometimes changes color in response to the bird’s emotional state. In the male, there is a wattle on the neck and a large, dark red comb on the crown of the head. Unlike most birds of prey, the male is larger than the female.

The condor is primarily a scavenger, feeding on carrion. It prefers large carcasses, such as those of deer or cattle. Only one or two eggs are laid every two years. It is one of the world’s longest-living birds, with a lifespan of 50-70 years.

On a recent La Yunta tour, we were joined by a local conservationist, Adrian Aguirre. He took us to an area above Susudel to see what will become Ecuador’s 12th, and newest, national park. Its primary goal is to protect the condors’ habitat.

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About 20 percent of Ecuador’s land is dedicated to national parks and reserves

Called Acus National Park, Aguirre said the research on the condors and survey of land were done. “It is now in the hands of the authorities,” he said.

The park will comprise nearly 80,000 acres, becoming the last protected area in Southern Ecuador. Its sheer canyons of basalt are perfect for condors, which generally nest on inaccessible rock ledges as high as 16,000 feet. The birds require access to massive areas of land as they routinely fly almost 200 miles a day in search of food.

In 2017, just 100 to 112 condors were identified in the entire country. A majority live on the slopes of the Antisano Volcano near Quito, where the government committed 7000 acres to their conservation.

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DSC_0124In the canyon above Susudel, Aguirre tells us, the first condor known to have been born in the area was named Arturo. Shot when he was just a few years old, he is memorialized by a beautiful sculpture in the center of town. The artist, architect Fausto Cardoso Martinez, is the same man who led the design team to create the dragon in Cuenca’s Parque de Dragon.

For Aguirre, the Acus Park is a dream come true. “I spent a lot of time up here as a boy. My grandparents were from Oña,” he said, and the canyons were his “playground.”

He was educated in tourism and international management, and then worked on the new park project for the government for three years. Representatives of the environmental ministry, the municipalities of Oña and Nabon, workers from Cajas National Park and even international collaboration with a German conservancy group.

The park, when completed, will have an observation point, a visitor center, and interpretative center and possibly, cabins.

“The main thing is the preservation of the habitat,” he said. “Then will come opportunities for local people to work in the park and create tourism.”

And when will that be?

“It’s in the hands of the authorities,” he reminds me, throwing both hands into the air. “We can only hope.”

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The Low Down on a Slow Down

DSC_0599Cool, crisp air crushed me as I hurried to a nearby pool.

There, steam rose in a puffy cloud from the gurgling, blue water. Its wispy tendrils framed the great, snow-capped, Antisana Volcano towering above me.

Ah. There’s something about taking a dip in a hot thermal pool on a quiet, chill morning. Surrounded by abundant vegetation and serenading birds, it can take your breath away.

DSC_0561Luxuriating in a shallow bath in the tiny town of Papallacta, south of Quito, seemed almost decadent. With few fellow bathers, it was serene, peaceful and soothing.

I was at Termas de Papallacta, a lodge artfully constructed of stone, wood and concrete. Nestled into a valley high in the Andes Mountains, its grounds are immaculate. The landscape is well-populated with dozens of plants and flowers I have come to associate with this verdant, lush country of Ecuador.

How could I not know about his place? My preferred tourism expert in Quito, Amanda Mena of Ecua Touring, casually mentioned it as a possibility for a recent girl’s trip.

Never heard of it, I said.

As they say, once you have heard something, you can’t unhear it.

Termas de Papallacta is permanently on my Quito layover list. It was born of a dream in 1994, when a group of six Ecuadorians combined their love of nature and healing waters to launch the project. Two years later, the first five hotel rooms were built. In 2014 it received its first World Travel Award as Ecuador’s Leading Spa Resort.

Just an hour from the city’s airport, it is doable in a day. Day passes to the spa range from $15 to $23. There is a lovely spa that rivals any in a major U.S. city, offering services such as a heavenly hot stone massage for $59, a sleep-inducing facial for $45, and a variety of wraps for $45 to $60.

The hot springs that feed Termas de Papallacta bubble up through layers of volcanic rock and ash at temperatures ranging from 86 degrees Fahrenheit to 158 degrees Fahrenheit. The pools are kept at 97 to 100.4 degrees. Far from my understanding are the elements that make thermal bathing “healthy.” The springs are said to be rich in sulfates, sodium, calcium, chloride and traces of magnesium.

I was a bit disconcerted that the first three items on my welcome information involved the availability of doctors. But I guess with the resort at 10,660 feet, the extreme temperature of the pools and the availability of alcoholic beverages made this a prudent offering.

Meals are available at the public pools (there are five hot pools plus a polar pool), at the spa, and inside the hotel restaurant. We didn’t get a chance to dine at the pool or spa, but the hotel has a diverse menu of Ecuadorian and international cuisine. Most dishes are made with fresh ingredients and vegetables grown in the hotel’s own gardens.

After dinner, take time to relax in the hotel’s comfortable, rustic bar. We found it to be a great conversation center and enjoyed the fireplace as the evening cooled off.

DSC_0597Rooms at the 10-year-old lodge range from $158 to $200. You can include breakfast on your reservation. And breakfast is a lovely display with eggs cooked to order, a variety of cereals, fruits and breads, plus juices and coffee. There are family bungalows for $246 a night and a separate area of cabins for the same price as hotel rooms.

The 32 hotel rooms are cabin-like, made of preserved wood, with a homey feel. And, surprise! The bathroom floors are heated by the same thermal waters used for the pools. What a treat to walk onto warmed tile floors with cold, bare feet. The hotel rooms are grouped around shallow hot pools that are open 24 hours a day, to overnight guests only.

If relaxing in thermal pools, warm sun and during therapeutic treatments isn’t enough, the hotel has a well-though-out interpretive museum and five hiking trails. Termas de Papallacta owns a protected area of just under 500 acres, called Canyon Ranch, located at the entrance of Cayambe Coca Natural Reserve.

The easiest trail, a self-guided walk along the river, is free to hotel guests and $2 for day-trippers. It is one of the most beautiful one-hour walks I have ever taken in Ecuador. The circuit ambles along the Loreto-Papallacta River through a primary forest and grasslands. Throughout the route are multiple varieties of orchids and other flowering plants, as well as the beloved paper trees. The route offers multiple river crossings on sturdy, well-constructed bridges as well as viewpoints to enjoy waterfalls.

The two most challenging hikes scale the mountaintop and require a local guide. Hikers are charged $2 to $15 depending on which path they choose.

Termas de Papallacta. Easy to get to, blissful hot baths, heavenly spa, substantial food and drink, and a wide variety of breath-taking hikes. What are you waiting for?

 

https://www.termaspapallacta.com

https://www.ecuatouring.com

Antarctica – World of its Own

DSC_0722The silence was deafening.

Our first morning in the frigid waters of the Atlantic, I peered out at rugged, forbidding mountain peaks capped with snow. My wide eyes were met by visions of ages-old glaciers looming large; deep crevices winking steely blue eyes and ice crackling all around. Antarctica. Truly, the frozen continent.

Breathing deeply, I inhaled the fresh, crisp air that knows no detectable pollution. I listened to the silence. The quiet was overwhelming. Broken only by an occasional chirp of the “super birds” that live on this lonely planet, the silence embraced me, alone in this majesty. I was the only soul standing on the frozen deck of our expedition ship.

It was never on my bucket list. Or any list.

Antarctica was some far off notion, a passionate dream my mom had and never realized. But, my adventurous daughter found a group of like-minded women on Facebook called Girls Love Travel and Antarctica became a reality. For both of us.

Antarctica-Map-With-Countries-Simply-Simple-With-Antarctica-Map-With-Countries-830x1024For 12 days we lived aboard Oceanwide Expedition’s M/V Ortellius in glacial polar waters. The ship – small at 123 passengers – was warm. Outside, temperatures averaged between 32 and 37 F, but the winds of 11 to 31 mph made it feel colder.

Even now, I am filled with wonder and awe that this land exists on the same planet that I live on. Having left noise, pollution, people, cars, and busyness, I was blanketed in a net of quiet beauty beyond my imagination.

I didn’t expect to see rocks. Yet there, they were, craggy mountaintops lining the shore. I did expect to see penguins. And they overwhelmed us, by the thousands, in their curious community groups. I did not expect to fall in love with this no-man’s land that the majority of the world’s population will never see. Yet I did.

DSC_0731Getting there isn’t easy, whether you come from the United States or Ecuador. A full day’s travel with an overnight brings you to the southernmost tip of South America: Ushuaia, Argentina.  We had two days there, but others tacked on time at the end of the cruise, which I highly recommend.

Ushuaia is a small town of 68,000 people. It has many attractions of its own, primarily involving trekking in national parks, a main street for shopping, good restaurants and comfortable hotels. Passing through security will make you smile: a quick glance at a paper that indicates you are a passenger on Ortellius, and a short unescorted walk down the pier with a detour through an empty security station featuring silent screeners.

Once on board, you are quickly shown to your cabin.

381X250_tw_windowThe 53 cabins range from a superior double with two windows to four bunks with a porthole. The beds are comfortable and the bathrooms have ample storage.

The ship is a tough icebreaker that offers little in the way of entertainment except for a common lounge/bar area and extra seating on the top deck for the few days warm enough to enjoy it. But this isn’t one of those cruises you take to be entertained aboard the ship. Weather dependent, we were looking forward to mountaineering, kayaking, snow-shoeing, hiking and camping on the continent.

DSC_0285 (2)The route to Antarctica is as arduous by sea as it is by air. You float through the beautiful Beagle Channel where you can spot the elusive Magellanic penguins. You can sometimes see Fin and Humpback whales, and there are always flocks of Giant and Cape petrels soaring across the sky from one side of the ship to the other.

Then it’s time to batten down the hatches. Drake’s Passage famously becomes Drake’s Shake – the world’s worst amusement ride – or, if you are lucky, Drake’s Lake. Our crossing was somewhere in the middle. Armed with seasick bands, Dramamine, lavender oil and, finally, giving into scopolamine patches, we made it.

Drake’s Passage is named for the famous British explorer and sea captain, Francis Drake. After he lost a ship sailing the west coast of South America, he proved the existence of a convergence of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, as well as the Southern Seas. What makes the Drake Passage so infamously rough is the fact that currents at this latitude meet no resistance from any landmass.

We spent the next two days preparing for landfall. When we could leave our beds and staterooms without being tossed from wall to wall, we attended lectures on birds, mammals and photography. And because introduced organisms are a significant problem in Antarctica, we attended a “Vacuum Party” literally vacuuming our clothes, boots and parkas.

Finally through the Passage, we awoke on the third day to chunks of ice floating lazily past the ship. We even saw a huge mesa-like iceberg that seemed miles long and clearly had floated miles from its host. Antarctica’s surface, of which we would see only a tiny fraction, is about the size of the United States and Mexico put together.

Interestingly, it is governed by a treaty signed by more than 30 nations. The Antarctic Treaty was signed in December of 1959, but wasn’t in force until June 1961. The treaty established Antarctica as a zone of peace and science. There is no official language, capital or currency.

Our first Zodiac cruise took us into Orne Harbor, home of the only known colonies of Chinstrap penguins. We spotted blue-eyed cormorants, snow petrels, snowy sheathbills, and Antarctic shags and terns. We were thrilled by Weddell seals, skuas and humpback whales. We viewed endangered species like the grey-headed albatross and the fin whale.

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46485856_10157948386743626_5609345894097879040_oThe next zodiacs took us to Cuverville Island to seen Gentoo penguins. And boy! Did we see Gentoo penguins!

DSC_0528Thousands of penguins lined the shore and stretched as far back into the snowy mountains as we could see. We scattered, carefully crossing over the penguin highways and finding spots to sit. Time stood still as we watched the penguins play, fight, mate, swim and slide through the snow. They seemed just as interested in the bundled humans as we were in them, as they marched down the smooth ice highways, unafraid of the strangers so captivated by their antics.

The next five days were filled with exhilarating – and sometimes frustrating – challenges, as well as unforgettable experiences. We survived engine trouble and massive ice floes, storms and heavy fogs. Some days, all activities were cancelled, and we spent time marveling at the quiet beauty around us; the only ship within miles.

We visited research stations – the Argentinian Brown and Britain’s Port Lockroy. There are more than 40 permanent research stations on Antarctica, belonging to 30 nations. Antarctica has no indigenous inhabitants or permanent residents. On average, the larger research stations house 1,000 to 4,000 people, depending on the seasons.

DSC_0810I tried sports I had never experienced in my six decades and found I loved mountaineering and snow shoeing. I passed on the polar plunge and delighted in kayaking with my daughter.

Our final night on land was a camping adventure. Having hurt my wrist, I was little help to my industrious offspring as she prepared our site for both of us. The staff picked Leith Point, a flat cape jutting out from a steep mountain into crystal blue water. We dragged our equipment onshore from the zodiacs and pulled them through knee deep snow to our designated spots. There, we dug grave-like trenches in the snow, packing the excess around the edges to protect us from the wind.

We were given three sleeping bags each to stuff inside one other, the outside a waterproof covering to protect the bags from moisture and to cover our exposed faces. There was little sleep, especially since dusky daylight lasted throughout the overnight hours.

I loved the quiet, the expanse of stars with zero competition from earthly light pollution, and even the curious penguins that wandered through the campsite. But most of us were already up, packed, and ready to get back to the ship before the promised 6 a.m. wakeup call. It was an experience for the memory banks, but not one I need to do again!

With the ship heading back to Argentina, we were able to visit Deception Island. This famous underground volcano resembles a large donut with a bite taken out of one side. The 1800-foot opening is where small ships enter the flooded caldera. Still active, its last eruption was between 1967 and 1970.

The island once was home to a British Antarctic Survey base. No longer operational, the buildings remain, as well as those belonging to the Hector Whaling Factory that operated between 1906 and 1931. We trudged in deep snow around the abandoned buildings, eerily emanating a sense of historical tragedy and triumph.

Before clambering aboard the last zodiac ride of the trip, we even found time to have snowball fights and pose for human penguin pictures.

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To take our minds off the approaching Drake’s Passage, the ship planned presentations and exchanges of photos.

By far the most interesting was a discussion on ice.

Antarctica comprises over 84 percent of the world’s ice. Greenland has just 12 percent, with the remaining percentage located in other polar regions. What we see at the surface is about one-seventh to one-tenth of what lies below the water. We learned ice has names, like the bergy bits that glide through the water and growlers, larger chunks of floating ice.

And why is ice important? Because 75 percent of our fresh water storage is in ice. It is the climate engine of the earth. From 1979 through 1992, researchers saw a significant loss of ice in the arctic regions and a surprising small increase in the Antarctic, which was seasonal. Still, researchers find that, overall, peninsular ice is shrinking and the continental ice shelf is melting away.

Surprisingly, Antarctica is considered the driest of all continents and the largest desert on earth. I still could not wrap my head around that, being surrounded by glacial waters, mounds of snow and craggy mountain of ice. But my chapped lips and dry sinuses certainly attested to the fact!

With an uneventful docking and long flight home, I had time to process the experience. Back at home, I was asked many times to describe it. I found I couldn’t. Not really. I used words like surreal. Spectacular. Majestic. Phenomenal. Peaceful. Serene.

I could go on and on. Suffice to say, if you can go, don’t miss the opportunity. It is unlike any experience you will ever have.

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The Art of Life

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Who knew weaving was pure poetry of the soul?

Monica Malo Piedra did. And soon, the rest of us at IdiomArt’s weekly Art Salon understood as well.

The renowned Ecuadorian artist and CIDAP award winner recently took a group of weaving newbies on a spellbinding anthropological and history journey. It’s safe to say; those in attendance will never look at a square of fabric or brilliant tapestry the same again.

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The native Cuencana has been creating fabric masterpieces for more than 30 years. She learned first, from her mother, who taught herself to shear sheep and researched designs from magazines to incorporate into weavings.

But Monica wanted to create her own designs. She began to teach herself, experimenting with materials and observing others. Eventually she moved into the jungle where she spent five years embracing the history and talent of the Schuar people.

“It was like my soul connected with their weaving,” she said, through translator and host Berenice Cárdenas, a local art historian and curator.

In the jungle, Monica had a woodworker create her first loom of four simple sticks. She learned new ways to weave and began experimenting with colors. A Uruguayan

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Monica Malo Piedra

professor later taught her loom weaving techniques and she began to “play,” she said.

Monica read constantly. She absorbed all she could about techniques, fabrics and dyes, and found herself drawn to history and anthropology. She deeply believed that to understand and create textiles, she had to understand the indigenous people’s history, and their way of living and thinking first.

For the next 15 years, she lived a simple life in Susadel. She began to work with the women of the community, many of whom had given up the skill of weaving to men. While the women gathered and prepared the materials from animals and plants, it was primarily the men who were using the threads to create woven textiles.

“I needed to recover the ancient memories,” she said, by reminding the women of their pre-Colombian roots.

Still, the collective self-esteem of the women of the village was so low; it took time to convince them to experiment with the threads they created. Soon, the older women were recounting history, remembering their grandparents, recalling childhood incidents and sharing their histories with each other. Young women joined the group and even men participated.

“It was very interesting to see what the women did in their weaving. Houses, flowers, domestic things, encrypted in ancient symbols, began to emerge through their memories,” she said. “The men created condors, large animals, donkeys, all images they worked with in daily life.”

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The project blossomed as Monica and a friend raised money for looms and hosted workshops to share techniques.

“It was an empowering process for the women,” she recalled.

Monica continued her mission when she left Susadel and moved to Riobamba. There she created weaving groups of all ages of women who were “recovering their essence” through their work.

For the next hour, Monica taught us about plants and insects that produce vibrant dyes. She educated us about how lunar phases and water affect plants to such a degree that the same hue is rarely replicated. We learned the differences between threads woven of the hair of llama, alpaca, vicuña, and even bats. We found that, with keen observation, we could identify the heritage of any indigenous group simply by the woven clothing they wore.

Ultimately, she said, textiles are not just a piece of cloth.

“When you see a tactile piece, look beyond the image, colors and fabric,” she said. “Think about the raising of the animals or plants that produced the thread.”

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Consider the relationship of the work to what surrounded the artist, she said. For instance, an evening star to a Navajo weaving friend was the North Star, but that same celestial sight is Venus to Ecuadorian artists who do not have the same night sky.

As a young girl, a wise man told her: “Those who know how to weave know the art of life.” She never fully understood that sentiment, Monica said, until she spent years among indigenous populations absorbing their craft.

“The yarn – the warp – is like a house without structure. The weaving creates the strength of the structure. And, like life, you can change it, take it apart, and rebuild it,” she said.

Part historian, part anthropologist, and all artist, Monica ended her presentation with a poetic philosophy. Clearly, for Monica, weaving is a metaphor for life.

“Words are threads wove between human beings,” she said. “Society is an immense fabric made from the need for communication, equal reception and solidarity among individuals.”

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Monica’s new gallery is expected to open mid-month in the San Sebastian neighborhood. IdiomArt’s weekly Art Salon features a wide range of art-related talks and presentations each Friday at 10:30 a.m. IdiomArt is in El Centro, at Presidente Cordova 1-77 between Manuel Vega and Miguel Angel Estrella. Art Salons are $10 and reservations are not required. Contact studio@idiomart.net for more information.