Butterflies and a Cloud Forest

On Saturday I was woken by the alarm at 6am and it took me a while to wake up properly and remember why I had actually set it! I was catching an early bus to Mindo, a small town in the Cloud Forest about 2 hours away. However, I first had to get to Ofelia bus station, which would take an hour, by my estimate.

Ana Maria was up and made me breakfast before I left and after a 20 minute walk to the bus stop and a ride to Ofelia, I arrived in plenty of time for the 8.20am bus. It took a while to leave Quito as, in true Latin American style, we had to stop and start until the bus was well and truly full and this meant that the conductor had to drum up custom at each stop. Eventually, we were on our way. We passed Mitad del Mundo and then drove out into the verdant mountains, with the road twisting and turning up and down some steep inclinations.

Mindo main street
Mindo main street

Apart from the locals and me, there were some very loud young Americans on the bus, who, luckily, must have fallen asleep once they had exhausted all their talk, as I couldn’t have listened to many more sentences with ‘like’ being every other word. Opposite me, there was a beautiful young local girl, who tried very hard to cook her baby under a polar fleece blanket. By the look of the baby’s head when she eventually decided to give it some air, she very nearly succeeded as it appeared well steamed!

On arrival in Mindo, it was not clear where to go, so I made my way along the main street, which seemed to be under some major re-development, to a tourist office. I was followed by a lady from the bus, who, it transpired, was from Finland. We ended up spending much of the day together, sharing a taxi to the Mariposaria (Butterfly House) and then to the Tarabita in the Cloud Forest.

She was in Quito, staying with a family, and undertaking some voluntary work in a kindergarten in South Quito (the poorer area), which she was finding quite eye opening. The children come from very impoverished backgrounds with little love and a lot of violence at home, so the kindergarten is a safe haven for them.

We first went to the Butterfly House, having arranged for the taxi to come back and collect us. Inside, we were surrounded by butterflies of varying sizes and colours and were also able to observe them emerging from their chrysalis’s.

Back in town, we had lunch at a cafe and then took a ‘taxi’ (4 wheel drive ute/pickup) to the Tarabita, which is a cage like contrapation, that whizzes over the treetops to the other side of the valley.

Once there, there is a walk through the forest to a cluster of waterfalls. Daya made it to the first one but decided not to venture further so I continued on my own. The track was very wet and slippery in places and there was a lot of climbing up and down but it was worth it, if only to go for a walk in the countryside. However, it was extremely hot and humid and I felt very sticky and dirty at the end.

The taxi returned to pick us up and once back in town, we parted company, she to check in to her hotel, and me to make my way to the chocolate factory, where I sat for quite some time over a cup of coffee and eating a piece of carrot cake. They do run tours but I would have missed the bus back to Quito if I had done one so just enjoyed some ‘musing’ time instead.

Afterwards, I had a brief walk in the town, watched some boys playing with inner tubes in the river and then made my way to the bus stop.

When the bus arrived, I discovered that my seat number didn’t exist and was directed to the seat beside the driver. I assumed this was normally meant for the conductor but was used for ‘over spill’. I had an excellent view, as long as I didn’t think about falling off my seat, down the 3 foot drop and out the open door! I was also able to observe the driver take his hands off the wheel to put on his tie or fumble in his pocket and his eyes off the road to talk to the conductor or play with his phone. Not only that, I could also see all the cars overtaking the bus on blind corners. It was quite an entertaining position to be in but, at one point, I did decide that it would be safer to wear the almost functional seat belt!

We made it back safely, without any mishap, and I then had the reverse journey from Ofelia to the house. Once there, I sat with Ana Maria over a cup of coffee and had a long chat about various topics, including politics and our life histories. Francisco and their grandson had gone to Emeraldas, so she was trying to enjoy some quiet time on her own (so far unsuccessfully). It was quite late by the time we went to bed.

Sunday morning was extremely relaxed. I didn’t go out until after 11am, at which time, I went around the corner to the transport office to buy my ticket to Lago Agrio for Monday and then caught the bus into the old town for breakfast at a bakery I have visited a couple of times previously. Their breakfast is excellent and I spent quite some time over it, watching the customers come and go with their purchases.

Fountain in Plaza Grande - a magnet for small children!
Fountain in Plaza Grande – a magnet for small children!
Road cordoned off for cyclists in the Plaza Grande
Road cordoned off for cyclists in the Plaza Grande
Playing 'How great thou art', believe it or not!
Playing ‘How great thou art’, believe it or not!

Afterwards, I walked up to the Plaza Grande and sat there for an hour or more, along with all the locals, observing the people. This square is always busy, but on Sundays, families, street vendors and every man and his dog seem to pass through, so it is very entertaining.

At Ana Maria’s suggestion, I had also planned to take the Hop on Hop Off tour bus, so once I decided I was getting a bit warm in the sun, (i.e. red nose) I went to find the bus stop in San Francisco Plaza, another beautiful square in the old part of town.

San Francisco Plaza
San Francisco Plaza
Church near San Francisco Plaza
Church near San Francisco Plaza
Street seller in San Francisco Plaza
Street seller in San Francisco Plaza
Holding up the overhanging cables with a broom so the bus could pass underneath!
Holding up the overhanging cables with a broom so the bus could pass underneath!

The bus took me first up the Panecella, where the large statue of the Madonna with wings, overlooks the city. I had originally intended just going there, but Ana Maria had had some guests, who had been robbed at knife point there a couple of weeks ago so I was a bit nervous about it. The bus stopped for half an hour so I was able to admire the view and then continue on for the rest of the tour. I didn’t hop off until the bus was back at the Artesanal Market, near the house.

Then, before going home, I ventured to the supermarket, which was absolutely packed with people with large trolleys full of goods, so it took quite some time to get through the checkout with my 6 items. I was stocking up on food for the next day or so as I have a 7 hour bus trip to Lago Agria, which, I am told, is a somewhat dubious town, so I will not be venturing out of the hotel before I join the tour group for the Amazon on Tuesday morning.

Spanish verbs and theft

The week has flown past. I have spent each morning attempting to learn some Spanish and my brain is now so overloaded with Spanish verb conjugations that I can’t remember anything. Hopefully, one of these days, preferably in the not too distant future, the penny will drop and I will magically manage to string a coherent sentence or two together!

Walking through the park to the School in the morning
Walking through the park to the School in the morning
Courtyard where the Yanapuma School is located
Courtyard where the Yanapuma School is located
Plaza next to one of my lunchtime cafes
Plaza next to one of my lunchtime cafes

The afternoons have been varied. I have tended to have a midday meal after classes. As the Ecuadorians traditionally have their main meal at lunchtime, there are many cafes offering set menus very cheaply. I have been to one particular one a couple of times. It is always extremely busy, very well organised and with friendly staff. I have had a three course lunch for $4.50 with a choice of two items on each course. Like many of the cafes, they do not have any other menu. After the large breakfasts I have been having, cooked by Ana Maria, I am surprised I have been able to eat lunch as well, but I did! In the evenings, I have been devouring avocados and beautifully sweet, yellow grenadillas. Delicious!

Casa de la Cultura
Casa de la Cultura
Sculpture outside the Casa de la Cultura
Sculpture outside the Casa de la Cultura

I have visited the Casa de la Cultura, the Guayasamin Museum and Capilla des Hombre, all of which were very interesting and not so large that I was overwhelmed. I also booked a tour to the jungle for next week and, of course, have done a lot of walking as I think this is the best way to get to know a city.

Baskets for sale in the Santa Clara market
Baskets for sale in the Santa Clara market

Unfortunately, I had one incident that marred my week. As I was walking in the old town, someone spat on my neck. A lady next to me pointed out that it was also on my back. However, it was a ploy by thieves to distract me and in the few seconds I turned around, someone took my purse out of my bag. I assume that the ‘kind’ lady that pointed to my back was an accomplice. Luckily, they dropped my purse a couple of metres away, having removed the cash. Also luckily, I only had $15 on me as I never carry more than I think I will need for the day and they didn’t take my credit card. The incident, however, left a bad taste in my mouth and took away some of the magic of being here. As a tourist, though, you are a target for any operation of this sort.

There has been a variety of guests in the house where I am staying. These have been predominantly American, some of whom are resident in Ecuador whilst others have been visiting for business or studies, so it has been interesting talking to them. Two lots of people from Vilcabamba, a town in the far south renowned for the longevity of its inhabitants, journeyed to Quito just to buy cars, which seemed a bit extreme to me! Francisco and Ana Maria have been excellent hosts and I have sat over a cup of tea/coffee on a number of occasions and chatted to them. Francisco is Ana Maria’s second husband and they are bringing up her grandson, his divorced mother having decided to live a free life rather than be a mother (something of which Ana Maria, naturally, does not approve). They also have Ana Maria’s son, who is in his twenties, living with them. This lady is always very busy but is consistently cheerful and helpful.

For me, it is meeting people like this that makes travel so worthwhile. You just never know who you might bump into next!

Orchids, cable car and more altitude sickness

I had to move accommodation on Saturday, as there were no rooms available for the next couple of nights in my current place, so I had booked another Airbnb on the other side of the Mariscal Foch district.

Tree lined street of my latest house
Tree lined street of my latest house

Once I had packed up, I said goodbye to Beatrice (not a quick process as I stood with my backpack on whilst she continued to natter) and then walked the kilometre to my new abode. In an economic mode, I had booked a room with a shared bathroom but I was in luck. I was offered a huge room with a private bathroom for a couple of nights, after which I would have to move into the room I had originally booked. “Muy bien”, as the Spanish speakers say!

In the Botanic Gardens
In the Botanic Gardens

I could not have been made to feel more welcome by Ana Maria and her husband, Francisco, and their house has a very homely feel. After partaking in a cup of coffee and settling in, I headed off for the Botanic Gardens. These are located in the Parque la Carolina and it was most enjoyable to wander through them. There are a couple of orchid houses (Ecuador being well known for orchids and having over 4000 species in the country), as well as a variety of other plants including roses, cacti, medicinal and Amazonian ones, most of which I did not recognise, of course. (Where is my personal plant/tree guru when I need him/her?)

Afterwards, I wandered through the park once again, stopping to people watch as I went. It still never ceases to amaze me how many people make use of the facilities.

Dispensing 'slushies'. (The block of ice is first ground in the machine.)
Dispensing ‘slushies’ in the park. (The block of ice is first ground in the machine.)

Once I had reached the big shopping centre I had visited earlier in the week, I sat with a coffee and watched the swarms of people in yellow football shirts. It was totally unclear as to which team they were supporting as the shirts were covered with Pichincha Bank and Pilsener logos and the only other name that was apparent was Barcelona. However, this seemed a little improbable in relation to the team (but what do I know?). Judging by the number of people wearing the shirts, as well as the street vendors selling them, I had to assume there was a game on somewhere nearby.

Lots of yellow shirted people
Lots of yellow shirted people

After another wander around the Mall, I caught the bus back, along with hundreds of other people. Like the parks, the buses are very well used and it is sometimes a mission to get on and, even more importantly, get off! So far, I have been lucky and have managed to follow someone who is pushing their way through the crowds to get off themselves. I am also convinced that the bus drivers deliberately travel as fast as they can, jerking the bus to a stop at lights and racing into the bus stations to see how many people they are able to throw off balance. My day was rounded off with a very mediocre vegetarian falafel dish at a restaurant/bar around the corner. It is not one I will be frequenting!

Busy street in Quito
Busy street in Quito

On Sunday, I decided to tempt fate and go up the Teleferico. This ascends to 4,000 metres in 10 minutes. I was not only anxious about the steepness of the ascent and, more especially, the descent, but also, of course, the altitude. I left early, as I had read that it gets very busy at the weekend, and walked part of the way up before deciding to get a taxi, which was very cheap and definitely worth it!

On arrival, there was no queue and I was put into a car with a group of young American students who were quite entertaining. They had obviously had a few exploits and one girl said that she couldn’t believe how many fears she had overcome since being in Ecuador. This included jumping off a waterfall! Sounded a bit too adventurous for me but I could name one of my offspring who would probably have no problem with it.

At the top, I walked in Pichincha Park, Pichincha being an active volcano, although I have to say, it didn’t look very much like one. The views were quite spectacular and I could see as far as the snow covered peak of Cotapaxi. However, I was up there for a couple of hours and, in that time, the clouds covered the mountains so I was glad I had gone early.

There were beautiful cloud formations over the mountains
There were beautiful cloud formations over the mountains
At the bottom of the Teleferico
At the bottom of the Teleferico

By the time I was ready to descend, a headache had started. This time, I was in a car with an Ecuadorian father and his two teenage (possibly) daughters, one of whom was petrified. Luckily, she sat straight in front of me so I didn’t have to look at the vertical drop we were undertaking. She gradually went as white as an Ecuadorian brownish sort of complexion could go. I think we were both relieved to be at the bottom.

I then walked a very long way down very steep streets until I reached the trolley bus that would take me into the historic centre. I hadn’t had any breakfast and was quite hungry. However, once I arrived, my headache was so intense that I could hardly eat. Somehow, I got the bus back to the house and spent the rest of the day in bed. Altitude sickness is becoming a very big issue for me as it is certainly going to restrict the places I am able to visit.

Commuting in Quito

The week seems to have flown by. I have joined the ranks of commuters once again and have been travelling on the trolley bus for all of 10 minutes to go to my Spanish classes, which take place each morning from 9am – 1pm. My head is now a complete jumble of irregular Spanish verbs that never come to mind when they are required. My teacher’s name is Cecelia and she has had to be very, very patient, correcting the same mistakes over and over again each day.

View from my bedroom window
View from my bedroom window
Early morning view
Early morning view
A wet day in the Grand Plaza
A wet day in the Grand Plaza

On the first day, we were locked out of the building. It was fiesta/carnival time and the owners had gone away, with the key, for the long weekend. (And, no, nobody had a spare, apparently.) Instead, Cecelia and I had a walk in the central city and then settled down in a courtyard, surrounded by restaurants and shops, for the lesson. This was conducted entirely in Spanish so required a great deal of concentration on my part. Amazingly, I understood a fair amount as Cecelia talked slowly and clearly.

Sadly, when I go into shops or cafes, they might as well be speaking Double Dutch, as I have no idea what they are saying. The fact that it was carnival also meant that a lot of the shops and businesses were closed so the area around my house was exceptionally quiet until Wednesday when everything re-opened and the area came alive again.

Each day, after class, I have tried to visit one place so, on one afternoon it was the President’s Palace, another the Cathedral and another the Cepilla de Hombres, which houses works by Guyasim, the most well known Ecuadorian artist. Unfortunately, having taken a bus and then a long, hot walk up a very steep hill, I discovered it was closed on Mondays, (naturally the day I visited) so I have yet to return.

I have been trying out various places for lunch, having decided that it is easier and cheaper to have the daily menu of the cafes rather than eat out at night. In the Mariscal area, which is extremely touristy and full of backpackers, the restaurants are quite expensive, as I discovered on the one occasion I decided to eat there. Luckily, I was able to find a relatively cheap Mexican place but the food was nothing like the quality of the lunch I had had at the cafe next door to my house for the same price. There is little choice for the daily menu and it usually comprises soup, a main (with a choice of two), dessert and a glass of juice. This can be had for as little as $2. Some of the cafes only have the daily menu and no other food.

Stained glass windows in the Cathedral
Stained glass windows in the Cathedral

My room overlooks a plaza and I think, is probably the best room. It has been quite entertaining to watch the people below and on a couple of evenings, I was serenaded by a saxophonist playing underneath my window. Nothing like your own personal musician!

My host, it seems, is not so much Miguel, with whom I made the booking, but his mother, who, as one of the other guests put it, is a self absorbed Prima Dona of the first order! A couple of Swedish ladies were also staying and, one evening, we were all summoned for a cup of tea at about 8.30pm. There was no declining the invitation, despite the fact that the poor ladies had to leave at 4am the next day for a flight to the Galapagos. Food was forced upon us until we all had to politely decline and start yawning! Even then, it was quite hard to escape. Apart from having to tip toe past Beatrice’s door to get to my room each time, the only other drawback of the house was the battle with one of the locks on the front door. To open it, I had to put the key in, pull it out 2mm and hold my tongue in the correct way. Even so, it took me several attempts each time I wanted to come in.

I have been very impressed with the number of parks there are in the city and they are all extremely well used by pedestrians, cyclists, families and individuals alike. Parque La Carolina, which is huge and through which I have walked a couple of times, is always busy and has a very large area dedicated to soccer pitches. There are also some excellent cycle paths along the roads and ‘bici’ cycles for hire. The cyclists tend to whizz along these lanes so it can be quite precarious for a pedestrian!

Police amassing for the Graduation Ceremony
Police amassing for the Graduation Ceremony

There is a strong police presence all over Quito. They not only stand around the main Plazas, but there are often three or four of them controlling the traffic at intersections, even when there are traffic lights. I’m not sure in this instance, if they are a hindrance or a help! These traffic controllers all have whistles, of course, but they do not seem to be standard issue as they make a noise rather like a chirping bird. I love them and want one!

When I was at the Cathedral, there was a great deal of activity with bus loads of police and dignitaries arriving. It transpired that there was a Graduation Ceremony taking place so presumably there will now be even more police taking to the streets.

Park in front of the Cathedral
Park in front of the Cathedral

My other mission for the week has been to try and replace some of the t shirts I bought in desperation before I left Montreal. The choice then was limited as it was the middle of winter and I have been wearing clothes in which I was not entirely comfortable. I can now confirm that it is impossible to buy middle of the range clothes in Quito. The city has some very modern shopping malls but they are completely (and, I mean, completely), full of designer shops, which are outrageously expensive. In the streets, there are a myriad of small shops selling cheap(er) quality clothes, but I do not want glitter, sparkles, pictures of boy bands or even the manufacturers label plastered across my chest. Where is M&S when you need them?!

All in all, it has been a very satisfactory week and I have marvelled to myself several times about the unlikelihood of living, albeit temporarily, in a place like Quito.

View to the south of Quito
View to the south of Quito
View from the Cathedral Clock Tower
View from the Cathedral Clock Tower

Foam, foam and more foam!

Gearing up for the Parade in Latacunga
Gearing up for the Parade in Latacunga
Parade in Latacunga
Parade in Latacunga

We had a slow start to the morning and, having decided that breakfast in the hotel was not worth paying for, we first went in search of a cafe serving ‘desayuno’. I was starving, having eaten very little the day before. Luckily, we found a most satisfactory place that had coffee, juice and croissants for the grand sum of $2.95. Some Americans that Carolyn had been talking to on the bus back from Quilotoa were also there and they had been suffering with altitude sickness quite badly as well. It certainly seems to affect many people.

After breakfast, I went in search of a money machine that worked and, in the process, we realised there was a parade about to start. Carolyn had seen one yesterday whilst I was in bed and this was obviously a continuation of the festivities.

There were several floats with accompanying beauty queen as well as dancing, music and clowns. Everybody, but everybody, seemed to have a can of spray foam in their hands and took great delight in squirting one and all! There was foam everywhere! The atmosphere was wonderful as we observed from the comparative safety of the hotel porch where we could, at least, attempt to avoid the foam.

Beauty Queen
Beauty Queen
Character in the Parade
Character in the Parade

Once the procession had passed, we picked up our bags and walked to the bus station where we were immediately guided to a bus that was just leaving. We arrived back at Quitumbe, an extremely modern bus station, at about 2pm and caught a taxi to the hostel that we had booked for this evening.

We were both starving once again, but, just as we were about to leave, the heavens opened and torrential rain poured down for the next hour or so. Our rooms adjoin the roof terrace and one of the staff members had to come and plunge the drains as the floor had flooded!

Flooded roof terrace
Flooded roof terrace

However, it stopped eventually and we strolled into the historic centre and ended up at La Rondo, where we selected, after much deliberation, a small cafe that had a limited menu but local dishes and no other tourists in sight. The chicken soup was excellent and was followed by a cup of very tasty hot chocolate, made with real chocolate. Altogether, most satisfactory!

Palace Plaza at night
Palace Plaza at night
The Theatre in Quito at night
The Theatre in Quito at night
View from the hostel roof terrace
View from the hostel roof terrace

Sunday dawned after a very fraught night caused by some extremely inconsiderate men (one of whom was a Cuban, who had been keen to practise his English on us earlier), sitting on the terrace, talking and drinking all night. Neither of us could sleep and I, for one, was quite grumpy.

I was moving to a room in an Airbnb apartment today, so checked out of the hostel and left my bag in Carolyn’s room whilst we went in search of breakfast. (Yes, we do a lot of eating!) Yet another excellent meal was had, this time in a small bakery, filled with Ecuadorians, where we had juice, coffee, croissants and eggs, all for $2.95. (It seems to be the magical amount.)

As we were finishing, another parade was passing the door, so we followed that up to the Plaza where the Palace is located.

It was a very small procession, which stopped for a long time every 100 metres, so took quite a while to reach its destination. The band played the same tune over and over again, there were women dressed in local costumes, men wearing huge caricature heads and, of course, dancers. It was most entertaining and there was even more foam than in Latacunga!

Afterwards, I collected my bag and took a taxi to my new abode, in the New Town, where many of the hostels are located and which is filled with modern cafes and restaurants. My room is in an apartment in an old house that has been completely renovated. It is the best place I have stayed in since leaving Vermont and I might not leave! The bathroom is modern and just for me, (I am over the shared hostel bathrooms!) the room is light and spacious and the bed comfortable. It even has fast wifi that works. It also looks over a plaza with lots of trees and birds are perched on my window ledge. The houses around have been painted with murals, done by my host and his friend. They apparently started with his house and moved on to the next. The Government is so impressed, it is paying them to do all the houses in the square.

After spending some time luxuriating, I went for a walk, partially in search of a supermarket but also to explore a little. As it was Sunday, most of the shops were closed, but a large park nearby was thronging with people involved in an assortment of activities, as well as stalls displaying various arts and crafts.

Not being able to find a supermarket of any shape or size, I returned to the house to Google it and realised there was a large one in the opposite direction to which I had walked (naturally). I arrived as they were preparing to close so made my purchases and retired, with pleasure, to my room for the evening.