Our Failed Hike to Pichincha

We spent a few days in Quito in January for our visa paperwork. We had picture-perfect weather and took advantage of the blue skies and temperate climate to hit the mountains. Quito is the highest capital city in the world at 2,850 meters (9,350 feet) above sea level, located in the Andes mountains on the eastern slope of Pichincha, an active volcano. Our plan was to take the “teleférico” or cable car up the side of Pichincha, stroll about and enjoy the views. The plan started out perfectly – the gondola line was short, the trip from an elevation of 2,950 (9,678 feet) up to 4,050 meters (13,287 feet) pleasant and the views breathtaking. We could see all of Quito and the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We started to stroll about and I pointed to a peak in the distance and said, “let’s go there.”

We have done this sort of thing before. In the Italian Alps we wanted to hike to the Ritten Earth Pillars and and set off on a trail that we thought would get us there (it didn’t). We had no provisions, and I wore sandals and a straw hat and looked like I was ready to go to an outdoor brunch, not climb a mountain. Soon we were surrounded by hearty Germans with their hiking boots, poles and rucksacks. Despite our appearance, we made it to the summit albeit a little cold and with sore feet. Similarly, in the High Tatras of Slovakia we set off on what we intended to be a provisioned hike except that our hiking lodge only sold potato chips and candy bars. We did have hiking boots and backpacks in addition to our potato chips and candy bars, but some miscalculations caused us to hike about 10 miles away from our lodge and we still needed to get back! We will be eternally grateful to the two Polish guys in the scary-looking red panel van who stopped and gave us a ride back down the mountain although we still needed to catch a train and then hike 2 miles back to our lodge. We got there… around 10 pm. But I had none of this in mind when I pointed to the peak.

Truth be told, I pointed to a peak very near us. I had no idea that the trail went all the way up the darn mountain (4,698 meters/15,413 feet)and also forgot that once we start hiking, Matt always wants to go to the highest peak. So off we set with two entirely different hikes in mind. Once again, while we had some water we had no other provisions but at least had on semi-adequate footwear.

High Peak - Where Matt Thought We Were Headed

High Peak – Where Matt Thought We Were Headed

It was a glorious day. The hike was relatively easy apart from the elevation that always leaves me short of breath. We were giddy to be back in the mountains after months at sea level. Other hikers were on the trail: just enough to make us feel comfortable but not too many to spoil the experience.

It became cooler and cloudier but we forged ahead.

And then we got to the end of the trail.

End of the Trail...for Us

End of the Trail…for Us

It was weird how the path abruptly ended at this narrow part in the trail. We stood there looking at it and a few guys we had passed earlier while they enjoyed lunch came up behind us. We pointed out how the trail ended and they assured it it didn’t – we just had to scale this 15-foot rocky area and the trail begins again. Go ahead, we told them. Next thing we knew the 3 guys were up and over and out of sight. Hmm, it can’t be that hard, we thought. The guys weren’t particularly athletic looking and we were keeping pace with them the entire hike. We tried, we really did. Oddly, Matt was less enthusiastic than I was. He kept mentioning that if we fell we were going strait down and how even if we got up and over, we would still have to descend. I was determined but after 3 attempts was ready to quit. Then two other tourist – German or Swiss or some alpine heritage to be sure – arrived. We showed them that the trail didn’t end and in a blink of an eye, the guy was up and over. The woman offered to let us go next, but we declined. Her final tips were to keep our bodies close to the mountain and to use our arms and then she was over. She looked like she was ready to coach us through the experience but we waved her along her way. I tried one more time, thinking “close to the mountain, use my arms, 5 people just made this look like child’s play” and got stuck again. Enough was enough and we had a pleasant descent feeling only slightly loser-ish. “We didn’t have enough water anyhow,” we justified, “we were getting cold and didn’t have warm clothes.” Yeah, whatever, we were just chickens and bad climbers!

Stuck!

Stuck!

The next day we went for a pleasant walk in Metropolitano Park. Again at high altitude, this really was an easy experience except for a difference in opinion on how to leave the park that ended with us walking about a mile and a half out of our way via a descent to a locked gate and then back up the side of the mountain. While the views were not as spectacular as from Pichincha, it was another beautiful day in the mountains.

Our legs were a bit sore from two days of hiking, but it was a nice change of pace from swimming.

Our One Year Ecuadorian Anniversary

One year ago today, Matt and I moved to Ecuador. It was a whirlwind: we traveled to the Galapagos Islands at the end of February 2015 for Matt’s job interview with the Tomas de Berlanga school, the school made him an offer and two weeks later we left Peru. After two weeks in the US getting together paperwork for our visas, we landed in Quito. A frustrating month of bureaucracy later, and we were on the Galapagos, ready to begin the next phase of our expat lives. One year later, we are back in Peru on vacation to visit some friends and see the sights we missed when we lived there. Who said you can never go back?

Truth be told, we preferred our life in Peru to our life in the Galapagos. As my friend Beth pointed out when we announced our move, we never even went on beach vacations but were moving to an island. We were captivated by the beauty and mystique of the Galapagos and forged ahead. We did not account for the isolation, intemperate climate, small town life and limited accessibility to well, everything. We thought we were prepared for these things (apart from the climate) after living in the the Andes of Peru, but island living is psychologically very different and the Galapagos are more remote than Cajamarca. Island living also seems to attract many interesting types of people and while we have made some excellent friends and met many smart and accomplished folks, there are a lot of quirky personalities that land on an island and never leave.

Despite its challenges, we have had amazing experiences in the past year. We’ve snorkeled with sharks (more times than I wanted, which would have been none), rays, penguins, turtles, eels and fish galore. We’ve seen blue footed and red footed boobies, albatrosses doing their mating dance, frigates, herons, tropicbirds, rare gulls, hawks, owls and Galapagos finches and mockingbirds. We have visited the giant tortoises in the highlands and hiked on lava fields and in lava craters. Daily we stroll past snoozing sea lions, seemingly prehistoric marine iguanas and bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs. We go to sleep with the sound of the surf as our lullaby.

We buy fresh seafood at the fish market and have learned the true meaning of “when your ship comes in” as we wait for the cargo ship to arrive to restock the grocery shelves. We coexist with geckos, teeny-tiny ants and spiders, and I kill huge cockroaches (almost) without a second thought. I will never get used to not flushing my toilet paper. We have become friendlier with strangers because sometimes all it takes to forge a connection is a Green Bay Packers shirt.

And our experiences are not limited to the islands. One day after our arrival in Quito we witnessed the Good Friday procession, which was a purple-clad sight to be seen. We experienced the equator twice – once by land and once by sea. We visited the Amazon jungle where the monkeys were my favorite although swimming in a lake full of caiman, anacondas, electric eels and piranhas makes a great story. We toured churches and museums in Quito, including the moving Guayasamin museum. We learned that land iguanas sleep in trees when we couldn’t find them the morning we went to Iguana Park in Guayquil and then thought to look up.

This year has not been the easiest, but it has brought new and unique experiences. Some day I will be sitting in a nursing home and the staff will be rolling their eyes and assuming I have lost it when I talk about when I lived on the Galapagos Islands.

Walk the Line: A Visit to the Equator

North and South of the Equator

North and South of the Equator

Who can resist the draw of standing on the equator? Matt and I couldn’t, so one Sunday we set off from Quito to go to Mitad del Mundo, “the Middle of the World.” We intended to take a cheap bus there, but for some reason, despite directions, couldn’t figure out where to catch the bus. So we settled for a $15 cab ride to drive us the 1/2 hour to the site. After some confusion (apparently the theme of our day) we realized that the building we, and a bunch of other people, were hanging around was just the Unasur (Union of South American Nations) building, and was not getting us closer to standing on the equator! We headed over to the ticket booth, which was inexplicable chaos. There were some people waiting, but nothing like a Milwaukee Summerfest crowd. The delay seemed to be because newcomers would conveniently not see the lines and just pop ahead of all of us waiting. Eventually, I had enough of this nonsense and skipped ahead of the skippees to the front of a line.

We were in at last. Our full tickets included the planetarium, and we were urged several times to go directly to the planetarium. We took a quick photo or two on the equator, rushed to the planetarium… and waited in line for about 40 minutes. The show was in Spanish, and while I understood a decent amount of it, a nap seemed more in order. Frankly, apart from the Little and Big Dippers, Southern Cross, Orion’s Belt (but not the whole guy) I can never see the constellations – it’s a bunch of dots and a lot of imagination to me!

We headed to the monument and went to the top to enjoy the views and the sight of the equatorial line running across the premises.

Now here is the rub: the monument is in the wrong spot and we were not actually at the equator! We knew that before entering the complex, but decided to check out the spectacle all the same. And a spectacle it was. The monument also houses a nice museum showcasing the indigenous cultures of Ecuador, and the grounds have tons of souvenir shops, restaurants, a couple other museums and even some entertainment, all devoted to the wrong spot on the map. I find it hilarious that although modern GPS proves the equator to be about 240 meters north of this line, this entire complex pretends that isn’t the case. Not a disclaimer anywhere that you aren’t on the real deal. Apparently the motto is “Why be right if people will pay anyhow?” And indeed, we did!

Walk the Line

Walk the Wrong Line

But then we walked down the road to the real equator, at the Intiñan museum. Privately owned (yes, the incorrect location is owned by the local government), the Intiñan museum was hokey but charming.

We were told to wait for an English tour, but a mountain storm was brewing so we tagged along on a Spanish tour, which we quickly ditched when we realized it was going to take us through little exhibits of the different regions of Ecuador. We just wanted to stand on the equator. And so we did.

Matt didn’t try, but I was determined to balance the egg!

All in all, a fun, silly time. Especially when you consider that the equator is a line and certainly there are other spots in the area on which one could cross it.

We tried for a picture proof, but because our phone GPS is not military grade, this was as close as we could get.

As close as we could get on our GPS

As close as we could get on our GPS

Art and the City

I admit that I had never heard of Oswaldo Guayasamin, Ecuador’s most famous painter, before we arrived in Quito.

Self Sculpture

Self Sculpture

Born in poverty in 1919, Guayasamin devoted his artwork to portraying indigenous people, racial discrimination, injustice, violence and the plight of the poor. Powerful stuff. One of his famous quotes is “I cried because I had no shoes until I saw a child that had no feet.” The Fundacion Guayasamin site contains the artist’s former home and studio (he died in 1999) with its breathtaking mountain views, a museum called La Capilla del Hombre (Chapel of Man) that Guayasamin designed before his death and, as an added bonus, a small archeological site. It was amazing. An absolute must-see for anyone visiting Quito.

Mural

Mural

The exterior of La Capilla del Hombre is bunker-esque, but inside the space is perfect, just as the artist envisioned.

La Capilla de Hombre

La Capilla de Hombre

The Capilla del Hombre is a tribute to man, in particular the struggles and sufferings of Latin Americans. The museum has an eternal flame on the ground floor that represents a prayer for peace and human rights. Matt snuck some pictures.

Suffering

Suffering

While it was definitely our favorite museum, we also enjoyed other museums and artwork around the city.

Wheelie Art:

The National Museum of Quito is housed in a complex that includes theaters and a few other museums and has some cool outdoor art. Pictures are forbidden in the museum (this time Matt complied) but the works ranged from pre-Colombian pottery and the like to religious art from the Colonial era.

In the same complex is a modern art museum and we stopped in and enjoyed some work of Francisco Urquiza. I have no idea who he is but his paintings were really cool!

Another museum visit, to the Casa De Alabado, was also well worth it although we again have no pictures to share. It had pre-Colombian artwork of the indigenous cultures. Finally, we enjoyed the Museum of Contemporary Art. Housed high on a hill overlooking the city in an old military hospital, the museum has rotating exhibits. We saw three: a student photography exhibit, an Italian exhibit of art from the 1960s (psychedelic, baby!) and Art in Orbit, devoted to outer space. Art in Orbit included a room at the end, complete with bean bag chairs, where one could watch various sci-fi movies.

I loved the room of gowns by Italian designer Fausto Sarli. Che Bello!

The 60s art was dizzying with its play on dimensions. This piece was awesome and photographed pretty well. It was 2D but the pixie stick lines looked real!

2 Dimensional, but looks 3D!

2 Dimensional, but looks 3D!

And last, but not least, if you can’t make art, join it!

Photo Bomb

Photo Bomb

Quito – the City that Grew on Me

We have passed the 3 week mark in Quito, Ecuador. While this isn’t ideal and we would rather be getting on with our new life on the Galapagos Islands, there are worse places to spend a few weeks as you wait for your visas. Well, not just visas: we finally got those last week but now need the special permission to live on the Galápagos Islands. Nothing seems to be going easily, but we are trying to enjoy our time despite the frustration of waiting.

Relaxed

Relaxed

Quito is situated in the Andes at 9,350 feet above sea level. That hasn’t posed a problem for us because we were used to living in the Andes in Cajamarca. For a capital city with a population of about 2.6 million, Quito feels surprisingly accessible. We are staying in an apartment (thank you, Airbnb) in the Mariscal Foch area, which is a great location for us. We can walk to a number of parks, restaurants, malls, the Old Center etc. Initially Quito did not rock my world – it was nice but not spectacular. However, the more time we have been here, the more I appreciate it. (Except the food. Peruvian food is much better.) A mountain view anywhere you look is a selling point.

View from the Apartment

View from the Apartment

One of my favorite things about Quito is the many parks. We have walked through Carolina, Ejido, Arbolito and Alameda parks several times. It’s a toss up which is my favorite. Ejido and Arbolito Parks appear to be one park and have a lot of trees (hence the name “Arbolito” or “Little Tree”), making for a nice walk. All of the parks are well used by families, couples, groups of people and, as we saw yesterday, card players. I didn’t get a picture, but it cracked me up – crowds of men around an overturned box, cash flying. Initially we thought it was a shell game but then we saw the cards. I’m not sure what game is being played or whether my assumption is correct that it is illegal, but I am intrigued.

Park Carolina is a ginormous park. It has a running track, soccer fields, lagoon, old airplane, and, my favorite part, a wonderful botanical garden. I have dragged a somewhat reluctant Matt to botanical gardens everywhere we have visited and he agreed this one was the best. It might have been because the weather was perfect – low 70s and partly cloudy (key at the equator) – so it was pleasant to stroll around. There were many different exhibits and 2 greenhouses: one devoted to carnivorous plants and one to orchids. I wanted to see a bug get eaten in the Carnivorous greenhouse, but no such luck.

The Orchid Greenhouse contains over 1,200 Ecuadorian species of orchids and is a highlight of the gardens.

Our walks in the parks have been educational and relaxing. Not a bad way to pass the time.

Next Up: Great Museums and The Middle of the World!

Beautiful Basilica de Voto Nacional

“Are these people nuts?” It seems that I ask this question frequently in South America although not often in a church. I am looking at a rickety, unenclosed, 3 story ladder (unless you count the netting and I do not) that leads to the top of the one of bell towers of the magnificent Basilica de Voto Nacional in Quito. A stiff wind is blowing and as I watch, a septuagenarian makes the very wise decision to turn around and descend the ladder on her rear. There is a line of people waiting to ascend and the look of horror on my face makes it clear that I am not planning the climb. Another lady confesses that she made it three steps and had to turn back. I console myself with the fact that the view from the base of the bell tower is fantastic and causing an international incident by getting stuck on the ladder isn’t really necessary. While I am a wimp when it comes to climbing – actually descending – open staircases, this climb isn’t for the faint of heart. The Basilica sits high atop a hill in the city and the towers are 377 feet high.

Basilica de Voto Nacional

Basilica de Voto Nacional

The funny part is that I didn’t feel that the rest of our climb around the Basilica was particularly safe. On the second story balconies we had to climb across crumbling corners and navigate electrical cords everywhere. Guardrails? Please. Apparently, your faith will protect you from harm! But touring the Basilica was well worth the risk – it is as spectacular as its views. It is patterned after Notre Dame and the Gothic design is fantastic. My favorite part was the native species gargoyles although the brilliant stained glass was a close second. The nave itself is unfinished and a bit cold feeling, but there is a small chapel, La Capilla de Sacramento, that is stunning in its decoration. Unfortunately, photos are not permitted in the Chapel.

Pope John Paul II blessed the Basilica in 1985 and this welcoming entrance was one of my favorite parts of the building.

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II

A Great Good Friday in Quito

I was having flashbacks to my Catholic school upbringing. I had stumbled into the courtyard of the Basilica del Voto Nacional on Good Friday and discovered a live enactment of the Stations of the Cross. It was odd – tourists were crowded about, taking pictures and videos, teenagers were cracking up over the fake whippings with ketchup used as blood, no one seemed to be relating the spectacle to the event. But as I watched longer, it seemed appropriate – a crucifixion was entertainment in its day, not unlike the horrific public stonings or executions in other countries in the present day. Or maybe that was just my excuse so we could take pictures too.

Welcome to Good Friday in Quito, Ecuador. A mix of sacred and carnival, Quito has a Good Friday Procession, Jesus del Gran Poder (Jesus of Great Power), that draws thousands for the 4 hour event. Many of the faithful dress in the purple robes and cucuruchos (cone hoods) of the penitent. Others dress as Jesus or Veronica, the woman believed to have wiped Jesus’s face, or Roman soldiers. Many carry crosses, some whip themselves with stinging nettles or have them wrapped around their bodies, the red welts apparent, and others have barbed wire wrapped around themselves, eating into their flesh. The parade also includes priests broadcasting sermons and prayers and marching bands. It is quite a spectacle.

View of the Procession and Virgen De Quito from the Cathedral

View of the Procession and Virgen De Quito from the Cathedral

Many of the crosses are huge and carried by several people. They stagger a few yards with the cross before dropping it with a thud.

Over halfway through the procession, we saw this father and son on a side street getting dressed to join the procession.

Also notable were the number of children in the parade. Just what did they have to be so penitent about?

This man also seemed to have suffered enough in his life.

Injured Cross Carrier

Amputee Cross Carrier

After the procession we enjoyed another Semana Santa (Holy Week) tradition: Fanesca. A special soup made only for Semana Santa it contains 12 grains and milk and is served with salted cod, boiled egg, fried plantains, slices of peppers, fried empanadas, fried empanada dough (masitas) and fresh cheese. The proprietors of the restaurant in which we ate were very friendly, eager to explain the special nature of the soup to us and concerned that we were happy with our meal. We were – it was delicious and filling.