Tuesday, October 26, 2010

We are going to the Galapagos!

Going to the Galapagos was supposed to be the highlight of our trip. But the more we researched, the more it looks like a racket. We almost considered skipping it. However we have this urge to "check-things-off-the-list" even when we have low expectations. We are going ahead with it.

Picking a tour/cruise was not easy. I have a thing against large cruise ships, but I am afraid to end up on a smaller boat that I want to be off it the minute I step on. John loves boat rides, but may get queasy if seas are rough. As a compromise, we decided on a five-day tour in a 16-passenger catamaran (for stability & comfort) to the less touristy islands. While we will have TV, there will be no internet.

Over the first hurdle

I was particularly concerned coming to Otavalo. First, every single guidebook warned against walking around the countryside. Second, I read several blogs about backpacks stowed under the seat being slashed on the bus between Otavalo and Quito.

The first morning when we were getting directions for the day's hike to the Peguche Waterfall, our hotel front desk cautioned us not to show our camera "going through communities." We were freaked and decided to leave the camera in our room. Of course, there was nothing remotely threatening. The next day we took another walk around to cure John's dizziness from the market, this time with the camera.

From the Otavalo bus terminal we took a bus to Quito. Our backpacks were stowed under the bus in the luggage compartment, as they always traveled. All four of us arrived in Quito in one piece.

Now I feel much relieved, such silly worries....

Some photos below of our hike into the hills of Otavalo.

El Lechero (Sacred Tree) in front of Volcano Imbabura.

The road to Condor Park.

Laguna San Pablo
Laguna San Pablo

Monday, October 25, 2010

I underestimated Otavalo market

Otavalo is famous for its Saturday market. It is on every traveler's Ecuador itinerary. The local indigenous people are well known for their weaving. I had thought Otavalo was just another souvenir megacenter. Boy, was I wrong!

We got up at 7AM to catch the animal market. I was expecting maybe a few dozens of animals. Instead, there were hundreds of cows, pigs of all sizes, chickens, various pets, and turkeys. Business was brisk too. Money and animals changed hands left and right, just as we looked on.

In fact there were different markets and stalls all over town. It turns out the vendors that cater to tourists were only a fraction. But there were still a lot of them, enough to make John, who usually gets or feigns illness in face of shopping, queasy. But I hardly bought anything. The only thing I do not like about long trips is that I have to be extremely selective so not to overload our family mule.

Some shots from the market.

Cattle Market

Pig market in foreground.

Pigs for sale.


One pig for sale.

Inside the pet market.


Locals buying gold-washed glass beads.

Local woman wearing gold-washed glass beads.

Stacked fabric.

Clothes market.

Cruising down the cyclo via (bike lane).

Friday, October 22, 2010

Into Ecuador

Two long travel days back to back to get us into Ecuador. The first started in Mocoa, Colombia as we traveled on the so-called "road of death", a one lane unpaved road through waterfalls and into the clouds, from 2000ft straight up to 9000ft then going down to the valleys at 7000ft. Then climbing back up through a pass at 10000ft before ending the day in Ipiales at 9000ft.

The next day started with site seeing in Ipiales (the church in Las Lajos that spans a river gorge), crossing the border into Ecuador at Tulcan and visiting the cemetery famous for its topiary (one of the most surreal places ever), a loooooong sloooow bus ride to Otavalo, but ending on a high note with a tremendous dinner of Chinese food ala Otavalo Ecuador.

Plaza La Pola - Ipiales

Santuario de Las Lajas

Cementerio de Tulcan
Topiary - Cemetario Tulcan - Tulcan, Ecuador

Chifa (Chinese Restaurant)
Chifa (Chinese Restaurant) - Otavalo, Ecuador

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Life near the Equator

We have been at high altitude near the equator for a few weeks now. While it is not surreal here, or even strange, it is definitely different from home.

1. The Sun & Altitude
The sun and altitude seem to be the sole regulators of temperature, while the name of town square is an indication of the climate: "plaza" for taking sun, and "parque (park)" for shade.

2. Light
There are about 12 hours of daylight. It goes from afternoon to dark-of-the-night in less than an hour. It seems there is no dusk.

3. Flora
The landscape is so lush, it looks anything can thrive here. Plants flower whenever and together: flowering trees, poinsettia, lilies....

Parque Caldas - Popayan, Colombia (Alt. 5700 ft)

Garden - St Agustin, Colombia (Alt. 5465 ft)

Off the beaten path in Mocoa

In order to continue to Ecuador, instead of backtracking from San Agustin to Popayan, we came to Mocoa. While at 2000 feet above sea level Mocoa isn't exactly an inferno, it certainly is sweat box. On the edge of Amazon basin, Mocoa's annual rainfall is more than four meters. Rather than our usual manic suicidal walks, we had a couple short walks in the tropical rain forest along a couple of gazillion tributaries of the Amazon. I was really happy to see a proper bridge until John mentioned that it has no railings :(

Rio Rumiyaco

Rio Rumiyaco

Rio Rumiyaco

Sun-Ling relaxing by the Rio Rumiyaco

Sun-Ling walking along the Rio Rumiyaco trail.

The proper suspension bridge over the Rio Mocoa.

Waterfall on the Canalendre.


Our first archaeological site of the trip

From Popayan it is only five-and-half-hour bus ride to San Agustin, but we bumped around for four hours of it on 80 kms of unpaved road going through the mountains, our hardest four hours of bus ride so far.

This morning we headed to Parque Arqueológico de San Agustin first thing in the morning. San Agustin is a UNESCO site for giant pre-Columbian stone statues and rock carvings that have been uncovered all over the countryside. The park consists both in-situ and relocated statues. Being UNESCO and ranked among the top archaeological sites in South America, San Agustin lives up to my expectations.

  • The exhibits are unique and striking, the setting and grounds luxuriant.
  • The park is well designed and well maintained, built with green and local materials, bamboo over wood, stone over concrete.
  • Best of all, entrance costs only $5.5, less than a McD's combo meal in Bogota.





We spent the rest of a day and half in San Augustin wondering around countryside, checking out more statues and admiring the lush surrounding. While we went around on foot, most people were in vehicles and on horses.

La Chaquira.

View down to El Estrecho - the narrowest point on the Rio Magdalena.
St Agustin, Colombia

El Estrecho!!

El Purutal site.

El Purutal parking lot.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Popayan is underwhelming

Popayan is a medium-sized colonial city. It is our least favorite so far. Traffic is bad. Buses, taxis, cars, and motorbikes produce much pollution for the narrow streets of the historic downtown. Otherwise it can be a very pleasant town.

The beautiful but crowded city center of Popayan.

Popayan is supposed to be a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. By coincidence or not, we found a new scheme to enjoy the vegetarian restaurants which only open for lunch with a set menu. The portions are on the small side for our family mule. So, we hit a restaurant right when they open at 11:30 to 12. Then we catch the tail end of lunch at another one around 2 to 2:30. In two days we efficiently sampled four vegetarian restaurants in Popayan.
  • Restaurante Vegetariano Carrera, 8 #7-19
  • Restaurante Vegetariano Delicias Naturales, Calle 6 #8-21
  • Restaurante Comida Sana, Calle 3 #6-70
  • El Muro, Carrera 8 #4-11

Lunch #1 of today's doubleheader - Restaurante Comida Sana

Lunch #2 of today's doubleheader - Restaurante Vegetariano Delicias Naturales


What the photos do not show is that with each meal, we also get a bowl of soup, a glass of juice, a small dessert, and sometimes a separate vegetable or fruit salad.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Our first market of the trip

Yet another day without internet. We have moved on to Silvia, a small town outside of Popayan, 25 kilometers off the Pan American highway, famous for its Tuesday market. We decided to stay in Silvia on Monday night. In fact it was even a little hard finding a suitable room, since so few travelers stay in town.

The local Guambianos still wear their traditional costumes, men and women, and a few of the little ones. I am particularly fascinated by people that maintain their traditional costumes, as one who has deviated from her natural and cultural heritage far and wide. Yet I am fully aware of the intricacies of visiting traditional people. How I wish I can turn into a bee, observing all I want yet leaving no trace....

The Silvia market was everything I expected, congenial and lively crowd, colorful costumes and produce.

The locals come to market in these colorful buses.


The Market.

A couple of groups of Guambianos strolling down the main drag in Silvia.

Busy hiking in Salento

We are still in Salento without internet. We had two days of hiking around Salento. The first day we caught a jeep to Valle de Cocora, and I had my most technical hiking ever. We had to cross a mountain stream 6 times without proper bridges. I had to apply every bridge crossing skill I know plus event a few new ones. And since it was an "out and back" hike, I got to cross each bridge twice. It was not pretty.

When walking in the horse trenches trails got too hard, I learned to crisscross barbed wire fences. It's a good thing that I am not yet too old to acquire such skills. Of course John learned all this as a boy.

Today's hike along the road to Toche is practically a stroll compared to yesterday's, on a gravel road, among the hills that we see from our porch with very nice views back to the town, and at the peak of the road, a view to Valle de Cocora. Since it is a Sunday, there were more bicyclists and horses on the road than cars or people walking.

The Wax Palms of Valle de Cocora - altitude 2600 meters.

On the way up the valley we slogged along the horse track. On the way down we hopped over the barbed wire and walked in the pastures.

Sun-Ling crossing a log bridge over the Rio Quindio on her hands and knees.

View to Valle de Cocora on our second hike along the road to Toche.


We don't have internet in Salento

[I am writing this offline as we decided not to move to a room with internet.]

Yesterday (10/08) we arrived in Salento after dark. After a brief circuit, we decided to take a room for its charm even though there is no Wi-Fi.

This morning we were really taken with the view from the balcony/porch. Still we went around town looking for internet, but our search did not turn up a place that has more charm or better view, internet or not, so we are without internet for a change.

Thus far on this trip we have enjoyed having internet very much. It really makes us feel connected with the world, family, and friends.

Our hotel room porch at Posada del Angel.

And another view from the porch.


Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Bogota is hard to place

Bogota, at 8,650 feet above sea level, poses no altitude problem for us having acclimatized in Tunja (9200 ft), but we were not expecting so much somber weather. In three days we had less than three hours of sun, many hours of overcast and rain, but we were never cold.

Old city center.

Plaza Bolivar.

Traffic: Rain keeps the pollution down. There is a LOT of vehicle traffic, even though private cars have been severely limited. Being the big fans of public transportation, John and I are totally enamored with the TransMilenio. This is only solution that we have ever experienced that is conceivable for Shanghai as well as Raleigh, and of course anywhere in between. Yet every now and then there would be a horse drawn cart going down the road.

"TransMilenio Only" road near our hotel

Carrera 7 traffic

Police: The city applies so much police presence on the street, there is rarely a moment that I don't spot a uniform around. Yet after rush hour, pedestrians evaporate from the streets with astounding rate for a city of 8 million.

People: For such a big city, people are amazingly friendly. Everyone goes out of their way to not interfering with photo taking, but if the two of us ever started to argue about directions, we are sure to draw a crowd of helpers. When we turned up at the National Library wanting to look at the atrium, the Library called in its English-speaking historian for a private tour.

Atrium of the National Library

For a capital I had expected the number of the museums, but the quality of the exhibits really impressed me. What is more surprising is the dizzying number of free museums. Yet they could not managed to turn up a "changing of the guards" on schedule.

Museo Botero

Eateries: The good thing is that lunches are very much on time. Bogota has more vegetarian restaurants than we have days to sample. In fact I am beginning to suspect Bogota has more restaurants and cafes per capita than Shanghai. Yet there are just as many street vendors with homemade or packaged food and drinks.

Zukini Vegetarian Restaurant.

Playa del Carmen, Mexico

From Aguascalientes, there is a very convenient direct flight to Cancun.  Since the wedding is at a private beach south of Playa del Carmen,...