Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
This entry is part 13 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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Still ragged from my bout with altitude sickness in Chugchilan, Ecuador, I dragged my weary bones off the bus and headed directly for my hostel when I arrived in Baños de la Santa. My intention was to climb right into bed and sleep through the afternoon and night but the sight of a spectacular waterfall behind the hostel got the better of my curiosity. I turned the corner at the end of the block and came face-to-face with a long ribbon of cotton candy cascading down the flanks of Tungurahua volcano, at the foot of which squatted the reason thousands of visitors flock to this tiny village in the Andes Mountains: Piscinas de la Virgen, the most famous of the town’s five thermal pools.

Waterfall cascades down mountainside and is channeled into Termas de la Virgen thermal baths

Waterfall cascades down mountainside and is channeled into Termas de la Virgen thermal baths

I had specifically come to Baños for its hot springs, which range from 64 to 131 degrees Fahrenheit and are reputed to have healing properties. Hoping for relief from debilitating knee and hip pain that had plagued me ever since sustaining an injury in a Yoga class in Mexico nearly two years earlier, I planned long soaks in the curative waters. Cautiously, I climbed the slick, spray-soaked rock steps leading to the top of the icy waterfall and stepped onto a viewing platform. Baños spread before me, backed by lushly carpeted mountains that shimmered like emeralds in the golden late afternoon sun. Directly beneath me lay the swimming pools of Termas de la Virgen, filled with water heated by molten lava deep within the active volcano.

Largest pool at the thermal baths has medium-hot water from the volcano

Largest pool at the thermal baths has medium-hot water from the volcano

The following morning, I retraced my steps just as the sun was cresting the surrounding hills, paid my $1.50 entrance fee and took the required shower before using the facilities. Though I had my pick of baths scattered around the town and surrounding valley, I opted for Termas de la Virgen, not only because it is the most famous but also because it is popular with local Ecuadorians. Choosing the hottest of the three swimming pools on the top floor, I eased into the ocher-colored water up to my chin and closed my eyes, allowing the super-heated water to work its magic. Believing that mineral waters can heal maladies is not a stretch for me; I theorize that if Epsom Salts (magnesium sulfate crystals) provide relief from stiffness and sore muscles when dissolved in bath water, thermal springs that contain naturally occurring chlorates, sulfates and magnesium must have even better efficacy. Indeed, within minutes my tight muscles began to unwind. I rested my neck on the concrete lip of the pool and let my body float effortlessly, enjoying a blissful state of relaxation.

Termas de la Virgen is the thermal baths most popular with the locals, but they welcome visitors with friendly waves. The pool on the right is medium hot, while the one on the left is hot hot.

Termas de la Virgen is the thermal baths most popular with the locals, but they welcome visitors with friendly waves. The pool on the right is medium hot, while the one on the left is hot hot.

The pools soon began to fill up and I spent the rest of the day chatting with locals who had traveled from all over Ecuador to enjoy the healing waters, learning about life in this tiny country and polishing up my Spanish. Everyone was amazingly friendly and only Read More

This entry is part 12 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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This past weekend I was honored to be interviewed by Sue and Kevin McCarthy for their popular live radio show “Travel Planners.” The subject was Ecuador, and I discussed all four zones of this tiny but surprisingly diverse country: the Galapagos Islands, the coast, the Andes Mountains, and the Amazon jungle. To listen to my half-hour interview, click on the links below.

Kevin and Sue McCarthy of The Travel Planners Radio Show

Kevin and Sue McCarthy of The Travel Planners Radio Show

Part One, Ecuador Interview

Part Two, Ecuador Interview

Travel Planners is a two-hour fun and fact-filled conversation on travel destinations, news, tips, and experts. Co-hosts Kevin and Sue McCarthy have circumnavigated the world and are into their eleventh year with the popular radio show that is syndicated on 13 stations in the U.S., as well as in the Netherlands and South Africa. The show is available on line every Saturday morning from 8 to 10 a.m. Central time. To tune in, go to Global American Broadcasting Satellite Network and click on GAB1. To read more about Sue and Ken’s travels, see photos taken by Sue, and read their blog, visit Kevin and Sue Travel.

This entry is part 11 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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After a week in 9,350-foot high Quito I was no longer huffing and puffing as I trekked up and down the city’s ubiquitous hills, so I was totally unconcerned about altitude as I headed for the central highlands of Ecuador, home to spectacular volcanoes and some of the best hiking in the country. The dust-caked brakes of my rickety bus squealed to a halt in the center of Chugchilan, where indigenous Quichua had gathered in droves to celebrate Dia de Difuntos (Day of the Deceased). Anxious to photograph the event, I double-timed up the hill to Hostal Cloud Forest, dumped my luggage and headed back out, surprised that I was breathing heavily after such a short distance.

Iliniza Bus delivered me to Chugchilan

Iliniza Bus delivered me to Chugchilan

Though I had observed Quichua women in their distinctive bowler hats in Quito, this was my first opportunity to mingle with the indigenous population. My initial excitement quickly faded when my repeated requests to take photos were rebuffed with shakes of the head and turned backs. Crowds parted like the Red Sea as I walked down the main street and my smile was met with suspicious looks. Stone-faced vendors sold me snacks without so much as a thank you.

Locals in Chugchilan eye me with suspicion

Locals in Chugchilan eye me with suspicion

Young Quichua girls in traditional dress in Chugchilan's central plaza

Young Quichua girls in traditional dress in Chugchilan's central plaza

As the late afternoon light faded to twilight and temperatures dropped to bone-chilling levels, I finally convinced two beautiful young Quichua girls in the main plaza to pose for a photo before fleeing back to the warmth of the hostel’s wood-burning stove. When my shivering subsided I nosed around the facilities. The dining room was furnished with rough wooden tables and benches and a cavernous below-ground common area room held only a lone computer and three plastic lawn chairs. With no comfortable place to relax I retreated to my unheated room after a tasteless dinner, hoping to catch upon email, only to discover that the Internet was not working. I tried to write but my frigid fingers fumbled on the keyboard and when my throat grew raw from the cold I stood under a scalding hot shower and jumped under a mound of woolen blankets, hoping to ward off the sinus infection that threatened.

Early the next morning I threw open the curtains to brilliant sunshine that rapidly warmed up my room. Anxious to investigate the area, I teamed up with two backpackers from France and Australia for a trek to a cheese factory located in a tiny village, high in the surrounding mountains. The hostel owner drew a crude map on a scrap of paper and assured us the round-trip hike would take about four hours, so we headed out early in order to avoid the fog that rolls in every afternoon.

Church and Plaza Principal in Chugchilan, Ecuador

Church and Plaza Principal in Chugchilan, Ecuador

Just past the church we turned right on a dirt road that climbed steeply and within minutes I was gasping. On the pretense of oohing and aahing over a baby sheep staked to a patch of grassy hillside, I stopped to regain my breath. “How high do you thing we are?” I asked Jerome. He whipped out his altimeter. “We are almost at ze 11,000 feetz,” he declared in his delightful French accent. My brow wrinkled; this was the highest I had been so far in Ecuador. Still, I hadn’t felt any major effects in Quito so I pressed on, grateful that my two young companions were happy to let me rest every so often. Read More

This entry is part 10 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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I thought I was so clever. Ecuador’s President Correa had combined three national holidays into one to create the longest holiday weekend in the history of the country on November 2-6, so instead of winging it as usual, I’d made reservations in Chugchilan, a tiny town in the central mountains renowned for its volcanoes, stunning scenery, and hiking. Unfortunately, I hadn’t given any thought to how I would get to Chugchilan on the day when half a million people flee Quito for their hometowns to honor their ancestors on Dia de los Difuntos, the Day of the Deceased.

Families gather at the cemetery in Chugchilan to clean graves and honor the deceased

Families gather at the cemetery in Chugchilan to clean graves and honor the deceased

A taxi driver burst my confidence bubble the night before I was scheduled to leave Quito. “No es posible para viajar a Chugchilan manana por la manana porque todos los buses estara llena,” he warned. It is not possible to travel to Chugchilan tomorrow because all the buses will be completely full.

The owner of my hostel said my best bet would be to arrive at the terminal as early as possible and hope for the best, so at the crack of dawn the next morning I walked up the ramp to the ticket booths at Quitumbes Terminal and into a sea of humanity. I fought my way up to the only window that was selling tickets for Latacunga, the town where I would need to change buses for Chugchilan, and suddenly realized that the seething crowd was actually dozens of lines formed up in front of the ticket windows. Following the queue backwards I asked every few feet, “Esta es la linea para Latacunga?” Is this the line for Latacunga? “Si, Senora,”was the repeated reply, more often than not accompanied by rolling eyes or shrugged shoulders. On the opposite side of the terminal I finally reached the end of line and took my place, harboring little hope that I would be able to reach my destination. Although there was a bus leaving for Latacunga every 45 minutes, I had to arrive no later than 11:30 a.m. to transfer to one of only two buses that goes to Chugchilan each day.

Just as I was about to give up and go back to my hostel in Quito a man walked by shouting, “Taxi a Latacunga!” “Cuanto?” I asked. How much? “Cuarenta dolares,” he replied. Forty dollars. I grimaced and shook my head. “Pero con cuatro es solo diez dolares cada uno.” But with four people it is only $10 each. With that, he and his companero were off to find three other passengers, even though I had not agreed to his offer. My mind raced. What to do? Was this safe? They were obviously not driving a legal taxi. For all I knew, they were thieves and I could end up in the mountains with my throat slit. Before I could ask the woman in front of me for her opinion they were back with an Ecuadorian family of three in tow – mother, father and teenage daughter. Hesitantly, I asked the father if he thought this was safe and he assured me it would be fine. Seeing my indecision he explained that the men were going to Latacunga to visit their families and were offering to take other passengers to make a little extra money. It was split-second decision time. My gut told me the situation was legitimate. I  followed them out the exit. Read More

This entry is part 9 of 18 in the series Ecuador
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No matter what I tried, I could not get dry. I showered and toweled off, put on one of two pair of pants and T-shirts I had carried into the jungle, and within minutes of stepping into the unforgiving Equatorial sun, my sweat-soaked clothes were stuck to me like a second skin. To put it bluntly, after two days at Cuyabeno Lodge I stank. It was a relief to climb into bed each night, pull the mosquito net around me, and lie spread-eagle and motionless as the exotic sounds of the jungle lulled me to sleep.

My journey around Ecuador had previously taken me to the Galapagos Islands; the dry coastal plains around Puerto Lopez, with their immense stretches of beach and surf; and the central mountains, home to one of the world’s highest capital cities, Quito, but these three zones combined make up only half of the area of the country. The remainder is covered by tropical rainforests and my trip to Ecuador would not have been complete without visiting what is known as Amazonas.

Cuyabeno Lodge on the Grand Lagoon, Cuyabeno National Park. Photo Courtesy of Neotropicturis.

Cuyabeno Lodge on the Grand Lagoon, Cuyabeno National Park. Photo Courtesy of Neotropicturis.

With such a vast area of jungle, options for visiting the Amazon are myriad, however I had an advantage when it came to choosing a specific destination. My friend Heather Cowper, who writes the popular travel blog Heather on her Travels, highly recommended Cuyabeno National Park in the far northeast corner of Ecuador, one of very few inundated tropical rainforests in the world. My first hint that this would be an out-of-the-ordinary adventure came when the owners of Cuyabeno Lodge briefed me about the trip. From Quito I would need to take a seven-hour bus ride to the town of Lago Agrio, where I would be met by their guide for another two-hour van ride to the entrance of the National Park. There I would transfer to a boat for an additional 2.5-hour ride on the Cuyabeno River to the Grand Lagoon. Since the last leg would be accomplished in small motorized canoes, space for luggage was limited to a small backpack; their parting advice was to pack only lightweight, quick-drying pants and shirts, a comment I glossed over and promptly dismissed, to my later dismay.

The following evening I boarded the Esmeraldas bus bound for Lago Agrio and sank gratefully into my front row seat, hoping to fall fast asleep, but the moment we headed down the mountain it became clear this would not be a comfortable trip. For three hours the road plummeted at a grade so steep that I had to brace my feet against the front wall to keep from sliding out of my seat. At the foot of the mountain we entered steamy lowlands bordering the jungle, forcing me to peel off layers of clothing that had kept me warm through Quito’s chilly nights. Finally, I dozed, only to be rudely awakened when the pavement ended and our bus  jounced over rough graveled roads and across a series of rickety metal bridges with narrow wooden planks barely wide enough for the tires. By the light of the full moon I could just make out the glistening rivers far below and my mind conjured images of tumbling to the bottom of the gorges.

Motoring down the Cuyabeno River

Motoring down the Cuyabeno River

As the eastern horizon was blinking pink we pulled into Lago Agrio, a prosperous town on the edge of the jungle where giant refineries process the abundant petroleum being extracted from the Amazon basin. Now in a private van, we traveled a newly paved road that cut a serpentine path through dense vegetation, bordered the entire way by a huge pipeline through which flowed black gold. Two hours later we arrived at the park entrance and transferred to a dugout canoe painted in faded bright colors for our transfer to the lodge. I tottered down the narrow floorboard of the boat and commandeered a rough wooden plank behind our heaped luggage, exhilarated from a combination of sleep deprivation and the foreign landscape that lay before me. Read More