Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Northern Beaches of Ecuador

I spent the last two weeks busing between some of the northern beaches of Ecuador and Quito. The first week, Aaron and I spent at the beach Atacames. It was beautiful with medium-sized waves, friendly people, lots of fresh fish and shrimp to eat, and artisan stalls.
There were also many stray dogs, including one (we named Sandy) who followed us around for an entire afternoon. Stray dogs are as common here as squirrels are in the United States, though (perhaps due to my now taller height) it seems there are fewer now than there were when I came as a child.

We took a walk to one end of the beach where a fresh water river had its delta, and found a field of trash. Plastic bottles, shoes, styrofoam, plastic bags, building materials, old clothes, fishing line, and glass seemed to be the most common artifacts. Walking along barefoot, we opted to start back toward the cleaner beach when we looked down and saw an old syringe half-burried in the sand. Though we walked away, the trash field was heavily populated by birds, crabs, and where it spilled into the water, small fish were congregated.

We took the bus back to Quito, saw Malaika briefly, and Aaron got on a plane back to the States. The following morning, I got back on the bus and took it back to Atacames, where I discovered that the buses to Mompiche beach stop running after 5pm. Atacames, like most of the country, experiences daily power-outages due to the country-wide drought, and so I waited in a quickly darkening town for my parents to make the drive to pick me up. Driving in the dark in Ecuador is especially harrowing due to large potholes, unmarked speed bumps, and a general lack of street lights, coupled with other crazy drivers and the tendancy for most trucks to have one or more non-functional head- and/or break lights. I was thankful to finally meet my family and find them all in one piece.
At Mompiche, the waves were awesome for body-surfing, and the beach was less touristy. We took a boat ride around the edge of the cove and out to a newly-formed island covered in sand dollars (which here they call sea stars because of the perfect stars in their middles and which have a "nursery" right inside the bend of the island) and little red crabs... well as young mangrove trees, which are part-creaters of the island. Some of local food and profit comes from the conch shells which are collected from the muddy roots of these cool trees. The trees also support a wide-variety of birds and insects, and their steady destruction in Ecuador (and other parts of the world) due to shrimp farming and other commercial enterprises, is threatening the biodiversity and health of the coastal area.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What is south of Quito?

I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but stick with it - there are lots of pictures!

My friend Malaika arrived nearly a month ago, and after spending only a couple days adjusting to the altitude, came with me on a visit to the little CSA in La Merced. We arrived in the late morning after a harrowing adventure (full of circles and closed roads) through Quito's sprawling expanses. We were immediately put to work helping B
en (of the couple that was taking care of the farm while the owners were in Holland) use an "A" Frame to find level and hand hoe beds on contour in their new upper field. It was hard work, but nice to be in the dirt again. Kristy (the other half of the couple) came back midway through that process, and after lunch we worked with her doing some weeding and bed-maintenance in the lower vegetable gardens. (Malaika weeding below)
The cow woke us up early, and we got up and dressed to find it a beautiful sunny day. Out the window of the house we were staying in, we had a gorgeous view of Cotopaxi, and the air was cool and clear - a nice break from the almost visibly grey air of the city.
Below: Malaika (on the left) and Kristy (on the right) getting ready for the morning.

We weeded again most of the morning, enjoying the time in the sun and the cute baby plants. The lower vegetable gardens are semi-terraced on a slope, and as you can vaguely see in the picture below where I'm weeding, they are using drip-lines for irrigation here. At this time, the rains still were only coming hesitantly, and water was becoming scarce. The farm has several different water collection set-ups (including water tanks made of tires cemented together in a cylinder and a giant swimming-pool-esque collection hole,) is on a slope, and located right on the edge of a ravine with an all-year-round stream at the bottom, so it is generally a little better off than others. Other cool things of note on this farm are the heavily producing bee hives, composting toilets, and grandmother named Carmencita who is both a wealth of knowledge and hilarious.

Below: I just wanted to include this picture of a pig cave. This is the home of the mother of Fernando (one of the workers on the CSA), and along with this awesome space she's created to give her pig shade, she is also farming on an incredible slope and cultivating some of the fastest-growing corn I've seen here.
Below: this is a picture of the central square of La Merced. It is a one stoplight town, but every town here - almost no matter the size - has a central square and an impressive little church.
After our adventure to the farm in La Merced, Malaika and I went looking for another one in a place called Palugo. Though we weren't successful that time, we did end up on a road to some wonderful hot springs in Papallacta, and caught some beautiful views on the way (below).

And, on the way home to Quito, saw the mountain one last time. Since then the rainy season has asserted itself a little more heavily and clouds hang full and low most of the time, blocking my treasured mountain views.
Back home in Quito, Malaika, my brother Caleb, and I went out to the Iñaquito market to go vegetable shopping. We bought the weeks worth for less than ten dollars, and carried heavy bags home, only squishing one avocado on a large bunch of bananas.
Aaron arrived soon after and after a long sleep was ready for adventure as well. He, Malaika, and I packed backpacks, snacks, a tent, and an ipod, borrowed my grandparent's little blue car, and took off heading south.

Though the skies were grey, the ground was turning greener and we were fortunate to see some really spectacular valleys and lush farmland.
Though our maps were poor, and our guide from several years before, we found our way from town to town, admiring old architecture...
narrow cobblestoned busy streets...

interesting and creative nativity scenes...
...and the incredible strength of friendliness of the people.

In between towns and cities we found ourselves driving through incredible and diverse landscapes, from deep red soil to acacia trees to sugar cane and palm trees. Though our car was thankful for the smooth roads, the harsh slices into the surroundings to create them were sad to see. Erosion and loss of property are only two of the many problems caused by the maintenance of such nice roads.

We drove south nearly all the way to Peru and then turned up and west to follow the Ruta del Sol (Route of the Sun) up the coast and eventually eastward and home to Quito. We stayed the night in the beach city of Salinas, enjoying the refreshing salt water and sand, but not so much the high rises. Fortunately, we have been traveling in the off season, so there were fairly few tourists and plenty of places to stay - though most not in our price range.
Below: I wanted to include a photo of just one of the many alternative types of transportation one can find on the beach. Beach towns often have one road (I guess in the States we call them "boardwalks?") and here you can often find everything from bicycle-powered rickshaws, to motorcycle-powered baby taxis, to small pedal-powered cars like these.
Though the roads were not as nice on the way up, the views of the ocean and the quickly and often changing landscapes made it my favorite part of the trip. Our poor car at this point was beginning to express its distress though, so we opted to make our way home as quickly as possible.

Our biggest problem turned out to be our tire, though thankfully we only lost one, we really lost it. The tire-guys we later went to were impressed, turns out it's not easy to take the tread off your tire quite like we did, while also managing to keep it full of air.

In between beach views, scrub lands, marshes, and banana plantations, there were what are called "dry forests" including some really amazing green trees with buttressed roots of impressive heights and widths. Outside the jungle, I haven't seen anything like them here.

Unfortunately, we also saw expanses of incredibly dry land. Though in Quito the rainy season may be making an appearance, it seems as though a lot of the country has not been so lucky.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Thursday evening, my family piled into the car and drove from Quito south to Riobamba. It was cloudy on that ride, and it was as if we were in any other part of the world, one would have no idea that some of the biggest mountains in the world loomed above us only miles away.
We woke up early and drove all morning down to Cuenca. The day was clear and warm, and the views enormous. Patchwork hill after town-dotted valley led us along their curved roads the whole way, and we were fortunate to arrive in the city with some daylight left.
After a stint to see about extending our visas, we tucked our things away in our beautiful old hostel, and went exploring. I especially enjoyed the old architecture; the brick and adobe buildings with pealing or weathered paint leaning in slightly over the narrow cobblestone roads were just what I love the most about old towns.
There is clearly a heavy Spanish influence in the town's decorative carvings and building design (above and below), but the people in and around the small city are very Ecuadorian, and it was not unusual to see Indigenous dress (colorful skirts, white fedora hats, long-braided hair, and ponchos) right alongside neatly put-together outfits of the latest Quito fashions.
The next day, we visited the big museum in the old Banco Central, which was full of interesting history of the city and Ecuador in general. There were gorgeous artifacts, detailed descriptions of the spiritual life and ceremonies of the early inhabitants (including the shrinking of heads, elaborate dances, and oral histories told in the form of poems), depictions of dress, artisan works, and building techniques, and finally a explanation and map of an Incan ruin which was located right behind the museum. We of course went out to take a look.
The ruins were mostly rebuilt, but it was neat to walk around in them anyway. We found later that you could see them from quite a distance.
That evening, we went up to a high hill on the south side of the city, and watched the sun set as the lights sparkled on below. (It was from this spot that you could see the ruins.) We noticed that unlike other cities in Ecuador, this one had very few high-rise buildings, and almost all the roofs were still red-tiled. The city has been well preserved as its own entity, functioning somewhat autonomously from the central Ecuadorian government due to its location in the south, and possibly also due to its success at supporting itself. (Perhaps because of the four rivers which run right through it.)
It was a lovely place to visit for a weekend.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


My dad, brother, and I got up early on Saturday morning and drove north to the town Pijal to meet up with our friends the Lechons for a day trip up the mountain Imbabura. The five of us piled into their four-wheel drive pickup truck and after a harrowing trip along rutted and rugged dirt and cobblestone roads, parked it at the base of our chosen trail.
We lucked out and chose a beautiful day for the trip. Almost the whole time, we had fabulous clear views.
Above: Imbabura's crater, standing at over 4,000 meters
Below: Two of our many breath-taking views of the mountain Cayambe to the east. (My brother Caleb took this first picture from up on a higher ridge, can you find me and my dad?)

We didn't summit, but we got pretty high. We had a tasty picnic lunch and then practically ran down the steep mountainside. Before we drove home to Quito, we took a detour and drove up to see the lake Mojanda, near the base of the mountain Mojanda. It was especially beautiful to be there around sunset, and the water was so calm. The place radiated tranquility.
Below: Here we all are at the end of our day. From left to right: Caleb (my brother), Jens (my dad), Me, Edison, and (his dad) Alfonzo.
Below: Here's the view of Imbabura at sunset that saw us off on our way home.