Posted by: Jena Davison | February 21, 2013

Luxury “Stay”cation: Casa Gangotena, Quito

Typically, I travel as a budget backpacker does: carrying my Osprey pack stuffed with practical, wrinkle-resistant clothes; sleeping on buses or in dorm bunk beds as I hop from destination to destination; and eating street food (while sometimes treating myself to a nice local meal).

So when I had the opportunity to stay at a luxury hotel this weekend in Quito, the city I live in, I truly felt like royalty. From the moment I stepped through the ornate wooden doors of Casa Gangotena, I was thoroughly spoiled and instantly transformed from the adjusted, unfazed-by-anything city resident that I am to an enlivened tourist in my own town.

Casa Gangotena from Outside

Casa Gangotena from Outside

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Casa Gangotena is a stunningly restored former mansion that belonged to the powerful and wealthy Gangotena family; it was renovated into the beautiful boutique hotel it is now in 2011. It is located in Plaza San Francisco, one of the grandest plazas of Quito’s picturesque Centro Histórico, or colonial center. The plaza is historical, dating back to the time of the Incas, when it was used as a “tianguez,” or open-air market, where people would trade their wares. The hotel is located next to the architecturally interesting San Francisco Monastery, which dominates the plaza and gives it its name. From Casa Gangotena’s wrap-around rooftop terrace, guests are treated to a spectacular view of the plaza and beyond, including a view of the distinct towers of the gothic La Basilica church and the Panecillo, a massive angel that looks over the (central and northern part) of the city and is beautifully illuminated at night.

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Plaza de San Francisco, Centro Histórico

As we checked into the hotel, we were quickly greeted with a refreshing glass of “Agua de Frescos,” a brightly colored pink medley of herbs, including spearmint, lemongrass, lemon balm, sweet basil, esencia de rosas, and amaranth flowers, stewed with just a touch of sugar. Its unlike anything I have tasted before, a really exotic and energizing taste. The Agua de Frescos’ electric pink color comes specifically from the ataco, or red amaranth plant. This unique drink is typical to the southern Andean region of the country, around the cities of Cuenca and Loja.

We swiftly checked in and were escorted to our room by an elegantly dressed, smiling staff member, who revealed a bit of the hotel’s history to us as we took the elevator to the second floor and walked down the sophisticated yet welcoming hallway that led to our luxury king room. Our electronic key card opened a sturdy beige door, revealing a plushly decorated space with refined details, neutral and royal burgundy accents, and a heavenly king-sized bed piled high with equally divine blankets and pillows. A plate of Ecuadorian fruits was waiting for us: uvillas, tomate de arbol, apples, granadilla, and a peach, accompanied by a guide that explained what each fruit is and how to eat it, in addition to a personalized note from the hotel manager welcoming us.

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Our Luxury King Room

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Complimentary Ecuadorian Fruit Plate

These thoughtful details kept revealing themselves throughout the stay. In fact, it seemed like the management had really thought of everything: the room had an iPod dock, a plasma TV with Direct TV, a temperature control system for optimal comfort despite Quito’s unpredictable weather, a credit card-operated safe to hold valuables, and even two sets of slippers. The bathroom was marbled from floor to ceiling, and featured modern appliances, a bathtub, and complimentary items way beyond the typical soap and shampoo bottles normally found in hotel rooms: body lotion, a small vanity kit for make-up application, a loofah for maximum scrubbing, a hair dryer, a stack of high-quality towels, and matching robes that gave it a romantic feel.

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Marbeled Bathroom

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Bathtub and Matching Robes

Unfortunately, shortly after checking in, it started raining in true Quito fashion. We were not bothered, though; I was happy to have an excuse to stay in the hotel rather than walking the narrow, cobblestone streets of the historical center surrounding Casa Gangotena. We decided to spend some time in the hotel’s library, a small yet stately decorated area with sofas and photography coffee table books about Quito, Cuenca and the Galápagos Islands. Some poetry, English-language novels and wildlife guides were also there for guest use.

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Casa Gangotena’s Library

At around 4:30 p.m., just as our bellies were starting to rumble for a mid-afternoon snack, we were invited to partake in the complimentary Quiteño coffee, the Ecuadorian answer to “high tea.” Sitting at a small table in the lobby area, we were served a two-level tower of treats: sweet and savory empanadas and mini-sandwiches on the bottom tier, and a mix of desserts like meringue cookies, fruit tarts, banana cake, and blueberry cheesecake on the top one. We nibbled on the snacks while sipping on a cup of Ecuadorian coffee to our liking: cappuccino, mochachino and macchiato were just some of the options, and tea was also available. By the end, we were stuffed and satisfied.

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Casa Gangotena’s Lobby

Heading back to the room to relax and nap off our food coma, there was a knock at the door about 30 minutes later. Housekeeping was outside, asking if they would like them to tend to our beds, and dropped off a comments card and a plate of alfajor cookies and coconut-rolled white chocolate truffles. More food? We looked at each other, wondering if the flow of nice gestures and excellent sweets would ever stop.

Later on, we went to La Ronda, just a few blocks from the hotel, one of my favorite places in the Centro Histórico. One of the staff members willingly walked us to the street’s entrance to ensure our safe arrival. La Ronda is Quito’s first road and is reminiscent of traditional Spain. The cobbled street is filled with small places serving typical Ecuadorian food and canelazos (a warm drink made with sugar cane alcohol, local fruits and cinnamon), many of which have live music, as well as some art galleries and shops selling typical Ecuadorian artisan products. Once back at Casa Gangotena, we headed straight up to the wrap-around rooftop terrace, which affords beautiful views of Plaza San Francisco and beyond. From the terrace, you can also see the Panecillo, the strikingly large angel at the top of a hill facing the central and northern part of the city with arms outstretched.

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La Ronda at Nighttime

In the morning, it was difficult to get out of bed. My body had seemingly melted into the mattress overnight, and the room’s grand, opaque curtains blocked out every drop of sunlight, confusing my eyes into thinking it was eternal nighttime. But alas, we did wake up and went down to the dining room for breakfast. The breakfast buffet spread was overwhelming: pancakes, waffles, bacon, breakfast sausages, and potatoes alongside an extensive yogurt toppings bar, cheeses and meats, various breads and fruit marmalades, and muffins. All of this accompanied by fresh fruit juices and bottomless cups of coffee. It was a fantastic way to start the day, to say the least.

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Breakfast Buffet

Afterwards, we packed up and checked out, sad to say goodbye. The whole experience was extraordinary and eye-opening, a small peek into the way some people live and travel. At nearly $500 (with taxes) a night for the cheapest room, I don’t think I’ll be able to stay there again anytime soon. However, I do think if I had the money, I would make it a priority to stay at Casa Gangotena while in Quito. A hotel of this caliber would cost much more in the United States or Europe, so forking out the cash while in a place like Ecuador, you can experience the perks of an immaculately run luxury boutique hotel at a fraction of the cost. All in all, it was a spectacular stay and a true taste of Ecuadorian hospitality.

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Spiral Staircase at Casa Gangotena

Posted by: Jena Davison | January 23, 2013

Playa Blanca, Isla Barú: Paradise in the Caribbean

Anyone going to Cartagena should pencil in a day or two to go to Playa Blanca on the Caribbean island of Isla Barú, about a 40-minute boat ride from the colorful coastal city. This pristine beach with velvety white sand, sky-high palm trees and bright turquoise waters is peeled straight off of a postcard. Despite its high tourism, Playa Blanca remains completely rustic, which adds to its overall charm and appeal. Most tourists come here for the day from Cartagena, either via speed boat or a combined several-hour tour to the Rosario Islands that swings by the beach on its way back to the city. Of course, you can do this too, but you will miss out on Playa Blanca’s golden hours: those before and after the tourists come.

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If you don’t mind sleeping in basic accommodations—and I do mean b-a-s-i-c—you should spend the night on the island. You will need to bring your own tent, rent a tent there, sleep in a hammock, or find a bed in an upstairs attic-like space in a local’s home or restaurant, reachable by wooden stairs.  Bringing your own tent is the cheapest option; you can actually camp for free at some places, but they usually don’t even have a bathroom in that case. For as little as 5,000 COP per person, or around $2.80, you can camp at a place with toilets (albeit dirty and without toilet paper); and for as much as $8.50 per person, you can secure a camping site with a bathroom and shower. Nonetheless, camping in Playa Blanca is significantly cheaper than renting a room in Cartagena, so take advantage of that, plus the fact that you will be sleeping on the sand, just feet from the gentle waves of the Caribbean Sea.

Hammocks on Isla Barú

Hammocks on Isla Barú

When the tourist boats round up the crowds and the beach empties out at about 4 p.m., Playa Blanca’s true colors shine through. Well literally, you will have a first row seat for the evening’s breathtaking blood-orange hued sunset, but you will also get a real taste of the island’s chilled-out, time-passes-slower-than-usual vibe. You will also have an opportunity to chat with the friendly locals and meet other like-minded travelers, if you desire.

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Sun Setting on Playa Blanca

Isla Barú has limited electricity, so upon nightfall, the whole place has a truly intimate and magical feel. You can enjoy a heaping plate of fresh seafood—the specialty being whole fried fish and coconut rice, yum!—with friends or loved ones crowded around small wooden tables illuminated by faint candlelight. Wash it all down with a beer or fresh fruit juice with the sounds of the waves gently pummeling into shore. Take a deep breath—this is paradise. This is also about the time when going to the bathroom becomes a more challenging, disgusting affair, especially for those with female parts. Don’t forget to bring a flashlight!

If you are in no rush, you can hop back on a tourist boat in the afternoon, or arrange to take a mototaxi to Canal del Dique, which you will cross by canoe or ferry. On the other side of the canal, you will need to take a bus from Pasacaballos to the center of Cartagena. This is the cheapest, yet longest and most complicated option (about $7-8 total). The easiest way to get back is early in the morning (around 5:30 a.m.), when a speed boat (very rough/bumpy journey) leaves to bring local island people to Cartagena to work (about $11.50). You will arrive at the Mercado Bazurto in Cartagena, from where you can take a local bus or taxi into town; it is not far, maybe a five- or 10-minute ride, depending on where you are staying in the city.

Playa Blanca

Playa Blanca

The cheapest way to get to Isla Barú from Cartagena is not by taking one of the many slow-moving tourist boats ($22.50-28, including lunch) or a speed boat from the main dock. Instead, go to Mercado Bazurto (no later than 9 a.m., when the last one leaves; get there 30 minutes early to reserve spot) and take a cargo boat to Playa Blanca (about $14). Having taken the tourist boat to the Rosario Islands and Isla Barú, I advise against it, especially if your main goal is spending time on Playa Blanca. If you arrive to Isla Balú this way, you will only have about two hours at most on the island. Luckily, we spent the night, so we had more time to enjoy it.

Turquoise Waters of Playa Blanca

Turquoise Waters of Playa Blanca

The Rosario Islands are very pretty but the entire tour takes over four hours when Playa Blanca is just 40 minutes away, making it a real roundabout way to arrive! The tour stops at one of the islands to allow people to visit the aquarium, or you can rent snorkel equipment and explore off of a tiny, lame “beach” and bathing spot near the aquarium. Playa Blanca is absolutely heavenly and is the highlight of the entire tour, so you are probably better off just heading straight there from Cartagena.

Two of the Many Rosario Islands

Two of the Many Rosario Islands

Posted by: Jena Davison | January 7, 2013

Bogotá’s La Candelaria: Urban Art At Every Corner

I was lucky enough to round out 2012 in neighboring Colombia, an extraordinary country with wonderful people, gorgeous beaches and colorful cities. Although my nine-day trip provided just a sweet taste of all the country has to offer, I had a wonderful time and am already plotting my next return. These next few posts are going to be focused on various places in Colombia, starting with Bogotá’s La Candelaria neighborhood.

I have to admit: Bogotá did not capture my heart like the other places I visited in Colombia. It may have been the frustrating start to my time in the city: a stubborn taxi driver who got lost driving us to our hostel, stretching the 30-minute trip from the airport into well over an hour; arriving to the hostel to find out we had no reservation, even though I had an e-mail confirmation; and eating greasy street pizza for dinner because we were told that was the only thing open within walking distance. To say the least, we were tired, cranky and hungry by the time everything was sorted out and we could finally go to bed. Good thing a night’s sleep gives way to a whole new day. I was up and readsy to hit the streets early the next morning, determined to like–even love–Bogotá by the time I left.

Bogotá is huge. Looking at a map, it seems unmanageable and overwhelming to a traveler with plans to spend just two nights here. Luckily most of the city’s highlights lie within one neighborhood: La Candelaria, the old part of the city, and many travelers will find no need to travel outside its boundaries. Yet, I still feel guilty judging a place without seeing more than just a tiny snippet of it. La Candelaria is Bogotá’s saving grace; it is an artsy area with a distinct young and rebellious feel.

Especially around the Plaza de Chorro y Quevedo, it has a very punk-meets-hipster-meets hippie vibe, with obviously weathered streets crowded with cute cafés serving coffee and aguapanela (a traditional sweet warm drink made by boiling cane sugar with water, served with biscuits and cheese), small bar spaces selling beer and chicha, and smoke shopsWhat I found very striking about this area was its extensive urban art. Thus, I dedicate this post to La Candelaria’s urban art, the beating heart of this barrio’s rough-around-the-edges reputation.

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1) If the concert says it will start at 7 p.m., plan to come around three hours later, because the main act won’t play until 10 p.m. or after.

2) Expect chaos entering the event, as it WILL be poorly organized. Expect the line to be hours long and expect people to cut the line in droves. Expect people to scream “cerdos!” (pigs!) at the police officers who should be doing something about it but aren’t.

3) It WILL rain. Even if it appears to be a clear night when you leave your house, it will rain eventually and will probably (most inconveniently and uncomfortably) happen just as the main act takes the stage. Come prepared with a poncho or umbrella. Which brings me to my next point…

4) Don’t expect to actually open your umbrella during the main act as thousands of angry people will scream at you for blocking their view. Don’t be that asshole that obstructs the stage view with your umbrella, unless you want your umbrella to end up broken.

5) Ecuadorians WILL find a way to start and participate in a mosh pit at an outdoor (or indoor) concert, no matter what type of music is playing. Expect to be pushed around and to jump up and down a lot.

6) People—lots of people—will be drinking pure Zhumir out of bottles. Sharing is caring.

7) Children under the age of 10 years old WILL be snaking through the crowds trying to sell packets of gum and cigarettes to you. Oh, yes, nothing better than buying a cigarette from a homeless 8-year-old!

8) Ecuadorians don’t respect personal space on public buses, so why should they at concerts? The crowd will be packed tight. Stand way in the back if you want breathing room. Also, keep in mind that this means prime territory for pickpockets, so leave valuables at home or hold them close to you at all times.

9) You WILL see someone you know. Whether it is your boyfriend’s best friend’s cousin or your one night stand from three years ago, expect to see them here. Even a crowd of thousands feels small in Quito, where everyone knows each other. Do yourself a favor, and take one last look in to mirror before leaving the house.

10) Leaving the concert can be just as much as a clusterfuck as entering. If you are hoping to catch a taxi outside, leave before the concert ends or expect to wait for an hour—or physically fight someone—to get one. But don’t worry! There will be tons of stands selling sketchy grilled meat kebabs and beers outside the gate–just expect to wait in line for an hour—or physically fight someone—to get some!

In all fairness, though, it is a great time! I went to the Café Tacuba show last night with some friends and really enjoyed it, and made it home safely—though a bit wet. I am looking even more forward to the Julieta Venegas concert this Thursday at 7 p.m. (I mean 10 p.m.). Here is some Café Tacuba music to get you through the day! Feliz Fiestas de Quito!

Posted by: Jena Davison | October 29, 2012

Saraguro, Ecuador: A Peek into Indigenous Culture

Saraguro, Ecuador, is an interesting place to visit, especially if you are looking for an authentic experience in a non-touristy town. Located in the southern Andes mountains, between the cities of Cuenca and Loja, Saraguro refers to both the town itself and to the surrounding canton, which encompasses several nearby indigenous villages, including Las Lagunas, Tuncarta and Namarín. The town has 6,000 inhabitants, while the entire canton has 31,000.

Saraguro’s Main Plaza

The area is named for the indigenous Kichwa group who lives there, also called Saraguro. Not only were the Saraguros the only indigenous group in the province to successfully survive the Spanish conquest, they have also managed to retain their customs and way of life and continue to remain the best-preserved indigenous group in all of Ecuador. They are especially known for their distinctive way of dress. Men wear ponchos, knee-length pants and brimmed black hats (though they traditionally wore wide-brimmed white hats made of sheep’s wool with a spotted pattern under the brim). Women wear long black (often pleated) skirts, black shawls, multi-stranded beaded necklaces and bracelets, and black hats. Both men and women wear their hair in one single long braid.

Saraguro Woman in the Field

I went to visit Saraguro a few weeks ago as part of a work trip and participated in the community tourism project going on there. The project was set up by Fundación Kawsay as to way to encourage sustainable and educational tourism while also funneling money back into the communities themselves. Saraurku is the only tour operator in town and works with Fundación Kawsay directly (they even share an office) to place visitors in home stays with local indigenous families.

It costs $27 per night and includes three meals a day, plus family activities. You have to contact Sarauku at least one day in advance to organize this. The foundation also runs a nice hostel, Hostal Achik Wasi, which has pretty views of the surrounding countryside. If you would like your own space, the hostel may be the right place for you, but I highly recommend staying with one of the families if you want a unique experience.

Chickens on Local Family Farm

Actually, I really lucked out in Saraguro. I had showed up in town with plans to stay at the community hostel, even though I wanted to stay with a family, since I was confused as to how to organize a home stay. When I got to the hostel, I asked about organizing a tour to some nearby workshops and communities and was told it would be very expensive because I was traveling alone and organizing it last minute. It is not possible to visit these communities independently, either, as you need permission to visit them and transportation is complicated. To be honest, I was disappointed. I came to Saraguro because I was genuinely interested in learning more about the indigenous culture and in checking out the community tourism project.

Then I met Lauro, the manager of Sararku, one of the kindest and most helpful people I have encountered in a long time. I think he picked up on my general disappointment with not being able to see what Saraguro has to offer and he graciously offered to take me around the area for the day. He also offered to organize a home stay instead of staying at the hostel. Lauro absolutely made my time in Saraguro worthwhile.

Countryside Around Saraguro

First, we went to a weaving workshop in the small village of Las Lagunas, which has been run by a humble man named Manuel Incarnación Quizhpe since 1976. Funny enough, I ended up staying at the house of Manuel’s son and daughter-in-law  that evening. Manuel showed me around the workshop, explained to me how weaving is a man’s job in Saraguro because it is thought to be too laborious for women, and showed me some of the finely woven finished products, including intricate table cloths. He said the weavings are sold in stores in Saraguro and at artisan fairs in Loja, Cuenca and Quito. Manuel also allows kids to learn how to weave at his workshop for free, and once they have mastered the skill, they can continue making items for money if they want to.

Manuel in his Weaving Workshop

Looms in the Weaving Workshop

Afterwards, I stopped at a traditional Saraguro hat workshop in the village of Tuncarta. The owner has run the workshop for 16 years and is the only guy that makes high-quality handmade traditional hats in the canton. Here I learned a bit about the history of the iconic hat, was able to watch the process of making one, and even tried on a few of them (they are much heavier than I thought). I was told that it takes two days to make one of the hats, and that they cost about $60. They are made from lamb’s wool, and require one pound of wool per hat (one lamb produces one pound of wool, to put that into perspective a bit). The owner also described some explanations about the spotted design on the bottom of the hats, among them that it represents nature or the struggle between the indigenous people and the Spanish conquistadors.

Brushing the Wool to Soften and Separate the Fibers at Hat Workshop

Then I went to visit some organic gardens growing medicinal plants in the village of Namarín. Lauro told me that Saraguros don’t go to the hospital unless it is an accident or emergency; they culturally rely on natural remedies to cure most things. He pointed out plants that treat colds, relieve menstrual cramps and help you sleep better. During the home stay, I was able to see this in action when the son self-medicated his sore throat by eating several tomate de arbols (tree tomatoes).

Medicinal Plant Garden

I spent the rest of my time in Saraguro with one of the local families in Las Lagunas, which gave me insight into their everyday lives. The family had an organic garden, as well as several chickens and cows, one pig and over a dozen guinea pigs. The family I stayed with and most Saraguros have a mostly vegetarian diet; the wife told me they bought the pig solely for a source of income, as they sell its offspring for about $60 per piglet.

Indigenous Woman Feeding Her Pig

The guinea pigs are used to sow the garden, and are eaten only on special occasions, such as Inti Raymi or to celebrate the October harvest. In Saraguro, the women maintain the home, garden and animals. I was surprised to learn that the wife would do the dirty work of choosing, killing and de-skinning the guinea pig (usually a male, since it has less value because it can’t reproduce), and cooking it for all to eat; the husband admitted he was clueless about this.

The Family’s Guinea Pigs

As evening started to fall, we moved inside from the garden to the kitchen. The wife had decided to prepare soy empanadas filled with cheese that night, and I helped her through each step of the process. Making empanadas is super time-consuming, as you have to make and knead the dough, roll the dough into balls, flatten the balls into small discs, place small piles of cheese in the middle of each disc, fold the discs in half and seal them tightly, stretch the edges of the empanadas so they will cook evenly, and fry them in a shallow pan of oil.

Making Empanadas

We made 40 empanadas, so it took several hours to make them all. From here on out, I will certainly think more about how much work went into the $0.80 empanada I am eating. They turned out great, though, probably some of the tastiest empanadas I have ever tasted. We accompanied the empanadas with a fresh salad, boiled mote (hominy) and potatoes, crumbled unsalted cheese fresh from the family’s farm, and mint tea–all was mixed and eaten together out of carved wooden bowls with wooden spoons.

Empanadas Almost Ready to be Fried

Sharing dinner with the family was one of the highlights of the trip and I learned even more about the Saraguro culture. Among the many things they told me, they reaffirmed the simple, healthy—almost antiquated—lifestyle I had seen during my time there. Saraguros typically don’t drink soda, coffee (they drink herbal teas instead) or alcohol (they drink chicha on special occasions instead), or smoke tobacco. The family I stayed with had both a TV and computer but said they rarely used the TV and only used the computer for communication purposes and to assist the son’s musical education (the son plays the violin).

Yet, beyond the family’s obvious rejection of modern societal influences, I was surprised to find out the husband and wife had two children in college in some of Ecuador’s biggest cities, Cuenca and Loja. Although I completely admire and respect the Saraguro way of life, it would be very hard to maintain outside of the sheltered communities they live in, so I wonder how their kids are able to balance university and city life with their traditional culture.

All in all, I had a lovely time in Saraguro. Beyond the natural beauty of the countryside, characterized by textured agricultural landscapes, I’d have to say all of the open and hospitable people really made my stay especially special.

Posted by: Jena Davison | September 19, 2012

Ayangue: A Well-Kept Secret on Ecuador’s Southern Coast

I had never even heard of the small beach town of Ayangue a week before I booked a room at a Canadian-owned Bed & Breakfast there. But within moments, I had fallen in love with this calm coastal village built around a perfectly horseshoe-shaped bay. I felt instantly at ease watching the anchored blue fishing boats bob up and down to the ripples of tranquil waters—in great contrast to the rough, surfer-friendly waves of the rest of the southern Ecuadorian coast.

Fishing Boats on Ayangue’s Bay

Not only is the water still here—it is also warm—and my feet felt like welcomed guests to the gentle waves of the sea as I walked along the water’s edge. And beyond it all, at this very moment, I was feeling the sun shine for the first time in nearly a week, as my time in Puerto López, Montañita and the beach towns in between were masked by a gloominess—a relentlessly cloudy gloominess.

Ayangue’s Bay

Well if there was one thing I did know about Ayangue, it was that it is known for its cheap, fresh lobsters. Within the first few hours I was there, I was on a mission to sample these famous lobsters. I didn’t have to look too far. Dozens of small outdoor restaurants line the beach, serving plates of seafood at plastic tables and chairs buried into the sand. I settled on one called Panchita’s, and the friendly local owner took so much pride in grilling me up an entire lobster, she even cracked open some parts of the lobster with her hands and fed me pieces of meat I had missed when I claimed I was done. A lobster and a large beer, with a side of vista del mar (ocean view) for less than $10. I was smiling from ear to ear.

Lobster on the Beach

This was one of those moments when I had to snap myself back to reality and realize I was working. After my late lunch, I set out to do what I was sent here to do: update the content for the travel guidebook I work for and investigate new places to add. With a palm-sized notebook in hand, I tried to get my bearings on where each business I had to visit was located. Doing so in a place without street names is never easy, no matter how big or small. Although I typically try my best to fake knowing where I am going even when I don’t, this time I must have looked lost.

Cat Creeping Down Stairs of Eco-Lodge in Ayangue

An Ecuadorian guy in his early-thirties pulled over on his bike and asked me what I was looking for. I explained that I was a journalist writing about tourism in town and he lit up with excitement. Accompanying him to buy some avocados, he told me more than I could have ever found out about Ayangue on my own wanderings though town. He is in the middle of building a hostel and campground there, and invited me back to the construction site where his house is to share some tea and arepas with him, his Italian girlfriend and female Spanish friend. The Italian girlfriend was making intricate beads out of large tree seeds as we spoke. It felt so authentic and made me realize why it is so important to know the language in the place you visit or live, if your end goal is connecting with the local people.

Local Fisherman in Ayangue

Ayangue is a great place for scuba diving. Islote El Pelado is 15 minutes away by boat and has lots of different species of coral, rays and colorful fish. There is also a statue of Christ submerged underwater there that many people dive down just to see. You can also walk to a nearby virgin forest where Palo Santo grows or to several nearby beaches. One of the beaches is called Playa Rosada, or Pink Beach, because the excessive amounts of spondylus (spiny pink oyster) shells on the sand make it look as if the beach is pink. About an hour away, there are also rejuvenating mud baths.

Sun Setting in Ayangue

Ayangue is surprising underdeveloped but has that feeling that it is going to blow up on the tourism scene soon. It is still a well-kept secret from foreigners because it is not right off the Pan-American Highway; you need to walk about 20 minutes or take a taxi/hitch a ride to get there from the main highway. However, its beauty and charm combined with the warmth of its locals makes me sure it will see more tourism from foreigners over time, but I hope it will be able to maintain its overall small-town local vibe.
Posted by: Jena Davison | August 20, 2012

Lagunas de Mojanda

While Otavalo is on almost everyone’s agenda while in Ecuador, few people know of  or go to the Lagunas de Mojanda, which are only a little over 15 kilometers away. In stark contrast to the droves of tourists that come to one of South America’s largest artisan markets, Lagunas de Mojanda is a place where you may find yourself the only foreigner among a few locals selling grilled choclo or maduros on the side of the road.

Laguna Grande at Ground Level

Laguna Grande, or Laguna Caricocha, is rather beautiful—a calm lagoon housed in an ancient volcanic crater, surrounded by the páramo. Laguna Caricocha means “Male Lagoon” in the indigenous language Quechua and the lagoon next to it is called Laguna Huarmicocha, which means “Female Lagoon” in Quechua. Legend says that the two lagoons represent an Inca prince and princess that were in love but not allowed to married, and that together they formed the Mojanda Crater, which created the two lakes side by side.

View of Laguna Grande from Further Up

Although it is not possible to do water activities (except sport fishing) in the lagoon, some locals mentioned they may be hiring out boats soon to generate income for the community. The biggest draw to these lagoons is actually the hiking around them, which includes the ability to climb up a few different peaks for beautiful views, in addition to a three- to four-hour circuit around part of Laguna Grande (part of it is adjacent to a swamp so it is impossible to hike all around it), Laguna Negra (Laguna Yanacocha) and Laguna Chiquita (Laguna Huarmicocha).

Laguna Grande and Me

A popular option is to hike up the mountain Fuya Fuya (4,2,63 meters), which is a steep 1.5- to two-hour climb (40 minutes to walk down). On a clear day, though, this mountain affords the most beautiful views of the lagoons and the surrounding countryside. For a shorter climb, some choose to hike up Cerro Tourichupa (3,950 meters) or Cerro Negro (4,260 meters), which are both steep but take only 45 minutes each to summit. The Cerro Negro hike starts at the viewpoint that is part of the multi-hour circuit, on the path toward Tabacundo. It is also possible to hike up Cerro Tolillas (3,900 meters), which is the place to go for views of Lago San Pablo.

Hike Up To Fuya Fuya

The Peak Of Fuya Fuya

No matter which you choose to do, keep in mind that the high altitude may be a challenge and you may find yourself resting and breathing heavily more than you are used to. Also, since it is in the páramo, it tends to be pretty cold and windy, so dress accordingly. After all, Fuya Fuya means “Cold, Cold” in Quechua. Many days, there is nowhere to buy food or water here, so come prepared with enough of both.

Countryside Around Lagunas de Mojanda

There is no public transportation to the Lagunas de Mojanda and there is no fee to enter. Visitors must take a taxi from Otavalo or from one of the few hotels located along the cobblestone road to the lagoons. It typically costs $10-15 each way, then $5-10 per hour you want the taxi driver to wait. From the hostel I stayed at, it costed $20 round-trip as long as we wanted to stay at the lagoons for  a minimum of four hours so the driver could leave and come back. The only other option is to walk up the cobblestone path, but this is steep the whole way up and takes at least five hours. It is not recommended to do this, especially if not in a substantial-sized group.

Hike Down From Fuya Fuya

All photos were taken by Jena Davison at Lagunas de Mojanda, Ecuador.  © All Rights Reserved 2012.

Posted by: Jena Davison | August 9, 2012

TOXIAFICHES: Arte, Petróleo y Resistencia

Last night I went to an event at La Naranjilla Mecánica called “TOXIAFICHES: Arte, Petróleo y Resistencia.” La Naranjilla Mecánica is a funky bar in La Floresta that has rotating art exhibits. Last night was the inauguration of a new exhibit dedicated to the theme of environmental degradation in the Ecuadorian Amazon due to oil drilling by Texaco (which is now Chevron) in the late-1960s to early-1990s.

For those of you who do not know anything about this environmental disaster, its horrendous consequences, and the class action suit that has been seeking justice since 1993, I urge you to read this excellent article that was published in the New Yorker, or to watch the documentary Crude, which I write a bit about in this post about my trip to the Cuyabeno Reserve, the previous site of Texaco drilling.

The art exhibit was organized by La Asamblea de Afectados por Texaco (Assembly of People Affected by Texaco), El Frente de Defensa de la Amazonía (The Front for the Defense of the Amazon) and Amazon Watch. There were several guest speakers from these organizations, and Pablo Fajardo, who is part of the team of lawyers representing the plaintiffs and who is a main character in Crude, also spoke. Beyond sharing a few heartbreaking stories about affected indigenous communities in the Amazon, the main point was that of taking action and seeking justice.

Forty-three different pieces of artwork were displayed last night, and they will continue to be on display for the next two or three weeks, so stop on by La Naranjilla Mecánica if you’d like to see them in person. For those who can’t, I have shared a few of them with you here. Hope you enjoy them!

Posted by: Jena Davison | July 23, 2012

Capturing the Beauty of Cotopaxi National Park

I’ve been meaning to tell you all about a secret hideaway in Ecuador, one of my favorite places amid all the beautiful, interesting spots in this country.

View of Cotopaxi from the Secret Garden

It is a place where you can wake up to the view of the towering, perfectly coned and snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano, or sit and admire it from the comfort of a hammock. It is a place where you can let your adrenaline soar as you climb one of the world’s highest active volcanoes, or soothe your sore muscles in a steamy, candlelit hot tub with a glass of wine. It is a place where you can share a home-cooked meal at a communal table over conversation, or curl up with a cozy book on couches surrounding a blazing fireplace.

Deep into Cotopaxi National Park and perched on a hill looking out to miles of rolling countryside, this special place is called The Secret Garden Cotopaxi.

The Secret Garden Cotopaxi

The Secret Garden Cotopaxi with Illinizas in the Background

Cotopaxi National Park is a special place in and of itself, though–a place I find myself coming back to–and wanting to come back to–again and again. The park encompasses 79,704 acres, with the focal point being Cotopaxi volcano, which mountain climbers from all over the world come to summit. Reaching 19,347 feet, climbing it is no easy feat, but even those who don’t have the time or physical strength to make it to the top can hike up to the refuge at an altitude of 15,781 feet and, depending on weather, further up to the glacier.

Hiking Up To The Refuge

If you want to summit it, you will need to hire a guide, sleep in the refuge and start climbing around midnight to arrive to the top by sunrise. It is a pretty difficult climb, and costs around $200-300 per person, with the risk of having to turn around due to inclement weather or a weak member of the group. The tour operator will provide transportation, meals and  equipment. Many people who do this choose to spend a few days in the area, acclimating to the altitude and climbing easier mountains nearby first.

However, there is no need to climb the volcano to appreciate it. The views of Cotopaxi from parts of the park are spectacular as well, whether enjoyed from a hotel hammock, on horseback or through the window of a car. Many visitors choose to sign up for multi-hour horseback riding or mountain biking excursions through the park.

View of Cotopaxi from Secret Garden Cabana Window

It is easy to make Cotopaxi a day trip from Quito or Latacunga. However, those looking for real relaxation should try to spend a night or two here. There are several lodging options in or near Cotopaxi National Park, ranging from camping to upscale haciendas.

The Secret Garden Cotopaxi is a great deal in comparison to all the other choices, with dorm beds, private cabanas and a private tent cabin. The nightly rate ($32.50-79.50) includes three meals a day, a hike to some nearby waterfalls, free filtered water and coffee, and free use of the on-site Jacuzzi and mountain bikes. The owners have a small farm and garden on the premise. Nighttime is illuminated by candles and fireplaces, as electricity is limited to conserve energy. Take it as a cue to cut off from all technology for the night and connect with the other travelers or your romantic partner instead.

On The Hike To The Waterfalls

Chilling in Secret Garden Cotopaxi’s Hammocks

One of the biggest perks is that Secret Garden Cotopaxi has a sister hostel in Quito and runs shuttles between the two hostels a few times a week for small fee each way. Try to get on one of these. Otherwise, it is possible–but not as cheap or easy–to get there. If you don’t have a car, you will need to take a local bus from Quito to Machachi and  hire a white licensed pick-up truck to drive you from Machachi to the hostel. The Secret Garden can organize the truck for you, and can help you coordinate with other travelers to cut down on cost, since you pay per truck, not per person. An alternative option is to take a train from Quito. No matter how you get there, be prepared to never want to leave.

All photos were taken by Jena Davison in Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador.  © All Rights Reserved 2012.

Posted by: Jena Davison | May 24, 2012

A Sampling of Latin American Music

Since living in Latin America, I have been treated to a whole new eclectic range of music and have expanded my music library considerably to include Spanish-language and Portuguese-language music. Latin America encompasses a huge surface area that produces such a diverse mix of steamy and dance-inducing beats, including salsa, merengue, samba, tango and cumbia. Innovative musicians have merged these genres with electronic music and other musical styles to create truly interesting and progressive tunes. These songs provide a unique contrast to the commercial reaggaeton and Latin pop music that blast from beach-side and bar speakers on a daily basis–the ones you are probably sick of hearing by now if you live here.  This is a sampling of some of the bands/musicians I have come to know about during my time here, enjoy!

Bajofondo Tango Club-An electronic-tango fusion band from Argentina

Calle 13– A Grammy-winning duo from Puerto Rico with a mix of Reggaeton, Latin rap and Latin pop influences

Bomba Estereo– An electronic-cumbia fusion band from Colombia

Orishas– A Cuban alternative hip-hop band

Curumin– A Brazilian musician who incorporates samba, jazz, hip hop and other styles into his Portuguese language songs

Illya Kuryaki And The Valderramas- A 1990s funk duo from Argentina

Daddy Yankee– A popular reggaeton artist from Puerto Rico

Gondwana– A chilled-out reggae band from Chile with romantic lyrics

Rodrigo y Gabriela– A talented flamenco guitar duo from Mexico

Yuri Buenaventura & Band– A salsa band from Colombia

Babasónicos– An alternative rock group from Argentina

Fuego-A solo Dominican-American reggaeton artist

Sudakaya- A ska/punk-reggae band from Ecuador

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