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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Best of the Season!

Our small nod to the season,
Sending love and happiness to all of our family and friends. Know that we're thinking about you and are celebrating with you even from a distance. Merry Christmas! 

It's hard to believe, but Christmas is almost here and another year is ready to close. The decorations are popping up everywhere here and we've even put up a few ourselves.

It's been a tough year, at least from the world's perspective. Hate has reared its ugly head and fear has blossomed, but perhaps at this time, we can pause and reflect on the good of man, of our kindness  and generosity of spirit.

For Christians, it's a time to reflect on the message of love that was brought to the world by the Son of God. For Jews, Hanukkah is the celebration of light, which for me is always a symbol of hope. Eid (already well passed and celebrated by our Muslim brethren) heralds the end of the most religious time of year; Ramadan and is a celebration of gratefulness to God. Other traditions follow a similar pattern, like Kwanzaa and Saturnalia (or dare I say...Festivus, Daniel O'Keefe and Seinfeld fans?), Diwali, Bohdi Day, Sadeh, and, of course, Yule.

All these suggest, at least to me, that we celebrate lightness over darkness, practice gratitude and are not really all that different. What we do exactly, might vary, but underneath we all want the same thing, more or less.

So without regret, I wish you all happy holidays, not because I want to take Christ out of Christmas (nothing irritates me more than 'X-mas"), but because I also want to embrace your belief system is and while I'm most likely to say Merry Christmas, it's just my way of saying "I wish you well and hope that whatever your God is called (or not, as the case may be) that you live in light and have a blessed and joyous season." 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Trip to Ecuador - Part 3 Food!

Food is always an interesting and subjective subject. One man's manna is another's swill - so to speak.

There are certain truths that exist in Ecuador. It isn't one of those countries blessed with an adventuresome palate. The indigenous population has never felt the need to augment their basic food supply with tons of spice or over the top flavour. Now, that isn't to say that there isn't good food here. Sure, their favourite "spice" is salt, but Ecuadorian chefs are masters at soup and fried chicken. (You heard it here first!) 
Pasta with Kale and Peppers
On the coast there's tons of seafood; especially corvina (a catch all phrase for a bass like fish that comes in many sizes. Ceviche is sold here, but by law, the fish needs to be cooked and cannot be just cured in citric acid, so it doesn't have the same texture as Peruvian ceviche. 

Cuy is a food for celebrating here and can be quite pricey. Word of warning: the guinea pig is often served with its head...the incisors can be quite off putting, as are the little burnt ears and blackened paws. Besides that, if you get it from the right place, it's quite delicious.

Play find the head!
Chancho...or better known as roasted another treat. Often served with a mashed potato/cheese pancake and a salad of onion, lettuce and carrot, this dish is pretty awesome. The crisp skin and slow cooked meat is hard to beat. (Cuy is cooked the same way and you get the same crispy skin.)

Beef is a tough one here...literally. While you can get decent (and even excellent) beef, more frequently it is pretty tough. Why, you might ask? Because they don't age the meat usually. That old joke about cutting the horns off and running it through the frying pan...well that actually happens here (kind of). Aging is a critical step in breaking down the meat fiber and if the beef isn't cooked low and slow or under pressure, it resembles old shoe leather. That being said, I've had some pretty amazing steak here, but the chef's know what they're doing or import meat from places that do.

There is also a wealth of fruits and vegetables. Where the vegetables get to, besides in the soup, is a bit of a mystery to me. The traditional style almuerzos (two/three course lunches) usually only have a mild nod to rabbit food. The fruit usually winds up in juice, which is almost always super tasty, as well. 
Vegetarian Almuerzo Option

Of course, the capital, Quito, has a really good range of foods, if you're willing to splurge a little to get them. (That's a relative phrase here, as you can get a fairly solid almuerzo for $2.50.) Cuenca's food scene is eternally developing and more restaurants are opening that focus on flavour and quality ingredients as opposed to  cheap and fast. This is a good thing, but the Cuencano palate is generally geared towards blander foods, so the restaurateurs have their challenges.

All this being said, don't be afraid to go out and try bollos (stuffed and fried plantain balls), maduros (ripe plantain with fresh cheese), empanadas, ceviche and skewers of meat fried street side. A must is to try salchipapas - hot dogs on fries usually with all sorts of toppings like ketchup, mayonnaise, salad and other things - it's the snack of champions here

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Trip to Ecuador - Part 2 Climate

Climate! What to pack? What's it going to be like? Aigh! 
Okay, so let's not panic. While Ecuador is close to the equator (hence it's name) not everywhere is hot. For a trip that traverses the three climactic zones, layering is going to be key. 

The Coast is more casual and you will see more shorts, flips flops, sandals and tank tops. Why? Because it's hot, sticky and everything is damp, especially during the rainy season. (February to early April - but that's only a rough guide line.) It runs in the low to high 30's (Celsius) and occasionally can hit the 40's.

The Andes are cooler, you might need a light jacket at night, or if you're wandering around the Volcanoes or highlands, you could need gloves, knit hat and scarf. (It kind of depends where you come from and the time of year.) In Cuenca and Quito, we get by fine with just a light jacket or sweater, even during the cooler season in July. I've never had to use gloves, scarf or toque (that's a knit beanie for US readers). However, I've been up in the Cajas and have needed all three - oh, and I'm Canadian, so I have a certain innate tolerance for cold.

Here's my strategy: I have a light weight rain shell, that can protect me from unexpected downpours (which are remarkably frequent over a good part of the country), a sweater/exercise jacket and then my shirt of choice. This usually does me for any and all temperatures here. On the coast, I stuck to the same process, but usually only needed one extra layer if it was raining. An umbrella is also an excellent idea.
Trusty athletic jacket and rain shell.
In the Andean cities it is fairly unusual to see shorts on anyone (except children and teenage girls). You do see tank tops and skirts, but men almost always wear pants. Shoes are a big deal here, but most locals expect foreigners to go for comfort and not style. Nice restaurants can have very well dressed people (suits and ties) but there will also be people dressed more casually and you probably won't be denied service because of dress.
Andean Wilderness Trekking Gear
If you're heading to the Amazon you're going to want decent travel/trekking clothes; light weight, water repellent, with long sleeves and pant legs. (That keeps the bugs out.) You'll also want a good hat, bug spray and really good sunscreen. A bathing suit is recommended so you can frolic with the piranhas (not kidding), and other river fauna. Oh, and be prepared for mud...lots of it...the suck your boots off your feet kind of quagmire that only happens in places that are constantly wet.

I want to make a point of discussing is a must. (Many people say the same for hats, but I only haul mine out on the very hottest of days, but I have tons of hair, so that affects my selection process.) The rays of the sun here are strong...really strong. 16 degrees here feels like 23 and 23 feels like you're heading towards 30. It's not something to mess with. I can stay out for most of the day in ambient sunlight in Vancouver and not burn, but here it only takes 15 minutes for me to turn as red as a lobster. Even the locals use sunscreen or cover themselves up and use umbrellas to protect themselves. This applies to anywhere in the country and anyplace even near the equator.
Footwear will depend on what you like to do on your holidays Hiking shoes (good tread, good support and breathable) are recommended so you can be comfortable and trek around easily. They can take you from city streets, to the national parks and the rocky shores of the Galapagos. They also tend to be water proof, which is a bonus for wandering in the mud of the Amazon. You might want to bring rubber flip flops if you plan on staying in hostels and for going to places like visiting towns with natural hots springs like Banos de Imbarra, Banos de Cuenca etc, plus they're great for the beaches on the coast. Whatever shoes you choose to bring make sure they have rubber soles with good grip; this will prevent you from sliding over the wet tiles that often pave the sidewalks in the cities - this is a million dollar tip and will save you from sitting on your fanny in the middle of the street because of a little rain shower. (It;s embarrassing and I speak from experience.)

If you have any questions about Ecuador, please let me know. Further installments to come.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Planning a Trip to Ecuador? Part 1

As many of you know, we love to travel. We've switched roles over the years, with Ron now doing most of the planning and me worrying about how to pay for, but there's something exciting about a new adventure.
The Cajas as seen from our guestroom window
So what do you need to know if you're planning a trip to Ecuador? Lots of things...more things that one little blog post can handle, but some general information might come in handy.

The Basics
Climactic Zones
I'll only gloss over the three climate zones: the coast (hot and humid, but with a breeze near the ocean), the Andes (Spring-like and high altitudes) and the Amazon (hot, humid and wet). The Galapagos is famous for its unusual and diverse fauna and is also mostly hot and humid, with refreshing oceans breezes.

Currency (monetary & electric...see what I did there?)
The currency used in Ecuador is the US dollar; US coins are also accepted, but Ecuador also has their own coins as well.

Voltage is the same as the US and Canada (110-115) and adapters aren't required for US and Canadian travelers. 
Taken in late November...there's always something blooming.
Major cities:
The largest is Guayaquil (a little over 2.5 million), the business centre of Ecuador. The city has little to offer tourists, outside of the Malecon, the Iguana park and Santa Ana. (Oh, and a pretty nifty cemetery that's HUGE, but hard to get in to.) It is HOT in Guayaquil, with no cooling breezes off the ocean as it is located up the river basin. You need to shell out a lot of money to get a hotel with a pool and there aren't many restaurants in El Centro that are opened at night, except in the hotels.

Quito is the capital and a beautiful, but busy, city with a population of around 2.5 million. There is lots to see and do in Quito, but as it's at 9,200 feet (-ish) be prepared for some adjustment time. Altitude sickness ranges from shortness of breath and headaches to embolisms and death in the most extreme cases. Most hotels are prepared for such possibilities and have bottles of oxygen ready and waiting, as well as doctors only a phone call away.

The best advice we ever got about adapting to altitude are these three simple things:
    1. Take it easy on the first hikes, hill climbing or strenuous activity - LAY LOW
    2. Stick to clear liquids for the 12 hours, avoid heavy/rich food for the 1st 24 hours.
           (This may be hard there's a lot of food to tempt you but try to persevere.)
    3.  No alcohol for 24 hours. 

Side note: we used this strategy in Cusco and it worked like a darn!)

Cuenca is the smaller sibling of the two big cities. It has a population of about 600,000. It is at 8,400ft, so altitude can still be a problem. It is like Quito for architecture, but smaller and less frenetic.
A local parade...

...passing along our street...

Getting Around
In between these three major cities is a wealth of  smaller cities, towns and villages, broken up by soaring vistas of the Andes with the snow capped volcanoes, rolling tundra and cloud forest. The coast offers endless stretches of agriculture: bananas, rice, papaya, cacao, sugar cane plus the diverse and plentiful beaches. There are the lush humid jungles of the Amazon offering a cornucopia of wildlife and plants, and home of many indigenous tribes that live as they have for hundreds of years.

Important tip 1:
If you look at a map of Ecuador, it doesn't seem very big, but because the Andes run through the centre of the country, it takes a long time to drive most places. The average drive time between Guayaquil and Cuenca is 4 hours; Quito and Cuenca is 10 hours. Routes to get to the coast usually run from larger city to larger city, so you may need to take a circuitous route to get where you want to go. Flying from city to city is (fairly) affordable and saves a lot of time if you are trying to pack a lot of things in to a short visit. 

Flying is most efficient (between larger centres), but can have problems with luggage restrictions, delays due to volcanoes and other issues and, of course is a bit more expensive.

Bus travel is inexpensive, but  some travelers warn about pick pocketing. (We haven't experienced that yet, but know people who have.) It's a great way to see the countryside and can be entertaining with all the vendors that hop and off the buses.It is also a long journey, as previously mentioned, so if you're on a quick trip flying might be best.

Private driver/Group Tours both have their benefits, you usually see more, can stop at places of interest and many people fee safer than on the buses. There is a premium for private service (example it cost us $200 to drive 7 hours to the coast, one way, but there were four of us which made it less expensive than flying.) There are many different types of group tours: ones that focus on resettling in Ecuador, ones that do big city tours and others that give you a taste of the various regions, artistry etc. There's something for everyone.

Trains are available in parts of the country, but aren't relied upon as standard transport. You can take multi or single day trips to various locations and get a similar experience to taking the bus, in that you get a good taste of the countryside.

There are also trekking, biking and hiking companies that will show you around specific areas. 

Stay tuned for part two: Climate - what do I need to pack?