Ecuador: ama la vida

28 Jan

I spent my holidays this year at the middle of the world. My trip began with an agonizing 20-something hour travel day. Santa Cruz is not the best place to fly from, so  in order to get to Ecuador I first had to fly South to Chile, then to Peru, and finally to Ecuador. The cheapest flight I could find involved an 8 hour overnight layover in Santiago. I was able to squeeze in a few moments of sleep, waking up instinctively every 30 minutes or so to make sure my backpack/pillow hadn’t been tampered with. Here’s what the airport looked like at about 3am, with every traveler claiming their own row of seats.

My first stop in Ecuador was Cuenca, where I signed on for 4 weeks of inexpensive private Spanish lessons.  Cuenca is a city of about 250,000 people in the Southern Andes. As an UNESCO world heritage site, it is very charming, clean, tranquil, and colonial. There are 52 churches in Cuenca, one for every day of the week, they say. Here is perhaps the most stunning of the bunch, the “New Cathedral.”

Here’s the New Cathedral lit up for xmas.

The Cuenca mirador:

Cuenca has a famous xmas eve parade, the “Pase del Niño” parade. It’s a strange mix of nativity scene reenactments and children on horseback dressed up like adults. Not sure what that’s all about.

About 2.5 hours outside of Cuenca are the largest Incan ruins in Ecuador, Ingapirca. Definitely worth the trip, although I’ve heard that if you visited Machu Picchu first the ruins at Ingapirca are small potatoes. I’ll most likely be heading to Machu Picchu during my spring break in April, where I’ll probably realize how pathetic the ruins at  Ingapirca are. But for now, I found them impressive.

For New Years I headed to the beach town Montañita, or as I like to call it, la playa de los gringos. It was basically an enormous party for the Europeans and Chileans. The tradition in Ecuador is to construct dolls that represent all of the bad things from the past year. The dolls are then tossed into a bonfire on New Years eve, and all of the problems from the previous year are burned. It’s a nice tradition, if not dangerous. Fire + drunk people = emergency room. I met a few people who ended up with all sorts of injuries after unsuccessfully jumping through fire on New Years. I kept my distance from the flames, however.

I didn’t feel like spending the money to see the Galapagos (which I sort of regret now), but I did make a day trip to La Isla de la Plata, also known as “the poor man’s Galapagos.” The trip involved a drive up the coast from Montañita to Puerto Lopez, a gritty fishing town. It was then a one hour boat ride to the island. I was able to see the famous blue footed booby and a few sea turtles, but I’m sure my experience was about 1% as cool as a trip to the Galapagos. Oh well. Maybe someday.

I returned to Cuenca after New Years for more Spanish class, but after putting up with a really bad teacher for 2-3 weeks, I decided to cut my losses and head to Quito for the remainder of my trip. I was really glad I did, because Quito was absolutely spectacular. Quito is the capitol of Ecuador, and at about 9,200 feet is the highest legal capitol in the world. (Fun Fact: La Paz, Bolivia, is the highest administrative capitol in the world at almost 14,000 feet, but the legal capitol of Bolivia is actually Sucre.) Quito is home to one of the highest gondola lifts in the world, the Telefériqo. I rode the lift with some friends from my hostel to enjoy astonishing views of the city.

The largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas is in Quito. La Basilica del Voto Nacional is a striking Quito landmark, and is also another great way to take in views of the city. You are allowed to climb to the very top of its towers if you’re brave enough to summit the series of narrow ladders and staircases. I visited the Basilica with a friend from my hostel, Summer. Photo credit to her for the pictures of me below (http://www.summerwilsonphoto.com)

Summer and I also explored Old Town together, the more historical and charming part of Quito. There was a really cool outdoor photo exhibit going on in the plazas throughout the city while I was there.

Here is a picture of Summer taking pictures far better than mine.

My last Saturday in Ecuador I travelled 2 hours north to Otavalo, home of one of the largest indigenous markets in South America. I bought slippers and an alpaca blanket, things I will never ever need in Santa Cruz but will certainly come in handy when I’m back in a country that experiences seasons.

Here’s Summer again, deciding which shade of red would be best.

Love this classy pig, wearing aji earrings. He was delicious, might I add.

Well that’s all. My one month in Ecuador was lovely, but it sure was hard to return back to work afterwards. I’m counting down the days until my next vacation…

Sucre

16 Dec

Over Thanksgiving I ventured solo to Sucre, Bolivia to take four days of Spanish classes and relax in the “most beautiful city in Bolivia.” Sucre is an old colonial city–an UNESCO world heritage site, in fact–located about 9,000 feet above sea level. It’s clean, the weather is perfect, and the Spanish spoken there is super easy to understand compared to the less than awesome accent in Santa Cruz. It was a really nice place to spend a few days, and an excellent place to learn a little more Spanish. 

This was easily the most unexpected thing I saw in Sucre: A tribute to Krusty the Clown. I know the Bolivians love The Simpsons, but Sucre is a pretty traditional town; you don’t see a ton of Western influence here like you do in Santa Cruz.

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I spent my mornings drinking coffee and studying Spanish at the Mirador Cafe. This little restaurant was about a 15 minute uphill trek from my hostal and provided stunning views of the city. Muy tranquilo. 

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The plaza just behind the Mirador:

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Fenix, the Spanish school I attended, went above and beyond my expectations. For 40 Bolivianos an hour (less than 7 dollars), I had one-on-one lessons with an amazing instructor. One night, the school set up an outing for its students to go to a performance put on my a local dance school. The dancers weren’t very talented, and the show ended up dragging on for nearly three hours, but whatever. It was still pretty cool to see if not for the costumes alone.

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Here the dancers are performing a traditional dance from the department of Santa Cruz. Go Cambas!

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After spending roughly three days in Sucre alone, it was a pleasant surprise to get a phone call from my German friend Ben from Santa Cruz saying he was in Sucre for work. Travelling alone has its pros, but it can get a little lonely at times. It was nice to see a friendly face!

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And here’s a picture of the street my hostel was on…

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…and here’s the courtyard of my hostel. It was a charming little place to stay in such a charming little city.Image

Sorry this blog post is sorta boring and uninspired. I’m tired. And my mind is elsewhere, because tomorrow I’M GOING TO ECUADOR FOR FOUR WEEKS!!!! WOOHOO!!!

Parque Nacional Tororo — Part 2: Caverns! Catfish!

3 Oct

As if dinosaur tracks and marine fossils weren’t enough, the trip to Torotoro also involved crawling around in Bolivia’s largest cavern, Umajalanta. This was perhaps the most memorable adventure of the trip. I love caves. I love the fleeting feelings of panic and claustrophobia you have to talk yourself down from at times. I love turning off the lights and sitting in the darkest dark imaginable. I love the dripping stalactites. I love observing the massive power of time and water.

In case you were wondering how caves form, it apparently involves lots of HO…wait…hydroxide? That can’t be right. I think whoever made this lovely drawing forgot a ‘2’somewhere…or it was painted over. What a mystery.

Here I am at the mouth of the cavern, eagerly awaiting the damp darkness. Even from the outside, it’s magnificent!

Once inside the cave, we crawled, hiked, repelled, and shimmied around for a couple of hours. Seriously, so cool.

Here I am taking a break under “el arbol” (the tree). Can you see it? The “trunk” is to my right, and I am sitting under the leafy foliage. There were lots of stalactite/stalagmite formations in the save that were given names by individuals far more creative and imaginative than me.

Allow me to demonstrate one place were being little really helps. Sure, I can’t reach things stored in high places, but I can crawl through a cave like a freaking pro.

There was so much sand and dust in the cave that my camera shutter stopped opening completely. It makes it look like I’m crawling through an even tinier space, I suppose.

Towards the end of our cave crawl we happened upon a small pond brimming with tiny, white, blind catfish. Evolution, you’ve done it again! Sooooooo cooooooool. (These pictures really don’t do these fish justice).

More on Torotoro later. Stay tuned!

Parque Nacional Torotoro — Part 1: Dinosaurs! Fossils!

28 Sep

Being a teacher has certain pros and cons. One of the major and most obvious pros of such a profession is the large chunks of vacation time sprinkled throughout the year. On the days when your students are flinging their own feces around the room and dragging their knuckles on the floor, you can just take a deep breath, step back, and tell yourself, “I have a nice long break coming up real soon. And _________ (fill in the blank with your South American adventure of choice) will so be worth all of this insanity.”

Yes, my first 4 day weekend as a teacher was definitely worth the craziness that comes along with spending all day every day with 15-16 year olds. I went along with a few other teachers to Parque Nacional Torotoro, a stunning and spectacular Bolivian gem in the Andes. The park is at 2700 meters and is surrounded by 3500-meter-high mountains. We flew into Cochabamba, my newest favorite city ever. From there, we were picked up by our knowledgable and charming guide, Charles, for the 5 hour drive to Torotoro. On the drive up, Charles stopped on the side of the road and took us on a small hike that led to what he believes are pre-Incan pictographs. Having discovered the site independently, he claimed that he almost never showed these drawings to tourists. I don’t even care if he tells that to everyone; it was a pretty incredible thing to have somebody share with you.

These thorns here I discovered along the way. Bolivia is so badass.

The drive up into the mountains was breathtaking. With scenery like this, 5 hours passed quickly.

There is not a shortage of amazing things to see in Torotoro (thus, more than one blog post will be set aside for the trip. Too many pictures!) On day one, we ventured up to Humajalanta, the largest cave in Bolivia. The hike up to the cave was about 2 hours, and all along the way were fossilized footprints of biped and quarduped dinosaurs from the cretaceous period 120 million years ago. 

One of our guides, Pablo, shows the tourists what’s up.

I guess I’m running with the dinosaurs here. Or something like that.

If you get bored and would like to ID these dino tracks, here’s a nifty guide for you!

While the dinosaur tracks were incredible, the hike would have still been beautiful without them.

Here is a house we saw on the way up the hill, complete with corn stored in a tree.

Marine fossils stuck up on a mountain from when the whole area was submerged under water were also on the agenda for the day. This place is seriously a scientist’s playground.

Here you can see all the different layers in the earth formed back  when this particular piece of land was horizontal. Given enough time and enough turmoil, anything is possible.

“Gracias Soboce por la carrera bonita!”

18 Sep

Last Sunday I ran a 10k in Santa Cruz. I haven’t entered a race in nearly a year, and I’ve been running about 50% as much as used to when I was competing for real, but when I heard that they were giving away sweet cash prizes to the top 6 women in each age group, I figured I had to enter. I mean, really, top six gets prize money? And this is Bolivia, where people really don’t run. I assumed I was a shoe-in for some dinero. I ended up taking second for my age group, earning 900 Bolivianos (the equivalent of nearly $130 !!!!). I really was hoping to win the whole darn thing, but I didn’t feel too bad about it after I was informed that the female winner is the  “best runner in Bolivia.” She kinda kicked my butt, so good for her. But, last time I won something for running it was a $50 gift certificate to Thunder Cloud Subs after taking first in my age group at the 5 mile turkey trot in Austin. Free subs was pretty awesome, but real money is so much more awesome. That kind of cash could buy me like a billion sandwiches in Bolivia! Anyway, people were pretty excited to see a gringa on the podium, and after the awards ceremony I was attacked by reporters and people wanting to interview me for their newspaper or radio show. It was mildly embarrassing. My friends were getting a huge kick out of it, though. The best was when Soboce, the company that helped put on the event, asked me to do a spot for one of their TV commercials. “Look into the camera and thank Soboce for the great race,” they demanded (in Spanish). OK, whatever: “Gracias Soboce por la carrera bonita!” They were thrilled. I should have asked for more money.

Oh, did I mention I was in the newspaper? Here I am on the podium with the other champions. I love the novelty oversized check and the giant grin on my face. Can you tell how seriously I took this?  My students loved that I was in the paper, by the way. Miss Hansen is freaking famous now.

Samaipata

5 Sep

Last weekend I was invited along with some French travelers on a trip to Samaipata, a small town about 3 hours outside of Santa Cruz nestled in the foothills of the Andes. Santa Cruz is everything that Samaipata is not: dirty, loud, crowded, “modern,” and pretty charmless. Samaipata is where people go to escape from Santa Cruz for a weekend, and I can definitely see why. And considering it cost only 120 Bolivianos (less than 20 bucks) for four people to take the taxi from SC to Samaipata, it will be an easy trip to take many times a year.

When we first arrived in Samaipata we went out to dinner near the central square. On our way home, I found this darling sad little baby kitten in the streets. It was so skinny and so young. It could not have been more than 6 weeks old, max. The poor thing was definitely too young to be away from it’s cat mommy. Seeing as I have a reputation for adopting kittens, I decided it would be a good idea to take this cat back to Santa Cruz with me. My French friend Emilie encouraged the idea. I named the kitten Pata, which means ‘paw’ in Spanish, and is also short for Samaipata, obviously. We took Pata back to the hostel with us, where we dressed him up in this adorable miniature hat that Emilie bought in Peru. Pata was very tired and very happy to be in a warm place, and he slept on the couch wrapped up in Emilie’s scarf the whole night. However, in the morning, after Pata took a dump on the floor and I discovered he had fleas, I decided that taking a stray cat home with me was a BAD idea. So we kicked him back out on to the street, where he will probably die a horrible death any day now. Such is the life of a street kitty. And I am a terrible person.

The next day we went to El Fuerte, a pre-Incan archeological site outside of town. I am not really sure what more to say about this, except that it was neat. I wish I knew more about the site. It’s old. It’s cool. We hiked around. Neat!!

After returning from El Fuerte, we went to the “zoo” in town, which is actually an animal sanctuary for rescued animals. This was one of the highlights of the trip, as we got to play with monkeys. And by “play with,” I mean get completely molested and swarmed by monkeys. It was really, really cool. Here is a monkey with me and another traveler, picking something out of hair. I didn’t realize there was anything in my hair to even pick out. Disturbing.

Do you know how hard it is to get a monkey off your face? Pretty hard, it turns out.

This spider monkey is doing an impression of my from a few weekends ago where I…well…had a little incident involving some bacteria and my stomach and some puke and some other stuff. I went to the hospital. But this guy won’t have to, because he’s just playing. What a guy!

The next day we went on a 4-5 hour hike in Parque Amboro, an incredibly beautiful national forest. According to wikipedia: “Amboró National Park in central Bolivia is a nature reserve with over 800 species of birds, over 125 mammalian species including puma, ocelot, and the rare spectacled bear. Covering an area of 4,425 km² (1,709 sq mi), it is protected from human settlements, hunting, mining and deforestation.” Of course, we saw really no wildlife, but we did get to see some pretty amazing views and gigantic ferns posing as trees.

All in all it was an excellent weekend escape. I look forward to going back soon, whenever SC really gets on my nerves again in the future.

Birthday

30 Aug

 

 

Sorry for the lack of posts. I suck. And have been busy.

My Bolivian birthday (which was on August 9th) was one of the best birthdays I’ve had in a long while. The students at school were great, the 8th grade band played a personal concert for me in my classroom, and my friends/colleagues took me out to a delicious dinner. Here’s me and my awesome neighbor Silvia.

The llama steak was surprisingly delicious.

 

 

 

I was unsure why my friends were so insistent that we went to this particular restaurant. But, when the lights dimmed and the entire wait staff approached the table singing, clapping, and carrying cake, it all made sense.