Valley of the Volcanoes

March, 2013:  Wayne’s post –

What a great trip!!   Hiking and biking 3 incredible volcanoes in the heart of the Andes of Ecuador.

First, we (Tony, Michelle, Bill and I) endured a long 8 hour bus ride and arrived at Latacunga where we spent the night.   The next morning we got a ride to the entrance of Cotopaxi  park and met up with our group organized by Biking Dutchman.    The rest of the group were youngsters;  a couple from Montreal, a guy from Singapore, and a couple of  Brits.   Our guide was Alberto and 2 drivers for the vehicles which hauled us around with our bikes on top.

After about an hour ride up the volcano we arrived at the end of the road.     Though we were close to the snow we couldn’t see much – it was foggy, cold, windy and sleeting.   We quickly put on as much clothes as possible and jumped on our biked to start the descent.    Fortunately, the further down we went the warmer it became and the more we could see of the beautiful landscape.       We rode for 3 to 4 hours mostly downhill on dirt trails and roads on our very nice mountain bikes.    At the end of the ride, we were hauled to Quilatoa, a small indigenous village at about 1300 feet.    It was cold there but we stayed in a beautiful lodge that had wood stoves in our bedrooms as well as the lobby.    I remember being frustrated at my inability to sleep well but I later realized that it was from the altitude.

The next morning, we hiked down to the Quilatoa lake which was at the bottom of an extinct volcano crater.   It is incredibly beautiful.   Tony and I took a nice kayak ride.     After a good work-out to hike back up, we got on our bikes and rode to Zumbahua where we had lunch.   Then, we were shuttled to what seemed the middle of nowhere where we started biking downhill on a dirt road that had spectacular view of the valley and Cotopaxi in the distance.     Later that afternoon, our descent ended in the valley at Saquisili.

Our third and last day, we left our hotel in Riobamba and headed for Chimborazo volcano, the country’s tallest mountain at 20,700 feet.    We hiked up 200 meters in elevation from the 1st refuge to the 2nd refuge, where those that attempt the summit depart from in the middle of the night.    Here, we were at 5000 meters, about 1650 feet and the views were  amazing.     The nicest bike ride of the trip was in the afternoon – about 60 kilometers down to Ambato.    As the younger Europeans raced by I was trailing the pack taking in as much of the beautiful scenery as possible.

That night, the Cuencano gringos (including myself) decided to stay the night in a nice hotel in Ambato and relax before taking the 7 hour bus ride home the next day.     Soaking in the Jacuzzi was a perfect way to end our very satisfying biking and hiking trip in the heart of the Ecuadorian Andes.     041057IMG_0963082095091109

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Semana Santa

March 28 – 31:  Easter in a predominantly Catholic country…we knew it would be interesting!

Fanesca

Fanesca

The tradition starts with a “sacred” soup influenced by indigenous and Spanish cultures that is only served during Semana Santa – for some restaurants only on Good Friday – called fanesca.  It’s a complete meal. The soup usually has (at least) twelve ingredients to represent the twelve apostles.  Although it can be made in 24 hours, connoisseurs say the best fanesca takes days. The process is a labor of love passed down through generations, and each family has its own tradition of preparation.  We tried it two times and can attest that it does vary…but they were both delicious!

IMG_2891Even on solemn Good Friday, Cuenca was festive.  On Thursday we, IMG_2906and it seemed half of Cuenca, partook in the tradition of visiting seven (chosen from the 52 downtown) churches. It was great to enter some of the churches that are not open often and, where there are people, there are vendors.  From empanadas de viento (like fried sugar donuts) to kebabs, from candied apples to toys, and everything IMG_2885in between.  We made it to six of the downtown churches and then entered our local church to make it seven (a bit of cheating, but we did visit seven!)

We left on Saturday for a lovely weekend in the Yunguilla valley IMG_2953about an hour outside of Cuenca.  We spent Easter there enjoying the warmer weather and swimming.  Our gringo hosts, David and Don, have a hacienda with gorgeous views of the green and lush valley.  IMG_2955Some call it paradise there and judging from our stay, we can see why!

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Reflections on Cuenca

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Who is that boy from Otavalo?!

Who is that boy from Otavalo?!

The kids love the ziplines at the parks.

The kids love the ziplines at the parks.

We are amazed to be more than half way through our year in Cuenca.  We are feeling some pressure to see and do it all in our remaining months, but we are also extremely thankful for all our family has been able to experience thus far.  Our time here has strengthened our family bond – mainly because we are far less stressed and have so much more time together.  Our challenge is to stay present in the moment while still making the necessary preparations for our return.  As part of our reflection on our time thus far, we have compiled what me most love and most dislike about Cuenca.

Things to love about Cuenca – in no special order

Rivers – Cuenca means basin, in this case the basin where four rivers IMG_1464meet.  One cannot walk far without running across or beside one of rivers.  It is lovely to be surrounded by water on a daily basis and the parks along the rivers are a real treat.

Parque Calderon in the heart of the city.

Parque Calderon in the heart of the city.

Cost of Living– We pay $400 per month in rent, our kids attend the most expensive private school in Cuenca which is less than half the cost of TLC, a doctor’s visit costs between $2 (if we use our Coopera HMO type insurance) and $25 (if we go to a private hospital), avocadoes cost $.30 each not to mention papaya for $.50, utilities cost less than $20 per month….we could go on.  It is no wonder there are so many ex-pats living here.

Laid back lifestyle – We are not running from here to there all the time.  Things just seem to move more slowly here.  While that can be frustrating when it comes to getting something done quickly or bureaucracies (see things we dislike), it is heavenly as a day-to-day way to live.

IMG_2858 Abundant, fresh and varied food – Lisa goes every Wed. to a local market which sells an amazing variety of vegetables – broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, beets, spinach, cabbage, cilantro, parsley, avocadoes, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, Swiss chard, etc.  We buy our free range, organic eggs there directly from the farmers – mainly indigenous women.  There is also homemade yogurt, raw milk, raw milk cheese, honey, whole chickens and fresh mountain trout.  The “healers” stalls on the side are an added bonus and fun to watch. Fruits vary according the season, but what is not available at the market can be found at our local food co-op – we especially enjoy oritos (little bananas), papaya, pineapple, different kinds of plums, mora berries, strawberries, passion fruit, soursop…the list goes on!

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“Cuy” or roasted guinea pig is a favorite dish.

Walkable/Public transportation – We live about 15 or 20 minutes from the city center walking, but we are definitely in an urban environment.  The bakery, hardware store, mini-markets and pharmacy are only a couple of blocks away.  Even if we need to take a bus, there are many and it is quite affordable at $.25 a ride.  Taxi rides run anywhere from $1.50 – $3 on average.  We use them a lot.  It is so nice to have lots of reasonable and accessible transportation options – Most of the time I don’t miss the car!

IMG_1738Historic downtown – Cuenca’s colonial historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage sight which means it has buildings dating back to the 17th century.  The plazas are reminiscent of those we visited in Spain.  The IMG_0307churches are said to number 52 – one for every Sunday of the year.  We are constantly charmed by the beautiful balconies and courtyards that are visible only when one enters – luckily lots of the restaurants and public buildings are housed in these buildings.IMG_0305

Almuerzos (lunches) – In addition to many good places to eat in town for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we are particularly fond of almuerzos or “fixed menu lunches”.  They typically are homemade with fresh soup, real fruit juice, rice and a meat dish for anywhere between $1.50 and $3.00.   We buy two or three lunches from a restaurant around the corner ($1.75 each) and that feeds our family lunch.  They are pretty heavy in the starches (with only a little side of vegetables), but you really can’t beat them for value and quality!  On a side note, we are not the only ones who buy lunch.  What is notable is that everyone brings their own containers from home.  We could learn a thing or two about recycling if we would just replicate that at home.

Paddle boating at Parque Paraiso - lots of families gather there on Sundays for soccer, kite flying, running around...

Paddle boating at Parque Paraiso – lots of families gather there on Sundays for soccer, kite flying, running around…

Safety – Cuenca is the third largest city in the country, but it still is very safe.  There are reports of petty crime, but all in all it is very safe to walk around.  We like that our kids can safely play outside with neighbors and we do not have to worry at all for their safety.

Entertainment – Cuenca is also known to be a cultural center for Ecuador.  The symphony offers a free concert once a month in different venues (we loved it when they played at the church around the corner and when they played at the old cathedral downtown).  There are bands, indigenous dance troupes and festivals many weekends.

Clean city – We are consistently impressed with how clean the city is. IMG_2857One frequently sees state employed street cleaners toting their brooms and trash cans all over the city.

IMG_0379The Coliseum – Wayne loves this place which is a few blocks away – he usually swims there three times a week in an Olympic size pool ($1.25/each visit), plays tennis twice a week and maybe basketball on Sundays.

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El Cajas National Park – We’ve already blogged about that, but it remains one of our favorite places.

Climate – It’s generally 60-75 degrees everyday.  It’s rare to have a day without at least some sun. We have missed spring and fall, but have not missed the NC winter!

Friends – We have been fortunate to have made some great gringo friends here.  There is something about being in a new environment, far

One of the many Sunday potlucks we enjoy with friends.

One of the many Sunday potlucks we enjoy with friends.

from the normal support networks, that causes people to come together, more quickly than normal and in a deeper way.  There is a certain self selection for those that decide to make an overseas move – some are downright loony, but others have very interesting lives and perspectives that have enriched our lives as we get to know them better.  We see them regularly and really enjoy exploring and learning about our new home together.

IMG_0290Cultural diversity – Cuenca is mostly populated by mestizos (mixed race),  but there are plenty of indigenous folks in their native attire around town or in the many markets.

Good and improving infrastructure – It is amazing to see the amount of public money spent on improving the sidewalks, roads, parks, etc.  Big news in Cuenca is that they are beginning to start construction of a $200 million light rail system similar to many found in European urban centers that will alleviate some of the traffic in the center.

No panhandlers – While there is poverty here, it definitely is not 3rd world.   Much of the time it seems like being in Spain.

Ice cream – is almost a major food group here.  Seems like most people eat ice cream once a day, or they definitely would if they could.    The kids love it!

A celebration for Christmas with thousands of candles lining the streets.

A celebration for Christmas with thousands of candles lining the streets.

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We ran into these street dancers a block away from our house.

Some Not so Great Things about Living in Cuenca

Noise Pollution – We’re in a city with ½ million people so it’s understandable to have more noise.  But, Cuencanos use their car horns for everything – go, stop, don’t come into my lane, go faster, go slower, etc.  Dogs bark at all hours and car alarms seem to have a life of their own.

Missing Asheville – We miss our friends and family and our dog, Charly, and know that life goes on there in our absence.  There are times when something happens there that we are sad to miss.

Bureaucracy – Getting our visas was an experience in collecting useless forms, with many stamps that had to be just right.  We are surprised by the amount of busy-work that our kids bring home from school that emphasizes form over content.  Seems it is part of the culture and having lived in Latin America before, we were not all that surprised by it although it can still be annoying!

Hard to make friends – Cuencanos are very friendly on the street, in stores, or whenever you meet them, but it has not been easy for us to create deeper friendships.  We feel fortunate to have been invited to join a few families on weekends and holidays – but ongoing contact usually requires us to do the bulk of reaching out.  Cuencanos are very rooted in family – we have found that weekends are spent with family, not friends.

No Pedestrian right of way –While Cuencanos are very mild mannered folks, their alter egos take over in a car.  Pedestrians have no rights and, if you can’t run fast enough, it might take a while to cross the street!!

Dia de los inocentes - guys in drag, huge paper mache, political spoofs.

Dia de los inocentes – guys in drag, huge paper mache, political spoofs.

As you can see the positives outweigh the negatives.  There is so much to like about Cuenca – we feel so lucky to be able to call it home for a year.  We’re sure the list will continue to grow during the upcoming months – new doors open up everyday…we’ll see where they lead us!

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To the beach

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San Rafael Waterfall

San Rafael Waterfall

February 2 – 9:

Soaking in the thermal baths at Papallacta

Soaking in one of the thermal baths at Papallacta

Instead of taking the long eight hour bus ride back to Quito from the Amazon, we opted for stopping and smelling the flowers en route – in this case that meant viewing Ecuador’s largest waterfall (San Rafael) and soaking in the country’s most famous thermal springs high up in the mountains (Papallacta).  Both were worth the stop.

Next it was onto the beach – La Libertad/Salinas – called the Miami Beach of Ecuador except much smaller and cheaper.  We arrived during Carnival as did, it seemed, half of Ecuador.  We had never seen so many people packed onto a beach – hard to even find a place to sit that first afternoon.  Lucky for us we did not have to go back to work as did the crowds, so a couple of days later the beach was pleasantly quiet.

After Carnival

After Carnival

Chipipe during Carnival

During Carnival

So, the beach is the beach, right?  Sun, surf, sand…well, here is what we think makes the Ecuadorian beaches we visited a little different.

The tent and chairs we rented for the day - vendors passed continuously - one even braided Rachel's hair!

Vendors passed continuously – one even braided Rae’s hair!

Dulce vida - fresh coconut water on the beach.

Dulce vida – fresh coconut water on the beach.

Vendors:  whatever we wanted was sold on the beach.  Tent and chairs? – We just rented it. Food – of course, and it was plentiful, cheap and varied.  We did not need to take anything with us apart from bathing suits and towels.  Hair braiding – Rachel liked that one.  Boats, jet skis, kayaks, clothes, jewelry, beer, water, coconut water, and the list goes on!

View of Olon - a beautiful stretch of unspoilt beach.

View of Olon – a beautiful stretch of unspoilt beach.

Beautiful beaches:  What struck us about the three beaches we swam at (Chipipe, Ayangue, Olon) was the clear blue water, perfect temperature, and the white soft sand.  Just north of Salinas, the beaches went on for miles, undeveloped and, after Carnival, were pleasantly deserted.

Spraying foam and throwing water are Carnival traditions - Alex and Rae enjoyed it!

Spraying foam and throwing water are Carnival traditions – Alex and Rae enjoyed it!

Getting sick:  We appreciate even more the fact that we can drink the water in Cuenca from the tap – not true anywhere else.  From bug bites to digestive problems…we had it all.  While that ceviche and seafood and beach food tasted so good going down, we paid a steep price later on!  Bug bites, hard bunk beds, diarrhea and the heat in our hostel became insufferable so Wayne went hunting for a more comfortable place to stay. A block from our original hostel, he found a hotel with air conditioning, good beds, TV – we all agreed that was the best upgrade ever!

IMG_2700Ruta del Sol:  A relatively newly paved road that goes up the coast with views of beaches all along the way.  We stopped at a few beaches and also had lunch in Montanita, famous for its hippie, surf, party vibe.  We might have gotten there too early to see it in full swing, but we got the idea and decided we might have enjoyed it more twenty or thirty years ago.

Swimming while we wait for a pizza - the kids' favorite part of Montanita.

Swimming while we wait for a pizza – the kids’ favorite part of Montanita.

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Amazon Rainforest

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February 2 – 17: This was our chance to see more of Ecuador. The kids had two weeks vacation from school in February, so we were determined to take advantage of it.  Alex and Rachel were great travelers as we drug them from one end of the country to the other (literally!).  Although, in this relatively small country, no place is that far.  In a days drive (if only we had a car!) you can go from the Amazon jungle up and over the Andes to the Pacific coast.  Such diversity! Instead of driving a car, like we would do in the US, we traveled on airplanes, buses, canoes, and taxis.

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February 4 – 9 Our first destination was Cuyabeno Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon.  We decided to make the journey a little easier by flying into Quito.  Spent the night and then after a nearly eight hour bus ride, we spent the night in Lago Agrio, close to the Columbian border.  Our host lodge picked us up the next morning.  After another 2 hours on a bus, some lunch, we boarded a long wooden canoe with a motor on the back of it. Over the next 2 ½ hours, our driver, Marcelo, would expertly navigate us along narrow twisted rivers, often picking up the motor to avoid fallen trees.  We were excited to be entering such a remote part of the jungle, looking intently at the lush landscape.

A happy, but muddy Forehand family!

A happy, but muddy Forehand family!

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Our destination was Siona Lodge on the Laguna Grande (big lagoon) of the reserve.     Yes, it was the dry season, but we didn’t expect to arrive to see that the lake had disappeared. Amazingly, it only takes four days for the lagoon to fill, IMG_2308IMG_2402unfortunate for us it takes the same amount of time to drain! That meant no pink dolphins.  It also meant that we would have to walk 45 minutes across the lake bottom to get from the canoe to the lodge.  Normally, the canoe would carry guests across the Gran Lagoon to the lodge, but not during our stay.  Oddly enough, we

Finally reaching the canoe - knee deep mud, carrying kids

Finally reaching the canoe – knee deep mud, carrying kids

are sure that the mud is what we might most remember.  We had never walked in mud like this before; some spots over knee deep.   It was like quick sand.  If you stopped, you sunk in deeper, your rubber boot would get stuck, and many of us fell.  We had some pretty challenging moments just trying to advance one foot after the other.  It was quite a community building exercise for our group which consisted of a couple from Argentina, a couple from Switzerland, three Russians and one other US American from Madison, Wisconsin.

During the rest of our 5 day stay in Cuyabeno Reserve, Marcelo and

Washington and Rae playing music at the lodge

Washington and Rae playing music at the lodge

Washington, our guide, would take us on several hikes, canoe rides, and a trip to a local indigenous community.  The lodge was great – we were fed fabulously and many nights Washington led us with guitar playing and singing.  In the evenings the sounds of the jungle enveloped us as we rested in our rustic but nice huts – it was not a murmur, but more like a loud symphony!  Some of the highlights of our outings included: IMG_2426163302_479726275417295_993479567_n - Copy (2)

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Can you see the lemon ants Rae ate off a tree?

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Rae has overcome her anacrophobia!

watching almost 100 monkeys

cross over the river while we were IMG_2494sitting underneath in our canoe, finding a tarantula on our night hike, fishing for piranha as the sun was setting, countless spiders, frogs and birds, an anaconda and spotting numerous caimans’ red eyes in the river with flashlights. We went IMG_2468swimming a couple of times in the river.  It was so refreshing that we didn’t think too much about the piranhas and caiman that we had seen in the same river.

One memorable incident involved getting stuck with the canoe in the low waters.    562Marcelo got in the river up to his chest cutting fallen trees with a machete.  He had everyone move from one end of the canoe, then to the other and then we all had to get out. We moved, we rocked and after about an hour we became unstuck and were on our way – to the delight of everyone.

On our visit to the Siona village, we learned of some of the impact of petroleum in this isolated IMG_2378part of the country, but we also got to see how they are preserving their traditional indigenous ways.  Their village shaman explained his healing practices, many of which involve using local plants that have hallucinogenic effects.  566He painted our faces with different images of mystical visions. We also got to watch and help a local woman make cassava bread in the traditional way – bonus that it was gluten free.

IMG_2356It was a pretty unforgettable experience.  It is hard to conceptualize how gigantic the Amazon is – 1.2 billion acres or more than 2 million square miles (the US is 4 million square miles).  IMG_2552We are so happy we had the chance to enter into and experience such a unique and important part of our world.

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Inca Trail to Ingapirca

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January 26 – 27: We went with a small group of expats and Ecuadorians on a three day, 25 mile hike along part of the Inca trail leading to Ecuador’s best preserved Inca ruin, Ingapirca.  We’ll do this post like an interview to spice things up a bit.

Our group at the trailhead

Our group at the trailhead

What did you most like about the trip?

Alex:  We got to have marshmallows on the campfire.  I found an old leather whip in the bushes and I really like it.

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Lisa:  I was nervous about keeping up with the group and making it to the end.  It was such an incredible sense of accomplishment to meet the physical challenge and to watch our kids persevere through some rough terrain.  It was even more rewarding to see breathtaking landscapes that can only be reached by foot – with not a soul in sight.

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Rachel: We got to be with friends and not carry anything because we had mules.  I loved that I could get on the mule whenever I wanted.  We went to see awesome Inca ruins and even camp in some.

Rachel giggling on the mule

Rachel giggling on the mule

Wayne: I loved the hiking and camping and just being on the royal Inca trail, over 500 years old, in the middle of beautiful Andes Mountains – with its spectacular scenery.

Can you see us hiking down - eventually through the valley

Can you see us hiking down – eventually through the valley

What was the hardest part of the trip?

Wayne: That first day, walking completely uphill, in a steady rain, Alex falls off his mule as it jumps a ditch, into the mud.   He is hurt, wet, cold and shivering.  We have to keep going and get to camp.  All the guides have gone ahead to set up camp.  He is too big for me to carry.  And he is not getting on that mule again.  Incredibly, his crying subsides as he trudges along.  An hour later, we arrive.

Our campsite on the 1st night - a welcome sight!

Our campsite on the 1st night – a welcome sight!

Alex:  Falling off the mule.

Lisa:  The first night, after walking in the mud, Alex falling off the mule and trying to get all settled in our tent before dark.  Wondering whether our Ecuadorian guide really knew what he was doing when we found wet sleeping bags and that we would not fit four of us in the three person tent he packed for us.

A well deserved break

A well deserved break

Rachel:  I had diarrhea for the first time…on the trail.  Also, that first night in the tent – not much sleep.

What image will you most remember about the trip?

Rachel:  I remember getting water from a spring for dinner and that we could go wherever we wanted to explore.

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Wayne:  1. Alex, persevering up the trail, muddy, wet and cold, wrapped up in my coat and struggling to shield the wind and rain with a little umbrella.  2. Our second day, back on the trail, Alex leading the way up front with our guide, Adrian.  3. Our campsite the second night, Paredones, we actually slept in the middle of some Inca ruins!!!!

Campsite 2nd night - Inca ruins

Campsite 2nd night – Inca ruins

4. The kids hiking up the hill to get us water, cooking marshmallows, the full moon coming up over the mountain, waking up to ice on the tent.     5. Rachel, laughing and happy on the back of a mule.

Preparing dinner in the ruins

Preparing dinner in the ruins

Alex:  My picture is staying at the ruins and playing hide and seek with the other kids.

Ingapirca

Ingapirca

Lisa:  Reaching the highest point of the trail, about 15,000 feet and being in the middle of the clouds.  Then, miraculously the sun came out and we had a 360 degree view of the whole mountain range and a beautiful glacial lake.  While there is usually ice at the top, we were blessed with the sun and amazing views.IMG_2295

What did you learn on the trip?

Wayne: to get a mule to go, don’t pull, rather get behind it and follow.

Lisa: plastic can be your friend – for packing and wearing around your feet before putting your wet boots on.

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Quito

Middle of the World!

Middle of the World!

Looking out from one of the spires at the Basilica

Looking out from one of the towers of the Basilica

Dec. 22 – 30 Quito: Sometimes an offer is too good to refuse.  We were asked by a gringo couple living in Quito if we would be willing to watch their cat and do a house exchange over the holidays. We had not yet been to Quito and the kids had a week vacation – so off we went!    We were delighted to stay in an apartment instead of a hotel and another big bonus was the magnificent view over the city from their apartment.

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Mimi & kids walking in the historic center

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On Pichincha Volcano overlooking Quito

Quito is a lovely city surrounded by the Andes Mountains with an altitude of 9,000 feet (1,000 feet higher than Cuenca).  The historic center was the first city chosen by UNESCO to be a world heritage site – it certainly is beautiful and well preserved! We saw the changing of the guards, quite a few opulent churches and got a kick out of walking the streets with colonial architecture surrounding us.

Wayne’s mom came to visit for about ten days over the holiday.  We lit Chanukah candles (eight white candles that most people use when the electricity goes out – placed on two disposable plates) and we spent Christmas together.  Our apartment was close to a huge park where we hiked around on Christmas day.

Take a look at the slide show…some highlights for us were:

Cyclopaseo – On Sundays, the city shuts down 29km of roads, including

Riding bikes in Old Town

Riding bikes in Old Town

some through the historic center, for bicycle and pedestrian traffic only.  Rachel, Wayne and Lisa rode bikes and it was FUN!

Mitad del Mundo – Ecuador gets its name from being on the equator.  Interesting to stand on the equator and learn about gravitational pull!

Otavalo – the largest indigenous market in the Americas.  It goes on forever!  We were lucky to be there on Saturday to see the livestock market too – it is an animal rights

"Panama" hats are really made in Ecuador.

“Panama” hats are really made in Ecuador.

advocate’s nightmare, but interesting to view nonetheless.

Guayasamin’s home and Capilla del Hombre – he is probably the most famous Ecuadorian artist – his powerful art depicts human suffering and promotes human rights.

Teleferiqo/Cable car – took us up the Pichincha volcano overlooking Quito where we enjoyed breathtaking views.  The best part was hiking up the volcano. Rachel even went horse riding.

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