Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ecuador Week 2: Angry Animals at Altitude

Leaving behind the Northern Hemisphere and all that it entails (i.e. summer, warm weather, not winter), our journey continued south in search of various Andean locations of which we had heard. As I sit here today, nursing what is now a 5-day beach-inspired hangover, I leave you with my best attempt at highlights from our final 10 days spent in Ecuador, miles above the ocean:

- Quilotoa Loop – A circular path around a small section of Ecuador, consisting of cliff-hugging roads, endless hiking trails and a 3AM milk truck that encircles it all, the Quilotoa Loop was our first departure from the well-worn ¨Gringo Trail,¨ onto less-traveled, and more unfamiliar territory (unfamiliar = un Lonely Planet friendly). Our first stop along the loop was the city of Quilotoa, a tiny village set above an ancient volcanic lake, thriving with all of 100 citizens (the 13,000 ft altitude and nightly 50MPH winds probably play a role in the lack of long-term residents). With little to do besides walk the main strip (25 seconds), and visit the lake (a bit longer than 25 seconds), our next stop along the loop took us to the more ¨memorable¨ aspect of our 3 day journey – the hike to Chugchilan. Advertised as a 4-6 hour ¨downhill trek¨ (which of course consisted of an unmentioned 2-hour uphill section), we encountered one of the oddest entities to date – racist animals. Despite our inconspicuous clothing (i.e. bright yellow/pink ponchos), normally subdued animals around their Ecuadorian owners apparently became enraged when approached by ¨gringos.¨ Thus, after our 4 hour hike we managed to encounter the following list of angry animals:

3 Cows – All of which paused in their grazing as we neared, stared us down as we slowed, and then pursued at a fairly mild speed, head downwards, until a thankfully-placed rope limited their progress. Avoidance Technique Utilized = Walk around at a distance greater than ropes length.

15 Dogs – While most on our trek approached us with gnarled teeth and barks of fury (that could actually be a good title for a movie), 1 especially bold dog decided that I stepped a bit too close to his property, and took a nice bite at my leg. Although rabies-transmission is seemingly unlikely at this point (Laura promised to let me know if I start to show signs of insanity and/or uncontrollable fear of water), remaining dogs were approached with more caution. Avoidance Technique Utilized = Add numerous sticks and rocks to our ¨hiking gear.¨

2 Llama´s – Who attempted to block our path down the only road we could take. Avoidance Technique Utilized: Hold high a conveniently-placed staff located nearby (Note: Llama´s are terrified of staff-like objects. If Moses had parted a sea of Llama´s, I now know exactly how it must have felt).

After finally arriving in Chugchilan, with a few new emotional and physical scars to share, we were treated to the end of our journey with encouraging news that the only bus back the following day left in 10 hours, at 3AM. Thus concluding a fairly rapid, yet more eventful, trip around the Quilotoa Loop.

(After that novel of a story, the next few cities will be dumbed down a bit)

- Banos – Extreme sports capital of Ecuador (that mountain + water combo keeps seeming to do the trick). Highlights = 15 mile bike road down waterfall-scattered road, 3 days of Spanish lessons, a visit to some hot springs and an open-aired chiva bus ride up a volcano to listen to a incomprehensible Spanish comedian (3 days of classes did NOT come in handy for translating witty/topical Spanish humor). No extreme sports were partaken, as they did not pass the Skone threshold of extremeness. (For a lesson on extremeness, please read the following: The Skone Guide to Being Extreme)

- Cuenca – Pretty city. Highlights = Walking and commenting on prettiness.

- Vilcabamba – Amazing resort. Highlights = Relaxing and commenting on relaxibility factor. (You can visit Izhcayluma Resort if your curiosity wishes for a more in-depth description than the complete lack of one I provided -- I´m a blogger, not a travel writer).

Next Stop: Northern Peru

Onto the pics:

Quilotoa - This is what a village of 100 people looks like. Almost a little too exciting to handle

Quilotoa Lake - Amazingly scenic lake at the bottom of a volcano (to gauge the size, it takes 6 hours to hike the circumference)

Sleeping in Quilotoa - Could have used another 15 pounds of blankets to officially suppress my lung´s ability to function

Our 4-hour completely downhill trail (minus that whole valley section) along the path of racist animals

Rain + Dog Bites = Awesome day

A Burro - The only non-aggressive animal in Ecuador

Banos = San Gil - Colombia + Ecuador

Biking down the 15 mile ¨Ruta de las Cascadas¨ (Waterfall Route)

And that would be a waterfall (aptly named Pailon de Diablo -- the Devil is a pretty popular guy in this continent)

Some local Ecuadorian children hanging out at the ¨relaxing¨ hot springs during their conveniently-timed 200 student field trip

Spanish-speaking parrots are much more hilarious than their English-speaking cousins

The least extreme, extreme bridge jump in the world

Cuenca - Beautiful city, and that´s about it

Took about 30 minutes to track down this Lonely Planet-inspired ¨Top 10 Places to Visit in Ecuador¨ photo

Awkward posing in Vilcabamba

Friday, June 24, 2011

My Favorite Things About South America: The Poo Bin

I would like to welcome you all to a new section I have developed for this blog, dedicated to exploring some of my favorite aspects of South American culture. As to provide you with more of an in-depth look at life in this great continent, apart from my weekly highlights, I leave you with the first of many parts in this new installment: The Poo Bin.

With an inefficient plumbing system plaguing the majority of South America, this great continent was forced to adapt, as it´s ever-thin pipes were unable to handle the onslaught of pipe-clogging toilet paper. While other nations had reverted to their own techniques (i.e. SE Asia and it´s kitchen sprayer hose for your ass -- surprisingly efficient), South America took it upon itself to revolutionize the world of ¨unflushable TP.¨ And thus arose the Poo Bin.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Poo Bin, it is just as it seems. A trash-can/bin of used ¨hygenic paper,¨ conveniently placed within reach of the toilet. Now, while this simple object seems more-or-less, simple to use, I must warn you, it has it´s complexities. As a person who has been forced to utilize the baño on several occassions thanks to less-than-appetizing meals, I provide you with some dilemmas:

- The Full Poo Bin - With a towering pile of TP overflowing from the bin, one must gauge their ability to perfectly balance the TP on top (envision a reverse game of Jenga), or risk attempting to push down on the already-existing pile before them without brushing up upon any already-discarded TP. Post-hand-washing requirements = Intense scrubbing repeated by intense scrubbing.

- The Poo Bin w/Lid - Invented as to help contain the ¨aroma¨ of a full Poo Bin, the Poo Bin w/Lid comes with it´s own intracicies. How does one manage to open this lid manually, without infecting themselves or accidentally ¨smearing¨ the top? It is a fine dance in which one must partake, requiring almost surgeon-esque hands to succeed. Post-hand-washing requirements = Intense scrubbing prior to pant-raising, as who knows what has brushed the lid before you.

- The Empty Poo Bin - Not only does this welcoming-sight provide relief, it also is joined by a fresh-smelling bathroom -- a welcome change from the ¨hot boxes¨ that exist throughout this continent. Post-hand-washing requirements = Normal practices suffice.

In summary, until South America can redesign their plumbing infrastructure with ¨load-carrying¨ pipes, the Poo Bin market will continue to flourish, providing bathroom-goers with endless hours of nerve-wracking dilemma.

Next Week`s Topic: The Bus Hawker

Onto the pics:

The infamous Poo Bin on the verge of approaching fullness (in case my in-depth description did not provide enough visualization)

Instructions for use

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ecuador Week 1: Tiny People Surrounded by Not-So-Tiny Volcanoes

After a tearful farewell to Colombia (entailing another just-under-20-hour-bus-ride), our travels continued onwards to the south, taking us to the tiny nation of Ecuador - A land of towering volcanoes and not-so-towering people. Crossing the border from Colombia to Ecuador had an eerily reminiscent feel of entering ¨Its a Small World¨ at Disneyworld, as school children and fully-grown adults walked shoulder-to-shoulder along the streets. As an individual lacking in vertical development, I have to say, I felt like a giant. Our friend JR, the equivalent of basically two fully-grown Ecuadorians stacked upon one another, well, he was basically God. Adding to the fact that our first meal, a full continental breakfast (eggs, toast, juice and hot chocolate) cost $2, and it was almost impossible to not feel at home in this tiny nation. Onto the highlights:

- Quito - With a reputation that follows it across South America as one of the more dangerous, less-appealing cities in this part of the world (almost 25% of people we have met that have visited Quito have been mugged there), I must say, the capital of Ecuador has definitely been one of my favorite major cities to this day. Although I am unable to truly describe why Quito was so amazing, I feel as if a combination of a great group of friends, friendly locals in addition to a beautiful landscape, helped Quito overcome all expectations. And it´s name starts with a Q... how can it NOT be amazing?

- Mitad Del Mundo (Center of the World) - For those that have any doubt that the Equator runs through Ecuador, need only re-read these two words together and then release the inevitable ¨ohhhhhhhh.¨ Approximately an hour north of Quito lies the center of the Earth -- the equatorial line discovered some 30+ years ago via raw scientific calculations. Unfortunately, these calculations, which led to the construction of an entire village surrounding a towering monument in honor of this famous circumfernetial line, were actually a bit off. The invention of GPS proved the the ¨true¨ equator is actually 1/8 mile away (which in fact places it on a random hill across the highway in the middle of nowhere). Nevertheless, the locals (as well as most tourists) ignore this petty detail, and continue to enjoy the site with a slight amount of ignorance. I mean, it´s close enough...

- Finding Fame - Continuing on with our day at Mitad Del Mundo, we decided to take a break from our photoshoot on the ¨equator¨ and check out a fairly popular band Trio Colonial playing on stage (their Facebook page has almost 900 fans -- that´s a pretty big deal in Ecuador). As I sat on the stairs to the side of the stage, reading my loyal Lonely Planet, I soon felt the sensation of several hundred pairs of eyes staring down upon us. Looking up, my sensation proved correct. As the only 4 ¨gringos¨ in the premise, the band decided it would be fun to call us out (my internal Spanish translator was turned off at the moment, thus leaving me ignorant to the shouts in our direction), and persuade us to come up on stage for a bit of a ¨dance session.¨ Thirty minutes after the most awkward dancing experience of my life (despite my attempts to teach the locals how to Riverdance), and we were pretty much declared local celebrities. While we later attemped to google ¨Dancing Gringos, Mitad Del Mundo,¨ no photos of our claim to fame have yet to arise on the web.

- Otavalo - Hosting quite possibly the largest and most famous market in South America, the Saturday market in Otavalo is world-renowned (and by world-renowed, I mean it probably is unknown to 99% of the world outside of South America). Thousands upon thousands of small stalls are set up, with indigenous Ecuadorians dressed for the part, cat-calling to all those walking within shouting distance. For those of you unaware of my obsession with Llamas, I will let you know, I am obsessed with Llamas (don´t ask my why, I´m guessing the two L´s or the spitting ability plays a small role). And for those of you further unaware of the Llama´s presence in Ecuador, there are a LOT of Llama´s present in Ecuador (technically Alpaca´s, but for the sake of my obsession, they are Llama´s). Thus, almost every item in the market, from hats and gloves to jackets and blankets, are all adorned with images of this furry/spitting animal. Needless to say, my wardrobe is now stocked.

Next Stop: The rest of Ecuador -- Watch out for an upcoming post later this week from a new series I like to call ¨My Favorite Things About South America.¨

Onto the pics:

High above Quito after riding the TeleferiQo (they capitalize the Q --it´s a very proud letter in Quito)

Quito´s Main Plaza at night -- Plaza Grande (it is grand, and a plaza, so well-named in my opinion)

Ecuador could quite possibly be the cheapest place I have ever traveled to (for those of weary eyes, depicted are two 1/5ths of rum and a 3 liter bottle of Sprite, all for $10)

Otavalo Market and all of it´s Llama-endorned items


Ecuadorians are short... extremely short

Some stealth market shots (I´m pretty sure I got about 2 dozen dirty looks after trying to sneak photos of locals)

Another successful stealth shot

Hanging out on some line that happens to be 1/8 mile away from the equator

Trio Colonial in action -- pre Gringo dance session

Friday, June 17, 2011

La Zona Cafetera: Home of Colombia´s OTHER Famous Export

As promised in the previous blog, I will leave this one short and sweet.

After a week spent in the ¨hustle and bustle¨ of Colombian major cities, our travels took us to the quiet coffee region of Colombia, known as La Zona Cafetera (NOT La Zona Cafeteria -- which includes an extra ¨î¨and translates to ¨The Coffee SHOP Region¨ -- Oh the hilarity). With 3 days to spend in and around the tiny town of Salento, my semi-sarcastic words can do no justice in comparison to the photos below. Nevertheless, I leave with you a brief summary of our time spent in this amazingly scenic area.

- Coffee Tour & Tasting - At the age of 29 years old, I have lasted almost 3 decades of my life without having ever consumed a single cup of coffee (I like to think I'm special, others may argue differently). The flavor, the smell, and the overall inability of caffeine-addicts to function at a pace faster than a two-toed sloth without their morning ¨cup of joe¨ had previously put me off from this oh-so-popular drink. However, after our bus to Salento passed by about 3,500 Juan Valdez´s, all riding donkeys with sacks of coffee on their backs, I was forced to succumb to temptation as well as curiosity. Thus, after a $4, 2-hour-too-long coffee tour that took a small simple bean and turned it into the most complex organism in the planet (my attention span died after the 45 minute lecture detailing the 283-step process for producing coffee), I was ready for my first-ever cup of freshly-brewed, Colombian-grown coffee. The verdict:

Black Coffee (1/2 cup - To try it ¨raw¨) = Mmmmm... terrible
Black Coffee + 3 towering spoons of sugar (1/2 cup - To try it ¨enhanced¨) = Mmmmm... sugary terribleness

Overall, while everyone in the tour raved at the flavor and taste of our Colombian-grown coffee (even despite it´s luke-warm temperature and lack of milk), I was not a fan. I guess it´s back to whiskey/cokes for my morning ¨kick¨! Just kidding Mom... or am I...

- Tejo - A traditional sport in Colombia, Tejo is very similar to Cornhole (or bean bag toss), although it encompasses a bit of a Colombian twist to make things ¨interesting.¨ Instead of throwing bean bags at a wooden board, Tejo involves tossing small metal discs (weighing anywhere from 2-4lbs) at a clay pit 10 feet (beginners) to 60 feet (experts) away. The ¨interesting¨ aspect that the Colombians use to spice up the game, is to put 2-4 small paper triangles around the target at which the thrower aims, filled with gunpowder. Yes, gunpowder. To add to the fact, Tejo can only be played while consuming vast quantities of alcoholic beverages. Thus, the goal of the game is essentially to get drunk, and then throw metal discs at explosive objects. Obviously after hearing of this game, I wanted to partake in it immediately. Thus, our group sought out a tiny bar in Salento whereby we entertained the locals with our gringo-esque style of playing Tejo (Gringo-esque Style = Launching the disc far above the clay pit, into what is now a new $20 light fixture). I would like to add that while I did not destroy any light fixtures, I did successfully manage to score the highest amount possible (6 points) by exploding 2 triangles at once. Yeah, I´m kinda a big deal.

- Cocora Valley - Words no good. Photos much better.

Next Stop: Ecuador - The land of tiny people and not-so-tiny mountains

Onto the pics:

The tiny town of Salento welcoming home families for a conveniently-timed festival

Our coffee expert/tour guide informing us of the various intricacies of the coffee bean

Coffee Beans! I´m pretty much an expert on these badboys at this point

First (and last) ever cup of coffee

One of the many Juan Valdez´s that populate the Colombian countryside

The misty hills of Cocora Valley -- This horse definitely has no idea where he is at the moment

Valley of Wax Palm Trees -- the tallest palm tree in the world (as well as most photogenic when combined with an eery backdrop)

Treated to a few minutes of sunshine before the misty rain was upon us again

No blog is complete without a random hummingbird shot

Tejo Court (pre-light fixture breakage)

My 6-point shot and it´s aftermath (those triangles are gunpowder, not Tostitos)

Ass Implants: Colombia´s next biggest export

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Big 3: Bogota, Medellin, Cali

WARNING - This blog contains excessive amounts of information, with a large percentage lacking comical or witty substance. I blame limited time and slow internet. You can blame the author if you wish.

Leaving the quaint mountainside towns behind, my journey took me further south to the three most populous, and most-likely well-known cities in Colombia: Bogota, Medellin and Cali. With all three cities encompassing reputations that combine a solid mix of amazing nightlife and danger, the only danger we seemed to encounter was from being overserved by the friendly locals who seem to shower "gringos" with free drinks whenever possible.

BOGOTA - With a reputation of being big, busy and somewhat ugly, Bogota scored a 3/3 on all counts. Although overcast skies and rainy weather didn´t seem to help it´s cause, Bogota still provided some memorable highlights:

- Ridiculously Unhealthy Food - With almost a month under my belt traveling around South America, I already am searching for every opportunity to avoid the unavoidable ¨Pollo Con Arroz¨ (Chicken w/rice) that seems to dominate every restaurant in this entire continent. Thus, when presented with two new delicacies to try, I was overly excited to give my pallet a new flavor to sample:

Treat #1 - Chocolate Santafereano Con Queso y Pan = Hot chocolate that is served with a hearty portion of cheese (mixed in at the bottom), alongside several slices of overly-buttered bread. Nutritional Value = 2/10. Stomach Death Feeling Rating = 6/10.

Treat #2 - Obleas - Two fried waffle wafers packed with copious amounts of
caramel, mayonnaise, cream (might have been more mayo, wasn't truly sure to be honest), jelly, sprinkles, nuts and then of course, 1/2 pound of cheese. Nutritional Value = -1/10. Stomach Death Feeling Rating = 10/10

Add to that Bogota´s obsession with candy/chip/snack/cigarette stands on every corner, and I have now decided it is officially the unhealthiest city in the world.

- Gold Museum - Rated as the best museum in Colombia, all I can say is that two painful hours of ¨mineral history¨ has officially put off from museums for the rest of this trip. I´ll leave my ¨cultural¨ experiences to fatty foods and practicing my mangled Spanish with taxi drivers (which by the way could be THE cheapest/best way to learn Spanish on this continent).

- Bus Ride To Medellin - Although I could write an entire blog on this journey itself, instead I leave you with a brief summary. Our 8 hour intially-planned ride turned into an 18 hour journey that involved 4 hours stranded in the middle of nowhere due to mudslides, 1 failed attempt to manuever a 89-point turn on a 2-lane mountain road, 45 minutes driving in reverse down the mountain, and of course a route that maps out to the equivalent of driving from Detroit to Chicago via Nashville. And to top it off, I was forced to wear my poncho for about 75% of the journey as my seat happened to be located underneath a mini waterfall of rain water. Luckily only 1/2 the bus got sick though...

MEDELLIN - As the past home of Pablo Escobar and his infamous drug cartel, Medellin has been struggling to overcome it´s reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. With citizens unable to leave the city borders (or enter) for years, in fear of being kidnapped or murdered, the city was almost unvisitable until only a decade or so ago. However, since then, Medellin has rebuilt itself, and now boasts the only metro in Colombia, a beautiful landscape, and an amazingly-friendly population. Onto the highlights (well, actually just one highlight - the 18-hour bus journey took a chunk out of ¨sight-seeing¨ time):

- Pablo Escobar Tour - After forking over a ridiculous $30 for this newly-developed tour (to add context, a night in a hostel in Colombia costs $10, and a full meal about $3-4), we were shuttled across the city of Medellin to witness various sites associated with the life and death of Pablo Escobar - one of the most famous criminals in the world. Visiting his home, the location where he was killed, as well as his gravesite, the greatest highlight was traveling to his ¨hideout¨ location in the hills in Medellin. Walking through this bullet-ridden house (as it had been raided on several occasions), we had the opportunity to sit down with his nephew, a man heavily involved in the Medellin cartel, and pose any question in regard to his life. Although it did take him a bit of time to open up to our questions, my favorite answer he provided was to my question of ¨what was your role in the Medellin cartel,¨ to which he responded with a smirk, ¨I was the nephew of Pablo Escobar.¨ I must say though, it is truly surreal to hear a man speak of murdering people, trafficking tons upon tons of cocaine to the world, and then justify it wholeheartedly by blaming a ¨corrupt government" and stating "we didn't invent cocaine, we just filled the demand." Oh drug-dealers...

CALI - "The Salsa Capital of the World." Enough said.

- Salsa Lesson & Discoteque Night - No visit to Cali would seem complete without partaking in the dance that seems to dominate almost every discoteque in this city. Thus, after my $7, 2-hour lesson, I was ready to put my feet to the test. To make a long-story short, as this blog has gone beyond even my mother's attention span limit: 45-year old doctor invites us to join him and his intern in an empty club (he proves his honesty by showing us he has a car with a remote alarm -- there ya go!), free drinks provided all night (sans date rape), two forty-something, somewhat portly females friends join us, I am tossed around like a rag doll by female friend #1 (as everything I learned in class proves worthless when in an actual salsa club), female friend #2 happens to be the worst dancer in all of Colombia, and instead of salsa, I attempt to teach her how to two-step (of which I have no extremely limited experience/knowledge). In summary, I'm pretty sure my salsa-dancing career is officially over.

- America Day - Domino's Pizza for lunch, watching "The Hangover Part II" at a local mall (Chipichape - best mall name ever), McDonalds for dinner. America! America! America!

Next Stop: I am so far behind in this blog at this point, I really have no idea. Expect a possible late-week, limited-text, picture-only blog.

Onto the pics:

One of probably 100 ¨Plaza de Bolivar´s¨ in South America... Bogota´s is special because it has pigeons

Trying to be as untouristy as possible

I think I can probably add ¨visit a gold museum¨ to my ¨never-to-visit-again list¨

Bogota Ridiculously Unhealthy Treat #1: Hot Chocolate + Cheese

Bogota Ridiculously Unhealthy Treat #2: Death Waffle

Medellin: Hands-down winner of most-beautiful, although not-that-beautiful, Colombian major city

Playing some beer pong at the random Clemson-themed hostel in Medellin - Tiger Paw

Hanging out with Pablo Escobar´s nephew after a casual conversation in regard to drugs, murder and money

Cali: Best viewed from within a salsa club

Concentrating deeply during my 2 hour salsa lesson (conveniently located in the back of a driveway of our hostel)

I love translations ("What Happened Yesterday Part II" for you non-spanish speakers)