Ecuador is Awesome – Part 9

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Despite its small area, Ecuador constantly proves itself to be one of the most bewitching countries on the planet. The magnificent cross section of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages all combine to assert this impressive little country’s status as a must-see destination in South America. Straddled either side of latitude zero, Ecuador never fails to amaze; from the Galapagos Island to the Coast, from the Sierra to the Amazon, nowhere else can one experience such incredible diversity. Maybe I’m biased because I live on the Pacific Coast but, over the last 30+ years, I have traveled through, lived in or visited 45 other countries on this planet, and Ecuador is the one place on Earth that has inspired me to grow roots and stick around for a while.

When I began to think about some of the wonderful things I love about Ecuador that I’d be proud to share with people who are thinking about visiting, or even staying for a while, I learned that many of my friends and acquaintances often felt the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This series of ten posts are all about what they said.

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Wherever you travel in Ecuador, whether you are in the Capital, or in a small Amazonian village, it’s very difficult to ignore the local chocolate. If you don’t see vast orchards of cacao trees growing for miles and miles on either side of the road you are traveling along, there are often long strips of harvested cacao beans spread out to dry on the warm bitumen, and even on rooftops along the roadside. Apart from existing right alongside all the raw cacao products Ecuador has to offer a truly dedicated chocolate connoisseur, from the newly harvested beans to the highly processed bars, every supermarket, every souvenir shop, every tourist district, and even at the homes of countless families, there is a massive range of locally grown chocolate produced from organic cacao beans, nibs and powder, to exquisitely flavored truffles filled with caramels, nuts and liquors, and simple chocolate bars; the darkest of dark to the milkiest of milk, and from the simple ground beans that are used to make Bliss Bombs, Brownies, Mud Cakes, and everything else in between. There is no doubt that Ecuador is a chocoholics wonderland.

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In Aztec times, the cacao bean was so valued, it was used as a form of currency, however there is evidence of chocolate beverages being consumed as far back as 1900BC. Fermented, roasted, and ground Theobroma cacao beans can be traced to the Mokaya and other pre-Olmec people in the lowlands of south-central Mexico. Christopher Columbus encountered cacao beans on his fourth trip to the Americas in 1502 when he and his crew stole a large native canoe that contained cacao beans for trade. During the 16th century, chocolate was transported to Europe for the first time. I’m sure the actual history is well documented. Here’s my version of how it all went down: I imagine a Spanish aristocrat aboard his galleon, trying the brew for the first time. A handful of crushed cacao beans boiled with water. Poured into a pewter mug. His first taste of hot chocolate; very bitter. He screws up his face. The servants don’t like it, each sneaking a taste in the galley, sipping delicately at the wooden spoon. Everyone below decks rejects it as awful. Undeterred, the aristocrat adds sugar. Stirs it into the hot liquid. Brings it once again to his lips. His eyes widen as he realizes his discovery. Closing his eyes, he purses his full round lips and sips again. His taste buds are overwhelmed by a sense of lush pleasure. Almost sinful. The servants nudge each other. Sugar. Of course. He wonders if he should share this culinary gem, then becomes concerned the authorities might not like it. He decides not to tell them about the sugar. Thus, initiating Europe’s historical, revolutionary and, at times controversial, “discovery” of chocolate.

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Where I live on the northwest coast of Ecuador, Doña Sara, one of the local characters and a very good friend, roasts her locally grown cacao beans the traditional way, in large clay pot over a slow coal fire. Countless times we have sat together chatting as she stirs the beans through a handful of ashes with a large wooden spoon, toasting them just enough so the skins crack and they’re ready to peel and grind. We spend the afternoon getting blisters on our fingers from peeling the hot beans, occasionally popping one into our mouths and chewing slowly to extract the bitter dark chocolate flavor. The beans are poured into the mouth of a hand-grinder and everyone takes a turn at the wooden handle, as Sara forms the rich paste into balls and sets them onto a tray. She sells them when they’ve dried. Even using this simple process, Ecuadorian chocolate can be transformed into the most delicious cakes, brownies, drinks and treats. There are at least two chocolate experiences that are definitely “bucket list” every chocoholic should try at least once. Be careful. These two activities are one way tickets to Foodgasm Central!

1. Suck the fresh white fruit from the seeds inside a freshly harvested cacao pod
2. Chew on a hot roasted cacao bean until it’s almost liquid, then bite on a fresh strawberry.

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The health benefits of organic locally grown and roasted cacao beans are numerous. Cacao is a rich source of antioxidants such as procyanidins and flavanoids, which many say have anti-aging properties. Cacao in particular contains high levels of flavonoids, specifically epicatechin, which is said to have benefits for cardiovascular health. There have even been scientific studies with Panamanian Indians which discovered significantly lower rates of heart disease and cancer among the natives, compared to those who do not consume cacao.  It is said that increased blood flow after the consumption of flavanol-rich cacao helps to improve heart and organ health, and also brain function. Of course, once sugar and additives are mixed with the raw product, and it becomes a highly processed food, those health benefits rapidly decrease. However, when you are in Ecuador at least, sticking to the delicious raw organic product in all its varieties is not that hard to do, and the next time someone tells you that chocolate is bad for your health, you can simply bite into a fresh strawberry and show them it really isn’t.

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For more ideas about what to do while you are traveling in Ecuador, get in touch with Footprints.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part 8

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Indigenous Dolls at Otavalo Market

Ecuador is one of the most fascinating countries on the planet. The unique diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero a definite standout destination in South America. You might think I’m biased just because I have lived here for years, but I have also traveled through, lived in or visited 45 other countries over the last 30+ years, and Ecuador is the only country on Earth that has ever inspired me to build a house and grow roots.

When I began to consider some of the great things I love about Ecuador that I’d also like to share with people who are thinking about visiting, or even staying a while, I learned that many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This series of posts are all about what they said.

Spice Market

Spice Market

We all agree that the markets in Ecuador are some of the best on the planet. Otavalo’s Indigenous Craft Market has a world renowned reputation and is the Number One destination for just about everyone who visits Ecuador. The indigenous Otavaleños are famous for weaving textiles, mostly wool, which they sell at the famous Saturday market. The largest market is held on Saturday; a maze spreading out from Plaza de los Ponchos, and stretching out through the streets all around. You can find is a vast range of brightly colored stalls throughout the market and also explore the local stores.

Wandering around the stalls selling handmade blankets, tablecloths, tagua jewelry, musical instruments, dream catchers, leather goods, fake shrunken heads, indigenous costumes, hand-painted platters and trays, purses, clothing, spices, raw foods, and spools of brightly dyed wool just to name a few, can become mind-boggling. A Dutch architect named Tonny Zwollo designed the original Otavalo market in 1970, using ninety mushroom-shaped concrete umbrellas with benches which quickly became known as Plaza de los Ponchos. But fantastic markets are not limited to Otavalo’s famous vegetable-dyed and hand-woven textiles. Many of the nearby villages and towns are renowned for their own particular crafts. The small village of Cotacachi is the heart of Ecuador’s leather industry. In San Antonio, where the local specialty is wood carving, prominent displays of carved statues, picture frames, and intricately carved furniture can be seen everywhere. Nearby in tiny villages, rainbows of flowers which are grown for export fill markets stalls and streets with irresistible perfumes.

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Grown for export, these seconds are sold at the market.

One of my favorite markets is Santa Clara in Quito. On three floors, vendors sell every kind of food you could never even imagine from fresh babaco to pickled pigs feet. There is a section for alternative medicines, rumored to be favored by witches. An entire floor is dedicated to fresh fruits and vegetables. Pitajaya can be found here, alongside the pineapples and dozens of varieties of bananas. Fresh green achocha sits between the snake beans and fresh broccoli heads. Upstairs, sliced octopus nestles beside a bucket of clams. A whole pig roasted over a spit smiles as we pass, beckoning us to come and sample some of the tender meat. Blenders whizz fruit and vegetables into healthy juices. It’s an assault on the senses in every sense, but well worth taking the time to visit for an hour or so. Whenever visitors come to Ecuador, the first place I take them is to Santa Clara where the sites, sounds and smells are an integral part of daily Ecuadorian life. Although much smaller, Cuenca has a fabulous fresh produce market too, with the entire top floor dedicated to local foods. I can recommend grabbing a plate of whatever smells wonderful and digging in.

The Banana Market

The Banana Market

All over Ecuador, there are markets in every town, usually held once a week, where vendors spread out their wares, from cooking pots to pan pipes, earrings to zapotes, live goats to blender blades, and everything else in between. Meeting the locals is definitely an essential part of the entire Ecuadorian experience, and one of the best ways to meet the people who carry the nation on their shoulders is by heading to the nearest market and striking up a friendly conversation. An old woman selling strawberries tells of her childhood in the mountains before electricity and potable water were even heard of in her village. A wizened man carrying a basket of peanuts says that his father used to get up before dawn every weekend to walk into town with the farm’s weekly harvest strapped to the donkey’s back to make it to market in time, a trail of small children tagging along behind. A little girl shows me her new dress, twirling and smiling as proud as can be. The bright dress is hand-made, embroidered by her mother. A lady selling papayas gives me a tip about growing achochas; they don’t like wet weather, she says, you have to plant them when it’s dry. A shy, giggling teenage girl asks to interview me in English for five minutes. It’s for her school project. We talk about my country. A trip to the market in Ecuador is not just about the shopping. It’s about the experience. It’s about integration and exchanging cultures. It’s about learning more about where you are, and understanding that these people are the essence of what makes it so. If you are in Ecuador, get yourself to a local market. You won’t regret it.

The live animal market

The live animal market

For more ideas about what to do while you are traveling in Ecuador, get in touch with Footprints.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part 7

Despite its mere 283,561 square kilometers (109483.5 square miles) Ecuador is one of the most diverse and interesting countries on Earth. The amazing variety of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero a definite stand out destination in South America. You may think I’m biased because I live here, but I have traveled in, lived in or visited 46 countries over the last 33 years, and Ecuador is the only country that has ever inspired me to build a house and stick around for a while. (True story!)

When I began thinking about some of the fabulous things that I love about Ecuador and want to share with others who are interested in visiting, I learned that my friends and acquaintances often feel the same way. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This series is all about their responses.

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The baker on his daily route to sell his freshly baked wares, riding a tricycle cart.

You might wonder what transport has to do with sightseeing in Ecuador. Most of us can just jump in a bus, on a train, on a plane and go wherever we like. In enormous cities like Los Angeles, for example, many people find it impossible to get around if they don’t have a car. Some places in LA can take so long to get to on public transport that it’s hardly worth the trip. (It once took me 5 hours one way to get to Santa Monica Pier from North Hollywood!) In Ecuador, however, the majority of the population do not own cars.  We travel from one end of the country to the other, and beyond on such a vast collection of transport that the mind boggles.

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These little moto-tricis run around all over rural towns and the fare is usually just a few coins.

 From major centers such as Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca, it is possible to travel to the furthest, remotest corners of Ecuador on a varied fleet of transport unlikely to be found in many developed countries. The ingenious resourcefulness of Ecuadorians to move people around is unparalleled. True adventurers can find themselves traveling on anything from a simple horse to a luxury tour coach, and everything you could possibly imagine in between. Getting into the deepest Amazon requires light planes and donkeys, along with dugout canoes and a fair bit of Shank’s pony. Visiting the Galapagos Islands is done by air or sea, and traveling between islands on turbo-motor-boats is not for the faint-hearted. The Coast and Sierra are more easily traversed on wheeled vehicles ranging from motorbikes to limousines, and pick-ups to air-conditioned coaches.

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An entire family can be easily transported on a small motorbike.

When venturing further afield than the main centers, transport can become very interesting. People are piled into the back of pick-ups and whizzed all over the mountains and coastal areas, or shoved into local buses until there is not even standing room. I have hitch-hiked countless times in Ecuador without fear of the usual risks because everyone is hitching and the driver normally receives a small tip for his generosity. Higher-end tourists usually miss out on all this fun riding around on their luxury coaches and limousine taxis but, after seeing the length and breadth of Ecuador on jam-packed local buses with ear-splitting salsa music and blaring kung-fu videos, there is something to be said for a quiet ride in the cool air-con and comfortable western-butt-sized seats with plenty of leg-room. Even so, I wouldn’t miss being tossed around in the back of a pick-up for all the bananas in Ecuador. There’s something wild and free about zooming down the highway, hair flying everywhere.

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Locals pile into the back of a pick-up to head for home.

If you’re going to take the time and spend the money to come to Ecuador for the experience, then I recommend you experience all of it, bongos, moto-tricis, pickups and rancheras included. It’s one thing to look from the window of a bus, but it’s an entirely different thing to feel the wind of the Sierra whipping your face and hear the chatter of the locals – even if you don’t understand it. It’s a whole new realm of potential travel memories and future stories just waiting to be explored. The sights, sounds and smells of Ecuador will take on a whole new meaning when your hair blows around in the back of a ranchera (not to be confused with Huevos Rancheros which can be found on menus in Mexico). Even if you do it only one time during your vacation, it will be worth it. Trust me!

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An open-backed Ranchera can reach the furthest corners of the country.

If you’re into adventures and traveling the local way interests you, get in touch with Footprints Ecuador now! We’ll hook you up.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part 6

Ecuador is one of the most fascinating countries on Earth. The amazing diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero a stand out destination in South America. You may think I’m biased because I live here, but I have traveled in, lived in or visited 46 countries over the last 33 years, and Ecuador is the only country that has ever inspired me to build a house and stick around for a while.

When I began thinking about some of the wonderful things about Ecuador that I want to share with others who are interested in visiting, I found many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This series is all about their responses.

One thing we unanimously agree on is “the Scuba Diving totally rocks!” For this article, I have chosen five dive sites, because there are so many incredible places to go scuba diving in the Galapagos Islands and even a few cool places on the mainland (but you have to admit there’s nothing quite like logging a few Galapagos dives, right?) These are some of the favorite, and also most popular dive spots, each renowned for their individual attractions.

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Mosquera

The islet of Mosquera is located in the channel between North Seymour and Baltra. Appearing more like a large sandbar than an island, Mosquera is 620 meters long and 130 meters wide, and consists of a long narrow stretch of powdery white sand, black lava rocks, and glistening azure tide pools. The island was created by geological uplift, so its geography is flat rather than conically shaped like other volcanically formed islands. Starting from Mosquera’s dramatic lava rock base, peppered with corals, divers drift with the currents to a depth of 21m along a mixed rock, coral and sandy bottom and along the top ledge of a magnificent cliff wall where a wealth of marine life thrives; from colorful nudibranchs to impressive hammerheads, and large black manta rays to white spotted eagle rays. Meeting playful sea lions is one of the main features of the dives at this popular site, along with the spectacular white sand plateau filled with thousands of Galápagos garden eels, bobbing in the current as far as the eye can see. White-tipped sharks glide amongst the coral reefs and lava rocks along with Galápagos sharks, Pacific green turtles, barracudas, amberjacks and pelagics, schools of and many other tropical fish which are common to this area. Visibility averages 12-15 meters (40-50 feet). Surge and current is usually moderate to strong.

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Daphne Minor

Located 40 minutes by boat from Itabaca Channel, on the northwest coast of Santa Cruz, Daphne Minor is an isolated offshore tuff cone featuring a range of different topographies: vertical rock and coral walls, steep slopes, pinnacles, a marine platform, and also a cave. At the base of Dafne Minor, it is even possible to see the results of lava flows from previous volcanic eruptions. Depending on the strength of the current, which can range from mild to strong, while drift diving along the wall amongst the crags and black coral, divers can encounter the cleaning stations of hammerhead and Galápagos sharks, as well as spot white tipped reef sharks, silky sharks, manta rays, golden cowrays, eagle rays, sea lions, Pacific green turtles, and impressive moray eels. Other marine life that thrives in abundance off Dafne Minor includes sea cucumbers, octopus, slipper lobster, nudibranchs, and an impressive variety of reef fish including bacalao, barracuda, palometas, Galápagos grunts, yellowtail grunts, creolefish, king angelfish, Galápagos ringtail damselfish, chamelion wrasse, rainbow wrasse, streamer hogfish, tuna, parrotfish, razor surgeonfish, Panamic graysby cabrilla, cardinalfish, and yellowtail snapper, and a wonderfully colorful collection of starfish. The best dives hover around a depth of 15-20 meters with visibility generally around 9-18 meters (30-60 feet) depending on the presence of plankton. Diving on Dafne Minor is suitable for all levels starting from beginners through to intermediate and advanced divers.

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North Seymour

Located approximately half an hour by motorboat from the Itabaca channel near Baltra, the island of North Seymour offers two very special dive sites: the Point, and the Channel. On the Point, follow the gradual steps away from the shoreline to a shallow rocky reef, before reaching the sandy bottom at 16-18 meters. The rocky slope follows the platform reef where devil rays, manta rays, eagle rays, marbled rays, stingrays, tiger snake eels, moray eels, camouflaged octopi and sea turtles are a common sight, and even marlins have occasionally been seen. Galápagos sharks, white- and black-tipped reef sharks and scalloped hammerheads regularly take advantage of medium to strong currents here. The sandy bottom at around 15m is home to hundreds of bobbing endemic Galápagos garden eels, and there are plenty of Pacific green turtles, and large schools of barracuda and other reef fish like yellowtail grunts and blue-striped snapper, jacks, flag cabrilla, creolefish, king angelfish and scorpionfish are also easy to find. Razor surgeonfish are especially abundant. An interesting phenomena on North Seymour dives is the ability to observe blue-footed boobies diving to hunt fish. The Channel is perfect for a drift dive, with medium to strong currents, starting from the eastern corner and following the lava rock plateau. Galápagos sharks cruise around and there are reef fish everywhere. The Channel is also a great spot to find hundreds of colorful sea stars, as well as sea horses clinging to the corals, bright blue nudibranchs, and even whale sharks at times.

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Gordon Rocks

One of the most popular sites for experienced divers in the Galápagos Islands is the extinct volcanic crater, Gordon Rocks with its sandy bottom at 32 meters. The top of a submerged cone at the northeastern end of Santa Cruz Island, the exposed northern and southern lava walls surround the remains of the caldera, measuring about 100 metres in diameter, and three smaller pinnacles are visible under the surface. There is a spectacular 65-meter wall drop off along the northern edge of the crater and one large pinnacle in the center approximately 21 meters below the surface. Gordon Rocks is a favorite place to view large schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks up close and personal as they ride the medium to strong currents and circle the massive lava rocks. White and black tip reef sharks can also be seen in the crater, as well as Pacific green sea turtles, sea lions, sting rays, eagle rays, large schools of barracuda and snapper, endemic fur seals, the occasional majestic manta ray and also the fascinating mola mola sunfish. The inside of the crater can resemble a gigantic fish bowl at times and, if you’re really lucky, whale sharks can sometimes be seen here too, and pods of pilot whales frequently pass in the channel between Gordon Rocks and Santa Cruz. Gordon Rocks is also great for a deep dive on the outer rim of the crater, with lots of pelagics and invertebrates to be found along the wall. If close encounters with hammerheads gets your bubbles going, Gordon Rocks is the place to dive.

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Floreana

There are three very different dive sites at Floreana, mostly with mild currents making these excellent sites for beginners, and wonderful sites for experienced divers to relax and observe the fascinating marine life that Galápagos has to offer amongst some of the most interesting topography in the islands from rocky outcrops, extinct volcanoes, walls, tunnels, caves and sandy bottoms to black coral reefs. Enderby is the place to spot whale sharks in the spring months, as well as eagle rays, stingrays, white-tipped reef sharks, Galápagos sharks, cleaning stations, and sometimes hammerheads and pilot whales, and countless tropical fish including giant clouds of black-striped salemas that can envelop divers in their thousands. Champion offers one of the nicest drift dives in Galápagos, gliding along the wall escorted by friendly juvenile sea lions that frequently take a liking to diver’s fins, while keeping eyes open for green morays, blue lobster, octopus, long nose hawk fish and coral hawk fish, and spotting Pacific sea horses clinging to branches of black coral. There are also large Pacific green turtles covered in barnacles, eagle rays and stingrays, and also schools of hammerheads. At Punto Cormorant it is easy to find the famous red-lipped batfish with its leg-like fins and cherry red lips in relatively shallow water, presenting yet more evidence that diving in the Galápagos Islands is a unique experience and the three exceptional sites on Floreana are some of the most interesting dive spots within the archipelago.

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Wanna come diving with me? Get in touch.

Pampered at Papallacta

Hot springs naturally heated by Antisana Volcano in the Andes Ranges

Hot springs naturally heated by Antisana Volcano in the Andes Ranges

It’s early when we drive out of Quito, just as the city is beginning to wake for another business day. We choose to do a mid-week trip because we’ve heard that Papallacta Thermal Springs is not just a routine tourist stop, but that it’s also a very popular getaway for the locals, and can get quite busy on weekends. We wanted to avoid the crowds. Out of Quito, we ascend the Andes Mountain range, stopping briefly at a lookout at the top of the range, at an altitude of around 4800 meters at its highest point. It’s quite chilly up there. We grab our warm jackets as we alight to take in the magnificent view. Volcanoes and mountains run north and south along a massive jagged range stretching almost the entire length of South America. It’s a bit mind-blowing.

Not long afterwards, descending towards the village, we pass a lake which provides potable water to the surrounding area. A narrow twisting road leads us through a tangle of forest until we finally arrive in the small mountain village of Papallacta (pronounced: Pap-ay-act-a). We navigate around the village and follow another mountain road, passing a number of trout farms and several grazing llamas along the way. Finally, we arrive at the hot springs and day spa center. Our reservation is quickly confirmed and we are shown to our very comfortable cabin.

A semi-circle of cabins overlooks four private pools, each one decreasing in temperature, soothing your body as you move from one to the other, until you reach the cold one. Not wasting time, we strip and dip our toes into the hottest pool. It’s glorious. There is no one else there. For now, we have the whole place to ourselves. After a few minutes, our skin tingling from the hot water, we change to a slightly cooler pool, taking our large bottles of water and towels as we move between the large shallow pools. The second pool is wonderful. We linger longer. Luxuriating up to our necks in volcanic waters, we lean against the side and relax, Antisana Volcano looming right in front of us with her bright snowcap and stark slopes. Her heart bubbling and brewing, she is the source of our pleasure. After a short while, we plunge into the cold pool, gasping for breath and giggling as the freezing water slaps against our steaming hot skin.

After a tepid shower in the cabin, we dress and wander around the grounds. There is a series of larger heated pools winding around the forest path at the end of the compound. For a $20 entrance fee, day visitors can bathe in the public pools. A few people relax in the steaming mineral waters, greeting us as we pass on our walking tour. Further along, we find a path running along the foot of the mountains. Feeling energetic, we follow the path, but notice how quickly we feel out of breath. It’s the altitude: less oxygen in the air.  Undeterred, we meander along the dirt path for about half an hour or so, taking in the wonderful scenery and enjoying the blissful tranquility, and then turn back. At the day spa, we book massages for the following morning, and then take a long leisurely siesta, waking ourselves up later in the wonderful hot tubs.

The restaurant has such an extensive menu that it’s hard to choose what to eat. Determined to enjoy the local cuisine wherever we travel, we order the trout. “Delicious” does not nearly describe our dinner. In fact, the only way to truly appreciate such a meal is to go there and try it yourself. Words seem inadequate. Sated, wined and dined, (and desserted and hot chocolated) we head back to our cabin to enjoy a quick evening dip in our private thermal pools before retiring for the night. Another couple have arrived while we were out. Friendly greetings are exchanged as they hail us from the hot tub. They invite us to join them for a dip and a glass of wine. More wine? Why not? Once again, we strip and immerse ourselves up to our necks in mineral-rich healing waters, each sipping a glass of red wine; smooth on the palate and very fruity, but not too sweet. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the vineyard’s name. Somewhere in Chile. This heady mix instantly makes us all chatty for the first half an hour, and then quickly makes us sleepy.

Dressed in thick white bathrobes and disposable paper slippers, we pass through the day spa and let the masseurs boss us around while they order us to strip and then pummel and pound the painful knots from our shoulders and backs. Essential oils are rubbed from head to toe. Hot rocks sear the pain from our stiff spines. Mud is smeared around. During the neck and facial massage, I feel so good that I fall asleep. Some time later, we emerge with goofy faces, both so pampered that our facial muscles still don’t feel like making expressions. Our bodies zing, delighted at this amazing treatment. Despite our floppiness, we make an important decision; just one more dip before the scenic drive back to the city. It’s even better. After our massages, the hot tub is truly amazing. It’s hard to get out. Reluctantly, we dress and get in the car. Back in Quito, we head straight to bed for one last siesta. Next time, we plan to stay longer.

Feel like being pampered in Papallacta? Ask me how.

Going to the Birds

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Ex-Farmer-cum-Birdman, Angel Paz, owner of the Paz Bird Refuge in Mindo with a Giant Antpitta.

We wake up at 3.00am, yawning and stumbling around in the dark, getting dressed in warm clothes and trying not to wake other guests at the hotel, but not succeeding very well as we kick the furniture and stagger noisily down the stairs. The manager has thoughtfully left us a packed breakfast in the fridge. We retrieve the bag and then mumble unintelligibly to each other, rubbing our arms to warm ourselves while we wait for our driver, the steam from our breath clouding in the chilly air. Segundo shows up a few minutes late and we finally take off, rattling down the narrow winding track towards our destination. Headlights bounce all over the place as we navigate through mountain streams in the battered 4WD, going slowly on the bumpy road. It rained during the night. The vehicle slips and slides. Catching a few extra winks of sleep enroute is impossible.

“Oh no!” exclaims Segundo in the dark, cursing under his breath, before pulling up abruptly in the middle of the muddy track.

We have a flat tire. Wondering if we will still make our pre-dawn appointment on time, we work quickly together to change the tire, some of us shining flashlights on his work, others undoing the spare tire and rolling it to the front of the car. The road is slick. Just as he pulls the old tire off the studs, the jack falls over. Segundo moves it to another spot and jacks up the car again. This time, it stays. We help him to lift the new tire and fasten the nuts to the studs. He lets the car down and checks the studs again. After ten minutes driving, he checks them again. The clock is ticking. We don’t want to miss our appointment, but we do want to make it there in one piece. We arrive at the appointed meeting place less than a minute after our guide arrives. Everyone whispers in the dark, as if afraid to break the magic of the night before it’s time.

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Following our native guide, and some wildly dancing flashlights, we make our way down a very narrow slippery track. Just barely keeping our balance, we silently follow Angel Paz, a local ex-farmer and hunter who became a passionate birdman, to the edge of a small cliff as the first grey light of dawn begins to break. Angel indicates we should stay still and remain silent. The ghostly outlines of the trees begin to take shape in front of our eyes. Then, a strange clatter begins in the trees. We can’t see the birds yet, but we can certainly hear them.

As the light increases, just on sunrise, the bizarre red heads of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock appear in the branches as they dance and chatter, all competing for the affections of the plain brown-colored female. The Rupicola Peruviana is one of only two species that live in the neotropics. The noisy mating display goes on for over half an hour, the birds leaping about on the branches, chasing each other off, calling and dancing, until the female chooses her partner. Suddenly the forest is quiet again. We trudge back to the 4WD and head up the hill to another location, snacking on our packed egg sandwiches along the way.

Another hike down a steep slope takes us deep into the forest. Angel goes slowly, shushing us with a finger to his lips.

“There it is,” he whispers, pointing to a tree branch high above our heads.

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The White-Faced Nunbird dances along the branch, hopping back and forth, searching for breakfast. Angel tells us it’s a rare species that many birdwatchers have yet to spot. We have no trouble watching this avian treasure as it flits from branch to branch for a few minutes. Leaving it to find sustenance, we head back up the path, our guide whistling and twittering as he walks. On the way, a Rufous Potoo hides itself on a branch, blending into a tree. We nearly miss it, but Angel points it out with a green laser light.

“Shhh!” says Angel, stopping mid-step with his arms wide. We freeze. “There!” he whispers, barely making a sound as he points to the underbrush.

The Moustached Antpitta is hard to see at first, camouflaged in the thick undergrowth. Then, he hops around, digging worms from the ground just under the path. He flits back and forth, “hohoho”ing as he feeds on rich proteins. We silently observe as one of the most vulnerable species sings and eats.

Further up, Angel sets out breakfast for some Green Toucans. Slicing bananas and placing them on tree branches, he offers the birds almost 30 ripe plantain bananas. We sit back and wait, once again silent and unmoving in the early morning. Soon, the tree branches are buzzing with activity as Crimson Rumped Toucanets compete with Toucan Barbets, Blue Winged and Black Chinned Mountain Tanagers, until a couple of Sickle Winged Guans come in to hog the breakfast offerings. Fluttering and chirping, the birds come and go, feasting on the ripe bananas.

“Look!” says Angel, pointing up into the trees, where a red-breasted bird with a yellow head, a green coat and a black tail rests. The Quetzal. There is silence in the hide as the bird comes closer, easily spooked by the slightest movement. We freeze. Sitting just a few feet in front of our eyes, the Golden-Headed Quetzal pecks at the fruit. Cameras click. Then, it’s gone. On the ground, a pair of White-Throated Quail Doves waddle around, picking up the scraps dropped by the toucans.

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We continue along the rough track, heading upwards until Angel stops us again. A rare Giant Antpitta gathers worms in her beak to feed her offspring. She jumps back and forth, stuffing food into her mouth and then vanishes to her nest in a nearby tree branch, returning a few minutes later to eat her own breakfast. Nearby, an Ochre-Striped Antpitta dances on a branch, swinging its hips from side to side, assessing the danger. “Huewee! Huewee!” It sings. We don’t move. No one speaks. Soon, they both disappear.

At the top of the path, hummingbird feeders are attracting a number of species: Velvet-Purple Coronets, Fawn-Breasted Brilliants, Rufous-Tailed Hummingbirds, and the shimmering Andean Emeralds, amongst several others whizzing by too fast to identify. There are 137 species of hummingbirds in Ecuador and we spot at least a dozen of the 49 species in the region. After a feast of raspberries picked from the vines behind the hide, we trek up the final part of the path to dine richly on a traditional Ecuadorian breakfast of Bolon (green plantain banana balls), sweet Empanadas (cheese pastries) and aromatic local coffee, before heading back into town feeling sleepy but satisfied by our early morning adventure.

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