This is wonderful for us gringos to see as our families up north tend to scatter these days.
Merri’s and my family treat in Ecuador this year was to finally have my baby sister, Sandra, come, with her husband Patrick, and visit us.
Sandra (who is the really talented writer in the family) gave me the gift of sharing her experience here in Ecuador in words and photos. This allowed Merri and me to kick back a bit as Sandra shared her impressions of a first visit to Ecuador.
I hope you enjoy her thoughts and the excellent photographs.
Ecuador–the Time Machine
by Sandra Strait
I’m from Portland, Oregon, not a traveler by nature, and my husband, Patrick, and I came to Ecuador with many worries, and little idea of what we would find. The day before I left, the media was reporting that tensions were high between Columbia and Ecuador due to a recent border skirmish.
Day One – We arrive in Quito.
We landed in Quito around 11:00 pm. The city was wreathed with fog, and our pilot circled the plane waiting for an opening. We were lucky. Two planes that arrived shortly after were diverted to Guayaquil airport. That would have added a day of travel to our journey. Getting through customs and picking up our luggage was a “nightmare”–it took us at least 20 minutes!
The driver, Jorge, from our hotel, El Meson de las Flores, was waiting as we left the luggage area, and whisked us off to Cotacachi, approximately a two hour drive.
Jorge had brought blankets and water, so we could sleep, but even in the dark, we were too awake, and eager to see Ecuador as we traveled the Pan American highway, moving from about 9800 ft to 7800 hundred feet.
The impression I formed of Ecuador as we drove can be summed up in the words ‘Shabby Chic.’
Most buildings could use a new coat of paint, the signs are mostly hand-painted by the owners, and you can see where repairs have been made using whatever was available. But you can still see the gold through the patina–the history, the magnificent views, and the friendliness of the people.
Our king size bed nearly engulfed the room–fortunate for my husband, because I’m a restless sleeper, and had plenty of room to toss without disturbing him. I was pleased to see the bathroom was exquisitely clean.
Day Two-Discovering Cotachi
We were wakened next morning by church bells. They go off around 06:00 and 06:30. Much nicer than being awakened by an alarm clock. We had been warned that rooms with a balcony also let in the sounds of the street, but we chose the balcony anyway. We did hear cars but it was less noisy than many rooms I’ve slept in.
There are no elevators, and as I stepped onto the landing between the two flights of stairs–whoof!– I discovered they aren’t measured to be exact, and the last step of a flight tends to be the steepest.
Breakfast was a wonderful surprise. I vaguely expected something like Mexican food. That was a mistaken impression.
The food was all fresh, brought from the farms nearby. Our first course was atun (a cactus pear) with mandarin orange slices, followed by quinoa cereal ( a high-protein ancient Andean grain) with boiled whole milk and candied fruits. Then we had eggs, a slice of unfermented cheese, and bacon. To drink we were offered the choice of coffee, or black tea, or herbal tea (aromatica) or freshly whipped pineapple juice (the soil here is very alkaline, so the fruits are not as acid as we were used to).
All were cooked with a minimum of salt or sugar, or fat. The food was so fresh it needed little enhancement to its flavor. It looked like ‘healthy’ food, but I’ve never had ‘healthy’ food that tasted anything like this. Eduardo, the morning cook, and his staff are treasures beyond price.
As I wandered through the village, my impression of ‘shabby chic’ was reinforced. Ecuador shows her wear and tear, but with genteel grace. The old and the new exist in harmony. Even though the architecture is different, I irresistably reminded of the Oregon coast cities of 30-40 years ago.
I felt as though I had stepped into a time machine, not of place, but of attitude and atmosphere.
I also discovered that the cleanliness was widespread.
Women were out sweeping the streets in front of their shops. Many of the sidewalks were torn up, and are being replaced with tiles of sacred symbols.
Back at the hotel, I found that the reports of tension on the Columbian border were highly exaggerated by the media. Many of the people who live here, only learned about it from visiting Americans!
Before long, I felt as though I was on a cruise. The staff is excellent. I reported a broken handle on one of the toilets, and 3 employees ran to check it out, and fixed it on the spot.
The guests are not allowed to do anything for themselves!
For instance, when I tried to pour myself some water, one of the staff, gently but firmly, took my glass and the water bottle and poured it for me. His frown left no question that I was slighting his ability to serve.
We walked to the Cotacachi market, and on to the leather streets. Leather shops, one by one, go on for several blocks–purses, jackets, ponchos, shoes, saddles, all kinds of leather. I picked up several small ingraved leather coin purses for a dollar a piece, to take back as gifts to my co-workers.
The downside was the weather–we knew we were arriving in the rainy season but, evidently, la Niña has made it ranier and cloudier than usual. Being from Oregon, I felt right at home.
I skipped lunch because I was still full from breakfast. There was a tea with quinoa and coconut cookies (the sweets are not very sweet). They use a very lightly refined sugar here, and most of the sweetness came from the coconut.
Dinner was another delight. Potato soup, a mix of vegetables, and chicken cordon bleu.
Day Three-More food
Breakfast: Granola with hot liquid yogurt, a slice of papaya, a slice of cheese, two eggs, and 2 slices of bacon, and a whipped papaya-alfafa juice (a little like drinking grass!) .
My husband and I attended Gary’s seminar on investing in the meeting room of Cotacachi’s cultural museum.
More stairs! Not only is Ecuadorian food healthy, but you learn to walk again.
The seminar was interesting. Gary spoke of the history of finance over the last 1000 years, and the museam was the perfect setting for it. History seems much more alive, when you are sitting in it.
Lunch: Pumpkin/potato soup, vegetables, pepper steak, and a dessert of one scoop handmade vanilla ice cream (more like Italian ice cream), 1 scoop handmade sherbert, a slice of fried banana, all drizzled with chocolate.
Here is Gary expressing gratitude for his food.
Due to miscommunication, we didn’t realize that we couldn’t take full size suitcases on the plane that will be taking us to the coast. All we had was full-sized, and we didn’t want to pay for a leather carry-on, so we got directions to the only shop that carried woven bags of the right size. We looked and looked, but never found the shop.
Dinner: Bread soup (tasted similar to egg flower soup), vegetables, trout and shrimp (I passed because I was still full from lunch. I did have a cup of hot cocoa with cinammon).
I’ve been feeling the altitude a little bit. I’m out of shape, so I’d be puffing and panting with all the exercise I’m getting, but I find that even small exertions have me breathing harder than usual.
Cotacachi is surrounded by mountains-volcanoes, many of them. I learned a lovely story about two of them. Mt. Imbabura fell in love with Mt. Cotacachi and wooed her. She was having nothing of it, not believing in his love. Finally, in despair, Mt. Imbabura dug out his heart, and gave it to her, and at last she understood he was sincere. Now, whenever the clouds cover the mountain, you know it is because they are kissing. You can still see the heart-shaped gouge on Mt. Imbabura.
Day Four-More shopping
Breakfast: Quinoa with boiled milk and raisins, a slice of fresh pineapple, cheese, eggs, bacon, and freshly whipped blackberry juice.
A friend, Steve, who is also here for Gary’s seminar’s picked up one of the woven carry-on bags for us. But it so beautiful, we decided we want another one.
Lunch: Potato soup, a purple sweet potato, and quinoa-beef patties. Dessert was 2 scoops of ice cream (but I passed in favor of a second glass of pineapple juice–yay me!).
I left my husband to Gary’s seminar, and took a taxi to Otavalo market with Bonnie, Keough, one of Gary and Merri’s friends who speaks Spanish.
Even though I have only the smallest spattering of Spanish, there has been little problem making myself understood. The Spanish-speakers are wonderfully patient, and eager to practice their English. I was glad to have Bonnie along, nonetheless, because she knew just where to go, and which merchants had the best goods. I scored two panama hats, an alpaca blend blanket, an alpaca wool blend sweater, and three woven purses.
Dinner: They had a cheese and organic wine from a local farm, along with indigenous music and dancers. After there was fresh tomato homemade soup. I think there might have been more, but I was full, and wandered off else where.
Trucks travel the streets throughout the day playing music. This lets the inhabitants know that the garbage collectors are coming and they need to put their garbage out. Dogs wander freely through the streets, and will get into the garbage if it is left too long, so the people have developed a highly co-ordinated method of garbage pick-up.
After the seminar, Patrick and I go through our luggage deciding what will fit in our one carry-on bag. A surprising amount it turns. When we return to Ecuador, we’ll probably just use this one bag!
Day Five–Walking, walking, walking
I had brought a pedometer and meant to count my steps while in Ecuador, but I couldn’t get the thing to stay on, and gave up before the first day. I wish it had worked. It would be nice to know far I traveled today.
We went to the Food Market and had hot fig and cheese sandwiches for breakfast. Not a combination I would ever have dreamed of, but it was delicioso!
The Imbaburra property tour began today/ We saw a chicken farm, a small house with 7 acres, a lake house, and a hacienda–before lunch. Afterwards we went to see a ‘Finca’–similar to a hacienda but larger than a small housing development.
The Finca was especially beautiful.
The owner is an older Spanish gentleman and he invited some indigenous dancers to perform for us.
He laid out a spread of very American chocolate chip cookies and potato chips.
We had just dined on quinoa and shrimp and most of us were too full to indulge.
Here is the quinoa shrimp lunch.
I’ve draining batteries in my camera almost as soon as I put them in. Everywhere I look there is a vision so beautiful that I simply must catch it on film. Unfortunately, by the time we reached Lago San Pablo my batteries were defunct, and I missed out on some of the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever seen.
The Ecuadorians love dogs. At every property we met there was at least one dog, and usually more. Most of them were friendly, leaping with joy at our visit, and enticing us to rub tummies, or to run with them.
We had sea bass for dinner last night, and trout again tonight. I was too tired to eat, so I settled for a cup of hot chocolate with cinammon–it almost reminds me of malted milk rather than cocoa, but it’s very nice.
We had a little sunshine today while on the tour–just when we were stumbling up a steep slope to reach one of the properties.
After the tour, Gary and Merri, and a friend Steve, took a back way to show us property they were looking at. We traveled a dirt path past beautiful fields and small streams, and corn fields. There were cows and pigs and horses and llamas. The scenery was just magnificent, but by the end, both Patrick and I were dragging.
Patrick and I went to our room to figure out what we could take to the coast.
On the note of cleanliness again, over the week-end many, many people came to Cotacachi. At the end of Sunday evening there was trash everywhere in the streets, and I wondered how long it would take to clean up.
Day Six–Leaving Cotacachi
I got up at 06:00 am and looked out the window. The streets were pristine except for the neat bags full of garbage waiting on every corner for pick-up.
We are leaving for San Clemente, a fishing village on the coast where there is a condo development. I hate leaving Cotacachi, and the wonderful staff at El Meson de las Flores, but I’m looking forward to seeing a whole different side of Ecuador.
We made it. Here we are, Sandra and Patrick with Merri and me on the San Clemente Beach. I have asked Sandra to send her coastal report and hope to share it soon!
April 16-17 Ecuador Imbabura Real Estate Tour
May 13-17 Ecuador Import Export tour
May 23-25 International Investing & Business Made EZ North Carolina
June 7-8 Coastal Real Estate tour
June 11-15, Super Thinking + Spanish
June 16-17 Imbabura Real Estate Tour
June 19- 21 Ecuador Shaman Tour