Friday, September 30, 2022

Old Quito

As usual, we awoke early and did a few things in the room while waiting to go to breakfast in the Sheraton at 6 am. We had another great selection of fruit, cheese and breads in addition to the items that are typically eaten in Ecuador. I tried cacao tea since the person at the chocolate maker said that the hulls of the cacao beans are used for tea. I found the cacao tea to be tasteless and smelled only slightly of chocolate. The fresh fruit juices were outstanding.

At 8 am we met our guide for Quito, Patricia, along with the others in the group for orientation and planning. One couple from New Hampshire was delayed because of a Hurricane Ian related cancellation but the other 13 of us were there. After the meeting, we went to our rooms to get what we needed for the morning tours.

San Francisco Convent

We boarded a bus and drove into old town Quito. Upon exiting the bus, we were swarmed by women selling hand woven alpaca shawls. Mary bought some to take back as gifts for the girls. Then we walked through the town square 
to the San Francisco Convent a Franciscan church. Which dates to 1535. In the courtyard there were several species of native parrots which we understand is common for Franciscan churches. We were amazed at the age of the structure and how good it appeared to be. The walls are now painted white, but it originally had beautiful murals on the walls and ceiling. There was a service going on when we arrived, so we tried to be very quiet and not disturb anything. It was remarkable how well preserved the paintings and the structure of the church was after nearly 500 years.

The Gold Church
From this church, we walked to a Jesuit church, the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, commonly called “The gold church” because of all the gold in the church’s interior decor. It was quite beautiful, so we walked around looking at the old church. 


We walked to Chez Tiff Artesanal, a chocolate maker in Quito who, like the chocolatier in Mindo, makes artisanal chocolate in small batches. The proprietor is a Swiss man who is married to an Ecuadorian woman. He gave us a discussion on the making of chocolate that was very similar to the process we saw yesterday. We very much enjoyed the samples of their chocolate making.

Lunch at Hotel Grande Plaza
When we arrived at Hotel Plaza Grande for lunch, we met with the toast two of our group, Charlie and Judy from Vermont, whose travel had been delayed by Hurricane Ian. They were a nice couple, and we were pleased to have them join the group.

Cucuruchos in Quito

Lunch was at Hotel Plaza Grande where Mary and I both had chicken coated in local quinoa flour and baked. The appetizer was a selection of native Ecuador’s fruits and vegetables. The real treat was the dessert which was guava and raspberry sorbets in a small metal bowl. The metal bowl was in a slightly larger porcelain bowl with a small quantity of dry ice and water causing the bowl to appear to smoke. The dessert was served by waiters dressed in purple robes called cucuruchos. The also had purple conical cloth hats covering their faces. This is part of a seasonal ritual in Ecuador symbolizing reflection and penance during holy days and especially on Good Friday when thousands of Ecuadorians parade through Quito in the purple robes and hoods.

We had a bit of a scare after we left the restaurant. Cindy wanted a coffee from the nearby café and realized that she didn’t have her wallet. We ran back to the dining room and quickly found the wallet under the table where she and Mark sat.

After finishing lunch, we boarded the bus to visit the home and museum of Oswaldo Guayasamin, Ecuador’s most famous artist. His art was very dark and carried a social/political message that was relevant in his time. I believe that this was the least favorite stop of our time in Ecuador. However, I did meet a lady who lives just a few blocks from Sarah. I was wearing a “Xavier Dad” T-shirt when a visitor at the museum asked me if I was from Cincinnati. I told her that we were from Central Kentucky, but our daughter attended Xavier and her family lives in Pleasant Ridge. It turns out that she lives just a short distance from Sarah in Pleasant Ridge.

After leaving the Guayasamin art museum, we again boarded the bus for our return to the Sheraton where we had almost an hour of free time before the speaker, a professor from the university in Quito, spoke on the geography, economics and culture of Ecuador. He was an interesting and knowledgeable speaker that everyone seemed to enjoy. Following the presentation, we had dinner at the hotel then we went to our rooms to prepare for our early departure for Galápagos Islands tomorrow.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Mindo Cloud Forest

As most days, we were awake early, so we did our German lessons and straightened the room before our trip to the Mindo Cloud Forest to the northwest of Quito. We had breakfast at the Sheraton and enjoyed the selection of South American breakfast foods, especially the fresh fruits and juices.

Waterfall in Pahuma Orchid Reserve
We were picked up at the hotel by a taxi, driven by Edwin, to take us to meet our naturalist guide for the day. The ride was much less hectic than the taxi ride from the airport with Denis. The taxi took us to meet with Richard and we moved our items into his car for the day trip in the Mindo Cloud Forest. Richard Hernandez was very pleasant and spoke English very well. We asked us our preferences for the day and scheduled the trip around our priorities.

Cindy & Mary taking a break
Our first stop was to Reserva Pahuma Orchid Reserve, a private nature preserve where we could see birds, a variety of native plants, and a spectacular waterfall. We hiked up a steep and narrow trail with Richard stopping point out items of interest. We saw anoles, tarantulas, damselflies and tiny frogs. There were lots of trees and other plants that are characteristic of the cloud forest. We were surprised to learn that at less than 7000 feet, the altitude at the cloud forest is much lower than in Quito. Richard was very patient with our many questions and took the time to explain the plants and animals in the context of the local culture. We were interested to learn that Richard had been a Trappist monk earlier in his life. We spent nearly two hours hiking this area.

We stopped for lunch at a small local restaurant in the town of Nanegalito where we all had fritatas (roast pork with hominy) at el Sabroson. We also purchased a couple of water bottles and some local parched corn. We were surprised that the bill for the five of us (including Richard), the water and corn was only $28. Perhaps the most amusing part of the restaurant was the old console television that was converted to an aquarium.

Hummingbird in San Tadeo
After lunch we drove the short distance to San Tadeo Bird Viewing. There was a large feeder where many beautiful species of tanager, oriole and other birds were feeding on bananas. An area with hummingbird feeders attracted hundreds of hummingbirds of several species and all sizes and colors. It was wild with all of the tiny birds flying all around us. This was interesting to us since only one hummingbird species, the ruby throated, is found in eastern North America.

Yumbo's Chocolate
We were ready for a snack so we stopped at Yumbo’s Chocolate in the town of Mindo. Yumbo’s is a very small scale production using the yellow “National“ variety of cacao that are only found in Ecuador. The cacao beans are fermented and dried before coming to Yumbo’s in Mindo. We were shown how the staff removes the shell of the coffee beans after crushing. The cacao is then pressed and ground for several days before adding sugar or flavoring and forming into chocolate bars.

At the conclusion of our visit, we had a tasting of hot chocolate as well the 100%, 85%, 70% and 60% cacao bars. We also sampled their chocolate with orange, lemongrass, raw cacao nibs, hot pepper and ginger. Everything was very good, and we purchased several bars to take back as gifts for family.

Hummingbird at Balkon Tumpiki
After leaving Yumbo’s, we drove several kilometers up a steep narrow road to el Balcon Tumpiki bird observation area. This place had even more birds than the first place we stopped. Hummingbirds were everywhere and seemed to have no fear of humans. Two species of toucans came to the feeder. The first was the plate billed mountain toucan then the toucan barbet. We also saw flocks of red billed parrots making a racket in nearby trees. A light shower urged us to leave, but we could certainly have stayed here much longer. The rain ended soon and didn’t make the drive on the dirt road slippery.

Standing at the Equator
Our last stop of the day was to stand at zero degrees latitude, the equator. The well-publicized visitor center and monument for the equator in Mitad del Mundo isn’t actually on the equator but several hundred meters south. We went to Patricio Villavicencio’s visitor center which is exactly on the equator. Patricio keeps his stop something of a secret with only guides who know him aware of his small display. The government wants to protect the other sanctioned visitor center from competition, so Patricio keeps his operation low profile. We checked the coordinates with our GPS and found Patricio’s line to be spot on within the margin of error for my GPS. Patricio showed us lots of information about how the incorrect location of the equator was established as well as demonstrating the sundial that he constructed in his courtyard. I even went to the toilet to check the direction of the flush and found it to still go counterclockwise right on the equator.

Toucan at Balcon Tumpiki
We got back in Richard’s car and returned to Quito. We learned that he couldn’t pick us up or return us to the hotel because driving in the city center during weekday rush hours is restricted by license plate  numbers to one day per week. This is to reduce air pollution in the city of Quito. We said our goodbyes to Richard and got in the taxi driving us back to the Quito Sheraton.

Mary, Cindy and Mark went to a cafe in the hotel for an evening snack while I stayed in the room to do my evening German lesson and start writing the journal entry for the day. Although we were tired, everyone had a fun and memorable time in Ecuador today.

We meet up with the Road Scholar group tomorrow morning for an informational meeting followed by a bus and walking tour of Quito. We travel to Galápagos Islands on Saturday.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Sightseeing in Quito

I woke around 4 am, which makes sense since Quito is on Central Time and my usual wake-up time is 5 am. I showered then reorganized my backpack for what we may do in the next few days before going to the Galápagos Islands. Mary checked weather and looked for things to do today and tomorrow in mainland Ecuador.

We thought that breakfast at the Sheraton was included with our room, but with the language issue, we weren’t certain. In any case, breakfast was an excellent buffet with many South American items as well as a few US favorites such as waffles. There was a large selection of fresh fruit juices, many fresh tropical fruits, breads, meats and pastries.

Golden Angel's Trumpet
After breakfast, Mary and Cindy planned our outing while I watched an episode of Bonanza with Spanish voiceover and changed clothes. We headed to Parque la Carolina, a large urban park just a few blocks from the Sheraton. We walked around looking at unfamiliar flowers and trees, while watching several groups play volleyball and soccer. 

We visited the Jardín Botánico De Quito, the national botanical garden. It contained a great variety of plants throughout the large garden, and most were clearly labeled with scientific name, botanical family, country of origin and common name in Spanish. 
We especially enjoyed the cactus and succulent area with plants from all over the world. A display of bonsai trees showcased winning displays from a recent competition. A specialty of the Quito botanical garden are the orchids from Ecuador’s tropical rain forests.

While we were at the botanical gardens, we saw a number of birds that were unfamiliar to us. We were especially taken with the many hummingbirds in the area. There were very few other visitors at the botanical garden while we were there. However, being an overcast Wednesday morning, we didn’t expect it to be crowded. We enjoyed our visit to the area very much and left around 1:30 to find a place for a light lunch.

Mary and Cindy spotted Panificadora Ambato, a local bakery. We all got empanadas, flaky bread with chicken or beef filling and shared desserts. The bill for Mary and I was $8, and the Whittington’s bill was about the same. We all enjoyed the lunch the came back to the Sheraton to relax. We were all tired from rushing around on Monday to make an early departure plus spending the previous day in airports or on planes. In addition, none of us are adjusted to the altitude here of nearly 10,000 feet. A midafternoon break was welcome for all of us.

While Mary finished resting and exercising, I went for a walk between the park and hotel. I checked for possible places to eat and got an overall view of this part of the city. Quito is a large city with nearly three million residents, but we are only seeing a small part of it. We understand that we will have a tour of the city on Friday with the Road Scholar group.

We met with Mark and Cindy in the lobby at 6 pm and walked the path I explored this afternoon. We decided to try Chalaca, a Peruvian restaurant. Our waitress could speak English better than most people we have met here in Quito and was very helpful. We started with a shared appetizer of chicken, shrimp, and fish. The waitress also brought a very hot sauce with a name that translates to an unmentionable word in English. She also recommended a local white wine which was a good accompaniment to our meal. I ordered taco-taco con saltado with chicken which is Peruvian beans and rice with stir fried chicken and a light sauce. Mary had chanchito criollo which was whipped sweet potatoes topped with pork in a slightly sweet sauce. Cindy had corvina al escabeche, sea bass with a relish of yellow chili pepper, onions and aji panca. Mark went with the lomito saltado en su jugo, Peruvian stir-fried pork tenderloin with fried potatoes. We all enjoyed our meals and were pleased that the entire meal cost less than $80.

By the time we finished eating, it was after 8 pm so we came back to the Quito Sheraton for the night. For tomorrow, we booked a tour to the Mindo Cloud Forest, on the western slope of the Andes, with a departure time of 7:15 am to meet our naturalist guide.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Arrival in Quito

Our trip was planned to start on Wednesday, September 29. We were to fly to Quito that day and spend  Thursday in Ecuador’s capital city. However, we had a call on Monday, September 27, informing us that Hurricane Ian could be in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday and might cause our flight to be cancelled. The travel agent for Road Scholars, Holbrook Travel, offered to book us on flights the next day.

We had been having a great day with our oldest grandson, Peter, visiting on a sleepover. We had played games, watched Jungle Book, cut down a dying ash tree, cooked marshmallows and hot dogs over the bonfire, and driven the tractor around the property. Peter has become very proficient at driving the tractor, although I have yet to teach him much about the operation of the front loader or any other attachments. We always enjoy having him over for a visit. His endless energy amazes us.

Once we received the call that we needed to leave early, we listed the tasks that needed to be done so we could leave before 7 am the next morning. While I drove Peter back home to Cincinnati, Mary drove to Chase to get cash for incidental expenses on the trip, then started mowing the front yard with the John Deere. When I got in, I started mowing the back yard and field with the Kioti tractor. My mowing was easier since I had mowed the orchard the day before and had run the string trimmer while Mary and Peter roasted wieners. Still, I had to finish mowing the field by the tractor’s headlights. The fall air and light breeze were cool, so my fleece jacket felt very good. It was hard to believe that we had temperatures in the mid-90s just a few days earlier.

By the time I had finished mowing after 7:30 pm, Mary had mostly packed and was ready to load the larger suitcase that would be our checked bag. We were unable to locate the TSA approved luggage lock, so Mary ran out to Walmart to pick up another before we turned in. We were exhausted but looking forward to our adventure in the Galápagos Islands.

We awoke at 5 am on Tuesday morning and had our usual omelets with poblano peppers and sharp cheddar. We finished packing our carry-on bags, double checked the door and window locks, turned on the alarm and security cameras and headed for the Cincinnati Airport by 6:40 am. We arrived at the Hilton where we normally park around 7:40 and caught the 8 am shuttle to the airport. We were able to check in easily even though Holbrook had changed our flight the previous day. Because of our Global Entry card, we went through security quickly and easily which is always a relief. We walked around Cincinnati airport for nearly an hour before going to our departure gate. Our 11 am flight to Atlanta left on time and appeared to be very full. We watched a few programs on the seat back screens during the flight of a little over an hour. 

Soon after we deplaned, Mary had a text from Cindy that their flight from Jacksonville, FL had arrived and that they would be in the terminal soon. We were happy to see them and visited as we walked through the Atlanta Airport. Mark and Cindy hadn’t eaten yet and we were all hungry, so we found a Qdoba Restaurant and had a good lunch. We arrived at Concourse A but were departing from Concourse F, which was about a 30-minute walk or a fast ride on the airport shuttle train. Since we needed to move around, we decided to walk to our departure gate. The flight to Quito began loading on time and departed Atlanta on time for the five-hour flight.

As with the flight from Cincinnati to Atlanta, this flight was also very full. The only vacant seat we saw was between Mary and her seat mate. She and I sat across the aisle from each other. Mark and Cindy were a few rows behind us, also across the aisle from each other. The in-flight meal was a choice of a chicken salad croissant or fruit and cheese tray, both of which looked good. Mary & I both got the sandwich which we enjoyed. Complementary drinks included the usual coffee, tea, soft drinks and juices but also beer, wine or cocktails. I had the white wine which went well with the chicken. After the meal, Mary worked puzzles in her magazine, and I watched Unforgiven on the seat back screen.

After deplaning at the Quito airport, we went through immigration quickly and easily showing only our passports and giving the agents the anticipated dates of our stay. We picked up our checked bag and walked the short distance to the taxi stand. We were surprised that the fare for the four of us would be only $25 for the 40-mile trip to the Sheraton on Avenue Republica El Salvador. Our driver, Denis, was pleasant but spoke no English. From time to time, he would use a voice translation app to get needed information. The ride was quite an adventure. Denis had his playlist of Spanish language rock music blasting at high volume. His driving had us gripping the seats when he darted between trucks, cars, motorcycles and pedestrians at high speed. Several times we were certain that we would crash but he got us safely to the Sheraton where we would spend four nights.

Our fourth-floor room was very nice, large and well appointed. The large screen television only seemed to get Spanish language programming. The bathroom had a spacious curbless shower with a rain shower head. The bed was comfortable, and the room was clean, quiet and dark.