Monday, June 19, 2017

Quito Layover Tour

Planning

I recently had a twelve hour layover in Quito, Ecuador's capital and second largest city. My initial plans were to read while at the Quito airport and not much else. My imagination had this layover seeming to last a very long twelve hours.

Instead of staying at the airport, I decided to go on a six hour tour with Tours Around Quito. With my flight arriving around Noon, the tour would take me right up to a few minutes before the 6:30 sunset.

Quito Airport Arrival

Gustavo Tupiza, who owns Tours Around Quito with his wife, Elizabeth, picked me up from the airport and we headed straight to the historic district, Centro Histórico.

It happened to be May 24, a national holiday, and the day of the presidential inauguration. We had to get into and out of the historic area before it closed to vehicle traffic at 4:00 for inauguration festivities. After parking, we began our walking tour on Calle la Ronda, a street that comes alive at night.
La Ronda Street in Quito
The cobblestone streets and pedestrian walkways meander between buildings constructed over several centuries.

Independence Square

Our first stop was Independence Square, where the presidential palace, Carondelet Palace, is located. Setup was underway for the festivities beginning in a few hours. Many folks had already staked out seating for the evening activities.
Independence Square with the presidential palace in background
Inset: Police patrols on foot and Segways
It struck me that, while there was a visible police presence, no one entering the area was searched nor funneled through metal detectors. I have never attended a presidential inauguration celebration in the US but I imagine that the attendees area all searched on their way into the area.

La Iglesía de la Compañía de Jesús

Gustavo explained that next we were going a short walk away to visit one of his childhood churches. The church exterior was stone with a massive wooden, gold inlaid door. Entering the church, The Church of the Society of Jesus in English, I paid a guest entrance fee and was told no photography of any kind was allowed inside.
La Iglesía de la Compañía de Jesús exterior
Inset: Entrance door
Shockingly beautiful, most of the interior of the church is made of gold. There are large original paintings on every interior pillar. Click here and here to see photos of the interior.

Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco

A few blocks away, the buildings of the Church, Convent, and Plaza of St. Francis cover three hectares and took nearly 150 years to complete, beginning in 1534. The plaza on this day was frequented by families feeding pigeons and friends chatting.
Church and Convent of St. Francis from the plaza
Again, no photography was allowed inside the church but you can click here for a photo. The church houses a 30 cm wooden sculpture of the beloved Virgin of Quito (1734) in the vestibule.

Virgin of Quito Statue

We left the historic district and drove up El Panecillo Hill to the base of the worlds largest replica of the Virgin of Quito, which can be seen from city.
Virgin of Quito Statue on El Panecillo hill overlooking Quito
(Click on photo to enlarge)
She overlooks the city and from her vantage point, you can clearly see where the historical district ends and the financial district begins. The buildings in the financial district are taller and newer.
View of Quito from the base of the statue
Historic district in foreground, financial district behind

Middle of the World Monument

Our next stops were devoted to the equator.

In 1936, a monument was built on the equator to celebrate the "middle of the world." The current 100 foot high monument replaced the original in 1979. What the builders did not know then was that when GPS technology was developed and used, the actual equator was a few hundred feet from the monument.
Middle of the World Monument

Intiñan Museum

If you want to visit the actual equator, head to the nearby Intiñan Museum, a privately owned park where 0 degrees latitude, 0 minutes, 0 seconds is found with a well calibrated GPS device. There, you can balance an egg on a nail, attempt to walk a straight line with the north and south hemispheres pulling you in each direction, and a few other activities that are fun for kids and adults alike.
Balancing an egg on a nail at the equator
Intiñan's exhibits include reproductions of some Amazon region vegetation and homes, an explanation of the head shrinking practice (with an actual shrunken head on display) and a solar museum.

Recommendation

I highly recommend Tours Around Quito. Gustavo is fully bilingual and provides day trips as well as muti-day tours around Ecuador. Making my tour even better was Gustavo's narration throughout the day. He is a history buff and loves sharing his knowledge with clients.

This was the perfect way to spend the time during my layover.

Have you ever taken a guided tour?

Monday, June 12, 2017

You've Got (No) Mail!

“I've always felt there is something sacred in a piece of paper that travels the earth from hand to hand, head to head, heart to heart.”
― Robert Michael Pyle, Sky Time in Gray's River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place 

Millions of people order products online every day simply by entering their address and payment information. Perhaps you are one of them. I used to be.

What would you do if you did not have home mail delivery or a post office box? I know the answer because I have neither. I can't order products online and have them delivered to my home. There is an upside to this...

I receive no junk mail! In fact, I receive no mail at all. Home mail delivery is not a standard practice here.

Ecuador does have a national postal system. A few years ago, they even assigned postal codes throughout the country.

Mail arrives in large cities daily and in smaller towns regularly. For example, it arrives in Puerto López every Wednesday.
Historic mailbox in Puerto López
Not in operation
People do send and receive packages, it just is not as simple as it was in the US.

Chasing packages
One Wednesday, I was chatting with a neighbor. The whole time, her son scanned the traffic in town. Mid-conversation, he yelled "mail truck!" My friend cut off our conversation and raced into town.
Friend's son watched for the mail truck from up here
She had been waiting for a package and missed the mail truck the previous two weeks. The sender had addressed it to "Her name, Puerto López, Manabí Province." The mail truck drove into and out of town with the package until she flagged it down during it's rounds.

Sending packages
Many people use buses to transport packages. Let's say Maria in Guayaquil wants to send a package to Emily in Puerto López several hours away. Maria takes the package to the Guayaquil bus terminal and pays them to transport it. Emily goes to the Puerto López bus terminal and picks up her package.

There are a few private company options, too. Servientrega has offices in many towns, including Puerto López. We have sent documents within Ecuador through Servientrega.

DHL has offices in larger cities. We have never used DHL in Ecuador but a few friends have.

Outgoing letters
The nearest post office to Puerto López is over an hour away. Some hotels will take mail, as long as it is stamped. Buying stamps is another story.

If you have the correct postage, you can simply look for an outgoing mailbox. I once dropped some postcards into one of these and they were delivered in the US a few weeks later.
Outgoing mailbox
Bills and bank statementsWhat about bills? I go to the electric company each month and pay the bill. They tell me what is owed. It is the same with other utilities. Some utilities will accept automatic payments from a bank account but not all.

Our bank provides online bank statements, available for only six months. Forget to download statements for seven months? Too bad, you are now missing a bank statement.

International mail
When we moved to Ecuador in 2013, we had heard about people never receiving packages. Others told us about import customs fees higher than the value of the product. We waited until those stories diminished before trying it ourselves.

Two years into living in Ecuador, we wanted to receive a package from the United States. A local restaurant allowed us to use their address, which looked a lot like this:

Restaurant Name
Diagonally across from the fire department
Presidential Avenue and First Street
Puerto López, Manabí, Ecuador

Six weeks after the package was sent, we had it in our hands. Our package was within strict import guidelines so we only had to pay a $1 fee. Since that success, we have received a few pieces of mail at the restaurant.

I sometimes see something online I would like and think how nice it would be to order it and have it arrive at my home. Overall though, I do not miss receiving home mail delivery all that much. Especially junk mail.

What would you miss most if you did not have home mail delivery?

Monday, June 5, 2017

Living History - Agua Blanca

Ecotourism: Tourism directed toward exotic, often threatened, natural environments, especially to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife. 
-- Oxford Living Dictionaries

Agua Blanca is a friendly historic community five minutes northeast of Puerto López. Some residents are direct descendants of the Manteño civilization, who lived here between 800 and 1532 A.D.

Community members keep their history alive with their lifestyle. They enjoy sharing their history with the public via tourism and a full time archaeology project in which anyone can participate. I wrote about my digging day here.

The small community has several hundred residents and several thousand goats. The goats wander around everywhere except crop fields, where they are fenced out, and inside buildings.
Goats can go anywhere except where crops are grown
Agua Blanca was one of the first Ecuadorian coastal communities to embrace ecotourism in the 1980's.

A $5 tourist entrance fee is the primary income source for the community. The fee includes entrance to a museum, a guided two hour tour, the sulfur laguna, and many areas you can explore on your own. Horseback rides, massages, archaeology dig participation, and other add-ons can be arranged as desired for additional fees.

The guided tour begins in the town center, featuring a church, museum, restaurant, and general store. The museum is full of historical artifacts and placards in English and Spanish. Portraits of living direct descendants are on the walls. When my mom and I toured, our guide was one of the descendants.
Museum is full of artifacts and informational placards
Photos of living descendants on top
Knives, hunting, fishing, and cooking tools are on display. Jars are filled with fermenting insects, lizards and snakes. Urns contain bones arranged as they were found after their second burial. Bodies were buried and ceremonially dug up later. The bones were placed into urns, often with other loved ones, and re-buried.
Remains of two adults in a broken burial urn
The tour then goes through the countryside, meandering alongside fields, pigs, chickens, goats, and archaeology sites. Guides stop to point out crops, homes, birds, nests, dens, and creatures as you go.

Hand farmed fields produce the community's vegetables and fruits. Bee keeping produces honey, sold on-site.
Home surrounded by fruit trees and vegetables
As the tour comes to a close, the volcanic spring-fed sulfur laguna comes into view. Cups of good-for-your-skin sulfuric mud await. Smear the mud on your body and face then hang out watching hummingbirds and butterflies while it dries.

A soak in the warm sulfur laguna pool to soak up more skin nutrients is next. Then an outdoor shower to rinse off any remaining mud and skin is left feeling baby soft and smooth for days.
Soaking in the sulfur laguna
Massages available with prior arrangement are enjoyed next to the laguna. Across the road from the laguna are restaurants featuring empanadas, corviches, juice and beer.
Restaurant by sulfur laguna
A short walk brings you back to the village center. If you did not eat at the laguna, the restaurant here serves highly recommended goat stew.

If you are not driving, I recommend taking a taxi to Agua Blanca, then have them pick you up several hours later. Otherwise a 5 minute bus ride from Puerto López followed by a 5 km (3 mile) walk in the sun takes you from to the main road to the village center.

Would you smear sulfur rich mud on your body and soak in the laguna?