he BC Blog
We send out lots of email while we travel. In fact, of course, we send email much more often than we update the web. We can never quite remember who we told what to, so this page is meant as a sort of bulletin board for our most recent whereabouts, impressions, and comments while we work more slowly and deliberately on the permanent web pages.
Wednesday, November 17, 2004 — Nightmare in Cuenca
After more than five years of travel, the nightmare we feared finally found us. In a small hotel in Cuenca, Ecuador, we were robbed. We lost both of our laptops, a portable hard drive, some cash, some of Jan´s silver and turquoise jewelry, and perhaps worst of all the power adaptor for Gerry´s camera. The latter loss has caused us great grief because without the ability to charge the camera´s batteries, its life is limited and taking photographs is such a part of our travelling life.
The other loss of course is less tangible. We have lost about ten days of photos that we had not yet backed up as well as a month of diary which we will be able to recreate based on Gerry´s photo record, and finally a web page that Gerry had been developing. And there is always the loss of confidence of course. We have always tried to be very careful but it only takes one unlucky chance. We were in a hotel that had an opportunistic thief. We always thought the main danger was from hotel staff, but our thief was most likely another guest in the hotel who saw these rich foreigners and took a chance. We reported it to the police, but to no avail of course. The hotel keeper felt pretty sure who had committed the crime, but the police were not even mildly interested even though the hotel keeper had ID numbers.
Saturday, October 30, 2004 — Volcano Country South of Quito
After stays in Quito and Imbabura (north of Quito; its main cities are Ibarra and Otavalo) we went south of Quito to Latacunga. Our reasons were simple: Latacunga is on the direct route south to Peru and — the reason we stopped there — it is the gateway to the volcano Cotapaxi, 5897 m high and permanently snow covered from about 5000 m up. On the bus from Quito we had great views of Cotapaxi for about ten minutes, really getting to see the snow cap. By the time we were in Latacunga it was socked in, never again to be seen in our three-day stay. Several people told us that was normal and that we'd been lucky to get even a short view in this season.
Latacunga itself is mildly interesting. It is what we would suppose to be a typical Ecuadorian town, maybe as big as Ibarra and Otavalo combined. There are three imposing — at least from the outside — churches in town and after a try at visiting each of them everyday we finally got inside. On the outside the Cathedral is of an imposing bulk, all white washed. Inside it was pleasant but not overly memorable. Another imposing white-washed church was always closed. The third big one we got in and as it was victorian-greek revival did not impress much either.
We stayed in the Cotapaxi hotel on Parque Vicente Leon, the main square. Too bad that the beauty of the mountain wasn't transfered to the hotel. It had/has a sixties Bauhaus-Lever House glass-curtain facade, but expressing it that way is overly flattering to the building. While three and a half sides of the square have charming Spanish Colonial facades (with the exception of the City Hall that has a charming, if mongrel 19th century front) the Cotapaxi Hotel's three stories spoiled glass front had worn curtains showing through. Thankfully, as once was said of the Soviet-inspired Academy of Sciences building in Warsaw, when you are inside looking out, it is beautiful. We enjoyed our views of the square and life passing by there.
The first afternoon we made a quick walk around town as we usually do. That took us around the main market area, which was very crowded. We'd arrived on a Tuesday and later learned that was the main market day. It appeared messy rather than charming so we went right on. The next afternoon while in the hotel we heard a band and other noises. Quickly we looked and found that out of the right corner of our window we could see a marching band heading up a parade. The first vehicle was an 18th century carriage and the rest were flower and papier-mache decorated modern look-alike sedans and SUVs. Gerry rushed out and got a fair amount of photos and video. The event was the inauguration of the new Festival Queen. The parade arrived in front of the City Hall, all important went in, and then the outgoing queen crowned the new queen on the front balcony. Shortly thereafter the parade set off in the opposite direction.
On Thursday morning we went to Saquisili with the thought that if the afternoon was clear that we'd go on to visit the lower slopes of Cotapaxi, since they are both in the same direction. Our guidebook said that the Thursday Saquisili market was the best indigenous one in Ecuador. We felt we shouldn't miss it even though we'd been to the market in Otavalo just a week earlier and had just rushed through the Latacunga market. We took an early bus the 15 km northwest and got there about 8:30. Of course the rest of the world (except other tourists) had been on the go since 6 or 6:30 am. Although the Otavalo market wasn't particularly interesting since we had wanted to buy neither sheep, pig, or hand-woven blanket, in retrospect it was more interesting than the Saquisili market since there we didn't want to buy milled corn, peas, etc, or electrical cables or plastic rope. In otherwords, Otavalo's market had what you can't buy at Wal-Mart and Saquiisili's had what you can buy at Wal-Mart.
The interesting and impressive part of Saquisili is that it was as big as ten Wal-Marts spread over street-after-street and filling three different squares, well separated from each other. The buyers were for the most part not American suburban type but Inca-descended indigenous people, with the women usually wearing trilby hats (they are made of soft felt and have an indented crown), knee-length wool skirts, and tight knee-length woven socks.
If you had great intuition you would know we protest too much about the Saquisili market. We, or Gerry, did in fact buy something there. The pants that he'd bought in Washington DC in February, 2003 had been getting shabbier and shabbier. One of them was so baggy that it nearly fell off him and had pockets so large that a pick-pocket's hand was able to have a week's vaction in there without being noticed. In the Saquisili market Gerry replaced those pants with a new pair of blue jeans, much spiffier. It was just a street stand, so Gerry had to disrobe a bit ("show his undershorts that need replacement too", says Jan). And there was a small section devoted to handicrafts where Jan almost bought a gift.
We were done with the market well before noon. As we couldn't see Cotapaxi and there was no food in the market or any restauant that really appealed to us, we went back to Latacunga.
Chugchilan via Sigchos
The next moring, Friday, we set off for Chugchilan, which is only 38 km NNW of Latacunga as the crow might fly but 80 km by road. Because more than half of the road is unpaved, and passes through sparsely settled mountains, the region we went through has a very remote feel.
Our trip took us to and through Saquisili and what a difference one day makes. The markets and marketeers and marketees (is that how you say shoppers in French?) were gone. The streets were nearly as deserted as if it was the Day of The Triffids. The route to Saquisili is relatively flat but from then on we entered the mountains. We drove on a road cut into steep green slopes with deep valleys below us. There were so many switch backs that it was impossible to guess what direction we were going in and where we would emerge. Apparently part of the time we were on the slopes of the twin Ilizini volcanos, about 5,000 m high, but we saw nothing of them.
Most passengers seemed to be going much shorter distances than we were. It was frequent to stop to let a few people on and then in a few miles or at the next place big enough to be called a town to let them off. The most interesting uploading was at fork in the road, "the other way" going to someplace called El Pongo, with the valley floor 100 m below us. Down in the bottom were a few simple houses and green farmer's fields. Sitting on the verge were about a dozen people dressed in indigenous costume. All the time we were there they showed little activity; perhaps they were waiting for a bus in the opposite direction. One man did get on our bus but only after about a dozen of his hog-tied sheep (no mixed metaphor intended) were raised one-by-one and then stored on the roof luggage rack of the bus.
The direct bus takes four hours but our trip lasted two more hours as 3/4 of the way we stopped to change bus in Sigchos, a town only 4 by 4 blocks (and thus much smaller than Latacunga) but still big enough to have the regional high school and several restaurants. When we got to Sigchos the sheep were unloaded one-by-one. What they went on to have for lunch we don't know. But we went into a small place near the bus stop and Gerry had a full lunch for $1.20, including soup, main dish, rice, and a fresh fruit drink. Jan's stomach was feeling a bit touchy and she only had the soup, an excellent chicken one, for $0.30.
Before lunch we'd put our bag on the bus that would take us to Chugchilan. Forty-five minutes later we came back to find almost the entire bus had been taken over by school kids going to their out-of town homes. We overheard some of their names and were suprised that they all sounded "western", e.g. Darlene and Sylvia. While we waited another 15 minutes for a missing passenger the ice-cream lady who stood outside the bus did gang-busters business. She was dressed exactly like those in Saquisili: trilby hat, knee-length wool skirt, and knee-length knitted socks. We did finally set off and within about 5 km lost 2/3 of the school kids. Our route was over more windy road cut into steep hillsides, allmost all green, with a deep valley canyon being more and more apparent below and to the left of the bus.
Chugchilan and Quilotoa
Then in 45 minutes we were in Chugchilan. It is the market town of a a very small region, with less than a dozen buildings in total, half of them around a small square with a church. As we came into town we passed all of the places where we might stay: First, and half a kilometer out, the Black Sheep Inn, costing $55 a night double, breakfast and dinner included. Then the Cloud Forest Hostal, costing $12 for the same two meals. Next door to the Cloud Forest, and almost on the square, is Hostal Mama Hilda. Being mid-range and costing $20 double we picked it. For a dollar we got help in moving our (you know the number) 80kg from bus to hostal.
Within two hours we knew every tourist in town. We went for a short walk and met two day-hikers coming into Chugchilan. They were a German doctor and German medical student. They and another couple picked the Cloud Forest at $6/each. In Mama Hilda's we met a French woman who was in such great shape that she walked 24 km from Chugchilan to Sigchos rather than wait for the breakfast room to open. Also with us in Mama Hilda's was the same Swiss fellow we'd met walking around Lake Cuicocha a week earlier. Topping it off were two Australians biking their way around the world. After having lots of dinner conversation with them Jan went off to bed to get warm. Gerry was invited over by the Germans to have a glass of wine and met a Belgian couple. There all six people sitting around the table shared tales about Cambodia, Burma, and all the other places world travellers go.
Across the canyon from Chugchilan is Quilotoa, a volcano mountain with a crater lake. We knew we couldn't make a round trip on foot, so it was either motorized transport (22 km) to the top and a walk back, going down 800 m and then up 400 m out of the canyon (perhaps 10 km in all), or walk along the road and see what we found. We chose the latter and had a fine day, with a three hour walk that took us 3/4 of the way to the crater and another 3 hour walk (now much more tired) back. Along the way we saw the many pigs and cows and a few llamas and got some idea of life there. About every half kilometer there were 2-3 buildings in what we supposed was an extended family compound. Every 2-3 km, the concentration of homes was higher and there was a sign from the European Commission saying how they were giving development aid and what it was being used for — schools were being smarted up, propane gas in tanks was being made available (to save what little forest there is), and almost everywhere concrete-brick outhouses were being constructed to improve general sanitation and health.
Jan wrote about her impression of Chugchilan to her sister: "I'm writing this bundled up in bed with my fleece on, my woolly hat, and of course my socks! All of that should be a clue to the fact that it is BLOODY FREEZING here. We are staying in Chugchilan, a tiny village at about 3,200 meters high (ten thousand feet approximately) and the only heating in our hostal is in the dining room, and that is inadequate. The bathrooms are across the yard (a very pretty yard), if you want a door, or along the walkway, if you aren't too modest and willing to use one without a door. Before bedtime I go across the yard. In the dead of night (a fact of post-menopause life) I slip along the walkway and hope that no-one's got insomnia! Nonetheless getting here and being here is amazing. High mountains mean views and we have them aplenty. The locals farm on almost vertical slopes and raise cows, sheep, goats, and pigs and of course llamas. We were out for a walk today and passed a really funny-looking white-faced llama. Our hotel faces across a deep canyon that is a kind of mini grand canyon."
The nights were too cold to stay in Mama Hilda's more than two nights. The water flow was irregular due to a village shortage and the promised hot showers were usually not there. Even the friendliness of the owners could not make up for this.
Cotapaxi sightings on the way to Baños
So Sunday morning we set off for Baños, a town at the base of another volcano, 5,020 m high Tungurahua. The trip back was first to Latacunga via a continuation of our clockwise loop and then on to Ambato and Baños. We saw very similar, but drier countryside, going along a road with many switchbacks and most of the people around being indigenous. There seemed to be a subtle shift in their costume, with the previous predominant red being often replaced by blue.
Gerry thinks he liked the return trip better. That may be as much due to the fact that he had an open window he could look out and saw things better. Jan liked the Saquisili-Chugchilan trip better as it was greener. But we both agree the last part of the return trip was spectacular: Suddenly over a ridge we saw majestic Cotapaxi in her white shawl. For an hour after that we got view after view of this tease. Oo-la-la.
The trip to Baños was a five hour trip involving three buses. The transfers were pretty simple: the first bus let us out on "the highway" - actually a bus corner in Latacunga. We walked around the corner and waited for an appropriate inter-city bus to come by. One did in 3-4 minutes and we went to Ambato, all of 30 km away. There we were let out across the street from the bus terminal — our driver said he was not allowed to enter — and trundled our 80 kg across the street to the terminal exit. There a Baños-bound bus picked us up, being scolded to move on by a policeman as our bags were put aboard. As we went out of town we passed an enormous wholesale market, dozens of acres in size. Ambato and this market are the real regional capitals of this part of Ecuador.
Before we came to Baños we just knew that it was an important stop on the tourist route. After arrival we read the local tourist office account of the place. According to a brochure the town has about 13,000 people and 95% of them live off of tourism. There are about 120 hotels of varying sizes and nearly as many restaurants. Baños' full name is Baños de la Santa Agua. It sits below volcano Tungurahua, the peak being some 3200 m above the town. The volcano is currently active with steam emerging from several different vents and the thermal waters created by the volcano have apparently drawn people from before the Incas. A few years back, when a big erruption seemed imminent the entire town was evacuated for several months.
After arrival Gerry left Jan at the station and walked around looking for a hotel. The one he picked, La Floresta, is on a quiet street, costs $24 tax included, and includes an enormous breakfast. We liked the place and would have stayed a week there if we could have. But on check-in we were told Wednesday would have to be our last night because the hotel (and most others in town) are completely booked Oct 29-Nov 2. That happens to be a big Ecuadorian holiday celebrating independence — stretched this year to five days because of a weekend and a bridge day. All that can afford it go on a trip.
We arrived on Sunday and did nothing much on Monday so as to rest from our long Saturday walk and our long Sunday bus ride. On Tuesday we decided to try a small walk up the lower slopes of Tungurahua to the Bellavista Mirador. Unfortunately it was too soon after lunch and Jan had a bad reaction to the exertion. Just a couple of hundred meters before the mirador, she suddenly felt nauseous and started to throw up her lunch. Needless to say we reversed course and went down. The next day Gerry decided to go to an even higher Mirador leaving Jan in the room to recover.
Gerry's trip report. "The hike to the Tungurahua Mirador is steeply uphill, with a rise of elevation of 900 m (3000 ft) according to the map; that still leaves the hiker 2300 m (8000 ft) below Tungurahua's peak. I started up by going to the lower Bellavista Mirador and then following the sometimes cobblestoned, sometimes unpaved road to the village of Runtun, about 420 m higher than my starting point. There were lots of green slopes, lots of good views of the mountains across the valley, and an occasional glimpse of Tungurahua. I got to Runtun in about 1.5 hours, the time the girl in the tourist office estimated it would take for the whole trip. And the mirador obviously was not around the corner. From then on everytime I guessed that a ridge was going to be the spot there was another curve in the road and another ridge beyond. After three hours I decided it was time to turn tail or I wouldn't get down before dark. All the time I was out clouds came and went. Sometimes Tungurahua was absolutely hidden but other times it was clear or mostly clear. I got up about as high as one of the passes through the opposite mountains, perhaps a total of 800 m or even 850 m for the day."
"Coming down I walked by an old man (i.e. as old or older than me) who was sitting waiting for a bus. He asked me what I was doing. On saying I was going to town he got up and said he'd come along, saying he could walk to Baños before the 5pm bus would come. As soon as we set off we left the road; he showed me an alternate path, much steeper than what I had come up, that probably saved 30 minutes in going down."
Gerry's Bike Ride: For what was to have been our last morning in Baños Gerry rented a bike ($5/day) to go 22 km east (and downhill) towards the Amazon basin to see a series of waterfalls. It was a very scenic and mostly very easy ride. The road goes along the edge of a canyon, about 100 m above a river. A few years ago the road was still unpaved. With paving came a series of tunnels. The first one a bicyclist has to go through; fortunately it is short since there are no sidewalks in it and local drivers are truly frightful. After that the old unpaved road serves as a by-pass to the tunnels; going on them is very pleasant. Along the way there are a half-dozen waterfalls, all pleasant, but all minor by world standards. The reputed best of the bunch, "Pailon del Diablo" was Gerry's goal. He made it in 90 minutes and then took an hour to walk down to the canyon to see the fall and come back up. Once again pleasant, and even worth the trip, but not truly exciting. His return trip being uphill Gerry sought motorized help. He found it in the form of a local man who carried Gerry and bike back to Baños in the back of a pick-up truck.
In Chugchilan we had to do without TV because there was no TV in town. In Baños we did without TV because our hotel was so new that only half the rooms had TVs and for space and light we'd chosen one without TV. Thus reading occupied an even bigger than usual part of our evenings. We rarely are without something we want to read because we are constantly looking and have a backlog of 3-4 books. We sometimes get duds too. Gerry finished "Los Perros de la Guerra" ("Dogs of War") our last morning in Chugchilan, a month after Jan. Good Spanish practice but hardly a tale that excited either of us. A few weeks ago Gerry started Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Cien Anos de Solidad" (A Hundred Years of Solitude) for which GGM got the Nobel Prize. It did not positively impress Gerry but this may be due to inadequate Spanish. Anyway Gerry put it aside unfinished. In the last few days Jan has been giving it a try. Today she announced that she doesn't expect to read any more of his stuff. On the other hand she liked Irving Wallace's "The Man" written 40 years ago) as a period piece; Gerry has just started it and is liking it. Since "The Man" is in English maybe we have a biased outlook.
Tuesday, October 19, 2004 — A Week in Imbabura Provence
After ten days in Quito (October 1-10), which is just south of the equator, we went north of it for a week to Imbabura Province. It's not so far, just 100+ kilometers, and only 1/2 a degree north of the equator, but nearly a different world. Rather than 1.5 milllion people crowded together the two big towns, Ibarra and Otavalo, have only about 30,000 people each. Around them are smaller towns down to tiny villages, all scattered about and amidst three major volcanic peaks and a dozen smaller ones. It is pretty if you look in the right direction and ignore the urban blight and trash that are here and there. We based ourselves in Ibarra, the government seat of Imbabura.
Ibarra and Otavalo are 20 km apart and separated by the volcano Imbabura whose height is 4,630 m (15,000 ft). A bit to the west of the road connecting them is the volcano Cotacachi (4,939 m / 16,002 ft). This is just enough additional height that the top 300 m are permanently snow covered. About 39 km to the south southeast of Ibarra and 38 km SE of Otavalo is Ecuador's third highest mountain, Cayambe (5,790 m / 18,760 ft). That's so high that there is lots and lots of snow on top. Every afternoon and some mornings there was plenty of cloud cover. When the skys were clear we could see both Cotacachi and Cayambe peaks from our Ibarra hotel room.
Tuesday we travelled from Quito and after an unexpected and forced change of bus in Otavalo we got to Ibarra early in the afternoon. We easily found a hotel and then walked around getting to know the town. It's small enough that we visited all three of the main squares. Each one has a nice church on it, but we experienced something new: their lobbies had been converted to chapels and were the only parts open. Through grills we got views of the churches. Nice but not as spectacular as Colombian ones or those in Quito. That evening and the next we were treated to much noise due to parades and rallies for the coming Sunday election. All over Ecuador town councils, mayors, and regional governments are to be elected.
Wednesday we made an outing to Otavalo — 30 minutes by bus — to see if we wanted to stay there. It is said to be the more tourist oriented town, and it is. And that's why we decided to stay in Ibarra. In Otavalo we saw one of the big crafts markets and were mildly interested as we didn't want to buy anything. But we can recommend it if you want to buy something. As part of our exploration we walked 2 km west out of town in search of the Las Palmeras Inn. We knew they were above our budget but hoped they'd have an off-season rate. We talked to the manager, an Indian-born American and initially she wouldn't budge on price. When she did it was still too high for what we percieved was the value: nice, but not especially pretty. While eating our sack lunch on their porch (permission granted in advance) the owner sent out a strawberry crepe for us to share. A delicious complement to our simple lunch.
Thursday we did household chores. That means finding the post office, laundry, and internet, where we accomplished various chores. Our busy lives don't actually leave us as much time to read as we would like; this day we got a lot of reading done.
Friday we walked four kilometers out of Ibarra to a lake called Laguna Yahuarcochi. It took us a while to catch other peoples' pronuciation, which came out as ya-gwar-ko-chi. It is diffcult sometimes to guess how to pronounce names here because most of them are from the native indian language called Quechua. The lake itself wasn't as rural as we'd hoped, being so close to Ibarra — it even has local bus service. We found a lakeside restaurant and had a fine meal, with a good view of the waters. Afterwards we walked clear around the lake, estimated at 10 km. Surprisingly enough, on some occasions the lake-side road is turned into a Grand Prix circuit — but not while we were there. Halfway around we passed a young man who was on a horse (rare here) going the other way. At nearly the end of our walk, feet tired, we passed him again, still going in the opposite sense to us. And then we gave in and took a bus back to Ibarra.
Saturday we got up at 6 am to go to Otavalo so that we could see the locals buying and selling livestock. There were lots of pigs and cows, a handful of horses, and two llamas (called either yamas or jamas depending on your Spanish accent!). We rewarded ourselves for getting up early with a nice breakfast in town, washed down with what we now call "real" hot chocolate. It's made from a bar of bitter chocolate, specially made for drinking, and blended with hot milk. We both like it tons better than instant hot chocolate.
After breakfast, we took a walk along an abandoned railway line to a nearby river and walked up along the river to a nice waterfall. The uphill part would normally be pretty easy but it was our most taxing exercise in a while and, after all, we were about 2300 m, so we easily got out of breath. Walking up the valley we felt for the first time in Ecuador that we were in real countryside. We had lovely views of the surrounding hills and of distant snow-capped peaks, which was neat. Perhaps our biggest complaint about Ecuador is that the towns are not terribly pretty and the outskirts are positively ugly. Also, as we have already mentioned, there is lots of trash especially along the roadsides. It reminds us of Mexico and makes us miss Colombia.
At the waterfall we climbed up the hillside to the plain above and walked another kilometer or two to Laguna San Pablo, a lake about the same size as Laguna Yahuarcochi, and found ourselves a place to eat lunch. The whole area around the lake is majority indigenous, meaning that most of the women wore the local costume of frilly embroidered cotton or nylon blouse, long black skirt made out of a length of men's suiting, and a necklace of multiple strands of fake gold. Headdresses vary, but are often just a square of cloth folded into a triangle and set at a jaunty angle. We saw a fair number of them washing clothes in the river leaving the lake. We rounded off the day with a bus ride around the lake and then back to Otavalo where we caught the bus back to Ibarra. Jan was exhausted and sunburned but Gerry was unphased.
Sunday we relaxed. Two days of walking had been rough on our feet. It happened to be election day, but there was little to see. It was more TV, reading, and computing for us.
Monday we achieved what we had stayed over for: a walk around the volcanic crater lake Cuicocha. To get there we had to take a bus from Ibarra about 15 km southwest to Cotacachi, a town located on the lower slopes of Volcano Cotacachi. To get there our bus took a back-route that crossed the canyon of the Rio Amtoi. It's only a few hundred meters deep, but the road down and then up was hardly wider than the bus and the slope was steep. We were nearly transfixed!
The bus driver put us off just opposite a row of taxis; all the drivers were just waiting for a $4 fare to Lake Cuicocha. We were at the lake in 20 more minutes and there had a choice: go counter-clockwise, with a hard start and easy finish or the opposite. While making up our mind we met a Colombian guide taking around a couple from Massachusets. She assured us that going to the Colombian border was not dangerous; she had taken her pair there the day before but going around this Ecuadorian lake could be; there were bandits in the hills. Un-assured by her, but re-assured by the fact that three young German-speaking men had just arrived and were going around (we presumed because they were younger they would be ahead of us) we decided on the hard-then-easy route. It turned out to be not too hard and to have great views — our conditioning on Saturday must have helped. Five hours later we were back at the start, just a little behind the "Germans" (a Swiss, an Austrian, and a real German). We mostly kept up with them and almost beat them because they got lost worse than we did at the one point where the trail was really confusing. Near the end we came to a field where five llamas were grazing. At the end we hitched a ride on a pickup and then when we saw our morning taxi driver coming for us we switched to him.
Tuesday we left Ibarra and Imbabura for Latacunga, about as far south of Quito as they are north. Our first bus took us to Quito. The ride was enlivened by something going wrong with the shocks or the road being very rough; whatever it was it sent most of the passengers into a panic and they demanded to be let off. We stayed on because we'd rather risk our lives than carry our 80 kg of baggage any farther than necessary. In Quito we caught another bus in less than a minute — the two bus conductors co-operated to carry our bags for us from one bus to another. Latacunga is just past Cotopaxi, at 5,897 meters (19,387 ft) the second highest volcano in Ecuador. We caught a few glimpses of its snow covered peak through cloud and rain as we approaced Latacunga. Very impressive. More later.
Wednesday, October 6, 2004 — Below the Equator: Quito, etc
At last we've gone south of the equator! Friday night we flew from Bogota to Quito, Ecuador. It has taken us 1.5 years since we left the east coast and more than a year since we left California-Arizona. We made it all by surface through Bogota (including a five day sail and some ferries), but because of possible dangers overland from Bogota to Quito we opted for flying. That was our first flight in two years to the day — we left England October 1, 2002 for New York.
We actually arrived in Quito a few minutes after midnight, which led to a few concerns. But at a tourist booth in the airport we got a hotel room and a taxi that we could trust. (In Bogota and Quito you are warned about taxis that might abduct you.) We spent a night at the Hotel San Francisco, which has its attractions, but quiet is not one of them. So in the morning we set out on foot to search for a more satisfactory solution. We settled on the second hotel we visited, the Hotel Real Audencia, because the room was a comfy size, very bright, with a great view of the Santo Domingo church and square, and on a side street that had reasonable prospects of being quiet.
By noon we were moved and checked in. Then we had a nice afternoon walk around the old city seeing street life, and got a first taste of the famous Quito church architecture, briefly seeing the inside of Santo Domingo and San Francisco. Quito deserves its fame; both churches have great baroque interiors. We also climbed the stairs and ladders to the top of the Basilica, a 1920s concrete structure that is not beautiful, but does give great views of Quito from its heights. To get the views we had to climb some rather steep outdoors ladders. A local, much younger man, asked me in English, "Santa, are you scared?"
Sunday morning we had our breakfast overlooking Santo Domingo square. It was filled with people warming up for what we guess is the Quito Marathon or 10K run. Underneath the platina of age and veneer of Colonial architecture, it seems that life here is not very different than "in the west". On Saturday we saw a BBC show about style (make up and clothing) change. Sunday night we watched the 10pm CBS news from Nashville, TN. Monday night we watched NYC- WNBC Channel Four and got Tom Brokaw. Modern technology is hardly believable.
We missed the Bush-Kerry debate, a great disappointment to us. Our hotel in Bogota had CNN in English and they advertised it. We stayed an extra day in Bogota to watch it. Half an hour before it was to start the cable system failed and didn't come back on until the next morning. Thus we don't have our own first-hand opinion of who did better. We were disappointed to see that the polls gave the nod to Kerry. Subsequently Gerry downloaded a transcript from Le Monde in French. We still haven't read it as this is written On Tuesday night we did catch the Channey-Edwards debate as ABC carried it. We thought it was a draw, but the polls show that Edwards got the nod, particularly among undecided. Bad news!
Monday, we went to a place called Mitad del Mundo, about 22 km north of the center of Quito, that is situated right on the equator. It covers 20-30 acres, mostly of restaurants and shops, but with a few small museums and a 20 m tower situated on the equator. We skipped the museums and tower and instead took our own pictures of us stradding the equator. After a nice lunch, cheap by American prices at $3, we took a bus another 5 km north and made an inspection of the Pululagua Volcano crater. Now its is farmers fields, so nothering too exciting there.
Friday, September 25, 2004 — Bogota
We got to Bogota by long distance bus on a Tuesday, September 7, and immediately took a taxi to the Hotel San Sebastian. It is a bit run down but we got a big room with refrigerator for $26/day or $260/month. We paid a month in advance, feeling pretty certain we'd be here for at least ten days.
Tuesday afternoon we had enough time to walk the few blocks from the San Sebastian to the government center and see the outsides of the National Assembly, Casa Narino (the President's house), and several nices churches. Wednesday, our first full day, we got ourselves settled and walked around a bit, and saw the Museo del Oro. Unfortunately for us it is undergoing renovation and we saw less than half the usual collection. Thursday our main objective was getting Jan's British passport renewed and we accomplished our part of that: get to the Embassy. It is rather expensive, we think: $110 — half a month's rent. We pick it up next Thursday.
Friday was another walk about day. We ended up eating at an Israeli restaurant and that caused us both stomach problems. Jan got sick Friday night and Gerry got sick Saturday morning.
Thursday we had bought tickets for a Saturday performance of the Rossini opera "la Cenerentola" (Cinderella). It was touch and go but our upset stomachs did not stop us from attending. The production was pretty weird, mostly distracting, but at times interesting: The setting was a 1930s gasoline station; there was a large screen at the back of the stage that in the first half showed distracting old movies that expressed the emotions of the characters, and in much of the second half was useful as it showed close up of the singers. The very good part was that the the music, orchestra, and singers were all very good.
Sunday we stayed in until noon, still recuperating from our upset stomachs and watching CNN Sunday morning shows. We were glad to catch an interview of Condi Rice. Then we walked over to a flea market that wasn't overly interesting and had a nice lunch — Jan was still cautious but Gerry had a healthy appetite.
Afterwards we went up the Torre Colpatria (Bank of Colpatria Tower), paying $1.20. The elevator goes up to the 46th floor and then we got to walk up stairs equivalent to about three floors to the observation level. From there you get great views of the city — see photos below. The weather helped, being very sunny initially, while it had rained the previous three days.
Tuesday, September 7, 2004 — Central Colombia: San Gil, Barichara, Villa de Leyba, Tunja
We have just got to Bogota and thus about halfway from the Caribbean coast to the Ecuadoran border. We've taken precisely four weeks to do it, so perhaps in another four weeks we'll be in Ecuador and more or less on the equator. Since we've only been in Bogota a short time, we'll talk about it in our next posting. We did the 350+ kilometers from Bucaramanga to Bogota by going roughly south along the of the Cordillera Oriental, climbing from around 1300m to above 2600m. Our main stops were San Gil (from which we made excusions to Barichara and Socorro), Valle de Leyba, and Tunja.
We came to San Gil by recommendation. The tourist office in Bucaramanga convinced us that it was the perfect place for lots of activities. She wanted us to stay in a so-called luxury resort hotel, which Jan discovered had seen better days. Across the street, however, Jan found a wonderful private house that let rooms and provided breakfast. We had a lovely room with a small balcony overlooking the garden and sat down there for six days. Our hostess, Señora Pereira, every day served up a tasty if small breakfast of wonderful hot chocolate and arepa, a kind of hot corn fritter. Hot chocolate Colombian style is nothing like the drink that Nestle and others sell.
Barichara is another gem of a colonial town, that sits on a high plateau above and behind San Gil. The drive there was terrific, if a little hard on those with motion sickness problems, but the town itself was even better. It really does seem to be a town forgotten by time. The deputy mayor told us that in the late seventies they used to get lots of European tourists but that now they get very few. The town is kept alive by local tourism and perhpas its role as a market town for surrounding farmers.
Villa de Leyba
Our first stop after San Gil was Villa de Leyba, a terribly lovely mountain valley, with a wonderful colonial . heritage. The weather is so perfect and the view so nice it is the first place outside the USA that we could seriously think about buying a second, or even first home. Lots of the rich from Bogata think so too, it being about 3+ hours drive from Bogota. In Villa de Leyba we found a nice hotel that included a hot breakfast for only $25, but - que lastima - no bitter hot chocolate. From here, we managed a short hike to visit some pre-Colombian archeological sites but generall just soaked up the atmosphere.
On the way to Villa de Leyba we passed through Tunja and came back to it primarily because Bogota travel was easier that way. We're glad we did. It was the capital before Bogota and has four terrific churches. Overall the center of town is very nice, if not quite up to the standards of Villa de Leyba, Barichara, and Giron. On the other hand, Tunja is also the first place where we have felt the temperature effects of the altitude. At 2,800 meters it is always a little chilly and even downright cold in the mornings and evenings.
Our leisure reading is going along fine. About two weeks ago we finished "Frankenstein", translated into Spanish. Then we both started "The French" by Serge de Gramont (~1970), taking turns with the paperback. We are both nearly finished, both annoyed by his many errors in English, but interested in his views of France. We've both also started "Los Perros de la Guerra" (Dogs of War), with Jan having made some progress and Gerry very little. At a used book stand in Valle de Leyba we found Gabriel Garcia Marquez' "Cien Anos de Soledad" and a book by a comrade of Pancho Villa, "El Aguila y la Serpiente", one of which Gerry will shortly be starting.
Tuesday, August 24, 2004 — Giron & Bucaramanga, Santander, Colombia
The day we left Cartagena restlessness had us awake what seemed all night but probably was only a bit before our 6:00 a.m. wake up call. As our bags were nearly all packed the night before we were out the door by 6:30. Getting a cab proved a bit harder than we were told to expect, but "Cab Finder Jan" managed it. The bus station is at the far opposite side of town and it took us thirty plus minutes to get there. We'd gone out the previous morning by bus (called Metrocar) to check it out and buy tickets, so we had a good idea of what the cab journey would be like. We were learning again what life without our an Escort was like, including the age-old problem of dealing with taxi-drivers. We had asked four different drivers the previous day how much it cost to go to the bus station and all gave the same answer. The taxi driver who drove us, however, asked for 50% more thereby foregoing his tip.
Our destination was Mompos (or Mompox, either way pronounced mom-POSS), a colonial town on the Magadelena River. Once upon a time, before silting up, the Magdalena was an important freight artery and Mompos an important town. Perhaps it could be compared to Savannah, Georgia, although we don't know enough about Savannah except to say that it and Mompos both have elegant waterfront homes and declined from their once-prominent positions. We'd agreed on Mompos in spite of Lonely Planet's warning there could be some danger from rebellious groups because it was esentially Mompos or nothing: just take a plane or a 20-hour bus ride to Bogota. We had taken the precaution of getting expert opinion: a restaurant owner, the clerk at our hotel, and a know-nothing person in the tourist office. All were sure it was safe.
The trip to Mompos was an unexpected combination of comfort, boredom, and — to repeat a word — the unexpected. Our all-comfort, air-con, TV-equipped bus left the terminal right on time and headed south east. We passed more of Cartagena, the un-interesting newer, poorer parts, that rush-in-rush-out tourists never see. Soon we were in countryside, but not too interesting countryside, since it was low-land with no distinguishing features and little in the way of interesting flora or fauna. Around noon we came to our third or forth tiny town and at this one we stopped. Upon inquiry we were told we'd be there an hour; something that seemed strange. We sat at a table and read and drank some of our 2.5 liter soda, and waited.
In only a half-hour we found the explanation: we'd been waiting for the ferry. The buck may stop in the president's office but the road stops in tiny Yati. Our bus was one of the last vehicles to get on. After we'd left the bank another bus came along, the ferry returned, the bus was put on, it didn't fit, it was taken off, a smaller bus was taken off, the new, larger bus put on it is place, and the smaller bus crowded on. Then we were truly off. After an hour the ferry ride came to an end, and we drove 45 minutes through more flat, delta land.
Mompox won our hearts without any effort. While Jan watched the bags Gerry set off to find a hotel. As he walked down the quiet main drag, Calle Real de Medio, he couldn't help smiling to himself: this is fine! Mompox is very small, only a few blocks square but almost every square inch is authentic Spanish colonial (17th to 18th century). That means single-storey, courtyard houses with red-tile roofs, white-washed walls, wrought-iron grilles on windows, and high ceilings.
Gerry found us an acceptable hotel but the next day out for a walk we found a better one. Since we moved we decided to extend our stay from two days to three. The new place, Hostal de Doña Manuela, was once a monastery and drew us in with its three courtyards — and modern addition, a very modern swimming pool that disappointed only because its cool-looking waters were hot.
Our departure from Mompos was even tougher on us than Cartagena's goodbye. We got up at 4:30 to go to Bucaramanga, the half-way point between the coast and Bogota, and the first spot where mountain cool might just be present. A kind taxi driver lost a fare when he told us the "Collectivo" would pick us up at the hotel if we made a reservation. Of course we did, reluctantly picking the 5 a.m.collectivo to El Banco in hopes of getting an early transfer to Bucaramanga.
The trip to El Banco, lasting about two hours, reminded us strongly of our trip from Luang Nam Tha to Huayxai (Chiang Khong) in Laos. We were in the back of a jeep travelling over gravel roads and it was pretty bumpy — Jan's skull made an unpleasant contact once and there were other near misses. Luckily the journey here was only two hours long versus 11 hours when we came down from LMT! Rather than the muddy roads of Laos here we got a nice ferry ride tossed in.
The second part of the trip, from El Banco to the Bucaramanga bus station was much easier. We had a large air-conditioned coach almost to ourselves. On arrival at El Banco we declined the medium size van, leaving at 7 a.m., to wait for the 8 a.m.large coach. As far as we can tell the van never had any passengers and never left. When we left the station we were the only passengers on our large coach. Once again we got a ferry ride over the Magdelena, this time on a ferry only marginally bigger than the coach.
The initial trip was along the banks of the Magdalena, a mighty river that reminded us of the upper Mekong. There were lots of swampy areas that were home to lots of birdlife. We spotted maybe a dozen different species in a half hour just from the bus. Sitings were much better than anything we'd seen in Costa Rica or Panama, though we must admit we never took a guided tour in those two countries. On the second half of the trip we approached mountains and they were on our left, or eastern flank the rest of the way. It had been nearly two months since we were in mountains so it was a nice change to be seeing them.
When we got to the Bucaramanga bus station we concluded that "small is beautiful". Rather than going the 5 km into the main city, with a population of about 600,000 we opted to come to the small town of Giron, 4 km away in the opposite direction. On arrival we immediately felt that we'd made the right choice. Giron is another town like Mompox with lots of old colonial buildings, little tree-lined squares, and lots of small restaurants. Our hotel is on the main square with the cathedral almost next door which means being woken up for mass at 5:30! The other small problem is that we are a little higher than Mompox and so cooler, but our hotel shower still only has one tap just like Mompox, but the water that comes out of it is really COLD!
Giron was once far out of Bucaramanga, but now is a suburb. In that respect we are reminded of Heredia and Barva. Heredia is about 10 km by road from the center of San Jose, Costa Rica, and was once a quiet colonial town. Barva is a further 2.5 km from the center of Heredia and was even quieter. Both still have their fine squares and colonial churches on the square, but both have supermarkets and car traffic that tell you the past is definitely gone.
Today is a day of rest so that we can catch up on email and Gerry can let his latest cold rest. We'll spend a couple of days here then make one more leg further and higher into the mountains to Tunja, before finally getting to Bogota.
Friday, August 20, 2004 — Last Days in Cartagena
We're getting a bit better at writing our blog, partially because we have been a bit sick and consequently have stayed in more. And partially because we simply want to keep things up to date.
Gerry spent most of our second to last day in Cartagena, at an internet cafe doing a complete re-load of our web site. (Jan was supermarket shopping and being Queen for a Day.) Our last major additions actually were done last March. Since then we have been using a scatter-shot approach to updating it: write some about where we are, discover an unfinished piece and write about two years ago, re-do the HTML so it is more elegant, and back to writing about where we are now, except that it has become where we were two weeks earlier. In this fashion we added parts about Ukraine, Panama, Paris, etc. The whole website is about 170 MB and it took five hours at the internet cafe to upload it. During that time Gerry monitored progress, read and wrote email, and did a small amount of web surfing.
The next day, our last in Cartagena, was our best museum day there. We started out with an hour at the Museo del Oro Zenu (Zenu Gold Museum) which is tiny, free, and sponsored by the Bank of Colombia — hence the connection with gold. In fact, the museum was a bit misnamed since the larger half of its collection is about the culture as well as the gold work of the indigenous Zenu (Sinu) people. Although small, that proved to be a gem.
Then we went to our main destination, Museo Naval del Caribe (Caribbean Naval Museum). After seeing the lower floor and discovering that the upper floor had twice as much stuff, we timed-out for lunch. The Naval Museum is also misnamed, as much of it is a history of fortresses, even if they are on the waterfront. There are wonderful models of the dozen or so colonial forts meant to protect Cartagena and that all to often failed to withstand the foreign, terrorist, pirate attackers. A very large section had model reproductions of ships through the ages, including a fine Roman war galley. The museum is housed in a former monastery and there is an exhibt about how, with funds from Spain, it was brought back from ruin.
Saturday, August 14, 2004 — Cartagena de Indias, Colombia
Well, the blog writing hasn't proved to be as easy or frequent as I imagined when I put together the first version of it a couple of months ago. I sort of imagined that I would add to it on a weekly basis but here I am more than a month since my last entry and a country further south (although we are north of our last stop, Panama City) before getting a new item added.
Since last we wrote we have dragged ourselves out of the torpor imposed by the comfort of life in Panama City, sold our trusty friend and companion the '95 Ford Escort we bought in Virginia in January 2003, and resumed our status as users of public transportation. We crossed, or rather went around, the Darien Gap by taking passage on a sailboat from Colon, Panama to Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. It had long been Gerry's ambition to sail to Colombia so that he could fulfill his dream of travelling by surface means from the U.S. to South America.
We boarded the good ship Lady Kis, a French-built, Spanish-owned 48-foot ketch, or two-masted yacht on August 4th. We arrived in Cartagena mid-day on August 10 after three nights at sea, one night at Isla Grande, Panama, and two nights sitting out bad weather in the yacht club marina at Colon. We paid $250 each for passage including food and the use of a tiny aft cabin that was the noisiest on the boat whenever the motor was running and to our disappointment it ran a lot. Of the four days of travel less than one full day was spent under sail.
On the positive side, we got to enjoy three lovely starry, starry nights even though the effort of watching the stars made my nausea worse. And that nausea was the worst for me. It meant that I was unable to be below deck unless flat on my back in bed, and any attempt to read or do any close work like peeling vegetables made me feel nauseous. So I spent every waking hour sitting up on deck in as much shade as I could find (not easy) while determinedly staring out at the horizon to keep the waves of nausea down to a minimum. In some sense it worked, since the nausea never really developed into any serious throwing up. But believe me three days of watching waves is not my idea of fun.
Gerry fared better. Although on the first day he threw up his breakfast, by the end he was comfortable sitting and reading pretty much anywhere on the boat including below decks. His disappointments were to have a crew that was decidedly uncooperative when it came to explaining anything about the handling of the boat or the navigation details. In fact they were just generally uncommunicative. We first learned that the engine was having serious cooling problems when the crew turned off the water in our bathroom saying that we were taking too many showers! In fact, we had limited ourselves to 20-second showers, but for the last 36 hours had to do without even that.
But in Cartagena we found the perfect antidote to boat-living in the Centro Hotel. We have a spacious air-con room with tile floors, cable TV, and private bathroom that overlooks one of the many, many pretty streets of the old historical center of the city. So far we have visited a church, a museum, and walked around the old city walls. Gerry has also visited the biggest of the old forts on the harbor's edge. It is a truly lovely city, a little more expensive than Panama City, but tons more attractive. Strangely, we have yet to have any rain, which was a daily event in Panama.
And so we fully expect now to spend the rest of 2004 seeing South America. Colombia, then Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay and Argentina is the most likely route perhaps getting to Argentina in time for their summer months.
Saturday, August 2, 2004 — Selling our Ford Escort
We've sold our Ford Escort. It served us well over 27,000 miles. About two weeks ago we got serious about learning how to ship it to South America. Very quickly we learned that it would cost $1000 and that was completely out of the question. So we then started to make efforts to sell it.
From the moment we entered the country we considered just leaving the Escort in customs. That option was explained to us twice: at the border and again when we went to renew the one-month import permit. It seems pretty obvious that a lot of foreigners just abandon their cars. We think somebody in customs rakes off a lot. Anyway, abandoning the car is what we called the zero-dollar option. If we got even a dollar for it we thought we would be ahead.
Starting ten days ago we spread the word the car was for sale. We made some flyers and posted them at the few places we could find, including the yacht club bulletin boards. We asked our floor bell boy to spread the word. He introduced us to an American in the next room and for a short period it seemed he would buy. But he declined.
At the same time we had been making efforts to learn how to import the car and what it would cost. We'd learned the import fee was 15% plus another 5% sales tax fee. Guessing that the car was worth about $1000 we felt comfortable with a $200 fee. On Friday we learned from a very friendly customs broker that the actual fee was more like $960. There went our idea of a quick, private sale. It also made us change our asking price from $1,000 to $2,000 to account for the taxes.
Sunday we went out in search of Auto Depot. Two months ago we'd seen their ad that said how easy it was to sell with them. We got the idea they were some sort of flea-market where buyers and sellers came together in crowds. When we got there, about 8 miles from the center, we found the place deserted. No crowds were going to be fighting for the privilege of driving our Escort. Too bad!
We'd gone to Auto Depot by a route that passed about a half-dozen used car dealers. We'd chosen the route for that reason. They were all closed on Sunday afternoon. So Monday morning we went back.
The first one we stopped at was Star Motors, run as we learned, by immigrants from India. It seems by the names of the places that most of them are Indian owned. It must be similiar to the United States where small motels are almost always owned by Indian immigrants.
At Star Motors the first person to talk to us said they didn't buy American cars. I could have let that deter me, but I didn't. I asked to talk to the owner. Jan talked to him in better Spanish than me and that got him interested (it was probably the word "cheap" that did it). He turned the conversation over to his sleeping partner, who spoke good English.
The American in the hotel room next door had told me that cars similar to ours were being advertised in the papers for $3500 and up. I had checked a few ads and had concluded the same. Sahat, the guy we were talking to, told me that he could buy a car like mine in Miami for $300 wholesale. I was ready for that and replied that he'd still have $300 shipping costs and other expenses making the car cost $1000. In my mind, that wasn't comforting because if he paid the $960 import fee we would only get $40. But I also doubted that he would pay $960. There must be some work-around for those on the inside.
Anyway I told him that the official price, as quoted to me by the customs broker was $4058. I said I thought the car wasn't worth that much, maybe $3000. Since I wanted a quick deal, I would take $2000, and pay the $960 myself. Sahat countered that he would give me $1000 and pay the customs fee himself. I said, it is less than I wanted, but if we agreed right then it was a deal. He said yes and we shook on it.
Our guess is that his total cost will be under $1500 and he'll sell it for $3000-$3500. If he makes some repairs that are needed he might put $100-$300 more into the car. More than likely, however, he'll sell it on an "as-is" basis.
An hour later we'd been back to the hotel room to get the car papers, come again to Star Motors, and signed the deal. We walked away with $1000 cash in our pockets.
Our happiness over having $1000 rather than $0 was tempered by having had to give him my passport so that he could do the paperwork. Would he do it or would I find that he'd maneuvered to make us pay the $960. But today I got my passport back and it has in it the magic words "can leave Panama without the car." Goodbye Escort.
Saturday, June 26, 2004 — Making it to the Panama Canal
We've at last made it to Panama City and seen the Panama Canal. Paris to Panama in five years and two days. Twenty six thousand miles put on the car since we bought it. Who knows how many air or bus miles.
Thursday afternoon we drove from the mountain resort area of El Valle de Anton and in a few hours were here. Coming down from the heights we remarked how like and unlike it was leaving Santa Elena (Monte Verde), a similar high-country in Costa Rica. In Santa Elena/Monte Verde none of the roads are paved, by choice of (the majority of ?) the residents. And that goes for all the approaches: it is at least 30 km to the nearest paved road. In leaving Santa Elena we descended over a 1000 meters getting great views, many all the way to the Gulf of Nicoya, but going very slowly, about 10 mph. In leaving El Valle we also descended about 1000 m (on the way up we had overheated the car), the views were nearly as good even though the cloud cover prevented us from seeing the coastal waters, and we clicked along usually over 40 mph.
Once we got to the coast road, the Interamericana, we zipped along. Unlike Costa Rica and places farther west and north most of the road is four lanes, with a median strip, and pretty much free of potholes. The speed limit is even often 100 kph (62 mph). When we spotted a Subway sandwich restaurant we stopped then because we didn't want to get to Panama City on an empty stomach and there because we were looking for something we would actually like; we'd not at all been satisfied with everyday Panamanian food like we had been in Costa Rica.
Shortly after lunch we suddenly came upon a split in the road: to the right the "Autopista" and to the left the town of La Chorrera, about 30 km (18 miles) west of Panama City. We went left, the driver being a shun piker, cheapskate, and desirous to see the "real" Panama, rather than the anonymous banks of a freeway. We did get to see it, shortly entering and passing through the center of La Chorrera and then nearly continuous strip developments. All in all, our speed descended from 45-55 mph to around 20-30 mph. We did get to see new subdivisions occupied and under development, all rather reminding us of the American model and Gerry of what Los Angeles was like about 50 years ago. La Chorrera, if not a satellite of Panama City, would probably be considered the fourth or fifth biggest city in Panama.
When we were a bit tired of this and thinking that our delay in getting into Panama City would be so much that we might have trouble getting a hotel and/or stuck in rush hour traffic, we suddenly were through it and merged (or so we think) with the Autopista. That must have been just 4-5 miles before the Bridge of the Americas (Puente de las Americas), which we were soon on and crossing. And thus we were fulfilling Gerry's long desire: to see the Panama Canal, which is crossed by the bridge. We went over so fast and saw so little, that we can't even say if a ship was passing underneath. We of course expect to see the canal more leisurely, including walking across the bridge. It, like the Golden Gate in San Francisco, is one of the privileged places for would-be suiciders. That won't include us.
Once across the bridge we were just a few miles from the center of Panama City and the two hotels that we had chosen as prime candidates for our residence, the California and the Lisboa. It didn't take but a minute or two and we were lost: neither of our two maps named every street and every street wasn't named anyway, at least as far as we could tell.
We drove by instinct and soon found ourselves in front of a "candidate hotel," the Via Espana. It was a candidate because it wasn't a Hyatt, Hilton, or Hacienda, and thus not certainly way above our budget. And, although a bit down at the heels, there was glass in the windows, apparent electric power, etc, and thus within our comfort level. We decided to take a look and decided that although we might come back we hoped we wouldn't have too.The room was very large (positive) but smelled of recent paint or something worse. And the highway noise was terrible. [It should be noted here that most public buses in Central America in general and Panama in particular are aged U.S. school buses. They are highly polluting, both in noise and exhaust.]
We set off to find the California Hotel and were soon lost. Later we did find it, while walking, and found it was on the Via Espana street just around the corner and down half a block from the Via Espana Hotel (which is not on the Via Espana street). But we were so concerned with traffic and negociating a left turn that twice we drove by it without seeing its sign.
While "lost" (in quotes because we always know where we are, even if we couldn't tell anybody else how to get to us) we got an introduction to the two square miles that make up the area between the very old city, Casco Viejo, and the very new city, the financial district, San Francisco. We managed to drive by many hotels, some of them for "$10 up" which we didn't investigate, and one that we did, the Costa Inn. When we were at the Costa Inn for the first time we thought we knew where we were and that the California Hotel should be about two blocks away. We went over there and didn't find it because it was 2.5 blocks away — and its sign seems to work on the principle of a one-way mirror.
By this time we thought we could find the Lisboa and — did. We immediately liked it. Right price ($22 after asking for a discount), well maintained, and free safe parking. The room was not anywhere near as big as the Via Espana, but oh, the quiet was much bigger, there being no bus route on the street in front of it, and after requesting a higher floor found ourselves on the fifth floor with a view of the Pacific. And so we took it, paying four days in advance to get our discount. We'll probably stay longer. And oh yes, from our window we look out not only at the Pacific, four blocks south, but also at an olympic-sized swimming pool, kitty-corner. We've already learned to our satisfaction that it costs 50 cents a swim, but we haven't been there.
Friday we set out to get some of our "chores" done. According to the map the American consulate was within reasonable walking distance, about 3/4 miles, near the Pacific. Gerry wants to learn about applying for Social Security. It would be nice to have some extra money coming in, and he has been eligible since he turned 62. Unfortunately when we got there we learned that either a) it had moved or b) it was not there. But for certain, c) it was about five miles away on the ex-Fort Clayton. The latter we learned from a very friendly guy across the street of the supposed location. He sells immigration/visa services and really, really (unlike almost everybody else) knew how to use and draw a map.
We put off the Consulate until the afternoon or another day and set off to find Merrill Lynch. We live by getting money drawn on Citibank out of cash machines. Our Citibank supply was pretty low and we wanted to transfer money from Merrill Lynch. We knew from the phone book that it was on Avenida Aquilino de la Guardia, but unfortunately such a street is on no-known map. We did suppose it was in the financial district and were walking that way in hopes of finding it. A bit of luck was that we walked by a clothes laundry, making the whole trip worthwhile if we never found Aquilino de la Guardia.
As it happened the day was hot and humid (probably like all other days in Panama City). Wanting to ask directions and spying a law-office, and being pretty certain it would have air condidtioning, we went in. There the receptionist was very friendly, shared her cold air with us, and did give us pretty good directions. We walked the seven or eight blocks, asking directions twice more, and did find the unlabelled Avenida Aquilino de la Guardia.
Olga is the receptionist at Merrill Lynch and she was wonderfully helpful. Now well above 50 (we think) she was once a student at the American school in Balboa. In otherwords, she is perfectly bilingual. She couldn't directly help us with the money transfer we wanted to make, but she made several phone calls until she found the number of the Red Bank NJ office that serves our account and connected us with an account executive. He wasn't the right one and the right one was out anyway, but Jane in Red Bank was able to do all that we wanted: She composed for us the necessary letter and faxed it to us. Then Gerry signed it and faxed it back. And then Jane wired the money to Citibank. Two hours later, after we had lunch and were in an internet cafe where we checked, the money was in our Citibank account. Wow! When things work they really work well. By the time we left the internet cafe it was already going on 5 pm. There being no chance of getting to the American Consulate we just walked back to the Lisboa, this time actually bumping into the Hotel California.
Saturday morning we thought we would get up early and go across the street for a morning swim. But we decided that we were so lazy we'd just watch TV in bed for a while. We did and then eventually had breakfast. Then we went out in search of the Consulate. Our first stop was to drop off our laundry at the place we'd found on Friday. Doing so got us lost a bit but we found it.
From there our route took us through the El Dorado area, with the El Dorado Mall. Our route gave us a good taste of what heavy shoppers traffic is like in Panama City. It was really very little different than a Saturday in and around Red Bank - Middletown. We used to mostly avoid going out on Saturdays and when we did were suprised anew when we discovered we shared the world with so many people.
Our directions were good and we found the American Consulate in former Fort Clayton perched on a small hill surrounded by a big fence topped by barbed wire and with a spacious parking lot in front. As expected the Consulate was closed and the lot nearly empty. We parked and took a look at the place. On a wall were several announcements of jobs available. One offerened $29,000 if you were an American or American dependent and $19,000 if you were just a local (OR, or ordinary resident, in official parlance.) Another sign said that American Services was closed for a week — until June 30. So, pending a confirming phone call, it seems that it won't be before Thursday that Gerry get's help on his Social Security application.
Just before leaving Gerry took a few pictures — of the decaying residences below the parking lot and of the green lands beyond. While doing this a guard came to the door and signaled that he should not be taking pictures, presumably for Consulate security. This inspite of the fact that next to the consulate and the parking lot there is what looks like a re-developed building that bears a sign offering commerical space for rent. And that most terrorists would use concealed cameras and not be at all concerned with rules about not taking pictures.
From the consulate we drove straight ahead through the green area and just followed our noses. We were soon in a "campus" area that reminded us of the officers quarters area at the former fort on Sandy Hook, NJ. Suddenly between two buildings we spied a ship. A ship! That must be on the Canal! We parked the car on the quiet street and walked over between two buildings to . lookIndeed it was the Canal. We watched the freighter move slowly toward the Pacific. Then we spied something that could have been the top of another ship. Was it sinking? If so, that was the Miraflores Lock. After five minutes we were sure that it was sinking. Then after another ten minutes steam appeared out of its funnel and it moved out of the lock.
We were on a small hill, across a highway, and behind fences and trees that kept us from getting any sort of good look at the canal or locks. We'll have to do that another day when we go to the visitor center at Miraflores. For today we decided to get out of the heat and return to our hotel. There we found that the maid had left-off cleaning our room in the middle. We think it was because water in the city had been cut off and the hotel had not yet finished the towel laundry. Anyway, she'd gone off leaving behind the hotel's keys to about 25 rooms. When Gerry went to the desk to return them they barely acknowledged it.
The rest of the afternoon was spent on reading, TV, and our computers, our usual occupations. Here we get the best TV and best cable TV in Panama, and if memory serves in Mexico or Central America. In El Valle de Anton we had four broadcast stations, all of course local Panama ones (and so we were forced to practice Spanish, which is no bad thing). In Hotel Lisboa we have about 80 cable channels, including all the usual suspects — CNN en Espanol, CNN International, The Warner Channel, The Discovery Channel and, The History Channel (the last three being dubbed or subtitled in Spanish) — and CNN USA, CNN Headline, BBC World, DW TV, TV 5 (French), TVE (Spain) HBO, Cinemax, The LP, etc, etc. And, amazing, C-SPAN! So these news junkies have even more to do.
June 15, 2004 — Reading the Daily Paper
From Mexico to Panama, even when we have access to foreign news channels on TV, we still like to read a daily newspaper for the additional details it provides, as well as for the local flavor of its news. We almost always read the paper during breakfast and lunch. Occasionally, if we find a pleasant park or if we have a nicely shaded balcony or terrace outside of our room, we will sit for a couple of hours in the afternoon reading. It varies of course, from place to place and time to time depending on how energetic we feel.
In Mexico, we changed newspaper depending on the region we were in. In the northern states of Nuevo Leon and Chihuahua we liked to read El Norte, even though it was quite a struggle at first, as we looked up almost every other word. When we got close to Mexico City, we started reading its newspapers, like El Universal, which were often available elsewhere in the country but at twice the cost of local papers. The Mexican capital’s papers haven’t modernized to the extent where they can transmit the contents of the paper to a distant site for printing like the New York Times and other U.S. papers now do. We were in Mexico long enough to actually become interested in the country’s national politics. We were there for President Vicente Fox’s annual speech to congress which we watched live. We learned about the tussle that goes on between the national government and the government of the capital city. We followed speculation about the first lady, Martha Sahagun de Fox, and whether she would be a candidate for the presidency in 2006. Further south we favored papers like Oaxaca’s El Imparcial. And throughout Mexico, we found we could buy the English Language Miami Herald in most tourist destinations, so we picked it up periodically (ha, ha) for a break from the struggle with Spanish.
In Guatemala our pick was the Prensa Libre, a tabloid-format paper, whereas in Belize we only found weekly papers that had almost no content let alone foreign news and never found a foreign paper. In Nicaragua and Honduras we read La Prensa, a different newspaper in each country but with the same name. Both were tabloid-format. In Costa Rica we read La Nacion, another tabloid, which offered a New York Times insert on Saturdays. We also found a store in San Juan that sold foreign papers, but at such a premium that we weren’t tempted. We did buy a local English-language weekly, the Tico Times, just once to see what the ex-pat U.S. community in Costa Rica was up to and found nothing very interesting.
Here in Panama, we read La Prensa almost every day and quite enjoy it. It is a full-format paper, which feels more normal to us. It has a page from the Wall Street Journal now and then in its financial section and, like Costa Rica’s La Nacion, has an 8-page Sunday insert from the New York Times.
All of these newspapers are reasonably well-written, have interesting editorial and opinion sections and do a good job of covering foreign news. Some we liked more than others, largely based on the depth of coverage of foreign events and the amount of financial news. Panama’s La Prensa, for example, is so comprehensive that we have a hard time getting through it every day if we want to spend any time at all being tourists.
As a footnote, for the month we were in Texas (November 2003), we were happy to find a source for the daily New York Times and the Sunday New York Times, although we found that it really was impossible to read it all every day. One side benefit of that period, however, has been the crosswords that Jan clipped and has carried with her since, working them in the odd moments she had to wait for Gerry to take photos or video and which were too short to be worth picking up a book. Sadly, the supply is dwindling, with only two more Sunday Magazine crosswords left.
June 13, 2004 — Panama
We have made it to our second order goal. The first order goal was to get through Mexico in our little Ford Escort sedan, which of course we achieved in January of this year. Second order goal was to get to Panama and we made that goal about two weeks ago to our great surprise and satisfaction. As with most of Central America the most surprising thing has been to find little mountain towns that are high, lush, green, and cool. Our most recent one was Boquete, in the Chiriqui highlands of Panama. It's a gorgeous place at 1,000 meters with a 3,800 meter volcano to its back. No, we didn't conquer the volcano, though many visitors do; instead, we made two short hikes, one of which took us up to 1,800 meters and gave us a teensy, weensy view of the Pacific among the clouds. Found a nice family-run hotel that gave us a king-size bed, couch and two chairs, and a hot-water private bathroom for the princely sum of $30. The currency by the way is the Balboa. The notes are green and have the U.S. president on one side and the capitol on the other... They do have their own coins, but everyone accepts nickels and dimes too so we feel quite at home.
We are now slowly making our way down to Panama City and the canal. We spent yesterday at a small beach (Las Lajas) in the middle of nowhere that would have been dead romantic, except for the beasties that ate us alive at nght. We had the simplest of simple rooms but its saving grace was a nice deep porch with a hammock and an interesting collection of bugs. Best of all was a huge moth/butterfly that was four inches across and had three sixpence-size transparent windows in each wing. It was grey and pale mauve, quite stunning. We found it battering itself against the porch wall an hour or more after dark. The next morning, the poor thing was lying dead on the couch, obviously overcome by its efforts. The beach brought back memories of our trip to Goa, eons ago. The sandy beach is fringed with palm trees and nary a person to be seen for miles.
Feb 9, 2004 — Belize
Hello everyone. We're in western Belize right now having spent two weeks of almost total inactivity after a very hectic last month in Mexico. Jan has been recovering very slowly from a low-grade but very persistent and very debilitating cold caught in Puebla from Gerry.
Because we had dallied so long in Texas in November, we had barely enough time to see the highlights of Chiapas and the Yucatan Peninsula before we had to make a dash for the border at Chetumal. We weren't sure whether our visa was really for six months or for exactly 180 days, which are clearly not the same thing. We erred on the side of caution and left on the 179th day after a most delightful day and a half on the shores of Laguna Bacalar, 20 miles north of Chetumal.
We are always on the lookout for that perfect hotel with a view. We came close in San Cristobal de las Casas with a view from the balcony over red-tiled roof tops to a white church tower against a backdrop of mountains. It was lovely at sunset but, alas, the altitude of San Cristobal meant that at night it was so cold in our charming but unheated room that Jan had to go to bed just to keep warm.
We were heading for Chetumal, south of Laguna Bacalar, but stopped at the hotel to get some directions. We got the directions, looked at the view, looked at the hotel pool, looked at the view again and said to one another that such a view must be beyond our budget. But it costs nothing to ask and when we did we were pleasantly surprised. The room would cost 390 Mexican pesos (about US$35.00 at current exchange rates). The room was simple but large with a tiled floor, private bathroom, and private balcony — you guessed — with a view of the pool and the lake beyond. We were hooked. We spent our last two nights in Mexico there and wished we could have spent even one more day there.
Crossing the border was pretty easy but a disappointment for all who wanted to earn money by offering many and varied but equally unnecessary services such as escorting us through customs. We were having none of it. One man, for instance, wanted us to give him 50 pesos (5 dollars) for carrying our expired car permit from one side of the road to the other. We got insurance for a month even though we expected to stay only two weeks in Belize, but since the price was the same we opted for the longer time.
We started in Orange Walk where we frittered away five days during which time we did manage to drive to the Mayan site of Lamanai and discover a very fancy eco-tourism lodge that we vow to stay at when we are REALLY old and trying to unload what's left of our nest egg.
Next stop was Belize City. The commercial center of the country, it is a sleepy, dusty, port city with a population no bigger than Darlington, England, or Middletown, NJ. Hardly a metropolis. We stayed only two nights and learned that it is hard to find an open restaurant at three o'clock on a Sunday . afternoonWe ended up at the bakery of the Radisson, the fanciest place in town, where we lunched on ham and cheese croissants and ice-cold sodas.
From Belize City we drove west to the capital, Belmopan. It is a planned city that is only slowly growing into its capital city role. Sadly for Belmopan, it was conceived in the sixties and so has been saddled with about the ugliest concrete monstrosity the sixties ever produced. Concrete is ugly anwhere, but here in Belize its ugliness is enhanced by liberal highlights of mildew. The architect should be condemned to a lifetime of scrubbing the mildew off the building!
We hardly spent more time than it takes to eat a small lunch in Belmopan before continuing on another 20 miles to San Ignacio. Here we have found our best lodging deal in months. We have a nice two-bed room with fan, private bath, hot water, and morning coffee for the princely sum of $US20. We are in a newly built extension of the Hi-Et Guesthouse and delighted with our luck. San Ignacio is the first place since Texas, where there are several places in town we would like to go and eat. We are also a little higher than in Belize City so the air is a mite drier and sitting in the shade anywhere guarantees you a cool breeze.
Gerry has been exploring Mayan sites in the area while Jan sits on the balcony and reads Frank McCourt's auto-biography volume "'Tis", or "Negocio de la Libertad", a book about the struggle to break up the pay-TV monopoly in Spain run by Jesus Polanco and his Prisa Group waged by the Aznar government.
We're not sure how long we'll stay here, but when we do leave it will be to move across the border into Guatemala.