Archive for December, 2012

Loja, jewel of southern Ecuador

I just had to get to Loja to see it, feel it. I heard it was warmer than Cuenca and that I might also like it because it is known as Ecuador’s center of art, music , poetry, and dance.  Did you say dance?!! Well yes, cumbia will entice me every time!!  I was excited to get there!

on the way to Loja

on the way to Loja

another view on the way to Loja

another view on the way to Loja

The road trip from Cuenca along the Pan American Highway (also known as the Ruta del Sol) was long for such a short distance, 78 miles.  It took almost 3 hours. The car climbed and climbed, and then descended and climbed, and descended and descended…   The vistas were beautiful, magical, changing at each elevation. Haciendas below, horses, cows, and sheep, miles and miles of uninhabited land, flowers, trees, birds, the occasional indigenous woman in traditional finery walking along the road.  Far more beautiful for me than the drive between Quito and Cuenca.

I enjoyed the strong sun on the road. By the time the car pulled in front of Loja’s Howard Johnson Hotel in mid-afternoon, it was raining. You might cringe when you read the name Howard Johnson, but it was a nice surprise.

Howard Johnson Hotel, Loja, Ecuador

Howard Johnson Hotel, Loja, Ecuador

view of Loja from hotel

view of Loja from hotel

In Ecuador, HJ is a hotel of high standards and does not resemble what you might remember about HJ’s if you grew up in the states years ago – ordinary. Everything about this Loja hotel is welcoming – the staff, the delicious gourmet cuisine in the dining room (yes, excellent, really), the comfortable bed, the bathroom amenities, and the warm rooms… for a southern Californian like me, being warm is essential…  I usually stay at low budget hostels but am delighted I chose to splurge.  Other recommended places to stay are the Zamorano Real, Hostal Aguilera Internacional, and the Hostal Dubai (have not seen them, so cannot advise).

City Gate of Loja, Ecuador

City Gate of Loja, Ecuador

River next to Loja City Gate

River next to Loja City Gate

Loja City Gate, other side

Loja City Gate, other side

It doesn’t take long to see most of this hilly city of 200,000 (about 1/4 the size of Cuenca).  One of the best ways, if you have little time, is to hire a taxi at $10 an hour and have him let you off to visit and take pictures at major landmarks – the original city square (the city was founded in 1548 ), the original Gate to the City on Avenida Gran Columbia (looks like a walled fortress but holds 4 galleries and a cafe – climb the tower for a city view); the inviting 25 acre Jipiro park in the north of town with its replicas of a Chinese pagoda and an Arab mosque – a must; the Reynaldo Espinosa Botanical Garden on the road to Vilcabamba south of town, the mural of Simon Bolivar (known as the Liberator, the South American equivalent of George Washington), and La Banda park which incorporates a zoo. The walkways along the Malacatos and Zamora rivers are lined with weeping willows and full of lush vegetation.  If there were no muddy sidewalks and streets, nor a number of dilapidated buildings, due to lack of infrastructure and funds, you can see how Loja could transform itself into a small wonder.  I especially liked the gentility of its people.

Beautiful Jipiro Park, Loja, Ecuador

Beautiful Jipiro Park, Loja, Ecuador

Mural of Bolivar, Loja, Ecuador

Mural of Bolivar, Loja, Ecuador

It would be great if Ecuador could invest the way Mexico has (if it could) in restoration of its pueblos magicos (magical old cities) so they might invite more interest.  (Old town Quito and old town Cuenca are in the midst of such a transformation but it would be great to see this happen in smaller towns too).  I will always remember the perfection of El Fuerte in Sinaloa, or Los Alamos in Sonora. But of course, Ecuador’s President Correa has his hands full and is doing his best with basic, needed services first – education, health care, affordable food.  He has already elevated the standard of living in the country in four short years from an average income of $200 a month in 2006 to $318 per month beginning January 2013.

Dining Room at Howard Johnson, Loja

Dining Room at Howard Johnson, Loja

Loja is famous as a gastronomic center.  Coffee (you can also find it in downtown Cuenca at El Tostador on Avenida Sucre 10-20), quimbolitos con pasas (cornmeal, milk, butter, sugar and raisins baked in a banana leaf),  sweet tamales or meat tamales, also available in Lojana cafes in Cuenca or at grocery stores – the latter usually not moist), all kinds of meats, and other specialties. Because of the short stay and need to push on, I missed eating at the famous Mama Loja Restaurant . But I can attest to the remarkable quality at the Howard Johnson formal dining room overlooking the city.

Potato Soup, Loja, Ecuador

Potato Soup, Loja, Ecuador

I enjoyed a potato soup with vegetables that had remarkable flavors (no not Ecuador’s famous locro soup of potatoes, avocado and cheese, delicious in another way (see previous posts).  Remember to request NO SALT and add your own when traveling or living in Ecuador, otherwise you might be in for a surprise.

There are two universities in Loja, one publicly funded, the other a private Catholic institution.   Included are a medical school, a law school, and a music conservatory.  I toured a beautiful new private hospital – the UTPL – whose doctors come from all over the country; some have received additional training in the U.S., Europe, or Chile. I also visited two elder care homes, both run by dedicated nuns with a sense of humor, and, a hospice home for the terminally ill whose director is a young doctor/minister.

UTPL Hospital, Loja

UTPL Hospital, Loja

In the end, I never heard any cumbia music (not even in a taxi), nor did I discover any dancing. Saving all that for a return visit.

Happy traveling and stay safe!

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December 30, 2012 at 5:59 pm 1 comment

Meeting Lively Senior Citizens in Saraguro, Ecuador

The senior citizens of Ecuador seem quite remarkable. They have eaten organic food most of their lives, walked to where they needed to go, and used herbal remedies for their maladies. They seem sturdier, and to have lived longer and more healthful lives than many North Americans, despite the fact that Canada and the U.S. have a much higher standard of living.

Those I’ve observed in cities and small towns work, unless quite privileged. Even if living on pensions or with family, they are active, unless disabled by a crippling disease. Some work in order to survive (boomers get ready), you see them on street corners selling religious objects, candles, candies, gum, cookies, and other small items. In Saraguro, they are selling textiles, jewelry, and produce which they pack and carry on their backs.  There are, of course, those who live even more difficult lives, lives of abject poverty. Your heart goes out to all, as it would to elders in any country.

Saraguro Senior Center, Ecuador

Saraguro Senior Center, Ecuador

charming policemen who escorted me to the senior center

charming policemen who escorted me to the senior center

Within minutes of arrival in Saraguro I asked the local policemen, a group of three, if seniors gathered somewhere. They said “yes, we’ll accompany you!” And they did, to the last building at the top of a hill!!  Note the sign above the door, roughly translated as “Gathering for a Better Life!”

I enjoyed a whirlwind visit at the Tecnica del Adulto Mayor (the senior center). The director is Angel, a delightful fellow who eagerly shares about the Monday through Friday gatherings of city elders. Up to 30 arrive daily for conversation, exercise, spinning yarn by hand, other activities, and a warm lunch.

The population of the city is around 30,000 and because of the few minutes I had before driving on to Loja, I did not learn how many seniors live in the area ,what percentage of the population is over 65, who the youngest is, who the oldest is, what their challenges are, etc.  I would have wished to learn more, but I am grateful to have seen the environment and to have felt the lively energy of  the seniors.

The center is small and intimate, perhaps 700 square feet with a small courtyard in the middle. One room has desks and chairs occupied by women spinning wool. In another area you’ll find a group of men chatting away. There’s a kitchen, a bathroom, and the director’s office. The assistant manager is a young woman named Elizabeth who sweetly insisted I try to stay for lunch.

Saraguro senior men

Saraguro senior men

senior lady spinning wool

senior lady spinning wool

other senior ladies

other senior ladies

Elizabeth and the cook

Elizabeth and the cook

Director Angel, Guendalina, Miguel and Angel from the city offices

Director Angel, Guendalina, Miguel and Angel from the city offices

The atmosphere was playful and positive; the experience a pleasure.  The endearing and welcoming people at this center will put a smile on anyone’s face!!

December 16, 2012 at 3:37 am 1 comment

Delighted by the Town and People of Saraguro, Ecuador!!

Saraguro landscape

Saraguro landscape

Saraguro, Ecuador is a town of almost 30,000, located in the southern highlands about  2 1/2 to 3 hours by car or bus from Cuenca.  The scenery along the winding Pan American highway is enchanting, and varies according to the elevation of the area – 3,500 to 5,000 feet. Part of the area is considered desert, another, tropical rain forest and cloud forest.  Flora and fauna await you – colorful flowers and plants, as well as birds, butterflies, and deer galore.

The elevation of the town is about 5,000 feet; (the elevation in Cuenca is around 8,400).  I’m told that June and August are quite cold and wet, and that is is best to avoid visiting at that time – especially if you are a hiker or camper – too many cases of slipping and falling, hypothermia, etc.

notice the sheep  ;)

notice the sheep 😉

Saraguro, southern highlands of Ecuador

Saraguro, southern highlands of Ecuador

According to info found by “Googling”, most inhabitants are descendants of the Inca who came directly from Machu Picchu along the Inca trail almost 700 years ago, others descendants of the Inca, via Bolivia.  Many of these beautiful indigenous people speak both Spanish and Quechua.

The “Saraguerenses” are easily recognizable and  distinguished from other indigenous groups of Ecuador for their hand spun, hand woven black wool clothing, and their hair worn in long braids or pony tails (men included).  Women wear long black wrap around skirts that are plain or with colorful one inch borders. Men wear black pants that hit just below the knees. Both men and women favor black ponchos and black hats. Women adorn themselves with beautiful gold and/or beaded jewelry.  Most smile at you easily, and they seem proud of their cultural heritage.  They work to keep their traditions intact.

I’d like to return on a Sunday, market day. I love the friendliness and the feeling of the people here.  And I’m imagining the Saraguro market, albeit much smaller, might be more interesting and possibly more authentic in many ways than the famous Otavalo market north of Quito, also known for its display of arts,crafts,  and textiles. For more information I recommend http://www.saraguro.org, a site hosted by an American couple who lived in the area for five years.

The church at the Saraguro town square

The church at the Saraguro town square

At the town square

At the town square

traditional woman from Saraguro
traditional woman from Saraguro

Saraguense beaded necklaces

Saraguense beaded necklaces

traditional skirts and ponchos

traditional skirts and ponchos

December 16, 2012 at 1:30 am 1 comment

Lunch at Mansion Alcazar, Cuenca, Ecuador

December 4 was a cloudy, cold day in Cuenca and I had many errands to take care of in El Centro, the old town.

I was feeling the need for warmth and remembered one of my favorite spots, Mansion Alcazar, a five-star boutique hotel on Calle Simon Bolivar.  It’s where President Correa has been known to stay when in the city.

Discreetly placed floor heaters are provided to keep you comfortable when it is nippy outside.  There’s a very inviting bar, Le Bar, near the front door, appreciated even by teetotalers like me.

Mansion Alcazar, Cuenca

Mansion Alcazar, Cuenca

Casa Alonso, the restaurant, behind the main lobby, is known for its gourmet cuisine.  And lunch was just what the doctor ordered – a peaceful environment with gentle service, and food prepared with the freshest ingredients and much care.  I enjoyed the melange of flavors in my warm dish of smoked trout (from a lake in Las Cajas) with potatoes, corn, and fava beans over a bed of lime butter.  Divine!

Casa Alonzo dining room

Casa Alonzo dining room

Guendalina has just been served  ;)

Guendalina has just been served 😉

La piece de la resistance

La piece de la resistance

December 5, 2012 at 11:04 am 1 comment

Safe Haven Condo, Cuenca, Ecuador

Sometimes, taking a chance is a good idea.

I was looking for a place in “Gringolandia”, an apartment or condo to stay in for a few days so I could learn my way around Cuenca more.

As luck would have it, there was a new listing on http://www.airbnb.com.  The lady offered Kangen water (wow!) and I immediately concluded she must somehow be involved in healing.  She also chose the name Safe Haven for the rooms she rents.  I was pretty much able to discern the approximate location from the photos.

It turned out that the condo was located near four bus lines with easy access to El Centro as well as far flung places.  It was a blessing in more ways than one –  a delightful host and a great location.

Condominio Los Cipreses

Condominio Los Cipreses

As you will see below, the residence has magical views to downtown (El Centro, looking east), to the Tomebamba River (south), to the Andes in the west (known here as Las Cajas), and, to comfortable neighbors below.

For those of you who haven’t yet been to Cuenca, this is one of the more privileged areas of town.

View to El Centro

View to El Centro

My room looking toward the Tomebamba River

My room looking toward the Tomebamba River

My room looking to the Andes

My room looking to the Andes

Traditional Ecuadorian home below
Traditional Ecuadorian home below

View across the street to villa of wealthy Ecuadorian

View across the street to villa of wealthy Ecuadorian

December 5, 2012 at 10:36 am 1 comment

Flying to Cuenca, Ecuador from California…

Happy flyer me reporting in again.

On my way to Cuenca for the fourth time with trustworthy TACA, an excellent airline choice if  flying from the west coast ( San Francisco or Los Angeles).  The flights are direct, traveling south along the Pacific coast, and, the journey is relatively painless.

On other trips I departed on  TACA after midnight in order to arrive in Quito (via Costa Rica), at midday, and then changed planes  in Quito for the 50 minute flight to Cuenca. For this trip I decided to try an alternate route and fly during the day from LAX to Guayaquil, changing planes in San Salvador.

Guayaquil airport

Guayaquil airport

Not sure the day trip was the wisest choice as I had to overnight late at night in Guayaquil – it’s unwise for a woman traveling alone in this not so tame city.  I chose a hostal close to the airport recommended by someone from Cuenca’s ex-pat newsletter the Gringo Tree and was so disappointed.  There was no rest for the weary – a loud party and barking dogs across the street all night.  For the same price I could have been in an immaculate, quiet, charming three or four star hotel anywhere else.  Just another affirmation of my lack of affinity for Guayaquil, and another lesson about why one must not trust web site photos – what you see is not necessarily what you will receive.  Though if passing through again, I will learn of better places to stay.  On http://www.airbnb.com I viewed a handful of apartments and homes I might have enjoyed for half what I paid at the dreary hostal.

The good news is that flying through El Salvador meant not having to go through security with hand luggage as one must do changing planes in Costa Rica or Guatemala.  I also avoided Quito’s new airport which is over an hour from the city (not convenient if you are stuck there). The airport in Guayaquil is beautiful, and this time of year the balmy weather in the city feels wonderful.  Another bonus is that the flight to Cuenca, on a clear day, goes over the Andes.

Flying into Cuenca

I flew Ecuadorian airline TAME to Cuenca (third time using this company and still delighted with their service).   I like their planes – they are older, seem sturdier, and have leather seats.  On the Guayaquil-Cuenca run they use a small propeller plane which is surprisingly quiet.

December 5, 2012 at 9:32 am 1 comment


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