through the US

Border Crossing at Eagle Pass, TX

Saltillo & Zacatecas

& Lake Chapala

& San Miguel
de Allende

Galapagos Islands

Quito, Cuenca
& Alausi

Mexico City
to Catemaco

Yucatan Peninsula
The Ruins

Yucatan Peninsula
The Caribbean

San Cristobal
Saltillo &
The Border





Ecuador - Alausi to Banos to Quito

Feb 13-21

I have now been subjected to the quintessential Ecuadorean experience, the theft of one’s laptop from their backpack on the bus. When we left Banos I tucked my sweet little netbook into the bottom of my daypack with my favourite and only hoodie stuffed on top. Climbing onto the bus I placed the backpack in the overhead but in front of me where I could see it all the time. It was daytime. I was awake. But perhaps I rested my eyes from time to time; it had been an exhausting day. Bottom line is we arrive in Quito and I realize my daypack is amazingly light and flat - no hoodie and no netbook.

The only thing that could have happened was that a person stood up on the seat behind me (we were about mid-bus) and using some kind of hook unzipped the pack and pulled the hoodie and netbook out then managed to rezip it. What is especially sad about this scenario is that many people seated behind or across from me would have seen the thief at work and no one indicated in any way that something was going on.

Lesson learned, I suppose. I had read, often enough, to never put a pack in the oEcuadorverhead or on the floor. Always keep it on my lap. But when you are looking at a five hour trip on a less-than-comfy bus, hot and noisy …well, I guess that was an expensive lesson. Fortunately netbooks these days are only a few hundred dollars, as compared to the first laptop I travelled with years ago that cost me several thousands. But it did mean that I was back to pen and paper for the rest of the trip and could not post road reports or photos to lifewellspent.

So we are now in Quito, waiting to leave on Sunday. We are both still quite sick with these bloody colds that will NOT let go. We will have to spruce up for the airport check-in though. We do not want to get rejected for looking like we are carrying something communicable!

But to back up a bit. The last road report had us in Alausi. The morning we left dawned warm and clear. When we walked the short distance to the station to buy a ticket we discovered that the bus was just about to leave. There was no time for breakfast, which was no loss in Alausi. The conductor hustled us on, refusing to take any money for the tickets. Great start to the day for sure.

These little Ecuadorian towns are all perched on the flanks of the Andes Mountains so the terrain is breathtakingly beautiful; lush rolling hills of the most intense greens. Very like New Zealand in that respect.

Banos Feb 13-16

Arriving in Banos we checked into a small guesthouse called Le Petit Auberge. It had been highly recommended by another traveler and it is very pretty in a hostely kind of way (we are not talking the Radisson here). Our room had its own tiny patio overlooking a lush semi-tropical garden. Too bad it rained virtually all the time.

In the same wChiva in Ecuadoray that Thailand comes as a shock after months bumming around South East Asia, Banos comes as a surprise in Ecuador. By that I mean the overt orientation towards tourism. There are lovely little guesthouses, lots of them. Restaurants, cafes, bakeries, souvenir shops, telephone kiosks and tour operators. You can rent ATVs, mountain bikes and go-karts, go bungee jumping, sit in hot springs or hike up to volcanoes. In Alausi we had trouble finding somewhere to eat but in Banos we had trouble deciding what kind of food to eat. There was so much choice, from Italian to Indian with everything in between.

We had heard about the waterfalls on the road to Puyo so for $10 each we bought a one-day tour on a chiva which is a kind of open-sided truck with very hard wooden benches. Sporting colourful and creative paint jobs, the chivas cruise through town competing for attention by blaring insanely LOUD Latin pop. By the return trip I was not even hearing it much anymore so I can only guess that I am going deaf like the locals.

We were the only gringo tourists on our chiva. The rest were all Ecuadorians out forBanos, Educador the fun. And it was fun. The chiva barreled down the steep and winding road through the mountains, pop music blaring while the passengers all clapped and sang along. We stopped at the waterfalls where we could enjoy the view and/or crawl into baskets and go screaming across the chasms on these iffy looking ziplines. Just $1. Steve had to do it but I figured one of us should stay alive to tell the tale.

Eventually we skidded to a stop at the bottom of the canyon. The best was yet to come, our fellow travelers assured us. At a café overlooking the Pastaza River, we would have the chance to savor trutcha, a trout-like fish that is caught there. Sure enough, waitresses carried out big platters literally covered by the carcass of a whole fish, skin crackling from the barbeque. Whole families gathered around, tearing the fish to bits, sucking on the bones, clearly enjoying this treat and determined to get their money’s worth.
Banos, Ecuador
Back in Banos that evening we walked around, enjoying the ambience of a town that is clearly a tourist destination for Ecuadorians. Located about 5500 feet (1800 m), Banos is perched on the lower flanks of Tungurahua, an active volcano. In fact, as recently as December 2010, residents were evacuated when the volcano shuddered, sending streams of ash and rocks hurtling into the sky and down onto the villages below. Fortunately, she slept peacefully during our visit.

During the week, the town itself was relatively quiet but come Friday, bus loads of Ecuadoreans arrived, creating wall-to-wall crowds on the sidewalks. Vendors roll out their most enticing merchandise and candy makers work the storefronts, demonstrating the craft of taffy pulling, a local specialty. They reach out with their golden samples, trying to entice me into just one nibble. But I did that in San Miguel and ended up running to the toilet all night. So good as it looks, no thanks.

Salasaca Feb 16

A few hours by bus from Banos, Salasaca is a small town where an internet acquaintance has been living in recent years, running a school for the local children. Our intention was to volunteer there for a few days if we could be useful.

Having reached Salasaca by bus from Banos we get off at the side of the highway and engage a pickup truck to take us into the countryside where the school and a hostel operated by the organization are located. It is only a few km, but hot dusty ones so we gladly paid the $1 expected for the ride, me in front with the driver, Steve bouncing around in the back with our bags.

It was a good thing we asked this driver to take us because neither the hostel nor the school had any signage identifying them. Fortunately the driver knew the hostel and dropped us off in front. The front door was locked and all looked very quiet. With no signage we weren’t sure we’d even arrived but eventually a lady came around from the back and let us in. She was expecting us and showed us to our room. The bathroom was filthy so I wondered about the sheets on the bed, but figured I’d worry about that later. I had my sleep sheet with me if I needed it.

The hostel seemed very barren. The living/dining room had a big table but no chairs. There were a couple of old, stained mattresses tossed against the wall. I had not seen either shops or cafes so wondered what we were going to eat. A little snooping in the kitchen uncovered a fridge that had not been cleaned in recent years. Vegetables rotted in the bottom while some scary looking substances decayed in open containers. There was a big bag of fresh buns on the counter and a sling of bottled water with a sign indicating that one should sign the tab sheet if they took anything. We’d been instructed not to bring any food as oatmeal was provided in the morning, lunch was served at the school and the volunteers took turns cooking at night. We could buy what we needed when we got there. But I wondered where that might be as the only shop we’d passed had been a candy and cigarette store.

The location of the hostel is truly spectacular, overlooking a lush agricultural valley.Ecuador The back deck had a hammock. Period. One chair in the corner with a broken seat but nothing functional. Hustled onto the bus that morning without breakfast, our growling stomaches now motivated us to go looking for the school so we could score some lunch. We asked people on the road where to go. Everyone agreed that we’d never find the school on our own, but that the library was just down the road. So off we went, coming about 30 minutes later to the “biblioteca” or library. It had a sign. In the email I’d gotten the manager of the school said someone was always at the library so we could get directions to the school from there. No so. During the two hours we sat on the steps waiting, no one showed up. So we headed back up the road to the hostel.

While we’d been away several volunteers had returned from the school so we sat on the back stairs chatting. At one point I scratched my leg and complained idly about the mosquito bites I’d picked up in Banos. The young woman hooted and said, “That’s nothing!”

Pulling up her pant leg she showed me hundreds of tiny bites. “This place is infested with bed bugs,” she said. “Your mosquito bites won’t seem like much tomorrow.”

I don’t think so. We’d left our bags in the room, but had not yet unzipped them. That and a belief that bed bugs only come out at night made me hopeful that if we made our escape NOW, we’d do so without any hitchhikers.

It had been a long day for Steve already, traveling with a congested chest as he was. He’d fallen asleep in the hammock and was not receptive to my entreaties.

“Get up! We are leaving! Now!”

Eventually he followed, unenthusiastically dragging his bag up, down and over the deep ruts of the dirt road from the hostel.

“Why are we doing this?”

“Bed bugs. We are not sleeping in a place that is knowingly infested with bed bugs. THAT is why!”

In over forty years of travel around the world, sometimes sleeping in less than wonderful places, neither one of us has ever had a personal encounter with bed bugs. It’s an amazing record and I was not about to break it now, in a place where we had proof they thrived.

Unfortunately there is no such thing as a taxi or truck stand in the middle of nowhere so we trudged along that deplorable dirt track until we came to a paved one. Finally we heard an old bus rattling down the road behind us. We hailed it. In South America that works. They stop when you stick your arm or foot out. We were to sorely miss that courtesy a couple months later in New Orleans, but in South America, hailing works.

The rickety little bus took us back to the highway where before long a bigger bus came along and set us on our way back to Quito …and the subsequent loss of my little netbook and hoodie. It was an interesting day.

Quito Feb 16-20

We are glad to be back in Quito. Funny how familiarity, limited as it might be, still makes a city feel like hoQuito, Ecuadorme. We had a nice time, going for coffee and strudel to our favourite bakery then doing some shopping for things we’d seen on our first visit here. We visited several of the amazing cathedrals and took in the traveling exhibition of the 2010 Best News Photography at the Cultural Museum. The photos are pretty intense. The museum has a nice cafe though with a spicy goulash soup that really clears the sinuses. In a good way.

Today we’re trying to give Steve some rest. This cold and the altitude are really knocking him out. So much so that I changed our return tickets for Mexico City to Sunday, Feb 20. Between his worsening chest and the dreary weather we’ve decided that the Amazon jungle trip we’d wanted to do in our last week is a bad idea. Fellow travelers who’d just returned told us truly miserable tales of knee-deep mud sucking their boots right off their feet when they went hiking and endless rain, night and day.
So we are tucked up in the Hotel San Francisco de Quito. When the rain stops we venture out. Between times we’re playing cards a lot: Spite and Malice, the only game we can remember the rules to. The TV is pretty interesting too: old movie favourites with Spanish subtitles. A happy find was two new-to-us episodes of Ugly Betty, a series we were hooked on at home but missed much of when we were traveling.

Tomorrow we are going to the famed Otavalo market for some real shopping. Then Sunday early evening we leave for Lima, Peru with connections to Mexico City and back to our van to continue traveling through Mexico.

Otavalo Feb 19

Otavalo, a small town perched at nearly 8,000 feet in the Andes Mountains is about 3 hours from Quito. There is some market activity virtually every day, but Saturday is MARKET DAY when the Otavalenos themselves come to town. The aptly named Plaza de Ponchos explodes into the surrounding streets with market goods aimed at tourist and local alike.

Best known for their weaving, the indigenous Indians produce tapestries, blanketsOtavalo, Ecuador, ponchos, pashmina-style scarves, hammocks, hats and clothing of all description. They make jewelry and chess sets and hookah pipes and anything else you can think could be crafted. The food stalls cater primarily to the locals: whole pigs, live chickens, fried fish, rice, lentils and produce in a riot of colours and textures. Cooks stir great pots of soup and noodles while farmers squat in place to slurp it up.

There are two ways to get to Otavalo. Go the night before by local bus and stay at a local hotel so you are there when the market opens in the morning or take a minivan tour. We opted for a tour with Felix, a friendly English-fluent guide.

To get a job as a guide in most countries, and in Ecuador for sure, young people like Felix have to have a university degree in tourism. They are an educated, aware, group and always have a good local perspective. For me the best part of a tour is often the opportunity to talk at length with a local like Felix.

On this trip, we talked politics both Ecuadorean and world. We share a lot of similar views which is worth knowing to me, as separated as we are by geography, culture (he considers himself a Mestizo) and age (he must have been 25 or so). He was also able to explain a lot of the local customs and oddities we’d seen.

Not an oddity, but I did ask him what would have become of my netbook. He explained that there is a very active black market in Quito for technology products, laptops in particular. Tourists are not the primary target, university students are. They get out of class in the late afternoon, tuck their laptop into their backpack and hit the bus ...where the thieves await. Standing behind the students, they simply slice the bottom of their packs with a sharp blade and slip whatever they like out.

The laptops are delivered to a place where the hard drive itself is removed and replaced with a cleaned and reformatted one. The old hard drive will be worked on at leisure to strip the password protections, reformat it and get it ready for the next installation.

Within hours they are back on the market. Felix tells me it is a viscous circle because the locals all know where to get the cheap stolen goods. So when their phone or netbook is stolen, they just get another one. The police know about it, of course, but so far have not been doing anything other than running ads asking the locals to stop contributing to this continuum by buying stolen goods.

So that was one conversation we had. What I forgot to ask him and wish I had was to explain the ice cream thing here. At home, ice cream cones melt in 2 minutes on a sunny day. In Ecuador women walk around with big platters heaped with ice cream, empty cones propped on top. When a customer is enticed they scoop ice cream into a cone and the customer goes off happy.

Then they continue walking around with this unmelted ice cream. The only thing I can think is that maybe it is marshmallow-based; not really ice cream at all.

So Felix picked us up, along with four other travelers. At $60 for an all-day tour I was not expecting a great deal in terms of the vehicle but iEcuadort was a very new Toyota passenger van. Nice cushy seats, lots of leg room and BIG windows.

The drive out of the city and into the mountains north of Quito was really interesting. This is where having a guide with you is nice. When you see something you are curious about you can ask. A big building project about an hour out of town was the first thing I was curious about. Turns out it is the new airport. They’ve been working on this a LONG time because my Lonely Planet guidebook says it was supposed to be completed in 2010 and it is still mostly piles of dirt. Whenever it is finished, the cab ride into town is going to be a lot more expensive than the current airport-to-city fare of $10.

The first place we stopped was a big lake that was the result of a glacier sliding off a volcano into another crater. This turned out to be a curio shop stop ...we took pictures of the lake and the owners cute kid with a llama in exchange for walking through the shop and perhaps buying something. The banos were 25 cents per visit which is pretty steep. It usually only costs 10 cents to pee.

I call these “curio shop stops” because when we were traveling in Africa I came to apprOtavalo, Ecuadoreciate the symbiotic relationship between the buses and the curio shops. The shops maintain clean, foreigner-friendly sit-down toilets in exchange for the bus stopping there and disgorging their load of fresh marks. At first I was annoyed, but then I realized it is all good business. The only other option was stopping at the side of the road and dropping my drawers behind the skinny little prickle bushes.

Onward to Otavalo. The market spreads itself out over many blocks around the town square. At first I wondered how I could ever see it all in a couple of hours. But the answer is that there is no need to because the products repeat themselves over and over. Some of the stuff is locally crafted but it can be hard to figure out exactly what.

The indigenous Indians are known for their weaving and I did buy some scarves which by their irregular stitching indicated they were hand made. But there is also a LOT of stuff that is clearly imported and heaped to overflowing at stall after stall after stall.

There is an air of the festival about it all, with the rural Indians in town for market day bustling about doing their own shopping. I saw one little lady short and stout. The song, My Little Teapot, coOtavalo Market, Ecuadormes to mind. The ladies may not actually be all that stout but they wear multi-layers of gathered skirts, the final one being a thick embroidered felt. These skirts would make the skinniest New York model look like she had child bearing hips.

Anyway, she comes down the street with a 3 or 4 year old strapped to her back. In one hand she holds a big rattan basket full of produce and several plastic bags full of goods. In the other are two chickens, dead but still flopping and bleeding. She stops and puts it all down. She unties the big white tablecloth holding the kid on (he is dead to the world), hikes him up higher, reties the tablecloth under his bum, picks up the basket and the bags and chickens and goes on her way.

Yes, I shopped but not all that much. Unless I have something in mind to look for I getOtavalo Market overwhelmed by these places. So it was scarves and fridge magnets and a few souvenirs for the family at home. When you’ve been traveling for as many years as we have, there is not much room at home for more stuff. I look for things I can actually utilize in our daily lives, like the wool poncho I bought in Quito.

Next up was the town of Cotacachi to the north of Otavalo. It is renowned for its leather goods. We walked the streets, admiring the most beautiful bags, jackets, boots etc. Handbags that I know would be at least $150-200 at home could be negotiated down to $25. I hummed and hawed but I am not a handbag kind of girl so I left them all there. I just know I am going to regret that though.

For lunch we stopped at a place with a full Ecuadorian menu. This inspired the woman beside me to order guinea pig, a local specialty. Well, this thing arrived looking like it had been strapped to the rack with its four limbs stretched out in four directions. Its poor little head was pointed straight at me.

I had ordered a piece of chicken and some of the spicy little potato cakes I’ve learned to love. I really tried to eat my chicken but I could not. The guinea pig had finished lunch for me. The lady who ordered it tucked in with gusto. I won’t say she sucked on the bones but she did get her money’s worth. It was $13, by the way, expensive for a lunch here where my chicken meal was $6.

When we got back to the hotel we defaulted to our standard dinner these days, a bottle of drinkable yogurt. Suffice to say our clothes have loosened up in the past month.

So, it is now nearly 4 pm and the streets have re-opened to traffic. In Quito they have the charming habit of closing the main streets to traffic on Sundays so that everyone can cycle. They have hydration stations and first aid stations and so on. It is quite nice although I wonder about their lungs as this is a very polluted city.

Old Town Quito is architecturally beautiful, the stone buildings linked by pedestrian walkways and open plazas every few blocks. On Sundays (today) local bands use these little plazas to make music. After they’ve played for a while someone (often an older fellow who looks a lot like “Dad”) walks the crowd selling CDs. So families stop, sitting on the stairs to watch. Children dance without inhibition or chase each other in and out of the crowd. The ice cream and balloon vendors are always walking through as are the young shoe shine boys. It’s a nice friendly atmosphere. With my earlier experience with the mugger/netbook loss one might get the impression Quito is a dangerous, scary place and that is not so. It is a place with a lot of crime so one needs to take extra precautions and remain watchful. But it’s also a town where normal people live and laugh.

As I write this I’m sitting in the hotel lobby using their guest computer. I will post this and we’ll collect our luggage and call a cab. With any luck the next time you hear from me we will be back in Mexico, lungs dried out, body back at an elevation it obviously prefers.

Quito, Feb 21

You wonder why I am still titling this Quito?
Well, there was a problem. Sunday night we got to the airport and made our way up to the check-in desk, only to be told, “We don’t have a reservation for you.”

“What? Twice in the past week I confirmed our flight with AeroMexico . They assured me I do.”

The ticket had been issued by AeroMexico but the first leg of the flight, from Quito to Lima is with LAN airways. It leaves at 8 pm. The second leg, from Lima, Peru to Mexico City is on AeroMexico and leaves Lima soon after midnight.

After much toing and froing and very expensive phone calls to Mexico City (like $60 expensive) I discover that while AeroMexico does have seats for us on the Lima to Mexico City flight tonight, LAN did not accept the change of dates and we have no way to get from Quito to Lima. Another expensive phone call to Mexico City ($45 this time) and AeroMexico admit verbally that this is their fault BUT it is now OUR problem to get from Quito to Lima tonight so that we can make our flight from Lima to Mexico City. If I want to change the date of the AeroMexico flight from Lima to Mexico City from tonight to another date it will now cost me $1200 per ticket.

In any event, the flight from Quito to Lima is full.

I am actually leaving out a lot here. It was an incredibly stressful evening of running from this window to that desk to the telephone booth to call AeroMexico. Much of it in Spanish which I barely manage. By 10 pm the only flight to Lima is long gone and we give up trying to sort this out, realizing that we have abandoned our flight from Lima to Mexico City but there is nothing we can do about anything till tomorrow.

Exhausted and defeated we taxi back to the Hotel San Francisco where the only room available is now a very damp room in the back of the hotel complex where we literally have to walk through the rain pouring down through the open roof to our room. As soon as we go into to it Steve starts in with this horrible coughing fit again. I am starting to think that he is reacting to the heavy spraying they do in these rooms to keep them bug free. He spends the night coughing and vomiting. I HAVE to get him out of here.

We are not rich and money matters but this is going beyond that. In just the last year we’ve seen a dear friend die and a beloved brother become very ill. These are real problems. My attitude these days is that if money can resolve something, it is not really a problem. I will solve this and get Steve out of here.

During the night I go down to the lounge and use the computer there to research flights to Mexico City. There is an Avianca flight leaving at 11:35 the next morning with availability. I am too burnt by my experience with online booking to trust that again so wait till morning when I go down to the travel agency in the lobby and ask them to book us onto this flight. He cannot book the flight because it is now 9:30 am and the flight is already in pre-boarding phase. But there is availability so if we jump in a cab and get to the airport tout de suite, we can buy tickets there.

This we do.

Steve is looking wan and grey after his long night so I give him some very firm instructions, “Put on your happy face. Under NO circumstances can you afford to look sick. We must be boarded on this flight!” I am haunted by the idea that we’ll actually get these tickets and then be bounced back off the flight because he looks like he’s carrying some kind of communicable disease.

But no, we make it past the ticket purchase. Thank goodness for VISA. And we make it past the check-in counter. And we make it onto the plane. This flight is only 7 hours but it has one short stop in Bogota, Columbia. No problem.

Except in Bogota they are on some kind of drug hyper alert. As we get off the plane to go into the secure holding area we are searched. And I mean SEARCHED. Pockets emptied, patted down and every single thing turfed out of our carry on while the dogs sniff around. Can they sniff Tylenol 3s? I am getting nervous. Will this flight never end?

We all get sent to sit in a very hot, claustrophobic hallway for an hour. Steve is looking very grey again. “Don’t look sick!” I hiss as we are ushered back into another holding room where we go through the whole turfing of the carryon thing again. My daypack has a lot more stuff in it than his so it takes longer for the guard to go through it. When I turn around I see him sitting five feet behind the security guards with his head between his knees.

“Give me something,” he chokes out as I approach. “What’s in your pocket?”
I pull out a Ziploc bag with tissues. He grabs it and start vomiting all the orange juice he’d drunk on the last flight. Oh great. Why do men never listen? I tell him not to look sick and here he is, five feet from a security guard vomiting. This is going to get us turfed for sure.

But they were not interested in “sick.” They were only interested in drugs and I guess vomiting is not a no-no in their guide to catching drug mules.

So Steve settles down. NOW he feels better. We maneuver ourselves and our baggie and splattered jacket over to a corner of the room and find some wet wipes to do the best job of a cleanup we can. No restrooms in the secure room. Wouldn’t be that easy.

Eventually they call the flight and we are boarded. No one cares that he looks like death and we smell worse. The drug dogs are sniffing around his bundled up jacket but they don’t bark or lie down or do whatever it is they do to indicate drugs. They are just curious and thank goodness, that does not count.

So off we fly and four hours later we land in Mexico City. The bags show up on the carousel and a cab is negotiated. Its 1.5 hours out to Pepe’s RV Park outside the city. I have emailed our flight arrival information, using the 24-hour clock so there will be no mistaking the time of our arrival. But of course that only confuses them more so the gate is locked up tight.

No problem. We make enough noise to rouse the security guard who wakes the owner of the property where the van is locked up. We fish out our keys and viola the van starts on the first try. A quick trip to the shower and we gratefully crawl into our own bed, lay our heads on our own pillows and pass out.

Tomorrow we’ll point the van towards the sun …hopefully it is hanging out on the Gulf of Mexico.

Carolyn Usher