Cuenca: Middle of the Program

AHHHH I’ve gotten so bad at posting on this blog. But that just means i’m keeping busy and having fun 🙂

So the day after the last blog post that I wrote, we headed off to Yanayacu Biological Station for our Biology class academic trip for a week. The biological station we went to was in a cloud forest in the Napo River Valley on the slopes of one of the many volcanoes in Ecuador. It was an incredibly beautiful cloud forest and was also incredibly biodiverse.. In fact, they came in first in the world for highest bird diversity in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, so that was really fun. The station was owned by an american entomologist and ornithologist who specialized in caterpillar parasitoid predation and Andean bird nests so we learned a lot about those two subjects.

Every day had about the same structure. We usually had a lecture in the morning and another short one in the afternoon broken up by lunch and either a hike to see the biodiversity of the area (since that’s what our bio class focuses on) or some sort of project focused on whatever topic we learned about. So for example, one day we learned about hummingbird behaviors and then our project was to see if hummingbirds in different areas of the station were more attracted to some colors of flowers than others.

On the same hummingbird day, we also probably did my favorite activity of the trip which was observing all of the hummingbirds of the area at a set of feeders at a retreat nearby. Although there’s around 30 species of hummingbirds that live around the cloud forest, only 7 come to feeders, 6 of which I got to see. One of them, the Long Tailed Sylph, was SO beautiful and was the first hummingbird I’ve seen with a super long tail.


Another day of the trip we woke up really early and took a bus into the actual Amazon rainforest. We went to a little Amazonian bioparque and then went further into the forest to another biological station where we went on a really long hike through the Amazon. I have to say, I’ve never been so sweaty so easily. Just standing in the Amazon for 10 minutes got me drenched in sweat because it was so so incredibly humid and hot on top of that. The hike was really cool and we saw some monkeys, and got lost for a little while. Then at the end of the day we hiked down to the Napo River, which is one of the 3 main tributaries that become the Amazon River and went swimming in it. I went in fully clothed because I hadn’t brought a bathing suit, which was a little miserable for the bus ride home, but how often do you get the chance to swim in the Amazon.


A few of our other hikes were really beautiful as well, including a nice little night hike. We also got to go into the little village nearby and learn how to milk cows. Another day we had a really fun soccer game in the street (true Ecuadorian style), although I didn’t have any athletic shoes at the time and was in my pajamas so I was just the super enthusiastic soccer mom screaming from the sidelines. We also spent the entire trip playing card games in all of our free time, which was of course very much fun.

We got back from the Cloud/Rain Forest on Sunday and I immediately had to do homework. This past week was pretty filled with homework in general because we had a bunch of spanish reading due on Wednesday and a test on Thursday. We also had our weekly Salsa class on Tuesday and then a cooking class on Wednesday. Thursday, in our biology class thats at the zoo, we got to watch them feed the lions live chickens. They hid them all over their cage and then let the lions out and it was really intense. All of their instinctual responses came out and it was pretty clear what the territorial hierarchy was. Not to mention, it was kindof depressing watching them almost torture the chickens while they devoured them.

The next week was the beginning of Carnaval, and Ecuador is one of the many South American countries where Carnaval is a pretty big thing. Basically, as soon as Carnaval starts, everyone starts throwing water balloons, buckets of water, cornstarch, confetti, and Carioca (the main thing that they throw), which is this scented/colored foam slightly reminiscent of shaving cream but slightly less globby. So Thursday night after the zoo, we went to a sort of ¨Carnaval opening ceremony¨ at the main plaza in the city. It started off pretty calm with a little bit of foam spraying and then all of a sudden it blew up and we all just started attacking each other and any kids of any age (from young children to people in their late 20s) with the foam. Our group seemed to be the main target by a lot of people and we were so crazy with our foam spraying and kept getting sprayed by so many passerby that we got our photo on the front page of one of the 2 major newspapers in Cuenca. Heres a link to the online copy of the article. I’m the one in the middle in the black jacket with my back to the camera covered in foam. (

It was so so much fun but I literally did not have one dry patch of clothing after that and my clothes got pretty disgusting and my hair was completely filled with foam, to the point where people were scooping it off of my head to throw on other people. Oh also, faces are one of the main targets so I got a lot of it in my ears, mouth, and eyes, the latter of which actually really hurts.

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Then we headed off to Ayampe, a tiny town on the beach north of Montanita, one of Ecuador’s beach party towns, to spend the rest of Carnaval hanging out on the beach in super warm weather since we had the whole week off. We were in Ayampe from Saturday until Thursday. It was pretty chill since its such a small town, so there weren’t too many ¨Carnaval¨ festivities, but the beach was really nice and relaxing and we have a big enough group that we made it really fun. Our hostel was super nice and had lots of hammocks and relaxing space and we got to cook for ourselves for the whole week which was actually really great.

The first few days we just lazed around the beach, enjoying having zero obligations. Unfortunately, the second day everyone except me got sunburned (thank you Italian genes for the less-burnable skin!). The fourth day we went to Isla de la Plata, which is essentially the ¨Poor Mans Galapagos¨, since they have a lot of the same fauna (multiple types of boobies, frigate birds, other birds, and lots of similar sealife). We went on a hike there, which was BEAUTIFUL and then we went snorkeling. The snorkeling was really great except for the minor detail that there were millions of tiny jellyfish at the surface of the water so we were all covered in little stings which was pretty uncomfortable. Also we saw tons of dolphins. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera, but I snagged a couple photos off of my friend Emilie’s facebook so that you could at least somewhat see how it was!

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We finished that night with a tasty dinner in Puerto Lopez. The next day most people hung around the hostel in Ayampe but I took a bus with a couple friends to a town a little bit south of Ayampe called Olon. It had a really nice beach and was a little bigger than Ayampe. We rented a cabana tent thing with lounge chairs for only $4 for the whole day and relaxed in the shade with occasional dips in the ocean.

Finally, our last day in Ayampe we took the bus north to Marchalilla National Park which is the same national park that includes Isla de la Plata but is on the mainland. We went to 2 different beaches within the park. First we went to Los Frailes, the main beach, which was supposely a white sand beach, but isn’t actually. However, it was still really pretty and the water was really nice and clear and the sand very soft.


The second ¨beach¨ we went to was not for swimming but was a beach covered with shells and coral. It was amazing because I found a lot of really cool shells that were whole, like the kind you usually find fragments of but these were whole because the beach is so isolated.


That evening we got back, grabbed our stuff and immediately took a bus south to Montanita, Ecuador’s party town. We got a hostel almost immediately, which was small and very hot, but fit all of us and was in an excellent location and very cheap. The night was really really fun, since Montanita is essentially made up of beach discotecas that stay open almost all night. The main one had an open bar with really cheap cover charge for woman and had a pool in it so we spent most of the night there. It was a very fun night and I didn’t end up going to sleep until 6 in the morning. Then we slept most of the next day and went out again the next night.

Saturday we got up early and took a bus back to Cuenca, where I collapsed and slept the rest of the day and the next day too, with breaks in my sleep only to do homework.

The next week was pretty basic, lots of reading because I had to finish a 400 page book in spanish by Thursday.

The following weekend we went on another trip, this time academic and a bit closer. We went to this town in the mountains a little north of Cuenca called Cañar. The population there is almost entirely indigenous Cañari, so the trip was intended to give up some perspective into the large contrasts between the indigenous and spanish populations in Ecuador, since such a large percent of the population is indigenous.


We got there Friday morning and immediately went on a little walk around the city, stopping first at Mama Michi’s clinica. Mama Michi is a local indigenous woman who does spiritual healing, like limpias with herbs and reading energy in eggs and candles. She explained what she does as a healer and then did an example healing on one of my classmates.


Then we walked a bit more, stopping to see the first indigenous run photo studio (since our guide was a photographer) and again to see the local jail where there is still some traditional weaving done. We watched the weaving for a bit and went on a tour of the jail (which had 3 times the maximum capacity of inmates).

In the evening, we went to our host, Judy’s house. Its a really beautiful house that she and her husband built a while ago in the traditional style but with some modern touches. Her story of her house was actually featured in the New York Times design section. The craziest thing is that this beautiful house was built for only $75,000 including all labor costs, land costs, everything. Makes me want to move to Ecuador.

Saturday we took a bus to Ingapirca, the Incan ruins nearby. These are the second biggest ruins after Machu Picchu and are actually a mix of Incan ruins and old Cañari ruins, since the Cañaris are one of the few tribes that managed to somewhat resist the Inca. They were nice, but not spectacular like I imagine Machu Picchu is.


After the ruins, we went on a hike to see some more little ruins and scenery. Then we came back into town, ate a quick dinner, and went to our host’s house again where she set up a special musical performance. She had a group of musicians that play the traditional Cañari music come and play music for us all night. It was quite fun and was a night full of dancing and Canelazo, the traditional alcoholic drink made from aguardiente and apple cider.

Sunday morning we woke up early to go to the main market. There were fruits and vegetables galore, and some gruesome looking meat stands as well. Then it was back on the bus to Cuenca, and time for homework.


The following week was another pretty boring and homework-filled week, with a fun Wednesday night at the salsa discoteca. Thursday we had homemade macaroni and cheese at our professor’s apartment. And then Friday at volunteering at the zoo, we got chased around by a vicious capybara who was trying to either bite us, bite the hose we were using to clean its pond, or mark his territory on us.

Saturday was Dia del Campo, which was basically a big day of games in the countryside with everyone’s host family. All of the students were divided up into 3 teams of 5, based on what class you were in, and then each student’s host families were part of their team as well. A madrina and padrino (basically the captains of the team) were chosen from each team and I was chosen to be the madrina. Our team was called Los Pintones, which literally means the speckled semi-ripe fruit. Pintón is the word for bananas that are somewhat yellow and somewhat green.


Then we all got changed into matching team uniforms and competed in games all day. The games included things like 3-legged races, various relays, beer chugging contests, etc. My team ended up winning overall and I won my fair share of games so I was pretty happy about that!

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Saturday night we went to a lackluster restaurant/bar with awful service, but then found a nice new discoteca that has free cover charge, which is quite an exciting thing to find here.

Sunday, I went to a brunch restaurant with a couple of my classmates which was so tasty. Its a gringo-owned cafe in a really cute park that has such amazing and very american breakfast options. I got a California breakfast burrito, which came with bacon, eggs, avocado, basil aoli, tomatoes, onions, and a mix of mozzarella and cheddar cheese. It was so so good.


Then I spent the afternoon wandering around the centro taking photos of graffiti because that is my topic for my major culture class project. Its actually a really fun topic because I can do it almost entirely through photography, and Cuenca has some really amazing street art.


The next week was another brutal work filled week since we had more spanish reading due and a test on Thursday. Wednesday was really fun though, because we all went to an elementary school instead of regular class and painted murals on the walls for the kids. It was actually super fun and relaxing to spend the day painting (and getting completely covered in paint).

Then Friday, we left on another academic trip, this time to Zaruma, a small mining town in Southern Ecuador. It was a fairly long drive, but we stopped along the way to see a really amazing waterfall. It was humongous and had so much water flowing through it that we all got completely soaked standing even somewhat near it to take photos of it.



Once we got to our hotel in Zaruma, we went straight into the very large swimming pool and hung out there for most of the afternoon, before having a very relaxed evening in our hotel.

Saturday, we went into town to this little museum/mine that this man and many generations of his family have been running. The museum was really amazing and was filled with all sorts of rocks that he and his family have been collecting for generations. There were also tons of old antiques throughout the museum, including numerous typewriters, cameras, and other things that used to be manual that are now electronic.

After that museum, we went to another mine, called el Sexmo, once one of the major mines in the area. We walked for a while through the old mine chambers which was really cool, but definitely not for those who are claustrophobic.


Then we had an interesting lunch in Zaruma where we ate a traditional dish of the area which I found very unpleasant. It was just a scramble of plantains, eggs, and cheese, but the traditional cheese used for it has a very odd flavor. Then we spent the afternoon taking photos around the town as a sort of exposé on life in Zaruma.

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Saturday was also the 21st birthday of one of my other classmates so we spent all evening and night celebrating it with her, which is always very fun.

Then the next day it was back on the bus to Cuenca, with me getting home just in time for family bingo night at my house. It was fun but unfortunately i’m sick now, so I felt a bit out of it all evening.

Today I’m feeling very sick, lots of coughing, no voice, and a large amount of congestion in all of my sinus-areas. So i’m descansa-ing (resting) at home for the day, hoping my condition will improve, but hey its a good time to finally get around to posting on my blog..

Also, its crazy but we only have two weeks left on the program. Doesn’t mean i’m anywhere near done traveling, but the next leg of my journey will be over. Kind-of sad actually, time passed so so rapidly here and I really love it here… but i still have a couple more weeks of fun before its over.










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