Ecuador- last month

The week after my last post was pretty typical, nothing special to report.

That Friday was our last day of volunteering. We cleaned the quarantine area where we got to spend a lot of time around the lion cub. Then we cleaned the Tapir/Capybara cage again where this time they put all of the animals in a holding cage, but somehow in the middle of us shoveling their poop into bags, the Capybara managed to escape and came after us again like the previous week. It was really hilarious and he undid a bunch of work we had done and then they had to chase the ferocious capybara back into his holding cage. Friday night we all met up at the bowling alley in the mall and did a bit of bowling. We were in 2 lanes and I came in last of my lane, but a lot of people in the other lane thankfully did a little worse than me so I’m not too too terrible at bowling. After that we all went down to the river and hung out there for a while before heading home.

Saturday I worked on some more homework and then went into town for dinner. In the evening we all went bowling again, this time I chose to watch instead which was fun enough in itself. Afterwards we went to this bar that has a dancefloor and music, so its kindof like a discoteca but its a bit more of a bar atmosphere. They were playing american rock music like ZZ Top and Nirvana so we got a bit crazy and had tons of fun dancing to that.

Sunday-Thursday were pretty uneventful, with us focusing on finishing our final homework projects for all 3 of our classes.

The next night, one of the girls on our programs boyfriends had a bonfire at his vacant lot which was super fun. We roasted marshmallows and listened to music and relaxed.

Friday I slept in finally before setting out to work on some of my final culture project. In the afternoon we had our final presentations of our work at the Zoo. Friday night we went to a new discoteca that had just opened. It was pretty fun, but the music wasn’t my favorite. Still though we had to go out because it was our second to last weekend-night.

Saturday I met up with a couple people in my group and we walked around downtown and along the river. There were a lot of people out because it was dia-del-Cuenca, essentially the city’s birthday. There were arts and crafts booths lining the river so we wandered along looking at all the booths and I bought a few little things. Saturday night we all met up for drinks and then went to a bar that had a dancefloor and danced a bit there. From there we went to the same hostel that we went for the Valentine’s day concert but this time they were having a Cuenca-day concert. It was super great music with a good sort of lightshow that accompanied the music and it went until 2:30 at night. It took forever to get a cab home because there were so many people out and about but it was a perfect last-night-out.

Sunday I slept in and then did homework all afternoon. In the evening, we all met up at my professors apartment and had a Passover Seder because two of the girls on my trip were Jewish. It was super fun and the food was incredibly tasty.

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Monday and Tuesdays were more very busy days since all of our projects and finals were due and they were basically our last days of the program.

Then Tuesday, right before the program was to end, I was hit very suddenly by terrible nausea. I thought it was just nerves for the future at first, so I tried sleeping it off but I couldn’t sleep and just got progressively more and more nauseous until I was vomiting. The vomiting was pretty continuous, even into the night and when I had nothing left in my tummy to throw up, so I barely got any sleep. Not to mention I was in so much pain all over my body with backaches, headaches, full-body-aches, so I could barely move without feeling like crying. It was miserable. Also it was terribly timed because I had my Spanish final on Wednesday and I still had to pack to go to Quito. Wednesday I still wasn’t feeling good (in fact, I really didn’t start feeling completely normal until today), so I went to the doctor and he gave me some antibiotics and concluded it was food poisoning. If that was what it was, it was the worst food poisoning I’ve ever had or could ever imagine having.

Wednesday night there was a big going away party at a fancy garden/restaurant which was pretty sad and emotional. The spanish school made a movie with photos of all of us, which was really sweet and everyone mingled and danced. Then I hugged everyone goodbye and went home to finish packing.

Thursday morning I woke up super early and headed to the airport. After a hassle-free quick flight to Quito, I navigated my way on buses from the airport to my hostel (and the airport is about 2 hours away from my hostel so I was pretty proud of myself for making it). My hostel is super nice and pretty, tucked away on a side street right outside of the historic center. The terrace overlooks the entire historic center and you can see the tops of all the major churches and sights right from where you eat.

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I was in a dorm room that was kinda reserved for solo travelers, and since almost all solo travelers are guys, all of my dorm-mates were guys. They were also all  incredibly nice, although its crazy how I seemed to have new roommates each night because most people are just passing through. Besides my roommates, I met also lots of other really fun and friendly people in my hostel, from all over the world which is super cool. Its great to hear where they’re traveling from and to and share tips of where to go and what to do.

Thursday I also tried to go to the Brazilian Embassy to get my Brazilian visa, which is the only reason I’m in Quito. But turns out they close at 12 (which it did NOT say on their website) and they weren’t going to be open Fri-Sun because its Semana Santa (Holy Week). So thats a bit stressful for me because it means I apply for my visa on Monday which gives me a week to get it before I fly back to Cuenca and to the Galapagos and need my passport again.

OK so then Friday, it was Good Friday. Quito is the city in Ecuador that has the biggest celebration for semana santa so for good friday, there was a HUGE procession/parade. It was super weird. I went with 2 people from my hostel and we sat in the sun and basically, for 2-3 hours, people walk down the streets basically torturing themselves to alleviate their sins. Everyone dresses in these weird purple costumes that look like purple kkk suits, with a full length covering robe and tall pointy hat/face covering with slits for the eyes. Many people walk barefoot because thats what Jesus did. Also for every group of these penitents (I think the groups were different churches around the city) there were 1 or more people dressed like Jesus carrying HUGE and heavy crosses over their shoulders like Jesus was forced to do with people dressed like soldiers walking being him. There were even some people who went to extreme measures to alleviate their sins like whipping themselves on the back as they walked or having crosses made out of cacti strapped to their bare backs.

It was really odd, and no one seemed to be immune to it, as there were people of all ages (tiny children carrying crosses, to really old people too).

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Saturday I wandered around La Mariscal district and got lunch there. It was super cute and the food was quite tasty. Then I went back to the same arts and crafts market I went to when I first got to Quito and got some more little gifts, which was quite fun. THen it was more relaxation and netflix watching in my hostel.

Sunday was easter, so almost everything was closed. However, I still wandered around the centro historico a bit before going back and relaxing in the hostel.

Monday I woke up early and headed to the Brazilian Embassy. Got there early and it turned out I had to wait a whole 45 minutes before they would let me in. Then once I got in, I had to go out and reprint off lots of papers and it was a hassel, but I got it all applied for and they could process it in 5 business days so that was exciting. Then I wandered around La Mariscal district a little more and relaxed at my hostel.

Tuesday I took a bus a couple hours north of Quito to a town called Otavalo and stayed in a really cute little hotel in the center of town. It was really relaxing and I got a really nice hotel room for really cheap. It was a bit creepy though because during the middle of the week, the town is deserted, so I think there was only one other person in the whole hotel so it felt a little off.Processed with VSCOcam with k2 preset

Then I woke up Wednesday, ate breakfast in town and went to the famous Otavalo market. Although its really famous for its Saturdays, it seemed too hectic to go on a Saturday so I went mid week instead and it was perfect. Essentially this whole plaza is filled with booths of Otavaleños selling handicrafts and art and its all super cheap and there are literally so many different kinds of things that they sell. I can’t even imagine how it is on Saturdays because there were soooo many booths mid week. I went a little crazy because I really love handicrafts and they were all so affordable, but I still feel like I should have gotten more because it was all so amazing.

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Then I went back to the same hostel in Quito and relaxed for the evening, after taking a short little walk around the historic center.

Thursday I switched hostels to a new one in La Mariscal since it was closer to the hotel my parents booked for us Friday. The next hostel was definitely a lot more of a party hostel, there was a bar in the hostel and you got a coupon for a free drink just for staying there which was pretty cool. I had the most delicious lunch from a vegetarian restaurant right down the street from the hostel and then I did some more wandering around the neighborhood. Then at night I hung out with some new people staying at the hostel, one of whom was from Portland so that was cool. Sleeping there was a bit miserable though because it was in the barhopping area of town so it was fairly loud and disruptive.

Friday I woke up early and switched to the hotel where I met my parents. Super nice little boutique hotel, so I spent all day just kind-of lazing around the hotel. My parents got in in the evening which was very exciting, since I hadn’t seen them in a while.

Saturday we woke up early and I showed my parents La Mariscal, the area of Quito around our hotel. Then we got a car up to Mindo, the cloud forest I briefly visited at the beginning of my trip that has one of the best birding sites in the world, where we stayed at a super nice Eco-Lodge. Our cabin was super nice and super comfortable and was right next to the river. It was fun because in order to get over the lodge you had to sit on this rope-and-pulley-sort-of cart and get pulled across the river. The lodge specialized in vegetarian food so we were fed quite well as soon as we got in. Then we got an orientation hike around the lodge where we spotted a few birds and were taught about the local plants.

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Sunday we had a private tour guide all day who was one of the areas best birders. We started the day quite early and didn’t completely end until a late dinner, with lots of little stops back at the lodge for meals and snacks. In total, in only one day we saw a few more than 70 species, which was both me and my mom’s best birding day ever (my dad claims he had a better birding day once in Panama). This included a new MotMot species, 13 (out of the 18 possible) hummingbird species, a new Trogon species, and lots and lots of Toucans (2 different species). We also saw lots of cool plants and insects around too. Our guide was so wonderful and knew all of the birds so well and was really excellent and finding tiny birds hidden in the thick forest understory.

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Monday we woke up super super early (4:30-ish) and drove a bit to a Cock-of-the-Rock leck. This is a really rare bird that only really exists in the Mindo area. They have lecks all over the area, which are little sites where the males of super showy species congregate to attract females, but they only congregate in the mornings. We went to a specific one on this birders property where you pay a little fee and get to watch their whole mating behaviors. It was really crazy. These birds are super colorful and super loud and do all sorts of weird hopping behaviors. Then we went to another little site on the same property where the guide called out a couple of really rare Antpittas. We saw a few other new species around there too, so it was a morning full of rare birds. Then we got a car back to Quito, where I finally picked up my Brazilian visa, and we flew to Cuenca.

Tuesday I took my parents around Cuenca in the morning, stopping by the new Cathedral and a couple of markets. Then we went to Amauta so I could introduce them to my teacher and the Amauta coordinators.

We went to one of my favorite cafes for lunch and then we went to this really weird Modern Art Museum that was right next door. Then my host dad picked us up and took us on a complete tour of Cuenca, going up to the viewpoints of the city both in the North and South, the Central Museum, and doing a full driving tour of the historical center so they could see all of the chuches there. In the evening we walked around Calle Larga, so they could see the main party area in town.

Wednesday we went back to the Central Bank Museum to see the part outside. There we saw some more new bird species in the garden and some of the Incan ruins that are outside of the Museum. Then we did some more walking around the center with a stop for lunch at another one of my favorite cafes. In the evening we went over to my host families house for dinner and hung out there for a while. It was really great seeing them again but sad saying goodbye because I probably won’t see them for a long time now. Then we took all of the stuff I had left there back to our hotel and condensed it all into less luggage.

Thursday morning we set off again, this time towards Guayaquil. We stopped multiple times in Parque Nacional Cajas and did some more birdwatching. We saw lots of new species there too. We got into Guayaquil pretty late and did some grocery shopping and then went to sleep pretty early.

Friday we woke up early, returned our rental car and headed to the airport, headed for the Galapagos. Our flight was easy and we landed in the islands mid-day. It was hot and arid upon landing and we were immediately whisked off across to the main island and then to our hotel. The hotel is very nice and has a super nice little pool that we jumped in as soon as arriving. Then we had a guide take us around the town a little bit. He took us to the little beach closest to town where I saw my first Marine Iguana.

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Then he took us to the Charles Darwin Research Station where we walked through some little exhibits about the natural history of the galapagos and then we went through their galapagos tortoise breeding area where we saw tortoises of all ages. There were lots of little ones since they mostly just let them grow until they’re 2 years old and then release them into the wild, but they also have some giant tortoises too, as well as some land iguanas.

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Then we went to this other little beach where there are multiple parts of the beach, one part of which had tons of marine iguanas lounging around on it which was quite exciting. There was also a seal playing around in the sand. The sand was super cool because there was a layer of big sea urchin spines covering it completely which was really pretty since they were purple colored. Unfortunately, here I also took a pretty nasty fall while scrambling around some rocks trying to take a good photo of the red colored crabs. The cuts from the fall have been causing me lots of issue since then since they hurt every time I get in salt water, which is a lot here.

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Then the guide took us into town where we got dinner at these little food stands that were pretty good. They had hugeee portions though and I got a chicken hamburger that alone was as big as your standard sized larger plate.

Saturday we got up and headed to the dock where we took a glass bottom boat out and about on a ¨bay tour¨. It was pouring rain when we woke up so we were a little bit sketched out about the idea of going out on the water, but thankfully by the time we got on the boat the rain had completely let up and didn’t return all day. However, because of the rainstorm, there were huge swells so the boat ride was quite rough and rocky.

The first stop on our tour was a little tiny island that the galapagos sea lions like to hang out at. Once we got there the guide told us it was time to snorkel and to ¨prepare for swim¨. Everyone in our tour group was a bit shocked that they were expecting us to get in the water seeing as there were pretty big waves, it was a tiny island of only rocks and sea lions, it was overcast and fairly cold, and the water just looked dark and ominous because it was cloudy out, so we were all pretty frightened. The guide didn’t really give us any option though so in the water we went. Fortunately, once we were in the water it really wasn’t scary at all. The water was a lotttt shallower than I thought, it was very clear, there were beautiful colorful fish everywhere, and it wasn’t cold at all. We all swam around a bit and snorkeled with a couple of sea lions and then got back on the boat and went to our next stop.

The next stop was snorkeling along this little cliff where some blue footed boobies and marine iguanas were hanging out. The snorkeling here was a bit less pleasant with the water a little colder and a little less clear. We were looking for white tip reef sharks because it was supposedly where they hang out but either they weren’t there or the water wasn’t clear enough because we didn’t see any.

Then we got out of the water right nearby and took a little walk past a couple of channels and a little beach that are formed by alkaline type pools, one of which is where the baby sharks like to hang out during the day. We didn’t see any sharks there, but we saw a ray in the channel and the vegetation of the cactus trees against the blue ocean background was quite beautiful. There were also a couple cute sea lions lounging around the dock that we landed at.

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Then we continued the boat ride to our final stop where we got out and walked a little way across an old lava field to this area called Las Grietas which is basically where this huge canyon has springs and ocean leakage so its a deep slot canyon filled with crystal clear, really blue and cold water. The only way into the water is to jump, so you leap in and since at this point of the day it was super hot and sunny, it was very refreshing.

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Then we headed back to our hotel where we relaxed for only a tiny bit. Because in the afternoon our same naturalist guide picked us up and took us up the hill to the highlands of the main island. We went to first these two craters called las gemelas that were formed when the volcano on santa cruz was active. They were quite beautiful and filled with lush vegetation very reminiscent of the craters in Hawaii where my mom works. Then we went to an old lava tube, which was quite huge and was deep in the ground. However, halfway through our walk into the lava tube, just after we had started the sort of scrambling part over the collapsed old lava inside the tube, the electricity in the lava tunnel went out, so there we were deep underground inside a lava tube with no light on a part of the trail that was really scramble-y and we didn’t have any cell phones or flashlights or anything. As we started slowly crawling back using our camera screens (which didn’t do anything since they were showing the blackness that we were in) to light the single spot in front of us, using our hands to feel if there were any point rocks on the ground by our feet, the light popped back on thankfully. Still the total darkness in such a desolate place was a bit terrifying and not something I’d like to experience again.

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Next we went to this private piece of agricultural property that has a lot of ponds where the wild giant tortoises like to roam around. We walked along the property and found a few very peaceful looking wild giant tortoises. They also had a couple of huge giant tortoise shells which I took the obligatory photo inside of.

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Sunday we slept in a tiny bit and then hiked out to the beach, Tortuga Bay. It is a two part beach. The first part is a hugeee white sand beach with fairly big waves. The sand there was so incredibly white and super fine so it was really soft to walk in. The water there is really beautiful but not safe to swim in because of very strong currents and rough waves, although its good for surfing if you know the area. However, we were told that there is a rumor that a surfer got a pretty nasty shark bite there a couple weeks ago, but that no one will confirm the rumor because it drives away some tourism.

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Then we walked to the end of the beach where there is the beginning of some rocks and mangroves and there were huge iguanas lounging on the sand, some really pretty herons on the rocks, lots of little fish in the water, and a few baby black tipped reef sharks which were a couple feet long chasing the fish around. I got super excited about the sharks and one of them even got really close to my foot because I was already in the water when I first saw them and was a bit afraid to move once it got closer and closer.

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Then we continued to the second beach of Tortuga Bay which is more of a mangrove protected lagoon, so it has no swell and is thus safe to swim in. We were supposed to rent kayaks, but it ended up being a big frustrating deal and the guy who had the kayaks never showed up so we rented mask and snorkels instead. The snorkeling was quite unpleasing as the water is very much lagoon water, which isn’t terribly clear, so we only saw a few fish although just standing at the edge of the beach you could see little sharks swimming around in it too. However the sand on the beach at the lagoon was the same perfect white soft sand so we sat around in that for a while, and I unfortunately got a bit sunburned…

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Then we had a relaxing day around the hotel and hung out with the girl who is working there who is a 21 year old girl from Rome, who even knew the high school that I went to when I studied abroad there and knew some people who went there, so we had lots to talk about.

Monday, I woke up and my camera wasn’t working. It had gotten wet the first day we got to the galapagos because after I fell on that first day, I sat down to look at my wounds and a rogue wave made it all the way up to where I was sitting with my camera. At the time it didn’t seem like anything happened to my camera but it turns out that there was water damage to the place where the camera plugs into the wall to charge and since the battery had died and it wouldn’t charge, it wouldn’t turn on. So I had to go for the rest of the day without a camera. My dad stayed on the main island to go talk to some biologists at the research station and my mom and I took a boat trip to Santa Fe island. It was quite the rocky trip out there and some people on the boat got seasick. Once we got there we again were brought to a place and told to jump in and start snorkeling despite the rain and dark looking water. However, once we got in the water, the temperature wasn’t too bad and the water was sooo clear. It was the best snorkeling we did on the whole trip, with sea lions diving around us, fish everywhere, and perfectly clear really blue water. We even went into a couple little caves. Then we got back on the boat and went to this little bay inlet with very white sand. We didn’t go inland here but snorkeled all along the edge of the bay where we saw lots more fish and sea lions, including a massive rock scorpionfish that was perfectly blended into the rocks (a bit scary because they’re very poisonous and it was a shallow enough rock that someone easily could have touched or stepped on it).  Then they made us fresh lunch on the really big nice boat (including grilling fresh fish for those non-vegetarians).

After that stop we went to the backside of Santa Cruz Island where there is a hidden beach that was so so beautiful, with perfectly clear warm turquoise water and soft white sand. We swam out a little ways and snorkeled a bit on the reefs and saw a bunch of fish including a large porcupinefish, and then swimming back there were a bunch of rays (maybe eagle rays or bat rays?) that glided right in front of us.

In the evening, once we were back on the main island, we went out for Caipiriñas and sushi and happened to find a pretty cheap camera store that happened to have the kind of battery I needed for my camera and an external charger for them so that I could make my camera work again which was exciting.

Tuesday was quite a day. Oh boy. We went to Isla Isabella which was another long boat ride over rough seas to get there. The entire situation of getting on the boat and getting to the tour and everything was very disorganized, likely because there were so many middle men along the way. Once we got to the island, the person in charge put us on the wrong tour and when we got back he started yelling at us and blaming us for his mistake of putting us on the wrong tour and telling us we had to pay for that tour even though it was his fault and he was just incredibly disrespectful and awful. In the end, it ended up working out and the guide got tons of formal complaints against him along with losing 2 complete days of pay because of his awful behavior so it was alright.

Besides that, the tour was alright. The first part was snorkeling in this bay that had terrible visibility and huge waves. I had multiple waves crash on me which was a bit unpleasant and it was a pretty big group of people so we kept getting in eachothers way. Plus the tour guide was just constantly swimming and we were just supposed to follow him so we barely ever got to stop and he was swimming fast and we swam all the way across this huge bay, it was quite a workout. Then we went to this island called Tintoreras, which was this lava covered island where the guide told us all about the volcanic activity on Isabella Island and we saw some more iguanas and sea lions.

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Then we boated around a tiny bit more and saw some native galapagos penguins which were pretty cool.

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In the afternoon, after the whole fiasco with the awful tour guide, we went to a lagoon where we saw migratory flamingos that live in the area.

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The next day, Wednesday, we got picked up early by a tour bus and went to the harbor at the very north of the island where we boarded this super fancy boat that we took up to this island called North Seymour. As we were waiting for the little dinghy to take us from the boat to the island there were a bunch of really big sharks in the water swimming under us. Then we got on the boat and went to the island where we walked around for a couple hours.

The island is very flat and is the center of breeding for a bunch of the bird species around the Galapagos, most notably the 2 species of frigate birds and the blue-footed boobies. It also is one of the few islands that still has wild land iguanas on it, which are a bit bigger, faster, and more colorful than the marine iguanas.

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We walked around amongst all the breeding sea birds for a while. We saw all different stages of breeding. There were tons of male frigate birds sitting on the nests they built puffing up their plumage and red throat-sack things trying to compete for the females, there were also male blue footed boobies trying to out-dance eachother for female attention. There were a couple pairs of birds of both species that were mating. There were female frigates sitting on egg-filled nests and male frigates bringing them sticks (its actually very cute, in frigate birds the males bring the female a little present every time they return to the nest). FInally, there were lots of babies and juvenile frigate birds waiting for their moms to return with food.

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Then we went back to the boat, ate lunch, and headed to this really small island that was literally just a strip of white sand beach and a little bit of lava rock.

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We snorkeled around the little beach island, which was excellent snorkeling. Beautiful water, great clarity, colorful fish. The beach on the island was also very nice and it was a loberia (which is essentially a nursery for sea lion pups) so there were tons of baby sea lions all over the island, some of which our guide said were only a month old. There were also lots of mom and baby sea lion pairs that were drinking milk. It was very cute.

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Thursday we slept in and stayed around the hotel all day. Our host offered us a free trip to Floreana because of the whole mess with the Isabella tour guide, but we were pretty set on having a calm relaxing day on the main island. I spent the day editing photos and packing up my stuff into a single backpacking backpack and tiny backpack to bring to Brazil for the rest of my travels so my parents could take everything else home.

Friday, we headed to the airport. On the way we stopped at another little beach that had more flamingos in its lagoon and saw a bunch of these poisonous trees and some other new bird species. Then we flew back to Quito and went to our hotel. We spent the rest of the evening enjoying eachother’s company and I repacked my stuff a little bit.

Then it was off to the airport at 3 in the morning since the airport is so far from the city and since its new there are no hotels near it. Dealing with the airport was a bit hectic, lots of people, lots of slight disorganized-ness. Now I’m in the Panama City Airport, waiting for my flight to Manaus, but unfortunately I have an 8 hour layover here so I’ll be here a while. I’m a bit nervous because they forced me to check my backpacking backpack and I feel like they’ll lose it since I have such a long layover, so here’s to really hoping they don’t. Anyhu, this will be my last post in the Ecuador section! A bit sad but exciting too.

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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.

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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.

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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. (http://www.eltiempo.com.ec/noticias-cuenca/138507-compadres-abren-el-carnaval-en-cuenca/)

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.

carnavaldollsdancing groupespuma

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.

christianfrailes

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.

coralbeach

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.

buildingscanar

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.

evamamamichi2

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.

ingapirca

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.

fruitmarketcanar

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.

pintoneswithyolanda

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.

sansebasbreakfast

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.

graffitialongsteps

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.

gironwaterfall2

gironwaterfall1

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.

minetunnel

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.

zarumabuildings2 zarumabuildings

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuenca: first month

Ok, I’m very sorry about how overdue this post is. I’ve just been so busy between lots of classwork and trying to see as much of this country as possible in the short time I’m here, so sitting for hours editing photos (which takes forever on this computer) and writing up little things has just plummeted on my priority list. Also this post is going to be a lot less detailed than the past ones and from now on they will probably be less detailed like this one, since many of my days are essentially the same… 3 hours of class in the morning, going home for lunch in the middle of the day and then afternoon class (either Biodiversity or Culture) every Monday-Thursday, and then a big pile of homework and studying in the evening.

To start off with, I got wifi finally! I’ve had it for a couple weeks now and its so convenient. You never know how much you’ll miss something until you no longer have it. Also, I just want to reiterate again how much I love my study abroad group, everyone is just the best.

 Oh also, this is going to probably be kindof out of order chronologically, but oh well.

Ok so since my last post, i’ve had 4 different volunteer shifts at the zoo. The first week we just followed the zookeepers around and watched them feed animals so that we would know how to do it. It wasn’t the most exciting thing honestly, but it was still kindof cool.

hungryandeanbear

The second shift was much more eventful. We got there and chopped up all the fruit for all of the fruit eating animals (its a lot of fruit). Then we got to play with the tapirs because the tapirs are in an enclosure right next to zookeeper/nutrition area, so they’re essentially like little zoo pets because we can go in their cage and play with them. It was really fun and they’re super sweet animals. When you rub their bellies they roll over like a doggy…but i got covered in tapir snot and slobber.Then we split into groups to feed the animals in different areas of the zoo. My partner and I got to feed all of the monkeys, some of the macaws, and the turtles. It was really fun because we got to go into all of the cages and the monkeys were so sweet and interactive. The third day of our volunteering was when we cleaned cages. It was a little gross, not going to lie. We had to go into the fox cage, while the foxes were still in there and pick up all of the rotten meat that they don’t eat. These foxes are really picky eaters, so there was TONS of rotten meat from months ago. All the meat was covered in weird beetles and maggots, oh and I had to pick up a full dead cat that they refused to eat. It was still cool to be inside of the fox cage with the foxes running around us. Then we had to scrub out all of the duck ponds and the pond in the llama cage, but it was worth it because we got to play with a little deer.

 Today was our 4th volunteer shift. It was disgusting. We cleaned out the pond in the alligator cage (with the alligators crawling around the cage). Then we washed and chopped up rotten fish and horse for the carnivorous animals. There were blood and guts everywhere… It was so gross.

So awhile ago, the first weekend after my last post, was really great. We went to Baños de Cuenca, the same area that I had previously gone to with my host family, but we paid $3 each and got to spend the whole day by pools. They had 2 different hot spring pools that were different temperatures and then one cold pool that had 2 water slides going into it. So we played around on the waterslides for the day and soaked in the sulfurous but very warm water.

 banosslide

Then Sunday, I went to the countryside with my family again, but this time we went to a different countryside, where they have a house right by a little town, and their son has a horse. It was really nice and tranquil. Then in the evening, I went with my host mom to her sisters house where they were having a big family gathering/family bingo night (which they do once a month). It was super fun, particularly since one of the other students is living with one of my host moms sisters, so she was there too. I even won a little necklace in the bingo games.

 leoniebingo

A couple weeks ago was alright. We had to cook a traditional ecuadorian dish that we were assigned to. I got assigned Bolones con verde y queso (which is balls of ground up cheese and green plantains fried) and Aji (basically Ecuadorian salsa). The aji turned out delicious, but the bolones were very dry. It was fun though because everyone brought food and there was even Cuy (guinea pig), which I actually tried and its wasn’t too terrible.

 foodpartay

mayrawithcuy

On Wednesday night, we went to a salsa club at a discoteca and salsa danced a bit. That was fun.

We also got to go into the Quarantine area at the zoo with our biology class. It was really amazing because there were lions inside, as one of the females recently has a baby. So she, the dad, and the cub were inside the quarantine area. The cages here are much more intimate and the lions were literally right against the gate so we got to touch the mane of the daddy lion through the cage and play with the baby through the cage for a little bit. It was crazy to be so close to a lion.

cubondaddysback ciarralion

The weekend then was pretty chill and relaxed. We intended to go to Cajas, but that didn’t work out. So instead we climbed to the top of the bell tower on the main cathedral in Cuenca and saw all of Cuenca. Then we went to the river and relaxed along the river next to this group of  (very portland-like) youngsters who had a slackline and aerial silks and one of my classmates played around on the aerial silks.

aerialciarra2

Last week I was pretty stressed because I had to finish an entire spanish novel, write a paper about it in spanish, and I had my first spanish exam. So we didn’t really do much until Thursday and then we just went out to a pretty nice but cheap bar in the center.

Last Friday evening, we went to the opening night of a brand new discoteca. It really felt like a discoteca from the movies. You entered through a fancied up airplane that had bars and low seating inside, and then once you were past that, you got to these two huge dance floors that were different heights, but one looked down on the other. The ground was also lit up in different colors and the music was quite good.

Last Saturday was probably one of the best days yet. I went with 4 other students to Cajas National Park. We had tried going the previous weekend but it ended up being a disaster because we hadn’t quite planned it early enough and our guide was not being helpful, and none of the buses wanted to stop in Cajas because the buses that go to Cajas actually go to Guayaquil and you just get off in the middle, but they make a quarter of the amount of money. So we didn’t make it the previous week. But for some reason, last Saturday it was super easy to get on a bus and get to Cajas. Then we spent the day hiking among gorgeous native grasslands and lakes and a forest of paper trees (which look just like more papery manzanitas). It was so so beautiful, and so peaceful and fun.

 cajaslake papertreeforest emchristiancajas cajaspanorama

Last Sunday, we went to a Deportiva Cuenca soccer game. Cuenca tied Olmedo 1-1, but it was still super fun. People at soccer games here are quite vocal, so there was lots of yelling of malas palabras. I have a new celeb crush, as one of the players on the Cuenca team was pretty attractive and a good sport. I think they should also be getting better as currently they’re missing players since a few of their players got switched to other teams and new players from other countries are arriving soon.

soccerfield groupsoccergame

Wednesday we went on a very long walk all over the city for our Spanish class, which was exhausting but interesting because we got to see a lot of historical and cultural sites within the city. In the afternoon, we also went out to a museum for my culture class. I wish we could have gone through the museum a little more slowly, but it was still interesting. It was also one of my classmate, Christian’s, 21’st birthday. So we kindof went all out and spent the whole day celebrating. At lunch we went back to the Panama hat factory so he could buy a panama hat. Then, after class finished, we celebrated with a nice guitar shaped piñata.

 christianguitarbday

Then we had happy hour and dinner at our favorite restaurant, La Cigale. It was super fun but/and the drinks were incredibly strong, which I guess was appropriate since it was his 21st bday (even though it was already legal here for all of us to drink). Then we went to another bar that we knew had a very fancy massive cocktail that we all pitched in to get for Christian. Then we ended the evening at salsa dancing night at the same discoteca as before, where we put our salsa dancing skills to the test (because we’ve been taking a weekly salsa class).

Yesterday we woke up exhausted because of the festivities the night before. My group had a very long presentation during spanish class that I think we did pretty well on and the entire spanish school celebrated Christian’s birthday again. In the afternoon, we went back to the zoo for our Thursday bio class and began designing the refuges (enclosures) for our endangered species at the zoo, since thats a major part of our final project. I’m actually pretty excited about my groups refuge. Our endangered Marsupial Frogs are going to have the nicest little home.

Now, I’m just packing up stuff and washing clothes because we’re leaving tomorrow super early to go to the rainforest (actually we’re going to a cloud forest, but its right by the Amazon area). Lots to do before heading off..

Oh and happy valentines day to anyone who reads this 🙂

Cuenca: Days 9-12

To start off with here are a few photos of Banos that I didn’t post on the last post because I got internet before the photos were on my computer and wifi is so rare for me that I was eager to post rather than wait for the photos to download.

Theres a couple of Banos and then a couple of me and my host parents with traditional food (spumilla, the ice cream looking stuff, and banos empanadas

banoschurch banosdancerschurch meandhostmomspumilla hostparentsbanos

Also heres a couple photos of my family.. the first is (from the left), my host brother-in-law, my host sister, my host neice (6 yr old), my host neice (10 yr old), host sister-in-law, host mom, and host brother. missing from the photo are my other host brother and sister-in-law, their 9 yr old daughter, my host dad, and my host sister’s 1.5 year old daughter.

hostfamilyelcampo

and the second is 2 of my host-nieces (the 1.5 yr old and 6 yr old)

neicesrunningcampo

Day 9 was our first day of Spanish school when we finally learned what level we got placed in. I got placed in the highest level! Super proud of myself for that 🙂 But its going to be pretty hard, on the first day we got the syllabus and basically its going to be rapid grammar practice and then we’re going to spend most of the time reading books in spanish and discussing them and discussing other topics so that we can get fluent with conversation. Our class is super great, its just 3 of us, me max and ciarra, and so its really nice to have such 1 on 1 learning. The teacher is difficult and a bit strict and we get little punishments for speaking english, but she’s also really sweet. After morning class, we went and bought our spanish novels that we have to read and school supplies. It was really weird because you enter a bookstore and can’t actually look around, you just say the name of a book you want and they go and get it for you and then i asked for notebooks and had no choice in what kind I got and they gave me Barbie ones. Don’t know how I feel about that. Then I looked a bit through our first book and it is SO DIFFICULT, and its supposed to be the easiest of the books that we are going to read. Oh joy.

Then I went home for a tasty lunch and then returned to our school, Amauta, in the afternoon for a little tour of the city. We started out at the main square of Cuenca that has the old cathedral on one side and the new cathedral on the other.

newcathedralcuenca

Our guide talked a bit about the cathedrals, and while he was super sweet, he was also incredibly quiet so I cannot remember anything he said about the cathedrals besides the fact that the new cathedral (in the photo above) is actually not very old at all even though it looks old.Then we walked around the new cathedral a bit.

After that we went around through some marketplaces, including a pretty flower market, where we got some nice views of Cuenca and talked a bit more about the history of the city, which I also didn’t hear.

topofbluecuencachurch colorfuldollfaces

Finally, we finished the tour at the Panama hat museum. Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador, even though they’re called Panama hats. They’re just called that because the workers on the construction of the Panama Canal wore the hats from Ecuador so they got that name. We learned about how they are made and then played around a bit trying on different hats and taking photos.

groupphotopanamahats

After the tour I headed back home for dinner. In the evening, I went over to one of my classmates who lives nearby’s house to use her wifi and chitchat.

Day 10, we had another morning of Spanish class which was fun but difficult (its 2.5 hours of class every morning). In the afternoon, we had our first Biology class. It wasn’t terribly exciting that day because we were just reviewing what we would eventually be doing and introducing ourselves but our professor is super friendly and knowledgeable so that will be fun.

Biology class finished early and so we hung around the top floor of our spanish school which had a nice rooftop sort of view.

viewfromamauta

After than we had icecream and then I headed home for dinner. I was so exhausted that I ended up falling asleep as soon as I got home around 7 and only woke up once for dinner before falling back asleep.

Day 11, another morning of Spanish class. Then I went home for lunch and then in the afternoon we had an orientation of how to get by bus/taxi to our volunteering job. I am working at the zoo with 5 other people so we headed that way. We took 2 taxis there and our taxi made it there easily because we had the student guide in our car. We waited around in the parking lot (which was all dirt road, not paved, and very small, not at all like the US zoos) on top of the mountain that the zoo is on and looked at the view.

viewfromamaru

Thankfully the view was beautiful because the other taxi ended up getting very lost and took almost an hour to find it. When they finally arrived, it was pouring rain so we couldn’t tour around much but the orientation was mostly on just how to get to the zoo. Then we turned around (with garbage bags as raincoats because some of us didn’t have raincoats), and hiked/took the bus back into town.

Once we got back much later than we were supposed to, the entire group of us went to happy hour at the same bar, Wunderbar, that we had gone to a few nights prior. It was very fun and drinks were nice and cheap. Then we all headed to our professors apartment for “family night” and we basically just all cooked together and made spaghetti with 2 homemade sauces, pesto and bolognese and a nice salad and then hung around for a long while and talked and caught up. It was really really nice and we’re going to do a “family night” every Wednesday night from now on. I’m so happy with our group of students, everyone is just fitting so nicely together.

Then we were planning on going to Salsa night at a discoteca but by the time we finally left the house, it was so late that I just headed home because I still had a bit of homework.

Day 12, we had another morning of Spanish class. We did almost no grammar and spent most of the time just talking in Spanish which is super helpful. Our professor also brought us really tasty plums from her house, which was really sweet. We didn’t have a break and instead finished class a little early and had a huge icebreaker with all the people who work at amauta, all of us students, and a bunch more university students from the local university that are studying to be spanish teachers. Then we all ate homemade tamales together for lunch and talked amongst big groups of us. The university students at our table were so so sweet and friendly and eager to tell us all the bars and discotecas we had to go to, and one of them works at a discoteca so he offered that we could go there for free if we called him beforehand. Then instead of going home for lunch, I stayed back with a few other students, bought cheap galoshes for working at the zoo and wandered around the center of the city a bit.

Then we all met up and took a bus to the zoo because biology class on Thursday afternoons is at the zoo. We finally got to actually tour around the zoo since it was sunny and our teacher spent the whole day just showing us around the zoo since he technically owns/manages/lives at the zoo with his wife. It really is incredibly different than zoos in the US. First off its on the side of a pretty steep mountain and the entire thing is vertical. There really isn’t a single trail around the zoo that is flat, the entire thing just goes up the side of the mountain. Second off, its not crazy tourist-y, like in the US. The entire time we were there, there was only one other couple with a kid (although we were also visiting late on a Thursday). Its more of a conservation center. Basically they get animals that are confiscated by police, taken from other zoos because they were sick or treated badly, taken from circuses, or called in by people who found them on their property. They get 350 animals a year brought in and the zoo has 2 parts. Theres one half that is all the animals that are either too badly injured to survive in the wild or are too accustomed to humans to survive in the wild and this is the part that people get to visit. Its huge and all the animals are so fun and interesting. Then theres the second half that is all the conservation part that people can’t see, where a lot of the animals are and these are the ones that have a chance to be returned to the wild or are being evaluated. This day we just got to see the normal part. It was crazy, at the lion part, they have 6 lions (4 female, 2 male) and at one point they all got territorial and active at once and all stood at the edges of their respective cliffs and starting roaring all together. We saw lots more animals too. It was a fun biology class.

Then I headed back home to rest a bit because my tummy wasn’t feeling too great. It was a nice tranquil evening and my 6 yr old host neice made me play dolls with her… needless to say, i’m not very good at playing with dolls in spanish. Not only because its hard to speak spanish so normally but also because I cannot remember for the life of me how to play with dolls. Then she had a sleepover at our house which she was very excited about.

Ecuador: Days 1-9

This is going to be such a huge post because I haven’t had down time yet until just recently and my house here doesn’t have wifi and the wifi at our spanish school only sometimes works so basically heres 1.5 weeks worth of stuff…

So getting through security and all the normal airline processes were very simple in Managua.. There was a brief point where the person giving me my boarding passes said I either needed a visa or plane ticket out of Ecuador in order to get into Ecuador, but I explained how I was getting a student visa once I got there and it was all sorted out. Security was a breeze as the only thing they make you take off is your shoes and you have to put your computer in the same bucket as your shoes but thats it. They didn’t have any restrictions on liquids or need to have them in a ziplock bag in a container to go through security. Unfortunately, my day got kindof filled with layovers. Because security was such a breeze, I sat around in the airport with no wifi. Then I had a 3+ hour layover in Panama city where there was very spotty wifi which I eventually just deemed useless. The flight to Quito was very quick and easy though and they even had complimentary alcoholic beverages (multiple types of wine and hard alcohol). I guess only in south america! I arrived about 45 minutes before everyone else so once they got in we all loaded into a bus to drive all the way from the airport to the city center (about an hour). It was a pretty winding road and bumpy but from what little I could see from the bus, it seemed quite pretty. It was fun to be in a big group of students all together again. Theres only 15 of us and everyone is super friendly so it will be really great. We got to the hotel super late and wandered around it, checking out everyone’s rooms. It is such a beautiful hotel. Its a remodeled old house and all the rooms have different themes in terms of how the walls are painted and the painting are beautiful and they’re all super spacious rooms with very plush bedding. So then we crashed because it was 2 in the morning.

So day 1 in Ecuador!! It seemed like I had a continuous headache for the first few days because the elevation is so high (>9000 ft) and I was feeling fairly lightheaded and physically exhausted, but that seems to be passing now that i’m aclimating a bit. I woke up in the morning thinking that my roommate in our hotel was taking a shower. Turns out she was still asleep and that actually the ceiling above our bathroom was leaking MASSIVE amounts of water, basically enough to sound like a continuous shower. I went to breakfast and alerted someone who said we could change rooms and while we were eating in the kitchen right below our room, little drips started coming down from the ceiling there. Within 15 minutes, it was like a shower coming down from that ceiling too. But they switched us into an even nicer room and eventually got the water leakage under control. Still don’t know what happened, but it wasn’t a big deal. Then we went to an Ecuadorian history museum that was filled with pottery and artifacts from era after era of ecuadorian civilizations.

 quitoculturemuseum

After lunch we wandered around 2 different handicraft markets that were filled with beautifully colored textiles and souvenirs and other art things. I made a mental list of all the things I may want to go back and get and I bought (and bartered for!) a pair of overalls that are made out of the traditional textile fabric which I’m pretty happy about.quitomarket

Then we had a bit of a siesta time, so I sat in the room and listened to the hummingbirds outside my window. After some researching, because I didn’t have a birdbook yet, I decided it was a Sparkling Violetear. There was also a dove on its nest literally 2 feet away from our window so that was quite cute.

In the evening after dinner we sat around the lounge area and played a pictionary/illustration type game but using spanish only and realized how much we really needed to improve our spanish. It was really fun though and I love being in a group of students who all seem to enjoy playing games because I feel like usually I really want to play a game and no one else does so its sad, but here everyone wants to play games and its just so fun.

We woke up day 2 in Ecuador and went on a city tour, part walking part bus, of Quito. We started off by going to the enormous church that Quito is so famous for. It was so so beautiful inside. My camera could not capture even remotely how beautiful it was. There were stained glass windows everywhere and there was colorful light everywhere and it was huge and incredible.

 outsideofquitogothicchurch

insidequitogothicchurch

Then we drove around through the old part of town (the part that got Quito designated a UNESCO world heritage site) and stopped by the political square area of town. Supposedly in the old part of Quito there is a cathedral/iglesia on every block and that is so true and for a long stretch we went in all of them. They were all so different and pretty in their own way. There was one that is considered to be the most beautiful church in all of south america. It is huge and all of the surfaces are covered in gold/gold plate so that was pretty remarkable. I got one photo before I was notified that cameras were not allowed so this photo does not necessarily do the church justice.

insidegoldchurch

We walked around some more of the old part of town, visiting a few more squares and churches and went by the presidents office where he normally comes out to say hello to passerby but currently he is traveling around the country campaigning for other politicians in his party because elections here are coming up.

 viewfromchurch

Then we got in the bus and drove up to the top of this very tall hill in Quito that has a massive statue of the virgin Mary looking over the city (kindof like the one of Jesus in Rio). We got to climb up to the top of the statue and look out at the view. It was really incredible, you could see Quito in all directions.

virginmaryoverquito panoramicviewfromvirginmary

Then we went back to the hotel and after lunch I went on a hunt for a birdbook. It was actually quite difficult. The first bookstore didn’t have one, the second bookstore had one for $72 and so I finally found a used bookstore that had one for $20 so I got that one. It was smaller though and not quite as detailed but at least it wasn’t $72. Then I took a nice drowsy nap. Right after I woke up we had a 2 hour lecture from this American-turned-Ecuadorian activist. It was really great and WOW I learned a lot. Basically she is a radical super liberal left-y who is not at all afraid to be “objective” in terms of her political opinions. She essentially went through Ecuador’s entire modern history while simultaneously teaching us about other countries histories as well. It was fascinating and made me really skeptical of their current president. Actually she was so liberal that it made me skeptical of politics in general and every politician I’ve ever heard about. But it was really great and definitely got the wheels in my head turning and she was so crazy and enthusiastic that it kept us all on our toes. At night we all went out together to a bar to celebrate being in Ecuador and then came back to the hotel to play more games. So much fun.

Day 3 here we piled into a bus and went to a museum at the house of Guayasamin, a famous artist who is very renowned especially in Ecuador. We took a tour and watched a movie to learn about his life and art. His art is really really incredible and a really interesting style, kindof Pablo Picasso-esque.

Next we headed off to the “middle of the world”. Basically its just the equator, but its the highest and most accessible point on the equator and I missed the part where the guide explained exactly why that spot got to be called the middle of the world rather than other points on the Equator. Our guide here did a bunch of demonstrations of how water spins a different direction depending on whether you’re north or south of the equator, even by just a tiny bit. Then we did a demonstration showing how hard it is to balance on the equatorial line. And then we did a demonstration showing how much weaker we are when we’re on the equatorial line versus just a couple feet north/south of it.

 equatorline

Then we drove to this place called El Crater, which was a really beautiful restaurant looking over this valley that was really pretty. They also had alpacas grazing on their lawn which was quite cute.

alpacaelcrater viewfromelcrater

Then we drove a couple hours over to Mindo, a cloud forest with wonderful birds and butterflies. We stayed at this cute little hosteria that had a ton of hummingbird feeders so that was really exciting for me. But they were all really hard to identify because theres so many hummingbird species in Ecuador and so many of them look really alike.

friendlyhummermindo

We went on an evening walk and then went into their butterfly preserve where they’re breeding butterflies to put back in the wild. There were so many species of butterflies and they were landing all over everyone.

ciarrabutterfly

Day 4 I woke up early to go watch birdies and then they didn’t come out until it was time to head off on a hike so that was sad. We started a hike that was supposed to be only a couple miles to a waterfall but a lot of the hike relied on little pully zipline carts to pull you across valleys and rivers. The first little pully cart across a river worked just fine.

ziplinepullycart

However, the second pully cart, which went over a massive valley was broken so we either had the option of waiting 1.5 hours for the cart to be fixed or hiking 1.5 hours into the waterfall. We didn’t trust that it would actually only take 1.5 hours for it to be fixed so we decided to hike. It was a really tough hike, with lots of huge hikes up and then down and then up and then down. But it was really beautiful and really a fun hike too. We got to the waterfall and swam around in a little swimming hole slightly down river from it. It was really fun but freezing cold. When we finally decided to head back, the pully cart still wasn’t working so we had to hike the 1.5 hrs back too. Needless to say, it was a lot harder going back and it started raining too but we eventually made it back (3 hours later than planned) and had a nice tasty lunch.

everyonebridgewaterfallhike

Then we piled back into the bus and went back to our hotel in Quito. I took a really nice bath and we spent the evening and night playing more games and packing up our stuff to leave the next morning.

Day 5, we left the hotel early in the morning to head to the airport. Airport security in Ecuador is even more relaxed, and you didn’t have to take off your shoes or take your computer out…very different than the US. The flight was fast but with lots of turbulence. We arrive in Cuenca and were immediately paired with our families and whisked away. My host family is really just the sweetest family. My host mom was at the airport with her sister, whose family is also hosting an LC student, and they drove us home. She showed me my room, which is really nice and I started unpacking. While I was unpacking, it was almost lunch time and so the entire family came over for lunch, because in Ecuador its a tradition to spend lunch with your family because its the most important meal here. My host mom’s grandchildren immediately ran into my room and were so eager to talk to me and meet me and all gave me hugs. They are all so adorable. Theres a 9 year old girl, a 7 year old girl, and a 1.5 year old girl (and a 10 year old who I haven’t met yet). At lunch, my host dad got home and was so eager to learn about me and my life. I technically only live with my host mom and dad but they have 3 older children who all live in the area and all 3 children have kids. Since my host parents don’t work during the day, the youngest granddaughter stays with them until the other grandchildren are out of school and then they come over too, so they are always around which is really fun. Then in the evening me, my host parents, and their grandchildren (so I guess technically my host-nieces?) went on a little drive around the city so they could show me Cuenca and then we went to a Mirador (view point) that looked down on the entire city. It was so beautiful but I unfortunately forgot my camera at home.

Then it was back to the house to sleep and chit chat. Really, my host family is so wonderful. They make really wonderful food (which I was really scared about), and they’re super friendly and open about everything and are constantly eager to make sure I’m happy about everything, all while not being overbearing and giving me my independence. Its perfect.

Then Day 6, my host dad drove me to the school I’m going to, Amauta, in the morning. We all took placement tests to see which of the four levels of Spanish classes we should take. It was a really really difficult test, mostly because the grammar part was so hard. There were basically 15 pages of grammar stuff, half of which I hadn’t ever learned, and another quarter of which I’ve completely forgot. Then we went to a phone store as a group and some of us got some funky ecuadorian phones. I tried to get a SIM card for my iphone, but unfortunately all US phones are locked here and they can’t unlock them so I had to just buy the cheapest phone they had. Then I went back home for lunch with my whole family.

After lunch we went back to school and got paired up with university students who showed us how to take the buses to and from our host family’s houses and how to walk there as well. My house is really far from the school, and right next to a bus stop for a bus that takes you right into the center of town so I’ll probably take the bus every day (especially since its only 25 cents). My house is also right by 3 other students houses, so its very convenient. The university student who showed me and one of my friends who lives by my house around was really sweet. She told us all the best places to go in the city. It was surprising though because she was already married with a 3 year old daughter and it seemed like it was perfectly normal.

Then those who had phones walked around a little bit while everyone who hadn’t gotten a phone got one. Cuenca is SUCH a beautiful city. The buildings are beautiful, everything is very clean, transportation is easy, and there are 4 rivers that go throughout the city.

In the evening, I met up with the other 3 students who live right by me and we took a taxi into the city center to our professors apartment where we met up with everyone else. Then we all went out to the main nightlife street, Calle Larga, and relaxed at a bar there. We were planning on going to another bar but it got pretty late and it started raining so we just took a cab back home. Taking cabs here is so simple and really cheap ($3 max, which is even less when you’re splitting it 4 ways).

Day 7, I finally got to sleep in a little bit. I had a simple, typical breakfast of bread, juice and instant coffee. The coffee here is so weird. Basically they heat up milk, pour you a cup of hot milk (which is also unpasteurized) and then you put a spoonful of coffee powder in it. I don’t even drink coffee ususally, but my family keeps serving me it, so I keep drinking it and when I do drink coffee I like it with a lot of milk so I guess its perfect. Then I met up with Emilie, the girl who lives right by me and we took the bus into the center of town where we met up with another student. We wandered around a bit, while it was unfortunately raining (but not cold), and went in a couple churches and markets and then walked along the river. I wanted to take photos but my camera battery was dead 😦

Then I headed back home for lunch with my family which was particularly delicious. After lunch my family took me for a drive all over the place. We went to Banos Cuenca which is a little town outside of Cuenca that has volcanic hot springs and so there are lots of little hotel type places that have built a tourist industry around the hotsprings. We didn’t go in any, but my family toured me around them and showed me where the best one is and told me that this was where I had to return with my classmates. Then we went up into the town of Banos, where they were having a religious festival. There was lots and lots of dancing in traditional outfits and my host mom bought me all the typical kinds of street food that Banos has and chose the best kinds for me to try, and they were all very very delicious.

In the evening, first I watched a movie with my host parents in spanish that I had already seen in english. It was very cute and I think watching movies is going to be the way to go. Then I met up with a few of the other students and we went to a very cute bar in the center of town where we met up with one of their university student tour guides who is from Cuenca and he showed us a couple other good cheap bars and told us about Cuenca and whatnot. It was a really nice and calm evening.

Day 8, I woke up very tired because they were having a huge multi-day birthday party on the street one street over from my house alllll night and then I was woken up by fireworks right outside of my house at 6 in the morning and honking cars for the current political campaigns. Then the entire family met up, so I got to meet the only grandchild who I haven’t met yet who was very sweet and very intelligent. Then we all went out to el Campo (the countryside). Basically, its kind of a part of the culture here to have a house in the city and a house in the country where you go on weekends. This weekend we went to a little town 1.5 hours south of Cuenca where my host sister recently bought land to build a house and we went there to survey the land and hire people to begin cleaning it up so they can build their house. It was a little boring because it was multiple hours sitting in the sun while everyone argued in very rapid spanish about how to best go about constructing a house/pool. Then we went to the house that they already have there, which was only 1 km away, and ate mangos and yucca and bread while everyone spoke in more rapid spanish.

We eventually got home and watched another movie and then I passed out because my brain was so exhausted from being bombarded with rapid spanish all day.

I have to say, its really really hard not having wifi, particularly since I’m the only student who doesn’t have it and since using phones here is pretty expensive, everyones been communicating on the internet. But, I think it will be good for me to only get on at internet cafes when I really need it. Also my host family is so amazing, that it makes up for it in so many ways and my mom calls me mija (mi hija= my daughter) which is really cute, so that makes me happy too.