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Travelogue: Three weeks in the Sierra

10 May

Below is a summary of our recent travel experiences in the Ecuadorian Sierra. We spent nearly three weeks traveling in Ecuador’s mountain region with both family and friends in December and January. It started off as a 10 day event in early January with some friends visiting from the US. But then Tom’s brother came in for a visit in December so we decided to do a family trip to Cuenca for Christmas followed by some other sightseeing to show him more of Ecuador.

All of this merged into a 3-week hiatus for us, which to be honest, was a too long for us to be away, especially with a 2 year-old in tow and me in the throes of morning sickness (we discovered I was pregnant with baby #2 on Christmas while in Cuenca). Here’s what we did and where we stayed:

Cuenca

We started by driving from Crucita to Cuenca which we broke into 2 days for our son Kai’s sanity as well as our own. The drive to Guayaquil was roughly four hours after multiple stops/bathroom breaks. The next day was another 5 or so hours with a spectacular drive through Cajas National Park.  Tom’s parents met us in Cuenca and instead of driving, they opted to take the Manta Express to Guayaquil and then from there flew to Cuenca, enjoying their 50% discount on national flights, one of the perks of being a 65+ Ecuadorian resident. In Cuenca, we had enjoyable stay at Hostal Macondo in Old Town. We spent several days there, including over Christmas. The countless Christmas parades which passed through downtown Cuenca made it a very colorful and entertaining place to be.

Cuenca is known for its colorful Christmas parades, often lasting 8 hours or more.

 

We did the typical Cuenca tourist circuit, starting with a city tour from a double decker bus as a means of getting oriented. We also visited a number of colonial churches, the Pumapungo ruins and gardens, spent lots of time walking the downtown area and along the Rio Tomebamba, enjoyed the plethora of dining options, and spent a luxurious evening at the Piedra de Agua hot springs and spa (ok, Tom and I stayed home with a cranky toddler who refused to go to sleep while the others enjoyed the spa!). We also did a day trip to Chordeleg, known for its silver jewelry. We spent another day in Cajas National Park, a place we’d definitely like to explore more in the future.

Beautiful, rugged, [and cold!] Cajas National Park

Brrrr…Kai has never worn so much clothing! At Tres Cruces pass in Cajas, the westernmost point of the continental divide of South America.

 

Cuenca certainly lived up to its reputation for being an extremely pretty, clean and well-kept city, far exceeding all other large (and small) cities we’ve encountered thus far in Ecuador.

The Rio Tomebamba, one of Cuenca’s four rivers.

 

We were particularly fascinated by the posses of highly efficient street cleaners power washing the streets immediately following each parade. Very impressive, especially coming from a small fishing village!  We thoroughly enjoyed Cuenca but the cold, rainy nights and the traffic congestion along the narrow, colonial streets definitely made us appreciative of quiet, warm evenings swinging in hammocks and drinking in the fresh ocean breeze. What can  I say? I enjoy visiting the mountains but love living on the beach!

 

Next stop: Baños

Tom’s parents decided to keep heading south towards Loja while Tom, his brother Cruce and I made our way north to stay in Baños. Tom and I have been to Baños many times and thought Cruce would enjoy spending a couple of nights there before returning to Quito and then back to the US. We stayed at the popular Hostal Chimenea, a very nice place, especially considering the price: only $8.50 per person for a room with private bath!  From the  terrace where inexpensive breakfast options are served, there are 360 degree views of the town and waterfall.

Hostal Chimenea is definitely a great bargain in Banos.

View of the waterfall from the hotel terrace.

 

Baños has LOTS to do packed into a small area and we fit in as much as we could including visiting hot springs, getting [another] massage, crossing beautiful gorges via “tarabitas” (cable cars) and ziplines, visiting the St. Martin zoo, hiking up to miradores to get a bird’s eye view of the town, renting one of the silly go carts that plague the streets of Baños and which we discovered during a 3-point turn did not have reverse, visited one of the children’s parks which Kai loved to death, gorged ourselves on the plethora of international dining options which we sorely miss at times in our small beach town, and drank lots of yummy sugar cane juice.

View from our cable car or “tarabita” of a waterfall.

One of many sugar cane stands in Baños selling freshly pressed cane juice and lots of sugary treats.

 

And of course, we drove our truck up the emergency evacuation road one evening in the hopes of seeing Volcano Tuguarahua doing what it does best. Unfortunately, we had thick cloud cover and didn’t see much but a plume of smoke during one fleeting moment.

Thrill-seekers pay to see the infamous volcano spewing lava at night.

 

Quito

While in Quito we often stay at Posada del Maple Bed and Breakfast which by the way if you mention you learned about them from our website you’ll [*supposedly*] receive a 10% discount on your stay. In Quito we picked up our friends visiting from Duluth, Minnesota.  John is Tom’s mountaineering buddy and this year his wife, Becky and 1.5 year old daughter also made the trip. We spent our first day with them going up the teleferico (gondola) and then we drove to one of my favorite places to splurge in Ecuador: Papallacta.

Riding the gondola (“teleferico”) up to 4050 m (13,290 ft) for spectacular views of the city and surrounding volcanoes.

 

Papallacta

Papallacta is a small, high altitude village about 2 1/2 hours southeast from Quito and less than 40 miles from the new Quito airport. It is located at an elevation of 3300 meters (nearly 11,000 ft) and is situated along the watershed boundary that separates the Ecuadorian Sierra (or mountainous region) from the Oriente (the eastern, rainforest region). The town has become well-known because of its fabulous hot spring environment. Imagine soaking in a steaming mineral bath surrounded by towering mountains cloaked in cloud forests teeming with orchids and hummingbirds. Um, yeah.

Hot spring heaven at Termas de Papallacta.

Tom and Kai enjoy a pleasant afternoon hike through cloud forest in Papallacta.

 

There are multiple hotels in town boasting hot spring pools but honestly, if possible, it is worth the $150 splurge to stay at Termas de Papallacta which has lovely guest cabins tucked away in gardens that surround semi-private hot spring baths. The resort has a nice (although overpriced) restaurant and full spa. A one-hour, full body massage is $50.  The resort also has very nice public hot springs with lots of pools of varying temperatures. This is a nice option for folks who want the atmosphere without the price (only $7.50 pp for an all-day admission). If possible, come mid-week when you are likely to nearly have the place to yourself.

 

Cayambe

From Papallacta we traveled to Cayambe where we stayed at Hacienda Guachala, the oldest hacienda in Ecuador, founded in 1530.

Guachala is the country’s oldest hacienda.

 

While we appreciated the rich colonial history of the hacienda, we honestly were not impressed by the accommodations (~$80/night) which were dark, very musty and reeked of diesel that is used to polish the wood floors )which also stain your socks black). This site was a stopping point for us as it served as the base camp to prep for Tom and John’s climb of Volcan Cayambe (elevation 5790 m or 19,000 ft).

Cayambe is the third highest mountain in Ecuador.

 

Mindo

While the guys were schlepping up nearly 7000 ft of vertical gain in ice and snow during a horrible windstorm, Becky, the kids and I visited tranquil Mindo. Mindo is a small town of ~3000 residents located in the Andean foothills, about 2 1/2 hours west of Quito. We stayed at Dragonfly Inn which was clean, comfortable and an excellent value ($27 single, $46 double). Kai loved watching the dozens of hummingbirds that swarmed the feeders all day long.

Mindo is a birdwatcher’s paradise with over 450 species, many of which are rare and/or endangered.

 

We also visited the El Quetzal chocolate factory where we participated in a “bean-to-bar” tour to learn about the artisanal process of chocolate-making ($5 pp). These daily tours (usually at 4pm) of course conclude with a sampling of a variety of chocolates, including ginger and spicy chili pepper. Yum. They also serve several homemade microbrews, including a chocolate stout.

Kai sampling chocolate at the El Quetzal Chocolate Factory.

 

Following our chocolate tour, we checked out Mindo’s famous “frog concert” which takes places nightly at the Mindo Lago Lodge at 6:30pm ($4.50 pp). The “show” is a guided night walk around a restored wetland ecosystem that is brimming with different frog species, as well as other interesting flora and fauna. Kai loved trekking through the forest in the dark, lighting up frogs, crickets, and spiders (and unappreciative tourists) with his flashlight beam. Definitely bring your own flashlight  as several people in our tour grumbled about not being able to see where they were walking.

The following day we went to the Butterfly Garden where we watched butterflies hatching from their cocoons, fed butterflies from our fingertips. and enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere of the garden where hundreds of butterflies flit from orchid to orchid.

Mindo’s butterfly garden is definitely a must for visiting Mindo.

 

Quisato (the “Real” Mitad del Mundo)

The guys came down from the mountain and somehow had the energy to offer to pick us up in Mindo. Our next stop was to be Otavalo but we made a brief stop at Quisato, a monument with an impressive sundial located exactly on the equator  in Cayambe. This site should not be confused with the much more celebrated (yet less accurate) “Mitad del Mundo” national landmark outside of Quito.

Quisato is a more accurate “Mitad del Mundo” than that of the more popular site outside of Quito.

 

Otavalo and Volcan Antisana

We arrived to Otavalo on a Thursday afternoon so that Tom and John could prep for another mountain; this time their target was Volcan Antisana, Ecuador’s fourth highest mountain at 5700 m (18, 700 ft). They left Friday afternoon to set up camp to start their arduous climb at midnight to take advantage of the snow staying hard before they descended the following morning to camp.

Tom and John on the summit of Volcan Antisana, the fourth highest mountain in Ecuador.

View of Volcan Cotopaxi from the summit of Antisana.

Resting after a challenging 8 hour ascent and descent

 

Again, while the guys were hard at work, Becky, the kids and I were enjoying the peaceful environment of our mountainside hostal, La Luna. This affordable hostal ($21 pp) is on the outskirts of Otavalo, away from the noise and crowds and with beautiful vistas of the surrounding countryside, including Volcanoes Imbabura and Cotacachi.  La Luna has a wonderful family-oriented atmosphere with a good (albeit simple) restaurant, an organic garden (and thus tasty, fresh salads), hammocks, board games, movies,  and large, very charismatic dogs.

View of the main guest house of La Luna, a wonderful place to stay when visiting the market in Otavalo.

View of Volcan Cotacachi from our hotel in Otavalo.

 

On Saturday morning, Becky and I went to Otavalo’s open air market, one of the largest in South America. Here you’ll find an inordinate and mind-numbing collection of trinkets, textiles, paintings, ceramics, woodwork, etc. etc. from all over the country. Saturdays are the busiest days, followed by Wednesdays but the market itself is open daily. Try to arrive early (before 9am) before all the tourist buses arrive and the prices go up. As in all Latin American markets, the vendors expect you to bargain and name their initial prices accordingly.

The Otavalo market is an almost dizzying experience that saturates all five senses.

Many Otavaleños have maintained much of their indigenous culture, including their native dress.

Kai and I peruse the colorful handicrafts in Otavalo.

 

The following day we visited Lagunas de Mojanda, three beautiful alpine lakes surrounded by volcanoes. Here we hung out and tried our luck with fishing from a hand reel.

Prepping the fishing line using freshly caught grubs.

No luck with the fishing but we had a nice time nonetheless.

 

Well, that concludes our travelogue. We had a great time sharing this beautiful country with friends and family but were nevertheless very glad to get home to peel off the layers of winter wear and to jump into the warm ocean!

Even though Ecuador is a small country (smaller than the state of Nevada!) it nevertheless seems so immense because of the richness and diversity of wonderful places to visit.

 

Ecuador’s New (and Old) Solutions for Trash Management

27 Apr

Trash on many of Ecuador’s beaches can be an unsightly issue, one which thankfully is being resolved to a large degree through a national-scale plastics recycling program that was implemented just one year ago. In fact, Ecuador was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for collecting  1.5 million plastic bottles in less than fifteen days!  Here is an article from April 24, 2013 about the successes of the newly created recycling program (Google should provide the option at the top of the page to translate the article to English).

Thank goodness for the new plastics recycling program to help keep plastics off the beaches in Ecuador.

 

Recycling here is not as organized as what people might be used to in their home country with specific bins that are collected separately from household trash. Here, the trash collectors rip open every bag of trash and separate the plastics while in transit between houses. Once we discovered this, we began to put our plastics in a separate bag to save them the trouble and mess. Here along this stretch of the coast, trash is collected by the municipality 2-3 times per week (depending on the location). Entrepreneurial types now also drive by in trucks and pay people by the kilo for their plastics.

The same goes for aluminum and steel. Multiple times per week you might hear a fellow in a truck, driving up and down the road, honking and yelling “chatarra, chatarra” which basically translates to “metal junk [plus old batteries].” They’ll buy steel cans, empty paint containers, old  appliances, you name it. The price isn’t too bad either (we received a dollar for a couple of old paint cans and an old fan the other day) so it motivates people to collect what they can find laying around to sell it as a supplemental source of income. Instead of being recycled per se, these scrap items are typically reworked into new products, a more direct and efficient use of the metals.

House-to-house collection and payment for metal junk or “chatarra” is Ecuador’s current solution to metals recycling.

 

Up until the last 10 years or less, plastic bottles were a rarity in Ecuador (and Latin America). Instead people purchased their sodas out of returnable glass bottles, just like back in the US up until the 1960s or 1970s. It’s interesting to note how the culture of plastic is more or less just arriving to Ecuador while in other countries, like the US, there is a subtle, but noticeable shift away from plastics and back towards glass due to human safety and environmental concerns.

Beer in Ecuador is still predominantly sold off the back of trucks by the “jaba” (pronounced “hah-bah”). Jabas are the sturdy plastic containers that hold twelve 22 oz glass beer bottles.

Pilsener, Ecuador’s national beer, can be bought for about $0.67 per  22 ouncer off the back of the beer truck.

 

Once you’ve emptied your jaba you take it back to the store where the owner will take your empties and replace your jaba with full bottles, usually priced at roughly a dollar per beer. Or if you catch the beer truck a full jaba will usually cost you about $8-$9. Note: Hang tight to your jaba because these cases alone will cost you $7 (or more) to replace. The national beer of Ecuador is Pilsener, although Brahma and Budwieser are becoming more common.

Sadly, more and more people are looking to the US-culture of drinking beer from a 12-oz glass container and these smaller-sized bottles are beginning to become popular among more elite Ecuadorians. Unfortunately, these smaller bottles are neither returnable nor recyclable (as of yet) and often the emptied bottles are abandoned haphazardly on the side of the street or on the beach by the unconcerned party-goers. Grrr..I hate that!

Without any monetary value associated with them, smaller beer bottles just get dumped.

 

Ecuador’s new recycling program for plastics might one day create the catalyst for an eventual glass recycling program. Like I mentioned in the previous blog post, it truly is fun to watch all the shifts that Ecuador has been making in a relatively short period of time.

I will end this post with an photo ode to the “22 ounce Pilsener and ceviche on the beach” experience. Come down and try it for yourself!

Nothing quite like enjoying a cold beer and a ceviche on the beach.

 

 

 

Ecuador’s Potential Continues to Grow… and Grow

19 Apr

It has been truly amazing to watch all the changes that have taken place in Ecuador since Tom and I first set foot here in 2005 to visit the Galapagos. We returned the following year for a water quality sampling expedition in the highlands which ended with a very spontaneous decision to purchase what would later become our home in Crucita.

Most notably, the changes we have witnessed here have involved major infrastructural improvements such as roads and bridges. For example, the highway connecting Crucita to the major city of Portoviejo was a dusty two-land washboard road, full of enormous potholes and a nightmare to drive at night. Today, it is a smooth (relatively speaking) four-lane highway with a median containing large street lamps.

The bridge connecting Bahia to San Vicente was another enormous project that has vastly improved access to growing towns such as Canoa. We remember the days when we would cross the bay by passenger ferry for 10 cents (which is still an option for crossing if you don’t have a vehicle–you can catch a taxi or mototaxi to your final destination on the other side).

Crossing the bay in 2009 with my father-in-law, Wally, on his first visit to Ecuador. Tom’s folks have since moved here as full-time residents.

 

Sometimes, if traveling with friends with a vehicle (this was before we could even dream of being able to afford our own vehicle!) we would have to wait, sometimes for a couple of hours, to get on the car ferry that transported vehicles to one side of the bay to the other.

The car ferry used to transport cars between Bahia and San Vicente.

 

Actually, we have rather fond memories from those days since we would use the wait time to hang out with friends, shop for tagua jewelry, and try exotic foods served by street vendors on the San Vicente side (avoid the grilled cow udder, by the way).

More large projects along the coast are in the works and are slated to begin sometime in the next year, including a marina on the far southern end of Crucita that will undoubtedly result in elevated tourism to the area (as well as real estate prices).

Rendering of the marina that is scheduled to be constructed at the southern end of Crucita

 

There are also plans (which are still very much under discussion as to the actual routes involved) for the creation of a major highway connect Bahia to Manta in less than 50 minutes, allowing faster access to Manta’s airport, which *one day* will receive direct international passenger flights. The new coastal highway will also include a much-needed bridge between Crucita and San Jacinto/San Clemente (get oriented to this region with our Maps page).

So the times, they are certainly a-changing.

And then the other day, my brother sends me a link to a CNET news article entitled, “Plotting the Next Silicon Valley–You’ll Never Guess Where.”

Rendering of the planned “City of Knowledge.”

 

This news story, dated March 26, 2013, is part 1 of a four-part series about the creation of  ”Yachay, a planned ‘City of Knowledge’  that the Correa administration hopes will one day compete and collaborate with Silicon Valley, South Korea, Japan, and the other great innovation centers of the world.” It is a controversial project with many critics and naysayers but the simple fact that it is actually in progress is amazing.

Here are links to all four parts of this story:

Part 1: Plotting the Next Silicon Valley–You’ll Never Guess Where

Part 2:  New Silicon Valley in the Andes: Promise and Paradox

Part 3:  Riding shotgun with the man behind an Andean Silicon Valley

Part 4: An Ecuadorian Silicon Valley: Pipeliine to the future or pipe dream?

 

We have enjoyed watching Ecuador’s projects come into fruition, especially those thought never to be possible. Who knows where this latter project will end up but it will be fascinating to watch how it unfolds over the coming years. The undoubted question is that Ecuador is determined to keeping progressing.

 

Carnaval!…Plus a Calendar of Major Holidays in Ecuador

13 Feb

Saturday (Feb 9) marked the beginning of Carnaval in Ecuador. Well, technically it began on Monday the 11th but since everybody likes a party the festivities unofficially began the weekend before.

Crucita’s quiet beaches become transformed during Carnaval (photo taken by our friend Jeff here in Crucita).

 

A nice introduction to Ecuadorian traditions of Carnaval can be found HERE. To summarize, there are often parades, bands, hoards of  children and adults alike armed with water guns, water balloons, buckets of water and cans of colored spray foam. Some other misfits unfortunately may also have eggs and flour on hand.

If you are walking outside during busy Carnaval festivities, there is the likelihood of being bombarded with one of more of these materials. Try your best to take it in stride or better yet prepare yourself with your own arsenal and join the fun….Or stay inside, especially in the evening hours when the raucous partying is in full tilt.

Being sprayed with water or foam is part of the Carnaval experience (photo from La Hora).

 

Our friends’ six-year old son, Morgan, clearly loves the “spraying-random-people-with-foam” tradition.

 

 

It seems like there is always a reason to throw a party here but officially there are nine national holidays. There are additional local holidays but the ones provided below are those specified by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism.

Calendar of 2013 National Holidays (translated from the Ministry of Tourism website).

 

 

 

 

 

Sunset Pic

06 Feb

Tom, Kai and I and the dogs just came off the beach after an evening sunset stroll. It was so pretty and relaxing that I wanted to share a photo.

Tonight’s sunset

 

 

Where to Overnight Once the New Quito Airport Opens (February 20, 2013)

31 Jan

The new Quito airport becomes operational as of February 20, 2013. Apparently, the name will still be Mariscal Sucre International Airport (not Mitad del Mundo International as originally proposed) and the same airport code (UIO) will be maintained.

The new airport is a much improved version, with longer runways, far better clearance (as opposed to flying through the mountains and between multi-story buildings in the middle of the city!), and will be over 1300 feet lower in elevation.

The large drawback to the new airport, however, is that the location near Tababela northeast of Quito will require a minimum of an hour (and expect to roughly double that if traffic is heavy) to access the Mariscal, Quito’s popular tourist district. Given that many international departures and arrivals out of the airport occur in the early morning and late evening, respectively, passengers are often required to overnight in Quito. However, the inconvenient distance to the new airport from Quito may cause many travelers to consider finding a closer place to stay.

One closer option is a lovely and tranquil guest house located in Tumbaco, located roughly 40 minutes from the new airport (this is an estimate–the actual time it will take given traffic will only be known once the airport is actually open and should be considerably less once the roads are completed). The cottage sits on a large property owned by a British-Ecuadorian couple. Sylvia is a biologist, bird watcher, and has lived in Ecuador since 1978 with the first 12 years in the Galapagos, is fluent in Spanish, and has good knowledge of many of the national parks and reserves in the region. They have their own chickens, bees, avocados, lemons, etc.

Here is Sylvia’s description of her guest cottage:

For a relaxing stay just outside Quito, for a day, a week, a month – come and rent our self catering guest cottage on a four hectare property in the valley of Tumbaco. Bird watching from your terrace, over 30 species recorded – including tanagers, the giant hummingbird, vermilion flycatcher, scarlet-backed woodpecker and ringed kingfisher.

The cottage has a terrace, well equipped but small kitchen/sitting area with a working fire place, bedroom with two single beds, and bathroom with hot water. Provisions to make your own continental breakfast are supplied. Fresh farm eggs can be purchased. The guest house is equipped with Wifi.

Prices:

$20 single/$35 double per night

Discounts for longer stays

$100 single/$175 double for a week

$300 single/$400 double for a month (no breakfast supplied)

 

Bedroom with two single beds

Living area equipped with wi-fi

Well-equipped kitchenette

Bathroom with hot water

Patio area

Laundry service is available. They can help arrange for airport pick up and drop-offs with a long-time trusted driver. Sorry, no pets as they have 3 dogs.

For more information or to make a reservation, please contact the owner, Sylvia Harcourt via email: sharcourt [at] gmail [dot] com

 

An Easy Way to Travel from Guayaquil

04 Dec

When flying to Ecuador from another country you have two airport options: Fly into either Quito (airport code UIO) or Guayaquil (GYE).

To get to the central coast where we are located, we normally recommend flying into Quito and then taking a short (25-30 min) domestic flight to Manta (MEC).  Unfortunately, there are no domestic flights between Guayaquil and Manta so Quito is your only option if you want to fly.

However, over the years, we’ve had a number of friends and clients have trouble with the altitude of Quito which sits at 9,350 ft or 2800 m above sea level; one client even required brief hospitalization. So, if you think you might be susceptible to altitude sickness, your best bet if possible is to fly to Guayaquil.

If you do arrive to Guayaquil and want a safe, reliable, and inexpensive means of traveling to the central coast there is an express van service called the “Manta Express” that runs between  Manta (and Portoviejo) and Guayaquil.

One of the Manta Express vans (photo from www.mantaexpress.com)

 

Here are the Manta Express “need to knows”:

  • The service offers multiple trips each way daily, beginning as early as 5am and ending at 7:30pm.
  • The trip takes between 3 – 3.5 hours.
  • The cost is $10 per person or $8 each if you are aged 65+ with Ecuadorian residency.
  • Reservations at least 1 day ahead are generally necessary. Note: the folks at Manta Express only speak Spanish. The bilingual representative at the information booth at the Guayaquil airport can assist you in making your reservation. Another option is to use Google translate to send them your translated reservation details via their contact form on their website.
  • The van is  air-conditioned.
  • The van seats ten people comfortably. Leg room for the taller guys may be a little tight. Luggage is strapped to the top of the van and covered with a tarp.
  • The van typically makes one brief stop where passengers can use the restroom and grab a snack.

The vans have AC and are comfortable. Photo from www.mantaexpress.com

 

Here are the Manta Express office locations and phone numbers as dialed within Ecuador (visit this post for more details about calling Ecuador from abroad):

Guayaquil:

  • Blvd 9 de Octubre and Del Ejercito (Avenida 4) (near the Hotel Oro Verde of Guayaquil).
  • Landline: (04)2532027,  Cell phone: 0996333061  or  0994200289

 

Manta:

  • Malecón y Calle 19 at the Central Comercial Plaza Jocay (just past the museum)
  • Landline: (05)261-1016 / 261-0567, FAX: 261-1763,,  Cell: 0999025094 or 0985147384 or  0991563000

 

Portoviejo:

  • Pedro Gual y Garcia Moreno (Hotel Cabrera).
  • Landline: (05)2656621 Cell: 0993852655

 

The service also offers transfers to and from the Guayaquil airport. In many cases, they would take you to your final destination in Manta or Portoviejo if it’s not far from their office location.
 

Expat insights: What might go missing from your Ecuadorian pantry

26 Nov

A couple of years ago, a friend of ours here formed a weekly ladies get-together for the other 3 to 4 other “gringas” living here full-time in Crucita. Our group has grown in leaps in bounds as more expats continue to move into the area and has recently had women attending from the Manta area, San Jacinto and Canoa.  We now meet on the last Saturday of each month.  We eat lots of terrific food and do a white elephant gift exchange.

A roomful of great women at the most recent ladies get-together in Crucita

 

One of the many benefits of these get-togethers is learning from one another’s experiences as we all continually adapt to daily life as an expat here. One topic of conversion that often comes up is “if I had know I couldn’t find [xyz], then I would have stocked up and brought lots of [xyz] with me!”

Here's an example: Bring DMSO with you if you rely on it for joint pain.

 

I happened to host November’s get-together and thought since we had so many different expat women in the same room, it would be a great opportunity to come up with a list of regular household things that we “missed” here, either because they are unavailable or hard to find. Of course, if you are living in either Guayaquil or Quito you are less likely to miss as many of these items since there are far more shopping options to choose from. In our case though we provide here a spectrum of common household items not readily found in our area which is between Manta and Canoa.

Bring lots of baking soda if you're used to using it for cooking and cleaning!

 

We compiled these items into a list so that I can share them with YOU so that you’ll have the benefit of our collective experience and come better prepared! Of course, not all these items are shippable (e.g. “good ice cream”!) but at least you’ll come better prepared mentally :)

Don't expect to find many decaf options (for coffee, tea, AND soda)

 

Ok, here’s our master list:

  • Baking soda (only available in little bitty packets at pharmacies so don’t even bother looking in the baking aisle of a major grocery store). Baking powder, however, is available.
  • Horseradish (you can find wasabi in a paste or powder in Supermaxi, the big grocery chain). One expat slyly admitted to smuggling horseradish root in her luggage and it’s actually growing successfully in her garden. She promised us clippings at one of the future get-togethers!
  • Peter Pan peanut butter (it, along with [I think] Jiffy brand can be found intermittently but brace yourself to pay $6 or more. All natural peanut butter is thankfully available)
  • Tumeric
  • Dry mustard
  • Curry paste (a generic red curry powder is available)
  • Thai flavors
  • Dry mustard
  • Chili powder (you CAN occasionally find crushed chili pepper flakes in a large container)
  • Worcestershire sauce can sometimes be hard to find but we learned it is under the guise of “Salsa Iglesa”
  • Apple cider vinegar (the REAL kind that contains the “mother”)
  • Organic coconut oil for cooking and coconut aminos (surprising given the vast abundance of coconuts. Note: This might be a good business niche for someone!).
  • Decaf green tea (all teas it seems, with the exception of herbal teas, are caffeinated).
  • Decaf coffee, ESPECIALLY if you want whole beans. A note about coffee: don’t be surprised if you order coffee and you get instant. It is more commonly consumed here than brewed.
  • Good Earth brand tea.
  • “Stiff” yogurt (the yogurt here is runnier and is often consumed more like a beverage). I also have never seen any organic yogurt.
  • Sharp cheddar cheese (sure, they sell cheddar at the big groceries but it definitely lacks the satisfying bite you’re probably expecting).
  • Blue cheese (chicken wings just aren’t the same without it)
  • Cottage cheese (another bummer)
  • Whole cranberries (the canned variety are intermittently available and VERY expensive).
  • Quick cooking rice in one of those bags you just toss into your pot of boiling water (although as you might imagine, regular white rice runs rampant and is a staple for just about every dish. Brown rice is available at major groceries)
  • Wild rice (it’s available but is VERY expensive, something like $5 for a small box)
  • Canned peaches in water, rather than syrup (used to be commonly available but can’t be found the last few months)
  • Canned albacore (quite the paradox given that Manta is the “tuna capital of the world”)
  • Canned salmon
  • Sunflower seeds in the shell
  • Canned pumpkin (Never seen it here. A couple of ladies mentioned they have visitors bringing some to them for the holidays. There is a variety of the pumpkin here called “zapallo” but it’s not quite the same but can work for a pie in a pinch).
  • Mint chocolate chip ice cream
  • “Good” ice cream in general – most ice cream seems to be more ice than cream :(
  • Chocolate chips can be hard to find and/or more recently became available. A friend who sells cookies here for a living used to buy blocks of chocolate and chop them into chips herself!
  • Graham crackers (no such thing as far as we can tell)
  • Pure cocoa powder without sugar (although we were told  there is one brand now at Supermaxi – Organic Pacari)
  • Twizzlers and Reese’s peanut butter cups are sadly nowhere to be found
  • M&Ms are expensive and often hard to find (there is a knock-off version that is unsatisfying compared to the real thing. Peanut M&Ms are even more elusive)
  • Hot fudge sauce (chocolate syrup doesn’t count)

Wow-my mouth is watering seeing this image...I really miss these!

And here are other [non-pantry type] items that warrant our mentioning:

  • A set of Corelle dishware will cost you $75 and up (compared to less than $30 at Target or Walmart)
  • Pots and pans are expensive and of substandard quality. If you love to cook, it’s worth finding a way to bring your cookware! (BTW, Bar Keeper’s Friend is usually available at Boyaca in Manta)
  • Cast iron skillet (You probably won’t find them here anywhere.  I know of a couple ladies who slogged theirs down and are the envy of many)
  • Another thing worth bringing if you can is bed linens. High thread count sheets are super duper expensive. A scratchy set of king sheets will likely cost you $80 and upwards.
  • Lamps are more expensive than you would have imagined
  • DMSO for joint pain
  • Bio Tear for contacts
  • Eyeglass cleaner
  • Reading glasses (although we were told that the Fybeca pharmcy chain now carries them)
  • Exfoliating facial wipes
  • Boric acid powder
  • Good, long-lasting scented candles

Bring your own cookware if you can--you won't regret it!

 

Whew! There you have it! There are undoubtedly other household items that weren’t mentioned here but this is a handy starting point!

Another useful observation we’ve all made while living here is that if you find a product that you like, STOCK UP! The store may not have it in stock again for months (or ever, in some cases!).

 

Update your phone numbers in your Ecuador cell

02 Oct

When dialing a phone number anywhere within Ecuador from a cell phone, all numbers (for both land-lines and cell phones) must be proceeded with the number zero.

However, as of September 30, 2012, all numbers dialed from a cell phone must also include an additional “9″ after the initial zero. In other words, if you were given the number 094364161 (which incidentally is the number for Jefry, one of our trusted taxi drivers in Manta) it would now be dialed as a ten digit number: 0994364161

Ecuador phone numbers beginning with 09, 08, or 06 (and now some 05 numbers as well) are cell phones rather than land lines. This is good to know as dialing a land line from a cell phone costs you more than double the cell-to-cell rate.

Some other useful tips about phone calls:

If you are making an international outgoing call from Ecuador, you must first dial 00 then the country code. For calling the U.S. you would dial “001” followed by the number you wish to call.

When calling Ecuador from another country you must first dial “011” followed by Ecuador’s country code (“593”) plus the area code (“5” for Manta to Canoa, “4” for Portoviejo, “2” for Quito) and then the local number. Or if you have the following cell number 094364161, you would NOT include the initial zero (or as of 9/30/12 the “09″). In other words, to call Jefry the [Spanish-speaking] taxi driver from the US you would dial: 011 593 94364161.

If you are calling from a land line from one city to the next within Ecuador you must include the area code, preceded by a “0”. For example, “05” for Manta plus the local 7 digit number.  If you are making a local call on a land line (i.e. within Manta), you do not include the area code and instead only dial the 7 digit number.

Unlike in other places, such as the US. you are NOT charged minutes on your cell phone in Ecuador when receiving calls, only when making calls.

There are basically two major cell phone companies in Ecuador: Claro and Moviestar. Calls are cheaper when dialing someone using the same cell provider.

You can buy minutes for your cell phone at the register of many stores, such as the popular grocery store Supermaxi. All you do is tell them which carrier you use (Claro or Moviestar), your number, and how much money you want on it.

For making and receiving international calls, we highly recommend using skype or MagicJack. The phone number we provide on our Contact Us page is a US-based number that rings us on our laptop here in Ecuador (or anywhere in the world that we would happen to be). We also have unlimited calls to the US. These services through skype costs us less than $8/month.

 

Enjoying local foods while supporting local folks

23 Sep

The small beachfront fishing towns dotting the central coast of Ecuador typically boast a strong sense of community among the local families. Often if a friend or family member is in financial need, folks will work together to host fundraising events.

Bingo is one popular way that locals raise money for cause. Tickets are sold and prizes like canned goods are donated. Another common approach is by selling food.

Today we purchased a yummy meal called a “tonga” from one of our neighbors who is raising money for her sister who has a worsening neurological disability and can’t afford the doctor’s visits.  We had placed our tonga order a few days ago and this morning a group of women worked together to prepare over a 50 of these and deliver them to different families in the neighborhood. We paid $3 per tonga.

One of our neatly wrapped tongas that we purchased as a fundraiser.

 

“Tongas” are a dish native to the province of Manabi and consist of a hearty meal of rice, chicken (or other meat) and fried sweet plantains, all smothered in a tasty peanut sauce and garnished with cilantro.

Learn to make tongas through this recipe video (audio in Spanish)

 

The contents of the tonga are wrapped into a package using large banana leaves, creating a neat, portable lunch, traditionally carried by peasants working in fields far from home. Today, tongas are almost always featured in local traditional fiestas.

Yummy, portable meal of chicken, rice, plantains covered in a peanut sauce.

 

We were told the ladies plan to continue selling different traditional foods each Sunday over the next several weeks so stay tuned to discover other local Manabita dishes.

 
 

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