Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christmas in Cuenca

Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo

Image result for christmas tree
Christmas is a big holiday in Ecuador, there are lots of celebrations going on. Christmas Eve seems to to be the main event with a parade called the Paseo del Niño. The parade has been tradition in Cuenca for many years. It was a way for Cuancanos to meld their Incan traditions with the newer Catholic traditions brought by the Spanish. 

The procession is a day long event, lasting 8 hours or more. Hundreds of families create floats or simply decorate themselves and walk in the parade. People save up all year to buy the supplies to decorate their float. Families will decorate horses, cars, carts, and trucks with all manner of things. We saw floats covered in candies, foods, alcohol, roast pig, cuy, and chickens. Many people were dressed in traditional clothing, while others wore nativity or Santa outfits. There were lots of bands and music playing with several groups of people dancing. 

The streets were packed all along the parade route and we had a party to go to in the evening so we only stayed and watched the procession for about 2 hours. If you are going, as with any crowded event anywhere around the world, be careful with your wallet and phone. Pickpockets are around for these events, we know 2 people who had their wallet/phones stolen from them on Christmas Eve no less. Dustin has zipped pockets inside his pants and we only took a few bucks with so we came out unscathed. 

We really enjoyed sharing in Cuenca's Christmas traditions. We missed all our family and friends back in the United States. We have a great group of friends here in Cuenca and had lots of invites to Christmas parties so we were by no means alone this Christmas. Thank you to our Cuenca family for making this Christmas special. 

Busy parade route

Little float with lots of foods attached, I like the little mustache on the kid

I call this one "roast pig with sleeping girl" lol there were also live chickens and rabbits in the crate underneath

A toy truck covered in candy

This little boy got his parents to push him on his toy car with boom box attached to the back

One of the many nativity scenes

The day after Christmas we saw this truck at the mercado, there are also lots of little neighborhood parades in addition to the big Pase Del Nino in Centro

Video of some of the fun!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Cuenca Pros and Cons

Dustin and I have been in Cuenca for 8 months now. We are still waiting for our residency visas to come through, and we have about 3 weeks left on our current visas, yikes! Our current time crunch has me thinking about our time so far here in Ecuador. I hope we get to stay, but there are things about Cuenca that could use some improvement or take a lot of getting used to. So here comes the inevitable list of pros and cons to living in Cuenca. I can't complain too much if we get to take a siesta every day in a hammock :-)

Things I love about living in Cuenca:

  1. Cost of living is lower than in the United States. Yes, certain items (imports and electronics) cost more, but overall the cost of rent and food is much lower. 
  2. Fresh fruit and veggies all year round (12 month growing cycle) and they are very cheap. 
  3. Laid back life style, no stress or rush. 
  4. Everything is within walking distance, and lots of public transportation. Buses are 25 cents, and a taxi across town is 3 dollars. There are lots of neighborhood tiendas and markets. 
  5. Friendly people. 
  6. Weather is warm year round and because we are so close to the ecuator the sun rises at 6 and sets at 6 year round. No total darkness at 4pm or winter here. 
  7. No processed foods or preservatives in food.
  8. No boxed, canned, or frozen meals. I have become a much better cook because I've had to learn to make everything from scratch (and at 8,000 feet altitude). 
  9. Living at 8,000 feet makes any form of exercise so much more effective. 
  10. Clean water comes down from the Cajas, no filters needed. 
  11. Close knit community of ex-pats. We are so much more social than we could be in the states. Almost every day we have a social event and we love our Cuenca friends!
  12. More time to spend on hobbies (Dustin does a lot of wood working). 
  13. Dustin loves Manicho (chocolate bar with nuts) and I love Melositas (raspberry gummies with candies stuck on them). 
  14. Not innudated by politics of the states. We watch TV on our Roku so we don't have to endure the endless cycle of negative political ads during commercials. 
  15. We are learning to speak a second language with some degree of fluency. 
Things I am still getting used to about Cuenca:
  1. Food cravings never go away. Queso Fresco is abundant but that is the only kind of cheese available. You can get mozzarella and there is an artisan cheese shop, just be prepared to pay more. I also miss spaghettios, pop-tarts, and fast food (these are all foods I should probable live without). 
  2. Pollution is nasty in Cuenca. They are still using leaded gasoline :-( Buses and trucks spew black clouds of smog out their tail pipes making it difficult to breathe. I have a scarf on me at all times to cover my mouth and nose, but I can still feel my lungs tighten up on bad pollution days. 
  3. Noise, noise, noise. Car alarms, house alarms, dogs, roosters, loud cars, motorcycles and dirt bikes, church loud speakers making announcements, cars driving around with loud speakers on them, trucks selling tanks of gas honk constantly to let people know they are in the neighborhood, neighborhood security guards blow whistles all night to let you know they are still working, loud music any time of day seems to be acceptable, and fireworks also seem to go off any day, any time. 
  4. This is probably the hardest part of living here for me. Cuenca is a large city, and poorly planned, so there is very little green space. There are a few parks with plants, but that is really it as far as green and trees go within the city. Homes are built behind walls, and all green space is confined to the courtyard which is in the very center of the property so only the residents can see/enjoy it. Unfortunately our courtyard is tiled so we can only have potted plants, but at least we have outdoor space.
  5. This is getting better, but a lot of people treat their pets poorly. Dogs are used as a security system only. Many are kept confined to the garage/front outside space of the house and never get to go inside or outside the gate for a walk. Alternatively, there are also a lot of owners that let their dogs out in the the morning to wander around the city by themselves all day, then the dog comes home in the evening. This means that pretty much every house you walk by will have a dog barking from behind the fence/wall, and you will see lots of dogs wandering around the streets (and pooping on sidewalks with no one to clean it up). 
  6. Speaking of sidewalks, they are very dangerous here. All of the sidewalks in the city are cracked, uneven, have large holes, etc in them. You have to look down when you are walking all the time, if you don't you will fall. Everyone who lives here has fallen or twisted an ankle. To top this off, the sidewalks in Centro are tiled (like the kind normal people would only use inside a building). This means when it rains (not uncommon here) the sidewalks become very slippery. 
  7. As much as I like the slow pace of life, it comes at a cost. Stores don't have normal business hours and may be closed when you go, and no one ever shows up on time so you may have to wait a few hours or days. If you thought waiting for Comcast to show up during their 4 hour appointment window was bad, try being told that ETAPA (our version of Comcast) will come anytime between Monday and Saturday, just don't leave your house for 6 days because they won't call. 

Whoo-hoo! 15 positives and only 7 things I am still getting used to. That looking on the bright side of life!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Cuy Dinner and a Father's Day Pig Roast

During our first month in Ecuador, Dustin and I were brave enough to go out with some Ecuadorian friends for a cuy dinner. Cuy is roasted guinea pig and is a very popular delicacy dish. We ordered one cuy to share among four adults and it came with a bunch of sides of rice, mote, beans, and potatoes. Ecuadorians eat the entire cuy, and by that I mean everything. They like to eat the bones, teeth, the entire head, the claws, skin, they just eat everything! Our friend ripped off one of the feet and handed it to me, this is apparently one of her favorite parts of the cuy. Dustin and I both tried various parts of the cuy. We found the bones and claws to be hard to eat, you could chew through them but there was not much flavor to that part. The meat was very flavorful and tasty, however there is not much meat on a cuy an the skin is difficult to chew. We are both glad that we were able to participate in this cultural dinner and to say we have done it. It was a check off our list of things one must try in Ecuador! 

Here is the poor little cuy we ate

Another popular dish in Ecuador is roasted pig (hornado). This is a more common everyday type of meal for Ecuadorians. You get a large chunk of the meat with a little bit of skin. It is served with some combination of rice, beans, mote, and potatoes. It is very common to see whole pigs hanging and being roasted on the streets and in the mercados. Dustin and I both like this dish, roast pork is always delicious!

Here is one of the hornado meals we ate at the mercado

For Father's Day we were invited to a friend's house for a pig roast. We had delicious hornado and a whole bunch of side dishes. After dinner we were sitting around the fireplace and listening to some wonderful live guitar music. It was a really neat experience and we were happy to share this moment with our new friends here in Cuenca. 

A Great Day to Fly a Kite!

One of the best parts of living in a different country is immersing yourself in a new culture.  Laci and I were able to do just that a few weeks ago.  It was a Saturday afternoon and we had nothing to do.  We decided to take a leisurely stroll down to Parque Paraiso (former blog post about that) to see what was going on.  It turned out there was a HUGE kite celebration.

I haven't flown a kite since I was about 15 years old, but the site of so many children with their kites brought back some wonderful memories.  There must have been 100 kites in the air all at the same time, which is something to behold!  There was live music, dozens of vendors, hundreds of people, and more street food than you could imagine.

Parque Paraiso can hold thousands of people.  Here is a picture of the people in just one part of the park.

Shots of the sky never turn out, but if you could see it, there are dozens of kites in the sky in this picture.

Another shot of another part of the park.

One more shot.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Ingapirca Inti Raymi

In June we visited Ingapirca for the Inti Raymi festival. Inti Raymi is a celebration of the winter solstice and the Inca New Year. It is to honor the Inca god Inti and to pray for a good crop in the coming year. June is cold and rainy in this area of Ecuador, so when we were there it was raining, cold, and very windy. We still had a great time and enjoyed the festivities and seeing the largest Inca ruins outside of Machu Picchu in Peru. 

This video shows men and women dancing in traditional dress, asking for a good harvest. 

There was lots of warm food to purchase just outside the entrance to the park, this woman is roasting guinea pigs (called cuy) very popular in Ecuador

Lots of sweets and toys for sale

Entrance to Ingapirca

Kids getting ready to dance inside the visitor center

View of ruins. These are the largest Inca ruins in Ecuador

Guide showing us grain storage area

Another view of the Temple of the Sun from afar

The buildings are put together without mortar, each stone is cut to fit perfectly with those around it so no mortar was needed

The doorway is positioned so that on the winter and summer solstices, the sun will shine through the doorway at a specific time of day. There was no sun on this winter solstice day so we didn't get to see this happen. 

Close up of how the buildings and walls are put together

Another close up of the Temple of the Sun building (only one left mostly standing)

At the top of the Temple of the Sun, Miss Ecuador was there, but it was so cold that not much was going on here. 

Another view of the Temple of the Sun 

Laci and our friends (and 1 random dude on the far left) inside one of the structures

Dustin hanging out with a horse

We were lucky enough to catch a ride with some friends, so it took us about 2 hours by car to drive from Cuenca to Ingaprica. Dustin and I enjoyed seeing the dancing and learning about the ruins, but due to the rain and wind we would like to come again during the summer so we can take more time to enjoy the ruins in the sun :-) 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Tena Ecuador Amazon Trip

Dustin and I took a trip to the Amazon Rainforest with a few of our friends a few weeks ago. We went to a town called Tena, which is where the Tena and Pano Rivers combine to create the Napo River. The Napo River is the largest tributary for the Amazon River, meaning we got to explore the Upper Amazon Basin! Tena is a relatively large town, though not as crowded and more laid back than Cuenca. The air was fresh and the temperatures very warm.

It took a long time to get to Tena from Cuenca. Since we were traveling with friends, we were lucky enough to score a ride in their van. The trip out of Cuenca was a bit scary. We went through some mountain passes where the dirt road was washed out by a landslide leaving only half a road to drive on. There were several landslides to get around, but then it started raining and was very foggy as is common in the Andes Mountains. The muddy roads, poor road conditions, and sheer cliffs of the Andes made for an interesting journey, but when we emerged on the other side of the mountains the scenery was worth the minor heart-attack incurred in getting there. There were lots of waterfalls and beautiful views of the mountains and valley covered in lush green trees and flowers. The road flattened out after descending the mountains making the drive much easier and faster. After about 4 hours driving we arrived in Macas, our halfway point, and ate lunch. Another 4 hours and a few police checkpoints (1 of which almost didn't let us pass) we thankfully made it to Tena. 

We stayed at Casa Blanca on the outskirts of town. It was a very nice, clean, and quiet hotel, and very cheap as well. Our first day we walked around town a bit, then spent some time in a pool with water slide and eucalyptus steam room. 

Bridge in Tena crossing where the 2 rivers meet

Laci in front of the bridge

View from the top of the bridge. You can see how the 2 rivers have just combined because of the difference in colors (darker and lighter) 

Doing some work in the river, no fancy equipment, just hope the mud wall doesn't collapse!

The second day we took a trip down the Napo River on a motorized canoe with the owner of the hotel, Gary. Gary has lived in Tena his whole life and has family that lives along the river who own a cacao farm and produce chocolate. He was our guide for the day, he drove us a short 30 minutes out of Tena to Misahualli. Misahualli is known as a jumping off point for adventures into the Amazon River region and for the tribe of monkeys that live there with free reign of the town. Gary brought grapes and sugar cane for us to feed to the monkeys. They came right up and took the food from our hands, one even climbed on Dustin's arm! 

Eating the sugar cane

Alpha-male warning the smaller monkeys away from "his" food

Baby monkey on Dustin's arm

Eating some grapes

Little baby not sure if he should come down to eat

After feeding and watching the monkeys in town, we headed for the river's edge where our motorized canoe was waiting to take us on a full day of adventure.  

Pic of all the canoes

Dustin is ready to go

We are headed out for our day on the Napo River

Our first stop along the river was at Gary's family's land where they farm yuca and cacao plants. When we walked up from the river bank, we saw Gary's uncle working on a wooden canoe. Then we walked a little ways and were shown how the yuca plant is harvested. They pull the plant out to get the roots (yuca is a potato like plant) then immediately replant the stem so that another one will grow. The women in this culture do all the work of planting, harvesting, and preparing food. They use the yuca as food (eat it like mashed potatoes) and also use it to make an alcoholic drink. They prepared some yuca for us to eat and mixed it with salt and butter (tasted good), and they even made some of the drink (did not taste good). After this Gary showed us the cacao fruit. You eat the fleshy part around the seed and it was very sweet, nothing like chocolate yet. Gary's family roasted some of the dried cacao beans in a pan over a fire for a few minutes, then we helped to remove the shell of the beans, and to grind them into a paste. Then, they put the paste back into the pan over the fire, added some milk and cooked it into a fresh chocolate fondue which we dipped strawberries and bananas into. Yum! 

This is where Gary's family lives. No electricity. No running water.

Working on the canoe

Feasting on fresh roasted Ecuadorian chocolate and fruits

Laci at the cacao farm

Dustin deciding if he wants to try the yuca drink 

After the cacao farm, we went further up the river to a butterfly sanctuary. Due to large oil companies taking over parts of the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle, there has been deforestation and loss of habitat and food for many species of animals, including butterflies. A local family took it upon themselves to start a sanctuary to help the many different species of butterflies survive. 



Lots of different cocoons

The sanctuary was beautiful

Butterflies eating bananas

Another shot of how large and beautiful it was

We found a large mean looking grasshopper with a stinger freeloading in the butterfly house

Close up of the pretty colors on the wings

Pollinating the flowers 

Back in the canoe and traveling further up the river we came across some wild monkeys along the river banks on our way to our last stop of the day. 

You can see one of the monkeys out on the tree branch

Getting closer

Dustin loves the monkeys 

After a riverside lunch, we arrived at Amazoonico, a sanctuary and rehabilitation center for animals. The zoo is only accessible by canoe along the river. They take in animals that have been un-rightfully and un-lawfully kept as pets. It was the best "zoo" we have ever been to. A trumpet bird followed us around the entire premises as we looked at all the animals, wild spider monkeys were swinging right above our heads through the trees, and we almost tripped over several turtles walking across the path. As for animals that were in enclosures, we saw lots of toucans, parrots, 4 different species of monkeys, tapirs, jaguarundi, anaconda, and caiman. They are all native animals to the amazonian region of Ecuador and all had been kept as pets and needed the be rehabilitated in order the be released into the wild again. 

The zoo/animal rehab center was our last stop for the day

Trumpet bird that followed us around the zoo

Wild monkeys moving through the trees right above our heads

Caiman getting some sun 

Tapir coming in for a close up

Some of the animals were too people friendly as they were recently pets, they need to be re-socialized with their own species

Watch where you are going, don't step on a turtle 

A walking palm tree.  This tree can actually WALK to where there is more sun.  It takes years, but those roots will keep moving until the tree is several feet from its current location.

Tapir going for a swim 

Another wild monkey on the path

Our trip to the Amazon was amazing and very memorable. We will definitely be returning and exploring new areas of the Amazon (2/3 of Ecuador is in the Amazon Rain-forest. There are lots of activities to do in many different cities. On our next trip Dustin and I want to do some white water rafting!