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Roland Vinyard's Adventure in Ecuador
October 16, 2012 - Bill Ackerbauer
In every Sunday's paper, our Leader Extra section offers feature stories about various travel destinations in the U.S. and overseas. Usually, the travel features we publish come from the Associated Press, but this past Sunday we had a special treat: My buddy Roland Vinyard, who is the other half of my two-man old-timey string band, The Bentwood Rockers, shared with us a report about his recent trip to Ecuador. He came home with many interesting stories and stunning photos.
Roland lives in Sprakers, near Canajoharie, and he is a a real estate broker specializing in farm properties. In addition to folk music, his hobbies include cave exploring, photography, hiking and canoeing. Read on for his report and some of his photos from Ecuador:
Adventure in the Andes: Ecuador boasts breathtaking views of volcanic peaks
By ROLAND VINYARD
For The Leader-Herald
I had a great time in Ecuador and thought I’d share some observations I made about the country. Some of this may surprise you. We stayed in just a small portion of the country, the highlands and volcanoes, from Quito north.
Ecuador is small but has an extreme variety of habitats — the Galapagos Islands, beaches, lowlands, cloud forest, highlands, massive volcanoes, Amazonian rainforest — and probably the greatest variety of species of any country. Just because it is the size of a middling U.S. state does not mean that you can go from end to end quickly. The road system does not compare to that of the U.S., just as some other things do not measure up to our standards. And there are places where they exceed our standards.
Quito is a city of two million people, flanked by volcanoes on the east and west. It stretches eight miles wide by maybe 40 miles long and is pretty vertical. It has steeper terrain than most cities, with lots of high rises and tall buildings, but no skyscrapers. There is no quick way to get anywhere and heavy traffic.
There were tons of taxis, working for a fraction of what they would cost here. Our taxi highlight was a two-hour trip that cost the two of us $20 total. It cost $60 for the same trip in the other direction, which was still a deal. Buses are everywhere and are ridiculously cheap, $2.50 for that same ride, or 25 to 35 cents between closer cities. If you know the system and are in no blazing rush, you can get just about anywhere very cheaply. Gas is cheap, too: about $1.50 per gallon.
There are two Quitos. The colonial city, dating from the early 1500s, is full of quaint period architecture, narrow streets and squares. And there is the new, larger Quito, with its high-rises, tenements and modern businesses. The two largest and nicest malls I ever have seen are there. No massive parking lots, granted, but every store space is taken, and few chain stores are represented in several floors of merchandise. Quality goods, beautifully presented, tile floors, everything clean and neat, just as the people there are.
The smaller cities and villages that I saw were far cleaner than Quito was but lacked the malls and the glitz. But they sure had the stores. I would hazard a guess that there are three or four times the number of stores, on a per-capita basis, than we have here. But none of them are huge. Zero Walmarts! No dollar stores!
In Quito, the folks I saw were mostly all of primarily Spanish descent, a bit shorter than we are, but very attractive-appearing. Beautiful women and men, they are well-dressed and well-deported. In the villages, we found lots more indigenous folks, who wore colorful traditional clothes, with some more modern clothing mixed in. These folks are very short, with many standing about the height of my shoulders, and a few barely came up to my elbow.
No one in Ecuador wears shorts except for tourists. Only once did I get the stink eye:?A woman noticed my shorts and made a face. But she was the only one. The rest were uniformly polite and super friendly, always saying “buenas dias” when we passed on the street. Many, many folks went way out of their way to be helpful. No one tips there, either; they are just doing it to be nice.
I did meet a couple of beggars — tiny, elderly women missing teeth and dressed in rags. They would gesture incoherently and did not seem able to speak. Glad for what you gave them, they did not press you if you declined.
There were the typical Latin American security issues:?locks everywhere, bars over windows and doors, metal pull-downs for shops when they close, gates around compounds. You don’t fall asleep on a bus, and you keep your wallet in a front pocket. We experienced no problems at all, but we were constantly aware that they do exist.
When eating, you can pay as much or as little as you’d like. You can pay typical American prices at the very fanciest places. At a slightly less elegant place, a three-course filet mignon meal might cost $8. But good-tasting, nourishing meals can be had for as little as $2. Stunning fruit juices are readily available, as are kiosks and stores with a huge selection of pastry, ice cream, sorbets and yogurts.
In the area north of Quito, I was amused to find that instead of chips and salsa served before the meal, you got popcorn. No butter or salt, but a delicious, spicy, soup-like creation with onions, special tomatoes and cilantro could be ladled onto the popcorn.
The cost of accommodations was similar — you could pay as much as you would in the U.S. or far less. At one hot spring resort, we spent $20 each.
That got us a room with a double bed and two bunks, admission to the pools and three squares. Decent food, too. Other places ranged from $10 to $70 a night for two people. I did not see any campgrounds or recreational vehicles.
There are no phone booths but little stores with pay phones. We discovered Wi-Fi was more readily available than in many parts of the U.S. We found it in all the nicer restaurants, many businesses, and even on the public squares.
We did not have to change money. They use the U.S. dollar just as we do. They do have their own coins, in our denominations and sizes, and they are all are used interchangeably. You have to carry as many fives and singles as you can, because merchants often can’t make change for larger bills. We had much fun in the market squares. A famous one on Saturdays on Otovalo is huge, covering many acres and overflowing to the adjoining streets. You can buy just about anything there: popcorn, animals, housewares and, of course, tourist stuff such as belts, bags, tapestries, hats, musical instruments, clothing, jewelry, sweaters, bedspreads. Some was tacky, of course, but much of it was of a very fine quality, and it was all really cheap. Shoppers are expected to bargain. Dickering, which I am good at, is not just about money, but just as much about social interaction, with both sides enjoying the exchange. These vendors are super salespeople, and it was a pleasure to watch them at work.
Speaking of public squares, we did see part of a festival and regretted missing the rest of it. We just happened to hear music and went to investigate, having seen no posters or announcements for it. An Andean rock band was playing. With electric bass and guitar, sax, percussion and nylon-stringed guitar, coupled with pan pipes, flutes and charango, it was an interesting combination. Their harmony singing was good, too. They were followed by a group of 15 little girls singing and reciting while their music teacher frantically tried to keep it together, all the while playing some pretty good guitar accompaniment.
The weather was just about perfect. I don’t think we saw a day over 80 degrees or a night below 50. It did not rain, and fields were brown everywhere. We saw grass fires, mostly burning in squares, indicating there were intentionally set to keep grass and brush down.
Most days had clouds, sometimes quite a few. The rainy season was approaching; folks kept saying they could feel a change. When at high elevation, you could clearly see the cloud forests by a bank of white clouds with a straight line on one side, held in place by mountains.
We saw surprisingly few streams and rivers, but most that we did see appeared to be clean. The volcanic soils must soak up the water. Much of the land is steep, but that does not keep people from cultivating it. We saw few tractors and diverse crops, some of which could grow here but some that wouldn’t survive a day here.
On clear days, the volcanoes! Quito lies at 9,400 feet and is towered over by Cayembe, with its avalanche-prone snow fields, and Cotapachi, just under 20,000 feet and the world’s highest active volcano. I climbed just short of the summit at 15,000 feet and 15,750 feet on Pichincha and Cotocache, each time starting too late to make it all the way to their tops. Time, not ability, was the limiting factor, not that my hip and knees didn’t hurt. I?felt some shortness of breath due to the elevation, but it did not limit me. The higher I went, the better I felt. That’s what excitement can do to you! I can’t wait to return.
Editor's note: Roland Vinyard, a resident of Sprakers in western Montgomery County, is executive secretary of the Alumni Group of the Intercollegiate Outing Club Association.
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An Ecuadoran man on a mountain bike looks up at the summit of the 16,200-foot high volcano Cotocachi. After approaching the peak, Roland Vinyard and his companions mountain biked down more than 3,000 vertical feet to a paved road. (Photos by Roland Vinyard/For The Leader-Herald)