Trekking through the Andes: The Inca Trail (Ecuador)

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In July four of my regular hiking friends and I tackled the Ecuador section of the Inca Trail, along with one fellow hiker, the social media agent from the tour company, one guide, and one equine wrangler. The route takes three days to complete and requires a guide unless you’re already very familiar with the route.

The trail began in the town of Achupallas with an elevation of around 11,000 feet above sea level. Once we had our gear loaded up on to the pack horse and donkeys we set off through the town, out into the nearby farmland, and then up into Sangay National Park.

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Gearing up for the trek in Achupallas.
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At the trailhead.
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One of the last houses before we entered the park.
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Bringing home a wild bull.

Local farmers often take their animals into the park to allow them to graze. Nearby communities also send herds of cattle into the park to free-range, only retrieving one when they need it for food or for a bullfight.

 

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Pobrecito!

We hiked through the rocky remains of what was once the north-south route of the Incan highway surrounded by paramo grass and at times muskeg-like terrain. One poor donkey got stuck in the mud and while the wrangler was tending to him our pack horse ran away, along with all of our camping supplies.

Poor donkey had to be repacked by amateurs and his load kept slipping. Luckily the horse was eventually retrieved and we were able to sleep in tents instead of under the stars. As gorgeous as the milky way was (it was my first time seeing the milky way in all its glory!), the nights get downright frigid in the high Andes and I was happy to have a warm sleeping bag and tent.

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Janette and Kristin waiting in the paramo grass for the donkey to be re-packed.
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Tracy and me waiting in the surprisingly comfortable paramo.
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We made it to the highest point! (Tracy, Janette, Kristin, Wendy)

Day two was a long hike of nearly nine hours. The first few hours were spent climbing and climbing up to the highest point of 15,700-feet. The wind was whipping, light rain was beating into us sideways, and we were surrounded by clouds. But it was all made worth it when the clouds lifted just long enough for us to get a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean far in the distance.

This point is known as the three cruces, because it’s where the north-south trail intersected with the trail that ran west to the coast and the trail that ran east to the Amazon.

We then descended into a low plain which was once filled with water, but the lake has shrunk considerably and now cattle graze on the

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The plain and what is left of the lake.

flat. After trekking for several hours along the dried lakebed all while avoiding angry bulls, we arrived at a small site of Incan ruins where we made camp for the night.

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Camping INSIDE ancient Incan ruins.

The final morning saw light intermittent rain creating rainbows for us all along the trail. It was chilly with a bit of rain and much of the trail was boggy and wet. What usually takes four hours to complete, we did in two.

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This dog followed us for two days. He chased off bulls and quietly waited for food scraps.

 

After a few quick celebratory photos we loaded into the waiting van and headed to nearby Ingapirca where we ate lunch and toured the ruins.

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We made it! (Tracy, Janette, Wendy, Kristin)
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Ingapirca Ruins.
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We had just enough energy left for a celebratory jump. (Wendy, Janette, Tracy, Kristin) 

In my opinion, this is one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. The setting was phenomenal, the history amazing, and the sense of accomplishment sublime. I highly recommend this trek for avid hikers, but there are a few things you should know before you go.

Inca Trail Tips

Hire a guide. Much of the trail is clear, but some sections are not. Unless you’re confident in your navigational skills, you’ll want someone experienced to lead the way. I also felt it was well worth the money to have much of our gear carried by pack animals and all of the cooking and camp set up was taken care of by others.

We used Apullacta Tours out of Cuenca and were quite pleased. If you use them, ask for Luis to be your guide. He was born in Ingapirca, but spent years in New York City which makes him bilingual. He has a wealth of knowledge about the history, natural setting, and culture of the area and he is passionate about sharing it.

Know your limits. The altitude along this trail is much higher than most folks are accustomed to. Be sure you can handle the thin oxygen and steep climbs all while carrying a 15-20 lb. pack. We found that keeping hydrated and eating small snacks often helped immensely. You don’t need to be a professional mountaineer, but you do need to be in decent physical condition.

Be prepared. We might be near the equator, but the high Andes get cold! Your guiding outfit should send you a list of required gear, but don’t underestimate the cold temperatures. While it never dropped below freezing, we made good use of our winter hats, gloves, and wool socks. You’ll also want good rainproof wind protection for the high peaks. And of course, don’t forget your camera!

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It gets cold at night!

Have fun! That should go without saying, but on a hike like this, something is bound to go wrong. It may rain the entire three days. Your pack horse might run away (twice!). Or your tent may semi-collapse in the middle of the night (not that we would have any experience with that…).

The point is that you need to focus on the positive, remember why you’re there, and keep a good attitude regardless. No one wants to spend three days with a grumpy miserable hiking companion. BTW, the four of us made a deal before we left that no complaining was allowed on the trip. Not one of us broke the rule and we had a fantastic hike together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trekking through the Andes – Fuya Fuya

It’s been quite some time since my last blog post and the reasons are multiple. Yes, I’ve been busy. But that last post also took quite a lot out of me. And I wasn’t ready to return to blogging as though all was right in my world. Turns out that much is also wrong in the world at large these days and it can be tough to mentally push through my own loss and the realization of just how awful humanity can be.

BUT…there is still much good in the world and I see it every day. That good that still exists is what I prefer this blog to focus on and so I write on.

One huge positive in my life this past year has been hiking. For me it’s a great form of exercise, a chance to see even more of Ecuador’s beauty, and it’s refreshingly cathartic. I have a small group of friends here that I often hike with and we’ve explored some amazing spots.

I’ll be highlighting some of the best hikes along with providing information of how you can do it yourself. First up is Fuya Fuya.

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We often used those tufts of paramo grass to pull ourselves up the hillside.

Fuya in the Kichwa language means “cloudy.” I guess since this mountaintop is so often engulfed in clouds the locals decided they’d double the adjective and emphasize just how cloudy it is.

This inactive volcano sports a double peak and is just outside of the town of Otavalo. The trailhead begins at around 12,800 feet and the summit sits at just under 14,000 feet above sea level. It may only be a 1,200-foot gain but the trail doesn’t wind around, it goes pretty much straight up. That, coupled with the high altitude makes for a challenging, yet rewarding hike.

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Lago Mojanda is far below and we’re doing our best to stay upright on the steep trail.

 

I’ve actually done this trek once before, but neither time have I been lucky enough to get a clear view from the top. If you do happen to summit sans clouds, I’m told  the views are phenomenal and that one can see all the way to Quito. I think I’m going to need to attempt this again and again until I can see it for myself.

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My boys at the summit. See how cloudy it is?

 

Hike it Yourself

You can drive or take a taxi to Lago Mojanda just outside of Otavalo. Once you’re at the lake look to your right and you’ll see the slopes of Fuya Fuya. There are multiple trails headed up, but they all lead to the same place. However, there is one more clearly defined trail that is slightly gentler than the others and that is the one I would recommend.

It’s cold and windy from start to finish so bring warm layers and plenty of water and snacks. The entire hike averages around 1.5 to 2 hours up and 1 hour back down so you have time to slow down and take things easy if needed.

You’ll need to be in moderate to good physical condition to complete this, but you don’t need a guide as it’s not technical. There is a small bit of scrambling up rock just before the summit so be very careful there. Also, it can be slippery if the ground is wet so boots with good traction are a must.

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We did it, so can you!

A Modern Tragedy

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Atop Schweitzer Mountain in Sandpoint, Idaho.

Shakespeare’s tragedies are among the most well-known and well-loved literary works in history. They often involve cunning conspirators, double-crossings, and always death. Death of course is why it is called a tragedy. And not for the death of an up-in-years supporting character. No, the death is always that of the primary character(s) before it was their time.

And so is the story of my own personal tragedy. It may not involve mentally unstable monarchs or star-crossed lovers. It didn’t occur due to a fatal flaw or hubris. But death did come. And he came for one of the most loved players in my own life. My brother Barry.

In all fairness, he waited to fetch my brother for 44 years, just. But it was at least 44 years too early. And I know that nearly everyone who reads this will have lost a loved one at some point in time. I know I’m not alone in experiencing the dark acts of life’s playbook. I just wish I hadn’t experienced it at all.

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Barry holding baby Wendy (me).

You see Barry isn’t just my brother, he was my best friend. Certainly that wasn’t always the case. We had a tumultuous relationship during childhood. His happy-go-lucky take nothing seriously personality greatly conflicted with my ultra-serious quick to anger and tears demeanor. Barry knew just which buttons to push and he played me like a piano.

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An early photo of the two of us.

But time and maturity changed us both and we actually became friends by our teenage years. Add in some differences of religious opinion with most of the rest of our family in which they broke off ties with the both of us and we became exceptionally close during adulthood.

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Barry always bought me sushi. What more could one ask of a brother?

It didn’t matter that we lived very different lives with me moving across the world and Barry staying in our home state of Alaska. I being a wanderer and him a highly respected police officer. We kept in touch, got together whenever we could, and were there to support the other’s dreams and aspirations. We were each other’s own personal cheerleaders. And we were immensely proud of each other.

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He was an outstanding uncle.

And then one day in early October of last year I received a message from him informing me that he had cancer. He’d been medevaced from Anchorage to Seattle and was beginning treatment. Initially, it was thought to be leukemia, but turned out to be double-hit lymphoma.

I’ll spare you the details on his treatment, on my struggles to get tested as a bone-marrow donor here in Ecuador, and how difficult it was to be halfway around the world when he was at his most vulnerable. None of that is relevant now.

What is important and applicable to future blog posts is the fact that he’s now gone. On December 20, 2016 Barry Odin Hetlet passed away.

I said that Barry was my best friend. But I’m not the only one to say that. He made everyone feel like they were important and meaningful and he had many people who considered him their best friend. I also said that he was a highly respected officer. That’s true. And it’s because he had a genuine concern for other people. He wanted to truly help. Sometimes that meant taking those who would hurt others off the streets, but sometimes it just meant being there to listen to people, to talk to them, and reassure them. Here’s an excellent video that shows just what kind of a man (and officer) he was.

I’ve tried writing this blog post dozens of times and I’ve deleted and rewritten and deleted and rewritten. It’s not a post that I wanted to write…not one that I ever imagined I would need to write…but I really can’t move forward until I’ve got this one out of the way. Maybe someday I’ll put it all down in words in a more eloquent detailed fashion. But not today. Four months on it’s still raw, still unreal, and it still hurts like hell. I love you big brother.

Earthquake Part II

In my last post I wrote about the damage caused by Ecuador’s big quake over a week ago. Since then there have been hundreds of aftershocks, some of which are quite large and have caused even more damage and further frightened an already shell-shocked population.

Most of the country is fine. Most of the population is functioning normally. But for the people in the areas that were hit hard life will never be the same. Entire cities have essentially crumbled. People have lost their homes, their belongings, and in the worst cases their lives. Everything is in disarray – schools are closed, people are not working because even if they still have a job to go to many are simply trying to rebuild their lives, electricity is still out in many areas as is internet.

A friend from Bahia sent pictures of his town in which not much remains. He says that people are sleeping in the streets, there is no food, no medicine, and most people don’t have more than one set of clothes. A friend of his was killed and the hospitals are full. It’s a heartbreaking situation.

Immediately after the quake many people from around the world and many expats here in Ecuador were chomping at the bit to be of help. Folks donated money to relief organizations, those in country donated food and clothing to designated drop-off sites, gave blood, and we all asked what more can we do?

It was urged that the average person not go to the coast to help. Unless you spoke good Spanish, had training for catastrophic emergencies, and could supply all of your own food, water, and shelter it was likely you’d be more of a hindrance than a help. So we sat. And waited.

One of my expat friends here in Cotacachi is a former RCMP officer from Canada. He does speak passable Spanish and has the training required in situations like this. Last weekend he was able to join a group headed to the coast to distribute provisions and spent four days helping local communities. Obviously supplies were limited and they didn’t have enough for everyone. Brian said that people were so desperate in some areas that they chased after the convoy and were begging for help.

So Brian and his wife Janette will be headed back to the coast in a couple of days to help those who haven’t seen assistance yet. They have received donations from friends and family allowing them to purchase enough supplies to make around 1,000 aid kits for families on the coast. And this morning my sons and I along with a few other friends went to help assemble the kits.

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Bagging up bars of soap.

Each kit contains a one cup bag of rice, two cans of tuna, a small package of peanut butter, a small package of cooking oil, a bottle of juice, one can of sardines or a package of ramen noodles, two packages of saltine crackers, a bar of soap, a tube of toothpaste, and a toothbrush. Shortly before leaving they will be purchasing bread rolls from a local bakery to give away along with the kits as well as bottles of water.

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Just a few of the items being assembled for kits.

They were also able to purchase a generator to donate to a medical clinic in Pedernales and dog food for families with pets.

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Packaging up dog food.
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Just a sampling of the hundreds of supply bags headed to the coast shortly.

Is it a long-term solution? No. But it will give families in remote areas something to help them get through until government supplies can reach them.

Brian was able to make contact with an Ecuadorean who is heading up further aid projects including rebuilding houses and shelters for families. Once the dust settles and the initial urgency is over I plan to join up in helping wherever I can. I’ll keep you all posted.

 

Close to Home: Ecuador’s Devastating Earthquake

As most of you have heard, Ecuador suffered a devastating earthquake on the evening of Saturday April 16, 2016. First, I want to assure everyone that my family is fine along with all of our friends and acquaintances here in Cotacachi. We are all safe and sound and didn’t suffer any property damage. Now, on to the details.

The 7.8 quake hit at around  7 p.m. and was centered just off the northern coast of Ecuador near the town of Muisne. I grew up in Alaska and have experienced plenty of earthquakes, but this was the strongest and longest quake I’ve ever been in.

At the time our family was out at our farm in Intag which is located approximately 100 miles away from the epicenter. Luckily we were in our shipping container house at the time so even though we were shaking and rattling we had no fear of our house collapsing around us so it wasn’t overly frightening. Of course we knew that we were lucky and that not everyone would escape unscathed.

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Sadly, much of Ecuador’s coast has sustained substantial damage. Because so many of the buildings here are concrete construction they don’t have much flexibility when the earth starts moving beneath them and they collapse or become dangerously damaged. A severe rainy season (thanks to El Niño) had already loosened up much of the soil in that region and when the quake hit it caused severe landslides which blocked many of the roads.

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Due to the landslides, cracked roads, and broken bridges it has been slow going as far as getting heavy equipment and life-saving supplies into the affected areas. Crews are on the ground working as hard as they can, but they have limited resources at the moment.

Priority seems to be going to the three main cities that were affected: Pedernales, Portoviejo, and Manta. But reports are coming in that some relief is finally making it to the smaller fishing villages along the coast. Currently over 480 people are confirmed dead, but no doubt that number will rise as rescue crews are able to access more areas.

The beautiful tourist town of Canoa is said to have 90% of its buildings rendered unusable. Bahia de Caraquez (where we lived for several months in 2012) sustained damage to 80% of the structures there. Electricity is out and internet and cell phone service is spotty at best in these areas.

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It’s tough to know that so many people are without homes, with limited food and drinking water, and in need of help. Many of us feel helpless to do anything useful. Organized rescue crews are on the scene, but it’s not advised that individual untrained people rush to the coast to help as it often creates more problems than solutions.

But I can do a few things. Yesterday the boys and I gathered up clothing and bought supplies to send down to the coast. Our local municipality was taking donations and we were able to drop off our items there. I’m hoping to get to Ibarra soon to donate blood at the Red Cross office there. And I can raise awareness about the situation here on my blog.

If you’re interested in helping too please consider donating to one of the following agencies or to any other well-researched aide group who is helping the victims of this earthquake.

Red Cross – This is one of the main agencies that is sending aid and volunteers to the affected areas of the coast. They are well-trained in emergency response and operate as a fairly well-oiled machine.

Unicef – Unicef has been providing water purification tablets to the affected area and is helping with hygiene issues. Clean drinking water is an urgent and sorely needed necessity right now and is one of the most requested items by rescue groups.

CARE – This organization is helping provide food, water, and shelter for victims of this earthquake. Many people lost their homes and all they had on Saturday. They have no shelter and do not know where their next meal or drink of water will come from. CARE is just one of the many agencies attempting to ease the suffering.

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180 Degrees of Adventure

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Muscovy duck among hibiscus flowers

By the beginning of 2015 our family had been in Ecuador for three years. We’d traveled the country and to surrounding nations. We’d launched, operated, and sold a successful restaurant. I delved into the world of freelance writing while David took on the challenge of teaching Spanish to expats. We met fascinating people and had amazing adventures and our lives were not wasted.

But something was missing. Some sense of fulfillment. And we began to search once again for that missing element.

At first we thought a return to the U.S. was the answer. We have family there of course, and the distance between continents and loved ones sometimes feels as far as the earth from the moon. But then we began to realize that a return to the States meant working 8 to 5 at corporate jobs once again. It meant buying a vehicle, a house, and all of those other little items and expenses that come sweeping in like a covert tsunami. In short…it meant a return to consumerism and the eat, sleep, work routine that funds it.

And that’s when David panicked. That was NOT, in fact, what was going to bring him fulfillment. Just the opposite actually. And so we moved on to plan B.

A couple of hours away from our home in Cotacachi…just around the back side of Mount Cotacachi and down into a cloud forest “valley”…lies the Zona de Intag. It’s a region that has been traditionally remote due to accessibility issues. But the soil is rich, the mountainous misty landscapes gorgeous, and it’s the kind of place that calls to those inclined towards self-sufficiency and a live-off-the-land approach. If you know David at all, you know he fell hard for the siren song of the Intag.

So, here we are today with approximately 75 acres of land that David is progressively turning into a viable farm. He lives out there most of the time with a trip or two into Cotacachi to buy supplies and take care of administrative tasks each month. My base is still at our house just outside of Cotacachi because that’s the best place for me to work and homeschool the boys (there is no internet access at our Intag farm). The boys and I try to head to the farm every weekend though it’s definitely not a set schedule. It may not be a traditional set up, but it works for all of us.

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Enjoying a weekend on the farm-Jesse riding Cali

Instead of building a house out in Intag we had a shipping container brought in and we converted that into a living space. It’s not Pinterest-worthy, but it works perfectly well with sleeping space for all of us, a mini-kitchen, dining area, and storage for a whole lot of *things.* The cost was about the same as having a small house built but the big advantage was that it was an immediate housing solution and there were no construction headaches. We did have a small outdoor building with a bathroom and washing area built as that’s the norm in this area and honestly we really didn’t have room for that in our container.

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Our container just after delivery

David has been very busy planting avocado trees, plantain and banana trees, clearing pasture, fixing fences, running and repairing water line, corralling wayward cattle and dealing with ravenous horses. It’s never ending work, but he’s happy and fulfilled. And I’m happy for him.

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The view from one of our pastures

Stay tuned because this venture is a big part of our lives now and one that’s sure to take up a lot of space on this blog.

 

Where Have I Been?

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So I’ve not posted on this blog since last June and you might notice that the blog name has changed. So has the look. I didn’t actually fall off the face of the earth and I’ve not tired of blogging. And yes, my family and I are still in Ecuador. But sometimes life throws us curveballs that explode into flames and that’s how the latter half of 2015 went down for me. Here’s a quick rundown of my past ten months.

In July my domain name for this site was up for renewal and set to auto-renew through PayPal. Except that just before the renewal PayPal thought I had been hacked (I hadn’t, but I did sign in from a different location and IP address) and froze my account. It’s a long and boring story but essentially after weeks of fighting with PayPal I regained access, but too late to save my domain name. Being unwilling to pay the king’s ransom required to get my domain out of cyberspace limbo I opted to change names and was working on that.

In the meantime I had a work trip to several areas of Colombia to plan and execute. We also bought property in the Intag Valley and David was working hard to turn it into a viable farm. More on that in a future post. And then just a few days before I left for Colombia I received what I thought was the worst news I would ever get. Turns out I was wrong. The worst news came at the end of December. More on that in a future post also.

Suffice to say my life was turned upside down and this blog became a very low priority. I’m finally getting some sense of normalcy back in my life now. And people have been asking about my blog and when it will be back. So I guess now is the time to resurface and share my adventures, life, and whatever else needs to be thrown out into the universe.

I’ll be back soon with real posts about real things. So stay tuned.

An American Musical Education in Ecuador

So you might think that living in a small Latin American town might be detrimental to the education of my sons. After all it can be tough to find quality education in rural areas of North America let alone that of Ecuador. And it’s true that I do devote a good portion of my time to keeping my boys up to par with their math, literature, history, and science, but luckily the advent of the internet, e-readers, and tablets makes my job far easier than it would have been just a generation ago.

But one of the really fantastic things about Cotacachi is the other expats who live here. They are all so diverse and have the most interesting backgrounds. Some of them are skilled musicians and my boys have had the privilege of playing with and learning from a few of them.

Justin began playing guitar at the age of six in Idaho and so he had a nice foundation before we moved, but he has learned so much from the expats here. He’s been introduced to different musical styles and been pushed to learn new things of his own.

Jesse began playing drums under the instruction of another expat here and for his birthday this past spring we bought him his own electric drum set. Now both boys can play and practice together which I really love. Here’s an example of a recent song they learned – I hope you enjoy it.

Touring the Andean Farm Country

I’m not usually the type who likes to take group tours. I’ve been on a few and between the obnoxious know-it-all loudmouth tourists and the limitations on how far I can stray from the group it’s usually just not my cup of tea. But rules are made to be broken and I’m glad I broke my ban on tours just this once for a really great local tour.

Sometimes businesses come up with unique and brilliant ways of marketing. For a local credit union the idea was to show potential customers how the institution was supporting the local community and small business owners. And so they developed a monthly tour that takes guests through the northern Andes and shows them the operations that are benefiting from their loans.

So at 8:30 on Friday morning I, along with 15 other expats and a few bank employees boarded a small private bus and set off. We traveled through the countryside on back roads that I’ve never been on before. That’s one of the only downsides of not owning a vehicle is that I can’t explore the areas beyond the major thoroughfares.

First we stopped at a small farm near the community of Imantag where they grew beans but made most of their money from honey production. We didn’t get too close to the hives, but the woman who owns the farm was happy to tell us about her business and how the credit union’s loans have helped her.

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The view near Imantag

 

We continued on towards Itubi to see a large tomato farm, but first we stopped for magnificent photo ops.

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Look at that fertile valley!

 

Even though I’ve lived here for three and a half years I am still stunned by the natural beauty around every turn in the road. To make it even better the weather gods shone down on us (literally) after several days of rain which simply accentuated the brilliance of the vistas.

In Salinas we stopped for snacks and a bathroom break and a look at the train station. There is a stretch of railroad that is still in use between Otavalo and Salinas (though it used to continue on down to the coast until the nearby river rose and ruined the tracks). Today the train is used for tourism purposes and when it stops in Salinas the passengers are greeted with dancing by the local Afro-Ecuatoriano population.  We were not so lucky and the town was dead as can be since most residents work elsewhere.

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Salinas train station

 

Interestingly at the snack bar inside the train station there was a sign advertising “Helados de Tuna.” In Spanish helado is ice cream, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the tuna part. I was fairly positive they weren’t referring to the fish as a). no one in their right mind would want fish ice cream and b). in Spanish the word for tuna is atun. I was perplexed for the next few hours until I overheard one of the bank employees talking about tunas. Turns out it’s the fruit that grows on the prickly pear cactus which are numerous in that area. Mystery solved, but now I regret not sampling the ice cream.

In the town of Mira we stopped for lunch which was a delicious catered meal. The appetizer was a plate of shrimp with some sort of sauce drizzled over it. I wouldn’t know how it was as I’m shrimp intolerant, but the rest of the group seemed happy with them.

The main course came with a salad mixed with fruit, mashed yucca, seasoned rice with raisins, and chicken cordon blue. The vegetarians in the group were given a falafel type patty which I’m told was rather good. I was stuffed at the end, but managed to make room for the vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce which was served at the end.

After gorging ourselves we headed over to check out a large farm nearby. When I say large, I mean by Ecuador standards, not the massive corporate farms that you see these days in the U.S. This is something that one family can manage by themselves with maybe hiring seasonal workers to help during the harvest.

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I could live here. Yes, I think I could.

 

Anyhow, this man had acres and acres of avocado trees bordered by coffee plants. As the trees grow they’ll provide shade for the coffee making a nice symbiotic relationship. On the far end of his property were greenhouses for tomatoes and at the other end were rows of young peach trees. He also owned another nearby plot of land where he grew hundreds of orange and mandarina (tangerine) trees and we were all encouraged to pick and eat any ripe ones we could find. I guess the loss of a few dozen oranges is nothing when your trees are producing tens of thousands.

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Mira farm land

 

This was the second tour the credit union had put on and they were told by the first group that it was too long as that tour lasted eleven hours. We skipped a couple of stops that were on the original tour and ours still lasted ten hours. I won’t complain as I think it was worth every minute. The bus was roomy and comfortable, my fellow tour attendees were great, and I got to see a large portion of Imbabura province and the neighboring Carchi that I would have never known existed.

To top it off when we returned we were asked into the office for a moment. Of course they made a little spiel about how they would like us to invest our money with them. (It didn’t bother me in the least though as David and I have already put money in a CD at this institution where we’re earning close to 9% APR – personally I think it’s a great deal.) But the speech didn’t last long and then we were presented with baskets full of goodies from the small businesses that are supported by the credit union.

Each basket included a small bottle of avocado oil, a small bottle of artisan sugar cane liquor, a bag of mandarinas, a bag of tomatoes, a small container of moras (blackberries), a box of chocolates, and a frozen trout.

Oh, and did I mention that the entire thing was free? That’s right. No charge for the tour, no charge for the bus, no cost for the food, nothing. 100% free. They say you get what you pay for, but in this case we got far more!

Check out some of the fabulous foods being grown in my neck of the woods!

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Peach blossoms on a young tree

 

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Tomatoes ripening on the vine

 

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Sugar cane surrounded by bean plants

 

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Loaded lemon tree against a darkening sky

 

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Delicious nutritious avocados

 

The Quick and Easy Method for Obtaining an Ecuadorean Driver’s License

License

One of the perks of living in Ecuador is the lack of needing a vehicle. Some expats buy a car when they move here because they want the freedom of their own wheels. Or maybe they have a business that requires hauling supplies around. Or they may be frequent travelers. And for those folks it makes sense.

But, for us the cost and hassle of vehicle maintenance does not outweigh the slight inconveniences of life without one. Ecuador’s public transportation system is widespread and cheap. I would have to take a cross-country bus trip a thousand times or more before I would come close to spending what I would on a decent vehicle. So for now buses, taxis, my bicycle, and my own two feet are my preferred modes of domestic travel.

However, that doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up my driver’s license. I want to be able to legally drive if ever the need arises in Ecuador. I also want a valid driver’s license for car rental in other countries. And since my husband’s U.S. driver’s license was about to expire (mine will in November of this year) we decided to go ahead and get Ecuadorean licenses.

Now, David has been working on getting one for about a year. At that time the law required that you take a multi-week driver’s ed course first. This was time intensive and only offered in the town 30 minutes away. This of course was not an appealing option. David has been driving for close to 40 years now and didn’t need to be taught how, not to mention the cost, time, and lost wages.

So, he was told of a woman in Ibarra who knew the back-door route to getting a license. I won’t rehash that sad episode here, but after much time, money, and frustration he got nowhere.

Fast forward to the end of last year when Canadian friends of ours, after a bit of trial and error, found the way to receive an Ecuadorean driver’s license without taking the course. They shared the info with us and it worked like a charm. In fact this was the smoothest bureaucratic experience I’ve had thus far in Ecuador. And so I will now share with you how to obtain a valid Ecuadorean DL the easy way.

Please note that all information below is valid as of April 24, 2015. Laws, policies, and procedures are always subject to change. Also, the below steps assume that you have a valid and current U.S. driver’s license.

Step 1: Request your driving record from the state where your driver’s license was issued. Take the original copy to a certified translator and have it translated into Spanish. Next take it (both the original and translated document) to a notary (in Ecuador) and have it notarized.

Step 2: Go to your local Red Cross office and get your blood typed. Even if you know your blood type you need to have the official Red Cross card with your blood type on it.

Step 3: Have a color copy made of your U.S. driver’s license (front and back), your Red Cross blood type card, and your Ecuadorean cedula (front and back). Have them copied all on the same page.

Step 4: Get a small passport sized color photo taken of yourself.

Step 5: Get an official vision and coordination (psicosensometrico) exam. We had ours done at the ANETA driving school in Ibarra.

Step 6: Print and fill out this form.

Step 7: Study for the driver’s exam test. If you’ve ever driven before, it is very simple as the rules are the same in Ecuador as they are in the U.S. The catch however is that the test is in Spanish. But even if your Spanish is not great a bit of studying should get you through just fine. There are 20 questions on the test out of over 200+ possible questions and you must get 16 or more correct to pass. You can find all of the sample questions here. Note you’ll want the questions for license type B.

Step 8: Make an appointment to get your driver’s license. Go to the ANT (Agencia Nacional de Transito) website to make the appointment. Again, choose the option for a new license type B. When choosing the office in which to get your license, try a larger office in a city. The employees there are more likely to know about the new regulations which allow foreigners to obtain a license without going to the driving school. We used the Occidental office in Quito.

Once you’ve done all that, put together the package you’ll take to the ANT office. This should include your notarized driving record, copy of driver’s license, blood type card, and cedula, vision and coordination exam documents, the completed form from step 6, original U.S. driver’s license, original blood type card, original cedula, original passport, and printed appointment verification.

When you get to the office you’ll wait for your turn and give the package to the employee at the desk who will verify that all the documents are in order. Once that is done you can go pay your $65 fee at Banco Pacifico. At the Occidental office there is a bank right inside the office making it very easy and convenient.

Go back to the desk with your receipt, get your photo taken, thumb print scanned, and sign the electronic pad. Now everything is in order to print your license once you pass the test.

You’ll be given a form to take to the exam room. The attendant there will look at your form and assign you a computer where you take the test. Keep in mind you have one minute per question and once you select an answer you’ll move to the next question. You will also not be told if you chose the correct answer or not, but at the end of the test you’ll be given your total score.

Once you pass, the exam attendant will give you some papers to take to licensing window and a few minute later you’ll be handed back your shiny new driver’s license.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

When dealing with government agencies I’ve found it’s always best to be over-prepared. In addition to the package of documents I mention after step #8, we also brought our birth certificates and marriage certificate. It’s better to have too much information than not enough and risk being turned away.

At the Occidental office there is a kiosk downstairs where employees check through your paperwork before you go to your appointment. We were advised not to stop there. Just go upstairs and proceed to our appointment. The theory is that the fewer people who look at your papers the less likely someone is to have a problem with them. It worked for us, hopefully it will for you too.

Be patient. Everything in this process required waiting. We waited two hours to take our vision and coordination test. The licensing process itself took an hour and a half. Bring a book, people watch, or practice your Spanish. Getting upset and annoyed at the wasted time won’t make things move any faster.

All in all, our experience was very easy. We found the employees to be helpful and friendly. Good luck in your quest for an Ecuadorean driver’s license and please let me know if you find any changes to the procedure so I can update this post.