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Latitude Adjustment by John And Susan Pazera - 1w ago
Almost every Guatapé home is colorfully decorated and accented by beautiful flowers

Planning a trip to Medellin, Colombia? Be sure and put the picturesque little town of Guatapé on your list. A two-hour bus ride away, Guatapé sits on the banks of the Peñol – Guatapé reservoir, created with the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the late 1970s. This beautiful lake covers a vast area in the central Colombia highlands, and

La piedra soars more than 600 feet above the lake district of Guatapé.

the best way to appreciate it is to climb to the top of El Peñon de Guatapé, jutting incongruously out of the lakeside landscape. It’s 740 back-and-forth steps to the very top of the lookout platform, but the view is worth it!

El Peñon is about a 30-minutes walk, or a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride, from Guatapé proper. We wandered for several hours through the town and marveled at the colorful and beautifully painted bas-relief “zocalos” gracing almost every house and business. These zocalos are a uniquely Colombian art form, and they represent everything from the surrounding natural world to the type of business you might find in the building, or the occupation of the family that lives within.

Our tips:
To do Guatapé right, spend at least a night there. We stayed in

The colorful tuk-tuk taxis of Guatapé

one of the hotels right on the waterfront, which we don’t recommend – the street fronting the lake is NOISY into the late night and then early the next morning with truck and bus traffic.

Guatapé is a very popular weekend and vacation spot for Medellin residents, and – since we were there just after Christmas – it was packed. Next time we go, we’ll make sure it’s not a holiday.

Getting there from Medellin is easy and inexpensive. The busses leave from the north bus terminal every hour, and the fare is about $12,000 COP (about $4 US).

Another colorful home This family must be in cattle or farming, or both Every building is decked out – and some are in better shape than others A famous fountain Just another day in colorful Guatapé “Shoe repairman lives here” A very musical facade A bakery / candy shop
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A stunning array of gold artifacts at the Gold Museum

Bogotá, Colombia’s vibrant capital city, is a museum-lover’s paradise, with upwards of 50 museums covering every imaginable aspect of Colombian culture. On our recent visit, we made it to two: the world-famous Gold Museum (or in Spanish “El Museo del Oro”), and the National Museum, which we stumbled on quite by accident on a New Year’s Eve stroll through downtown Bogotá.

Museo del Oro
Ask visitors to name their highlights of a trip to Bogotá, and they’ll always say, “Don’t miss the Gold Museum!” It’s the showcase for more than 55,000 priceless archaeological and artistic treasures from each of Colombia’s many pre-Colombian indigenous groups. We’re told that only a fraction of the artifacts can be displayed at any one time, and it’s the largest collection of its type in the world. It took us almost four hours to go through all of the exhibits, and the audio tour is well worth it, adding details that aren’t available in the exhibits themselves (which are described in both Spanish and English). The museum charts the history of an incredibly rich and vibrant culture that existed before Europeans set foot in the Americas, stressing the importance of goldcraft in the daily lives of these ancient ones. 

Hours: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday
Admission: $3 (you read that right!) with an additional $5 for the audio tour

A conch shell painstakingly covered in gold foil by a craftsman who lived thousands of years ago. If you look closely you can see little creases in the foil and little pins holding it in place. Ceremonial masks in solid gold Breastplates depicting various dieties A solid gold breastplate This exhibit had its own vault doors, but we’re not sure why – the artifacts were no more splendid than in any of the other rooms. A fully outfitted warrier, ready for battle The Gold Museum also has a priceless collection of pre-Colombian ceramic pieces Another ceramic piece with ceremonial feathers Another fabulous breastplate

Here is a great short YouTube video that captures it well:

✈Bogota Gold Museum - YouTube

 Museo Nacional de Colombia

The National Museum is Colombia’s biggest and is also one of the oldest museums in South America, housed in the Panóptico prison built in 1823. This fortress-like building operated as a prison right up until 1946, and it’s

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It’s hard to believe, but almost three years have passed since we started our little blog – and today we’ve reached a milestone: our 100th post! Latitude Adjustment started as a way to document our experiences planning for and moving from Southern California to Boquete, Panama. It’s fun reading that very first post and reflecting on how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve done, in only three years.

Blogging away in the Bahamas!

As we’ve settled into our expat lives, Latitude Adjustment has evolved to more of a travelogue and less of a “day-to-day living as an expat” blog. The biggest reason is that we’ve stepped up our travel game in the last couple of years, and there’s just so much we want to share about our experiences. Since we’ve moved, we’ve visited many regions in Panama as well as Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, Uruguay, and Argentina – and I’m writing this from the Abacos, Bahamas.

If you’re thinking – “Boy, those people must be rich,” or “Darn, I’d like to travel like that, but I can’t” – first, we’re not rich, not by any means. It’s just that, throughout our marriage, we’ve made experiences (rather than owning a huge house and a lot of stuff) our priority. And second, of course you can – it’s easier and safer than you think, and there are many ways to travel on a budget. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, by an author named Richard Bode:

For the truth is that I already know as much about my fate as I need to know. The day will come when I will die. So the only matter of consequence before me is what I will do with my allotted time. I can remain on shore, paralyzed with fear, or I can raise my sails and dip and soar in the breeze.

Sittin’ on the dock of the bay with a sundowner – John, editor in chief!

As our blog continues to take on more of a travel and adventure focus, we owe a big debt of gratitude to other travel bloggers who have paved the way and given us great inspiration and advice. Here’s a shout out to five of our favorites. If you think we’ve done some traveling, wait until you’ve visited these sites! They’re our travel, blogging, and photography role models:
www.totraveltoo.com
www.passingthru.com
www.noparticularplacetogo.net
www.indahs.com
www.harindabama.com

And to you, our loyal readers, THANK YOU for stopping by, making comments, and following our blog. Stay tuned — there’s so much more to come!!

Cheers,
John and Susan

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Latitude Adjustment by John And Susan Pazera - 1w ago
This is George the Nassau grouper. He and I became best buds.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with diving. Although John and I have been PADI-certified for a long time, it’s only been in the last couple of years (since we moved to Panama) that we’ve finally gotten a decent number of confidence-building dives under our belts. Up until then, I just didn’t see the point, because I hadn’t had any peak diving experiences. Murky water, dead coral, cumbersome and heavy equipment, and always a little twinge of fear that something would go wrong. Remind me again why I want to spend my day, and a chunk of money, doing this?

Me, in full-on blissed-out diver mode

That all changed yesterday, when we dove the Fowl Cays National Park in the Abacos, Bahamas. It was by far the clearest water and best visibility that I – and John, who’s got more experience – have ever had. Lots and lots of beautiful fish, relatively healthy and colorful coral, and interesting caves to swim through. At times it felt like we were swimming around in a big aquarium in someone’s living room, and if we looked closely we could see couches, coffee tables, and TV sets in the distance. I’ve finally had my peak experience, and it’s the first time I’ve ever felt truly calm, comfortable, and at peace with the whole diving thing.

But wait, you say. You people just got back from a big trip to Colombia, right? What are you doing in the

Michael, the owner of Dive Time, keeps a watchful eye

Bahamas? The short answer is that we actually had this trip planned well before we decided to spend the holidays in Colombia, which is an easy and inexpensive trip from Panama. We usually try to go somewhere nice for our anniversary, and, well, the hourglass is sifting away. Carpe diem, Bahamas!

Here’s a shout-out to Michael (owner) and David (our dive master) at Dive Time, out of Marsh Harbor. If you ever find yourselves in the Abacos with a jones for diving, they’re your guys. Thanks again for a great day, Michael and David!

Heading out. Me on the right, with a (minor) problem – my tank wasn’t securely attached. David the dive master to the rescue, with an assist from George the grouper Please? I want to help! Really, George?? This was one persistent fish! He actually brushed my cheek just after this pic. Good to go. Experienced divers – yes, I know my octopus was loose. I was taking care to keep it off the coral and I fixed it for the second dive. George was this big! Quite a bit bigger, actually Swimming in an aquarium. Sergeant majors, blue tangs, and yellowtail snappers Happy Chanukah, from 40 below! Crazy great visibility!
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Volcan Baru in all its dry-season splendor. The rainbows are worth the price of admission!

After almost three years of expat living in Panama, we still hear two questions pretty frequently: 1) Is the cost of living really lower there than in the U.S. or Canada? and 2) What are your actual living expenses there? We’ll get to the second one in a minute, but as to the first — it’s highly subjective. Where are you coming from? Where in Panama do you want to live? How fancy do you want your lifestyle to be, and how important is “stuff” to you? Will you rent or own your home? How much do you travel? And those are just a few of the factors that come into play.

Everyone’s situation is different, but here are a few facts about us. We’re not wealthy by any means, but we’ve both worked hard all our lives and planned carefully to secure a comfortable retirement. We came from Southern California, one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S. We own a modest home in Boquete and do not live extravagantly, but we’ve avoided making ourselves “house poor” or putting ourselves into a “watching every penny” situation. At this point in our lives, travel is a large priority and represents a significant chunk of our budget. But we’d rather spend our money on experiences than on accumulating “stuff.”

The sum total of the possessions we brought to Panama – including pups in their crates

About That “Stuff”
We moved to Boquete in May 2015 with six large pieces of luggage, a couple of backpacks, and two dog crates, and we couldn’t be happier. In fact, we don’t really miss (much less remember) the stuff we sold in Long Beach before we moved. That’s not a knock on people who ship all of their furniture and belongings down in a 40-foot container. There’s a lot to be said for bringing items that give you comfort when you’re adjusting to a new culture; it’s just not our MO. And we can point you to several stories of folks who spent tens of thousands of dollars moving down here with all their stuff (even vehicles), only to have to sell it at a big loss or ship it back again after deciding Panama wasn’t for them.

In short, the more stuff you bring, the more it’s going to cost to bring it here, and the more you’ll have to spend on housing for the stuff. Plus, more stuff makes it harder logistically to move from place to place. For some folks, that’s just fine – they’ll stay rooted here – but we’re rolling stones and it’s important to us to stay mobile.

George Carlin Talks About "Stuff" - YouTube

Location, Location, Location
Like most places, Panama offers a wide variety of terrains and climates, and the cost of living is also variable. Boquete isn’t the least expensive spot in the country (and prices have been on an upswing lately), but it’s not as costly as some of the upscale neighborhoods in and around Panama City. If you like the bustle of a growing city that’s not only very affordable but rapidly developing its own personality, consider David – but be forewarned; it’s the hottest city in Panama (especially during the dry season). Some of the beach communities near David are less expensive than those near Panama City, but they’re also pretty remote.

A panoramic view of Boquete and the Caldera River

We settled on Boquete for its temperate climate (we don’t do well in extremely hot weather and we hate having to live in air conditioning) and its stunning mountain vistas. Life is good in the cloud forest, where the best coffee in the world is grown and the air is fresh. The temperature rarely gets above 25 C (about 77 F), and the breezes keep everything nice and comfortable most of the time. And when we need a beach fix, it’s a 30-40 minute drive down to the coast.

Rent or Buy?
One of the first pieces of advice you’ll probably get as a new expat – and we couldn’t agree more – is to rent for a while. Before you make a commitment as big as buying a home, try the Panama expat lifestyle on for size (it’s not for everyone).

We never set out to buy a house, but our situation became a little more complicated because of the rental market and also because of our dogs. When we first moved here, a lot of other folks were doing the same thing, and we simply ran out of time to find a long-term rental that would a) meet our standards, b) allow dogs, and c) offer the high-speed internet Susan needs for her job. We wrote at length about the challenge in this post. The good news is that things have now swung back the other way and it’s very much a renter’s market at the moment.

Home Sweet Boquete Home

As our six-month, temporary lease was drawing to a close and with no suitable long-term rental in sight, we decided to look for a home to buy. We put pen to paper and realized just how much money we’d be able to save if we could stop throwing it away on rent. Also, for the first time ever, we were in a position to be able to pay cash for a house. We loved living here (still do), and it just didn’t make sense not to buy. Plus, we got extremely lucky and found a perfect house that was already fully furnished.

Of course, this choice isn’t for everyone and plenty of people don’t have the rental constraints we did. Plus, as I said, the market’s different now. But we know we made the right decision for us. Buying a home here has lots of pluses – there’s a multi-year tax exemption on most home purchases (we have 14 years to go on ours). Also, we can easily close up the house or rent it out for extra income if we head out for long-term travel in the future. And not having a mortgage is a definite advantage in the monthly budget.

When we bought our house, there were plenty of good options in the $175K – $250K market. Prices have gone up somewhat in the meantime, but there are still quite a few nice homes on the market. There seems to be a bit of an exodus lately – several expats we know have either moved back north, or they’re headed for new destinations such as Medellin, Colombia.

A Few Other Factors
What about transportation? In Boquete, it’s possible to get around and down to David and back using buses and taxis, but at some point you’ll probably want a car (we did). Some people opt to ship a vehicle down, but there’s absolutely no need to incur that expense (not only shipping but customs fees) when there are plenty of excellent used cars available here.

Our second highest monthly expense is health insurance. We know plenty of people who opt to “go naked” and try to cover themselves if they have a medical expense, but we’re just not comfortable doing that, especially since neither of us qualifies for Medicare in the U.S. yet. It’s true that healthcare in Panama is significantly less expensive here than in the states (don’t get me started) but it’s not free. We’ve written plenty about our quest for health insurance; the latest post is here.  

Our Numbers
To simplify things, we’ve just listed our recurring, monthly living expenses here. Not included are travel expenses including airfare, lodging, meals, and other trip incidentals, as well as life insurance premiums and any money we’ve spent over the last couple of years on one-time, larger home improvements.

HOUSING $260
Routine maintenance, gardener, cleaning lady, home and property insurance

UTILITIES $182
Electricity $59
Cable TV/Internet, 50 mgs, $73
Propane, $17
Cell phone data/minutes $25 (both phones)
Water and trash pickup, $8 (yes, you read that right!)

MEDICAL/HEALTH INSURANCE $585
Includes a global policy that covers us anywhere in the world, including the U.S., and also a local “discount plan” for services rendered by the private hospitals here. We will consider dropping some coverage once we are eligible for Medicare.

MISC. MEDICAL AND PRESCRIPTION DRUGS: $128
Includes doctor visits and insurance deductibles.

FOOD AND BEVERAGE: $600
We love food, wine, and sharing it with our friends, and we entertain a few times a month. This is significantly lower than it was in Long Beach, where we didn’t do nearly as much entertaining.

EATING OUT/ENTERTAINMENT/MEDIA $370
This includes exercise classes, hiking fees, local weekend local getaways, music venues (e.g., the Boquete Jazz Fest), media costs such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and online news subscriptions.

TRANSPORTATION $261
Auto insurance, gas, registration, taxis, buses, and car maintenance.

MISC. HOUSEHOLD AND PET COSTS $148
Cleaning and office supplies, dog grooming, dog food, vet visits, dog meds.

SHIPPING $94
Since mail is unreliable in Panama, we use a shipping service for occasional shipment of items down from the states. It’s expensive but reliable and convenient.

CLOTHING/MISC. $295

DONATIONS $50
Includes donations to local community and animal organizations.

TOTAL $2,973

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Latitude Adjustment by John And Susan Pazera - 1w ago

We’d always heard good things about diving in Cartagena. Since we had a trip planned there over the holidays, we decided to give it a go. This was our third dive trip of the year so we were both hoping for good visibility.

We chose the Cartagena dive outfitter Diving Planet because of its great reviews. Also, they only make dive trips to the Rosario Islands, which are very protected and tend to enjoy good conditions throughout the year. We had a great experience with Diving Planet; check them out here. As a bonus, it turns out that Diving Planet donates a portion of its revenues to helping disabled divers – including amputees – enjoy the underwater world.

It was a long but rewarding day. We started at 8 a.m. at the dive shop, located in the heart of the walled historic quarter of Cartagena. The shop’s van took us to the marina, 10 minutes away. From there, we rode a bumpy water taxi to the Hotel Majagua on Isla Grande (note to self: this would be a great place to spend a couple of chill nights!)  where Diving Planet has its base of operations in the islands. By 10 am we were all in the dive boat and headed out on the short 15-minute ride to the first dive spot. One back flip into the warm waters later (no wetsuit needed – whoopee!) and we were off on our first dive to 45 feet. Sweet!

Great visibility? Check. Live and healthy coral? Check. Abundant marine life and lots of brilliant fish? Check. And the second dive had the advantage of giving us some practice with drift diving, as we encountered a strong current. All in all, a great day!

Next dive trip: the Abacos, Hopetown, Bahamas.

Checking the gear Full boat Easy stuff? 45 feet Trying out new Nikon underwater camera

Tubular coral

Very good equipment. Off to the next dive spot

Ahhh!

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Latitude Adjustment by John And Susan Pazera - 1w ago
View looking southwest from atop the Basilica del Voto Nacional to El Panecillo and the Winged Virgin of Quito

First of all, four days is not enough to see and appreciate Quito. We had always planned only a short stay in this fantastic colonial city as the jumping-off point for our trip to the Galápagos Islands. But we did hit some important highlights – and, best of all, we have a list of things to do when we come back (which will happen). We call this our Quito shakedown.

A few general observations about Quito:

  • It’s high country, more than 2,850 meters (9,350) feet. Luckily, we didn’t feel any ill effects from the altitude unless you count the huffing and puffing we did up the city’s impossibly steep hills. Our tour guide, a native Quiteña, did mention that even folks that grew up there get winded climbing those hills (or maybe she was trying to make the two middle-aged gringos feel better!).
  • Situated in a deep and elongated valley surrounded by the Andes, Quito reminds us a lot of Medellin, Colombia, but without the tall, red-brick high-rises.
  • It’s true that the sun shines brighter and closer at the equator. Bring the sunblock.

So, in the spirit of one of those airline magazines, here’s the blow-by-blow of our first two days in Quito, the gem of Ecuador and its capital city.

Day One – Settling In
We arrived in the late afternoon at Quito’s new-ish and ultra-modern Mariscal Sucre International Airport, situated about 11 miles east of the city. UIO has the distinction of being the first all-new airport to be built in the Caribbean, Central, or South America in the past decade. It was a pleasure to fly in and out of this well-thought-out and highly efficient airport four times, counting our trip to the Galápagos.

Maria’s cozy loft apartment

We were met by our driver, Rene Sandoval, who took us into the city and to our Airbnb lodging – a beautifully decorated but snug and cozy loft apartment in a historic building just four blocks from the Plaza Central in Quito’s historic district. For less than $100 a night, we had everything we needed, and the host, Maria, even left us fresh flowers and some groceries (fruit, cheese, crackers, eggs, butter, cold cuts, coffee, and wine) to tide us over.

After settling into Maria’s place, we took our famished selves out to find a dinner spot. Our noses led us to the Plaza Central and a fabulous restaurant, Hasta la Vuelta Señor. Situated on the top floor of the historic Archbishop’s Palace, this place offered up wonderful Ecuadoran cuisine, an excellent wine list, and a very interesting back story about a fun-loving monk – all for the budget-breaking price of $68 for both of us (including a bottle of wine).

We were so hungry we almost forgot to take the picture! The shrimp ceviche was to die for. A bowl of popcorn is nearly always served at Ecuadoran restaurants.

Tips for the day:

  • Hiring a driver like Rene (rsandovall666@hotmail.com) will save you time and money. Rene drove us to and from the airport (a half-hour trip each way) and gave us a full day exploring Otavalo and surrounding sites (a two-plus-hour drive from Quito), all for less than $200.
  • So far we’ve had great luck with our Airbnb experiences, and we can’t recommend Maria’s apartment enough. Here’s the listing.
  • Hasta la Vuelta Señor. As a bonus, it seems to be open later than other nearby restaurants, many of which close by 8 p.m.
At the equator on the day of the equinox, items and people cast almost no shadow at noon.

Day Two – Seeing the Sights
As luck would have it, our first full day in Quito was Sept. 22, which happened to be the autumnal solstice. According to Marisol, our tour guide, this was a very auspicious day on the Incan calendar. It’s one of two days out of the year where the sun is almost exactly overhead at noon, a phenomenon that only exists at or near the equator.

Very tipico Ecuadoran cuisine at El Balcon

After breakfasting on Maria’s groceries, we met at the Community Hostel for our free walking tour led by Marisol. This three-hour tour (I know what tune’s in YOUR head now!) stretched into almost five hours and covered almost all of the major points of interest in and around the historic district including the National Theater, President’s Palace, Archbishop’s Palace, numerous ornate and monumental old Catholic churches, and Quito’s famous Calle La Ronda, known for its artisan workshops during the day and vibrant night life when the sun sets.

Our excellent guide, Marisol, at Community Hostel

Following our marathon tour, we were once again famished – and discovered a restaurant row on Eugenio Espejo street just off the Parque Central. We finally settled on an upstairs cafe named El Balcon, where we enjoyed an authentic Ecuadoran lunch and a couple of “Latitud Cero” microbrews.

Instead of dinner that night, we went for another Community Hostel offering, the Friday Food Tour. And who should turn up as our guide but . . . Marisol! Not only was she a font a knowledge, but her pride in her home city was a joy. She was a kick to hang out with all day.

Tips for the day:

  • Most of the world’s major cities now have some sort of free (plus whatever you decide to tip the guide) walking tour. We’ve done them in Amsterdam, Montevideo, Panama City, Buenos Aires, and now Quito. It’s been a quality experience every time, and it’s a great way to connect with fellow travelers and exchange tips.
  • Community Hostel is a real find, just up the street from the Centro Mercado. Not only did we book the walking tour and food tour there, but they offer a wealth of other activities at very reasonable prices (including last-minute specials to the Galapagos). Although we didn’t partake, we understand they serve an excellent breakfast and dinner.
Starting our day, from atop Community Hostel Looking towards the central mercado, with La Basilica del Voto Nacional looming in the background
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Latitude Adjustment by John And Susan Pazera - 1w ago

Day Three – Otavalo and Environs

The triple zeros told the GPS tale at the Quitsato Sundial.

Our third day in Quito started with an early wake-up call for our trip to the Otavalo Market. With our trusty driver, Rene, at the wheel for the two-plus-hour trip, we made our first stop near the town of Cayambe at the Quitsato Sundial. Quitsato is touted as the “true” tourist destination for standing on the equator (another far more-visited site – and, from what we’ve heard, a lot more touristy – is the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, but the monument there is several meters off from the ACTUAL equator). Sure enough, our iPhone GPS backed Quitsato’s claim.

Since we were visiting the sundial the day after the autumnal solstice, we were able to note an interesting phenomenon: the tall column in the middle casts a shadow ALMOST perfectly aligned with the line designating the equator (if we’d visited the day before, it would have been dead on).

On the day after the autumnal solstice, our shadows were almost perfectly bisected when we stood on the equator line.

Quitsato is run by a nonprofit group that does a very nice job of presenting the sundial’s historical and astronomical context, especially regarding the pre-Incan cultures and various archaeological sites in the area. The group, www.quitsato.org, is conducting several research projects and has some intriguing ideas about the earth’s orientation, proposing that we think of the equator as the dividing line with the southern hemisphere to the right and the northern hemisphere to the left (as opposed to our traditional perspective that up is north and down is south). It’s based on the idea that east (Oriente in Spanish, which is also the root of the verb “to orient”) should be the geographical reference because – at least from our perspective as Earthlings – that’s the where the stars, planets, moon, and sun appear thanks to the Earth’s rotation. I’m not sure I really get the point, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Quitsato Sundial. Note how the column’s shadow is aligned with the equator line, the lighter-colored line that ends at the stone observation tower on the left. Indigenous street vendors at Otavalo

From there, it’s another half hour to Otavalo and its famed artisan market. Every Thursday, this spectacular market takes over most of the little town of Otavalo, and it’s an absolutely must for any Quito visitor. Check out our separate post about the Otavalo market here. 

At Laguna Cuicocha
After shopping til we dropped in Otavalo, we made a lunch stop in the quaint town of Cotacachi, and then moved on to Laguna Cuicocha or “Lake of the Guinea Pigs. This lovely crater lake derives its name from two islands that, from a certain perspective, resemble the backs of guinea pigs (the Kichwa indigenous word for guinea pig being “cuy.”) Although we only spent a few minutes there, the lake has a nice visitor’s center and offers boat rides for tourists, and it’s also encircled by a scenic hiking trail.
Hot bizcochos and dulce de leche – divine!

Rene surprised us with one more stop before returning to Quito. Apparently the little town of Cayambe is known for flaky, melt-in-your-mouth pastries called bizcochos. Served piping hot with dulce de leche, the caramel-like sweet that’s ubiquitous in Latin America, the bizcochos hit the spot!

Tips for the day:

  • We said it in our previous post but it bears repeating. Rene Sandoval, our driver, was a real find – and he went out of his way to make this day memorable. Email: rsandovall666@hotmail.com
  • If you want to stand on the actual equator, skip the kitschy Ciudad Mitad del Mundo and head for Quitsato. It was well worth the stop.
  • Although Thursday is the biggest market day, lots of stalls are open for business every day in Otavalo. Even if you miss Thursday, Otavalo is a MUST!

Day Four – Reaching for the Sky
Our last day in Quito was all about scaling the heights, and each destination rewarded us with a progressively breathtaking viewpoint.

Villa Colonna hosts Phillip and Colette Pepperell

But first, we had promised friends back home in Panama that we’d visit the inn they own in Quito, the Villa Colonna B&B. As it happens, this splendid inn is only a block and a half from our own vacation rental, and we’re so glad we popped in. The gracious hosts, Phillip and Colette, gave us the grand tour and the property’s interesting back story. Our Panama friends, Debra and Pascal, recently purchased the inn from a couple that had lovingly restored the building – a stately old colonial home that had fallen into ruin. The previous owners brought the property to its former glory and furnished it with fabulous antiques and artwork.  Here’s a shout-out to Debra and Pascal and a thank-you to Phillip and Collette for showing us this lovely property. 

From there, we huffed and puffed up the hill to the Basilica del Voto Nacional, which turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire visit. Not only is the Basilica the only Gothic structure in Quito’s fleet of historic churches, but it’s also much newer than most  – by several centuries. Completed in 1909, the Basilica has some unique features, such as gargoyles and other decor modeled on the local fauna and flora. You can also climb, through a series of steep and rickety ladders and catwalks, almost to the top of the anterior tower. It’s s not for the faint-of-heart or acrophobes, but for us the 360-degree city view was well worth it!
The Basilica is one of the dominant features of the Quito skyline We climbed to just below the rear tower on the left, looking toward the twin bell towers
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Street scene, Otavalo Market

On our recent trip to Ecuador (which was much too short – we WILL go back!), we spent most of our time in Quito and the Galapagos Islands. But were able to venture to two towns that are reachable in a couple of hours from Quito: Otavalo and Papallacta.

The World-Famous Otavalo Market
The market in Otavalo, about an hour and a half by car from Quito, stretches back to pre-Inca times and is the largest artisan market in Ecuador. Vendors hawk a dizzying array of wares ranging from fresh produce and hand-dyed yarn to hats, blankets, leather goods, locally carved wood trinkets, rugs, tablecloths, shoes, sweaters . . . pretty much everything but the kitchen sink!  The exquisite weavings and textile-making skills of the Octavaleños and indigenas from the surrounding villages, wearing their traditional clothing, was something to behold! There’s something going on every day in Otavalo but Saturday is official market day and the stalls take up half the town.

John finally found a “Panama” hat that fits! That called for a nice cold cerveza.

For us, the market was complete sensory overload. The colors of all the goods laid out meticulously in the vendors’ stalls were so beautifully arranged that we could have easily shopped for hours. Using our bargaining skills to the fullest (it is expected to bargain with the vendors there), we finally found “Panama” hats that not only fit, but are the right mix of affordability and quality.

So why the quote marks around “Panama?” Because the hats have been made in Ecuador, and nowhere else, since the 1800s. In fact, they’re the country’s most famous export. The story goes that, when some genius hit on the ideal of a straw hat that is durable, breathable, and offers great sun protection, there wasn’t a big market for such a thing in Ecuador. So they took them to Panama, where they were a huge hit with the 49ers passing through to stake their claim for gold in California. The hats quickly caught on, and pretty soon anyone traveling through Panama wanted one. The name stuck, even though every authentic Panama hat is stamped “hecho en Ecuador” on the inside.

The quality of the hats is dictated by the thickness of the toquilla straw and how tightly it’s woven – the thinner the straw and the tighter the weave, the better. In fact, some top quality hats are so tightly woven that they can hold water. In Quito, we visited a shop where we tried on hats ranging from $60 to $500, and they even had some $5,000 (no, we didn’t try those on!). The good ones were too rich for our blood and we were hoping we could find them for less in Otavalo. And we weren’t disappointed – we found a stall run by a very helpful lady who showed us how to pick a hat that was the best balance of quality, price, and fit. When we finally settled on a couple, we were able to bargain her down from $80 to $40 – but she was a toughie for haggling!

On our list for Ecuador next time is a visit to the town of Montecristi, where Panama hats were born and where most of them are made to this day.

More Otavalo pics:

The Termas Papallactas

After spending five days constantly on the go in the Galapagos (it was unforgettable but not restful), we needed a bit of R&R before returning home to Panama. John, the travel planner extraordinaire, had thought that one through beautifully and planned for us to spend two nights at the Termas (hot springs) de Papallacta. He arranged to have a driver pick us up from the Quito airport and take us to the little village of Papallacta in the Oriente highlands, about a two-hour drive. If you’re coming from downtown Quito you need to add another 45 minutes or so, depending on traffic – which means this excursion is probably better as an overnight.

At 13,000 feet, Papallacta was a bit on the chilly side when we were there, but what a fantastic place to rest up for our trip home to Panama. The setting is lovely, with spectacular mountain vistas and a sprawling hot springs resort consisting of a network of public pools and a hotel complex. The accommodations, restaurant, service, and hot springs were fantastic, just what the doctor ordered. We knew right away that two nights would not be enough to explore this area properly, so it’s also on our list for our next Ecuador trip.

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A magical moment on San Cristobal, where dozens of sea turtles cavorted in the surf. Our boat, the Tip Top II, is the big one on the horizon.

Where did November go? It seems like yesterday that we were in the Galapagos, and I’ve had one more blog post in me from that trip for . . . weeks. But life gets in the way sometimes.

Ah, the reptiles. In many ways, we’ve saved the best critters, and most emblematic of the Galapagos, for last. What’s the animal you’re most likely to picture if someone says “Galapagos” to you? Chances are it’s a giant tortoise or iguana. We really loved getting to see these fascinating creatures up close and learning more about them.

THE SEA TURTLES

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve had a connection with sea turtles for a long time, going back to a mystical moment I had swimming with a green sea turtle in Santiago Bay on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. But that’s another story! Fifteen years and one turtle tattoo later (a little honu, done on Kauai to mark my 50th birthday), they’re still just as magical – and John and I were able to come full circle and swim with them once again. Like their cousins the honus in Hawaii and my friend in Mexico, the ones we saw in the Galapagos were green sea turtles.

Here’s a little video we put together from our time swimming with the Galapagos turtles and sea lions.

Galapagos Undersea World - YouTube

THE GIANT TORTOISES

We visited the giant tortoise breeding center and sanctuary on San Cristobal Island and fell in love with these lumbering, stately, and highly endangered creatures.  A few facts:

  • They are the largest tortoises on earth and among the world’s largest reptiles, and they can weigh up to a quarter ton.
  • They can live to be up to 100. The biggest ones we saw were several decades old.
  • The tortoises on different islands have evolved separately to adapt to their particular surroundings. For instance, the ones we saw on San Cristobal have long necks and “saddleback” shells that enable them to reach up and grab vegetation on trees and shrubs. Charles Darwin observed these variations, which gave him more data points as he developed his theory of evolution.
  • The islands themselves are named after the tortoises. Apparently, galápago is an old Spanish world that means either “tortoise” or “saddle,” depending on whom you talked to back in the 16th century. It could be that the early explorers of the islands spotted the tortoises and saw the resemblance of their shells to saddles, and that was that.
An old soul Showing off her long neck, with the arched shell that lets her reach up for vegetation A placid pair They didn’t seem the least bit disturbed by our presence. Here are two hanging out on the footpath just ahead of us.

THE LAND AND MARINE IGUANAS

Both the land and marine iguanas in the Galapagos are entirely endemic to the islands – found nowhere else in the world. Supposedly they both evolved separately from a common ancestor, but developed separate characteristics for adapting to their own habitats. And they also show variation from island to island. More data points for Darwin.

A marine iguana on Santa Cruz Island strikes a proud pose A face only a mother could love. The marine iguana has evolved to have a blunt nose, the better to eat algae off submerged rocks. It also has the ability to clear its nasal passages of sea water – thus the salty white marks on its face. A land iguana. Note his different coloring and his less-blunt nose, the better to feed on cactus and other land plants.
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