The electrifying bits

Considering what a small (and little-visited) country Ecuador is, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find it pleasant but unmemorable (apart from the Galapagos Islands, which are unique.) 

Parts of our short stay were like that. But four experiences electrified me.

Watching the changing of the government-palace guard in Quito

I’ve seen the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, but the ceremony at Quito’sDSC04702 government palace (the Ecuadorian equivalent of the White House) makes the British version seem dull. Commentators trace its origins back more than 200 years, to shortly after Ecuador won its independence from Spain. In recent years, it has taken place every Monday, though the start time has shifted around a bit. We’d heard it was worth seeing. That’s an understatement.

We got to Plaza Grande, the city’s most iconic square, shortly before 8:30 am a week ago Monday. The presence of  cops and a few brightly dressed palace guards milling around on the second-story balcony made us think something was afoot, but the action coalesced gradually. Guards astride flashy horses appeared, bearing flags. More guards with lances positioned themselves near the rooftop.DSC04719Precisely at 9:00 the strains of stately, grandiose music became discernible, first faintly, then louder and louder, as almost two dozen trumpet- and clarinet- and trombone- and tuba- and bass-drum- and other instrument-playing guards emerged from the inner recesses of the palace. It was music with the power to raise the hairs on the back of necks; music that made me wish I could leave my viewing spot and march along.DSC04711.jpgDSC04718.jpegWhat followed went on for close to a half an hour, and it was too complicated to describe in detail: parading horses and solemn proclamations over a loudspeaker and marching lance-bearers and more and more of the thrilling music. (One missing element was the Ecuadorian president’s appearance on the uppermost balcony, another long-time part of the show. Whether he was just on vacation or worried about his plummeting popularity, I can’t tell you.)

Still it was most entertaining, and I couldn’t help chuckling at this small, not-very-prosperous country putting on such a flamboyant display of stately pomp. (I also thought: better them than us.)

Getting caught in the demonstrationDSC04759.jpegWe happened upon our first Ecuadorian political demonstration, a small group protesting in front of the presidential palace, during our free walking tour of the city. “We Ecuadorians love demonstrations,” our guide declared. “You’re going to see a lot of them.” She got that right. During our four days in Quito, we witnessed at least three or four public protests, and I got a text from the US State Department warning that several big ones were expected on one of the days we were there. We should avoid them, the message ordered, but this wasn’t possible during our hop-off, hop-on bus tour of the city’s major sights.

The bus was a double-decker, and Steve and I were sitting on the open second level. From blocks away, we could see a large crowd down the street. We assumed the bus would detour around it, but instead, we headed straight for the protesters and the police and their snarling canines.DSC04807.jpeg

Within short order, the mob surrounded the bus. People chanted. Vuvuzelas blared. Despite the signs, it was unclear what was angering the protesters (though cutbacks to healthcare subsidies seemed to be involved.)DSC04816.jpegI suspected the State Department wonk who sent out the text message wouldn’t have approved of our being in the thick of it. But the crowd seemed more high-spirited than menacing, and the cops looked chill. DSC04819.jpeg

After a few minutes, the mob parted and the bus rolled along its way. None of our other stops were anywhere near as thrilling.

Meeting the man behind the hacienda

We spent one night in the Ecuadorian countryside, in what Lonely Planet described as a “fairy-tale 17th-century hacienda.” Our friends had stayed there for a night, and we could see why they loved it. The gardens were exquisite.

And the interiors felt like a museum. DSC04661.jpg

The spine-tingling moment for us came when a distinguished looking gentlemen approached us while we were dining in the grand salon (above). He introduced himself as the owner, Nicholas Millhouse, and over the course of the next hour or so, he shared a small part of the saga that began when he bought the hacienda in 1990 and undertook the gigantic art project of restoring it from near ruin to its current glory.

An Englishman who spent his career teaching at a tony private school in Manhattan, he had early developed a passion for South America. For decades, he roamed the continent, collecting exquisite textiles and other works of art. IMG_2072.jpeg

The next morning, we spent more time in his company, enjoying his sense of humor…

Note the political statement in this mural (part of a vast array of them commissioned by Millhouse)

…and learning a little about indigenous art and beliefs.


Millhouse also commissioned this cross, which incorporates important indigenous elements, such as substituting a mirror for the figure of the crucified Christ.

Millhouse still spends most of the year in Manhattan, so it was pure chance that we happened to be at the hacienda when he was in residence there. That blew our minds.

Walking into La Compañia

I’ve seen a lot of churches in my time, but few, if any, have struck me as being as beautiful as the Jesuit one in the heart of Ecuador’s capital. Somehow all the gold makes the place feel cheery and inviting, rather than garish. IMG_5309.jpeg

The trompe l’oeil staircase to the right of the doors was painted to preserve the almost-perfect symmetry.

Supposedly, the Jesuits wanted the worshipping natives to feel like they had died and gone to heaven. Surely they must have succeeded.

Taking in the heartbreaking natural beauty

There’s no single moment I was poleaxed by Ecuador’s physical beauty. Instead it bowled me over and over: upon landing in Quito. Or horseback riding at the hacienda.IMG_5235.jpeg Or drinking in the viewpoint, reached via cable car, near one of the city’s volcanos. IMG_5272.jpeg

It’s one of the most beautiful natural landscapes I’ve encountered, and one of the reasons Ecuador should rank among the richest countries in the world, a South American Switzerland. The land also is fertile, blessed with so many microclimates almost everything can be grown here. Ecuador has more oil than anywhere on the continent except for Venezuela and Brazil. It contains vast gold reserves, not to mention the natural wonder of the Galapagos.

Instead, Ecuadorians struggle with strangling regulation, corrupt politicians, and almost-constant turmoil. (They’ve had 20 Constitutions since independence; 17 presidents between 1930 and 1940). That’s the heartbreaking part.


Will all those demonstrations lead to a better future for folks like her? Will some other force? If the creativity and energy latent in the Ecuadoreans could be unloosed, that would be truly electrifying.

My advice:don’t go to the Andes to buy a rug

I’ve dreaded writing this post. I’m afraid anyone who reads it will think I’m the sort of airhead who travels in order to buy stuff, when almost the opposite is true. I don’t buy much on the road, and Steve loathes shopping. Anything you buy has to be transported home, which is tough if you limit yourself to carry-ones (as we do). If the purchase requires bargaining, that adds to the stress. Then when you get home, you have to decide what to do with those quirky knick-knacks.

So many choices. So many potential bad decisions.

I found a partial answer to the last question a few years go, when I was puzzling over what to do with a beautiful piece of cloth I couldn’t resist buying for a few dollars in Senegal, a country renowned for its striking fabrics. Coincidentally, our youngest son had recently moved out, and I wanted to transform the battered bedroom of his boyhood into a guest room. A friend suggested I use the cloth as a wall hanging, and add additional African details. The room-renovation thus turned into a Project. It gave me a place to print and hang some of our many photos from Africa. Online I found a mosquito net and installed that over the bed. And I had an instant home for the other African souvenirs I had picked up in spite of myself.

Our own bedroom already was Asian. Decades ago Steve and I fell in love with Japan and built a Japanese-style master bed, along with sliding Japanese-style window coverings. So I suppose it was inevitable a Latin-American decorational fever eventually might seize me.

A room on a lower level from the main floor of our house is the closest thing we have to a living room. But it was pretty dumpy (having previously been incarnated as a home office and then a kids’ playroom). It had a few Latin touches (a papier-mâché parrot I picked up in Tijuana ages ago; a couple of tango posters from Buenos Aires.) When planning our trip for the eclipse in Chile and Argentina, I started toying with the idea of jazzing up this room by further South Americanizing it.

The toughest thing, I confided in email to my friend Doris, traveling in Ecuador at the time, would be to find a rug to replace the aging one in the room, handed down to us by some friends. Doris had a suggestion. In the Andean highlands, she and her partner Louis had just been dazzled by the beautiful textiles still being produced by master weavers. A few were still working with “backstrap” looms, an ancient art once practiced in various places around the world, using sticks, rope, and a strap worn around the weaver’s waist. DSC04476.jpegOthers created striking objects using more traditional hand looms. Why not spend a little time in Ecuador on our way home from the eclipse, and buy a rug from one of those guys?

Her suggestion wound up profoundly influencing our plans. Besides visiting the Galápagos Islands on the cheap and having four nights in Quito (the first cultural UN World Heritage site, so designated for its striking and well-preserved colonial architecture), we would spend all the rest of our available time in Ecuador (three nights) in the town of Otavalo, renowned for having one of the largest and most famous craft markets in South America. At the town’s weekly Saturday fair, I should find some small decorations for my downstairs room, I figured. But my central mission would be to get a great rug and buy a colorful box to replace the ugly Tupperware container housing our puppy-grooming gear (which we use in that downstairs room).

I emailed the small hotel where we would be staying in Otavalo to ask if they could recommend anyone who might drive us to visit the local master weavers. Wendy, the owner of the Doña Esther, wrote me back that Luis, their regular taxi driver, would be happy to take us around for $10 an hour.

Luis made up for his lack of English with his deep local knowledge and eagerness to be helpful. First he drove us to a hillside village inhabited entirely by indigenous Andeans, where we parked…DSC04479.jpeg …and walked to the workshop of Don José Cotacachi.

That’s Luis and Don José’s garden.

Within the compound where Don José lives, a young woman demonstrated how the natural dyes are made. Some start with the scale insect that grows on prickly pear cactus pads. When squished, these creatures (known as cochineal) turn into a brilliant scarlet goo; mixing in other substances such as lemon juice produces other hues.

That crusty stuff on the cactus pad turns into the most brilliant carmine color.

Browns and tans are are derived from walnuts. The artists use such substances to color the alpaca and woolen yarns they weave into patterns both subtle and bold.

I fell in love with Don José’s work.IMG_5222.jpegBut Steve and I were struck by a problem with using any of it to cover our floor. The largest pieces were less than four by five feet, smaller than what we were seeking. Furthermore, they weren’t very thick but rather more suitable for hanging on a wall or covering a bed. They’d be a bitch to vacuum, and we could all too readily imagine our dogs turning them into a rumpled pile of cloth.

We felt similar misgivings in the workshop of Don Miguel Andrango, an octogenarian famous for his preservation of Ecuadorian backstrap-weaving techniques.

The Andrango workshop

Although Don Miguel himself was ailing on the morning of our visit, three younger generations of the family are still producing beautiful work.

One of his son-in-laws showed us how they spin the yarn.
Don Miguel’s daughter and her husband.

Once again, I loved their creations. I lusted to own one. But nothing seemed suitable for life on the ground. This time I broke down and bought a 6-foot-long by 1.5-foot wide weaving for $150 to use as a table runner. But my rug quest remained unfulfilled.

By the end of that day, Steve and I had formulated a new plan. We would visit the market in town the next day (Friday) and check out the carpets there. They might not be as beautiful as those produced by the master weavers, but they should cost less, and if they looked South American… well, we could live with that.

We must have spent close to two hours combing the Friday marketplace. Once again, we were dismayed by the absence of anything one might call a carpet. We found cloth that would make beautiful blankets; that might transform a couch. But nothing that resembled the South American carpet of my dreams.

It’s a good thing I wasn’t looking for an embroidered blouse, like all the indigenous ladies wear.
Or a busty mannikin. All the choices would have driven me crazy.

Sometime that afternoon we had an epiphany: we’d gotten it wrong. In our ignorance, we’d imagined a role for carpets in this culture similar to what we’d seen in Morocco or India. But now it dawned on us there wasn’t a single carpet anywhere in our hotel. Or in other public buildings we visited. The Spanish conquistadors had made lovely stone floor tiles that had become ubiquitous in this part of the world. But the local folk didn’t adorn them.

I’d been so intent, so sure, I would find what I wanted. In the end, though, we yielded to what seemed to be the evidence. On Saturday we returned to Don José’s and bought a weaving that will occupy a place of honor on our downstairs wall. But we’ll live with our hand-me-down rug (which, if produced in a factory, does look vaguely indigenous.)

The story of my hunt for a box almost turned out the same way. I was certain such boxes, eye-catchingly Latin, must exist. Vendors in the market would badger me to buy them, I fantasized. And when we looked for them at the gigantic Saturday market, we did find lively painted wood trays. We found a few plain wood boxes, and a handful of painted boxes — but only in sizes way too small to hold the doggy toothbrush and toothpaste and toenail file and cotton balls I wanted to conceal.

I felt sad as we hurried back to the hotel to catch our ride out of town. A few blocks away from the end of all our shopping, I stopped at one last stand specializing in painted wooden objects. If I couldn’t find my box, I decided, at least I could buy a tray. We negotiated a price ($35). And then I spotted a handful of similarly painted boxes in one corner of the stall — exactly the size I had been seeking.

The painted wooden vendor who had a big enough box to suit us.

So I got my box, along with a lesson: when you hit the road, you never know what you’re going to find. Forgetting that can lead to disappointment. On the other hand, I’m delighted with most of our purchases. We got to dive into the life of the market, a wonderful place.DSC04639.jpeg I also had five electrifying Ecuadorian experiences. I hope to share them in one more final, brief post.

Our frugal traveler experience in the Galapagos

I was long baffled that Steve was never eager to visit the Galápagos. Both natural history and evolutionary biology have always fascinated him. There’s a lot of both in the island chain 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The place intrigued me, but the price of visiting always discouraged both of us. No tourism of any sort existed before the mid-1960s, and then for many years, the only way to see the place was to take the almost two-hour flight out, then board a ship that would likely cost at least $2500 per person for a basic five-day cruise and many thousands more for a longer or posher experience. For that kind of money, we typically cover a lot of ground.

What finally got us there was a combination of factors. The path from Santiago (our gateway to and from the eclipse) to San Diego lies almost directly over Ecuador, a country we had never visited. In early spring, our good friends Doris and Louis spent six weeks there (publishing vivid dispatches in their blog, Louis and Doris Partout.) Privately Doris urged me to consider stopping over in Ecuador on our return north. About the same time, I read a New York Times article about the surge in land-based travel in the Galapagos. This could be accomplished at a fraction of the price of cruising, according to the Times writer. I did a lot of quick, compressed research and we wound up deciding to spend two weeks in Ecuador, sandwiching in a 6-day, 5-night visit to two of the islands.

Now that we’re back on the Ecuadorian mainland, we feel completely satisfied with the way this worked out. We didn’t see as much as we surely would have had we cruised for two weeks and visited 5 or 10 of the islands. We didn’t see every animal visitors try to check off their lists; missed sighting any whales or hammerhead sharks, and never came within sight of a red-footed boobie.

But we did observe a wondrous assortment of creatures: the eponymous giant tortoises and amazing swimming (marine) iguanas.

It was hatching season for the marine iguanas, so we saw hundreds of the babies, like these.

Marine iguanas seem a sociable lot.

We saw plenty of blue-footed boobies.

Those feet are pretty dashing.

That fellow had just built this lovely nest and was trying to attract a girlfriend.

We swam with huge sea turtles and brilliant reef fish and schools of rays and 6-inch-tall seahorses, spotted amidst a seascape studded with starfish and coral and urchins. We hiked to and boated by striking lava formations and came away feeling we’d gotten a good taste of the place.

Doing it on the cheap required that we make all our own arrangements and get ourselves around, but that wasn’t hard. The little hotels where we stayed were clean and comfy enough, if not luxe, and they cost less than $50 a night on average. The food ranged from good to excellent. Our favorite meals included the two we ate on the jolly Santa Cruz street that closes to cars at night. The restaurants set up long wooden tables and chairs at which you can tuck into tasty lobster and fish meals (with beer) for about $50 per couple.In the end, our stay (including the $180 required per person in permits) cost us about $800 each, rather than the $2,500-$5000 per person the cruising probably would have. And we learned a lot.

Here’s my take on the best and worst things about experiencing the islands this way:

The Worst

We only spent time on two islands, Santa Cruz and Isabela. To get back and forth between them, we took inter-island ferries, which cost $60 per person round-trip. I hated both rides. The ferries are basically speedboats seating around 30 passengers, most of whom can see almost nothing along the way. The vessels blast through the water, rolling and bucking — too rough a ride to do much of anything besides count the minutes (around 120) till the torture ends. Chugging around on a big old yacht would doubtless be far more pleasant. (Some inter-island plane service also exists, but it’s five or six times more expensive than the speedboats.)

The Best

Our first morning on Santa Cruz, we hired a local taxi driver to take us around for three and a half hours. We visited the interesting Darwin research center, checked out some of the geological wonders (craters and lava tunnels), and spent at least an hour strolling around a private nature reserve where the giant tortoises are thriving. The San Diego Zoo has a large, old Galapagos tortoise colony, but they live in a sterile enclosure, a universe away from the lush vegetation in the reserve.

It was strange to be dodging turtle poop, rather than dog poop.
At times it was tricky to distinguish the tortoises from the boulders.

It felt magical to come upon the giant reptiles blocking the paths, munching on (non-native) guavas (which eco-volunteers are trying to eradicate), and otherwise looking cranky and enigmatic.

We suspect the tortoises won’t be happy if the volunteers succeed. Guavas are delicious!

Steve and I also marveled at how chilly the Galapagan waters are, despite the fact that the island chain lies on the equator. The cold nutrient-rich Humboldt Current, which flows north from Antarctica, makes the weather temperate and fosters the abundance of land and sea life. On the days we snorkeled, the water was somewhere around 70, cool enough that, even protected in short wetsuits, we couldn’t stand being in the water for more than about an hour. Still, the beautiful things we saw made the mild discomfort tolerable.

The Interesting

Staying onshore rather than cruising gave us more opportunity to interact with the native humans. Several commented on how relaxed and pleasant life on the islands can be. (Strict laws limit the inflow of mainlanders.) It seems a simpler life. Everywhere the Internet was glacial. Many folks get around on bikes. At our hotel, we asked how we might launder a small pile of dirty clothes. The proprietress pointed us to the bright turquoise house a short distance from her place. If we dropped off our load in the morning, it should be ready to retrieve by evening, she said,

We strolled down the dirt road and peered into the open door of the turquoise house. The front room was filled with a half-dozen washing machines, several dryers heated by bottle gas, and little else. A family member finally noticed our arrival, weighed our bundle, and said it would cost $3 to wash and dry everything.

When I returned hours later to collect it, no one was in the laundry area, so I called out, “Hola!” In the back of the house, I could glimpse a middle-aged man with a large gut, sprawled in a rumpled bed. He collected himself, came to the front, and took my money in exchange for the clean and neatly folded items. He was less exotic than a giant tortoise, but interesting enough that I was glad I hadn’t missed meeting him too.

In this Galapagos church, Jesus hangs out at the beach, instead of on the cross.

A dark journey

Someone at the gym this morning asked me, “Why are you going to Chile and Argentina in the middle of [their] winter?” It’s a fair question, and we have a clear answer: the trip Steve and I are setting off on tomorrow was inspired by the total eclipse of the sun that will be visible all across southern South America on the afternoon of July 2. We’ve seen two total eclipses before: our first in Germany on Steve’s birthday in 1999, and then the one that swept across the entire US mainland in August of 2017. We caught that event near Portland, Oregon, and like the first, it dazzled us. I wouldn’t say we’ve exactly joined the ranks of total-solar-eclipse fanatics. But we’ve edged close enough to them to plan an entire trip around seeing the world go dark once again.

We will start by flying tomorrow to Mexico City, a capital we once knew pretty well but haven’t visited in decades. After two days of remedial sightseeing, we’ll head to the capital of Chile (a country we’ve never been to before). In Santiago, we’ll meet up with our son Michael and his girlfriend Stephanie, who joined us for the Portland eclipse adventure two summers ago. Because the skies on the other side of the Andes, in western Argentina, are more likely to cloud-free, we will fly to Mendoza for the actual eclipse, after which Mike and Stephanie have to return home to their jobs immediately.

But Steve and I, being freer birds, will go on to explore Ecuador for about two weeks. (We’ve never been there either, so those two will be my 61st and 62nd countries.)

We’re excited about this itinerary, but it has posed one of the biggest packing challenges I’ve ever faced. As my gym-mate noted, it’s winter in the southern hemisphere. We may see snow, and temperatures at night may approach freezing. Ecuador, on the other hand, is named after the equator because that balmy line passes right through it.


I’ve now got everything for the next four weeks crammed into my carry-on and backpack (save those eclipse glasses. I’ll tuck them in a side pocket.) My fingers are crossed it will be enough.