Preface while sheltering-in-place
I am finishing this travelogue in rather grim circumstances, not so much for me and Noel, but for our human species thanks to the covid-19 pandemic. We’ve had to cancel a few short trips we had planned for April and May. We’re still holding on to hope that we might be able to go on the small ship cruise we booked for October 2020 from Lisbon, Portugal, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and up the Mediterranean coast to Barcelona, Spain. It’s probably a forlorn hope. I have made a decision not to do any extensive travel, foreign or domestic, until there is a vaccine, so this may be our last trip for the next 18 months or so.
Stay well, friends,
Unexpected Delights, Part 1
I had been wanting to visit the Galapagos Islands for decades even though I don’t snorkel and am a lousy swimmer. And Noel doesn’t like to kayak. A friend had even told us not to go to the islands if we didn’t snorkel because we wouldn’t see much. But we can still walk upright. In my mind, just to be able to hike among the creatures that make the Galapagos their home would make the trip worthwhile.
Another compelling thing about visiting the islands is that they belong to Ecuador. Ecuador is the ninth largest country in South America, about the size of the state of Nevada, relatively small compared to its neighbors like Columbia, Peru, and giant Brazil. But it has one of the most diverse environments in the world, from mountains as high as 20,000 feet to Amazonian rain forests and, of course, the remarkable Galapagos Islands.
For Americans, the country also offers the somewhat odd convenience of having the dollar as the currency of the realm. There was a major economic collapse in 2000 and folks started informally converting their assets into US dollars. The government then formalized the practice. There are also between 5,000 and 10,000 American expats living in the country. Apparently, you can live quite well on $2000 a month.
I booked our trip for the last two weeks in January 2020 through Smithsonian Journeys. Smithsonian farmed out the actual arrangements to Gohagan & Co. in Chicago. We had traveled with Smithsonian once before when we visited Morocco in January 2019. We were very happy with the in-country part of that journey, not so much with the business class flights that took us there. Smithsonian’s travel agency for that trip was Odysseys Unlimited out of Newton, MA. Even though Gohagan was not the guilty party behind the bad Morocco flights, I decided to book our flights to Ecuador myself and leave the in-country part to Gohagan. Our airline experience to Morocco taught me that travel agencies will offer bargain basement business class flights by making deals to book their clients on less traveled routes with bad connections.
We like to break up the long Chicago winters with a 2-week holiday in January or February. That’s also the time when spring breakers and families with children are not traveling. Many of our fellow travelers are seniors like ourselves. Flights and hotels are not overbooked and tourist sites are uncrowded. The same holds true for after Labor Day in September and early October.
I booked our business class flights to Quito, Ecuador, on Copa Airlines, the Panamanian flagship airline. We had never flown Copa before, but it has an excellent on-time record to and from O’Hare. We had 90-minute layovers both ways in Panama City. The business class seats were roomy and very comfortable, the service excellent, and the food quite good.
Flying into Panama City, I was astounded by the architecture at least from the airplane. It looked like Oz. The in-flight magazine was promoting a no charge layover in Panama of up to a week that a traveler could avail herself of. This might be something to consider next year if we decide to go to the Amazon via Copa Airlines. For years I’ve been collecting baskets, masks and embroidered molas made by Panama’s indigenous peoples. Panama’s San Blas Islands or the Darien Rain Forest may soon be on our agenda.
We arrived in Quito around 5 pm on a Tuesday. The Quito portion of our Galapagos journey was a three-night add-on to the basic Galapagos tour that actually began in the port city of Guayaquil. I had arranged for a Gohagan representative to meet us at the airport and drive us to the J.W. Marriott hotel, a 5-star property with a great bar attached to an excellent restaurant, very important after a long day of traveling. There was another add-on to Machu Picchu at the end of the Galapagos cruise, but we have been there, so we didn’t opt in.
We were given the next morning off to rest up, as our fellow travelers had arrived very late the previous night. We began our afternoon tour with a panoramic view from El Panecillo (Spanish for a small loaf of bread), an extinct volcanic summit towering over this beautiful colonial city. The summit is hosted by a 148-foot tall sculpture of a madonna with wings. It was built in 1976 by the Spanish artist Agustin de la Herrán Matorras. It is actually a greatly enlarged replica of the Winged Virgin of Quito, a wooden sculpture by the Quitaño artist Bernardo de Legarda. De Legarda was a highly regarded Mestizo artist of the Quito School of Art who worked throughout most of the 18th century. The madonna reminded me of “Dignity,” the 50-foot sculpture of a native American woman that graces a rest area off I-90 outside Chamberlain, South Dakota. The madonna’s wings become the wind-blown star quilt Dignity holds over her shoulders.
We descended El Panecillo and walked around the old colonial downtown, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As we passed in front of the presidential palace on Independence Plaza, one of our guides mentioned that the palace had been covered with barbed wire until a few days before. Apparently, the current president, Lenín Moreno, is extremely unpopular. He tried to eliminate fuel subsidies and set off such huge demonstrations that he was forced to reinstate the subsidies. While we were in the plaza, we witnessed a small demonstration of folks asking the city to issue more vendor permits.
We toured the Convento y Museo de San Francisco located nearby in another plaza. Part of the tour took us into the choir of the adjoining Church of San Francisco. The choir houses quite a remarkable collection of life-size wooden carvings of Christian martyrs. All the statues show how the individuals were tortured and killed. For example, one female martyr is shown holding her tongue, another her breasts. Apparently, the murderers were unconverted indigenous people. Ironically, all the artwork was done by indigenous people who had converted to Christianity. We also visited the church itself which we were told by our guides has probably the most elaborate baroque interior of any church in the Americas. The gold gilt was quite overwhelming and you could see the strong Moorish influence.
One of the most interesting stops that afternoon was at Chez Tiff, a high-end chocolatier. We watched a demonstration of making fine chocolate. We were told that you can trace the expansion of European colonial rule across the globe by tracing the expansion of chocolate production.
We concluded our afternoon with a walk down La Ronda street, probably the oldest street in Quito possibly dating back to the Incas. The Incas managed with some difficulty to conquer most of what is now Ecuador in the 15th century. Their hundred-year rule ended in 1532 when the Spanish arrived with a small but well-armed band led by Francisco Pizarro.
On our second full day in Quito we were bused about 14 miles north of the city to the equator for the requisite straddling the line photo ops. It turns out that the 100-foot tall marble monument marking the line is off about 250 yards according to today’s more accurate GPS systems. There is a cultural museum and a less monumental marker on the real site of the equator.
Before lunch we were driven to a dramatically beautiful spot overlooking the crater of the (hopefully) extinct volcano that created this section of the Andes. The weather was perfect. The views reminded me of Chinese scroll paintings, mountains interspersed with green valleys and a constantly changing cloud cover. You can see very isolated farms in the valleys that don’t appear to be wired for electricity.
At the entrance to the path we took to the overlook is Le Crater, the sensational restaurant where we had lunch – a delicious potato soup followed by a yummy lamb stew. The portions were huge. I just can’t eat large portions any more. That’s probably a good thing. The restaurant also has wonderful pieces by local artists. The WC doors are adorned with amusing wood carved designations for men and women.
On the drive back to Quito we noticed lots of empty high-rise apartments and commercial properties – more evidence of Ecuador’s economic stress.
For me, one of the great pleasures of travel is shopping for interesting souvenirs. I shop for Christmas all year round. When we arrived back at the Marriott, I asked one of our local guides where we could purchase indigenous handicrafts. He recommended a fair-trade shop called Tianguez located in the Plaza de San Francisco where we had been the day before. We hired a car at the hotel to drive us.
It is a fabulous shop. I had a great conversation with one of the women there about the art and handicrafts and the indigenous people who make them. I bought a number of small artifacts including an intriguing little clay figure called a Venus of Valdivia. Apparently, she is a reproduction of an ancient fertility symbol from the extinct Valdivia culture with roots in Ecuador dating back to 3,000 BC.
I also purchased some small contemporary ceramic dishes painted by Kichwa women using brushes made with their hair. It is an occasion like this that makes me regret closing my gallery, but not for long. Ecuador has incredibly rich indigenous cultures of which we just had a very brief glimpse – worthy of a revisit someday.