Market Day in Otavalo

I am not much of a shopper. I don’t enjoy malls or trying on clothes or searching for the perfect gift. Additionally, I’m not good at spending money on myself. My first reaction is always, “I don’t need this.” And though that’s probably true most of the time, the truth is I live a comfortable existence where I have the freedom to occasionally buy something that I simply want, not need.

I’m also immensely practical—to a fault in fact. How will I get that home? Does it match my couch? Where would I put it? Would I have to dust it? All these questions and more go through my head, with the end result being that I hardly ever buy whatever it is I’m looking at. Most of the time this is fine, but occasionaly I regret my decision, and wish I had “splurged.”

On this trip, we have bought very few things so far, and for the most part it’s not been because I’ve been overly practical (though if I go back to Pucon, I’m buying the Don Quixote metalwork piece, to hell with how I’d get it home); we simply haven’t found too many things that we like. I admit that we don’t spend all that much time looking; very rarely do we go into stores, but we do usually check out the markets. And though market shopping is the one type of shopping I do enjoy—Eastern Market just might be my favorite place in D.C.—I’ve been disappointed time and again in the markets we’ve found in Central and South America. In general, I find that the goods are generic; what I see in Nicaragua, I see in Chile, I see in Peru, etc. Again and again I see woolen socks with llamas on them, the immensely ugly drawstring pants Jeff and I have taken to calling “hippie pants,” wooden flutes, paintings of geometrically shaped indigenous people, and a slew of other items that I’m not entirely convinced aren’t made in China and then shipped here to be sold as “authentic” South American items.

But yesterday, we traveled north from Quito to the city of Otavalo to visit their famed Saturday market. The market is huge—in a few hours, we covered at most half of it. People in indigenous dress mix with people in modern clothing, buying and selling.

Hats, which nearly everyone seems to wear here, deck both heads and booths.

Entire families perform musical interludes in hopes of making a few bucks.

Nearby shops open up their doors and hope market goers wander in. Tiny restaurants roast entire pigs and then carve plates of food straight from the pig (why don’t we ever take pictures of the good stuff!?). It’s a feast for all the senses.

As for the goods on offer, a fair amount of what we saw was similar to what we’d seen elsewhere—there must be a lot of people buying this stuff, I’m just not sure who—but we also found quite a bit of stuff that we hadn’t seen before. And for once, we actually bought a few things. It was fun. We looked, we compared, we bargained, we bought. As for the worrying about how to get it home later, well, we’re saving that for later. Right now we’re holed up at our friends’ home, conveniently ignoring the fact that one day soon everything has to go back into our backpacks and onto our backs.

Blog Love

If you check out our sidebar, you’ll notice many links to other blogs that we follow. Unfortunately, since we’ve been on the road, we haven’t been able to be as frequent of readers and commenters as we would like to be, but we do check in when we can. One blog I always love to check out is Asian Ramblings, primarily because blog owner Stevo, who you have probably seen leaving comments here, is an awesome photographer. He´s so amazing that he actually inspires in me an interest in China, which as I once wrote right here on this blog is one of the places I was at one point least interested in visiting. Obviously, I am not the only one who thinks Asian Ramblings is awesome, as this blog is a finalist in the 2009 Bloggies in the category of Best Asian Weblog. He’s totally deserving of this honor, so I want to encourage all of my readers to first go check out his blog and then second to go to the 2009 Bloggies page and vote for him!

And because I know you all need more ways to waste time online, while you’re there, check out some of the other finalists in the various categories and you’ll find lots of good reading material. The Pioneer Woman was a daily read of mine back when I was in the working world, and Camels & Chocolate always makes me jealous as the woman who writes it is younger than me and has an awesome freelance travel writing career. She also tells hilarious stories, so I can’t hate her too much.

The Duality of a Gringo Town

Vilcabamba, Ecuador, is an lovely small town nestled in a narrow valley. The area around Vilcabamba is beautiful for hiking, with a variety of peaks, valleys, waterfalls and riverbeds full of butterflies, hummingbirds and other colorful tropical birds. In addition to being a typical small Ecuadorian town, it’s people have earned a reputation for their longevity.

All of this has made Vilcabamba a famous little town, especially among us gringos. And while a popular destination to visit as the southern terminus of Ecuador’s “gringo trail”, many people have loved it so much they stayed. The ex-pat community at times seemed to outnumber the locals. Allegedly, the first people set down roots in the 60’s, drawn by tales of the “fountain of youth” and the beautiful countryside.

Naturally, because of the high number of Americans and Europeans, Vilcabamba is blessed with delicious food and delightfully comfortable places to stay. We twice ate Mexican food (since we haven’t had authentic Mexican since leaving) in addition to spaetzle and “sri lankan” chicken. There’s a book exchange that had the largest selection yet. And beautifully maintained hotels with orchid gardens, swimming pools, hot tubs in addition to all the comforts of home grace (or is it intrude on?) the town.

Now, this leaves the town quite a paradox. On the one hand, it is still a beautiful place and a very comfortable place to stay and enjoy. We found it very relaxing (and, even though we had spent the last few days relaxing, another few days was no trouble!). On the other hand, we couldn’t help thinking that this naive, small town had been taken over. The houses just outside of town were enormous, multi-storied, walled complexes complete with swimming pools. The ex-pats ate at the foreign owned restaurants (which admittedly, were very tasty) and seemed to run in their own social circles. They sat around the park with blackberrys and iphones.

We sat next to two who, amongst their talk of chakrahs and doing palm readings, were talking about their efforts to start a recycling program in Vilcabamba. They couldn’t believe they didn’t already have recycling in the central park and were trying to recruit businesses to separate their trash to send to nearby Loja. Now, I’m all for recycling programs all over the world, especially after all the trash we’ve seen strewn everywhere, but this just smacked to me of something imposed, not something particularly desired by local people. It just felt like the town wasn’t what it originally was. The ex-pats had changed a quaint small town into a quaint small “gringo-ized” town. It had lost a fair amount of the authenticity that surely is what attracted the first foreigners.

Now, obviously as I say this I’m a bit hypocritical, because we loved having the comforts of home surrounding us, and they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the ex-pats and their efforts to start businesses and attain the comforts they were used to. It did make the town a thoroughly relaxing place to visit. But there was the paradox there between being a well traveled and comfortable tourist town and being an authentic place. We’ve noticed varying degrees of this balance in many of the cities we’ve visited. The real question is about how to do it right. No beautiful town should be kept from visitors enjoying it, but no beautiful town should be overrun and destroyed by visitors. This balance is surely is something many cities are constantly wrestling with. So the real question is how do you make and maintain that balance? I don’t have the answers.

Where in the World Have We Been Lately

I apologize for the lack of recent posting, but we’re currently in Quito visiting a friend we haven’t seen since 1997. That’s a long time, and there’s much catching up to do. Plus she has many places to take us and things to show us, so we’re always on the go. (And we’re without Internet at her place, where we are staying, so posting isn’t all that easy.) But we’re alive and well and we’ve got a few new posts lined up, so check back in the next few days for much more. As for now, in response to your demand for photos, here’s a few images of where we have been lately.

Huanchaco, Peru

Vilcabamba, Ecuador

Cuenca, Ecuador

Quito, Ecuador


We have added Argentina pages to the Country Summaries and Country Budgets section. Go check them out! However, be aware that they are not 100% complete, as we are returning to Argentina in the beginning of March for about two weeks.

Also, if you want to read about what we did while my brother Gregory was visiting us—besides the Inca Trail—go check out his website. He has great coverage of sandboarding in Huacachina, flying over the Nazca lines, Cuzco, and more. You can wish him a happy birthday while you are there, as he turns 24 today.

Our First Hundred Days

Today our new president took office. He’ll have four years to accomplish his goals, but first of all, he’ll have a hundred days. The famous “First 100 Days” is the inital judgment period for a president. And today as Barack Obama begins his term and his first hundred days, we complete our own first hundred days. That’s right, as of today, we’ve been on the road for one hundred days. So without further ado, here’s a review of what we’ve done in the past hundred days.

We have spent time in five countries: Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador.

We have ridden on over 75 buses, both local and long-distance, from over-crowded school bus to comfortable nearly fully reclining cama-class overnight buses.

We have been on 8 airplanes—seven for transport between locations (Seattle to Houston; Houston to Managua; Managua to Panama City; Panama City to Santiago; Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas; Lima to Cusco; Cusco to Lima) and one for a tour (Nazca).

We have hiked the 100-km extended version of the W at Torres del Paine and the 46-kilometer Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, along with many other kilometers on less well-known trails.

We have stayed at 43 different hostels, hostals, hosterias, hospedajes, and hotels.

We have lost one item: a headlamp on day one.

We have missed the announcement of two engagements and three pregnancies of friends.

We have eaten ice cream 17 times, the majority of these in Argentina.

We have eaten the best steak of our lives, a tenderloin so tender that our server cut it with a spoon at Viejo Jack in Salta.

We have eaten all things they tell you not to eat—unpeeled fruit, hamburgers from a street stand, salad, and water from the tap—and are no worse for the wear from it, aside from a few extra trips to the toilet of course.

We have read only 7 books—A Walk in the Woods, The Geography of Bliss, The House of the Spirits, Collapse, Astrid & Veronika, Best New American Voices 2007, and Far from the Madding Crowd—thanks primarily to the really bad taste of other South American travelers, which makes trading for a good book nearly impossible (expect a post on this soon!).

We have been to the self-proclaimed end of the world…from where we looked south and saw more land.

We have visited 11 national parks.

We have become nearly fluent in Spanish (Jeff) and sort of kind of competent (Theresa).

We have crossed borders via airplane, bus, collectivo taxi, and foot.

We have added the following stamps to our passports: 1 from Nicaragua, 6 from Chile, 3 from Argentina, 2 from Peru, and 1 from Ecuador, along with two stamps from Machu Picchu and one from the end of the world. 

We have on more occasions than is possible to count experienced the kindness of strangers, witnessed the commonality of people everywhere, and smiled in wonder, amazement, and joy at the beautiful world we live in.

In our opinion, our first hundred days have been a roaring success and we are looking forward to the hundreds of days remaining.

Now We’re Traveling

Things have been going just a bit too smoothly for us so far on this trip. Giving credit where credit is due, a large part of that is due to the voracious consumption of information for planning. I think we all know who is the general driving force behind this. I mean, if you exhaust and explore every possible option from every angle, it’s hard to make the wrong choice too many times. But alas, on our border crossing from Peru to Ecuador, our over-preparation was our greatest weakness.

We were in Huanchaco, a beach town near Trujillo, looking to get across the border. There are two main routes from here, the coastal route via Tumbes, Peru to Machala, Ecuador, widely regarded as a busy, thief infested, scam ridden border crossing, and the inland route through Piura, Peru to Loja, Ecuador, which is much less used, has a direct international through bus, and our guidebook alleges is a much more pleasant experience. Needless to say, it was pretty clear which way we would be heading, especially since we also wanted to visit Vilcabamba, a pleasant gringo-haven town just south of Loja (more on Vilcabamba to come as we are currently here).

So off to Piura we headed on an afternoon bus, complete with a 4 feature Jean Claude Van Damme marathon (in Spanish!). We hoped to then hop on the TransLoja International bus the next morning. Unfortunately, neither we nor our various gold mines of information accounted for unhappy agricultural workers. I mean, I’m sure they’re unhappy, underpaid and overexploited, but do they have to go and close down the highway as their protest?

These striking agricultural workers meant our bus to whisk us across the border was not running, had not run for the previous two days and its status for the next few days depended on the positive resolution of the strike. Everyone assured us this would happen, but as we awoke the next morning and called the bus company, they told us no buses that day, and as the Latin American cliche goes, maybe a bus would go “manana”.

With the uncertainty of the buses, we decided to take matters into our own hands and to hop a bus to the nearby town of Sullana where collectivo taxis run to the border. Surely these guys would be up on the latest developments or know ways around these wily farmhands.

Arriving at the collectivo stand we quickly learned that yes, the road was still blocked, but yes, there was a way around; it just cost twice as much and took twice as long. Skeptical, I started asking some of the other local passengers waiting just the same and found that (shockingly for all the other “negotiating” we’d done with taxi drivers in the area) we had been told the honest price. While this meant not getting to the border until only a few hours before dark, we eventually filled up a car and headed out. And by filled up a car, I mean eight close friends and luggage in a five passenger station wagon.

So it was with that backstory that we found ourselves bumping along a badly maintained dirt road, clearly anyone’s distant second (third? tenth?) option for travel. No one was surprised when the car rolled over yet another bump, a strong hissing started, and within 100 yards we were stopped repairing a flat tire. Eight people piled out, several went to urinate (neither of us, for the record, we were preoccupied trying to get dirt out of my eye that had flown in earlier), and the driver set about fixing the tire. Three hours after leaving Sullana, we made it half way to the border (on what is normally an hour and a half trip up the highway). Fortunately, the rest was on the highway, and we found ourselves finishing the trip going a little too fast.

As advertised, the border crossing was a cinch. We were the only ones and everyone was helpful and friendly as we walked to Ecuador (my first border crossing on foot!). On the other side, we got a taxi to the the town of Mancara, where we hoped to catch a late afternoon bus to Loja for the evening. Unfortunately, the next bus was an overnighter at 11 pm. It was currently 5:30 pm. So, already exhausted from the day’s adventure, we found some dinner (having not eaten since a morning pastry) and sat around the bus station for five hours as the rain started outside.

Upon leaving the station, we discovered that I had the “wet seat” just below the air hole on the top of the bus. While closed, it sure wasn’t impermeable to water, as a steady drip set in. Fortunately, we found two seats in the back of the bus right next to the toilets (normally the worst seats on a bus, except that night). Even more fortunately, nobody decided they needed to use the toilet during the course of our five hour ride. We passed out as best we could, and got off in Loja at 4:30 in the morning. We found tickets to Vilcabamba at 5:30, slept through that hour ride, and stumbled up to our hotel, where we promptly passed out in hammocks until we were allowed to check in.

Thus went our trip into Ecuador. I hope those farmhands held out for the motherlode.

The Little Things

Last week when I saw my brother Gregory off at the airport, I felt sad to see him go. But I wasn’t just sad that he was leaving, I also felt a tiny bit jealous, jealous that he was going home.

Don’t get me wrong. I love what we’re doing. We’ve seen phenomenally beautiful places. We’ve meet incredibly friendly people. We’ve had experiences that others dream of. And there are so many more places, people, and experiences ahead of us, and I’m excited about all of them. But after three months on the road, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss home…at least a little bit.

So what do I miss? Well, of course, I miss the big things, like Christmas at home with my family, but mainly I miss the little things. I miss lazy weekends with tuna fish sandwiches, chips, and pickles for lunch and NFL games on the TV all afternoon. I miss getting to gawk at all my newly engaged friends’ rings in person rather than via e-mail. I miss conversations with my co-worker Jessica about what we had for dinner last night and what books we’re reading. I miss spicy tuna rolls, chicken salad sandwiches, cooking dinner in a fully-stocked kitchen, and grabbing snacks from a well-stocked refrigerator. I miss driving. I miss random phone calls from friends. I miss having enough underwear to avoid choosing between washing my underwear in the sink or just rewearing them. I miss sleeping in a bed that I know is comfortable and between sheets that I know are clean. I miss being able to get my hair cut without fearing I’ll end up with a mullet, and I miss the occasional good hair day.

Like I said, it’s the little things, the things we normally take for granted, the things that seem basic, regular, normal, that I miss most. Really, I think in the end, on the days when I feel a twinge of homesickness, what I miss most is just that: normality. So right after Gregory left, when I was feeling a bit blue, we did the best thing we could: we lounged around in a fairly comfortable bed, made tuna fish sandwiches for lunch, and watched the NFL on TV. And as excited as I am about the adventures we have coming up in the next few weeks—the Galapagos, am Amazon lodge, and much more—for that one day, I couldn’t have imagined anything better.

Comments on Pages!

Just a quick notice that we managed to add comments onto the pages (let me know if anything else looks funny, I had to play around with some code and I don’t know code). So please, feel free to fire away any questions you may have about budgets or countries or any other page you like! Now we need to just figure out our problem with pictures. See, this downtime is good for something!

San Pedro de Atacama in Pictures

Having revealed all that Machu Picchu had in store for us and with us taking a small break to recover from the adventurous life (a few days in Lima followed by a few days now in the beachfront town of Huanchaca), let us now fill in our time just before Christmas, in San Pedro de Atacama. Let’s be clear about this — San Pedro is a tourist town. Big time. Pricey, hassly and full of gringos. But the scenery, oh the scenery, it definitely makes it worth it. It’s a high altitude desert boasting among other attractions geysers and incredible wind carved salt dunes. And it’s not really that bad of a place. But with all that in mind, we’re going to spare you lots of words about the area and just show you a bunch of pretty pictures. Because it sure is beautiful.