Ecuador

Ecuador is a small country, located, as you can guess on the equator, and it’s a little mass of South America, with volcanoes of the Andes Cordillera and the Amazonia jungle as well. Let’s get ready for adventure!

The Inca trail

Laguna de Quilotoa

The first thing you see about Ecuadorian is their size: usually small with a big rib cage. Why? Because their body adapted to the altitude (Quito the capital city is located at 2850 m, and most of the country is like that). Which means your body is not really made for the lack of oxygen at this altitude, and it’s exactly what happened to me when I reached the Laguna de Quilotoa. When I got off the bus, it was the first time I found my self at 4000 m. I was lucky because if breathing can be quite strange for a moment, I never suffer any trouble regarding mountain sickness. Quilotoa is, in fact, a volcano, with a lake in its crater. We walked down to this “Laguna”, getting from 4100 m to 3900 m. It’s very easy to get down, but the way back was another story. The sides of the crater are made of sand and ashes, which is already something hard to walk in normal conditions, but with the altitude, it was much harder. Despite the effort, the view really worths it. My group enjoyed a folklore evening, sleeping homestays, but at this altitude, and even if it’s the equator, the night was very cold, despite all the llama hair blankets the local people put on us.

Chimborazo

With its 6263 m, this volcano is the closest point on Earth to the Sun. Wait a minute, why it’s not the Everest? Just because the Chimborazo is located on the equator, and Earth is not completely round, it’s flatter at the poles. With my group, we tried to climb it. We packed ourselves (16 persons) in a minibus (made for 14 persons) which took us to the starting point the walk, at 4800 m. There, we discovered hundreds of Ecuadorians wearing shorts and ready to run. There was a race starting at this altitude and going down the volcano to Riobamba. Did I mention it was snowing? In fact, the snow helped us a lot, because it made the air more breathable, and it froze the ground, making it easier to walk. I reached 5000 m without troubles. Then, things started to be more complicated. The snow made the path invisible, I couldn’t see the summit as well. So I walked another 100 m until some people started to get down, telling me that it was too dangerous to further, as there could be a risk of avalanche. So I turned back as well, already happy that I was able to reach such altitude.

The road of the Inca: 2 days on horseback

Never trust your guide book. It was written “easy ride”. After several hours, we learned from our guide, that the author of the guide book came 2 years before but never made that ride.

It was already an adventure to get to the starting point of this ride: Achupallas. We had to spend several hours in a cattle van, on an unpaved road, bordered by a huge ravine and swerving wide to avoid potholes or animals in the middle of the roadway. But we survived it. The worst was to come: horseback. There, I learned that my butt was definitely not made for a saddle. After only one hour, it was already very painful. Imagine how I felt at the end of the day after 6 hours? But honestly, it really worthed the pain. We crossed wild landscapes (in opposition to fields Ecuadorians grow even on the highest mountains), with a pass at 4000 m half in the snow, getting down in an untouched valley with a lake reflecting the sun lights. We spent a very cold night at 3000 m under a tent, but I really enjoyed it just because of the sky. It was the first time in my life I could see so many stars, and it was breathtaking. Getting back on horseback the morning after was really hard, and the weather was really cold (I have to admit, we put a little bit of vodka in our morning juice), and finally when we reached Ingapirca, I just let me fall from the horse, as my legs were too painful to move it.

Baños

That’s a very well name city, as we were soaked as soon as we left the bus. In fact, the name “baños” which means “bath” comes from the hot pool (50°C-60°C) near the town, heated by the volcano Tungurahua. Good to know, if the volcano erupted, you only have 15 min to evacuate the city (which means: impossible). Nearby, there’s the Rio Negro, on which we did some rafting. And if you wonder why it’s named like that (black water), maybe the black sand left in my swimsuits can give you an idea. We also went to see some waterfalls, such as “El paillon del Diablo” (the devil’s cauldron) you can get close enough to touch it.

Lago Agrio – Cuyabeno park

Welcome to the jungle. Honestly, I was scared of this kind of place before that trip because of anacondas, spiders, and all other dangerous creatures you can find there. Finally, I found myself quite comfortable with all of that.

To go deep inside the jungle, we spent 2 hours in a dugout canoe before reaching our base camp. It was almost dark when we arrived. The atmosphere was strange, warm and wet, bright eyes looking at us behind the leaves, and there were so many strange noises. For sure, the jungle is all but quiet. In the morning, I was surprised by the number of butterflies, they were beautiful, and if you remain motionless enough, they might land on you. Our guide took us into the forest, making a path with his machete. He showed us some tarantulas, some weird trees (one of them if you knock on it, the sound can be heard 100 m around), and made us eat ants. It’s not so bad, the taste is like lemon, because of formic acid. The only weird thing about it is to watch the ant running in your hand before eating it. Then, we went into the river, we swam into it, before learning there was anaconda inside, caimans (our guide caught a small one) and piranhas we tried to fish, unsuccessfully for me. Piranha tastes like any other fish, and in that case, I supposed it’s better eating it rather than being eaten.

One more thing about that part of Ecuador. When we arrived in Lago Agrio, I wanted to read about this area in my guide book, and it was written: “we do not talk about this region, as it serves as a support base for the FARC”(Colombian terrorist group which kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt). Nothing to worry about this.

Traveling in Ecuador

Here is a list of some tips, or things you need to know, before visiting this country:

  • Transport: mainly by bus, like the local people, traveling with their chicken, listening to pan flute all night. In the bus station (“terminal terrestre”) to find your bus, just listen to drivers shouting the name of their destination. Roads were in poor conditions in that time, and I was thinking of sending money to the government to make them tarmac it.
  • Food: if you don’t want to get sick, avoid water. Your daily meal will mostly be chicken with rice and coke (just ask for “pollo con arroz y coca”). You can try to eat “cuyo” if you’re brave enough (roasted guinea pig).
  • Shopping: the best place for that is the market of Otavalo, very colorful. I found a hammock and a reduced head for my little sister.

August 2007 – Group tour by ZigoTours – 3 weeks

East USA

United States East coast has some unmissable cities that you must visit. Let’s start with some historical ones and finish by the most famous.

Washington

Better known as D.C (for District of Columbia, and not to mistake with the Washington state on the West coast), Washington is the federal capital of the United States. It means there you can find most the federal government buildings. The most famous is the White House, which looks quite small in reality compared to how it’s shown in many movies. Or maybe it’s just because I saw it only in the long distance from the garden gates. One the other federal government building is the Capitol, and I had the chance to visit it. I was quite surprised when the guide told my group, that, in fact, it’s almost an empty building under the cupola. Actually, when it was built between 1793 and 1812, the USA had not yet 50 states, which means now, there’s not enough place to host all the parliament, so outbuildings had to be built later.

There are several important buildings and monuments along Pennsylvania Avenue, which links the White House to the Capitol, and you might have seen in some movies, such as the FBI head office, the departments of justice and the treasury, the National Art Gallery, the University George Washington. Nearby, on the National Mall between Madison and Jefferson drive, there are very interesting museums, such as the national museum of American History or the National Air and Space Museum. They are definitely not boring museums, very well presented, especially if you’re visiting it with kids or teenagers.

Washington is also known for all its memorials, located close to the Washington monument, that giant obelisk. You probably know the Lincoln Memorial, with the statue of 16th President of the USA, who was assassinated. There are also some memorials dedicated to some of the wars the USA were involved, such as the World War II and Korea War. In my opinion, the most impressive one is the Vietnam War memorial, because it’s original and the artist had a great idea to represent it: it’s a black reflecting wall carved in the ground, with all the names of the soldiers. It represents a scar in the American ground.

I really enjoyed that city, because it’s flat, with no skyscraper like in many North-American cities, and it’s green, with a lot of trees, so a pleasant city to visit.

Philadelphia

I visited Philadelphia, because it’s on the road, between Washington and New-York. The main reason to visit this city is Independence Hall, where was signed the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776, and where was adopted the American Constitution. Nearby, there’s “Liberty Bell”, a symbol of American Independence. Philadelphia was also an interesting stop, just because taxes were lower in Pennsylvania State, which is a good excuse to do some shopping.

New-York

What can I say about the Big Apple when everything has already been written about it? If I had to pick a word to describe it, for I’ld choose “Big”. That’s true, everything is big in that city: the buildings, the streets, the cars, the people, even food. You must visit New-York at least once in your life. Personally, I felt like if I was in a TV series or in a movie, as I recognized many places: the Flat Iron, the National Library, Wall Street, the Rockefeller Center, and its Christmas tree the Brooklyn Bridges, etc. Like the White House, the Statue of Liberty seems smaller in real life than on TV; but the cruise to get to Ellis Island, really worth it, has it gives a great view to Manhattan. You have to feel the atmosphere on Time Square, with the smoke escaping from the sewer plates, between the yellow cabs. You can’t resist eating a hotdog on Broadway and shopping on the 5th Avenue. You must get to the top of the Empire State Building at sunset, to enjoy the city enlighting.

I can’t talk to you about the new tallest building of the city, the One World trade center, because when I visited the city, it wasn’t built yet. In that time, they were just finishing to extract what remains of Ground Zero. I kept a sad memory of this place because it was just a big hole in the ground, with pictures and explanation about the September 11th attacks. There was a woman crying, and asking God why He let that happened. I could still feel the horror of that day.

I think my favorite place was Central Park. Honestly, I don’t see my self living in New-York, where the horizon is always blocked by buildings which are so tall you feel oppressed. So it can explain why I enjoyed so much this big green island in the heart of the city, with its lakes, its squirrels, etc.

Of course, they are so many places to go, to visit in New-York, that I can’t tell you all, so I’ll just recommend you the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) which might one of the best in the USA.

Just one last thing: the subway. It’s probably one of the most complicated systems I ever met. Sometimes it doesn’t stop at all stations, and some lines stop earlier than others. Disturbing.

April 2006 – Teens camp – 1 week

West USA

A road trip is the best way to discover the Far West and its famous national parks. Ready to be a poor lonesome cowboy? Let’s cross Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada…

Arizona: Grand Canyon State

The Grand Canyon is the must-see. There are two great ways to discover it. For the first one, you’ll have to wake up early, in order to see the sun rises above the canyon. The show is really worth. The other way to enjoy it is to get down the Colorado River on a canoe. With that experience will understand how deep is the canyon.

The other place to see in Arizona is definitely Monument Valley. In fact, it’s in Arizona and Utah, close to the “four corners” (the crossing point between these two states, plus New Mexico and Colorado). Don’t just take a picture of its three most famous mesas, take a ride inside the park, with a Navajo guide it will be better. Navajos are the native people. They named most of the mesas you will see, such as the Three Sisters (they look like a W) or the Dragon, and they left some petroglyphs, which most famous is “Cocopelly”.

There are some other sites to visit in that state. Petrified Forest is interesting as its particularity is these enormous rocks which were tree trunks, million years ago, when dinosaurs were still alive and ate their leaves. Lake Powell is a great place to enjoy nautical sports such as jet-ski. It’s an artificial lake thanks to Glen Canyon Dam, which is so high that it can be vertiginous.

Colorado: the Pioneers state

Mesa Verde National is famous because of its Anasazi monuments. The United States has few pre-Columbian monuments, that’s why this palace is important, especially because it’s a troglodyte. The other specificity of this canyon compared to others is its flora. It’s really well named because it’s the greenest canyon.

Durango really looks like a pioneer city, but its main attraction, except Ralph Lauren shop, is its steam train.

Utah: the Centennial state

Why the Centennial? Just because it joined the Union in 1876, 100 years after the USA independence. If its known because of the Winter Olympics Game in Salt Lake City (2002) or because its the Mormons state, trust me it’s as beautiful as Arizona. They are two great sites to visit. Start with Arches National Park, where water curved wonderful sculptures. The most impressive one is the Delicate Arche. Then go to Bryce Canyon national park, maybe the most incredible canyon of the USA. It’s called the Silent City because it looks like orange buildings separated by little canyons as streets, with no one, like an abandoned town.

Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas

You can’t go to Nevada without visiting the city of games and sins, even if you don’t want to gamble. I was a teenager, so I wasn’t allowed even to sit, as I was forbidden to play. But the casinos are amazing places, their decorations are incredible. I don’t know which was my favorite one. I remember I was impressed by how the Paris Paris truly looks like Paris city. The Venetian, the Ceasar Palace, and the Luxor are also very well made, especially from the outside. New-York New-York is funny because of its roller coaster, and of course, you can’t miss the fountains show at the Bellagio. The best way to discover it is to walk along the strip, start at sunset and spend the night along with it. Don’t miss as well Fairmont, where you must see its roof show. And, last but not least, you should go to the Stratosphere and do the attractions at its summit. Vertigo guaranteed.

Some tips to add… Everything seems bigger in USA, roads, cars, distances. Never forget that prices are without taxes, it’s always a surprise to discover at the cashier how much you’ll pay. The thunder on Monument Valley picture shows the reality: usually, days are hot and sunny, and evenings are rainy with thunder. But camping remains a good option to make your trip cheaper.

August 2005 – Teens Camp – 3 weeks

Guadeloupe

Imagine, we are in the middle of winter. It’s dark and cold outside. What can you be dreaming of? Sun and heat, don’t you? Let’s cross the Atlantic ocean and find it …

Welcome to paradise

In 2000, my mother decided to offer our little family, a dreaming escape. She took us to Guadeloupe, a French little island located in the West Indies. It was my first long haul flight (8h) and jetlag (-5h). Quite disturbing, but when you’re a kid, you can get used very easily to any situation. I always remember my first impression as we left the airport: how warm it was! Experimenting sun and heat in winter is the best thing to boost your mind. When I woke up on the first morning, I think we were close to the typical picture of paradise. Maybe it’s also what thought the first explorers who reached this part of the world.

I’ll try to bring you there. Close your eyes. You are on a beach with white sand. Behind you there are palm trees, you can hear the breeze shacking them. In front of you, there is a lagoon, calm and warm. In the long distance, you can hear the waves crushing into the lagoon rocky border. In the sky, there are these clouds, not flat like in Europe, more like a chimney. The horizon seems so large. Suddenly a short rain, like a shower, not cold, not long enough to get you wet, and if it’s the case, you’ll be dry quickly anyway. You welcome it. Then, you take off your clothes, you could spend the day in a swimsuit, and you run into the turquoise sea, which is at the perfect temperature.

Taste it

There is no paradise without good food. Missing fruits? Guadeloupe is the perfect place to make a fruit cure: banana, guava, mango, passion fruit, papaya, coconut, etc. What Guadeloupe is famous for is rum (the gift to bring home). Even if I was young I could taste a punch: exotic fruit juice, with cane sugar syrup and rum. Sweet sweetness. Sip it while laying on the beach.

Discover it

I could have spent the holidays on the beach, but we decided to rent a car, and also a tour guide, and visit the island. We started with Pointe-à-Pitre, the main city. Its market is very colorful, and it’s a good occasion to chat with the local people. If I didn’t understand them at first glance, it was because some of them speak Creole. Then we went to Basse-Terre (the island looks like a butterfly, divided in two part: Grande Terre in the North East and Basse-Terre in the South West), in order to climb La Soufrière. It’s an active volcano. I remember the path in the tropical forest, but not the summit because it was in a cloud. When we reached it, it smelt like a rotten egg because of the sulfur escaping from the ground.

Traveler tree

I was really impressed by the flora of the island. It was the first time I met exotic trees and plants. The most incredible was the traveler tree. It’s a palm tree looking like a fan.

I came back from these holidays, with skin dark like never, and in much better health to face the rest of winter.

February 2000 – Family trip – 1 week