Saturday, November 6, 2010

Get Thee To a Nunnery

If you are new to Quito, you may not realize that there is a whole spiritual world awaiting you via gluttony and debauchery handmade by, and purchased from, cloistered nuns.

To raise money for their churches and various charities, the nuns make all sorts of products which visitors can purchase either directly from the cloistered nuns themselves through a revolving door that keeps the nuns hidden, or in a front reception area.You can spend many a hour visiting the various nunneries around old town and sampling their homemade goodies.

The best things, in my opinion, are from Monasterio de Carmen Alto conveniently located a few blocks from my house on Calle Rocafuerte and Garcia Moreno.

They sell anise flavored liquor, cookies, de-soured lemons filled with caramel crème, wine, bee pollen, tiger balm, rose water, soap, hand and foot lotion, and many, many other culinary and body delights. The best thing about Monasterio de Carmen Alto is that they package everything beautifully and put their own little nun label on the front so everything here makes for a really good gift.

Around town you can find these religious bottle covers that are made to perfectly enclose the liquors and wines made by the nuns.

Tips: The nuns at Carmen Alto don't mess around with their liquor. This stuff is strong! Watch yourself.

The coca leaf tea is sold at natural food stores and isn't made by the nuns, but it is another great thing to try while you are here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Best Coffee In Quito

I'm a lethargic, angry, mean person without coffee and the thing they serve you here in Ecuador that is supposed to be coffee, but is actually Nescafe with hot water and milk, just doesn’t do it for me and it probably doesn’t do it for you either.

As a person who made a latte a part of her morning ritual before she entered high school and who has spent most of her free time since then socializing and writing in coffee shops, chosen apartments based on their proximity to a good java joint, and converted her tea drinking boyfriend into a coffee fiend, the little brown beans that we all know and love are almost a part of my self identity. Who am I without coffee? I don’t really want to know and I can assure you that my boyfriend definitely does not want to find out.

Of course you can find great, real coffee in the Mariscal, but I don’t live in the Mariscal - I live half an hour away by trolley and that is much too long a commute without coffee first - hence the dilemma. After sampling the java in a two block radius all around my house in Centro Historico and always being served Nescafe, I finally decided that I needed to make it at home to make it how I want it. Since then I have tried numerous coffee brands and had almost settled on the organic Mindo Cloud Forest when the sweet, rich aroma of roasting beans lured me into this little tienda near Plaza Grande where my coffee dreams were realized.

They have dark, medium, and light roast, but like a true junkie I went straight for the strong stuff and bought a bag for $5.50.

This morning I sampled it for the first time and it is good! Strong, bold, rich with an earthy flavor and enough caffeine to wake me up after a single cup, but not so much that I’m shaking after two. I can say, hands down, this is the best coffee I have had in Ecuador. Café Aguila de Oro is located directly behind the President’s house on Benalcazar between Chile and Espejo.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Vacationing in Vilcabamba Ecuador

Vilcabamba is where wealthy new-age hippies come to die. Lucky bastards. Vilcabamba is spectacularly gorgeous with ideal weather and a cute little town with a talented affordable masseuse, more spas than you can frequent, and a few good restaurants.

It’s known as the valley of longevity because supposedly the inhabitants live to be over 100 and according to a creepy expat man we met in a hot tub who kept staring at my boobs while my boyfriend gave him the evil eye, it has some "special magnetic healing energy" which "flips your isotopes" and lies along some special imaginary line on the Earth.

I’m not really prone to believing things like this, especially coming from a man who claims his best friend is the CEO of Domino’s Pizza who is now leaving the pizza business to coach a college basketball team.

I’m more the type of person to believe the people here live a long time because they breathe fresh unpolluted mountain air and do things like eat vegetables and get plenty of exercise via building their homes, tending their animals and gardens, and hiking up the freaking Andes with 60 pounds of wood strapped to their backs, but hey, to each their own.

I wanted to tell this expat hot tub man this same thing, but I didn’t want to destroy his belief that he could live here in exactly the same sedentary way he did in the US, except with access to cheap labor composed of people who would do his cooking, cleaning, gardening, and maintenance work, eat steak and potatoes for dinner every night, smoke cigarettes and drink too much alcohol and somehow he’d miraculously live 30 years longer.

Anyway, Vilcabamba is full of this type of man and also full of older glamorous divorced or widowed women living there with their imported pedigreed dogs. And, I’m not knocking it! Seriously! I love Vilcabamba.

Well, I did after our first night anyway.

We arrived in Vilcabamba around 4:00 in the afternoon and found our hotel El jardin Escondido (The Secret Garden) and tried to check in. The receptionist was out and the really young girl who was covering for her had no idea where to find our reservation. No big deal. We decided to have a seat at the restaurant and wait, but nobody came to take our order. And they were open, we checked. We then asked the receptionist if we could just have a room, but she said no. After about half an hour someone finally took our order, an hour after that we got our food and still no receptionist.

Finally a man who had been there the entire time, and ended up being the owner, gruffly showed us to a room as if it was a huge inconvenience for him and we were obnoxious to have even arrived at all. The room had mold on the walls, a saggy bed, and was full of mosquitoes. We walked around the hotel and it looked as if he had given us the worst room in the place and most of the other rooms were empty. None of the staff was friendly or welcoming and the two owners were downright hostile. And we were honestly being extremely polite. Maybe it was because we are in our mid-twenties and they are ageists, but I would never recommend it to anyone.

The next morning we checked out and went to Madre Tierra, an old run-down resort about a kilometer outside town and stayed there for five nights in paradise.

The owners live in the states, but the people they have hired to run it are so friendly and helpful and nice we just loved them. The girl at the front desk is incredibly awesome and so is her brother.

The food is delicious - $5 for filet mignon for example. Here is a picture of the dining room.

The gardens are gorgeous and overgrown, the cabins are private with spectacular views, they scatter rose petals all around their spa and hot tub, the pool is refreshing, the pool table is cracked and bent and we played on it anyway, and…wait for it…they have wifi.

We didn’t want to leave, truly. It was just lovely and I highly recommend it. Thank you to all the staff at Madre Tierra.

Tips for Vilcabamba:

Stay at Madre Tierra and try to reserve a cabin on the hill. The owners were trying to sell it when we were there so it may have changed hands. Hopefully the new owners will keep the same people running it. If there's a super cute 17 year old girl at the front desk - be assured you will love it.

Right off the main square in town is a hair and nail salon and the woman who owns it does hour long massages for $15.

There is a restaurant called Timothy’s that has awesome burgers. Try the one with pineapple and barbeque sauce. Yum!

Do the horseback ride up to the top of the mountain peak early in the morning for spectacular views.

This is really a place to relax so bring lots of books, a laptop, and your ipod.

There’s a Tema office in town where you can buy plane tickets from Loja to Quito if you don't feel up to bussing it back up North.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Entonces Entiendo

Despite, or perhaps because of, the lazy paradisiacal vibe in Canoa, my boyfriend and I signed up for two hours of Spanish lessons per day with Pamela, one of the two sisters who jointly run a restaurant a few blocks from the beach.

During our first lesson Pamela was teaching us conversational skills and she had us play a game to make it more fun. The premise was that there was a magical island called Tonces and we were supposed to practice both our reflexive and regular verbs by saying what we liked to do in this mythical land. She would say things like “En Tonces, me gusta nadar con los delfins.” Then we would copy the format but change the verb and say things that we liked to do in Tonces such as, “Me gusta ire a la playa.” For homework she asked us to write five sentences about what we liked to do in Tonces.

After dinner, when we sat down to practice what we had learned, we each wrote our sentences and then read them to each other. I read mine first and Zach looked confused and asked me why I was saying so before every sentence.

Apparently En Tonces does not mean in the magical land of Tonces, but rather entonces means so, and it was a verbal tic of our teacher’s to use this as a filler word. So here I was ridiculously proud of myself for understanding everything in my first ever Spanish lesson when really I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Now it’s an inside joke and we say things like “Yeah, well, I may not have any friends here, but in Tonces I’m hot shit,” or “I don’t know if you know this, but in Tonces you can actually make a good living drinking cuba libres and eating mangoes.”

Oh the joys of learning a new language.

Canoa Tips:

Pamela and her sister Andrea run a very good restaurant called Café Flor with fresh food and an innovative menu that changes every few weeks. Spanish lessons are $6 per person per hour or $10 per hour for a couple. They both speak English and are very helpful with things like bus schedules, etc.

The Surf Shack has real coffee, good food, strong drinks, and nice young owners. It’s where all the tourists hang out and is a good place for meeting people.

The first two nights we were there (in March) we stayed at Hotel Bambu which is cute, clean, and affordable. However we were unbearably hot - like get up three times in the night to take cold showers and still couldn’t sleep hot. Wusses? Maybe, but we switched to Canoa Wonderland, a new hotel at the opposite end of the beach (right side if you are ocean gazing) with air-conditioning and a swimming pool and we were much more comfortable. We got a double for $40, including breakfast, because we stayed multiple nights. That was still out of our budget, but worth it for sweet, sweet, uninterrupted sleep. Normally it is $50 per night. The buffet breakfast is much better if you get there right when they serve it.

The only direct bus that leaves from Canoa for Quito leaves at midnight. If you prefer to travel by day the best option is to leave Canoa around 6:30am and head to San Vicente via taxi, then take a water taxi to Bahia, and then another taxi to the bus station. A bus for Quito leaves around 8 or 8:30am. These buses are nicer than the others, have air-conditioning, and drop you off at a small station near the Mariscal which is much more convenient than the South station way outside of town. They also stop at a great, cheap, roadside buffet for lunch. We ate there and didn’t get sick, however I stupidly left my backpack on the bus, and predictably my ipod was stolen. Be smarter than me and take everything with you when you eat. Although, I hear that in Tonces you can leave your backpack on the bus and people will actually stuff presents into it rather than take your shit.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Building a House in Ballenita, Ecuador

This is the house my father is building in Ballenita, Ecuador near Salinas. It has 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, and coastal views from every room in the house. It’s still about a month away from being finished, but you can see the general idea here.

He has incorporated a lot of natural materials into the home like rustic stone walls and beautiful wooden beams in the ceilings.

This particular house is designed with high ceilings and large windows to let in tons of natural light, but also built to catch the sea breeze so the house will be kept cool naturally and keep the air conditioning costs at a minimum.

When it's finished it will have an outdoor oven and bar to enjoy the perfect Ecuadorian weather, which I’m pretty much all about. Margaritas, anyone?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Wired in Quito

These photos were taken near Parque Carolina in the North of Quito.

They are just too crazy to keep for myself.

Believe it or not these people are discussing a future lunch date and not the very real threat of electrocution or imminent death.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ecuador chooses not to drill for oil!

Check out this cool article about how Ecuador is choosing not to drill oil. Yay for Ecuador!