New Year’s Eve in Quito

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Crowds gather to celebrate and admire floats depicting scenes from the old year on Av. Rio Amazonas

¡Feliz año nuevo!

New Year’s Eve is a big holiday everywhere, and Quito is no exception. From massive floats illustrating scenes of the old year by day to fireworks exploding and cross-dressers panhandling for beer money by night, Quito’s New Year’s festivities don’t disappoint. Below are photos we took in Quito’s Plaza Foch/Mariscal Sucre area on December 31, 2016.

By Day

During the day, the Av. Río Amazonas in Mariscal Sucre was transformed into a fairground with floats depicting important issues in Quito and the events of the previous year. There were floats lampooning politicians, calling for conservation of water in the city, and honoring firemen who rescued citizens during disasters (such as the 2016 earthquake in Manabi province). The street was full of pedestrians, while vendors hawked everything from rainbow mohawk wigs to fake breasts to neon-colored children’s toys on the side of the street.

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A man watches as workers assemble a float referencing Game of Thrones for the New Year’s festivities
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An elderly man looks over at a float honoring the firemen of Ecuador
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People stand in front of a float condemning corruption in the Ecuadorean government
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Superheroes entertain children in the crowd
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A man sells masks and wigs along Av. Rio Amazonas
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A boy stands mesmerised by bobbling children’s toys along Av. Rio Amazonas

The nearby Parque El Ejido also transformed into a massive market, selling souvenirs, trinkets, and snacks for the celebrations. We sat on a bench and watched families slowly amble past, adults trying to keep children from running off in every direction. Other individuals hurried past, rushing to complete their shopping in time for evening festivities. The air was thick with the smell of sugar and steaming sweet corn, alive with the shouts of children and laughter of friends. Even in this warm atmosphere, a contingent of officers stood in a line, waiting to guide traffic and keep the peace once night fell.

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A woman rushes to complete her shopping at the market in Parque El Ejido
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Officers stand awaiting inspection and deployment to keep the peace on New Year’s Eve in Mariscal Sucre and Plaza Foch

By Night

Once darkness fell, the real party in Plaza Foch got started. The families disappeared. Vendors switched to selling fireworks and roman candles. And the streets re-opened to vehicle traffic—sort of. Cars were stopped every few blocks by another feature of Quito’s New Year festivities: the viudas. Masquerading as the ‘widows’ of the old year, these men stop cars and pedestrians to beg for beer money while dressed in ridiculous costumes.

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Viudas blocking traffic in Mariscal Sucre
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A viuda collects money from a driver in Mariscal Sucre. Note the effigy of a pony tied to the top of the car.
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A viuda stops a taxi in Plaza Foch
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Posing with a viuda

And then there are the effigies themselves. Clothes stuffed with newspaper, propped up in chairs, and wearing masks, these dolls represent the old year and are destined for a fiery demise. Some are dressed as political figures and fearful creatures, while others are references to pop culture such as My Little Pony and Minions. All are meant to be burned to bid farewell to the old year, but the ‘fiery demise’ bit didn’t seem to be something done around Plaza Foch. When we asked shopkeepers about burning the effigies, they seemed slightly embarrassed and suggested we leave the city center and visit one of Quito’s suburbs—apparently it’s now more of a family affair.

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An effigy with the face of Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa
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A security guard and an effigy watch revelers from a window in an office building
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An effigy outside of a bar threatens to “go after the missing ones” this year

As with any good New Year’s celebration, the fireworks, drinking, and celebrations went on far past midnight. It was a long, ebullient farewell from Quiteños to the old year, which hadn’t particularly been kind to Ecuador. But the next day was the start of a new year for them.

Hopefully the hangover wasn’t too bad.

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A couple lights Roman candles in Plaza Foch

Mindo’s Chocolate Tour

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Flowers on cacao trees at Mindo’s El Quetzal

You already know I love chocolate so much that I carried a DIY bean-to-bar chocolate-making project across three countries. Continuing this obsession, we we’ve been on the lookout since the start of our trip for a tour of a cacao plantation and the full chocolate-making process. Mindo Chocolate’s El Quetzal was the perfect opportunity to see small scale bean-to-bar chocolate creation in action, so during our day trip to Mindo we stopped by to take a tour.

El Quetzal serves as a storefront, café, and tour center for Mindo’s chocolate-making. You can go in and shop around while waiting for a tour to begin (they occur every half-hour as of Dec 2016), or you can grab a cacao-themed snack at the café. These include the standard fare of brownies and chocolate cake, but what you should really order is the cacao fruit smoothie – it’s a rare chance to taste cacao fruit, that sweet pineapple-mango flavored delight that surrounds each cacao bean and is lost in chocolate-making.

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The café at El Quetzal

The tour begins with a walk through the plantation behind the restaurant to demonstrate growing, harvesting, fermenting, and drying the cacao beans. While the bulk of Mindo’s beans are grown elsewhere, several cacao trees flourish on the Mindo plantation. The guide explains cacao’s growing conditions in hot humid environments and describes the Nacional and Criollo strains they use in their chocolate-making. The trees at the plantation display cacao pods in all states of development, from flower to full-size pod, which all sprout from the trunks of the trees in a natural phenomena known as cauliflory.

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A young cacao pod grows among flower buds

The next stop is an open greenhouse to see how cacao is fermented and dried. El Quetzal ferments its beans primarily on the main plantations, but the guide shows you the type of boxes and layering with banana leaves that occurs to keep the cacao at the perfect temperature during the two-day fermentation. They then show you the beans drying on mesh nets in the greenhouse—cracking one open reveals a nearly rich brown cacao nib, even before the roast. There’s hardly a trace of the original purple color found in cacao nibs before fermentation.

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Cacao beans dry in an open greenhouse

After learning growth and preparation of the bean, the guide walks you through the roasting and extraction of the cacao nib. El Quetzal has built much of its own chocolate-making equipment, including a rotating drum for roasting the cacao beans at a low temperature and a device that cracks the beans and separates them from the outer husk.

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Our guide shows us equipment for cracking cacao beans after roasting

Then it’s on to grinding and processing, where El Quetzal uses several ball mills to grind the cacao from the nibs into a smooth, dark chocolate liqueur. The liqueur is then further processed by a press that squeezes out the cacao butter, leaving behind the cocoa powder that we use in baking. Or the cacao liqueur is conched and mixed with cacao butter to make chocolate. All of this takes places in a heated room to keep the chocolate liquid and encourage formation of the shine that we’re used to in fine chocolate. Once poured into molds, the chocolate is moved to a cold room to set and mature for three days.

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The cold room where Mindo’s chocolate matures

Finally, it’s back to the café for the tasting flight of El Quetzal’s chocolates. It begins with the pure cacao liqueur served beside a homemade brownie, followed by 85%, 77% and 67% dark chocolate bars, both plain and with added flavors. Their chocolate is citrusy and tangy, pairing well with ginger and nuts. You wash the chocolate down with a sampling of cacao tea, made from the cacao husks after the nib is extracted.

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A brownie served with chocolate liqueur during the tasting

While wonderful, the tour and chocolate purchases were definitely a splurge for us. The chocolate-making tour is $10 per person (in 2016), which is the cost of about 2 meals for us in Quito. Chocolate bars are also on the pricier side, at $7 for a 50 g bar. But with their award-winning 77% bar and the amazing blend of the 67% chocolate and ginger bar, it’s hard to resist. And because it’s a mom-and-pop operation built from scratch, it couldn’t feel better.

Explore Nature Around Quito with Mindo’s Waterfall Hike

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An aerial view of the waterfall hike and surrounding forest from the gondola

The small mountain town of Mindo is a perfect getaway from the city of Quito. Located only 2 hours away, it boasts amazing hikes, a bird sanctuary, an orchid garden, and chocolate tours. For those of you looking for a nice half-day hike, look no further than Mindo’s Santuario de Cascadas, which leads you through tropical cloud forest to several beautiful waterfalls.

Getting There

There are two main ways of getting to Mindo: booking transportation with a tour, or taking the bus. In either case, prep for the trip by bringing hiking shoes (this hike is a real one so don’t just come in flip flops and then slip and fall to your death), a swimsuit, some food, and some cash.

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Waiting to ride the gondola across the valley to the waterfall hike

The tour option: This is better if you want to do multiple activities in Mindo and you’re short on time, since it will work on your schedule. You can book a tour to at nearly any agency in Mindo, but I’d recommend Gabby Segova’s Ecuador Family Tours; we booked our Galapagos cruise through her and couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful person to help us.

The bus option:  The bus may not work for those on a tight schedule, but it’s cheaper ($3.10 as of December 2016) and great if you have a couple of days to spend exploring Mindo. There are a couple of bus lines that run to Mindo, but all but one drop you off outside of town and you have to flag a ride to finish the trip. Only the Flor de Valle line, which leaves from Terminal Ofelia, goes into Mindo itself. It departs Quito->Mindo and Mindo->Quito only a few times a day, so double check the schedule at Terminal Ofelia. For those of you planning a day trip to Mindo with the bus, the ride takes 2 hours; if you’re on the 8:00 am (first) bus out, you have 7 hours to explore Mindo before you have to catch the last bus out. Buy your ticket for the last bus in advance (i.e. when you first get into Mindo), because it can sell out.

It’s a 15-minute ride from the town to the entrance to Santuario de Cascadas. Pick-up trucks here double as taxis, so flag one and ask to go to “Tarabita y Santuario de Cascadas Mindo” or just “Cascadas del Mindo”. It’s not a cheap ride ($6.00 in 2016), so share it if you can.

The Hike

The hike is only accessible by gondola, which costs $5.00 a person to cross — that includes the trip back, so don’t worry about paying again when you return. At busy times you might find yourself waiting for 20-30 minutes for the gondola. The ride itself takes only a couple of minutes, and while the picture below might seem scary, this type of transport is fairly routine in mountainous parts of South America. If you’re afraid of heights then sit, don’t stand, and definitely don’t look down.

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Riding the gondola

There are two hikes you can do from where the gondola drops you off: a 45-minute hike with one waterfall (left when facing the gondola building) and a 1-3 hour hike with six waterfalls (right when facing the gondola building). We chose the six-waterfall hike because we wanted a longer walk, so the rest of this post will focus on that hike.

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Hikers make their way down the steep trail

The first part of the hike was a pretty steep downhill trail with semi-formed stairs that can get pretty slippery when wet. It was mostly packed earth when we visited, but workers along the trail were building new safety rails and steps, so it looks like either the locals or the park service is investing in improvements.

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Workers lay rebar for a railing along the trail

The first five waterfallswere the most crowded so we hiked on through to the last waterfall and had our own private swimming pool. When another group finally caught up with us nearly an hour later, we packed up and worked our way backward, visiting each waterfall.

None of these falls are Niagra or Iguazu, but each has its own personality formed by the flow of the water around the rocks. For those completionists out there (like me), here’s a list of the waterfalls from closest to furthest from trail start:

Cascada Nimbillo

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This is the busiest waterfall, with a dedicated (but somewhat run-down) changing area. We saw a lot several families swimming and playing near this waterfall.

Cascada Ondinas

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A small waterfall that has a small wooden seat near the edge. The pool is shallow, so it’s better for having a picnic or relaxing than getting wet.

Cascada Guarumos

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This waterfall had a fairly deep pool, but I don’t remember seeing anyone swim here. It’d be a great place to check out on the next trip.

Cascada Colibries

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This shy waterfall is veiled by canyon walls, but if you wade upstream a bit you can get a great photo opportunity. It’s popular with visiting locals for photos, so you may have to wait for a few minutes to get your shot.

Cascada Madre

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The penultimate waterfall is surprisingly busy for how far it is from the trailhead. It’s got several easily accessible and deep pools, so it’s popular for swimming and soaking in.

Cascada Azul

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This waterfall is the least busy, since most people stop at Cascada Madre. Several pools around the area are deep enough to soak in, although there’s not much space to swim. We had this waterfall all to ourselves for an hour before other hikers showed up.

The Wildlife

I’m a biologist, I can’t help myself. Here here is some of the amazing wildlife we found on our hike:

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A shield bug (Pentatomoidea) on a leaf.
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Mushrooms grow from a woooden post along the trail
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A caterpillar on a leaf
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A longwing butterfly (Heliconius, probably H. melpomenes) drinks water from a concrete post along the trail.
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Tiny white mushrooms grow in the leaf litter of the forest floor.

You Gotta Try This: Spiced Poached Figs with Cheese

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Somewhere in the streets of Quito’s old center, lost between a cathedral and an arts market, we found something that smelled like everything you’d want of a winter treat. Pulling back a lid, a vendor released a warm fog scented with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and fruit from her oversized cauldron. We peered inside and found scores of figs simmering gently in syrup. We had to have one. Or maybe two.

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Okay, we ended up having three. But in our defense, these fig sandwiches are AMAZING! In exchange for $1, the vendor made us a sandwich filled with the poached figs, some slices of fresh cheese, and a few generous spoonfuls of the fig syrup on a crusty sandwich roll. Taking a bite of it blends all of the flavors – the sourness of the figs melts into the slight sharpness of the cheese and the burnt sugar on the syrup melds with the earthiness of the figs, while highlights of cloves and cinnamon dance on your tongue.

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Google searches after the fact revealed that this dish, poached figs with cheese or “Dulce De Higos”, is a national pastime in Ecuador. It’s readily available in nearly every dining establishment, to from the family table to the local restaurant to the country’s hautest eateries. And while it’s served as a sandwich on the street, it also takes the role as an appetizer or dessert in other places. Seriously, if you find yourself in Ecuador, you don’t have an excuse to not try this dish.

For those of you unable to find your way to Ecuador, never fear! Further Googling turned up what appears to be the only recipe for Dulce De Higos on the whole internet (psst, the recipe is in this link). It’s from Ecuadorean food blogger Layla Pujol, so I’m betting it’s pretty legit. It’s also ridiculously simple to make, although a bit time consuming (~3 hours of work spread over 2 days). Some thoughts on the recipe:

  • Panela is a raw semi-processed sugar sold in giant bricks or cones at Latin markets. If you can’t find this, you can substitute light brown (more sugar flavor) or dark brown (more molasses flavor) to your tastes.
  • Fresh figs can be hard to come by, but they’re probably a necessity for this recipe. If you insist on trying this with dry figs, you may want to puree the figs after boiling and create a preserve instead.
  • Layla’s recipe calls for “cinnamon, cloves, and other spices” but doesn’t list how much. I’d start with 2 3-inch cinnamon sticks and 6 to 12 cloves for the recipe’s final volume (4 to 6 cups), which are my estimates from making applesauce and chai tea. A few cardamom pods or star anise might also make great additions.
  • These figs pair best with a fresh but somewhat firm cheese, and Layla’s recipe calls for quesillo or queso fresco. She mentions mozzarella too, but I’d worry about a texture clash since that tends to be more rubbery. If you can’t find queso fresco, a ricotta cheese would also work well. Or you could make your own queso fresco!
  • If you absolutely must have some kind of bread/crust with it, this would probably also make an amazing pie/galette/dumpling filling.

I’m filing this recipe away until we return from our world travels, but if you try it in the meantime let me know how it turns out!

Scenes from Quito in the dusk of 2016

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Birds flock over the Plaza San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador.

Set high in the mountains, Quito was a sharp contrast from our experiences in Colombia. People were friendly, but more withdrawn and less cheerful. Markets were busy, but not bustling. Streets and thoroughfares were sometimes entirely empty. The whole city was still beautiful but it felt subdued and almost somber, as if the energy had been drained from its inhabitants.

The likely culprit behind this is economic depression. Since 2002 more than 40% of Ecuador’s export revenue had come from crude petroleum and it was one of the few exports keeping Ecuador’s international import-export balance in the green. During the boom years, as oil surpassed $100 per barrel, Ecuador brought in billions of dollars that it used to finance social projects throughout the country. Then in 2014 the price of oil crashed to $50 a barrel, collapsing in in January 2016 to a mere $30 a barrel. The oil revenues dried up, government spending slowed, and unemployment rose. The U.S. dollar (Ecuador’s official currency) also gained in value, further slowing Ecuador’s economy .

Couple these problems with a devastating earthquake that hit the north-west region of the country in April, killing nearly 700 people and and injuring a further 16,000, and the atmosphere of subdued worry makes sense. It’s been a bad year for Ecuador.

Below are photo from our visit to Quito during the end of December, in the dusk of 2016:

 

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A view of El Panecillo from a street near the history city center.
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Men wait for a shoe shining at La Plaza de la Independencia.

 

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The statue of the Virgin that overlooks the city on El Panecillo. 
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The view of the Basilica de Voto Nacional from El Panecillo.
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View of hillside neighborhoods of Quito from El Panecillo.
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A view from the top floor of El Centro Commercial Espiral.

As in previous countries, we met so many wonderful and brilliant people here in Quito that we can’t help but root for Ecuador. The Ecuadoreans are resilient and they’ll recover, but it will take time.

Quito’s Basílica del Voto Nacional

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Quito’s Basílica del Voto Nacional

If there’s one thing that South American cities have an abundance of, it’s religious landmarks and Quito is no exception, boasting several churches and cathedrals. The Basílica del Voto Nacional is the largest neo-gothic basilica in the Americas, with stained glass and altars to more than a dozen holy figures and saints. Entry into the cathedral is $1, and you can buy candles for prayers to the saints from vendors outside.

Once inside, the first striking thing is how dark and quiet the cathedral is. The stones muffle the sounds of traffic outside and most light passes though immense stained-glass windows, dimming it to near nothingness.

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Stained glass from the inside.

Some windows are patterned, while others depict Bible scenes or saints. Some have been damaged and replaced with whatever was handy at the time—one saint now has a torso of abstract art:

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Scenes from the Bible in stained glass
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Repaired stained glass windows showing more abstract designs.

Then there are the saints’ altars lining the walls of the cathedral:

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The altar for the crucifiction of Jesus.
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The altar for the child Mary.
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Saint Miguel, patron saint of education.

The crypt lies at one end of the Basilica, with large marble tombs adorned by bronze statues, dedicative plaques, and fresh flowers:

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A statue in the crypt to Father Julio Maria Matovelle.
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A cross on a wall with bricks bearing people’s names. For many years construction of the church was funded by laying bricks with donors’ names.

Travel in the time of Trump: Election Day and after in Mexico

One of the interesting parts of our trip is finding out how the world reacts to President Donald Trump. We get to see the situation on the ground and hear from normal people, far from the rhetoric of politics. Since this isn’t a point of view you normally hear, these experiences provide insight into how things in the world have changed since the election. These posts won’t have as many pictures, they won’t be as touristy, and they may be uncomfortable.

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The Mexican flag over a building in Mexico City.

When I picked Mexico as the starting point of our trip, we had just begun the 2016 election cycle insanity. Despite the election rhetoric in the U.S. at the time, the residents of Mexico City and the Yucatan were wonderfully friendly to us the whole trip.

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Driving the Puuc Route in the Yucatan. The only day we were ever stopped at checkpoints was November 9, the day after the election.

The first mention of Trump in Mexico was on November 8, election day. We were driving the Puuc Route and visiting ancient Maya ruins. At one ruin, we were buying our tickets for entry to one ruin when the clerk asked “De dónde eres?” (Where are you from?) When we replied we were from the U.S., he laughed and asked “Why aren’t you there to vote?!” We laughed, too. “We already voted by mail. And we didn’t vote for Trump.” The three of us agreed that we hoped he wouldn’t win—it would be terrible for the U.S. relationship with Mexico. Then we skipped off to the ruins.

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Carvings at a ruin along the Puuc Route.

When we woke the next morning, Trump had won the election. We penned this article out of sincere worry about what would happen, then spent the day being stopped at every police/military roadblock we passed through. The guards weren’t happy to see us, and took the liberty of rummaging through all of our backpacking equipment. They asked questions about every single pill in our first-aid kits and made veiled threats about locking us up if we were carrying drugs. We knew why. If a country had just elected someone to the highest office in the land that maligned and denigrated you and your people, you’d be angry too. Angry, but helpless to make change or retaliate against that country at any meaningful level. But if you’re a checkpoint agent, you can give someone from that country a hard time, and feel like you have done something.

At one checkpoint we told an agent in Spanish that we hadn’t voted for Trump. That didn’t help. The agent sputtered, then told us that it had nothing to do with that. “We’re looking for drugs! Tourists come down here with drugs and cause problems,” he insisted angrily. That’s an unlikely story, given that of the twelve checkpoints we passed through over the week before and after the election, this day was the only day we were stopped–twice.

We knew why they really stopped us. They knew why they really stopped us. And because we had alluded to it, suggested that they would be so petty, they gave us an even stricter search. The head agent demanded our passports. Worrying that the agents might not give them back, we asked if a photocopy would suffice. The agent said no. “You must have the original. It is the law that you need to take your passports with you everywhere.” So we rummaged through the disheveled mess that the agents had made of our stuff in the back of the car, searching for our passports. Stoytcho’s was easy to find, but mine wasn’t where it was supposed to be in the pack. “It’s not here” I told the agent, embarrassed. “You have to have it. Or else…” he made the motion of being handcuffed. I could almost feel the irony in his voice. “How does it feel? To be desperately searching in the dark for papers which prove your worth, with heavily-armed and terrifying government agents looming above you. This is quid pro quo. This is for what you’ve done to my people in your country.”

It looked like there were two choices: either I would have to beg to be let go, or let the agent book me. It was dark and we were exhausted from the day, so begging would be the faster way out of this situation. But I could feel a stubborn fury against authority rising in me, a desire to call his bluff. The paperwork on any booking is a pain, so what would he do if I was dead serious and said “I can’t find it. Cuff me.” Then again, they could also cuff me, throw me in a car, and have me sit there for a few hours, no paperwork needed. Thankfully, I neither begged nor offered my wrists, but instead called to Stoytcho, “Honey, have you seen my passport?” He remembered we had used it while checking into the hostel, and with a few moments to think we figured out where we put it afterward. We presented both of our passports to the head agent and he whisked them away.

What followed was a somewhat uncomfortable five minutes as we began repacking our belongings and the agents stood around the car. It was as if some spell had been broken, as if the agents had yanked a twisted mask from a figure only to find a regular person behind it. They mostly looked away from us, or down, or into the darkness where their commander had gone. One tried to make conversation with us. “Where have you been on your trip?” he asked. We told him in our broken Spanish about visiting Mexico City, and about our time in the Yucatan. That everywhere we visited had been fun and interesting. That overall we had liked Mexico. I could feel the fury in me from before ebbing, replaced with a mix of resignation and regret. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry for the way our country treated Mexican immigrants, and for everything the president-elect had said. I wanted to tell him that he had a right to be angry, and we were angry too. I wanted to tell him that I hoped things would be alright between the U.S. and Mexico. But I remembered what happened when we said we hadn’t voted for Trump earlier. I didn’t say anything.

The head agent returned and handed us our passports. “You’re free to go,” he said politely. “Thank you,” we replied automatically. He nodded, then waved at us and mechanically said “goodnight.” We replied “goodnight”, got into our car, and drove away from the checkpoint into the darkness.