Monthly Archives: September 2010

Protests & Chaos Explode in Ecuador

a fire burning in old town quito during protests in ecuador credit: rachel tavel

This morning my co-workers and I walked to work, as we do every morning. We are a small group of expats who are interns and staff writers at ViVA Travel Guides, which is a travel guidebook company that publishes books for Central and South America.

I had just started on my work for the morning when a co-worker received a phone call from a friend, a  Frommer´s writer, who said something in regards to the ¨[The] city is turning to shit, the airport [is] shutdown and everyone is burning tires.¨

We started looking up news on the internet and that was when we began to realize what was going on in Ecuador. Protests had broke out and the city had erupted into chaos. People were burning tires in the streets, protesters were chanting, schools were put on lock-down, people were looting from the banks, tear-gas was being sprayed and the President was trying to calm everyone down, while fighting for his life at the same time. The reason, according to all news articles being published by major news networks:

The striking police were angered by a law passed by Congress on Wednesday that would end the practice of giving members of Ecuador’s military and police medals and bonuses with each promotion. It would also extend from five to seven years the usual period required for before a subsequent promotion.

Not too long afterward my co-worker’s phone, which was near death itself with little battery life, rang again. A teacher at a nearby school in close proximity to the protests said that what was going on is very serious, advising us to leave Quito, the capital.

We were told by co-workers that something like this had never happened in Ecuador before.

We started to panic, wondering whether or not to immediately go home or stay. With the overall feeling of security in all of us, being in a room with Ecuadorians, we put the office on lockdown. Schools were eventually being evacuated because the government had canceled all classes. The streets outside the office were bustling with people and school children. “The usual car alarms and sirens had us actually concerned and worried, rather than just ignoring it as the typical everyday sounds of Quito. Shop owners were standing in their doorways looking left and right at all the commotion, others had shutdown” (Quoted in an MSNBC.COM article). At one point the office door bell rang and we all let out a little ::yelp:: “Who is it? Don’t let them in!” Our anxiety was getting the better of us, being Americans from the U.S. and never experiencing such an event. However, despite what my co-workers said about this event never occurring before, this is not unfamiliar territory for one of the smaller South American countries.

Ecuador, a South American OPEC member of 14 million people, has a history of political instability. Street protests toppled three presidents during economic turmoil in the decade before Correa took power. – Reuters

One of the first videos we found online was of the President being bombarded by groups of protesters as he tried to make his way through the crowds. Eventually giving a very passionate speech telling the police protesters and others, “Kill me if you want to. Kill me if you have the courage.” As the violent scene continued to escalate, streets were blocked, a bridge was blocked, looting was taking place in Quito and Guayaquil city, people were being robbed and the airports shut down due to protesters taking over the landing strips.

Our boss did not even come in today because of the blocked streets. He sent us an e-mail telling us to, ¨Please make your way home today well in advance of nightfall and it would be best to try to get a taxi if possible, or walk home with someone, not alone.” Just one of many warnings through media we received as the time wore on inside the office building.

fire burning across from my apartment in quito, ecuador

Our lunch time came and went, no almuerzo for me today. After many stomach growls, a group of us braved up to go get some food around the corner at Carlos’ market store. An assortment of the most random snacks and food items was consumed safely back in our office. Some time later an Ecuadorian co-worker knocked on our door and said, “Let’s go.” He had  decided it was safe enough for us to leave and go to the safety and comfort of our homes.

Four of us walked 30 minutes back to our apartment here in the Mariscal area. We saw everyone out on the streets, no one seemed to be working except in the almuerzo places. I saw two ladies pulling down the metal door to their workplace, closing the padlock. Clusters of people sat on steps outside buildings, others were drinking, some kids were playing a game of soccer in the streets. For quite a few, it was as if they didn’t care a revolution was taking place, or they took this as a snow-day: a simple day of getting out of work in a country that already prides itself on not living to work.

watching the protest updates unfold live on local news

Right now, all of my roommates and I are locked behind a gate and two doors in our third floor apartment after being sent home from our workplaces. The television, which is never on, has been tuned to the local news channel. We are constantly waiting for updates on the situation and contacting close friends and family to let them know we are safe.

The President has declared a State of Emergency via Twitter.

Later in the afternoon, President Rafael Correa was recuperating in a hospital after being attacked with tear gas and water bottles. Rebel cop protesters were scrambling to reach him inside to hurt him more and he said he practically felt like a prisoner. Civilians are being asked to help protect him since the police are on strike. He is speaking on the local news station, which is rumored to be currently suffering attempts of sabotage.

Correa later told state TV from the hospital that “I’m leaving here as president or as a corpse, but I’m not losing my dignity.” – News Article

He has received support from Venezuela, Chile, Argentina and others. The United States has officially condemned the uprising because it threatens the country’s democratic government. However, Peru has closed its border.

Peruvian President Alan Garcia said he was ordering the immediate closure of the border with neighbouring Ecuador.

“I’m going to order that our borders are closed right now and that all trade on the northern border is halted until President Correa’s authority is duly restored and resolved,” Garcia said. – News24

helicopter flying overhead in quito, ecuador amid protests

Helicopters are constantly flying overhead, however the airports are rumored to have reopened. President Correa has already stated he will not be letting down on his decision that sparked the protests today, which can only mean it will get worse before better.

The AP has reported that the Ecuador security minister recorded one dead, six injured in the police uprising against the cut in benefits so far. Also, a group of Latin American presidents are meeting in Buenos Aires tonight to support President Correa. Lastly, we do know that the “coup” failed, but the loyal military and police are keeping the State of Emergency instated for a week.

Update: A crossfire of gunshots ensued in front of the hospital where the President was apparently being held against his will. One soldier at least was killed during his rescue. Prior to the hospital rescue mission, the Red Cross reported more than 50 people had been injured during the protests.

They successfully took President Correa by vehicle to the Presidential Plaza where he gave a long-winded speech to a massive crowd that addressed his belief that instability has shaken politics because of three other coups in the past. He once again stated that negotiations would not be made and thanked all his supporters, who were chanting “Correa, my friend, the people are with you!” throughout the speech. In the end, Ecuadorian flags were waved and music began to play. I had survived my first Latin American coup.

Video of a fire that broke out across the street from my apartment:

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Sun-Soaked on the Beach in Canoa, Ecuador

the beach at canoa, eucador

This past weekend my two friends and I escaped the clouds and cold temperatures in Quito. Our destination: Canoa, Ecuador. A small coastal town that has sandy roads, stray dogs and ceviche (a soup with shrimp). It is an under-developed area and largely a fishing community. The boats sit upon the beach, waiting to head out to sea and do their job.

the sandy main-strip in canoa, ecuador

Canoa’s atmosphere is extremely chill. Just like the rest of Ecuador, the shop doors open when the locals decide they want to wake up and get to work. Besides fishing, the main income seems to be from the tourists or Ecuadorians who want to get-away for a bit and relax. Most of Canoa’s main-strip is composed of juice and ram-shackle restaurants, the occasional handicraft station with bracelets, necklaces and other assorted trinkets will pop up during the day.

our adorable, floppy-ear dog friend we made in canoa, ecuador

Other than that, the roads rarely feel the bare-feet or flip-flops walking upon them, mainly the paws of the stray dogs that could equal the number of people in Canoa. One of the dogs followed us around every time we ran into each other. His left eye was big and blue, multiple sizes larger than the other. We found out from a local that someone had apparently hit him with the rock. Quite upsetting.

To get there, we took an overnight bus ride ($9) from Quito that is roughly six or seven hours long and extremely bumpy. I did not sleep at all due to the rough ride and freezing temperatures inside the bus. However, as soon as we stepped off and looked to our left, the ocean lay out before us and the warmth of the coastal air our enveloped us. All was forgotten. After a quick nap in our room at the unbelievable Hotel Bambu that is located right on the beach, we had lunch and hit the waves.

rent a surfboard for $3/hr in canoa, ecuador

You can rent surfboards for $3 an hour, or sign up for lessons. We decided to try it out ourselves and did pretty well. It was carefree and full of fun, what we came for in an effort to escape the structure of our weeks. The waves were not too large, perfect for beginners. If you don’t like surfing, you can always take a kayak tour through the caves or try paragliding if the wind is strong enough. Or simply, soak up the sun while laying on your towel on the warm sand. Watch out for the creepy, crawling crabs that scurry in and out of the holes they dig to escape the onslaught of oncoming waves.

Note: Canoa does not have a bank or ATM so make sure you bring your cash when you come. It’s not expensive but you will want to do the activities this cozy little place has to offer.

In the evening, the hotel//hostel has a Happy Hour and you get two drinks for the price of one. The patio area is filled with people eating, drinking, reading and relaxing as the sun sets over the ocean’s horizon, coloring the sky in shades of pink and oranges. At night, Canoa becomes a bit more lively. Locals and tourists are sitting on the beach, cuddling or merely listening to the rolling waves.

the orange sun setting over the beach in canoa, ecuador

The corner “Pirate Ship” turns on its strobe lights and the hostel and local crowd come out to play … and drink. There is one specific drink that all travelers are warned about (a sign was even posted on the wall in the lounge//library at our hostel) that has severe side-effects like diarrhea, headache and upset stomach. Basically a disastrous hangover that will ruin the rest of your time in Canoa and maybe some time afterward.

Here is an excerpt from a a blogpost I found that provides the name and ingredients:

There is the famous drink from Canoa, “Uña de la Grand Bestia”. This “Claw of the Great Beast” is made by marinating scorpions, giant centipedes, and marijuana stalks in caña before selling it for a dollar a shot.

Personally, I don’t know who would even buy it in the first place and then, my friend who had a couple of drinks before the Pirate Ship ended up getting one (answering that question that you’d have to be drunk before even considering taking this shot) and the night was over. She woke up not feeling well at all. Wasn’t able to surf with with us the next day, mostly laying around. After my surfing session, some of the locals and tourists were walking down the beach past us near the cliffs because a sea-turtle had washed ashore.

a sea-turtle washed ashore on the beach in canoa, ecuador

Since turtles are one of my favorite animals we immediately rushed down with our cameras at the ready. The locals were talking about how the turtles either come ashore to die or lay eggs. We decided to remain positive and chose to believe it was to lay eggs. A full moon was supposed to occur that night and there is supposedly a myth that hatchlings leave the nest during one. However, my conscience kept reminding me that it was only one sea-turtle and not many partaking in such a beautiful moment.

Saturday night is when all the dance clubs blast their music. You can dance hip-hop or latin, or both in the same evening on the beach under a straw hut or on the corner in a building. We checked out one place with a surfer friend and another guy from our hostel we made acquaintances with the previous night at the Pirate Ship. Most of the locals remembered us, being such a small town.

it was a great weekend chillin' on the beach in canoa, ecuador

We couldn’t stay out too late because our bus left at 7 a.m. the next morning, so we fell asleep to 5 different types of music playing until the early hours of the morning. The bus ride back took a bit longer but we made it safely back to the hustle-and-bustle of Quito and its cloudy skies with tan skin and rosy cheeks.

Here is a video I put together of our time in Canoa, Ecuador:

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Ecuador’s Soundtrack: the noise of Quito

Every city has their appeal: the ancient architecture, the unique food and the differences in interactions with people. Quito is no exception. The stunning, intricate designs of their cathedrals. The way each meal comes with a spicy sauce on the side, that isn’t really spicy at all. The way people greet each other with a kiss on the cheek or pack themselves like sardines on the bus, not minding the close proximity to a complete stranger.  What Ecuador also has is  a constant noise. I have not heard one moment of silence in Quito since I have moved here and wanted to give you a sample of Ecuador’s soundtrack:

These are the sounds that I typically hear on a daily basis in Quito, Ecuador.

Constant dog barking.

Constant car alarms.

Constant whistles.

Almost nightly fireworks.

Lots and lots of church bells.

Just to name a few.

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Venturing to Middle Earth in Ecuador

Not only does Ecuador have so much to offer in terms of its megadiversity in geography, being home to the Amazon, Coast, Sierra and Galapagos Islands, as well as numerous active volcanoes (including one of the highest) but it is also where the Middle of the World is located at 00° 00′ 00″  latitude on the equator line.

About 30 minutes outside of Quito is the point on the line, however, it’s not truly where most will lead you to believe. Don’t go toward the huge monument, which was finished being built in 1982, because it is not the correct representation of the middle of the world. The accurate center is actually located 240 meters north of where the line is marked at the “fake” spot. Due to improvements in calculations, mainly in the form of G.P.S. (global positioning system), scientists were able to discover the real center of the world. Unfortunately, many people continue to flock to this tourist trap and straddle the line for the opportunity to have their pictures taken at the Middle of the World.

standing on the middle of the world

Just around the corner (walking distance) is the real Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) known as Intiñan Solar Museum, which provides an awesome value. For $3 USD you can take a tour of native Ecuadorian homes, learn about the animals of the Amazon rain forest and partake in equatorial experiments on the equator. The museum is truly off the beaten road, well, most roads in Ecuador are pretty rough, but you walk through brush on a dirt path to get to the site.

You tour the huts and gain an understanding of the sleeping arrangements that were lived back in the early days of Ecuador by the andean people. Children would sleep with their parents until the age of 12, where they could then climb up to a room on the second floor. In a different situation, four to five families would share the hut, organizing it into quarters. Get a glimpse at the weapons that were simultaneously used for fighting with one end of the spear and fishing, which would be the other end.

the process of be-heading and shrinking the head

See boa constrictors and other random water species from the Amazon, especially the non-delightful Candiru’ Fish, which is attracted to urine and will swim up a man or woman’s urethra and grow inside of them. Since it’s claws are backwards, the only way to get it out is my surgical methods. I do not suggest relieving yourself in the Amazon rivers during your treks no matter how badly you have to go.

One of the unique parts of the tour was getting to see examples of shrunken heads, a practice that is no longer in effect in Ecuador. They have posters to graphically show you the method, which make you question humanity all the more.

the water experiment on the equator

However, the best part of the tour is left until the end. The tour guide will tease you with lessons on telling time on the equator and explain how the product harvests and fiestas were calculated by the solar cultures who held the movement of the sun and stars in high regards.

Then, you get to do the fun stuff. Your balance is effected when you are on the equator and trying to walk a straight line with your eyes closed becomes impossible. Water, turns clockwise and counter-clockwise on either the north or south side. Nonetheless, it falls straight down when on the equator. Successfully balancing an egg is such a tremendous feat, that those who can do so, receive a certificate. Favorite part of the entire tour: getting my passport stamped with 00° 00′ 00″ at the Middle of the World.

examples of shrunken heads during the indigenous period

a successfully balanced egg on a nail at the middle of the world

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Standing in two hemispheres at the Middle of the World

There are two equator spots in Quito, Ecuador. One is what I like to call the tourist trap with the big monument that you can’t miss. The other is the real one. It is right around the corner (walking distance from the fake one) and you have to pay close attention for the sign or you’ll miss it.

For $3 USD you get a tour of indigenous homes, learn about their way of living, customs, and get to partake in some equatorial experiments such as attempting to balance an egg and walking on a straight line.

Here is a video of my time spent on the equator (post to come):

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Above the clouds at 14,000+ feet

There’s a point during take-off when the flight attendant comes over the intercom and announces, “We’ve reached 10,000 feet. It is now safe to use all approved portable electronic devices.”

the teleferico ride up pichincha takes about 10 minutes

Well, on the 10 minute Teleferico ride up the Andes mountain range to the inactive Pichincha Rucu volcano (Rucu means “old” in the indigenous language of Quichua), my friends and I passed 10,000 feet and continued up to an altitude of more than 14,000 feet where we were free to roam about the cabin…I mean mountain. We were at a height where we could see planes taking off and flying below us over Quito, the capital of Ecuador.

For $8.50 USD ($4.50 for Ecuadorians), you can ride the cable car, which is located in the vicinity of the Vulcan Theme Park at the base of the mountain, up to the top of Pichincha Rucu and walk around to all the lookout points. If you live in Quito, which I currently do, you live in the Pichincha Province. Many of the provinces in Ecuador are named after the volcanoes located nearby (i.e.Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Imbabura).

the rucu pichincha peak

It is highly recommended to go on a clear day, with blue skies and no clouds because you will be able to see the Avenue of Volcanoes on the horizon. Some of the highest volcanoes in the world are located in Ecuador, most of them still active.

Note: Your ears will pop, and your head will feel the pressure from being up so high. Drinking a lot of water will help. The weather is also much colder at the top so dress appropriately.

I have to mention the danger involved in exploring Pichincha Rucu because it is known by many here and noted in most Ecuadorian guidebooks. Tourists are extremely vulnerable up on the top. There have been robberies and assaults, mainly from those who start hiking from Quito. It is best to hike it with a group of people (at least 3) and on the weekends when there are a lot more people up there. Just be careful and take precautions.

a glimpse of quito below

If you go early in the day, you’ll be able to take the easy 5 hour hike to the Rucu Pichincha peak, which is one of three that are on the Pichincha volcano. The others are: Guagua Pichincha (active volcano) and Padre Encantado.

Otherwise, an afternoon spent walking around and simply admiring the beauty of Quito from an elevation of more than 14,000 feet is just as enjoyable. Getting to see the magnitude of the capital as it stretches in-between the valley of the moutnains is mind-blowing.

Escorted tours are also available.

If you are brave, you can hook your mountain bike up to your Teleferico car and ride the routes down the mountain. There are also horses available for $5/hr, including a hat and poncho, to ride on the trails.

Here is a video of my Pichincha Rucu excursion:

Some more pictures from my excursion.

hats and ponchos for horseback riders

horses are $5/hr to ride on the mountain

breath-taking scenery at pichincha

the rucu pichincha peak in the distance

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Getting to know the face of Ecuador

There are so many people just wandering the streets in Ecuador. I’ve always had this desire to ask each person I look in the eyes while walking these sidewalks to work or to eat, “Where are you going? Why? Why now? How did you get here?” They are all so similar in attributions: dark hair, dark skin and dark eyes.

an ecuadorian boy in the park

In the United States we seem to place all Latin Americans into one category. Yet, they are all so different. Ecuadorians look like Ecuadorians and I just don’t know how to explain it. Mexicans are Mexicans. Argentineans behave like Argentineans.

There is a girl I work with who is half-Argentinean and I think I have begun to annoy her with how many times I tell her that she reminds me of my friend who was born in Argentina. How she cuts her food and the way she holds the utensils. Not to mention their appearances as well: the light shade of brown hair. The long fingers with the curves at the middle and end. The facial structure.

It amazes me how people from each country have the same characteristics with their appearances. What is supposed to make us unique? Maybe that is where language comes in or dress styles or traditions. How are we supposed to stand out from each other?

Tonight, my friend and I went to a jazz festival and met another friend I had made from the blogger world (her blog is Afoot and Light-Hearted). We spoke about how “gringa” we looked in the crowd of people. I remember her saying, “I can spend two years here and people would still think it was my first day here [in Quito].” We couldn’t help but laugh and agree. This world continues to judge people based on their appearance. A fellow traveler approached us at the festival, I don’t know whether it was because we were speaking English or was based on our appearance. However, the common element was that he felt safe and secure enough to come over and talk to us because we were from the same country.

Sure, it’s nice to meet people with whom you have stuff in common with, such as language and appearances, but isn’t travel supposed to push you? Make you learn a whole different culture? What better way to do that than to meet the people who are living the culture every day of their lives? It’s like we place this barrier that prevents us from reaching out to these people. Makes you feel like you’re intruding in their lives but this is not the case.

As the traveler, it is your responsibility to make the effort to appreciate the place you are visiting and to get to know its people. Dark hair, light hair, dark skin, light skin, Spanish or English, we are all humans and we can all connect with each other. Breaking down the barriers helps bring about cultural understanding and in doing so, breaks down stereotypes and builds a better world.

Next time you get the chance to meet someone new don’t be afraid to kiss the person’s cheek and say, “Hola, como estas?”

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