New Digs

Sunday we moved into a rented apartment five blocks south of the Jardín, the town’s central plaza, that will function as our home in San Miguel for the next month and a half. Our first accommodation, Hotel Quinta Loreto, was situated north of the Jardín. So, not only do we have a new neighbourhood to explore but a fresh perspective from which to view the city.

Our apartment has three levels. The first houses the living room, dining room, and kitchen, but is really one large room. The second, the bedroom and outdoor patio. The third, the rooftop terrace. There are baños (bathrooms) on levels 1 and 2.

Where do we spend most of our time, you may ask? Blessed by the temperate climate here in winter, why, on the rooftop terrace, of course! It is there that we sip on Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon at sunset, savour our first cup of java under the warming rays of the morning sun, and, of lesser romantic value, hang our laundry out to dry. At times, sitting up here, casting our eyes over the surrounding rooftop gardens, we feel that we are back in Khatmandu. Other times, inhaling the pungent smells wafting upward from food stalls in the nearby open-air market, we are transported back to Bangkok.

But arguably the high point of our new digs is the foundation our apartment rests on, the ice cream shop on the ground floor! And, yes, they happen to have our favourite flavours — strawberry (Joe) and chocolate (Lori)!

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New Neighbour

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Rooftop View #1

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Rooftop View #2

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Rooftop View #3

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The Market Across The Street

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Sunset From Our Rooftop Terrace

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El Corazón de Mexico

Some say that San Miguel de Allende is the heart of Mexico. It may be because geographically it is located in the “heart” of the country. Or it may be because of the gentle nature of the people who inhabit this beautiful, colourful city. Or, perhaps, it is because the warm sun, the blue skies, and the sun-washed buildings capture your heart like no other place. In any case, hearts are found everywhere …

The Heart of Mexico

The Heart of Mexico

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San Miguel de Allende, The Best City in the World?

Yes, Lori and I are in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, happy to be travelling again. And, yes, San Miguel is the best city in the world. At least, according to the readers of Condé Nast Traveler magazine. It’s not hard to see why. Narrow, cobble-stoned streets meander up, down, and around, reveal only snippets of this historic, colonial town. These glimpses are fully-formed gems of many splendours, just the same. Parapets draped in fuchsia, yellow, or red bougainvillea, rooftop gardens growing cacti and tall, spindly cedars, a dome of clear blue sky above.  The ochre, terracotta, and brick-red of the buildings, with the aid of the bright mid-day sun, coalesce in your visual cortex and slow your pace. Sometimes mountains appear lazily in the horizon of the surrounding high chaparral. Other times you notice the long procession of cozy cafes and lush inner courtyard restaurants, in the waning light, and you cannot help but be overwhelmed by the romantic sensibility of this city. You and your surroundings become inextricably one.

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The best city in the world also has the best public library in the world: the Biblioteca Pública de San Miguel de Allende. Lori wanted her opinion to be known! More about this in the future. And, I would be remiss if I did not mention that we ended up obtaining a membership.

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Courtyard at Biblioteca Pública de San Miguel de Allende

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Joe getting his library card

The best city in the world also has the best Starbucks in the world. An assessment I made without even sitting down to a tall Americano! To be continued …

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The Language of Music

Last night Lori and I ventured out into the Cuenca nighttime with our friends Tracy and Donna to open mic (or open mike) at the Inca Bar & Lounge. Tracy, a musician well versed in the genres of country and blues, and who plays a variety of instruments, pre-arranged with the Inca management to showcase his talents at open mic.

Ben and Peter, the hosts for the evening, opened the show with music ranging from Counting Crows, to Foo Fighters, to U2. Ben payed the guitar. Peter sang.

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After four songs (around 9:00 PM) they were done their set and announced a break, after which Tracy would “open his mic” and begin his set. However, Tracy, eager to begin, asked if he could start right away. No interlude, no intermission. Ben and Peter agreed that it would be alright, so Tracy got up on stage, picked up an acoustic guitar graciously provided by Inca, and proceeded strumming and singing a mellifluous selection of country, country-rock, and blues tunes, opening with a song by the great Van Morrison,  all the while percussively accompanied by Ben on the cajón.

The cajón is a box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru, played by slapping the front face (generally thin plywood) with the hands.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cajón

“Is this the very same Tracy that we have been hanging out with, on and off,  since we got to Cuenca?” It did not seem possible. He was a man possessed!

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Four songs later it was over. Or was it? It turned out that a young Ecuadorian blues electric guitar player in the audience, named John (or, probably, more correctly, Juan), expressed a specific interest to play some good old-fashioned American blues numbers with Tracy. Tracy mistakenly thought he meant before he left Cuenca, but John meant before he left the bar that night!

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So now there were three, and what a trio they were! For three people that had never played together before, from different backgrounds, from different countries (OK, Tracy and Ben are both from the U.S., but not John!), from different generations, speaking different languages (OK, Tracy and Ben both speak English) … still, it was remarkable how infused they were in each other’s stylings, sensibilities, cadence, even breathing patterns, that the strings, percussion, vocals all fused into one hypnotic blend of feel-good American blues, a language that required no translation.

And then it really was over, or, at least, the mike closed on Tracy’s musical segment of the evening. However, the rest of the night Tracy vibrated, hovering inches, no feet, above the couch the corporeal part of his being sat on. After a 10-day withdrawal, Tracy revealed how good it felt to get back in the groove. In reality, we all felt like we were in some kind of groove, and one not made of vinyl that would be easily skipped over.

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Sitting on the Banks of the Tomebamba River

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Since we arrived in Cuenca a few days ago, and settled in at the Hotel Apartamentos Otorongo (http://www.hotelotorongo.com), we have been sitting in these surprisingly comfortable plastic chairs, sipping our first and second coffees, watching the Tomebamba river go by (yes, your observation is correct: the chairs are usually facing the river!).

It was hard leaving Cotacachi. After all, we left behind the place we have called home for the last two months. We left behind our friends Beverly and Jack, our friend Susana, our neighbours Thomas and Diane, Mr. Up and Down, our favourite coffee shop Café Rio Intag, and other memorable people, places, and things. Yet, it was time to move on. Cotacachi will always occupy a special place in our hearts, and, someday, probably not long from now, we will return.

Our home in Cuenca is a cute and functional 1-bedroom apartment. In addition to the river view, we have access to a common garden, and the owner/manager Xavier as well as the staff are friendly, convivial, and very accommodating. We have also been smitten by the smart, protective, “pack leader” named Tormenta, who heads the security detail and who loves to be petted.

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We are fortunate to have made new friends — Tracy and Donna from California by way of North Carolina. They arrived on the same flight from Quito, are leaving on the same return flight, and are staying right next door. The last couple of days we have absorbed the sights and sounds of old town, in their company, and what a rich and rewarding experience it has been!

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The polls have just closed and the votes in Ecuador’s national election will be counted. But that is a story for another day!

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This Tour Has Seven Days

What follows is a guest post by our friends Richard and Andrea, capturing their visit to Ecuador in Jan, 2013.

On approaching Quito by air, on a clear Sunday afternoon, every turn of the aircraft offered a glimpse of steep green hills with farms and houses clinging desperately to their sides. We were treated to a dramatic view of La Virgen del Panecillo (Figure 1). Shortly thereafter we were on the ground and our excitement at being in Ecuador began to build. Quito was very welcoming, beginning with the very pleasant immigration and customs staff. Our lack of Spanish presented no problem at all, and we were very quickly whisked through to the arrivals area.

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Figure 1

In the packed arrivals area it was easy to spot Lori & Joe (Joe has a way of standing out in a crowd) with handmade signs bearing our names! We were in Ecuador! We made our way out to the warm and thin air of Quito where we met Juan (aka Magic Juan) who, with his trusty steed Yaris Nitro, has been driver and tour guide to Joe and Lori (with Beverly and Jack’s graciousness of course!). We quickly sprinted through Quito on our way to Cotacachi. That sprint soon came to a screeching halt, as we encountered several traffic jams, including one caused by a landslide! That put a crimp on dinner plans in Otavalo at Puertolago, Lago San Pablo. It was onwards to Cotacachi, where we arrived late in the evening to a town apparently getting ready for bed. After bidding thanks and buenas noches to Juan, we experienced the steep walkway down to Lori & Joe’s casita. Exhausted after our long travels, we settled down to a surprisingly fine late supper of fresh avocados, tomatoes, cheese, and bread. A feast for four hungry and weary travelers.

Day 1: Cotacachi Casita

Our first morning in Cotacachi found us in a state of excitement and wonder about everything: the casita, the fresh fruit, the scenery, wildlife, and plants. Yet, it was so foggy that there was no chance of seeing the Cotacachi or Imbabura volcanoes (Figure 2). No matter, that would come later.  We could sit on the pleasant veranda and enjoy the quiet morning, with visits by Señor Up and Down while we sipped our coffee (Figure 3). We spent our first day getting to know a bit of Cotacachi, wandering around the town, enjoying the street life (Figure 4) and café lifestyle (Figure 5). We think the expression “let sleeping dogs lie” may have been coined by the indigenous people of Ecuador.

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Day 2: The Butterfly Tourists

Tuesday morning began with many plans for the day, discussed over breakfast. Before heading out, we took a quick walk through a town that was still mostly quiet at 9:15 am. Burbujas Laundry was already planning to take advantage of what was looking like a hot and sunny day (Figure 6).

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We got so distracted with the sights that we had to quicken our pace considerably to return to the casita, in order to get ready for our day’s outing. Juan arrived at the appointed time and we were all whisked off to Guinea Pig Lake. Not surprisingly, Juan had his own secret access to an incredible vantage point to that beautiful lake (Figure 7). We had marveled at the pictures of this blue lake in a previous blog post by Joe & Lori, but those pictures were a poor imitation of the reality of it on such a beautiful day. All the time we were there, Joe and Juan were regaling us with details about the bottomless nature of the depths of this lake (formed in the caldera of a dormant volcano), the hikes that afford unique vantage points, and the spectacled bear that used to live on one of the islands. This was only the start of our day!

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Looking at such beauty can really tire you out and build up quite an appetite. Off we went to Hacienda Pinsaquí for lunch (Figure 8). Our knowledge of the Hacienda was based on a previous post by Joe and Lori. Based on that report, we looked forward to a fantastic lunch and we were not disappointed. The locro de papa (potato and cheese soup) was reportedly as good as the first time Lori ordered it. An imaginative and tasty tuna salad and shrimp-stuffed avocado were other standouts. No visit would have been complete without a stroll through the Hacienda’s extensive gardens. The entire experience was a kind of transport back in time to a life that unfolded at a slower and more refined pace. But the day was still young and there were other adventures to be had, so off we went with Juan to the village of Peguche, on the outskirts of Otavalo.

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Our first stop in Peguche was at the shop of a well-known musical instrument maker. We hardly had time to play with the many flutes, pipes, rainsticks, and ukuleles before we found ourselves spellbound by a demonstration on the fine art of zampoña making. The skill and speed of this artisan was amazing. After making the zampoñas, two other musicians joined him, and we were treated to an impromptu concert (Figure 9). Absolutely awesome!

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Our next stop was El Gran Condor, a nearby store known for its textiles and other indigenous-made goods (http://artesaniaelgrancondor.com/). The store was filled with the most gorgeous wares, featuring textiles made by the peoples of Ecuador. One could pass many hours just admiring the sweaters, wall hangings, bags, etc. One of the most fascinating parts of our visit was a short demonstration of spinning wool into thread, then dying, and weaving (Figure 10). Although it was all in Spanish, a translation was hardly necessary because the demonstration was so well done. Most enthralling was the presentation on the production and use of natural dyes, in particular cochineal. Cochineal is an insect found on cacti (foreground Figure 10), from which the dye carmine is produced. This natural dye was quite important to native peoples for dying fabrics. Later, Europeans used cochineal for imparting the red colour to the clothing of the rich and powerful, including the regalia of the princes of the Catholic Church. More recently, it is used in foodstuffs to imbue frozen treats with their red colour at a well-known coffee chain.

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Figure 10

Our next stop was the sacred Peguche waterfall. We approached the falls via a winding, cobbled walkway. Juan, as always, provided commentary about the significance of the place and its sacred traditions. It was a nice transition from the enjoyable, but worldly, textile and musical instrument viewing interludes. The simplicity of this site served to emphasize the indigenous people’s strong connection to nature. As tourists, however, it was not long before the world intervened, through the weight of time, to push us onwards to other venues.

Our three stops in Peguche were very enjoyable but perhaps took a little longer than expected. High-altitude clouds had started to shroud the tops of the volcanoes. Our final stop of the day was a promised visit to La Estelita (in Ibarra) for dessert and views of Imbabura and Cotacachi volcanoes. We were all keeping our fingers crossed that the fog might lift once we got to La Estelita, just like it did when Joe, Lori, Jack, and Beverly had visited last. Alas, it was not to be. As we crossed the bridge to La Estalita we were greeted by fog. Although we would not see those imposing volcanoes, we were treated to that ethereal beauty and quietness that a daytime fog brings (Figures 11 and 12). Although we never did see the volcanoes that day, we did enjoy our La Estelita banana splits and crepes.

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With that, Day 2 was over, and we were all happy to get back to Cotacachi to rest and talk about our next adventure … Mindo’s Cloud Forest.

Day 3: Mindo On My Mind

Over the last two days we had been talking about going to Mindo, and now that we were on our way, we couldn’t get there fast enough. On the way to Mindo, we made a brief rest stop at La Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) park, which supposedly stands on the equator (Figure 13). While an impressive park, it is located almost 300 m south of the true equator. Since the equator is a line, and not a point, having a park mark its location is rather arbitrary anyway. Still it was a bit of fun.

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From the equator it was another three hours to Mindo, and we were all getting a little stir crazy by the time we arrived and found the Dragonfly Inn (http://www.dragonflyinn-mindo.com/). The Dragonfly Inn is located right on main street Mindo, with the Canchupi River taking a loop along two sides. Our corner room (Room #1) was simple, but clean, with good views of the of main street and wild fruit trees in the back. We could hear the running of the river, which was very soothing at bedtime.

Mindo was one of the highlights of our visit. It is still yours to discover, so we will only provide a few highlights. The first thing that struck us, at the Dragonfly Inn, was the large number of hummingbirds. We spent hours watching them and they were also seen to be watching us (Figure 14), with a jaundiced eye I would say, were their eyes not black pools. As we had seen in Cotacachi, dogs were everywhere, including the restaurant across the street where hypnosis was being employed in the solicitation of food (Figure 15).

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Day 4 & 5: Mindo, Mindid, Mindone, Mindo It Again

Our guided tour with local guide Danny Jumbo was the main highlight. The cock-of-the-rock was loud, but, for a small quiet bird that spends most of its time in the undergrowth, the ochre-breasted antpitta was a surprising treat (Figure 16). While everyone raved about the birds and the cloud forest, what Richard seems to remember most vividly was the authentic Ecuadorian farmer’s breakfast of balon of ripe plantain stuffed with chicken and onions (Figure 17), cheese empanada (Figure 18) and coffee (best coffee ever!). Of course there was also a dog around, and, naturally, Andrea had to introduce herself (Figure 19). Even Danny was smitten with this mutt (Figure 20).

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There was much more to do in Mindo. We toured the Mindo Butterfly Farm, Orchid Garden, and El Quetzal de Mindo. El Quetzal (http://www.elquetzaldemindo.com/) was the most interesting. They make their own chocolate on site from cocoa beans, and grow and roast their own coffee. They also have a nice little restaurant on site where you can savour all their wares. Too bad we did not discover them on our first day.

Our stay in Mindo was short but the experience was intense. Take me back to Mindo!

Day 6: Otavalo

Now that we had seen the sights, it was time for some shopping in one of the oldest markets in the Andes. We set out by bus from Cotacachi — our first outing without Juan. We felt like young kids taking the bus to school on our own. “How do we pay? How do we know when to get off? Will it be safe?” Fortunately, we had Joe with us (and Lori too). This being Saturday, there were many other people going to the market. Many were very finely dressed with their children, similarly attired, in tow.

Looking like frightened tourists and clasping our theft-proof packs tightly, we made our way from the bustling Otavalo bus depot towards the main market areas. The crowd and the hum of voices increased as we drew closer to the market. Shoppers and arriving vendors (Figure 21) began to merge into a steady stream with one objective in mind. Stalls, strategically placed along the streets approaching the main market square, waited for people like us who were anxious to begin shopping. They were hard to resist, even though we knew they were mere appetizers before the main meal (Figure 22). Andrea quickly immersed herself in the shopping experience. With the help of Joe’s translations she was soon bargaining for jewelry, scarves, and hats (Figure 23). Richard was a less keen bargainer, but did his part in enhancing the profits of the few merchants from whom he secured a few small trinkets. He tried to make up for a slow start by trying to purchase four silver spoons, but the price of $200 was way beyond his opening bid of $80.

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Shopping is hard work and it was soon time to break for lunch. Lori and Joe took us to one of their favourite, small family-run restaurants frequented by locals. This one was well known for serving up a really awesome roasted quarter chicken dish with rice or French fries. The chicken was unbelievably tasty and the fries thick and crispy. Ecuadoreans sure know how to cook potatoes! Andrea and Richard drew the short straw and ended up with the back quarter (that was not quite as meaty as the front quarter), so Richard was still a little hungry at the end. Having eaten a bird it was now time to go and see some birds of prey at Parque Cóndor (http://www.parquecondor.org/).

It was a quick $4 trip by taxi from the Otavalo market to Parque Cóndor. The location was very idyllic, with good views of the surrounding valley, on a warm and sunny afternoon. We were just on time to make our way down to condor stadium for the show. We were surprised when a familiar voice called out to us. It was Beverley and Jack, with their visiting son and daughter, and, of course, Juan. We soon settled down for the show. We saw eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls put through their paces, soaring high and returning to their handler. The falcon was perhaps the most impressive because of its incredible speed and precision. Alas, there was no condor in the show! Later on, we found an enclosure with actual condors, but they were earthbound: a bit disappointing. Andrea’s highlight was being allowed to hold what we believe is an American kestrel (Figure 24). The taxi driver who had promised to return an hour after he dropped us off stood us up, so we had a longer than expected wait. However, this provided a chance to rest for a bit and take in the views. It wasn’t too long before we were heading back to the market for some more shopping.

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Back at the market there were still more bargains to be had and beauty to be admired (Figure 25). Andrea was able to pick up some more scarves and dolls. Richard, not given up on those four silver spoons, returned to the same stall he had visited earlier. Amazingly, the price of the spoons went up to $300! It was not meant to be. Just as we started to leave the market, Richard finally landed a major score, with a successful bargain for two very colourful tablecloths.

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Loaded down with our purchases we made our way to the bus depot and boarded our coach to Cotacachi. For the first ten minutes of the trip we were treated to our first Spanish improvisational rap artist (Video 1). His performance seemed to delight everyone on the bus and several passengers were able to spare a few coins for this hard-working artist. Back in Cotacachi, as we walked down Leather Street towards the casita, we were greeted by a motorcade for one of the candidates in the upcoming Ecuadorian elections. There was much honking of horns, hand waving, and loud announcements on the mobile public address systems. Why can’t our Canadian elections be this colourful?

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Day 7: How Short It Is!

Sunday morning in Cotacachi heralded the start of a wonderful day, which made us that much sadder that we would be leaving in a few hours for the very last time. We got a final glimpse of Mr. Up and Down while we had our morning coffee. After breakfast, it was time for one last quick walk through town. We had just enough time to walk through the Sunday market to admire the fruits and vegetables on sale, and think about how much we would miss it all (Figure 26).

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For our final trip to Quito, we were without the services of Juan. We had not realized that we would be seeing him for the last time the day before, at Parque Cóndor. Anyway, off we went to Quito. We arrived all too soon in the big city. We were dropped off near the Basílica del Voto Nacional (Figure 27).  Our first stop was for lunch at an old monastery that was a favourite of Joe’s. Since Mindo was still on our mindos, we walked to Tienda el Quinde, so that Joe could pick up a field guide on hummingbirds, and so we could stock up on last minute gifts (mostly chocolates). We spent the rest of the afternoon roaming the streets of Quito (Figures 28, 29).

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One of the interesting stops was at the Iglesia de San Francisco in the plaza by the same name. In this square and in this church, you could really feel the power of the Catholic Church. In the basement of the church we found a store offering native artwork, Centro Cultural Tianguez. At first it seemed like your typical small craft store, but it was not. It included many rooms that extended like catacombs far underneath the Iglesia de San Francisco. Every new room revealed something new and exciting. This would be the place to go to decorate your Quito apartment! We purchased two clay turtle figurines (to add to the ones made of stone that Andrea had purchased in Otavalo) and a small bowl with a frog figure inside. The Tianguez Café was attached to the craft store and we took a well-deserved break for coffee and dessert. We had hardly sat down, when Andrea was approached by ladies selling more scarves. She purchased three from an older lady, then six more from a young woman who may have been her daughter. Each time she bargained to the limit! Even women from another table were asking for her advice on price.

Our time in Ecuador was drawing to a close. We had one last dinner with Joe and Lori at Mama Clorinda, not Mama Cochina as one of us mistakenly called it (in fact it’s a very clean restaurant with fantastic food). Mama Clorinda is situated at a prime intersection in Mariscal Sucre, and we were on the third floor with a commanding view of all the goings on. It was a very fine meal, flavoured by reminiscences of other meals and other travels. Mindo featured prominently.

Our flight the next morning departed at 5:30 am, so we said our long goodbyes with Lori and Joe. For some reason they were not keen on getting up at 3:30 am to see us off! It was a long and sad drive to the airport that morning, but we took with us some great memories.

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Coming Soon!

Sold?

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In case you were wondering, we have been busy with negotiations to sell our house in Whitehorse. Fortunately, our friends Richard and Andrea, who graciously agreed to write a guest post about their experiences in Ecuador while visiting us, have been diligently working on it at the same time. As soon as it is ready, we will publish it on this very blog!

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