Thursday, March 21, 2013


Our last day on the reserve in Ecuador coincided with the last day of our 90-day visa in the country.  Knowing that we would have no time for travel in Ecuador (save that for another visit, perhaps?), we had purchased departure tickets out of Bogota, Colombia.  The last day in Ecuador, thus, began as hiking our muddy reserve trail in pre-dawn darkness and busing to Quito to meet our friend Fawn, who had flown in the previous night to join us.  When we bussed to the border together, there was hardly anybody there.  As we crossed, a spanish couple recognized us as the few tourists around, and told us to turn around:  there was a big protest where the Colombian coffee growers had blocked off the Pan-American highway and there was nowhere to go past the border town. "Go back to Ecuador and travel there until the protests stop," they said.  We thanked them and explained that our visas in Ecuador had expired and we'd just have to wait things out. So we stayed the first night in the border town, Ipiales. 

Our Colombia book says that there is nothing to see in Ipiales, and it is right. Nearby, however, there is a church that is worth a glance, so we headed out that way.  In a gorge nearby, a person once saw the image of the Virgin Mary in a stone cliff.  They built a chapel and later a basilica right in the middle of the gorge
Santuario las Lajas near Ipiales
with the sanctuary protecting the image of Mary in the cliff (we could not see her image in the rocks, but we believe it was there somewhere).
The sanctuary protects the stone cliff where the image of Virgin Mary was seen.
The whole thing was quite impressive, especially on a Sunday when thousands of pilgrims came to back-to-back masses and the trails in and around were packed with vendors selling candles, virgin statues, charms, fried chicken, and roasted guinea pigs.
Roasted cuy, or guinea pig.  Look, they're smiling!
We headed out to Pasto that evening, the last big city before the highway closed to the coffee protesters.  At least Pasto, our book says, is worth a stay for a day.  We would spend 5 days  stuck in Pasto seeing what was worth a day's glance.  We first checked on plane tickets to Bogota, which were very difficult to get and very expensive until the prices went down later that week, so we booked the later flight, just in case the protests didn't end.  Southern Colombia was going into disarray at the time, since the transportation shutdown stopped supplies of food and fuel. 
Gas stations cordoned off in Pasto
All the gas stations in Pasto shut down their pumps, with "diesel only" signs up everywhere. Taxis were getting their fuel on the black market (Ecuadorian fuel was nearby, but illegal to import due to tariffs and different environmental standards) and illegally charging double.  But buses were still running, and we were able to make some fun side trips despite the chaos. 

Laguna de la Cocha was our first side trip.  It has a little cloud-forest island in the middle that is a national park.

Old boardwalk in the bullrushes of Isla de la Cocha
After boating out there, we checked out the town, El Encano, which is appears to be quite the tourist destination, except that we were literally the only ones there.  so the three of us had a choice of about 20 restaurants to try the famous Cocha lake trout. We had a great lunch and the family that lived there, and a stroll around town, which was crossed by canals filled with empty tour boats and lined with deserted restaurants with swiss chalet facades. 
The canals and houses of El Encano
The other side trip was to Laguna Verde, an electric-green crater lake colored by sulfur emissions from the volcano underneath.  It was a long, mountainous bus ride up there, where the hike began at dizzying altitude inside of the frigid clouds.
The hike up to Laguna Verde
The day hike took us to the top of the volcano, at 4000 meters (a little over 13,000 feet), overlooking the green lake.  Aside from almost getting arrested as undocumented immigrants on the way back home (due to robbery warnings in the area, we left our passports back in the secure hotel), we had another nice day trip.
We made it to Laguna Verde!
And the views on the way down were beautiful as the clouds cleared.
Views of the Narino region of Colombia
We flew to Bogota the day the protests ended. Even had we not flown, we would have lost a lot of time trying to bus back up, so the flight caught us back up with the schedule. We missed our planned trip to Popayan, which was isolated into economic distress from the protests, and Salento in the coffee growing region, which we decided was not a good place to visit either. We were happy to get around the problems and connected back into the world.
Plaza Bolivar, Bogota
Bogota, with over 7 million people, is one of the top 5 largest cities in the Americas. We're not big-city people, but it was a lot of fun.  The historic Candalaria district is beautiful and exciting, packed with historic buildings and narrow cobblestone alleys, and hopping with night life, coffee shops, and good restaurants. We were very happy that we spent some time there because it was much more fun than Quito, Ecuador, in our opinion.  Quito has the crazy gringo-party area in one side of town and the historic town is choked off by the business district, so that there's not a lot to do there. 
streets of La Candelaria
We made another side trip to Villa de Leyva, a beautiful colonial town.  On the way, we went to the famous Andres Carne de Res, which is a mega nightclub/restaurant coated with junkyard kitsch.  Kate and fawn perused their 60-page menu/magazine, which actually yielded some of the best steak and meat dinners we had eaten since Gladys's grill in Mindo.  It was wildly overpriced, but we had a fun time anyway. 
Fawn and Kate check out the menu at Andres CR
We also stopped in the salt cathedral in Zipaquira.  Centuries of salt mining produced massive caverns which were eventually carved into an underground sanctuary with stations of the cross and salt artwork.  It has been called "Colombia's greatest architectural achievement."  I wouldn't go that far, but it was impressive.
Reflecting pool in the salt cavern

Sanctuary of the salt cathederal in Zipaquira
Villa de Leyva was the perfect contrast to Bogota.  Small, cozy, and declared a national monument to protect the early colonial architecture downtown.  
Historic plaza in Villa de Leyva
It was full of quiet plazas with happy restaurants and beautiful weaving shops using the local wool and dyeing traditions. 
Kate and fawn try on some fun dyed wool items
It's in a valley where a lot of dinosaur fossils have been found, so we made sure to visit the paleontological museum there.
Kate and fawn check out the chronosaurus in the paleontological museum
Back in Bogota, we spent our last few days enjoying the incredible food and beer they produce there.  There were, of course, churches, the presidential palace, lots of architecture, and the best museums we've seen in Latin America to date. 

Iglesia de Santa Clara with its mudejar-style baroque architecture
The gold museum is world famous, featuring many Incan and pre-european gold pieces from the region.
Incan figures in the Museo de Oro
The Botero museum was quite a trip with Colombian artist Fernando Botero's famous chubby things.
Botero's version of the Mona Lisa

everything Botero does is chubby, be it people or animals
We finished the visit with a run up the gondola to Monserrate, a chapel on a mountaintop overlooking the metropolis as it melted into sunset.

View over Bogota from Cerro Monserrate
Looking back on the Colombia trip, we were very impressed by the overall safety we felt in the country and the hospitality and friendliness of its people.  Unlike Ecuador and Peru, which seemed jaded by their long-flourishing tourism business, Colombia was fresh and welcoming. Don't get me wrong; the Ecuadorians were very gracious to us and the country was beautiful, but in Colombia we felt extra special. In towns and cities where we were the only white faces, Colombians would walk up to us and start asking us questions, some to practice their english with us, others to help us with directions or exchange email addresses--almost never begging for money or hassling us.  We flew home thinking one day we'll return to see more of Colombia and Ecuador when there's more time for travel and less time for work.  Two weeks is just not enough to get to know a couple countries.

Kate and I are back with family for a week and then off to Bryce Canyon for a month of working with their astronomy program.  We have a little more time off in May, and then we hope to return to Stehekin for another season in the North Cascades.  Remember that we love visitors in Stehekin and book with us in advance if you want a private room to stay.  And consider coming some time other than August, because that's when everybody wants to come.  We hope to be back with more stories after some time in Bryce.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Leaving Las Tangaras

Hey, guess what folks - I married a geek:

Yup, those binoculars are backwards.
But you knew that.

We're on our way out of Ecuador.  Today, we meet the new managers of the reserve and show them around.  Tomorrow we get ourselves out of the country as quickly as possible, since that's the day our 90-day visa runs out.  Nothing like cutting it close.

As we exit, we are leaving the reserve a bit better off than when we came - something managers do here, and kind of a fun challenge.  When we arrived, we talked with the previous managers and the owner about what potential improvements could be.  Trails could be fixed - but we were headed into rainy season, the worst time of year for that.  Lots of varnishing could be done on the house, although that's a typical job for all managers - not exactly a legacy project.

And then, Jaime mentioned a couch.  This place could really use a couch, she said.  I thought, yeah, where do you take naps, anyway?  Going to bed is entirely too much of a commitment for just a nap, but with the early bird watching mornings and rainy afternoons, naps will be needed...  The two kilometer entry trail prohibits the carrying in of a purchased couch, though, and there aren't any IKEAs around - so everything would have to be built on site.  But we've got three months, so sure, I'll build a couch.  Actually, while I'm at it, why not a whole living room suite?

As soon as the idea was formed, I started realizing how much a couch really was needed.  The living area was quite large, but so empty, and plastic furniture just doesn't cut it.  Jeff noticed, too:

But, building furniture from scratch requires some planning.  We had bamboo around the property, but that requires harvest.  Harvesting bamboo is not just about cutting the bamboo, although that's part of it:

Bamboo, like wood, needs to dry before it's used so it doesn't shrink, warp, or split unexpectedly.  Looking on the internet, I found varying amounts of drying times quoted by different people, but no consensus.  The shortest time quoted was six to twelve weeks, depending on humidity and rain.  Well, we're in the rainy season in a humid place... but six weeks should do.  We couldn't wait twelve weeks, since we're only here for a total of twelve weeks.  Oh well, inexact is better than nothing.

We let the cut bamboo dry for a few days standing up with the leaves on, hoping transpiration would hasten the drying process.  Then we cut the branches off, scrubbed the moss from the poles, and drilled holes in each section of each pole to let water trapped inside out.  Then we hung the poles from the highest part of the roof, and let them sit for a little over six weeks.

Visitors often asked what the bamboo was for.  I told some it was a sculpture, and got a kick out of their artistically polite reactions.

This job made me covet others' bamboo.  Our bamboo is fairly bumpy and not huge, but on the road to Mindo for shopping, I would always see huge, very straight stands along the road.  Forgive me for my sins of the heart.

We had old sleeping cushions that had outlived their cushiony lives, and decided to use those to make the couch and chair cushions.  I figured I could use the old fabric on them to make the cushion covers, since it was still fabric, after all.  However, it was pretty ugly and falling apart.  When we went to Quito for other business, we stopped by a tourist market and checked out the fabric there, and decided it would be perfect.  We got home, and I got busy:

All sewn by hand.  ALL.
I had originally planned to build the frames, as well, but time was ticking down, and sewing was taking forever.  Every time Jeff asked about it, I could see his brain whirring away on the strongest but nicest way to build the frame, so I let him go for it.  In just a couple days, he had it all cut and the basic frame built.

Then came the wrapping part.  Bamboo is traditionally wrapped with cord, rather than nailed or screwed.  We did a little internet research to find out the best material for the job.  Waxed nylon cord, also called artificial sinew, was agreed to be the best, as it didn't stretch over time and didn't slip out of place.  We asked all over, even in Quito, but no go - people have heard of it, but it's always sold at a different store in a different part of town - even when you track down that different store, it's still sold at a different store.  After all of our searching, we ended up with the only cord we could find - the nylon cord that's available all over, even in Mindo.  Of course, it only comes in technicolors like bright green, red, or blue, and you get whatever color they happen to have that month - blue, in our case - which matches oh so well with the natural bamboo...

But, as it turns out, with our brightly colored fabric, the blue twine fits right in.

Jeff played with waxes available to find something that would be sticky, but not too messy.  He ended up with mixing candle wax, which was too flaky, with toilet seal wax, which is too messy, to make a perfect coating.  He rubbed that on each and every bit of cord before he wound it on the furniture.

He also really wanted a coffee table.  Specifically, he wanted something to put his feet on.  (No, really, that's why he built it and what he sized it for.)  The boards we had lying around were too narrow on their own to make a good coffee table, so he put two together, but being Jeff, he had to do it right.  He had to drill holes into the adjoining sides and put them together with dowels.  The problem?  They don't sell dowels around here.  So, he carved some:

That's devotion.

So when it was all said and done, about three days ago, we went from this:

to this:

Yup.  Looks like a real house now.

All of this had to be done by the time we left (tomorrow), as well as everything else we are responsible for, which is a pretty good list of things.  Waxing wood floors and walls, checking the water system one last time, making sure trails are cleaned, etc.  But, as these lists go, one item on the list always breeds more.

We had been griping about the kitchen counter for a long time.  Why would anyone put wood right up next to the sink and not caulk it?  Grumble grumble grumble.  Jeff bought a caulk gun and some silicone, and we spent a couple days trying to do dishes with as little splashing as possible to let the edges of the wood dry a bit.  When they were as dry as possible (this is Mindo, after all - dry just means no standing water, not actually -dry-), he went to dig out some of the residual crud that builds up in cracks near the sink.  The problem was, he kept digging:

Okay, folks, how many of you predicted this?  All of you, right?
Not shockingly, but definitely inconveniently, the wood was rotten a couple inches around the entire sink.  Another woodworking project - surprise!

So our last week has been utter madness, trying to deal with this and other surprises, but things have turned out pretty well:

I think we're handing over the place to the next managers in pretty okay shape.  If not, hey, we tried...

And so we say goodbye to our lovely cloud forest home, and head out for a couple weeks of fun travel with our good friend, Fawn.  Then home to the grindstone - oh, wait, that's right, no grindstones for us!

Bye bye, lovely forest!