Welcome to the Middle of the Earth!

After our quick trip to Bogotá, we boarded a super cheap flight to Quito late last Wednesday. Our friend Clark was arriving midday Friday, so we spent Thursday doing our hostel’s free walking tour and researching activities for the next 2-3 weeks we plan to spend in Ecuador.

Quito has a beautiful historic center, which was named one of the first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites in 1978. Our tour guide told us that this historic city is roughly 4 square kilometers in size and has more than 40 churches in that vicinity! We poked our heads into several of them, including the incredibly beautiful Iglesia de San Francisco.

Inside the Iglesia de San Francisco and the Statue of the Virgin.

On Friday, our friend Clark arrived! We dragged Clark and his friend Gabe through a pared-down version of the walking tour we had been on previously, finding some delicious $2 lunch along the way. We were going to climb the church tower, but got there too late. Must be time for happy hour! We headed to Bandido Brewing for a few cervezas (their Hop Rey IPA was our favorite) and pizza before turning in for the evening.

Lunch and then a few beers at Bandito Brewing.

Saturday we went to the Middle of the Earth! La Mitad del Mundo is a monument supposedly marking where the equator runs through Quito. I say supposedly because, well it’s not actually on the equator. According to modern GPS, the exact point of the equator is like 200-something meters north of this point, where the Intiñan Museum claims it has the actual equator… although this is also disputed. Despite these arguments, we had a charming day taking silly pictures, attempting to balance an egg on a nail (Gabe actually managed this!), and watching water flow either clockwise or counter-clockwise depending on which side of the “equator” it was on.

Laura and Vesper at the two different "official" equator monuments.
Successfully balancing an egg on the head of a nail.

That evening, Clark treated us to an amazing dinner at Urko. We did a ten-course tasting menu that featured dishes found throughout Ecuador. It was so good, and my pictures don’t do it justice (I am clearly not a food photographer). The next day Clark and Gabe moved on to another city while we continued to explore the rest of Quito. The park was the place to be on Sunday, where everyone from food vendors to textile merchants to performers were out selling their “goods” to the countless people enjoying the beautiful day.

Kebabs in the park, and one of the ten courses at Urko.

The other highlight of our time in Quito was climbing the Basílica del Voto Nacional’s several towers. Designed in a neo-Gothic style, on our walking tower we learned that instead of gargoyles, this church has the animals of Ecuador on its exterior, including tortoises, condors, and jaguars. We paid the $2 to climb the church towers and were treated with amazing views of both the city as well as the beautiful stained glass windows inside the church. The most intense (read: incredibly traumatic) part was climbing an open-air, incredibly steep metal staircase to the top of the Condor Tower. Apparently I have inherited my father’s fear of heights as I’ve gotten older. I started hyperventilating as I was climbing (that’s safe) and was in tears by the time I reached the top. Both a young girl and Vesper - my dear, loving husband - laughed at me. At least the views were worth it!

The view from the top of the Basílica.
Ecuadorean gargoyles and inside the church but above the ceiling.
Stained glass from inside the Basílica
Climbing the Condor Tower.
Looking at the clock towers from the Condor Tower.

Quito was fun, but the best part was being able to meet up with a friend from home for a few days! We hope to meet up with as many friends and family members along the way! Plus - you get to be featured in our awesome blog. What more could you want from a vacation?

Cheers! Until next time Clark and Gabe.

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One Month of Traveling Complete

First things first, happy birthday (Vesper’s) Dad and Lehar!

In the last month, we have taken five flights (with too many segments) and four long bus rides. We have traveled to seven cities in six countries including St. Martin, Panama City, Mexico City, Panajachel and Antigua in Guatemala, Bogotá in Colombia, and Quito in Ecuador.

After a month on the road, here are some of the things we have learned and observed.

Things we expected

  • No free tap water or refills at restaurants.
  • You usually have to pay for public bathrooms.
  • Bathrooms do not always have toilet paper or soap, so be prepared and bring what you need.

Things we didn’t expect

  • It hasn’t always been warm! We expected much warmer weather being in Central and South America, although so far we have been in cities with pretty high altitudes.
  • Even when it is warm, Central and South Americans do not wear shorts or sandals. Laura finds the latter particularly annoying because she hates wearing anything besides sandals, but she already sticks out anyway with her blond hair, blue eyes, and pasty white skin.
  • Airlines outside the US feed you on flights and it’s awesome! Even if the flight is only an hour, we were still given snacks with rolls, meats, and cheese. On longer flights you get fruit, warm sandwiches, and cookies! And to think on those same flights in the US we just hope to get free peanuts.
  • Internet quality can vary wildly. While many places provide free wifi, we’ve learned to take advantage whenever we can find fast connections.

Other random observations

  • Police with large assault weapons are common here. They are often stationed outside of government buildings, but it looks like any store owner can hire one to guard their shop as well.
  • People drink a lot fruit juice. In the US, we tend to only have (processed) orange juice and lemonade on menus, but here it’s much more common to have a whole variety of fresh juices, including pineapple, mango, orange, etc. We’re guessing fruit is cheaper here and therefore easier to make into fresh juice.
  • In addition to fruit juices, soft serve ice cream and ice cream bars also seem to be crazy popular here. In busy areas of town, there are soft serve stands everywhere - from the tiny cart on a park corner to McDonalds having separate counters exclusively for ice cream.
  • Despite the Zika virus outbreak, we haven’t heard anything much about it… maybe that’s because we haven’t really had the chance to watch any local news. Plus we’ve been at higher altitudes, so mosquitoes really haven’t been a problem yet.

Some of the highlights of the trip

  • Best street food: Barbacoa tacos on the highway in Mexico City
  • Best Coffee: Anywhere in Guatemala
  • Best Beer: Cerveceria Statua Rota in Bogotá
  • Favorite City: Bogotá (Best beer too… coincidence?)

A note on our budget

  • We decided to splurge a bit on our first stop in St. Martin. Our five days there alone account for about 40% of our total expenses this month.
  • Flights are hands down the most expensive part of the budget, even though we have been using frequent flier miles as much as possible. We knew this was going to be the case, and we plan to bus through the rest of South America.
  • Although we’ve found that street food is obviously the cheapest, it’s not as prolific everywhere else as it was in Mexico City. To save money on food, we look for hostels that include breakfast, we cook dinner in the hostel kitchen, and eat out for lunch so we can still try all the local foods.

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Bogotá: A City with Views and Brews

We knew Colombia was going to be a whirlwind visit since we were rushing to Ecuador to meet our friend Clark, but that didn’t stop us from doing our best to take in as much of Bogotá as we could.

Our first day we wandered around the historic neighborhood of La Candelaria. We went to the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) where they had many beautiful artifacts all made of - you guessed it - gold. Before leaving, we stopped in the cafe to have the first of many Colombian espressos. After leaving the museum, we wandered down Carrera 7, one of Bogotá’s major streets, which on Sundays is pedestrian-only. In place of cars, the street was clogged with street vendors, artists, performers, and tons of pedestrians. The street ends at the Plaza de Bolívar, where after taking a few pictures, we skirted up a few blocks and stumbled upon a military museum. Since they had a bunch of huge guns (and it was free), we had to go in! After a few tacky pictures of Laura shooting a machine gun, we decided to grab some lunch from a small place that served arepas stuffed with chicken and pork. The final museum we found that day (also free!) was the Museo Botero, where we saw some awesome paintings and scultures done by Fernando Botero.

Carrera 7 chalk art, Plaza de Bolívar, and Laura with a big gun.
A few of the pieces done by Botero.

Monday morning we decided to take the cable car to the top of Monserrate, a mountain just above the center of Bogotá. At its top is a church, a market, a few restaurants, and some stellar views of the city. Truth be told we headed back down after about 30 minutes, but it was worth it just for the view. Maybe we would have stayed longer if we were hungry since the restaurants were supposed to have good Colombian food. On our walk back home, we saw some cool street art and enjoyed delicious coffee from a street vendor. Laura even managed to order everything in Spanish!

The cable car we took to the top of Monserrate, and the church at its peak.
Monserrate's market and a view of the city.
Laura ordering coffee.

Apart from exploring the streets and sites of Bogotá, we were also pleased to learn that the city has a bit of a craft beer scene! As homebrewers and beer lovers, we enjoy trying the different local beverages. From our recent previous experience, most of Central and South American beers are the equivalent (or worse) of Miller Lite. Our first night in Bogotá, we checked out Bogota Beer Company, which has several locations throughout the city. They had a pretty good porter - our first actual dark beer in weeks!

There were a few other beer bars we found in Zona Rosa and Zona G, both known for their food, bars, and nightlife. Gordo, an American-style restaurant and bar, had a pretty delicious house red on tap, although we couldn’t figure out who brewed it for them. Chelarte was a small microbrewery we found with four different beers on tap, including a pale ale, a summer ale, a brown ale, and an oatmeal stout. We gave most of them 3 stars on Untappd, which is pretty good for our standards.

The best brewery we found was Cerveceria Statua Rota. When we first sat down, a waitress immediately came up to us asking if we’d like to try some samples of their beer. Um, yes please! Of the four we sampled, the best one was Lymantria, a witbeer made with lulo fruit that gave it an awesome slightly sour taste. We had a pint of that, and also ordered a bottle of their strong ale Datura. They didn’t have it on tap, but it was still very good with a unique ginger taste.

Just a few of the beers we tried.

Cheers to a great time in Bogotá!

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Antigua: Becoming fluente in Español!

Laura clearly wrote this title, as after a week spent in Spanish school, Vesper knows it should read “devenir fluido en español.” Vesper has spent the last five mornings attending Spanish classes at the Antiguena Spanish Academy to help improve upon what he’s learned so far using Duolingo, and he hopefully learned enough to get us through the rest of Central and South America. I’m sure he’ll be awesome! Especially since I know nothing other than “mi nombre es Laura,” “¿Donde está la biblioteca?,” and a smattering of numbers.

We arrived in Antigua Sunday afternoon and walked around the city so we could find Vesper’s school and scope out some delicious street food (notice a theme yet?). Antigua, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a small Spanish colonial town surrounded by volcanoes. Its colorful buildings and cobblestone streets make it very picturesque and much more charming than Panajachel, despite the touristy feel with the amount of foreigners studying Spanish here.

Parque Central with Volcán de Agua behind.
The church of La Merced and a traditional building facade.

Vesper woke up bright and early each day this week (aka grumpily snoozed his alarm five times) to attend classes from eight until noon. Meanwhile I spent the mornings at our hostel reading, researching good eats and future destinations, meeting other travelers over breakfast, and practicing French on Duolingo (we figured we should do different languages to cover more parts of the world). In the afternoons, Vesper’s school offers free activities to introduce the students to different parts of the town and, of course, practice more Spanish.

The garden where Vesper learns Spanish.

Monday and Tuesday were walking tours in different parts of the city. The first was a basic tour of Antigua, showing us the markets, famous landmarks, and traditional places to eat. I understood about a tenth of the all-Spanish tour, and Vesper happily translated things to me like, “This is a church!” Good thing he was there to clarify - but at least he’s practicing! Tuesday we traveled on a chicken bus to another part of town, where we toured a convent, a chocolate shop, and a small winery. Now this was my kind of tour! Despite it being in Spanish, I was content to nod along while sampling delicious types of chocolate (including ginger, coffee, and chili) and wine made from all kinds of plants and fruits. Vesper translated the various types for me, which included peaches, lemons, and even camomile! Since Tuesday was Carnaval (what we think of as Mardi Gras), we also learned about a tradition where cascarones (egg shells) are dyed and filled with pica-pica (confetti). School children then break them over each other’s heads for good luck (supposedly), but more likely it’s their last day to have fun and be crazy before Lent begins.

A textile market and traditional masks.
Vendors sell cascarones with pica-pica and flowers in the main market.

Tuesday evening while eating dinner at our hostel, we started to hear what sounded like muffled explosions. The hostel owner brought us all outside where we could see that Volcán de Fuego was erupting! Apparently this happens on a pretty frequent basis, but the owner had never heard it going off so continuously. The next morning, it was still spewing lava and smoke and the city had a thin layer of ash everywhere - an appropriate setting for Ash Wednesday! Since it was the first day of Lent in a very Catholic country, Vesper’s teacher offered to take us to a nearby church that had set up alfombras, beautifully colored carpets made of dyed sawdust, fruits, flowers, vegetables and more. I found this cool blog that describes the process, which is especially prominent here during Holy Week. There are going to be even more throughout the city this weekend, plus huge processions with religious figures lasting hours as they parade through town.

Volcán de Fuego erupting over the rooftops and still smoking the next day.
The church of San Felipe de Jesus and the alfombra inside.

That afternoon, we decided to skip the school’s tour and instead climbed Pacaya, another one of Guatemala’s active volcanoes. It was very pretty, but incredibly steep. We could not climb to the top of the crater as it was too dangerous, but we were able to roast marshmallows on thermal vents through a two year old lava flow at the top most portion of our hike. After that treat, we walked halfway down to watch the sun setting behind the three other volcanoes in the area: Volcán de Fuego, Acatenango, and Volcán de Agua (see the cover photo at the top of this post).

Eating marshmallows we roasted on thermal vents.

Thursday we realized we didn’t have any plans past Vesper’s last Spanish class on Friday, and we needed to figure out what we were going to do Friday evening and whether we’d stay longer in Guatemala or venture off to a new place. Our friend Clark is going to be in Ecuador next week, so we decided to meet up with him. We’re going to spend a few days in Bogotá, Colombia, then head down to Quito.

As we wrap up our time in Guatemala, here are a few observations from our stay:

  • Guatemala is twice as expensive as Mexico! It’s still relatively cheap, but with the quetzal at about 8:1 USD, it’s more than double the peso’s 18:1 ratio. We were spoiled starting in a place so cheap.
  • Guatemala (or at least the cities we visited) does not even come close to having the amount of street food that’s in Mexico. Those amazing highway barbacoa tacos we had are still winning best street food of the trip. We’ve started googling best cheap eats since there aren’t food stands everywhere.
  • “Hot” is a relative term when it comes to describing showers. Our hostel boasted they had them, but we’d call them lukewarm at best. You could say it’s preparing us for what’s to come in the rest of South America.
  • Coffee here is amazing. We can’t wait to see how Colombia compares!

¡Hasta luego, Guatemala!

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A Weekend on Lake Atitlán

Ok, so it was more like 36 hours on the lake, but at least it was beautiful! We arrived in Guatemala City around 10 am last Friday and had a shuttle coming to pick us up around 11. In reality it arrived around 12:30, and with the other stops and our driver getting lost, we didn’t make it to Panajachel until a little after 5 pm that night. So much for having Friday to explore!

Exhausted from our far too early flight that morning, we promptly set out to find some highly anticipated Guatemalan coffee. It was so good! Just as we were told, if you ever make it to Guatemala: drink as much coffee as you can! Instilled with caffeine, we made our way down to the lake just in time for sunset. It was a beautiful setting, with multiple volcanos surrounding the lake. Once it was dark, the street vendors came out and we had a tasty dinner of steak and chicken tacos.

Our first taste of Guatemalan coffee from Cafe Loco, and the sun setting over Lake Atitlan.

Saturday, we spent the day exploring the small and (what turned out to be) incredibly touristy town. There were markets full of colorful souvenirs, several expat coffee shops and restaurants, and that’s about it. We probably should have taken a boat to one of the other small towns along the lake, but we didn’t know where we wanted to go to. Plus by the time we realized Panajachel didn’t have anything to do, it was late enough in the day that we wouldn’t have had more than an hour or two in another city before the boats stopped running.

Mother nature seemed to know that we needed a little excitement that evening, and while we were out at an expat bar socializing with other gringos, the power went out in the entire city due to incredibly strong winds. The locals said it’s been an exceptionally windy February, and since it was a Saturday night, the power probably wouldn’t come back on until Monday. We lit candles and chatted a while longer until we ventured out looking for any place that might be selling food despite the blackout. We found another awesome taco truck working off a generator, and then went back at our hotel for the night. The power still wasn’t on in the morning, so we grabbed an early shuttle back to Antigua. Despite the picturesque setting, we probably wouldn’t go back. At the very least, it was pretty to look at and a good way to relax before Vesper had a week of Spanish school in Antigua.

Cervezas by candle light

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