Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Baños (the wet volcanic kind)

After volunteering at the chocolate farm, we decided to head straight to Baños for some R & R. This small town is an adventure capital consisting of approx. 14,000 inhabitants (and an additional 5,000 or so gringos!). Its name is deriven from the baños or volcanic ¨baths¨ in the area. Because of the name, it was very hard to express ourselves when we were looking for a bathroom, which is also called a ¨baño¨, as people would stare at us and say ¨you are in Baños¨ or they would point us to the nearest pool complex.... This got very frustrating and kind of embarrassing when we would then desperately try to describe needing to go to the bathroom with charade gestures...

Other than that little mix-up, we found this town full of very friendly people and extremely beautiful views, as it is completely surrounded by mountains - including one very large and still active volcano! Below is a picture of the main town square.

Our first day in Baños, we decided to tour the town in style on a buggy! It wasn´t quite as fun as it sounds, however, since the other drivers in Ecuador are crazy and we pretty much feared for our lives the whole time! But we were able to check out some amazing sites and look pretty cool doing it, too!

Lydia´s dorky model pose:

Tyrone´s bad-ass biker model pose:

The beautiful waterfall in the background doing its model pose:

We took a zip-line cart ride across to the mouth of the waterfall!

We also snapped a couple of drive-by photos during our journey, including this one of a nice church outside of town.

And we happened upon some pretty cute little monsters who were dressed up in hope of getting some candy or a coin to ring in the coming new year! It is Halloween during pretty much every holiday in South America, or so we have noticed so far!

On New Year´s Eve, Tyrone decided he wanted to do something crazy... So he got strapped-in to jump off of Baños´ highest bridge!

Don´t worry, Holly, I was assured that there were two ropes and two harnesses ¨just in case¨, so your son was completely safe... and you can tell by the sound in my voice on the video that I was 100% confident in this... sort of.

We met another Canadian, Shawn from Alberta, who was also crazy enough to walk the plank after he saw Tyrone do it.

The view from the bridge:

After Tyrone jumped, we came across this Willie Nelson look-alike crossing the bridge with his bad-ass dog, Helga, and modded motorbike-camper! He even had a kitchen set-up on the back and a hammock that apparently ¨sleeps two¨... him and Helga!

On our walk back into town, we found every other shop setting up a paper mache creature or effigy of some kind. We were told that they would all be burnt at midnight!

The biggest New Year´s offering was this giant King-Kong. He was equipped with electronically moving arms and even had a sound system complete with roars and screams!

We decided that since we were on such an adrenaline rush from the bridge-jump (well, Tyrone was... I was a big chicken and refused to go!), we would attempt parapenting (paragliding) that afternoon! So we drove an hour up one of the mountain sides and waited for the wind to reach the optimum speed for take-off!

Whilst waiting, we got a little giddy... So we practiced our best fake-falling poses!

The weather was so beautiful that day and we had a clear view of the smoking volcano.

Finally, the wind had died down enough for Tyrone and his tandem guide to run off the side of the mountain and into the air. Shawn, the other Canadian, also joined us, and is pictured below.

Tyrone got some pretty remarkable views and photos whilst gliding through the air in his parachute!

Proof that his feet are actually off the ground!

Tyrone´s thoughts and sights whilst up in the air:

And here is a picture of the freshly-plowed farm on the hillside where Tyrone and his guide crashed moments later! Apparently the wind died down too much for them to return to the take-off spot, so they had to make an emergency exit about 2 km down the road. Due to the recent plowing, however, they had a very soft landing in the soil! Because they crashed so far away and the wind wasn´t stable, I didn´t get to go... but I felt it better to be safe than sorry!

Later that night we went out for a nice New Year´s Eve dinner with some new friends (Baños is full of tons of amazing restaurants), then we headed out to check out the festivities. Many of the locals brought their paper-mache dolls (lots of Supermans and Homer Simpsons for some odd reason) and burned them in the main square, together with the giant King-Kong, which I believe is in the flames off in the distance to the left!
The tradition on New Years is for pretty much everyone to dress up, just like Halloween! Tyrone found some cool videogame character who must shoot some sort of fire ball out of his hands... (Tyrone Correction - this is not a video game character, but a super sayan transformed Goku from Dragon Ball Z..... obviously..... SHEEESH). Because we weren´t dressed up, we had some locals come up to us in groups and hug one of us (usually me), refusing to let us go, until one of our friends posted $0.50 bail!

A couple days after recovering from our New Year´s hangovers (and the worst champagne any of us has ever tasted!), we decided to do a horseback tour of the surrounding waterfalls.
Lydia is riding ¨Michael Jackson¨and Tyrone is riding ¨Whisky¨. Both horses were pretty lazy and uncooperative, but liked to take off running sporatically!
horse-riding shout-out to our homies...
After riding to the first waterfall, we got off our horses and hiked to the top. When we got back down to the bottom of the waterfall, our guide realized that all of our horses took off! He found them munching on someone´s garden a five minute walk up the hill!

We had some pretty fantastic views along the way, including this one of the volcano venting some steam.

We also made our way down to a bridge that crossed ¨chocolate milk¨water.

A couple of days later, we were coaxed into going ¨canyoning¨, which is rapelling down waterfalls. It was fun, but a little scary at times when you lose your footing!

As you can tell by the look on my face, this was my favourite one! We didn´t have to walk down ourselves, but we were lowered down to the pool below like a water-slide.

We stayed at a nice, but noisy hostel that had a huge avacado tree just outside our window. Unfortunately, they were all just slightly out of reach.

Next to the main thermal baths in town (which can get so crowded that you cannot even see the water through the swarms of people), is a beautiful waterfall that helps fuel the cold water pools.

I caught my first cold of the whole trip, so after dropping me off for a nice aromatic eucalyptus massage,Tyrone took a hike up to one of the highest peaks over-looking the town.

We also went river-rafting whilst in Baños, but didn´t dare take the camera. It was probably the most fun activity we did whilst in Baños, as we crossed mostly class 4 (but were told there were also class 5 and 6 rapids) during our run!

All in all, Baños is a wonderful little Ecuadorian town with tons of fun to be had and activities to do! It was was one of the noisier places we had been to, and had tons of tourists, but it also had that nice ¨small town¨ feel to it and was a great place to meet other travellers to discuss journeys, travel tips, and future plans over a beer. Plus, it was full of cheap spas and thermal baths... need I say more?!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Finca de Chocolate!!

During our Galapagos cruise, we met a couple from Switzerland who recommended that we visit a chocolate farm just outside of Peurto Quito if we wanted to volunteer and spend some time with a nice family for the Christmas holidays. So, after a wet and miserable few days in Quito, we made a 4 or so hour bus ride west to Peurto Quito to find ¨Finca Blanca Margarita¨. We were greeted by Pedro and his eldest son, Francisco, who drove us another half-hour into the jungle to their private 5 hectare farm.

Upon reaching the driveway, we were both astonished by how beautiful their tropical garden is. The main house, below, is surrounded by orange trees full of ripe fruit, which we got to sample upon arrival.

The main house was also surrounded by hammocks where we took advantage of the view (of the gardens and the backs of our eyelids after a long day's work).

Next to the kitchen hung two of the few types of bananas/plantains... which we got to sample for pretty much every meal. We ate them fried cut lengthwise, fried in quarters, fried whole, baked, mashed then friend... with garlic sauce, covered in batter, with peanuts... We pretty much ate them every way humanly possible during our week-long stay!

Below is our little guest cabin. We awoke daily to the sound of crickets, bees, birds....

...and to the pitter patter of tarantulas trying to climb into our boots!

One evening, this little critter decided he was tired and wanted to come to bed with us our first night at the farm, so he ran through the door when we opened it to let ourselves in after dinner. He was greeted promptly by Tyrone's shoe (which is why he looks a little flat in the photo).

Below, Tyrone and Camilla are filing hollow palm nuts into keychains as Marianella cooks a tasty lunch.

It turned out that the family had a ¨band¨, as all three children were taught to play an instrument by their father. Pedro and Camilla whistled and strummed an Inta Illimani song for us.

Another member of the family is Mathias. He is a baby parrot that they rescued after he fell out of a tree. He seems to have a problem with one of his wings, so he may never fly, but he seems pretty content being doted on by the family. His manorisms reminded us both of a cheeky little old man!

Below is the first chocolate pod that we got to pick! We got to suck the white pulp off the cocoa beans, which tasted kind of like yummy tangy mangoes.

After the beans are sun-dried, you then cook them in order to further dry them and make the shells easier to peel off. We got to cook and peel some already dried chocolate beans and then ground them up super fine in order to make some chocolate! The cooking, peeling, grinding, and then more cooking process took around 4 hours for only three small cereal bowls full of beans!

Marianella and her daughter, Camilla, are shown here preparing an extra little pot of chocolate with ''aji'' (red chillies) at Tyrone's request. We convinced them that we eat chili chocolate all the time back home, but they still thought we were strange! It turned out muy rico, though!!

Lydia sampling the ''milk chocolate'' below after stirring the pot for nearly an hour! The milk chocolate consisted of 97% pure cocoa, and our chili chocolate was 99% cocoa! It was sooooo good and we got to eat it warm that evening, and then again with fresh buns the next morning for breakfast. It had a different texture than traditional chocolate found in bar form - it was almost like an extremely rich brownie consisting of only cocoa powder, sugar and milk (which was exchanged for aji in our delicious experimental chocolate).

The day after we made the chocolate, we got to experience real cocoa harvesting. We were each equipped with either a long pole with a flat or hook blade on it to get the high pods, or a machete and bucket to get the lower pods and collect the fruit knocked out of the trees. We were told to pick up the fruit with the machete instead of our hands, just in case there were any snakes under the leaves! We had to be careful not to spear the pod too deeply, though, because if the pod is split down to the middle, it is no longer good for export.

Pedro and Marianella export the majority of their cocoa to the United States, and even a little to Canada, so perhaps you will be tasting some of the pods we picked back home!!

And here are a couple of pretty jungle plant photos that we found interesting!

And here is a giant grass-hopper that we found that was nearly as big as Lydia's foot (yes, abnormally large, capable of human-eating grass-hoppers do exist)!!

And thus concludes our visit at the finca de chocolate! We got to experience the whole process of chocolate production, from bagging small plants, to planting small trees, to picking the rype pods, to sucking off the pulp and drying the beans, to cooking and peeling, grinding, and further cooking those beans into chocolate! As we are both chocoholics, we will now appreciate nature's finest fruit even more, due to the hard work and time that goes into creating that little bar that you purchase at the grocery store.