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Hurricane Sandy kills at least 65 in the Caribbean

As the East Coast of the U.S. braces itself for Hurricane Sandy today – with businesses, schools and transport systems shut down and mass evacuations taking place – severe damage has already been wrecked by Sandy on the Caribbean, with Haiti the worst hit. At least 51 people have died in Haiti, and more than 2,000 people had to be evacuated due to extremely heavy rains and flooding.

Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy (Jennette's Pier in Nags Head - Hurricane Sandy by County of Dare)

Many of the deaths occurred in the area around the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, where 370,000 Haitians are still living in temporary shelters following the deadly 2010 earthquake.

Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica were also affected. In Cuba, eleven were reported to have been killed, with two more people dead in the Dominican Republic and one in Jamaica. All three countries also experienced severe damage to and destruction of thousands of homes.

Community Tourism in Saraguro

Of all the different types of tourism out there, community tourism can be of particular interest to foreigners coming to a country that has a diverse set of long-standing cultures. In Ecuador, there are many opportunities for community tourism, but the one being run by Fundación Kawsay in Saraguro is especially interesting, though more catered to groups or families.

Saraguro's Main Plaza

Saraguro refers to both the town located between Cuenca and Loja and to its surrounding canton, which consists of many small communities that inhabit a total of 31,000 people. Some of these communities include Ilincho, Namarín, Tuncarta and Las Lagunas. The town and canton is named for the indigenous group (also called Saraguro) who inhabits the area, the only indigenous group in the province of Loja to survive the Spanish conquest. Saraguro is a primarily agricultural-based community; each family has its own organic garden and animals and live off of their own land for sustenance.

Saraguro Woman Walking Through Her Organic Garden

Some attribute the Saraguros’ ability to preserve their culture so well to their strong nuclear families, their alternative education system where kids learn about traditions and culture before they learn how to recite the alphabet, and purity, as most do not marry outside of their communities. Saraguros are also known for their distinct dress, where men where cropped pants and ponchos and women wear long black pleated skirts, black shawls and intricate beaded necklaces, and both wear brimmed black hats and their hair in one long braid.

Visiting the communities is not possible independently, so if you have an interest in touring them or arranging a home stay with a local family, you need to contact the only tour operator in town, Sararku, which works closely with Fundación Kawsay. Staying with a family is a unique experience to peek into the lives of Ecuador’s best-preserved indigenous culture and share in some of the family’s daily tasks. The people in Saraguro are very friendly and open to answering questions about their lifestyle. Alternatively, you can stay in the community-run hostel, Hostal Achik Wasi, which has pretty views of Saraguro from above.

The Community-Run Hostal Achik Wasi

All home stays cost $27 and include accommodation, three meals a day, and family activities such as tending to the farm, cooking together or making local artisan products. The rooms where guests stay are comfortable and have bathrooms with hot water. Meals tend to be vegetarian and grain-based, including mote (hominy), potatoes, rice, quinoa, cheese empanadas and salads. Money from the home stays is funneled back into the individual communities to assist with completing community projects.

Making Cheese Empanadas During Home Stay

Besides family activities, visitors can arrange to visit some of the interesting sites in the community, which give insight into the communities’ way of life. Options include visiting a weaving workshop or traditional hat workshop, visiting organic medicinal gardens and learning about various curative plants, participating in local rituals with music, water and fire, and visiting sacred waterfalls. An especially interesting time to visit is during the town’s Inti Raymi celebration, or Festival of the Sun, the town’s biggest celebration.

Visiting Traditional Hat Workshop in Village of Tuncarta

To get to Saraguro from Cuenca, take any Loja-bound bus and ask to be let off in Saraguro. The ride costs $5 to and from Cuenca (3-4 hr) and $1.75 to and from Loja (1.5 hr).

Why are Panama Hats Called Panama Hats if They are Made in Ecuador?

Panama hats are Ecuador’s most iconic souvenir, yet their name is attached to the country whose strip of land connects Central and South America. The handwoven hats, made with straw from the toquilla palm plant that is endemic to Ecuador’s Pacific coast, have been made in Ecuador for centuries and can be traced back to the Incas. So why, then, are they called Panama hats?

There are several theories as to why, and it is probably true that each theory has contributed to its reputation in some way. One major factor was Panama’s position as a center for trade and transport, especially in the mid-1850s during the Gold Rush in the United States. At the time, Ecuador did not see much tourism or trade, so it exported its hats to Panama to sell from there. Additionally, Ecuador did not have the technology to be able to mark the hats with a stamp or label that said “Made in Ecuador,” so people assumed the hats were made in the the same country they were bought in.

"Panama Hats," by capelle79 (

When thousands of North Americans on the east coast went in search of gold in California, many traveled by boat through Panama to get there, as it was a quicker option than traveling across the United States via land. Many of these American travelers bought the straw hats while passing through Panama and returned to the United States with their new accessory. When asked where they got their fine woven hats, people said Panama.

In 1881, the 23-year project to build the Panama Canal began. Many of the workers who constructed the Panama Canal wore the hats to fend off the strong sun, adding to its association with Panama. These hats were perfect for the job since they are lightweight and breathable. The Panama hat gained even more fame when President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed in one of the straw hats while visiting the Panama Canal in 1906. The photo was widely published in the U.S. and was mistakenly called a Panama hat; from that point on, the name “Panama hat” really stuck.

President Theodore Roosevelt in a Panama Hat

Others claim that the travelers passing through the Panama Canal over time who wore the hat gave it its name, rather than the canal workers or President Teddy Roosevelt. No matter what you believe the real origin or continued use of the term “Panama hat” for the Ecuadorian-made product is, there is no doubt that these hats are made in Ecuador,  primarily in and around Cuenca and on the coast in towns like Montecristi and Jipijapa (which is why the hat was actually technically called a Jipijapa hat).

The Southern Coast of Ecuador's Quieter Alternatives

Chances are if you are traveling to the southern coast of Ecuador, you are heading to Puerto López, Montañita or Salinas. While these towns definitely all have tourism appeal and a better tourism infrastructure to match, the small beach towns dotting the coast in between them provide for ultimate relaxation and unique experiences, and should not be overlooked. Additionally, they are all simple to get to. Just head to the main coastal highway—also known as the Ruta del Spondylus—wave out your hand and hop on any north- or south-bound bus and ask to be let off at the town you are going to. Here are a few of those small beach towns you won’t want to miss:

Salangothis sleepy village six kilometers (3.7 mi) from Puerto López is an authentic fishing town with excellent seafood restaurants and an archaeological museum that has artifacts dating back more than 5,000 years. Salango sits in front of Isla Salango, which has ample opportunities for snorkeling and scuba diving. It also participates in community tourism and has community-run lodging in rustic cabañas.

Las Tunas: a place for relaxation, Las Tunas is merely a long strip of clean beach bordered by a small Malecón and several nice hostels and eco-lodges. Many of these hotels are set in gardens and have private beach access, and during off-season, you will likely have the beach all to yourself.

Las Tunas

Ayampe: further south down the same beach as Las Tunas is this quiet surfer’s paradise with big swells and small crowds. For such a tiny place, though, there is a fairly big selection of lodging options, ranging from camping to more upscale bungalows with an on-site spa. Ayampe also has a small swamp and nature trails that can be explored by foot or bike.


Ayangue: a small, still undeveloped coastal town built around a calm bay partially enclosed by cliffs, Ayangue is a laid-back, family-friendly beach between Salinas and Montañita. It is surrounded by virgin forest with Palo Santo plants and is known for its scuba diving opportunities at the nearby Islote El Pelado, which has colorful coral and a statue of Christ underwater. The friendly locals and cheap lobsters are just extra reasons to come. Also accessible from here are the Baños Termales de San Vicente, which are hot springs and mud baths in a volcanic crater, where you can also enjoy a massage or relax in a sauna.


Ballenita: Ballenita, or Little Whale, is basically on the map due to the magical Hostería Farallon Dillon, which doubles as a nautical museum. The museum showcases items collected during the last 30 years while sailing, and you can see 18th-century diving equipment, adornments from bows and objects used by navigators. Whether you decide to spend a night here or merely visit the gallery with marine artifacts and enjoy lunch on the water, this is an interesting stop on the Ruta del Spondylus.

Welcome to Ecuador Julian Assange

The Ecuadorian Government today announced that they will give Julian Assange political asylum. There’s only one small detail: he’s camped out in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and the British police insist they will not let him leave the embassy, let alone fly to Ecuador, without being arrested.

As the owner of a travel guidebook company based in Quito, Ecuador I can say that Julian is really missing out by “being in Ecuador” while in reality he’s actually stuck in London. Bummer for him.

So Julian, why not make the most of your time in London and start planning out your trip to Ecuador?

In honor of ALL those around the world stuck somewhere miserable who have dreams of visiting Ecuador, here’s a coupon for a FREE copy of VIVA Travel Guides’ Ecuador eBook:

Ecuador eBook, welcome Julian Assange

Go here:
And use this coupon code to download your free Ecuador eBook: WelcometoEcuadorJulian
(valid through August 31)

Note that this offer doesn’t include a stealth rescue helicopter or any other transportation arrangements for Julian or anyone else, but the ebook certainly will help out in planning and once you’re actually here in Ecuador!

Happy Travels,

Jason Halberstadt
Founder of VIVA Travel Guides

Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez suffering from dementia

Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia’s most prolific author, is suffering from dementia, his brother Jaime García Márquez has revealed. The 85 year-old Nobel prize-winning writer, who has lived in Mexico for the past 50 years, is sadly no longer able to write as a result of his condition, and is losing his memory. Jaime reported that the chemotherapy that García Márquez received for lymphatic cancer, which he contracted in 1999, may have brought on an early onset of dementia, which runs in the family.

Gabriel García Márquez (by mansionwb)

García Márquez was born in 1927 in Aracataca, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, to Gabriel Eligio García and Luisa Santiaga Márquez. Aged nine, he moved south to Sucre to be reunited with his parents, who had left him to be raised by his maternal grandparents (until the death of his grandfather in 1936). He studied law, then initially worked as a journalist before turning his hand to writing novels. His first novel, Leaf Storm, was published in 1955, and his last, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, in 2004. His most well-known novels include One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the time of Cholera (1985). García Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982.

Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez (by Colombia Travel)

Travelers to Colombia can follow in the footsteps of García Márquez by visiting the Casa Museo Gabriel García Márquez in Aracataca, the carefully-restored house where he grew up (and the inspiration for One Hundred Years of Solitude). Another point of interest is the Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez in Bogota, a cultural center devoted to the author, which includes a library, art gallery, auditorium, bookstores, cafés, and several open spaces.

Find out more about Colombia in VIVA’s new Colombia Adventure Guideavailable in a variety of e-book applications directly from VIVA, as well as in print format from and Barnes & Noble.

Colombian volcano, Nevado del Ruiz, erupts; authorities warn of further eruptions

Colombia’s Nevado del Ruiz volcano, which sits in the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados in the Zona Cafetera (or “Coffee zone”), 130 kilometers (80 mi) west of Bogota, erupted last Saturday, 30 June, after months of volcanic activity. The brief eruption took place at 5.37 p.m. local time, when the volcano expelled a 9.5 kilometer (6 mi) cloud of smoke, ash and gases, resulting in the evacuation of thousands of locals in the surrounding area and the suspension of commercial flights from the nearby towns of Armenia, Manizales and Pereira.

Nevado del Ruiz ("Nevado del Ruiz nos saludo 2" by Dr EG)

Fortunately, there have been no reports of injuries or damage to property, but authorities have warned that a further eruption is probable. Though the volcanic activity alert has now been lowered to orange after it was declared red following the eruption, scientists at the Vulcan and and Seismological Observatory in nearby Manizales say that the volcano continues to emit gases and ash, and that “new eruptions cannot be ruled out”. The recent activity is a nasty reminder of the deadly power of the 5321 meter (17,457 ft) volcano: on November 13 1985, a massive avalanche of mud and debris, caused by a small eruption, destroyed the town of Armero, killing an estimated 25,000 people. Avoid the area where possible, and keep up-to-date with travel and safety alerts: the website of the Manizales Vulcan and Seismological Observatory has daily updates (Spanish only), or check the Colombia travel advice page of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Find out more about Colombia in VIVA’s new Colombia Adventure Guideavailable in a variety of e-book applications directly from VIVA, as well as in print format from and Barnes & Noble.

Colombia's Wayuu tribe celebrate their annual cultural festival

Last week the Wayuu tribe, an ethnic group from the Guajira Penisula on Colombia’s north-east Caribbean coast, celebrated their 26th annual Festival de la Cultura Wayuu – Wayuu’s Cultural Festival. The festival, which takes place in the town of Uribia (the Wayuu’s largest settlement), is a demonstration and promotion of the Wayuu’s traditional rituals, customs, skills, socialization, music, and more. This year’s theme was the La Cocina Wayuu – Wayuu’s cuisine. The three-day event included cultural talks and lectures, music and dance presentations, plays, exhibits, the popular traditional games (think horse and donkey racing, wrestling, archery, and stone-throwing) and, of course, offerings of typical Wayuu dishes – particularly goat, which forms a principle part of the cuisine.

A Wayuu Ranch (Rancheria Wayúu by Tanenhaus)

The Wayuu, who number approximately 145,000 in Colombia (and around another 293,000 in neighboring Venezuela), are divided into 16 clans, each with its own territory, symbol and animal. The Wayuu language is Wayuunaiki; new generations also speak Spanish however, but much importance is placed on the preservation of the native language. Though the tribe follow traditional gender roles (women are responsible for the household chores and taking care of the children, while men fish, rear goats and fetch firewood), Wayuu identification is passed on through the women: the youngest daughter inherits property, and, in cases of alijuna (marriage with a non-Wayuu), the child is only Wayuu if the mother is. Women are also the leaders of Wayuu society.

Wayuu women weaving traditional handicrafts (On The Road Again Día 4: Cabo de la vela-Manaure-Santa Marta by pattoncito)

Find out more about Colombia and its indigenous groups in VIVA’s new Colombia Adventure Guideavailable in a variety of e-book applications directly from VIVA, as well as in print format from and Barnes & Noble.

Growing Accustomed to Transport in Quito

Becoming acquainted with using a map in a new city can be a daunting process, let alone learning the ins-and-outs of public transportation and the etiquette a foreigner must use to avoid getting ripped off.

When I first arrived in Quito, transportation seemed a bit overwhelming. But once you face the challenge, it’s really not that difficult to grow accustomed to using it all. There are a few pieces of advice I wish I had known before I came, so I thought I’d dish them out.

1: Especially when traveling from the Mariscal, ask a taxi driver if they have a ”taximetro” (a meter that calculates distance and price) before accepting the ride and fare. This will let the driver know you have a bit of a clue as to how the system works here, and that they’ll have a hard time fooling you. However, also remember that fares are raised at night, and drivers are not required to use the meter.

2: The Ecovia: Rio Coca is northbound, San Marin is southbound. Again, Rio Coca in northbound, San Marin is southbound…

3: You may find yourself standing on a random corner, with no bus stop sign in sight, and that’s okay. Buses may stop anyway. It’s hard to tell where the bus is headed. If you know enough Spanish, simply ask the bus driver to pull over closest to your destination. But there are also signs on the lower left-hand corner of the dashboards, telling you their final destination.

Pop up bus by Leokoolhoven

Pop up bus by Leokoolhoven


When growing accustomed to the public transportation system in a new city, be patient and have a sense of humor. There may be times you take the wrong bus, miss a stop or have to hoist yourself up through the door while in motion. All these things are normal, have a little fun!



On your marks: Colombia's whale season has begun

Whale-watching season has arrived in Colombia, and one of the best places in the country to see these beautiful marine mammals is Bahía Solano, on the northern Pacific Coast. The months of June to October see hundreds of humpback whales migrate north to the warm, tropical Colombian waters to mate, breed and begin to raise their young.

Humpback whale by flickkerphotos

During this time, the town of Bahía Solano, protected by a vast bay, is descended upon by countless (mainly Colombian) tourists eager to spot whales. Book accommodation in advance; you’ll find a number of hostels and eco-hotels varying in budget and quality. During whale season, the annual birthing and migrating patterns of the humpback whales make the large mammals so abundant that they are sometimes visible from shore. If you want to get a little closer, take one of the daily tours organized by the many hotels. Sports fishing and diving are also popular activities here.

Bahía Solano (184360_JV4_bahia_solano_portada by Colombia Travel)

Unless you want to hire a boat, the only way to get to Bahía Solano is to take a domestic flight from Medellin (a round-trip costs from $200). If you’re looking for a more accessible place to whale-watch, hop on a bus from Cali to the port of Buenaventura. Hurry on from here (the town has a deservedly nasty reputation) and onto one of the nearby whale-watching hot-spots: Juanchaco, Ladrilleros or Isla Gorgona.

Find out more about whale-watching, Bahía Solano and Colombia in VIVA’s new Colombia Adventure Guideavailable in a variety of e-book applications directly from VIVA, as well as in print format from and Barnes & Noble.