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On the Road – Peru: Chicha and Other Native Brews, Part 3

In this three-part series on chicha, we travel from the sierra to the jungle to discover Peru’s native brews.

 

Most chicha in Peru are made of corn. Except masato. This slightly alcoholic drink of the Amazon River jungle region is made from yucca. It is, I had been told in other parts of the country, the only one for which the grain is chewed to foment fermentation.

 

But once I hit the northern jungle, I began to learn a different story. I traveled the length of the Corredor Transoceánico, towards the river port of Yurimaguas. I arrived in Moyobamba in time for its patron saint feast day. On the first night, the Plaza de Armas was lined with food stalls offering traditional foods. Many had fried cecina (pemmican) and juanes, a round tamale made of chicken and rice steamed in a bijao leaf. A few women were grilling cuts of majaz (the agouti). The most common drink being poured into plastic cups was chicha de higo, a non-alcoholic drink made from figs.

 

Majaz with yucca and maduro. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Finally I saw a sign I was hoping to see: Masato con espuma. One woman was whisking eggs into a pale-lemon-colored froth. She then half-filled a styrofoam cup with masato and topped it off with a big dollop of the foam. I asked her if it were true the root is chewed before fermentation. “No,” she responded as she prepared my drink, “only in settlements deep in the jungle do they still make it that way. Most people now use sugar.”

 

In Yurimaguas, I was told the same thing.

 

Heading back to the coast, I stop in Tarapoto. One evening I walk up Jirón Alegría Areas de Morey. None of the restaurants catering to the foreign tourists appeal to me: not pizza or pasta, not over-priced plates of ceviche or cecina. After a few blocks, the street becomes dirt-paved. Motorcycle rickshaw taxis pull in front of a one-story building, dropping off passengers who head inside. Under the eaves, a couple digs into heaping plates of food. A long grill wafts smoke and meat aromas into the night air. Every table in the dining hall inside is packed.

 

The hand-printed sign outside the restaurant, Parrilladas El Bijao, promises locally produced cecina and chorizos, juanes, patarashca (a fish soup prepared and served in a “bowl” of bijao leaves, fish grilled in bijao leaves and other typical dishes. Another sign lists juices made from the tangy camu camu and other jungle fruits—and masato.

 

Making tacacho. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

At a table next to the grill, owner Betty is smashing steamed plantains in a batán (wooden trough) with a wooden mallet. I ask her if the masato is made the old-fashioned way, by chewing. She says no, but it is homemade. She invites me to sit down on the bench and begins to tell me the process.

 

“First, we steam the yucca until it is soft. Then in a batán like this, it is ground.” She breaks up lumps of plantain with one hand, and begins pounding the mixture again. “Into the water in which the yucca was cooked, we add sugar. That’s poured into the batán and kneaded into the yucca mash until it is a thick paste.”

 

She reaches over to a pot on the grill and ladles pork fat and cracklings onto the plantains. She works the dough. Then with quick hands, she forms a small ball. “Here, try this tacacho,” she says, handing it to me.

 

As she peels more plantains to smash, she continues her explanation of how to make masato. “The yucca mixture is placed into a tinaja (ceramic urn) and fermented for at least three days.”

 

As I eat the tacacho, I tell her about my search for masato. “Many told me the only place you’ll find the traditional one, made by chewing the yucca first, is deep in the jungle.”

 

She sets into making a new batch of tacacho. “No. You can find old-fashioned masato in Lamas. There they still chew the root for fermentation. They don’t use sugar.”

 

Her companion has prepared my order. I take a seat the couple’s long table to receive my plate of majaz, yucca and roasted maduros (ripe plantains). The waitress brings out a chilled glass of the house masato to accompany my repast. This 15-day-old brew is smooth—much different than the chicha de jora I had tried in Arequipa.

 

Masato. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

In that southern Peruvian city, chef Walter Bustamante Cano told me over three hundred varieties of chicha exist. I have tried four. To savor the others would take a lifetime.

 

I think of the Nicaraguan song about this native brew of the Americas. Perhaps the people of this country could do their own version: Chicha de jora, chicha morada, chicha de higo, masato …

 

 

Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2012 edition of  V!VA Peru. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

 

On the Road – Peru: Chicha and Other Native Brews, Part 2

In this three-part series on chicha, we travel from the sierra to the jungle to discover Peru’s native brews.

 

After learning about chicha de jora from Soncallay’s master chef, my next stop is Mercado San Camilo, Arequipa’s central market that was designed by Gustave Eiffel. I need to pick up on the ingredients for chicha morada, the non-alcoholic chicha beverage that is commonly served with restaurants’ daily special. I have asked Bárbara Gonzales, owner of Samana Wasi hostel, to teach me about this drink. She is an expert on classic Arequipeña cooking. For many years, she had restaurants, before opening her hostel, where she also offers cooking lessons to her guests.

 

I pull her list of ingredients out of my pocket as I walk by the stall serving up chicha de jora. In this late afternoon, the counter is crowded with customers.

 

Ingredients for chicha morada. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

The woman who sells me the coronta de maíz (purple corn cobs) tells me her secrets to preparing the drink. The spice woman pinches the bag of cloves, showing me how much she uses: Only five or six pieces. With the rest of the goods, I head back to the hostel.

 

The next morning, I meet doña Bárbara in her kitchen off the hostel’s courtyard. As she cuts the peel off of three slices of pineapple, she explains that chicha morada is used in folk medicine, for lowering high blood pressure and for curing cancer. It’s also good when you have digestive problems. It’s easy on the stomach and replaces electrolytes. Chicha morada is excellent for infants and old people, as is mazamorra, a pudding made of this chicha thickened with chuño (freeze-dried potato) starch.

 

Peeling the pineapple. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

With her stubby hands, doña Bárbara breaks 200 grams of coronta de maíz in half before placing them into three liters of hot water. Then the pineapple husks, 10 cloves (clavos de olor) and five small sticks of cinnamon are added to make our chicha morada. She puts the lid on the pot. “Now we have to let it boil for about 15 minutes. Then we’ll strain it and let it cool. After that, turbinado sugar and the juice of three or four limes go in.”

 

The simmering pot of chicha morada. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Throughout Peru, chicha morada commonly accompanies the daily lunch special. “You have to be careful, though,” doña Bárbara warns. “Many places either dilute it with beet juice, or prepare it from packets. Few actually serve the real thing.” This manner of chicha has a rich flavor. A similar preparation is made in Ecuador, using chunks of pineapple instead of the peel. In that country, it is usually only prepared for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

 

I ask doña Bárbara about the other type of chicha. “It’s very important in Arequipeña cooking, especially guiñapo, which she explains, is Arequipa’s own chicha. Half-crushed purple maize kernels are boiled with pineapple husk, cinnamon, cloves and anise. The mixture is then strained and turbinado sugar is mixed in. The liquid is left to ferment at least two weeks. Guiñapo is an essential ingredient in adobo arequipeña, the city’s famous, spicy pork stew.

 

The finished product -- chicha morada. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

For lunch, she serves our homemade chicha morada with another classic Andean dish, cuy (guinea pig). Boiled yellow potatoes, olluco (another type of tuber), haba beans, corn on the cob and fresh chili sauce accompany our meal.

 

The day before I leave Arequipa, I decide to lunch at a popularly priced restaurant on the Plaza de Armas. The waitress tells me today’s drink is chicha. “Chicha morada?” “No, chicha de jora. Is that okay? I could get you something without alcohol,” she offers. No, no, it’s okay, I assure her.

 

It’ll give me one last opportunity to salute the splendor of Arequipa’s food and chicha, before heading out to the Peru’s jungle to learn about another of its chichas: masato.

 

 

Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2012 edition of  V!VA Peru. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

 

 

On the Road – Peru: Free Hiking Near Arequipa

Last week, I filled you in on 10 free attractions awaiting travelers in Arequipa. But many tourists arrive here to do some trekking in the Colca Canyon. The recent increase of the canyon’s entry fee to a staggering $26 for non-Latin Americans will leave many shoestring travelers in the dust.

 

Not to fear, though. Arequipa’s campiña (countryside) offers several great opportunities to get out of the city for some fresh sunshine and incredible vistas. The awards along the way include waterfalls, ancient rock paintings and traditional villages.

El Misti from Yanahuara’s mirador. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Two miradores just west of downtown give splendid views of the volcanoes: one in Yanahuara (2 km / 1.2 mi from downtown Arequipa) and another called Carmen Alto (6.7 km / 4 mi north of Ca Puente Grau and Av Bolognesi; follow the signs).

 

In the Cayma district west of Arequipa, a 15-kilometer (9.2-mile) Inca trail runs through the Valle de Chilina, along west bank of the Río Chili to the Santuario La Virgen de Chapi de Charcani (General Varela 1070, Acequia, Alta Cayma). Along the way are waterfalls, and places to rock climb and fish. There is one campsite.

 

Cayma’s Oficina de Desarrollo Turístico publishes a rough map of the route (Plaza de Cayma 408, Cayma. Tel: 054-254-648, E-mail: turismo@municayma.gob.pe, URL: www.municayma.gob.pe).

 

The Valle de Chilina may also be hiked along the eastern bank of the river. From downtown Arequipa, walk north to Parque Selva Alegre, turn left to the end of that road, then right at the end of that one. Continue straight and take the third path down. This road also leads hikers through a landscape of ancient terraced farm fields, forests and scrub-brush lands overshadowed by Chachani and El Misti volcanoes.

Paisaje Arequipeño. Photo by Carlos Zúñiga.

Just to the southeast of Arequipa is the Ruta del Loncco, places where you may hike through the bucolic countryside, to waterfalls, petroglyphs (petroglifos) and traditional villages. Yarabamba (15 km / 9 mi from Arequipa) are the Petroglifos Gayalopo y Guanaqueros. A few kilometers to the south is Quequeña, where you may hike to the Petroglifos Cerro Boracho, Trompín Chico and Quebrada de la Zorra creek. Further south is Sogay, with waterfalls. In these towns, there are campsites.

 

These villages’ websites have more information about their attractions: Yarabamba (URL: http://www.peru.gob.pe/Nuevo_Portal_Municipal/portales/municipalidades/358/entidad/pm_municipalidad_tematicos.asp?cod_tema=39505), Quequeña (URL: www.muniquequena.gob.pe) and Sogay (URL: www.sogayarequipa.com). Minibuses for Yarabamba and Quequeña pass by Venezuela and Avenida Mariscal Castilla ($0.60).

Waterfall. Photo by Carlos Zúñiga.

Any of these hikes may be done as day trips from Arequipa. Bring along food (a picnic would be perfect) and water, sun protection (hat, sun screen) and good walking shoes. Keep valuables back at the hostel. The more tranquil hikes are in the three villages south of the city.

 

 

Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2012 edition of  V!VA Peru. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

 

 

Chile’s Carretera Austral: Ten Adventures to Get Your Adrenaline Fix

Taking a rest.

South America’s summer officially begins tonight, but already travelers have been hitting Chile’s Carretera Austral (Ruta 7), which extends 1,247 kilometers (775 miles) from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. Bicyclists are battling the infamous Patagonian wind as gravel kicks up around their tires. Some backpackers stand by the roadsides, thumb outstretched, to explore the road that way. Very few travelers take the public buses or rent a car. This is a highway where dreams can be made reality.

If the adventure of biking or hitching the Carretera Austral isn’t enough for you, V!VA Travel Guides Chile presents you  with a cornucopia of high-adrenaline activities to keep you pumped going down the highway. This region has many legs of the national hiking trail network, the Sendero de Chile (www.senderodechile.cl). Local families provide homestay and guiding services for not only trekking, but also birdwatching, horseback riding, fly fishing, rock climbing and other sports.

So dig out the hiking boots and pack in the provisions because it’s time to hit the open road.

 

1 – Parque Nacional Horniporén

Parque Nacional Horniporén, near the start of the Carretera Austral, protects important transition zones of flora, fauna and geology. Over 13 kilometers (8 miles) of hiking trails wind through this fascinating landscape. The nearby village of Río Puelo is the starting point for an even more challenging trek: four nights, five days across the Paso Río Puelo border to El Bolsón, Argentina.

Kayaking on the Futaleufú River.

2 – Futaleufú

Rafters and kayakers, get your gear ready to shoot through the rapids of the Futa, one of the world’s three most challenging rivers. The toughest stretches are the “Infierno” (22 kilometers / 14 miles, Class III-IV) and the “Terminator” (7 kilometers / 4.2 miles, Class V). The Espolón River is renowned for its fly fishing. Dry land adventures are horseback riding and hiking near town and in Reserva Natural Futaleufú.

Further down the highway you can get another whitewater  fix on the Río Baker’s Class III rapids at Puerto Bertrand.

 

3 – Palena

Reserva Nacional Lago Palena offers horseback riding, fly fishing and a half-dozen hiking trails ranging from four kilometers (2.4 miles) to 13 kilometers (8 miles) in distance. It is also the staging ground for a 65-kilometer (39-mile) stretch of the Sendero de Chile, from Palena to Lago Verde (near La Junta).

 

A waterfall in Queulat National Park.

4 – Puyuhuapi

The delights around Puyuhuapi, a small German settlement on a fiord, never ceases to amaze travelers. After hiking to the hanging glaciers and waterfalls in Parque Nacional Queulat, soak your tired muscles in one of two hot springs near the village.

 

5 – Coyhaique

While you’re restocking on money and other necessary supplies in the Northern Patagonia’s major city, take some time out to explore the three national reserves near town: Monumento Nacional Dos Lagunas, Reserva Nacional Río Simpson and Reserva Nacional Coyhaique. On the coast is Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael, most known for its boat tours to the glaciers. But it also has several hiking trails, ice climbing (for the experienced and equipped) and camping.

Coyahique is also home to Escuela de Guías de la Patagonia, a school that trains the region’s guides. During the summer, it also teaches travelers camping, rock climbing and other skills to survive Patagonian rigors.

 

Cerro Castillo.

6 – Cerro Castillo

With geological features much like Torres del Paine, Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo has a distinct advantage: It is virtually unvisited. The challenging 45-kilometer (28 mile) Valle de la Lima-Villa Cerro Castillo trek, which takes three to four days, wraps around the base of the mountain, with stunning views of icy lagoons and glaciers. If time is short, you can visit the park on horseback from the village.

 

7 – Bahía Exploradores

The boat tour of Río Tranquilo’s marble caves provides a respite from Chile’s Northern Patagonia’s trekking opportunities. But it’s now time for the next challenge: Hiking out the 59-kilometer (37-mile) road towards Bahía Exploradores, and ice trekking Glaciar Exploradores.

Capilla de Marmól, near Río Capilla.

8 – Cochrane

Besides being the last place along the highway where you can pick up on money and basic supplies, Cochrane has the Reserva Nacional Tamango. Also near town is Laguna Esmeralda with swimming, kayaking and great trout fishing. If you’re ready to roll up the ol’ sleeves and help restore natural habitats for huemul and puma, then volunteer at Valle Chacabuco nature reserve.

 

Caleta Tortel.

9 – Caleta Tortel

The entire village of Caleta Tortel is a hiking experience, with over seven kilometers (4.2 miles) of cypress-wood boardwalks. This is also where the southern sector of Parque Nacional San Rafael and Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins are accessed.  Both have hikes to glaciers. Caleta Tortel is also a prime kayaking destination.

 

10 – Villa O’Higgins

Villa O’Higgins is the last town on Chile’s Carretera Austral. From here, you’ll have to backtrack north to Cochrane or Lago General Carrera to cross over into Argentina. Or you can boat across Lago O’Higgins and hike to El Chaltén, Argentina—what has been called one of the world’s most beautiful border crossings (Paso Dos Lagunas). Before you leave this end-of-the-road town, though, take some time to hike or horseback ride one of the seven trails in the area, including two in the northern sector of Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins.

The highway’s end.

 

Traversing the Carretera Austral once the snows swirl in late autumn provides other ways to get the old adrenaline pumping. The road becomes impassable and many of towns remain isolated for weeks at a time. The best place to use as a base is Coyhaique. You can snowshoe and cross country ski in the three national reserves near that city or in Cerro Castillo just to the south. Coyhaique also has a downhill ski center, Centro de Ski el Fraile.

The Carretera Austral can be accessed by several border crossings from Argentina, or by boats arriving at Chaitén, Puerto Chacabuco (near Coyhaique) and other villages.

There are many other towns along the Carretera Austral that provide many other delights. Pack along your V!VA Travel Guides Chile for the most complete coverage of the region than any other guidebook on the market.

Argentina’s Haunted Past

The ghosts of Argentina’s recent past ride high in the saddle throughout the country. In the 20th century, the nation suffered two episodes that deeply marked its gaucho character: a Patagonian worker’s massacre during the 1920s and a repressive military regime in the 1970s.

 

Argentina is fast becoming Latin America’s leader in a new form of tourism that is peeling back the veils of these tragedies: human rights tourism. Now travelers can learn more about the country’s experiences that go beyond gauchos, tango and parrilla BBQs. V!VA Travel Guides Argentina helps you to tear away this cloaked past.

 

The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo.

In 1976, the military overthrew Isabel Perón, third wife of the recently deceased President, legendary Juan Domingo Perón. A reign of terror then ensued. Youth were kidnapped, tortured and killed. Some of them were activists. Others were targeted only for the “crime” of being young. Up to 30,000 were murdered. Pregnant women were often kept alive to give birth then killed, their children being adopted by families close to the military junta. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo formed to fight for the truth of what happened to their children, and the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo, to search for their grandchildren.

 

Resistencia's Museo de la Memoria.

In many cities, the former torture centers have been turned into museums, to remind people of that dark decade of Argentina’s modern history—and to pay homage to those who died. In Buenos Aires, the ESMA (Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada), which was one of the principal detention camps, is now a museum. Both Rosario and Resistencia have museums called Museo de la Memoria. At the one in Resistencia, two of the torture chambers are being excavated for evidence to bring the guilty to justice. Córdoba’s Archivo de la Memoria, across the alley from the Catedral, has a particularly strong ambience. Here, the walls that hid the torture cells have been torn down, revealing the victim’s last words scratched into plaster. (Note: If you are particularly sensitive to energies, you might find this museum a bit overpowering.)

 

Coronel Varela's railcar.

Another obscure chapter in Argentine history occurred in the country’s south during the early 1920s: The Patagonia Rebellion. Because of the horrid working conditions on the sheep estancias (ranches), the workers rose up. From 1920 until early 1922, the entire region saw strikers taking over ranches in an attempt to get landowners to fulfill promised reforms. The military was sent in and a manhunt ensued of the labor organizers and anyone else involved. On some estancias, more than a thousand strikers were killed.

 

The memorial near Estancia Bellavista.

In many of the principle centers of labor organizing, monuments exist to the strikers. At Jaramillo is a statue to Facón Grande. At Puerto Deseado is the railcar that Coronel Varela used to pursue the workers; it is now a museum to the workers’ struggle. Puerto San Julián where the women of one brothel told soldiers looking for a little R&R, “We don’t sleep with murders,” has a memorial to Albino Agüelles. One of the largest massacres occurred in Gobernador Gregores, at Estancia Bellavista. In this village, Estancia Los Granaderos organizes the tour, Tras los Pasos de los Huelguistas (In the Footsteps of the Strikers), which takes travelers to various related sites in the Patagonia. The notable exception to cities with memorials is Río Gallegos, which was the headquarters of the main strike organizer, Antonio Soto. In fact, to this day, it is still quite a touchy topic for the local populace.

 

The Patagonian Rebellion even extended to the estancias in Southern Chile, where the ruling families—the Braun, Menéndez and Noguiera—lived and controlled their Patagonian empires. Although their mansions are mute about their role in this history, you can see the splendor of their lives on full display in Punta Arenas, Chile, from the Palacio de Sara Braun (where you might catch a ghostly image on your photo) and Museo Regional Braun-Menéndez, in another of the family’s homes, to the city’s cemetery gates. Puerto Natale’s Museo Histórico Municipal has a section on the 1920s strikes, as does Museo Histórico e Industrial in nearby Puerto Bories.

 

Grab a copy (or download one) of V!VA Travel Guides Argentina or V!VA Travel Guides Patagonia Argentina. They will take you to these sites—and many more—on both sides of the border and throughout the grand country, in your search for Argentina’s haunted past.

Fantastic Nature Reserves on Argentina’s Patagonian Coast

The most talked about spot on Argentina’s Patagonian coast is Puerto Madryn. The whales, elephant seals and other wildlife at Playa El Doradillo and out on Peninsula Valdés draw thousands of visitors every year. Sports enthusiasts come for the prime windsurfing and scuba diving. The new V!VA Travel Guides Patagonia Argentina takes you there—and to lesser-known places on this Atlantic Coast that every traveler should put on the itinerary.

 

The restringas at low tide.

Las Grutas, an über-popular summer balneario (resort) with a Mediterranean-village feel to it, is barely on the foreigners’ radar screen. At low tide, the sea here—the warmest in all Patagonia—retreats up to two kilometers and forms pools in the rock-bed restringas. You can walk south along the coast to the fascinating Piedras Coloradas, El Buque, with a rock formation that looks like a ship and lagoons filled with mussels and small Patagonian octopus, and Cañadón de las Ostras, where 15-million-year old fossilized oysters stud the stone. Inland are Salinas de Gualicho, Argentina’s largest salt works and perfect place for star gazing, and Fuerte Argentino, reputed to be the refuge of the Knights Templar. Las Grutas is within a large nature reserve, protecting migrating whales and dolphins. Vuelo Latitud 40 is a migratory bird refuge and research center.

 

Whales can be spotted all along Argentina's Patagonia coast.

Further south on Ruta 3 is Parque Marítimo Costero Patagonia Austral, Argentina’s newest national park and the first one dedicated to preserving marine habitat. It stretches from Camarones in the north all the way to Caleta Córdova, near Comodoro Rivadavia. Within the park is Cabo Dos Bahías, home to 13 main species of birds, with a population totaling over a half-million residents, including Magellanic Penguin and Antarctic Giant Petrel, as well as a sea lion colony. The upscale resort at Bahía Bustamante is another prime birdwatching spot. In spring, whales are seen all along this coast. The best place to access this new park is at Camarones, which was the hometown of Juan Perón.

 

 

The Ría Deseada's beautiful landscape.

Puerto Deseado is the gateway to the Ría Deseada Nature Reserve. This over-40-kilometer canyon is the product of a freak geological accident millions of years ago, when the glaciers were receding. It is now a natural lover’s paradise with five types of cormorant, Magellanic Penguins, terns, skuas and dozens of other birds. Fur seals and sea lions tread the waters, and guanaco and rhea roam the plains. Kayak up the ría, following in Charles Darwin’s footsteps, to the Miradores named for him. Off shore from Puerto Deseado is Isla Pingüino, with Patagonia’s only colony of the yellow-tufted Rockhopper Penguins.

 

 

 

Cabo Curioso

Another place to follow in Mr. Darwin’s footsteps is at Puerto San Julián.  It was at this port that the Patagonia legend was born. With a deep history of pirates and explorers, this safe harbor also drew HMS The Beagle in for a spell. The Circuito Costero, stretching 22 kilometers up the coast, is a fantastic place to hike. The landscape is bedecked with birdlife, wild horses and ruins from Patagonia’s recent past. Cabo Curioso’s giant oyster fossil-studded cliffs caught Darwin’s imagination, and stirred his mind to theories of evolution. In the city itself, a waterfall forms at low tide, with a lagoon where flamingos, black-necked swans and other waterfowl can be spotted.

 

To enjoy the stunning natural beauties of these places, come in spring or fall, when migratory marine mammal and bird populations are at their peak. In summer, you’ll get to experience the culture of migrating Argentines on vacation. All of these destinations have year-round campgrounds, which make them affordable destinations even for shoestring travelers.

 

If your trip will take you all over this great country, pick up a copy of V!VA Travel Guides Argentina, which is available in print and e-book formats.

Pebguins are also spotted all along this coast.

A New Guide of Walking Tours in Quito

A copy of Tyler Burgess’ Quito, Ecuador Townscape Walks landed in V!VA Travel Guide‘s office. The small, paperback guide has instructions of 12 routes in the Old Town, Mariscal and New Town, with hints on what cafés, plazas, museums, churches and other sites to know in Quito. Leafing through the hand-illustrated booklet, I became intrigued. In all of my years of visiting Quito, Ms Burgess proposes places I’d never explored.

Quito, Ecuador Townscape Walks by Tyler Burgess

I decide to undertake the three walks in the Centro Histórico. The first, from Plaza Grande to La Basílica (4 kilometers / 2.5 miles), which will visit not only the Basílica, but also the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, Museo Sucre and the Catedral de Quito.

The Old Town walks begin from Plaza Grande. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

The second route will take me from the Plaza Grande, to the Centro Cultural Metropolitano and the Compañía church, up to Iglesia de San Francisco and its museum, and finally down to La Ronda (2.75 kilometers / 1.7 miles).

Another trek, again beginning at Plaza Grande, has the goal of Iglesia de San Diego and its cemetery, and the top of El Panecillo (7.7 kilometers / 4.8 miles).

Next week I shall share one of the adventures here in this space.

Quito, Ecuador Townscape Walks is not a guide with descriptions of each site. It is only a collection of a dozen circuit maps, with suggestions of places to visit. Throughout, Tyler Burgess weaves in several handy features, like where to stop for a fresh fruit juice or where there are bathrooms. The booklet is illustrated with sketches of things you’ll see along the way. She takes her fellow walkers into the back streets of Quito, where few tourists ever venture, to see the daily life of Quiteños behind the façade.

Some of the routes are through neighborhoods that, after dark, do have some security problems; but as long as you hoof around during daylight hours and use common-sense security measures (keep valuables back at the hotel, don’t flash your camera, take only the money you’ll need and go with another person), you should do okay. An additional map of the city is also handy. The walks, none of which are more than 8.5 kilometers (5.2 miles), can be quite aerobic, taking on Quito’s many hills.

And this is not a surprise, considering Burgess’ life. Born in 1950 in Wyoming, she spent her adult years in Montana and Oregon. She has always been an outdoors enthusiast. In her 40s, she played soccer, performed triathlons and undertook solo backpacking trips. She coaches marathon and fitness classes. Burgess also organizes walking tours across Ireland, England, Italy and Morocco, as well as in several US cities. A few years ago, she was a Santiago de Compostela Pilgrim, walking the 880-kilometer (550-mile) route alone.

Ms Burgess has written Townscape Walks for Seattle, Oregon, Eugene and Portland. This is is her first one in a foreign land. If you are interested in learning more about the books, visit www.walk-with-me.com.

Dollar Deals in Quito

A little really does go a long way in Quito. Since arriving a few weeks ago, I’ve been amazed at the amount of things I can purchase for just one dollar. I can drink a beer at a pub, buy a DVD, or even feast on 20 bananas—if I could eat them all before they turn brown. There is so much to do in Quito that my dollars are flying fast! Here is the run-through of some things you can buy and do in Quito for under a buck.

Start your day with a cup of coffee—or four. Most places will give you your caffeine fix for 25 to 35 cents a cup. Just be prepared to receive a cup of hot water and a jar of instant coffee, as is the norm around these parts. If only espresso will do, you’ll have to pay up. Still, you’ll get you buzz for less than the smallest latte at Starbucks.

A refreshing alternative to coffee—that is still just a buck—is a large cup of juice. Many fruterias, or fruit shops, allow you to choose any mix of fruits of vegetables you fancy, and then squeeze your drink right before your eyes. No sugar or water added! Soda or bottled water is also sold at a reasonable price: 30 to 60 cents depending on the size of the bottle.

Transportation in Ecuador is cheap. A taxi will take you up to a mile for just a dollar, or you can hop on a city bus for a mere 25 cents. Just be warned: you really do have to hop on and off the buses, which seem to never come to a complete stop when picking up or dropping off passengers.

As for entertainment, a dollar can buy you a few things. Pop into one of Quito’s many knock-off DVD or CD stores and you’ll find just about any title for a dollar (sometimes a bit more). Shopping at the Mercado Artesanal is another option, where you can pick up handmade bracelets, earrings, or other small items such as coin purses or finger puppets for a dollar or less. However, there are so many beautiful homespun souvenirs for sale it would be hard to leave without buying an alpaca blanket or a panama hat. People watching at Parque la Carolina or Parque Ecológico Metropolitano are two other completely free options, but it would be hard to bypass indulging in an ice cream cone or fresh fruit cup from a vendor for just a dollar.

Your dollar dinner options are a little scant, but you do have some choices. A slice of pizza or foot-long hot dog are two familiar menu items, but the latter is served with some unfamiliar toppings: sometimes mayonnaise, sometimes tomatoes, sometimes crushed potato chips. If you want to try something a little more Ecuadorian, grab a “Choclo con Queso,” a corn on the cob served with a chunk of cheese. The snack is sold everywhere!

Drinking is cheap, too. A large bottle of beer is just a dollar at many pubs, and if you search hard enough you might be able to snag a cuba libre, rum and coke, or other mixed drink for the same price. Don’t leave without spending a buck on a “canelazo,” a traditional drink made with fruit juice and sugar cane alcohol, served hot. Also, if you like to smoke when you drink, pick up a half-pack of cigarettes (10 in a box) for just a dollar!

When you’re finally done, make a pit stop inside an internet cafe, where you can call most international numbers for a half hour for just a dollar. Just enough time to tell them how amazing (and cheap!) Quito is!

Free! Free!!

Let’s shout it loud from the rooftops of the great Latin American cities: Free! Free!! Indeed, budget travelers, these metropoli bulge with free things to go check out. From architecture to culture, you can pack your days with tons of things to do. All totally GRATIS, except perhaps for the occasional trolley fare.

 

The most obvious free attraction is the churches. From white-washed colonial chapels to towering neo-Gothic temples, these monuments are a fascinating window onto the merging of indigenous and Spanish cultures. On the façades of some, native craftsmen slipped symbols from their own religion. Interiors are decorated with naïve wood carvings and elaborate gilded altar screens. In cathedrals are buried the city’s most famous citizens.

Another Eiffel creation: the steel cathedral in Arica, Chile. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Another Eiffel creation: the steel cathedral in Arica, Chile. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Unfortunately, many of Quito’s finest churches charge an entry fee to non-mass attenders, though La Compañía does offer free tours once a month. Parts of Latin America are yet very conservative about church attire: no shorts, tanktops or minis. In small towns, women commonly cover their heads when entering a holy place. And men, please take the ball cap off.

 

Catholics aren’t the only ones to open their spectacular spaces. In Panama City is the brilliantly white Bahai’i temple, a dome perched atop Motaña del Dulce Canto. Mosques in Maicao, Colombia, and Tacna, Peru, also welcome visitors.

 

The merging of cultures and styles are also reflected in secular architecture. Glance up while strolling through Buenos Aires. Some Presidential Palaces have free guided tours (take your passport). While in Buenos Aires, check out the Casa Rosada and in Quito Carondolet, also known as the Palacio del Gobierno.

 

While the politicos are wheeling and dealing in the Palaces, the common folk are doing their trade of daily life out in the markets. Even in large cities the sound of folks haggling prices mixes with the colors and smells of the typical village mercado – only on a mega-scale. Bucaramanga’s four-story-tall Plaza Central is said to be Colombia’s largest public market. For its sheer size, nothing can beat Mexico City’s Mercado de la Merced. The few blocks on the southern edge of this market are dedicated to traditional shamanic necessities. Such traditions are limited to just Mexico, though. On La Paz’ steep streets is the fascinating Witches’ Market.

 

Major Latin American cities have centro cultural hosting free exhibits, concerts, films, theater and other events. In many burgs are foreign centers, like France’s Alianza Francesa and Germany’s Instituto Goethe. Keep an eye out for art openings (inauguración), an assured visual and gastronomic treat. (Yes, often hors d’ouvres and drinks are served.) These and literary readings also offer you an opportunity to meet the local artist community. My favorite centers are Quito’s Centro Cultural Metropolitano, which has monthly art openings, and the Alianza Francesa in Santa Marta, Colombia, which has not only good art shows, but shows great movies every week.

 

Exquisite architecture and culture isn’t just for the living. Latin American cemeteries are where you’ll find the famous and poor lying side by side. While in Buenos Aires, drop by to see Eva Perón Duarte in La Recoleta and Carlos Gardel in La Chacarita. Santiago de Chile’s Cementerio General hosts most of that nation’s Presidents, Victor Jara and victims of the military dictatorship’s repression. A small fee is charged to enter Havana’s impressive Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón. Here rest writers Alejo Carpentier and Nicolás Guillén, Buena Vista Social Club singer Ibrahim Ferrer, and Cuban Revolutionaries Celia Sánchez and Haydée Santamaría. A free graveyard in this city is San Yu Chun Wa, or the Cementerio General Chino.

 

Patzcuaro’s Day of the Dead celebration may be the most renowned, but the local cemetery in any small Peruvian, Bolivian and Mexican city is the place to be on Día de los Muertos, or Día de los Difuntos. Join in on the feting with the spirits of the dearly departed on these days when the fabric between the worlds of the living and dead opens. Food, drink and live music are all part of the party, which often lasts all-night long, or even for several days.

 

Clowning around in Villavicencio, Colombia. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Clowning around in Villavicencio, Colombia. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Of course, public plazas are THE place to peoplewatch (and if you have sixth sense, perhaps even spirit watch). Take time off your walking tours of the metropli, rest the doggies and have a flavored ice. The vendors will be giving their schticks on whatever product they’re selling, the kids will be chasing soap bubbles catching rainbows from the sun and clowns performing street theater.

 

Where the Snowbirds Nest

Northern trees are just about bare, the leaves carpeting the ground, moldering to a dun brown. Winds now sweep from the polar region. In some places the first flakes have begun to sail. It’s time to pack the knapsack and head out on the southward breeze, to warmer climes. It is the Snowbird Season.

 

But where does the Shoestring Snowbird nest on these winter flights to the tropic airs? An RV is definitely out of the budget, not to mention luxury resorts. Camping is a possibility. But for those who don’t like pitching a tent and communing with Mother Nature or who don’t have the gear – or in countries where camping is not feasible for safety sake or lack of facilities – then what is the poor Snowbird to do?

 

Residencial, alojamiento, hospedaje – all names for cheap lodging in Latin America. These simple accommodations offer are the local travelers’ choices when traveling from market day to market day, or the temporary home for workers and families. Basically, they are just a place to lay your head. Sorry, no internet, breakfast of other amenities in these joints. Probably no-one will speak anything other than Spanish (just think of it as free lessons thrown in with the price). Choosing a room with a common bath is often much cheaper. In the tropics, not having a private bath is an advantage: no smell, no bugs, no humidity. Be sure to check the locks on the doors and windows before accepting a place. Also look for evidence of bugs and other creepy-crawlies. Avoid the mala muerte (literally, bad death) dives, as you are much more likely to end up with an adventure (like the prostitute in the next room getting into a fight with a client, or a rat rummaging through your gear). If you are staying for four days or more, ask whether a descuentico would not be possible. To qualify for a discount, you often will have to pay in advance.

 

Some travelers, though, might find hostels to be a more welcoming space. Hostales or albergues are becoming more common throughout Latin America. Often the staff is multi-lingual, making novice sojourners unfamiliar with the local language feel more comfortable and safe. Hostels are eager to help their backpackers find out what to see. (Some, unfortunately, do the hard sell on tours.) Free internet, WiFi, kitchen, breakfast and other bonuses are thrown in. You’ll meet many other foreigners here and future travel buddies. The disadvantages? You won’t be practicing a lot of Spanish or interacting much with locals, and a larger chunk will be taken out of your budget just for lodging. Websites like www.hostelworld.com, www.hostelbookers.com and www.hostelsclub.com list accommodations. Some organizations, such as Hostelling International (www.hihostels.com) and minihostels (www.minihostels.com), offer  discounts to card-carrying members.

 

An alternative growing more popular with young travelers is couch surfing. One website that lists people who open up their homes to sojourners for free is www.couchsurfing.com. If you are interested in staying put in a place for a longer while, check into renting a house or apartment outside of the high season. It is often possible to get a furnished dig for $50-100US per month. As a back-up, pack a hammock, too (or pick one up along the way).

 

Those winds are growing a might bit icier. Double check the packing list and the ticket. It’s time to head out. But no matter where a traveler’s roads wend through the Americas, the poor Snowbird will find a nest for the night.