Where we spent half our vacation
The beautiful and enjoyable Cuenca, Ecuador.
Joanne and I took a month-long vacation to South America. The first half was a cruise from Florida, through the Panama Canal, and down the west coast of South America to Valparaiso, Chile. We spent the second half of the trip in Valparaiso and in Ecuador.
We stopped at many places.

This is a very long story, so if you just want the tl;dr, here it is:

  • We were gone for 32 days and crossed 75 degrees of latitude, by ship, plane, bus, train, and taxi.
  • We were in the Eastern time zone for nearly the entire trip.
  • Ft. Lauderdale - absurdly wealthy, also beautiful
  • Cartagena - nice colonial architecture, but not a great place for tourists
  • Manta Ecuador - pleasant enough, nice weather, nice people
  • Montecristi Ecuador - Panama hats
  • Lima Peru - colossal architecture, but overcrowded
  • Arica Chile - pretty town surrounded by the most arid desert in the world
  • Valparaiso Chile - steep hills, street art, colorful
  • Quito Ecuador - beautiful buildings, steep hills, crowded and difficult
  • Cuenca Ecuador - beautiful, comfortable, prosperous, a nice place to be
  • Loja Ecuador - not quite a small version of Cuenca
  • Guayaquil Ecuador - a dirty and dangerous port city in the tropics
  • Coral Gables Florida - 21st century money with a 1950’s vibe

We’ve posted quite a few photos on Picasa.

The Pillars Hotel in Fort Lauderdale.
One of the many modest homes in Fort Lauderdale.
The cruise started in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, an extremely wealthy city with loads of mansions on the inland waterway. Home to Wendy (daughter of the founder of the Wendy’s burger chain), the former owners of Sunglass Hut (now majority owner in Estee Lauder), the heirs of the inventor of Alka Seltzer, and on and on. Steven Spielberg keeps his gigantic yacht there. Anyway, ridiculous amounts of money, and beautiful.
A nice shaded plaza in Cartagena.
Part of the carriage convoy in Cartagena.

The first stop was in Cartagena, Columbia. The cruise line offered a horse-drawn carriage tour of the historic city center. This sounded pretty good: a nice easy way to get a look at beautiful, tropical Cartagena; romantic, even. So we eagerly disembarked, hopped on one of the shuttle buses, and headed into town. Where we were greeted by a convoy of horse-drawn carriages and were handed headsets that, in theory, would let us listen to the informative commentary from our tour guide, located in the first carriage, 6 carriages ahead of us. After many drill-sergeant-like exhortations for everyone to get in a carriage, we set off at a terrific pace, like Patton’s army through Sicily. Naturally the headsets yielded almost nothing but static. The carriage seats were remarkably slippery, so merely staying upright was a tiring challenge, and taking photographs was nearly out of the question, since fast-moving carriages on rough streets do not make for good shooting conditions.

We bailed out of the tour halfway through and decided to walk around the old town and get a better feel for the place, equipped with a low-resolution tourist map. We wandered around for a while, saw a couple nice parks, lots of balconies with flowers, and a couple churches. In the end we had lunch in the nice courtyard restaurant at a somewhat fancy hotel, Good lunch, priced reasonably, stopped at a shop or two, bought a carton of bootleg duty free cigarettes that probably fell off a truck somewhere, and hired a cab to get back to the port.

The only safe and attractive place in Colon, Panama.

Colon is the port town at the Caribbean entrance to the canal. It is such a festering stink hole of drugs and crime that the local police actually prevented cruise passengers from going past a certain point about a block from the port (and why anyone would want to is a dark mystery). It is a city utterly devoid of interest or charm as far as I can tell. Fortunately, we had alternatives.

The tour train at the Panama City station.

We booked a train tour across the isthmus from Colon to Panama City, a matter of 50 miles, with a bus ride from there back to the ship. The tour was reasonably interesting, with lots of information presented about the history of the canal, the railroad, Panamanian history and culture, etc. Lunch was provided. Panama City is an international money laundering center, so there are a remarkable number of large bank towers for such a relatively small city, along with the usual forest of condominium towers, abutting but effectively screening square miles of desperately squalid slums. Global capitalism distilled to its essence.

The only rain on our entire trip.

The tour afforded us a shopping opportunity. We have come to expect this, but usually the shopping is at some “artisan” workshop featuring hand-made local arts and crafts. Not so this time. We were brought to a 10-store shopping mall (with a food court! including Wendy’s burgers!) located on a jetty 5 miles from Panama City.

Anyway, here’s what we saw on the tour: jungle, locks, lake, little rivers, jungle, high rise buildings, slums, beach, harbor jetty, shopping mall, US army officer quarters from ca. 1920, Bridge of the Americas, some other newer bridge whose name I don’t remember, jungle.
Entering the first lock.
Lake Gatun
The next day was canal traversal day. The Panama canal is so very famous that traversing it was actually pretty exciting. There are three locks at either end raising and lowering ships 85 feet into Lake Gatun, a largely man-made lake completely surrounded by jungle, with many small islands (formerly hills). The traverse took most of the day, and the change in weather as we entered the Pacific was striking: we almost instantly went from tropical to temperate.
Boats being built on Tarqui beach in Manta.
Pelicans love outdoor fish markets.

Next stop, Thursday, December 11: Manta, Ecuador. A medium-sized city, an overgrown fishing village, a nouveau resort town, a place with no real history. Surprisingly cool and non-equatorial feeling. We started at the local tourist information office where the very helpful chief tourist information person directed us to hire a taxi for a few hours if we wanted a custom tour of the city, so that’s what we did. We started by going to a small outdoor fish market on Tarqui beach, located next to a stretch of beach where large wooden fishing boats are built and restored. Then a tour through various neighborhoods, followed by a lunch stop where we tried a delicious fish soup called encebollado mariscos. Quite a treat!

We finished the morning with a visit to a small, odd, and interesting museum, located in the former house of the most wealthy family in Manta during the first half of the 20th century. The museum was on two floors. The lower floor had exhibits about the indigenous people of the region. Not really very interesting, unless you think the ability to make useful items from trees and rocks, using rudimentary tools, is interesting. The second floor featured technology from the first half of the 20th century, and was much more to my liking. Typewriters, radios, phonographs, irons, a sewing machine or two, and much more. Good stuff.

Manta really is a new city, so there was not much of historical interest. The best the taxi driver could do was show us some ghastly church that was built (I think) in the 1950s. Anyway, that was about the extent of our stay in Manta, though as it happened Manta stayed with us for many days.
The plaza in Montecristi, seen from the church portico.
Who says Leninism is dead?
That afternoon we took a bus tour to the nearby town of Montecristi, famous for the Panama hats that are made there. It is a small town, much more charming than Manta, located in the hills outside Manta, complete with a central plaza surrounded by a church, a government building, and a couple of arcades with small businesses. For reasons best known to my past self I bought a hat. And a belt. We took a walk and some photos. Watched a hat making demonstration. Learned about the range of quality in hats.
Where we stayed for two and a half days.

The cruise was originally scheduled to stay two nights in Lima, Peru, but on boarding the ship we were handed a notice saying that there was no berth available for the first night, so we would instead stop at Salaverry, and stay only one day in Lima. This was disappointing. Anyway, the ship docked in Salaverry Peru bright and early on Saturday. I would love to tell you about Salaverry and the nearby historical city of Trujillo, but I can’t. You’ll just have to look it up on wikipedia. Promptly at 6PM on Friday, Joanne and I were simultaneously struck down with amazingly severe diarrhea and nausea, so on Saturday we were both unable to leave the cabin. We were only slightly better on Sunday. We blame the encebollado mariscos, because it’s the only thing we ate that wasn’t also eaten by hundreds of other cruise passengers.

Port of Callao and the mighty Peruvian navy.

The ship docked at Callao, the port city for Lima, on Monday morning. By then we were feeling just about well enough to stray from a toilet for an hour or so at a time, so we risked going into Lima. This involved a lengthy taxi ride from the port through Callao, and through a maze of crowded streets in Lima, to the central plaza. Callao is a working city, with lots of warehouses, import/export businesses, and small fabricators, mostly housed in shabby rusting buildings, with occasional residential pockets where the houses most generally were built of block, with bent pieces of rusting rebar sticking out the top.

Lane markers, speed signs, stop lights, and other traffic control indicators are only advisory in Lima, and the only rule even partially observed is the one that states that superior tonnage has the right of way. And even that is subject to individual interpretation. A harrowing taxi ride, to be sure.
The main square in Lima, with tourists.
A pleasant street near the main plaza.

The main plaza in Lima is surrounded by a basilica and former monastery, a government building and 2 arcades with small businesses. The government building in this case is the presidential palace, surrounded by a high wrought iron fence, and guarded by numerous automatic rifle wielding federal police. When we arrived, the hour long changing of the guard ceremony was just getting underway. This consisted of the gun wielding police preventing anyone from entering the plaza (why?), a brass band playing vaguely military sounding marches and what to my ear sounded like Peruvian folk music, and not a lot else until about 45 minutes into the program, when the existing guard slow goose stepped their way out and a new cohort slow goose stepped their way in. All very impressive, I’m sure.

One of the big streets near the plaza has been converted into a pedestrian mall, to encourage shopping at the many stores selling name-brand knockoffs, tourist souvenirs, cloth, glassware of dubious quality, etc. Thus answering the question of how you can shop in Lima, but leaving open the question of why.

The port of Arica
The central park in Arica when the cruise ship disembarks.

We set sail that night, on the way to Arica, Chile. What? You’ve never heard of Arica? Well, don’t feel bad. Its main claim to fame was that it was the main export terminal for silver extracted from the infamous Potosi mine in Bolivia. It sits between the sea and the Atacama desert, the most arid region on the planet. The city itself is rather pleasant, with a well maintained central core, including a street that is closed to vehicle traffic, a very nice park, and a few buidlings dating from the 19th century. After the chaos of Lima, and the hassle of Cartagena, Arica was a nice change. But there just isn’t much there, and there is practically nothing in the vicinity of there. There is a small amount of agriculture in a canyon that descends from the Atacama, where there is a river that apparently flows every so often. The city of Arica helpfully hands out a tourist flyer listing 6 things you can see on a walking tour. We saw those 6 things, but I won’t bore you by describing them.

The port and permanent dry dock in Valparaiso.
The ascensor to the naval museuam
The final stop on the cruise was Valparaiso, a shabby but oddly genteel city of about 250,000 inhabitants. It is a mostly vertical city, being situated on a number of high and very steep hills. It is famed for its “ascensores” - funiculars that help with the hill climbs. These have been in operation for a very long time, and look it, but still get the job done, all for the low price of about 30 cents a ride each way.
The hotel where we stayed.

We stayed at a nice hotel - the Gervasoni - housed in a former (large) house, overlooking the port, with a pleasant outdoor terrace and helpful staff.

We walked all over the narrow flat area along the shore, visiting a few plazas, each surrounded by church, government building, and businesses on 2 sides - you know the drill by now. And of course we visited the market - astonishingly large and crowded and with unbelievably low prices on produce and meat.
Street art in Valpo.
The Neruda house.

There is street art everywhere in Valpo - much of it quite talented and provocative. I’m not talking simple graffiti here, but actual art. Political, sexual, social, fun, whimsical, or just weird. On main boulevards, alleys, remote side streets. Really, everywhere.

On Monday, with help from the hotel staff, we got a taxi to take us to the Pablo Neruda house and museum. This is possibly the main point of interest in Valparaiso, so it seemed strange to me when we arrived there that neither the hotel staff nor the taxi driver knew that Monday is the only day of the week that the house is not open. Being located near the top of the tallest hill in Valpo we decided to just walk back - downhill, after all. Not a bad choice, because it gave us ample opportunity to look at street art. But that hill was the steepest I’ve ever been on, in a city. If I ever decide to retire to Valpo, the first thing I will do is invest in a clutch repair shop - I’ll be set for life.
Our only glimpse of the high Andes peaks.
The view of Quito from our hotel
The exhaustingly steep street to our hotel from the plaza.
We spent a total of 3 days in Valparaiso, then headed to the Santiago airport for the flight to Quito, where we arrived about 9PM. Our hotel was nicely situated, overlooking the area of the main plaza, and with a terrific view of the old city. It was a quite small hotel, with a pleasant open-air terrace, and a nice enclosed terrace where breakfast was provided. Quito, like Valpo, is very hilly, and is surrounded by mountains. Its elevation of over 9000 feet was quite a shock to our systems, and we both experienced ill effects initially. Walking up the hill from the main plaza to our hotel, a matter of 6 blocks, was exhausting.
The main plaza in Quito

You can guess by now what was surrounding the main plaza. The colonial era buildings are pretty impressive, earning the distinction of being designated a World Heritage Site by the UN a few decades ago. During our two days there we mostly walked around, looking at one plaza / church / government building after another.

Meals in Quito were a slight challenge, offering a choice between rather sketchy-looking but low-cost places on the one hand, and quite upscale and formal places on the other. We tried both, with no apparent ill effects. When you see small restaurants offering “almuerzo” (lunch) it means they have a fixed-menu offering of soup and a main course, usually consisting of rice or potato with meat in a sauce, and some cooked vegetables. In our case we paid $3 each, so good value and good eating. The more upscale restaurants were still quite reasonably priced, with attentive service and excellent quality food, always accompanied by bread and various sauces that, I guess, you spread on the bread.

In all, Quito is not a place I would want to go back to. Don’t get me wrong: it is every bit as beautiful as you’ve seen in the travel books, but it just wasn’t a comfortable and pleasant place to be. The crowds, the hills, the traffic, the altitude, and the general shabbiness combined to make our stay there less than it might have been.
The Hotel Ines Maria in Cuenca
On the evening of our second day in Quito we took the one hour flight to Cuenca, arriving around 8PM. After a fast and furious taxi ride, we arrived at the hotel Ines Maria, a converted home, with about 8 rooms. We had the master suite, which has an enclosed balcony overlooking Calle Gran Columbia, one of the main streets in the old town. The owners of the hotel were friendly and very willing to give us advice about what to see and do in Cuenca, and went out of their way to be helpful - for example, arranging our transport to Loja a couple days later, and then arranging our transport to Guayaquil at the end of our stay. They offered a terrific breakfast of eggs, ham, cheese, several kinds of bread, juice, coffee, and tea. If you ever go to Cuenca, this is a place you will want to stay.
The comfortable central plaza in Cuenca.
Cuenca was by far the most comfortable, and in many ways the most beautiful, of the cities we visited. It is a medium-sized city of about 750,000, surrounded by mountains (of course), and with 2 main rivers flowing through it. The main part of town is flat, except right around the rivers; the sidewalks are mostly well maintained and generally wide enough for easy walking; and the buildings are generally in very good condition, without the half-constructed / half-falling-down look that we had come to expect in most of the other cities on our itinerary. Cuenca, too, is a World Heritage Site, and the city seems to have treated that as both an honor and a responsibility. We found the people there to be friendly and courteous, and felt safe walking in the historic area both day and night. That it is an ex-pat destination is no surprise.
The domes of the new cathedral

Our hotel was located 5 or 6 blocks from the main plaza. This plaza was different from the rest: it has two churches, an old and a new. The new church (19th century) has 3 blue domes visible throughout the city, lots of beautiful stained glass, and a magnificent alter. We were unable to see the interior of the old church - it seemed to be closed. There is, apparently, a museum attached to it, with religious art.

Finding good meals in Cuenca is easy, with a range of restaurants from the $3 almuerzos to very nice $12 entrees (equivalent to about $30 entrees in the states), and everything in between. Naturally there are many shopping opportunities, if you like that sort of thing.

In all, Cuenca seems quite prosperous, and well run. It is a place I would be happy to visit again.
A plaza in Loja
We interrupted our stay in Cuenca to spend two nights in Loja, a four hour van ride to the south. We had thought that Loja might be a smaller version of Cuenca - population 180,000, also located in a valley, with two rivers passing through it, a university. And in some ways we were not wrong. But Loja was not nearly as simpatico as Cuenca. We arrived on Sunday afternoon only to find that the whole city was closed down. It took us an hour just to find an open restaurant - offering only tamales and humitas. Good food, but nothing special. The town was much more lively starting Monday morning, when the appliance store next to our hotel cranked up their boombox and alternated loud but banal music with extended sales pitches for the latest model washing machine.
The Loja city gate.
The mountains to the east of Loja.

The city is bordered by two rivers, and has a gate / building at the north end of town which in earlier times served actual defenive purposes. As recently as 1941 Loja fought off an invasion from Peru, though I suspect the gate was not of much use by then.

It’s an attractive city, with plazas strung along the main street like beads on a string, each with its own attractive church (and government building). But the overall vibe in Loja was nothing like Cuenca. It felt vaguely unwelcoming - to tourists, at least. Nothing at all overt, and the people we interacted with were courteous bordering on friendly. I wouldn’t mind going back, mostly to see the surrounding countryside, including Podocarpus park.
The burning of the effigies.
We returned to Cuenca on New Year’s eve afternoon for two more nights. The fireworks and festivities that night were nonstop. They do this thing in Cuenca on new year’s eve: they make effigies, plastered with political statements, then burn the effigies sometime during the evening. In the street. While setting off hundreds of firecrackers. Amazingly, when we went out the next morning the evidence had nearly all been cleaned up, with only a few scorch marks here and there.
A rather awful coastal town outside Guayaquil
On January 2nd we got in a van for our ride to Guayaquil where we would stay overnight and then get on a plane for Miami bright and early the next day. When our hotel owner learned that we weren’t going to be flying out that same day she became very concerned, and warned me multiple times to be extremely careful in Guayaquil, as it is a hotbed of robbery and assault. I assured her we would be careful, and we were. We didn’t leave our hotel, though it’s unlikely we would have in any case. We were both pretty tired, and had to get up very early the next day.
Coral Gables loves their bell towers.

We flew to Miami and stayed overnight in Coral Gables - a very wealthy community doing its best to to keep up with the times, but feeling nonetheless like it’s stuck in the 50s. Not necessarily a bad thing. Our flight home was in the evening of the next day, so we passed a pleasant afternoon at a small movie theater watching North By Northwest, then headed to the airport and home.

We’ve put up a lot more pictures on Picasa