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Ecuador 2011 - Student Blog


~ Quito ~

On February 1, 2011, eleven of us Mount students landed in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador.  We are the first ever participants of a new study abroad program coordinated by Dr. Rodriguez-Lozano of the foreign language department.  It was absolutely surreal to finally have arrived in our destination after months of preparation.  This new country would be our home for the next three months.  

On the night of our arrival, we all checked into Hotel Quito.  The picture above shows the spectacular view from our window.  We could see the city lights climbing up a mountain side

The next morning, we were able to see the entire mountain.  Quito, which sits at about 9,000 feet above sea level, is in the highlands region of Ecuador.  So we were completely surrounded by incredible scenery. 

When we went up to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, we were greeted with another awesome view.  After enjoying our meals from an unbelievable location, we set out on our first excursion of the semester, a Quito city tour.       

Here is the main square of Quito, called La Plaza Grande or La Plaza de la Independencia.  The monument in the center honors the independence movement of August 10, 1809.  On that day, locals of Quito overthrew the Spanish government.  This was the first time in Latin American history that Spanish authority was replaced by local authority.  

On one side of the plaza is the Presidential Palace.  Standing just outside the entrance were two very stiff, very serious guards.  They are similar to the guards in London.  Naturally, we couldn’t resist the opportunity for a photo.  

~ La Mitad Del Mundo ~

Later that afternoon, we visited La Mitad Del Mundo, which means “the middle of the world.”  This spot is where the equator crosses the Earth.  Our entire group is in both the North and the South Hemispheres at the same time! 

We thought it would be fun to try to make a pyramid over the equator.  After some difficulty, we pulled it off!

~ Baños de Ambato ~

Our next excursion was to a beautiful place called Baños de Ambato.  Baños is known for its hot springs that are heated naturally by a volcano.  We stayed there for two days in this gorgeous hotel.

The hotel was on top of a mountain and overlooked the entire city.  When we went to the highest part of the hotel, where the hot springs were, we saw the amazing view pictured above.  It was incredible!

There couldn’t be naturally heated hot springs without a volcano!  This is the volcano Tunguraha.  We were fortunate enough to see it on the road before it was covered by clouds.

The sights around Baños were amazing.  We had the opportunity to explore several waterfalls.  At this particular one, we were able to get an up-close view by riding a cable car across the ravine.  Gravity alone pulled the car towards the waterfall, so we actually picked up some speed.

Afterwards, we visited this waterfall and hiked down towards that small red roof.  We didn’t know at the time that a wild adventure awaited us down there.

When we reached the bottom, we saw that it was possible to get even closer to the waterfall.  We had to crawl through some small, cave-like spaces before we finally reached a safe platform.  We then climbed a few more stairs until we were right behind the water…right in the splash zone.

We all got soaked!  It was such a fun experience.  We may have left that waterfall dripping wet, but we were smiling from ear to ear.   

~ Otavalo ~

After a fun two days in Baños, we took a trip to Otavalo to see the largest Indian arts and crafts market in Latin America.  On the way, we stopped at a beautiful spot for some pictures.  We were able to snap a quick photo posing with a llama.

A little later, we arrived at the market, which was bustling.  Saturday, the day we visited, is the busiest market day.  We were surrounded by venders, customers, and beautiful products including jewelry, scarves, belts, bags, and clothing.  Here, we all had the opportunity to engage in the purest form of supply and demand – price bargaining.  It is the custom in Otavalo to haggle for a good deal.  We all left the market that day with shopping bags full of purchases.

Afterwards, we stopped at a small shop run by a family of musicians. They make traditional instruments from various places in Latin America and play great music.  Here is our group with the family.    

This little girl was one of the youngest musicians.  She is wearing the traditional clothing of the indigenous women in Otavalo. They wear long skirts, embroidered blouses, and several gold necklaces. 

Before making our way back to Quito, we stopped for a quick visit to a nearby waterfall.  It was a fun way to end our day of shopping.

~ First Day in Cuenca ~

After spending our first week exploring Quito and the nearby sites, we flew to the city of Cuenca, where we will be staying with host families for the rest of the semester.  On our first day there, we visited the university we will be attending, the University of Cuenca.

A dance group from the university performed for us during our visit.  They performed two different types of dances, one from an indigenous culture in the north of Ecuador and one from the indigenous culture of Cuenca.  They also wore the traditional clothing of each area.  In the picture above, the dancers are dressed in the clothing of the northern culture.

Here we are with the dancers.

Later that day, we took a bus tour of the city.  It was our first glimpse of Cuenca.

On the tour, we noticed that these boys were pushing a girl into the fountain.  It seems like a cruel prank, but on the contrary, it’s part of a tradition in Ecuador.  Every year, there is a celebration before Lent known as Carnaval.  Officially, it starts on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and lasts for three days.  However, it’s the custom to throw water balloons at people on the streets during the month before Carnaval.  As the holiday gets closer, the water throwing gets more intense.  And typically, it’s the boys who target the girls.  Often, cars drive by and throw balloons from the windows.  Other people stand on balconies and drop balloons on unsuspecting victims.  Even our group has had some run-ins with water balloons. So given this tradition, it’s not uncommon to see someone getting pushed into a fountain.  

At the end of the tour, our bus took us to a place high up in the city called Turi.  From there, we had an incredible view of all of Cuenca.    

~ Exploring the City ~

Cuenca is a gorgeous city.  It has four rivers, one of which is directly across from our university.  The historic part of town has many restored colonial buildings, cobblestone streets, and a mix of architectural influences from around the world.  Cuenca is also famous for having 53 Catholic churches.  In fact, the city is known by the blue domes of its cathedral, which is pictured above. 

While exploring the city, we had the opportunity to visit the shops of some of the local artists.  The first one we went to was the shop of muralist Fabián Alvarez. He makes beautiful, painted clay murals like the ones shown above.

In his workshop, we had a chance to learn about the mural-making process.  The first step is to mold the clay.  Some of us took this step into our own hands and began to make some original creations.

Alvarez uses a wet sponge to smooth out any imperfections in the clay. We tried the same technique, with stunning results! 

Later, we visited the ceramic shop of Eduardo Vega.  He makes beautifully painted ceramic pieces, such as the one shown above.  This tile shows the cathedral of Cuenca.

We even got to meet Vega.  Here he is smiling with our Mount group.

Dr. Rodriguez-Lozano also showed us one of Cuenca’s best kept secrets, the bread bakeries, known in Spanish as panaderías.  The panaderías all sell several different types of delicious and inexpensive bread.  The one that Doctora brought us to sold what is called “pan de leña,” meaning that the bread was baked in a wood fire oven.  We tried a few different kinds, and one of our favorites has cheese baked inside!  Here we are with the baker and all of the fresh “pan de leña.”  

~ Panama Hats ~

Panama hats are beautifully woven straw hats that come in many different styles and colors.  Ironically, they are actually made in Cuenca.  They only got their name because many were exported to Panama.  As one of our excursions, we took a trip to the factory where these hats are made.  Shown above is a room in the factory that was completely filled with hats.

We learned all about how the Panama hats are made.  The hats in the picture above have just been bleached and are now sitting out to dry.

We also had a chance to try on the finished products.  Some of them are very elaborate and colorful.

We all felt so pretty in our Panama hats!

~ Gualaceo ~

For one of our excursions, we visited a small town near Cuenca called Gualaceo.  On the way, we stopped at a small workshop where a type of fabric known as macanas is made.  The man shown below is weaving one of the cloths.  Interestingly, he uses a loom that is designed to be tied around the waist.  Once the loom is secured, he sits on the ground and does the weaving from there.

Here we are admiring the finished macanas.  They come in many different colors and patterns, all equally beautiful. 

We then went to explore some of Gualaceo.  We first went to the central park, which is where the picture above was taken.  In the background, you can see the city’s principal church.

Next, we went to the fruit market.  There were many different stands selling a wide variety of fruits.  Some even sold ready-to-eat slices of pineapple and watermelon.  These were hands down some of the freshest and most delicious pieces of pineapple and watermelon we had ever tasted.  

Afterwards, we visited the food market.  Here we saw something that would be an extremely odd sight in the States.  In one section of the market, there was a line of whole, roasted pigs.  There was a worker at each one pulling meat directly off the pig and making plates of food to sell.  They would even put pieces of the roasted skin on the plate.  It was kind of bizarre to us, but we decided to try the food anyway.  As it turns out, all of it was delicious!

~ Chordeleg ~

Immediately after we visited Gualaceo, we went to another nearby town called Chordeleg.  Chordeleg is well known for its gorgeous gold and silver jewelry. In fact, all of the signs in the picture above are advertising jewelry stores.   

While there, we visited the workshop of jewelry-maker Gilberto Jara.  Jara is currently 81 years old and has been making jewelry for 70 years. 

Jara specializes in a technique known as filigrana, which involves molding extremely thin strands of gold or silver into intricate patterns.  The jewelry shown above was made by him with this technique.  You can see that each piece is very detailed. 

Jara also showed us how he prepares the strands of silver.  He starts with a small rod of silver and gradually stretches it out until it is as thin as a wire.  We were even allowed to help him a little.

Once he had made a wire of silver, he began to weave it into a flower he was working on.  We were all amazed that such detail could be made entirely by hand.  After Jara’s demonstration, we went to his family’s store, Puerta del Sol, to buy some of his beautiful filigrana jewelry.

~ Cajas National Park ~

Our next excursion was to Cajas National Park.  Cajas is about 13,000 feet up in the mountains, and its landscape was made by glaciers.  All around us, we could see mountains, rocks, valleys, lagoons, and some very unique plants.  We went for about a three hour hike through the park.

The altitude made our hike difficult at times, particularly when we were going uphill.  But even though we were often short of breath, the scenery was stunning!  

Our hike took us through an extremely dense forest that seemed to appear out of nowhere in an area of grass and short bushes.  The trees making up the forest are called paper trees because they have a thin outer coating that can be peeled off just like a piece of paper.  The forest was one of the most exotic features of Cajas.  Our guide even commented that it was like something out of Jurassic Park.

In the middle of all the paper trees, we were surprised to find a small cave. 

Towards the end of the hike, we saw a wild llama.  It actually let us come pretty close when we were taking pictures.

~ Galapagos Islands ~

Our group was fortunate enough to be able to spend a week in the famous Galapagos Islands!  These islands are unique in every way, and visiting them was truly an unforgettable experience.  Upon arriving at the main airport on Baltra Island, it didn’t take long for us to realize that we had landed in paradise.  The picture above shows one of the first views we saw of Galapagos.  We were amazed at how blue and clear the water was.  Instantly, we knew that we had a great week ahead of us.

From the airport, we traveled by boat and bus to the island of Santa Cruz, where we would be staying.  Once there, we began to see the famous Galapagos wildlife.  There were tons of marine iguanas, like the one shown above, wandering around near the water.

We also saw lots of these crabs.  Almost every rock on the water was crawling with them. 

We saw pelicans everywhere!  Most beaches have seagulls, but the Galapagos Islands have pelicans.  This guy shown above was just napping in the middle of the sidewalk!

Naturally, we saw some of the famous Galapagos blue-footed boobies.  They are certainly unique and beautiful birds.  This blue-footed booby was sitting right outside our hotel! 

Of course, we wouldn’t have truly experienced Galapagos if we didn’t see any of the giant turtles.  Our first excursion of the week was to the Charles Darwin Research Center, which cares for turtles as a conservation effort.  The Darwin Center is also the home of Lonesome George, who is the last remaining turtle of his species.  Unfortunately, George was hiding when we walked by his habitat.   But, we saw many other turtles, like the one pictured above.

All of the animals we saw were amazing, but perhaps our absolute favorite was the sea lion.  Our hotel was on the water, and the sea lions would jump right up onto the pool deck to sleep.  There were some mornings that we would wake up and see a sea lion laying out in the shade.  But probably the most unbelievable incident is pictured above.  This sea lion hopped on the deck, dived into the swimming pool, emerged from the other side, and plopped right into a lounge chair!  We could hardly believe our eyes!  Only on the Galapagos Islands could you see a sea lion in a lounge chair!  It made for quite a unique photo opportunity. 

We had the chance to visit some interesting sites during our stay.  The Galapagos Islands were created by volcanoes, so they have many unique features that are left over from the eruptions.  Here we are standing in front of a site on Santa Cruz known as Los Gemelos.  Los Gemelos, which means “twins,” are a pair of huge craters that were formed by a volcanic eruption millions of years ago.

We also visited a tunnel that had been formed by moving lava.  Galapagos has several of these, and they are really spectacular sights.  And as an added bonus, they are nice and cool – a huge relief from the intense island heat.

Of course, we spent some time on the gorgeous Galapagos beaches.  The one shown above, Tortuga Bay, was the first we saw and probably the most beautiful.  The sand is white, and the water is the perfect mix of clear blue and green.

Here are all of the lovely Ecuador ladies at Tortuga Bay celebrating our Galapagos adventure!

One morning, we set out on the ocean to go snorkeling.  On the way, our boat passed this small island.  If you look closely, you can see several sea lions resting on the ledge.  Amazingly, we got to swim with a few sea lions while snorkeling.     

Our next boat trip was to see the island Bartolomé.  Bartolomé is one of the younger islands, so we could still see lots of volcanic rocks and patterns left by hardened lava.  It was barren and hot, but beautiful at the same time.  

We walked up to the highest point of the island so we could see a nice view.  The picture shown above is a traditional view of the Galapagos Islands, and it was amazing to see in person.  After our long walk up, we cooled off with some snorkeling and swimming at the beach on the right.

Unfortunately, our great week didn’t have a particularly happy ending.  On the morning that we were supposed to go back to the mainland, we got word about the devastating earthquake in Japan and were told that a tsunami was coming our way.  The president of Ecuador had ordered that everyone on Galapagos and on the coast of the mainland be evacuated to higher ground.  We were sent to a hotel in the highlands.  The tsunami wasn’t supposed to hit until the evening, so we spent the entire day waiting in the lobby.  Here we are trying to pass the time.  

Although it was a long day, we were very well accommodated.  We were served lunch and dinner, and staff from our original hotel on the water even came up to the highlands with us to help out.  Late in the evening, we were told that it was safe to head back down.  When we got back to our hotel, there was no power or water.  Since we couldn’t see anything, there wasn’t much to do but go straight to bed.  The next morning, we saw that the wave, which had been about four feet high, had done some minor damage.  There was debris scattered across the pool deck and furniture had been pushed around.  Even so, we were very fortunate that the wave hadn’t been any worse.  Amazingly, the hotel staff started the morning after as though nothing had happened. They went about their business and even served breakfast.  We were able to get a new flight back to the mainland that afternoon.  After all the excitement, things were gradually going back to normal.

~ Ingapirca...almost ~

One Monday morning, we set off on a day trip to visit the famous Inca ruins near Cuenca known as Ingapirca.  We made a few interesting stops along the way.  Our first was at this beautiful church in a city called Biblián.  It was situated on the side of a mountain, and it was quite the hike to make it up to the entrance.

The grueling climb up the stairs was well worth it.  The inside of the church was beautiful.  Its most stunning and unique feature was the wall behind the altar, which had been built into a rock in the mountain.  The legend goes that an image of the Virgin Mary appeared on the rock and then vanished after the church had been built.      

Another stunning feature of this church was its view.  Since it was somewhat high up, it overlooked all of Biblián. 

We then took a quick stop for a snack at a small restaurant that prepares roast pig, just like what we saw a while back in Gualaceo.  But this pig was special.  Not only was it delicious, but it was quite the romantic!

Everyone was dying for just one kiss! 

So unfortunately, there was a bit of a twist to our adventure when we arrived at Ingapirca.  We walked up to the entrance with our notebooks and pens in hand, all ready to learn more about the Incas.  But instead, we learned that Ingapirca is closed on Mondays.  Incredibly, this new policy had just been adopted three days before our visit.  The ruins were fenced off, so there was no way for us to get in.  At least we were able to snap a few pictures.  Thus, we got to see Ingapirca…almost.

~ The Amazon Rainforest ~

A large part of Ecuador is covered by the Amazon Rainforest.  We had the very unique opportunity to spend a few days in this famous jungle.  The diversity of Ecuador is incredible.  Only a few hours’ drive away from the hot, humid Amazon, we saw this amazing, snow-covered volcano.  We’ve seen many beautiful sights while abroad, but this one was certainly one of the most stunning.

We continued our drive and eventually arrived at the shore of the Napo River.  From there, our hotel was a short boat ride away.  Throughout our stay in the Amazon, we did all of our traveling by boat.

Our first excursion was to a small butterfly reserve.  There, we were able to see a variety of beautiful Amazon butterflies.  The one shown above is known as the owl butterfly.  To scare away predators, it opens its wings, revealing two eyespots that resemble the large eyes of an owl.

Some of the butterflies even came right up to us and rested on our jackets or shirts.  

The next day, we woke up to set out on our first hike in the jungle.  We took a boat up the river to the trail we would be following.  Here we are stopping for a quick picture before going out on our adventure.  Right up front is our guest for the Amazon trip, Director of the Career Center Sabira Vohra.  She came to Ecuador to visit the internship sights, but also to explore the jungle with us.   

The jungle is such a unique place.  The plants and trees we passed were unlike any we had ever seen before.  The flowers shown above were especially interesting.  We saw a lot of them scattered throughout the trees.   

This large tree had a few hanging branches that some of us attempted to climb.  It was actually a lot harder than you would think!  But one of our Ecuador adventurers, Luis, did manage to hold on long enough for a picture.  

Towards the end of the hike, our guide made a set of crowns out of palm leaves and named four of our ladies queens of the Amazon!   

When it was time to head back to the hotel, we abandoned the river boats in favor of a simpler form of travel.  Our guides made two rafts out of a light wood called balsa wood.  We all climbed on and rafted our way back down the river.

A few of us wanted to cool down with a swim, so we jumped off the raft and dove into the water!  It was a nice relief from the Amazon humidity.  Click on the links below to see some of our funny videos of our trip down the river.

Amazon River 1
Amazon River 2
Amazon River 3
Amazon River 4
Amazon River 5
Amazon River 6
Amazon River 7

Later that afternoon, we visited a small home to learn a little about the lives of the indigenous people.  Shown above is the chicha, a fermented drink that is common among the Amazonian natives.  It can be made from a few different vegetables, but this particular one is made from a potato-like vegetable called yuca.  A woman in the home showed us how she mashes and grates the yuca to prepare it.  However, her demonstration was deceiving.  Typically, the yuca is not simply mashed, but rather chewed and then spat back out because saliva jumpstarts the fermentation process.  Not knowing this, a few brave souls in our group tried some of the chicha that we were offered.  While drinking something like this would have consequences for tourists, it is interesting to remember that the natives are perfectly adapted to it.  In fact, we watched our guide down a large bowl of the chicha.

Our next excursion was to a reserve for rescued Amazon animals.  This beautiful bird greeted us right at the entrance, so we knew immediately that we would be seeing a lot of great animals.

This little guy shown above was another neat reserve inhabitant.  Called a cusumbo, he is a member of the bear family.  He was climbing around his cage and came up right in front of us.

Perhaps one of the most beautiful animals was the ocelot, shown above.  The ocelot is about twice the size of a typical housecat and is the third largest feline in the Amazon.  The reserve had three of them roaming around a habitat.    

After visiting the reserve, we went on another hike.  This hike, although much shorter than the first, was a little more intense.  We were following a narrow path and were surrounded by dense jungle.  There were even a few spots where our guide had to machete a path for us!

Throughout our time in the Amazon, we stayed at a gorgeous hotel, La Casa del Suizo.  It was right on the river, and the view was awesome!

The hotel grounds were equally awesome.  They were adorned with unique plants and brightly colored flowers.  The picture above shows the rooms we stayed in, all nestled among the jungle vegetation.  

~ More Ecuador Adventures ~
Although we kept very busy with group excursions, we still had some free time to go on our own adventures. Here are a few of the highlights:

Kaisha and Corrine attended the church Siervos del Señor with Kaisha’s internship supervisor.  After the two girls met and got to know the pastors, they were given the opportunity to minister to a dance selection.  They chose the song “Vengo a Adorarte,” which is the Spanish version of the popular Christian song “Here I Am to Worship.”  Everyone loved their dance!    

Here they are smiling with the church pastors after their dance.  They found at the church a great community that welcomed them with open arms.

A few of the students went to a soccer game between Cuenca and Barcelona, which is a team from the city Guayaquil.  This was one of the biggest games of the season, and it was around the time of Carnaval, so the fans were wild!  As is the Carnaval tradition, they were throwing water everywhere!  There were people shouting, cursing, and even climbing on the fence.  Below is a link to a video made by Ariel that shows some of the soccer game craziness.  It also includes the soccer song of the Cuenca team.


Ivania and Kaisha took a trip to Gualaceo with Ivania’s internship supervisor to teach an English lesson to a group of students from a poor community there.  Here they are with the class they taught.  The kids enjoyed the lesson, and Ivania’s supervisor loved working with them.

All of us organized a short trip to a small city known as Baños de Cuenca.  Similar to Baños de Ambato which we visited during our first week in Ecuador, this city is famous for its naturally heated hot springs.  We went to the place shown above, Piedra de Agua, to relax in the pools there.  It was a nice way for us to chill and unwind.

A group of us felt particularly adventurous one weekend and decided to do a sport called “Puenting.”  This name reflects the Spanish word for bridge, “la puente.”  Accordingly, puenting is a form of bungee jumping in which the participant jumps off a bridge and then swings back and forth beneath it.  The picture below shows one of the students making his jump.  The link is for a video made by Ariel of the puenting experience.


~ Easter in Cuenca ~

We had the opportunity to spend Holy Week in Cuenca, which was definitely a good experience.  Cuenca has a large Catholic population and is a very conservative city, so it was interesting to see how the people celebrate Easter.  On Holy Thursday, we participated as a group in a typical tradition.  In the afternoon and evening, the people go out to visit seven different churches.  There was some debate among our group as to the significance of the number seven.  One host family had said that it is representative of the seven last words of Christ on the cross.  Another had said that it is reminiscent of the seven judges that Jesus visited before being condemned by Pilate.  A small prayer guide that was being sold at the churches this day explained that each visit represented a different part of Jesus’s walk from the time of his betrayal to the time of his crucifixion.  We had to conclude that there were many possible explanations.  The first stop along our walk was at the church pictured above called La Merced.  At each church, people may choose to say prayers, reflect, or even just visit.     

From there, we went to San Alfonso, a tall church painted in blue. 

Next, we went to the famous cathedral.  We were introduced to this church at the beginning of our stay here during a tour of Cuenca.  The blue domes are the symbol of the city.    

The fourth church we visited is known as Iglesia del Carmen. 

We then made our way to San Francisco…

…and then to El Cenáculo. 

We ended our walk at this church shown above, Santo Domingo.  The tradition goes that at the seventh church, you say a prayer asking for something.  This walk was a good opportunity for us to see more of Cuenca’s beautiful churches.  Many were very old, and each one was absolutely impressive.  It is amazing that in Cuenca, there are so many great churches within such close proximity of each other.

The next night, the evening of Good Friday, a few of us participated in another very somber tradition.  Each year, the people hold a large procession reminiscent of a funeral procession for Jesus.  There was a huge crowd dotted with the light of individual candles.   Melancholy hymns were sung, and the Stations of the Cross were read. 

In the procession, there was a group of people carrying the crucifix shown below.  It was almost an eerie sight. 

Not far behind the crucifix, there was another group carrying a statue of Mary.  Mary was dressed in all black to signify her mourning for Jesus.  This picture was taken as her statue was carried into the cathedral, where the procession ended. 

The Holy Week traditions continued on Holy Saturday with a beautiful Easter Vigil mass in the cathedral.  In Spanish, this service is referred to as “tinieblas,” which means darkness.  At the beginning of the mass, the church is in complete darkness.  Everyone in the congregation had candles which were lit just before the opening song.  It was really beautiful to see all the candles lighting up such an immense church and to hear the way the music echoed throughout the room.

There were several readings at this mass.  The first three, which came from the Old Testament, were read in darkness.  When it was time for the New Testament readings, all of the lights were turned on, symbolizing that Jesus is our light.  The joy of this mass was a stark contrast to the Good Friday procession.  The entire Holy Week experience captured very well the emotions that come with the Easter season - the somberness of the Passion and the joy of the Resurrection.  

~ Kushiwaira ~

One of our excursions was to an indigenous community called Kushi Wuarya.  Its residents participate in community tourism, a program aimed at raising awareness of indigenous cultures and raising money for their towns.  To achieve these goals, participating communities begin various touristic projects.  Shown above is one of the projects undertaken by the people of Kushi Wuarya, a small cheese factory.  Here, the residents make a few different types of cheese, including mozzarella and a type called “queso fresco,” or fresh cheese, which is very popular in Ecuador.  They even gave us some to try, and it was delicious!

As another project, the community runs a “cuy” farm.  Cuy is the Spanish word for guinea pig.  Although guinea pigs are cute pets in the United States, they are a culinary delicacy in Ecuador – another cultural difference that we discovered. 

The picture above shows an herb garden maintained by the residents.  In Ecuador, medicinal plants are widely used as natural remedies.  One of the indigenous women introduced us to some of the plants and explained their uses. 

When we first arrived, we were offered a few horses that we could ride from place to place around the town.  These two ladies, Kaisha and Jasmine, decided to share a horse.  They were both able to take a short break from walking, and they got a cute picture!

The main reason for our visit to Kushi Wuayra was to see a cultural ritual known as a “limpia.”  Limpia in English means cleaning.  Accordingly, the ritual is believed to clean out bad energy and provide strength.  The ceremony is lead by a medicine man, called a shaman, and involves the use of herbal plants, like the ones we had been introduced to earlier in the visit.  For these indigenous people, it is important to give thanks to the “Pachamama,” mother earth, which is why they rely so heavily on the use of plants.  In fact, before the ceremony began, the shaman gave some short words of thanks to the Pachamama for all she provides.  Shown above is the shaman walking through the space created for the limpia.

We were all given the option to do the limpia, and two of us students decided to go for it along with two professors from our university.  The ritual involved three main steps.  First, a bundle of herbs would be brushed over the body of the participant.

Next, the shaman passed incense, made from burning herbs, over the participant.

The final step was the one that deterred many people from doing the limpia.  A woman drank some of a sacred drink and spat it on the participant.  This was repeated several times.  To us, this may simply seem unsanitary.  But for the people of this town, it’s an important component of the ritual.  After this step, the limpia is complete.    

Here is our entire group with the indigenous people of Kushi Wuayra. 

~ Vilcabamba ~

Our last big excursion of the semester was a three-day trip to Vilcabamba, a beautiful valley.  On the way there, we stopped in a town called Saraguro.  Saraguro is the home of a very interesting indigenous culture.  The people dress in all black, as seen above.  The women also wear beautiful beaded jewelry.  There were several shops and stands that were selling some of this jewelry, which included colorful necklaces, rings, earrings, and bracelets. 

Above is the main church of the town.  When we poked our heads inside, we saw a sea of people wearing the traditional black clothing.  They were all there attending a morning mass.  It was really an interesting sight.

From Saraguro, we made our way to Vilcabamba.  The valley was absolutely gorgeous and so peaceful.  This picture was taken from our hotel.  Vilcabamba is famous for being the city of longevity.  For some reason, maybe the nice climate or location, the people tend to live to be very old, even up to 100.  It did seem like the perfect place to live. 

All around the hotel grounds were colorful flowers.  With the mountains in the background, the scenery could not have been better.

One morning, a group of us set off to visit a nearby national park called Podocarpus.  Here we are hiking through the part of the park known as the cloud forest.  It was a very unique place.  The forest was pretty dense and each tree was covered in plants and moss.  

This was a lookout stop along our trail.  Had it been a sunny day, we would have overlooked the city of Loja.  However, the cloud forest lived up to its name, and we were prevented from seeing the view.  Even so, it was beautiful to see all the clouds sitting around the mountains.

Here is our group posing for a picture after our hike.  The gentleman on the far right, Alliberto, has been our bus driver for several different excursions.  He is so friendly, and all of us have loved getting to know him.

On the way back to Cuenca, we stopped at Loja for a city tour.  Ecuadorian cities are distinguished by incredible churches, and Loja is no exception.  The church shown below is the first one we stopped in.  Its golden altar was one of its most beautiful features. 

The church shown below, Santo Domingo, was another stop along our tour.  This one was special because of the statue of Saint Dominic on its roof.  It is certainly a unique touch.

Another interesting sight in Loja is the large clock tower shown above.  This is the defining feature of one of the city plazas. 

We also walked through this small street to see its architecture.  The buildings were constructed in a colonial style and were painted in bright colors.  The cobblestone street completed the vintage feel.

One of our last stops was to a sweets shop were “bocadillos” are sold.  “Bocadillos” are a type of candy made out of peanuts and sold in small blocks, much like fudge.  Loja is famous for them.  Above are the machines that grind up the peanuts so that they can be used in the baking.  We all enjoyed trying the different varieties of these candies, and a few of us even bought some to take back to Cuenca.

~ Thank You ~

After almost three months abroad, it was time for us to say our goodbyes.  This picture of our group was taken at a farewell lunch hosted by our professors from the University of Cuenca.  I would like to thank Dra. Rodriguez-Lozano for all she has done for this trip.  Because of her hard work, we have travelled all around Ecuador and have had many wonderful experiences.  I would also like to thank all who have followed this blog.  I hope that you have enjoyed reading about our journey and have learned a little about Ecuadorian culture.  I can personally say that my time in Ecuador was unforgettable.  As I boarded the plane back to the United States, I felt torn.  While I was thrilled to be going back to my family and friends at home, it was difficult to leave the country that I had come to love so much.  Yet, this trip has introduced me to the wonders of travel.  I had never been abroad before going to Ecuador, so I saw for the first time how amazing it is to see another country and live another culture.  I am certain that this trip will be the first of many for me.  Ecuador was only the beginning.  There is an entire world to discover.   

-Emily Wells-

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” –Lao Tzu

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