Archive for January, 2009

New Year Traditions in Ecuador

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

New Year is ushered around the world in different ways. The clock striking 12 means the drop of ball at Times Square, champagne toasts and kisses are universal around the world at the stroke of midnight. A totally different way of welcoming the year was what we experienced in Ecuador.

Weeks ahead of New Year’s Eve, one starts seeing cloth-stuffed dummy dolls, and masks doting every storeĀ  and every street corner (so we were told and yes 2 weeks before Dec 31st we could spot them everywhere). Soon, the dummy dolls dressed up to represent characters and personalities loved or hated are ready for showcase just about everywhere. In front of homes, shops, cars, street corners, police officers. Everywhere they seen. The creative go a step beyond and create scenes and stories with these dolls (it reminded me of golus and navarathi’s from India) and there are others who spend hours gluing papers together to create the biggest paper dolls.

Dummies ready to be fried

Dummies ready to be fried

Ecuadorian political figures seemed to be very common but one could also see numerous sponge bobs and spidermans. The collection was eclectic and had international figures like Obama, Bush Jr., Osama make their appearances too. Every home/store has at least one and it was a sight to see. Hotels had dummies set up at the doors and lobbies, resturants had them and near every dummy we did what good tourist does – take pictures šŸ˜‰


On New Year’s Eve, a list of resolutions, the good tidings of the past year, the bad and sad happenings of the year are penned down and tucked into the pockets of the dummies and at the stroke of midnight these dummies are burned along with the resolutions amidst fireworks and songs signaling the arrival of the new year. Quite similar to Guy Fawkes night in UK but not just the same.

In BaƱos, where we welcomed 2009 there was another strange custom followed by the locals on New year’s Eve. The locals dressed up, just like on Halloween and roamed around the street, demanding for money. Costumes ranged from princesses to a mickey mouse, evil looking witches to Ecuadorian presidents. But the most common was men dressed as women (which we were told was exclusive to BaƱos. Children dressing up is common in all parts of Ecuador). Men wearing sexy micros and minis with stuffed up chests and bottoms, waxed legs and hands, and freshly made up faces walked around the streets of BaƱos in high heels demanding money.


Curiosity made us ask why the men dressed as women and the story behind it was quite interesting. In the good old days, widows struggling to make ends meet with a child or two in tow, went around on New Year’s Eve asking the good hearted and generous-on-new year locals to help them survive another year and gradually the custom evolved into what it is today. One of the English speaking local man we spoke with on New Year’s day mentioned with great pride that he was one amongst the many men dressed as women on the streets the previous night.

Collecting money was a group activity and usually one could see a bunch of kids at street corners with a rope held at two ends blocking the roadway. The unlucky car that comes through is forced to stop and some money changes hands before the car is allowed to pass. The locals took part in the event without a grudge passing a cent or two to an excited dressed up kid/adult. Foreign tourists were mostly left alone and a firm no repeated twice was usually respected with a grudge.

A few processions of these dressed up people also began as the last sunlight of 2008 started fading. One of the processions we saw was complete with fake (dressed up) cop regulating the traffic, a cardboard full-size cop car (with two men underneath walking it), dancers, and assorted cars carrying VIPs like Osama, Obama and amongst others. The dressed-up people where more than gracious to pose for camera trotting tourists like us!



A different way to welcome a New Year!

Smoking Hot BaƱos

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Located in Central Ecuador, BaƱos is a tourist town. Shops selling cheap, cheesy souvenirs around the main plaza, open-trucks/jeeps for guided tours to the waterfalls, motorcycle rentals and a good dusting of cafes and restaurants catering to every kind of traveler.

BaƱos was on our list for two reasons, one – the extremely hot Mt. Tungurahua and the mineral baths. After two weeks of going around Ecuador we wanted to rest and rejuvenate before we headed back to real world and routine life in Houston.

We did not get what we were looking in terms of rest and rejuvenation at BaƱos due to the crowd. We spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day in BaƱos and the place was crawling with tourists. Hotels full, cafes with long lines, public baths with lines stretching miles, stores crowded, and store owners enjoying a bit of price gouging.

But in BaƱos we heard and saw a volcano in action. We so badly wanted to see red hot lava (we missed it in Hawaii) but unfortunately for us Mt. Tungurahua was in not mood to put up a show. But we saw smoke and ash spew out of the crater at an alarming rate.



Our first sight of Mt.Tungurahua was as we drove from Cuenca into the city. At first sight it looks like a low clouds hanging over the peak. In a country, famed for its cloud forests and low-lying cloud cover, it was easy to pass off the smoke and ash as clouds. The smoke and ash in fact look like dark clouds, puffy, slow moving and with a hint of black – indicating the probability of afternoon showers. But soon you realize that is not clouds but smoke and ash and awe fills you completely.

Our First Sight of Tungurahua

Our First Sight of Tungurahua

It was a mixture of shock, awe and fear that filled us as we watched Mt. Tungurahua as we wound our way through the mountains into BaƱos that day. After a while, you question yourself why do you want to keep in sight a rather boring mountain with something like clouds on top of it. It is not like you see a lot of action there. But just the knowledge that it is an active volcano fills one with wonder including the locals.

Once in the city of BaƱos, one does not have a view of the volcano which was kind of disappointing. Visions of late nights on a patio wrapped in warm clothing watching the volcano floods us but to catch sight of the volcano, we took a taxi ride .

Taxis offer a trip called to the viewpoint for around $15. The trip takes approximately an hour through winding narrow roads up a mountain right across from Tungurahua. As we approach the summit, where local TV station relay antennas are positioned , the volcano looks larger than life. With a perpetual cloud of smoke and ash rising from the top and if you paid really close attention you can actually hear a roar. It was fascinating and scary. The view of the city are also pretty good at certain places along the drive.

The view of the city

The view of the city

Ecuador is known for its low-lying clouds and everytime Mt.Tungurahua was covered with clouds we would turn our eyes else where but as the clouds drifted off, making way for our eyes to seek out the 5,000 m tall volcano smoking, it brought a feeling that cannot be explained. Thinking back, we think it was the feeling of creation and destruction that volcano is so capable of doing. Dangerous and exciting!

Tungurahua with its smoke and the low-lying clouds

Tungurahua with its smoke and the low-lying clouds

As we made our way down the mountain back to the city of BaƱos, in what little of Spanish we knew we asked the taxi driver about living so close to the volcano. He spoke eloquently and animatedly. We did not understand much but his voice showcased the pain, the fear, and the thrill.

To wind off our trip in BaƱos we heading out to Luna Runtun – an adventure spa as they call it. Why an adventure you ask? Well what do you call staying halfway up on an active volcano that has lava bubbling underneath it? At the Luna Runtun like any other luxury hotel in the mountains, one gets to enjoy fresh blooming flowers, birds of all colors and shapes, jacuzzis filled with mineral water, pools with views of the city, good food, great spa, wonderfully decorated rooms, and above all the sounds of the volcano. Here at Luna Runtun you can hear the volcano roar distinctly.

The first time we heard the volcano roar, we dismissed it as thunder. The volcano’s roar is similar to thunder, dull, rolling, loud and powerful are the adjectives we attach to it. Once we realized what it was we stopped on our tracks to listen but then the volcano does not follow our wishes right. It roars when it pleases.

As we enjoyed watching the hummingbirds around our room it roared and we stopped and stared at each other. It roared as we were enjoying the lovely guava mousse served at dinner, we paused with our dessert spoons half-way to our mouths. We sure looked stupid but the volcano’s roar is amazing.

Other things to do in BaƱos:

  • Visit the waterfalls (taxi rides are around $15).
  • Visit the blue town of Pelileo, where Levis jeans are made.
  • Taste some local taffy (okie it was not our favorite) and watch it being made, stretched and pulled.
  • Sit in the park and watch locals head back home from the produce market. It was nostalgic to see mothers and daughter, friends and neighbors shop together and share the load. Typically, one person grabs one handle of the shopping bag and the other person grabs the other handle. The bag swinging in between, they walk home.
  • Head to the public mineral baths only if they are not crowded.
  • Head off to the Amazon rainforests. This is the where the rainforests start. (We decided against adding rainforests to our itinerary just because we did not have time.)

Taffy Making at Banos

Taffy Making at Banos

Places we ate at in BaƱos:

  • Cafe Hood : A guidebook recommendation. Quirky, casual place to sit and relax. Read a book or play a game. They have a menu featuring food from all over. We loved their curry chicken sandwich but the Hindu plate failed to impress. The Mexican tacos were good as was the Pad Thai (though not close to the ones we are used to in America it was still very yummy). Make sure you take a couple of minutes to check out the walls – they have some good paintings and an eclectic postcard and photo collection.
  • There was it small cafe/sandwich place right next to Cafe Hood we frequented for their “best coffee”. It was a nice place to start the day or break for a nice snack. The menu is limited but the patio was a wonderful place to be. Grab a few magazines from the book shelf and enjoy.
  • Luna Runtun: We had breakfast and dinner at the Luna Runtun’s main restaurant and have no complaints. Both occasions it was a buffet menu. We did not try their cafe.
  • Aroma Cafe: It is a chocolate fondue and coffee place. It is located in one of the shopping buildings. The store also sold coffees, chocolate, and nuts. We had a tres leches cake there and brought some Ecuadorian coffee and chocolate. Another wonderful place to hang out.

The decorated Cafe Hood wall

The decorated Cafe Hood wall

Shopping in BaƱos:

Most of BaƱos shops are within 2 blocks and most shops offer the same stuff. Keychains, tees, handbags, postcards etc. The collection is also pretty much the same. Some stores have distinctively different pieces so take your time and visit the all the stores.

More abour our Ecuador trip coming soon…