So you want to join the Peace Corps?

Or you just want to follow my South American adventure.


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Photos – June 21st to July 21st

 The view walking up to my house in my community.

Walking through my community from the highway.

#rainbow #ecuador #southamerica #clouds #campo #countryside #rural #mountains #sky #valley

A photo posted by Justin St Marie (@justin_st_marie) on

This is the steep street you need to walk up to stay at Casa Bambu (highly recommended hostel in Quito)

#ecuador #quito #southamerica #allyouneedisecuador #clouds #sky #july #2014 #street #casabambu

A photo posted by Justin St Marie (@justin_st_marie) on

Another volunteer and I helped plant some gardens a few months ago. Some are looking really good!

The Cotacachi Volcano at sunset.

A couple girls helped me do some work with the school garden in my community.

A lamb and its mother in a nearby community where I work.

Baby #babyanimal #ecuador #lamb #sheep #peacecorps #peacecorpsecuador #animals #cute #southamerica #campo #countryside

A photo posted by Justin St Marie (@justin_st_marie) on

Another picture of the Cuicocha Lake nearing sunset.

#cuicocha #ecuador #otavalo #cotacachi #sky #clouds #lake #tourism #hiking #southamerica #peacecorps #peacecorpsecuador

A photo posted by Justin St Marie (@justin_st_marie) on


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Taste of Ecuador – Rio Intag Café

While Ecuadorians do drink coffee, it seems they would rather have instant coffee such as Nescafé instead of a cup of freshly ground, freshly brewed coffee. It is somewhat strange considering that Ecuador produces a lot of quality coffee beans in almost every region of the country.  I am not sure if it is the culture, the cost, the convenience, or the taste of fresh coffee, but it drove me crazy for the first year in Ecuador not being able to have some good coffee in the morning unless I went to a touristy or more expensive restaurant in Quito or Otavalo. Thankfully, my parents saved me by first sending me a coffee grinder and then bringing down a small coffee maker (an Aeropress, highly recommended) when they visited. Now, I’m able to grind my own Ecuadorian coffee and brew it immediately. My host family, of course, looks at me like I’m insane and even though I have offered many times and they have tried my coffee many times I just can’t get them to appreciate the difference. It is the little things that make a difference here in the Peace Corps for me. I’m not lying when I say that the first thing I think about in the morning is grinding and making some fresh coffee, which takes about 20 minutes total.

Prior to obtaining all my coffee making tools, I had been forced to drink instant coffee (or the Starbucks Via packets my family sent me in the mail) in my house. But whenever I traveled to Otavalo, I always made sure to stop by the local coffee shop and have some “real” coffee. Since Otavalo is such a huge tourist destination, the local businesses that cater to tourists have learned that foreigners prefer brewed coffee over instant coffee. A coffee association, named Rio Intag, located about 2 hours west of Quito in the Andean cloud forest region of Intag appears to have taken this market for their own. Their coffee can be found in many of the stores and in all of the supermarkets. In many of the restaurants, you will see some Rio Intag coffee for purchase either ground, whole bean, or available to buy by the cup.

I’m happy to purchase this coffee as it is cheap ($6 a pound), organic, delicious, freshly roasted in a light, medium and espresso roast, and easily attainable. I’m also happy to support an association of Ecuadorian farmers who have come together to form an environmentally responsible business that economically benefits 400 families in the Intag region. If you can read Spanish, the association has a website here: www.aacri.com. I have also attached a few photos of the bagged coffee, the first is the coffee packaged for local consumption and the second is the coffee packaged for export. The association exports to many regions around the world including Europe, North America, and Asia.

Here is a brief description of their coffee, translated from their website:

High Altitude, Shade Grown Café Arabica:  “Our coffee is produced at an altitude above 1500meters above sea level. This gives the coffee an excellent quality, intense acidity, very good flavor, exquisite aroma and a good body.

The coffee farms of our associates are located between 600 meters and 2100 meters above sea level. The Rio Intag basin has been coffee producing for more than a century, and now, the tradition has been renewed on more than 134 hectares cultivating organically.”

Lastly, if you’re ever in Otavalo, stop by either Casa Intag or Salinerito. The first is a coffee shop that promotes crafts and the coffee from the Intag region and the second is a sandwich shop that promotes Ecuadorian products such as the Rio Intag coffee and cheeses and cured meats from the Salinas de Guaranda region of Ecuador.

View of the Intag valley…photo courtesy of http://www.codelcoecuador.com

 

Coffee for local consumption

 

Coffee for export

 

 

 


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Photos – June 15th to 21st

The fiesta season has now begun.

I saw 7 toucans in one tree in Mindo.

La Cascada Reina, The Queen Waterfall, in Mindo.

Cascada Reina mindo #mindo #ecuador #southamerica #allyouneedisecuador #tourism #peacecorps #cloudforest #waterfall

A photo posted by Justin St Marie (@justin_st_marie) on

View from Terrabambu in Mindo.

Mindo…#ecuador #tourism #mindo #southamerica #terrabambu

A photo posted by Justin St Marie (@justin_st_marie) on

Andes Brewing Company beer. It is brewed in Quito and is easily the best beer I have had so far in Ecuador.

Best beer I've had in Ecuador so far. #beer #ecuador #andesbrewing #mindo #elquetzal #southamerica #cerveza

A photo posted by Justin St Marie (@justin_st_marie) on

I was able to watch part of the Ecuador – Switzerland game in Quito in Parque Carolina. It was fun, but had a terrible terrible ending with Ecuador losing on a last second goal.


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Taste of Ecuador – Panaderias

One aspect of food culture that I have found in every Latin American country I have been is the huge presence of bakeries (panaderias) throughout the cities and the countryside. Ecuador is no exception. Here you can sometimes find four separate bakeries on the four corners of an intersection and they all seem to survive no matter how much business they take from each other. Some clients just do not want to cross that street even if one bakery has better bread than the other. Each bakery seems to have its repeat, life-long customers that would not betray their relationship to go buy bread at a bakery a little bit further down the path.

Walking through the cities in the morning, it is hard not to enter a bakery just to see what is coming fresh out of the oven. The smell of fresh bread permeates the city streets and it is unavoidable to instantly crave something from the bakery. It is great to be able to walk down the block (or up the hill in my community) and buy some fresh bread at any point during the day. Not only is the bread delicious, it is very cheap. You can get a basic roll for 10 cents and then as the ingredients get fancier, the price increases. For example, a bread with chocolate is 25 cents, an empanada (bread filled with cheese) is 25 cents, a donut is 30 cents…and so on.

In most areas of Ecuador whole grain bread or even wheat bread is a bit rare and the bread in the countryside and in the smaller cities is fairly unhealthy as it is white bread with a large amount of butter and sometimes sugars (which of course makes it delicious). Fortunately, it seems that in some of the cities the whole grain and wheat bread seems to be catching on. Hopefully, that trend moves farther out to the rural areas as, in my opinion, it tastes better and it is definitely healthier.


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Welcoming the Parents to Ecuador

This past week, I was lucky to have my parents come down and get to know the country where I have spent over 17 months and have about 10 months left. They had purchased their tickets months ago and had been looking anxiously forward to the week they would spend in my country of service. Because of the short visit (7 days 8 nights), we elected to stay close to Quito. We ended up seeing Quito, the Otavalo area, Quilotoa, the Mindo area, and my Peace Corps site. Even though we did not travel any farther than 50 miles in any direction, the diversity of landscapes, animals, and culture were evident during the trip. I warned my parents before coming that this would not be any ordinary vacation. We would be waking up early, traveling and walking a lot, having many awkward encounters, and will most likely be exhausted every single night. I think they will agree that this turned out to be true.

Quito

My parents arrived at 5:30pm and, of course, I was a bit late in picking them up. Luckily, they were still happy to see me when I strolled into the airport.

Their arrival at the airport.

The following day, we took a tour around the historical center and saw a few of the famous churches, climbed up in the Basilica (my dad and I), and learned a bit about the history of the city.

My dad and I in one of the towers of the Basilica

My mom didn’t want to make the climb. It is a little sketchy.

We had an early morning the next day, so we got a good dinner and got to bed. A driver from the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve arrived to pick us up at 6:30am, our first of many early mornings.

 

Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve

My parents were nice enough to treat me to a few days and one night in this cloud forest lodge located in the transition zone heading west towards the coast. The area is known for its diversity of wildlife including being one the world’s hotspots for a variety of birds. Over the next two days, we went on four bird watching hikes where we saw numerous species of birds, insects, and plants.  It’s worth mentioning that the food was excellent during these two days (a dream come true for a Peace Corps volunteer) and that the cabin we stayed in was comfortable and quiet.

We saw plenty of birds

 

And plenty of flowers…these are orchids.

 

Insects

 

And plants.

View of the region.

 

Hiking and birdwatching.

We returned to Quito in the afternoon of the second day and spent the night. The following day we would go to my Peace Corps community. I was a bit anxious about this part of the trip because it’s definitely a bit different from seeing the tourist sites located around the country. Even more, I knew I would be translating the entire day, which would be exhausting.

 

My Community 

We arrived in my community at about 9:00am and visited with some people as we walked down to my house, where my host family was waiting to greet my parents. We had a few hours until a celebration would take place (Las Fiestas de Tupigachi) in a nearby town, so we took the time to have coffee, a snack, and relax for a bit.

At 11:00am, we walked to the community building and sat around for a little while until transportation showed up. We rode about 10 minutes in the back of a truck with many other people to the nearby community to start the celebration.

I was happy my parents were able to see a bit of the culture here during this day. We spent a few hours watching (and sometimes participating) in the local dance. Afterwards, we headed to Cayambe for lunch before returning to my community.

The Fiestas de Tupigachi

My host family was going to prepare an Ecuadorian specialty for my parents that night. Of course, it would have to be cuy (guinea pig). You can’t come to visit Ecuador without trying it. My mom initially said that she did not to eat it, but sometimes in Ecuador, you don’t have a choice of what ends up on your plate. So when my host mom handed the plate over with more than enough food, my mom took the chance and tried the cuy. I think she was surprised at how good it is. During dinner, my host mom also presented my parents with some small handmade gifts. You can see them in the picture below.

Parents wearing the gifts from my host mom.

Following dinner, the usual Ecuadorian custom of giving speeches during any sort of party or dinner began. My host family and my counterparts family were both there and every single one of them gave a small speech about how happy they were that my parents came to visit, how much they enjoy having me in the community, and how they will be very sad the day I have to leave. Given that I’m the only one who speaks both languages, I had to translate all these compliments about myself to my parents. It was a very heartwarming and unexpected part of the vacation and some tears were shed (I kept my eyes dry this time, but in another 10 months, I’m not sure I will be able to). While I knew I was in a great community and that everyone enjoyed having me there, it was never exactly expressed in words until my parents came.

Even further a surprise, my host parents asked my parents if they could be godparents to my host sister (2 years old). This would require that my parents return to Ecuador sometime. While they did not say no or commit, we left it at a “maybe in 5 years”. I’m sure my parents were honored to have been asked.

As I previously stated, I was fairly anxious about this part of the vacation (and this is the reason why I have written the most here in this section), but it ended up being the best part. My parents were able to see what I’ve been saying for so long about the people of Ecuador. They are generous, welcoming, and treat everyone as part of their family. We left the community with smiles on our face and very happy that we put a day aside for my community.

Family photo.

 

 Otavalo

My counterpart was nice enough to drive us to Otavalo in the morning. We had a busy day visiting the Cuicocha Lake, doing some window shopping in the leather town of Cotacachi, and then we spent a few hours in the famous Otavalo market. In this region, I’m sure my parents enjoyed the market the most (or at least my mom did). They spent more than enough money and made a few vendors’ days. We even had to return the next day to do a bit more looking.

Prior to returning to Quito the following day, we took a quick trip out to the Peguche waterfall where my dad and I got a little too close and soaked our clothing.

At Cuicocha Lake

Peguche Waterfall

 

Quilotoa

The last full day we had in the country, we had booked a tour of the Avenue of the Volcanos and the Quilotoa crater lake. Fortunately, we woke up and it was one of the clearer days I had seen in a while. As we drove south from Quito towards Quilotoa, we saw at least 6 volcanos, including Chimborazo (the tallest volcano in Ecuador) and Cotapaxi (the world’s tallest active volcano). Both are snow-capped and impressive to see. We also passed through the small indigenous town of Tigua, known for their colorful landscape paintings, so of course we picked up a few more souvenirs.

Once we arrived at the Quilotoa crater lake, we snapped a few family photos and then started the hike down to the lake. The hike took about 30-40 minutes to get down. I had not yet been to the lake, so it offered a different view on the lake for me. The walk up is a bit tough, especially when you haven’t adjusted to the altitude, so my parents elected to ride mules, while I hiked, back up to the top. Arriving at the top, we got some lunch and then took off on the three-hour drive back to Quito for their last night in Ecuador.

At the Quilotoa crater lake.

Parents riding mules up from the lake.

 

 

My parents had to take off in a cab to the airport at 3:30am for their flight at 5:30am, so we said goodbye in Quito prior to sending them off in cab (I was able to go back to sleep). It was a great trip and I’m grateful they were able to come down, even for the short vacation, to see where I’ve spent the past year and a half of my life. I think they left happy knowing that I’m in good hands down here with my community and that I’m in a beautiful part of the world, and of course they left exhausted, but hopefully satisfied with their vacation.

 


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The Quilotoa Loop

I was ready to get out of site a few weeks ago. I was really busy for about two months and needed a vacation with some of my best PCV friends. I try to make it a point to stay in site a majority of the time, but I also want to enjoy my service traveling in Ecuador and seeing all that this beautiful country has to offer. So far, I think I have done a good job balancing being a site rat (what us PCVs call the people who never leave their communities) and taking advantage of holidays and vacation days to see Ecuador.

My PC group had their Mid-service conference coming up, so three other friends and I decided to undertake a 3 day 2 night hike near Latacunga on the Quilotoa Loop prior to heading to Tumbaco for the conference. This loop could easily be a 5-6+ day hike depending on how many towns you want to see, but we decided that 3 days and 2 nights would be sufficiently grueling for us. It would be a great way to commemorate our 1-year anniversary in our Peace Corps communities. We walked nearly 45km down into multiple canyons, crossed rivers on rickety bridges, and then back out again and finally ended at the majestic Quilotoa Crater Lake.

The hike was not lacking in breathtaking views. I had never been on an extended hike of this sort and I can now say that I cannot wait to do something similar again. The route that we undertook started with a 3-hour bus ride from Latacunga to Sigchos. From Sigchos we hiked to Isinlivi, which took about 5 hours. Here in Isinlivi, we camped at a very nice hostal named Hostal Taita Cristoball. The stay for the night was $5 to camp and it included breakfast.  We were the only backpackers staying that night and the owners were kind enough to gift us some fanesca, which is a traditional soup served during Holy Week and Good Friday. I was a little sad about leaving my community during this weekend because I would be missing the fanesca. Fortunately, Ecuadorians are in general very generous and I was hoping we would find some somewhere along the hike.

The following day, we took off early on the hike to Chugchilan. It was easily the toughest hike during the three days due to the steep uphill climb at the end of the day. We arrived at the Hostal Cloud Forest beat and ready to lie down and relax. The hostal had a very nice common room with wood burning stoves, so we all took a couch, sat back, and napped the rest of the day following the tough hike from Isinlivi. Surprisingly, this hostal only charged us $1 to camp, and this was mainly for the use of the shower. The people were friendly and the food was good.

After getting about 12 hours of sleep as we all passed out at 7pm, we ate our breakfast and took off on the last leg of the hike to the Quilotoa Crater Lake.  It was not nearly as difficult as the day before, but it was hard nonetheless. When we finally arrived at the rim of the crater lake at an altitude of nearly 13,000 feet, we all took a moment to take in the scenery. It was a great spot to end the 3-day journey. At that altitude up on the crater rim, the wind blows hard and it is quite chilly so we started the walk to the town of Quilotoa around the rim where we rested for a bit then caught a ride back to Latacunga for the night. Unfortunately, I do not have time to get into specific details regarding the hike, so if anyone reading has specific questions about the hike and route that we took, do not hesitate to send me a message. Following are some pictures from the hike in addition to a map of the loop.

Sigchos is located in the upper left hand side of the map. From there we hiked to Isinlivi, then Chugchilan, and then finished at the Laguna Quilotoa.

 

Just outside Sigchos heading towards Isinlivi

 

 

Our first campsite in Isinlivi

 

On the way to Chugchilan from Isinlivi

 

One bridge we crossed that we later learned we were not supposed to use…

 

 

Laguna Quilotoa. I didn’t take many pictures between Chugchilan and Quilotoa…so this is where the pictures end.

 


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Photos – April 30, 2014

Flower during hike around Cuicocha

Photo of Campesino on his horse…during the Quilotoa Loop

And we made it to the lake….it was a great sight to end the 3 day hike.

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