Posted by: stacylynn12 | April 16, 2012

Is Your Mama a Llama?

“Is your Mama a Llama?” I asked my friend Fred. “No she is not!” is what Freddy said.

Anyone with young’ins will recognize this line from the popular children’s book – “Is your Mama a Llama?”. Turns out Fred (pictured above) is not a llama at all, but an alpaca and his lady friend, who he lives with in northern Ecuador is named Ginger. They are quite a pair.

In all our time in South America we only saw exactly 6 llamas and 2 alpacas. I had imagined them to be ubiquitous in the Andes; like yaks in the Himalayas or lions in the Serengeti. People told us there were lots of llamas in Bolivia and in southern Peru but I remain skeptical. Llamas and alpacas have been around since pre Incan times and are the domesticated relatives of the wild vicuñas and guanacos. Today llamas are used primarily for meat and as pack animals while alpacas are prized for their soft fibers… that is, if you can find them. Good luck.

Marlene the Llama

Following our “dinero debacle” while trying to cross from Peru into Ecuador it was smooth sailing… more or less. Having spent so much time in Peru though, we now had only a relatively short time to visit Ecuador – 10 days to be exact. Not quite enough time to hike in the incredible national parks, get off the beaten track, visit Incan ruins, ride the train down the fabled “Nariz del Diablo” (Devil’s Nose) or to do really much of anything…except ride the bus through the beautiful countryside.

Clearly we must return. Until then… here is a description and some photos of our whirlwind Ecuadorian tour.

Vilcabamba – the valley of longevity – where locals are purported to live well beyond 100 years of age; though some claim this is an urban legend created for the sole purpose of attracting gullible foreign expats to the area to spend their hard earned retirement dollars. No sé. We did enjoy a couple of tranquil days in this lush paradise – lounging by the pool, eating delicious food, indulging ourselves with massages (the adults, not the kids) and perhaps the most fun of all… A horseback ride through the countryside. Both boys delighted in the fact that they got to ride their own horses. My horse, Príncipe had a little extra giddy up in his step and I soon grew tired of trying to hold him back. With our guide’s approval I gave him a gentle wack, a loud “Vamos!” and off we went. My excitement turned in a moment to terror when I realized Bodhi was following me, galloping his own horse. The smile on his face and the excitement in his eyes were palpable and once I pushed away thoughts of him being bucked wildly from his horse and breaking every bone in his body, we rode together enjoying the thrill of it all.

Giddy up!


Cuenca – is often cited as the most beautiful city in Ecuador and indeed there is some incredible colonial architecture here. It is also famous for being a center of production for Panama hats – a traditional brimmed hat of Ecuadorian origin that is made from the plaited leaves of the toquilla straw plant.

“Straw hats woven in Ecuador, like many other 19th and early 20th century South American goods, were shipped first to the Isthmus of Panama before sailing for their destinations in Asia, the rest of the Americas and Europe. For some products, the name of their point of international sale rather than their place of domestic origin stuck, hence Panama hats.” – quoted from The Panama Hat Trail by Tom Miller.

We spent one day enjoying the rather luke warm “hot” springs of Baños, located just outside of the city and an epicuriously delicious evening at Tiestos, a small restaurant which served us one of the top two meals we’ve enjoyed in 10 months of travel. If you are ever in Cuenca, you really must go.

We walked our way around the city and were disappointed that the majestic New Cathedral was not open for viewing. Construction began on this cathedral around 1880 when the population of the city outgrew the smaller Old Cathedral (built around 1550). It is claimed that 10,000 people can fit inside. That’s a lot of hallelujah.


Need a hat?

Bodhi goofs off

The New Cathedral in Cuenca

Guamote – Our next stop was in Guamote – a small, infrequently visited indigenous town between Cuenca and Quito. It happened to be our lucky day as it was Market Day! As Americans flock to Walmart to find the best deals so do indigenous highlanders from the greater Chimborazo region flock to Guamote on market day… once a week on Thurdsays. They come on foot, in busses and in the backs of trucks to buy and sell everything from sheep to spices. It’s an amazing feast for the gringo senses to walk through the market with eyes wide open.

We arrived in Guamote on this day rather unexpectedly. We had planned to go a bit further to Riobamba – a much larger and more touristed town enroute to Quito but in my eternal Internet quest for the best experience I posted a note on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum (a wonderful resource where travelers can post questions and get advice from other travelers) asking for advice on where to stop for one night between Cuenca and Quito. Guamote had not even remotely been on our radar but we learned of the market and of a great guest house / educational non profit organization called Inti Sisa. Based in the village the organization runs a kindergarten program and offers homework help to students. Volunteers also offer workshops in computers, indigenous music and sewing. In turn local people can sell their products thus working toward creating a viable, independent source of income for themselves.

Aside from a nice feel good place to stay we were treated to a visit with Marlene and Leó. Have you been paying attention? If so, you’ll know that Marlene is a Llama (seen in a photo above) and you might deduce that Leó is thus also a llama. Here is the funny part. Marlene and Leó are owned by a Belgian woman named Eva who is the current volunteer at Inti Sisa. She confessed to buying the furry little beasts on a whim and now didn’t have a clear plan as to what the heck a Belgian woman living temporaily in Ecuador was going to do with them. At least while she figures it out Marlene and Leó are livin the good life…

By the way, the Chimborazo region refers to Ecuador’s highest mountain. At 20,564 feet, and sitting right on the equatorial bulge, Chimborazo, while not the highest mountain in the world can claim the distinction of being the point on earth closest to the sun. Unfortunately the clouds did not cooperate and we got nary a glimpse.

This little piggy went to market!

Veggies at the market in Guamote

Sugar, spice and all sorts of things nice

In case you forgot to buy your hat in Cuenca…

An indigenous couple in Guamote

Ponchos are common in this part of Ecuador

Heading home from the market

Leó the Lama

Quito – the capitol city. With a population of over 2 1/2 million, it’s a big sprawling city that sits approximately 15 miles south of the equator. Ecuador is actually the Spanish word for equator… rather practically named eh?

We were fortunate to meet up with our friend Sarah in Quito since she had lived there previously and knew her way around. We spent a day supporting the local economy, visiting the famous market north of Quito in the highlands of Otavalo. The indiginous Otavaleños, as they are called, are world famous for their beautiful, colorful textiles and the market is one of the largest and most well known in all of South America. We shamelessly visited the ATM a few times.

We also took a ride up the Teleferico – a gondola that carries visitors up to almost 13,000 feet on the the east side of Volcan Pichincha to a point below the summit called Cruz Loma. The views are stunning and on a clear day many of Ecuador’s volcanos can be seen. Once again for us though they kept themselves hidden away… another sign that we must come back.

It was a leisurely few days really… coffee in Mariscal (thank you Magic Bean!) tasty dinners, wandering the cobblestone streets of the Old City, admiring the incredible beauty of the many churches and cathedrals and the attractive, old colonial architecture, getting stuck in a torrential downpour at the amusement park after our ride on the Teleferico… thank god for the rain otherwise I might have been forced to endure another kiddie ride. After almost tossing my cookies on a ride suited for toddlers I was happy to have an excuse to leave. Clearly I just don’t have the stomach I used to.

My only disappointment in Quito was the lack of Semana Santa (Holy Week) activities we were able to participate in. It was Palm Sunday and we had planned to observe a procession that was scheduled to arrive at the Plaza de San Francisco. We secured ourselves a nice table on the plaza and enjoyed a dinner of local specialties including some Fanesca Soup. I’m going to digress here for a minute…

“During its most important week, the Christian world reflects upon the sacrifice of the Son of God. In Quito, thousands of people show their faith in the streets and churches, the bells toll in celebration and the cry of Hallelujahs echoes throughout the Andean capital. And at the table, Easter hails the time of the legendary Fanesca soup.

This soup of incomparable flavour is made up of all the grains and legumes that our generous Andean land proffers. To this heady mix we add fish (remember, we’re abstaining from red meat), flour dumplings and boiled eggs.

For some, its significance is strictly religious: its dozen grains and legumes symbolise the 12 Apostles and the 12 tribes of Israel; the fish symbolises Christ and the way that his message feeds the Christian community. But in reality what truly matters is that Fanesca is a delicious “celestial” flavour that never fails to be included in Quito homes and restaurants during this time of year.”

– quoted from

For all it’s fanfare I must admit I thought this Fanesca soup was, well… Yucky. There’s just too many ingredients that really have no business being together in one pot. Oh well… back to the plaza. We thought we were rather cleaver with our ringside seat to view the procession but unfortunately the procession never came. We wandered the streets looking for something we may have missed but aside from hordes of people streaming out of the churches after the Palm Sunday masses and opportunistic venders selling crosses and woven palms there was nothing. Bummer.

It’s probably just as well we missed the more elaborate processions depicting the last hours of Jesus’s life. Joshua saw a large cross with a bloodied and dying Jesus nailed upon it and had a lot of questions. I tried as best I could to answer them but he just could not fathom why these bad people couldn’t just “shoo him away” if they didn’t like him and why did they have to kill him? Two weeks later he is still asking about it.

Perhaps the most famous Semana Santa procession however takes place on Good Friday and Quito’s is said to be the second largest in the world. The procession of Jesus the Almighty represents one of the most important acts of religious faith in the city, gathering around 90,000 devotees and spectators who flood the Old City. The procession begins at noon, at the time that Pontius Pilate is said to have condemned Jesus to death on the cross.

The Cucuruchos, dressed in purple tunics and cone-shaped hoods symbolize penitents and demonstrate their deep remorse and desire to change. Many of them carry crosses, are shackled or have thorny or barbed crosses or crowns tied to their bodies.

On Good Friday, the Earlywine family had departed South America and was lounging on a beach in Akumal, Mexico so we did not have the privilege of witnessing this elaborate expression of Christian faith. The Good Friday photos below are courtesy of our friend Sarah who reported to us in detail the events of the day.

Riding the Teleferico – a tram on Volcan Pichincha that takes you high above Quito for excellent views

View from the top of the Teleferico near Volcan Pichincha

With our friend Sarah on Pichincha

Semana Santa – Palm Sunday celebrations in the Old City

A church (La Compania I think) in the Old City

Church of San Francisco in Old Quito

The Basilica in Old Quito


A penitent in the Procession of the Almighty Jesus on Good Friday

Another believer carrying his cross

It’s impossible to summarize our months of travel in Latin America in a few words. The experiences were rich and varied. Of course, one thing is clear. More than anything, the people we met – both those we can now call friends and those who we may have just passed by on the street are what made all the difficulties worth while and what will eventually call us back for more.

Local woman at the market in Guamote



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