Fall in Hungarian Forest

IMG_8915

I spent a week this fall in the forests of Hungary.

IMG_8953

IMG_8954

It was just me, the conference of about 60 from all over the world, and about 100 octogenarian Hungarians.

IMG_8928

Apparently the hotel has a reputation for relaxation and good buffet dinners.

IMG_8917

I enjoyed hiking in the forest as early as I could convince my jet-lagged bod to head out the door.

IMG_8955

I also spent an afternoon in nearby Sopron.

IMG_8921

It’s not a tourist town per se, so it felt like a view into the lives of real Hungarians.

IMG_8925

The ancient fire tower helped guard the city.

IMG_8937

Which today, is just a charming little town.

IMG_8932

IMG_8940

IMG_8947

Some day I hope I’m as cute as these two old ladies, with a best friend or sister to sit backwards on a bench with and chat about the day in the fall sunshine.

IMG_8948

But until then, there are many more paths to pursue.

IMG_8957

Advertisements

Devil’s Backbone

Untitled
As we drove past it, I inadvertently gasped. There it was, jutting out the hill and scraping the sky like a claw.

Untitled

It turns out the Devil’s Backbone was just next to our Airbnb. We didn’t have much time, but we made time to hike it.

Untitled

I was hoping to scale the rocks, but it turns out they’re too fragile. So we were limited to the trail that winds around beside this incredible rock formation.

Untitled

The only time we had was on a gray rainy morning, and since I’m the queen of not being prepared for weather, We started out the hike with trash bag rain gear. Because we’re classy.

Untitled

And that’s why these are all iphone photos: I wasn’t willing to haul my SLR out into the drizzle.

Untitled

It was a great, easy hike with the kids (though they whined plenty), and I could have gone much longer.

Untitled

But we had to rush back, since we were late for lunch at the Silver Grill.

Untitled

Where to Shop: Quito

IMG_7788

Now, if you’re doing the full-blown Ecuador tour, you should go to Otavalo. It’s about an hour north of Quito, and it really is the centuries-old marketplace for the indigenous people.

The central square is lined with booths with artisans selling just about everything under the sun. On some weekdays, there is livestock and fruits and vegetables. But all the time, you’ll find all the scarves and handicrafts to satiate your soul. Be sure you bargain; they start at the tourist price. You can get there by bus or private car.

IMG_7786

But imagine you’re on a really tight schedule, or you don’t want to take the time to go out to Otavalo. Then, my friends, Quito has you covered with the Mariscal market. The city built market stalls on a small city block downtown, off Amazonas street, the main shopping/business drag. You can get there by trolley, bus or taxi.

Untitled

Mariscal market is all of tourist-loving Otavalo plus a few inauthentic girls dressed in indigenous-wear selling organic chocolate. But who cares?

Untitled

This time, I loaded up on colorful blankets, a poncho for my daughter, a flag, a traditional gold necklace, some jewelry for friends and probably more things I forgot. In the past, it’s been watercolors, scarves, more jewelry and leather goods.

IMG_7789

There’s also ceramics, wooden artifacts and plenty of tchotchkes.
Untitled

Make sure you tell everyone that the so-called “Panama hats” are really made in Ecuador. Seriously, check the label. They were popularized by men digging the Panama canal, and so got their name. But these babies are Ecuador-made.

IMG_7790

This girl sold me my necklace. I asked all the vendors for their best price, and she not only gave me a discount, she left her stall to go get the exact style I wanted from somewhere else. There it is to the right; she’s wearing a similar one in the traditional style.

IMG_7792

The legit Otavalan vendors drive in from their homes outside the city with all their goods. The Otavalan people are born entrepreneurs. I’ve see them all over the world, from Sweden to my little podunk Oklahoma town. And they always have those sweaters and blankets and purses, handmade in Ecuador using ancient techniques and Ecuadorian wool and alpaca.

Untitled

Let me give you an idea of prices:

-$10-20 for a handmade necklace

-$5 for an Ecuador flag

-$20 for a queen size wool blanket

-$25 for a 11×14 watercolor

-$8 for a scarf

Obviously, barter with them for the best price, but don’t be rude.

IMG_7787

I bought a blanket from this sweet lady, and she really wanted me to take more. That top photo of her is also now enlarged on a canvas and hanging in my living room above my fireplace. Every time I sit on the couch and study her face, it makes me happy to have a little bit of Ecuador in my home, through her shining eyes and high cheekbones.

Taffy Town

IMG_4655

When I was a kid, we spent many a long weekend in the town of Baños, which lies under the shadow of one of Ecuador’s active volcanoes, Tungurahua. It was probably one of the only towns near us with a tourist industry to speak of at the time. Ecotourism wasn’t a thing yet, and Ecuador’s jungle region remained undeveloped.

IMG_4719

When we met my grandparents there, we’d sometimes stay in a stuffy guesthouse called Gertrude’s. The waitress wore a French maid-esque black dress, frilly white apron and starched white cap. I didn’t like the food, probably because there was always a soup course, and my parents were always stressed out that my sister and I were being too loud or too wild for the old, staid owners.

My dad LOVED to joke about how the sign for the pool was missing a ‘p’, because “there’s no ‘p’ in the pool!”

It’s still not funny.

IMG_7729

Later, we often stayed at the Sangáy, a typical hotel with a pool, tennis courts and a billiards table. The Sangáy was near the hill overlooking the town and the waterfall that trains down its flank. Here’s where the town gets its name: the Baths. There’s a big public pool at the base of that waterfall.

In the 80s, Baños was a quiet town with an ice cream place, a sugar cane industry, a zoo, and a few adventurous German backpackers.

These days, it’s transformed itself into a eco-paradise with a side of spa-town. I was super surprised when I visited in 2008 to see the zip lines, rafting, mountain biking etc., etc., etc., places with locations along the road outside of town, and offices lining the main streets in town. Every hotel offers a spa, and every block offers quaint little restaurants.

Untitled
Swing at the edge of the world. We didn’t make this one, but my sister was there a couple of weeks ago. Photo courtesy of Kelley.

All that to say, if you are visiting Ecuador for the first time, please make Baños one of your stops. There’s something for everyone.

IMG_7548

We didn’t have much time there this time around. We stopped for coffee and a wiggle break atone of the many parks on the way down to the jungle.

IMG_7551

We intended to spend a little more time on the way back, but then this happened:

IMG_7717

Car sick.

I think.

And I’m sorry it happened to him, because he felt miserable, but it was hilarious having to rush to the public restroom on the plaza, scrounge for change to buy toilet paper, then have him throw up again when he came out, right into some lady’s trash can. I’m so glad I took a picture. #heartlessmom

IMG_7718

We popped into this Catholic church on the square that has been beautifully restored since I was there last. It’s attached to a museum and has a section on the side where people donate their crutches and other artifacts after being “healed” by using the church’s holy water.

I remember being in that church as a kid and watching a priest with a bucket at the front. Desperate people waved cash above their heads, which he deftly collected before sprinkling them with water from the bucket. They hoped for a miracle, he gave them tap water and false promises.

IMG_7721

Sadly, I was unable to introduce my kids to Baños’ greatest attraction for me as a kid: the promise of a warm, sickeningly sweet lump of sugar cane taffy.

IMG_7722

I don’t know why, but Baños is Taffy Town. Nearly every shop has a worn smooth piece of wood mounted to the door frame, where a young man strains to stretch the golden strands of taffy before quickly looping it back over the hook for another pull. For a little bit of change, he’ll break you off a piece and wrap it in colored wax paper, so you can gum it all day as you explore the shops.

IMG_7726

Or, you know, window shop.

IMG_7728

Or pet puppies.

IMG_7725

As a kid, I loved that stuff. (The taffy, not the puppies.) And my mom would always complain about how bad it was for my teeth. But my dad would sneak me a couple of hundred sucres (RIP old currency) so I could get some.

They also sold sugar cane juice on the street corners by the bus station. And little bags of freshly cut and peeled sugar cane that I loved to gnaw on.

Hmmm. In writing this, I’m suddenly realizing I exposed my children to none of this. Our fru fru lunch in a trendy coffee shop with boutique coffee from an eco farm and a trickling fountain in the corner did not expose my children to any of these glories.

IMG_4664

We also had to skip the zoo, which since my childhood has been transformed from a sad little spot at the top of the town to a somewhat magnificent animal sanctuary on the side of one of the ravines overlooking the river. You can literally watch the condors (Ecuador’s national bird, with a wingspan of 25 feet) soar.

IMG_4659

You’ll also make friends with the monkeys, jaguars, toucans and Ecuador’s most famous residents (apart from Julian Asange, I guess): the Galápagos turtle.

IMG_4668

When I was a kid, these roamed free in the dirt-packed center of the zoo. For a small fee, you could sit on its back, and a “trainer” would coax the turtle forward by stringing it along with a piece of pineapple. Unbelievably cruel, I’m certain, but very fun to say you’ve ridden a turtle. Today, the turtles are safely behind a fence, and no pineapple inducements are allowed.

Make Baños a part of your Ecuador itinerary. There’s plenty of lodging, and definitely look into all the adventure tourism options around. And I suppose you could spend a little spa time, as well. There are tons of things to see, do and experience.