Tuesday, February 28, 2012

La mitad del mundo

In Quito, I met up with a new friend I had made in Cartagena and we went on a day trip to see the equator, locally know as la mitad del mundo, the middle of the world. It makes sense that the equator would have a different name here as Ecuador translates as "equator."


I didn't know what to expect from a visit to the equator so I was just looking forward to taking a photo of a line painted on the ground.


It's about a 45 minute drive from Quito to the equator. The landscape noticeably changed from lush green to arid hills pretty quickly. We first checked out Pululahua, a dormant volcano. Today a farming community lives in the shadow of the lava dome from when the volcano last erupted 2,500 years ago. Pululahua is now a cloud forest and to watch the clouds creep in so silently and swiftly was both eerie and beautiful.


Next stop was the equator museum. But it was so much more than just the equator!


Tiny, vibrant hummingbirds darted from one feeder to the next. They must have had a sense of humor because they would always stay still just long enough for you to get excited and pull out your camera, but just as you took the picture, they were gone! I managed to catch a green violetear hummingbird when he wasn't looking.


If you've ever been curious about shrunken heads, this museum will tell you all there is to know. The tribes that used to practice head shrinking did it to their enemies and wore the heads as trophies. Due to advances in human rights, they no longer kill their enemies and wear their decapitated, miniature heads, but they do continue the tradition of head shrinking on animals like sloths and other native species. From start to finish, it's a twelve step process. Your own head, when shrunken, is approximately the size of your fist. Go ahead and make a fist, you know you want to!


As for the equator itself, there was a red line painted on the ground and the obligatory sign with the latitude. But the real fun was experiencing the Coriolis effect! Basically, winds in the northern hemisphere travel in one direction and in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere. At the equator, the two cancel each other out. This is why there are no hurricanes along the equator. The Coriolis effect is also responsible for magnetic and gravitational differences from the northern and southern hemispheres (because gravity is reduced at the equator, you actually weigh about two pounds less there!).


Our tour guide did several experiments to show us the equator at work.

He had each of us close our eyes and walk heel to toe along the equator. The two hemispheres pull you in opposing directions, so you end up staggering along like a drunk! I think my yoga balancing poses kept me more balanced than most but it certainly required my concentration and I could feel myself wobble.


Continuing with balance, we learned that these opposing forces that cause neutrality at the equator can also make it easier to balance items that you wouldn't normally be able to balance. This was demonstrated by balancing an egg on a nail! Our guide gave each of us a shot to balance the egg ourselves but even with the supposed help of the equator, none of us could do it. He said only about 10% of visitors are successful. Had we not needed to tour the rest of the museum, my friend and I both later admitted that we would have been quite happy to spend the rest of the afternoon trying to balance the stubborn egg!


Don't let this picture fool you; Mini Bear couldn't do it either.


Water drains clockwise in the southern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the northern. At the equator, it drains straight down! Our guide demonstrated this by putting a few small leaves in draining water. It was shocking to see that moving the drain by just a couple of feet could completely alter the way water flows!


Early people living on the equator must have noticed these phenomena. I can only imagine what--or who--they thought was the cause!


As we were about to leave the museum, a group of about a dozen dancers dressed in traditional costumes started to dance. They seemed a little disorganized, but it was fun to watch. I had just assumed the music was also traditional, but after a minute or two it I realized it was a modern remix, complete with a DJ cutting in every so often to promote himself. I guess all traditions get updated eventually!


The last stop was the monument itself. We have the French to thank for determining the equator's position. From the mid 18th to early 20th centuries, they did a great deal of work to pinpoint its precise location. A towering, Soviet-looking monument dedicated to the scientists was built in the late 1970s so that the equator would run through its center...and today we know that the monument is about 300 meters off from the equator! Oops. Today scientists have more accurate tools to determine its location, but they have also used different measurements than the French did hundreds of years ago. I've never been much of a scientist but if it were up to me, I'd just walk around draining buckets of water to find the equator.


All this learning sure can work up an appetite...but not enough for me to eat roasted guinea pig.


In the past year, I've been to the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, el fin del mundo in Ushuaia, and now la mitad del mundo. Looks like I need to go to la cabeza del mundo! Although I don't suppose they'll speak Spanish up there.

In the end, I did get my photo taken with a line painted on the ground, but I left la mitad del mundo with much more than just a photo.

(The fake equator.)


Monday, February 27, 2012

Quito: 2,850 meters

Flying into Quito reminded me of the Buttonville airport in Ontario as a kid. It was always such a thrill to drive past it because the planes were so low over the road as they approached the runway, I wondered if they might accidentally land on the car! Landing at Quito takes you right over the city--and I mean barely over the city! In the last couple of days, I've found myself stopping to watch the odd plane descend from the clouds and disappear into the cityscape. This must be a challenging landing for pilots.


Quito is an extremely dense city nestled in a long and narrow valley in the mountains. The view from the top of El Panecillo, Little Bread Loaf, reveals just how jam packed this city of 2 million is.


At the top of El Panecillo is a statue of the Virgin of Quito. She looms over the city and is highly visible.


Buildings in the Old Town date back hundreds and hundreds of years, which is why the area is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is full of gorgeous churches with simple exteriors and richly decorated, ornate interiors (except that I didn't take any interior pictures because there was often a service going on, so you'll just have to believe us!).

Everyone had told me how impressive the Basilica was, so it was my first stop. I appreciate nice churches but it's not often they actually impress me. Wow! The Basilica is a great example of neo-gothic architecture. The main difference between it and Paris's Notre Dame is that Paris has gargoyles of terrifying creatures while the Basilica has gargoyles of tortoises, armadillos, iguanas, and other native animals that aren't very menacing!


I paid the $2 foreigner fee to climb the tower. And to keep climbing. And to keep climbing! Every time I thought I had reached the top, there was another level to ascend to! I lost track of how many narrow, steep staircases and ladders I went up, but I later overheard a woman on the ground floor asking where the bathrooms were and the response was, "sixth level!"


Each level had something new to offer...

-a view of the interior


-stained glass windows


-views of the city (the Virgin of Quito is in the background)


On Sundays, musicians gather together to play traditional Ecuadorian music in Old Town's many plazas. Large crowds come to watch musicians and dancers perform.


Nearby New Town isn't much to look at, but it is the hub for backpackers. It explodes with life on Friday and Saturday nights when locals and travelers alike fill up the restaurants, bars, cafes, and clubs.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Miscellaneous Colombia

Colombia was everything I had hoped for and more. It is a beautiful country with kind people and a seemingly endless supply of fresh mangos. What else do you really need? When I return, whenever that may be, I will be sure to get to Cali to visit a friend's family, San Gil to check out the country's adventure capital, Medellin again to see the enormous outdoor escalator (google it!), and Bogota to see the big city.


In the meantime, here are a few parting photos from Colombia.


Empanadas and other fried treats can be found on practically every corner.


There are a few local beers, but Aguila was the most prominent...

...and this was a beer I thought only existed on The Simpsons!


In Cartagena, my curiosity was piqued when I saw monumento a los zapatos viejos, monument to the old shoes, on a map. Famed local poet Luis Carlos Lopez wrote a poem celebrating his love for Cartagena as you love your old shoes, so the city built this large and quirky monument in 1996.


And because apparently I am developing an internal accordion radar, here's a shot I took only because I succeeded in temporarily stealing another traveler's camera, jumping over a railing, and off a small patio!


Next stop Ecuador!


El Penon: it's a really big rock

I wasn't sure how to spend my last full day in Medellin so Mini Bear and I were game when a new friend suggested a day trip to the town of Guatape to see El Penon. All we knew about it was that it's a really big rock and you climb 659 steps to reach the top for a view of a lake created by a man made dam.


This was our stylish bus for the two hour ride through the Colombian countryside.


In 1954, Luis Villegas Lopez was the first person to reach the top of El Penon. I assume he climbed it; today there's a much more convenient staircase.


In fact, the stairs were far more sturdy than I had expected. I thought it would just be a loose rock staircase, but this clearly had been an involved construction process to build the stairs.


The view was everything as promised and more! At the top there is a cafe and one last spiral staircase which reveals a spectacular 360 view.

This view could have been of Switzerland, British Columbia, or a dozen other places. The more I travel, the more convinced I am that the world is the same everywhere you go.



Saturday, February 25, 2012

Medellin: now open Tuesdays to Sundays

After a 15 hour overnight bus ride with Arctic air conditioning through winding hills while American action movies from ten years ago blasted through the speaker above my head, I was happy to arrive in Medellin. I met some great people and we headed out to see the city. Unfortunately for us, it was a Monday and apparently that's the day almost everything that can be closed is closed.


First we wanted to go to Arvi National Park. It feels like it's a world away from busy Medellin, but it's just a short metro ride away from downtown. In fact, getting there really was half the fun! You take two cable cars up a massive hill to reach the park. It's a fantastic view of the city and the bustling neighborhoods immediately below. I loved it but if you're not comfortable with heights or with being in a small dangling pod that responds every time the wind blows, well, you might want to sit this one out.


Guess what: closed for scheduled maintenance. I didn't mind since it meant I'd get to ride the cable car another day!


Next stop was to hunt down a place called Parque Descalzos, barefoot park. It was supposed to be a great place to walk around, presumably barefoot. We had been told it would be like a foot massage so we were all curious. Guess what: closed for scheduled maintenance.


We happened to be near Plaza Botero, so we had fun checking out Botero's oversized statues before going in to the Museo de Antioquia. Guess what: the museum is free on Mondays! There was a really interesting photo exhibit about the 19th and 20th centuries in Colombia and plenty of Botero's massive paintings.

The map revealed that the Botanical Gardens weren't too far away, so a few of us decided to walk over. In hindsight, I don't think the map was to scale because the garden never seemed to get any closer no matter how long we walked! Eventually we made it and were thrilled at the prospect of catching sunset in the garden. Guess what: closed as of 5 pm and they didn't seem to care that it was only 4:58. So we got back on the subway to call it a day.



Finally Arvi


We headed back to Arvi (on the cable car again!) a couple of days later. We first came upon this guy who was making some sort of sweet. I couldn't understand his explanation but it was entertaining to watch him throw and stretch the dough like substance.


Since it was such a nice day, we decided to follow one of the trails and go for an easy hike. Lush green trees, dirt paths, rolling hills, babbling streams; it was gorgeous.


My only complaint is that there were a few times when the trail wasn't well marked so I had to guess which way to go, which was fine...until I guessed wrong! Of course, we didn't realize that until probably 45 minutes later. We weren't sure if it was best to turn around (a long way to retrace our steps) or to continue on the paved road we had accidentally stumbled upon. The map had no scale so we had no idea if we were fifteen minutes or fifteen miles from our destination! Just then, two cops came by on a motorcycle and stopped to give us directions. They argued among themselves for several minutes about which way we should go, which didn't exactly inspire confidence. One dismounted and decided to practice his English as they walked us to where they thought a bus might be. The bus showed up at the same time we did, so we hopped on and realized after about two minutes that had never been far from where we had started out. Ooph! If only the map had had a scale...! But it was a lovely day and we got to ride the cable car one final time, so I was happy.