Saturday, August 18, 2012

Banos de Agua Santa

                                          Banos de Agua Santa                           August  5-9, 2012

Our 9:40am Sunday bus left Cuenca’s Terminal Terrestre for the 7 hour pilgrimage to Ambato. Another bus would take us the last hour’s ride into Banos . Yes, the cross country buses still cost a dollar an hour. We reserved seats 3 and 4, right behind the driver to allow personal space and room for our bags and back packs. Since this was my first long distance drive through the Andes toward Quito, I enjoyed the views between snacks. The driver took a 40 minute lunch near Pallatanga, so we arrived at Ambato at nearly 5 pm.
Wanting to arrive before dark, we splurged for a $15 dollar taxi ride directly to Banos’ Chimenea  Hostel.  After a brief visit to the roof top terrace for the waterfall view and city orientation, we strolled past the park to Pappardelle Italian restaurant for a welcoming meal. Sue wanted pasta to accompany her meal, so we devoured three entres, narrowing avoiding an evening food coma.

The lava stone Cathedral at the edge of the park included a small tourist center in one corner. We studied our complementary map for our day’s plan. We must visit the Rio de Cascadas immediately in the sunshine. And nearby Puyo is the gateway to the Oriente. Treking into streamy jungles may have to wait until my back is fully recovered.

The taxista waiting at the park was our divine appointment. Adolfo spoke some English and was an excellent tour guide. We enjoyed each of the many waterfall views, feet firmly on the ground, while the more adventurous folk flew through the air on wire lifelines. The final and most impressive waterfall, Pailon de Diablo, required a couple kilometer steep hike. This reminded us of our annual retreats and favorite trails near Banner Elk/Boone, NC.

We continued to Puyo and the Oriente, passing through Shell, where missionaries Jim Elliot, Nate Saint and three others were speared into eternity by the Auca Indians in 1956. Headhunting is no longer practiced and is illegal in Ecuador. We visited a bird sacntuary and enjoyed observing the mono (monkey) skurrying among the branches overhead.

Swiss Bistro completed our day with a well presented tilapia for Sue and beef stroganoff for me.
Helado (ice cream) cones prepared us for a good nights sleep. We also recommend Hood Cafe and Pappardelle.

Early the next morning, we shocked our bodies for an hour in the cedar box-like enclosed steam bath, accentuated with breaks every ten minutes for the sweetly sadistic attendant to swamp us with ice cold water. Is that what “Agua Santa” (holy water) is about?
Banos beckoned us to further exploration, so we rented a go cart. There are sports shops on nearly every street, but we failed to get a recommendation at the hotel. So our adventure was enhanced by a cart with a faulty muffler and wobbly mirrors. Flying blind was a bit unnerving six inches off the ground.

Banos has several hot spring water parks. The municipal pool at the foot of the cascading waterfall at the edge of downtown is only two dollars, but was very crowded. Several other spas range from five dollars upward. Many include various optional massages, skin/facial treatments and assorted pamperings. Once again we opted for shock and awe with a deliciously painful reflexology and another half hour of back/neck/leg massage.

Every morning we wandered two blocks to the local enclosed Mercado for two large mixed cocktails of fruit and veggies blended before our drooling mouths. We shared orange juice/alfalfa/carrot and guayabana/coconut/mora smoothies prepared by smiling ladies. A buck each.

           Future Trip ideas:

1.       Buy your bus tickets the day before you trip to reserve seats (reserve must be within 24 hours of departure).

2.       Chat with your taxista before engaging him. English speakers will enhance your trip with local history and suggestions. And get a set price. $15-16 dollars from Ambato to Banos; nine dollars an hour for tours. Prices vary widely if you do not know the going price. Tips are optional.

3.       Obtain recommendations for restaurants, tours, rentals for hotel staff. They love to help!

4.       Visit your room and test your bed. Our first room was a walk to the fourth floor, so we opted for the second floor. Our bed was good, but too hard. There are many hotels and hostels in all price ranges in Banos.

5.       Be aware of Ecuadoran holidays. We left a day early to avoid Diez de Augusto (Independence Day).

6.       Hot water or internet may be slow during peak hours. Find out when the English speaker’s hours are.
                                       Banos de Agua Santa, we shall return.

You spoiled us, but there is more to discover in your mile high temperate climate and welcoming citizens.          
                                              Gary & Sue

Enjoy the rest of the pictures:

A public nap!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Three Lovely Sisters

It was a little over two years ago, Gary and I took our adventure to this beautiful city, Cuenca.  Through a series of referrals, we met some new friends who helped us when we arrived.  One of the referrals led us to stay at Hotel Inca Real located on General Torres, two blocks from Parque de Calderon.  During our 10 night stay, we not only enjoyed the hotel’s surroundings, but quickly became friends with the hotel’s staff and general manager, Tania Sarmiento.  Little did I know we’d become lifelong friends.
So, it’s my privilege to share the story of her family – especially the 3 sisters, who all have ended up in hotel and restaurant businesses.  They were featured in a magazine published by El Tiempo.  The article tells about their father, Segundo renovating the family home 20 years ago, making it the first colonial mansion to become a hotel.

Tania, the oldest daughter of three, had already studied clinical psychology at the university.  Upon   completion of the renovation, she left her career and began to work in tourism, a foreign and completely different area for her.  Little did she know at the time, but this was her niche!  And in these past 20 years, she has indeed, blossomed in this marvelous industry.
One year later, following the opening of Hotel Inca Real, Karina, the second eldest followed in the family theme and opened her restaurant located in the Caja National Park, called “Dos Chorreras.”  Now it is not only a restaurant, but a luxurious lodge nestled in the beautiful mountains.
Priscilla, the youngest of the daughters, decided to be the caboose of this business train and went to the university, specifically to study tourism.  After her graduation 15 years ago, she began a successful catering business called “Casa Real.” 
And five years from Priscilla’s opening of her business, the sisters’ parents decided to change the family farm to an event center for wedding or conventions.  The place is “Jardines de San Joaquin” with the ability to seat 500 persons.
The latest project of the family was in November of 2011 when Priscilla opened a new, full service restaurant, “La Pergola.”
That leaves an interesting question:  “What are the husbands of these beautiful sisters doing?”  Just so happens that they have been totally involved with every family project, and the couples all work in their businesses together. 
Is that all?
No, ALL the older children of the sisters, now work in the family businesses as well.
What a story!  What a family!
In conclusion, the greatest dream though, of the Sarmiento family, is to leave a legacy of excellence in business and family to the city of Cuenca, which they dearly love.
Hotel Inca Real's Blog:
Hotel Inca Real's Website:
Sue Gaither