Thursday, April 28, 2011



That's a common reaction to the first almuerzo (lunch) set in front of new visitors here. The amazing amount of carbohydrates consumed by Cuenca's citizenry is a huge surprise. A typical lunch may contain rice, potatoes, AND hominy corn. Wow! Papas fritas (french fries) are found on menus and sold by street vendors all over town, and it's common to see folks enjoying ice cream and other sweet treats throughout the day.

Equally surprising is that against all logic, obesity is virtually nonexistent. Coming here from Las Vegas, recently named "America's Fattest City" (sir, madam--step away from the buffet), it's remarkable to be in the midst of normal sized (although somewhat shorter) people every day.

"Oh, well, there's a lot more walking here" is the common reasoning for this phenomenon, and that for sure is a partial explanation. While visiting pedestrian-oriented places like Manhattan we've observed a similarly disproportionate slim populace. But the hundreds of buses and zillions of taxis in Cuenca are far from empty, and the number of cars on the roads has increased dramatically just in the year we've lived here. A lot of folks aren't walking any more here than their much heftier counterparts in the States.

So what's going on? Is Cuenca some kind of weight loss Nirvana where you really can have your cake and eat it too?

It turns out there's some solid science to explain the diet instinctively eaten here. Cuenca sits at 8400 feet above sea level. Because we're in a valley surrounded by mountains it's easy to forget how high this city really is. Well, guess what. An excellent article called "High-altitude Eating" published by Roehampton University in London reports that experts have learned at high altitudes the body has a decreased "use of fat as an energy source together with an increased reliance on carbohydrates. It's thought that this shift makes it easier for oxygen to dissolve into the blood. Thus, there's a need for an even higher carbohydrate intake than usual."

Consumption of liquids is also addressed. The article reminds that "extra fluid intake continues to be crucially important. The higher the altitude the lower the humidity and the quicker sweat evaporates from the skin. This can lead you to think that you're sweating less than usual - whatever you do, don' t drink less than usual!" It's further recommended to cut back on caffeine and alcohol since these encourage fluid loss.

Many gringos happily report unexpected weight loss in their early months in Cuenca. Better eating and more walking are assumed to be the catalysts, but again science plays a part. It has been discovered that "basal metabolic rate or BMR, the amount of energy used to just keep your body ticking, appears to increase during the first days at altitude. With time, the increase in BMR subsides but does not appear to return completely to baseline values. A continued elevation in BMR at high altitude would lead to an increase in overall average daily metabolic rate. If such an increase is not matched by an adequate rise in energy intake you will lose weight."

Heads up, first-time visitors to Cuenca. In addition to your flights, hotel reservations, and things-to-do list, here's a preparation tip well worth considering to maximize your enjoyment of our beautiful city. Di you know one in three people are susceptible to changes in altitude, with symptoms ranging from headaches and lethargy to breathlessness and loss of coordination? Several days before your departure, purposely increase your calorie and fluid intake, especially eating foods with a high carbohydrate content and restricting alcohol and caffeine consumption. This type of "carbo-loading," a common training technique before strenuous athletic events, can possibly minimize your body's adverse reaction to our higher altitude.

As we say in the South, "Praise the Lord and pass the potatoes."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It's Curtains for Us!

Don’t you just love it when you’re trying to do something and it’s not working out but then something else happens that turns out even better than what you originally intended? What? That doesn’t happen to you?

Well, when you go off half-cocked all the time like me (special blessings to my dear wife Cynthia for living with this madman all these years), trust me, it happens a lot!

Case in point: we were recently admiring our neighbors’ curtains, asked who they used, and they told us generally where the proprietor was located. No name—no address. I filed that info away in what I like to call my “Steel Trap,” a mighty mental magnet so strong that no information escapes (and unfortunately from which that same information often cannot be retrieved).

So I’m leaving the gym on my bike one day and I think, “I don’t need to go home right now. That curtain store they talked about shouldn’t be too far from here. I’m gonna go find it!” I’m not much of a suspense writer, am I? Of course I couldn’t find it.


After fruitlessly riding around awhile I’ve given up and am just exploring the area before heading back. I look down a side street and I see what looks like might be a home decoration store. I pedal down there, look in the window and I’ll be damned, that’s exactly what it is.

I lock up my bike and come bouncing in the door of Trapitos

looking like the “Gringo from Outer Space”—gym shorts, sleeveless shirt, backwards baseball cap, Oakley’s—definitely not the standard issue uniform for the streets of Cuenca. A quick look around tells me I am in a really nice store.

The furnishings and accessories are all extremely tasteful, yet reasonably priced.

After a brief wait I meet with Catalina Jaramillo, Trapitos owner.

Caty speaks much better English than she gives herself credit for, so it is easy for me to explain our needs to her. We make an appointment for her to come to our apartment, she arrives right on time, takes all her measurements, and we book a follow-up appointment at her store.

At that meeting the fabrics she had picked out were absolutely perfect and her price, which included all materials (including wooden rods and finials) and installation, we found extremely reasonable. We gave her the go-ahead and she promised the job would be completed within two weeks.

All of us who’ve lived here any amount of time have dealt with these promised schedules and deadlines, so imagine our surprise when we got a call from Caty only 10 days later saying the curtains were ready to be delivered! Her installation team once again arrived on time (actually about 10 minutes early!) and professionally installed all the draperies.

We are thrilled with the results and highly recommend Caty Jaramillo to anyone in Cuenca in need of window treatments or any other interior design services. Trapitos is located in the Laureles building at Juan Iniguez 4-165 (west of Solano between Remigio Crespo and 10th of August). The phone number is (07) 2881836.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Chillaxin' in Bahia

I've been a bit of a lazy blogger here in Bahia. That's kinda the proper attitude at the beach though, right? Since this is our last full day before returning to Cuenca let me take a few minutes to post what's been going on before I get back to doing not much of anything again.

Tuesday was actually quite eventful. In the morning we visited Isla Corazon, the largest sanctuary for frigate birds in the entire south Pacific. We went by motor boat to the island,

then transferred to a canoe to paddle through incredibly dense mangrove forests.

When we emerged on the other side the sky was so filled with these large birds that it seriously looked like special effects of a battle sequence in a Star Wars movie. We were amazed.

For anyone who visits Bahia this excursion should be on the "must do" list.

Upon our return to the city we went straight to the Bahia Museum.

An excellent bilingual guide took us on an informative hour-long tour through the history of the area, describing artifacts of the various periods

and also showing us an impressive art gallery with paintings donated by outstanding Ecuadorian artists.

After all this activity we were famished, and fortunately Puerto Amistad, an attractive restaurant right on the water, was just up the street.

Friends, this place has absolutely THE best American-style hamburger we've tasted in all of Ecuador. That alone makes a trip to Bahia worthwhile! Plus the grande Pilseners there are a measly $1.50. Wow!

Wednesday afternoon we visited Chirije,

an ecolodge owned by the CasaGrande folks located on an active archaeological site several miles south of Bahia. It's right on the beach, with lovely rooms

and killer views.

There are outdoor meeting facilities and a small museum with artifacts collected all around the lodge.

You can and will find some yourself if you look around a bit. We enjoyed an excellent cerviche

before driving all the way back to Bahia on the beach. What a fun adventure!

The rest of the week we've pretty much been getting our re-lax on and enjoying meals at nearby restaurants.

I've been body surfing as much as possible, whacking my head on the sand once while riding a particularly ferocious wave.

This place is laid back beyond description, with no big nightclubs and no traffic at all. We've had a marvelous time and will most definitely come back often. Here are some final photos to enjoy.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bahia Sunset

Hope you enjoy this series of photos I took at sunset here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


On Monday morning we took a short trip to Canoa, a "surfer town" a little north of Bahia. Hang-gliding, an insane sport I've always wanted to try, is also supposed to be big there. Sadly I didn't see a single glider while we were there--perhaps the wind wasn't suitable. But the waves were happening,

and this lifelong body surfer hit the water along with our friend Patricio, the owner of CasaGrande, who brought along his board.

Surfing is a pure Zen experience. When you're in the middle of a big wave you ARE the wave and the wave is you. There's no thinking about anything else or you bust. I followed my usual M.O. of riding in, walking out, riding in, walking out until I was exhausted. Meanwhile Cynthia distinguished herself by being the only person on the beach doing Tai Chi.

Wandering around a bit afterward I found Canoa to be an excellent day trip but I don't think we'd stay there overnight.

It's really small and rustic, and its main appeal is to surfers and backpackers. But for a fun day of surf, cheap beer, fresh seafood, and plenty of atmosphere it's outstanding. And a measly $5 taxi ride from Bahia.

We came back to Bahia and ate a tasty lunch at a little place up the street called D'Camaron

which from the name and logo you might guess specializes in shrimp dishes. There are many shrimp farms around here so this item is available on most menus.

Afterward we wandered around for a bit to familiarize ourselves with the area.

Bahia is tiny compared to Cuenca and the main areas are all within a 10 minute walk. Still, if you're pooped or carrying packages bicycle taxis take you anywhere in town for a whopping 50 cents.

Following the morning at Canoa, an afternoon in the sun by the pool left us wilted and uninterested in a night out, so I found a pizza joint nearby and brought food and alcohol provisions back to the room. We went to bed early and slept soundly.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Surf City, Here We Come

The alarm goes off Sunday at 6 AM and I lay in the dark listening. It is raining--again. This is our first April in Cuenca and so far it has seemed that the old rhyme about "April showers----" originated here. I'm not sure if there has been a dry day all month, and the usually gentle Tomebamba River has sometimes looked like a raging torrent of chocolate milk.

Facing yet another day of gray skies could have been depressing, and waking up in the dark is rarely an occasion for celebration in the Staton household, but this particular morning I quietly smile, because we are leaving stormy weather behind for a warm, sunny week on the coast.

Cynthia and I love the beach and thought for years we would retire to some oceanfront location. Yet we recently realized just the two of us haven't taken a trip alone like this since an anniversary celebration in Cancun maybe 10 years ago.

Our getaway destination is Bahia (Ba-EE-uh), Ecuador's only "eco-city" and what appears on the Internet to be a lovely resort town and Bahia was devastated by an earthquake some years back and has since been completely rebuilt. We'll be staying at a converted home/boutique hotel called CasaGrande.

We are going to Bahia and the surrounding area not only to enjoy ourselves but to help our dear friend Juan Heredia develop a travel package for his tour company TerraDiversa. Several of our friends have taken beach trips with varying degrees of satisfaction, and the prospect of planning and executing excursions on your own in a foreign country is daunting. So we're pretty much putting ourselves "out there" as guinea pigs (cuy?).

I sometimes expound on how we've changed living here. So it is with sheer amazement that I report Cynthia managed to pack everything for a week-long trip into a backpack! Her packing has always evoked images from "Out of Africa" with a conga line of foot locker toting porters, thus I was duly impressed with this awe inspiring display of downsizing.

I love it when we leave on time, which we did, and when a cab appears as soon as we unlock the gate, which it did. Our van to Guayaquil departed right on schedule too, and I knew the stars were aligning.

The drive to Guayaquil takes three hours and I always tell myself I'll sleep on the trip. There's one very large obstacle to that plan I continue to overlook--the Cajas mountains. This part of the journey is like trying to nap during an hour-long ride on the Scream Machine at Six Flags. Having made the trip several times I have to say it's amazing what you can used to. This morning featured the usual suspects that once terrified me--rain, dense fog, llamas in the road, boulders, passing on blind curves. Today because of all the precipitation we got bonus obstacles of waterfalls and landslides. In spite of several delays caused by all of the above, our driver was an excellent combination of aggressive yet safe so we arrived right on time.

Once out of the van and on the streets of Guayaquil, however,we had entered no-man's land with only a vague idea of how to proceed. Yet our good luck continued as we immediately hailed a taxi that took us to the bus terminal which turned out to be only a short distance away. But this wasn't just a "bus terminal"--we entered what appeared to be a 3-story mall from which buses happened to leave.

Outside there were buses and cabs everyhere! Inside was complete bedlam--shops and people everywhere! And in the midst of all this stood two clueless gringos trying to figure out how to buy tickets and board a bus to Bahia.

We ask a lady who says to go upstairs. There we learn this is where you get on the bus, but first we're told we have to go back downstairs and to the left to buy our tickets. We find the correct corridor, and it's lined with booths selling tickets to what seems like any place in Ecuador--except Bahia. Finally we locate the right window. More mayhem--people are pushing and talking fast and loud. Now I'm in the front. "Bahia," I say. "Passaportes," the cashier says. Crap. They're buried somewhere in Cynthia's backpack. Out of line. Find them. Back in line. The lady gives me 2 tickets for 50 cents. 50 cents? What's going on?

This official looking guy in a white shirt now signals us to follow him. Cynthia's asking, "Where are we going? What are we doing?" I say, "I have absolutely no idea. But it looks this guy is helping us so we're going with him."

It's 11:30 and we thought our bus left at 1. All of a sudden our helper person is leading us through the turnstiles (that's what the 25 cents each was for) and to the buses. Cynthia says, "Hey, we gotta eat!" I reply, "There are booths here. I'll grab something. Looks like we're leaving right now!"

Our new friend turns out to be the driver and climbs into his seat. We later discover that ours were the last two seats on the 11:30 bus. I pay $7 each for our tickets and rush back to one of the booths while Cynthia finds our seatas. $3 and 3 big chicken empanadas later we're boarded and on our way!

The six hour trip we had expected turned out to be only 5 and actually passed pretty quickly. The scenery in this part of the country was somewhat unremarkable, but we napped and chatted to pass the time. Once we stopped for gas and everyone got off the bus. Well, everyone but mi esposa. She had set up camp around her seat and was totally unprepared for this unexpected departure. Just as she got reorganized and had made her way to the front of the bus the driver signaled for everyone to get back on board. (Sigh)

When we got to the Bahia terminal it sure didn't look like any Internet pictures we had seen. This building seemed to be pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But the sign said "Bahia," so we got off, collected our backpacks, and grabbed the last taxi. Maybe 10 minutes later we found ourselves downtown in front of CasaGrande.

The place is lavishly landscaped

and filled with original paintings by important Ecuadorian artists.

Our room is lovely and spacious,

and our hosts are extremely kind. We were taken on a brief tour of the town and then to a lookout point above the city

for some excellent views.

A long day ended with a nice meal and a hot shower. Tomorrow we go to Canoa for some body surfing. Yeah!