Well, guys! We officially made it through our first month on the road, and it’s been pretty incredible. The four weeks we had budgeted for Ecuador is slowly slipping towards seven, and we’re not planning on leaving anytime soon. Who would have thought a country so tiny would be so amazing? From tiresome volcanic treks to mojitos on the coast, we’ve managed to get a whole lot out of our first month in South America, with the only casualties being two pairs of sunglasses.
Here’s our life lately.
Quito is quite alright
We’re not at sea level anymore! Stepping off the plane into a 9,350ft high capital city swallowed by volcanoes was quite the introduction to South America. We’d been warned that Quito was kind of a drag, but the very-high city really defied our expectations.
Our first stop was the Secret Garden Hostel in the Centro Histórico. We got pretty slammed by altitude our first few days, so the private room, free coffee, and great views from the balcony were pretty unbeatable. We made our first few hostel friends when Daniel cleaned up in the Sunday pub quiz, securing free pitchers for the table.
At the nearby Mercado Central, we experienced some of Ecuador’s best cuisine for less than $3 a plate. We were excited to see herbs, fresh fruits, and salad snuck onto every plate following some pretty vegetable-free dining in Colombia. After tasting llapingachos, ceviche de corvina, and locro de papa at the market, we wandered around to check out the fresh flowers, fruit, and newly hooked pig carcasses hung around the market. It really doesn’t take long to grow tired of 4% ABV pilsners, so when we found a craft brewery called Banditos Brewery, we were stoked. They serve up some of the best IPAs we’ve had outside of the USA. Needless to say, we went back a lot.
Continuing our journey through the Centro Historico, we coughed up a hefty $2 to check out a view of the city from La Basílica del Voto Nacional. While I’ve never been too scared of heights, it was pretty damn terrifying to climb steep, rickety ladders some 300+ feet above Quito. Somehow, it always seems to be the climbs that make your heart race that are worth the view.
We figured we’d be back to Quito again so we made our exit north for something a bit quieter.
Milking cows is harder than it looks
Otavalo (famed for its Saturday Market) seemed kind of average to us, so we found ourselves a farm stay further north at Loma Wasi Village. The inn is run by a family dedicated to sharing their culture and indigenous lifestyle. During our stay, the entire community started their farm work at 4am while we slept in — lazy, I know. We spent one day at Loma Wasi “helping” on the farm. Our better efforts to lead livestock and milk the cows devolved into me carrying a giant cabbage back to the house for lunch while Daniel played no less than 70 games of pickup soccer with a 4-year-old. I am, apparently, exceptionally bad at milking cows and am grateful to rely on the hard work of others to fulfill my cheese and ice cream needs.
The family prepared us vegetarian meals consisting of beans, fruit, vegetables, eggs, and milk entirely from their farm. The family was incredibly generous, and it was some of the best food we’ve had in Ecuador!
We also made the journey to Laguna de Cuicocha, a stunning crater lake about 45 minutes away by taxi. After about 2 hours of walking, we anticipated a swift end to our hike, and polished off our water and food. Turns out that the almost end was actually just a dip into a valley, so we continued on for another 3 hours through a grassy meadow and along a paved road. We eventually got back to the ranger station, and hitched a ride with a bus full of whiskey-drinking high schoolers on a school trip.
What happens in Montañita
We made our first home away from home at the Montañita Cabañas while we studied Spanish at the Montañita Spanish School. We knew our Spanish could use a bit of work before we tried to navigate the rest of the continent, so we picked the Montañita Spanish School for our first partnership of the trip. Montañita is a funky beach town that could exist in just about any country in the world, but with warm water and $1 beers, it was a pretty perfect place to chill while we were still getting the hang of this whole traveling thing.
I established myself in Montañita with a karaoke rendition of Santeria. Victory by applause ensured a $35 bar tab and two weeks of high fives and “Hey! Santeria!” as we wandered the streets of Montañita. We made our first real traveling friends here, and spent lots of nights on Cocktail Alley with $3 mojitos in hand. Montañita will make a college kid out of anyone. Just trust us.
We did manage to get up early enough one Saturday for a trip to Isla de la Plata, though! We hired a boat for the day, and saw everything from whales, to blue footed boobies, to sea tortoises. Known as the Poor Man’s Galapagos, Isla de la Plata has just about everything people pay thousands of dollars to see in the Galapagos. For just $50, it was one of the best day trips we’ve ever taken.
Daniel’s 25th birthday came and went. What do you get a person who spends his days drinking beer in a hammock, anyway? We dined on meatloaf and mashed potatoes, though I’m not sure how close I got to Mom’s recipe with local ingredients. I ordered a massive cake from the next town over, and was shocked that the ants waited until it had been cut to attack the whipped-cream Snoopy on top. Between the guy at the hostel who picked the cake up, the other who ventured to town for a firework topper, and the rest of the crew who sang in his 25th year, it was a birthday unlike any other, which made it pretty darn successful.
We could have stayed forever (it seems like everyone does) but we figured we had some other business to take care of. Like, you know, seeing the rest of South America.
Overnight busses are the worst
2 X 1 transportation and accommodation is a tempting offer. After 8 months in Asia in 2013, I have clung to naive assumptions that overnight bus rides mean traveling along paved roads in giant reclining chairs with a complimentary snack box and too-cold air conditioning. Well, buddy. Not so much in South America.
Don’t get me wrong. We’ve done a few, and will be doing a whole lot more. But the experience usually goes something like this: You get shoveled onto the bus the moment it is leaving the station. There may be wires protruding from the chair in front of you, or the heater on the floor may be hot enough to burn your leg. After 20 minutes of air-conditioning, it will shut off with the flip of a switch, and you’re left to your own devices for climate control. The bus-hand will turn on a movie, usually action, and at full volume, you will watch Bruce Willis gun down hundreds of men as you drift off into bloody dreams.
The lights go on and the attendant will come to collect your tickets. Some, in particular, may try to sell you weed. Then, you are reminded to keep your bags in your lap in case of bag slashers, so you compare the risk of the elderly woman in front of you to the discomfort of the bag in your lap. You’ll need to use the bathroom, but the toilet is broken. The men just stop to pee on the side of the road. A few vendors will come on, selling snacks, but usually bags of coconut juice or plantain chips, and you’ll wish you had brought more substantial food for later. The bus stops suddenly to let them off, and the bus seems to repeat these sudden stops every 30 minutes or so.
Some two hours later, the bus will come to a complete halt on the side of the road, and narco police will come on. They’ll check your bags, only so much that the job is done, but not so much as to really find anything. This may happen once or twice, and on some occasions, three times, so you best be grateful that you said no to the first solicitation by the bus-man. At some too-early A.M., you will arrive at a dimly lit station or a stop on the side of the road, and with a shout of the town name, you are dumped into the dark, but only after proving that you are indeed the holder of the backpacker’s backpacks, even when you’re the only two backpackers on the bus. You can’t be mad. Really, you’re just thankful that the bags are still there.
Like most modes of public transport, we have a love / hate relationship with overnight busses. Even in our hours of despair, we laugh at the experience. We can’t imagine anything working so seamlessly in the US as it does in South America. Without fail, you can get from anywhere to anywhere without spending much money, and that is the true miracle. So we cope with pat downs, and the DVD Box sets of every movie The Rock has ever made, and the risk of bladder infection as we carry on to the next town.
Quito (The Sequel)
Our favorite part of visiting new cities is experiencing the mundane, so we headed back to Quito to do pretty much nothing. We’re talking walking through the grocery store, sitting in the mall, and eating lunch in the colorless business district kind of nothing. One of our favorite ventures was to MegaMaxi which is like what Super Target would be if it were the only Super Target in the entire country. I had the unfortunate experience of dropping an entire carton of cherry tomatoes while browsing for large trash bags (traveling is so glamorous). Unsure of the break it, buy it policy in Ecuador, I dropped to my knees and picked them up one by one, placing them back into the container, in front of no less than 30 people.
We broke the life-as-usual for a climb up the infamous Rucu Pichincha. We expected any hike that could be reached by TeleferiQo would be kind of lame, but when you wake up at 9,350ft, it’s safe to say any hike that follows will be pretty tough. The 3-4 hour hike was well worth the trip for views of the city and the cred of having survived a hike to 15,413 ft.
For our last night in Quito, we moved to La Mariscal. It looked a bit touristy for our taste with craft breweries advertising generic “dark beers” and poorly translated nightclub signs, but we figured we couldn’t do Quito without at least one big night out. As it turned out, we seriously underestimated Ecuador’s love of Halloween. People were carrying balloon centipedes across busy intersections, changing into skeletons on the streets, and crying over empty bottles of rum by 6pm. We stayed at the Color House on the quieter end of La Mariscal, and avoided the chaos by heading out to a salsa bar with the owner and a bunch of the other guests.
Our night ended later than expected, but without too much damage done. In late celebration of Daniel’s birthday, we woke up early for a soccer game at Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa where we watched El Nacional (the Quito team) get whooped by Emelec (the Guyaquil team). After the game, we kissed Quito goodbye, and loaded ourselves onto an overnight bus (oops, we did it again) to Lago Agrio. Our next stop was the Amazon.