In the fall of 2004, I spent three weeks traveling around one of South America's smallest, but most interesting, countries. From November 27th through December 18th, I worked my way around Ecuador, starting in her capitol city, Quito, and moving south along the Andes gringo trail. Though the complete circle back to Quito involved a short visit to the blue Pacific Ocean, I still found the true heart and soul of this nation to lie along that mountainous spine running down the middle. The following entries chronicle these travels. (map: http://ecuador.america-atlas.com)
NOVEMBER 27 :: QUITO (ATLANTA, MIAMI, & BOGOTA)
It took three flights to get from Atlanta to Quito, and I arrived late in the night. A cab drove me to the Secret Garden hostel where I had previously made a reservation - it's nice to arrive in town after being stuck on airplanes all day and not have to think about finding accomodations. These first two photos were actually taken the next day, but I thought it would be nice to start things off with a couple views of Quito's Old Town. The Secret Garden was a comfortable hostel, and a great place to meet some fellow travelers.
The rooftop cafe at the Secret Garden offers some of the finest views of Quito. Here, we see the hill known as El Penecillo. Commanding the skyline, it's sort of a where-are-we landmark that travelers may find helpful when trying to get around town. As darkness falls, the city emerged into light. Nice real-estate, eh?
I had flown from Atlanta to the middle of the world, only to find a funny-talker in my hostel with a Georgia Tech T-shirt. "Did... you... go... to... Tech?" The Aussie looked up at me and replied, "No, mate. I don't even know where it is - bought it at a market in Bolivia for two dollars." And, finally, the question of our lifetime was answered: How much does a Georgia Tech t-shirt sell for in a Bolivian market?
NOVEMBER 28 :: QUITO
arly in the morning, I met a nice British girl named Helen. As we were both solo travelers looking to explore some of the sites, we decided to team up and have at it. Our first stop was El Penecillo. Perched on the hill stands the Virgin of Quito - it's a statue. We were told that muggings are pretty common for tourists hiking up the hill's winding roads, so we hired a cab to take us to the top. I had hoped to configure enough Spanish to command, "Driver! Take me to the Virgin!" However, the best I was able to muster was, "El Penecillo, por favor."
From El Penecillo, you can catch a green bus to the center of the world. However, don't be fooled. Mitad del Mundo, Ecuador's standing monument to the equator, is a sham. It seems as though they were off by about 200 meters. In as such, the real equator can be found just up the road at Museo Inti Nan. Luckily, Helen and I were privy to this information and soon found ourselves on the tour. At one point, the guide showed how, because of where we were standing, one might balance an egg on a nail. She then performed this task with ease and offered up a chance to the tourists. Somehow, Helen managed to balance the egg, but it slipped off the nail seconds before the shutter closed on my camera. So, we are left with this...
It's sort of like being at the four corners in the United States (for my foreign friends, that would be where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah meet, allowing a person to sprawl over four states at one time - find a map). You just have to swallow your pride and take a stupid picture of yourself straddling the equator.
NOVEMBER 29 :: BANOS
I was already anxious to get on the road and head down to Banos when a rumor began floating around the hostel about a bus strike. I figured it was best not to wait around any longer. At the station, I somehow managed to find a bus to Banos, despite the general craziness of an Ecuadorian bus terminal and constant explainations that the bus strike was, in fact, a reality. Still, I was assured by one private company that I could get there. Well, they lied. The end of the line was Ambato. There, a group of us (consisting of me, the tall German guy from the hostel, a German girl named Francesca, and an American girl named Kelsey) hired a man with a pickup truck to drive us past the bus blockade that had been formed up the road as part of the strike. Only the shoulder was left open for emergency vehicles - which showed a surprising amount of coordination for Ecuador. Joining us in the back of the pickup, among several more passengers, was this woman - a Banos local who was determined to get back home one way or another. The strike turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we all found the wind and fresh air to be a welcome change from the cramped, stinky, and loud bus (they blast horrible music day and night on those things).
Meet big, German Andre. He and his hair took up a lot of space in the back of the truck, but he did bring a few beers along. We ended up hanging out, often quite randomly, in Banos, Riobamba, Cuenca, and Vilcabamba. See: "My Travels with Andre" in the Essays Etc. link.
After checking into my own room at the Princesa Maria hostel, I strolled around Banos, taking in the scenery of this peaceful (and somewhat touristy) little town. Those of us from the bus, along with some new additions, ended up spending a lot of time together. This included several meals, all of which were exceptional. The best among these were found at Buon Giorno and the Blah Blah Cafe.
The local swill.
NOVEMBER 30 :: BANOS
A man makes Melcocha in the doorway. This is a common sight in Banos, as the toffee-like goo is sold in shops all over town. Quite frankly, it tastes horrible. After wandering arond town, hitting up the supermarket and finding other ways to waste time, the group decided to hire some horses and a guide for the day.
Helen, Dutch Liesbeth, and Francesca doing whatever it is girls do before they go horseback riding. Notice how calm Francesca looks - it didn't last very long. Once we began our little excursion, it became painfully clear that this girl did not enjoy being on a saddle.
Upon one of our less than sure footed horses, (French Canadian) Alexander rides in the direction of Volcan Tunurahua. The horses were far from healthy, and we felt bad even patronizing the tour company. However, our day-long ride was a great way to see the beauty of Banos and the surrounding area. An amusing moment, for me anyway, was watching Francesca's horse plow right into some guy's car, taking out his side-view mirror like it was a twig. I did feel bad for the man, but to see Francesca's face was priceless - she was already scared stiff from the horses.
High in the mountains, by the Buena Vista Cafe, we dismounted our steeds for a much needed break. At one point, a man yelled, "Volcan! Volcan! Volcan!" At that moment, the clouds parted just long enough for us to get a good glimpse of Volcan Tunurahua belching ash into the sky. In this photo, far below our model UN, you can get a nice view of Banos. Nations represented, from left to right: Germany, England, Netherlands, Germany, United States, and Canada. Later that evening, after soaking in the hot, mirky thermal baths at Piscinas de la Virgen, we treated our guide to some drinking out on the town. I also had the opportunity to try a shot of Chicha, a sweet Ecuadorian fermented corn spirit that was served in the Sierra style (canelazo) - with sugar and cinnamon.
DECEMBER 1 :: BANOS
Though I enjoyed my time with my Banos companions, I was sort of hoping to have a day for myself. So, after breakfast, I walked down to the Zoologico San Martin, a small zoo on the outskirts of town. As I was fairly certain that I would not get to visit the Galapagos or the bird-watching village of Mindo, I decided I still needed to somehow get my fix on wildlife, despite how un-wild and lacking of life these animals may have been in the confines of their habitats. The upper level of the zoo is a bird sanctuary - that's where I found this guy. The lower level is for the non-bird-creatures... there's a proper scientific name for this, I'm sure. Pretty basic stuff, but you do get to move in relatively close to the animals. All in all, not a bad way to spend part of the afternoon.
After the zoo, I wandered around that part of town until I found the trail leading down to Cascada Ines Maria. I believe I was searching for some kind of zen moment down by the water, but I found myself rather mentally exhausted after trekking through some heavy brush. Convinced that I was going to get bitten by some sort of snake or other deadly creature below the weeds and bushes, I sort of hopped along the trail in complete denial to the fact that my six-inches of vertical leap weren't going to protect me from anything. The falls were pleasant.
Before going out for the evening, I decided to sit back with some coffee at a sidewalk cafe. A solo Danish tourist eventually took a seat by my table. We smoked some cigars and talked about the wellness centers that he owned... and at the end of the conversation, I was well-convinced that he was thoroughly cracked.
DECEMBER 2 :: RIOBAMBA
I left Banos mid-morning, having boarded a bus for Riobamba. The plan was to catch a ride on the Devil's Nose Train early the next morning, and then move on to Cuenca. I ended up sitting with two Australian backpackers named Rhett and Triston. It was a two hour ride to Riobamba, and Rhett helped pass that time by explaining his Insane Clown Posse tattoos. When we arrived in Riobamba, we each checked into our own room at Hostal Los Shyris. It wasn't a hostel in the backpacker sense, but, rather, a less than spectacular hotel. However, it was close to the train station so we could wake up early for the 7am departure. We spent a couple hours wandering around this bustling city, but eventually ended up back at the hotel.
We got a little bored, so we decided to head on up to the roof of our hotel to create some trouble. Having found five large soda bottles, a giant jug, a rock, and a deflated basketball, we invented a new sporting craze that's taking over the planet - Bottle Ball. The very basic rules are as follows... The giant jug (not pictured) is placed in the back by a wall. The rock defends the jug as an added obstacle. The five large soda bottles are placed two at each wing, and one in the middle. Each player's turn grants him three throws of the deflated basketball from a line twenty feet away. Each large soda bottle that is knocked over is worth one point. The giant jug is worth three. If a player happens to knock down three bottles with one throw, he is allowed to stand one of the large soda bottles up again for another possible point. A game consists of five rounds, and the player with the most points wins. A tie-breaker was never determined. In as such, the best possible point total for a round is nine, but an excellent score is eight. Each of us represented a nation for the inaugural Bottle Ball tournament. I, of course, represented the United States. Rhett stood proudly for Australia. And Triston, being Australian and Maltese, waved the flag for Malta. Scores were written in orange chalk on the roof. By nightfall, we had played for close to two and a half hours and managed, only once, to let the ball fall five stories to the street below (a bottle fell twice). It was pure genius.
The final score from our major Bottle Ball tournament: Malta 15, Australia 10, United States 30. USA! USA! USA!
DECEMBER 3 :: CUENCA (DEVIL'S NOSE TRAIN)
On top of the Devil's Nose Train. This was, perhaps, the most touristy thing I did in Ecuador, but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. As per the tradition, travelers sit on top of the train as it winds its way through the countryside, offering some dramatic landscapes. The train is infamous for breaking down, and it did just that about three minutes into our journey. Though we were set back about half an hour, our machine managed to perform well the rest of the way.
Local villagers come out to meet the train as many of the riders throw candy to the children. Something about the whole situation made me feel rather uncomfortable - as if these kids were animals at the zoo, released for the amusement of the tourists.
Creative engineers managed to find a way to get passengers down this: The Devil's Nose. By switching forward and backward, trains slowly work their way down the mountain into the valley. After our ride, I hopped on an already waiting bus with Rhett and Triston for Cuenca. It was a long day, but we found agreeable accomodation at the lively El Cafecito hostel.
DECEMBER 4 :: CUENCA
I decided to take a day trip to Ingapirca, Ecuador's best-preserved Incan ruins. Being one of the more interesting and accessible day-trips from Cuenca, you would think I could at least fain something that resembles excitement.
Ingapirca. It's one of those things that once you are there you're not exactly sure what it is you are supposed to do. Behold, one of the great challenges of travel - discovering your role as an on-looker in the presence of something grand. I'd like to say that I spent the bus ride back to Cuenca pondering such ideas, but catching some serious shut-eye seemed to take a much higher priority.
Colonial Cuenca was indeed a beautful city. In fact, it reminded me of Sevilla, Spain - one of my favorite cities in Europe. Pleasant and friendly, this was a place I would like to have had more opportunity to explore. However, with my limited time, I was eager to continue south the next day.
Here is another image from Cuenca. On my final evening in town, I walked along the river and checked out the surrounding area. Cuenca seemed to be a fine place to live and visit - just as nice as Quito's old town, but without the bustle and smog.
DECEMBER 5 :: VILCABAMBA
I ended up catching a mid-morning bus with Rhett, who just happened to already be on board. With a mysterious bottle in his backpack, he managed to make our ride to Vilcabamba go down rather smoothly. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the vodka.
I snuck this photo of a local girl on the bus. I couldn't help myself - it was too funny.
After arriving at dusk, Rhett went to a less expensive hostel right in the center of town, and I set off for the German owned Hosteria Izhcayluma, two kilometers up the hill. I was happy to have arrived in Vilcabamba, a small town that developed into a hangout for backpackers after a 1955 Reader's Digest article touted it as the "valley of eternal youth." The rumors of longevity were found, later, to be highly exaggerated. Still, travelers keep showing up day after day, some in search of the hallucinogenic San Pedro drink. I was there for the scenery.
DECEMBER 6 :: VILCABAMBA
Every evening, I ate dinner at Izhcayluma's restaurant as they happened to serve some of the best food I had tasted in all of Ecuador. Granted, it wasn't local cuisine. Overall, Izhcayluma's property was immaculate, soothing, and run with German efficiency like you'd never believe - a terrfic experience.
The bar was always lively at night. Not so much, however, during daytime.
I spent the bulk of my day wandering around town in awe of its easy-going spirit. Later, I played some chess with Aussie Rhett and shared a beer with Andre. The "valley of eternal youth" may not actually add years to your life, but it certainly does nothing to take those years away.
DECEMBER 7 :: VILCABAMBA
A perfect morning in Vilcabamba. Generally speaking, these waking hours are a gift to those who earn them, for it takes a certain amount of discipline and humility to get yourself up so you can gaze upon the sun shining on things with that soft, delicate light. I'm certainly not that dedicated, so I make an effort to enjoy the gift whenever I can. Just look at that.
I was told that the Mandango Loop could be dangerous and slippery at certain points, and that it's best not to go it alone. Of course, being that nobody else was interested in joining me on a tough 4-hour hike, I ended up making it a solo trek.
Not a bad hike, save for the fact that if you slipped on the ridgeline one way or the other you would likely fall to your death. The most difficult part was, not so much the getting lost at the end and having to jump several barbed wire fences, but circumnavigating the two bulls that stood right in the middle of the path. Amazingly, the map actually warns the hiker to look out for these two particular bulls at a precise point on the trail... and there they were. They seemed less than interested in killing me, but I still had to climb through thorned bushes to get around them. All in all, it was a terrific hike.
DECEMBER 8 :: NIGHT BUS (VILCABAMBA)
I decided to spend my last full day in Vilcabamba taking it easy - especially after the previous day's hike. This involved a little reading on the hammock and a stroll into town to watch some Champions League soccer at the Hidden Garden Hostel with some guys I had met (Real Madrid vs Roma). Later in the afternoon, I walked back to Izhcayluma, packed my things, and had a few drinks.
I was going to miss the pleasant little stroll to my cabin.
Dinner with some new friends before leaving Izhcayluma for my overnight bus to Quayaquil. I actually had to go to Loja first, and then catch my main transport at 10:30pm. This happened to be a very nice bus, modern and clean. I can only say two bad things about the ride: the movie was terrible (Open Water) and we had to be woken up twice during the night by the police for a passport check. The latter, while annoying, helped reassure that this was a safe thing to be doing. Other than that, I had a great seat up front by the driver where, if I happened to be attacked by undesireables, I could yell and somebody might hear my screams... not that they would care.
DECEMBER 9 :: MONTANITA
I arrived in Quayaquil at 6:30am from my mostly pleasant overnight bus ride. Because I was woken up several times during my slumber at the front of the bus, I was a little out of it once I got back on my feet. Still, I managed to purchase a bus ticket to Salinas with the help of a friendly Ecuadorian girl I met in the station. I rode that bus for two and a half hours, stepping off just before Salinas in a town called Santa Elena. There, I waited on the side of the road with a few chickens and locals for the bus to Montanita. I finally reached this laid-back surfer village after a scenic ride along Ecuador's Pacific highway. After walking around town for a bit, searching for a decent place to sleep, I met a Canadian couple in a bar who suggested Cabanas Pakaloro - just at the end of the main strip. I took their advice and wound up with a private bungalo, a stone's throw from the ocean. It gets lively at night in Montanita, so it was actually nice to be a little ways away from all the action. That evening, I joined the Canadians at a local guy's dinner party and, later, a surfer hangout called Mahalo. It was great to be by the ocean, surrounded by fun.
My private little hammock on my private little porch attached to my private little bungalo.
Well, sometimes you just know that you were meant to be in a certain place at a certain time. Clearly, I was meant to be here. The bright Montanita sunsets were stunning, and life seemed to slow down for those final few moments before the big ball of fire dropped below the sealine.
DECEMBER 10 :: MONTANITA
I figured since I spent the entire day hanging out on the beach, I should at least share a few photos of the sand and water where, out by the point, surfers enjoy the crashing waves throughout the day. Ecuador may not be well known for her beaches (outside the Galapagos), but, as far as I was concerned, this was paradise.
Footy on the beach.
Another perfect sunset.
DECEMBER 11 :: MONTANITA
An old church at dusk.
My last evening in Montanita. Just as all other nights, a wave of birds flew into town like the Hitchcock film and perched themselves on the wires just before sunset so they could get an overhead view of the debauchery...
... and the debauchery begins at the cafe at La Casa Blanca Hostel with my new Canadian surfer friends (photo right), Jen and Lee, and an English couple that we met earlier that evening. This was one of my favorite nights in Ecuador.
DECEMBER 12 :: NIGHT BUS (PUERTO LOPEZ)
In the morning, after watching Chelsea and Arsenal play to a draw on TV, I left the bar I had saddled up to in Montanita for breakfast and caught a bus to the small fishing village of Puerto Lopez. I had the entire day to kill before departing on an overnight bus to Quito, so I wandered around the beach and relaxed in the sun. Knowing that I had a monster of a journey ahead of me to make it out to Chugchillan, I was more than content to simply sit around with my book, occasionally watching the local kids play soccer in the sand - it was almost as entertaining as Chelsea and Arsenal. Almost.
Local kids at the beach. My digital camera's viewfinder made me the most popular guy in town.
DECEMBER 13 :: CHUGCHILLAN
I arrived in Quito at around 4am after a painful overnight bus ride. I then had to take another bus to Latacunga and yet another bus to Chugchillan. People had warned me that getting to this mountain village was a pain, but well worth the effort. There were only a few travelers on this last bus, which drove along a hair-raising ridgeline. Eventually, the journey became slightly less terrifying. However, once things seemed to be on easy street, we encountered a minor setback in the form of a giant metal pipe laying across the road. The issue was soon resolved and it only set us back about an hour.
Considered by Outside Magazine as one of the top 10 eco-lodges in the world, the Black Sheep Inn is co-owned by an American couple, Michelle Kirby & Andres (Andy) Hammerman. Serving the very best vegetarian dinners on the planet, and offering an exciting education on eco-tourism, there simply aren't enough great things I can say about the Black Sheep. It's more expensive than most places one might stay in Ecuador, but it's worth every penny. Make it happen.
This is the view from one of the composting toilets. Being an eco-lodge, even human waste is used in some way (mind you, not as fertilizer for the vegitable garden). It's something new to get used to, but where else can you enjoy a lovely garden and inspiring panorama from the comfort of warm toilet seat?
How to use a composting toilet.
DECEMBER 14 :: CHUGCHILLAN
Four of us from the Inn set out on a several-hour day hike from Laguna Quilotoa, a magnificent deep-blue lake that formed in the crater of an old volcano. Getting there took us about 45 minutes (and cost us five dollars to the truck driver).
Midway through the hike, we encountered some school children. These two were generous enough to allow me to take their photograph.
Veggie dinner for Chanukah at the Black Sheep.
DECEMBER 15 :: CHUGCHILLAN
The little bus stop at the bottom of the drive.
The daily milk truck takes locals and travelers into town. This is helpful for those who either miss (or choose to avoid) the 4am bus.
Later in the day, after hiking the ridgeline, I took a second hike to the plateau along the canyon's rim. The hut is shared by locals when they happen to be working in the area.
From the wall of the Black Sheep Inn, a painting by Humberto Latacunga.
DECEMBER 16 :: QUITO (PAPALLACTA)
I woke up at 2:15am to catch a number of buses back to Quito. After I checked myself back into The Secret Garden, I wandered around Old Town for a bit and then spent the rest of the day at Ecuador's finest thermal baths in Papallacta. After my muscles had turned into a fine jello, I hitched a ride back to Quito with an Ecuadorian family. My Spanish was terrible, but we managed a few good laughs none-the-less.
December 17: Quito (Otavalo) DECEMBER 17 :: QUITO (OTAVALO)
The famous Otavalo market on an off-day.
I had a 4am flight home, so I decided to stay up all night, warmed by an old pancho, a small fire, and some cheap liquor.
There are few sights as beautiful as Quito's Old Town at night.
DECEMBER 18 :: THE LAST IMAGE OF ECUADOR
High above the clouds.