One Door Closes, Ecuador Opens; Seizing the Moment in Latin America
I’ve always had a fascination with South America. I don’t know if it was the fact that my mother had my playing Amazon Trail when I was four, or simply due to the natural mystique of the Amazon, the Andes, and all the untold history of its natural inhabitants. Despite my irreverent love for the continent (without having seen it all), I think anyone else will agree it’s a trip well worth the time, airfare, and planning.
Upon arriving in Quito, Ecuador in August 2014, we were greeted by the friendliest locals and workers (unlike most airports and cities). Ecuador is so far one of the only places I’ve been where I didn’t feel like I was at a tourist destination. It still had that thrilling atmosphere to it and the locals went about their normal and traditional routines. The women still carried their children in their slings and their buckets of fruit across their shoulders. The men still tended to or traded their livestock with other locals. Even the city itself had a more relaxed and peaceful feel.
We spent a total of 10 days there and wish I would have had ventured further than we did, but I know I’ll be back some day. We started our 10-day trip in Quito and made a few trips during our stay. The first couple days we spent walking around the city, finding old historic sites and churches, watching the performers (it was a Sunday and getting close to their national day), and getting a feel for the Ecuadorian way of life. Although cabs were very cheap, I much preferred walking (and we did a lot of that!). Before getting into the big stuff, we spent a couple of our first days there just around the Quito area. We started by renting a motorcycle (one of our favorite things to do on trips, although they weren’t very cost-friendly in Quito) and went out to the Mitad del Mundo (center of the world) national site. They offered free English tours, which I highly recommend. I’m usually not too big on the tourist stuff, but they had some really interesting and impressive science-type experiments to prove you were on the equator.
Not too much further past the Mitad del Mundo site was a famous volcanic crater that was actually inhabited by a few local farmers. Not necessary to see, but it was a gorgeous ride down through the cloud forest.
My main mission for that trip was to see the Andes and summit Mt. Cotopaxi, one of Ecuador’s highest active volcanoes, which I had spent months researching on and off. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn a new skill-ice climbing in arctic temperatures. To prepare for the climb, I asked around and decided it was best to do some hiking beforehand to get acclimatized, although coming from Florida (some parts below sea-level), to Quito at over 9,000 ft, I had no real problem adjusting. I have my fairly active and healthy lifestyle to thank for that.
A few days after exploring, my boyfriend and I decided Mt. Pichincha would be a good conditioning climb for Cotopaxi and couldn’t have underestimated it more than we did! We went into the city to return our motorcycle rental from the day prior and bought quite a few raw dark chocolate bars and fresh juices before the climb. We took a cab to the lift up to the base area of the mountain (which cost us about $4 from the city) and started our journey around 1pm (much later than we anticipated).
We had basic hiking items packed, but not for the arctic climb we were about to experience. I showed up thinking we were just hiking for a while, but eventually, we had put in so much time and effort, it would have been a waste to not go for the summit. We even made some friends on the way up!
Despite our smiles, this was the hardest climb I’ve ever done due to the subzero temperatures, hail storm, and slippery volcanic sand towards the summit. The way up felt like it was taking hours and kept dragging on with every single step upward. The following day I discovered all of my bruises from slipping on the volcanic sand and sore muscles I didn’t know I had. There was no way I was going to make it up Cotopaxi after that, but luckily my boyfriend, Daniel, was very understanding and we decided to use our spare day to do an easier hike into the famous Quilotoa Crater.
The hike into the crater and back up took a good 2 hours, but was gorgeous and nice and hot compared to the chilly Quito weather. On the way to the crater, we made a few stops at some local markets, one of my favorite things to do even in my own country. Being very health conscious and living a plant-based lifestyle, I loved the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, but foolishly misunderstood the purpose of the animal market. I don’t know what made me think of a petting-zoo type of environment, but it was one experience I will never forget and made me forever change my views on eating any type of meat/animal product.
This was apparently one place all locals went to trade (and cook) livestock and made me realized how sheltered we are in first world countries from the agricultural industry. The sounds of the animals were horrifying. After maybe 3 minutes I walked quickly back to the bus (in tears) and made sure to avoid the next stop altogether. It was this part of the trip changed my life into making me question absolutely everything we eat and where our food comes from. This of course led to me watching the documentaries, “Earthlings” and “Thrive”, both of which I only recommend if you’re ready to change your life and your entire perspective of humans.
The following day was one I had been waiting so eagerly for, our trip to the chocolate farm in Mindo. It’s always been a dream of mine to own a sustainable farm with room for cacao trees to process my own chocolate. The town of Mindo was small, but had many local shops, tours, and restaurants (and not just the ones with typical greasy chicken, rice and bean plates). The chocolate tour was fairly basic, but the dinner we had at the shop after was one of my most memorable.
Our waitress was a beautiful local woman with a very similar mindset to mine and Daniel’s. Although I may never see most of the people I meet on trips, they have more influence on my life than most of the ones I see everyday. We all chatted about health and economic issues while waiting for my passion fruit ceviche, Daniel’s quinoa risotto, and our sweet potato/beet patties-one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.
Another one of my missions was to visit the famous Otavalo market on a Saturday, although I later found out it’s a pretty busy market everyday of the week and could find whatever it was I was looking for whenever since most of the vendors sold similar items. I could have spent hours there haggling over locally hand crafted silver, knives (one of my favorite things to collect around the world), craft bags, and local alpaca sweaters (I made sure to ask if it caused any harm to the animal before I bought one as it was very chilly the day we went).
After a nights rest back in Quito, we decided to rent a car and spend our last few nights down in Baños in the southern part of the country. I wish we would have spent more time there, it was definitely more aimed towards adventure and travelers like myself. As soon as we stepped foot outside, we noticed the much warmer, humid, Amazonian type of climate, which I loved every minute of. The city just happened to be at the base of an active volcano, as was our hotel.
The two days we had were well spent on our first paragliding experience, and a full day into the Amazon, with a stop to a local Shaman.
The single day in the Amazon taught me more than most of my entire college education. We had an amazing local guide and told was what seemed to be every plant, had a use for and its medicinal properties. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect with Daniel getting extremely sick the night before, most likely from local water even though we had been beyond careful the whole trip.
The hike through to the river was another unexpected physical challenge going through cold rain, clay (which was great for my skin), and using vines to get across deep mud.
It’s sad to think I might not ever get the chance to go back, with all of the damage being done to the Amazon just for large Western countries and ignorant people to make a profit. Nature has a cure and solution for everything, people just need to take a step back from the sheltered and money driven lives to realize that and reconnect with their planet
What to do: Spend some time throughout Ecuador, the entire country has so much to offer with extreme differences in climate and atmosphere depending on where you are. Quito, although it was beautiful and a good cultural experience, is massive and once you’ve seen part of it, you have a good feel for what the rest of it is like. Enjoy the markets, healthier food options, and local goods in the center of the city. This should only take a couple of days (or less if you’re like Daniel and I and just spend entire days walking through cities and exploring by foot).
Just outside of Quito is Mt. Pichincha. Even if you don’t intend on spending hours hiking to the summit, it has a beautiful lift ride to a lookout point. Mindo was a fun adventure town a couple hours out of Quito. I also recommend the Mitad del Mundo museum/site. The experiments and games were a lot of fun, both for kids and adults. If time and money weren’t an issue, I would have loved to explore and dive the famous Galapagos Islands, check out the city of Guayaquil, and headed out to the coast. Don’t make the mistake I made and underestimate the size of the country!
Where to stay: During our stay in Quito we rented a room in a small compound called Wantara Suites owned by a wonderful German couple. I found them on trip advisor as I was looking for a good rate that was also safe. Hearing mixed opinions about the city, I didn’t want to risk any of the local hotels or other rentals. Wantara Suites was perfect for us as it was in a gated facility, had good plumbing (this seemed to be a problem everywhere in Ecuador) and English-speaking hosts. It was a bit of a walk from the main town, but had lost of local events, shops, performers, and markets/grocery stores all within a couple of minutes from the room. Our hosts even arranged transportation for us coming in from the airport at 1 am!
Our experience at the Puerta del Sol hotel down in Baños was a different story. This hotel was a bit of a walk compared to some of the other places we saw, but was a good deal for a two-night stay (I think I found this one on hotels.com). They had a decent breakfast selection for a basic hotel (eggs, fruit, and juice for us but they also had bread and meat products), but be prepared to try out your Spanish. This was also where Daniel got extremely sick our last night there, I’m not sure if this was from our water or food or something at the hotel but that experience alone makes me a little bias about our stay.
Notable Layovers: Due to a bit of a time restraint with school, I didn’t have much time to really stop anywhere before or after my trip to Ecuador. I managed to find a flight out of Orlando with a short layover in Miami, but if time wasn’t an issue or if I had just a few extra days, I wouldn’t have thought twice about taking advantage of the multiple ways to get to Quito. In researching flights, I found layovers in Mexico City, Panama City, and Bogota. I tried everything I could to stay a few nights in Bogota on my way down but the flights didn’t match my tie frame or budget for the exact dates I wanted.