Ecuador: The Arrival

Okay, I’m finally getting around to writing this; my trip to Ecuador.

To accommodate having only a 90-day tourist visa in Peru before needing to leave the country to be able to re-enter and get a new tourist visa, I decided to take an extended trip to Ecuador, rather than a quick border hop, so that I could minimize the number of times I would need to leave and re-enter.

My trip to Ecuador was the first time I traveled alone, internationally. Actually, it was the first time I ever travelled alone. I’ve flown alone before, but I was always meeting up with people I knew at my destination; this would be my first time really travelling alone for any extended period of time and I was insanely nervous. I really can’t express why I was so nervous, I know how to navigate airport, get to my flight and I had transportation and accommodations set up in Quito, my first stop in Ecuador. I think part of it was that I would be relying solely on myself to get around in a Spanish-speaking country with only basic to low-level intermediary knowledge of the language; no help from my wife or ex-pat friends. I think another reason was I had no real plan when I got there, other than my volunteer program. What would I do before it? What would I do after? I normally plan my trips in full detail so I know what is happening and what to expect, and this was a complete 180-degree change.

Whatever the reasons, I was incredibly nervous the whole way through the airport, on my flight, and only began to settle down on the taxi ride to the hostel, which was about an hour-long ride. Part of what got me to settle down was that I was able to have a decent conversation with my taxi driver all in Spanish, without too much difficulty and without any outside help. I had lots of starts and stops as I tried to recall words or circumlocute around words I didn’t know, but by the end of the taxi ride, I was feeling much more confident in my Spanish abilities for the duration of my trip than before I had left. By the time we got to the hostel it was rather late as I had a late flight followed by the one-hour drive, so I quickly called Melissa to let her know I was safe, then went to bed without worry of what I would be doing the next day.

I arose on Friday, my first full day in Ecuador, and headed to the hostel’s balcony restaurant for breakfast, which I was particularly excited for as breakfast in Peru is not really a thing. I was looking forward to pancakes and bacon and eggs, and when they arrived, I gleefully shoveled them into my face-hole and was thusly rewarded with the type of breakfast I missed so much. Seriously, Peru, a cup of coffee and granola is not a breakfast; it’s a goddamn tease. Anyway, during breakfast, the first person I spoke to was another American, not too strange given it was a hostel, but said American was from Doylestown, PA. Before moving to Peru, we had been living in Downingtown, PA. Distance between the two towns? About 50 miles, roughly an hour drive. This is the story of my life when I travel, somehow, I always end up talking to people who live within the same general area that I live in. How do I find these people?

Okay, rant aside, after my lovely breakfast, I started doing some internet research to figure out what I was going to do for the day. It was all a bit overwhelming as there as just way too many options of things to do in Quito and trying to figure it the day of was a bit frustration. I remembered the hostel had a quasi travel agency in that it was capable of setting up day trips to nearby areas, so I went and paid them a visit to get an idea of what I could do that day. The very British bloke working the travel agency that day gave me a nice map for a self-guided walking tour of Colonial Old Town Quito, which took me very close to one of the areas I was interested in from my own research, a street called Calle La Ronda, which hosted a series of artisans and handmade crafts.

With a loose plan in place (and knowledge or areas to avoid) I set out into Old Town and began my little walking tour, picking up a SIM card for my phone so I could keep in contact without the need for Wi-Fi and use the interwebs to get some additional info on places that looked interesting. I also got some sunscreen, which is a serious need in Quito due to its near 10,000-foot elevation. Fun fact, Quito is the highest elevated capital city in the world, and the summit of the nearby volcano, Cotopaxi (which is subject of a post later this week) is the closest point to the Sun on Earth.

While walking around, my first thoughts of Quito were how much prettier and accessible it is compared to Lima. It’s easier to get around, traffic isn’t awful, drivers aren’t insane and it isn’t the size of Rhode Island (The city of Lima, just the city itself, not the entire province of Lima, is very nearly the same size as the State of Rhode Island. Seriously, Lima is freaking huge) But on top of all of that, Quito is prettier and infinitely greener. The foothills of the Andes rise up all around the city, it’s really a beautiful city, with excellent colonial architecture, especially in the main plaza. Here, enjoy a few photos of what I mean.

During my wanderings through the city, I stopped into a museum about the founding and history of Quito from Pre-Columbian era to Post-Colonial. They had sore really truly amazing displays, but I only understood about a quarter of all of it because it was mostly all in Spanish apart from some choice, key displays. I also visited a few churches and cathedrals around the city and let me tell you, Quito does not screw around with their churches. I don’t remember the names of each church I went into, but here, enjoy some photos of the various churches I visited.

Finally, I made my way down to La Ronda, which has been maintained as it was originally built. It was an interesting little street, and quite quaint, but many of the artisans were out to lunch while I was there, so I decided to do the same so I could watch more artisans working on their crafts. Lunch was nice, but unfortunately for me, while a small number of artisans came back, many of the workshops had been closed for a while as some of the artisans had not been making enough to sustain living in the city and moved back to their hometowns. Still, what I was able to see was really cool, especially the wooden toy maker and metal worker. I had asked permission to take pictures of some of their work, but most artisans were wary of it and only begrudgingly accepted, so I decided not to. I did get some neat pictures of the street itself, so feel free to enjoy that.

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After my visit to Calle La Ronda, I worked my way back up to the main square, just enjoying the architecture of the city and some of the little shops selling any assortment of an odd collection of things. When I made it back to the main square, someone tried to take off with my camera bag. Luckily, I keep my camera bag attached to my belt and over my shoulder, so I surprised the would-be robber when I lurched sideways, coming along with his attempt to take my camera bag. We had a moment of disbelief looking at each other, then he took off at a speed that would make Usain Bolt jealous. I decided then not to take my camera out anymore for the time being and took heed in the hostel’s advice to not be out past sunset.

On my journey, back and only about 100 yards away from my hostel, someone did successfully liberate me of my sunglasses. It was not a good time for either of us. My sunglasses were cheap and partially broken, and when said robber stole them off me, they broke further to the point of being unwearable, and a lens popped out. So, bad luck for him, an excuse for me to finally purchase a new pair.

I arrived back to my hostel a little shaken and slightly annoyed and needed to come up with a place to put my phone and cash instead of my pockets. After two events in one day of people trying to take my stuff from me, it was clearly only a matter of time before a successful pickpocket attempt was made. Recalling that my camera bag remains physically attached to me and it was two inside pockets I don’t use, I figured that would be a fine place to keep my valuables while out and about. Spoiler alert, it is.

For the second day in Quito, I decided leaving Quito would be a good decision. For $30, I got myself on a shuttle to go to a huge outdoor market in a town about 2 hours north called Otavalo. On our way up, we stopped for breakfast at this roadside restaurant that is apparently famous for its bread and its cheeses. I’d never heard of it, but the reputation seemed well deserved, especially for the cheese. The cheese was essentially string cheese, but it has a slight flavor to it that isn’t exactly mozzarella as they somehow process it in banana leaves. The bread was good, I don’t know if it’s good enough to be famous for, but it was great for sopping up left over egg. Another real breakfast to help satiate my desire for, well, real breakfast.

When we finally arrived at Otavalo, it was a bit overwhelming. There was road and after road of tightly crammed together stalls under white tent roofs brimming with various handmade goods, knockoff sportswear, touristy tchotchkes plastered with the words “Ecuador” and “Otavalo” all over, and an endless array of people walking around any assortment of small items they could manage; SIM cards, flash drives, pirated blu ray movies, belts, and to my chagrin; sunglasses. I had a fun battering session with an older gentleman who wanted $20 dollars for a pair of knockoff Ray-Bans. My budget was somewhere around “$20? Fuck that. How about $5?” Then it was $15. Still, my budget revolved around the “$15? Fuck that. How about $5” range. Then 10, then then 8. And yet, still “$8? Fuck that. How about $5.” Finally, bored of his attempts to gauge me over shitty sunglasses, I wandered off, only to be tracked down by him a minute or two later, suddenly agreeable to the low, low price of $5. With new sunglasses acquired, it immediately clouded over and rained. Luckily, the rain did not last long and the sun reappeared, and I put my new sunglasses to use.

Otavalo is a symphony of various sights and smells all competing for you attention, married to the cacophony of people shouting about their wares and many would-be musicians poorly serenading tourists to part with some of their coins. I however, am not nice enough to part with my coins as I have been witness to truly the highest form of music; monotone rapping on Lima busses. Nothing will ever compare and all other music is ruined in perpetuity for me. I was however game enough to hand over some of my money to purchase some alpaca wool socks, which are very comfy for lounging, but not great for hiking as it turns out, and a traditional style Andean hat called a chollo. I also purchased the greatest of all handmade crafts ever conceived. BEHOLD!

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Also, some other photos of Otavalo, but nothing else compares.

After Otavalo Market, we went to a nearby national park for an easy 2 kilometers round trip hike to see a the dormant Cotacachi volcano crater that had become a lake. There were some lovely views about, but I don’t have much more to say about it, so here, look at it instead, including a photo of me looking like a total dweeb.

Our last stop was at nearby town of Cotacachi, which is the leather capital of Ecuador. I wandered through various stores, tempted to buy leather products at prices you’d never see in the states and constantly reminding myself that this all stuff I don’t need. A leather messenger bag! When would I use it? A leather backpack? I already have a backpack! A leather fanny pack? WHY would I use it? A leather jacket! Okay, that one was really hard to talk myself out of; it fit so well and was so well made, but in the end, I just didn’t have the need or space in my bags for a leather jacket.

Alright, so we finished up in Cotacachi and headed back to the hostel for the evening. I should note that this was my second time staying in a hostel, and my first time didn’t really count. I had reserved a private room with a private bathroom, so it had a bit of a hotel feel to it, but going up to the rooftop to have dinner and drinks along with everyone else made it so much easier to meet new and interesting people and just have a good time being social with complete strangers. I think as I get older, that E in my Briggs-Meyer test is shifting into an I, so it was nice to reaffirm I can still be social with people I do not know, and do it fairly easily.

Now then, the next morning I was a bundle of nerves all over again. I quietly and slowly ate breakfast, packed up, checked out and took a taxi to the bus terminal. I was nervous to attempt to navigate the bus system to get me to Puyo, a city in the Amazon, where I would attempt to meet up with the owners of Sacha Yacu, an animal rescue center where I would be volunteering for two weeks. As it turns out, there wasn’t much to be nervous about. Everything was clearly labeled on where to go, and my taxi driver gave me plenty of advice, so I was able to easily purchase a ticket to Puyo and find my way to the bus.

Once I got on the bus, most of my worries slipped away as I watched the scenery roll by. Ecuador is really, truly a beautiful country and it was amazing to watch the landscape change from pine trees and rugged mountains as we descended out of the Andes from Quito and into the lower elevated foothills where the Amazon began and the foliage changed into the wide fronds of palms and other tropical plants and various dangling vines and mosses indicative of the Amazon that we’ve all seen in documentaries growing up.

The bus ride from Quito took about 5 hours and as we got closer, I was getting nervous again because I knew I would be out of contact with Melissa for 2 weeks, I wasn’t sure if the organization was still going to meet up with me as they were running behind, and a whole host of assorted worries. Yet again, it turned out all was well. After I got to the bus terminal, I only needed to wait 5 or 10 minutes for members of the organization to get me, and Puyo is actually a significantly sized city, so there was plenty of infrastructure available to let me contact Melissa one last time to let her know I arrived safely and found the group.

Well, this post is getting a little long in the tooth, yeah? I will leave it here for now and tomorrow I’ll post about my first week in Sacha Yacu, or maybe both weeks. In any event, this will be a series of 3 to 4 posts to accurately cover my Ecuadorian adventure. See you tomorrow, intrepid readers.

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