As most of you know, I'm already back in the States, but before I end this blog, here's my Ecuador story!
My first stop in Ecuador was the quaint village of Vilcabamba in the south. It's near the cloud forests of the Podocarpus national park and in the "Valley of Longetivity", appropriately named since many locals here live long healthy lifes and become centenarians (living to be 100+ yrs old). Vilcabamba also has a big expat community, and for good reason: the abundance of healthy, local, organic food, the progressive vibe, the mild climate, and the gorgeous lush scenery. And for these reasons and more, I could also easily see myself living here too :) Maybe I will in my lifetime. I stayed at Hosteria Izhcayluma, a peaceful retreat about 2 km from town. Hard to believe they only charge $10 a night, including a huge buffet breakfast and all the facilities, like the pool, a nice bar area, plenty of hammocks, and wi-fi. I highly recommend this place!
|view of Vilcabamba and valley from hostel|
|view of Podocarpus park while horse-riding|
I was torn between heading due north, skipping the coast, and spending more time in the mountains, or heading west towards the beaches, rumored to be beautiful and well worth the extra time it takes to get there. I chose the beach, realizing that it'd be my last opportunity to swim in a warm Pacific ocean for a long time and that I'd already been in the mountains quite a bit. I spent a full day and a half getting to Puerto Lopez, complete with a very sketchy overnight in Guayaquil, and of course, more public bus riding experience. A word or two about riding public buses in Ecuador: I describe it as chaotic fun. Not only is the bus speeding around corners and multiple other vehicles/animals which leads you to just hope and pray the driver is using good judgement, but there is almost always someone on the bus trying to sell you something, be it fruit salad, chicken, drinks, ice cream, books, burned cds, herbal remedies, or they just simply ask for your money. Also, there's no such thing as a "sold out" bus, they just pack people on and stop whenever someone wants to get on or off. Which led me to fear that someone might steal my backpack out of the luggage compartment since there are no claim tags (every country before had these tags) so I always tried to get a seat where I could keep my eye on the luggage compartment door. Finally, to add to the excitement, there's always reggaeton blasting out of the radio. Reggaeton really grew on me.
So Puerto Lopez... my highlights included drinking a yummy mojito at a beach stand while simultaneously watching an amazing sunset and a couple of cute kids playing in the sand together, swimming at Playa Los Frailes beach, part of a national park, and then catching glimpses of a soccer game on TV that the entire town was glued to and hearing all the cheering when Ecuador scored a goal!
|sunset in Puerto Lopez|
Banos is a tourist hotspot, set up with numerous tour agencies and hostels to accommodate the throngs of international groups and local Ecuadorians who come to have their pick of several nature-influenced activities that are offered or to simply enjoy the natural hot baths and a massage. However, I hardly saw any of these tourists... the town was dead while I was there. Apparently, it is the low season for tourists in Ecuador, and it's really obvious. Not only in the normally bustling tourist towns, but also on the buses where I was often the only gringa around which definitely added to my chaotic bus experience. Don't get me wrong, I like getting off the well-beaten tourist path, but it would have been nice to meet a few other foreign tourists to do things with. Nevertheless, I still got to do everything I wanted to do in and around Banos. I spent one day wandering around town and enjoying the hot baths that evening, quite populated by Ecuadorian tourists, and I spent the next day touring the nearby waterfalls with an Ecuadorian family. And I was even able to squeeze in a hike in the evening up to view the smoking volcano that constantly threatens Banos. Combined with the sunset, I got some really cool pictures!
|waterfall near Banos|
|view from jungle lodge|
The rest of this lodge tour included a very peaceful tubing ride down a mellow river listening to the birds, a very quiet night in the lodge since the three of us were the only guests, more waterfall canyoning/climbing the next day with harnesses and ropes (super fun! the French girl sat this one out so I went with her husband), and concluded with a swim in a pretty blue-green lagoon. Good times!
|canyoning: climbing up waterfalls using ropes!|
A few buses and a sunrise canoe ride later, we arrived at our rustic cabins, and thanked the universe that there were mosquito nets. We needed them! Over the next few days, we hiked through the jungle in search of medicinal plants, and we went on a few canoe rides in search of caimans, birds, and monkeys. We saw all three! But I didn't understand much of what was being said so I was kind of in my own hot, sticky, buggy jungle world. The guide was hesitant to speak in English claiming he didn't know it, but he certainly knew more than the girls. I'm glad I got to see the wildlife and I always enjoy hiking through the forest, but next time, I need to know more Spanish or wait for English-speaking companions to more fully enjoy the experience. That's the second time on this trip that I put myself in a non-English speaking multi-day tour situation... lesson learned twice?!
|on hike in jungle|
After three days, I was definitely done with the jungle, and I don't need to go back (when I eventually go back to Ecuador:)). Amazon jungle, check! By the time we got on our bus headed back towards the mountains and Quito, it was late afternoon. I didn't want to risk a very late night arrival in Quito so I planned to stay in a small safe village a few hours before the city. Well, I still got there very late and even though the bus driver assured me that there are open hostels just up the hill, it was a little scary venturing out into the darkness and rain not seeing anyone around. The two barking dogs that came right up to me didn't help either, but luckily, they didn't touch me. I saw a sign for a hostel and followed it to a very dark seemingly closed down building. I knocked and no one came for a while. It was one of those moments when I wished I was safely home and not looking for a hostel alone in the dark in South America. I knocked again, and an old man clearly in his pajamas came down and let me in. It was indeed an open hostel, though pricey at $15 a room (considering no hot shower and no breakfast), but I happily paid for the comfort of having a place to sleep, in from the cold and rain.
After a quick stop and bus change in Quito the next day, I was headed towards Otavalo, a village famous for its weekly indigenous market 2 hours northeast of Quito. But I quickly discovered that there's so much more in this area worth checking out than just the indigenous market. I only had time for one major hike, and I chose Lago Cuicocha, a volcanic crater lake. Good choice. I had a brilliant hike on the rim trail. Didn't get the whole way around, but definitely far enough to enjoy the views and take in the scenery. I'll definitely have to come back to this area :)
|cutest frog ever at the Butterfly garden|
|standing on both hemispheres at the equator|
I enjoyed wandering around the old buildings and plazas of the Old Town, and I even caught a dance performance in the main plaza. Soon enough though, it was dark, and my final challenge in South America presented itself... trying to flag down a taxi in rush hour Quito. After 30 minutes of trying, a nice young guy offered to walk me back to my hostel. I was a little weary at first (everyone says Quito is dangerous), but we were in well-populated areas so I went with it. Sure enough, we got back to my hostel just fine and I let him get away with one kiss. Fair enough. And that was Quito for me.
With both happy and sad tears, I packed my backpack and prepared for my early flight back to the States. I was super happy to see my sister at the SF airport, we had a wonderful sushi dinner, and then I thoroughly enjoyed my first really hot shower in weeks.
Stay tuned... I plan to post one more blog including some of my highlights from the entire trip and some funny statistics. And thanks for reading this novel of a blog post!