Sunday, June 12, 2011

Aventura en Ecuador


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
I spent the first few days exploring around. Went on a few low-key hikes, wandered around town, and then my biggest adventure here was my horse-back riding trip into the national park. Wow, I didn't know that horses could even go up and down such steep rocky trails! I have to admit that I didn't fully trust it, even though my guide kept telling me that my horse is "fuerte y seguro!", strong and secure. And my horse did indeed get me safely there and back, so now I know. The scenery was incredible of course with lush vegetation all around, clear rivers, and mist-shrouded mountains. I was the only client of that particular horse riding company that day, and the young guide's advances did not go unnoticed! It was the first of several Ecuadoran men's attempts to seduce me, but little did they know, they had no effect on me whatsoever. Good luck next time!
view of Podocarpus park while horse-riding
I was pretty sore after 6 hours on a horse, and I spent the next few days completely relaxing in hammocks, eating healthy food, and enjoying a massage. At night, fellow travelers and I had a blast playing card games and sharing travel stories over many Pilseners (the local beer of Ecuador). One night I got hit with a nasty stomach virus which had me up all night in the bathroom, but luckily it was short-lived, and I spent the next few days recovering from the dehydration before deciding to move on. My dorm roommates were awesome and brought me Gatorade and simple food. It was a great place to get sick, and even better, to relax and recover. After a full week in Vilcabamba, I still could have happily stayed longer, but I had to move on if I wanted a chance to see more of Ecuador. I only had 3 weeks left at this point.

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
But I am not a big beach person, and Puerto Lopez is a fishing village, not quite the tropical jungle-like pristine beach that I was looking for (apparently those are found more north), so I eagerly headed back into the mountains after 2 days. The bus ride to Banos was a great example of Ecuador's geographical diversity. We went from the coast, through the banana plantations, up into the cloud forests, and then past towering volcanoes to land in a small valley that Banos calls home.

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
smoking volcano!
Jungle time! After a dramatic bus ride down from the mountains and into the lush lowlands of the Amazon, I got myself a hostel in Tena and set about trying to find a tour to get into the Amazon jungle. This was one of the most frustrating points of my trip. Since it was the low season, there were hardly any other tourists around to form a group, and the agencies charge a ridiculous amount for just one person, besides, that wouldn't be any fun and I had no intention of entering the jungle with just one male guide. No way. Since I had limited time left in Ecuador, I was very anxious to get into the jungle fast and not waste time waiting around. So I had very limited options and I took the first tour offered to me, joining a French couple halfway into their 3 day tour at a nice lodge near Tena. I'm glad I went with that. It turned out to be lots of fun, and the view from the lodge was a nice added bonus.
view from jungle lodge
We started off with a jungle hike which turned into a canyoning plus bush-whacking adventure. I was all for it, mas aventura!!! However, the French girl was definitely not and she was genuinely scared when our trail took us into the canyons and we had to scale a few ledges to get around some small waterfalls. Our guide was helpful and physically supported us as we scrambled up the rocks. I challenged myself by going first, and I was happy to hear from the French girl that I encouraged her to continue after she saw me successfully make it to the top. But that wasn't all... our guide offered us the option of avoiding the most difficult canyon by taking an alternate route through the jungle. The French girl of course was all for that, and so we veered uphill, but soon, we realized that there wasn't really a "trail" so to speak, and so our guide went about happily chopping away at the dense vegetation with his machete to make a trail for us. The hillside terrain got a bit tricky though with lots of slippery mud and lots of plants to trip over even after the machete. I was fine with all this, happily taking in the jungle scene and concentrating hard on not falling, but the French girl was clearly not enjoying this, and at one point while our guide went ahead to clear some vegetation, she started crying, very worried about us being lost. Now knowing myself, I'm usually the emotional one so it was nice to be relaxed about it all. I was positive that our guide knew where he was going, and he just needed some time to figure out the best route. Finally, we emerged from the jungle all hot, sweaty, muddy, and a little scratched up, but I was ready for more! Bring it on, Amazon!

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!
I headed back to Tena happy, but still desiring a deeper Amazon experience with wildlife. The jungle near Tena doesn't have any typical jungle animals besides bugs and birds. I wanted to see monkeys and caimans (similar to a crocodile). Back at the hostel, there just happened to be 3 girls from Spain preparing to head into the Limoncocha reserve the very next day. Limoncocha is downriver several hours and in way more remote jungle with animals. I enthusiastically joined on knowing there'd be lots of Spanish practice among the wildlife viewing. The Spanish girls didn't know any English.

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
caiman sighting! 
Our guide learned a lesson of his own while we were piranha-fishing. He caught one and it bit a good chunk of his thumb off while he was trying to get it off the hook. Unfortunate, really, and it was a bummer since he was definitely hurting for the rest of the tour after that. Crazy for me to witness. Of course he said he was fine, but that was a lot of blood loss!

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 :)
Lago Cuicocha
I had a successful day at the big market, finding gifts for everyone, exploring all parts of the market (not just the touristy section), and catching glimpses of the big soccer game (Manchester vs Barcelona) from the TVs that some vendors brought in. I'm not so good at bargaining though. Those vendors are good at their job of convincing me that their items are worth their prices! I was happy though to pay a little more for the unique gifts that I found in a sea of the same stuff everywhere.
market day
The next day I traveled to Mindo, in the other direction from Quito (northwest), eager to see its famous bird and butterfly residents and to get some zipline action in. I met a cool girl from Portland at my hostel and we accomplished both plus some hiking around the nearby waterfalls! Perfecto! I think she enjoyed her birthday.
cutest frog ever at the Butterfly garden
With mixed feelings, I traveled back to Quito and settled into my hostel there, but before exploring around the city itself, I made it a point to visit the touristy equator. I mean, it is the equator. Or so you are led to believe... especially with a line painted down the middle of the path... but the true equator is actually over a sacred indigenous site, 240 meters from the painted line. Still, I got some fun pictures on that line, and then I got myself on a tour to visit the Pululahua volcanic crater near the equator complex. The tour included a visit of the Museo Temple del Sol.
standing on both hemispheres at the equator
I wasn't expecting much from a museum, I never do, but I was really pleasantly surprised with the Temple del Sol. Our guide explained it well, and it was even interactive... those are really the best museums! We got to try to balance an egg on a nail (I did it!), smell some essential oils, look at a famous Ecuadorian's paintings, test the power of jade on our balance, and drink canelazo, a traditional Ecuadorian hot alcoholic drink. My companions for this tour were 3 siblings at least in their 60s (maybe even 70s) who were from Ecuador, but have been living in the States for years. They helped translate for me and they were so enthusiastic about the tour in a good positive way. Everything was "so beautiful". It was cute. While we were inside, the fog rolled in and we lost hope that we'd have a view of inside the crater so we decided to just skip it. I was completely satisfied with the Temple tour and was ready to hit the streets of Old Town Quito. I'll see the Pululahua crater next time.

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!