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Adventuring and Freezing in Baños

The outdoorsy village of Baños was a very last minute addition. I knew I had to continue south through Ecuador – the goal was to cross into Peru, get a domestic flight down to Lake Titicaca, and cross into Bolivia – but while suffering on the long bus ride to get to Quito I thought maybe I should stop along the way to break up the trip. I perused the options in my guidebook and consulted with Jasmin, who was already planning on going to Baños from Quito. After reading the entire Ecuador chapter, I decided Baños sounded awesome, so Jasmin and I kept going together. (And kept going – we’ll be traveling together through La Paz, Bolivia. Gotta love new travel friends you meet on the road!)

Again, great decision. Ecuador continued to delight with Baños, another great addition to the journey. This small village is like a ski town in the summer; pretty, laid back, and full of outdoor activities. We even kept calling our hostel the lodge. Its wood architecture, outdoor bonfire, cheap bar, pool table, and beanbag chairs around the TV with 400 DVDs to choose from helped this impression, as did the constantly cold temperature. Ecuador finally gave me a break from the heat.

Activity day 1 we rented bikes in town ($5 for the day, I love Ecuador prices) and “mountain biked” the Waterfall Route. Mountain biked is in quotes because even though we were on mountain bikes and zooming downhill most of the time, the route was almost all on paved road next to cars. There were a few parts that went off the road, where cars had to go through tunnels bikes had to go around, but it wasn’t exactly as mountainous as I was hoping. It was still worth it though, we biked 24 km and stopped in the middle to see the Pailon del Diablo waterfall.

This waterfall was huge and fun to wander around. After paying a small entry fee, we were able to get close to the waterfall, even standing directly behind it at one point. We got soaked, but since it had been lightly raining all day anyway we weren’t phased.

At the end of our ride we found ourselves in the tiny town of San Francisco. It had no similarities whatsoever to the San Francisco I called home. Town is even an exaggeration, hamlet would be more appropriate. We didn’t see the bus stop we were supposed to find, but a helpful local woman flagged down a pickup truck to take us back up to Baños. Is it hitchhiking if you pay the guy? It’s more like an unofficial taxi. Ecuador’s version of Lyft?

Ecuadorians are insane drivers. Our Ecuadorian-Lyft driver didn’t just treat the lines separating lanes as guidelines, he flat out ignore them. We passed trucks around curves on mountain roads, or if we were the only car on the road he just drove on whatever part allowed him to go fastest. As we later found out with a taxi driver and a few buses, this is just how everyone drives in Ecuador. Even if you’re driving a 40 seat bus, just honk the horn as an acknowledgement that you’re coming and pass whoever whenever. We survived though, so I guess they know what they’re doing. Nuts.

When we got back we rewarded ourselves with hot chocolate in the “lodge” (hostel). That night we hibernated, putting on Hunger Games and settling into beanbag chairs. At first our hostelmates weren’t too receptive of our choice, but no more than 15 minutes in the entire hostel was watching. We ran out of chairs. The receptionist even made us all popcorn free of charge. There was something sort of awesome about getting a dozen 20-somethings to have a sporadic movie night. And did I mention this was a Friday night? Not like days really matter much to a bunch of backpackers in a tiny mountain town, but still.

Activity day 2 I was supposed to go whitewater rafting but it had rained so much overnight that the river was too high, so rafting was cancelled. Spur of the moment, I decided to go canyoning instead. The water was still really high for this; the first waterfall we were going to reppell down was short but steep so the higher water was very strong, increasing the difficultly of the reppell. Because of this it was optional, and most of the group kept walking to the next one. 6 guys and me decided to go for it. The guides all looked at me skeptically but I made it down fine; it was actually a great introduction to the day since it was short and got us all used to walking down backwards in a waterfall, not to mention being drenched. The rushing water was only a problem one more time…

After reppelling down a long waterfall, Franck and I were watching the rest of the group go from on a rock in the middle of the river. Suddenly he says, “Wow the water has almost stopped.” Sure enough it had slowed down to a trickle. Then it turned dark brown – it looked like molten chocolate cascading down. At this point we got a little worried about what was happening, and rightfully so. A minute later a gigantic tree branch came barreling over the falls towards us. Franck and I jumped off the rock, helped ashore by our canyoning companions, as a massive amount of water followed the branch. Luckily the girl who had been reppelling down the fall had gotten to safety just 30 seconds before the branch came down. Everyone was okay, so we just had to wait for the water to calm down a little before the rest of the group could come down.

The rest of the day was a mixture of pure fun and totally freezing. The whole trip was 6 cascades, with a mixture of short and long reppells down waterfalls, a zipline, and sliding down on our butts. All of that was just awesome. It was the waiting in between reppells that was painful; it was so cold that we were all dancing on the rocks trying avoid shivering. It took me two hot chocolates and a couple hours bundled up inside to recover a normal body temperature.

Saturday night out in Baños helped too. We went to The Leprechaun with a lot of other foreigners and a soundtrack that varied from old school hip hop to salsa. There were locals there too though; we ran into one of our canyoning guides who taught me how to salsa and merengue. The bars closed earlier than apparently everyone wanted them to, prompting many Ecuadorians to take to the streets singing. I don’t know what they were singing but they were all very enthusiastic.

Sunday we spent lounging, watching movies, and staying warm before our evening bus out of town. I probably could have stayed in Baños a lot longer. It’s one of those towns, like Minca, that if I hadn’t imposed a South America deadline on myself I would have just stayed in and hung out for a while.

Pleasantly Surprised in Quito

So I wound up in Ecuador. It was in the plan originally – it is on my itinerary page – but it had been cut for time once I decided to spend 5 weeks in Brazil instead of 3.

But nothing is final in a RTW trip, so it got put back in. I’ve gone through some of the logic behind this already, so I’ll just summarize: it’s hard to get from Colombia to Bolivia without spending an inordinate amount of money on an international flight, so I decided to travel slower and see more of South America on my way. This will cut down my time in Argentina but after spending 2 weeks in Rio I realized that 2 weeks is plenty of time to recharge, so instead of 4 weeks in Buenos Aires I think I only need 2. This gave me more time to play with.

So I started with Quito.

I was surprised by Quito in the best way. It’s beautiful. The architecture of the Old Town has been well preserved and/or restored, but its public bus system adds a modernity that brings it into this century. It is surrounded by rolling green mountains that rise up above the streets and, when seen from a viewpoint, continue on as far as you can see. Add in the most beautiful churches I’ve seen in South American and it honestly felt like I was in Europe.

Quito was the first time in a long time that I felt like I was a tourist in a traditional way, but again in a good way. We started by going to the main square, Plaza Grande, which is surrounded by Palacio del Gobierno (Presidential Palace), the Cathedral, and Palacio Arzobispal (Archbishop’s Palace, now some shops and restaurants). We did the free tour of the Palacio del Gobierno and, even though it was in Spanish, we were very impressed.

For starters the palace is so pretty: whitewashed walls and a tiled roof, two courtyards with palm trees and fountains, and stately rooms decorated to look just like stately rooms in a presidential palace should look. The President initiated opening the doors of the palace to the people, and he put gifts from other nations on display for the tours. We had a newfound appreciation for the President after hearing this. I definitely recommend doing this tour to anyone visiting Quito.

After a lunch of traditional Ecuadorian food – absolutely delicious seco de chiva (which, combined with our calzones from the night before, gave us the impression that Ecuadorian food was so much better than Colombian or Brazilian; an impression we later realized was a bit too quick to judge) – we went to Centro Cultural Metropolitano. This free art center has rotating exhibits, and we were lucky to see an Ecuadorian artist Viteri. I wasn’t familiar with him but liked the exhibit. Plus it was great wandering the galleries with another art history major; Jasmin and I were able to discuss these pieces in a way we hadn’t in a long time.

Then we commenced the church portion of our tour of Quito. First with the Cathedral and then the Monasterio de San Francisco. I haven’t seen churches this ornately decorated since Europe. The monastery is the oldest church in Quito and it was definitely the highlight. We capped off this religious tour the next morning with the Basilica del Voto Nacional, which had the impression of being designed by exactly following the “how to build a Gothic basilica” guidebook. Which for me is fine, since I realized that I will always be wowed by the soaring heights of basilica interiors.

We wandered La Ronda, a narrow lane that has been revived as a home for restaurants, shops and galleries. It clearly comes alive at night, not in the middle of the afternoon, but the shops we did venture into were still tempting (especially the chocolate shop). We capped off our Quito tour with a trip up El Panecillo to La Virgen de Quito statue. The view overlooking Quito was on par with Monserrate in Bogota. Quito from above looked like a mixture between Bogota and Medellin – Bogota because it spread out below us larger than expected, and Medellin because it is in a valley surrounded by green mountains – but a more manageable scale than both. Well worth the trip up.

And of course we hit up the shopping kiosks. After purchasing a bracelet to add to my growing collection and my new favorite pair of fingerless alpaca gloves ($2!), we returned to the hostel to recharge before the night.

Since it was our only real night in Quito we went to La Mariscal for dinner. Nicknamed “gringolandia” by Lonely Planet, this is the Parque Lleras of Quito. Surrounded by neon signs for BBQ and burgers, we were instantly hounded by 2 for 1 happy hour deals. Our night out was shortlived, we were still recovering from our 30 hours of travel and knew we had Banos to look forward to, but even this short trip to La Mariscal felt like we got what it was about. I would stay in the Old Town again for sure.

We left Quito quickly to continue our move south through Ecuador, but we left with a great impression. I am definitely happy I added this stop back into my trip.


That Time I Walked into Ecuador

I finally experienced long bus travel in South America – from Medellin, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador. It had its highs and lows, and is not my favorite way of traveling by any means, but given the cost efficiency and frequency of bus options it will continue to be a means of transport for me. Hopefully though future trips will be a little more like the buses everyone raves about with smooth rides and luxury accommodations.

It started out nice enough. Jasmin and I got to the Terminal del Sur in Medellin about an hour early for the 2:30 bus. Then we found out that bus was full, and we had to get on the 5:30 one. Well shit. After a little wandering we settled into the waiting room around 2:25 to get comfortable for our three hour wait. We could see the 2:30 bus outside getting ready to go; I turned to Jasmin and said, “I keep holding out hope that they’ll have two empty seats and someone will come get us and tell us to get on the bus.” I kid you not, two minutes later that exact thing happened. What luck! The bus had two seats and the driver saw us waiting, so he checked our tickets and told us to just get on. Phew! A few minutes later we were on our way to Ipiales.

Ipiales, Colombia is on the border with Ecuador, which is a 20 hour bus ride from Medellin. The ride wasn’t as bad as it sounds really: the scenery alone is reason enough to travel by bus, it was beautiful; they showed movies (in Spanish, but I got what was going on); we stopped quickly for dinner/a bathroom break; the temperature was ok as long as you were prepared for it, it got a little cold overnight; and the seats reclined enough for a solid 11 hours of sleep (thanks to Melatonin and ear plugs). There was an unfortunate stretch in the middle of the night when we stopped in Popayan and the lights were on for a while, and then the road get incredibly bumpy, but I managed to sleep through most of it.

Around 11 am we arrived in Ipiales. We joined forces with three other travelers to get across the border. First we took a shared bus to immigration for our exit stamp. Then we walked down the road into Tulcan, Ecuador. As if taking a taxi to get into Colombia wasn’t strange enough, now I have literally walked out of one country and into a new one. Within minutes we said bye to Colombia and were at immigration getting our entry stamps for Ecuador.

We decided to change our money here with one of the very legitimate cambio vendors (sense the sarcasm). Ecuador uses US currency, except that their coins are a mixture of US coins and Ecuadorian versions of US coins. After being away from US dollars for 7 weeks it was strange to see them again, especially in a border town in Ecuador. Being the only American, it was my duty to make sure the bills we were given were real. They were, and after we haggled an exchange rate we took a 75 cent shared ride to the bus terminal to get on another bus to Quito.

It’s 5 hours from Tulcan to Quito, and it cost $5. I did not mistype that – it actually cost $5 to go 5 hours. The general rule of thumb with bus travel in Ecuador is $1 per 1 hour. We were all happy at our new-found wealthiness in Ecuador. Of course there is a reason for this; the buses left a lot to be desired, and they frequently stopped for basically an entire market to come on selling a variety of snacks and drinks. Still though, it wouldn’t have been too bad if it wasn’t for the traffic.

All we were told was that we had been diverted from the main highway into Quito and it would take an extra hour. That hour passed slowly with bumper to bumper traffic barely moving, and then when we thought we were finally almost there we were diverted again, making a U-turn to find a new way into the city. You can imagine everyone’s annoyance at this point. But then the driver turned on the radio for everyone to hear: there had been a 5.1 magnitude earthquake about an hour outside of Quito. 2 people had died in a mine and others in were critical condition.

We felt awful. Now we were concerned about the state of the city, if there would be aftershocks, had any new information on the injured been released. Suddenly we realized that the entire city was in a bad state and our prolonged bus ride was just a minor side issue.

We arrived in Quito around 8:30 at night in the South Terminal; coming from the north, we had driven around the entire city to enter at the south, the only place roads were open to get in. Starving and exhausted after 30 hours of travel, we took a cab to the first hostel listed in our Lonely Planet guidebook and luckily got a room. The receptionist said they were still expecting aftershocks but those never came. (Later addition: They did in fact come the next day, but nothing too major. After being in Quito everything was okay again, it was just the unfortunate news from the mines). They recommended a place for a quick dinner, where we gladly scarfed down a delicious calzone and a beer. It wasn’t hard to fall asleep that night.

My first bus experience was honestly not as bad as it could have been, but it wasn’t a walk in the park either. I am looking into not leaving Ecuador by land but it will come down to timing and price. Honestly this portion of my trip is still pretty up in the air. I just know that at some point next week I’ll be on buses again in Peru and Bolivia.

But for now, I have made it to Ecuador! After the great experiences I had in Colombia and Brazil, I am curious to see if South America continues to deliver in this next country.


Walking into Ecuador