Ecuador is a nation of contrasts. It has more international influence than Colombia. The country uses the US dollar as its currency. There are pockets of foreign retirees all over the country. It is easy to find international cuisine done well. On the other hand, people in traditional dress are found throughout the Andes region. Babies are often tied to the backs of their mothers with a blanket. Men in Otavalo wear their hair long.
Our first stop in Ecuador was Otavalo, a smaller city in the north of the country known for its large handicraft market. Fortunately, we arrived the day before the Saturday market which is the largest of the week. The whole town is taken over by vendors of traditional looking goods. As in most places in the world, much of the wool has been replaced with acrylic. Walking the market was interesting. The items we found most appealing were too big to pack around so we only bought Kate a small jewelry bag. We discovered a Mexican restaurant and ate there daily. The bottomless guacamole was a delight but their overuse of the microwave left Kurt nauseous by the end of our stay or he became ill and associated the flavors of the restaurant with this illness. Either way, we recommend anything in the restaurant not microwaved. We stayed at the comfortable Hostal Chasqui. We had a neighbor called Jan from Switzerland. Weeks later, we would run into him on the beach in Ayampe. An upbeat guy, he always had something blissful to say. After a few days in town, Joe arrived from the Ecuadorian coast. Traveling with Joe is good for your health. He’s not much for spending money on food. We usually had fruit for breakfast and dinner. The largest meal of the day would be lunch in a restaurant. Throughout our travels, we have found large lunches to be a fraction of the cost of dinner. Joe also is big on long walks and his legs are so long that we have to really ramp up our effort to keep up with him. By the time we left him for Quito, we were skinny as bean poles, dropping tens of pounds from our wedding day. With Joe, we went to the Mojanda lake complex and hiked Fuya Fuya. Kate sat on the side of the mountain and drew the lake below. Joe and Kurt said it was the most challenging hike they have ever made. At the top, the ground was so slippery and steep that a misstep or miscrawl more like could lead to falling off the mountain. Kurt paused ten feet below the peak and decided that was enough. Any more would be ego or death. Going back down, he lost control of his legs as he was thrown into a sprint. It was frightening. Then, the clouds rolled in and he lost sight of the trail. He followed animal tracks with scatological evidence of both predator and prey. He made his way through high grasses to the crest of a hill where he could see Kate and Joe as little specs in the distance on the side of the lake. Other less dramatic activities included going to the lake outside of Quiroga, hiking to Peguche Falls and visiting Cotacachi, which is full of retirees. We spent Thanksgiving in Otavalo, dining at a Colombian restaurant. Spent mornings seeking breakfast in the market. Kurt had caldo de gallina de campo a few times before the morning rush wiped out the inventory. It’s a soup made from chicken raised by campesinos in the mountains. We moved to a hostel in Esperanza, where Bob Dylan once stayed, but were there only one night because of the creepy empty feeling the place had. Kurt was under the weather but the nice owner made him a pot of carrot tea. We took the bus back down to Ibarra, a larger city and somewhat off the backpacker trail. We saw few foreigners there. Kurt was again on the search for his new favorite food, caldo de gallina de campo. He says he can tell the difference by the toughness of the bird. He came up with a new quote, “Tough meat, tough people. Soft meat, soft people.” One morning the owner of the hotel took him to his favorite gallina joint, but unfortunately they were sold out. The next morning, they both went to the stall Kurt located in the market. Score! The three of us spent several days walking through the large city, enjoying meals in the market and nursing Kurt back to health. The city is famous for its ice cream and we definitely had our fill. In early December we bid farewell to Joe once more as he headed back to Colombia. We continued south.
We had only planned to be in the big city for a few nights, enough to see the grand churches and walk the old town. However, Kate became ill on the first day and our plans were derailed. After five days of barely being able to swallow and drinking lots of honey lemon tea prepared by Kurt, we decided to give in and seek a doctor. After doing some research on the internet we asked the manager at the hotel which hospital we should visit. He suggested the public hospital, which was accessible by a short taxi ride that became much longer because of a public strike blocking the direct route. We finally arrived at the hospital where we found long lines with more than 200 people holding slips of paper. We were directed to a woman who told us that we would need to go to a different hospital a cab or bus ride away to get the slip of paper and then come back and get in line at this hospital in order to be seen. It was a bureaucratic nightmare. Kate said, “Forget it. Let’s go to the private hospital.” We took a taxi back to the other side of town, where we were able to see an ENT after a 10 minute wait for the cost of $25.00. He told her she had a virus and that the air pollution in Quito was most likely making it worse. We left the next day for Canoa but not after Kurt took Kate to a delicious seafood restaurant where we ate encocado, similar to shrimp creole with coconut. Delicious!
We boarded the bus to Canoa on Reina del Camino. This was the first time we were forced to put our bags under the bus rather than carry them on with us. Kurt argued with the attendant about this policy. A nice old man that we would later learn his name to be Ignacio, helped us explain the situation so we were able to bring our small backpack filled with valuables on the bus. We stopped for dinner half way through the trip and learned that Ignacio and his wife live both in Florida and Ecuador. They gave us their cell phone number in case we needed anything. When we arrived in Bahia de Caraquez, they insisted on having their driver take us directly to Canoa to find a hotel. We looked at one that wasn’t so nice and then negotiated a great rate at Hotel Bambu right on the beach. It was the most luxurious place we had stayed to date. The hotel is owned by a Dutch man and his Afro-Ecuadorian wife. The grounds are beautiful and the food is great. We spent our days walking the long and picturesque beach and working on a business plan while taking breaks to swim in the Pacific Ocean. The climate was perfect, not too hot or humid. There were relatively few mosquitoes. We were surprised. Kurt thought it would be hot and muggy with lots of mosquitoes like Palomino, Colombia on the Caribbean Coast. We now assume the Pacific Ocean regulates the mild climate even at the equator. After 6 nights in Canoa, the hotel owners recommended that we visit their daughter’s hotel in Ayampe, Spondylus Lodge. It’s more like a large, new home. It only has six rooms. Ayampe is a small village comprised of many expats living there mainly for the surfing. We saw many carrying babies. The waves there are very strong. Kurt realized that his thinking that surfing is no big deal because he can skateboard and snowboard with ease is not entirely accurate. Those waves are scary, so strong they knocked the Dakine leash off of his ankle! It will take more time with the waves to be proficient. Ayampe has an excellent Italian restaurant at the Orishas Hotel. Those two Italian expats really know what they are doing. Their pizza is top-notch. We stayed only three nights in Ayampe because we had an appointment with a guide in Puyo about potentially exploring a tribal culture there, something we decided not to pursue.
12 hours door to door from Ayampe to get to Hostal D’Mathias in Baños, the cheapest and best hostel in Ecuador. We stayed on the top floor with a view of the mountains looming over the village filled with hot springs. We dined on the most delicious pizza we had ever tasted, had juices in the market and ate at a good vegetarian restaurant. The highlight of Baños is bathing in the various hot springs around town. We went to all three. We met Jocelyn from Nova Scotia at one of the springs. She is an upbeat 63-year-old backpacker and a grandmother. Jocelyn told us about her backpacking trip around Europe the year Kurt was born. We tried to work but the internet was bad. Our plan was to stay in Baños until the 26th of December but we woke up on the morning of 23rd and decided to go to Cuenca for Christmas which turned out to be the highlight of our time in Ecuador.
We settled into a new clean hostel in central Cuenca then went to find dinner. Afterwards, we walked to the plaza where Kurt noticed that the doors to a beautiful church were still open. Inside was the Cuenca Symphony playing Christmas carols. The church was packed, standing room only. The most passionate and beautiful were the Ecuadorian carols. The next day, Christmas Eve, we spent the morning at the parade. We got curbside seats by sneaking directly in front of the announcer’s podium. The first hour was well-organized with local dancing, native music, exotic costumes and people on horses. Wow! The rest of the parade was a mix of locals dressed up and joining in the fun, large floats and some more organized groups. The parade lasted well into the late afternoon. We had pizza for the 7th night in row for dinner. Then, we went to midnight mass with a French woman we met at the hostel. Many women in the mass were holding dolls representative of Baby Jesus. We saw a number of women holding these effigies on the street throughout the day on Christmas Eve. We woke up Christmas morning to take a jog along the river then had brunch at Café Austria, where we ran into Jocelyn just by chance. She had no idea we were planning to come to Cuenca. We then went to a party hosted by friends of our aunts in Santa Fe. We stayed for the full duration of the party having a great time mingling with many expats that have moved to Cuenca. After the Christmas party, we talked with our families for a long time. It’s been fun talking with them via Hangouts and FaceTime. We left the morning of the 26th for Vilcabamba.
Vilcabamba is known as the valley of longevity. Supposedly, expats are one fifth of the population of this town of 5,000. Many went down there long ago to find a new way of life. Over time, many others poured in. It was difficult to find a place there because everything was booked and accommodation is more expensive than most places in Ecuador. When getting off the bus, the driver asked if we had a reservation and if not to go to Don Herman’s. We shrugged it off thinking we would have no problem finding a place. The first hotel we went to was completely full. A German couple that were on the bus with us from Cuenca walked in looking for a room too. We were in competition. We asked about Don Herman’s and the hotel owner said to go to Margarita’s which he believed was the same hotel. We went there and saw one overpriced room, but this was not Don Herman’s. Then, the German couple showed up telling us the other two places they investigated were full. The lady from Margarita’s pointed us down the road to Don Herman’s. Should we take our chances or take the last known room available? Naturally, we took our chances. We assume the German couple took the last room at Margarita’s. We actually never saw them again which is strange because of the size of the town. At Don Herman’s, which ended up being an unlabeled hostel in a three story building run out of a tienda on the bottom floor, we were able to get a room for $10 per night. It was a score. The following day we met two Israeli girls who invited us to a sweat lodge at a place on the river with domed homes made from sandbags, the type of home Kurt wants to build for us. The experience was one of the highlights of our week in town. Kurt noticed his back was painful throughout the lodge and wasn’t sure why. The next day, he was sick and in bed. This was the third time he had come down with this illness in two months. He spent most of Sunday in bed. Kate got her haircut in the most unusual manner ever, by flipping her hair completely upside down in front of her face then cutting straight across. She was scared but it all ended up just fine and she is now sporting an Ecuadorian haircut. We had our teeth cleaned by a sweet dentist, Dr. Cecilia. She still uses the spitting bowl. When she wants you to spit, she says “por favor”. You have to do a crunch to do it. She says this is good for your abs. All of this was conveyed in Spanish. Ramona and Jeffrey, the friends that threw the Christmas party in Cuenca, introduced us through email to Scott who lives in Vilcabamba. We met Scott after three days in town and saw him everyday after until we left for the border. Scott and his wife rode their KTM motorcycles down here from Portland, Oregon with their dog in tow. His wife is back up in Portland taking care of her mom right now. We spent a lot of time with Scott at his house up the hill from the center of town. His place has great views of the valley. He served us the best chocolate in all of South America, flavored with lemon oil, unlike any chocolate we’d ever had before. Scott’s friend makes it. Other highlights of Vilcabamba included a trip to Scott’s new property in the San Joaquin Valley, massages at the Izhcayluma hostel and what Kurt thinks is the best Mexican food anywhere. The New Year’s Eve celebration in Vilcabamba is the most unique we have encountered. People burn effigies in bonfires in the street at midnight. We saw these effigies on display all over town during the day on New Year’s Eve. Throughout the evening, people were having firework wars and almost shooting each other in the face with Roman candles. We saw no police. Kurt said he saw one fireman but with no equipment. The band that played until the early hours in the morning was full of talent and passion. Music was still being played across town after sunrise. We had a relaxing New Year’s Day at the locally owned creperie then back at Scott’s. We dined with him at Mexibamba in the evening then said our goodbyes. It was good to make a new friend. On January 2nd, we boarded a bus heading for Zumba just after 6am. In Zumba, we hired a 4×4 truck to drive us an hour on a winding dirt road through the mountains to the border. The driver said that we would not be able pass this road if it was raining. In the little town of La Balza, we got our exit stamp from Ecuador then uneventfully crossed the border into Peru.