PhillyB goes to Ecuador
Posted 31 December 2012 - 03:21 PM
tl;dr version: i went to Ecuador with my wife and it was fun.
Going to Ecuador in December wasn’t really by choice. Well it was, but it wasn’t first choice, or even second choice. Jordan and I had originally planned to quit our jobs the following January and take six months to backpack across South America and then on into Africa. That’s all kind of difficult to pull off when you then find out you’re expecting. So we planned a small trip to Ecuador in January instead, and then found out neither of us could get the time off for it, and, wanting to go somewhere badly enough to pay a little extra, we purchased roundtrip tickets for dates in December that would put us there over Christmas.
But enough of the setup. We flew from Raleigh to New York (where I saw enough spray tans and hair gel to appreciate the fact that while I grew up there, my residency is a thing of the distant past) and then to Atlanta (a remarkably inefficient pattern of flights) where we were delayed on the tarmac and had to dash at full speed (TSA doesn’t like that) to get to the airport tram that would whisk us to the international terminal where we were among the last couple of people to board before the door was locked and sealed.
Shortly before midnight we touched down on the runway in Quito. Immigration lines were obscene, with probably an hour’s wait in line for a passport stamp allowing us entry into the nation, but I’ve found I seldom mind those waits. Passport stamps are like crack to me. When you travel they start to get addictive, and I often find myself sitting in an airport or on the plane flipping through the multi-colored stamps from the world over, and the occasional full-page affixed visa, and wondering where the next stamp will end up. Anyone who’s traveled can probably relate.
It was raining outside, not the most pleasant introduction to Ecuador. We located our bags and found a cab out front and paid seven bucks to ride into town and grab a cheap single-bed hostel room for the night. The place was dead for a hostel (it was after one in the morning, so no surprise there) and we crashed.
The next morning we got up, noting the improvement in the weather – it was cloudy but not raining – and took a taxi back to the airport, where we picked up our rental car. I’d booked it online for a week’s time, the first half of our trip. It was about twenty-five bucks a day… not overly cheap, but it would give us increased flexibility by allowing us to go where we wanted on a whim, on our time, at our pace. We filled out some paperwork and inspected the lime green Chevy Spark, which didn’t look like much, but seemed suited for our travels. I jumped in and glided out of the narrow parking lot onto a narrower street and tried my best not to stall out on an extremely touchy clutch. And then I was in the middle of Quito traffic patterns.
My pregnant wife standing by our rental car in Quito, Ecuador
Posted 31 December 2012 - 03:22 PM
Turning onto the road for the first time is just like that, whether you’re in a car in Lima or a motorcycle in Saigon. You get used to it. I immediately fell into the traffic patterns, which were a little different but not too much, and drove while my wife pored over the map and tried to find us a way out of the sprawling city. The congestion was terrible, probably the worst I’ve seen since the streets of Manila. It took us three hours and a ridiculous number of wrong (or missed) turns to finally merge onto the Pan-American Highway where it turned south and offered three wide lanes of maneuverability. Freedom at last.
Here’s the other thing about driving internationally. Road signs tend to be plentiful in places where a high number of tourists drive. Go to Cancun and there’s no shortage of directions. You can’t get lost. Go to Peru and everything is clearly marked so you can’t go wrong. Go to Europe (I’ve never been to Europe, so this one is hearsay) and you’re good to go.
Ecuador is a little different. Very few people actually rent cars, and the few that do usually putter around Quito or maybe up to the markets north of the city. Outside of those areas and the major highways, there’s really very little need to thoroughly mark stuff. If you’re a tourist wanting to visit the town of Baños, the bus driver taking you there plies the route every single day. He doesn’t need signs.
Unfortunately we learned this the hard way, driving to Baños. The Pan-American highway, instead of skirting small towns with turnoffs to get to them, rammed straight through the center of the towns, and often disappeared entirely. You’d end up in the city square in the middle of an afternoon market with not one sign to tell you which direction the highway actually continues, and then spend the next half hour beeping your way through donkeys and old men and women trying to haul pigs with twine leashes, and then you’d finally navigate through to the south end of town and jump back on the highway.
This happened multiple times as we journeyed southward. It happened in Latacunga. It happened in Salcedo and it happened in Pillaro and then it was dark and raining and we got lost in Ambato and then spent an hour in the streets of a backwater town called Palileo that didn’t release the secret to its hidden mountain road until every capillary in my head was bursting with unparalleled frustration.
Posted 31 December 2012 - 03:26 PM
Headed across the footbridge over the gorge... this picture doesn't do it any justice at all
When we left Baños we did it as early in the morning as possible, hoping to reach the coast by nightfall. It was only a couple of hundred miles as the crow flies, but we’d found that to be a pretty inaccurate measurement in the winding thoroughfares of Andean Ecuador. And that car, while it was comfortable enough, proved to be incredibly underpowered. More than once I found myself redlining in third gear meandering up the side of a 5km stead incline, keeping pace with passenger buses and dump trucks while more fully-powered cars and trucks blew up the hills at several times my speed. Leaving Baños would prove to be no exception to this norm, and by the time crossed the Pan-American highway and navigated through the atrociously marked streets of Ambato, it was closing in on noon.
So the Pan-American Highway was behind us, along with its world-class pavement and wide lanes, and we were now headed to the coast on an ambling ribbon of concrete usually missing its center stripe and often missing actual concrete, with 10km stretches of dirt and gravel undulating into the upper reaches of upland Andean foothills. The car managed to stick to it, and traffic was mercifully light. We passed within a kilometer or two of the massive volcano Chimborazo, and I stopped on the shoulder and climbed an exhaustively-high bluff facing it to snap a quality picture (and learned in the process that I am exceptionally out of shape at 12,000 feet.)
That same volcano erupted less than two days later, causing an emergency evacuation of the entire region, with threats of mudslides called lahars the most dangerous problem, as the snowcap melting and roaring into the valleys would prove deadly to surrounding communities, as they had for centuries before.
Vulcan Chimborazo, taken through the windshield of the car (and hence the obnoxious glare.)
The road peaked off near Chimborazo and then wound steadily downhill, at one point turning into an exhaustive set of switchbacks that descended into a spectacular sea of clouds, and we dropped by over three thousand feet in the space of a half an hour, starting above the clouds, and then driving harrowingly through them, and then dropping under them, eventually leveling out onto what would become a long, flat coastal plain that led all the way to Guayaquil.
I still have nightmares about Guayaquil. The highway ran into the city and disappeared, and suddenly we were in the middle of crammed city blocks, caught behind a freaking Christmas parade, stuck in one lane, with only a small Lonely Planet map as a guide and traffic conditions that rivaled the motorcycle hordes of Saigon. I only hope that four-month-old babies in utero cannot comprehend certain profanities, because they were as many as they were colorful.
By some miracle that I now attribute to a mixture of instinctually keeping the setting sun to my front and the ocean generally to my left and blind luck we turned a corner and found ourselves on I-40 west towards Santa Elena (by far, I found, the coolest stretch of any I-40 I’ve ever driven.) And by nightfall we were in Montañita.
Posted 31 December 2012 - 03:29 PM
Not bad at all.
So we spent a couple days goofing off by the beach and eating pizza (which was in ridiculously plentiful supply in every town in Ecuador) and ended up detouring north of town to an archaeological site filled with pottery shards and burials from an indigenous culture dating to about 700A.D.
Beach north of Montañita.
Posted 31 December 2012 - 03:33 PM
Shark jaw. Now hanging over my bar.
The going was pleasant initially, winding up mild coastal hills and eventually turning inland, passing bright green foliage (a seeming anomaly in what had been an arid desertscape for miles along the ocean) and then turned into narrower, less-traveled stretches of pavement past the bustling town of Portoviejo, and then, as it ascended into the mountains, pavement gave way to long stretches of dirt and an obscene number of potholes that led to a three-hour white-knuckle swerve session until we rolled into Queveda.
I will cease to discuss Queveda because the two hours I spent there looking for the highway west are a fuzzy white blur of rage compartmentalized in some god-forsaken space in the back of my mind, but to me it represents the epitome of driving in unmarked cities in Ecuador. One highway in, one highway out, and we could not find it, and locals could not give us directions to it. Instead of driving three hours over the spine of the Andes to our destination, a small town south of Quito, we were forced to take a six-hour detour that led north, parallel to the Andes, and then cutting across them (which involved a foggy rainy ascent up a cliffside Need for Speed course for a good hour in the dark) before turning south on the other side, under Quito, and spending the night in Latacunga in what is to date the worst hostel room I’ve ever occupied (picture a bombed-out Societ-bloc concrete slab building with an interior to match.)
The next day was our last with the car. We drove part of the Quilatoa Loop, stopping in the famous artisan village of Tigua, where we purchased some local sheepskin paintings (and cementing our status as elitist art snobs, since they are valued collector’s items.) Then we drove back to Quito and dropped off the car, suddenly relieved to have it off our hands. The cost had been pretty low, though; thanks to our lawnmower engine and the cheap gas prices, we’d put just shy of 2,000 kilometers on it and spent less than fifty dollars in gas. Not bad.
Views from the cliffs of the Quilatoa Loop... incredible drive.
Posted 31 December 2012 - 03:37 PM
Posted 31 December 2012 - 03:37 PM
Santuario de las Lajas, over a gorge in Colombia
Back in Ecuador we spent another three days in Otavalo, a small town known for its weekend livestock and craft markets, purportedly the largest one in South America. I would not be surprised; it was vast. Among other things I purchased a shrunken head, a popular item in the markets.
You may decide whether it's fake or not.
The last bit of the trip was spent in Quito. A couple nights in a hostel, wandering the Spanish colonial Old Town district of the city on Christmas Day, chowing down on jacket potatoes at an Irish pub for Christmas dinner, and then trekking up to a volcano vista at 14,000 feet on our last day.
The view en route to Vulcan Pinchicha, thousands of feet above Quito and around 14,000 feet above sea level.
And that's how PhillyB went to Ecuador and Colombia and came back with a shark jaw and a shrunken head.
Posted 31 December 2012 - 04:42 PM
Local fruits hang from a string of barbed wire in the foothills of the eastern Andes.
One of thousands of small red crabs plying the beach on Ecuador's Pacific coast
Possibly my favorite picture from the entire trip. Taken outside Tigua, on the Quilatoa Loop
Early morning dew on a flower in front of the Santurario de las Lajas
Crates of newly-hatched chickens at the weekend animal market in Otavalo.
A wooden sign marking the footpath to Pinchicha, thousands of feet above Quito (at the bottom of the valley to the right of the sign.)
Posted 31 December 2012 - 06:13 PM
Ballpark cost of trip and what do you do for a living?
Posted 01 January 2013 - 02:56 AM
Ballpark cost of trip and what do you do for a living?
i bartend for a living, about 60 hours a week, and i'm in school full time as well. i take the change i make and the odd one dollar bills and throw them aside as a bonus that i don't count as part of my income. i never miss the couple bucks per shift i set aside, and it adds up remarkably fast. last year i paid for a trip to peru with it. this year i bought two roundtrip tickets to ecuador, which ran me $1700. more than i'd like to have paid, but time constrictions with work forced us to go over the christmas holiday, which jacked prices up significantly. should've been closer to $1400... but what are you gonna do
we stayed mostly in single bedroom hostels and guesthouses, which was a departure from my norm of staying in hostels with other random people at eight bucks a night, but with a pregnant wife things are bound to change a bit. the rooms were about $20-30 a night, and we spent probably $30 a day on food (eating out in nice restaurants literally every meal.)
it's all very doable. i tell people all the time that i don't smoke, which is an automatic extra $3000 in my pocket annually compared to people who do smoke, which is, if you use it right, enough money to get to, say, Thailand and back and live there comfortably for 3-5 months.
Posted 01 January 2013 - 02:58 AM
i'm actually spending the last of my spare change to fly to panama in three days, in part to study some older archaeological cultures and spanish contact periods remains, and in part to relax and finish the initial draft of the book i'm writing before the start of the new semester. the adventures are far from over
Posted 01 January 2013 - 03:19 AM
The Pan-American highway, instead of skirting small towns with turnoffs to get to them, rammed straight through the center of the towns, and often disappeared entirely. You’d end up in the city square in the middle of an afternoon market with not one sign to tell you which direction the highway actually continues, and then spend the next half hour beeping your way through donkeys and old men and women trying to haul pigs with twine leashes, and then you’d finally navigate through to the south end of town and jump back on the highway.
this sounds like an awesome dilemma