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PhillyB goes to Ecuador

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Following is a rather exhaustive account of my trip to Ecuador. I've tossed in pictures along the way to try to break of the monotony of the walls of text.

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

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Here’s the thing about driving internationally. It’s a lot like the first time you get behind the wheel of a car in driving school as a teenager, and after driving around cones in the parking lot you feel comfortable, and you’re starting to get pretty confident, and then the instructor tells you to make a right at the exit, and all of a sudden you’re on a real road, a traffic light ahead of you, surrounded by other cars, and in that moment everything changes from abstract to real, and you’re struck by a wave of something like terror mixed with awe, and then finally you get used to it.

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.

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So, Baños. Named after bathrooms. Once we got there we paid for a couple days in a French-style villa, not because we were enamored by Baños but because we were sick of driving after a single day. Then we ended up becoming enamored with Baños anyway, and spent our days there trekking across a massive gorge on a narrow swaying footbridge, and savoring the local cuisine (which, interestingly, seemed to be about 60% pizza [which I was ok with]) and exploring a rather run-down serpentarium (its enclosures housed a ridiculous number of snake species, which more than made up for its aesthetic appearance, and a second section in the back opened up into a large outdoor aviary, fascinating in its own right.)


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.

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Montañita is little more than a hippie surfer village smack in the middle of nowhere on the arid Pacific coast. You go from fishing shanty after fishing shanty to a sudden conglomeration of hostels and restaurants with hammocks instead of chairs and dozens of hole-in-the-wall bars and jugglers and street musicians performing for tips and latin dance music blasting from every establishment and craft vendors hawking shell necklaces and rastafarians with massive dreadlocks wandering the town with European flannel trousers and travel-sized classical guitars with well-worn nylon strings. We fit right in, and landed a private room in a hostel for $30 a night, with a window opening up to the Pacific Ocean ten feet across the street.

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.

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With a day left on the car rental we headed back for the Quito area. We found a highway that led cross-country on the map, and, assuming it was Pan-American-Highway-standard through and through, we blithely packed up the car (complete with a shark jaw I bought in a market for $20, there is no way you can walk by a shark jaw and NOT buy it) and headed east.


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.

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That week was arguably the activity highlight of our journey. The last week was spent mostly relaxing; we took a foray up into southern Colombia, photographing the Santuario de las Lajas, an old cathedral perched over a roaring river gorge, well worth the hours of customs lines we faced at the border (numbers inflated, undoubtedly, by the oncoming arrival of Christmas.)


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.

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Here's a few pictures I really like:


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.)

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Ballpark cost of trip and what do you do for a living?

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