“Why Ecuador?” That is usually what I hear from people when I tell them that I spent 3 weeks on vacation in Ecuador. My typical response is “Why not?”
The real reason why I chose Ecuador as my destination for my annual adventure trip was because it wasn’t the typical place people would go when heading to South America. I like off the beaten path places where you aren’t being jostled by the other tourists as they try to get the right shot with their camera. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind the Niagara Falls type trips, but if I’m expecting remoteness and it ends up being a Contiki like tour group, it’s the same feeling as taking a drink of milk only to realize it is Buckley’s (have fun cleaning that mess up).
In Ecuador, I wanted to be thrown into far away places and not only did I get my wish but I got to experience a strong cultural side of the country as well. Ecuador is an amazing country undergoing tremendous changes. Whether these changes are good or not remains to be seen but it was in a transitional stage when I was there (2002). Like my other longer trips, I’ve summarized my journal as I had written too much to post on the website and have laid it out in chronological order.
Camera Newbie WarningA bit of a caveat here. The pictures are not of the best quality and I can explain. My lack of skill. I was pretty green in the ways of the camera and my understanding of ISO, exposure and film speed were pretty much non-existent. There was no Instagram to cover up your mistakes.
Oh and if you notice some graininess in the photos, well you can attribute that to the massive x-ray machine they sent my camera film through. A bunch of the pictures were not fit for viewing once I got them developed. Boo!
The Flight to Ecuador and Impressions of Quito
My flights to Ecuador were enjoyable as I had a number of entertaining people to talk to on every flight leg. I met Andrea the traveling travel agent, Marcio the Brazilian student/Whirlpool employee and Martin the brazen American who crashed his helicopter in the Florida keys and lived to tell the tale (after weeks of recovery in the hospital). Listening to their stories passed the time quickly and before I knew it, I was landing in Quito, the capital of Ecuador.
This sprawling city of 1 million people is 60 miles long and 2 miles wide. It’s nestled in the Western Andes mountain range and is the second highest capital in the world (9,500 feet). After landing in the middle of the city (yeah that’s where the airport is located) and somehow choosing the slowest immigration line, I met up with my tour guides, Mike and Jen. They are the proud owners and operators of the travel company Untamed Path. I ended up choosing them as my tour guides for my first portion of my trip because their beliefs about nature were aligned with mine and I liked their approach to touring with small groups. After a brief chat, they introduced me to their courteous driver who drove me off to my hostel.
I mention the fact that the driver was courteous because I soon noticed that the “Drive Offensively” style of driving is in full use in Ecuador. One of the benefits of my trip here is that I no longer suffer from road rage. I get annoyed sometimes sure but I merely have to think back to how things were in Quito and I realize I have nothing to complain about.
I mention the fact that the driver was courteous because I soon noticed that the “Drive Offensively” motto is in full A view of Quito, the capital of Ecuador. effect in Ecuador. As a result of this trip, I never experience ‘angry moments’ back here in Canada. I get annoyed sometimes but I merely have to think back as to how things were in Quito and I realize I have nothing to complain about.
As we drove around, I saw things that I had never seen before and enjoyed taking it all in: Two lane roads being used as four lanes, run down apartment complexes, party buses that serve booze on the bus while it drives around the city and strange new signs. I was told by my driver that Quito is not a place where tourist wants to walk around by themselves after dark and I had to agree. After we arrived at the hostel, I talked to Mike and Jen for a bit, ate some food they gave me and felt that I was in good hands with them. Feeling relaxed, I soon fell asleep in my child sized bed.
Thieves in the Park
The next day, Mike and Jen were busy preparing for our trip so I had the day to myself. I decided to wander around the touristy sections of town and soon found a park full of artisans and crafts people about 10-15 minutes away from the hostel. I wandered through and checked out all the vendors. It was a big park so I ventured out away from the busy parts. Unfortunately the park was also a favourite spot for thieves. I got the dark mustard treatment when I paused under a tree to relax in the shade. Two guys walked by me and I felt some liquid hit me on my legs. At first I thought it was bird crap because of the colour but I wasn’t sure. Right away the two guys started jabbering at me in Spanish and pointing to the tree trying to explain that it was a bird that had crapped on me. The sludgy stuff on my leg was dark and smelled quite strong but it wasn’t bird crap. The two guys then approached me from different sides with tissue in hand which put me on guard. They started cleaning me with their tissues and they were trying to get around me so they could have access to my “European man purse” that I carry when I go hiking. I’ve since gotten rid of that thing and have a nice MEC day pack that I use for carrying my things.
At one point during my free cleaning, they tried using one hand to cover their other hand and that’s when I knew they were going to go for my zippered pockets. I made a quick decision and pushed both of the little guys away (most of the people were only 2/3 of my height) and I took their napkins while saying thanks and walked away. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I knew it was time for me to make my exit.
After walking around the park for another 5 minutes, I heard a short whistle and turned towards the sound. I saw a guy and girl look at each other and then at me. They started following me and I knew that I had been targeted for some scam. I made a couple of turns in the park while keeping an eye on them. They were still following me but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, I stopped to put my tissues in a garbage can and stood there for about 30 seconds to see if the couple would move past my area. Nope, they stopped and were looking off in a different direction when I glanced in their direction. I then decided that I had to be more direct with them so I turned around, stared at them and crossed my arms. When they turned to see where I was, I waved at them and just stood there. They didn’t do anything so I walked towards them and then turned back the way I had just come so they had no choice but to continue on otherwise it would make it too obvious.
That was enough action for me for my first day so I headed back to the hostel for some reading. On the way back to the hostel, I got the feeling that I had been scoped out by three guys on the sidewalk ahead of me. One of them noticed me and whispered something to his buddies. Then they slowed their pace to a crawl so I would catch up with them. I slowed myself down so I would not catch up to them. I then ducked into a bakery to pretend to buy something. I walked out about two minutes later and the guys were just down the street not far from where I had entered the bakery. They started moving ahead again when I did so I decided I was done with this. As soon I passed an intersection, I took off at a jog down a side street and zigzagged along the streets. I was soon back into in Gringolandia, the area where all the tourists hang out, so I felt more comfortable but even so, I saw the three guys about one block away from me just before I turned a corner and went into my hostel (which, thankfully, was gated).
My Traveling Companions
My traveling companions for this trip (aside from the tour guides) were two American guys who didn’t know each other. First up was Ezra who hails from Boston and has the same sarcastic humour as I do so we got along quite well. He never shied away from something new while we were down there and I admired him for doing this type of trip because it seemed very out of the norm for him. He was a great traveling companion as he had some good insights and even lent me his camera after mine broke.
The other traveling partner was Lund who came from Houston. The two things that stick in my head about Lund was that was a software developer and had a fruit obsession. The first thing he asked our tour guides for when we met him at the airport was “Can we go to a fruit market?”. At 10:30pm at night. Everyday thereafter, he somehow managed to interject the word fruit into a conversation somehow. Overall, Lund was a very curious traveler with a desire to explore. Not a bad traveling companion be any means, but he was very quiet and had a very different outlook on the world than other people I tend to hang out with. That last part was interesting as I’ve come to appreciate different viewpoints from people as we tend to surround ourselves with like minded people.
Gringolandia is about 10 square blocks of tourist fun in Quito. While it’s relatively safe there, my guides told me to use a cab to travel two blocks if you are by yourself and it is after 7:00pm. How reassuring is that? This area was filled with hotels, art shops, bakeries, jewellery stores, restaurants, hostels and internet cafés. One could spend a few days there just lounging around while taking in the sights, smells and sounds.
Bellavista: Bird Sanctuary in a Cloud Forest
On our first day of the tour, we hopped in a van and traveled Eastwards up into the mountains until we stopped at a bird sanctuary called Bellavista. It was located up in a cloud forest and it was one of the coolest spots we stopped at. The origin of the sanctuary was that there is an English guy who loved the area and wanted to protect it so he built up it a bit and turned it into a bird sanctuary. He built this geometric dome for his guests which caused the locals to think he was not all there. The first floor in the dome is the restaurant/eating area and a small spiral staircase lead to the second floor which had a fewrooms on it.
A ladder from the second floor then then lead to the third floor which had three rooms and that is where we slept. A balcony outside our rustic room had some chairs and a great view of the cloud forest. From the third floor, there is another ladder which leads up to the top of the dome which is a small 10×10 area that had four mattresses for people who wanted to sleep up there. There are windows on all sides which would allow one to see out over the trees for a spectacular view. I imagine that storms and the sunrise would be phenomenal up there.
We stayed here for about a full day day and during this time, we hiked up riverbeds and on mountain trails to discover lush vegetation, cold waterfalls and tropical birds of all types. It was neat seeing Toucans and Parrots in the wild and even better listening to them sing their songs throughout the day. The dome itself had something like 12 hummingbird feeders so you could go watch them anytime you want. As you can imagine, this is a popular travel destination for birders.
Standing on the Earth’s equator is a cheesy thing to do but how often can I do that? We stopped at the official spot and took the obligatory tourist shot with one leg in the Northern hemisphere and the other leg in the Southern hemisphere (that’s where I am in the pic at the top of this post). The coolest thing with being right on the Equator is that the sun rises and sets at the same time no matter what time of year it is (and hence daylight savings time does not exists here). Any guesses on when the sun would rise and set?
Living with a Shaman
As we drove towards the Amazon, we stopped 45 minutes past the town of Teva. We were on a dirt road at the bottom of some steps leading up into the jungle. After carrying our bags up, we discovered we had arrived at a shaman’s property where we would stay for three days. This was a most peaceful experience as we laid around in hammocks, listened to stories from the shaman, and walked his property as he explained the different plants and their uses.
After performing a ceremony to officially welcome us into his family and identify which spirit animal was linked to us, we walked through the jungle with him and he showed us many types of plants that are used in helping locals with their health. We also learned how pharmaceutical companies come in and pay people to cut down whole swaths of trees in order to quickly gain large amounts of ingredients for mass production. The shaman told us that if they had done it more slowly, the trees can renew themselves. The shaman showed us how to climb trees, set traps and sift for gold in the stream (we found a few grains of gold which were added to the pile that other travelers had found).
Every night, we ate supper with the Shaman and his family of 6 while he told us local legends. On our last night, we listened to the music they played on their instruments and danced with the family before we went to bed. The mosquito nets were quite helpful as the building we were staying in weren’t sealed in the way that we are used to back home.
On our second last day with him, we did an eco-challenge worthy hike with the shaman up to a holy area. As we made our way through the jungle, we crossed streams, up waterfalls using ropes and climbed log ladders to get to higher areas. The holy area was a spring that provided the water on his property. We swam in there and although it was cold, it was quite refreshing after the hike but it wasn’t over yet. We climbed even higher on our return loop and we stopped for a bit while the shaman showed us how to swing on a vine which was a ton of fun! On our last day, we walked a good distance down a road and then through the jungle to come to a spot where we came to a rock type that is rare in this part of Ecuador: Granite. There are local legends as to how it got there but the interesting thing is that is it part of a set of small rapids and the water has worn down the rock over time. It is so smooth that it has become a natural rock slide so we had a lot of fun sliding down it. We rock jumped and slid for a couple of hours while we experienced some sun showers. On our way back the Shaman stopped me from grabbing a small tree for balance as we made our way across some muddy section. He pointed out the ants on it and said that their bite is extremely painful (fire ants I think he said) but then mentioned that there was a local plant that alleviated their sting. Apparently, for every poisonous thing in the Jungle, there was a naturally occurring cure as well.
White Water Rafting on the Upper Napo River
To get to our next destination, we ended up spending a day white water rafting on the Upper Napo River, which is a tributary for the Amazon river. It was some of the best rafting I have done as we didn’t have to any paddling at all since the rapids were perfectly spaced. It’s too bad we didn’t dump at all but in these waters, it might not have been a good experience. We ended up in some small town where we drank some beer and relaxed before we grabbed our gear and drove to Masi Hullia which is a former boom town on the oil frontier. While there, we ended up staying at a Caribbean themed resort which was a nice change of pace. Ezra, Lund and I went into town to check things out and were given quite a show by a pack of monkeys who were causing havoc for local shop keepers. The town itself was a bit depressing to see because you could tell it had been once a thriving town but was now a shadow of its former self.
The Oil Companies
Our tour guides were quite environmentally focused and like to help/teach the locals instead of exploiting them as the oil companies have historically done. Mike and Jen showed us what the oil companies were doing to the areas in the Amazon and how they extract all the resources from one region before moving onto the next. It is quite disheartening to see the destruction they cause and how little they cared for the environment. And yes, I drive a car and buy oil based products so I know I contribute to this by creating demand for oil but you would think that there would be a better way to extract the oil without having to destroy the land and still make a tidy profit.
During my trip, I the situation was explained to me as follows: The oil companies bought the rights to drill the Ecuadorian Amazon basin for oil and they paid the government up front for these rights. The government then spent the money building infrastructure for the people and they kind of have to let the companies do their thing since they can’t give the money back. More oil had been spilled into the rivers in the Jungle than what the Exxon Valdez spilled into the ocean during it’s infamous incident. I was told that the drilling the companies do causes seismic disturbances that scare the animals away for several years and that large areas of trees are clear-cut for work reason which causes long term problems. In many parts of the Amazon, there is about 15 inches of soil that sits on rock and the trees hold everything in place with their wide branching roots. When the trees are gone and the big rains come, the water washes away the soil and the trees never get a chance to regrow.
Lagooning with Caimans, Piranha and Cockroaches
Traveling with Mike and Jen was great because they were well liked by the locals. They contribute to their schools and show them how to create sustainable and low impact projects that pull in money through tourism. As a result, we were able to venture to places that are not open to the public. One such place was a lagoon which was the apex of our trip into the Amazon. We traveled by water for several hours east of Coca to get there and if my guess is right, the name of the Lagoon is now called Laguna Del Yuturi and it was not yet open to the public. We got out of our long-boat we had been traveling and hiked with two guys from a nearby village. After 4km of checking trees out and getting some insight into the giant plans around us in the jungle, we arrived at some authentic looking dugout log canoes. We hopped in our not so steady transports and after getting covered in soot (part of a process they use to make the canoes water resistant), we headed off across the lagoon. As we paddled our way to a set of of open walled buildings where we would be staying for the next two days, our guides pointed out some caimans who were basking in the sun directly opposite to where we were going to be sleeping.
The locals from a nearby village were developing, with advice from Mike and Jen, an area in the amazon where they would eventually bring tourists once it was completed. There were several wooden platforms which that were setup for tourists to sleep on and a main building that served as the cooking/eating area. Our sleeping quarters consisted of a wooden deck raised about 3 feet off the ground. Nine wooden posts on the deck served at the supports for our roof which ,our hosts showed us, is created by intertwining three dried local plants . It takes hours and hours to complete a small section of roof and the lifespan of the roof is about 5 years. We were given some mattresses to put down on the wooden platform and then were told to put our sleeping bags on that and we would then use the mosquito nets to cover us. Did I mention that there were no walls?
After setting things up, Ezra, Lund and I went over to the eating area and sat down for some yummy food. It was just starting to get dark when I noticed that there were some big bugs flying around. Playing it cool, I ignored them and started eating until one of them landed on the table and made a mad dash for my food. I realized it was a cockroach and thought “Since, when do cockroaches fly?”. I swatted it away and was stunned when I saw it fly off the table and recover in mid-flight. It hovered there and then came back. Resilient little b*stard. Our hosts were chuckling at our reactions and we were told that “you make peace with the cockroaches, otherwise you will go insane”. I had one arm around my bowl to keep the little buggers away and used my other hand to eat (guess that habit or protecting my cereal bowl as a kid came in handy after all – eh Dad?)
We were munching away when we heard a loud fluttering sound. Something thwacked Lund in the back of the head and flipped onto the table. The locals shouted “La coucaracha El Grande!!!” (translation Giant Cockroach) El Grande is right. This thing was a good 3-4 inches long and 1 inch wide!! Our hosts, slammed a jar down on it and dragged it off the table. The scary part is that it was fighting to crawl forward . Lots of excitement during dinner.
After supper, we talked for a while and decided to head to bed. We used our flashlights to back to our sleeping deck and as we were getting ready to enter our mosquito nets, Ezra let out a huge gasp. He had a slight phobia of spiders that he somewhat overcame before coming on this trip but sitting smack dab in the middle of his mosquito net was the biggest grey furry spider I’ve ever seen. We used a stick to flick it off and it landed on the ground beside the deck with a thud. No spider should ever make a thud sound when it lands on the ground.
As I crawled into bed, I made sure that my mosquito net was securely tucked under my mattress on all sides so nothing could get in during the night. About an hour later, I see lightning flashes in the sky followed by red bursts of light that quickly went out (short fires). We find out quickly what it was as it started to rain and the fates laughed at me as I was on the of the platform that was exposed to the wind/rain. I lie there and take the rain in the face because I have a vision of numerous insects crawling on me as I spend 15 minutes moving my bed setup to another spot. Thankfully the rain lets up and I fall asleep quickly. I wake about 3-4 hours later and watch the full moon for a bit which was great except for the fact that the light illuminates my mosquito net. It is then that I notice that it is covered in all sorts of cockroaches, centipedes and other crawly things. I curl up a little more making sure my body doesn’t touch the mosquito net. When I think back on that night, I still get the heebie jeebies! I ended up listening to the sounds in the jungle as birds, insects and animals were all making noises. I soon fall asleep, thankful for the noise to distract me from the stuff on the mosquito net.
The next day, our local guides, who are also hunters from the village, take us on a hike through the jungle to show us the things a ‘city’ person would not not typically see in the jungle: The relationships the trees have with other organisms, tracks for large pekari packs, monkeys high up in the canopy and what not to touch while wandering through the jungle. After a long hot day of hiking, Our guides show us a ‘waking tree’ that can move up to a foot over the course of it’s life in order to keep itself upright. we made it back to the camp and and our guides say that we can swim in the lagoon but to be wary of the piranha and crocodiles. The three of us look at each other and we all have a look on our face that says “You’re kidding right?”. The locals then go on to tell us that as long as we aren’t bleeding, the piranha will leave us alone and that they will stand on hill to warn us if any of the sun basking caimans, slide into the water. Hesitantly, the three of us go in, but once we were in, I would have to say that it was the shortest time I’ve ever spent in the water. I got in, cleaned myself quickly and then got out. Later that night we all went for a canoe ride in the dark and the villagers paddled up beside a young caiman and picked it up out of the water. They asked us if we wanted to touch it but we chose not to because Mike and Jen warned us that doing so would most likely have a negative impact on how they interact with humans over time.
That night, I fell asleep listening to a sound I’ve been wanting to hear for a long time. The growl/roar of the howler monkey. I tried to imagine the look on the faces of the Spanish when they first heard the sound without knowing what it was. I remember reading stories about how scared they were and imagined what thoughts must have been racing through their heads.
The Salt Lick (Feasting Grounds for 600+ Parrots)
The next morning, we left the lagoon and paddled in our log canoes for about one hour to get back to the main river. Trees had fallen over the river so we had to let the canoe slowly go under the tree as each passenger had to step over the tree with their seat in hand and then settle back into the canoe. We did get to see some interesting birds on the way out but it didn’t compare to what were about to see.
The salt lick we saw was a mineral rich cliff made of clay where parrots from all over came to visit everyday The parrots arrive for their daily mineral intake. to scratch away at the wall and eat. The locals told us that the minerals are like an antidote to the jungle toxins. At this particular salt lick, there were approximately 600 parrots that come to feed every morning at 6:30am sharp. The 600 parrots are broken down into four types of parrots (blue-headed, yellow crown, mealy and dusky headed) and it was interesting to see that they each had their feeding time and location on the cliff side. One group would peck away and have their fill while the other ones watched for a bit. Once the parrots in waiting deemed it was their turn, they would then swoop in from the trees for their turn while the previous group retreated to the trees. It was the closest thing I’ve ever seen to an organized queue in the wilderness.
Unfortunately, it was during this time that my beloved 35mm camera, that I received on my 18th birthday, died on me. I resorted to borrowing Ezra’s camera during specific periods (what a bang up guy).
The Crazy Ride from Hell
What trip to a foreign country is complete without the crazy drive that almost gets you killed? This one was special in that our driver was driving on roads used primarily by the oil company transports and dump trucks. The speed limit was 30km/h as it was a twisty and windy dirt road up through the mountains. Of course there was the obligatory cliff to one side of the road, sans guardrail, where if a car went over, it would be certain doom. I’ve been on some interesting mountain rides but this one was differentl because we were doing it at night and the driver was doing 80km/h. He would have to cross into the oncoming lane so he could drift around the corners without going over it due to our excessive speed. I was pretty nervous about it all but I eventually found it easier to just look away and concentrate on something else. We eventually got to our destination and I was happy to be on stable ground.
San Rafael Falls
A leisurely walk down a jungle path brought us to the largest waterfall in Ecuador. An absolute marvel to see, I had never seen a waterfall quite like this as it reminded me of a water tap when it’s fully opened. The roaring water fell off the cliff and shot straight down only to hit the rocks below which would result in some pretty cool water movement at the base. While standing there watching it, we noticed a small cross erected near our lookout point and we were told that it was put there to remember a young Montreal man who fell from the lookout as he was attempting to get a good picture but stumbled and fell over the edge back in 1998. Sad.
Hot Spring Resort
On the second last day of my adventure tour with Untamed Path, we stopped at a hot spring resort that was nestled in between several mountains. After spending so much time in rustic conditions, it was nice to relax and sooth our muscles in hot pools. The extremely affordable messages were pretty good too. After a nice dinner, we hit the sack and I had the best sleep I had experienced in two weeks. The next morning, I had to go for one last hot tub dip so I got up very early and went in by myself. As I sat there thinking back on my trip, the clouds in the parted and I got a view of a volcano we had not seen before. When I later asked about the volcano, I was told that I had been extremely fortunate to see it as it is not often seen due to the constant cloud cover in the region. When I saw it, I half expected to some heavenly “ahhhhhhh” sound as it seemed like something right out of the bible.
La Cienaga, a 200 year old Spanish Colonial mansion
At the end of my tour with Untamed path, I had another unplanned week to spend in Ecuador so Mike and Jen put me in touch with a new tour guide: Arie the Dutch ex-marine turned mountain bike operator. Mike and Jen arranged for me to get a ride out to a hostel called La Cienaga so I could meet up with Arie. Turned out this hostel happened to be a 200 year old Spanish colonial mansion. As my driver, Giermo, drove me out out of Quito, I saw so much poverty. Half built houses, children sleeping in newspaper bins and garbage everywhere. As Giermo made his way out into the countryside, I noticed that he had a very similar driving style to mine and it was refreshing to see in the chaos of Ecuadorian traffic. He was constantly monitoring the cars ahead and behind him and we talked about driving a lot. We eventually made it to our destination and when we turned onto the property of the hostel, I thought I was in the wrong place because it seemed too posh and upscale. It felt like I was visiting a governor’s estate with all the trees lining the driveway and the huge house at the end with a fountain out front. The hostel had 37 bedrooms which aside from each having their own beds, had their own fireplace, living room and washroom. Apparently I had stumbled upon the the original Four Seasons. I had an upgraded room as I had a fireplace, a desk, 2 beds, a couch and a luxurious washroom which even had a heater (which I used to dry some clothes I had washed in the bathtub).
I spent the rest my day exploring the house and the surrounding estate while taking pictures on Ezra’s camera (that he had so graciously lent to me and that I would send back to him once I got back home). I walked around, scribbled in my journal, took some pictures and had a pretty good meal that evening. During my exploration of the property, I found a stable, a pool, gardens, ponds, a church and a some kind of plantation. I met a lady from Québec, Audête, who was traveling South America for 8 months with her young daughter (talk about brave) and had just gotten her car stolen. A few weeks earlier than she had expected she said but she was adapting to the situation. It was nice to speak French with her as it was hard to talk to people since I did not know much Spanish.
I ended the day by lounging on a divan in the stateroom and read a US newspaper which is something I had not done in a while. A caretaker tended to a nearby fire and I briefly wondered if this is how it had been 200 years ago. As I sat there, I ate two dinner rolls that I had tucked into my pockets while I was at dinner. Not only did they fill me up, they also got rid of the weird bulges in the front of my pants.
Arie, a Dutch Ex-Marine & Mountain Bike Operator
The next day, Arie arrived and picked me up. Arie was a 43 year old Dutch guy who used to be a marine and decided to open his own mountain bike touring company in Ecuador. While Mike and Jen showed me the strong cultural side of Ecuador, Arie showed me the grittier side. He was not from Ecuador but he had made his home there and had seen enough stuff to be considered a local. He provided me with a aluminum frame mountain bike (a Bianchi), some garden gloves, a helmet ,food and transportation to our destinations. Over the course of a week, we had some pretty good chats and he shared his thoughts on Ecuadaor and where she was headed.
Arie was a good guide. He shared a lot of knowledge about the Ecuadorians, their politics and what the country was going through. He had been married to a local woman as well so he had a few good stories to share with me and he was also kind of enough to bring me to his place one day while on our way out of town so I got to meet his girlfriend and see how he lived. During my time with Arie, I was dealing with altitude sickness (we jumped up and down from 9000 to 16,000 feet) and was dealing with something I picked up while I was in the jungle (gastro related, we’ve all been there) that needed prescription medicine to control it. Also didn’t help that I was constantly being sunburned. Not only were we on the Equator (closest point to the sun), we were also 10,000+ feet up. Nasty sunburns would happen in 15 minutes if you forgot to put on any kind of sunscreen (which happened several times over the the three weeks I was in Ecuador). Arie was chuckling at my situation as he knew what I was going through. I endured it all with the grace of a 28 year old.
Mountain Biking in Cotopaxi National Park
Our first destination and place for me to bike was inCotopaxi National Park. Specifically on Mount Cotopaxi. After paying a fee to enter the park, he he drove me up to the highest point on Mount Cotopaxi. There he unloaded my bike, gave me my bike gear, an energy tea mix and a banana before wishing me luck. I took in the cold but spectacular view for a bit and then bundled up and hopped on the bike. I started making my way down the mountain via the trail/road we had come up (The 4×4 functionality was necessary to get to where we were) and quickly realized I had to ride the brakes the whole way down because it was so steep. Less than 5 minutes into the ride, I pop my tire and Arie comes up behind me with the truck and the tire is fixed in no time flat (ouch).
The terrain eventually flattens out and there there are some hills to do and I start sucking air. First bike of the year for me + biking at altitude is not what I call a recipe for success. I push through it and I’m rewarded with about 2km of the best single track riding I’ve ever done. As I bike through small villages and quiet backroad roads, Arie stays about 1km ahead of me in the truck. He stops at intersections and turns when he knows I can see him. I say hello to the locals who stop what they are doing to stare at this strange guy in a blue jacket. At one point, I nearly ditch the bike as I ride past some bushes and a brush hidden donkey starts braying. So freakin’ loud. After a total of 50km of riding, I’m done. Arie and I then wander over to the park’s official museum where I get to read up on volcanoes and see some stuff animals (The Andean Condor is pretty cool). We ate some lunch at a restaurant in the museum, saw a Park Ranger (the locals call them cowboys and they wander the park on horseback accompanied by their trusty dogs) and then hopped in the truck to make our way towards our next destination: The West Andes.
One of the most amazing things I have ever seen with my own two eyes is Quilotoa Crater. I really do wish I could show it to others but it’s not easy to get to. As Arie and I made our way through the Andes to get to this location, he explained to me that many years ago, this 13,000 foot volcano erupted and when it settled, a 250 meter deep lake formed in crater. Over the course of several hours, I got see some pretty rugged terrain and this was a situation where again, the 4×4 SUV was really needed to get to where we wanted to go.
Eventually, Arie announced that we had reached out destination but all I could see was a bunch of run down buildings on a small hill. We got out, grabbed our bags and made our way to a building that had the world ‘hostel’ painted on it. We went inside and suddenly, we were in someone’s kitchen/dining room/living room. The dirt floor added to the dampness but the heat from the stove took a bit of the edge off things. A man about 1/2 the size of me came out from a side room and greeted Arie like they were long lost friends. I soon found out that this is where we would be staying. We dropped our bags off upstairs in a rustic room and we went back outside.
Arie then leads me up the hill the small settlement is built on and when we get to the top, I am floored by what I saw. We were on the lip of the crater itself, which is about 500 feet up from the lake. I stood in awe for a while and took a few photos which thankfully were not destroyed by those x-ray machines at the airport. Arie mentioned that we were going to go down into the crater the following morning and that we should head back as supper was being made for us. Turns out the settlement built up because of the tourism generated by the visitors to the crater. Thankfully the volcano is dormant (and has been for 14,000 years).
After a meal of spaghetti and a glass of their homegrown alcohol (I swear it tasted like gas), the locals sang and danced for us while a grandfatherly figure gave small drinks of the homegrown alcohol to a 2 year old and laughed when the child ran around screaming while holding his mouth. Cheap entertainment for sure. I was suffering from some mild altitude sickness and I having to go the washroom a lot so I hit the sack early but woke up at 4am and had to go to the washroom. I managed to get outside but it was so dark that I could not see anything and I knew there were a few dogs around so I found a spot away from everything and did my business there. The next morning I actually used the washroom and it was pretty interesting. It was the only washroom in the village and it had a padlock on the door. When you went in, you were in a small room that had 4 brick walls (no windows) and a light with exposed wiring. No toilet seat, no back. Just something you squat over and the typical garbage can where you put your toilet paper. Once I was done, I went outside to get a bucket of water and then poured it into the toilet to let gravity do its thing.
After breakfast, Arie and I were ready to go. I was told that we would hike down and then take donkeys back up which was a nice thought seeing as how it would be tough to climb at that elevation. Once down in the crater, I explored around the sulfurous lake and there were a few small building being built. We looked around for the donkeys and found out that there were not any down in the crater at the moment because it was too early for the owner to be out. So we did what we had to do and hiked back up. In addition to the altitude, the sides of the crater were quite steep so it was a good hike back up. It took us about 1 hour to climb the 1000 feet quickly we had descended.
West Andes, Chugchilian and Mama Hilda’s
After the crater, Arie and I drove off and made our way through the West Andes. He puts the truck through the paces by climbing boulders / avoiding falling washouts that would send off cliffs and the such. I notice how poor the area is how rugged the land is. The crop land that I saw while we drove was not what I would consider easy to farm. Arie made a comment to me that sticks with me to this day: “Out here, it’s not about living, it’s about surviving”. Farmers work from dawn to dusk, 7 days a week. There is one designated day where they take their harvest and head into a nearby village to trade/sell it for items they need to survive. Needless to say, it does not seem like an easy life.
Roughly 1.5 hours later, we made it to our next destination. Chugchilian which is a small village that has a few places to stay. I see this posh looking place called the Black Sheep Inn, but Arie takes us over to Mama Hilda’s. Compared to the previous night, Hilda’s place is heavenly – the people were really friendly and the food was delicious. I even got my own room and was able to have a hot shower. After a brief introduction to mama Hilda herself, we dropped off our bags and then headed out in Arie’s truck with Mama Hilda’s elderly husband (MHH) for what seemed like 2.5 hours of the worst roads I’ve ever seen. Turns out that Arie knew these people quite well and offered to drive her husband somewhere as a favour. As we drove, we see children from nearby villages who would sometimes wave at us, chase us, try to hide and even throw things at us. After scaring a few horses, we made it to our destination which was a cheese factory in the middle of nowhere. Arie and MHH both buy some cheese. The total came to $3US for a 5KG block of cheese. And it was good.
Once we stowed that away in the truck, MHH wanted to show us some old Inca ruins but we could not find them. We climbed some pretty steep hills in the freezing rain (we were up in a cloud forest again) and ended up soaking wet. Arie had seen the ruins before and told me there were not that much to look at. I still think he told me that to make me feel better. Back in town, Arie and I hung out and played fetch with some dogs as Mama Hilda prepared supper for us. It was my birthday and had Arie told her about. Mama Hilda wanted to make a big meal for me. She even tried to make a cake but it didn’t turn out apparently and she was quite upset over that from what I remember. When it was supper time, I sat down with Arie as Mama Hilda fed me like an Italian mother. I had a chicken leg, pumpkin potato soup, bread, cheese, a broccoli and carrot omelet, home made fries and some unknown meat (didn’t want to ask). She then topped it off with chocolate ice cream and some lemon cake. A most awesome birthday meal.
I ate it all and have not been stuffed like that in ages. Arie then proceeded to embarrass me and Mama Hilda’s daughter by introducing us to each other in front of everyone and then stating that I was single (even though I was not at the time) and how she wanted to marry a foreigner. I could see her turning red and she quickly departed the room. The rest of the staff there thought it was funny too and then they start telling Arie how they also think it’s funny that I fill their doorways and have to duck when I walked between certain rooms. Arie ends up telling some jokes and stories and gets everyone laughing. Eventually, I made it to bed and fell asleep listening to the sound of “city frogs” who made sounds like two hollow sticks hitting each other.
Mountain Biking in the West Andes
The next morning, I was up and ready for a bike. My gastro problems were gone and I was feeling normal again. MHH and Arie hopped in the truck (Arie was going to drop MHH off in a another town for some errand he had to run) and they drove ahead of me while I did 32km of Ande road riding which is like biking on bush roads back home. Lots of washouts, boulders and potholes to avoid. There were some good uphill sections which provided a challenge but all in all, I felt unbeatable that day. The downhill sections were steep and as I went through a small town I thought the bike was going to shake apart with all the vibrations from the cobblestone streets.
On one uphill section, I came across a dog in the middle of the road and since I was going slowly he decided that I was a potential threat and decided to block my path and start barking. His barking alerted three other dogs to my presence and they joined in the barking and teeth baring exercise. Mike and Jen had taught me how to the handle the dogs in South America so I wasn’t too worried even though the dogs had surrounded me at this point. I simply bent over and picked up a few rocks in my hand and when I did that, the dogs stopped and backed off. Apparently everyone throws rocks at dogs to get them to back off and the dogs are so accustomed to this that motion of picking a rock up will stop them in their tracks. Mike and Jen also told me never to hit a dog but to only scare it by throwing the rock near it if it came down to that. With the dogs temporarily off the road temporarily, I started to bike again and then they were on me before I could get up any kind of speed. I had to repeat this routine a few times until I finally got far enough away from the village that the dogs no longer considered me a threat.
As I biked along, Arie took a few photos of me while I biked (sometimes behind me, sometimes ahead of me) and got to see a lot of nice views. The weather was nice and when the sun came out, so did the bugs. By the end of my ride, my legs were smeared with blood from me hitting them as they chomped on me. The final part to my ride was a fast descent through five incredibly steep switchbacks. At the end, Arie was waiting for me and he was surprised as how quickly I finished it because I had done the ride in about 1/3 of what most people take to do it. Whether he was looking for a tip or not, I took the compliment and asked what was next. He said we were going to drop off MHH in a nearby town and then head back to Quito for the night so we can plan the next part of our trip.
MMH was dropped off in some village and we headed back to Quito. Once there, I got Arie to stop in at a grocery store called Supermaxi and I bought some goodies for friends back home. He dropped me off at a little placed called The Cayman and said he would be back in the morning for our next adventure.
Getting Extra Attention at the Hostel
While at The Cayman, I had an interesting discussion with the hostel manager. My hot water would not work so I went downstairs to see the manager and asked him if he could do something about it. After failing to provide any results, he ended up coming to my room to check it out and starts making small talk.
Owner: Are you enjoying your stay in Quito?
Darcy: Yes I am. I’ve had a great time aside from a small incident where some guys tried to steal from me the Artisan park
Owner: Oh! that park is full of thieves and gays.
Darcy: (thinking I misunderstood) Did you say gangs?
Owner: No. Gays.
Darcy Ah okay. (okay, he said what I thought he said)
Owner: Where are you from?
Owner: Is your wife back in Canada?
Darcy: I’m not married. (not clueing in yet)
Owner: Do you have a girlfriend back home in Canada?
Darcy: Yes (starting to wonder what’s going on)
Owner: Are there a lot of gay people in Canada?
Darcy: Probably 10%, just like everywhere else in the world
Owner: What do you think of ‘gays’?
Darcy: THEY have come a long way in acceptance in the past 10 years. (I tried to emphasize the first word to let him know I wasn’t gay.)
I’m then down at the front door with my bag waiting for Arie to pick me up and to get me out of this uncomfortable line of questioning – I failed to notice that my belt strap is hanging out of my pants but Mr. curious hostel owner thinks it’s my money belt.
Owner: Oh, your money pouch is sticking out (touches my lower stomach area in case I didn’t know what he was talking about)
Darcy: Uhh… thanks, but it’s not my pouch, it’s just my belt strap (I pull back)
Darcy: Well, I’m going to go outside and wait for my ride at the gate.
Owner: Let me help you (follows me)
Darcy: Errr.. thanks but I’m okay
He followed me out to the gate anyway and we stand at the gate together. There is silence for about 2 minutes while I look around the area and he is staring at my legs and chest the whole time. I immediately developed a sense of sympathy for women when they are ogled.
Owner: So who is coming to pick you up?
Darcy: A bike tour operator called Arie.
Owner: Where are you going?
Darcy: (lying) I’m not sure.. I can’t remember
Owner: Do you have any gay friends?
Darcy: (sigh, back to the gay questions) No.
Owner: (pause)… Are you gay?
Silence descends upon us again and I look away. Thankfully, Arie shows up at this point. I hop in the truck and we are off to the next part of our adventure.
Otavalo and Hiking with Guns
Arie drove us to Otavalo which is the arts and crafts center of Ecuador and happens to have one of the biggest markets in South America. We checked in at our hostel and then headed over to Cotocachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve. The guards at the front gate warned Arie that we should not go hiking for more than 30 minutes into the park as it was dangerous. Apparently ‘bandits’ had been harassing and stealing from people hiking the park as of late but the guards figured that due to our size, they would probably leave us alone. We went back to the truck but Arie grabbed something and headed back to the guard house. When he got back, I asked him what we were going to do and he told me not to worry about it and had a grin on his face. He then opened his jacket to show me his .38 pistol. He said we had nothing to worry about because they ‘bandits’ typically only had machetes and we would be okay because we had a gun. He had gone back to the guard house to trade some of our apples for bullets. Good exchange I thought. Can’t remember the last time I had to hike with a gun for protection against people.
We got to the parking lot, hid everything of value in a secret compartment in the back of the truck and starting hiking up around an old volcano crater. There were some spectacular views due to the sunny day we were experiencing but after about 40 minutes, I get a bad feeling. I ask Arie is we can turn around and head back. He started razzing me about being a chicken (e.g calling me the “great Canadian hero”) and not to worry because we have a gun. Fortunately, I’m no longer in high school and peer pressure meant nothing to me so I insisted we head back and he obliged me.
After leaving the area, we headed back to Otavalo to check out the market. Weavers, artists and merchants are all packed into a big plaza area where they sell their wares. I felt like a giant because most of the women artisans only come up to my belly button in height. As I perused, I saw a nice big hammock for sale so I approached the woman and started haggling for it. Arie tells me to bargain hard because if I go too soft, they will raise prices for future travelers. So in the end, I paid $1 for a beautifully 2-person hammock. I escaped the market without spending too much money and we headed back to the hostel to grab a quick 1.5 hour power nap.
Mmmmmmmmmmmmm……… Guinea pig
While in Otavalo, Arie took me out for dinner as he wanted me to try something different. Every country has their delicacy food which they are known for. Other countries, such as Egypt has Grilled Pigeon. Belize has Cow foot Soup, France has Foie Gras and Canada has Poutine. The more refined out there might say East coast lobster, Montreal smoked meat or Pacific Salmon.
Regardless, Ecuador is no different and as you may have guessed by the title of this section, it is indeed the mighty guinea pig (known as Cuy). I found out that it is usually only served on weekends but Arie knew the owner at one restaurant we went to and he made a special request so they could make it just for me. I even got to pick out the one I wanted just like Lobster at a restaurant. They served it to me with the head on so I would be sure that it was indeed a guinea pig and not a rat. He even had a small tomato stuffed in mouth. It was greasy like duck but tasted like chicken (doesn’t everything?) I’m all for trying local foods but I don’t know if I would do it again and it wasn’t because of the taste. The $18 cdn I paid for it was quite high and I could have eaten 3 meals for that cost!
Volcano – Mount Pipincha
On my last day with Arie, we drove back to Quito to visit a few sites. We drove a little ways out of town and then started up the side of Mt. Pipincha in his Pathfinder. Once again, it was the best use of a 4×4 I have ever seen. I was sure we were going to careen off the edge at some spots or flip sideways and roll down the hill in other places. We made it up to the base camp which was around 15,000 feet and we then hiked for 45 minutes to climb about 800 feet. This was my first time hiking at an altitude above 13,000 feet and it was the strangest feeling. Baby steps were required or you were down on the ground sucking air as I found out after I sprinted for about 10 steps.
We got the ledge of this active volcano and I turned around to see Quito sprawled out below. It’s amazing that the city survived the eruption back in 1999. Turning around, I then tried to peer into the volcano and but could only see dark clouds. The smell of sulfur was quite strong though. The clouds were moving around the lip of the volcano and would hide parts of it which made it look like we were on the edge of the world which was a neat effect. I sat there with Arie for a while and talked about life before we were interrupted by the sound of thunder off to our right. It then sounded again but to our left this time. I turned to Arie and asked him if we were at the high point in the middle of a thunderstorm. He nodded and suggested we go down to lower ground immediately.
The hike down was much quicker and after a quick bite to eat, we drove down the volcano and back to Quito. I turned around and looked up to where we had just been and instead of white clouds surrounding the peak, there was darkness and the peak was now covered in snow! It seemed we had got out of there just in time. Arie then drove me around town to take in a few more of the sights before dropping me off at the hostel and we headed out for a celebratory dinner to cap off our week together.
The Rough Ride Home
Whether it was Arie’s yummy mayonnaise based salad that had gone bad or the mayo/guacamole combo that I had at the internet cafe, my last night in Quito was one of the worst nights I can remember. Food poisoning is a nasty thing but simultaneous diarrhea and vomiting is not something I wish upon many people. I truly felt sorry for the rest of the people in the hostel who had to listen to me all night long. My vomiting episodes were on a schedule of every 25 minutes so I had to time my cab to the airport just right. When I got there, I yacked in a garbage receptacle and got into line with my ticket. 20 minutes had gone by and I was near the front of the line. My stomach was starting to feel queasy. It was at this point that a little old lady tried making conversation with me. Yes me, the white faced guy who had an intense look of concentration on his face. As I stood there, I willed myself not to throw up and she was chattering on about something. I honestly don’t remember what it was about. I do know that it was causing me to lose my concentration.
I finally had enough and calmly turned to her, looked her in the eyes and said “Excuse me, I’m not really in the mood to listen right now, I’m trying my hardest not to vomit. Thanks.”
She backed away and left me to my vomit vigil. I got my ticket and then proceeded to the washroom to do my business. The 12 hour flight home was not fun. I’m sure business class really enjoyed me running up from the economy section so I could use their washroom to expel the demons within me but it just happened to be the closest washroom. This capped my trip off perfectly – in addition to the hellish car ride I experienced, one must also experience a spiritual gastrointestinal episode. I’m just glad that the poisoning happened on the last night and not at any other point. To top things off, I made the mistake of putting the camera I borrowed from Ezra into my suitcase. So when I got home and opened my bag (no lock on it), you can imagine my heartbreak when I saw that it was gone. So to recap the camera situation: My camera broke so I borrowed Ezra’s and that got stolen. I sent Ez some money and we were all good. I then went out and bought myself a decent digital camera because now I had a reason to get one.
Arrival Back Home
How does one feel after experiencing a life changing trip like this? When I landed on Canadian soil, I was feeling much better but still not 100%. I ended up spending the next day vegging around the house and finally felt great again 48 hours after I landed. As I recovered, I missed the physical activity we had on our trip. I didn’t write about it but we probably hiked about 2 hours every day with our backpacks and sometime more (at altitude), by the end of the trip, I had completed my spring training and was ready for a season of fun. I left the house and I drove around for a bit and noticed a lot of things we take for granted. I also noticed how empty our streets are when compared to the tight streets of Quito.
I knew that after several weeks, my appreciation would fade as I would be surrounded by our consumerist culture and be pulled back in. To this day, I reflect back on the things I saw and experienced and I ponder about the state of our society. Aside from that little culture shock I had, I took away many fond memories, made some friends (I still keep in touch with Ezra) and learned to have an appreciation for everything we have in our lives. I’m not sure of the state of all the places I visited in Ecuador are but if someone were to follow in my footsteps, I can guarantee you that it would be a memorable experience.