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Taking the road less traveled Spending a year in five continents to embrace my "inner turtle", to live simply, and to avoid being shark bait!

Wonders of Ecuador

ECUADOR | Saturday, 1 September 2012 | Views [5784]

A male frigate bird (black) and a juvenile one, probably the male's kid.

A male frigate bird (black) and a juvenile one, probably the male's kid.

How much fun can be packed in three weeks in Ecuador?  Enough to experience volcanoes and islands, urban and rural, ocean and mountain, and chills and warmth.  Yet there still isn't enough time for the Amazon!  What an amazing country it is.

I traveled back to Quito (9-hour overnight bus ride) after my volunteering project ended, and first order of business was to pay a visit to my host mother, Maria, with whom I stayed during my first two weeks in Ecuador in June.  We had a lovely visit (more spoken Spanish and less hand gestures), and as expected, she fed me well, including her most delicious homemade empañadas; I told her I failed at my first attempt, so she gave me this tip:  add hot water to the flour before kneading, helps to create more elasticity.  Will have to try and see!

My friends P and J arrived safely that evening, so began our holiday.  We had an action packed itinerary, so full I can only summarize the highlights now.
  • 2 days in Quito, enjoyed being back and playing the role of "tour guide" to my friends.  Luckily, I am also more fluent in Spanish so I could haggle with the taxi drivers on the fare.  It had been two months since I was in Quito (when it was early winter, technically), and now it was late winter and much colder than I remembered.  I barely had enough warm clothing, thank goodness my friend P brought me two pairs of long pants and a turtleneck from home.
  • 2 days in Papallacta, a town about 1.5 hours southeast of Quito, famous for its natural hot springs due to the surrounding volcanoes.  Our accommodation had two hot springs areas, one consists of hot springs pools and is popular with day tourists, the other has a full-service spa with hot springs, where we spent an entire day being pampered (spa services were half the price compared to the bay area!)  The overall weather was cold, foggy, and misty, so when we weren't in the hot springs, we spent almost all of our time indoors, sitting by the one working fireplace in the hotel and drinking wine.
  • 1 day in Otavalo, a town about 2 hours northeast of Quito famous for its Saturday market of local artisans and bargain deals; the market became so popular, it's now held everyday with Saturday being the busiest still.  We were on a guided tour, which included stops at a few small, charming towns along the way, plus lunch at a hacienda built a long time ago and is now a hotel with a restaurant popular with guests and tourists who are passing by.  I had imagined the market to be more "organized":  that it'd be indoors, with vendors organized by the goods they sold.  Instead, the market is simply a super-sized one (like a flea market) that takes place outdoor over several blocks within Otavalo; vendors set up their stall in a somewhat organized fashion, but it was still difficult to find all the vendors that sold sweaters or jewelry nearby each other, they were instead scattered randomly.  Knowing how popular the market was, I was surprised when the guide suggested only 1-1/2 hours to shop, and there were only women in the tour!  We ended up at the market for about two hours; there were certainly bargains, but we had to play hardball, pretending to walk away while hoping the vendor would agree to our price, which most of them did.
  • A 7-night cruise to the Galapagos Islands, which was so amazing, I can barely capture the adventure in writing.  To put it simply, I have nothing but great things to say about the cruise itself and about the Galapagos: the islands themselves, the animals, the weather, the ocean, and all the sights, sounds, and smells.  As you may know, Charles Darwin went to the Galapagos in 1835, and his discoveries and research results inspired his theory on evolution (Darwin was really not the first scientist to arrive at the theory, there were others before him, but he was the first with enough evidence to support it).  It was mind-boggling to think that for the most part, the Galapagos Islands today are almost the same as how Darwin found it 177 years earlier; of course some species had become extinct since then, three islands are now inhabited, and many more islands have ports which allowed for boats to dock easily, but the behavior of the animals and the species that still inhabit the islands have changed little.  I knew the animals were unafraid of humans, but not to the extend I experienced; birds barely moved when we walked within inches of them (some even chased us away on foot), sea lions came up to me and smelled my feet, and iguanas did not budge at all when we neared the to take photos.  Many animals had such beautiful colors, they looked almost unreal:  red-footed and blue-footed boobies that looked as though they were wearing red and blue boots respectively; swallow-tailed gulls with their red feet and red-circled eyes as though they were wearing red-rimmed glasses; male frigates with their puffed-up red chest to attract females; bright orange Sally lightfoot crabs; all-black marine iguanas that appeared camouflaged against the black lava rocks; and many juveniles birds, all white and fluffy like cotton balls.  I could vividly recall the colors of the sky and the ocean, both so blue but in varying shades, and I could not forget the amazing contrasts of the sand on each island, from black (Isla Fernandina) to red (Isla Rabida) to vanilla (Isla Mosquera).  I saw nature at its best:  swimming with Green sea turtles (they were much more docile than the ones in Puerto Lopez) and white-tip shark (so happy to finally see a living shark after 2 months of dead ones!) observing a just-born sea lion and its mothers who still had part of the placenta attached, as well as a dead, pre-maturely born sea lion not far away from its mother and sibling, and finding empty crab shells that Sally lightfoot crabs had shed for a new one.  There was a "RIP" sign for the recently deceased Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta giant tortoise, posted at his home at the Darwin station; not far away, I saw Diego, another male tortoise brought to the station years ago to show George "how the deed is done" since George was not impregnating his mates (but George ignored him and instead attacked Diego and broke part of his shell); in fact, the first moment I saw Diego, he had just finished mating and was dismounting from the female, what a stud!  Besides everything all the phenomenal animals and the islands, the cruise itself was also amazing: a small boat with only 17 guests and a dozen crew members; the crew treated us like VIPs, the two naturalist guides were incredibly knowledgeable, friendly, and fun.  The guests were all Americans except for a Canadian family, and we got to know each other well.  Daily activities were planned, from hiking to nature walks, snorkeling to kayaking, and I took advantage of them all.  The weather cooperated, except for two nights of rough sailing which made some guests seasick, but nothing too terrible.  I even got to sail the boat for a while as Captain Peter demonstrated the different systems and tools at the bridge!  We cross the equator six times, criss-crossing it as we navigated from one island to the next; I even made sure to be at the bridge one night as we crossed from southern to northern hemisphere, but completely missed looking at the GPS at the exact moment we crossed because I was too busy figuring out my camera!  The only complaint was we had cloudy sky every night so there were no stars to be seen.  The entire week was truly a memorable adventure.
  • 2 days in Cotopaxi, a volcano about 2 hours south of Quito.  I was expecting cold weather and it was; Cotopaxi is about 5,900 meters (~19,500 feet) high, and even though we went only as high as 4,000m, it was stunningly chilly and windy, with such strong winds and numerous clouds, we rarely saw the summit which is snow-covered year-round.  In addition to visiting Cotopaxi, we also visited several small towns nearby (one famous for its silversmiths, another for its ceramics) and a rose farm (roses are one of Ecuador's top exports).
  • A day trip to the coast to white-water raft on Rios Taochi and Blanca.  Ecuador has numerous rivers with high year-round water level due to run-offs from the many mountains, so white-water rafting can be done any time of the year.  The rivers selected for us were grade 3 with one (or maybe two) grade 4 rapids, not too difficult but strenuous enough.  We had a very experienced guide who practically told us his life story as we rafted for about 3 hours.  This was only my second time white-water rafting, and I loved every minute of it.  It was a cloudy day, which made for perfect condition because too sunny would be too hot.  I swam in the river for a while and enjoyed being in fresh water for a change; I also realized then I had swam in three types of waters in Ecuador: salt, chlorine, and fresh.  
  • 3 days in Cuenca, Ecuador's third largest city, about a 45-minute plane ride to the south of Quito.  After my friends left, I flew to Cuenca solo since I still had three days left on my visa.  I heard about Cuenca from another volunteer when I first arrived in Quito, and decided it was worth a visit.  Cuenca is very charming; it has the urban conveniences but not the big-city attitude.  The bus system was easy to navigate; I thought it was even more advanced and modern than Quito's.  The city center consists of mostly one-way cobblestone streets laid in a grid, so it was easy to walk around.  There were numerous churches, restaurants, shops, and outdoor markets.  Four rivers run through Cuenca, two of them right through city center, which make for nice scenery and plenty of outdoor paths and parks nearby.  Wished I had more time to explore.
There are many other more popular Latin America countries with tourists, like Costa Rica, Peru, Brazil, and Argentina, but I highly, highly recommend Ecuador.  And don't just go to Quito and the Galapagos Islands, both truly worthwhile but there are more!  Explore the southern highlands and the coastal towns too; I feel very fortunate to have visited all the regions except for the Amazon, so I can truly appreciate everything this country has to offer.  As many of the locals explained, Ecuadorians aren't very good at advertising themselves, thus other Latin America countries have attracted more tourists from North America and Europe.  With such an amazing biodiversity, visiting Ecuador is like getting multiple trips from just one trip, what a bargain!

It was bittersweet to finally leave after three months; I truly waited until almost the last minute (my flight left at 11:55 PM on expiration date).  But to sweeten the departure, as I was waiting to board my flight to the US, I was upgraded to business class!  Even though it was a red-eye flight, I had to take advantage of the perks, so I barely slept as I drank champagnes and bloody mary (neither of which I've had all year!) and caught up on movies (finally saw the end of Hunger Games, but still don't understand its attraction).  When I arrived in Atlanta, it felt funny to be back in the US after being gone for 8 months; luckily, immigration barely blinked an eye so I got through easily, and best of all, both of my bags arrived with my flight!

Now it's another mandatory rest period, this time in my own home, own bed, and own shower!  Just 72 hours though, and then I'll be back on the road, literally. 

Tags: boobies, cuenca, ecuador, galapagos, iguana, lonesome george, otavalo, papallacta, sea lion, white water rafting

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