Ecuador Reflections and Closing Thoughts

My time in Ecuador was relatively long by most standards, yet it was still short and sweet. Now that I have finished my first week of classes back at OSU, I am starting to miss Ecuador a bit more. All it means is that I have to return to see the people and sites again. I did three things primarily while in Ecuador: travel, study, and interact with the people/culture.

Pretty much every weekend, I would travel to a destination within Ecuador outside of Quito to see another place. These trips varied greatly in their duration and location. Some of them, like the Galapagos and Tiputini, were completely about visiting a unique natural setting. Baños, on the other hand, was all about being active in the form of sports. Some of the trips, particularly Salasaca and Otavalo, were more culturally oriented. Both exposed us to some of the indigenous cultures that date back to the Inca. We were able to view a religious ritual, listen to traditional music, and buy handmade products on those trips. It is very hard to say what my favorite trip was in Ecuador since every trip had its high points.

The second aspect of my time in Ecuador was studying since it is study abroad after all. My classes weren’t related to science and engineering. I took Ecuadorian Culture, Andean Anthropology, and a class on 20th century political history of Latin America. We all have heard of the Inca and the impressive ruins they left. However, I got to learn in depth about their culture and how it has shaped the indigenous and predominant culture today in the Andes. My 20th century political history class taught me a lot about the various dictators and movements that have shaped Latin America. The United States isn’t often looked positively upon due to involvement in coups that resulted in dictatorships (all in the name of preventing communism).

Interacting with the people and the culture formed the third important aspect of my time. Every day consisted of interactions: taking the bus, taking taxis, buying snacks at the store, eating lunch, classes, etc. Ecuadorians, at least in the mountains, tended to be pretty shy. However, I still had a few great interactions. A few particularly good ones were helping the Argentinian couple get where they needed to go in Quito, meeting the geology student from Costa Rica, talking with the owner of one of the restaurants I ate lunch at, and when three young ladies in Cuenca wanted a photo with me. It turned out that I received more attention from the opposite sex, which often times ended up being more problematic than beneficial.

During my time in Ecuador, I feel like I developed as a person. All three of these aspects helped me. My classes and conversations with my host family expanded my knowledge and introduced me to differing ways of thought. It turned out that my host family approved of Hugo Chavez a great deal when he was in power in Venezuela. Travelling allowed me to be flexible and spontaneous since our trips often took twists and turns with little notice. I even gained the confidence to travel alone to Manta on the coast during my last week in Ecuador. That also brings me to mention how I became more independent and able to manage, even in unfamiliar settings. I also became proficient in Spanish to state the obvious.

I would finally like to acknowledge my host family for taking me in, caring for me (including when I was sick), and being there to give me advice. I miss them and hope to visit them again someday. Below are two photos of my host family, which consisted of Gaby (my host mom), Dani (older sister), Maria Jose (my same age), Nicole (younger sister), Marcia (grandmother), Tita (maid), Georgie (host dad, unfortunately not pictured), and Samuel (grandson of Tita).

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This here marks my last blog post for now, sadly. I don’t know of any better way to close than saying that it was a great experience that has changed me. Someday I might pick up this blog again if I return to Ecuador or have more travels.

Cuenca: a historically beautiful city

Cuenca is Ecuador’s third largest city and generally considered the most beautiful city from an architectural and aesthetic perspective. I visited Cuenca coming right of the heels of a time so short in Guayaquil I could almost call it a layover. My plan was to meet up with a group from Boston that was already in Cuenca. I got up in the morning, took the Metrovia (city bus) to the main bus terminal, and bought a ticket for Cuenca. It was difficult getting around since the terminal had three levels and snaking hallways with shops. Luckily I was able to get some food and catch my bus in time.

Most of the ride was through relatively flat farmland. However, this land was prettier than on the ride to Guayaquil from Puerto Lopez. The land here was much greener and lusher as opposed to the dry, dusty land before. It was surprising how long it took before we started gaining altitude. The bus route passed through Cajas National Park, a striking mountain park full of lakes, peaks, and open landscapes. Upon arriving in Cuenca, I immediately noticed how every building, even outside of the center, was very pretty in its architectural style and different from anywhere else I have seen. Even though I haven’t been to Cusco, Peru, I have seen pictures that look somewhat similar to Cuenca.

I took a bus to the historic center where I was told I could easily find the hostel where my friends were staying. Unfortunately, I asked a few people on the street for directions and no one really seemed to know where the streets were. I wandered around among the historic buildings and churches until I finally was able to find the hostel very close to where I originally got off of the bus. After settling down and hearing from my friends that they were napping, I went to the market. It was similar to Iñaquito but two levels and larger in its selection of food stalls. The hornado (whole roast pig) was calling out, so I got a plate of that and a cup of coconut juice.

My time with the others from Boston turned out to be short. They were flying home the next day (Saturday) in the morning while I had the whole day to spend there. We hung out and had dinner together, reminiscing about our experiences in Ecuador. Out of all the strange things, the Hinkles decided to just show up. They had an extra day before they wanted to get to Loja, so they left Guayaquil later, went to hike in Cajas, and then arrived in Cuenca. The next morning everyone left, andI had a day to myself. I decided to get a bus to Cajas National Park to go hiking.

What I arrived to was an amazing park with a great interpretive center (that I didn’t have time for), and many trails. The rangers told me of a trail that would take about 2 hours, which is what I was looking for. Along the way, I walked past lakes and marshes and through conifer forests. I saw a little rabbit and lots of birds. Many interesting plants were also present along the way. A family was fishing for trout in a little stream. That surprised me because I didn’t know that trout lived in Ecuador, much less at over 12,000 feet. Finally as I was near the end, it started pouring a mixture of rain and hail. I quickly put on my coat over my pack to try to keep everything as dry as possible. My jeans still ended up getting soaked. Then, a bus wouldn’t pick me up when I flagged it down. I had to flag one at the park entrance toll booth.

Once I got back to Cuenca, I quickly got on dry clothing at the hostel, which was kind to let me keep one of my bags there and change in the bathroom. My goal was to catch the 4 PM or 4:30 PM tour bus so I could see the city before it got dark. This seemed to be the best thing to do because I really wanted to see as much of Cuenca as possible in a short period of time. The ride was nice and only cost $5. We passed by most of the important plazas and churches in the city, with narration by experts on each item. It turns out that the incredible cathedral is the 2nd largest in Latin America. Little did I know that there were some Incan ruins in town, which I also got the chance to see. We had our final stop at a viewpoint with a view of the entire city.

There was little left to do upon returning. The cathedral was closed at that time preventing me from entering. I ate dinner at an Indian restaurant called Taj Mahal. It had delicious curry, making it some of the best international food I have had in Ecuador. To finish off the evening, I walked to a plaza and watched a little Christmas concert to pass a couple of hours before taking an overnight bus back to Quito. I had an interesting encounter with a group of three young ladies. They sat down next to me and began to make a lot of commotion. At one point, it appeared that one of them elbowed me gently three times in a manner that didn’t feel accidental. Finally, one told me that she was taking pictures. I said I could move out of the way, but it turned out that she wanted to take a picture with me. We got to talking a little bit, and it turns out that one of them is from the coast and runs a seafood restaurant, while the other two work there and are from Colombia. The one from the coast also had a little son who was there.

Cuenca turned out to be a great historical and cultural capital within Ecuador. My time there was far too short to absorb everything, but I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures, again because of my broken camera.

The OTHER City in Ecuador

Guayaquil, contrary to popular belief, is the largest city in Ecuador, not Quito. Quito is the governmental capital and cultural capital, the world famous city that everyone visits.

Guayaquil and Quito have an age old rivalry. They almost were part of separate countries. Even today you will hear people in Quito say “I hate Guayaquil,” “Guayaquil is ugly,” etc. People from Guayaquil defend their city, saying that it is pretty, more fun loving than Quito, etc. I decided that I wanted to investigate for myself. The two cities couldn’t be more different. Guayaquil: low altitude, hot, loud and energetic people, tall buildings, lots of industry. Quito: cool climate, high in the Andes, reserved people, historic buildings, artisanal markets.

While Guayaquil is considered part of the coast, it is actually upstream a ways above the Guayas River delta. After spending 5 days on the coast, I was ready to experience something different. My friends and I decided to leave Thursday morning from Puerto Lopez to Guayaquil. Chris was hesitant to go due to a bad experience when he went there alone, but we convinced him to come with us. The trip was about 4 hours long through the dry, dusty, inland coastal region. We arrived to a giant bus station with a mall, multiple levels, and tons of restaurants. It is rumored to be larger than the Guayaquil airport.

Chris directed us toward the bus terminal with the city buses that take us to the downtown/waterfront district. The first thing we all noticed was how hot it was. This is coming from the coast, not from Quito, so it must have been really hot. We hopped on a bus that took us right into the center. The plan was to meet up later with Sam, a student researcher I met in Tiputini from Guayaquil. He recommended a hostel that we found. It looked really nice but appeared to be full, unfortunately. We were able to find a cheap and serviceable place close enough to the Malecon (waterfront).

View of the waterfront from the lighthouse.

View of the waterfront from the lighthouse.

Afterwards we spent a couple of hours walking on the waterfront and looking for somewhere to eat. The waterfront was really pretty and full of restaurants and shops. There were a couple of ships, giving it the port feeling a little bit. Downtown had a higher concentration of tall buildings than in Quito. We saw a couple of plazas and historic churches surrounded by modern, glass buildings. Banks and other industries were well represented within the center.

One of the most famous and iconic places in Guayaquil is the Las Peñas neighborhood. It consists of a hill with cobblestone streets and colorful historic buildings. A lighthouse exists on top, which has historically illuminated the river for ships. We walked up the 400 steps to the top to see a beautiful view of the entire city. Our timing allowed us to watch the sun going down from the top. Then we wet back to our hotel to shower and freshen up before we met Sam for dinner. We ate dinner at a place near Las Peñas with an interesting, almost Asian theme.

Las Peñas neighborhood

Las Peñas neighborhood

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Buildings in Las Peñas

After spending the night, I left the next morning for Cuenca, Ecuador’s 3rd largest city. My time in Guayaquil was short, mere hours, but I enjoyed it. It is a nice city with its own atmosphere, very different from that of Quito.

The Route of the Sun (Ruta del Sol)

The road along Ecuador’s coast is known as La Ruta del Sol (The Route of the Sun). I was able to travel a decent sized stretch of this route from Manta south to Montañita in one trip. After my solo trip to Manta, I took a bus south to Puerto Lopez. The drive was beautiful as it followed the coast, passing through Puerto Cayo, Machalilla, and many other small towns. It also went through the dry forest in Machalilla National Park. Puerto Lopez itself is a small town of about 20,000 people. The primary industries are tourism and fishing, both of which are always present. Fishing boats out in the harbor bring in the day’s catch while tour agencies line the streets. I really enjoyed the atmosphere in the town. The pretty beach, boats, and friendly people made it a great place.

I arrived on Sunday evening and ate a delicious ceviche with shrimp and fish after getting settled in my hostel. The Hinkle Twins (Chris and Adrian) met me first thing on Monday morning after taking an overnight bus from Quito. We ate breakfast and decided to head to Playa Los Frailes, one of the most famous beaches in Ecuador. Getting there involved a short bus ride north of town and a 1.5 hour hike. The hike passes through some of the only remaining dry forest on the coast. The beach itself has white sand and beautiful tropical blue water. However, the currents were very strong preventing us from spending too much time in the water.

Playa Los Frailes, one of the most famous beaches in Ecuador

Playa Los Frailes, one of the most famous beaches in Ecuador

Our next stop was Ayampe, a very small town farther south of Puerto Lopez. Ayampe has a microclimate that allows for tropical rainforest to reach the coast, while all of the surrounding areas have tropical dry forest. The town itself was more of a village with a few houses, two hostels, and a couple of hundred people. Apparently Ayampe has become known by some avid surfers who want a more relaxed place with fewer people than the famous Montañita. The beach was long, wide, sandy, and had a rocky area. Wetlands with lots of birds went right down to the beach. It reminded me a bit of Cape Meares, my favorite spot on the Oregon Coast.

Beach in Ayampe

Beach in Ayampe

We decided to get settled in our hostel and then go to Montañita for dinner so that I could see it. Chris has raved so much about it that I really wanted to check it out. It was only a 30 minute bus ride away, anyways. We arrived in the late afternoon to a nice town that was obviously aimed at tourists. There were many vendors in the street, surfers, and hostels. The town had many buildings with straw roofs. We ended up eating Mexican food and trying Venezuelan Arepas (corn cakes filled with meat). Montañita is famous for its party scene, but hardly anything was happening because it was the middle of the week. This prompted our decision to head back sooner to Ayampe to get some rest.

The next day we went hiking in the coastal rainforest near Ayampe. We just started walking out of the town and up the road along the river. It soon turned into a swamp. I was not equipped to really walk through it, so I put on my flip-flops and hiking pants. As we moved farther in, the forest scenery got better. What really differentiated this forest from the Amazon Rainforest was the difference in the vegetation and birds. The trees weren’t as big as in the Amazon, and the birds were coastal. It was beautiful in its own way. Hours of hiking made us tired and hungry. We got our stuff out of the hostel and hopped a bus back to Puerto Lopez.

Coastal Rainforest near Ayampe

Coastal Rainforest near Ayampe

More friends were waiting in Puerto Lopez. We all met up and had lunch. Afterwards we had some time to relax on the beautiful beach. The water is the perfect temperature on the Ecuadorian mainland. A nice afternoon of rest was in order after everything we had done.

Sunset in Puerto Lopez

Sunset in Puerto Lopez

Isla de La Plata is most often done as a combined trip with Puerto Lopez. It is known as the “poor man’s Galapagos.” We booked an all-day tour for only $30 that included a boat ride, one hour each way, a hike, snorkeling, and lunch. It was different than the Galapagos but definitely still worth the time and money. The highlight was seeing blue-footed boobies nesting with their eggs and chicks. We also got to see the Nazca Boobies and Red-footed Boobies. Schools of large, colorful fish were very impressive during the snorkeling.

Blue-Footed Booby with chicks

Blue-Footed Booby with chicks

Another nice relaxing night in Puerto Lopez marked the end of this part of the journey. A few of our friends came just for Isla de La Plata with us and left for Quito that night. The next day, the rest of us headed to Guayaquil.

Because my camera was broken, I give the photo credits to Christopher Hinkle.

Going solo in Manta

My finals schedule was a little bit strange as I had one on December 11th and another on December 22nd. I was able to use this to my advantage: I had a whole week to travel.

Since my friends had a different schedule, I decided to try some solo travel. The first leg of my journey was in Manta, a mid-sized city on the coast of Ecuador. This meant taking a night bus from Quito to Manta. As soon as I arrived at 6 AM, I took a taxi to my hostel. The market was just getting set up when I arrived. It was gigantic and right in the middle of the street, unlike the markets in Quito. They were selling fruit, meat, dry goods, and LOTS of seafood. After all, Manta is known as the “tuna capital of the world.” After eating some fried fish and rice, a typical breakfast, I went back with my camera to take pictures. The people in Manta were the friendliest I have encountered in any city in Ecuador. All of the seafood vendors wanted me to take their pictures with the fish.

The seafood vendors showing off the catch of the day

The seafood vendors showing off the catch of the day

Cutting some tuna with a machete

Cutting some tuna with a machete

Afterwards I went to Playa Tarqui, the beach closer to my hotel. It is known as the less nice beach in the city. I can see why as cars are allowed on it, there is more industrial activity, and sometimes it smells. The best part about that beach is the abundance of seafood restaurants with great food and prices. My first day I ate Arroz Marinero, a rice dish with many types of seafood, for dinner. I then went to the nicer beach, Playa Murcielago, to relax. While drinking from a coconut, a man approached me and told me that they were offering $3 boat rides to see blue-footed boobies and the big ships in the port. With nothing else to do, I went for it. Later on I walked around the town and went to the cultural museum. This museum had an exhibit on the Manteño culture, one of the indigenous cultures of the coast. They traded with the Inca and used shells for money. It was really interesting learning about them because most people don’t think of the advanced civilizations on the coast.

Playa Murcielago

Playa Murcielago

Inside the port

Inside the port

The next day I ended up going to the same restaurant to get fried albacore for breakfast. While waiting for my delicious meal, an unfortunate twist of fate happened when I dropped my camera in the sand, rendering it useless for the rest of my trip. After breakfast, I decided to take a trip to the small town of Montecristi. This little town is just a 20 minute bus ride inland from Manta and has three claims to fame. First, it is the place where Panama Hats originate from (neither Panama nor Cuenca, Ecuador as many people believe). Second, it is home to a beautiful church that is a famous site for pilgrims in Ecuador for it’s statue of the Virgin Mary. Third, it was the birthplace of Eloy Alfaro,one of Ecaudor’s most famous and beloved historical presidents who led the liberal revolution, built the railroad between the two largest cities in Ecuador (Guayaquil and Quito), and initiated separation of church and state. I decided to visit the church, which was beautiful and far different from the churches in Quito. I also went to the Eloy Alfaro Museum up on the hill to learn more about the history of Ecuador and the region. At the museum they had an artisans market with some really nice products. I ended up buying a toucan carving out of tagua nut and calling Montecristi the Otavalo of the coast.

Time got away from me, and by the time I got back to the hotel in Manta it was 2PM. I was supposed to check out at 12, but the man running the hostel who was very friendly and helpful didn’t mind that I got back late. After checking out and a quick lunch, I left for Puerto Lopez for the next part of my adventure. I really enjoyed Manta. It had a little bit industrial feeling, it was a bit smelly, and a bit crowded in some places, but it was an authentic sort of a place with friendly people, great food, and a nice beach.

Coming to a close

My time in Ecuador has been a long and exciting journey. I’ve met so many people, been to many special places, and experienced many a thing that i simply wouldn’t back at home. I can’t believe that I am leaving essentially tomorrow night.

I just got back from an 8 day trip in which I got to see all of the places in Ecuador that I haven’t been to yet. My trip included Manta, Puerto Lopez, coastal rainforest in Ayampe, Montañita, Guayaquil, and Cuenca. This turned out to be a perfect way to end since I didn’t have to sit around thinking about my departure. The downside is that these last couple of days are so busy that it is going to be hard to really say goodbye since I am in a rush to get everything done.

Since I am short on time, i will keep this post short. In the upcoming days, after I return, I will write a post about my final adventure, and maybe some reflections about Ecuador as well.

Teleferico, Football, Parks, and Fiestas

Last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday I had the misfortune of getting sick. I think it may have been something related to the flu, with gastrointestinal symptoms as well. This meant that it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to travel coming right off the heels of the illness. Usually I don’t look forward to staying in Quito because I don’t have much to do and end up doing things alone, since I don’t have many Ecuadorian friends (one of my biggest frustrations). However, last weekend was the beginning of the Fiestas de Quito (celebrations to commemorate the founding of the city in 1534). There are parades, bands, and food in all parts of the city during the weekend and week that last all the way until the 6th of December, the big day.

Saturday I decided to go to the Teleferico, a gandula that carries passengers in small cars up a cable to 13,500 feet, 4,000 feet above the city of Quito. My stomach still wasn’t 100%, but by this point I was feeling much better. As the car climbed, the views of the city below and the Andes mountains kept more spectacular. Once I stepped off, I was able to walk around and see just how giant Quito is, taking up an entire valley in the mountains. I had to stop every so often while walking up the hills to catch my breath due to the altitude.

The view looking up

The view looking up

The north of Quito

The north of Quito

I really wanted to hike to the top of Pichincha, the volcano that overlooks Quito. However, the weather was foggy and cold, I was still getting over my illness, and my host mom advised against hiking it alone since it is possible to get lost. I noticed that there were horses for rent that go most of the way to the top. It looked really fun, so I decided to go for it. The ride was about two hours out-and-back. It took us through the beautiful terrain up to the base of the rocky summit. From the very top, the buildings of the city looked like miniatures.

The summit of Pichincha

The summit of Pichincha

A little break off of the horse

A little break off of the horse

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Once I got most of the way back down, I ran into Savanna and her host mom. We got talking, and I ended up returning with them. Savanna’s host mom ended up taking us out to lunch. Afterwards, I returned home, rested a bit, and then went out with a big group of people to see the Civil War game between OSU and UO. I really enjoyed having a little taste of home and seeing Corvallis on TV.

Sunday I ended up going to Parque El Ejido for an event put on by the host family of one of my friends. It turned out to be a cool experience. There were two bands, one of which played classic rock covers, a puppet show, a traditional storyteller from the coast, and a children’s dance by two members of the Ecuadorian Ballet. I was thinking about just heading home afterwards but decided to stop by another park, Parque Carolina, which is on the way to my house. There were tons of little food stalls set up in the park, five stages, a circus type event, and tons going on for little kids. My first stop was lunch. I ordered Arroz con Cameron (rice and shrimp), very popular in the coast, and it was fantastic! Next, I looked around and found that there was an amazing group of traditional indigenous dancers on one of the stages. The announcer announced that he would be giving out CDs at one point, so I raised my hand. It turns out that I was called on stage with three others for a little dance-off. I ended up being the “winner” based upon the crowd. In the end, we all got CDs. That was one of the more exciting and fun things I have done in Ecuador.