I often rave about Colombia so much that I forget tell people of the place that I spent more than 2 1/2 months in last summer.
onely Planet describes Ecuador as “the smallest country in the rugged Andean highlands, Ecuador has an array of vibrant indigenous cultures, well-preserved colonial architecture, otherworldly volcanic landscapes, dense rainforest and sublime islands – all in a nation no bigger than the US state of Nevada.
Four days after finishing my first year of college last May, I said goodbye to my family and caught a plane heading for Quito,Ecuador. I independently (no stupid expensive programs) landed a neat 3 month internship in Quito where I could work for four days each week and travel the other 3 1/2 days each weekend.
The landing was incredible. I heard that the airport in Quito was located in the middle of the city, and it really was. It seemed like the plane was going to crash straight into the buildings, until out of nowhere came the airport surrounded by buildings.
I got through customs fine, and there was a driver holding a sign for Jackson B. My name is Jason B. so i figured it was close enough.
Canoa- The Beach
Quito- The Capital
– The Women’s Prison
Banos- Adventure capital of Ecuador
Guayaquil- Where I was attacked and nearly beaten
Mitad Del Mundo-The Equator
Otavalo- Largest Market in South America
Papallacta- Hot springs
Tena- The jungle
I went to the beach in Canoa the next day to go hangout for the weekend, a small laid-back town at the Pacific coast.
I stayed at this hostel on the beach for about $8 a night.
A bunch of us went to a tiny discotheque that night where I tried to dance salsa for the first time in my life. One of my friend’s shoes were stolen that night. He got them back the next morning after offering a policeman some money if he found them.
We went back to Quito a few days later, driving along the coast, through cloud forests, and mountains until we reached Quito after nine hours of driving an many car problems.
Quito is the captial. For tourists, it seems that the city is split into two sections. The old town with lots of colonial buidlings and the new town with lots of hotels, touristy restaurants, nightclubs, and tour agencies.
The main plaza in the old town
These kids were played some traditional Andes music in the old town and sounded great.
Here are some nuns walking around old town
A view of Quito from the Teleferico
A picture of my room in the hostel that i stayed at for two months
A big, jacked, black guy led a free aerobics class with blasting pop music in the park
A kid chilling in the park!
Some protesters in La Mariscal (new town)
La Basilica- an old church where you can climb to the top
One of the artsy neighborhoods in Quito
The nightlife in Quito was pretty good. The women were okay, generally more attractive than Bolivians and Peruvians, but less attractive than Colombian and Argentinians.
One night in the hostel I met a great guy named Nadith. We hung out for the next few weeks and had a blast. We also spent some time with a Dutch guy Michael. One night while I was out somewhere else, Nadith and Michael got invited to a private Victoria’s secret party. The dutch guy lost his credit card and was borrowing money from Nadith the past few weeks. He claimed he finally got his new credit card and offered to buy drinks for everyone that night. He racked up a $1,000 bill, and told everyone at the table that he paid for everything and then left. Turns out he did not, and even showed up at our hostel the next day and went out with us the next night. The owners of the party held at the club had people follow him around the next few days until he paid. After a few days they got fed up and locked him in a basement for a week or so until he got money wired to pay. I never saw him again.
Quito can be dangerous at times. As i was walking back to my hostel one evening, a guy walked right into me and said “dinero! (money)” I pushed him off of me and ran a block away. I looked back a few seconds later and he did the same thing to a few other tourists.
One of the interesting things that I did in Quito was visit the women’s prison.
Most of the women in the prison are there for drug offenses, in the case of the local women it is largely selling the drugs, in the case of the foreign women they are all there for trafficking, with an average sentence time of 8 years, regardless of quantity. Once in the prison however, unlike western goals (or so I understand), the women have to provide everything themselves. They have to pay rent for the very bed they sleep in as well as providing their own clothes, toiletries and everything else they need to live. They also prefer to buy and prepare their own food rather than eat that provided by the prison.
We were searched by the guards and stamped to show that we weren’t prisoners and should be allowed to leave at the end of the afternoon, man I didn’t rub that thing off for four days just in case there was any confusion! The prison itself was packed, full of the female prisoners milling around with their families and other visitors. I felt hugely uncomfortable as we were stared at as obvious gringos, walking through the hall towards the room at the end of the wing where the foreign residents had gathered for some privacy. The prison gives its residents a relative amount of freedom I guess, they are aloud to roam anywhere in the prison during the day and are locked in
their wings at 6pm and their rooms at 10pm.
That said most women sleep in groups of four in rooms no larger that a double bed with one bed stacked on top of each other. As well as the four women, more often than not the room is also shared with children.
We spent about two hours in the prison with the girls in total, between pizza and pie they told us their stories and gave us a tour around. Despite the confines of the physical prison they do have a surprising amount of freedom. There were a number of food outlets selling pizza, chips, etc, all run by the prisoners to make some money to support themselves. There were also a number of small shops, a library and several sewing rooms where the women make and maintain their clothes. For those with no income our support from outsider this is a way for them to make some extra money to survive. There is also a sadly unused schoolroom.
There are 14 foreign national women in prison at the moment, all for trafficking. All will admit they did it and all are pretty damn repentant. Many stories are tragic, often involving blackmail and manipulative boyfriends, although all admitted they took responsibility for their actions and weren’t looking to play the innocent.
One particular girl was forced to traffic when people she thought were here friends took away her baby daughter and blackmailed her. Another had a very well paid job and luxury lifestyle on cruise ships but fell into a bag crowd, became an addict and her boyfriend groomed her for six months to become a set up bust so that a larger amount of drugs could be trafficked on the same flight. This same woman has a seven year old daughter at home and she spends most of her time wondering how she is going to explain an eight year absence. But it’s not all doom and gloom, this same woman was keen to tell us exactly how the experience has turned her life around. She has come off drugs and whilst not forcing it upon us she explained that she had found Christianity and that helped her to cope. She was also taking care of two small because their mother couldn’t (although the circumstances of this were a little hazy), no small feat when you have to scrape together the cash just to support yourself from day to day. Of course the women are depressed and angry and homesick from time to time, but most try to make the best of each day, laugh at themselves and their situations and just get through it as best they can. When we met them the women were all insanely upbeat and over the top, they were actually all a little odd, but I guess that’s what gets them through. I think Paul was particularly intimidated, a tall blond haired blue eyed man caused quite a stir, amongst the foreigners and Ecuadorians alike.
When we came to leave we left the women the toiletries and other gifts we had brought for them and we were also asked for some money, just to help them out a bit. They didn’t ask for much, only some change each, less than a dollar, but by the end of the visit we were all happy to give them more. Not because we thought they were all wrongly accused and innocent women and not particularly because they had told us all sob stories of their children at home; I think we all just wanted to help them because they were helping themselves. They were all remorseful and they were making the best of the worst situation. They were very different from the Ecuadorian residents; they didn’t bribe the guards and join in the drinking, parties and drug taking that the guards allowed for the Ecuadorian prisoners, although the guards did provide them illegally with cell phones, charges and credit etc. Mainly they just wanted to keep their heads down and get out. More importantly I guess, we wanted to help because we were so happy to be free, so happy to show our purple stamp and walk out of those doors into the sunshine and be able to go wherever the hell we wanted.
A week later I visited a small city called Banos, the adventure capital of Ecuador that also has some nice hot springs and tasty taffy made on doors.
I took a 3 1/2 hour night bus that dropped me off on the outskirts of the city. I walked to one of the popular hostels i heard about and fell asleep almost instantly.
The next morning i woke up early to get some breakfast and figure out what I wanted to do that day. I did not have to decide long because I met Harry, an english guy who invited me to rent some bicycles and ride from Banos down to Puyo in the jungle. 20 minutes later we were off to rent bikes and take a 60 kilometer bike ride to Puyo. We rode through pitch black tunnels, hiked to an enormous waterfall, and made in to Puyo exhausted after 5 hours. I did destroy my bike the last few miles and had to walk it the rest of the way, which sucked. I also encountered a town along the way where every local completely ignored me when i asked for directions (10+ people). It was really insulting. We were too tired to do anything when we got there, and our butts were extremely sore, so we got some dinner that featured a whole fried Tilapia for me.
Suspension bridge we walked across to get to the waterfall
Outside of a pitch black tunnel we just biked through
Bike ride scenery
Then we boarded a bus back to Banos, putting our bikes on top of the bus to return back to Banos.
We also rented ATV’s the next day and rode them up a mountain, through some small towns, and on the main road back to Banos.
We got a map (not that the map made any difference for me), and Harry listened to the instructions of where to go while I dozed off for a few minutes. There is no way I would be able to find my way, even with a map. We headed off a few minutes later, only to head back again because my quad was kind of broken. After another 20 minutes, we rode off again on working quads.
We rode through the city streets of Banos for a few minutes until we reached the road that would take us uphill for a while near the volcano. It was a lot of fun going fast on the dirt roads, and I almost flipped a few times going around the corners. The scenery was incredible as well, with lots of fog and stunning views of the huge, green rolling hills. If we rode any further to the right, we would have plummeted to our deaths because we rode next to cliffs that dropped thousands of feet.
Eventually we made it to a level part where we rode through deep mud. This part of the ride is like something every little kid dreams of, riding completely off-road at high speeds with mud flinging all about. Or at least I always thought doing something like this would be cool when I was younger. I have a nice video that Harry took of me riding through this part that I will hopefully be able to upload sometime soon.
After riding through the mud for a bit, we made it to roads paved with rocks which made it easy to go full speed on. At this point, my thumb was getting extremely tired of pushing the gas (its controlled by continually pushing a button with your thumb) and it ended up cutting into my skin a bit. No worries though. During the ride, we rode through some small villages and a few small tow
ns. The largest town had an incredible plaza where we rested for a bit and I filled up my gas tank.
The rest of the ride was mostly downhill until we made it to the highway which was a fast and easy ride back, although a bit scary. The cars and buses were passing us Without side view mirrors, we were not able to tell until they were in the middle of passing us.
We caught us a bus back to Quito in the morning. We stopped about every 10 minutes in all of the little towns along the way, picking up and dropping off many passengers. I ended up sharing my seat with at least 10 different Ecuadorians. Unfortunately, one of them smelled awful and left a trail of her hair on me and in her seat when she left.
The next week, I decided on friday afternoon to go to Guayaquil for the weekend, Ecuador’s largest city. After work, i rushed back to my hostel to pack my bag, and then took a taxi to the airport. Thirty minutes later, I was on a flight to Guayaquil. All I had to do was show up at the airport and book my ticket for a flight leaving 30 minutes later.
Once in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, I checked into my hotel for $10 a night. I then headed out and walked around the city. I was surprised to see a KFC on every block. During my walk, I decided to go into a Casino and lost $2 in the slot machines.
Caricature artist at the waterfront
Las Penas- a neighborhood
I woke up early the next morning to see the sites and check into a cheaper hotel. $10 is expensive when I can get a room for $6. After checking into the new one, I went to the Malecon 2000 first, the waterfront. It was really nice to just walk and relax there for a while. From the waterfront, I walked a few blocks to a park, filled with Iguanas. I sat on a bench and just watched them and the people for a while. One kid would hold onto an Iguanas tail and pretty much walk it, which was amusing.
At night, I went to a few more casinos and lost more $. I saw some chivas (party busses) too. On my way back from the casinos I was attacked, literally.
I deserved it as I was walking alone at 1 am. I was waiting for the light to change at a large intersection when two prostitutes approached me and so I tried to ignore them when they started talking to me. Moments later, someone applied a triangle choke to me, making me completely disoriented. When i realized what was happening, I fought. It was all a daze but i remember hunching my head down to my neck and lifting my shoulders while squirming about and prying the guy’s hands off while i twisted about. A few seconds later we both fell to the ground. I threw a few punches, until a different guy started punching me. The best way to get out safe is to run, and so i did. I ran a block away until i reached a hotel with a few security guards who hailed me a taxi back to my hotel a few blocks away.
I lost my glasses during that incident and my throat was pretty sore the next week. But i lived…still had my wallet, and learned my lesson!
The next weekend I took a day trip La Mitad Del Mundo, also known as the equator. It was pretty neat.
The yellow line is supposed to be the equator (in reality, its about 500 meters off)
I hiked to this crater
I got back to Quito that night and took a bus to Otavalo,famous for having the largest outdoor market in South America. The bus ride was fine except I missed the stop in Otavalo. Fortunately, a guy who worked on the bus stopped it and let me out just outside of Otavalo. Once in town, I easily found a hostel for $7 a night.
I got up at 6 am the next morning, since I heard it is best to start early. After a quick breakfast, i walked outside of the restaurant and the market was all around me. I had a great time just browsing for the first five hours. There were so many neat crafts, an animal market, fruit market, ect. Everything and everyone was just so busy.
After buying 5 shrunken heads to bring back home and resell, I realized that my debit card was missing. After sorting out that mess, i walked around for about 4 more hours and bought a ton of stuff. I bought an old poster from the 1800´s of an Ecuadorian president, a first edition world war 2 book from 1942, and a nice jacket.
I wanted to relax the next weekend and so I chose the beach in Atacames.
I took what I thought was going to be a 5 to 6 hour bus ride to Atacames. It turned out to be 8 1/2 hours on the night bus. I finally got to Atacames at 5:00 in the morning. One of the rickshaw like taxi’s took me to a hotel next to the waterfront. Unfortunately, that hotel and the next nine others were full. I eventually found Hostal Guayacan on one of the side streets and got to bed immeadiatly.
I woke at around 12 in the afternoon, and headed directly to the beach where I swam in the ocean for at least a few hours. The beach there was really nice with palm tree lined shores, warm water, and beach huts all around.
After not having anything to eat for a while, I was starting to get pretty hungry so I walked back to my hotel where I showered and changed. I decided on what I thought was a nicer restaurant and ordered an omlette. Just as I started eating, I heard screams from a nearby girl who was freaking out because there was a cockroach in her salad. Normally, at least in the US, i would have stopped eating my food and left, but I was just too hungry and the omelet was pretty damn good.
I woke up pretty late the next day and walked to the beach where I swam and just rested until about 6 o clock. It was a pretty relaxing day! For dinner, I ordered the salsa verde fish which was an ama
zing tasting fish in some kind of green sauce. In the middle of my dinner, i was interrupted by a group of six or seven girls who asked if they could take a picture with me. They were a pretty loud bunch and the entire restaurant was staring at the lucky gringo who had six pretty girls approach him! I felt like some sort of celebrity.
Another funny thing, just about all of us gringos happened to be staying at the same crappy hotel (about 5 tourists in the entire town). Just as I was about to head out to the clubs that night, i met two other gringo girls and a few Ecuadorian guys. They were traveling together and hitting up all of the beaches in a row. We went out together that night for a bit of dancing.
I also bought a ticket to go home that night on the bus. It turned out the bus driver was an Ecuadorian who drives a bus in Canada for half of the year and Ecuador for the other half. This was good because when we reached a military checkpoint and had to get out of the bus and in lines, i was waiting in the girls line until he told me in English that I was in the wrong one. After getting frisked, I got back on the bus and had a pretty uneventful ride home.
The next weekend I took an afternoon bus to Mindo (a cloud forest). It was only 2 1/2 hours with great scenery. I got in at about 6 and ate some Mexican food that was made in a microwave….and then watched Bad Boys 1 and 2 at my hostel because it was too late to do anything. While watching the movies, the guy who was working there kept hitting on me, making me feel very uncomfortable. He even asked me how big my penis is. I checked out early in the morning and then checked into a really, really nice hotel for only $13 a night.
At around 9, i changed into my bathing suit and searched for a tour that was leaving to go tubing down a nearby river. I finally found one group leaving and hopped into the back up the pickup truck with an Ecuadorian family who i was to go tubing with. A few minutes later, we were floating through the rapids. It was a blast, and for the cost of only $4.
I had also planned on doing th cable car (Tarabita) that would take me directly above the cloud forest. The driver who took me to the river suggested that I hitchhike to the Tarabita and so I did. I waited about 20 minutes until I found a ride with a young Ecuadorian couple who work as engineers in Quito, in their nice and clean jeep.
I ended up going back up ahead of them and took the cable car back to the other side alone where I waited for a ride back to Mindo.
I also decided that it would be a good idea to go to Papallacta once I got back to Quito. Without a guide book or any notes, i managed to find a bus going in the same direction. I had no idea when we would arrive in Papallacta and so I asked the driver to tell me when we did. He followed through on his word and I eventually got off in Papallacta. It was about 10 at night at this point, and the small town was dark and quiet. I asked a lady working at a convenience store if there were any hotels nearby and she said no.
With my big backpack on, i just started walking, hoping to find a hotel. Just a few minutes later, I did. For $5 a night, i checked into a somewhat nice little bed and breakfast. I woke up early, and had the owner driver me to the hot springs. I guess I forgot to mention that the hot springs is what the town is know for.
I ended up making friends with an Ecuadorian family while I was relaxing in the hot waters. Together, we left at 12 in the afternoon back to Quito in their car. Once in Quito. they invited me to their restaurant. It was a really nice restaurant (one of the nicest in Quito), and i had an incredible and filling lunch.
The next weekend I decided it was time to visit the jungle. After work, i grabbed my belongings, got some sushi (took way to long…40 minutes), got a taxi to the bus station, and then a bus to Tena.
The bus ride was one of the scariest i have been on yet. We were so close to the edge of mountains with huge drops. Combine that with bridges under construction situated pretty high over fast flowing rivers where the bus is literally inches from going over the edge, and there was no way i was falling asleep on the 6 hour bus ride.
The next morning i found a rafting agency, but they had already left about 10 minutes earlier. No agency will pass up easy money, and so the owner of the company (an older guy from England) personally drove me to the other van where they were waiting for me. So we caught up with them, and i hopped in the back of the pickup truck. Once there, we hiked through knee deep some thick mud, down steep hills, up steep hills, until we reached the river.
Once at the river, they took us on a detour to a little waterfall where we could swim. We also did some cliff diving (no more than 20 ft.) which was spectacular. To get to the top, we had to climb up part of the waterfall, go through a cave, until the we finally reached the top. It was kind of like the the little waterfall/cave area in the horror movie Turistas.
After the detour, we finally got into the rafts, and begun our journey down the river.
We ended the day at about 4, with a few vans waiting for us with cold beer. for $60, the day was well worth it.
The next day, i took a local bus a few towns over where i was to go caving. I got to the caves, paid a guide who was waiting there $5, and had my own private tour. I had gone spelunking/caving before, but this was something else. We had to swim to get to certain parts of the cave, climb small waterfalls, ect. I really enjoyed it.
Afterwards, i took another bus to a little resort called “Monkey Island”, where i could supposedly go swimming and see monkeys. I was a bit disappointed at the pool, and the monkeys were all hiding in the trees. I ended up just getting some lunch and did spot one monkey in a tree.
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I waited on the side of the road for about 20 minutes until i saw a bus i could flag down. I heard about a nice little zoo a few minutes from my hostel, and so i walked there after my second lunch. The zoo also had a cayman, toucans, leopard, and some other neat animals that were kept in the cages.
I quit my jobs after spending the next few weeks in Quito, so I could travel to the Galapagos Islands and then Colombia.
Most people book cruises ($1000-$5000), but i decided i was going to save money and do the Galapagos myself. Once I arrived in Baltra, I took a 5 minute ferry ride to Santa Cruz. My first look at the Galapagos was very surprising. I expected to land on a tropical Island, and it looked like a desert instead. It was a 40 minute taxi ride to Puerta Ayora, where all of the hotels and travel agencies are located.
As I mentioned earlier, the island looked like a desert at first. However, it turned into the tropical looking paradise that I had expected as we continued driving to Puerta Ayora.
It took me about an hour while carrying all of my stuff to find a cheap hotel for $8 a night. After putting my stuff in my room, I hurried out into town to look for a tour to get on for that day. I found a bay tour for $20. It was me and a family from Mexico in small boat that took us snorkeling and to a part of Santa Cruz. Needless to say, I got pretty seasick, and combined with a lack of sleep, it made for a pretty miserable four hours. I did see a few sea lions, a bunch of iguanas, birds, ect.
The next day I woke up early to check out the Charles Darwin center. I have never seen such big turtles. It was pretty neat being close enough to touch them. I also saw some iguanas too. I took a ferry to Isabela Island for $30 at 2 pm. A few people vomited on the boat, but I felt pretty good compared to the day before. It was incredibly easy planning everything. Once I got off of the ferry, a woman asked me if I needed a hotel. For $5 a night, I stayed in a tent. I also toured with a 22 year old from France and two Israeli girls for the next few days. That same day, we checked out the the tourtise center a few minutes away from my hostel. I also saw some pink flamingos.
We left at 8 the next day to go horseback riding up a volcano. After an hour of riding, we reached the second largest crater in the world, after the Ngoro Ngoro (spelling?) crater in Tanzania that I have also been. We reached the volcanic scenery a little while later, and had to hike the rest of it without our horses. I had never seen anything like what I saw there. It was a desert like scenery with many cacti, jagged rocks, lava tunnels, ect.
After we got back later that day, we took a boat around the islands. I got to swim with the sea lions which was a highlight of my trip. When I say swim with the sea lions, I mean that I was close enough to touch them.
The next day, we took a boat out again. I swam with the sea lions, turtles, iguanas, ect. We also saw a bunch of white tipped sharks up close while they were swimming in the bay. Later on, we drove got to the lava tunnels, which are a bunch of big rocks in the water with tunnels underneath them from collapsed lava. Again, the scenery was spectacular and we so many sea turtles. It was probably one of my favorite days there. We went with a family from Florida who run a foundation that gives backpacks to kids in poor areas all over the world, and another kid my age who runs his own NGO in the jungle.
The ferry ride was much better this time, as nobody vomited. We also saw a bunch of wild dolphins jumping out of the water. I was exhausted when I got back, so I bought some candy to eat and slept until 5. I did not want to waste the entire day, so I woke up to take a 30 minute walk to Tortuga bay, a very nice white sand beach.
I got up at 7 the next morning to get on a last minute tour to Floreana Island for $65. This turned out to be well worth it. We went snorkeling with the sea lions again (wetsuits included!) which was a lot of fun. They took us to another spot afterwards where we went snorkeling with a ton of sea turtles, a few Manta rays, and sharks apparently, and lots of fish. They also took us to the port on Floreana Island, where I rested on the beach for a good hour with some of the sea lions.